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Sail Date: May 2004
(NOTE - There's no menu selection for Oslo, so I hope the deliberately wrong selection of Osaka will ring enough alarm bells for people to notice which was the actual port of embarkation.) INTRODUCTION This report is intended to ... Read More
(NOTE - There's no menu selection for Oslo, so I hope the deliberately wrong selection of Osaka will ring enough alarm bells for people to notice which was the actual port of embarkation.) INTRODUCTION This report is intended to be read alongside the photos from this cruise, which can be found in my Webshots album (http://community.webshots.com/album/140741580OdzpCX) for this cruise. At the end of the album there are also scans of the daily planner for the two days of our cruise for which they were produced (there wasn't one for disembarkation morning). You may also find Brandis' photos (http://www.brandis.org/fotogalerie/Jewel04) useful to look at because they show some things that I write about here, but of which I haven't posted photos. I've tried to include some links to relevant photos of mine from specific points in this report. TO THE SHIP It was too early a start, really - it was only 0500. More like the start of a particularly gruelling day's work, not a weekend off. But we had to get there, so we stirred ourselves and dragged ourselves off to Heathrow. Nothing much needs to be said about the flight, except for a great start to the day. A hot cheese and ham ciabatta roll, fruit salad, yoghurt, a muffin, tea or coffee, and your pick of the bar - all included in the price of the flight. Why would you fly any other airline, honestly? On the descent into Oslo, a small extra treat - we were sitting on the side facing the city centre, and had a grandstand view of the city including - of course - Jewel of the Seas herself. A problem, though, at baggage claim. My bag failed to turn up. It happens from time to time, but very rarely. So why today, when I was sailing in 6 hours' time? Murphy strikes again. But the Servisair (handling agent) agent had already had a telex to say that my bag had been left behind in London; it would be on the next flight. Unfortunately, it was not scheduled to arrive until 1610. A 1700 sailing was going to be close, by any standards. So I left instructions for the bag to be delivered if possible. I also asked for a cash payment to go shopping, but my luck was out again. Although possible in theory, there was no point on 1 May as it was a public holiday and all the shops would be closed. The agent was right, as I found when I got into town. If I shopped on board the ship, it was going to have to be a subsequent claim from the airline. We then headed for the Airport Express, a fast and convenient service to Oslo Central Station - every 10 minutes during the week, every 20 minutes at the weekends. There was confusion, though, about check-in. An RCI representative tried to direct us to a nearby hotel, to wait for a bus to the ship. But our tickets were directing us to go to the quay. The representative didn't know whether check-in was taking place at the hotel, she just knew there were buses from there to the quay. As I could foresee long queues at the hotel for the bus, we decided to walk to the quay as originally planned, as it was a nice day and we knew that the quay is only about 15 minutes walk from the station, even with luggage. It was a pleasant choice, and included us finding Oslo's May Day Parade, which we watched for several minutes before resuming our path towards the ship. Finally, we turned a corner and saw her in her full glory (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745553ipPJbM). And then also found a disorderly queue in the open air of several hundred people apparently waiting to check-in. It was a good thing it wasn't raining, because it turned out that these people had already checked in at the hotel and this was only the queue for security. It took over an hour. There were some RCI agents, though, who were able to check us in there despite the fact that we were not on the list of passengers who would be checking in at the quay. We were issued with a scrap of paper headed "Boarding Pass" and told to collect keys from the Guest Relations Desk, which is where we headed first. THE CENTRUM Quay level boarding gets you onto deck 2. We just walked up to deck 4. The staircase effectively opens onto the floor of the Centrum. It's a massive open space, and the overwhelming impression that it gives is one of light and space. It's a very impressive area to walk into, even for someone who is used to seeing modern ships. The enormous amounts of glass used on the outside walls of the ship certainly have an effect. The port side, where the "outside" lifts (elevators) are situated, looks just like the atrium of a skyscraper that has a glass curtain wall, through which daylight simply floods in. There's even a large area of glass near the ceiling, because there's a large glass wall that looks forward from deck 12 (the Crown and Anchor lounge) to the swimming pool. And there's virtually no floor area on any deck in the Centrum higher than deck 4. Taken together with that huge glass curtain wall, it's almost as if you are standing between two buildings, one forward and one aft, with only a few bridges acting as walkways