If nine days at sea and five ports tantalize your cruise palate, then Royal Caribbean's 14 day transatlantic crossing on the m/s Splendour of the Seas is for you. After enjoying an 11 day Hawaii to Vancouver cruise last year on the Rhapsody of the Seas, I looked forward to another long cruise with plenty of sea days. This year, I traveled with a priest-friend of mine, Bill, who had never cruised before.
The Hyatt Regency is a high rise hotel with a spacious lobby and comfortable rooms. Unfortunately, our room did not overlook the port, so we could not watch the Splendour arrive the next morning. A hair dryer is provided in the bathroom. Before our arrival in Miami, we arranged to meet for dinner that evening some friends who had recently moved to Fort Lauderdale. We tried Mambo's, an outdoor Cuban restaurant at the large, nearby Bayside Mall. The food was good.
Some friends on the cruise who stayed at the Crown Plaza found the area to be unsafe. Plaza personnel recommended that they return to the hotel by taxi from a movie theater half a block away. The Crown Plaza is located about fifteen minutes from the port.
On Wednesday morning, Royal Caribbean representatives were in the hotel lobby to check in people for the cruise. They verified passports and distributed cruise cards, which had to be activated with a major credit card once on the ship. The rest of the morning was free until the busses left the hotel at 12:30pm for the short ride to the port.
"A" Deck 3 and "B" Decks 2 are staterooms. "A" Deck, however, also houses the Conference Center, where cruise cards are activated, and, during the cruise, where currency is exchanged. Returning to deck 4, we observed the lower entrance to the King & I Dining Room. The two-level, glass-enclosed dining room is located aft of the Centrum elevators. Moving forward, on each side of the Centrum sculpture are chairs and sofas in the Champagne Terrace, the site of the omnipresent art auction. Forward of the port and starboard Champagne Terrace one finds the Champagne Bar. A variety of music combos played here before and after dinner.
The casino entrance is forward of the Champagne Terrace on the starboard side. The casino offers a number of quarter and dollar slots in addition to a craps table, roulette table, and several blackjack and Caribbean stud poker tables. The doors on the forward side of the casino lead to the forward elevators and stairway. The 42nd Street Theater lies in the most forward section of the ship on deck 4. Unlike the two-level theater on the Rhapsody of the Seas, the 42nd Street Theater is one level with the floor sloping to a full-sized stage. For the nightly shows, we sat in various locations and never had difficulty viewing every part of the stage. Moving aft from the theater through the casino on the port side, one finds the Schooner Bar, a quiet place for cocktails and conversation.
On Mariner Deck 6, the Photo Gallery lies amidship, just forward of the Centrum elevators. Cabins complete the remainder of deck 6. In addition to the cabins on Commodore Deck 7, one finds amidship the Card Room on the port side and the adequately outfitted Library on the starboard side. On Bridge Deck 8, directly above the Card Room, is the Explorer's Court. Opposite, on the starboard side, is the Crown & Anchor Study.
The Splendour's two pools are located on Sun Deck 9. The main pool is found forward of the midship's elevators. This outdoor pool is surrounded by lounges, which were plentiful even on the sunny days at sea. Two jacuzzis flank the pool port and starboard. Forward of the pool is the pool bar, an open area for pool games (such as baggo, horse racing, etc.), and a covered area with tables and chairs for outdoor dining. We especially enjoyed this area, with its 24-hour coffee service and morning pastries. The Windjammer Café, located forward of the pool area, overlooks the bow area. The Windjammer hosts informal dining for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At 4:00pm, snacks were also served here.
Aft of the amidships elevators on deck 9 is the Solarium, with its covered pool and pizza and burger service. The entrance to the beauty salon is aft of the Solarium on the port side. From here, one has access to the massage therapies (wonderful!), saunas, aerobics areas and weight room. A sports deck overlooks the ship's stern and is accessible from the salon center.
Directly above the Salon, on Compass Deck 10, is an 18-hole miniature golf course, Splendour of the Greens. For $30, one can purchase a card for unlimited play; single games are $5. A composite jogging track runs along the perimeter of deck 10. The video arcade, Club Ocean, and Optix (the teen center), are located just aft of the Observatory which overlooks the bow of the ship.
