Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)
Comparing the Major Cruise Lines
We compare what the world’s 10 largest, best-known cruise companies, reviewed in alphabetical order, have to offer when it comes to facilities, cuisine, service, and ambience.
The major cruise lines today are global in scale. Although the industry may appear diverse, it is dominated by just a few conglomerates, principally Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises. Dig deeper and you’ll find, for example, that two Carnival subsidiaries, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, virtually control large resort ship cruising in Alaska, where they own hotels, lodges, tour companies, and much land-based transportation (other operators have to buy their services). This came about in 2002-3 when Princess Cruises’ parent company, P&O Group, sold its cruising division to the Carnival Corporation.
What makes them different
Today’s major cruise lines are global in scale. Ships belonging to the big companies may look the same, but they differ not only in their layout, decor, and passenger flow but also in such small details. Even the size of towels varies widely.
White star service aboard Queen Mary 2.
Which cruise line does what best
Carnival Cruise Lines is known for all-round fun, activities, and casinos for the lively, no-sleep-needed youth market - although many passengers are over 45. Carnival doesn’t sell itself as a ‘luxury’ or ‘premium’ cruise line, which it certainly isn’t. It consistently delivers exactly the well-packaged cruise vacation its brochures promise, for which there is a huge first-time cruise market. Its smart ships have high-tech entertainment facilities and features, and some include extra-cost alternative dining spots for the more discerning. Carnival is all about ‘participatory fun.’
Celebrity Cruises has perhaps the best food of the major cruise lines, plus the most elegant ships and spas, and its cruises are under-priced. Although it advertises itself as a ‘premium’ line, some aspects are no longer premium - for example, recorded ‘music’ blaring over pool decks 24 hours a day is not relaxing. But the term still sums up Celebrity reasonably well.
Costa Cruises has the edge on (quasi-Italian) European style and lively ambience, with a mix of passengers of several nationalities, but the swimming pools are full of noisy children, especially in peak holiday periods. Costa provides first-time cruise passengers with a packaged holiday that is a mix of contemporary surroundings and basic fare, accompanied by loud music. Most passengers are Italian.
Cunard Line has one real ocean liner (Queen Mary 2) that provides a regular transatlantic service, while its other two ships are more about regular cruising, albeit with ocean liner desires. All three are best suited to a wide range of seasoned and well-traveled couples and single travelers who enjoy the cosmopolitan setting of an ocean liner. Dressing formally for dinner is encouraged, though except in the grill rooms the cuisine is largely of mass-market quality, with many traditional British favorites and extensive French dishes.
Holland America Line has all the right touches for seniors and retirees: smiling service staff, lots of flowers, traditions of the past, good cooking demonstrations, and specialty grill rooms. The ships are best suited to older couples and singles who like to mingle in a large ship, in an unhurried setting with fine-quality surroundings. There’s plenty of eclectic antique artwork, decent - though not gourmet - food, and service from a smiling Indonesian/Filipino crew who don’t quite have the finesse many expect from a ‘premium’ product.
MSC Cruises tailors its onboard product mostly to pan-European passengers of all ages (its name, after all, is Mediterranean Shipping Company) and displays fine Italian flair, with a high level of service and hospitality from a friendly, multilingual crew. It has evolved quickly as the ‘new kid on the block.’ Of all the major cruise lines, it’s also the cleanest. Bed linen is changed every second day, towels daily, and bathrobes in suites daily, unlike most other large cruise lines.
Norwegian Cruise Line is a really good choice for a first cruise for families with children, with a great choice of eateries, good entertainment, and friendly service staff. Its ships are best suited to first-time youthful, single passengers, children, and teenagers who want upbeat, color-rich surroundings, plenty of entertainment lounges and bars, and high-tech sophistication - all in one programmed, well-packaged vacation.
P&O Cruises operates mainly ex-UK cruises for its predominantly UK-based passengers, with very good facilities for families with children, as well as adults-only ships (minimum age 18). The company specializes in providing all the little things that British passengers have come to expect, including tea/coffee-making sets in all cabins, and a choice of Indian food.
Princess Cruises has consistent product delivery, although the ships have somewhat bland decor. Choose Princess Cruises if you enjoy being with families and fellow passengers of mid-50s and upwards, who want a well-organized cruise experience with unpretentious middle-of-the-road cuisine, a good range of entertainment, and an excellent shore excursion program - arguably the best-run of any of the major cruise lines.
Royal Caribbean International is really good for the Caribbean (naturally), especially for first-time cruisers and families. It has an excellent variety of entertainment, and interesting programs, particularly for children. RCI ships are liked by active, young-minded couples and solo cruisers of all ages, and families with toddlers, children, and teenagers who enjoy mingling in a large ship setting with plenty of life, high-energy entertainment, and bright lighting everywhere. The food is more about quantity than quality - unless you pay extra for dining in a ‘specialty’ restaurant (not all RCI ships have them). There’s background music everywhere.
What they have in common
All offer one thing: a well-packaged cruise vacation, generally of seven days, typically with a mix of days at sea and days in port, plenty of food, reasonable service, large-scale production shows, and trendy cabaret acts, plus large casinos, shopping malls, and extensive, busy spa and fitness facilities. Nine offer a variety of ‘drive to’ embarkation ports within the US (‘homeland cruising’).
Their ships have a lot in common, too. Except for MSC Cruises, all have art auctions, bingo, horse racing, shopping talks for ports of call, programs for children and teens, wedding vows/renewal programs, and Wi-Fi or Internet connect centers.
Standing in line for embarkation, disembarkation (and shore tenders, shore excursion and shuttle buses in ports of call), and for self-serve buffet meals is inevitable aboard most large resort ships and the larger mid-size ships. But the ships differ in their characters, facilities, maintenance, space, crew-to-passenger ratio, food and service, and crew training. You’ll be escorted to your cabin aboard the ships of Cunard Line (Queen Grill-grade accommodation only), and MSC Cruises (Yacht Club-grade only). Aboard other lines, the minimal duty staff at the ship-side gangway, simply point you in the right direction - even if you have heavy carry-on luggage - and gangway staff may even try to give you a daily program, or spa details, or shop specials - in other words, too much paper, even before you’ve reached the cabin.
Carnival Cruise Lines
Fantasy-class ships: Carnival Ecstasy (1991), Carnival Elation (1998), Carnival Fantasy (1990), Carnival Fascination (1994), Carnival Imagination (1995), Carnival Inspiration (1996), Carnival Paradise (1998), Carnival Sensation (1993)
Sunshine-class ships: Carnival Conquest (2002), Carnival Freedom (2007), Carnival Glory (2003), Carnival Liberty (2005), Carnival Splendor (2008), Carnival Sunshine (1996), Carnival Triumph (1999), Carnival Valor (2004), Carnival Victory (2000)
Dream-class ships: Carnival Breeze (2012), Carnival Dream (2009), Carnival Magic (2011)
Spirit-class ships: Carnival Legend (2002), Carnival Miracle (2004), Carnival Pride (2002), Carnival Spirit (2001)
About the company
Israel-born Ted Arison (born Theodore Arisohn), whose ambition was to be a concert pianist, founded Carnival Cruise Lines, now the world’s largest and most successful single cruise line, in 1972 with one ship, Mardi Gras (formerly Empress of Canada). Carnival wanted to be different, youthful, and fun, and developed the ‘fun ship’ concept. It worked, appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds.
The company’s first new ship, Tropicale, debuted in 1982. In 1984 Carnival started advertising on television, introducing a wider public to the idea of cruising. It introduced the first cruise ship measuring over 100,000 gross tons - Carnival Destiny (now named Carnival Sunshine) in 1996.
Today, the Carnival Corporation, parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines, is run by Ted Arison’s son, Micky Arison, who is chairman of the board - and owns the NBA’s Miami Heat basketball team. Over 20 new ships have been introduced since the line was founded in 1972.
Enjoying the splash park aboard a Carnival Cruise Lines ship.
The line has upgraded some aspects of its operation and product. The Fantasy-class ships are receiving overdue multi-million-dollar makeovers, including an adults-only sunbathing area, pool decks (a thatched roof over one of two hot tubs and the addition of palm trees and new mid-deck stairways), a new lobby bar, expanded children’s and teens’ areas, and more interconnecting cabins. Fantasy-class ships have few balcony cabins and no walk-around open promenade deck. Meanwhile, giant poolside movie screens have been fitted to most non-Fantasy-class ships.
Carnival Liberty calls at Roatán in Honduras Bay.
What is it really like?
Carnival’s ‘fun’ cruising is good for families with children and teens (anyone under 21 must be accompanied by a parent, relative, or guardian) and youthful adults. The ships are also good for whole-ship charters and incentive groups, for multi-generational passengers, and for family reunions. Typically, about half of Carnival’s passengers are taking their first cruise. About 30 percent are under the age of 35.
The dress code is ultra-casual - indeed, the waiters are better dressed than most passengers - particularly during youth-heavy holiday seasons and spring breaks. Carnival is all about ‘happy’ and ‘fun’ - cruise directors actually tell passengers to ‘make some noise,’ so Camp Carnival is for adults as well as children. But it’s a very impersonal cruise experience. Solo travelers can get lost in the crowds of doubles. It’s all about towels shaped like animals, programmed participation activities, yelling and screaming, and having fun.
Perhaps the tone doesn’t matter so much because this will be a first cruise for most passengers. Repeat customers, however, have a distinct sense of déjà vu, but carry a Gold or Platinum card for better recognition from service staff.
The ships are clean and well maintained - if you don’t peer too closely. Open deck space may look adequate when you board, but on days at sea you can expect your plastic deck chair, if you can find one that’s free, to be kissing its neighbor - it’s probably tied to it. There are no cushioned pads for them, and they are hard to sit on for any length of time.
