Rhapsody of the Seas Southern Caribbean Cruise December 20, 1997
As I begin writing this review, I am sitting on the balcony of the San Juan Caribe Hilton where we have taken a day room, having just disembarked Rhapsody of the Seas and awaiting an evening return flight to Baltimore. The sights and sound of the Atlantic Ocean and a Caribbean steel drum band drift up to my balcony, creating a wholly blissful, relaxing setting in which to write.
Who would know, at this lovely moment, that my family had just experienced "the cruise vacation from hell?" How can I make such a statement when Royal Caribbean International bore virtually no responsibility for the circumstances? When the airline (which will remain unnamed) fails to produce one of your suitcases at your destination and embarkation point, then takes a good faith claim filled out according to airline personnel instructions and fails to enter it into its tracking system (which neither I nor RCI discovered until I called the airline on the third day of the cruise because the airline's baggage people had assured RCI agents that it was doing everything possible to locate the bag, therefore making it virtually impossible for the bag to be located and retrieved in time to catch up to the cruise)? As of this writing one week later, the airline has not located the suitcase. Furthermore, nearly all of my wife's clothing was in that suitcase (I know, we usually mix things up but our schedules just before the cruise necessitated each of us packing our own suitcase), both my kids came down with colds during the cruise, and my wife was told by the ship's doctor that she would need surgery to repair an inflamed ganglion nerve in her hand. I would say I have reasonable justification to label this "the cruise vacation from hell."
While I hope to keep this review objective, the reader should be warned that the entire family is somewhat traumatized, especially about the lost suitcase, and it may be difficult to describe adequately the wonderful moments during the cruise. [N.B.., since returning home last night we had to put up with a nearly two-hour delay because the lights were out on the San Juan airport runway and the plane couldn't take off, and we returned home to discover one of our cars has a flat tire -- what else can go wrong??] On the other hand, it should be useful to see how RCI's staff dealt with our missing suitcase problem (see below).
A second important point to consider before reading this review is that it was my fourth cruise, all with Royal Caribbean (the third cruise for my kids, ages 18 and 20). Any comparisons that I make are with previous RCI cruises (aboard Nordic Empress, Majesty of the Seas, and Sovereign of the Seas). While these comparisons will be useful, obviously I can't really make valid comparisons with other cruise lines. Nonetheless, to the extent that I have knowledge or a sense of other cruise lines and their ships, I may make some passing comparisons. Those caveats having been registered, here is the review:
The ShipEven the most dedicated small-ship enthusiast would be impressed by Rhapsody of the Seas. By any standards this is a beautiful ship from bow to stern and from keel to mast. Like its sister ship to be (Vision of the Seas) and it four near cousins of the Vision class currently in service, Rhapsody was designed to maximize the use of natural light and to soothe with an abundance of woods and art works of various types wherever you gaze. Although Rhapsody is clearly as large as its behemoth predecessors of the Sovereign class, RCI has designed the ship to create the atmosphere of a smaller ship in many ways. Here, then, is a tour of this fascinating vessel:
The Centrum -- RCI pioneered the concept of an open atrium lobby in its Sovereign class ships. Rather than occupying 4 lower decks that reach only to the Promenade Deck, the Rhapsody's Centrum extends from the Main Deck (4, the lowest public area deck) all the way up to the Sun Deck and beyond to the Viking Crown Lounge. There is a huge, modern center piece sculpture swooping upward from the base of the Centrum to the roof (Compass Deck (10). The spiraling effect is somewhat reminiscent of the Nordic Empress' Centrum (which also extends to the top deck), but is less brassy and glitzy and more muted in tone on the Rhapsody, which enhances the soothing nature of the ship's design. The 7-deck Centrum also has the effect of opening up the entire ship to natural light and integrating the Viking Crown Lounge into the rest of the ship (whereas this signature lounge is suspended separately from the smokestack of the Sovereign class ships (more on this lounge below).
There is plenty of glass looking outward at each deck level of the Centrum, including the Bridge Deck (9) and Commodore Deck (10) which consist primarily of passenger cabins. On the Bridge Deck Centrum area you will find the Crown and Anchor Study, which is nothing more than an open sitting area on the starboard side of the Centrum with comfortable sofas and chairs surrounded by wood paneling on two sides and floor to ceiling windows on the third. There is a glass-enclosed model of the Rhapsody at the entrance to this area. On the port side of the Centrum is the Explorer's Club. Inside there are wood cabinets containing several nautical articles and, again, sofas and chairs to curl up in to read, converse, or just gaze out to sea through the floor to ceiling windows.
