March 2016 - Grandeur of the Seas to Caribbean - Bahamas
I have cruised with Oceana and Carnival in the past, and although I did not expect an "Oceana experience" from RCI, I did anticipate an experience similar to (or better than) Carnival. Unfortunately, RCI underwhelmed at nearly every opportunity. The food was consistently disappointing, with sub-par meal quality served up in every complimentary eatery. All "steaks" are camouflaged with butter or barbecue sauce to disguise the poor cuts of meat available. Dishes are often misrepresented in the formal dining room menus (i.e., calling shrimp "prawns," calling a few shrimp and a lime wedge with some onions on a bed of iceberg lettuce "ceviche") and the buffet food was inedible across the board. The Park Cafe was serving still-frozen egg paninis at breakfast. The lunch portions in the formal dining room were extremely small and when things ran out on the salad station toward the end of service, they were not replenished. Overall, a very poor dining experience with too many hard sells to upgrade to premium dining -- even while you're actively dining in one of the complimentary restaurants. Seems like there might be a deliberate correlation here. The biggest problem, however, was the ship itself. Bottom line: The Grandeur of the Seas should be retired well before its scheduled May 2017 dry dock. It's not that it LOOKS bad. The aesthetic updates several years ago did their job. But the ship-wide sanitary system dysfunction is inexcusable and a public health hazard. We had a room on deck 3 that smelled of sewage the entire trip. At times, the entire deck smelled of human waste. It was like sailing on a very large, very expensive floating port-a-potty. We complained several times during the trip about toilets being backed up in public areas, like outside the dining area -- and not just one, but the entire women's restroom. This also occurred on deck 9 near the pool and public dining areas. This is disgusting, and creates a very poor brand experience for first-time cruisers who don't know if this is "typical" (it's not) and for seasoned cruisers who know they should be getting something better for their money. Other, smaller problems also diminished our experience. For example, the entertainment options skewed very "old" on our boat, especially on sea days when there is a captive audience. Towel folding, "hard sell" seminars disguised as "classes" and ballroom dance lessons were our only options on a cold, rainy and windy sea day - not much to do to entertain a 10 and 12 year old, much less their late-30s parents.
I also need to address the kid/teen programming. Carnival manages the age breakdown much better than RCI's model. On Grandeur, "Teens" were 12-18 year olds. "Kids" were 6-11 year olds, with activities skewing toward the younger kids in the "Kids" group, and the older kids in the "teens" programming. Carnival has a "tweens" group for 11-14 year olds, which seems to make more sense. The older kids in RCI's kids program are basically given the option to be "junior counselors" - i.e., free childcare labor for the staff! Just what every kid wants to do on their vacation! This was a major negative for our family. We also missed the little "extras" that make cruising special. Towel animals only appear sporadically - we got 3 on our 8 night cruise. No chocolates on the pillows. Nothing to welcome first-time cruisers to the line. Overall, this creates a very "meh" experience I'm not eager to recreate. Where RCI is still getting it right is in service. Customer-facing staff is all very well trained. We received fantastic service from any staff member who received gratuities. Our steward was excellent. Our dining room attendants and servers were top notch (which makes the poor food even more of a disturbing juxtaposition). But not everyone got high marks. A few examples? The pool deck/towel attendant was rude and gave poor information, not allowing us to check out towels from the pool deck before an excursion, and then telling us we could get towels on the dock after disembarkation in Nassau (we couldn't). As a result, we had to go back through security and go back on the ship to get them, nearly causing us to miss our excursion. The teen program staff were EXTREMELY rude to my husband when he went up to the club to pick up our 12-yr-old child from an activity at 11:30 at night. A cleaning attendant to whom we reported multiple backed up toilets acted as if she didn't care, and that this was not an urgent situation requiring attention. Overall, there is a lot of disparity in service.
However, I want to applaud our dining room team, Jorge and Julianna, who exceeded expectations and truly went above and beyond during our cruise. They were accommodating, warm and engaged, and did a great job at remembering our preferences and anticipating our needs. They were bright spots in an otherwise mediocre cruise experience and deserve special recognition.
Our steward also did a great job maintaining a very small cabin housing four people with lots of luggage. However, I will note: The communication on the first day with our steward was almost non-existent. I have come to expect an introduction upon arrival, and maybe even a mini-tour of the room to show where things are, how to use the shower, etc. (It took us 10 minutes to figure out how to regulate the temperature on the showers - this could have been explained to us in 5 seconds in a meet and greet overview.) A higher touch on that first day would have made a better first impression.Our impression was that he had a LOT of rooms to maintain because of RCI staffing cuts, and was doing the best he could under the circumstances. But we felt that diminished level of service. As a final comment - RCI, PLEASE consider retiring Grandeur of the Seas. It is truly a floating port-a-potty. No amount of staff training or cosmetic improvements can change the fact that the technology is antiquated, the sanitary system is dysfunctional and the ship is old and tired. This boat deteriorates the RCI brand and should be taken out of rotation as soon as possible.