Splendour of the Seas (now Thomson Discovery) Review
Royal Caribbean International (RCI), formerly known as the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL), are the World’s number two cruise line, only second to the Carnival Corporation. However, in terms of innovative cruise ship design, they are arguably the market leader, with their ‘Voyager’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Oasis’ class vessels .
My first cruise with RCI was BRILLIANCE OF THE SEAS inaugural cruise in the summer of 2002. Those of you that have read my review will know that I was most impressed with the vessel. At the time, BRILLIANCE, the second of a possible six RADIANCE class ships in the 90,000-ton size range, represented the state of the art. In comparison, SPLENDOUR OF THE SEAS entered service in 1996, and is smaller vessel at around 70,000 grt. Although she is by no means a small ship, it is impossible for me not to draw comparisons between the two, even though they are different ‘classes’, built some six years apart.
I must admit that I was a little apprehensive when boarding SPLENDOUR OF THE SEAS, which was a seven year old ship, at the time of writing. She was berthed at Barcelona, behind the GOLDEN PRINCESS, which is enough to make her look a little inferior. SPLENDOUR’s profile is classic RCI, with the distinctive ‘Viking Crown’ observation lounge wrapped around her funnel. However, she looks more angular, when compared to their newer ships.
I am pleased to report that most of my apprehensions were totally unfounded. Splendour was in immaculate condition. The only area that was clearly in need of a refit was the amusingly named ‘Splendour of the Greens’, at the stern of the ship. This is not an alternative vegetarian restaurant, as the name might suggest, but a miniature golf course on the open deck. Although useable, it is constructed out of Styrofoam and Astro-turf and looked very tired indeed. (It will have been replaced now).
As I had sailed with RCI previously, my SeaPass (ID) card included the words ‘Gold Member’. When I first looked at the card I mistakenly thought that RCI was simply not letting any revenue-generating scheme pass them by and was advertising the popular Austin Powers movie, at the time, of the same name! But no, this denoted my membership in RCI’s exclusive ‘Crown & Anchor’ society, which was my reward for sailing with them previously.
Membership of the ‘Crown & Anchor’ society is free and is an ‘exclusive society’. However I use the terms loosely, as it probably already has a few million members worldwide, and of course is aimed at generating brand loyalty. I must say though, the perks for repeat passengers are not exactly awe-inspiring. The main incentive for me was £35 off the cost of the cruise, an onboard party and some money-off vouchers, giving 5-10% discount on various onboard purchases. Of course you have to spend more money onboard to actually receive the benefit of the discounts. Oh, and I almost forgot, they also gave me a free bum-bag, featuring the ship’s logo, too. Now I do not wish to sound ungrateful, but these incentives would not be enough in themselves to persuade me to book another RCI cruise. Only the overall quality of the experience and value for money could do that.
I invite you to join me on a virtual tour of the ship. The ship has five decks of passenger accommodation and two decks of public rooms. The top two decks feature an outdoor pool, the Solarium (a pool with a sliding class roof), Beauty Salon, Gym and sports facilities, including miniature golf.
Deck one is a crew deck while decks two and three are dedicated to passenger accommodations. The public spaces begin on deck four, with the ’42 Street Theatre’ at the bow and ‘King and I’ dining room at the stern. Sandwiched in between are the ‘Schooner Bar’, ‘Casino Royal’ and a champagne bar.
The ’42 Street Theatre’ is decorated in a pleasing Art Deco style, with charming illuminated murals of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. There are excellent sight lines, with few columns to obscure your view. It has comfortable leather style seating, offering a number of ‘lovers’ (twin) seats, rather like mini-sofas. All of the seats are well tiered so you do not spend the entire show looking at the person’s head in front. The power of the amplification and lighting systems will certainly not allow you to catch up on your sleep during an RCI show. The waiters will be happy to serve you drinks if you require them, or keep constantly asking you, even if you don’t.
Unfortunately there is not a dedicated Cinema onboard, although a couple of movies were shown in the show lounge. This was curiously done using video projection onto screens located left and right of the stage, but not in the centre. They could have easily offered movie shows in the theatre during the cruise; after all, it would not cost RCI anything to do so.
The Schooner Bar is an attractive maritime themed, wooden clad space, with lots of lots brass and ropes. This idea of a Schooner Bar has been successfully extended to other RCI classes of ships. A very proficient bar-room style pianist/singer entertained here each night. However, the abundance of smokers each evening put me off using the room. (The smoking policy has probably changed now).
The Casino is reasonably large and more attractive than many others I have seen. It has lots of multi-coloured cut class lampshades and Vegas sparkle, plus the obligatory nocturnal atmosphere. The conditions of sensory deprivation (no daylight, no clocks) combined with plentiful supplies of liquor, were ideal for those wishing to invest in statistical uncertainty, until the early hours of the morning. Funny, but I always feel the need to check to see if Robert Redford and Demi Moore are shooting craps, together, but they weren’t!