between them. Even the Crown and Anchor lounge (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/142241493ndnJDP) is simply another suspended structure, around which there is empty space. The Centrum is used a lot for music and dancing - much more so than similar ships I have been on. On day 1, music was scheduled there for 1130-1600, 1700-1800, 1945-2045 and then 2145-0030. On day 2, there was music from 1130-1230, and then 1715-1800, 1945-2045 and 2145-0030. The sight of couples twirling on the floor by the lobby bar, visible from every level of the Centrum, became a familiar sight (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745030YKeIJX). One other effect - it makes people stop and watch, all the time. Although atria on ships have now become very familiar, this is still a design into which much thought has gone, and is in my view extraordinarily successful. A lot of thought has also gone into the lighting effects. There is a suspended sculpture which looks like strings of small organ pipes of different sizes (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745060golIUq), made of aluminium (or something that looks like it). Different coloured lights play on this - predominantly yellow with some blue during the day, but varied changing colours after dark (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745099Ucdeai). There are projectors mounted all over the Centrum, some of which are for the coloured lights and some which display pictures or messages on the blank wall that is opposite the glass curtain wall (and which hides the doors to the "hump cabins" on the starboard side) - "welcome to the Jewel", "farewell" and so on. I was captivated by the various moods that the coloured lights create, and you can see a selection of evening colours in my photos. GUEST RELATIONS HELPS ME OUT The Guest Relations Desk was staffed by some of the most cheerful crew members we saw on board, who were a cut above most ship front desks that I've come across. Not only did they quickly make some spare room keys for us (for some reason, we would have to wait until after sailing for our proper cards), but when I explained what had happened to my bag they immediately asked to take copies of all the documents so that the ship could do what it could to help. The documents didn't then vanish into thin air, because we were called in our room at about 1600 by one of the security officers, who had phoned the airport to find out the time that that next flight was expected - sadly, it was going to be about 5 minutes later, which was eroding the margin further. To complete this story out of chronological order, after we had sailed departed and sailed through the most picturesque part of the Oslofjord, we went to the shops which were by then open, to see what clothes I could buy to get me through the rest of the cruise. When we had earmarked as much as we could (the only thing that they couldn't supply was fresh socks), we returned to the room just in case the bag had turned up. There were two voicemail messages. The first apologised for the fact that the bag had missed our departure by some 20 minutes. The second was an apparently inconsistent message to say that the bag was at the Guest Relations Desk. It was comforting to know that security insisted on inspecting it before we took it away, but it was then that we were told how the bag had got onto the ship - it had come out on the pilot boat. That was an excellent piece of work on the part of all the departments that worked on the problem - it turned out to be the most impressive thing about the entire weekend other than the ship herself. OUR CABIN Sorry, stateroom. Although 8577 was just a standard inside room, this was a good size. The beds were made up as a double, as asked - the ship got that right, which is more than many manage to do. The room number plate doubles as the letter rack. As one would expect, there is a very conventional arrangement - cupboards immediately beyond the door, opposite the bathroom door. Then there is a desk/dressing table with a mirror above it. On the opposite side there is a two-seater couch and a coffee table. There is a symbolic dividing "curtain" attached to the desk side of the room - in fact it only comes out a few inches into the room - and beyond that the bed area. Electricity is provided by European Schuko sockets, and the hairdryer has a Schuko plug - I didn't notice whether there was a 110V supply, or US style sockets, but I suppose it would be silly of RCI not to have them. There is ample lighting. A nice touch is the dual bedside lamp on each side of the bed, with an area light but also a low-voltage halogen spot bulb in a rotating housing, which causes less disturbance to anyone else in the room. The bathroom is also very conventional. The sink is moulded into the plastic sheet that also forms the surround. There is only one bathroom cupboard, on the side opposite the door. For a long cruise where one would unpack all toiletries, this could get a little cramped. The toilet was set uncomfortably high in the wall, which would annoy me after a while - I don't like that feeling of having my legs dangling. But the shower was a delight - a pair of curved shower doors slid together and satisfyingly snapped shut with a magnetic strip. This may be the first time I have used a ship shower