We got a last-minute cruise offer in late November as the ship was nearly full, and only interior cabins were left. We have always travelled with a balcony on previous cruises but decided we would try an interior cabin this time as it can be quite a lot cheaper. We found we coped very well with no windows and the cabin had everything we needed and was very quiet and in a good location on level 3 (just a quick walk up to the main decks on 4, 5 and 6 where all the facilities were located (dining room, guest reception, atrium bar, shops, theatre etc.) Close to the external glass lifts which gave a very spacious feel and view to the inside and outside. Looking down 9 floors into the Atrium through the internal lifts was very pleasant. Also as my partner was a smoker, he could take a quick walk upstairs to deck 5 and onto the promenade deck where one side is designated for smokers, as well as an area on deck 11 near the pool. However the deck 11 area was always choking with cigarette smoke and deck 5 was a better option.
Only one suggestion would be to make sure you take a digital clock which lights up at night as it was hard to see the time on my mobile phone without finding my glasses. Having said that, once you were in the darkened room there was some light from the airconditioning control and sprinkler on the ceiling, and just a small amount from around the outside of the door. I was able to see sufficiently to get to the bathroom door in the dark before turning the light on.
Embarkation was not good. An email advised that we could start from 11am but on arrival from the airport at 11.30am, the lines were very long and people were standing out in the hot sun. There is little cover and you have to line up outside the entry area before proceeding upstairs to the security and customs area. We went away to have lunch in the Rocks area and did not come back until about 1.45pm. The lines had reduced but it still took 1.5 hours to get through the embarkation process. Not the cruise lines fault but the poor design of the overseas passenger terminal to service such a large ship. Same delay was had at the Darling Harbour terminal in 2010 for a Princess Cruise, nearly 2 hours of waiting. In future we would not arrive until after 2-3pm to embark. At least at Circular Quay you can go away to the markets in the Rocks area and enjoy some of the Sydney views. The markets are very good with quality and different goods and in pleasant surroundings.
Disembarkation also took quite some time. A bottleneck getting off the ship and then finding transport outside. We were scheduled to disembark at 9.10am and did not get off for about an hour and then had to wait for the shuttle bus to the domestic airport, arriving at about 11.30am. Do not be in a hurry and book an early flight!!!!
Something to know for cruisers to New Zealand is that the sun does not set until about 9pm. So going to dinner at 8pm it is still daylight outside so you can see the sunset for the late sitting of dinner. We had "My Time" dining and liked the experience. Tried an early time for dining to go to the 7pm show afterwards, but found it was the most popular and when you finished you had to go to the theatre about 30 minutes before the show otherwise it would be full. We then decided to see the early show at 7pm and book for 8pm dinner in the My Time dining area on level 5. Meals were of a good small size, variety and presented well. We had purchased a wine package which was very economical and had some really good wines - we particularly like the Estancia Pinot Noir from California. Definitely worthwhile buying a wine package. You can have a glass or two and it is put aside for the next night with your room number. Also you can buy a bottle of wine in the bars and take it with you if you have not finished it, to another bar or your room, but cannot take your bottle from the dining room.
Did not use any of the speciality restaurants as we felt the Cascades dining room, Windows and other eating areas provided a wide range of fresh and suitable food for all tastes. Had a light breakfast and lunch at Park Cafe in the Solarium area, and it is also open to 1am for a late night snack and coffee.
Generally very good. Royal Caribbean dancers and singers were very entertaining and professional. Guest artists were varied and were of good to excellent quality. From solo singers, magician, musicians etc. However the highlight of the entertainment was the Puppet Man. Very skilled in his craft but also the funniest comedian and entertainer, and kept everyone entertained or his 50 minute show. Including his excellent singing with his puppet. Yes, he did both voices while singing.
Singers, musicians and bands in all bars were excellent and entertaining and played to the wants of the crowd. Late night entertainment in the Colony and Schooner bars and the pub were varied and entertaining. They played music for the age group on board - mainly 50+ but a sprinkling of younger ones with only about 50 young people for the childrens club on this particularly sailing.
