Number of Cruises: 5
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Jewel of the Seas
Sailing Date: July 13th, 2006
Itinerary: British Isles
If you are reading this AFTER you have already booked this cruise to confirm if you made a wise choice, then I believe you are betting on fair weather. We "beat the odds". Even so, I believe my best advice would be that you save your confirmation number and call Royal Caribbean to switch to a Mediterranean cruise. I think Barcelona, Monaco, and Rome are superior tourist destinations than Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki. The "ace" in this itinerary is St. Petersburg, Russia. Maybe the length of this cruise makes the price appear to be a bargain, but you should not underestimate the possibility that the North Sea crossings may be too rough to enjoy or rainy weather will accompany your sightseeing. And the trip from Heathrow to Harwich should be enough reason to reconsider.
Now if you are still with me then you should know that this cruise was blessed with exceptionally fantastic weather. The Day 1 crossing of the North Sea was through choppy 8 to 10 foot waves and the Jewel of the Seas jerked and yawed just enough to separate the landlubbers from the sailors. The winds were quite chilly and gusted to 50 knots. But you weren't aware of any of this in the Solarium - a glass covered pool decorated in a jungle Thailand theme. The gyro-stabilized billiard tables in the Schooner Bar were most fascinating to watch. The North Sea was glassy smooth on the Day 12 crossing, though the sky was somewhat hazy. We only experienced one brief shower the entire cruise, on the morning of Day 10 in Talinn, Estonia. All of the other days were uncharacteristically sunny, clear and warm. At the same time there was a dangerous heat wave in much of the US and southern Europe, so in our case a Mediterranean cruise would not have been the better choice weather-wise.
NEVER AGAIN shall we let Royal Caribbean arrange our flights. Air travel was inexplicably the worst facet of our cruise experience. Our gateway airport is Atlanta. Royal Caribbean arranged a redeye Lufthansa flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt, Germany. In Frankfurt we were bus-shuttled from the tarmac to the terminal where we were security screened again. Then we were bus-shuttled back to the tarmac onto a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, London where we arrived 16 hours after we left Atlanta. Then we were herded through Heathrow's crowded and overwhelmed customs and security system. For our departure, Royal Caribbean booked us a late afternoon United flight from Heathrow to Washington, DC. But we were herded onto the bus for the drive from Harwich to Heathrow at 8:00 am. We waited six hours in Heathrow airport for the flight. When we arrived in Washington, DC, the connecting flight to Atlanta was overbooked. We spent the night in Washington and left the next morning arriving in Atlanta more than 27 hours after we took off from Heathrow, 37 hours after we left the ship. Royal Caribbean charged us $1041 per person for the flights. We could have (and should have) purchased a nonstop 7 hour flight from Atlanta to Heathrow for $740 ourselves. You could purchase the bus shuttle to Harwich from Royal Caribbean for about $85 per person. A passenger train stops right at the pier in Harwich, "google" this for details. Learn from our mistake.
