There's a mildly dubious but highly expressive phrase in idiomatic English - "All fur coat and no knickers". The saying indicates style over substance, an impressive superficial appearance without the basics to support it - and I've never known it apply so accurately to a cruise as it does to our mini-cruise on Anthem of the Seas last week.
First, some disclaimers. I've never sailed with RCL before, so can't compare it with other RCL cruises; my experience is mainly Princess, and P&O, Cunard, Celebrity and Azamara. Also, it was a very short (3 day) cruise on a very new ship, so some aspects may well change for longer cruises, and as the crew get more used to the ship.
Let's take the high points first - and some of them were very high points indeed:
- The production shows: We Will Rock You is quite simply the best show I've ever seen on a cruise ship, brilliantly staged and played. Perhaps other full-length West End / Broadway shows on RCL or NCL are as good - I don't know, but this was the best I've seen. Spectra's Cabaret in Two70 was also brilliantly done, a fusion of music and dancing with very imaginative use of the video wall and robot screens.
- Two particular spaces on the ship, the Solarium at the front of Deck 14 and Two70 at the back of deck 5, are both wonderful, light spaces with huge windows and great views.
- Wonderland - we ate there on the first night, and aspects of it were indeed wonderful. More on this below.
- The Bionic Bar, with its robot bartenders - great fun to watch for a little while, when it was working.
- Puzzle Break - I did this with one of my (adult) sons, and we enjoyed it hugely - it exceeded my expectations. It was challenging, but varied enough that everyone could contribute - there was a girl aged around 10 in our group of a dozen who found things that nobody else saw. We left this on a real high (but when you've done it, there's no point repeating the experience; it's a once-only activity).
- Internet - it was indeed the fastest I've seen on a cruise ship, and reasonably priced: $15pd for 1 device, $20pd for 2 devices, though note I had to pay for all 3 days even though I only signed up to the package on day 2.
- North Star - it is literally a high point, but a pleasant rather than a remarkable experience. Quite fun to see the ship itself from up there, but you're pretty high up compared to your surroundings just being on Deck 15.
So that's the fur coat, now on to the missing unmentionables, as it were.
What's most disappointing is how poor certain aspects were that I simply take for granted.
Chief among these was the dining experience in the complimentary restaurants we went to. The food itself was acceptable but not outstanding, but the service at times was chaotic, inept, embarrassing and downright comical. This was particularly in The Grande, where we ate on the second night. There were eight of us at the table:
- The waiters were incapable of taking a single drinks order for all eight of us. I expect any waiter in any half-decent restaurant to ask each person in turn what they want to drink, go away, return a few minutes later with the right drinks, and serve them to the right people. Not a chance. The waiter took my order, went off to get it without asking anyone else, and brought it to me. Then he got sidetracked. People got drinks at various points, but it was well into the meal before we pointed out that nobody had asked my wife what she wanted to drink.
- It took 50 minutes from our being seated before the starters were brought.
- My wife has some food allergies, so at Wonderland the previous evening the staff noted these, and brought my wife the second night's menu, so she could make her choices in advance, and the chefs could adjust the recipes for her if necessary - so far so good, but that sets an expectation. Unfortunately on the second night, she was told that her choices "were not approved" to be supplied. It's not clear exactly why this was, but I think it's that a lot of the food is brought on ready prepared, and they didn't know exactly what was in it. Why they were incapable of making a simple, non-spicy dressing for a prawn cocktail from scratch with 24 hours notice, I have absolutely no idea.
- Her main course was made with some adjustments based on her choice the previous evening - but arrived ten minutes after everybody else's, as it had been made for Silk rather than The Grande. The head waiter explained to me the problem occurred because we'd switched from Silk to The Grande on the day. I explained to him that we hadn't, we'd been booked in The Grande since September, and their system had got it wrong (not for the only time, see below).
- We ate in Chic on the third evening, and it was a little less chaotic. However, what sort of restaurant has waiters who start clearing plates for a course before the last person has finished? And even worse, bringing the next course?
- I don't see that any of these can be put down to the newness of the ship or the length of the cruise; they're simply basic aspects of running a restaurant, and it astonishes me that service on Anthem could be this poor.
Other comments on dining and waiting:
- We felt there weren't enough wait staff on the decks or in Windjammers. I've never seen so many used plates build up on a table in a cruise buffet, and as for getting drinks, the best way to get them was usually to go to the bar oneself. We spent an enjoyable afternoon in Two70, for example, and I don't remember being asked once if we wanted drinks.