The decibel level is high: it is almost impossible to escape from noise and loud music, and ‘background’ music is played even in cabin hallways and elevators 24 hours a day. Huge poolside movie screens have been fitted aboard the ships. Also, new ‘Serenity’ sunbathing areas are being retrofitted across the fleet to provide extra-cost peaceful ‘away from it all’ areas.
Expect to be subjected to lots of advertising daily art auctions, ‘designer’ watches, gold and silver chains, and other promotions, while ‘artworks’ for auction are strewn throughout the ships. Also, expect intrusive announcements (particularly for activities that bring revenue), and waiters hustling you to have drinks.
Carnival Capers, the ship’s daily program, is mostly devoted to persuading you to spend money.
There are libraries, but with few books, and the bookshelves are always locked by 6pm, because you are expected to be out in the (revenue-earning) public areas each evening. If you enjoy casino gaming at sea, you could join Carnival’s Ocean Players Club, which brings benefits to frequent players, depending on your level of skill.
Between 2008 and 2010, a multimillion-dollar renovation added 98 small balconies to existing cabins aboard the Fantasy-class ships. Also included: Circle ‘C’ facilities for 12- to 14-year-olds, a waterpark with water-spray area, and oversize umbrellas. An adults-only Serenity retreat was added to the aft area of the Promenade Deck. The main pool now has more of a resort-style ambience.
Accommodation: In 2008 Carnival reorganized some cabin categories, and, following the European way of doing things, cabins in the best locations now cost more. Note that balconies in many of the cabins with ‘private’ balconies aren’t so private - most can be overlooked from other cabins located on the deck above and from various public locations. You may have to carry a credit card to operate the personal safes - inconvenient. High-quality mattresses and bed linen, also available for sale, have been fitted to all beds. Carnival operates from many ‘drive to’ embarkation ports in the US.
Passenger niggles: The most consistent complaints are that most activities are geared around trying to sell you something. Free-to-enter onboard games have pint-size ‘prizes,’ while the cost of playing bingo keeps rising. Intrusive photographers are almost impossible to escape. There’s no listing of the free in-cabin TV movies - only those that are pay-per-view. Non-stop recorded poolside music is intrusive.
The decor is very creative, although you probably wouldn’t want to let the ships’ interior designer loose in your home. If you love color, fine. If you prefer monochrome, take sunglasses. Public toilets, however, are not colorful and could do with a lot of cheering up.
Carnival ships have one or two main dining rooms, and its ‘Your Choice Dining’ program offers three dinner seating options, including ‘Your Time’ open seating. Dining assignments are confirmed at time of booking. Menus are standardized across the fleet, and all the dining venues are non-smoking.
Don’t even think about a quiet table for two, or a candlelight dinner on deck - it’s not Carnival’s style - unless you pay extra at a ‘specialty’ restaurant. Dining aboard a Carnival ship is all about table mates, social chat, lively meals, fast eating.
Tables are, however, nicely set with white tablecloths, plenty of silverware, and iced water/iced tea whenever you want it.
The main dining rooms marry food and show business. Waiters sing and dance, and there are constant waiter parades with flashing lights in an attempt to create some excitement.
Taste-filled food is not the company’s strong point, but quantity, not quality, is - although consultant chef Georges Blanc has created daily ‘Georges Blanc Signature’ menu items. The company has been striving to improve its cuisine and the menu choices often look good, but the actual food delivered is simply banquet-style catering, with its attendant standardization and production cooking. Although meats are of a decent quality, poultry, fish, seafood, and desserts can be disappointing. Sauces and gravies are used well as disguises, and there are few garnishes. The selection of fresh green vegetables, breads, rolls, cheese, and ripe fruit could be better, and there is much use of canned fruit and jellied desserts, not to mention packets of jam, marmalade, butter, sugar - the same stuff you’d find in a diner or family eatery in the US.
Bakery items are thawed and heated from frozen. It is virtually impossible to obtain anything remotely unusual or off-menu, and the ‘always available’ items seem to have disappeared from the menus.
‘Spa Carnival Fare’ was introduced to provide a more healthy dining option; vegetarian and children’s menus are also available for all meals, but they wouldn’t get a generous score for their nutritional content. The wine list is adequate, but there are no wine waiters or decent-size wine glasses.
Specialty dining venues: Carnival Breeze, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Dream, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Glory, Carnival Liberty, Carnival Miracle, Carnival Splendor, Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Triumph, Carnival Valor.
There are extra-cost steak houses that have better table settings, china and silverware, and leather-bound menus. Menu favorites include prime American steaks such as filet mignon (9oz), porterhouse steak (24oz), and New York strip loin (shown to you at your table before you order), broiled lobster tail, and stone crab claws from Joe’s Stone Crabs of South Miami Beach.
Reservations are necessary, and a cover charge for service/gratuity applies. The food is good, and the ambience is reasonably quiet.
Casual eateries: All ships also have large food court-style spaces for casual food, grilled and fried fast-food ‘chowdown’ items, pizzas (each ship serves over 800 pizzas in a typical day), stir-fry, sushi, deli, and salad items. There are also self-help beverage stands, coffee that looks like rusty water, and tea provided in paper cups with a teabag, plastic or wooden stirrers (no teaspoons or saucers), and packets of chemical ‘milk’ or creamer.
Guy Fieri’s Burger Joints have appeared aboard Carnival’s ships for good reason - television’s Food Network audience is typical of Carnival’s ‘chowdown’ clientele. So you can get a Plain Jane, Straight Up, Pig Patty, Chilius Maximus, or The Ringer burger, all served with hand cut fries and Guy’s signature seasoning.
Late-night ‘snacks’ consist of fast-food items instead of healthy alternatives such as light fruit bites, and are usually the same every night. Breakfast buffets are as repetitive as canned laughter on television.
The coffee/tea factor: Regular coffee is very weak, scoring 1 out of 10 (paper/foam cups in buffet areas), unless you pay extra in the Java Blue coffee corners.
Getting to know the ropes aboard Carnival Magic.
Carnival is a fine family-friendly cruise line, carrying more than 700,000 children a year, and ‘Camp Carnival,’ the line’s extensive child/youth program, is well organized. There are five age groups: Toddlers (ages two to five), Juniors (six to eight), Intermediate (nine to 11), Tweens (12-14, Circle C), and Late Teens (15-17, with Club 02). Even the under-twos can be catered to, with special programs aboard each ship. Meanwhile, Family Fun Nights are all about reconnecting parents to their children - something many can do only while on vacation. Soft-drinks packages can be bought for children (adults, too). Note that a babysitting service is not generally available after 10pm.
In 2014 Carnival partnered with children’s specialist Dr. Seuss to create the ‘Seuss at Sea’ program and has created immersive onboard youth, family, dining and entertainment experiences featuring the amazing world and words of Dr. Seuss.
Best ships for children: Carnival Breeze, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Dream, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Glory, Carnival Legend, Carnival Liberty, Carnival Miracle, Carnival Pride, Carnival Spirit, Carnival Splendor, Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Triumph, Carnival Valor, and Carnival Victory.
The ships have big showlounges, and feature large-scale flesh-and-feather production shows. On a typical cruise, there will be one or two large-scale shows, with male and female lead singers and a clutch of dancers backed by a live show-band and supported by pre-recorded backing tracks.
These are loud, Las Vegas-style revues. The skimpy costumes are colorful and sassy, as is the lighting. However, stage ‘smoke’ is overused, much to the irritation of anyone unfortunate enough to be seated in the front few rows.
Carnival often rotates entertainers aboard its ships, so that passengers see different acts each night, and specialty acts take center stage on nights when there’s no production show. There’s also live music in just about every bar and lounge - although there appears to be a trend to replace live music with more DJs - and there’s also a strong trend toward late-night adults-only comedy. Each cruise has karaoke nights, a passenger talent show, and a discotheque with ear-splitting volumes and megaphones to enable you to converse with your partner.
Celebrity Equinox leaves Istanbul.
Celebrity Cruises/Michel Verdure
Century-class ships: Celebrity Century (1995)
Millennium-class ships: Celebrity Constellation (2002), Celebrity Infinity (2001), Celebrity Millennium (2000), Celebrity Summit (2001)
Solstice-class ships: Celebrity Eclipse (2010), Celebrity Equinox (2009), Celebrity Reflection (2012), Celebrity Silhouette (2011), Celebrity Solstice (2008)
Other ships: Celebrity Xpedition (2001)
About the company
Celebrity Cruises was the brainchild of Harry H. Haralambopoulos, and the brothers John and Michael Chandris, London-based Greek cargo ship owners and operators of the former Chandris Lines and Chandris Cruises. In 1989, as the cruise industry was gaining momentum, they were determined to create a newer, better cruise line, with new ships, larger, more standard cabins, and focusing more on food and service in the European tradition.
Its image as a ‘premium’ line is justified because the product delivery on board is superior to that of its parent company, Royal Caribbean International, which bought it in 1997 for $1.3 billion. The ships are recognizable, thanks to the ‘X’ on the funnel denoting the third letter from the end of the Greek alphabet, the Greek ‘chi’ or ‘Ch’ in English, for Chandris, the founding family.
In 2007 Celebrity Cruises created sub-brand Azamara Cruises (now Azamara Club Cruises), with two small ships: Azamara Journey (2000) and Azamara Quest (2000). These focus on lesser-visited destinations, and offer a more personal cruise experience. All hotel services and cruise operations are, however, operated by Celebrity Cruises.
A Baroque parade aboard Celebrity Eclipse.
Celebrity Cruises/Michel Verdure
What is it really like?
The ships are usually very clean and well maintained. There are always lots of flowers and flower displays - some ships have flower shops, where you can buy fresh blooms for special occasions.
There’s a lot of fine artwork aboard Celebrity’s ships; it may not be to everybody’s taste, but it is probably the cruise industry’s most remarkable collection of contemporary art. The company provides a lot of the niceties that other lines have long forgotten, although some are now playing ‘catch up’: waiters who carry your trays when you obtain food from buffets or casual eateries; water spritzes on the pool deck. On days at sea in warm-weather areas, if you are sunbathing on deck, someone will bring you a cold towel, and a sorbet, iced water, or iced tea.