Jewel of the Seas was launched in 2004. Those who have sailed Royal Caribbean will recognize trademark Centrum, Schooner Bar, Windjammer and Vortex. The interior décor compliments the ship's name - she is truly a jewel. Artwork throughout the ship is worthy of attention and appreciation. Surprise! No Johnny Rockets or Ben & Jerry's. Our "Ultimate Value Book" we received as Crown & Anchor members had certificates for Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's! So far we have not received much benefit from being Crown & Anchor members. Maybe other cruise lines value their repeat passengers more.It seems Royal Caribbean learned from past experiences and incorporated them into this ship's design and amenities. We experienced few lines at elevators or buffet bars in the Windjammer. On the other hand, the Centrum, Safari Lounge or Vortex frequently proved too small to host activities scheduled there. One area in particular was often too crowded to enjoy: the on-board shops. There is mini-golf, rock climbing, ball court, water slide and run/jog/walk track. The "tranquil" and "adult" glass enclosed Solarium pool/hot tub in Thailand jungle theme was one of our favorite spots. (Kudos to the pool deck staff who directed children to the main pool and removed towels placed in lounge chairs to reserve them.) There is a soft "bird" soundtrack can be heard or an elephant "trumpets" on the hour. The glass roof can be opened to fresh air on warm days. In contrast, the uncovered main pool area "next door" was often the scene of party music and activities not suitable for the relaxing we sought after exploring the sights. There is a gym, a spa and a state-of-the-art Coral Theater. Most activities happen on Decks 4, 5, 6 or 11. Decks 4 and 6 have a lot of hall traffic. A stateroom on these decks is probably not the quietest unless you are far forward. Most staterooms are on Decks 7 through 10. Staterooms are a study in efficient design, but not interior decoration. Some choreography is advised for two or more people to navigate the limited floor space. Neatness will pay dividends. One word of caution: standing in front of the closet while another is in the washroom is a painful accident waiting to happen should they open the door into you. Unfortunately, the walls between the rooms are thin - conversations in adjacent rooms can be heard so you might do well to try to book a room near a bulkhead. One problem we noticed in our interior stateroom was limited air exchange. Air circulation improves somewhat if the air exhaust vent inexplicably located in the bottom of the closet wall remains clear of suitcases and clothes. Drop the soap in the shower and some will be challenged to pick it up. Interestingly, the grills of the soap dish are spaced wide enough apart to permit the hotel guest sized soap bars to fall through! Consider bringing your own soap. This will not apply to those of you who booked bathtubs and balconies. Also consider brining a little liquid laundry detergent to clean out some of those stains on clothes you plan to wear again. The Itinerary
Ship itineraries are subject to change and knowing this might limit some disappointment and frustration. Our ship kept a timely schedule and the published itinerary. We did some pre-cruise investigation and determined we did not need to book tours at all the ports except St. Petersburg. If a lot of walking is difficult or does not appeal to you, or you'd rather not take a chance on having good weather, then book tours. We learned that we saw as much, often more than those who booked tours during dinner conversations. One common complaint was that tours rushed through sights people really wanted to see. Day 1: Depart Harwich, England. Orange life jackets on the bed welcomed us to our stateroom and reminded us of the mandatory lifeboat muster. As usual, there was a long wait as passengers who somehow think their absence will not be noticed are located and report to their station. Day 2: at sea on the North Sea. Come prepared for wind, rain and/or waves. Day 3: Oslo, Norway. US dollars are accepted but take plenty of small bills and know the approximate exchange rate. Prices are exorbitant in Oslo so consider saving shopping for later and resist that temptation to buy that ugly troll! Of course, Royal Caribbean pushes their shuttles and excursions. Take the shuttles if the weather forecast is not good or walking is not an option. Otherwise, you can tour this city on foot. An alternative is to purchase an Oslo Pass that prepays transportation and admission to sites. The ship docks right across from Akershus Castle. You may need to be firm with the pushy onboard photographers who swarm you as you leave the ship. You can catch the public ferry to Bygdoy Peninsula to see the Viking Ship Museum, Fram Museum, Norsk Folkemuseum, Maritime Museum and Kon Tiki Museum in the small boat harbor near the pier. The Viking Museum is an uphill 4-block walk from the dock. It houses three authentic Viking ships dating from about 850AD. Vigelund Sculpture Park is about 4 miles from the ship so judge for yourself if you should walk there