Review: Royal Caribbean Cruise to Alaska, August-September 2008

Just this past week (August 29-September 5), my wife and I went on a 7 night cruise to Alaska on Royal Caribbean.  The cruise left from Vancouver and headed north, and we were aboard the Radiance of the Seas.  The ever-growing flickr set has the photos that my wife and I took during our trip.  Our itinerary was:

It’s kind of hard to break this review up into usable chunks but I’ll do my best.  I’ll likely followup with some separate articles about specific topics, too.

The Cruise Line – Royal Caribbean

Overall, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) did its job as a provider (I’ll talk about my personal experience as their ‘guest’ below, but this is about the company).  They are geared towards a younger but not ‘kid’ crowd (that’s Carnival, apparently).  They are widely praised with very few negative comments after some rather extensive searching for reviews.  Our paperwork was organized, easy to read, we got our luggage tags well ahead of time, and they were not especially pushy about anything.  They also did a good job informing us of ship activities (I am presuming that this is common for all cruises, so it goes here instead of under ‘experience’) and the comments I read about the quality of service were accurate in general.

The cruise (itinerary, ports of call, etc)

Overall, the cruise was pretty good.  I spent a lot of time researching various itineraries and while there is only one for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s 7-night Alaska variant, I felt this was a good combination of big and small cities, offering a wide variety of excursions and add-ons.  Of course, these are cities that make a lot of money off of tourists, and the fact that there are brochures for Diamond International and Tanzanite International on board is indicative of the types of shops that we were seeing (even Juneau, by the pier, was like that).   But we had a lot of options once we got through those initial shops (more on our excursions later).

I also did not want an itinerary that spent a lot of time at sea, just cruising.  Most of the 12-day cruises are like that, adding maybe one more city but then making it a round trip, with two days of cruising to cap things off.  It was a HUGE hassle getting back from Anchorage, but I preferred to do a one-way.

The ship – The Radiance of the Seas

The ship was of lesser importance to me than the itinerary so I’m putting it below that section.

Part of RCCL’s ‘Radiance’ class of ships, which are noticeably smaller than the really big ones that cruise in the Caribbean, the Radiance of the Seas holds about 2500 passengers and is one of the ‘cleanest’ ships on the water (supposedly).  It was designed for travel in the relatively pristine waters around Alaska.

The ship had all the usual trappings that an RCCL boat provides.  These include:

  • 2 pools (one indoor, in the ‘Solarium’)
  • 3 total hot tubs
  • rock climbing wall
  • basketball/soccer/tennis/volleyball court
  • kids water slide
  • mini-golf course

And, as far as food, it had both a dining room (Cascades) and the buffet (WindJammer).  There was also the Seaview Cafe, which is a separate little cafe above but separate from the WindJammer, and two specialty, separately-priced restaurants.  Chops is all about steaks, and Portofino is Italian.

Other spots included several bars (six standalone ones that I can think of off the top of my head), an arcade, and lounges galore.  There are also a few shops (jewelry, small digital photography, general store) and an art gallery.  The large theater for evening shows, spa and fitness center round out things.

Overall, I felt that the ship had just about everything I really wanted to have at hand as a floating ‘home base’ for the trip.  The only thing I wish I had done was spend more time just lounging on deck chairs and reading a book.  I kept feeling like I had to go do something somewhere at sometime on the ship.  But I was not at a loss for things to do, that’s for sure.

Our stateroom was an interior one, which meant no window.  Two twin beds pushed and strapped together into a quasi-king (by request during reservation).  The room was actually a pretty decent size, though certainly if we left a suitcase on the floor or even a pair of shoes out instead of in the closet suddenly we have major trip hazards.  There isn’t extra room.  But there’s enough room.  The walls are a bit thin, though.

The experience

This is where the review gets personal.  This is how it was for me and in most cases for both my wife and I.  It’s possible that another cruise on RCCL would have been different.  I just want to make that clear.

