First Choice Cruises Island Escape by Edna Stinchcombe Western Mediterranean June 10, 2003
What a fantastic time we had on our first cruise - Island Escape around the Mediterranean. A very big thank you to the Captain and Crew.
We flew to Palma on the island of Majorca, south of Barcelona, where we followed the directions of the Island Escape representatives, got tags to put on our luggage, and left it by the coach. That was the last time we saw it until it appeared outside our cabin door a couple of hours later. We only queued about 20 minutes and were directed to our cabin -- a really smooth operation.
We were on the eighth level (Flamingo) with an outside cabin. We had expected the beds to be singles, but the stewards had put them together as a double, which was nice, since we were renewing our wedding vows on this trip. The cabin was larger than I thought, with enough storage for two weeks' clothes. We had a TV and a fresh ice bucket twice a day. The room was serviced at least twice a day, as we had clean towels twice in the day (with lovely animal shapes on the bed at night). We had a phone, and it wasn't that expensive to use. The bathroom had a shower, sink and toilet, and was adequate and spotlessly clean - again twice a day. Each night before we went to bed, a newsletter for the following day was left; this was very informative and helpful. We reported a fault with the toilet seat and it was mended the same day.
We went on several excursions. These weren't cheap, but as first-time cruisers, wen enjoyed getting out with other people from the ship. The interpreters were funny in the main but one just wouldn't shut up; she babbled on forever and wasn't that organized, changing meeting places. You have to listen carefully as their pronunciation could have been better.
The Malta 4x4 jeep trip was spectacular, with breath-taking scenery of the interior and Popeye's village thrown in. We saw tuna basking on top of the crystal clear emerald water. We also egged on our driver to be a bit more of a rally driver, which was great, but ladies -- wear a sports bra. This is not a sedate Sunday drive!
We decided to do the Pompeii trip; it was a very hot day and in my naivete I did not realize how big Pompeii is. The interpreter wasn't brilliant, and ordered us here and there. However, I thought it was very interesting on how advanced this place was, with all its symbols (phallic carvings in the road) to direct people to different services, etc.
We chose to stay on the ship on the day when nearly everyone went to Florence and Pisa, since we have been there before. We had a lazy day by the dunk pool sunbathing; the sun was fierce that day.
We went on the St. Tropez & Sorrento trip and saw some great scenery and beautiful coastlines. St. Tropez was okay but incredibly expensive (4 euros for a Coke). The yachts were stunning, but no one famous was in. My husband thought the trip to Sorrento a waste of time, as it was just free time to look at shops, but we did find a pub with John Smiths!
Barcelona was amazing. We did the Cosmopolitan trip (I want to go there again on a weekend trip). The Gaudi architecture was truly different and the church that has been under construction since the 1860s with public money from a drawing -- WOW! Two sides are nearly completed, but the inside is still a shell, and it seems that the outside might not be completed until 2050. What a project. The two sides are complete contrasts: One is old fashioned and incredibly ornate, while the other is very minimalist!
Food on the ship was very good. We had breakfast in the 24-hour restaurant, with everything you need to keep an Englishman happy. I felt there could have been a microwave supplied to heat up food, especially if you had to queue for anything - but I'm a bit fussy I like really steaming hot food. The middle restaurant was self-service as well, but you had to wait to be seated in here. One thing that wasn't made common knowledge is that jugs of water are available so you didn't need to buy the water.
The al a carte restaurant was really special - a lot of people were under the misconception that they had to pay for everything in there. There were a few items that carried a supplemental fee but there were other items at no charge that were excellent. The silver service and presentation of the food was fantastic. There were standard waiters and wine/drinks waiters - they had a silver chain around their necks, quite swish. Men had to wear long trousers and a smart top. There was also a booking system in place. We tried to book a few times but kept being offered two times, which indicated two sittings, so we just turned up when we wanted to eat and asked if there were any free places. Each time we were seated almost immediately and had the great experience of meeting new people each evening.
Alcohol was not included in the price; this went onto the swipe card you got when you signed in before boarding the ship. (At that point you were given the option of paying by credit card or cash.) As I was the only wine drinker, I ordered a bottle and if I didn't drink it all, then I could have it kept for me for the next meal! The prices were very good and the cocktails cheaper than at home; the Boddingtons was about average for a pub.
The entertainment was spectacular, almost too good for a ship! We got to an evening show each night but started queuing for a front seat about 30 minutes before the show. The Animation Team (not cartoonists) were very good with quizzes, etc., all day long, a very talented and hard working bunch of young people.