and back, but the city tram goes there. Prices in restaurants are outrageous. We brought zippered plastic bags and packed a light picnic lunch from the feed troughs in the Windjammer. A word about departure time should be made here. The ship departs on time whether you are aboard or not. Catching the missed ship can be an expensive proposition. Know the all aboard time printed in the Cruise Compass before you leave the ship. In Oslo, our all aboard time was 3:30pm and you could set your watch by the departure time. The entry and departure cruise through the Oslo Fjord is worth watching. Day 4: Copenhagen, Denmark. This beautiful city can be toured on foot, too. Look for the Tourist Office down the street when you get off the ship and ask for their free map. The ship's map isn't detailed enough to help you if you get lost. The Little Mermaid is about a 10-minute walk up the Langelinie; just stay to the sidewalks nearest the waterfront. This famous landmark is indeed "little" and attracts a lot of well-deserved attention. Amalienborg Palace (Changing of the Guard at noon), Marmorkirken (Marble Church), Alexander Newsky Kirke (gold onion domed), Fredericksborg Castle (it's good to be the king) and Rosenborg Castle (fabulous crown jewels and scene of Shakespeare's Hamlet) are reasonably close together. A little further you will come to the canal. We recommend the DFDS Canal Tours. Tivoli is an amusement park best seen at night and our all aboard was three hours before sunset so we skipped it. As we walked the aroma drew us into a bakery (something we couldn't do on a tour) so we tried a fresh Kringle and determined for ourselves whether Danish or French pastry is better. An alternative is to purchase a City Pass that prepays transportation on the Hop On/Hop Off trams that traverse the city and major sites and admission to sites. Tablemates who did this determined they "broke even". After the sticker shock in Oslo the prices in Copenhagen seemed only a little more reasonable, but still expensive. Day 5: at sea on the Baltic Sea. Because it is somewhat shallow, little storms can make big waves. So be prepared should this happen. We were blessed smooth sailing and took full advantage of the many activities scheduled aboard ship. Day 6: Stockholm, Sweden. The beautiful winding narrow passage through the archipelago arriving and departing Stockholm should not be missed. After docking, you might consider taking the shuttle into Stockholm because the ship is about a 25-minute walk from the sights. An alternative is to purchase a Stockholm Pass that prepays transportation and admission to some sights. Our tablemates determined they did not get their money's worth in Stockholm. Look for the Tourist Office near the ship a get a really useful and free map. We unintentionally caught the impressive Changing of the Guard at noon at the courtyard of the 608 room Royal Palace in Gamla Stan. The Vasa Museum is right across the river from the Jewel, but unless you walk on water it is about a 50-minute trek from the ship. Nearby is the open-air museum Skansen containing 150 buildings representing early folk life in Sweden. We found that there is a lot to see and do in Stockholm and our 4:30 all aboard time came much too quickly. We crossed a time zone overnight and lost an hour's sleep. Day 7: Helsinki, Finland. Here, you should consider taking the shuttle because it is a long walk through the ship building industries from the Hernesaari C-Pier into the city. If you decide to walk get a free map just outside the pier gate. You will need it. The street signs and names are confusing. Helsinki is a hard working city, not really a tourist destination. The shuttle unloads at the Esplanade near Senate Square and the landmark white with green domes Lutheran Cathedral. If you want to see the Protestant plain Lutheran Cathedral (with huge ornate organ) and avoid the 52-step stairway, walk up the road to the left side. We heard a free organ concert at noon there. The very lovely park-like Esplanade, very ornate Uspensky Cathedral and Market Square are nearby attractions. If you didn't spend all your cash in the first three ports you can bargain for food and crafts in the Market Square at the harbor. You probably won't get the bottom price until you are ready to walk away, but don't foolishly pay the first price. Consider eating like the natives and try a hefty fresh fish sandwich or some fresh sardines and seafood. The Temppeliaukio ("Rock") Church is about a 30 minute walk from Senate Square and may be too far away to consider, especially if you remember the really busy sightseeing days are just ahead AND you cross another time zone overnight and lose another hour's sleep! Day 8: St. Petersburg, Russia. The city was gleaming after hosting the G8 conference. This is the star port of the cruise and there is really too much to see and do in just two days. If you follow nothing else out of this article do this - book an independent tour of St. Petersburg. We booked a two-day tour with DenRus, not Royal Caribbean. Unfortunately, we considered our tour guide opinionated and argumentative who