I have never been on a cruise before, so what better way to start than with the biggest ship in the world, right? 🙂 The Harmony of the Seas is a brand new ship; the newest boat in the Royal Caribbean fleet. It is also the biggest ship in the world. So how does it check out?
The ship itself was massive; it was lovely to stroll around Central Park, which has hundreds of trees and thousands of plants. We even saw small birds in the park while the ship was at sea (!). But if that’s too outdoorsy for you, why not try an indoor promenade with bars, restaurants and shops? It is very easy to forget you are on a ship altogether!
Lots of people onboard seemed to be cruiseaholics, with 15 cruises, or 36 cruises under their belts. We overheard people saying “for first-timers this must be amazing!”. Well, it was amazing, but also as I have never known anything else, it is also the new normal for me!
Our cruise was a pre-inaugural one from Southampton to Cherbourg, and then a day at sea, before returning to Southampton. When we told our families we were going, the most popular question was “where will the boat go during the day at sea?”. Well, rather comically it went in big circles in the English Channel!
We were greeted on board with a “Bravo, bravo, bravo” announcement which the captain later explained to mean that there was smoke somewhere where there shouldn’t be – in the incinerator! He said it was fine and he would let us all know if it was a problem. So we were all like “um, what??!”. It turned out to be fine 🙂
So what did we do on board? Here is a rundown of the activities available.
Probably the most famous attraction is the Ultimate Abyss Slide. This is a dry slide (ie. a normal slide) not a water slide, which was didn’t realise until the day before! It drops 10 stories from floor 16 to floor 6.
I was so scared about going on this! It was fine, but it made me dizzy! My boyfriend loved it though and went on again!
We loved the swimming pools – there are 3 big swimming pools and several jacuzzis on the ship. Plus the obligatory waterslides. Two were closed when we were on board which was a bit disappointing, and even the open one had temporary closures. The waterslide which was open had a whirlpool on the bottom so you spin round and round like circling a drain before dropping down the chute in the middle. My BF set the ship record for 6 spins. Apparently the record was 5 before that, so he was very proud.
One evening the ship was shrouded in fog. It was really thick, so you could hardly see the sea directly below the boat. It turned out to be a blessing though as the deck emptied out and we got changed into swimming stuff and had the hot tub to ourselves. It was a truly wonderful and surreal moment, sitting in a hot tub on a ship under the muted sun with fog rolling all around us.
My BF enjoyed the flow-rider surf machine. The idea is that you either lay down or kneel on a bodyboard, or stand on a board and ride over the jets of water. Some people were experts who had brought their own boards, but others were complete beginners, which encouraged me to have a go for the first time! I was pretty rubbish and ended my flow-rider career in a ball of arms and legs disappearing into the surf.
Other sports-related facilities include a basketball court, a gym, a running track round deck 5, and mini golf. The mini golf wasn’t the best course and didn’t require much skill, but it was acceptable considering it is on a ship!
Plus, there was a good old fashioned carousel so you can re-live your childhood! 🙂
The ship has a plethora of shows, bars, and restaurants. We saw a wonderful production of Grease in the plush Royal Theatre, an amazing ice skating show, and a concert by the Magnets, an acapella group. These were all large broadway-style productions and we really enjoyed them all. The aquatheater was closed when we went but we saw them practising.
One of the best evening events for us was the silent disco. Everyone gets a set of headphones and you can select the green or blue channel of music, with the corresponding coloured light on your headphones. It was surreal to see all the green and blue lights dancing away, and if a song comes on that you don’t like, you can just switch channels!
We also popped into the Jazz bar for some wonderful music, saw a salsa group, and gawped at the robot arms making cocktails in the Bionic Bar.
There is a Casino called Casino Royale, which bizarrely seems to be a Smoking room – it is Smoky with a capital S. We have been to casinos all over the world and this was the worst we have come across in decades. It meant the Casino was a No Go area for me as I hate stinking of smoke (and breathing it in!).
The Windjammer and Main Dining Room are the main 2 free venues to eat on board. The Main Dining room spans 3 decks, and is unhelpfully named “American Icon” on deck 3, the “Grande Restaurant” on deck 4, and “Silk” on deck 5. This might make sense to those who know the Royal Caribbean’s ships, but there is no explanation of this anywhere which is confusing to first timers! There are also several smaller restaurants you can eat in for a fee – ranging from the cool burger bar Jonny Rockets, to the posher sushi restaurants. It does cater for all tastes and all budgets.