One Deck below on the Commodore Deck (7) you will find a card and game room on the port side of the Centrum, again with lots of wood paneling, built-in chess/checkerboard table tops and floor to ceiling walls of glass through which to observe the sea. There are two interesting pieces of sculpture mounted on wood bases on either side of the wood and glass doorway to this room. On the starboard side of the Centrum is the ship's Library, replete with a computerized finding aid and a very substantial circulation of reading matter. Daily news summaries are available in several languages. There are comfortable chairs and several desks, most of which face the wall of glass for sea-gazers.
A one-deck ride down a Centrum elevator (2 are glass-bubbled and there are 4 others) brings you to Mariner Deck (6), consisting entirely of public areas. Opposite the elevators in the Centrum is the entrance to the Photo Gallery on the port side and the entrance to the Boutiques of the Centrum on the starboard side. The rest of the Centrum area on this deck has plush chairs and sofas on both sides looking out of walls of glass. The area is use for some of the formal portraits taken by the Photography staff on formal nights, especially at the top of a marble stairway leading down the Centrum to the Promenade Deck (5). Opposite the elevators here are the Shore Excursion and Purser's Desks, with more oversized chairs and sofas along the walls of glass Centrum windows on either side. More formal photos are taken in this area. Again, there is a marble stairway leading to the base of the Centrum on the Main Deck (4). The base of the Centrum, besides containing the base of the 8-deck high sculpture, is all marble and has a piano on a platform on one side. A central platform was the site of a large Christmas decoration for this cruise (as well as for Santa's visit on Christmas morning). There are a few small marble stairways leading from Deck 4 to the base of the Centrum. Opposite the elevators on this deck is the Champaign Terrace, a favorite spot for a before-dinner or late night drink, and gathering place for folks entering and leaving the main level of the dining room. There was often live entertainment of the quiet variety at this location. And, of course, there are plenty of comfortable chairs and sofas to gaze our the oversized circular windows. The main entrance to the ship in its home port of San Juan is located here. Forward of this area are passenger cabins on both port and starboard sides of the ship.
Proceeding aft from the Centrum elevators you will pass the aft staircase. A word here about the stairways and elevators is in order. In addition to the Centrum elevator and stairway lobby, there is a forward elevator and stairway lobby consisting of three elevators. Each of the 9 public elevators on the ship has carpeting with the day of the week on it. Somehow, magically, at midnight all 9 elevators have the carpeting changed to indicate the next day of the week (I actually tried to catch the change in the act, but missed by a few minutes). Also, the forward and aft (Centrum) stairwells have a large mural at the mid-point landing of each deck. The murals appear to be woven and add generous colors and interest to what on most ships is a pretty drab area. Between the Mariner and Main decks, where most of the inside public areas are, the forward and aft stairwells double up to occupy most of the width of the ship in order to handle the extra volume of foot traffic. Just a few examples of the attention to detail that is a hallmark of the Rhapsody's design. Continuing aft from the Centrum stairwell on Main Deck (4) you enter the lower level of the Edelweiss Dining Room from both port and starboard sides. All of RCI's Vision class ships have a single, two-level dining room rather than two separate dining rooms found on the Sovereign class ships. On the Rhapsody, there is a single, slightly winding stairway towards the starboard side of the dining room flowing from the forward section of the upper level and that broadens near the bottom. The upper level rings the lower lever, leaving an open area in the center aft of the stairway, and there are entrances to the galley on both levels and on both sides of the galley at the aft end of the dining room. Windows on both levels are in abundance, and you don't need a "window" table to have a good view outside. The dining room colors are sort of gray and mauve that provide a bit of elegance, as do the piano and harp mounted on a platform on the lower level next to the stairway.
Leaving the upper level of the Edelweiss Dining Room and proceeding past the Centrum on the Promenade Deck (5), you enter the casino on the starboard side. New features to this version of RCI's Casino Royale include a sports bar with a bank of 5 television sets that often have different programs playing on each. The designers saved just about every ounce of glitz on the ship for the casino, and one of the new features is an echo chamber near the center of the starboard corridor with a circular cut-out of stars on the ceiling. There is the usual abundant array of slots and, surprisingly, a somewhat limited number of gaming tables. Whenever I was in the casino, however, the tables were not very busy, so perhaps RCI has adjusted the size and capacity of its casinos on the Vision class ships in response to stated needs and interests of its customers.