As we had not been on a cruise before, I went onto the Internet to pick up some tips on what to expect. None of it prepared me for what was probably (so far anyway) the best holiday of my 46-year-old life. It is not for a bunch of stuffy older people -- the age ranges were very mixed and there was something about the atmosphere of the ship; it was so friendly. The staff and the guests were always smiling and everyone spoke to each other as if they had known each other forever. The Captain was a very approachable chap; he kept everyone informed of what was happening with the ship. He has a crew of 600 (from 70 nationalities), and his team was very professional. On one occasion the Captain came charging down the stairs, obviously busy, but he still stopped to chat with us. There were a few very young couples on honeymoon, and some families. I would suggest there still isn't enough for teenagers to do, or even younger people, but there is a nursery for babies. It was good to see that there were facilities for wheelchair users as well.
My husband wanted to make our first cruise extra special by renewing our wedding vows. When we first arrived in our cabin there was a note from Gary asking us to contact him regarding the arrangements for that day, which we did. On the day, we put on our 'glad rags' (and the much cherished hat - hoping it wouldn't get crumpled while travelling) and met at reception, from which we were taken to the Bridge. I was also given a small posy of flowers. There was a little plinth decorated with white linen and flowers, which the Captain stood behind.
We were made to feel comfortable before the ceremony took place. We had live music, a camera crew, the first and second officers, Frank the entertainment manager, the official photographer, champagne and canapés. WOW! The second officer gave two readings that nearly bought tears to my eyes, really lovely. The ceremony was conducted with the solemnity it deserved, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. We were presented with a certificate and order of service, pictures with the Captain, and an invitation to have dinner with the Captain that evening. They even threw a bit of confetti at our request to end the ceremony.
Dinner with the Captain was very entertaining and the conversation was not strained in anyway. The food, wine and company were all charming and the service as usual was excellent. The day was topped off around midnight when the Captain slowed the ship to pass by the volcano Stromboli. It is active, and in the night we could smell the sulfur and see the lava tumbling down into the sea. That was truly magnificent.
One of the main questions I asked was what clothes should I pack? How formal was it going to be? Well, the trip can be as formal or as informal you want it to be. We like dressing for dinner on holiday, but even then no ties or jackets, unless you want to. I had a lot of separates, glitz tops, black trousers and black skirt. I had cropped trousers, t-shirts and trainers for the day trips and a hat, especially for the very hot days out. Don't worry about towels - pool towels were even provided. The 24-hour canteen was very informal but in the evening had candles put on the tables. There were lots of different areas to drink in, and even when you were in deck chairs the waiters went around regularly to get you whatever.
The other question I worried about was tipping. This trip was tip-inclusive, but if you wanted to tip you could. We tipped our room stewardess. The bar had tips inclusive as well but we did let the waiters have the odd change. At the end of the trip you had to fill out a form letting the Captain know who you thought gave you the best service, and if anyone gave you bad service. The one with the most nominations gets a good cash bonus.
On our trip the weather was very hot for June standards and the water was very calm. I was quite worried about seasickness, but I purchased the wristbands that apply pressure to a point that stops the sickness. On the first night, it was so calm I thought I would be all right, but I was wrong, so the rest of the trip I wore these bands. I did feel the ship wobble and move, as sensitive as I am, but I did not feel bilious in anyway.
The cost of the holiday was a bit more than some paid as they got a cheap deal from Teletext but we got the level and the cabin we wanted. The ship was full and there were no upgrades. We spent a lot of money on photos but this is normal for a first cruise. The amount we spent on alcohol was about 200 pounds, which is normal for us for a holiday. I also did go a bit extravagant in having some laundry done for us; this was expensive, but I didn't have a load of dirty laundry to take with me on the second part of our holiday. (We did a cruise and stay - wish we just stuck to the cruise now. Anyone considering doing this do it the other way around because you get so spoiled on the cruise anything else is just second best.)
On the whole, we feel we are now 'converted' - we wonder why we have never done this kind of holiday before. We are going to book two weeks next year and if it is the same ship and the same staff it would be a double bonus, it was that good. The whole experience is a must!
Edna & Dennis Stinchcombe.
(Editor's Note: The Island Escape is Royal Caribbean's former Viking Serenade, now operated by a U.K. company called First Choice (www.first-choice.com).)