The family and I spent last week on a cruise in the Mediterranean with Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCC). It was a wonderful vacation, and very family friendly. We did a number of shore excursions and got to see historical landmarks like the stadium at Olympia where the original Olympic games were held. Lounging by the pool on the ship was nice on our sea days, if a bit crowded. Service was fantastic, and you really do not need to think much at all about practical things while onboard. It just happens. Very relaxing. If I compare it to a typical all-inclusive hotel vacation, it is definitely higher quality with the added benefit of moving around and seeing multiple places in a week.
We went for a cruise to Croatia, Turkey, and Greece on the Vision of the Seas, a rather small ship by today’s standards (shown above, photographed while at Santorini). “Only” 275 meter and 2500 passengers; but it does have the lines of a ship and not just a floating box. It was recently renovated, and definitely felt up-to-date. It was a bit crowded around the outdoors pool open to kids at times, and that pool was rather small. For some reason, there was an adults-only indoors pool as well – which was not very well utilized from what I could tell. It would have been better to have a bigger outdoors pool I think.
The towel policy onboard was very nice. I have been to all-inclusive hotels where you get one towel per day, period. Here, you just checked out as many as you needed for the family, and then checked them back in when you where done. Later in the day when we returned to the pool, we would check out new towels. No problems, no grumbles, and it just worked. That is the kind of service that a cruise brings.
‘There was a huge push for hand hygiene onboard – understandable since if a bug gets loose onboard, you have a huge problem on your hand. They even had an animated film (found on YouTube) for the kids about the washing your hands! Here is an example of a sign in one of the bathrooms:
Casual and family friendly
The atmosphere onboard was rather more casual than I remember it from our last cruise in 2004. Overall, this was a good thing since it meant that the cruise was very friendly to families with small children. On our previous cruise, it felt like kids could be an issue. Here, kids running around was totally normal, kids not being able to sit still for a two hour formal dinner was OK, and dress code was not a problem.
To be honest, it almost felt a bit too casual at times. When there is a formal night, you kind of want everyone to join in for that classy feeling of a proper formal party. However, we still had people with t-shirts or plain polo shirts in the main dining room – among the majority of nice suits and dresses. I might sounds like a curmudgeon, but a bit more style would have been appreciated. On the other hand, it also made for some wonderful contrasts, like seeing a woman in a cocktail dress and high heels cross paths with a man in swimming trunks and flip-flops in the staircase. Too bad I was not fast enough with the camera to capture that contrast.
The food was plentiful and mostly good – but not as impressive as it was when I last went on a cruise ten years ago. It just feels like RCC has calibrated the standard fare a bit in order to make room for the premium offerings. We did do three-course dinners each day in the main dining room, and sometimes it was impressively good. However, it rarely got to be superb. On the other hand, you could have any number of starters, entrees, and desserts if you wanted to.
We dined in the main dining room, and used the buffet in the Windjammer café for most lunches and breakfasts. You could also have a sit-down lunch, brunch, and breakfast in the sit-down main dining room if you fancied. As expected on a cruise, we had an assigned table in the main dining room for dinner, with another party of guests assigned as well. Unfortunately, the party assigned to our table in addition to ourselves only showed up once, so we missed out on the opportunity to talk to people.
The food felt very American in style. It really felt like being in the US and staying at a typical conference hotel for an academic or corporate event. When cruising in Europe, you could hope for a bit more “Europeanized” style. I mean, RCC is half Norwegian-owned, so where is the Nordic food? Of course you had food that was nominally local, like Paella and Italian dishes, but done in the way it would be done in the US, not like it would be done in Europe. This is a not a deal-breaker in any way, just an interesting observation.
A big plus on the food side was the very serious attitude RCC had towards food allergies. We have quite a few allergies in the family, and going to a restaurant always requires checking ingredients and discussing with serving staff and the cooks. They had a special kitchen for cooking the food for all allergic guests, and they very carefully avoided everything we could not eat. The main café lacked in choices for gluten intolerance and no-dairy combined, but we were never given anything that we could not eat – which is a constant concern when on vacation otherwise unless we cook things ourselves. Overall, we got incredible service on the allergies front, with our server team always willing to help out to fetch special food from the kitchen.
We did have to order our dinners the night before, but that gave the cooks time to plan and prep variants of the courses that worked for us. However – the result was rather often a bit disappointing and not up to the standards of the regular food.
In being conservative and avoiding risks, they sometimes also ended up without sauces and condiments with the food. The fish also tended to be rather overcooked, which was a bit of a let-down. The gluten-free bread they produced was really good, but overall a bit more concern about flavor and texture would have been good for the special food. Also, how come they did not have gluten-free pasta available? It did seem like they tried to cook using “real” ingredients even for the special cases, which I do appreciate. But some of the replacement products are perfectly fine and just add to the experience, such as pasta.
Jell-O and variants on fruit was about the only dessert available that did not contain milk. A bit more variety than the choice between yellow, orange, green, and red Jell-O would have been appreciated.
On our rather small ship, there were three special restaurants, none of which we tried since they did not have a menu that made sense for our set of allergies and dietary requirements. I have no doubt that they would solved it – but since the point of a speciality restaurant is to eat something special, having to deviate from the menu entirely makes little sense. You could also pay 85 USD to dine at the chef’s table, with a special seven-course menu with accompanying wines. Having these options is added value I think, and in different circumstances I would have been happy to try at least one of them.
