"Everything I expected and more" is how I would describe our experience on Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas. The beauty of the ship is only surpassed by the level of comfort one will find on board.
My partner and I took the 7-day Mexican Riviera excursion out of Los Angeles right before the height of the season (Oct. 29 to Nov. 5), and had a fantastic time.
The check-in process (other than the porter service) was extremely well-organized. Within an hour, our bags were enroute to the cabin, our documents checked out and our Super Charge card activated.
STEPPING ON BOARD AND SETTLING IN Upon arriving on the ship, you're met by the fantastic "Centrum" multi-floor atrium area. This has a distinctive Hyatt hotel feel with its marble, plants, sculptures and glass elevators -- all quite intoxicating for a first-time cruiser.
Quickly we found our way to our cabin on the Commodore Deck (No. 7). (A note: The decks are numbered on board, not named as they are in the brochure, so be sure and know your level number.)
We were stateroom 7100, a Category D, "superior ocean-view stateroom with balcony." Now, let me tell you, the balcony was worth every dime! I know that you read over and over how people say they never spend any time in the room, but I think that's because their room is not as pleasant. The balcony *made* the room! We watched dolphins swim by, eyed each port as we arrived, reveled in the privacy of our own ocean view balcony, and slept each night to the sound of waves hitting the side of the ship. It was like having an oceanfront hotel room for a week!
The cabin, itself, was very comfortable, with plenty of storage space. The 7-foot ceiling took about an hour to get used to due to my height at 6-foot-4. But in due time, I no longer felt like "The Land of the Giants." Our room also boasted a full-size sofa that was great for watching TV. The bath is compact but well laid out. The small shower was a tight fit for me, but I made it in and got the job done. The "roaring" toilets are hilarious (I was prepared for these from my reading on the Internet). I joked with our tablemate that if you sat on the toilet and flushed you would get the biggest hickey on your bottom.
The color scheme of the room is done in pastels of blue and peach. The ship is 3 years old now, so I did find some minor coffee stains on the carpet, but nothing that made me worry about going barefoot.
On a side note about the cabin, from what I gather the more expensive rooms boast a couple more conveniences. For example, I was surprised when we found fluffy robes for our use (never mentioned in the brochure). Our tablemate at dinner commented she did not bring a robe and none was in their oceanview room (with no balcony), so I ended up loaning my silk robe I brought to her. They also mentioned that their refrigerator was more like an honor bar, while ours had plenty of room for the liquor and soda we brought on board.
Our cabin steward, Verol, was at our door within the hour of boarding to explain his job and to see whether we had any special requests. A tip: Take notes of things you wish to ask the cabin steward and any additional items you would like (pillows, etc). Verol came to the door, and I was all prepared with a three-item or so list. He was back at our door in 5 minutes with everything we requested.
GETTING OUR BEARINGS Instead of waiting for our suitcases to arrive, we decided to get a bite to eat at the buffet and take a quick tour of the ship. Armed with the ship diagram I ripped out of the our brochure before we left home, we quickly navigated all 11 floors. (Taking the ship diagram was a tip I learned from a cruise-tour book, and it was so helpful in learning the layout of the ship and came in handy for days.) ... By the way, another quick tip, make one of your first stops the library on the seventh deck -- we quickly snagged two biographies that we enjoyed reading at various times during our cruise.
After the library stop, we began to check out the rest of the ship. The outdoor pool is gorgeous with spraying fountains. It was a great place to lay out, and do some reading and people-watching. The indoor pool in the Solarium was my personal favorite. Done in an Egyptian theme, it felt like you were swimming at Hearst Castle. By the way, the pools are heated to 86 degrees -- even I could stand to go in them!
The Windjammer Cafe (where they have the boarding buffet set up) is very pleasant with numerous windows to watch the ocean and view. The food is buffet-fare, but came in handy especially at breakfast-time when we wanted a quick meal or just wished to dine alone.
The fitness center is also very pleasant -- be sure and use the steam room and sauna found in the locker rooms by the health spa. They're free to use, and often were empty when I went in them in the early evening. The casino is aptly glitzy. On our first night, my partner lost $5 in the slots, and I made $7 on the $5 I put in, so we came out $2 ahead. That was the first and last time we used the casino, though. We're just not big gamblers.
There are numerous bars on board with live music. Our personal favorite was the Schooner Lounge, which is a nice quiet place to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail while listening to the piano player sing some standards and easy-listening songs. The Viking Crown Lounge on the 11th floor boasts a fantastic view, and was very lively at night with its disco/dance music. We went one time, and enjoyed ourselves very much. We never went to the Shall We Dance lounge during its entertainment times but were there during the Captain's Cocktail Party. The band was so-so -- read wedding-style fare.
There was a wide range of entertainment on board in the main theater. It's everything you read -- very beautiful, very comfortable seating and not a bad site-line in the house. During our seven-day trip, we saw only three of the nightly shows and one late-night comedian. The Coasters performed during one "headliner" show and were quite enjoyable. Comedian Kelly Monteith was on the bill for the other "headliner" show, and was quite funny. We saw one production show, and it proved to be enjoyable fare when we were ready to just sit and be entertained. One note: We were second seating for dinner, which proved problematic sometimes to catch the shows, in that several of the performances set aside for second-seating diners were *before* dinner. We skipped nearly all of these because we preferred to not be hurried prior to dinner. Rest assured, though, the headliner shows are *after* the second-seating at dinner.