Regardless of the accommodation grade, Celebrity Cruises delivers a well-defined North American cruise experience at a modest price. Book a suite-category cabin for the extra benefits it brings - it’s worth it. Strong points include the many European staff and the higher standard of service, good spas with a wide range of facilities and treatments, taste-filled food served in the European dining tradition, and a ‘zero announcement policy.’ Such touches differentiate Celebrity Cruises from its competitors.
The ships have more staff than other ships of comparable size and capacity, especially in the housekeeping and food and beverage departments. This helps to create a better product. However, the company has seen fit to take away some items, such as personalized stationery (from some accommodation grades), it has substituted paper napkins for what used to be cloth napkins, and has reduced the amount and quality of fresh flower displays.
You can book spa, salon, and personal fitness appointments, make main (Celebrity Select) and specialty dining reservations, and shore excursions online before you cruise - so planning ahead will pay off (exception: Celebrity Xpedition).
Celebrity Reflection bocce champion officers.
Even so, such things as topless sunbathing spaces are now available aboard the ships (except, Celebrity Xpedition). Some cruises aboard some ships are designated adults-only.
Unfortunately, background music is played almost everywhere, and any lounge designated as ‘music-free’ is typically full of activities and participation events, so it’s hard to find a quiet corner to sit and read.
So, what are the differences between Celebrity Cruises and its parent, Royal Caribbean International? Here are a few food-related examples:
RCI (Radiance of the Seas):
Café: Seattle Coffee Company coffee, in paper cups.
Dining Room: no tables for two.
In the Windjammer Café, waiters don’t help passengers to tables with trays; plastic plates are used; cutlery is wrapped in paper napkins; melamine mugs are used for coffee/tea; tea selection poor - impossible to get hot water.
Celebrity Cruises (Celebrity Century):
Café el Bacio: Coffees/teas served in china cups and saucers, with doily and chocolate.
Dining Room food: Good quality and presentation.
Dining Room: Tables for two are available.
Lido Café: Staff line up to help passengers with trays to tables. Real china, white cloth napkins, polished cutlery, and a decent selection of teas are provided.
Making a Celebrity-style entrance down the Grand Foyer aboard a Millenium-class ship.
Celebrity Cruises/Steve Beaudet
All ships. There are no glitzy atrium lobbies, rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, or other puffery - just good European style in the elegant interiors. The exception is in the casinos, which are simply coin boxes wrapped in garish, unfriendly lighting.
Solstice-class ships. The colors are pleasing and elegant, and there’s also an abundance of designer chairs and sunloungers, including two-person clam-shell deck loungers.
Other ships. The decor is elegant - Greek, classical, minimalist. Celebrity Constellation, Celebrity Infinity, Celebrity Millennium, and Celebrity Summit were ‘Solsticized’ in 2011-2012 to make them more consistent with the latest design and culinary trends in the newer ships.
Celebrity Cruises has some of the most eclectic sculptures and original artwork, from Picasso to Warhol, found at sea.
The Lawn Club aboard Celebrity Silhouette.
Celebrity Cruises/Michel Verdure
Junior passengers are divided into Shipmates (three to six years), Cadets (seven to nine), Ensigns (10-12), Teens (13-17).
Best ships for children. Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection, Celebrity Silhouette, Celebrity Solstice.
Table settings are excellent, with fine-quality linen, china, and glassware. Tables for two are available - far more than by most other major lines. What sets Celebrity apart is the superior training and supervision of dining room waiters, and the service.
The food represents a range of culinary influences; it is based loosely on classic French cuisine, modified to appeal to North Americans and Europeans alike, and menus are standardized across the fleet and have been dumbed down since a new regime took over from Michel Roux - meatloaf, spaghetti, and striploin for dinner are pathetic for what is supposed to be a ‘premium’ product. Items that can be made at home cannot be considered as acceptable. For better quality, Celebrity Cruises wants you to pay extra to eat in the specialty venues. Full service in-cabin dining is also available for all meals, including dinner.
The food is made from good-quality ingredients. Take croissants, for example. Those found aboard Celebrity ships are made fresh each morning, while aboard most competitors’ ships they are purchased ashore.
Celebrity Cruises also has some trained wine waiters. Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection, Celebrity Silhouette, and Celebrity Solstice have special wine rooms for tastings. Celebrity Constellation, Celebrity Infinity, Celebrity Millennium, and Celebrity Summit have special wine rooms in one of the ‘specialty’ restaurants that you can dine in, and fine wines that can cost thousands of dollars a bottle. But there are also wines that start at about $20.
Casual eateries. There are casual self-serve buffets aboard all Celebrity Cruises’ ships. Except for Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection, Celebrity Silhouette, and Celebrity Solstice, most are laid out in continuous straight lines, which cause congestion at peak times. Celebrity tries to be more creative with these buffets, and, like other cruise lines, has stations for pasta, faux sushi, salads, grill/rotisserie items, and hot food items. A waiter will - or should - take your tray to a table. A bar trolley service for drinks and wines is provided at lunchtime, and wine waiters are always on hand to discuss and take wine orders for dinner. All the ships make great martinis.
The coffee/tea factor. Regular (free) coffee is weak and poor. Score: 2 out of 10. If you order espresso/cappuccino coffees in the dining room, there is a charge, because they are treated like a bar item.
Café el Bacio. The cafés are in prominent locations and provide an agreeable setting for those who like decent Italian coffees, pastries, and cakes.
The company’s big production shows have been improving, particularly aboard Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection, Celebrity Silhouette, and Celebrity Solstice. Some shows are quite decent, with good costuming and lighting, but others look dated and lack storyline, flow, or connectivity. Each ship carries its own resident troupe of singers/dancers and audiovisual support staff. Bar service, available throughout shows, disrupts concentration.
Celebrity ships have a variety of bands and small musical units, although there is very little music for social dancing, other than disco and pop music. Then there are the summer camp-style audience participation events, games, and talent shows that don’t sit well with Celebrity’s quality of food and service. There are also the inevitable country line dances and playschool routines.
On days at sea the program is crammed with things to do, though the emphasis is on revenue-enhancing activities such as art auctions, bingo, and horse racing.
Celebrity’s classy approach
There really are four ‘classes’ aboard Celebrity ships: accommodation designated as suites; those in standard (exterior-view) and interior (no-view) cabins; a third that comes between the two, known as Concierge Class; and Aqua (Spa) Class.
Concierge Class brings added value to passengers with enhanced facilities including priority embarkation, disembarkation, priority tender tickets, specialty dining, and spa reservations; European duvet; double-bed overlay (no more falling ‘between the cracks’ for couples); choice of four pillows (goose down pillow, isotonic pillow, body pillow, conformance pillow); eight-vial flower vase on vanity desk; throw pillows on sofa; fruit basket; binoculars; golf umbrella; leather telephone notepad; larger beach towels; hand-held hairdryer. Balconies get better furniture. In the bathrooms: plusher Frette bathrobe; larger towels in sea-green and pink (alternating days); flower in silver vase in bathroom.
Aqua Class accommodation occupants get priority access to spa treatments, and special ‘uprated’ spa amenities.
Best foot forward beside a Costa funnel.
Atlantica-class ships. Costa Atlantica (2000), Costa Deliziosa (2010), Costa Fascinosa (2012), Costa Favolosa (2010), Costa Luminosa (2009), Costa Mediterranea (2003)
Fortuna-class ships. Costa Diadema (2014), Costa Fortuna (2003), Costa Magica (2004), Costa Pacifica (2009), Costa Serena (2007)
Classica-class ships. Costa Classica (1992) to become Costa neoClassica in December 2014
Other ships. Costa Victoria (1996)
Costa neo-Collection ships. Costa neoClassica (1992), Costa neoRiviera (1999), Costa neoRomantica (1993)
Costa Cruises covers the Greek Islands.
About the company
Costa Cruises traces its history back to 1860, when Giacomo Costa started an olive oil business. The first ship, in 1924, transported that oil. After he died in 1924, his sons, Federico, Eugenio, and Enrico, inherited the business. First they bought Ravenna, a cargo ship, to cut transport costs for their olive oil empire. In 1948 Costa’s first passenger ship, the Anna ‘C’, carried passengers in style from Genoa to South America. In 1997, Costa Cruises was bought by the US’s Carnival Corporation and UK’s Airtours plc. Three years later Carnival took full control.
Costa specializes in cruises for Europeans or passengers with European tastes, and particularly Italians, during the summer. It has initiated an aggressive newbuild policy in recent years, in order to modernize the company’s aging fleet of different-size ships. The ships operate in three main markets: the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and South America.
Most ships are well maintained, although there are inconsistencies throughout the fleet. The same is true of cleanliness - some ships are very clean, while others are a little dusty around the edges, as are its shore tenders. The company’s safety procedures came under scrutiny when Costa Concordia struck rocks and capsized off the Italian island of Giglio in January 2012.
In 2013 the company started a sub-brand called Costa neoCollection, and the two ships in this branding feature longer cruises at slower speeds, in order to provide a better onboard experience (ships: Costa neoRiviera, Costa neoRomantica).
What is it really like?
Costa is noted for its lively ‘Italian’ ambience. There are few Italian crew members, however; although many officers are Italian. The dress code is casual, even on formal nights.
One night at the end of each cruise may be reserved for a ‘Roman Bacchanal,’ when passengers dress up toga-style for dinner and beyond. This is a cruise line for those who like to party. If you want quiet, take earplugs - good ones.
On European and Mediterranean cruises, English will be the language least spoken, as most passengers will be Italian, Spanish, French, or German. On Caribbean itineraries, a high percentage of passengers will speak Spanish, as the ships carry passengers from Latin American countries in addition to passengers from North America.
