April 2016 - 11 Night Hawaii Northbound (Honolulu To Vancouver) Cruise on Radiance of the Seas
This is our third cruise, all with Royal Caribbean, and first time on the Radiance. We had never been to Hawaii and with some extra vacation time accrued needing to be used up, we decided to make good use of it by doing a 19 day land-sea vacation combo.
Cliff Notes Version of My Review:
Overall, I really enjoyed the cruise. I did not allow some aggravations to dull my, otherwise positive, experience. Even hubby was able to internally resolve (somewhat) his few disappointing encounters so much so that HE was the one who initiated a NextCruise booking for Fall 2017. We were fortunate to have upgraded to a guaranteed balcony stateroom without additional cost and even more grateful that it was located on the 9th floor closer to the aft of the ship. We've never had an outside balcony so it was quite a treat despite the cabin's less than spotless upkeep by our attendant. Like many have pointed out, the ship is really wonderful with a lot of glass in public spaces for viewing the scenery outside. Radiance is quite spacious for not being among the largest in RCL's fleet though it definitely looked like she was in dire need of dry-dock repairs which was scheduled immediately after our cruise; but not so run-down that I couldn't see how beautiful she was beyond the grime, faulty toilets, and a broken anchor, to name a few. The Cruise Compass was chock-full of activities every day that we couldn't get to all of them. There were the usual and expectedly funny staples of any cruise itinerary including the Quest, Love and Marriage, and the Belly Flop Contest. The production shows and headliners were fantastic for the most part. Food was predictably plenty as customary. We ate mostly at the Windjammer for breakfast and lunch, then split our time between the MDR and specialty venues with our 5-night specialty dining package splurge, all of which were great, but not necessarily exceptional. Service was where she really did shine though there were a few that were forgettable. Our MDR waitstaff were awesome, solicitous, and self-deprecating. Thank you, Regan, for your great efforts and regularly reminding us to fill out our post-cruise survey for you and Alfredo–10 of which is the highest and 8 being the lowest on the scale (which progressed to 10 as a high and 10 as the low on our last night of the cruise). Gotta love your initiative! There were two barristas at Latte-tudes who were very friendly, no matter how frantically busy they got. Even though we had to seek out the WOW factor at the Windjammer, we were able to connect with some wonderful waiters who elevated their jobs above and beyond simply bussing tables. We booked our own excursions so can't comment on the ship's offerings other than to say that they tend to be more expensive than we have the budget for so we opted to seek out independent tours or rented a car to really see what the different islands had to offer. In the end, I give it a 4-star review but I suppose it could have easily been a 3.5 if there was such an option. To be fair, the best barometer of how well my experience turned out to be, is the fact that I really wasn't ready to leave. Just one more day, please.
Extended Version: (AKA, I can go on and on if you have time or just skip the subjects you want to look at.)
PLANNING: We booked this cruise 400+ days prior. As in the past, I booked with a major cruise TA. I have heard of so many people having great experiences with TA's who "do all the work for you." I've decided that one has to give up perks and incentives to get that elusive special service. It isn't so much a complaint as it is a fact and the reality that I still have to do my due diligence to get the best product for my money. Since I like to "plan" it wasn't such a hardship and actually gave me something to look forward to as I waited for the BIG DAY to arrive. On the other hand, if you're reading this and you know of a GREAT TA who works with an agency that also offers great perks and incentives, I'd love to hear about it.
TIP: If you don't ask, you don't get. Don't hesitate to ask for an upgrade even if it is past the final payment date. A price drop occurred after the 90 day prior-to-sailing window that offered a Guarantee Balcony for just a little bit less than what I had already paid for my Oceanview cabin. My TA was able to make this trade for me, albeit I didn't get a refund for the difference. But RCL gave me an upgrade to my upgrade of a Superior Oceanview instead of the original Deluxe Oceanview Guarantee initially assigned to me. From a location standpoint, portside cabin 9244 was perfect.
EMBARKATION: We were warned by email and texts that the check-in process will not begin until 12:30 pm because Radiance had to undergo a complete inspection by CBP and USCG after her season in Australia so we arrived at 1pm. My overall impression of the process from curb to gangway was that it seemed somewhat disorganized and lengthy at 1-1/2 hours of waiting in line through security, check-in, and the final bottleneck just before the bridge where the ship security staff took our photos for identification. This is different from our past experience at Port Everglades where the photo ID was taken at the time of check-in. We took it in stride, blessed to have this opportunity.