I have a bit of an issue with big Atriums. I feel that they are a waste of space and money. I personally only tend to use them to line up at the Purser’s deck and complain, so I associate them with dissatisfaction! However, I do appreciate that they have become the showpiece of many modern vessels.
Splendour’s Atrium begins on deck four and stretches upwards for seven decks. A peculiar ‘sun like’ art object is its centrepiece. Likewise Brilliance had a weird tornado-like affair in the middle of its somewhat taller Centrum, as they call it. (I’m beginning to sense a recurring theme here – the elements).
This atrium has the now obligatory glass elevators, a bar, a small stage for live musicians (…and dead ones), a Purser’s and shore excursions desk. There were also several glass Hollywood style staircases, perfectly suited to being used as backdrops for the ship’s photographers’ formal portraits. Although the Atrium is the glitziest area of the ship, and has a bit of a ‘shopping mall’ feel to it, it was certainly the focus of the ship and always busy.
The Atrium is used for the regular Art auctions. I must admit that I do not understand the concept of art actions onboard ships at all. Why do people feel the need to spend large sums of money onboard a ship buying prints? It is not as if they even throw in a picture frame for the price. Surely you can buy better art at home. Never the less, the auctions are popular, but rather annoying to those not taking part, who just want to relax in the Atrium. I wonder why they don’t use the theatre as the auction venue? Maybe they are worried that no one would bother to attend.
A number of small public spaces are located adjacent the atrium on various decks. There is photo gallery located both port and starboard of the atrium, a reasonable Library, card/board games room, a small lounge where you are encouraged to book your next cruise and a PC/Internet facility.
Deck four has a teak wrap around promenade deck, a feature that I always enjoy on any vessel. Passengers rarely use this space, probably because it has no chairs and it is shaded from the sun by the life boats suspended above it.
The ‘Top Hat Lounge’ is located on deck five. This is directly above the theatre, and of a similar size, but is just one deck l high, rather than the theatre’s two decks of height. It is however, an impressive second venue, a spacious alternative to the main theatre. It is a pity that it did not seem very well utilised or well attended, during my cruise.
Much of the décor in stairways, corridors, elevators, and public rooms is similar to that found on Brilliance and other RCI ships. This gives the fleet a familiar feel and reinforces the ‘brand’. You can easily forget exactly which RCI ship you are onboard, but they will not ever let you forget that you’re cruising with RCI.
The main pool on deck nine proved to be the most popular public space on our cruise. Some topless sunbathing (female I mean) took place on deck and I did see a few thongs being worn. I fully approve of this practice, but unfortunately my wife does not. My wife disapproves even more if I actually look!
In addition there is a second pool, in the Solarium, covered by a moveable glass roof, know as the Crystal Canopy. The pool has a Roman theme, complete with Roman style pillars and water jets which occasionally cascade into the pool. This is an adults only pool, although RCI did not always seem to enforce this, especially later in the day. Although RCI have various rules about smoking, children, no bikinis in the café etc., the staff appear to be very reluctant to confront paying customers, even if they disobey the rules. The Solarium is also linked to the Beauty Salon, Saunas, Massage Therapy area and Gym.
Towards the bow of deck 10, is the Adventure Ocean area, which operates the children’s programmes. There is also a teen centre and video arcade. The rather uninteresting funnel lacked a climbing wall, which can be found on the newer RCI ships, but I understand that this will soon be remedied on all RCI ships. Climbing walls are very popular with kids and RCI do not make a charge for this. Now I know that traditionalists mock such features on ships, but it does add another sporting option to an effectively dead space.
RCI’s unique trademark, the Viking Crown Lounge is located on Deck 11. The panoramic glass elevators take you up to it. The Viking Crown is an observation lounge, built around the funnel, which offers good views of the ocean and the pool area. There is a bar, lots of comfortable chairs, and a disco area for evening use. This is a very quiet and cool place to sit, when everybody else is crowded around the pool, scorching in the sun.
The art collection onboard this vessel, is not particularly memorable, in comparison to newer vessels.
RCI operates a traditional dining system on this ship. You are assigned a table and a time (6.30 or 8.30pm) in the main dining room, the ‘King and I’.
I personally like the concept of one grand main dining room, rather than two or three, less impressive spaces as on some other ships. ‘The King and I’ sounds rather tacky, but is in fact rather nice. It has décor in a Siam (Thai) style, including two sparkling dragons which guard the main entrance. It is a two level room, seating about one thousand guests. However, its design cleverly makes it feel very much smaller than it is
The food and service is good, although not exceptional. However it was easily better that my recent experiences in the QE2’s Mauritania grade. I feel that with just one main restaurant for all guests, the cruise line works harder to maintain high standards. The menu included American favourites like Prime Rib and Lobster tails. Vegetarian and low-fat options were available.