without flooding the rest of the bathroom floor. And the shower controls were easy to use. There was one circular knob in the middle of the mixer unit for turning the water on, and a hot/cold mixer knob at the left hand end for adjusting the temperature. None of this single rotating lever nonsense. Small catering-size bars of soap were provided, slightly larger than the usual stuff of this type. I can't remember whether there was any, and if so what, shampoo. Soundproofing was adequate. Occasionally we could hear noises from adjacent cabins - most often the vacuum flush system operating. But more often we could hear the crew using the metal crew staircases in the vicinity. Looking at the deck plans, this surprised us because our cabin did not adjoin any crew staircases. But there was no mistaking the sound, which I think must have been being transmitted through the floor. One of our cabin stewards made a point of knocking on our door before the lifeboat drill to introduce himself. He was one of a team of two looking after us, and we saw both of them from time to time during the cruise. They did a very efficient job, although the cruise was not long enough either to get to know them or to make any demands of them. THE LIFEBOAT DRILL AND THE SAILAWAY 1630 brought the lifeboat drill, which was notable for the captain's substantive absence. The cruise director, Karen, made the main announcement about safety procedures in the usual terms. Then she asked us to stand by for an announcement from the captain before the end of the drill. So we stood and waited for the conventional welcoming words. And waited. And waited, until eventually the captain came on with the one line message that the drill was completed and we were all dismissed. Strange - I wish I'd known what was going on. We then made our way up to the pool area on Deck 12 to join in the sailaway party. The Elini Duo were playing, but cut lonely figures as they faced an empty deck area. Such of our fellow passengers as had come up to the sailaway celebrations were instead mostly congregated around the bar areas - thus underlining what we would come to see repeatedly during the course of the cruise. There were no cruise staff in evidence until well after we had moved off from the quay. Then a member of the cruise staff named Barbara made a welcoming announcement, and said that other members of the team were around the pool area. Once we were looking for them, they were easier to see - they were all standing in one group, talking amongst themselves and taking photos of each other and of Oslo as we manoeuvred to sail away from the city centre. Unfortunately, this rather set the tone for the weekend. I don't know whether this was because they knew that almost all passengers on board were not primary English speakers and therefore unlikely to engage with them. Those whom we did manage to engage and speak to, though, were perfectly friendly and chatty. They told us about who they thought the ship's godmother was going to be (accurate, ahead of the formal announcement) and why they thought no announcement had yet been made (inaccurate, although the sort of story that one could easily put together from all the true features of her appointment). Interestingly, they (and other crew members we talked to at various times) were all particularly concerned about Harwich, which will serve as Jewel's turnaround port for the whole of her Northern Europe season before she sets off for the New World - they all wanted to know (a) what there was to do in Harwich, (b) which the nearest real city was, and (c) whether day trips to London would be feasible on turnaround days. THE POOLS The main pool area isn't spacious - not for this ship the acres of sunning space around the pools of others. However, the pool is definitely more sheltered than many. Jets of water splash into it, and a statue of a stout bather throwing a ball (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745011nZYtPX) adorns one side. There are bars on the pool level (deck 11) and one on the "gallery" around it, one deck up. From there, it's a short stroll forward to the Solarium. This is another pool, covered by a retracting roof. It has an Oriental theme, although to the uninitiated it is difficult to identify precisely which country has lent itself to the dEcor. Another statue (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140744998CbNpuD) sits by the pool's edge. The area being Asian-themed, I was convinced for many days that it was a tiger. It wasn't until after I'd posted my photos online that someone was kind enough to point out that it's a lion. So much for geographical accuracy. The art buyers ought to be told the answer to the schoolboy's riddle about why lions and tigers never fight each other to death. There was a certain amount of inconsistency over the use of the Solarium facilities. Day 1's planner (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140943934EZAlcN) described it as available for ages 16 and over, but day 2's planner (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140944043nOTywh) said "adults only". Nevertheless, the rules posted in the Solarium contain detail about what children may and may not do. If there was any "adults only" rule, it certainly wasn't being enforced. There was also one extraordinarily grating feature of