Expect to cruise with a lot of children of all ages if you book for peak holiday cruises - and remember that in Europe schoolchildren at certain times such as Easter have longer vacations. On some European itineraries, passengers embark and disembark in almost every port along the way, which makes for a disjointed cruise experience since there’s almost no start or end to the cruise. There is almost no information for passengers who want to be independent in ports of call, and not take the ship’s organized general excursions.
There is extensive smoking on board. No-smoking zones and signs are often ignored to the frustration of non-smoking passengers, and ashtrays are moved at whim; many of the officers and crew also smoke, even when moving through public rooms, so they don’t bother to enforce the no-smoking zones.
Cabins tend to be small, but the decor is fresh, and the bathrooms are very practical units. Some ships have cabin bathrooms with sliding doors - an excellent alternative to inward-openers that use up space.
Bold hull design for Norwegian Breakaway.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Older ships. Costa Classica (to become Costa neoClassica in December 2014), Costa neoRiviera, Costa neoRomantica, and Costa Victoria have a more European feel. They are lively without being brash, or pastel-toned without being boring.
Newer, larger ships. Costa Atlantica, Costa Deliziosa, Costa Diadema, Costa Fascinosa, Costa Favolosa, Costa Fortuna, Costa Luminosa, Costa Magica, Costa Mediterranea, Costa Pacifica, and Costa Serena have an in-your-face brashness similar to Carnival’s ships, with grainy and unflattering digital artwork on walls and panels, and even inside elevators.
If you expect to be served by jovial Italian waiters, you’ll be disappointed - although the restaurant managers might be Italian. All ships have two seatings for dinner; dining times on Europe/Mediterranean and South America cruises are usually later than those in the Caribbean because Europeans and Latin passengers eat much later than North Americans. Few tables for two are available, most being for four, six, or eight. All dining rooms are smoke-free - in theory.
The cuisine is best described as Continental, with many regional Italian dishes and much emphasis on pasta: 50 pasta dishes per cruise. Except for pasta dishes (made fresh on board) and cream sauces, presentation and food quality are not memorable, and are the subject of many negative comments from passengers. While the quality of meat is adequate, it is often disguised with gravies and rich sauces. Fish and seafood tend to lack taste, and are often overcooked. Green vegetables are hard to come by. Breads and bread rolls are usually good, but the desserts are of supermarket quality and lack taste.
There is a wine list but no wine waiters; table waiters are expected to serve both food and wine, which does not work well. Almost all wines are young - very young.
Specialty dining venues. If you opt for one of the specialty restaurants aboard the larger ships, note that a cover charge applies.
Casual eateries. All ships have self-serve lido buffets. In most, you have to move along with your tray, but the latest ships have more active stations and individual islands. The items available are quite basic.
The coffee/tea factor. Regular coffee: decent and quite strong. Score: 5 out of 10. Espresso/cappuccino coffees (Lavazza) are among the best served by the major cruise lines: the main competition is from Celebrity Cruises’ Café el Bacio (Star Cruises also serves Lavazza).
Costa ships are best suited to young couples, singles, and families with children who enjoy big-city life, multicultural fellow passengers, outdoor cafés, constant activity, eating late, loud entertainment, and food more notable for quantity than quality. All printed materials (room service folio, menus, etc.) are in six languages: Italian, English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. Announcements are made in at least four languages.
Junior passengers are in three groups: Kids Club (ages three to six); Junior Club (seven to 12); and Teen Club (13-17). The program varies by ship, itinerary, and season. Group babysitting is available 6:30-11pm. During port days, babysitting is available generally 8:30am-12:30pm and 2:30-6:30pm.
Best ships for children. Costa Atlantica, Costa Diadema, Costa Deliziosa, Costa Fascinosa, Costa Fortuna, Costa Fabolosa, Costa Luminosa, Costa Magica, Costa Mediterranea, Costa Pacifica, Costa Serena.
Each ship carries its own resident troupe of singers/dancers and audiovisual support staff, but Costa Cruises is not known for the quality of its entertainment. What it does present tends to be of the ‘no finesse’ variety, with revue-style shows that have little storyline, poor choreography and execution, but plenty of fast-moving action - more stepping in place than dancing - and lots of volume. It’s entertainment to pass the time rather than remember.
Cabaret acts - typically singers, magicians, comedy jugglers, ventriloquists, and so on - are entertaining but rather ho-hum. Most passenger participation activities include poolside games such as a ‘Belly Flop’ competition, election of the ‘Ideal Couple,’ and other juvenile games - but some families love them. There are also dance classes, and the inevitable ‘Fine Art Auction.’
The Ocean Place complex on Norwegian Getaway.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Queen Elizabeth (2010), Queen Mary 2 (2004), Queen Victoria (2007).
About the company
Cunard Line was established in 1839, as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, to carry the Royal Mail and passengers from the Old World to the New. Its first ship, Britannia, sailed on its maiden voyage on American Independence Day in 1840. The author Charles Dickens crossed the Atlantic aboard the ship in 1842 together with 62 other passengers, 93 crew members, one cow, and, most important, Her Majesty’s mails and dispatches. Since 1840, Cunard Line has always had ships built to sail across the North Atlantic. From 1850 until the arrival of QE2 in 1969, all of the line’s ships and those of White Star Line (with which Cunard merged in 1934) had several classes. Your luggage label, therefore, declared not only your name but also what you could afford. Today, there’s no class distinction, other than by the grade of accommodation you choose.
But one is still reminded of the company’s illustrious history. For example, Cunard Line was the first company to take passengers on regularly scheduled transatlantic crossings. They also introduced the first passenger ship to be lit by electricity (Servia, 1881), as well as introducing the first steam turbine engines in an ocean liner (Carmania, 1905). Cunard had the first ship to have an indoor swimming pool aboard a ship (Aquitania, 1914), and pioneered an around-the-world cruise (Laconia, 1922). Cunard has held the record for the largest passenger ship ever built (Queen Elizabeth, between 1940 and 1996), and is presently the only company to sail regularly scheduled year-round transatlantic crossings (Queen Mary 2).
Cunard has four distinct accommodation classes, each linked to a specific restaurant: Queens Grill, Princess Grill, Britannia Club, and Britannia.
Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary 2 rendezvous in Sydney.
What is it really like?
Sailing with Cunard Line is quite different from being aboard a standard cruise ship. The ships incorporate a lot of maritime history and the grand traditions of ocean liners - as opposed to the other ships, with their tendency toward tacky high-street trappings.
Assuming your sea legs can cope with sometimes less than calm waters, a transatlantic crossing is supremely civilized, particularly if you can enjoy being cosseted in accommodation that allows you to dine in the ‘grill’-class restaurants with their fine cuisine and presentation. There’s less pressure from staff to get you to buy drinks than with other lines, and the itineraries are well spaced and not so hectic.
Cunard Line’s three vessels are best suited to a wide range of seasoned and well-traveled couples and single passengers who enjoy the cosmopolitan setting of an ocean liner, with their extensive array of facilities, public rooms, dining rooms, and lecture programs. Cunard Line is the only cruise line that lets you take your dog or cat with you (Queen Mary 2 transatlantic crossings only). Also, one of its most successful formulas is its adherence to formal dress codes - in contrast to the downward sartorial spiral of most cruise lines. Distinctly un-British, however, is the onboard currency: the US dollar.
All three ships have Art Deco decor, fine wood mosaics, and many attributes of the old ocean liners, albeit in a more modern, contemporary setting.
Cunard Line uses good-quality ingredients, sourced in Europe and the US. The cuisine is still of a mass-market standard - some venues have butter in packets. However, in self-serve buffets, salt and pepper are usually provided on each table. Espressos and cappuccinos are -available in the dining rooms, and at extra cost in many bars. Cunard uses Italian coffee - Café Mosetti, a sub-brand of Lavazza.
All ships have ‘grill rooms’ as well as traditional large restaurants and casual self-service dining venues. Grill rooms are more exclusive and some have à la carte menus, while the main restaurants have fixed menus. The grill rooms have seating dining at assigned tables, when you wish, while the main Britannia restaurants in all ships have two seatings.
The cuisine includes many traditional British favorites, together with extensive French dishes as well as regional specialties from around the world, nicely presented on Wedgwood porcelain.
Children’s facilities are best aboard Queen Mary 2, although not as extensive as aboard the former Queen Elizabeth 2. Youngsters are supervised by real English nannies.
Production shows are colorful and visual, with pre-recorded backing tracks supplementing the showband. Other shows consist of cabaret acts - typically singers, magicians, mimes, comedy jugglers, and, occasionally, comedians - doing the cruise ship circuit. A number of bands and small musical units provide live music for dancing and listening.
Holland America Line
Statendam-class. Maasdam (1993), Ryndam (1994), Statendam (1993), Veendam (1996)
Rotterdam-class. Amsterdam (2000), Rotterdam (1997), Volendam (1999), Zaandam (2000)
Zuiderdam-class. Eurodam (2008), Nieuw Amsterdam (2010), Noordam (2006), Oosterdam (2003), Westerdam (2004), Zuiderdam (2002)
Others. Prinsendam (1988)
About the company
Holland America Line was founded in 1873 as the Netherlands-America Steamship Company, shipping immigrants to the New World from Rotterdam. It moved its headquarters to New York in 1971. It bought into Alaskan hotels and transportation when it acquired Westours in 1983, and is one of the state’s biggest employers. In 1989, it was acquired by Carnival Cruise Lines, but retained its Seattle-based headquarters.
HAL carries both traditional cruise passengers (senior citizens, alumni groups) and multi-generational families. It tries hard to keep its Dutch connections, with antique artifacts and traditional decor, as well as Indonesian stewards. It has a private island, Half Moon Cay, in the Bahamas.
Holland America Line gets up-close to Alaska.
Holland America Line
What is it really like?
Fresh management with updated ideas, the line’s ‘Signature of Excellence’ program, the food variety, and creativity has improved the HAL experience. The ships benefit from lots of fresh flowers, museum-quality art pieces, and more attention to detail than all the other major lines, with the exception of Celebrity Cruises.
