Grandeur of the Seas July 1998 Eastern Caribbean Cruise
What follows is an effort to avoid a long, detailed description of this beautiful ship. For one thing, several earlier reviews have provided more than adequate description. For another, Grandeur of the Seas is a sister of RCI's Enchantment of the Seas and a very near cousin of Rhapsody of the Seas, both of which have been pretty fully described (see my verbose review of Rhapsody in the January 1998 issue of the Sealetter). Instead, I will comment on certain aspects of the ship, drawing comparisons to its Vision class relatives. I will also forego long descriptions of other aspects of the cruise and focus on certain areas, highlighting the positives (many) and the negatives (few), where appropriate.
For the record, this was our fifth cruise in three years, all with RCI. Previously we cruised on Nordic Empress, Majesty of the Seas, Sovereign of the Seas, and Rhapsody of the Seas. Comparisons made, therefore, will be primarily with our other RCI cruise experiences, as information about other cruise lines and ships has been obtained second-hand. We were also traveling with two couples who had never cruised before, so I was especially interested in their observations.
Although produced in Finland rather than France, the Grandeur is almost identical to its cousin, the Rhapsody, in virtually every major respect. Like the other Vision class ships, Grandeur is a beauty from bow to stern and from keel to mast. Still, there are important differences from the Rhapsody, one of the most significant of which is that the Grandeur has a full wrap-around promenade deck. Day and night, one can get the maximum enjoyment and exercise benefits from one-quarter mile circuits of the ship on the wooden promenade deck. On the Rhapsody, circuit walkers have to jostle with joggers on Deck 10 in order to circumnavigate the perimeter of the ship.
A second major positive in the Grandeur's design over the Rhapsody is the area known as Boutiques of the Centrum, where the shops are arranged in a utilitarian and clever triple-stacked circle (like an eight, with an extra loop), a layout that maximizes shop space and traffic flow. On the Rhapsody, this area has a curved main walkway with a cutoff passageway from the photo gallery to the main area. It can be disorienting and doesn't allow space for RCI's daily "sidewalk" sales. On Grandeur, the center loop of the Boutiques is an open area perfectly suited for "sidewalk" sales displays.
In a third major design area, the 6-deck Centrum lobby, the Grandeur's primary sculpture is not nearly as dramatic as the floor to ceiling beauties on the Rhapsody or the Nordic Empress. But I loved the layout of the Deck 4 base of the Centrum on the Grandeur which, unencumbered by the base of the sculpture (because it is suspended from the ceiling and drops only to Deck 7), allows plenty of room for dancing or formal portraits on the multi-level marble platforms, or sea-gazing through oversized windows from a myriad of comfortable chairs and sofas.
Finally, the Grandeur boasts one of the most dramatic and beautiful two-decked dining rooms afloat, with a central grand stairway (rather than a narrow, winding stairway, as on the Rhapsody), and a two-deck waterfall opposite the grand stairway, with a piano platform in front of the waterfall.
We took a standard outside cabin and our kids (age 20 and 18) took an inside cabin opposite. These cabins are virtually identical in size and design to those on the Rhapsody (and presumably the other Vision class ships). The only discernable difference was that the Rhapsody's television system included an interactive feature, allowing the ordering of shore excursions or even casino gaming from the comfort of your room. I also found the Grandeur's room safe operation cumbersome compared to the Rhapsody, which allows you to program a digital code for use every time. On the Grandeur, the room safe is locked by a credit card (requiring carrying an extra card with you) or a cruisecard. The problem in each case is that the card that locked the safe must open it, an inconvenience compared with a digital code that anybody can use, and sometimes the cruisecards did not work and had to be "validated" by a trip to the Purser's desk.