the Solarium. It has a food service station. This might be forgivable in this setting, if it served snacks of sophistication and quality. But no, it's the pizzeria. Yuck. Big mistake - utterly tasteless (and I don't mean the food). THE ONBOARD ART The statues remind me to say something about the art on board. There is a huge amount of it, and it is one of the most attractive features about the ship. Much of it will be lost on most people, who probably won't even notice its existence. But if you keep your eyes open, there is lots to see everywhere. It includes far more than the usual big run prints put up along the long and otherwise-featureless corridor walls. There are the statues I have already mentioned, which you find in all sorts of places (the golfer at the entrance to the mini-golf course just behind the rock climbing wall (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745208HQBoMx) is another oft- photographed example). There are also interesting pictures and objects on virtually every half- landing of every staircase. Some of the pictures are art photos. One that particularly impressed was a wintry landscape comprised entirely of holes punched or drilled into a vast silvery metal sheet (although the installation of this piece is crass and unsympathetic, with large and highly visible cross-head screws punctuating the image all over the place) - this one is definitely in Marc Benz's photo collection. Something else that amused me was the trio of flamingoes (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745355PDgDQJ) which are on deck 13, on a ledge facing the top of the "outside" lifts - although it is annoying that that is as close as one can get to them, and playing in the lifts seems to be the only way of getting a good look. Pleasingly, thought, most pieces could definitely be described as contemporary but accessible art. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to select things which will interest and perhaps inspire, but without being obviously controversial or self-indulgent rubbish. Almost, but not quite, in this category is the enormous bottle of Perrier-Jouët champagne which is attached to the Centrum railings next to the champagne bar (deck 6). The label prophetically marked the ship's maiden voyage on 8 May 2004, which did underline the nature of our cruise, fully one week earlier. Two other interesting "construction" titbits. By the guest relations desk, there is a series of plaques with a number of photos of the construction and delivery process. Some of these images will be very familiar to those of us who have been watching the ship being built, and it was quite a thrill to see them in an "official" setting rather than merely dancing around our computer screens. Also, on deck 5 near the photo gallery there is a frame (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745502iafZOW) containing a number of photos of people signing the sheet of paper (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745514uwVBWE) which takes pride of place in the middle of the frame. The stated time and place are 4 April 2004, 1600, off Eemshaven. Those who were following Jewel's delivery process will have worked out that this was after the ship had successfully negotiated the River Ems on her way from the builder's yard at Papenburg to the sea, but before she docked in Eemshaven to begin the final preparation period and her sea trials. The photos don't record who was who, nor whose signatures appear on the sheet (only a few are legible and there is one large one which isn't but looks like it could be Bernhard Meyer's), but this is definitely a piece of the ship's history which I hope will stay with her or in some suitable place for a long time. THE SPA AND FITNESS CENTRE Forward of the Solarium is the health and beauty section of the spa. I regard spas at sea as overpriced cousins of the spas on land that I would never go to anyway, so I didn't have any interest in exploring this area. However, I did stop long enough to notice that it is yet another Steiner establishment, and that the staff in the spa are about as unfriendly and unwelcoming as most other Steiner staff that I have come across. Upstairs is the fitness centre, which is nominally (and, presumably, operationally) part of the spa. The room is a good size. There is a good selection of machines and weights, arranged around the outside of the room, which has almost floor to ceiling windows affording excellent views forward and to the sides. Some of the machines (notably the bikes) face inwards, though, which detracts somewhat from the effect. In the middle of the room there is an aerobics floor, which is adequately sized but not generous. Given the number of passengers on board, and the likely age profile, I can imagine this area becoming quite crowded for popular fitness classes, particularly those like step which would require significant amounts of floor space. Until you establish that your fellow passengers have all been overcome by sloth (or perhaps gluttony?), my advice would be to go early and claim your place. There seemed to be only one fitness instructor, which surprised me; I don't know whether that will be the entire complement for a "proper" cruise. Workout towels are available in the fitness centre. There was a grand total of three classes scheduled for this cruise. It