The brand encompasses basically two types of ship. Younger families with children and grandchildren are best suited to the newer, larger vessels such as Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Noordam, Oosterdam, Westerdam, and Zuiderdam, whereas those of senior years - HAL’s traditional audience of repeat passengers from alumni groups - are best suited to ships that are smaller and less glitzy (Amsterdam, Maasdam, Prinsendam, Rotterdam, Ryndam, Statendam, Veendam, and Zaandam). All the ships are well maintained, and cleaning takes place constantly. All ships have teakwood outdoor promenade decks, whereas most rivals have artificial grass or some other form of indoor-outdoor carpeting. Explorations Cafés have been built into its ships recently.
Holland America Line has its own training school in Jakarta, Indonesia, and pre-trains crew members who have never been to sea before. Many crew members have been promoted to supervisory positions due to a host of new ships introduced, but few of those promoted have the formal training, professional, or management skills. Internal promotion is fine, but decreased professionalism is not the price that passengers should pay.
HAL is one of only three major cruise lines with cinemas built into all its ships. It also operates many theme-related cruises, and has an extensive ‘University at Sea’ program of life-enrichment lecturers. The cinemas also have superb full demonstration kitchens built in for a ‘Culinary Arts’ program that includes celebrity chefs and interactive cooking demos.
HAL has established smoking and no-smoking areas throughout its ships, but there are many more smokers than you might expect, depending on ship and itinerary.
As part of its Signature of Excellence refurbishment program, its ships received ‘Mix’ - a ‘lifestyle’ facility - an open area with three themed specialty bars: Champagne (serving Champagne and sparkling wines from around the world), Martinis (martinis in individual shakers), and Spirits & Ales (a sports bar).
Aboard Amsterdam, Maasdam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Prinsendam, Rotterdam, Ryndam, Statendam, Veendam, Volendam, and Zaandam, the decor is rather bland (restful), with eclectic artwork focused on Dutch artifacts, mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Aboard the newer ships (Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Noordam, Oosterdam, Westerdam, and Zuiderdam) the decor is livelier - good for families with children who like bright things such as large wall panels with digital in-your-face artwork that present an Alice in Wonderland look. You probably wouldn’t go for it in your living room, but aboard these large resort ships it works.
For dinner, Holland America Line features both open seating (on one level) or assigned tables (at fixed times, on the other level) in its two-deck dining rooms; it’s called As You Wish dining. For breakfast and lunch in the main dining room, an open-seating policy applies. All dining venues are non-smoking.
Some tables for two are available, but most are for four, six, eight, or 10. The larger tables are ideal for multi-generational families. Fine Rosenthal china and cutlery are used. Live music is provided for dinner. ‘Lighter option’ meals are always available for the nutrition-conscious and the weight-conscious.
Holland America Line food was upgraded slightly when master chef Rudi Sodamin arrived in 2005 as a consultant; he introduced his ‘Wild about Salmon’ and other creative ideas, and the Culinary Arts Center (with its own dedicated live interactive demonstration kitchen and guest chef program) has been a success story. The company now includes more regional cuisine and local ingredients. The main course portions are small (better for passengers of senior years).
However, while the USDA beef is very good, poultry and most fish tend to be overcooked (except when the ships are in Alaska, where the halibut and salmon are excellent). Note that ‘downmarket’ packets of sugar and packets (instead of glass jars) of supermarket-brand breakfast jams, marmalade and honey, sugar, and butter are the norm. Also, coffees and teas are poor-quality, except in the extra-charge Explorations Café. Dessert and pastry items are good, but canned fruit and jellied desserts are much in evidence. Most of the ‘international’ cheeses are highly colored, processed cheese (cruises in Europe have access to European cheeses).
HAL also offers complimentary ice cream during certain hours of the day, as well as hot hors d’oeuvres in all bars - something other major lines seem to have dropped, or charge extra for. Cabin service breakfasts are very basic, with only Continental breakfast available and little hot food.
HAL can provide kosher meals. As the ships don’t have kosher kitchens, these are prepared ashore, frozen, and brought to your table sealed in containers.
The wine list relies heavily on wines from California and Washington State, with few decent French or German wines, other than those found in a typical supermarket ashore. A Connoisseur List is available in the Pinnacle Grill.
Specialty dining venues. All HAL ships have specialty spots called Pinnacle Grill (or Pinnacle Grill at the Odyssey Restaurant), specializing in Pacific Northwest cuisine. Items include sesame-crusted halibut with ginger-miso, and an array of premium-quality steaks, presented tableside prior to cooking. These are more intimate restaurants, with tablecloths, linen napkins, and decent-size wine glasses. The food is better than in the main dining rooms. There is a cover charge, and reservations are required. Bulgari china, Frette linens, and Reidel glasses are part of this enhanced dining experience.
Casual eateries. All ships have a Lido Deck self-serve buffet. Most are lines you move along with your tray, although the latest ships have more ‘active’ stations (examples: omelets and pasta cooked to order) and individual islands. There are decent salad bars, dessert bars, regional specialties, and grilled fast-food items such as hamburgers, salmon burgers, hot dogs, and French fries. These venues become overcrowded during breakfast and lunch.
Regular coffee is half-decent, but weak. Score: 3 out of 10. Espresso/cappuccino coffees (Dutch) are better, served in proper china, but not quite up to the standard of Celebrity or Costa. Score: 6 out of 10.
HAL’s Signature of Excellence
Between 2004 and 2006, Signature of Excellence improvements were introduced at a cost of $225 million. These covered dining, service, accommodation, and activities, and included ‘Premium-Plus’ Euro-Top mattresses, cotton bed linens or duvets (top suites only), massage showerheads, fruit baskets, and DVD players. Elemis personal bathroom amenities are provided for all passengers (these are better than Celebrity’s present bathroom amenities, for example). Suite occupants also have access to a Neptune Lounge (with concierge services), thus in effect creating a two-class system that suite occupants like. Bathrobes and a range of personal toiletries are provided for all passengers, and hot hors d’oeuvres and canapés are always part of the pre-dinner cocktail scene.
Club HAL: Junior passengers are divided into three age-appropriate groups: three to eight, nine to 12, and teens. Programming is based on the number of children booked on any given sailing, and children’s counselors are provided accordingly. HAL’s children’s programs are not as extensive as those of Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, although they are improving with the latest ships.
Best ships for children. Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Noordam, Oosterdam, Westerdam, Zaandam, Zuiderdam.
Holland America Line is not known for lavish entertainment (the budgets aren’t high enough). The production shows, while a good attempt, fall short on storyline, choreography, and performance, while colorful costuming and lighting hide the weak spots. Each ship carries its own resident troupe of singers and dancers and audio-visual support staff. HAL also offers a consistently good, tried and tested array of cabaret acts that constantly pop up on the cruise ship circuit.
A number of bands, a string ensemble, and solo musicians present live music for dancing and listening in many of the lounges and bars. Each ship has a Crow’s Nest Lounge (by day an observation lounge) for social dancing, and there is always serenading string music in the Explorer’s Lounge and dining room.
Perfecting a high-tech swing aboard HAL’s Prinsendam.
Holland America Line
Fantasia-class ships. MSC Divina (2012), MSC Fantasia (2008), MSC Preziosa (2013), MSC Splendida (2009)
Lirica-class ships. MSC Armonia (2001), MSC Lirica (2003), MSC Opera (2004), MSC Sinfonia (2005)
Musica-class ships. MSC Magnifica (2010), MSC Musica (2006), MSC Orchestra (2007), MSC Poesia (2008)
About the company
The HQ of the world’s largest privately owned cruise line is in Geneva, Switzerland, home of parent company Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s second-biggest container shipping company. Operations and marketing are based in Genoa, Italy. It started in the passenger shipping business by acquiring the Italian company Star Lauro in 1995, together with two older ships, Monterey and Rhapsody. It expanded with the purchase of Melody, followed by almost new ships bought from the bankrupt Festival Cruises.
MSC Cruises has grown incredibly fast, and is owned by a shipping-based family, not a faceless corporation. In 2014, MSC Cruises announced a $273 million program to ‘chop and stretch’ four ships to update them and accommodate more passengers (MSC Armonia, MSC Lirica, MSC Opena, and MSC Sinfonia.
What is it really like?
MSC Cruises’ ships are suited to adult couples and singles, and families with children. They are good for those who enjoy big-city life, a multicultural atmosphere, outdoor cafés, and constant activity accompanied by plenty of live music and late nights. Foodie passengers should note that the food ranges from adequate to very good.
MSC Cruises uses the most environmentally friendly detergents and cleaning materials in its housekeeping department and laundries. It has drastically reduced its onboard use of plastic items and is aiming to eliminate them entirely. The larger ships (MSC Divina, MSC Fantasia, MSC Preziosa, and MSC Splendida) have an exclusive Yacht Club lounge for suite-grade passengers. This provides exclusive open-seating dining, a private sun deck oasis area, access to the well-run Aurea Spa, priority embarkation, and butler service.
MSC crews typically operate in five languages.
The ships typically operate in five languages, with embarkation-day announcements in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. During the cruise, there are, however, few announcements. Given this multilingual emphasis, production shows and other major entertainment displays are more visual than verbal. For the same reason, the ships don’t generally carry lecturers.
Cigar lovers will find a selection of Cuban (including Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo e Julieta, Partagás), Dominican (Davidoff), and Italian (Toscano) smokes in the cigar lounges.
The decor is decidedly European/Mediterranean, with much understated elegance and really high-quality soft furnishings and other materials such as Italian marble, and Swarovski glass stairways. The latest ships are much brighter and more contemporary, albeit with restraint.
MSC Cruises provides better-quality ingredients, almost all sourced in Europe, than some other major cruise lines. The cuisine is still mainstream - you’ll find butter in packets, for example. But, at the self-serve buffets, salt and pepper are typically provided on each table, not in packets as on most major cruise lines. Espressos and cappuccinos (Segafredo brand Italian coffee) are available in the dining rooms, at extra cost, and in almost all bars - which also have coffees from Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru.