After five cruises with RCI, one comes to expect a consistent and pretty high level of service from the staff, and that is exactly what we received on the Grandeur. Although our room steward did not appear at our cabin door when we first arrived, he came by later during the afternoon, and he went about his business quietly and efficiently. One of our traveling companions thought he was a bit surly in responding to a question, but it turned out not to be the same steward and the incident, in any event, was attributed to a misunderstanding by our friends (after the fact). We found our room steward friendly, and generally available when we needed him (which was not often).
As for our dining room service, we had a bit of a communication problem initially with our assistant waiter -- who was surly -- but our waiter, Kenneth (Mr. "No Problem") more than made up for this with just about the most outstanding service we've encountered on a cruise, with a competent, friendly, "can do" style. A veteran cruise dining room waiter from the Caribbean island of Grenada, Kenneth picked up our table discussion about our fairly inexperienced assistant waiter, who hailed from Poland. We strongly suspect that Kenneth passed "the word" to him, because our assistant waiter soon became more attentive and much friendlier. We learned that he was unhappy with life on a cruise ship -- as many East Europeans seem not to have easily adjusted to Western lifestyle or the cruise environment. But at least he tried for the remainder of the cruise.
As for our head waiter, Apollo (from Portugal), he was engaging and performed his few routine services (i.e., preparing the cherries jubilee) flawlessly. Our traveling companions, being bread lovers (one bakes his own bread), requested a special bread from the Grandeur's ovens, and Apollo arranged to have it made just for our table the last night of the cruise. The bar service, other than RCI's peculiar inability to produce a "proper" margarita, was first-rate. One was never more than a flick of the hand away from a quick drink, but nobody on the bar service made a nuisance of themselves.
The Cruise Staff
I have read recent comments suggesting that the cruise staff aboard the Grandeur are distant and not terribly engaging. So I observed carefully, and here is what I learned: first, the staff, for the most part, worked very hard to show people a good time and certainly was not shy about engaging passengers in conversation. I did notice members of the cruise staff "hanging out" with each other from time to time, even while an activity was taking place. During the Rock and Roll Reunion, for example, the cruise staff usually dances, sings, and hosts several contests (such as the twist or hula hoops). This group, for some reason, allowed the band to play on for over an hour while they sat chatting at a table in the back of the lounge. By this time, many people had given up and either turned in or headed for the midnight buffet. It also didn't help that the activity was scheduled for two hours (11 p.m. to 1 a.m.) instead of the usual 11 to midnight slot I've observed on other RCI cruises.
For most of the cruise staff, however, the above example was an exception. Certainly most of the staff worked long, hard hours, providing an impressive array of RCI activities for one and all and, in my view, most passengers seemed to have a blast and really related well to the staff.
One member of the cruise staff who went the extra mile was Cruise Director Jeff Martin. A 16-year veteran of the cruise industry and one of RCI's senior cruise staff, Jeff handled the Cruise Director's role with aplomb. Unlike some of his colleagues who are visible only when "on," Jeff could be seen and heard day and night throughout the ship. Despite his veteran status, he was not above putting on the tutu and playing the ballerina for the traditional closing night cruise staff number, "If I Were Not Upon the Sea." At my request, Jeff graciously set aside time to be interviewed for an upcoming issue of the SeaLetter, and quite thoughtfully sent along a bottle of wine to our dinner table that night with a personal note. Everyone in our party, especially my family (who have observed three other Cruise Directors in action -- most of them quite good) thought Jeff Martin was the best. This is one CD deserving of the senior status conferred on him.
Despite RCI's reputation for outstanding entertainment, I was somewhat critical of the "main stage" productions on my previous cruise aboard the Rhapsody, last December. On this Grandeur cruise, all of the entertainment -- and there was live entertainment wherever and whenever one went -- was outstanding, with only a minor exception or two.
