This was to be our 15th cruise and since we had never been to the South Pacific and the Ovation of the Seas was the newest ship cruising Australia and New Zealand, we decided this was a great opportunity to see the land Down Under.
A great feature of cruising out of Sydney, NSW, is the port facility. WOW! 14 cruises before this one, and every single port facility (Seattle, Long Beach, New Jersey, Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Honolulu, and a few others) was situated in some hard to reach industrial area, far from the city centers, hotels and airports. Not Sydney. The Ovation of the Seas was docked in an area known as Circular Quay. It is literally a few blocks from major hotels, including ours, the Amora Jamison Sydney. This was such a refreshing change. Embarkation was quick and painless; from dropping off our luggage to stepping onto the ship was 30 minutes maximum, but we were Platinum status and this enabled us to skip ahead of a queue of probably another 15 minutes or so.
The Ovation of the Seas is a very pretty ship. It was launched about 20 months before we sailed on it, and it still looked brand new. It was nicely appointed and immaculately clean. Our first impressions were of a top-notch beautiful ship.
We were on the ship by noon, but our cabins weren't ready yet, so we headed to the Windjammer Cafe, the ship's main buffet. And this was where my primary disappointment with Ovation of the seas began. I mentioned that we have been on 15 cruises. I must say that throughout these past 15 cruises, starting in 2004, there has been a slow decline in the overall quality of the food. Not just in the buffets, but also in the main dining rooms and the specialty restaurants. The six of us who almost always cruise together all agree on this, and it's across all of the cruise lines we've been on, RCL, Norwegian, Disney, and Carnival. Obviously, the cruise lines are constantly seeking ways to improve the bottom line, and lowering the cost of food is a great way to cut costs. So we've not been surprised by the reduced selections, shorter hours of buffet operations, fewer "included" food choices and increasing number of "for fee" options, as well as overall lower quality of dining in general. But we were all shocked by the quality of dining on Ovation. In EVERY food venue the quality of the food was significantly worse than when we last cruised with RCL, on Allure of the Seas in 2013.
Let's begin with the Windjammer Cafe. The selection was poor to begin with, but what was available was sub-par compared to every cruise buffet we've ever experienced. Starting with the Carving Stations (there were two). The selection of meats was awful; the best thing served were pork ribs; these were juicy and flavorful. Other than the ribs, there were selections of meats that I would not serve in my home. Dry, tasteless cuts of beef, turkey, sausages, and lamb. The Burger station was terrible; the hamburgers were jokes; every single patty well done; dry and tasteless. The hot dogs were the kind you buy at the supermarket in 8-packs, definitely nothing special. The condiment selection was very good, but that doesn't help much when the meats are so bad. It was hard to find anything is the buffet that was tasty; and the selection varied very little day to day. The desserts were good however. We found several that became the highlight of our meals in the buffet. Oh, and we also really enjoyed the french fries (our Aussie friends call them 'chips'), and the fact that they had a dedicated Gluten Free section.
The main dining rooms were somewhat better. We had the anytime dining option, so our MDRs were The American Icon Grill and Silk. We preferred the former, for it's lighter decor and more modern appearance. Overall the food here was somewhat better than in the Windjammer, but the selections were fewer, compared to previous experiences on RCL. Overall, the quality of the MDR was average.
Off all of the food venues, the biggest disappointments of all were the specialty restaurants. We purchased the five night dining package, and ate at Wonderland, Chops and Jamie's Italian. Our first specialty meal was at Wonderland. Given the glowing reviews we read on Cruise Critic and saw on Youtube, we were expecting terrific meals, and had reserved two dinners there. For creativity and presentation, I would give Wonderland top marks; the food LOOKED great. Unfortunately, it came up short when it came to delivering on taste. Except for the desserts, few items on the menu were enjoyed by any of our party. Even their signature beef dish, the Terroir Beef, was a chunk of chuck meat in gravy, nothing special at all. So high marks for presentation (e.g. Baby Vegetables in the Garden looked fabulous but tasted awful) low marks for taste. After our first meal in Wonderland, we canceled our second visit. Then there were our two visits to Chops, and these unfortunately were huge disappointments. On the positive side, the starters, the sides and desserts at Chops were uniformly very good. Our servers were exceIlent on both visits. The problem was with the feature items at a steak house the meat. On my first visit, I had the boneless 12 ounce New York steak. I ordered medium rare and it arrived cooked medium. Not necessarily a problem, but unfortunately the steak was dry and rather tough. My second steak at Chops was a 16 ounce bone-in Rib steak. My wife also had the Rib steak, and while eating, we both were surprised that our steak knives were so dull! We had to exert considerable effort to cut our steaks, and we finally realized that it wasn't the cutlery, it was the steaks; the meat was tough and stringy. In hindsight, we should have complained about the quality of the meat, but it really didn't occur to us at the time. But given that Chops has a listed price of $45 for dinner, the quality of the meat at Chops was shockingly poor. None of our party felt the steaks were of true 'steak house' quality; I've had uniformly better steaks purchased at our local supermarkets at home. There's not much reason to pay for poor quality meat in an expensive specialty restaurant on a cruise ship. What a disappointment.
