Independence of the Seas – the nation of why not Queue

My wife and I decided to give Royal Caribbean Cruises a try not so long ago. We chose as our introduction an 18 night  cruise on Independence of the Seas  billed as ‘The Ultimate Mediterranean Cruise.

We joined the ship at Southampton and having booked a Junior Suite we were afforded priority embarkation.

On embarkation cabins and suites were not available and we were directed to The Windjammer Buffet restaurant.  On the surface, and with less than three dozen passengers aboard, this appeared a reasonable venue: the illusion did not last.

Around 2.00pm an announcement was made that cabins and suites were now ready for occupancy.

The layout, size, and furnishings of our Junior Suite on 9 Deck surpassed expectations and there were a number of innovative features that we liked.   A particularly large walk-in wardrobe with additional shelving, en-suite with full size bath,  and a large balcony with table, chairs and sun beds were certainly a pleasant surprise. There were tea and filter coffee making facilities with china mugs, a safe and a  large fridge. There were not, however, any flowers, fruit or welcome wine/champagne. Three pin UK type sockets are not available and two pin adaptors are essential.

Considering our early arrival luggage delivery was exceedingly slow and so we busied ourselves exploring this large ship.  There was no difficulty navigating our way around this ship and the smaller number of lifts seemed to coordinate quite well. Our luggage eventually arrived minutes after 3.00pm.

An immediate good find was Vintages Wine Bar on the Royal Promenade…

Chatting  to the staff revealed the existence of a very advantageous ‘bin-end’ wine offer: one of our favourite lunchtime wines,  a very reasonable Italian Pinot Grigio,  on offer at $21.00 a bottle; we promptly snapped up 10 of the remaining 18 bottles, almost  writing off our on board credit within the first hour on board!

The Royal Promenade extends almost the internal length of the ship from deck 6 to deck 8 and is the centre of considerable activity, for both food outlets and entertainment…

From the above photographs it can also be seen that there is a large number of cabins that look over the Royal Promenade.  An apparent problem with these cabins is that unless the cabin curtains are drawn there is little or no privacy.

The Main Dining Restaurant is a three tiered level affair, each level being given a different name…

Access between each level is by multiple staircase. We were allocated our preference of a table for 8 and second sitting in the mid level Macbeth Restaurant. Our table companions were like minded good company and all enjoyed wine and conversation:   this made up for what was  otherwise a very average dining experience.

As on most cruise ships the waiting  staff were both very friendly and  efficient but the quality of cooked food served at this level left a lot to be desired and was definitely hit and miss.

Indeed quality, with the exception of fresh foods, was generally poor throughout the ship.

There are no sommeliers or trained wine waiters on this ship. The dinner wine service falls to the assistant waiter. Two wine lists are operated and neither gave any description of the various wines that were on offer. We had pre-purchased a 12 bottle Platinum Wine Package for £220.00, a saving of £70.00 on the individual bottle purchase. The Platinum package had some pretty reasonable wines and any bottle within the package could be taken any number of times.

A number of breakfast options were available. The usual scrum and bun fight in The Windjammer Buffet restaurant,  lighter options in either of the two cafes on The Royal Promenade ( the Cafe Promenade and Sorrento’s Pizzeria), or an option in the Main Dining Room.  For passengers wishing a full service breakfast the Macbeth level was available. Another option was a far more civilised semi-buffet breakfast in the lower level dining room, ‘Romeo and Juliet’:  tables were laid with tablecloths and cutlery  and a variety of drinks  were served at the table:  only one’s actual food choice was collected from the buffet  in person…

A similar system operated at lunchtimes on sea days.

Breakfast was generally disappointing though with particularly poor presentation…

Self service…

Plated…

…and this dish passed as kippers…

A similar routine was worked for lunch though sadly  these two options were suspended on ‘port days’ when the Windjammer, the two Royal Promenade cafes and Johnny Rockets became the only  lunch time eating venues.

To be fair we found the food quality in both the  Cafe Promenade and Sorrento’s Pizzeria more than reasonable  On the few occasions we used these  facilities the quality was particularly good and there was always an interesting range of snacks, filled rolls and cakes and a variety of pizzas.

Johnny Rockets was worth a visit once or twice for a change of scenery and diet.  There was a small  surcharge but the burgers and entertainment was good…

though they were loathe to serve the burger rare…

…the dessert lived up to expectations…

The biggest dining disappointment on board Independence of the Seas was Chops Grille.  Billed as the ‘best steaks at sea’  this so called ‘speciality dining venue’  carries a $25 per person surcharge.