The nightly shows in the Palladium Theatre combined full use of the $42 million worth of state-of-the-art technology with first-rate talent -- both celebrities and RCI's own Wave Revue -- to put on one dazzling show after another. Other standout live entertainment included the Calypso steel band, which played each day at the outdoor pool, and a lovely string trio that played in the early evenings in the Centrum lobby or strolled through the dining room on formal nights. I was especially happy to have the dinner music again which, for some strange reason was not in the entertainment package during our Christmas cruise aboard the Rhapsody. There were also two outstanding pianists, one who played at dinner, the other at a late night piano bar in the Schooner Lounge. Finally, one of the best performers on board was the Laura Farrow Trio. Laura sang in the Centrum lobby during the late evening hours, drawing larger crowds each night. People danced, hung over the Centrum railing of decks 4-6, or just sat and listened, all captivated by her terrific voice and impressive mixed-media accompaniment.
On a disappointing note, the various iterations of "Midnight Oasis," a four-piece electronic band, in my view, produced uninspiring music. It wasn't terrible, mind you, but compared with the other live entertainment, these guys came up a bit short. Likewise, the disk jockey in RCI's signature Viking Crown Lounge, which is a lively disco each night, appeared loathe to communicate with the guests, or even take requests, refusing to stray from his own selection of tunes. This inflexible attitude was the subject of some discussion among several of the passengers. These exceptions notwithstanding, this Grandeur cruise had some of the best live entertainment I've encountered on the high seas.
This is a highly subjective area, and perhaps I would do well to leave it without much commentary. I will say that everyone in my group was very impressed with the quality and presentation of the meals. RCI seems to be adding gradually to their menus, and of our five cruises, we enjoyed the meals most on this one. Even the pizza served in the Solarium Cafe tasted quite good, although it is the closest thing to fast food served aboard RCI ships. My traveling companions were particularly impressed with the baked items, both breads and desserts. I am not a connoisseur, but I certainly agree on that point. Although I am not much of a coffee drinker, however, my traveling companions confirmed that RCI continues to serve some of the worst coffee in the cruise industry.
This is another personal subject, but if you want to really enjoy the ship and maximize your relaxation time, the Grandeur's Eastern Caribbean itinerary offers a truly unique opportunity. With two "at sea" days and visits to both of RCI's private properties (Labadee, a striking peninsula on the north coast of Haiti, and Coco Cay, a convenient island in the Bahamas), there is an abundance of time to relax and soak in the rays (or just soak). Of the two port stops, San Juan and St. Thomas, I much prefer the latter, with its outstanding shopping, beautiful sights (including Charlotte Amalie Harbor), and proximity to the equally beautiful island of St. John. No other 7-night itinerary that I know -- even RCI's Enchantment Eastern Caribbean cruise -- provides so much time to sit in the sun or just enjoy the beach or the ship.
Sometimes I feel as if I live to cruise. There is nothing like being on a ship, sharing all the joys of a cruise experience with fellow passengers. I love being at sea and not giving a conscious thought to what's happening in the outside world from the moment I step on board to the moment I disembark a week later. Thus, on the one hand I should be easy to please. On the other hand, I tend to seek perfection. Although one person's perfection can be another person's disaster (and I readily admit that no cruise is likely to be perfect), my week aboard the Grandeur of the Seas came close -- very close -- to perfection. for the fifth straight time, RCI came through with an outstanding cruise experience. A beautiful ship, a pretty terrific cruise staff, top-rung entertainment, and a myriad of other activities to keep everyone occupied day and night -- what else could I ask for? Even the weather cooperated. I highly recommend this cruise, especially to those who have seen the islands, done the sightseeing, and really want to relax and enjoy one of the grandest ships afloat.
David Herschler resides in Silver Spring, MD where he is a historian for the US State Department and president of the Musical Theater Center, a non-profit educational "major arts organization" in Montgomery County. The MTC provides training in all the musical theater disciplines, produces workshops that are presented to the public locally, holds a Musical Theater Summer Day Camp for young people, and sponsors two highly skilled performing ensembles (Upbeat Unlimited, a pre-teen group, and Young Americans of Washington, a teenage group. David has become something of a cruise nut, and last summer arranged for the Young Americans to perform on Sovereign of the Seas. David can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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