Ship Appearance, Cabins and facilities:
Very clean and tidy, hand sanitisers at the entry to all food areas and people encouraged to use them. We did our walking around deck 12 and also the promenade deck on level 5, depending on the weather. It was too cool to use the outside swimming pool but used the hot tub and pool in the solarium and it was very nice. This is a popular area and you have to be quick to get a lounger or chair. Great place to read and look outside, but protected from the wind.
I reported that the shower was not draining and seemed to be blocked and this was fixed within an hour or so. Cabins had plenty of cupboard space with nooks and shelving behind many glass panels. Fittings and furniture are OK but some of the drawers stick and need attention. Bedding linen was luxurious and soft, and the beds were very comfortable. Shower always leaked onto the floor as the water nozzle had a mind of its own. Once we worked out to set the heating of the water we were right. Just ask your room steward for assistance otherwise you will have cool showers.
We would have no problem going on this ship again. It was a full cruise but we did not feel crowded except waiting to be seated for dinner after the show when everyone went to the dining room. Otherwise it is a very spacious, clean, with lots of areas and bars for sitting around.
Many cruise ships have added the giant screen on the pool deck. On this cruise it was blaring CNN news, loud music and movies all the time. It is so intrusive to anyone who is on the pool deck or on the walking track on deck 12 and they are bombarded with noise. You cannot find a quite spot to sit and read without this insistent noise from the big screen in the outdoor area. I found this personally annoying and noticed that many others on the deck were shouting to be heard over the continual noise. Perhaps the cruise line should look at what they put on and even turn it off sometimes. Not everyone needs to watch a movie on the pool deck or what the latest is happening in presidential nominations.
Ports of Call:
Bay of Islands - a beautiful morning to sail along the passage to Paihia and Russell. Mist on the mountains but the sun did shine later. Very similar scenery to the Whitsunday Passages for those that have been there. Tenders to shore were very efficient with the ship excursions being off first. Tender numbering system by the activities staff was well done and managed the huge number of people wanting to ashore. They can only move 400-500 per hour so with nearly 2000 people it took 4-5 hours. We only went off about 11am into Paihia for a walk around. A free shuttle bus was provided from the wharf into the town or it is a 15 minute walk. You can take a guided tour of the Waitangi treaty site and meeting house or walk round the area. There were markets in the park and plenty of shops with souvenirs. Very pretty waterfront and many took the ferry to Russell. We had a cool local beer on the deck on the waterfront watching people come and go. Helicopter lands nearby for rides across the bay.
Auckland - a modern city not much different to Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne. We berthed in the city centre so easy to get around. We were meeting friends and found a lovely cafe with free wifi near the waterfront. It was cloudy, drizzling rain and cool most of the day.
Tauranga - the ship berthed at Mt Maunganui which is a seaside hamlet and close to Tauranga. It was cool weather and cloudy but a pleasant walk into town. You can get free wi-fi in a number of shop and Starbucks or Burger King by buying a coffee. We were going to take a walk around the little hill at the end of town where there are hot springs, but had to find a dentist instead. Easy to catch a local bus into Tauranga and look around.
Napier - The ship had to reverse into the port area here and it was very interesting as it had to swing to the right and then reverse back into a working port area. We could not walk off this port area but had to be bused into Napier and back to the ship. Unfortunately we could not find a dentist available for an appointment in Tauranga the day before and had to contact our insurance company for assistance who found an emergency dentist in the Hawkes Bay area. The dentist was about a 20 minute ride to Havelock North and was going to cost about $80 each way by taxi. No buses available on a Saturday to get us there either. After speaking to a volunteer who takes guided walking tours around the town of Napier, she offered to take us to the dentist and wait and bring us back. We had an appointment at 2.30pm. So she picked us up and gave us a guided tour on the way out, waited for the repair and then took us on a guided tour of all of the wineries around the area and finally stopped at the Mission Winery Estate, one of the oldest in New Zealand and established by the Marist Brothers. She was the most helpful, warm and entertaining ambassador for the town of Napier and the local tourism area. Beth was delightful and certainly was the highlight of our visit to New Zealand. Napier is a very pretty Art Deco style town with lots of well-maintained building, a large central mall and the locals provide entertainment, and dress in the art deco style throughout the town, providing musical numbers and vintage cars on the wharf and in the town centre. Free wifi in the city centre for 30 minutes. We will return to visit this beautiful region in the future.