We mostly ate in the “Windjammer” which is the main buffet. I had read reviews of the Windjammer on other Royal Caribbean ships which called it a “zoo” so I was a bit worried! But we needn’t have worried. It was perfectly civilised. There were no queues in sight except once when we went to breakfast late that there was a queue round the cooked breakfast section. For breakfast there are cereals, croissants and breads, cooked breakfast and fresh fruit and yoghurt (though the yoghurt wasn’t great). For dinner there are large sections of breads, cheeses, salads, cooked food, and even a section where chefs will cook stuff for you. And desserts, obv! Some of the desserts are a little cheap, but we always found plenty of choice to enjoy a good quality starter, main, and dessert (or two!). The Windjammer takes up the back end of the ship so you also get good views across the sea on all sides.
We tried to get into the main dining room one night but when we arrived, we found a long queue on both sides of the hall – one for people with reservations and one for people without reservations. This was the same on decks 4 and 5. The queues were so long we decided we had better things to do than stand in a queue for half an hour or more. We went to the Windjammer and were glad we did as the chefs were cooking fajitas! 🙂
If you are hungry outside main meal times, there are various lighter options where you can grab a drink and a sandwich or a biscuit anytime of day. For example Sorrentos Pizza Bar does fresh pizza slices and make-your-own pizzas until 3am, and the Cafe Promenade does coffees and teas, cookies, and sandwiches. There is also a snack bar with stuff like fresh fruit and mini pizzas on deck 15 near the Basketball Court and swimming pools – perfect if you are taking a breather from all the exercise!
You can also get room-service 24 hours a day, but we didn’t use it – I don’t feel comfortable with someone bringing me food when I can get it myself, and with this plethora of food available, it’s not like shuffling to the buffet is too much trouble!
For drinks, there is free tea, coffee, water, ice, lemonade (non-carbonated, not sprite or any brand name, but it is really nice and not sour to taste), and normally some sort of ice tea. At breakfast there was also juice but the orange juice wasn’t always stocked and the apple juice was too sweet and unnatural tasting. But overall, there is enough to drink for free on the ship. You don’t need to purchase a drinks package. We bought the Coca Cola drinks package for about £5-6 each a day on the basis that if we bought 2 cokes each per day it would break even. If you purchase this drinks package you get a large souvenir cup which is quite pretty but is also a bit of a pain to have to carry around (you need it to use the self-service coca cola machines. If you don’t have it with you you can still get a coke from the waiter if you have your Sea Pass card as it has a small coca cola symbol on it, but that takes longer and I prefer self-service). We enjoyed being able to drink unlimited soda drinks like coke and sprite etc, but if you are on a budget you can skip it since there was enough free stuff to drink.
The staff on these cruises work really hard and the vast majority are cheerful and friendly. I feel that staff should be adequately paid by their employers, so that any charitable giving from me can be to charities who are saving lives or fighting cancer etc. But for some reason it is acceptable in America for some companies to pay service staff under the minimum wage, with the hope that the customer tips to supplement the employees wages up to minimum wage level. I can’t say if this is the case on Royal Caribbean, but tipping is certainly a fixture on their cruises. Anyway, even if I don’t understand it, I guess tipping is an American thing. But Royal Caribbean is a Liberian company, the ship is registered in Nassau, Bahamas, sailing from England, docking in France, and filled with mostly British people. So why would American customs prevail?
Anyhow, tipping is expected and there are 3 ways to tip on board; (1) Royal Caribbean
helpfully suggests demands a daily gratuity of $13.50 USD (about £9.30) per person per day which you can pre-pay before you cruise (2) if you don’t pre-pay this, they will add it to your account which will automatically go onto your credit card if you have provided one. If you haven’t provided one, you need to go to guest Services to settle up before you leave (see my tip below re queueing at Guest Services!) (3) You can go to Guest Services and ask them to remove the gratuities from your account, and simply leave money in your room in an envelope, or hand it to your waiter, as you like.
Also, on top of this, 18% tip is automatically added to things like drinks when you buy them (but not on the drinks package though).
