Honeymoon Review Part 2...The Cruise
Hopefully by now you have had a chance to read part 1 of this review. Barcelona was a great port to embark from and our time there really made the whole honeymoon very special.
But now we get into the major portion of the trip, the time we spent aboard Royal Caribbean's brand new Symphony of the Seas. As of the time of this writing, the Symphony of the Seas is the world's largest cruise ship at sea. It weighs in at 225,000 tons, measures 18 decks high and can accommodate over 5500 guests (not counting the crew aboard). Yes...it's huge, but we never felt like it was too big nor did we ever get lost trying to find a venue or area of the ship. Royal Caribbean does a good job placing interactive maps near the various elevators and stairways so all you have to do it enter the place/area you want to head to and it maps it for you from your current location. Easy peasy.
So lets get to the great, the good and the areas we hope improve a little and are not necessarily ship issues as they are cruise line issues.
The ship, as a whole, is amazing. We really had a hard time remembering that we were actually on a sailing vessel at sea. Our fav area...Central Park. The plant-lined walkways that meandered through the "park" created the real sense that you were walking through a park back on land. We found it to be a respite from the crowds that seem to always head for the pools onboard no matter what the weather is like. We loved Vintages Wine Bar which is situated in "Central Park" as well the outdoor Trellis Bar. At night a musician would be serenading those that gathered in the park for a pre-dinner cocktail or maybe just a starry sky stroll through the gardens.
And speaking of Vintages, it really seemed to be a hidden gem. We visited this venue twice during our cruise. Once at night after dinner and once during our sea day. We were almost the only ones in there each time. Maybe some were not interested because it mainly is a wine venue (even though they will serve a limited cocktail menu), but it seemed a lot of folks were enjoying a glass of wine in the other more crowded bar areas around the ship. We came to the conclusion that so many really had no idea where it was which made it the perfect spot for us to sit and quietly enjoy a glass of vino and convo.
The other area of the ship that makes you really question whether you are at sea or visiting some small seaside town in Anywhere USA is the expansive Boardwalk. Royal Caribbean really has become the "Disney at Sea" in my opinion. What I mean by that is Royal Caribbean did a tremendous job with the theming of this area. Its all in the details. From the wooden "sidewalks" to the huge mustard bottle flanking their boardwalk style hot dog venue to the arcade games to the working and beautiful carousel. They paid attention to not only the visual beauty but again...the theming. It was a great place to stroll through just as you would stroll the same type of boardwalk area back on land. And you really get a sense of the size of this ship when you enter this area. When you stand at the entrance and then look up, it hits you that this is one incredible engineering feat.
But again...the Central Park and the Boardwalk were never cramped with people or noisy or anything that would make you think, "yep, I am on a cruise with 5000+ people. Both areas seemed at times almost empty which is a testament to the design.
Next area that was also visually stunning was the Royal Promenade. This space is one that Royal Caribbean has made a staple on most of their newer vessels. The Voyager, Freedom as well as the Oasis class ships all have Royal Promenades. A noticeable difference on the Symphony is the height of the promenade which is different from Freedom or Voyager class ships. The Symphony and other Oasis class ships have only 1 level of staterooms overlooking the promenade vs 3 levels of staterooms on Freedom and Voyager. But the lack of height of the space is made up in the width. The only times this space feels crowded is during dinner hours when everyone is back onboard and either doing some pre or post dinner shopping and/or drinking.
It is on the promenade that you will find most of the bars and other "included" food areas such as Sorrento's and the Cafe Promenade. Again this is why that space tends to feel more crowded. But that is why we were surprised to see no one was really out in the Central Park area at night and enjoying Vintages. So here is a tip...go grab a nice glass of wine in Vintages at night and enjoy the peace and quiet or grab a cocktail from the Trellis Bar and grab a seat and enjoy some nice peaceful music from a solo guitarist.
Ok, so let's move on now to the food and beverage onboard. We ate most of our meals in the main dining room (early seating). Our headwaiter was outstanding. She was pleasant and efficient and did a great job explaining the menu each evening. Her assistant waiter needed some training. He was at times nowhere to be found. Our headwaiter explained that Royal Caribbean's ship growth means that they are hiring a lot of new employees that have little to zero cruise line experience and the learning curve is steep. But outside of that our main dining room experience was good. Food choices where decent and for the most part well prepared. For those of us who have cruised a few times, it is no surprise that cruise lines are putting more of an effort, when it comes to the food quality, into their specialty dining options onboard.
And speaking of specialty restaurants, we chose to dine one night at 150 Central Park which, as you can deduce, is right off of the Central Park area of the ship as is Chops and Jamie Oliver's. 150 is the most expensive option out of the 5 sit-down dining choices. It has an elegant ambience and a delicious menu, but I will save the rest of my comments about this venue for the "areas we hope improve" section of this review.