was a disappointment, but no surprise, to find that two out of three were $10 extra (yoga and spinning) - and an equal disappointment to wake up on the only full day of the cruise to find that we had slept through the free aerobics. There is also supposedly a jogging track on the same level as the fitness centre (deck 12). It runs around the outside of the fitness centre and then aft around the aft end of the main pool (although one deck up). It is clearly marked on the deck. However, the number of sun loungers and people milling about on the jogging track make it very difficult to use, even for someone like myself who prefers to power walk than run. It is a real pity that a jogging route isn't more clearly delineated and protected, because there is no true wraparound promenade deck - always the mark of a real ship, in my view! Deck 5 is blocked at the forward end on both sides. But even if it weren't, you have to climb some relatively steep stairs up one deck at the forward end, where the helipad is situated. FOOD As we were very ready for lunch by the time we had finally embarked, obtained room keys and reported the potential arrival of my late bag, we had no option but to go to the Windjammer. This is laid out in a single space across the full width of the ship, unlike most other self-service ship restaurants I have seen where a centrally-positioned galley area divides the restaurant area into two narrow halves along either side of the ship. The spaciousness allows for the installation of food service islands in the central area rather than a single long buffet counter, which means that (like at this layout's forerunners ashore) queues and bottlenecks are almost eliminated. The food in the Windjammer was as good as any buffet-style food can be. An "Asian" island produced nothing more than an unexceptional stir-fry, the difference between the chicken and beef versions offered was simply in the type of meat that had been throw into the mix. No P&O-style curries here. However, the sesame oil and chili sauce that were available there did the job of spicing up this offering. A salad bar was also perfectly acceptable, if rather thinly-stocked with some ingredients; more regular runs are needed to keep things topped up. A different hot food island produced some very boring and unmemorable dishes, which two weeks have served to erase altogether. The main point of discussion between my companion and myself was the size of the plates. They were oval and huge. Was this an attempt to make sure that people didn't clog up the service area by making multiple runs for the food? Perhaps a way of making sure that kitchen overstocks were rapidly run down? Whatever, it did seem to us that these plates were far larger than necessary - the net result of which was, for us, that we had small piles of food looking very lonely in a vast landscape of flat plastic. For our two dinners, we had made advance plans. We had been warned that the second night would be a formal night, but had discovered that Chops and Portofino require only smart casual dress even on formal nights, and that we would not be turned away from the captain's cocktail party if we were in smart casual for dinner in one of those restaurants. Consequently, we had decided to go to Portofino (the more interesting-looking of the two) on the second night, but to eat in the main dining room on the first night. A call to Portofino as soon as we arrived in our room was all that was necessary to secure a table for 2030 on the second night (the same time as second sitting dinner in the dining room). We discovered the spanner in this particular works when we collected our "proper" cruise cards at the same time as retrieving my rushed and well-travelled bag. We had requested second sitting dinner when booking. Our tickets said "confirmed second sitting dinner" on them. There had been nothing in our room to say anything different. But our "proper" cruise cards stated a table allocation in the early sitting dinner. This was pretty useless, as it was by now about 1900, early dinner had started at 1800, and we hadn't been even remotely hungry at that time anyway. (For us, 1800 is more like time for a very late lunch, rather than dinner.) This non-communication had of course been caused by the fact that we had been told to check-in at the quay, and RCI had then gone and set up check-in at the hotel near the railway station instead. Thus, we were deprived of the opportunity of trying to fix the problem during the maitre d's session on the afternoon of embarkation day Guest Relations made a helpful suggestion that if we turned up to second sitting dinner anyway, the maitre d' was bound to be able to find us somewhere to sit. We weighed up the pros and cons, including what we had discovered since we boarded - namely that we were virtually guaranteed to be sitting with people who would prefer to be speaking Norwegian to each other. (For all we know, the ship might have gone to the trouble of finding us English speakers to sit with on our early sitting dinner table, but we will never know.) There was also the inevitable difficulty about whether we would tip the dining room staff for the one night (and if so, when), or for both nights or not at all. So it was easier to see whether we could go to Chops. They couldn't do us a table at 2030, but could