Embarkation and Debarkation
Boarding the ship was seamless – we just walked on. I mean, we went through various check-in and security stages, but we didn’t have to wait a single minute. You can carry your own hand luggage on to the ship if you want if it is small. We took “hand luggage” sized suitcases (the kind you would take into the cabin on a plane) and it was our choice whether we checked them in to the luggage system and have them brought to our room, or whether we carried them ourselves. We chose to carry them as I hate my bags leaving my side! The room was ready about 30 minutes to 1 hour after we boarded, which was fine for us. You can go in the swimming pool or Flowrider etc before your room is ready so bring swim kit etc if you want to do this. Everyone has to attend a “Muster Drill” on the first day before the ship leaves port, to explain what to do in case of an emergency.
Debarkation (or, “getting off the ship” as us plebs would call it) did not go as smoothly. The queue for guest services on the last night is the longest, slowest, most tedious thing ever. So we were up late trying to address our invoice with them. The information provided about debarkation did not mention the “check out” time – ie the latest you can leave. They seem to be geared up for people who can’t wait to get off as early as possible. So the information is like “you may leave at 6.30am”. Yes, but I don’t want to! I thought it would be like a hotel where check out is normally 11am or 12 noon. So it was a shock to find they wanted us off by 9am. On the last morning there were staff standing around asking “are you all ready to go?” and it just felt like they couldn’t wait to get rid of you. I mean, I know that logistically they have to empty the ship so they can get the next batch of guests on, which I’m sure is no mean feat, but it felt like all the relaxation of the holiday had been ruined by getting up super early and being hurried off the ship. The actual debarkation went smoothly though and there were no queues.
- I was always worried by sea-sickness, as I’m terribly sick on any moving object. But luckily that was not an issue. In the main large areas of the ship I never felt any motion at all. In our bedroom (especially the bathroom) I did feel a little motion sometimes, but it really was absolutely fine. I should add that our cruise ship barely moved beyond walking speed 😉 so it may be worse on “normal” cruises which don’t merely go round in circles in the English Channel.
- If you get sea sick you should apparently chose a room which is in the middle of the ship front to back, and also in the middle of the ship top to bottom. We did this and it worked well.
- The TV in your room has a wealth of information:-
- If you want to track the ship’s progress or find out where the ship is, there is a TV channel which tracks this, just like on a plane. I found this really interesting.
- The ships’s director does a 5 minute video on the TV every morning. I hate promoting this as I sound like a corporate drone, but this really was useful. Being a newbie to cruising, I had NO IDEA how you get on or off the ship, for example, so he tells you this sort of stuff.
- Check your Account (ie. your invoice) on the TV in your room, and if there are any issues, go to Guest Services as soon as possible – don’t leave it til the last night as every Tom, Dick and Harry do this. The queue for guest services on the last night is the longest, slowest queue ever.
- If you ride the Flowrider, tie your board shorts up and make sure whatever swimming gear you have is firmly attached! 🙂
- Don’t try to get round everything or you will end up rushing around. Most attractions are open when the ship is in dock so if there is one thing you simply MUST do, you could go there and do it straight away so you don’t need to worry about it. My BF was obsessed with the Flowrider so we went straight there and he rode it in Southampton.
- Don’t forget to budget for tips when you are deciding whether you can afford a cruise.
- Pre-book shows online to reserve a seat.
We had a lovely time – it was exciting to have a holiday which was completely different from normal holidays. It reminded me of Las Vegas, being big, opulent, and no rules – if you want to walk around anytime of day with an alcoholic drink, you can. If you want to go to breakfast and take a croissant back to your room, you can!
And for a ship with thousands of people on (the capacity is 6000 passengers and 2000 staff approx, although I’m not sure if our cruise was at capacity or not) it did not feel crowded and queues were not an issue. So kudos for that!
My boyfriend’s reasoning of “you can go abroad without travelling” did in fact hold true. We arrived in France and didn’t feel like we had travelled there – we hadn’t uncomfortably dozed on a train, we hadn’t been stressed going through a security queue at the airport. In fact when we arrived in France we were sleeping in Egyptian cotton sheets!
So would I go again? I do think it is expensive, but it was a wonderful experience and a complete break from the norm, so I would be open to going on another cruise in the future…. Has anyone got any tips for great cruise destinations to try?
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