I'll try to be fair and honest in my review, and credit will be given when deserved.
My wife and I have cruised together three times previously, within the last three years, with P&O and Norwegian Cruise Lines, so any comparisons I make will be based on our experiences between RCI, P&O, and NCL.
We departed from Southampton on 22/1/2012 for an 11 night Canary Islands cruise aboard Royal Caribbeans 'Independance Of The Seas', and had been looking forward to it since booking in May.
We chose RCI this time to add to the flavors already given to us from cruising with P&O and NCL, and also because many had said that the Independance Of The Seas had a real 'wow' factor that had to be experienced.
We left on a typically cold and gloomy British January morning, and couldn't wait to get on board, and hoped for a speedy check-in..which we got, together with a polite & friendly departure staff, and were on-board within 20 minutes..impressive!
As with most/all cruise lines, our bags were taken at an early stage, and were to be delivered to our door at a later stage.
Once onboard, we headed for the Windjammer restaurant (the buffet style restaurant on deck 11). It was chaotic when we arrived, but in fairness all of our other cruise experiences had readied us for this..the first day buffets are always a madhouse! Eventually we found a seat, and had a late breakfast of sausage, burger & chips.
We were told that our rooms would be ready by 1.00pm, and the bags would follow soon afterwards, so we did a little exploring before heading for our room.
We chose an inside balcony stateroom, overlooking the central promenade deck, and I must say that the room exceeded my expectations..very clean, tidy, well laid-out, huge (and very comfortable) king size plus double bed (the most comfortable bed we've ever had on a cruise ship) modest on-suite bathroom with a tiny but functional shower enclosure, supplied hard-wired hair dryer in a drawer at the vanity unit, plenty of storage space, large wardrobe, large bay window, and tea & coffee making facilities..but this is where things started to go downhill.
No complimentary high-end travel toiletries..just two very small no-brand bars of soap, and a shampoo dispenser..still, not to worry, as we'd brought our own.
We filled the mini-kettle, and prepared to make some tea, which is when we discovered the 'crockery' consisted of four large single skinned paper cups & wooden stirrers..never mind though, to avoid burning our fingers, we doubled-up the cups which kind-of worked.
We have become accustomed to cruise line operators catering poorly for power requirements in cabins, so we always carry a four-way extension lead & a U.S to U.K plug convertor for this reason..just as well in this case, as there were two U.S 110v outlets, and one 220v outlet (configured in 2-pin U.S plug layout?) which the kettle was plugged into, so without the extra hardware we would have found it tricky to charge the phone, camera, video camera, and run the kettle.
Very pleased with our cabin, we pulled back the nets to look out onto the promenade. The view would have been better, if the outside of the windows hadn't been truly filthy..still, nevermind..a small inconvenience, and we prepared to venture out, and return later when our bags had been delivered..we knew this would take a while, as the ship was fully booked...they finally arrived at 10.30pm!
We looked around at the different restaurants, pubs, and the outsides of the shops, and went to the early show in the Alhambra..the main show theatre.
An interesting 'welcome aboard' show..not wonderful, but OK, with a joke or two from the guest comedian, introduction from the cruise entertainments manager, and a song & dance number from the ships resident troupe.
After a pleasant evening meal in the Romeo & Juliet a la carte dining room (there are two..yours will be decided for you, and will be your dining room for the duration), we had a drink..oh yes, I'd forgotten just how dear drinks are on American-owned liners..$14 for two pints of Heineken draught lager, spirits being around the same price, so unless you have a bulging wallet..excersise moderation! You could pre-pay for your alcoholic drinks however..over $600 EACH for 11 days, and if one of you're tee total..tough luck, because you'll both be charged the same amount to prevent sharing..so, around $1,300 for an unlimited drinks package..phew. The upshot of this was a constant parade of people permanently carrying glasses, many of which were permanently 'inebriated', trying desperately hard to 'break-even', as I heard more than one guest refer to it. There are other packages that start with unlimited soda, wine, and beer deals.
Here's the deal..RCI see their passengers as walking wallets..virtually everything's chargeable (Would sir/madam like a 'behind the scenes' tour? That'll be $125..EACH, or would sir/madam like a photo package on a single disk? That'll be $325 please..how about a base no-brand bottle of chardonnay with your meal? $64 please..and no, you're not allowed to bring your own alcohol onto the ship..ask the couple that were thrown off the ship for packing a bottle of gin in their luggage.
No? Then how about a sweatshirt with the 'Independance Of The Seas' embroidered onto it..a snip at $39.99. Which brings me on to the shops.
Deck 5 is the promenade deck, with a parade of shops, restaurants, scenic lifts, the always-busy customer services desk, and access to a caberet-style room where the (very good) ships band more than often played, as well as the Cigar Room..the ONLY room on the whole ship where you can smoke indoors (the official booklet quoted several rooms). The room is very small indeed, and will seat about 35 people max..the rest have to stand. The other option is brave the elements on deck 11. These are the only two allocated smoking areas.
To start with, the sheer size of the ship creates the wow factor, mostly centered around the main promenade, but this wears thin by day two when you realise that the only shop that offers good value is the booze & cigs shop..and any alcohol bought will be 'looked-after' for you until the last day of your cruise..how considerate of them.
At this point, it's worth mentioning that the vast bulk of the staff offer quite exceptional service, and are polite & cheerful.
Also a treat was the fully-equipped and spacious fitness room..many cruise operators charge a hefty premium for this facility, but not RCI.