do one at 2115. So we avoided all the dilemmas by going off there instead CHOPS Chops is a very pleasant space, with great sea views while it's still light. Most of our fellow diners were wearing formal dress, as they did on both nights all around the ship despite the fact that the first night was supposedly causal dress. The staff were not quick enough to dim the internal lighting after the sun set and it got dark outside, but this did eventually happen. The lighting level will always be adversely affected by the open kitchen area, which is of course very brightly light by fluorescents. Service was mixed, probably reflecting the shakedown period. One of the waiters serving us had an irritatingly insecure way of pouring wine. He was so terrified of getting a drip off the bottle when he stopped pouring that he always poured it with the bottle touching the glass. As most people know, that pretty much guarantees that you will get a drip. Our other waiter, however, was a very bright and got-together South African lady who performed the menu perfectly (only after a recital do you get to look at a printed version) and organised everything very efficiently. The main courses are shown to you on a trolley, in raw form. Some people might find this off- putting. I did, but probably for slightly different reasons. No doubt for some spurious reasons of hygiene, all the meat was tightly wrapped in clingfilm when it was presented. There is nothing that makes otherwise-good raw meat look unappetising than acres of clingfilm. Why can't they just show it openly on a plate? Those particular pieces won't get cooked or eaten by anyone anyway! The food that was served, though, was perfectly good. My filet mignon was for the most part done exactly as asked; just one corner had been cooked too much. My companion's lamb chops were pretty faultless, as were the starters. The side dishes, though, are on the small side - don't be frightened to order several different ones for variety and reasonable quantity. The wine list and wine service, though, was annoying. There is a very pared-down list in Chops, although this is not pointed out to you at the time. All the selections are from the expensive end of the spectrum - there is very little below $30 a bottle. Worst of all, when my first choice (a Merlot) was unavailable, I was offered two alternative Merlots which I both knew to be astronomically priced. The waiter (the same one who turned out to be unable to pour the wine correctly) was no doubt banking on his customer being to embarrassed to ask how much they were. But I wasn't born yesterday, and it was back to the wine list for me. Despite my care, though, Chops and Portofino are expensive nights out. With one bottle of wine and a couple of bottles of fizzy water, each evening was basically $100. At home in London, it may not quite be possible to get a similar meal in a similarly good restaurant for that sort of money for two people, but it's not far off. The extra cost seems disproportionate in the context of a cruise where most things are supposed to have been paid for already. PORTOFINO - THE FOLLOWING NIGHT Again, most of our fellow diners were in formal dress, despite the suggestion expressly made in the daily programme. No wonder some of these people were wheeling on suitcases with enough space for two week's worth of cruise clothes! Again, we had the problem of the dining room being too light. This time, service was distinctly erratic. We had barely settled in and ordered an apEritif, than our orders were being taken. What we did not know was that this was going to lead to ultra-fast service of our starters and main courses, which arrived in double quick time. Some breathing space, please! But we got it after our main courses, when the plates were left sitting on our table for well over half an hour without being cleared or us being offered desserts or anything else. Timing is everything, and it wasn't happening here this evening. The food was again generally good, although one of the starters was slightly disappointing. The wine list was, mercifully, longer and had more choice at the bottom end - although it still isn't clear how (if at all) the Portofino list differs from the main restaurant wine list. LUNCH "AT SEA" Out of chronological order, a mention of lunch on our "day at sea". In fact, we had sailed to the Danish port of Skagen, which is right at Denmark's northernmost tip. We remained a couple of miles offshore all day, which seemed to be a "trying out the dynamic positioning system" day - so we spent the whole day doing lazy spins on the spot. I'd read that the Seaview Cafe (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745191fTzuWH) isn't much used, and so it proved this day. It's a lovely bright spot, especially on a sunny day, when you can either sit in or out. It's intended to have the feel of a seaside fish and chip shop, and so it does - except that it's much cleaner and more attractive than virtually every fish and chip shop I've been to. It does a variety of simple meals - fish and chips, burgers, and so on, which are freshly cooked by the team right there in the restaurant itself. There's no extra charge for this venue. I would highly recommended for lunch on sea days (and port days too, if open) as it's away from the madding crowds in the Windjammer and