Oh what a fantastic experience it was!! I suppose it might help if you all knew something about me, just to see what I base my opinions upon. I'm in my mid 30's, this is my 7th cruise (first on RSSC), I'm married (almost 8 years), the proud mom of a 2 3/4 year old girl and a practicing pathologist. My husband is a stay-at-home-dad ("retired" as he prefers to say it; although he works harder than I do), formerly an engineer. We've cruised the Caribbean, eastern and western Mediterranean, and Alaska. We've been on Holland America, Princess (twice), Crystal, Celebrity and Windstar. My two favorite things (other than my husband and daughter) are food (both cooking and eating!!) and cruising (other travel is close behind). If I'm leaving anything out of my review, please ask me questions. I do have more to come, but don't want to leave anything out of interest to all of you who were so kind to give me very helpful information on Cruise Critic's message boards.
We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale just before noon on 3/22/01 and were promptly met at the gate by a RSSC representative. After getting our luggage, we were transferred by bus for the 5 minute trip to the pier. My first view of the ship was from the air as we landed in Ft. Lauderdale and she is beautiful. All white with clean elegant lines. Boarding took no time at all, each woman was presented with a single long stem red rose. Once on board, our suites were not quite ready so we were escorted to the Mariner lounge for a welcome beverage then given a deck plan so that we could explore the ship at our leisure. I won't go into too much detail about the ship as there is an excellent ship tour with many fine photographs available at psp.club.tip.nl. A few comments: The observation lounge is beautiful but a bit out of the way and seemed underutilized during the cruise. Unfortunately, there is no outside front deck space. Deck 12 does not wrap all the way around the front of the ship. This was a real disappointment during the transit of the canal. The atrium is spectacular with it's soaring walls and glass roof. The glass elevators are a nice touch. It can be quite entertaining to just watch the atrium from above (especially when people in the elevators don't realize that you can see them!) The wire sculpture with the flashing colored lights is simply out of place, not at all like the understated, elegant art and furnishings throughout the rest of the ship. The alfresco dining area behind La Veranda seems a bit undersized but the teak furniture is lovely. The pool area can only be described as vast. No problem ever finding a deck chair in either the sun or shade. The library is truly a library, not just a small room with a few tired old books. This library is stocked with hundreds of titles; fiction, non-fiction, travel, reference, children's, art. Many video tapes can be borrowed in addition to the movies which are shown on the in cabin TV. I didn't make much use of the computer area but many passengers did and seemed very happy with it. There are a few funny things about traffic flow through the ship. The garden promenade is lovely but when it is being used for art auctions, it is awkward to pass through on the way to the rear of the ship. Also if you come down the aft elevators to deck 5 and the rear doors to the Compass Rose restaurant are closed (which they often are when the restaurant is closed) you're sort of trapped and must go up a deck where your may run into the garden promenade in use.
After a delicious, beautifully presented lunch in the Compass Rose restaurant, our cabin (a standard category F) was ready at 2:30. They are simply the nicest cabins I have ever seen on a ship. Lots of cabinet space, a true walk-in closet with a dresser and safe, a very well designed vanity with three-way mirror and a beautiful marble bathroom with more than adequate storage space. The shower is very nice with an adjustable showerhead and great water pressure but may pose a problem for those who are less physically able or tall. I'm 5'10'' and my head nearly hit the ceiling. It's quite a step up to get into the shower. We enjoyed some inaugural champagne on our balcony. They're quite spacious with comfortable lounge chairs. The only minor problem is that the dividers between the balconies offer essentially no privacy.
There was a cocktail party up on the pool deck at sail-away. The azipod propulsion system is so quiet and vibration free that you scarcely know that you're moving. Dinner the first evening was in Latitudes. The menu is the same each evening and consists of an appetizer sampler, a three-soup sampler, a salad and four wok-cooked entrees. The wok cooking is done in the dining room. They didn't quite have the logistics of serving the entrees down on the first night but by the end of the cruise service had much improved. The presentation and quality of the ingredients was top-notch. The service other than the entree quirk was very good. In fact, any time staff noticed that something was wrong or a complaint was made, it was handled in the quickest, friendliest manner possible. The staff seemed very proud of their new ship (and rightfully so).
After dinner we returned to our cabin to sleep. The beds are fairly firm but comfortable. There is a separate duvet for each person. My husband found it a little strange that there was no top sheet on the bed, just the duvet cover. He also prefers a blanket and our stewardess brought one immediately. The cabins are attended by a European stewardess and an assistant steward. Both of ours were polite, efficient, unobtrusive and quick to respond to any request. The TV did not seem to be working the first evening so we simply drifted off to sleep.
