This is a review of our spring break cruise on the brand new Radiance of the Seas. There were 3 of us including my wife and our 15 year old son.
Before embarking on it's maiden season of Alaskan and Southern Caribbean cruises, RCI was offering several short ‘reduced rate' cruises to nowhere on the Radiance from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale starting March 24th. Our particular cruise was the 3 night embarking March 26, and was the first cruise scheduled for paying customers. The actual maiden voyage of the Radiance was set for April 7th, a 14 day trip through the Panama Canal as the ship heads to Alaska for the summer.
The Radiance is a brand new class of ship for Royal Caribbean. At around 90,000 tons it is supposed to bring together some of the best aspects of both the Vision and Voyager class vessels while still being able to navigate the Panama Canal, spending half her time in Alaska and the other half in the southern Caribbean..
Before going any farther I need to answer the question of why take such a short cruise, especially since we had to travel a long distance just to get to Miami. In fact, our only previous cruise was a short cruise aboard the Disney Magic 2 years ago and I swore then I would never take a short cruise again because it was over too soon (though that experience did hook us on cruising). However, there were several compelling reasons we decided to go on this cruise.
First of all was the price. I received an e-mail in early January from a large internet cruise agency advertising special prices on this ship in March and April. Even for a short cruise I thought they were misprints. I called, verified the price, and booked on the spot. I was also able to secure really reasonable airfare to Florida. I have found you can get good rates most any time of the year, even during peak periods, if you just look for them. The internet is an invaluable tool in this regard.
Second was the itinerary. This cruise was originally to be sailing only, with no ports of call. So, unlike most short cruises that sail only at night and are docked at Nassau and maybe a private island during the day, we would get to spend the whole time on the ship and take advantage of all she has to offer. Just what we wanted As it turned out the itinerary was changed, a fact I will discuss later.
Third was the chance to be among the first passengers on a brand new ship. I know many people avoid initial cruises on a ship because of the anticipated problems that occur. No doubt it takes awhile to get everything to work correctly, and for the crew to get their act together. However, this is why it was a reduced rate cruise in the first place. We decided up front to accept the fact that there would be problems, and just go with the flow and enjoy ourselves.
Fourth (but first in level of importance) was to spend some quality time with our youngest son, who at 15 is not far from joining his brother and sister in the real world.
Lastly, my e-mail friends Tom and Mary Milano, who have taken over 20 cruises the past 4 years with various cruise lines and write wonderful reviews of both their cruise experiences and their views on life convinced me that Royal Caribbean gives the most bang for the buck for average folks like us, and here was an economical chance to prove them right. They were!
We arrived at the cruise terminal in Miami at about 1:00 on Monday, March 26, unloaded our bags, and then I took our rental car around the corner to the Avis location. It was about 1:15 when we actually entered the terminal. Unfortunately, we had not beaten the rush as I had hoped (traffic on I-95 was terrible) and had to wait in a rather long line. The line moved quickly, however, and we stepped on board about 40 minutes later.
My first impression as we walked on board was that the ship was an engineering and artistic marvel. It was stunning. My son was almost speechless as he had never seen anything like it, and believe me that does not happen often.
I will attempt to describe the ship from the bottom up, and then reflect upon other aspects such as the itinerary, food , service, cabins, etc.
You enter the ship on the 5th or promenade deck where the lifeboat drills are held. After winding through an attractive shopping area you came to the heart of the ship, the centrum which was truly beautiful. It extended from the 4th deck all the way to the top with overhanging balconies on each level. On either side of the centrum was a glass wall that extended up to the 10th deck, flooding the area with daylight. Unlike previous RCI ships the bank of elevators in the centrum were on the port side instead of centered and the exterior elevators went up alongside the glass wall so you could look out over the ocean as you rode. Same was true for the interior elevators that looked out over the centrum as you rode them. There was another bank of elevators in the bow, centrally located, but none in the stern, only stairs, which made for some long walks for people with rooms in the back.
The centrum lobby, lobby bar and guest relations desk were on the 4th deck. There was adequate seating in the lobby and an open area for dancing or congregating. There was also a large seating area alongside the glass wall overlooking the centrum on the 5th deck. Live music was played in the centrum lobby much of the time.