Sadly, although you could be blamed for assuming a ship this size would be spacious, you'd be desperately wrong, as the promenade was forever rammed full with folding tables en-masse selling all sorts of tawdry, over-priced tat. Forgot to buy a plug convertor from the pound shop? That'll be $10 please. A Made In China miniature glob-like model of the ship? $26.
Plated crystal dress jewellery, very expensive gold jewellery, bags, scarves, perfumes..you get the picture, with several tables towards the end of the cruise selling absolute trash for a bargain $10.
Shoulder-to-shoulder bumping into each other, people barging into or in front of you was de rigeur. Rather like a heaving shopping mall on the run-up to Christmas, but with penguin suits. British manners (or lack of) were in full force, and if you ever had a spare moment (we did), you could play 'spot the person without a tattoo'.
The food, to be kind, was barely passable, with literally every dish in the main dining room served luke-warm, with what tasted like instant mash, ubdercooked veg, and frequently tough meat..but, however, served by a top-class waiting staff in an ornate and spectacular dining room..a brilliant example of style over substance.
We soldiered on with Romeo & Juliet dining until day four, when we switched to the Windjammer buffet. Most lines have a 24-hour buffet..the 'Jammer' (appropriately named) closed at 9pm. This restaurant was permanently packed, and always but always a fight for a seat.
The fare offered falls uncomfortably between hospital food/ seaside resort, and motorway services standard..more or less the same served up every single day..value-brand quality burgers & sausages, fatty bacon, frozen battered fish, cherry crumble with watery custard, fake sweetened cream galore, frozen concentrated sweetened orange juice...you get the picture. On other lines, we used to genuinely look forward to mealtimes. Here, we ate only if we were very hungry, as the food was dire throughout.
Miss the a la carte and Jammer restaurants, and you have the choices of two areas on deck 5 where you can choose from limp, floppy tasteless pizza, mini rolls, or pies. Big deal.
Now onto the entertainment.
This falls into two groups..the ships regular compliment, and visiting guest 'stars'.
The ships main cast were entertaining once, maybe twice, but after the third evening of strangely-chosen song & dance numbers, the act wore very thin indeed.
The guest acts were better however, with a very funny comedian, and an illusionist 'as seen on TV'. Not wrong either, as I remember seeing the whole set, piece-for-piece, on the TV a few years ago.
The ice-show is quite stunning, but you have to queue a few days before the show, as tickets are complimentary. COMPLIMENTARY? Haven't we paid for the entertainment?
I could ramble on and on, but for the most part, the entertainment was 'end-of-the-pier' style & standard..certainly NOT world-class or West-End..this seaside-resort theme seemed popular amongst many guests, who similarly cheered for the 'Belly-flop' contest in the pool on deck 11, the countless, COUNTLESS quizzes, $32 a pop Bingo, 'Mr & Mrs' style game show, karaoke, etc, etc. I was waiting for the knobbly knees contest with the staff selling Kiss Me Quick hats & jellied eels, but it didn't happen.
Having been on an American-oened ship with predominantly American citizens aboard, I can assure you that the quality & variety of the food on this ship WOULD NOT BE TOLERATED, and the 'entertainment' would have been boo'd off. This was most certainly a case of 'serve them junk..they'll be too drunk to notice'
Fortunately, the weather was superb..no rain..sunny and warm.
Unfortunately, they even managed to screw this up, with some destinations arriving at 9.00 am, and back on board by 2.30pm...what? Vigo (a non-destination..boring and devoid of anything of interest to visitors) was scheduled for a Monday, whilst Madeira (a lovely destination) was visited on a Sunday where everything was closed (docking on a Sunday is cheaper for operators, and the only reason why EVERY operator visits Vigo is for a cheap re-fuel).
Look, if your idea of the perfect cruise is a semi-formal one, with civil guests, good food quality, acceptable entertainment, a 24-hour quality buffet, reasonably priced drinks, reasonable staff, then go P&O. If you don't mind fly-cruises but enjoy EXCEPTIONAL West-End productions, varied & 'don't-miss' entertainment, expensive drinks, FIRST-CLASS dine-anywhere (Freestyle) food, a 24-hour buffet, hit-and-miss staff, but VERY reasonably-priced, then cruise with NCL..but the beds on P&O and NCL are hard, and the rooms not as well laid-out.
To close, we were glad to get back. This style of holiday died out in seaside resorts in the late 70's. My idea of a cruise goes beyond reading The Sun whilst stretched out on a poolside lounger, with a pint permanently attached to my right hand.
'Enrichment' lectures OK if you wish to discuss back-pain, or want to pay to have your feet analised!
Without naming brands, it more closely resembled a British holiday camp at sea, but some of the holiday camps I've visited are better, with better entertainment, and not Â£900 each for 11 nights.
They'll recommend $234 in gratuities & tips (this is in addition to the 15% gratuity you'll pay for every drink) but you can opt-out if you don't agree, and pay tips to those who you consider offered a good service (and EVERYONE did in my eyes, with the exception of a surly and argumentative room service waiter who swore blind that we lied about hanging a breakfast requirements ticket on our outer doorhandle) Room service breakfasts are definately the way to go..no shoulder to shoulder bumping into people, queueing for a fried egg with a numbered ticket..(I kid ye not)and then playing dead-man's-shoes for a table.
In a nutshell, AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE, unless you're permanently blind drunk and never leave the ship (a large number of the guests fitted into this category).