The second day was at sea. We received notice in the daily newsletter that the self-service laundries were not yet operable so everyone was given a $50 shipboard credit as a goodwill gesture. Quite generous and typical of the response of the staff to the mostly minor problems which arose and were to be expected on a ship so new. I participated in the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. The first class meeting was at 10:00 am, there were 3 two-hour sessions which met during days at sea and alternated between 10 am and 3 pm. The class sessions were run by two chefs from Le Cordon Bleu; one a chef de cuisine who was from the London school (although a Frenchman) and the other a chef de patisier (sorry about mangling the spelling!) from the Paris school. At the first class we all (16 of us) received and apron, a toque and a tea towel. Then the chef demonstrated an appetizer followed by groups of 4 of us replicating it then enjoying it! The chefs were excellent instructors and the recipes we made were unusual but also something which could be made at home. They were very patient with the many questions and extemely knowledgable. The second class was the preparation of an entree, the third was a dessert. There was also one cooking demonstration (without class participation) for all the guests on the ship. In addition to the classes, we were taken on a very thorough tour of the ship's provision areas and galleys lead by the fleet-wide executive chef, the ship executive chef, the guest chefs, and the provision officers(really fascinating) and had dinner one evening with the chefs. Finally, we had a "graduation party" where we received our "diplomas" and an excellent Le Cordon Bleu cookbook (which the chefs were kind enough to autograph). The only improvement I can really see that could be made to the experience would be to place students into groups according to their knowledge/experience level (there were two class groups). I did not attend any of the other special guest lectures as they often conflicted with the cooking classes. Perhaps those scheduling conflicts could be resolved on subsequent cruises. I did hear from other passengers that the lectures were mostly excellent.
Dinner the second night was Formal Night, the only one of this 9-night cruise. It seems to me that it could easily be done away with since there was only one (or alternatively add a second). About half the men were in tuxedos, the rest in dark suits. The women were dressed elegantly, not the overdone glitz so many other formal nights seem to suffer from. (Although Kemble the pianist made up for the glitz with his sparkly jacket and shoes; would have made Liberace proud). The Captain's reception was a subdued, elegant affair. We ate in the Compass Rose. Once again, the food was of very high quality, beautifully presented and perfectly cooked. The wait service was generally very good, only occasionally uneven (as to be expected). The sommelier we had (Frank) was excellent. Very knowledgeable and approachable. The pouring wines were of high quality and changed every night (one white, one red); in addition they were different in each restaurant. How great to be able to sample so many wines over the cruise! When I expressed an interest in a certain wine, he went and laminated the label for me! One word of warning though, don't ask the non-sommelier wine servers questions, they really know nothing other than to keep your glass full (which they do very well) We didn't see many of the shows, 10:00 pm start time was a bit late for me and I'm not a huge fan of musical reviews. We did see the comedian (who was very funny) and heard that the magician was very good. The Constellation theater is a nice facility, good sight lines and comfortable chairs. One small criticism of the public areas of the ship: the public restrooms are poorly marked, both hard to find and hard to tell if you're going into the "right" one. Also the doors do not consistently open either in or out; I saw several passengers struggling with them. The lounges on the ship seemed sadly underused. They were all beautiful rooms and the service in them was very good. However, it seems due to RSSC's very generous in-room bar set up and the fact that everyone has a balcony, passengers just didn't frequent the lounges. A shame because the other passengers were very friendly interesting people and the fun of mixing and mingling was absent. I would hope RSSC would rethink their alcohol policy. As it is now, with wine included at dinner, the very generous in-room bar set-up (which we didn't finish) and the inclusion of all other beverages it seems the cruise is 99% of the way to being completely all-inclusive as Silversea is. Go the one extra step to making Mariner all-inclusive and perhaps more passengers would utilize the lounges. OK, I'm off my soap box.
A few words about the other passengers: the crowd was a bit younger than I expected. There were several families and a few children ranging from 5 to 15 years old. Once again RSSC responded well to the presence of the kids and a "junior cruisers" set of activities appeared on about the 3rd day. All of the kids were very well behaved. I've already described formal night dress. On informal nights nearly all men wore jackets, some with ties, some without. The range of style for the women was a bit broader, but always understated. A few men even wore jackets on Casual night. Women wore anything from sundresses to cocktail dresses. Our first port was Cozumel (after a very brief sail-by of Playa del Carmen to drop off passengers for shore excursions). We anchored at the main pier in town. There's not a whole lot to do in San Miguel, so I thought it strange that we spent so much time there (until 1 pm the next day). We took the discover SCUBA excursion. It was well organized and fun. Dinner that night was again in the Compass Rose. The service was quite chaotic as it seemed some of the crew were enjoying their first (and well deserved) break in Cozumel.
We spent the next morning up by the pool. The service by the pool was excellent. It was so nice to be able to order soft drinks, bottled water or any other non-alcoholic drink and not have to sign for it! In fact when disembarking in any port, a large table of bottled water was set up by the gangway for passengers to take ashore (a great idea in such hot climates). Other cruise lines charge for every little thing and you feel like you're getting nickled-and-dimed to death. Not on the Mariner. The prices for alcoholic beverages were very reasonable too (unlike Windstar where I found them outrageous). We had dinner the night after sailing from Cozumel at Signatures. It was the best dining experience I have ever had on a ship and one of the best I've ever had anywhere! The room is beautiful, the service nearly flawless, the menu wonderful, and the food simply outstanding (as you would hope coming from Le Cordon Bleu). There was only one very small problem; the lights in the room do not have a dimmer switch so it's pretty bright. RSSC is aware of the problem and is working to fix it. I didn't find that it detracted form the experience at all, but some passengers did.