We had pre-booked two evenings at Chops Grille and on both occasions it failed to live up to expectations. The ‘canned’ friendliness of the staff  failed to detract from their obvious lack of training and there was also a distinct lack of supervision.  It transpired that the  restaurant manager had responsibility for both speciality restaurants and not once in our two visits did he either greet us or enquire as to our satisfaction.

Unfortunately quantity does not make up for quality and even a request for a steak cooked ‘blue’ resulted in a completely juiceless, bloodless piece of meat being presented at the table…

… leading to the conclusion that most steaks had been pre-cooked and certainly had been frozen. And who would dream of using a sprig of rosemary as garnish on fillet beef?

To be fair my wife’s ‘Rack of Lamb’ was fine and came close to the cooking order…

and the garnish was suitable for the dish.

Amazingly we were presented with our wine bill before it was poured and interestingly the Chops Grille surcharge does not include after dinner coffee which can be ordered at an additional cost.
The Portofino Italian speciality restaurant has a $20 surcharge but following our poor experience in Chops we decided against further disappointment.

Entertainment.

We found socialising onboard Independence of the Seas fun.  The  liveliest bars in the evening were the Olive and Twist, The Dog and Badger pub, Vintages Wine Bar and Boleros: the latter invariably had music for ballroom and Latin dance for 45 minutes prior to dinner. Unfortunately the floor space available for dancing was amazingly small and really suitable for no more than four couples: there were always couples wanting to dance. We thought this a rather crazy situation when the on board venue with the largest dance floor, the Pyramid Lounge, was given over every evening between 5.00 and 8.30pm to the ‘Diamond’, ‘Diamond Plus’ club passengers and other passengers occupying suites. There was  no live music whatsoever and periodic checks showed this venue was invariably less than one third occupied. A great shame.

Seating at most bars  during the evening was never really a problem, and we never had any difficulty finding seats after dinner in  ‘Olive and Twist’…

or before dinner in Boleros …

…while our favourite venue, Vintages Wine Bar….

…served us well at all times of the day….Cheers…

We found drink prices reasonable throughout the ship, though this view may not have been shared by the entire passenger complement  judging by the occupation of the main bars.

Measures are usually doubles and  Royal Caribbean no longer add an additional 15% gratuity. It was, however,  pretty obvious that they have now included this in their headline drinks prices and a double ‘gin and tonic’ equated  to  what we recently paid on Cunard  after their 15% gratuity had been added.

Still, as we both agreed, the prices certainly didn’t put off everyone and the bars always generated a reasonable atmosphere.

Entertainment
Headliner and Production Show times staged in the Alhambra Theatre were reasonably good overall though, as with a lot of cruise lines, the actual value does depend on personal taste and this we found was pitched at about the right level for the majority on board.

What Royal Caribbean does do well is their  exceptional Ice Shows. There were two separate shows during our 18 night cruise and they all were performed during afternoons at sea.

But be warned. These shows are popular and we witnessed some amazing queues for Ice Show tickets…

Yes folks, that queue stretches the length of the ship.

There was a plethora of low budget  ‘Game Shows’, bingo sessions and quizzes  which quite frankly are not our scene. They were, however, generally well supported: each to their own. We were therefore very grateful for the alternative venues and their musical accompaniment when programmed. We also thoroughly enjoyed the music of the resident rock band,  ‘Rock the Boat’,  who were regular late evening entertainers  in the Pyramid Lounge…

There were three Formal nights and  a  rough guess would be that 85% of passengers complied and made the effort.  We witnessed both  interesting and fascinating interpretations of ‘Formal’ wear and saw our very first example of ‘formal’ sandals and socks. It appeared that jeans have been replaced by ‘tracky’ bottoms as the normal daytime wear for gentlemen and  Gok Wan would have his work cut out  with  some of the ladies.
We found the  internet facilities on board  reasonably priced with fast  wi-fi connections throughout the ship and in our  stateroom.  Use of your own laptop further enhances the package prices available.

Itinerary.

With the exception of Livorno we had visited all other ports of call prior to this cruise.  Bad weather precluded our entry into Lisbon so our first stop was Palma…

followed by Barcelona…

…and then Livorno – the port of call for visits to Florence and Pisa

For the  Livorno visit  we pre-booked a local private tour company…        www.papillonservice.com.