The dining room, Cascades, was located from mid ship back on both the 4th and 5th decks, with a beautiful staircase connecting both levels, and two lines of majestic columns running the length of the room. It was truly elegant. There were also floor to ceiling windows from the front to the back both levels. Access to the dining room from the centrum area was available on either level so that you could walk to your table without having to use the staircase.
The Aurora Theater was also multi level and located up front on the 5th and 6th decks. It was truly state-of-the-art with a beautiful multi-colored curtain on the stage. The design of the theater was what I would call modernistic. Seats were stadium theater type with large cup holders. A bar was in the back of the auditorium.
As I mentioned earlier, the shopping area was on the 5th deck and included a coffee shop and bookstore called Books, Books, and Coffee which is supposed to a scaled down version of a Borders Bookstore or equivalent. It was only open a few hours on our cruise as they were still putting it together and I never got to visit it.
Working back from the Aurora Theater on the 6th deck was a movie theater and a large (and active) casino. After crossing the centrum area you entered a nightclub / entertainment area that included the nautically appointed Schooner Bar (including the appropriate nautical smells as you entered), and an area called the Colony Club which featured a billiard room, a card playing room, another lounge, and a stage area for other entertainers. The billiard tables are unique in that they will always be level, no matter how rough the sea may be. The Schooner Bar featured a piano player/songtress that had a large following each night.
Also located in this area were the alternative restaurants, Portofino's and Chops Grill, which featured hefty $20.00 per person cover charges. I looked in both and they were elegantly appointed but not enough to entice me to spend extra money to eat there.
Decks 7 through 10 were all cabins. All the exterior cabins on these decks had balconies, with the expensive suites being on the 10th deck. The less expensive cabins were all on decks 2 through 4, with the outside cabins featuring large portholes. If you want a less expensive cabin on this ship (certainly the best values) you better book it early because they are not that many of them.
Deck 11 had the Shipshape spa area, a stunning solarium pool area decorated in an African motif fronted by several elephant statues, the main pool area, and the Windjammer Cafe. The latter was large and airy with windows all around. I thought it was an extremely attractive area for casual dining. The various serving stations were adequately spaced so that you were not always bumping into others, and there was enough seating both inside and out to meet the demands of the breakfast and lunch rush times. My son camped out here.
Many people commented that the Solarium was the most impressive and beautiful part of the ship.
The 12th deck had the children's program areas, including a children's pool with a long slide, an outdoor sports court, a golf simulator, and the Shipshape fitness area. . There was also the Seaside Cafe, a small eatery at the stern that served late night snacks from 11:00 on. I actually thought the food here was the best served on the ship. My son also camped out here.
The main sunning areas were around the main pool on deck 11 and overlooking the pool and down either side on deck 12. The main pool area was nice, but not overly large. There is not enough room on these 2 decks to accommodate everyone that would want a deck chair on days when the ship is at sea. Thus the necessity to stake out a deck chair early.
Finally, the 13th deck featured the rock climbing wall and carpet golf area, both at the stern, and RCI's traditional Viking Crown area that was divided into a pulsating disco and a much more laid back lounge.
Now that you have a feel for the layout of the ship let me give my impressions about the ship and this particular cruise.
There were problems of course, lots of them. You heard apologies from the crew all day long. Many cabins had no ice buckets or glasses. Quite a few people did not get their luggage the first night until after 9:00. Second seating dinner the first night was delayed for 45 minutes and overall service in the dining room was very inconsistent. Room service was extremely slow. Lots of things like that, but one should expect that in a shakedown cruise, which is what this was. A far as I know most of the problems were of the annoying variety, not really critical.
On the cruise immediately following ours, however, there was reported to be serious water damage caused by faulty seals on doors and windows when the ship encountered a strong storm with high winds.
Now for a few detailed observations:
The Itinerary: It turned out not to be a cruise to nowhere. Instead, we went to Nassau the first full day. There were some complaints from passengers but the cruise line has the right to change the itinerary for whatever reason and we understood that going in. My son really enjoyed sailing into Nassau's harbor, turning around, and docking next to other ships. We dwarfed them. While I probably would not have booked the cruise if I had known up front that we were going to Nassau, it was no problem. In fact I got some beautiful video of the ship from the dock area. The weather was great all 3 days we were on the ship and we were able to experience everything on her we wanted to. The full day at sea was particularly nice.