Aboard the newer ships, MSC Cruises has introduced the Italian ‘slow food’ concept. Always available items include spaghetti, chicken breast, salmon fillet, and vegetables of the day. Refreshingly, the company spotlights regional Italian cuisine and wine, so daily dining room menus feature food from regions such as Calabria, Piedmont, Lazio, Puglia, and Sicily.
All pizza dough is made on board, and risotto is a daily signature item for MSC Cruises and something the ships do really well; each ship also makes one type of pasta almost daily. Spaghetti is always available, with a tomato sauce freshly made each day. Several varieties of Italian breads such as bruschetta, focaccia, and panettone are provided.
Specialty dining venues. The newest ships have a specialty restaurant. Aboard MSC Divina, MSC Fantasia, and MSC Splendida, it is Tex-Mex. Aboard MSC Musica and MSC Poesia, it is Kaito, an authentic Japanese restaurant and sushi bar with an extensive menu. Aboard MSC Magnifica and MSC Orchestra, it is Shanghai, a Chinese restaurant with real wok cooking, dim sum, and other Chinese and Asian specialties. The quality is high, and it really is worth having at least one meal in these venues; the à la carte prices are very reasonable.
Room service. Continental breakfast is complimentary from 7:30 to 10am, while room service snacks can be bought at any other time. A basket of fruit is provided to all cabins at embarkation, and replenished daily for suite-grade accommodation.
Up to three children over two and under 17, cruise free when sharing a cabin with two adults (paying only port dues). Children are divided into three age groups, with facilities to match: Mini Club (ages three to nine); Junior Club (10-13); Teenagers Club (over 14, a pre-paid Teen Card is available). While the facilities and play areas aren’t as extensive as those aboard some other major lines, a ‘baby parking’ service is useful when parents want to go ashore on excursions. MSC Cruises’ mascot is Do-Re-Mi - the von Trapp family of Sound of Music fame would no doubt be delighted.
Best ships for children. MSC Divina, MSC Fantasia, MSC Magnifica, MSC Musica, MSC Opera, MSC Orchestra, MSC Poesia, MSC Preziosa, MSC Splendida.
Because of the multilingual passenger mix, production shows are colorful and visual, particularly aboard the newest ships. Other shows consist of unknown cabaret acts such as singers, magicians, mimes, and comedy jugglers doing the cruise ship circuit. The ship carries a number of bands and small musical units that provide live music for dancing or listening, but there is no showband, and production shows use pre-recorded backing tracks.
Azura is P&O Cruises’ most advanced ship.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Dawn-class. Norwegian Dawn (2002), Norwegian Star (2002)
Epic-class. Norwegian Breakaway (2013), Norwegian Epic (2010), Norwegian Getaway (2014)
Jewel-class. Norwegian Gem (2007), Norwegian Jade (2006), Norwegian Jewel (2005), Norwegian Pearl (2006)
Others. Norwegian Sky (1999), Norwegian Spirit (1998), Norwegian Sun (2001), Pride of America (2005)
About the company
Norwegian Cruise Line, the originator of contemporary cruising, was founded in 1966 by three Norwegian shipping companies as Klosters Sunward Ferries and was renamed Norwegian Caribbean Line in 1967. It was bought by Star Cruises in 2000, and has been replacing its older, smaller ships with brand new, larger vessels. NCL also operates one ship with mostly American crews and a base in Hawaii.
Freestyle Cruising is how NCL describes its operation - although it’s hard to detect style in the onboard product (I call it American Bistro-style). Its fleet is diverse, so the cruise experience can vary, although this makes for interesting character variation between the various ship categories. There is more standardization aboard the larger, newer ships. The senior officers are the only thing that’s Norwegian.
Most standard cabins are extremely small, though they are laid out in a practical manner. Closet and drawer space is limited aboard newer ships.
What is it really like?
If this is your first cruise, you should enjoy a good overall vacation in a lively, upbeat setting. The lifestyle is contemporary, fresh, creative, and sporty, with a casualness typical of youthful city dwellers, and with its ‘eat when you want’ philosophy, the shipboard ambience is ultra-casual. The dress code is, too - indeed, the waiters are probably better dressed than many passengers. The staff members are generally congenial, and you’ll find a high percentage of women in cabin and restaurant service departments - more than most major cruise lines.
There’s plenty of lively music, constant activity, entertainment, and food that’s mainstream and acceptable but nothing more - unless you pay extra to eat in the specialty dining spots. All this is delivered by a smiling, very friendly service staff, who can lack polish, but are obliging. In the latest wheeze to extract revenue, NCL has started ‘Backstage Tours’ costing $55 or $150 (depending on what’s included).
NCL’s Private Island (Great Stirrup Cay). Only coffee and iced water are free (there’s no iced tea), all other drinks are charged.
The newest ships have colorful, eye-catching designs on their hulls, differentiating them from the competition.
NCL has recognized the increasing trend away from formal restaurants (purpose: dining) toward bistros (purpose: eating faster). For cruising, NCL has championed more choices in dining than any other cruise line, except sister company Star Cruises, which started ‘Freestyle Dining.’
This allows you to try different types of cuisine, in different settings, when you want. In practice, however, it means that you have to make reservations, which can prove frustrating at times, and getting it just right takes a little planning and, often, waiting. Food in the main dining rooms is poor to average and marginally better in the extra-charge venues.
Freestyle Dining works best aboard the ships that have been specially designed to accommodate it: Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Spirit, Norwegian Star, Norwegian Sun, and Pride of America.
On production show nights, most people want to eat at the same time in order to see the shows, causing massive prime-time congestion, slow service, and utter frustration; pagers are given out for anyone waiting for a table. The ships have plasma screens or touch screens in various locations, so you can make reservations when you want, and see at a glance the waiting times for a table. The self-serve buffets are mostly chaotic, mob-scene affairs (and very repetitive), and should be avoided.
After-dinner espressos/cappuccinos are available in the dining rooms at no extra charge - a nice feature. Once each cruise there’s a Chocoholics Buffet with paper plates and plastic cutlery. The wine list is quite good, with many excellent wines in the $20-30 range. But the wine is typically served by table waiters, whose knowledge of wines tends to be limited.
Cabin service breakfasts are very basic, with only Continental breakfast available and no hot food items - for those, you’ll need to go to a restaurant or self-serve buffet. The non-breakfast Room Service menu has only two hot items available throughout the day: Oriental soup and pizza - the rest is cold (salads and sandwiches).
The coffee/tea factor. Regular coffee: weak and poor. Score: 2 out of 10. Iced tea: pitifully weak. Espresso/cappuccino coffees score 4 out of 10. Some bars have (extra-cost) espresso/cappuccino machines.
The FlowRider aboard one of the Royal Caribbean International ships.
Royal Caribbean International
NCL’s Splash Academy and Entourage programs divide children into several groups, according to age: Guppies (ages 6 months to three years); Junior sailors (three to five); First Mates (six to eight); Navigators (nine to 12); and two Teens groups (13-14 and 15-17). NCL’s revamped kids and teens programming was developed in conjunction with the King’s Foundation and Camps, a UK-based organization that provides quality sports and activity programs. There’s also programming for babies and toddlers ages six months to three years (Guppies). Group babysitting services are also available, at an extra change. Special price packages are available for soft drinks.
Best ships for children. Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Spirit, Norwegian Star, Norwegian Sun.
NCL has exciting production shows that provide color and spectacle in a predictable - though now dated - format. Each ship has a resident troupe of singers/dancers. There are two or three production shows in a typical seven-day cruise. They are all colorful, high-energy, razzle-dazzle shows, with much use of laser and color-mover lights. They’re perhaps not very memorable - but they are very entertaining.
Oasis of the Seas’ Central Park.
Royal Caribbean International
Adults-only ships. Adonia (2001), Arcadia (2005), Oriana (1995)
Family-friendly ships. Aurora (2000), Azura (2010), Britannia (2015), Oceana (2000), Ventura (2008)
About the company
Its full name is the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, though none of its ships is still powered by steam turbines. Based in Southampton, England, it was founded in 1837, just before Samuel Cunard established his company, and was awarded a UK government contract in 1840 to carry the mails from Gibraltar to Alexandria.
P&O Cruises acquired Princess Cruises in 1974, Swan Hellenic in 1982, and Sitmar Cruises in 1988. In 2000 it demerged from its parent to establish itself as P&O Princess plc. It was bought by the Carnival Corporation in 2003, and celebrated its 175th anniversary on July 3, 2012, when all seven ships assembled in Southampton.
What is it really like?
P&O Cruises has always been a traditional British cruise company, never quite matching the quality aboard the Cunard Line ships (whose onboard currency is, strangely, the US dollar), which have more international passengers. With the ship having British captains and navigation officers and Indian/Goanese service staff, the British traditions of unobtrusive service are preserved and well presented. British food favorites (considered bland by some) provide the real comfort factor in a single-language setting that provides a home from home on ships for families with children, or on adults-only ships.
It is targeted at British passengers who wanted to sail from a UK port - except for winter Caribbean cruises from Barbados. But now it’s also known for having adults-only ships, and so the two products differ widely in their communal spaces. It also makes an effort to provide theme cruises - antiques, art appreciation, classical music, comedy, cricket, gardening and horticulture, jazz, Scottish dance, etc. The ships usually carry ballroom dance instructors. Bed linen is changed twice a week - not as often as on some lines, such as MSC Cruises, where it is changed every two days.
A mix of British ‘traditional’ (think: comfy, dated armchairs, wood paneling, bistro-style food, non-glitzy). British artists are featured aboard all ships - Ventura, for example, displays works by more than 40 of them.
The cuisine is straightforward, no-nonsense British food, reasonably well presented on nice Wedgwood china. But it tends to be rather bland and uninspiring. It is typical of mass-banquet catering with standard fare comparable to that found in a family hotel in an English seaside town such as Scarborough.