Wellington - This is a beautiful harbour and I was returning after leaving nearly 30 years ago. On a fine and sunny day it is very picturesque but it was misty, cloudy and cool. The ship berthed in the city centre and there were buses into the city with 2 drop off points or you could walk. There were taxis just outside the gates and you could take a guided tour with them for a couple of hours in the city or up to 5 hours including the city and northwards into the country for NZ$60-$70 per hour. We took an hour taxi ride and I was able to visit places where I had lived, drove around the bays and across to Miramar and the airport and the driver was very entertaining and informative. Showed us where the Lord of the Rings studios are located and where they do all of the digital graphics for movies such as Avatar etc. We got dropped off at the top of the Cable Car and then walked back to the ship after wandering around the city centre. A very easy city to get around from the ship.
Akaroa - this is the access port for the city of Christchurch as the Lyttleton port area was destroyed in the earthquake and is still not re-constructed. It is a very pretty harbour area and we once again had tenders in. It was again cloudy, cool and showery and we went for a walk along the waterfront. It has a very French history with street names and buildings with a French heritage. It was a public holiday and many people were visiting from Christchurch, so we strolled around and went back onto the ship. However we were fascinated to hear about the blue pearl which is naturally grown in the local waters and is only found here. They were very different and the jewellery it was manufactured in was beautiful. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to consider buying one, but may next time we visit as they were so unusual and beautiful.
Dunedin - It was very cold and windy when we berthed at Port Chambers, the port for Dunedin. A bus ride was $8 each way so it would have been $32 just to get in and back. We elected to stay on the ship and enjoy the ambiance. Many people went on the train journey up the gorge and enjoyed it. There was a huge pile of woodchip on the wharf but with the strong winds, much of it was blown on to the ship and they had to wash it down that night and the next day to clean it up.
Dusky, Doubtful and Milford Sound - The weather was again cool and cloudy but not as windy as the day before and the cruise through the first 2 sounds was serene and picturesque. Then into Milford Sound and it was majestic with the mountains going straight up. There were many small craft sailing up and down the sound and then the captain slowed down and put the nose of the ship under a 500 foot waterfall. This was a very skilful exercise and done to perfection. We then went to the end of the sound to the town of Milford and collected some passengers who had gotten off in Dunedin and taken an overnight trip inland to Queenstown and then onto to Milford Sound to be picked up again. While we were there the cloud lifted for a short time and revealed the top of the peak and also some snowfields on top of the mountains. We were very fortunate to have been able to sail in such good weather as some cruise ships apparently have not been able to visit due to bad weather in recent days.
Sailing days - there were 2 full sailing days over and back and it was enjoyable just to enjoy the ship's facilities and entertainment. On the way over it was quite windy and it cooled down so there was not much activity outside.
Sydney - we arrived on Saturday morning and sailed through the heads and it is really a beautiful sail-in and harbour to arrive in. We were berthed overnight at the Overseas Passenger Terminal opposite the Opera House and disembarked on the Sunday. Sydney is a beautiful city day and night and there was a spectacular fireworks display at about 10.15pm in the bay near the Opera House. The views of the city, harbour bridge, opera house and foreshore from the ship were fantastic. Most of the cruise to New Zealand was cool, cloudy and showery in most ports with only the first and last day warm enough to enjoy the sunshine on deck. Even though it is summer, the weather can be changeable and cooler than Sydney or Brisbane.