seized every opportunity to tell us how her life was better under the Soviet system (she had been a privileged daughter of a KGB agent). Unless you stayed close to the guide, you couldn't hear. Some other tour groups (including some Royal Caribbean tours) solve this problem by using two-way radio communication between you and the guide. DenRus should get updated. On their website, DenRus appears to offer a variety of exceptional "value" tours, but we couldn't book any value tour except the "Complete St. Petersburg". I must admit that we discovered this to be a great all-inclusive tour that represents a good value, especially compared to those Royal Caribbean offers. The other independent tour company is Red October, and we heard good reports from those who toured with them so it might pay to compare. Our tablemates were furious that their Royal Caribbean tour was mostly hurry up and wait for a rushed tour of the sites they paid too much to see. As others have noted, Royal Caribbean does continue to perpetuate misinformation: "Guests who have booked independent tours will not be permitted to leave the ship prior to 9:30am per Russian Immigration Authorities." We left the ship at 8:15am and sailed through immigration. You will need your passport and will give them a photocopy of your passport photo page upon your initial entry. You will be given a red immigration card that they will demand when you return. My advice is to select a tour that takes you to a variety of sights otherwise you may weary of seeing palace after palace or splendid church after church. On this day the DenRus tour took us to Peterhof Palace and fountain studded Grounds, a fairly rushed lunch at Peterhof, the world-class art museum, 5 connected royal palaces known as The Hermitage (but not the "gold room"), and gold-domed St. Isaac's Church. Once you see for yourself the indescribable opulence enjoyed by the royalty and the wealthy one can begin to understand why revolution occurred. Tonight is the time and the place to see world renowned ballet performances. If interested, look into what Royal Caribbean offers and take it from there. We had open seating in the Tides Dining Room. We noticed a little decline in the quality of our table service. So this might be a good night to make reservations (like on the first day you board the ship) at Portofino's (Italian) or Chops Grille (steak) though they add a $20 per/person surcharge. Day 9: St. Petersburg, Russia. Our second day DenRus tour went to Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral (holding tombs of czars and czarinas); a side trip to an expensive gift shop; a very scenic Canal boat Cruise; a more leisurely and enjoyable lunch in St. Petersburg; candied-domed, mosaic encrusted Church of the Resurrection (Spilled Blood); and Yusupov Palace, a mansion that outgilds the Czars. not on this "value" tour is Catherine's Palace and the world famous "Amber Room". Day 10: Talinn, Estonia. We found this city a refreshing change of scenery and pace. Talinn contains a well-preserved walled medieval town that overlooks the New Town. The Old Town is an easy walk from the ship and we found this is an easy place to do our own touring and enjoy a careful stroll down narrow cobblestone streets. Complimentary shuttles are available. The churches and shops are worth a look inside. We found the prices fairly reasonable in New Town and major credit cards accepted. Our 3:30 all aboard time arrived much to quickly. Day 11: at sea on the Baltic Sea. Day 12: at sea on the North Sea. Day 13: disembark at Harwich, England. Royal Caribbean wanted everyone out of their stateroom before 8:00am. Color-coded tags indicate assembly areas and also the transportation that will be taken from Harwich. Gatecrashers learned to their dismay that their brown tag meant they could only board a brown bus to Heathrow Terminal 2 - not a red one to Victoria Station.
The Experience Aboard the Ship
We found the Jewel of the Seas to be a user-friendly ship. The decks have been carefully planned and direction signs are conveniently placed. The corridors leading down the staterooms are narrow and the presence of housekeeping carts sometimes constricts traffic. By design there is no easy passage through the Casino or the Centrum Shops.
We remain very impressed at the quality and variety of the many on board activities. We especially enjoyed learning a little ballroom dancing from Michael and Inge. The daily Cruise Compass listed the times and places of the many activities.
We noticed there were more mature and cruise-savvy passengers aboard this Royal Caribbean ship than we have previously experienced. We heard the remark "This feels like a Celebrity Ship" more than once during this cruise. There were not many unattended, unsupervised children and "young adults" running the decks, riding the elevators, crashing the lines or swamping the hot tubs. Not to worry, some pushy Japanese tourists made up for this deficit. We experienced a refreshingly civilized Chocolate Buffet and Gala Buffet compared to the "Animal House" madness we've witnessed on some other Royal Caribbean cruises.