Moving on to more of the "included eating options." We took advantage of room service for most of our breakfasts, even with the "included menu items" being a little limited. If you are ok with pastries, granola, oatmeal etc, then the menu is not a problem. Service was on time and the food was hot if it was supposed to be hot and cold if supposed to be cold. Thumbs up to the room service crew. The times we tried the Windjammer (buffet) were enjoyed. Lots of choices and lines were never too long at any of the food stations. Service was pleasant. No issues at all with the buffet. Our best breakfast experience however was the Solarium Bistro. Their buffet had some great, fresh options and were well prepared and again service was pleasant. Even though we had to wait to be seated, it was only about a 10 minute wait so no complaints with that at all.
Sorrento's was good. Again, things were hot and not over cooked. Cafe Promenade satisfied us when looking for a quick snack or dessert. The Park Cafe was also somewhat of a hidden gem for breakfast as well. Freshly cooked, healthier fare and plenty of seating, which can be an issue on the larger ships these days. The places we didn't try were the The Dog House, El Loco Fresh and Playmakers (which has an up charge for the food). Overall very pleased with the food we consumed onboard.
So let's talk beverages for a moment. Lots and lots of bar venues to choose from on this class of ship. I already mentioned a couple (Vintages and the Trellis Bar) but there were plenty more to visit. The two that seem to be on everyone's must-do list are the Bionic Bar and the Rising Tide Bar. We did ponder trying the Bionic Bar but it seemed to be having a few technical issues at times or it was simply too crowded so we skipped it all together. But we were able to try the Rising Tide Bar one evening. It too gets crowded due to its small footprint and limited seating. Its popular because as you sit and enjoy your beverage, you ascend or descend 3 decks. So you can either enter the bar on deck 8 or on deck 5. The ride up or down does not take long so that part is a little anti-climatic and when you reach either deck 8 or go down to deck 5...it stays there for several minutes before ever moving again. Drink menus is pretty much the same as other lounges on the ship so it was maybe something to do once and say you did it.
Boleros was a nice spot to sit and listen to some latin music and watch a few fairly skilled dancing couples, but their lounge chairs away from the bar were not comfortable at all. The English Pub off of the promenade was also a place we enjoyed once. Live music can be found there nightly as well. But don't get your hopes up that you will be able to enjoy a pint of Guinness. Their English/Irish beer choices were pretty limited. And the music was not necessarily designed to make you feel like you were in a pub back in good ole Dublin or London. Schooner bar was fairly each evening so we also enjoyed a cocktail there only once.
So before we move away from the bars and lounges, I do need to say that we did have the deluxe beverage package. The big question everyone asks is, "was it worth it?" At best we most likely broke even. Did we keep track of every drink cost? No. Its vacation. We don't like to sit and calculate every detail of our trip when on the trip. That is actually why we decided to get the beverage package. We enjoy an adult beverage when at the pool. We like to have a glass or two of wine at dinner. We also like to have a beverage or two while enjoying a post dinner show or while sitting in the casino. So our opinion was that we did not want to have to worry about the cost of things as we were enjoying them so budgeting ahead for that portion of our cruise was worth it even if again we did not necessarily save any money. Had we drank a specialty coffee or two each morning at breakfast or had a glass or two of fresh squeezed orange juice each morning, yes, it would have been a sure money saver. But again our reasoning, which may be different than yours, was to just take away any penny counting during our cruise.
But here is a quick heads up about the beverage package. If you like your wines be aware that the $13 or less limit you get with the package does not leave a lot of wine-by-the-glass choices. Maybe out of 10 choices on their wine menu, 5 are $13 or less. You can still get a glass of wine you prefer, but you will pay the difference between the $13 and the higher price. But when it comes to spirits, there was never a time when anything we ordered was over any cost limit. I will again touch more on the beverage choices in the "areas we hope improve" section of this post.
When it comes to staterooms, we stayed in a category 1C on deck 9 (stateroom 9200). It was an ocean view with large balcony. The balcony size was awesome. The stateroom size was similar to others in the Royal Caribbean fleet. Decor was simple and nicely done. Plenty of storage for people like us who overpack. Our large luggage pieces fit under the bed as did our large dirty clothes bag. We were able to keep everything put away and out of the way. Bathroom was again standard sized but very suitable. Our stateroom attendant was fantastic. There when we needed him and was always prompt to get our stateroom cleaned while were out for breakfast. Always greeted us with a friendly smile as did most of the staff onboard. Pictures of the stateroom will show you everything you need to know. It was everything we expected and paid for so for sure no complaints.