The Service: Very spotty but this was a very green, inexperienced crew. I was told that 50% or more had never been on a ship. It is going to take some time to indoctrinate them into the RCI way of doing things. The dining room staff in in particular had a lot of problems, with some of the assistant waiters not having a clue as to what to do. This caused a lot of tension between the waiters and assistants. On all three nights there were mistakes on our orders and it was clear that the waiters could not be counted on yet for making dining suggestions. Our cabin attendant did the best she could, considering she had to come up with makeshift ice buckets, glasses, etc.
Room service was late both mornings with our breakfast, but to their credit on the second day they called and apologized for the delay and inquired if we still wanted them to bring the food. We appreciated that.
I want to point out, however, that the crew tried hard under difficult circumstances and that is what was important to us. They were to a person friendly and willing to help, and always had a pleasant greeting. I know some people probably under tipped the cabin attendants and wait staff but we thought they did an admiral job under the conditions and gave them the recommended amounts. I am sure RCI will quickly mould them into a superb crew.
The Food: I sometimes have a problem with people who go on a cruise and suddenly become food critics when I know they mostly eat out at places like Chili's and Applebee's. That certainly describes us. And let's be honest, people have different likes and dislikes when it comes to food, so that any comments about it are subjective at best. However, in this case I would be charitable if I said the food was anything better than average. The main problem was inconsistency.
For example, dinners in the dining room were very inconsistent in their quality and presentation and that included all aspects from appetizers to desserts. For lunches the Windjammer always had a nice variety of hot and cold items and desserts and what I had was tasty and nicely presented.. Breakfast from room service, despite being late, was above average, plentiful and filling, but the breakfast served to us in the main dining room on the morning of debarkation was rushed and hurried and the hot items (eggs, etc.) were barely lukewarm. On the other hand, the sandwiches, snacks, and desserts served late nights in the Seaview Grill were really good.
However, we did not have to prepare the food or clean up the mess, so we had no real complaints. It was certainly as good or better than what you receive in the above mentioned chains. The food is mass produced, not gourmet, and I am amazed they do as good a job as they do. I am confident this area will show marked improvement over the next few weeks and months.
The Cabins: We had a balcony cabin on the 8th deck. It may be ages before we have one again. The balcony was surprisingly large with a small table and 2 nice size chairs. While not the largest cabins afloat, they were extremely well designed. There was more than adequate room to store things, and the furniture and fixtures were of a very high quality. The circular shower curtain in the bathroom ingeniously doubled the effective size of the shower. We had a triple and the third bed came out of the ceiling and was above and perpendicular to the main bed. This is fine if you have children with you but an elderly person would have a hard time climbing into this bed. You would have to go to a quad to get a couch that also makes into a bed. As I mentioned earlier, the best values on this ship are the less expensive cabins on the lower decks but there are not that many of them. I would not have booked a balcony cabin if it had not been for the special pricing we received, but we certainly enjoyed and took advantage of it.
The Entertainment: I thought the entertainment was good to excellent. The RCI ensemble cast of singers and dancers put on two high energy shows featuring pop and rock music. A couple of the dancers were really good and the singers could all sing in key and we could understand every word. The sound system was excellent. The real highlight was the second night when a ventriloquist, Ronn Lucas, was the featured act. He was tremendous and had the entire audience in stitches. I did not check out all the other entertainment but the trio that played evenings in the centrum lobby were good and the piano player/songstress in the Schooner Bar attracted a very large following.
Final thoughts on the ship: It is a beautiful, beautiful ship and is yet another advancement in ship design and function, of which RCI seems to be in the forefront. The new vibrationless propulsion system is so good that you hardly know you are on a ship, especially if you are cruising at less than maximum speed. On the cruise immediately following ours the ship encountered 80 mph winds and torrential rains and people were more concerned about the water damage than the rough ride.
I think RCI did a very smart thing by having the Radiance go on several short shakedown cruises before launching into it's regular schedule. It is easier for one to put up with the annoying problems encountered on a new ship on a short cruise rather than on a longer one.
When they get their act together, which I am sure will be soon, this is going to be a very popular ship which will garner consistently high reviews.
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and my son had the absolute time of his life. As we were pulling away in our rental car there was a tinge of sadness, like one has when saying goodbye to an old friend. That best describes our trip.
Considering what we paid for this cruise it was more than worth it, problems and all. We would definitely sail RCI again if the opportunity presents itself.
Any comments or questions are welcome. My e-mail address is email@example.com.