Finally, that brings us to Jamie's Italian. Thank god for Jamie's! This was the one food establishment on the Ovation that really 'wowed' us. Good from start to finish. Starting with the excellent garlic bread, followed by the terrific cured meat platter, and the wonderful crispy squid, the meals at Jamie's definitely delivered; great food, fun atmosphere, excellent experiences overall. We ate at Jamie's Italian twice, and it at least partially made up for the huge disappointments of Wonderland and Chops. Our servers were also very good, especially the petite Asian woman the first night, whose name unfortunately none of us can remember.
My final comments on food on the Ovation are on the Dog House, Cafe 270, the Promenade Cafe and Sorrento's. The Dog House was pretty much for the dogs. Located near the Sports court, it was only open for lunch, and had a selection of three or four hot dogs. We tried three of the four, and weren't impressed with any; all thin, dry and pretty tasteless. Of the other three, all were nice alternative food venues for a quick bite. Cafe 270 had a nice selection of sandwiches, including nice, hot paninis, and well as croissants. danishes, and other snacks. It was always crowded however, and seating was sometimes very hard to find. The Promenade Cafe was open always, and had small sandwiches, desserts, tea and coffee. Sorrento's deserves special mention; they had very nice pizzas! Thin crust, crunchy, with lots of cheese. Hands down our favorite snack spot on the ship when we wanted a quick bite to eat, especially given it's convenient location.
I know I've made very extensive comments on the food on Ovation, but I readily admit that to me one of the primary attractions of traveling on cruise ships has always been the food. And unfortunately, Ovation of the Seas, to a very large degree really disappointed.
Briefly, on other aspects of the ship, the cabin was very nice. We were in balcony cabin 8146. It was large, and had a roomy balcony, with a port view. Our cabin steward, Habebi, from Indonesia, was excellent; he had a bright, cheery attitude, and did a wonderful job of keeping our cabin neat and clean.
The entertainment on the Ovation was good overall. The Beautiful Dream, Live, Love, Legs, were production shows that were very entertaining. There were also a Ventriloquist/Comedian, Strings duo, a Freddy Mercury impersonator, and Belinda Marks a vocalist. Although none of them would have been headliners in Las Vegas, they were all good performers and we enjoyed them. The one featured show in the 270 Theatre was "Pixels". It was a technology-featuring singing and dancing production, which I didn't really enjoy, but others in our party liked a lot. The one awful show in my opinion was a hypnotist who had twenty passengers on stage who were clearly all exhibitionists who literally ran to get on the stage so they could be silly in public. On the other hand, the woman who sat next to my wife clearly loved the show and laughed until she fell out of her seat!
As many people have noted, the Flow-Rider is a great activity if you're into water sports; the bumper cars are fun, but the wait is typically about 45 minutes. Unlike others, we found there was no problem at all getting onto the roller skating rink, and there was almost no crowd at all. Rock climbing was fun, and the wait never more than 10 minutes. I never got onto i-Fly because it was cancelled due to wind on the day of my reservation. The ping-pong tables were constantly in use and we never got to play. The air-hockey was fun, but overpriced at $2.50 for three minutes. We never tried the North Star observation platform.
Our shore excursions were arranged privately, and saved us a minimum of 35% versus RCL arranged trips (I think the average savings were closer to 50%). We went on excursions in Noumea, Auckland, Tauranga, and Bay of Islands, and had wonderful tour guides for the latter two, Colin, and Felicity (both retired police officers from New Zealand) through Shore Trips and Tours. We all agreed, we can't recommend them highly enough. Both were friendly, knowledgeable, and just really nice people. Oh, one more thing - Hokey Pokey ice cream is wonderful, even better than Rocky Road!
By the way, we spent two more days in Sydney after the conclusion of our cruise, and we had two FABULOUS meals at a little place called Ribs and Burgers on George Street. Wow - after our disappointment with the food on Ovation, we had some of the best burgers, ribs and fries we've tasted ANYWHERE. I'd say their Aussie Burger is now my favorite burger of all time (well, at least tied with the Johnny Cash burger at Broderick's in Walnut Creek, California).
Overall, this was a very enjoyable cruise vacation. We loved New Zealand (although New Caledonia less so), and Sydney is now my personal favorite city in the world (displacing San Francisco). The Ovation was a beautiful ship, with good facilities, cabins, and entertainment, which unfortunately had very disappointing food. Not sure if we'd sail on Ovation again. Read Less