They provided an exceptional experience which proved to be good value. Though booked for an 8.00am start their  limousine was at the gangway by 7.30. Their vehicles operate  an electronic pass system that allows them to fully access all streets in both Pisa and Florence. Any passengers with either walking difficulties or a disability would do well to note this facility. An earlier than planned  departure from the ship ensured we stayed well ahead of the ships tours and coaches.

Our itinerary initially took us  to Pisa which at 8.15am resembled a ghost town: absolutely fabulous for  uninterrupted photography and speedy entrance to the tower.  On to Florence, again well ahead of the coaches. Roberto, our English speaking guide, with over 20 years experience, was outstanding. Again, the ability to enter the streets of Florence proved a godsend in covering the sites. One particular place that excludes  coaches was the church at San Miniato al Monte: this affords a more panoramic view over Florence than the Piazzale Michelangelo,  and a great photo opportunity.  The return journey included a drive through the Tuscan areas famous for its ‘Chianti’ wine production and a visit to a vineyard  http://www.fattoriasanmichele.it.

From Civitavecchia we took the train to Rome…

an easy journey for 9 Euros return. The tickets include metro travel in Rome but must be validated via a machine on the station. We had an excellent day and managed to get around most of the major sights…

Monument to Victor Emmanuel II

Our next port of call was Cagliari…

Cagliari is always a fun place for shopping and eating. We would highly recommend the Restaurant Il Corallo, which is very near the front and serves excellent seafood,  good Sardinian wine and interesting local cheeses. We noticed at least a dozen other passengers taking lunch there –  a good recommendation.

Our penultimate port of call in the Mediterranean was Gibraltar where we hiked up the rock to take in the amazing views of the Straits of Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules…

Our final destination was Cadiz…


Cadiz is the best port for getting to Seville – I guess that is why Royal Caribbean used Seville on their published itinerary. However, we had done an excursion to Seville from Cadiz only the previous year so took this opportunity to discover Cadiz itself. There is plenty to do and see and I will cover Cadiz in a future port review.

This was our first taste of a Royal Caribbean cruise and this is a big ship.

All in all we had a good cruise, particularly when one considers the price paid. The highlights were our designated dinner  table in the Macbeth Restaurant  with six other like minded people, the evening entertainment in the Alhambra Theatre, (any cruise line who books Mike Doyle and Zoe Tyler has to be serious on good entertainment), the itinerary and our sizeable Junior Suite: a welcome  refuge for a break from the crowds.

But there are also drawbacks.  For us queuing was the biggest problem on this ship –  whether it be for  dining room breakfasts and lunches, Ice Show tickets, Ice shows or the ‘sales’ day cigarette promotions. But  the queue we marvelled at most was of ‘first sitting’ diners queuing  a good 65 minutes before commencement of their evening show. On many occasions this queue  extended up the stairs outside the Alhambra Theatre between decks 3 and 4.  On the odd nights when ‘second sitting’ passengers had an early show staff were on hand with barriers to ensure a safe exit.

Neither have we ever encountered the requirement for deposits on sunbed towels. These are  issued against a passengers Seapass and, in the event they are not returned, a $20 charge is made against a passenger’s account.  This practice did not apply to suite passengers using the ‘exclusive’  raised Sundeck and who benefited from altogether much higher quality towels. Indeed,  the practice of reserving exclusive areas for suite guests was noticeable on the upper deck and in the Alhambra Theatre…

The Independence of the Seas readily appeals to  the mass market budget cruise fraternity: that is fine as there are many for whom this style of cruising does appeal. For those who are prepared to pay a little more, enjoy the frills, and  the more traditional styles, while  avoiding the queues,  there are far superior cruise experiences to be had.

I will dispense with the usual end of review question ‘would I cruise with Royal Caribbean again’? Suffice to say my wife and I  have no ambition whatsoever to scale the heights of Royal Caribbean’s  ‘Crown & Anchor’ Society.

 

 

Footnote: When I originally wrote this review on a the UK’s most popular review site I would never have dreamed that it would still today hold the record (12,295) for the greatest number of hits for a ‘serious review’  – as opposed to a spoof.

2 responses to “Independence of the Seas – the nation of why not Queue

  1. Thank you for your interesting and lively review with lots of information on “what is not generally said”…particularly love your photos which set the scene very well.

    The ports reviews tell you all you need to know.

    Thank you
    Ali

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s