TIP: We learned that the car agencies do not offer courtesy shuttles to the port. Our cheapest route was to take Roberts Hawaii at $8/pp if reserved online to shuttle us from the airport to Pier 2. Once inside and past security, if you find a shorter line, take it. Don't follow like sheep. Until they figure out how to do their jobs, the port staff directs you to a line based on your status unless you have specific high-priority boarding. But in the end, no one really verified who was who.
SHIP: Prior to the Radiance, we have only been on the Freedom Class of ships and were dazzled by their size and onboard amenities so I read as much as I could about this smaller ship and kept an open mind. Objectively, she is a beautiful ship with so much glass to view the outside. I'm not sure why some people consider her dated though she is definitely deserving of some TLC and her scheduled dry-dock before starting the Alaska Season will hopefully address a lot of the wear and tear we noticed throughout the ship. It is also well laid-out and didn't really take much time to orient ourselves, yet, not so small that I felt confined. In fact, there were areas of the ship that I never managed to make it to during our 11-night itinerary. There is one venue that I thought seemed oddly out of place. The Samba Grill is located just above the Windjammer on Deck 12. You reach it by going outside to the sports deck or by stairs from the aft open air dining area of the Windjammer. There are also no adjoining restrooms up there so you have to go outside and back towards the elevators–inconvenient, as was the case when we went there to have dinner one night. It was a cold, windy, and drizzly walk.
TIP: On the plus side, we found that outside dining area on the back of the Windjammer was less congested and a great place to sit down and eat a meal (unless it's in Alaska...maybe not so much).
CABIN: With 5 sea days to enjoy, we really were excited to have a balcony and an unexpectedly larger cabin than anticipated. Never mind that our cabin steward could have been a little more meticulous with his housekeeping skills. Yes, it did bother me that the cabin–while tidy–was dusty, fingerprints from the previous guests still lingered on the glass doors and a few other places, and greasy film on the balcony glass dulled my view of the sea. On the other hand, our bed was made morning and night. The bathroom was wiped down and cleaned daily. I also did get a few paltry towel animals out of the deal. I decided to let it go as best I could because we got to crack the door open so we could listen to the ocean and allow some fresh air in while we slept. We got to see some amazing sunsets without leaving our room. We saw the passing ocean, the islands, and Vancouver's Lions Gate Bridge at Sunrise. Yeah. It was still perfect.
DINING COURTESY VENUES: I mentioned at the beginning that food wasn't exceptional. By no means was it either inedible. It just wasn't as spectacular as I remembered from our previous two cruises. So much so that by the back half of the cruise, I was content to eat their surprsingly decent burgers every day for lunch at the windjammer and skipped the nightly desserts at the MDR. The Park Cafe is really just a very scaled down version of the Windjammer. The Boardwalk Doghouse was ok. I think you have to be a hotdog lover to appreciate it. I heard some people rave about it and some said it sucked. Cafe Latte-tudes was a go-to hangout for us. The scones and cheesecake popsicles are always a great stand-by. The coffee is not brewed. They use their espresso machines so if you're not into strong coffee, they will have you bouncing off the walls. The MDR turns into the Brasserie for breakfast and lunch. We went there once and the food was on par in quality as the Windjammer but limited to what was on the menu and some waiting since it's full-serve dining.
TIP: I love the fact that the Windjammer cooks are more than happy to put your bread bun on a grill or your sliced bread freshly toasted if you don't like it straight out of the bag.