The ingredients of many meals are disguised by gravies and sauces, as in Indian curries - well liked, of course, by most British passengers. Bread, desserts, and cakes are made well, and there is a wide variety. P&O Cruises always carries a decent selection of British, and some French, cheeses.
Most of the dining room staff are from India and provide warm and friendly service. Wine service is amateurish, and the lack of knowledge on wines is lamentable.
Specialty dining venues. Extra-cost restaurants with menus designed by some of Britain’s well-known television celebrity chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Atul Kochhar, have their own eateries aboard the ships. These are a mix of trendy bistro-style venues and restaurants with an Asia-Pacific theme.
Casual eateries. The self-serve buffets suffer from small, cramped facilities, and passengers complain of having to share them with the countless concession staff, who take over tables and congregate in groups. In other words, the buffets are too small to accommodate the needs of most passengers today.
The coffee/tea factor. Regular coffee: weak, and poor. Score: 3 out of 10. Good-quality tea- and coffee-making facilities are provided in all cabins. Self-serve beverage stations are provided at the buffets, but it’s often difficult to find proper teaspoons - often only wooden stirrers are available. Espresso/cappuccino coffees in the extra-charge venues are slightly better, but not as good as aboard the ships of Costa Cruises or MSC Cruises.
P&O Cruises has always been known for its traditional British-style entertainment, with lots of pub-like sing-along sessions for the masses. These have been augmented with in-house production shows that provide lots of color, costume changes, and high-tech lighting. Each ship carries its own resident troupe of singers and dancers, called Headliners.
P&O Cruises does a good job in providing guest lecturers with varying themes, as well as occasional after-dinner speakers such as well-known television personalities and book authors.
Grand-class ships (over 100,000 gross tonnage). Caribbean Princess (2004), Crown Princess (2006), Diamond Princess (2004), Emerald Princess (2007), Golden Princess (2001), Grand Princess (1998), Royal Princess (2013), Ruby Princess (2008), Sapphire Princess (2005), Star Princess (2002)
Pacific-class ships. Ocean Princess (1999), Pacific Princess (1999)
Coral-class ships. Coral Princess (2002), Island Princess (2003)
Other ships. Dawn Princess (1997), Sea Princess (1998), Sun Princess (1995)
About the company
Princess Cruises was founded by Stanley McDonald in 1965 with one ship, the former passenger ferry Princess Patricia, for cruises along the Mexican Riviera. In 1974, the company was bought by the UK’s Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), and in 1988 P&O/Princess Cruises merged with the Italian line Sitmar Cruises. In 2000, Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises fought a protracted battle to buy Princess Cruises. Carnival won.
Princess Cruises provides comfortable mainstream cruising aboard a fleet of mainly large resort ships (plus two small ships), and covers the world. The ships have a higher-than-average Passenger Space Ratio than competitors Carnival or RCI, and the service is friendly without being showy. In 2010 the company converted to fully digital travel documents, so there are no more ticket document wallets, and everything is online.
Some balconies can be overlooked from above, as aboard Ruby Princess.
What is it really like?
Ships in both the small and large resort categories are clean and always well maintained, and the open promenade decks of some ships have teak deck lounge chairs - others are plastic. Only Coral Princess and Island Princess have full walk-around open promenade decks; aboard all other Princess ships you can’t walk completely around the ship. The line also has a nice balance of officers, staff, and crew members, and its British connections help it to achieve the feeling of calmness aboard its ships that some other lines lack. Note that there is no Deck 13 aboard any of the ships, which is good news for superstitious passengers.
There are proper cinemas aboard most ships, as well as outdoor poolside mega-screens for showing evening ‘movies under the skies.’
Lines form at peak times for the information office, and for open-seating breakfast and lunch in the main dining rooms. Lines for shore excursions and shore tenders are a fact of life aboard large resort ships.
All passengers receive turndown service and chocolates on pillows each night, as well as bathrobes (on request) and toiletry kits - larger, naturally, for suite/mini-suite occupants - that typically include soap, shampoo, conditioner, and hand/body lotion. A hairdryer is provided in all cabins, sensibly located at a vanity desk unit in the lounge area. In 2012, smoking was prohibited in cabins and on cabin balconies.
The dress code is either formal - usually one formal night per seven-day cruise - or smart casual. The latter is interpreted by many as jeans or tracksuits and trainers.
All Grand-class ships include an adults-only area called ‘The Sanctuary,’ an extra-cost retreat at the top of the ship, forward of the mast. This provides a ‘private’ place to relax and unwind and includes attendants to provide chilled face towels and deliver light bites. It has thick-padded sunloungers both in the sun and in the shade, a swim-against-the-current pool, and there are also two outdoor cabanas for massages. I particularly recommend The Sanctuary as a retreat from the business of the rest of the ship. It’s worth the extra cost.
Princess’s onboard product, especially food and entertainment, is well established, and is geared to the North American market. But British and other European nationalities should feel at ease, but realize that this is all about highly organized, packaged cruising, food, and service. There is, however, an increasing emphasis on onboard revenue, so you can expect to be subjected to a stream of flyers advertising daily art auctions, ‘designer’ watches, and specialized classes such as the cruise line’s ScholarShip@Sea programs, etc.
Princess Cruises’ ships are best suited to couples, families with children and teenagers, and older singles who like to mingle in a large ship setting with sophisticated surroundings and lifestyle, and reasonably good entertainment. They offer fairly decent food and service, packaged affordably.
Shipboard hospitals have live SeaMed tele-medicine link-ups with specialists at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for emergency help - useful mainly for passengers who reside in the US.
Princess Cays is the company’s own ‘private island’ in the Caribbean. It’s all yours (along with a couple of thousand other passengers) for a day. However, it’s a tender ride away from the ship, so getting to it can take some time.
If Carnival’s ships have the brightest decor imaginable, the decor aboard Princess Cruises’ ships is almost the opposite - perhaps a little bland in places, with much use of neutral tones, calm colors, and pastels. This really does suit passengers who cruise with Princess again and again.
How to get hitched at sea
Princess Cruises has possibly the most extensive wedding program of any of the major lines, with its ‘Tie the Knot’ wedding packages. The ship’s captain can legally marry American couples at sea aboard its ships registered in Bermuda. This is by special dispensation, and should be verified when in the planning stage, since it may vary according to where you reside.
The basic wedding at sea package includes a personal wedding coordinator. Live music, a candlelit celebration officiated by the captain, Champagne, fresh floral arrangements, a bridal bouquet, boutonnière, a photographer, and a wedding cake can all be laid on, depending on the cruise line and package, with the wedding do in an exclusive wedding chapel (or other location).
You’ll also get keepsake Champagne flutes, and keepsake wedding certificate. Tuxedo rental is available. Harborside or shore-side packages vary according to the port. For the latest rates, see Princess Cruises’ website or your travel agent.
Although portions are generous, the food and its presentation are disappointing. Fish is often disguised by a crumb or batter coating, the selection of fresh green vegetables is limited, and few garnishes are used. However, do remember that this is big-ship banquet catering, with all its attendant standardization and production cooking. Meats are of a decent quality, although often disguised by gravy-based sauces. The pasta dishes are acceptable (though voluminous), and are typically served by section headwaiters, who may also make ‘something special just for you’ - in search of favorable comments and gratuities.
If you like desserts, order a sundae at dinner, as most other desserts are just so-so. Ice cream, when ordered in the dining room, is included, but costs extra elsewhere (Häagen-Dazs can be found at the poolside).
Specially designed dinnerware and good-quality linens and silverware are used, such as Dudson of England dinnerware, Frette Egyptian cotton table linens, with silverware by Hepp of Germany.
An extra-cost Chef’s Table Dinner is an indulgent, three-hour ‘foodertainment’ event (at $75 per person), in which the ship’s executive chef interacts with diners; appetizers and cocktails in the galley are followed by a multi-course tasting dinner with wines paired to the meal. The wine list is fair (not good). There are no dedicated wine waiters (waiters serve it).
Passengers in balcony-grade accommodation can enjoy a full-service Balcony Dinner for two at $50 per person extra, plus wine, and a truly indulgent Balcony Champagne Breakfast - it’s good value.
Casual eateries. For casual eating, each ship has a Horizon Buffet (open almost round the clock), and, at night, provides an informal dinner setting with sit-down waiter service. A small, limited bistro menu is also available. The buffet displays are mostly repetitious, but far better than in past years. There is no finesse in presentation, however, as plastic plates are provided, instead of trays. The cabin service menu is quite limited, and the presentation of food items is poor.
The coffee/tea factor. Regular coffee: weak and poor. Score: 2 out of 10. Except for the beverage station at the serve-yourself buffets, coffees/teas in bars cost extra.
Children are divided into three age groups: Princess Pelicans (ages two to five); Shockwaves (eight to 12); and Off-Limits or Remix (13-17). The groups are split into age-related activities, and Princess Cruises has good children’s counselors and supervised activities.
Best ships for children. Caribbean Princess, Coral Princess, Crown Princess, Dawn Princess, Diamond Princess, Emerald Princess, Golden Princess, Grand Princess, Island Princess, Ruby Princess, Sapphire Princess, Sea Princess, Star Princess, Sun Princess.
Princess Cruises’ production shows have always been aimed at its slightly older, more elegant passengers. The company prides itself on its glamorous all-American shows, and they should not disappoint. For variety, there are typically two or three shows during each seven-day cruise. Each ship has a resident troupe of singers and dancers.
Passenger participation events (some more successful than others) are put on by members of the cruise staff. Most lounges and bars have live music. Musical units range from solo pianists to string quartets, from a cappella singers to bands that can provide music for ballroom dancing. Princess Cruises also provides a number of male hosts as dance partners for women traveling alone.