Ports and Excursions:
I probably should have mentioned this at the beginning but nevertheless this cruise had 5 ports of call (Mallorca, Marseille, La Spezia, Civitavecchia/Rome and Naples) This made the cruise pretty port heavy for a 7 night cruise which meant we only had 1 day at sea which also meant we really didn't have as much time as we would have liked aboard the ship itself. There were areas that we simply did not have time to try such as the spa, the comedy club, Dazzles, etc and we only really went to one show in the Royal Theater during the entire cruise. That is really why I can't address much of the entertainment. We were in port so much that but the time we came back aboard, got ready for dinner, had a post dinner cocktail and maybe spent a few minutes in the casino, we were pretty tired and ready for bed. We can't stay up as late as we used to and we knew we had another full day of touring the next day.
And in addition, we only used Royal Caribbean one time for an excursion which was our visit to Rapallo, Santa Margherita and Portofino. The guide was great as was our bus driver. Everything went as planned so no complaints about that at all. It was well done even though we wished we would have had more time in each port since all 3 were so amazingly beautiful. But that is not the fault of Royal Caribbean. It is simply a product of those 3 villages being so far from the Port of La Spezia which is where the ship docks. And had we tried to visit the same villages on our own, we would have made it to the first one and simply stopped there and hung around for the day. So the excursion actually allowed us to see all 3 which again were so very beautiful.
We planned our own excursions in the other ports of call. In Mallorca we lounged for the day at a private beach club. In Marseille we simply walked around the beautiful marina, shopped and enjoyed a delicious lunch outside a cafe. The cruise line helps you arrange a round trip bus ride from the port into the city. Again, easy peasy. In Rome we hired a private driver to take us by the Vatican and then into city center near the Spanish Steps. From there we enjoyed a great lunch, some gelato, a cocktail or two, and took in some cathedrals and walked over to Trevi Fountain before heading back to the ship. And finally, we again arranged a private driver in Naples to take us direct to Positano. Positano is special to us because that is where our love story began and where fate intervened. So we went back to the very restaurant where we met and had another amazing lunch before walking around and taking in the beauty again of this one of a kind seaside village.
That is how we like to plan our excursions and touring. We hire a private driver and touring company when we can so we avoid waiting for other people and we can schedule things according to our wishes, not someone else's. Our private drivers were at our disposal for about 8 hours in each port. That really gave us a lot of flexibility to just walk around and be more at a leisurely pace, which again is our travel style. We never look at a destination as if it will be our one and only time there which eliminates the pressure to see and do as much as possible in any given city.
Room for Improvement:
Ok...so lets address some areas that I hope Royal will in turn address, not only on this ship, but across the fleet. These areas are more about management and less about the ship herself.
First, our evening at the specialty restaurant, 150 Central Park, we not as we hoped for. The food...delish. Our server...awesome and friendly. The area that they need to address ASAP is the allowance of children in this venue. I hate to lump all children into this request because there were two families in the restaurant at the time of our dinner. One family was perfect. Mom, dad and kids all sat and had a wonderful meal together and allowed others around them to have a wonderful meal. But then there was a large family of moms, dads, and their kids and they all felt everyone in the restaurant needed to hear their robust laughter and conversation and whining etc etc. This venue is supposed to be elegant and fine dining and even somewhat formal. Not only was the dress code not enforced and the kids were allowed to where jeans and t-shirts and shorts, but the management decided it was not going to say something to the family for their disruptive behavior even though several others were complaining about it.
That has to change. If you are going to charge an up charge for this venue, then you need to make it as special as it is supposed to be. I was shocked to see the non enforcing of anything while others were there in their nice evening gowns and suits and were most likely trying to enjoying a special evening with their significant other. The ambience was anything but special.
Second, another area that needs to be addressed is the bar stocking and bartender training. Several times we ordered a spirit that was on the menu is more than one bar or lounge only to be told they do not carry that spirit. Not sure why its on a menu then. That is the responsibility of the Food and Beverage Manager and you would think an easy thing to fix or even make sure never happens. And a few times we had ordered a cocktail on the menu only to see the bartender be very confused on how to make it.
And third, the management needs to address some training of restaurant staff. As I mentioned already, our assistant waiter was somewhat missing in action a few nights in the main dining room. Other times, he seemed to be totally inattentive or he gave out wrong info such as "order any glass of wine on the menu, its included." But he was not alone. We did attempt to go into Playmakers (the sports bar and grill off of the Boardwalk). It was fairly empty so we grabbed a table and thought we would check out their food that you do have to pay a small up charge for. We waited and waited and no one ever came to greet us or take our order so we simply left.
Now did any of the problem areas mean we did not enjoy our cruise? Absolutely not. Did it mean it made our honeymoon anything less than epic?? No way! It simply means I am trying to be honest and fair in my review. It means I want our clients to know of some possible glitches BEFORE they board so it might actually lessen the ability to detract from their vacation. It also means we simply want Royal Caribbean to be aware of these issues so they can be properly addressed and possibly negated.
We would sail on the Symphony again in a heartbeat. The ship is truly something we think everyone should see and experience. You will love the sea days so much more aboard this incredible vessel. So don't hesitate...contact us and let us help you plan your next cruise aboard this or any of our fav Royal Caribbean ships.