As you exit the Casino, either on the starboard or port side, you proceed past the forward elevator and stairway lobby to the entrance to the lower level of the Broadway Melodies Theater, the main show lounge on the Rhapsody. The Broadway Melodies Theater offers theater-style single seating with drink holders on the seats rather than the lounge-style seating on the Sovereign class ships (and Nordic Empress). There are only two pillars on each side to obstruct vision, and virtually all seats face the center of the stage, including the balcony seats. The overhead house lights feature an interesting triple row of waving lights hung from the ceiling in the center of the house that are reminiscent of xylophones, and that elevate almost all the way to the ceiling at show time. These features make for an ideal viewing situation for the audience. The Act curtain looks much like Joseph's amazing technicolor dreamcoat and is a bit gaudy for my taste, but it certainly catches the eye.
The Broadway melodies Theater offers major upgrades in technology from the Sovereign class ships that make possible virtually an infinite number of possibilities for the presentation of productions -- and judging from the productions on this holiday cruise, the Rhapsody certainly makes use of as much of the new technology as possible. I won't bore you with much of the details but, being something of a theater "techie," I found the new layout absolutely fascinating. There are three banks of stage lights in the house, a semicircular montage of lasers, specials, and automatically moving lights above the stage and in front of the stage overhead. There is a movable orchestra pit (although the orchestra often plays from on stage), and stairways on each wing of the stage leading from the upstairs dressing rooms. The production manager offered to give me a personal tour of the backstage area, which is much roomier than on the Sovereign class ships, with a wide crossway, intercom and headset stations to communicate with the lighting and sound booths or the spotters, stage-level storage and/or dressing rooms, and a stage manager station located on the upper level, with a monitor to enable the stage manager to see what is happening on stage. The stage has risers that can be elevated or lowered to stage level, and there are two movable tracks to allow seats to be moved on and off easily. The balcony level of the theater is scalloped so that there are more rows toward the front than the rear. The sound booth is located near the rear of the orchestra, with about 8-10 rows rising up from the rear of the orchestra into a mezzanine section. The lighting booth, which also includes two spot lights, is located at the rear of the mezzanine. You may exit the theater from either side at the rear of the balcony/mezzanine.
In order to proceed aft past the forward elevator/stairway lobby on the Maritime Deck (6), you must go to the starboard side of the ship, where you enter a marble floored/marble walled winding corridor leading to the Boutiques of Centrum. To the left there are windows for the formal and jewelry shops and finally an entrance to a large signature store. To the right, opposite the entrance to this store, is a passageway that winds across the ship toward the post side. You will eventually reach the Photo shop, at which point the marble decor changes to carpeting and the soft tones of the Centrum area. From the Photo shop you pass directly through the Photo Gallery, where thousands of pictures accumulate over the course of the week, until selected for purchase by various passengers. Returning now to the Boutiques of Centrum, as you exit the Signature shop and turn left (aft) you next come to the entrance to the Perfume shop on the right, and then to the Liquor/Sundries Shop on the left. This winding corridor takes you to the Centrum area on the starboard side, but not before you pass life-sized models of a French maid and a waiter that made for a good Kodak moment. The winding, meandering marble corridors of the Boutiques of Centrum is unique, and contributes to one's sense that you are perhaps in a mall rather than on a ship. There is no question that one can become disoriented easily in this area. By the way, you won't find the Beauty Salon in this area, as you would on any of the Sovereign class ships. The Beauty Salon is located adjacent to the Shipshape Center on the Rhapsody.
Moving aft on Deck 6 past the Centrum on the port side, you enter the Moonlight Bay Lounge, a large carpeted area used primarily for conferences and meetings. Floor to ceiling windows provide lots of natural light. I would venture a guess that this area is among the most underutilized on the ship. From the Centrum elevator/stairway lobby proceeding aft on the starboard side you enter the Schooner Bar, an old standby in the RCI fleet. Plenty of shades of wood here, and the room is very attractive. It is basically a straight corridor, however, with the piano located approximately halfway along the corridor along a window, with the bar located at the forward entrance to the room on the right as you proceed aft. I rather preferred the L-shaped design of the Schooner Bar on the Sovereign class ships, with the piano located in the "L" part of the room, away from the foot traffic. On the Rhapsody, there is almost constant traffic passing directly in front of the piano and this tends to reduce the warmth and coziness of what otherwise would be a delightful setting to listen and sing along.
