We had originally booked this Australian itinerary on the late, great Renaissance Cruise line, our favorite. But when Renaissance went bankrupt, we turned to RCCL, on which we'd cruised twice before. Our primary interest was the ports of call in New Zealand and Australia.
All in all, our experience was a positive one. The ship was lovely; the public spaces were attractive and spotlessly clean. RCCL had upgraded us to a stateroom with a private balcony instead of the outside with window that we'd been expecting, which was a nice surprise. The room was a comfortable size, even the bathroom. The sofa (which could have been made into a bed) and the bedspreads would have benefited from a good cleaning.
The food was, at best, good; it never rose to a level of excellence. Breakfast menus never changed. Lunch, which we always took in the Windjammer Café, usually featured a carved meat and several hot dishes, a pasta bar, and a made to order sandwich bar. Pizza (fair) and hamburgers/hot dogs were available elsewhere. After a rather boring meal and fairly slow service in the main dining room, we decided we'd eat in the Windjammer Café after the first night. Except for the Chinese buffet nights (which were pretty awful), we always were able to have a nice meal. The self-service, informal atmosphere was pleasant. Desserts were pretty, but not particularly tasty.
Service personnel were generally very efficient and personable. A few of them "adopted" us and gave us outstanding service. Arturo, our room steward, was outstanding-the best we've encountered in many, many cruises.
Ports of call were without exception interesting and enjoyable. Shore excursions booked through the cruise line were well organized and seemed to me to be a good value, though some were better than others. Our add-on stay in Sydney, at the ANA Hotel, was wonderful (though we had a heat wave). The hotel was beautiful, and our room had a spectacular view of the Opera House. The included American breakfast buffet was delicious. Sydney itself was a delight-a clean, friendly city, with lots to see and do. It's easy to get around, and a wonderful city for walking. Throughout the entire cruise, every port offered lots of clean, free toilet facilities-something our American cities generally lack.
A few sour notes: our next door neighbor needed to get in touch with us for an emergency, and was completely unsuccessful in her attempts to e-mail, phone or fax us. She's a travel agent with decades of experience, and had never encountered similar problems communicating with cruise passengers. RCCL did not help her in her efforts. As a result, the emergency message took five days to get to us as a fax to the hotel. Also, we found RCCL's information on visa requirements for Australia to be at best unhelpful, and at worst, deceitful. Their pre-cruise literature referred us to a commercial visa service that wanted more than $50 per person to issue us ETA visas that are available free from the airline. Phone calls to the cruise line gave only vague and evasive answers as to why they failed to inform us that the service could be had gratis. Likewise, my travel partner was unsuccessful in getting any true information about seat assignments on the flights to and from our embarkation/debarkation points. RCCL insisted that United was in charge, while United insisted that it had no control over the flight that was an RCCL charter. United advised us to get to the airport early to assure an aisle seat for my partner, who needs to move around frequently because of a back problem. We arrived seven hours before flight time, and were told that RCCL had already assigned all the seats, and since the plane was full, no changes could be accommodated. The return flight was the same story-seats assigned by RCCL, and no changes permitted. On the flight over, we weren't even seated together; on the flight back, we had inside seats. We had called RCCL/United at least six times in the weeks preceding, and everyone to whom we spoke was either uninformed or purposely untruthful. One was actually rude-she pointed out that we'd called several times already and asked, "so what's the problem? Why are you calling again?" The flights themselves were fine-12 hours direct from San Francisco to Auckland and 12 ½ back from Sydney. Comfortable seats and edible food. Luck of the draw gave some passengers accommodations in business or first class on the way over.
The entertainment was pretty awful-the cruise staff shows especially were very amateur, and often embarrassingly bad. One in particular I found offensive because of what I, at least, perceived as some blatant ethnic stereotyping. The purser's office was abrupt and a bit unpleasant. A mix up about shore excursions we had pre-booked via fax and internet was promptly remedied at the shore excursion office. All in all, a nice cruise, but not an outstanding one.