It was interesting to see that the Maitre d’ was using a computerised system to allocate tables and not just a big piece of paper. Never the less I was allocated an early sitting, instead of my preference of late, which I was unable to change. Mind you I did book the cruise on very short notice.
The Windjammer Café at the stern of the ship proved to be very popular for casual evening meals. The choice of food was not extensive here, but it was excellent. I had the best pan-fried king prawns of my life here. The Windjammer café was very competently managed by Rowland Altender, a charming man who was genuinely friendly and helpful.
The Cruise director was pretty good. I appreciated that she was more restrained many of the other cruise directors that I have had the misfortune to sail under. This might have been due to the fact that she was British.
The elevators on this ship were a revelation. They were spacious, rarely overcrowded and I never had to wait long for one. The same could not be said of ‘Brilliance’, which has only two stair towers, compared to the three on the Splendour and most other large ships. Burgers, hot dogs, pizza and fries are served in the Solarium, which is very popular with kids. But why tempt kids into the Solarium with this type of fare when kids are not allowed to use its pool?
Unlike almost all of the newbuilds, there are no other alternative dining venues on Splendour. However, having said that, I’d be amazed if you could not find something worthy to eat in main Dining Room or the Windjammer. There were no traditional style midnight buffets held onboard, but there were several deck parties, with late evening barbecues, which were very popular.
Splendour has a rather large choice of cabin grades, sixteen in fact. These range from Royal Suites, Owners Suites, to Ocean View and Interior Cabins.
For this cruise we picked the cheapest inside grade cabin we could find, on deck three. This was the first time we had been in an inside cabin, however it was perfectly adequate in terms of space, although not overly generous either. Occasionally two adults would get in each others’ way at the bottleneck by the dressing table.
The cabin décor was mainly light shades, such as cream, with reproduction art deco style light fittings. Many of twin bedded cabins, can be converted to doubles. The storage space is reasonable, but you will probably have to ask your room steward for some extra coat hangers.
Did I miss having a window, you may ask? Well, yes, and for several reasons. Firstly the lack of natural light can be a bit disturbing. After a day’s sightseeing in the sunshine, coming back into the cabin can feel like entering a dungeon. Secondly, I like to know when we are entering port and leaving port, so I can run up to the upper deck and take photographs and enjoy the view. Although turning on the TV does give you a view from the bridge camera, it’s not as good as a porthole or window. On the other hand, it was the price savings with the inside cabin that allowed us to take this cruise in the first place.
The shower in my cabin was rather small and separated from the rest of the bathroom by a curtain. The water pressure was quite low, so it was not so much a shower as a trickle, but it still felt good after a hard day’s tourism.
Now of course we all know that it is technically impossible to install a shower in a hotel or ship that does not leak water onto the bathroom floor. However, the designers of this particular shower had added a real innovation. Outside of the shower tray was a small gully and a drain hole. The water that sprayed under the curtain fell into the gully and simply drained away. Now this may not seem to be a very high-tech innovation, but this is the first design that I have ever seen, that acknowledges that some water will inevitably leave the shower tray. Well done Chantiers de l’Atlantic – no wonder us Brits trusted them to build the QM2.
The toilet was the normal ‘Barking Dog’ (vacuum) variety. I often wonder what would happen if everyone on the entire ship flushed all of the toilets all at once. Maybe the ship would be sucked into a parallel universe. (A passenger once asked the cruise director if the water in the toilet was fresh or salty. She replied, “I don’t know, you taste it and let us know”.)
Although I appreciate the convenience of an in cabin safe, this particular model was locked using your credit card as a key. Although it was free to use, why should you want to carry around your credit card on a cashless ship. I prefer to keep my credit card inside the safe. What’s wrong with the type of safe that allows you to set up a four-digit code as the key? Maybe RCI doesn’t think we can handle it.
I was particularly pleased to find that the cabin PA speaker could be turned off to avoid the annoying announcements from the Cruise Director about Bingo and other annoying onboard activities. I’m sure most passengers were perfectly capable of reading their ‘Compass’ daily programme, which was also displayed on a cabin TV channel. Even the free bingo card provided, was not enough to persuade me to play that moronic game.
The cabin TV, a Sony 14inch model, featured a channel of classic black and white movies, which made a pleasant change to the normal selection of onboard viewing.
The vibration from the engines in my cabin was virtually non-existent, helped no doubt by the millpond conditions on our cruise.
One small point about the breakfast room service; it was free and it was prompt, but they never seemed to get my order exactly right. There was always something missing, such as butter or toast or even the coffee!