Continuing aft from the Schooner Bar and merging with a diagonal corridor crossing from the aft exit of the Moonlight Bay Lounge, you approach the single, starboard side entrance to the Shall We Dance Lounge. This large room occupies the aft-most section of the deck across the width of the ship. It has a fairly large dance floor, a stage/bandstand. sound booth, and large bar. Unlike similar lounges on the Sovereign class ships, the stage is located on the port side of the room, with the sound booth on the starboard side. The bar is on your right as you enter the room, and there is a rather large galley to produce hors d'oeuvres and snacks for such events as the Captain's Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party and RCI's repeating passengers bash. There are lots of comfortable chairs and benches ringing the room, with two large models of mechanical devices located on either side of the aft portion of the room. windows surround the lounge, and the absence of the stage in the stern section allows for terrific daytime views from the stern windows. I witnessed two stunning sunsets from this lounge, and the room saw plenty of action during the cruise, with nightly activities such as dancing, kareoke, and team games.
Before we move topside, I should mention that Rhapsody, like all of its fellow RCI ships, has a promenade deck. The Promenade deck here is different in two respects: it is not a full wrap-around deck, so walkers have to retrace their steps on each side; and this deck is made of wood and gently slopes upward in the aft section on both sides.
Unlike its slightly taller and more populated Sovereign class cousins, the Rhapsody's Sun Deck is Deck 9. Entering from the forward elevator lobby, the Windjammer Cafe -- which serves everything from buffet breakfasts and lunches to late afternoon snacks, to midnight snacks, to an alternative dinner -- occupies the entire forward section of this deck. Offering terrific panoramic views, this version of the RCI traditional lido cafe is on a single level, with some seating extending aft to open areas of the deck on either side.
Aft of the Windjammer Cafe is the outdoor pool area, with the standard pool bar located at the forward end, a small dancing area in front of the bar (also used for horse races and other "pool area" games), and 4 jacuzzis (two on each side) covered by canopies located about halfway across the outdoor pool area. In between the jacuzzis is a fountain that randomly sprays cold water around the area, including people in the hot tubs (which can be jarring). The aft side of the fountain is a wading pool. At first blush, the outside pool area seems almost identical to its sovereign class predecessors, right down to the centrally located clocks on either side of the area, hanging from the jogging track surrounding the area one deck above on the Compass Deck (10). But the designers played a trick by truncating the area in order to allow the Centrum Atrium to top off above the Sun Deck (pool deck) at the aft end of the outdoor pool area. Like the Sovereign class ships, the Viking Crown Lounge overlooks the pool area, but it is not nearly as far aft as on the Sovereign group. As a result, the outdoor pool area is a lot smaller than it looks, and it tended to get very crowded, especially on "at sea" days.
Continuing aft from the Centrum and/or outdoor pool area on Deck 9, you come to one of the unique and most successful changes for the Rhapsody and its Vision class relatives -- the Solarium. Much has been said about this major RCI innovation, so I will spare the details and summarize: an indoor/outdoor area in an Egyptian motif that includes lots of padded chairs, two jacuzzis, a bar at the forward end, and a cafe on the aft end that serves pizzas, hamburgers, hot dogs and fries pretty much all day and all night (except during dinner). There's lots of room to sit and relax as the area covers the width of the ship. The "crystal canopy" roof provides lots of natural light during the day and star-gazing at night and, because the glass canopy remained closed during the entire cruise (why, I don't know, as the weather was bone dry throughout the cruise), people didn't congregate here in droves, which left the area moderately quiet. The pool has two spouts shooting water into it, which creates a ripple effect. Only the mot ardent sun worshippers avoided this truly unique, attractive spot.
The entrance to the beauty salon is located on the starboard side at the aft end of the Solarium, and the salon extends through the lower portion of what would be the smokestack to the stern of the ship. Here you could have your hair done, get a facial or body massage, or take part in other spa activities, such as the sauna.
The Shipshape Center is located directly above the Beauty Salon/Health Spa. Here there is a gym with universal equipment, stair-steppers and other workout equipment, as well as a pretty large aerobics area. Outside on either side of the Shipshape Center there are shuffleboard courts, but no basketball court. There is a really neat little alley between the upper section of the Solarium and the smokestack, where RCI has placed movable miniature golf holes. This area really is nothing like the real miniature golf courses on Legend and Splendour, but somehow it always seemed like it was in use.
