Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mariner of the Seas - A Hurricane Runs Through It...Almost

We were greeted with the news of Gustav, which is projected to take the same cruise we had scheduled: Haiti, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, we made a hard left (East) and are visiting St. Thomas and St. Maarten. This gives us 2 extra sea days and 2 ports I really have no great desire to visit.

One big plus to having a suite is that you do not need to need to stand in the tour desk line...or the line for ice show tickets. I must say I feel really bad for the people that stood in line for half a day to arrange tours only for the itinerary to be changed and them all having to stand in line for another half a day changing them again. Yesterday the line literally ran down 75% of the Promenade. That was much worse than the line of 100+ waiting for ice show tickets. I, on the other hand, just walked to the Concierge Lounge and the tours (parasailing) and ice show tickets were done instantly; albeit I did have to wait for one person.

The Concierge Lounge is also a nice place for a quiet drink before dinner. Nothing fancy, but definitely acceptable.

We have dined in Chops, the extra cost alternative steak restaurant ($25 per person) and have had two good to very good meals with very good service (better than Regent). Looking forward to a nice meal and a decent wine list (yes, it's true!) has made things a bit better. The grilled Portobella mushroom and asparagus spears was so good I had it both nights. My wife's tuna Carpaccio was OK and her lobster bisque was actually quite good. My veal chop was very good and my T-Bone was OK (far better than the main restaurant). My wife's filet mignon was very good as was her lamb. The ala carte side dishes were OK, but the huge baked potatoes are worthy of note. I cannot figure out why most people do not try this venue for at least one night. (Last night I tried Portofino and will let you know below if this second alternative restaurant also succeeds.)

Yesterday, while everyone was off the boat in St. Thomas I took some time to check out the ship sans the crowds.

- The Windjammer is actually a very pleasant space. The food, however, reminds me of the college cafeteria. I sampled a bit from here and a bit from there and most was just not that good; some awful. They do prepare vegetables nicely.

- The Solarium (the adults only pool and lounge area) is actually pretty darn nice. A lot of thought went into this space with comfortable lounges (fitted cushions over the standard pool lounges), nicely tiled mosaic flooring, numerous classy artistic touches and shelter from the wind. Any luxury line's guests would be pleased with this space. What a difference from a sea day with it overflowing with people, saved lounges, no room in the spas or pool, etc.

- The Main Pool is also a really nicely designed and attractive space...if you can get past the thousand plus lounge chairs.

- The Promenade is also very attractive if you look into the pub or wine bar and see it without the throngs of people.

And that is, for me, the problem. It is not signing for this or that (never bothered me). And most of the prices actually seem quite reasonable...save the bottled water. It is the people and the noise. Oh, that noise. It is exhausting. So I am avoiding it. My suite and balcony is great. The Concierge Lounge is nice. The Connoisseur's Club for a cigar and a whiskey is also nice (but could use better air cleaners). The alternative restaurants are also good. So there are places to make this ship OK.

But I will paint a picture from two nights ago that pretty much sums it up. After a nap on my balcony, we had drinks in the Concierge Lounge and then went to Chops for a nice meal. We then wandered over to the Connoisseur's Club and decided to call it a night. AND THEN IT WAS DISCO NIGHT IN THE PROMENADE. Bam, it hit me in the face. My lovely evening was ended by the reality of where I was. (But to be fair, there were hundreds of people that absolutely had a blast and the love the crowds and noise.)

Last night was interesting on a number of levels.

First, I have come to the conclusion that the Kid's Program is designed to work with the least common denominator and, therefore, loses the interest of most of the children. At first I thought it was my 12 year old being, well, 12 years old. But he has consistently told me that the programs are not of interest and, to be honest, they don't sound very interesting to me. (They probably were good 3-5 years ago, but times they are a changin'.) My 9 year old says she is treated as a child and the activities are "for babies". and, when looking at them, they pretty much all seem like "high energy, low thought" games. So many children simply opt out of the programs...and I actually have more work making sure my 9 year old is OK and entertained than when I am cruising on, for example, Regent or Celebrity. And I thought the kids would LOVE this cruise. It is was a main motivator for our being here in the first place. I guess rock climbing, miniature golf, etc. only goes so far with today's sophisticated children.

Second, the food thing really wears you down. Last night in Portofino we had an OK meal. Every word was scripted and the food had about the same amount of imagination. "My name is X and although I am from the Philippines, I will do my best to be your Italian waiter this evening." His assistant kept calling my wife "My Lady" and me "Senor". Huh??? My smoked duck salad was good, and the cold tomato soup was fine (not great), but the main course...the recommended pasta with seafood had no flavor other than crushed red peppers (a classic cover for no taste items) and frozen seafood. Even the recommended dessert sampler was just OK. Two of the four dishes were tasteless with one literally overwhelmed by the use of too much cornstarch, but the other two were actually quite good (tiramisu and a flourless chocolate cake). BUT the thing that really got me was the infamous pitch (not yet heard on this ship) about making sure we give great marks when we rate everything. We canceled our second seating in Portofino and have added a third at Chops. Tonight is our second venture into the main dining room.

Third, after our post-dinner drink my wife wanted to check out the party on the pool deck. I went back to the Suite. She wasn't 10 minutes behind me. Over 1,000 having a very loud, and very happy, time was just not something she could deal with. I came up with the idea of going to Ellington's in the Viking Crown Lounge on Deck 14 (yes...and there is one deck higher!) where we could observe the party from up high and through glass windows, shielded from the noise and crowds. It was actually very nice to observe...like Times Square on New Year's Eve. This leads me to conclude that my perspectives are, in fact, not actually fair. Royal Caribbean does an excellent job at delivering what it is supposed to be delivering. I don't eat at TGI Fridays; I don't go to dance clubs; and, although I am in far better "shape" to do it, I haven't done a belly flop in years.

Even with the itinerary change I do not see many sad faces, the food is being eaten, the parties are packed...and the ship is spotless, my suite remains pristine (and two burned out bulbs were changed immediately), and I am fairly relaxed about it all.

Today, we are in St. Maarten along with the Freedom of the Seas (5,000+ passengers) and the Carnival Valor. With over 10,000 people descending on this little island, believe it or not, Mariner of the Seas is our Oasis. (What a good name for a Royal Caribbean ship! OMG, RCCL has sucked me in!) But I do have the harsh reality of then having two days at sea having to share this very interesting ship with all those other people.