RCI entertainment is aimed squarely at the mass market. Like much of RCI’s operation, it is neither excellent nor bad.
There was the obligatory ‘flesh and feathers’ style shows, a magician, a plate spinner, a couple of singers, flamenco guitarists, piano player etc. On the whole the entertainment package was adequate to pass an hour away per evening, although some of the individual musicians were excellent.
It is a pity that the production shows use taped music and was lip synced on this ship, when there was a competent live orchestra onboard. Although, I suppose they do deserve the occasional night off.
During a production show, one of the poor male dancers actually fell of the stage, after a back flip. He then fell into the orchestra pit. He was dragged out, virtually unconscious, by the four stage hands, while the show continued. Surely the show should have been stopped while he was taken away by stretcher. He did not dance again during our cruise. I just hope he did not suffer serious injury, particularly because of the way that he was moved.
What RCI’s entertainment package does lack is cultural events, such as guest speakers. I particularly miss these on the sea days. The do not need to offer talks on “quantum physics” or “the theory of relativity”, but a few speakers offering general interest topics, would provide some welcome variety to the generally low-brow, programme.
Although RCI clearly strive to attract the mass market and first-time cruisers, our fellow passengers appeared to come from a broad spectrum of society. I must admit though, the phenomenal success of the onboard version of the ‘Mr and Mrs’ game – billed as one of the cruise highlights – and the poolside ‘Belly Flop’ competition did make me wonder at times. (I’m proud to say that a Brit won the Belly Flop, by the way.)
Passenger demographics really do depend on a number of factors; the length of cruise, the itinerary, and the discounts on offer, and not just the ship or cruise line. The itinerary I chose, a one-week Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona attracted a particularly young set. In fact there was a very high proportion of Spanish girls onboard, in their early and late teens. Maybe it was a girls’ College trip. (When I was at College all we did was a field trip, camping in tents, and certainly not a Mediterranean cruise.)
On my particular cruise about 50% of passengers were Spanish, 20% British, 25% American, with 5% other nationalities. Although announcements were made in both Spanish and English, the Entertainment was predominantly in English.
This was a very port intensive cruise, and I was primarily onboard to visit Rome, Naples, Florence and Malta. However, the Mediterranean climate, the sun deck and pool were obviously the main attraction for many of the passengers. Many were clearly more interested in sun worshiping, rather than being tourists. However the beauty of cruising is that you can choose to do what you like best.
RCI are particularly aggressive at income generation tactics. Everywhere you go onboard the ship, over enthusiastic waiters try to sell you drinks, and entertainment staff try to sell you bingo cards etc. You are also constantly reminded about the over-priced shore excursion deadlines. The onboard shops advertise daily sales, and surprisingly many passengers actually believe they are getting bargains. However, all this is RCI’s key to keeping their fares reasonably priced, yet still being able to generate good profits. They are certainly not the only cruise line that tries to persuade you to open your virtual-wallet at every possible occasion.
Even when you have free time in a port, and you are not on an excursion, RCI still attempt to control where you spend your money. They very enthusiastically push their list of recommended shops in each port. They even have a shopping adviser, with her own TV program broadcast to your cabin.
A printed sheet appears in your cabin, before each port of call, featuring a map. The map does not direct you to the tourist attractions, but to RCI’s favoured stores. RCI must get a nice commission, I guess). I must say that this really does all smack of over-commercialism and dare I say big brother.
However, I do wonder if ‘pushing’ so hard really works. I found myself constantly engaging my brain in order to devise ways of avoiding unnecessary on-board purchases. For example, why purchase a coke or a coffee in the bar? I could walk to the Windjammer buffet and get a Coffee, Ice Tea, Water and Lemon drink, for free. Likewise, I used their port shopping map to navigate my way around the port’s streets and to ensure that I avoided all of their recommended shops!
What ever will be next? Selling locks of the Captain’s hair.
RCI clearly aim their product at the younger more active set, which includes families. They are mass-market, but they still manage to retain some elements of style and finesse.
SPLENDOUR OF THE SEAS was generally pretty splendid, and proved to be a very comfortable ship with good facilities. However, it is easy to see that RCI have taken all of the good ideas and designs from the Vision Class, and built upon them in the ship classes that have followed. RCI do Have better ships, but I certainly would not avoid the Vision Class ships, if the price and itinerary was right.
RCI do push their onboard sales too vigorously, but do offer good value for money – comfortable floating resorts, with a reasonable standard of food and service. However, if you are looking for a more sedate and cultured experience with the finest cuisine, you had better look elsewhere and be prepared to pay a lot more money for it!
(Splendour has undergone a major refit since this review with many internal changes of the pubic spaces and facilities.)
Below: Splendour slide-show:
Brilliance of the Seas’s Review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-a