Friday, April 17, 2009

Cruise Review

This is my attempt at a cruise review. Before dealing with the particulars of our experience, I thought it worth reminding you that any review is really nothing more than a series of idiosyncratic opinions strung together. That is to say, these observations are only “true” insofar as they reflect my beliefs and experiences honestly. As a frequent traveler and repeat cruiser perhaps I've acquired some degree of connoisseurship, much as one develops an “eye for art” or “nose for wine” with experience? Maybe so. Nonetheless, take anything I say with the proverbial “grain of salt.”


Embarkation

Embarking in Barcelona was quick and efficient. We arrived at the port by taxi around noon and dropped off our luggage. We proceeded through security, checked in without any wait, and boarded the ship. From the time we arrived, we were eating lunch in the Windjammer Cafe within 30 minutes.

Ship

Overall, Brilliance of the Seas is tastefully appointed and well maintained. I was especially fond of the ambiance created by its decor, which felt a wee-bit more nautical and a little less Las Vegas than other ships we've sailed on previously. It's also very much a Royal Caribbean ship, complete with the saucer-shaped Viking Crown Lounge and towering, multi-story Centrum (see photo). Indeed, you can clearly see the evolution of the line's ships, dating back to the Sovereign of the Seas (which now sails on the Pullmantur line as simply the “MS Sovereign” and was in Barcelona on embarkation day).


This was our first voyage on one of RCI’s Radiance-class vessels. I'd admired them from afar and had always heard good things about them (seem “spacious,” extensive glass provides “lots of vistas,” etc.). I think those comments are generally true (with some minor exceptions). That said, I wasn't struck with the same sense of “awe” that I'd experienced when sailing on Navigator of the Seas (with it’s multi-story interior promenade, ice skating rink, and the like). Not that this is entirely a bad thing. Brilliance is more refined and understated. She's an elegant ship.

We especially liked the Art Nouveau inspiration in the casino (although the casino was a little small with [worse] coin-operated machines – a hassle making it not worth my while). We also enjoyed the Schooner Bar (always a favorite on RCI) and the Colony Club area (which is unique to the Radiance-class ships). The gym (plenty of machines and not crowded) and spa were both nice, as was the solarium pool area (especially useful in the frequently less-than-warm weather on this voyage).


My only complaint with the ship's layout was the Windjammer Cafe. While the food was decent enough, it lacked adequate seating. In fact, RCI made regular announcements to encourage people not to dawdle at tables. Perhaps this is less of an issue on warmer cruises when outside tables or poolside dining are preferred options? Nonetheless, this is the one area of the ship where I would have appreciated more spaciousness. To avoid the crowds and get a table alone, Libby and I were forced to either go at off-peak times (early or late) or eat outside in frequently chilly, windy, and sometimes wet weather.

Cabin

We had cabin #8504. It was an oceanview stateroom on deck #8 near the bow of the ship. We really liked the d├ęcor of the cabin (navy blue accents with medium toned wood trim). It was also sumptuously spacious. If a regular oceanview stateroom on Brilliance is approximately 170 sq. ft., this cabin must have been 15-20% larger. The extra room is equivalent to the outside area on a balcony cabin... only it was added floor space inside the cabin. Very nice!


Best of all, we'd only paid for an inside stateroom (and at a very low price at that). That’s right, we were upgraded to the outside (with a “retail value” nearly double what we'd paid per person)! This is the second time in the past two cruises this has happened to us on Royal Caribbean. I'm not sure why, but I'm not complaining.

Our only two quibbles with the cabin: a curtain rather than a door on the shower stall and it lacks Internet access.

Dining

Overall, we enjoyed the food aboard Brilliance of the Seas.

Starting with the buffest, the Windjammer’s food consistently ranged from acceptable to good: usually fresh, well-prepared, and at the right temperature. Breakfast consisted of a typical selection of both American and English breakfast staples. Lunch included a variety of salads (prepared and of your own creation), sandwiches, a number of warm dishes (which were most likely to be at or below par), pizza, and burgers / hot dogs, and cookies/desserts. Dinner in the Windjammer was a bit more upscale and less crowded. On offer were usually a selection of appetizers, antipasti, sushi, main dishes (usually from the dining room menu plus additional items), a “pasta your way” station, carving stations, and desserts.

We tried both specialty restaurants: Chops ($25/pp, which was excellent) and Portofino ($20/pp, which was uneven and thus missed the mark). Since I reviewed them in detail at the time, I'll skip repeating myself here (click on links above for details). Overall, we enjoy specialty restaurant dining and wish RCI would embrace the concept further. I'm happy to pay for a better experience.