- Wonderland: as I said, it was a high point with some superb cooking and an excellent waiter (thank you, Ivan), but:
-- For all the dishes which had great finesse, why were two of the (very nice tasting) main dishes basically hunks of meat? It was as if whoever developed the menu had lost interest before they finished the job.
-- With such a whimsical concept, why was the decor so uninspired? The chairs, serving dishes and some other aspects were perfect for the place, but plain grey walls? Again, not thought through.
-- Nor was the positioning of the restaurant on the ship. It's midship on deck 5, so the music you hear in Wonderland is whatever happens to be playing outside the restaurant.
-- The Anthem website talks of Wonderland as venturing down the rabbit hole - it could have been that, a feast for all the senses; but they didn't follow through, the attention to detail just isn't there.
WOW Bands, RoyalIQ, Technology
- The WOW bands worked some of the time on some things: they were fine for opening the stateroom door, for example. But when it came to anything more complex, like using it to order a drink at the Bionic Bar, I didn't see that work once. We needed to use the usual card key, and that would often take a few tries.
- On the subject of the Bionic Bar, I walked past at peak time (around 10pm) on the final evening, and the bar wasn't in operation, apparently a problem with the wifi.
- RoyalIQ is the app RCL invite you to download before you board. Another good idea, but they did raise expectations of how great it was, and failed to deliver.
-- You can see your bookings for dinner and shows. So I checked them, then went to Guest Services to ask why my booking for Spectra's Cabaret had been switched from day 1 to day 3. Guest Services told me not to worry, they still saw it on day 1, the app was showing me the wrong info. Fortunately they were correct.
-- We were shown as booked in two restaurants at the same time - either different restaurants or the same one twice - with a variety of random passengers we've never met. Jared Finegold, Jimmy and Elizabeth Cash, I'm sure it would have been a pleasure dining with you if we'd actually done so.
-- Finally in this section, we got the daily planner (Cruise Compass) delivered to the cabin each evening, and I couldn't work out how to see it through RoyalIQ, so I asked at Guest Services. Answer: "You can't do that, they're different systems." Seriously? First, I'd expect this as a blindingly obvious requirement; second, if it's not there yet, the least I'd expect is "Good idea, I'll report back and see if we're working on it, and suggest it if we're not". Why would I as a passenger care that they're different systems?
- Photos - my son decided to get a couple on disc rather than as prints. He wasn't able to check the disc on board when he collected it, they don't appear to be able to do that.
So this morning I tried the photo CD. As expected, it's a complete disaster.
After installing the 56MB photo-viewing software on my machine, I've gone to see what's on there (sadly, there are no photo files hidden away that I could have manually exported).
There are 4 photos, all locked; the one we actually wanted is not on the disc.
As such, we have none of the photos that we wanted, and one of them doesn't even appear to be linked to the disc, and I have bloatware on my computer (but I backed up the registry first, with the intention of restoring it afterwards).
He's following up with OurCruisePhotos. I'm not holding my breath.
One small observation summed up the ship for me. One evening, we had a towel animal in the stateroom, a nicely done monkey hanging from a hanger. Whimsical and cute, and not what I'm used to on Princess. The next evening, our steward forgot to leave us a mat for the bathroom floor. I've never encountered that on Princess either.
One observation, more a matter of personal taste than a criticism. Too much of Anthem simply didn't feel like a ship to me: it was more of a cross between a resort and an indoor shopping mall. The positioning of the lifeboats at eye level meant that you didn't really see the sea when walking outside on Deck 5, and the main public areas on decks 3-5 simply felt - indoors. I talked to other folks with the same view (greetings, Richard and Becky).
In summary, there are some very nice features. But the basics are way below what I'd expect from any cruise line. It's as if they put all their efforts into the icing, and nobody paid enough attention to the cake. Whether the problem is with the ship, RCL, my unrealistic expectations, or a combination of all three, I don't know. But I'm certainly not converted to RCL on the basis of this cruise.
Cabin was ok, with one big negative from my wife's point of view. The cabin door opens outward, and there is no space in which to stand while getting dressed which isn't visible from the doorway. So she tended to change in the bathroom to be on the safe side. Did this not occur to anyone when they designed the layout?