Finally, at the pinnacle of the Splendour of the Seas, as with all Royal Caribbean vessels, is the Viking Crown Lounge. With its 360º view, the Viking Crown Lounge is a perfect place to watch the ocean go by. On this cruise, it was also the place where a number of the events for the Spanish-speaking passengers were held. At night the Lounge served as the disco.
Throughout the ship one finds exquisite pieces of art. Whether paintings or sculptures, most with an ocean theme, these noble pieces truly enhance the beauty of this ship.
This repositioning cruise was not totally booked. While the Splendour holds 1,800 people double occupancy, only 1,504 passengers were on board; 55% were RCI repeat passengers, stated Captain Olav Nyseter at the Crown & Anchor Society party for repeat passengers. Still, even with 1,500 passengers, we never felt crowded and remarked near the end of the cruise that we were still meeting people we hadn't seen the entire cruise.
Our ship's tour ended, my friend and I returned to our cabin to find that our luggage had been delivered. We had partially unpacked when the 4:15pm call came for the mandatory lifeboat muster. I certainly appreciated that the crew checked in people when they showed up at the muster station, so there were few cabins to call off later. The muster concluded, we returned to our cabin to finish unpacking before going on deck for the departure. Shortly before the scheduled 5:00pm sailing, the Master, Captain Nyseter, informed us that the ship would not weigh anchor until 6:00pm as some baggage and supplies had not yet arrived. Before 6:00pm, a second announcement advised that departure had been further delayed until 6:15pm. When at last the ship's horn sounded, the great ship seemingly drifted away from the pier and made its way to the open sea.
Bill and I were assigned to a table for six on the second level of the King & I Dining Room for the main seating. Seated with us was an elderly couple from Mexico City who had sailed on this cruise before. As their English was limited, Bill and I communicated with them most often in Spanish, a challenge for us. Because the other couple assigned to our table never boarded the ship, we invited an Argentinean couple, who were sitting alone at a nearby table for eight, to join us. (This couple spoke even less English than the Mexican couple.) Despite the occasional (and comical) communication difficulties, we enjoyed each other's company during lunch and dinner.
During the days in port, breakfast and lunch in the dining room were open seating. On days at sea, only breakfast was open seating. This only became a problem in Tenerife, when everyone seemed to arrive in the dining room at the same time before debarking for their shore excursions. Service became disorganized and slow. In fact, the next day in Funchal, many people opted for breakfast in the Windjammer Café rather than the dining room, making breakfast in the latter speedier and more enjoyable!
Throughout the cruise, the food in the dining room was generally good, though at times uneven. Our table particularly enjoyed the breads, appetizers, soups, and desserts. Since I have a weakness for sweets, I especially enjoyed the chilled fruit soups, though I missed the chilled strawberry bisque the day we were in St. Thomas. Unfortunately, the entrees were the weakest part of the meals. I found that the meats tended to be dry (which is perhaps the reason they are often served with a sauce). I enjoyed the pasta dishes. However, if something wasn't to my liking, there was never a problem ordering another dish.
The wait staff was competent. Our Chilean waiter, Leslie, was attentive to our needs and desires, always happy to make a recommendation or bring out a second dessert. Zoltan, the Hungarian assistant waiter, needs more time to mature in his role. David, the wine steward was very attentive.
There were three formal nights during the cruise. About half of the men wore tuxedos; most of the remaining half wore suits. The rest disregarded the dress code in favor of a sport coat. Generally, the women wore long or cocktail length dresses, though some opted for fancy pantsuits. In addition to four smart casual nights (jackets and ties for men), there were seven causal nights on board. For me, dressing up for dinner and the evening activities is one of the attractive aspects of cruising. I don't think Royal Caribbean is asking too much with three formal nights and four smart casual nights. I only wish they would heighten awareness of the dress code and politely enforce it.