Meals in the main dining room were enjoyable. We had a few dishes that were excellent, such as the lamb shank and the garlic prawns. I can't say anything was “bad”... though a number of dishes were mediocre. The portion sizes are modest (though you’re free to order as much as you wish).The dining room staff was very accommodating: from moving us to a table for two (which was confirmed before our cruise and then “unknown” once aboard) to ensuring that Libby regularly had coffee ice cream for dessert. Our waiter, Ozgur from Turkey, was especially friendly, efficient, and eager to please.

Note: if you’re interested in “My Time Dining,” which we observed but didn’t try, read my response to a reader’s question.

Entertainment

Gordon, the Cruise Director, was awesome. Without a doubt, he was the best we've ever seen: personable, humorous, and very talented. Overall, we also thought the nightly entertainment was better than any other cruise. We had a nice variety and nearly every act was good (if not great). Of course, this isn't Broadway or the West End. But, it was more than sufficient for 45 minutes to an hour of light entertainment in the evenings.


Shipboard activities were the usual cruise fare and generally not appealing to us. We basically only attended the port lectures, which were enjoyable if not particularly captivating. We would have gone to the art auctions, but they conflicted with the aforementioned lectures. We did make it to an art seminar (a kind of review of “Modern Masters” sold by Park West) and briefly observed a few cooking demonstrations. Otherwise, we amused ourselves frequently by reading or (in my case) writing for the blog.

Ports

Access to new and interesting ports of call (in the form of what I call “travel tapas”) is the reason we go on extended cruise vacations. In fact, we base our cruise selection decisions almost exclusively on the itinerary. For us, ports make or break the cruise.

I've included a brief synopsis below for each port (with links to individual blog entries):

Barcelona, Spain—a wonderful city and excellent departure port. Do yourself a favor and spend some time here before or after your cruise. Enjoy some tapas and your favorite Spanish beverage (wine, sangria, or beer). See the Modernista architecture. If you like art, visit the museums. People watch on Las Ramblas and then stroll through the Bari Gotic.

Palermo, Sicily—we love Italy (this was our 5th and most brief visit to the country, but our first time in Sicily). We could happily go back again tomorrow. We mostly visited churches. I especially recall the mosaics, which were exquisite. Oh, and get a cannoli, they're fabulous in Sicily!

Athens, Greece—one of the highlights of the trip. Sure, we got stopped by the fake police. So what? We spent a number of happy hours walking in the footsteps of the great philosophers of Western civilization. For us, it doesn't get much better than that.

Rhodes, Greece—our first experience with the islands of Greece. Not the most exciting port of call, but we passed a happy and enjoyable day on this isle (which, I might add, is tauntingly close to Turkey... another country we very much want to visit). Based on this sample, we hope to spend more time exploring Greek islands in the future.

Limassol, Cyprus—this was probably the low point in terms of ports. Our fault. We should have planned better rather than just exploring the port city (which has little in the way of attractions, including the very forgettable Limassol Castle). It did make for a relaxing day to prepare for our next port: Egypt. And, it was a short stop on a Sunday anyway.

Alexandria / Cairo, Egypt—this was the highlight of the trip! What it what I expected? No. Did it exceed my expectations? Yes. Sure, it was nice to see the Pyramids, but I can't say it was a transformative experience. Honestly, it's hard to be contemplative when constantly being hounded by the merchants from Rent-a-Camel and Papyrus-n-Things. More interesting to me was contemporary, modern-day Egypt. I'd like to better understand its people and culture. Egypt is definitely worthy of another visit.

Valletta, Malta—we loved this gem of an island in the Mediterranean! We visited (all too briefly) both Valletta and Mdina. We were captivated by its history, charm, and unique character. (Indeed, this is what we'd hoped Gibraltar would have been more like last summer.) If you have the chance, go to Malta!

Shore Excursions

We opted for two shore excursions provided by Royal Caribbean: “Cairo & The River Nile” in Egypt and “Mdina & Historic Valletta” in Malta. Both tours were well organized and on balance worth the time and money. In general, we’re not big “shore excursion” people, as we prefer independent exploration. That said, I’d recommend taking a tour organized by the ship in Egypt (read details of what to expect here). In Malta, it’s not needed (especially if you have a full day) or if you only wish to explore only Valletta. But, for the $43/pp., it provided an efficient means of sightseeing.

Disembarkation

Disembarkation went smoothly. The day before, we were assigned colored luggage tags and given assembly locations and times. Somewhat inexplicably, Libby and I ended up in one of the groups earliest off of the ship (6:55am). This was a minor inconvenience as we really had no place to rush off to because we were staying on in Barcelona for two more nights.

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