DINING FEE BASED VENUES: Hubby and I purchased a 5-Night Specialty Dining Package before the cruise. I do think that it was worth the $100/pp we paid for it. There are some caveats. It did not include the Chef's Table and, surprisingly, Rita's Crabshack. The former being too expensive at $90/pp while the package only allots $30 value per venue and the latter is something of a mystery. I don't think that I ever saw anyone order anything from that station other than beer or wine. I did notice a daily special of "surf & turf" burger and chips for $11 which I wanted to try but never got around to. It also didn't include Mystery Dinner Theatre at $65/pp which I would have gone to as it featured (at least in this cruise) a post-show dinner offering at Giovanni's Table which we really loved and visited twice. I guess they classified it as entertainment instead of dining. I also thought I would love Samba Grill but I didn't. As my trusted MDR waiter warned me, there's a lot of meat and I don't know why that didn't register in my head. My steak and potatoes man enjoyed it but I don't eat steak or lamb though there was a bacon wrapped chicken and pork loin. In fact, the best dishes are in their appetizer bar. Next time, I'll skip the skewered meat. That said, I'm not sure it's still worth the cover charge. Chops Grille was great though I stuck to the shrimp entree on the menu. Giovanni's Table was our favorite. It's claim to fame is the Tiramisu and there's no doubting that. Izumi was awesome but it's a la carte so plan to spend a little bit more above the $30 allotment. We skipped the dessert to keep the overage down and went to the Windjammer for some sweet treats instead.
TIP: For those who said that the cover charge at Chops and Giovanni's allows you to order as much as you want, that is not the case. On this sailing, we were told that each additional main entree we selected was $10 more. Is it a new policy across the board or a new thing just on this ship? To be fair, we're not the type to eat "everything off the menu" but there was a dish or two we wouldn't have minded trying out between the two of us.
BARS AND GAMBLING: As much as I would like to say I drank like a fish, I didn't. Sadly, I have a really poor alcohol absorbtion and, for that matter, we don't imbibe much so the drink packages would have been a losing situation for us. The house always wins so we skipped the casinos but if you want better odds, I'd say go to Royal Bingo!
ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES: One of our biggest concerns is the possibility of not having much to do during extended sea days as this is a repositioning cruise. I was wrong. At least, not with this particular sailing. The cruise director and his staff certainly put together a pretty comprehensive list of things to do and see for guests. There was even a three-part event called Great Debates where Steve, the CD, focused on serious topics to add a little reality check to your vacation like the issue of Death Penalty.
TIP: With so much to do, I noticed that a lot of people, myself included, carried around a cruise compass along with a tablet or smartphone. On day 9, the lightbulb came on and I started taking a snapshot of the back page schedule so I didn't have to drag around that piece of paper. Duh!
SERVICE: Without a doubt, the crew of any cruise ship works harder than anyone I am aware of on land. They work 12 hour shifts every day with minimal time off until they buckle that airplane seat belt on their way home. Waitstaff and housekeeping are tip-wage earners and we are happy to do auto-gratuities when we book a cruise. However, my biggest "concern" (I won't call it the other "c" word) was the hit and miss service. Hubby wasn't happy to learn on Day 2 that we were charged for two shore excursions we didn't sign up for and, though he let that slide, he was no longer willing to play after a second charge was added to our seapass account for the two dining packages that we had already paid for months ago. Finding two erroneous charges and the added inconvenience of dealing with it–not once but twice–in my opinion is a service issue. Unfortunately, neither guest services nor the C&A "Loyalty Ambassador" viewed it that way and offered us a bottle of wine a a "gesture of good will" which we declined. Also,during the first few days of sailing, it seemed that some of the staff were a bit sluggish and unengaged though I sensed a greater degree of effort on their part as the days went by. As much as we loved eating at the open-air dining area of the Windjammer, we had to finally give it up after the third day when we realized that the server assigned to that station hardly sought out guests to see if they needed anything else. Our cabin attendant, though friendly and brisk with his chores, made me want to ask someone if I could switch attendants with the other steward a few doors down whom I noticed wiped down the door knobs every day and carried a squeegee in his trolley. It certainly gave new meaning to RCL's current ad campaign, COME SEEK, because we had to actively look for the WOW, which we did. We just didn't expect to chase it.
PORTS AND EXCURSIONS: We didn't partake of the ship excursions. However, these are what we did with our port stops:
Oah'u - Since embarkation is out of Honolulu, we arrived a day early and rented a car, then headed to Pearl Harbor and visited the Arizona Memorial and Battleship Missouri in the morning. After checking in at the Coconut Waikiki for our night's stay, we walked down towards Waikiki Beach and strolled along Waikiki Drive before enjoying a relaxing dinner and Mai Tai at the Hula Girl Resturant inside the Outrigger Hotel. The following morning, we woke up and treated ourselves to an early 5am drive to Leonard's for malasadas!