Along the sides of the upper area of the Solarium the Compass Deck (10) becomes especially wide. This was often a good spot for sitting on a deck chair, watching the passing parade or the horizon. The was plenty of sun and also some protection from the wind, and the area tended to be fairly quiet. This deck got a bit noisier as you proceeded forward to overlook the outdoor pool area. AT the forward end of this deck, RCI located its teen Fantaseas Lounge, including a video arcade and a boozeless sports bar (starboard side); and Club Ocean, the pre-teen lounge -- a multi-purpose indoor playhouse (port side). At the forward-most end of this deck was the glass ceiling of the Windjammer Cafe and an Observatory, with some modest star-gazing equipment. when the ship was at sea, the area tended to catch a fair amount of wind and thus was a bit more deserted than other outside areas.
Returning to the Centrum area on Deck 10 and the entrance to the Viking Crown Lounge, which has undergone major redesigning on Rhapsody and its Vision class cousins. No longer cantilevered to the smokestack, it is the uppermost extension of the Centrum. Unlike the 360-degree single-level lounge on the Sovereign group which offered primarily quiet drinks and peaceful conversation day or night, Rhapsody's Viking Crown Lounge is divided into four connected but specific sections: a modestly quiet bar overlooking the outdoor pool area; a slightly elevated section with tables and chairs on either die and a state-of-the-art disco dance floor in the center (into which two of the Centrum elevators disgorge passengers); an upper level of the disco featuring the DJ's booth overlooking the dance floor; and an aft section somewhat isolated from the rest of the Lounge meant for quiet drinking and conversation, with a piano tucked away in a corner of the area. I like the attempt to integrate the Viking Crown Lounge into the rest of the ship physically, which I think works well. And I also think this lounge serves its purpose as a disco. I'm not sure the majority of RCI enthusiasts will appreciate the break with tradition; nor do I think the aft section piano bar works well. Perhaps the lounge tries to do too much, and in my observation, it comes up short. It also leaves the Rhapsody longer and a bit heavier than all but the Carnival Destiny, but not towering over the competition the way the Sovereign and its sisters do. This, however, is a minor point.
The Cabins --The remaining passenger areas of the ship are where you find the passenger cabins. Unlike its more crowded Sovereign class predecessors, the Rhapsody is designed with the private cabins primarily along two corridors per deck, one on each side of the ship. There are few of the crossing corridors loaded with inside cabins found on the lower decks on the Sovereign class ships.
Let's not belabor the point -- RCI has a reputation for small but functional cabins predicated on the premise that if you keep people occupied day and night, they won't have to think or care about their sardine-like cabin. Now don't get me wrong; I tend to agree with this philosophy. Still, I think I join a lot of RCI enthusiasts who appreciate just enough more space and modifications to the cabins on the Vision class ships to agree that these are welcome changes. All cabins now have a small sitting area with fold-out queen sofa or at least an easy chair and glass table, quite a bit more storage space, including a shelf safe for valuables, and interactive TV that allows you to order shore excursions or gamble from the comfort of your larger small cabin. For the real RCI small-cabin enthusiast there is no need to fear: the showers are still excruciatingly small but function like a dream (no - not a nightmare!).
On this cruise our family had a pair of inside M-category cabins on the Commodore Deck (7) with an interesting layout because the doorway is located in the middle, rather than at the end of the cabin. As you enter the cabin, the bath/shower is immediately on your left. Next to the bath, at the forward end of the cabin, is the closet, a bit larger than on the Sovereign class ships. Along the far wall moving aft from the closet are a table with ice bucket and drinks on top with two shelves below, then a desk with a large mirror in which both sides open up to reveal four small shelves on each side. The desk has three drawers on each side and a small center drawer. Moving aft is one of the twin beds facing forward, with plenty of room underneath to stow the life jackets and a couple of suitcases. At the aft end of the cabin are two night tables with two drawers each, then the other twin bed facing forward. Immediately to the right of the doorway is the TV cabinet, with a roll-out and swivel shelf for the TV with a remote. There are two shelves above the TV (one contains the safe) and three drawers below the TV. All in all, a very nice inside cabin for two people with lots of extra storage space (even if my wife had not had her suitcase lost by the airline).
The outside cabins on this deck are the category D type, with verandas, which appears to be the most popular cabin category on the Rhapsody. The verandas do not detract from the size of the cabins (as they do on some other cruise lines), but I'm not sure they're worth the extra cost for a Caribbean cruise (the Alaska itinerary is a different story).