IT'S DINNERTIME! Speaking of dinner, the Edelweiss Dining Room is absolutely beautiful, and the service impeccable. We had requested a table for eight (in order to get several options for conversation), but ended up assigned to a table for four. We chose to go with the flow, and were happy we did. Our dining partners were a couple in their early 40s on their honeymoon. Every night, we closed the dining room down because we enjoyed talking with them so much. In fact, our waiter, Ivan, thought we were traveling together because we got along so famously. So, the lesson here is to be open if dining arrangements were not exactly as you had requested. Of course, you can always request a change if your partners are not to your liking. (We did encounter this a couple times during the open seating meals of breakfast and lunch -- why is it that some people complain about everything???) Those times we were even happier that dinner was with our fabulous tablemates, Rich and Karen.
Dinner, itself, was fantastic and never disappointing. Each meal had a theme -- Venetian, Mexican, etc. There are always several entree choices -- at least one fish, one meat, one pasta and one vegetarian. I did learn as the trip proceeded to order as many courses as I wished, because the appetizer, soup, and salad courses are all small-to-reasonable sizes. In addition, I began to order a couple appetizer courses because, again, they were so small in size I could afford to sample at will. Oh, and that's also another suggestion -- try new items on board (what other time can you do this, and not have to pay for something you don't care for?).
Our waiter, Ivan, and assistant waiter, Dragos, were the epitome of efficiency, competency and charm. Factored in with our tablemates, they made dinner a special occasion every night. Our smaller table also allowed us some more personal interaction with Ivan and Dragos, which was always enjoyed. My goal every night was to get Ivan to crack a smile or make him laugh, because he was always the height of decorum -- I'm happy to say I succeeded every time.
WHEN DO WE DOCK? Other than dinner, our most anticipated point of our trips were the ports of call -- Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. It was so exciting to wake up or watch as we approached each port from our balcony -- again, one of the top benefits of having one. We took a ship-sponsored shore excursion at every stop, and were happy we did. I vacillated for weeks prior to the cruise whether to do this or go on our own. I would strongly recommend that first-time visitors to a port take the ship's shore excursions. The cost was quiet reasonable -- between $25 and $35 each for 31/2- to 5-hour outings, and we felt we were able to see numerous sites in our one day in each port. Those who went out on their own seemed to have been in the places before, but still did not enjoy much savings at all. It seemed the benefit of the "going on your own" was more freedom, but we never felt too rushed at any stop. Plus, we liked not having to think while in port.
In terms of the ports, Cabo San Lucas was a beautiful fishing/marina type city. We took the city tour, which also allowed us to venture to San Jose del Cabo (another town on the outskirts). Again, we felt as if we got a great overview of the city on the tour. Mazatlan was my least favorite stop. It's separated into two areas -- Old and New Mazatlan. In the morning, we went on our own to Old Mazatlan. It was a bad idea. The vendors and taxi drivers are *extremely* aggressive -- pulling on your arms, shouting at you, calling for you to come into the shops and "buy a dress for your girlfriend," etc. The downtown is also very congested, dirty and the only place I felt concerned about being pickpocketed, etc. New Mazatlan is much glitzier and very Americanized -- to the point of feeling like a tourist trap. The drive along the shoreline and the view stops were enjoyable, though.
Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, was my favorite port. Very tropical, gorgeous, and still maintained a strong Mexican-feel without the dirt and aggressiveness of Mazatlan. I would go back any day -- and our "city, country and tequila tour" was so much fun. We got a wonderful feel for the city, and enjoyed several enjoyable stops, including a ranch in the country, a country church and school, and, of course, the tequila distillery. All in all, my favorite place we stopped.
On a side note, for us Internet junkies, the cruise terminals in Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta boast businesses that offer Internet/email access for $2-$3 for 15 minutes of usage -- much cheaper than the 50 cents per minute on board the Rhapsody. I emailed one friend on AOL -- who was tickled to death to hear from me -- and she called a few friends and relatives to read them my note.
NEGATIVES -- "IT'S ALWAYS SOMETHING" Being a positive-attitude person, it's foreign to me to mention anything I found not to my liking during our cruise on the Rhapsody. But the two sources of frustration we found on board were the porters when checking in at the terminal and the haphazard room service.
Upon arriving at the terminal, we were met with the most unorganized baggage check-in I've ever encountered. This was not helped by the fact that the majority of the porters were either rude, surly or just uninterested in helping anyone. There were no signs directing where one should drop their cases or wait for a porter, so it was a free for all to get someone to take our cases. From speaking to many others on board, it seemed everyone else came away with the same impression. The best tactic I can recommend is to move your cases into the terminal or directly outside (they won't take them from across the street), find a porter, and stand next to him until he takes yours. This took at least three or four tries. We were lucky enough to find one female porter -- the first friendly porter we encountered -- who took our bags with a smile. On our comment card at the end of the trip, I asked why they did not have a more airline-type bag check-in, in which you could drop 'em on a belt and have them whisked away.
Our second negative experience was with the room service on board. Several times, they were right on the money -- our order arriving when we requested and correct. But other times, we were met with the following experiences: items missing (silverware, etc); duplicate orders (one order arrives, and then 20 minutes later, it arrives again); extremely tardy service (we waited one hour and 45 minutes for two salads) and a general disorganized feel about that department on board. This, too, went on my comment card.
However, despite those two minor irritations, we loved every minute on our cruise on the Rhapsody.
CRUISING -- A FANTASY LIFE When we were driving back home to San Diego, my partner and I commented that we were surprised we didn't take part in more of the organized activities on board (bingo, cooking demonstrations, etc). But, for us, the point of our trip was to see some cities where we had never been, not be beholden to any schedule, and generally relax and do what we wanted.
If I had to summarize the joy of cruising, it's the rare opportunity in this world to have someone else do everything else -- and, you, to do whatever you want in between. And the Rhapsody lived up to that in every way. Now, when do we get to go again?