wonderfully placed for a nautical atmosphere. TIDES DINING ROOM  It followed that we only went into the main dining room for breakfast on disembarkation morning (a personal cruising tradition). It was pretty soulless when it was empty, as one would expect. The photos really say it all - a two deck room with a double height space in its centre (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745417wgpKYl), with an attractive water feature at one end next to a piano (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745433jQCERZ) and those trendy but effective hanging fabric "pillars" marching down the centre of the double height space itself. Disembarkation breakfast was a slight disappointment, but I don't know how it would compare to breakfast there on normal days during the cruise. THE ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES This was the greatest disappointment of the entire trip. The scene was largely set by the lacklustre sailaway party, where nobody's heart was in it and the cruise staff seemed to be going through the motions. The activities were, of course, almost all on the sea day. The fitness centre had only offered that one aerobics class which I would have done but missed because I was still asleep. I would also have done both the line dancing and the team trivia, except that they clashed and we had to pick one (we went for the team trivia). So for the first time in many cruises, I found myself sitting around the ship from time to time with nothing to do. If I hadn't had a self-imposed ban on going to the art auctions, I had a sense that this would have been a good cruise to do it on. Probably nobody buying, so I could have a go at getting things I wanted for the opening price, which in my view is the only price at which the onboard art is really worth buying. This absence of activities was also reflected in the visibility of the cruise staff - or, rather, their invisibility. It really seemed as if nobody was making any sort of effort. This may have had something to do with the fact that the ship was full of Norwegians. There's nothing wrong with Norwegians as such. But I think that the fact that English was not their first language (I suspect that fewer than 5% of the passengers were primary English speakers), and the fact that they spent much of their "entertainment" time in the bars and didn't require entertaining by the ship, meant that much of the crew just couldn't be bothered to make any sort of effort. It spoke volumes that my companion and I socialised more with the shop and restaurant staff than anyone else. And the crowning disappointment was the complete absence of a captain's reception of any kind - and indeed, the almost complete absence of the captain himself, who we only saw by chance during trivia because he walked through the room and was accosted by members of the media (or so it seemed) for a photo shoot. In fact, we had thought that we might at least hear more of the captain during the cruise because he would be able to address 95% of his passengers in their shared native tongue, but he seldom took the opportunity to do even that. For what it's worth, the cruise director was a lady named Karen, an English lass whose mid-Atlantic accent sounded like it had originated in the Midlands before it went to sea. We were never told her surname, or indeed given the names of any of the officers or staff in any formal way. We heard and saw so little of her - or her staff - that it's impossible to give any view about them. The first night, the main show was on (From West End to Broadway). We missed this because we were still in Chops having dinner. The second night, there was a Scottish headline singer named Brenda Cochrane, who did a solo show backed by the ship orchestra. Her CV (resumE) includes a role in Chicago (presumably in London) and a show at "the Edinburgh Festival" - that last bit was obviously thrown in to the spiel by someone who thought that most people wouldn't understand just how easy is to put on a show at the Fringe, and that that fact itself says nothing about your talent. In fact, she was good, but not outstanding - she had intonation problems in some parts of the songs that she sang. But it must have been very difficult trying to perform in a theatre with less than 20% occupancy - virtually all the Norwegians were drinking in the bars. The theatre itself (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745374kYgech) is an excellent space, having some of the best sightlines I have seen in a ship theatre because of the paucity of supporting pillars. The rake is also quite steep, and the seating is all theatre seating, which both help. The multicoloured seats, though, make the empty theatre resemble a patchwork quilt, and I'm not convinced that it adds to the design. The theatre is fitted with largest sound mixing board I think I have ever seen. We didn't get the opportunity to see the new Latin show; that would definitely have been interesting. The only other entertainment that we really saw was the pianist, Ben Robert, who was working in the Schooner Bar (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745284XlzaCw). By the time we got there his voice was giving out, but that just gave the assembled throng a chance to do some impromptu singalongs and karaoke (yes, we took part in that too). That was