My overall impressions of the ship are very favorable in almost every respect. Rhapsody of the Seas is beautiful, inside and out, with great attention to detail (especially the artwork scattered generously throughout the ship) and the presence of glass almost everywhere adding extensive natural light. The ship is bright and lively, but elegant, not garish or gaudy, and there are literally dozens of nooks and crannies to find solace on the high seas even with 2000 or more fellow passengers aboard this behemoth of a ship. The Centrum, with its Atrium lobby perhaps the ship's strongest, most impressive design feature, actually can (and does) disorient you at first. It's as if RCI is saying to its long-time customers: "You think we're regimented and predictable, but our new ships have a few tricks up their sleeve."
By the way, there was absolutely no evidence of the engine trouble that forced the Rhapsody into dry-dock for two weeks in October. On Christmas eve, however, during the first seating show, the air conditioning went out and stayed out until around midnight, by which time some passenger were talking about sleeping topside in deck chairs. The crew never made any public announcements, either during the outage or after the repairs, which I think was an error, because it led to unease among many passengers and led others to seek the information unofficially from the crew. I went about my business (i.e., show, kareoke, midnight snack in the Solarium), but SWEATED out the "crisis".
The Service --Most experienced cruisers know that RCI is best known for delivering a consistent product. I'm not about to debate the pros and cons of that here, but this is pretty much of a given. With respect to service, RCI's reputation has been relatively reliable, except for a bit of over-solicitousness by the dining room staff. But consistently good (not extraordinary) has been RCI's reputation. With respect to service on this cruise, I would say that RCI pretty much held to their reputation with two possible exceptions. First, I was pleased that the dining room staff I came into contact with appeared somewhat less uptight and, if not always willing to engage in banter and fun, at least were willing to chat and avoided "the speech" about the comment cards until the next-to-last night. Second, I came away with a mildly disturbing sense that much of the staff (including the Cruise Director) were there to do their jobs and not much else. That is not to say that the staff was not personable. I enjoyed many interesting conversations with staff members, but overall I had the sense that perhaps RCI was trying to appeal to a slightly older (and more stuffy?) clientele -- although this holiday cruise had hordes of children of all ages on board, but that the usual banter with bar waiters, cruise staff, and room stewards seemed more the exception than the rule and usually was initiated by the passengers.
I'm not sure whether these observations are due to a relatively new staff (many of whom are East Europeans new to the cruise industry) trying to become comfortable with their roles and with each other -- after all it is a new ship and the crew and staff have not been together that long -- or whether a directive has been issued by RCI to "tone it down." The last thing I would want is for RCI cruises to become stuffy, business-like affairs. I love the casual but not "party-hardy" atmosphere.
I mentioned earlier that although RCI was not responsible for the loss of my wife's suitcase or other problems we had during this cruise, you can learn something about the personnel by how they deal with such situations. With respect to the lost suitcase, Rhapsody's staff -- in particular the Purser's staff -- received a mix review. Some of the people behind the desk, especially on that first traumatic day or two, were only modestly helpful. One or two said things like "I'm sorry, but there's nothing more I can do" (except say "I'm sorry'). That, unfortunately, may have been true, but it's the last thing an upset passenger needs to hear. A truly outstanding staff person, facing a passenger about to have a holiday cruise ruined, shouldn't have to be reminded how serious their predicament is. Fortunately, two or three members of the Purser's staff went the extra mile to help in little and significant ways. My wife and I became on a first name basis with these folks, and I can testify that their concern helped our overall frame of mind and made it possible to derive at least a measure of pleasure out of the cruise.
The Entertainment--RCI has a reputation for being among the best cruise lines (along with Norwegian) in presenting shows and other live entertainment. Based on the thoughtful design of the Rhapsody's Broadway Melodies Theater, Shall We Dance Lounge, and Viking Crown Lounge, and the millions of dollars invested in state-or-the-art technology, my assumption is that entertainment remains a top priority for RCI. To be sure, there was plenty of live entertainment on this holiday cruise. The usual Caribbean band played every day (except for some strange reason, the last full day, in St. Thomas) at the outdoor pool. There were various iterations of musicians playing big band to country to rock, usually in the Shall We Dance Lounge. The same musicians also comprised the Rhapsody's show orchestra in the Broadway Melodies Theater. Two pianists alternated performing in various venues aboard the ship from late afternoon through late night. Most often they could be heard in the Schooner Bar or near the Champaign Terrace at the base of the Centrum. This was also the usual venue for a female vocalist with piano backup singing mainly old standards. There was a harpist, and occasionally a pianist who performed who also played in the Champaign Terrace and in the Edelweiss Dining Room during dinner. There were a couple of nice little extras, as well. The usual guest talent show on the second "at sea" day turned out to be pretty good, as several of the performers (all singers) had professional quality voices. Even the Cruise Director did a cabaret act the last night in the Schooner Bar, and this was top notch (he's taking this to New York during his vacation next month). Although I heard a string/flute trio perform in the Champaign Terrace, I was disappointed that they did not stroll through the dining room on formal nights playing requests from various guests at each table (as had been the custom on my other RCI cruises). I'm not sure why this was taken out of the entertainment package, but my family of four and our traveling companions sharing our table, another family of four -- commented several times on the missing strolling musicians at dinner. In any event, there was plenty of music, and the quality was uniformly excellent.