The next day we arrived in Grand Cayman. All ships tender into shore here. The crew needs a bit more practice sailing the tenders. Grand Cayman is very pretty and the best shopping seemed to be here. We took the Catamaran tour to Stingray City and I highly recommend it! The boat is beautiful, it's a great experience to sail across the bay and there is nothing in the world like getting in the water with so many rays. They seem to pet you as much as you pet them. We were able to feed and even hold these amazing creatures. Our only disappointing dining experience was in La Veranda. The food and service were just not up to the standards of the rest of the ship. The breakfast and lunch buffets were only OK, the food uninspired, sometimes not replenished quickly enough and not labeled. The outdoor Pool Grill was good but essentially the same every day. Room service was excellent. It arrived promptly, the food was hot and nicely presented. We ate breakfast and lunch either in our cabin or the main dining room as we felt these were the best. We didn't try dinner in our cabin but spoke to passengers who did and they were very pleased. We enjoyed a day at sea then arrived in Cartagena. It's a much larger city than I imagined. It's well worth taking a tour here. Once again the tours were run very efficiently, were enjoyable and I felt were a good value. Just be prepared for the street vendors who can get pretty aggressive when trying to sell you merchandise. Good bargains on local handicrafts can be found and supposedly good prices on Emeralds. Next stop...Panama Canal!
We waited in the holding area outside the Gatun locks along with the Crystal Harmony until approximately 7:30 am. We transited the locks at the same time as the Harmony which really enhanced the experience. It gave perspective to the locks and the level changes. Plus it was fun to wave back and forth with passengers on that ship. It was the first time I've seen the Harmony since I sailed on her 3 years ago. It was a great ship, but this is better! Crewmembers on each ship seemed to know each other and shouted back and forth. It was like a big floating party. Three small sailboats were in the lock with us. What an amazing experience for them. It was too bad that there was essentially no front deck space, but there was plenty of rear deck space and of course, balcony space. The only drawback to being on your balcony was that the canal guides announcements could not be heard in the rooms. The TV had a few quirks, and this was one of them. Once through the Gatun locks we anchored just past them at the Gatun Yacht Club. The crew still needs more practice with the tenders! Once ashore, you can take a free shuttle back to the locks to see them up close from a different perspective, take an eco-walk, enjoy local entertainment, swim in the canal (!!), or fish in the canal. Nice local handicrafts are also available. We had a great time. It was such a wonderful addition to the canal crossing, so much better than sailing straight through. We cruised Gatun Lake in the afternoon then transited the other locks at night. Seeing them at night was interesting too, again an experience other cruise ships miss. We finally reached the Pacific at around midnight. The next day was at sea. I took advantage of the Judith Jackson Spa. I found it to be fairly equivalent to spas on other large ships. Nice but nothing special. My husband used the exercise facilities many times and was very pleased with them. Nice equipment and good hours of operation. A few more comments about the cabins: the beds seem larger than the European kings found on other ships, but not quite a full king. The Judith Jackson toiletries are wonderful. In addition to plush terry robes, the cabins have a (good) hairdryer, a shoehorn, and an umbrella. The TV is a little hard to use and reception is variable. There is a great channel which continually updates information about the ship's position, speed etc. The temperature readings always seemed off - it was usually 115 degrees outside according to the TV!! Dinner menus can be found on another channel. This last evening there was a farewell reception, similar to the welcome reception. Dinner the last night in the Compass Rose was a disaster. They were not prepared for every one to come to dinner after the reception. We waited for 25 minutes at the door before anyone even acknowledged our presence. The food was below par and the service rushed. The Compass Rose suffers from a seemingly easily fixable problem in that no Maitre d' is consistently at either the front or rear entrance although there are stands at both entrances for that purpose. As a result, passengers wander into the dining room and have a hard time getting seated efficiently. Also, the Maitre d' is a bit too pushy about suggesting that couples share tables with other couples. If I ask for a table for two, that's what I want. None of these problems are overly significant though and I'm sure RSSC will work them out. Tipping is never mentioned and did not seem expected. We saw a few people tip servers with whom they had developed a good relationship (we did as well) and it was graciously received. Disembarkation went fairly smoothly even though all the berths in Puerto Caldera were full. We just had to wait for the Windsong to move. The tour with lunch to the Poas volcano was fantastic! The Camino Real Intercontinental was a lovely hotel. I would strongly encourage people to stay at least one day in Costa Rica. Overall, this has been the nicest ship I've ever sailed on. It exceeded my expectations, especially for a maiden voyage. This ship will have no peers in a short time once a few minor things are ironed out. I'm a RSSC convert; next time it's Tahiti on the Paul Gauguin for our 10th anniversary. I hope everyone has enjoyed this review. I tried to be as objective as possible.March 2001