fun, although it didn't seem like what he was expecting. As a space, I was not that thrilled with the Schooner Bar itself. It was very busy both nights of our cruise, which may have had something to do with it. But its location makes it a thoroughfare to Chops, Portofino and the Safari Club as well as being a destination in itself, which also restricts the amount of seating that can be put there. We did poke our heads into Vortex, the disco, both nights. But the music was pretty awful (metallic techno stuff for the most part) and the room is too bright for a disco. The best part of Vortex is the light sculpture which consists of a series of vertical bars of glass, lit from underneath by coloured lights that change colour. We had the pleasure of seeing the rotating bar rotate only once, on the first night. We don't know why it didn't move after that. OTHER PUBLIC ROOMS One other irritation was the amount of time that the public rooms were taken up by "private functions" for the groups that were onboard. We did poke our heads into the cinema just before one techies meeting started - a steeply raked medium-sized room that will, I suspect, be awful for watching movies from if you're in the first three rows. The entrance is a little cylindrical portal near the sports bar, and is easy to miss first time. But the worst part was not being able to access the Safari Club (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745301VhxdEu) because of numerous "private functions". Even when I was finally able to get in there to have a look and take some photos (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745337zyevnT), I was on the verge of being thrown out because a private function was about to start. There is a card and game room which can only be accessed through the Safari Club, but that was of course inaccessible whenever the Safari Club itself was being used. This was a great pity because the bar at the very aft end of this complex may be the most comfortable and attractive bar on the ship, with a stunning view over the stern. DISEMBARKATION This was made easy by the fact that we had not docked at any port before returning to Oslo and so there was no need for anyone to clear immigration, and by the fact that no luggage handling was being offered either on or off the ship. We deliberately went to breakfast right at the end of the allotted time, and then disembarked in a very leisurely way when most people had already left. (Our flight back to London was not until 2015 that evening and we had planned to spend the day in Oslo, hopefully seeing the ship leave in the evening as well.) RCI had arranged buses to return to the central station - this time there was no queue for them and we gladly accepted the offer as we had planned to store our luggage there for the day before heading off to sightsee around the city. Although Jewel was 45 minutes late departing Oslo, we did in the end manage to see her go (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745604aYaxMU), and some of the photos of her sailing away (http://community.webshots.com/photo/140741580/140745687NEAhZy) are in my photo collection online. The flight back was perfectly routine, like the outbound flight. We got a meal which was pretty much identical to that one the way out, which set us up very nicely for the evening. CONCLUSION This was definitely a mixed experience. The ship is beautiful, and fully lived up to the brochure, the marketing and PR hype, and our expectations. She is a stunner and I hope she will be a winner. However, the cruise experience was desperately underwhelming. RCI officially sold this as a "taster" cruise. If I had been a first time cruiser, I do not think that I would be clamouring to return. Even worse, though, over the last few months I have lived with the mounting excitement of watching the ship being built and finished. I had the disappointment of missing her Ems passage because the weather forced a 24 hour delay. One would have thought that there would be some sense of excitement on board about a new ship, even amongst seasoned and experienced crew members. There was none of it. I was wasting my time expecting to be part of any shared experience of starting a new "life". Rather, as often as not, there was a sense that we passengers were just in the way of them getting the ship ready for "real" cruises. Perhaps I had made the mistake of being too excited, and of setting my expectations too high. If I ever do this again, I will have my eyes rather wider open next time. But it's a very big if - and now that I don't feel a link to this ship any more, I've realised that I don't actually have any good reasons for specifically choosing RCI over my usual cruise lines. POSTSCRIPT - PHOTOS Those of my photos that are online (http://community.webshots.com/album/140741580OdzpCX) are only there in relatively low resolution versions. If anyone would like a higher resolution version of any of these images by e-mail (file sizes typically between 800KB and 1.2MB per image), for their own personal and non-commercial use with no further dissemination, just let me know by posting to the message board thread on which this review is also posted (http://messages.cruisecritic.com/2/OpenTopic?a=tpc&s=927093444&f=069097554&m=9041 07102).     Read Less
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