Royal Caribbean International
Oasis-class ships. Allure of the Seas (2010), Oasis of the Seas (2009)
Quantum-class ships. Quantum of the Seas (2014), Anthem of the Seas (2015)
Freedom-class ships. Freedom of the Seas (2006), Independence of the Seas (2008), Liberty of the Seas (2007)
Voyager-class ships. Adventure of the Seas (2001), Explorer of the Seas (2000), Mariner of the Seas (2004), Navigator of the Seas (2003), Voyager of the Seas (1999)
Radiance-class ships. Brilliance of the Seas (2002), Jewel of the Seas (2004), Radiance of the Seas (2001), Serenade of the Seas (2003)
Vision-class ships. Enchantment of the Seas (1997), Grandeur of the Seas (1996), Legend of the Seas (1995), Rhapsody of the Seas (1997), Splendour of the Seas (1996), Vision of the Seas (1998)
Sovereign-class ships. Majesty of the Seas (1992)
About the company
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line was set up by three Norwegian shipping company dynasties in 1969: Arne Wilhelmsen, I.M. Skaugen, and Gotaas-Larsen (who was more of a sleeping partner). Its first ship, Song of Norway, debuted in 1970, followed by Nordic Prince and Sun Viking. Royal Caribbean was different from Carnival and NCL in that it launched its cruise operations with brand new ships, whereas the others had only older, pre-owned tonnage. In 1978 the cruise industry’s first ‘chop-and-stretch’ operation enlarged Song of Norway, and 1988 saw the debut of the first really large cruise ship, Sovereign of the Seas.
In 1997, Royal Caribbean International bought Celebrity Cruises for $1.3 billion and in 2006 acquired Pullmantur Cruises for $889.9 million. In 2007 the company created a new cruise line, Azamara Cruises, with two ships (in essence operated by Celebrity Cruises). In 2007 RCI established CDF Croisières de France with one ship, diverted from the Pullmantur Cruises fleet.
What is it really like?
RCI, which has carried over 50 million passengers since in founding in 1970, provides a well-integrated, fine-tuned, and comfortable cruise experience, but there’s nothing royal about it except the name. The product is consistent but homogeneous. This is cruising for mainstream America. The ships are all quite pleasing, and some have really comfortable public rooms, lounges, bars, and innovative gimmicks such as ice-skating rinks.
RCI’s largest ships are termed Oasis-class, Freedom-class, Quantum-class, and Voyager-class. They differ from other ships in the fleet, mainly in the internal layout, by having a large mall-like high street - the focal point for most passengers. Many public rooms, lounges, and bars are located as adjuncts to the mall. Indeed, it’s rather like a mall with a ship built around it. Also, in placing so much emphasis on ‘active’ outdoors areas, space has been taken away from the pool areas, leaving little room left just to sit and relax or sunbathe.
The next group of ships (Brilliance of the Seas, Jewel of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas) has lots of balcony cabins, and large expanses of glass. Enchantment of the Seas, Grandeur of the Seas, Legend of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas, Splendour of the Seas, and Vision of the Seas also have lots of glass in the public areas, but not as many balcony cabins. Freedom of the Seas pioneered a concierge lounge available only to suite-grade occupants.
All ships have a rock-climbing wall with several separate climbing tracks. You’ll need to plan what you want to take part in wisely, as almost everything requires you to sign up in advance.
There are few quiet places to sit and read - almost everywhere has intrusive background music, played even in elevators and all passenger hallways. Bars also have very loud music. There are many, many unwelcome announcements for activities that bring revenue, such as art auctions and bingo.
Standing in line for embarkation, the reception desk, disembarkation, for port visits, shore tenders, and for the self-serve buffet stations in the Windjammer Café is an inevitable aspect of cruising aboard large resort ships. It’s often hard to escape the ship’s photographers - they’re everywhere. Budget extra for all the additional-cost items. Expect to be subjected to a stream of flyers advertising promotions, while ‘artwork’ for auction is strewn throughout the ship, and frosted drinks in ‘souvenir’ glasses are pushed to the hilt. There are no cushioned pads for the deck lounge chairs.
Service personnel are friendly, but not many greet you when passing in the corridors, so the hospitality factor could be improved. The elevators talk to you, though ‘going up/going down’ is informative but monotonous. However, the signage and illuminated picture displays of decks are good, particularly aboard the Oasis-class ships.
Occupants of the Presidential Family Suite, Royal Suite, Royal Family Suite, Owner’s Suite, and Grand Suite get a dedicated security line, where available. Royal and Presidential Family Suite occupants are welcomed by a senior officer and escorted aboard. Those in Grand Suites and higher categories get gold SeaPass cards for better staff recognition. This means on embarkation you receive free bottled water and a fruit plate, slippers, spa bathrobes, and Vitality bathroom amenities, and you are given Ghirardelli chocolates or petits fours at turndown. Free 24-hour room service, coffee, and tea are provided, along with the option of ordering from the main dining room’s full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus. There’s also free garment pressing on ‘formal’ evenings, plus other perks.
Interior decor is bright and contemporary, but not as neon-intensive and glitzy as Carnival’s ships. There is much Scandinavian design influence, with some eclectic sculpture and artwork. The ‘you are here’ signage and deck plans are excellent. The furniture in public lounges tends to include small ‘tub’ chairs, which are not that robust.
Most ships have large dining halls that are two or three decks high, giving a sense of space and grandeur. Few tables for two are available, most being for four, six, or eight people. All dining rooms and eateries are non-smoking. The efficient dining operation emphasizes highly programmed, extremely hurried service that many find insensitive. There are no fish knives.
‘My Time Dining’ (rolled out in 2009) means you can choose either a fixed dining time or any time you want. For this option, you pre-pay gratuities and enroll either on board or in advance through www.royalcaribbean.com or by asking your travel agent to arrange it via the reservations system.
The cuisine in the main dining rooms is typical of mass banquet catering, with mediocre standard fare. The food costs per passenger are below those for sister companies Azamara Club Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, so don’t expect the same food quality. Menu descriptions sound tempting, but the food, although well enough prepared, is unmemorable. A decent selection of light meals is provided; vegetarian and children’s menus are also available.
The quality of meat, particularly the beef, is poor - unless you pay extra for a ‘better quality’ sirloin steak, cooked to order. Other meats are often disguised with gravies or heavy sauces. Most fish (except salmon) and seafood items tend to be overcooked and lack taste. Green vegetables are scarce - they’re provided basically for decoration - but salad items are plentiful. Rice is often used as a source of carbohydrates, potatoes being more expensive.
Breads and pastry items are generally good, although some items, such as croissants, may not be made on board. The selection of breads, rolls, and fruit could be better. Dessert items are standardized and lack flavor, and the cheese and cracker selections are poor.
Specialty dining venues. Most ships have one, two or more additional dining venues (a cover charge applies), including Royal Caribbean favorites Chops Grille Steakhouse (for premium veal chops and steaks) and Portofino (for Italian-American cuisine). Reservations are required in both venues. Be prepared to eat Texas-sized portions, presented on large plates. Note that menus do not change throughout the cruise. Oasis- and Quantum-class ships also have more extra-cost dining venues. Many ships have plasma screens or touch screens in various locations so you can make reservations when you want, and see at a glance the waiting times for a table
Specialty dining packages are available, with cost savings compared to the sum of the individual restaurants’ cover charges.
Casual eateries. All ships have informal venues called Windjammer Café or Windjammer Marketplace for fast food, salads, and the like. Some are of the single-line (move along with your plate) type, while the newer ships have individual islands for more variety and fewer lines. However, the actual quality of cooked food items is nutritionally poor, as are the tacky salad dressings.
Breakfast buffet items are quite repetitive - the same is true of lunchtime salad items. The beverage stations have only the most basic items. Hamburgers and hot dogs in self-serve buffet locations are generally displayed in steam dishes (they are steamed rather than grilled, although you can ask for one to be grilled in front of you). Trays are not provided - only oval plates - so if you are disabled or have mobility difficulties, you may need to ask for help. Also, because the plates are plastic, it’s impossible to get your food on a heated plate.
Almost all ships also have Johnny Rockets 1950s-style diners (extra charge, per person, whether you eat in or take out, and, while the food is included, shakes and drinks cost extra). These serve hamburgers, hot dogs, desserts, and sodas, although the typical waiting time is about 30 minutes - pagers are provided, allowing you to wander off in the meantime.
Drinks packages are available in bars, in the form of cards or stickers so that you can pre-pay for a selection of soft drinks and alcoholic drinks. However, the rules for using the pre-paid packages are a bit cumbersome. There is a $3.95 charge for cabin service deliveries midnight-5am.
The coffee/tea factor. Regular coffee: weak, poor quality. Score: 1 out of 10. Extra-cost espressos/cappuccinos (Seattle’s Best brand) score 4 out of 10 - but they come in paper cups.
RCI’s new youth programs include ‘My Family Time’ dining and extra-cost packages such as a supervised ‘Lunch and Play’ option. An extra-cost in-cabin babysitting service is available.
Adventure Ocean is RCI’s ‘edutainment’ area, while aboard Oasis- and Freedom-class ships, there’s also The H2O Zone. Children and teens are divided into seven age-appropriate groups: Royal Babies (six to 18 months); Royal Tots (18-36 months); Aquanauts (three to five years); Explorers (six to eight years); Voyagers (nine to 12 years); Navigators (12-14 years); and Teens (15-17 years).
An unlimited soda and juice package for under-17s is available. There are lots of activities, and a host of children’s counselors is aboard each ship.
Best ships for children. Adventure of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas
RCI’s entertainment is upbeat and plentiful, similar to what you would find in a resort hotel in Las Vegas. Production shows are colorful, fast-paced, high-volume razzle-dazzle spectaculars, but with little or no storyline, poor linkage between themes and scenes, and basic choreography. The live band is augmented by pre-recorded backing tracks to make it sound like a big, professional orchestra. Each ship has its resident troupe of singers and dancers.
There are also some silly audience participation events (summer camp-style, but often funny) and activities - something RCI has always done well.