Selling selling selling
One thing that was a bit annoying was the constant selling of additional services. Each day, the room service staff delivered the day’s schedule to our stateroom – along with a pile of papers and flyers advertising various services. There was always a stand somewhere advertising their drinks packages, along with selling fancy drinks.
While the cruise includes food, coffee, tea, and basic drinks, there are plenty of additional and premium services that you can pay for onboard. If you want to double what you initially spent on your cruise ticket by upgrading dinners, buying premium drinks and expensive wines, and pampering yourself in the spa on board you can easily do so.
The drink options on board was a bit of a disappointment compared to our last cruise. On RCC, you pay even for most non-alcoholic drinks. If you want a latte or a drink with an umbrella in it, or even a soda from a fountain – additional charge. It might sound limiting, but we got along fine on the standard coffee, tea, and drinks from dispenser machines. In particular, I found the standard lemonade and orange juice very good. There just was not much of a point to paying for the premium stuff.
There was a lot of alcohol being consumed onboard, though. I am very intrigued by the drinks packages – at the top end, you pay 60 USD per day to get access to beer, drinks, and wine by the glass. Plus premium coffees and everything else. For that to make sense, you need to have something like six glasses of wine or expensive alcoholic drinks per day. It seemed for most packages, break-even was somewhere around five to six items, or maybe even eight if you aimed for beer. That is to me a bizarre amount of alcohol to consume in a day, but looking at the number of glasses around pool deck, maybe not that uncommon… and the ship was awfully quiet in the mornings so I guess some guests preferred to party late.
Entertainment and activities
There was a lot happening onboard, with a variety of events like trivia competitions, dance classes, dance music of various kinds, and much more. The ship clearly strives to have something for everyone: from young people who were there to party, to families with children like ourselves, to older people. With the wide variety of activities, I think they made a good attempt to spread out the 2500 people who were onboard so that not everyone piled up in the same place around the pool all the time. Still, it must have been a thankless job to be playing live music in the main atrium for an audience of two people in the middle of the day.
There was a special kids program which sounded rather interesting – but which we never made use of since our seven-year-old did not yet speak good enough English to be comfortable not having mommy and daddy around. I guess a Swedish kid from age 10 or something has no problem with that, but for younger kids it is a bit of a limitation. We had a good time together anyway.
Most nights, there was a show in the main theater of the ship. The best shows were the ones that brought in outside artists. On the first night, we got to see Alesya Gulevich doing a fantastic clown-and-acrobatics routine featuring many varieties of hula hoops. We also got the UK quartet the Fly Boys doing a wonderful mashup of swing and modern pop. On the last night, Niels Duinker entertained us with a fabulous juggling show. The shows put on by the ship’s resident singers and dancers were a bit less impressive. Not bad, but just not with that spark. Still, the kids loved it.
There were a number of events were you could pay to have the ship’s cooks demonstrate and teach you how to cook, for example, Indian and Japanese food. Nice idea and the offer was most appreciated, but not too easy to take advantage of with kids.
The other entertainment tended towards the not very sophisticated. I think there is a lost opportunity here – in addition to a belly flop competition, I think the cruise could do things like lectures on the places we are visiting and sailing past. On this cruise, we sailed through some of the most historically intense waters on earth, and I think they could have hired a historian to talk about the Minoans and Phoenicians and Greeks and Persians and Turks and Romans and British and everybody else who have lived and fought in the waters between Greece and Turkey.
The on-board gym was reasonably equipped – like a good American hotel. They did run some instructor classes in the mornings, and it seems a handful of people did take advantage of this. The jogging track around the ship was about 400m long, and I did go for a few short morning runs. It is rather an experience to run on an almost empty deck in the morning on a moving ship.
Shore excursions do cost a bit, but I think they are worth it. With only a few hours stopping by a port where you have never been before, having a local guide tell you a bit about the place is invaluable. The quality of our guides was consistently excellent. The scheduling was a bit funny at times though, with times for eating not part of the plan. Some people can go all day without lunch, but kids cannot.
Old town in Dubrovnik, a very nice place that really made you want to come back for a longer visit.
Ruins of an old monastery outside of Kusabasi or Ephesos in Turkey. We took a ride out into the mountains on a set of old Land Rovers, but this was all we really got to see. Cool ride, but a bit empty on content in the end.
Santorini, a very beautiful place if rather full of tourists. And the Donkeys they employ on the stairs up from the harbor are a total disgrace. They fill the stairs with filth, make it very hard for people with allergies to walk the stairs, and the animals seem to suffer rather badly from their job. Not nice at all. Getting off the ship using tender boats, which was really cool.
Ruins at Olympia.
In the end, wonderful
Still, this was a wonderful vacation. Blazing sun, blue seas, no worries, and interesting excursions. You are effectively cut off from the outside world – Internet costs at least 13 USD per day, which just isn’t worth it – which is rather good in order to wind down and relax. Now that we are home again, you really want to be back on the ship and just have things happen. We are already thinking about where we could go for a cruise next year… just like our cruise director said on the last night of the cruise.