Written on: 16/01/2011
In December 2010 my wife and I travelled with friends on Rhapsody of the Seas from Sydney to New Zealand to Sydney on a 14 night cruise. This review is largely a comparison of a Royal Caribbean ship to a P&O ship of similar size and age: Rhapsody, at 78,000 tons with a maximum of 2,400 passengers, is a little larger than Oriana at 69,000 tons with a maximum of 1,900 passengers. Rhapsody entered service in 1997 as opposed to Oriana in 1995 and both ships are rated four star.
Embarkation at Sydney was handled very quickly and professionally, however our initial enthusiasm rapidly turned to disappointment when we were shown to our cabin. We had booked an ocean view stateroom and very carefully noted on the brochure that there was no reference to obstructed or part-obstructed view. Unfortunately our cabin had a window with a centre column approximately 100mm wide. We immediately complained to our cabin steward who referred us to Reception, where we were told that as the ship was fully booked no alternate accommodation could be offered. In Customer Survey forms completed part way through the voyage and on our return to Adelaide we re-stated our dissatisfaction and also recorded that at the time of booking (with Royal Caribbean direct, not using a travel agent), there was ample opportunity for their reservation staff to draw to our attention that the first forward ten cabins had a structural member dividing each window and that we could have easily had an alternate cabin with no such obstruction at exactly the same price. As at 16 January 2011 we had not heard back from our hosts.
The cabin was of a similar size to Oriana, but most notably there was no refrigerator and the TV news service CNN/BBC/Australian Network, etc, did not work for three-quarters of the cruise and this applied to all cabins on the ship. We also noted that there was no written world news bulletin delivered to our cabin as had been on Oriana.
On visiting our friends in their cabin, we noted that their sofa was only a one-seater as opposed to our two-seater: this was because a locked doorway leading to an adjoining cabin had to be left unobstructed, hence a single seater instead of a two-seater sofa. It appears that it does not matter how much you study the web page or brochure there are pitfalls to be had for the unlucky.
Our preference is for late dining in the evening, however our friends prefer early dining, therefore we did what good friends do and we all compromised by deciding to try Royal Caribbean's "My Time" dining. This is where a section of the formal restaurant has space allocated for people who want an alternate or varying evening meal time. There is a requirement to pre-book and we duly attended to this. On arrival at the restaurant at 7.30 on the first night at sea the line was so long we had to stand for 25 minutes as we slowly edged towards the restaurant entrance. To say that I had steam coming out of my ears is an understatement. On the second night we stood in the line for ten minutes and thereafter were able to enter the restaurant at the time we had booked. These extended delays were brought about by passengers who thought the flexible dining times meant that you could arrive unannounced when, as stated earlier, you needed to book. The professional way to handle this would have been to ask anyone without a booking to stand to one side whilst allowing those who had made bookings to quickly be seated at their tables. Despite these problems it would be remiss of me if I did not say that the extremely charming Restaurant Front of House Manager ensured that we had our requested outside window facing table for eight during our entire cruise. With My Time Dining we found that most nights the company varied, however sometimes we sat with people who had shared our table on a number of occasions throughout the cruise. In fairness to Royal Caribbean, if we had chosen either the traditional early or late sitting and had not opted for My Time Dining, we would never have encountered the extended delays waiting to be seated. There is only one formal dining room on Rhapsody as opposed to the Peninsular and Oriental Restaurants on Oriana. The decor is similar to Oriana but Oriana is just a shade ahead. The food served at the evening meal is a little behind that served on Oriana: three courses as opposed to Oriana's four courses plus cheese and greens.
When reviewing the formal restaurant, one cannot help but comment on the dress standards. In the daily newsletter delivered to your cabin, where Oriana will list the formal restaurant dress of the day as "Dress Code", Rhapsody lists "Dress Suggestion". As a result, it was quite common on formal nights to have 10% of the men in dinner suits, probably 50% in a dark lounge suit with tie and the balance a mixture of sports jackets with an open necked shirt, or perhaps just an open necked long sleeve shirt with no jacket at all. It appears to us that Royal Caribbean, being an American ship, accepts a more informal approach at evening dinners, and for those who make an effort the experience is diminished.
The on board shopping offered less merchandise than Oriana, where I was able to purchase a dinner suit, formal dress shirt and bow tie (and a cummerbund if I had wished). Rhapsody's clothing was limited to t-shirts and swim wear.
Rhapsody does not have a self-service laundrette, nor a dedicated cinema. The ship's theatre is built over two levels and is most impressive. Their Windjammer Cafe is, in my opinion, ahead of Oriana's Conservatory. The furnishings, carpet and buffet layout provided a superior environment. The Atrium lobby is the ship's interior focal point and, spanning six decks, features a waterfall, grand piano and outside glass elevators. It is quite spectacular. There seemed less public rooms than on Oriana and we found it annoying that the card room, which is quite small, was booked out by the Bridge Club every day at sea (an hour in the morning, three hours in the afternoon) and there were very limited other suitable areas in which to enjoy a game of cards.
We noted that there is a fair bit of selling done by the staff. Examples: at dinner "Would you like the special Chops Menu, only an additional $15(US)?", "Would you like Evian water with your meal, only $4?", and at breakfast and lunch "would you like the freshly squeezed orange juice at $2.75?" (this was very tempting as the orange juice served from the machines was so sweet as to be almost unpalatable). It was also notable that the Casino occupied a very large part of the ship and one gets the feeling that the fare is only a small part of what Royal Caribbean would like to get out of you.
Unfortunately, a week into the cruise both our friends fell ill and so did I, necessitating a visit to the Medical Centre. We were all impressed with the professionalism of the two doctors in attendance. My sickness, which spanned 3-4 days, necessitated the cancellation of two shore excursions and we received a full refund, even though we provided less than the required 24 hours notice. This was a greatly appreciated service from Royal Caribbean.
We found the cabin steward, waiters and all staff very friendly and well trained, however the lectures were very average and of the14 nights, found the entertainment of a high standard on only about a third of the cruise. Hygiene on the ship was generally very good.
I think it is fair to say that as our two prior cruises on Oriana were both sectors of world voyages, compared to a 14 night round cruise, we could not expect the same level of quality lecturers and entertainment. It appeared to us that cruise first-timers thought Rhapsody was excellent but the more experienced cruisers rated the experience only a 7 out of 10 and both my wife and I would agree with that assessment.
Royal Caribbean is a fairly big player in the cruise shipping line business with a fleet of some 20 ships including the world's largest cruise ship, Allour of the Seas, which carries some 6,000 passengers. Rhapsody is a very nice, attractively designed ship with excellent staff, good hygiene standards and a very impressive Atrium Lobby. Whilst I am unable to comment about a P&O UK cruise which is not part of a world voyage, I do believe it's fair to say that P&O UK definitely have the edge.
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