The Wave Revue Singers and Dancers presented four different shows during the cruise, in addition to their appearances on stage the first and last nights. I found this energetic group of performers more entertaining than some of the "headliners," who included Herb Reed and the Platters, Naki Ataman (a pianist I heard last year on the Rhapsody of the Seas), Lenny Welch, Jay J. Downs, and Judy Kolba. We thoroughly enjoyed the funny visual comedian Yacov Noy, the three acrobatic Rampin Brothers, and Clara Romana and her Ballet Folklorica-Espanol troupe. Every night the theater was full with a supportive and enthusiastic audience.
Bill Brunkhorst, the Cruise Director, and his staff of seven kept very busy with the many activities planned for the cruise. Given the large number of Spanish-speaking passengers on board (most announcements were made in English and Spanish), the Cruise Director's Staff, as the cruise staff was called, bustled from activity to activity. With little time off and the loss of an hour a day for six nights, the Staff showed signs of fatigue near the end of the cruise, one Staff member even losing his voice.
After a few days at sea, we heard comments from the Staff that many more people than normal were attending activities. For example, the aerobics activities had over one hundred participants. Likewise, the five fascinating workshops given by certified graphologist, Rayna Knighton, were full. After each workshop, Mrs. Knighton analyzed the handwriting of eight participants, but she gladly analyzed anyone's handwriting throughout the day.
One highlight of the cruise for me was the purchase of a racehorse by auction. While racehorses can go for several hundred dollars on some cruises, I bought Horse #1, which I named First Crossing, for $50. Some friends I met helped to decorate him, and one served as the jockey for the Owner's Cup race. While First Crossing came in second in both the decoration contest and the race (winning neither the bottle of champagne nor the $340 purse), we had a lot of fun.
One advantage of having the main seating for dinner was being able to participate in the group games in the Top Hat Lounge that followed the main seating shows each night. While the games are similar on each cruise, Name That Tune, WesternQuest, Call My Bluff, Bim Bam Boom, the Hula Hoop and Twist contests, True or False, and Not So Newlywed Game, it is the spontaneity of the people that make each so fun (and funny).
Religious services were offered on the ship each weekend. On Friday evenings, one of the Jewish passengers led the Sabbath services in the Top Hat Lounge. Kim Boudreau, the Ship's Hostess, led the Sunday morning interdenominational services. Due to a misunderstanding the first Sunday at sea, I presided at both a Mass in English and one in Spanish. The next Sunday, Father Bill presided at one bilingual Mass. Contrary to what many passengers thought, Bill and I volunteered to celebrate these Masses, since Royal Caribbean does not have a program for chaplains.
After two days at sea from Miami, the Splendour of the Seas docked in St. Thomas near the Havensight Mall. RCI's Nordic Empress and the Radisson Diamond were also in port that day. Despite the humidity, Bill and I walked from the ship into Charlotte Amalie, a distance of about one mile. We did some shopping and met a friend for lunch at Alexander's. Before returning to the ship, he took us up the mountain overlooking Megan's Bay and Charlotte Amalie (and the Splendour) for some photo ops.
The ship docked in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands after five beautiful days at sea. Bill and I took the interesting Santa Cruz City and Pyramids of Tenerife shore excursion. Located in the Güimar Valley, these pre-Hispanic and post-Egyptian pyramids were discovered in the 1970s by anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, captain of the Kon-Tiki and Ra boats. En route back to the Splendour, we stopped to visit the Basilica in Candelaria. This four-hour excursion cost $30.
The next day, on the Portuguese island of Madeira, Bill and I joined the Cabo Girão excursion. Cabo Girão is the world's second highest sea cliff, rising to 1,804 feet. The view of the coastline is superb-and worth the tortuous bus trip to the summit. Since no visit to Funchal would be complete without a taste of some Madeira wine, the tour stopped at the Wine Lodge on the return to the ship. This three-hour tour cost $38. Because we visited Funchal on May 1, Labor Day, many places were closed. I enjoyed the brief stop at this lush island and look forward to visiting again some day.
