Monday, September 1, 2008

Mariner of the Seas Travelogue - The Last Days and A Conclusion: An Interesting Experience

I am now back from my cruise. I am well rested and, while the product really is not for me, fairly impressed with most aspects of my cruise.

I left off with St. Maarten. It was, well and truly, overwhelming to see the Freedom of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas and Carnival Valor on the same dock. Over 10,000 cruise passengers descending upon this tiny island was actually kind of depressing because I knew none of the quainter places could possibly be quaint at all. We decided to stay on board the ship and had a very nice time.

As I looked closer at the Solarium I kept thinking, "If they just reduced the number of lounge chairs by 50% this would be an absolutely incredible space to be enjoyed as a real luxury." And with so many ashore, it was a wonderful place to be. Any luxury ship or hotel would be proud of the space, design, finishes, etc.; and even the lounges were very good. I did find the lack of any real bar service to be a let down. (I had a ritual of getting my wife 2 orange juices from the Windjammer Café because there was no option. Not a huge problem, but with a full bar in the area, but not opened until 2PM, it was a bit disappointing. But with an obvious plan for onboard review, but it not panning out, RCCL obviously has limited the bar's hours.)

We also enjoyed Johnny Rockets with the kids. It is pretty much identical in food and experience as it is on land...but I was able to get out of there paying only for shakes, floats and a beer (not available in land operations!).

I would be remiss not to mention the Ice Show. It was truly a wonderful show with ice skating, aerial acrobatics and good music. It is truly a not to be missed show. (And I am not a fan of cruise ship shows!)

With the last two days at sea, I found myself getting up, taking my book to the Concierge Lounge and reading while I sipped coffee, setting off for a bit in the Solarium then getting out of the sun and relaxing on my balcony...interspersed with some playtime with the kids (who spent a small fortune in the Arcade - conveniently located by the kid's facilities - when they were not involved in the kids programs), a visit to the casino or a walk around the ship. There were no lectures unrelated to selling things available on board.

We decided not to revisit Portofino, but did have a third night at Chops (the last evening), which was again a very nice experience. I must comment however, that while I truly did not like our main dining room waiter (I decided he just has a very sly way about him and his habit of shaking the wine bottle to get the last drop off really bothered me...I guess it was his "thing"), our assistant waiter, Courtney, was a diamond in the rough...and working very hard to do things the right way: poised, quiet, served properly, was friendly but not too much so and always greeted you with a genuine smile. That said, we thought it worth trying the last formal night to see how the lobster was. Surprisingly, for shipboard lobster it was very good! The presentation of the rice and vegetables was not great and we were not offered any seconds...which I saw being brought out to others (I didn't want one, but I felt like our waiter just wanted done with us.)

Final Thoughts:

I will give some ratings based upon the ship and a more mass-market experience. It would not be appropriate to rate things versus, say, Seabourn.

I am absolutely positive that even with the change of itinerary, the vast majority of passengers had a great time. Royal Caribbean delivered the product they promised to deliver...and the many guests who had been on 10+, 50+ and even 100+ (?) cruises with them spoke with true satisfaction. So for the right market, the ship delivers...and being docked next to the 5,000+ passenger Freedom of the Seas elicited great excitement from them not only about it, but the even larger Oasis of the Seas. For them I think the cruise (itinerary change and attendent horrrific lines at the tour desk excluded) would be an A.

For many food is something to be consumed; for some (many?) in great quantity and for others as either as subsistence or a time for socializing. For those wanting high quality food, the options are very limited...though surprisingly (at least for me) Chops had room on every night for additional diners and it is not a large venue. When Johnny Rockets is your best tasting lunch option... Anyway, for me the food was a C- (noting that marginal food served well probably would have tasted better), but for Chops I would give it a B+.

The kids had a great time, after settling in. My 9 year old was able to, for the first time, have some independence as Royal Caribbean very carefully makes sure the ship's public areas are safe. They have some crew in brightly colored safety vests/shirts and others quietly strolling around, but it afforded me the opportunity for my daughter (with a two-way radio always in hand) to venture out on her own or with a new found friend. My 12 year old found the Living Room and a few activities to be fun. While he proudly showed off his medal for coming in second in a Guitar Hero competition ("See Dad, all those hours of playing video games actually paid off!"), he did enjoy being able to come and go with his friends as he pleased. And I really didn't see any truly bad kids (thought, to be accurate, I was trying to avoid the masses!). So for kids I give the ship an A, but for the program (if your kids have been on a few cruises and have a "been there, done that" option) a C. New to cruising kids would probably rate it a B+. (I found the Celebrity programs to be a bit more sophisticated.) Overall cruise experience for the children: B+.

Our Grand Suite was very nice and out attendant was very good; leaving it spotless and never misplacing or accidentally throwing out anything. I do like the option to have quiet instrumental music in the bathroom. (Upgraded toiletries were just as good as Regent's!) The individual rheostat controlled lights by the bed and dimmers on all other lights in the suite were nice too. Our balcony was wide, but a bit too narrow. (This, I observed, was corrected on the Freedom-class ships.) I also found the complete array of glassware excellent, but wondered how it was to be used with the no bringing of alcohol on board policy in place. (BTW, I brought a bottle of Glenfiddich aboard in my luggage with no problem at all.) Frankly, without the Concierge Lounge as a quiet morning retreat with continental breakfast, its Concierge allowing me to avoid the Tour Desk's horrific lines and it complimentary drinks and canapés before dinner, I would have had a much less satisfactory cruise experience. I would rate the suite experience an A-.

One side comment: The staff needs to smile more and recognize the passengers. I know that with 3,735 passengers saying "Hello" and smiling all day and night is a daunting task, but the failure to do so leaves one with the impression that you are more of a bother than a guest. In fact, some times I was just ignored. To be fair, some were very good at acknowledging passengers, but that was most certainly a minority.

It also reminds me that the "software": the staff and crew that make an experience a luxury one. Sitting in the dining room with that wonderful view and the duo playing, I said a number of times, "If just the service and food were better." When entering the Concierge Lounge if I was greeted by, "Good Morning, Mr. Goldring" or "How was your son's parasailing?" I would have felt better. But with 3,700+ passengers every 7 days, to expect so much - and at the price we paid - would, well and truly, be unfair.

We went on a family cruise and the family is happy. It will not be remembered as special and will, to be sure, fade from our memories, but will do so as a non-descript good experience.

Overall, my feeling is that I can still readily recommend Royal Caribbean for the product it is. I cannot, as I can with Celebrity, recommend that a luxury experience can be had with a little knowledge about the ship and its offerings. Royal Caribbean does not market itself that way and, as I said, it delivers what it promises.