Radiance of the Seas Cruise Review by ultimate_ed
- Sail Date: June 2016
- Destination: Alaska
With that as our background, we were off for our first go with RCI. Embarkation actually went pretty smoothly and we boarded with no drama. While there was the "opportunity" to take a start of cruise picture in front of a fake background, it was off to the side in the waiting area and there was no pressure. Very different from our Disney experience where you pretty much have to run a gauntlet through the boarding photo area and its a hassle to go around it.
We came on board near lunch time and headed up to the Windjammer buffet for our first meal. Overall, we were quite pleased with the buffet. There was a great selection of options and the space available during breakfast and lunch was impressive. Izumi, Rita's, and the back open deck are all available for seating in addition to the tables in the buffet area. With the good weather, we enjoyed eating meals outside on several occasions during the cruise.
We took all our dinners in the main dining room and didn't try any of the specialty restaurants during this cruise. We were assigned to My Time Dining, but we book the same time slot for our group of six each evening. We were assigned to the same table and servers each night. I don't know how common that is for MTD, but it worked extremely well for us. Our two servers were excellent. It was a bit rough the first night as they were getting to know our group and preferences, but they very quickly learned what we liked and didn't and service was smooth throughout the rest of our time. One thing Disney is noted for is their service in the rotation dining rooms and we've generally found that to be true - however, this pair of servers that we had were as good as the best we experienced on Disney. While RCI probably doesn't want to hear this, I didn't really feel like we missed out by not visiting any of the extra cost restaurants during our cruise. The main dining hall served us quite well.
Some of that was due to the restaurants available. Being an older and smaller ship in the RCI fleet, it doesn't have the number or variety of choices that the newer megaships have. Of those that it does, ones like Rita's Crab Shack and Izumi don't serve food that we're interested in. And, while I'm sure Chops is a find enough steak place, I generally have a hard time justifying "steak house" prices for a piece of meat compared to what I've learned to prepare for myself at home, so that option wasn't greatly appealing, either.
On to the room. For the six of us, we booked three rooms, an outside balcony for my parents, another for my wife and I, and an inside room across the hall for our kids, aged 11 and 15. For the booking, I was in the inside room with my son and my daughter was in the balcony with my wife as we needed an adult on each reservation. However, at guest services, we were easily able to get two extra room only key cards for each of the two rooms, so we could freely move across the hall as needed. With my kids at this age, this turned out to be a fantastic way to travel. Having two people as the 1st and 2nd passengers in an inside state room was about the same price as having them as the 3rd and 4th passengers in the balcony room. However, we effectively had a large suite with two full bathrooms, closets, TV's, etc along with the privacy of being able to have separate spaces. On Disney, this wouldn't have been possible as the price on the inside rooms is too high compared to the balconies.
As for the rooms themselves, they were clean and very well maintained. Our room steward was excellent throughout our sailing and quickly learned our habits and preferences. We founds the bends to be comfortable and had plenty of space to be able to relax. The balcony had good space with a couple of chairs and a table to be able to sit and enjoy the gorgeous scenery in Alaska. While the whole ship is designed for viewing, we definitely appreciate having the balcony space to be able to sit and enjoy on our own, both while sailing as well as in ports. I would say a balcony on this itinerary is worth it if you can afford it.
As for activities and entertainment, while they are admittedly secondary to the scenery and ports, I still felt there was plenty on board to see and do to keep us entertained. While Disney is certainly for kid focused, with adult concerned feeling somewhat tacked on, with the Radiance, it felt more family focused with a better balance of activities and areas for kids, families, and adults to enjoy themselves. The shows that we saw in the main theater were a lot of fun, both with the onboard singers and dancers, as well as the other guest entertainers. This was also true of the musical entertainers playing during the day and evening in some of the other spaces of the ship as well. These were quite the more lavish productions that Disney has come up with for their ships, but there was still plenty of talent on display and it served well. The diversity of activity was also such that I almost never really felt too crowded.
My son greatly enjoyed the adventure ocean program. We had gotten used to giving the kids a good deal of freedom to take advantage of the kids programs. Being a summer sailing, there were a lot of kids on board and my son in particular enjoyed spending time with the kids activities while we were at sea. He said he enjoyed it more than the Disney kids clubs.
My daughter's experience with the teen group wasn't as good, unfortunately. Some of it was probably the nature of the itinerary, but she found that the teen age group mostly just wanted to play on the game consoles in the club area. Several times she would go for some of the scheduled activities that she was interested in and had enjoyed on our Disney sailing, only to find they didn't end up happening due to apparent lack of interest. However, this was offset by her participation during the week in the practice for the "Thriller" dance number. The cruise director (whose name, sadly escapes me now) was excellent through the cruise in general. In particular, he lead a group of volunteers through several sessions over the course of the week learning a dance sequence to perform to Michael Jackson's "Thriller". The first session attracted about 100 people, but after that, she and about 30 others of all ages kept coming to the follow up sessions and learning the routine. On the last night, she and the others improvised zombie costumes and performed with the cruise director in the Centrum (the central atrium that is open from the bottom on deck 4 up to deck 12) while hundreds of the rest of us watched from the various levels to support our dancers. My daughter really enjoyed this experience and the bonding she was able to get with the group that went through it over the week.
As for the rest of the ship, overall, it's in pretty good shape for it's age. From up close, you can find rust spots, which stand out more with the white main color of the exterior. Still, it has been well maintained, especially on the inside. I know the Disney Wonder, which is of a similar size and age, and which we had sailed on a few years ago, while also in decent shape, did not seem to have held up quite as well as the Radiance has. That's strictly a personal impression with the overall effect that I got from each ship inside and out.