As for the entertainment in the Broadway Melodies Theater, I have a somewhat mixed review. The RCI formula for 7-night cruises is to combine a couple of headliners with several backup acts that vary from "legitimate" musical talent to novelty, with RCI's own song and dance production ensemble (known as the Wave Revue), with a smattering of performing by the cruise staff. On my previous three cruise experiences, the talent was generally outstanding, the performances entertaining, and the audiences wildly enthusiastic, all of which adds up to the deserved top-rung reputation RCI enjoys for entertainment. On the Rhapsody's first Christmas cruise, RCI certainly followed their formula. In fact, Rhapsody is fortunate to have both its Cruise Director Kirk Detwiler and Assistant Cruise Director Jacqui Perry as talented singers, and they did perform here and there throughout the week from the main stage (as well as the aforementioned cabaret performed by Detwiler).
The two Wave Revue productions were designed to make full use of every available piece of technology in the house, including integrating film (shown on lowered stage and wing/ceiling screens) with live music. The quality of the shows -- other than the two headliners (comic George Wallace and singer/composer Clint Holmes, who were terrific, and who were received enthusiastically by the audiences) was, in my view, disappointing. The back up acts -- jugglers, a unicyclist family (including their pet poodle), and a gaucho -- were talented enough to fill time on the Ed Sullivan Show, but this holiday cruise audience was a bit too sophisticated, and so these performances were flat. As for the Wave Revue, obviously the talent varies from ship to ship, but I don't think the problem here was the talent. The ensemble's main production, "Heat Wave", took full advantage of the state-of-the-art technology. In fact, I think the producers were so enamored with showcasing Rhapsody's impressive array of technology that they forgot about using their talent. The group always consists of four singers and eight dancers. The singers on the Rhapsody now use both hand-held cordless microphones and the "Madonna" style headsets currently in use in most Broadway productions. In some numbers the singers used both types of microphones at the same time, which seemed odd. The singers were talented enough, but the production had all the dances singing at times, except they were not really singing, they used a click track -- that is, pre-recorded singing with the dances doing lip-sync. Unfortunately, the lip-sync looked terrible, as some of the dancers seemed not to know the words so the lip-sync was out of sync with the click track. The production also use a click track to enhance the orchestra, which I also found very odd, in that the orchestra didn't seem to need any enhancement. The musical numbers for this production, I thought, were a poor choice. Usually the Wave Revue performs mostly popular songs from Broadway, Hollywood, or standard hits. This production seemed to have especially designed numbers (to make maximum use of the technology?) which the audience didn't know. In any case, the audience appeared either so mesmerized by the technology or terribly unimpressed with the performances because their response to the Wave Revue production was unusually luke warm for an RCI audience.
The second Wave Revue production was a special holiday show that included the cruise staff. There were plenty of familiar tunes in this production and the audience responded more favorably. Unfortunately, it was obvious that this production was under-rehearsed (which is understandable given the special nature of the production and the schedules of the cast). But it was too bad to see a somewhat messy presentation, both by the performers and by the tech. crew (i.e., spotlights missing the target). I realize that I am not a typical audience when it comes to these things and I tend to see may glitches that most people miss (and sound overly critical). I certainly wouldn't characterize the entertainment as bad, but I was somewhat disappointed in the main shows, and I hope this was an exception and that RCI is not going to use all that technology as a substitute for outstanding, well-prepared talent. Cruise audiences are becoming too sophisticated to be fooled.