Maui - We rented a car and headed south towards Wailuku on a mission to find a place called Home Maid bakery that sells malasadas then looped our way past Kahului and back towards Lahaina. We stopped at Olowalu Beach to do a little snorkeling since we brought our gear with us. When we had our fill of that, we headed back and checked out Old Lahaina and picked up a few more souvies before tendering back on the ship for the night. At 2:30 the following morning, we took a tender back into town to pick up our rented car that we left in a paid lot and made our way to Haleakala Summit for the most worthwhile sunrise show.
Kauai - Our port time here was curiously short (8am-3:30pm). And because we had to tender, it made it even more challenging to do much beyond the excursion that we had booked through Kauai Photo Tours. This was a fantastic tour and grateful to a Cruise Critic member for suggesting it. Our guide selected some camera-worthy locations that were off-the-beaten-path we would likely not have seen if we had selected a ship tour.
Hawai'i - I admit that the Big Island is our favorite. Honolulu was a busy, urban area. Old Lahaina in Maui just felt kitschy to us. Everywhere in Kauai was beautiful but pretentious with its high-brow residents dotting the island. Kona seemed more low-key and mellow. It is also a great starting point for the Island. We actually did a 5-day pre-cruise stay here and toured much of the island in our rental car. We went on a snorkeling tour with Wahine Charters who took us south to the Captain James Cook Monument. The boat captain stopped midway to let us swim with dolphins nearby before heading towards Kealakekula Bay where we got up and close to the most amazing coral reef and incredible array of tropical fish. During our stay, we drove up to the Mauna Kea Visitor's Center, checked out the white, green, and black sand beaches of the Big Island, did an abbreviated tour of Volcanoes National Park (due to fog, rain, and limited visibility), ate most of our meals at L & L (a Hawaiian chain of restaurants featuring local favorites like kalua pork, macaroni salad, and spam misubi). You know what they say, "When in Rome..."
TIP: if you have the room, bring your own snorkeling gear and a good underwater camera. It doesn't have to be a GoPro but you just can't expect a "waterproof" smartphone case to be truly waterproof as learned the hard way by some gals in our group who lost two iPhones as a result of using LifeProof cases. I use Watershot Splash camera housing and it has not failed me yet. It is specifically designed for use with iPhones for underwater snorkeling and diving use.
NEXTCRUISE: We got past our hiccups and booked another cruise and took advantage of the NextCruise booking incentive. I overheard a couple say that the starting $50 OBC wasn't worth it. I disagree. We decided to defer using our OBC for the sailing we had chosen instead of using it during this cruise. There is a fine print, of course. But if you plan to cruise again, it is worth it. Sign up for an appointment early though. I noticed that the appointment book fills up fast. You can check current promotions and future sailings online for free before you talk to an agent. Just remember that if you choose to use your OBC at the time you book it on the ship and decide later that you want to cancel this NextCruise booking, you will lose your deposit.
We didn't sign up for service until we set out for our sea days. We found that we had reasonable cell/data access during the island hopping period of the cruise. The cost was $20 per day and paid $54 for a 3-day WiFi package (with our 10% Gold Member discount) for a single device. We did occasionally have service interruptions but we had expected this. Speed was surprisingly not as slow as we had anticipated and that was a bonus.
Since we didn't have a flight to catch on the day we got to Vancouver, we took our time getting off the ship. We had last breakfast at the Windjammer and returned to our cabin to relax. We breezed through the line off the ship and customs but found a major jam on the taxi line which snaked on and on. It must have been an hour before we were cued for a cab. The next time, I think we'll just take a short walk to the adjacent hotel, pretend to be guests, and pick up a cab from there.
ADDITIONAL TIPS AND SURPRISES: Go prepared. Taking that northbound Honolulu to Vancouver repositioning cruise was worthwile. It also gets cold if you plan to take a trip up to Mauna Kea or Mt. Haleakala. Since this is a Spring sailing, as the ship continues northbound, the temperatures also start to drop. Bring a lightweight but packable down jacket. Seriously.
A pleasant surprise! If you have a celebration going on during your cruise, note it on your booking. Not only did I get a happy birthday song from our waiters but I came back to our stateroom one day to a gift certficate from the Spa for $50 off any service.