Being an older ship as well, Radiance doesn't have quite all the whiz bang of the new super ships. The pool areas are nice and the standard miniature golf course was a nice diversion, especially with the view. The rock wall was the big attraction. My son enjoyed it the most and climbed it just about every time it was open. My daughter hit it the first day and made it to the top, but lost interest after that. This area was probably my one disappointment. Not with the wall itself, which was impressive, but with the limited availability. Over the seven days, it was probably open a total of 12 hours. While I certainly didn't expect it to be open 24/7, I did expect more than a couple of hours each day and it was never open while we were in port. As a result, the line to climb could often get long since everybody was on board during sailing and it was one of the only major activity areas.
With all that said, the reason to take this sailing is the itinerary. The destinations are the real point of this cruise and they generally did not disappoint.
After a relaxing sea day, our first stop was Ketchikan. The ship had a good spot with easy access to the downtown area. As the cost was the same, we booked the "Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show" through the ship. The show was cheesy but fun, sort of a cross between wrestling and a reality TV show. It consisted of a "contest" between an American and Canadian lumber camp to see whose lumberjacks were the best. Along the way, they showed off aspects and tools of the history of the lumberjack trade. It was fun and well produced. This was our one port adventure booked through the cruiseline. After some research, I felt everything else was reasonably close enough to the ship that there was little advantage to taking other scheduled excursions. We walked around the different shops and museums, including the Totem Heritage Center (there's a free city shuttle bus that makes a loop to the various stops that are father away from the dock). The Heritage center was a small, but interesting stop with a collection of Totem Poles salvaged from various villages in southern Alaska.
From here, we went to Icy Strait Point, which is a rather strange place for a stop. Located near a small village called Hoonah, it once served as a cannery. After that shut down, the locals turned it into a museum and have tried to build up the area as a tourist stop. There are a number of pricey excursions that you can do there, of note is the very expensive and quick Zipline. We had planned a zipline adventure in Alaksa after our cruise, so we skipped this one. We largely treated this as an extra sea day. We spent a couple of hours walking around the area, touring the cannery museum and forrest area near the ship. Honestly, this stop feels like a bit of cheap filler for the cruiselines. I'm sure they hope to sell lots of high priced excursions to passengers since there is little to do at this stop otherwise.
The next stop was Juneau, the state capital, which can only be reached by boat or plane. In doing some research online, I learned that there would be a total of four ships with up to 9000 tourists in town that day. I wanted the flexibility to move freely in case we found something too crowded. AVIS has a small rental facility near the docks and I rented a van for the six of us for the day. It served us very well. While the staff at the rental place were slow in processing the several of us who were getting vehicles first thing, I had no trouble getting back to the ship and picking up the rest of the family. We drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier. The glacier is in an area managed by the National Forest Service. We first went up to the visitor center, which was nice, though a bit small. From there, we made the hike out to Nugget Falls along a one mile trail. The falls were very active and we spent a good bit of time just hanging out here, taking pictures, climbing the rocks, enjoying the views of both the glacier and the falls. The area became more and more crowded with other tourists, though few stayed long. We learned from several folks who had take various shuttles out there that they only had about 45 minutes to an hour to visit. I really appreciated having our own vehicle at that point and not having to rush through this experience.
Afterward, we drove out to the Shrine of St. Therese, a retreat center of the Catholic Church located along the water about 20 minutes north of town. The drive out there through the woods and along the coast was breath taking and the shrine itself was a beautiful and serene place. Definitely well worth the trip and having our own vehicle to get out there.
Our final land stop the next day was Skagway, another fairly small village, though much more developed than Icy Strait Point. The big claim to fame here is it's history as part of the Alaksan Gold Rush and the Klondike Gold Rush National Park. We booked our one other excursion through the cruiseline here - Panning for Gold, Sled Dogs, and the 40 Below Experience. We took a big shuttle bus from the cruise dock (and this one was a pretty long walk - because of the way the ships were positioned, we had to walk the full length of two ships, not quite half a mile, to reach the area of the shuttle bus pick up and drop off). The bus took us through the town to a facility on the outskirts. It was a fun adventure where we first got to pan for gold using dirt brought down from the remote gold fields. After that, we met an Iditarod sleg dog trainer and his team of dogs, learning about what it takes to train for, supply for, and run the iditarod. The highlight here was getting to play with some very young puppies. Finally, we got to freeze our butts off for a few minutes in a large deep freeze meat locker to experience the -40°F that the sled dog teams can experience during the race. Man that was cold.
After lunch back on the ship, we went back out to take advantage of a free walking tour that the National Park Service runs several times a day. It was a fun and well narrated tour. They only take 30 per group, so either get their first thing in the morning, or, do like I did and get a reservation spot through their online system ahead of time.
The last day of the cruise was the pinnacle, the visit to the Hubbard Glacier. We arrived early in the morning under clouds and fog. Thankfully, the fog cleared and we were able to make our way up near the glacier. It was an impressive sight as it is several miles wide at the water line. We got to see several good calving events in the ice while ship sat on station spinning around in a tight circle. The ship had on board a retired professor who had given a couple of lectures on glaciers, whales, and something else that I can't recall. He also spoke over the ships PA system while we were at the glacier, explaining several aspects of glaciers and what made this particular one so interesting. While informative, he was sadly, not a great public speaker. Still, the view was well worth it and truly provided an excellent finale for the cruise.
Final morning debarkation went smoothly. We were able to have a final breakfast in the Windjammer before reporting to the main theater to wait for our exit call. I haven't experienced any other RCI debarkations at other locations yet, but I would say that they handle things better than Disney in this regard.
Overall, the cruse was a fantastic experience that exceeded even my high expectations.
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