The crew is generally helpful and friendly. However, we couldn't help but notice how service improved when a supervisor was present. The ship is kept meticulously cleaned, but sometimes passengers were inconvenienced to allow for cleaning. Maintenance is ongoing and sometimes portions of a deck were closed or noisy repairs had to be tolerated. Photographers tend to intrude during meals and departures. You should know in advance that these photographs are not complimentary or cheap. But you are not obligated to buy. If interested, pose. If not, say, "no thanks" and be on your way.
We received many notices about Royal Caribbean's Park West Gallery Art Auctions. Lured by the promises of "free champagne, free raffles, free art" we made the mistake of attending an art auction. Here it's the art expert versus you the art novice. We were quoted one price for the opening bid for a print, but the actual opening bid was $100 higher. Add to any winning bid price a steep "auctioneer's fee" and shipping charges. Frames and matting are a lot extra, too. Needless to say, we didn't bid. We found the same print available at Art.com for much less when we arrived home. We did not receive any "free art" and the free raffle would be drawn at the end of the cruise. We had to run down the waiter serving just a little glass of champagne. We strongly caution Buyer Beware and know your art and its real value before you buy. If nothing else, we urge you to check the value of art prints on the internet before you bid or buy art aboard.
Speaking of internet, RCI charges a lot to use their internet services.
Really, we just desired some romantic slow dancing with our beloved … not a chance. Advertised "romantic" dancing in the Vortex lounge was all upbeat rock with video screens on the walls showing animated scenes of fighting. I think this DJ doesn't have a clue. Worse, when several couples found a selection they could make an effort to try dancing, the DJ stopped the music and started playing something fast and loud. In spite of ballroom dance classes, there was little romantic dancing aboard this ship. We observed that the DJ music on this ship was more about party and selling drinks and oddly out of touch with the mature passengers aboard. We found that there is not much romantic atmosphere or slow-dance music in the clubs on this cruise.
We had one negative experience that we considered important enough to bring to the attention of someone in charge. We went to Guest Relations about this three times. Two days after the incident we were finally able to arrange a meeting with someone who promised the moon and delivered nothing. We learned that it was against company policy to speak to a higher level supervisor without working up the chain of command. This policy serves to protect the lower level supervisor who can postpone or avoid a meeting more than address the needs of the passenger. In your stateroom is "Behind the Name Tags" (on the backside is the fine print policies - the legal fine print is on your ticket) identifying head supervisors, but it is difficult for a passenger to arrange a meeting with one of them. The individual most responsible for what happens aboard is not the Captain, it's the Hotel Director, in our case the Invisible Man Nibu Sayed.
A word here is in order about the Security Staff. Security is more responsible for the protection of the property of the ship and to limit Royal Caribbean's liabilities than to safeguard passengers and their valuables. You assume considerable responsibility for your own safety and property. A word about your legal rights is in order, too. You have very few legal rights on the high seas. You signed most of your legal rights away when you signed your ticket. Maritime Law or the laws of the country's waters you are sailing govern these. The ship's registry is the Bahamas and that affects your legal rights as well.
I believe it is important to remember that it is not realistic to expect five-star gourmet meals on this moderately priced cruise. If gourmet dining is a priority then you should consider booking a luxury cruise, not this one. On the opposite extreme are the "three banquets a day; my favorite diet" trough grazers who seem challenged to eat everything that won't eat them first. We wondered where their parents were until we realized they WERE the parents!
We considered our dinner meals a highlight of our cruise experience. Every meal was exceptional. A few tablemates learned if they did not like the entrée they ordered they were free to order a different entrée. If you love your entrée you may order a second. A sample of the entrees served on our cruise is duck, lamb shanks, lobster, and prime rib. Steak was available every night. Vegetarian and "lite" entrees were offered too. Our table service was excellent. Since our HeadWaiter visited our table only three times during this 12 night cruise (one was an introduction), we felt justified to give the HeadWaiter's tip to the Table Waiter and Assistant.