Cruise Staff and On-Board Activities --When you travel on several cruises with the same cruise line, eventually you will see staff you know. Sure enough, as we stepped on board the Rhapsody for the first time in San Juan, one of the staff members stopped my daughter and said, "Didn't you perform on one of our cruises last year?" She certainly did; she performed a song in the guest talent show on Majesty of the Seas. As it turned out, there were two other key cruise staff members who we knew from other RCI cruises. It was nice knowing members of the cruise staff and actually being remembered. Not all cruise staff, of course, have that type of memory, but we found most of the folks working on Rhapsody to be friendly, helpful, engaging, and just plain fun. What more could you ask? Not much, but I was a bit disappointed in the Cruise Director, Kirk Detwiler. He was a very talented singer, and terrific as a host for several of the formal talks and games (i.e., the Newlywed Game). But other than his programmed public appearances, he was hardly visible aboard the ship. There was no opportunity for one-on-one, no establishing of a personal rapport that is so important for the image of a cruise line. Fortunately, the many activities -- the virtually constant activities on board the ship day and night -- did not suffer from his absence because of the excellence of his supporting staff, including, I am told, the people responsible for the young people's program. Once of RCI's strength's is that they make available a myriad of activities so that there is always something that appeals to everyone on board. It's up to the passengers to participate or just chill. This cruise was no different, and there were plenty of special activities concerning the holidays, both Christmas and Chanukah (which occurred during the cruise). So RCI gets high marks in this area, with the one exception of the Cruise Director.
Food --I an not sure there's much value in discussing the subject of food on any cruise ship because, when it comes to food, one person's feast is another person's famine. Food is such a personal issue that one has to be careful with what they say.
What I will say is that if you have cruised with RCI and have enjoyed the food, the Rhapsody will certainly please you. The dining room staff has geared up after 6 months of working together to the extent that they gave their first gala midnight buffet on this Christmas cruise. Dinner menus, especially for those interested in light fare, have been broadened slightly (and, I think, successfully), although there will be plenty of familiar items for RCI veterans. The buffets served in the Windjammer Cafe also have undergone some modification and broadening. Omelets are now made personally at breakfast; hamburgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches are available at lunch; and the afternoon snack and hours have been expanded so as to better accommodate more passengers who have returned from the ports of call.
Rhapsody offers two major additions to food service over the Sovereign class ships. The Solarium Cafe, which serves "personal" pizzas, hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries during the daytime hours when the dining room and Windjammer Cafe are closed, and late at night, so it is now possible to eat virtually any time, day or night, either inside or outside of your cabin. While this addition to the food service may not satisfy everyone's palate, it seemed that a lot of people on or cruise took advantage of it and were quite pleased.
The other major addition to the food service, the alternative casual dinner made available in the Windjammer Cafe, does not seem to have caught on at all. It would appear that this option would appeal only to families traveling with very small children. The cruise lines -- and RCI in particular -- have worked so hard to make the dining room dinner experience special and even entertaining, that for most passengers this is a highlight of the day. Even on a week-long cruise, it seems doubtful that many passengers would be willing to give this up to try the alternative even for one night.
The Itinerary --The Rhapsody's winter itinerary is one of RCI's most attractive, in my view. The ship calls at Aruba, Curacao, St. Maarten/St. Martin, and St. Thomas, with two full days at sea. The "at sea" days are the first and fourth days, which breaks the cruise up nicely. The last day stop at St. Thomas is well-planned, as passengers get to save most of their shopping for the end of the cruise. The other islands offer considerable contrast even though they are primarily Dutch in influence. Aruba is very modern, offers some top resorts to visit, and most of the shopping is within walking distance of the pier. Curacao's port city of Willemstad is a nice blend of Caribbean and European influence. St. Maarten offers a beautiful beach experience for those willing to take the 20-minute taxi ride to Orient Beach on the French side or the island. Please note that this beach permits topless sunbathing, and several visitors (mostly European, I would venture to guess) take advantage of this option.
My final point on itinerary is that most people can get what they are seeking from almost any Caribbean itinerary, so I would not choose this or any cruise on the primary basis of the itinerary. It is a secondary factor for Caribbean cruises.
Final Thoughts --If a cruise line and a ship can provide a terrific cruise experience. to a family missing a key suitcase and suffering from various health problems, then it deserves all the credit in the world. RCI -- and Rhapsody of the Seas -- came through for us in a big way. Despite all the problems, we had a wonderful time and are looking forward to our next cruise, this coming July, on RCI's Enchantment of the Seas. Meanwhile, I would recommend the Rhapsody's Southern Caribbean cruise for virtually anyone, including first time cruisers and veterans, even those who normally prefer the "small ship" cruise experience.
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