One day at sea separated Funchal from Málaga, Spain. Bill and I walked about two miles from the ship to the Cathedral, where we met some friends from home. Together, we toured the recently repaired Cathedral and the nearby fort. From there we drove to the neighboring town of Torremelinos for lunch, shopping, and a walk on the beach.
Since Bill and I stayed on in Barcelona for two extra nights, we were among the last passengers to leave the Splendour of the Seas. Debarkation proceeded smoothly by colored luggage tags. When our tag color was finally called at 9:45am, we walked off the ship and easily found our bags in the terminal. We walked through customs, placed our luggage on a truck, and boarded a bus for transfer to the Le Meridien Hotel.
Bill and I had booked Royal Caribbean's post-cruise, two night Barcelona package at the four star Le Meridien Hotel, located on Las Ramblas in the older, historic section of Barcelona. The Shore Excursion Director on the Splendour had said not to expect check-in before 3:00pm, so we were pleasantly surprised when our room was ready at 11:15am! The room, painted in orange and yellow, was comfortable. We enjoyed the complimentary breakfast buffet each morning before heading out. The concierge staff we found to be quite helpful in arranging for a rental car but also for directions, etc.
After checking in at Le Meridien, Bill and I walked to the Cathedral. Next we toured the Picasso Museum a few blocks away. For true Picasso fans, this is a "must see;" otherwise make other plans. While in the museum, we did see one funny incident: a college age man was giggling in front of a painting waiting for his friend to take his picture. A second look at the young man and the painting showed a remarkable resemblance!
After a late lunch at a nondescript eatery, Bill and I walked to Sagrada Familia, a church designed by the artist Antonio Gaudi which is not expected to be completed for another hundred years. Since neither of us was impressed with Gaudi's style, we decided not to take the tour, opting to circle the block for pictures instead. Following a nap at the hotel, Bill and I met friends from the cruise for a late (for us) dinner of wine and tapas (heavy hors d'oevres) at an outdoor restaurant on the Passeig de Garcia, a grand European boulevard.
The next day, Bill and I rented a car for the easy, hour trip to the Benedictine Monastery at Montserrat. Set into the mountain high above the Llobregat River, the monastery dates back over one thousand years. While 4 1/2 hour shore excursions to Montserrat are available for about the same price as a one-day car rental, we wanted the freedom to spend more time there. Despite the busloads of people, everyone who goes to Barcelona should make the effort to visit to the monastery at Monserrat.
Return to the United States:
The transfer from the hotel to the airport was painless. Having never traveled overseas before, I was amazed at the number of times I had to show my passport before getting to the gate. Our TWA flight from Barcelona to New York (with a stop in Lisbon) departed one hour late; no reason was provided. As I had developed a cold the previous day, my head did not appreciate the pressurization and depressurization in the four take offs and landings. Due to bad weather in New York, where we cleared customs easily, our flight to St. Louis was delayed - 90 minutes to taxi from the gate to the end of the runway before take off! After missing our connecting flight to San Francisco in St. Louis, we were re-booked on the last outbound flight and upgraded to first class. Unfortunately, because I was tired and not feeling well, I didn't enjoy the upgrade as much as I might have. Bill and I arrived in San Francisco at 1:45am (Pacific Time), nearly 23 hours after leaving Barcelona.
Our transatlantic cruise on the Splendour of the Seas was a marvelous experience. For us, it was the perfect balance of days at sea and port visits. It is little wonder that several people mentioned that they had taken this cruise before. The ship, while large, is well maintained. We found the crew and staff-from the captain to the stewards and bartenders-to be quite friendly and attentive. The food and entertainment were plentiful and good. What a relaxing way to travel to Europe!
Finally, Bill and I met a number of interesting people from around the United States and throughout the world. (Some of us had met online before the cruise and got together once on board.) With a cruise of this length, we found it difficult to say good-bye to these friends on the last day, especially since we had dined and danced, socialized and partied with them continuously for two weeks. Longer cruises make for sad good-byes. This fact, however, won't keep us from cruising again.
Some Photos contributed by John J. M. Foster
The Reverend John J. M. Foster is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Stockton in California. He can be reached at: JJMFoster@aol.com.
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