We usually ate breakfast in the Windjammer. We experienced very few waits at the omelet station (where you can also order eggs sunny side up) or in the very well laid out buffet stations even on crowded mornings. Finding a table proved a challenge on busy excursion days. I believe opening the Windjammer earlier might alleviate this.
On the days we were touring the sights we didn't eat lunch aboard ship. We found food items on the Windjammer buffet to pack into zippered plastic bags that we could turn into a picnic lunch. When we were aboard we generally took lunch from the Windjammer out to a table by the pool. We found a wide and changing selection available for lunches though pizza; hot dogs, hamburgers and fries were available everyday.
One exception to efficient service happened on the Bar-B-Que. day served by the main pool. There was only one serving line and it wrapped around the length of the deck. The wait was about 40 minutes. I believe this could be greatly improved if they wanted to do so.
Inexplicably, the Seaview Café seemed closed more than it was open. You can purchase milk shakes there, but this isn't Johnny Rockets. Portofino's and Chops Grille comes highly recommended. On this cruise, if you ordered wine at the Champagne Bar in the late afternoon you were served complimentary caviar. Yes, you pay extra for colas whether by the drink or Soda Package. Latte-tudes is the Seattle's Best coffee spot but specialty coffees are not complimentary.
One very pleasant entertainment was the live music in the Centrum. The musicians usually drew an appreciative audience. This was one of the few places passengers found romantic dancing music.
The evening shows are presented in the state-of-the-art Coral Theater. Unfortunately, we found the state of the sound to be consistently deafening and distorted. A place I preferred to sit was the fifth row down on the first floor. There is a convenient ledge there and you will have an unobstructed view. If you prefer a balcony, enter on Deck 6.
In general I found the shows and headliners to be a higher quality than cruise shows I've seen originating from the US. My guess is that the European audiences and a longer cruise demand higher quality performances.
The Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers presented three production shows. West End to Broadway supposedly highlights great songs from musicals - it doesn't. One example should suffice: "My Favorite Things" (from The Sound of Music) was performed in hiphop style. On our cruise I think the band outperformed the dancers who in turn outperformed the singers. As for the singers and dancers, if you expect theme park or college production quality then you should not be disappointed.
The second production from the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers was City of Dreams. I found the best part of this show was the brief "scarf" aerials that fortunately drew the audience attention away from the vocal soloist. The second best part of this show is the costumes. After one vocalist failed to sound out the high and low pitches in a song some people headed to the exits. If you are looking for good singing and dancing I believe you should go to the Centrum and sit this nightmarish show out.
The third production from the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers was Tango Buenos Aires. I am thankful that I did not miss this. The featured tango dancers and the orchestra were simply fantastic. Mercifully, the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers were not featured in this production.
The rest of the shows featured headliners. There were hits and misses. On our cruise I think the hits were Jacqui Scott (leading lady of West End musicals) who finally reminded this audience what a vocalist really sounds like and Gary Lovini a most entertaining and talented violinist. I consider the male vocalist Renato Pagliari, comedian Neal Austin (not suitable for children), and singer/comedian Judy Kolba near hits and more entertaining than the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers. I found the singer/songwriter John Cristie and saxophonist/singer J. J. Downs (Benny Hill Show) misses worth missing.
Should You Take this Cruise?
Cruise lines would have you believe cruising is for everyone. It's not!
Are you willing to eat and converse with people you have never met?
tolerate long, slow lines to most everything? Line-breakers?
listen to loud music and noisy, rude, often drunk people?
tolerate unsupervised teens all over the ship?
be herded like cattle here and there?
accept you're getting ripped off paying high prices for sodas and alcohol?
be comfortable in cramped quarters?
tolerate people who smoke anywhere they please?
Do you like seeing new places and doing new things?
Do you function well in crowds?
If so, then cruising may be for you. If not, then it wouldn't take much to ruin your vacation. As for us, we are ready to go again.
But for this itinerary, we'll book a ship that leaves from and returns to Copenhagen.