The first thing I noticed is that the guests on board were varied.  It wasn’t all 20-something’s, in other words, as one might think from RCCL’s marketing position.  At the same time, there were very, very few kids on board (less than 15 years old, maybe even 18).  So I do think that families wanting to go on a cruise pick other lines, and that RCCL is chosen because it has more activities on board (the famous rock wall being a key example), perhaps a few more bars, yet is not a ‘party’ cruise line, either.  This might be because an Alaska cruise is going to be a bit more sedate than one in the Caribbean by nature, though.

Another thing that struck me is the effort they put into trying to replicate the feeling of formality and elegance of cruising – think back to images from Titanic.  However, this is really a facade, and one that has a lot of holes.  Some examples:

  • In the dining room, while we are waited upon individually, the wait staff wasn’t superlative, and the food was actually a subset of what was at the buffet for the most part (a few exceptions).  And the food was not done that well.  The wait staff also cared a lot more about serving the big tables (== big tips, which is their livelihood) than on the two of us, who were stuck by ourselves at an 8-person table.  I know the wait staff live off of their tips, but I don’t like being ignored.  We ate in the buffet the rest of the cruise.
  • The shows and entertainment were ‘lively’ but not much else.  The ‘Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers’ were just not very good at either dancing or singing, their ‘original production’ is a legitimate reason to use the word ‘cheesy,’ and the comedian made ethnic jokes.  The best show, in fact, was the former Olympic gymnast who not only did some impressive physical feats but also explained about them, growing up as a gymnast, and really interacted with the crowd (then again, I wonder how many other Olympians are performing on cruise ships now).
  • They were really prompt at coming to check on our TV problems, but since we could not replicate them they told us we were out of luck.  Was that world-class treatment.
  • They nickel and dime you to death.  Water, coffee* iced tea, lemonade, and fruit punch are free.  Anything else costs extra.  I asterisk coffee because if you have coffee in a lounge (at a bar, in a restaurant, even in the dining room) it costs extra.  And a $3 cup of weak coffee is rather annoying.  A milkshake at the Seaview Cafe is the only thing that they charge for (but you might not realize that until it’s too late).
  • They also bombard you with advertisements and coupons.  Every day, we got fliers for the spa or some other thing.  The coupons for a discounted massage or treatment was nice, but there were typos and grammatical mistakes everywhere.  This is clearly because of the international nature of the crew – the captain said that only seven – 7 – people on crew were American.
  • If you don’t do excursions, you really don’t get much out of an Alaskan cruise, IMO.  My wife has said that it’s not as important when she has gone on ones in the Caribbean, but I can tell you I would have gone out of my mind if I had not arranged for activities on shore.
  • A lot of machines were breaking down in the gym.
  • For anyone familiar with jogging and running tracks, they know that a special, relatively spongy material is used to reduce shock on the knees and leg joints.  On the Radiance, it was basically a different color paint used on the deck that made up the ‘jogging track.’

My point is that it’s not the Titanic or some elegant, amazing cruise experience from the 1950’s or earlier.  Or maybe even on the newest, highest-end ones around.

Another issue I had was that their efforts to turnover the ship in a hurry – the last passengers disembark about 10AM and new passengers can get on board starting at 12PM the same day.  At $650 per person for us, they are clearly a low-margin, high-volume operation.  But maybe a few more hours in between or maybe a week off here and there during the year would probably do the ship good.  It felt like when one’s airplane is late getting to the gate and they turn it around really fast and then you board.  Except that on a plane you get a drink and pretzels over, at most, 6 hours crossing the country.  This is a ship on which you basically live for seven days.

At the same time, the trappings of elegance, superficial as they seemed to me, clearly appealed to many.  I saw many passengers in full tuxedos and amazing evening dresses on formal dining night.  I also saw a lot of passengers clearly willing to pay extra for bar drinks (even the package that adds free sodas and other drinks to one’s options, which costs extra, does not include alcoholic ones). Maybe I’m just really cheap.

And not everything is bad or ‘not good.’  Many things were very good.

  • Our stateroom attendant was amazing.  We tipped him the recommended amount plus 15%.  He was extremely attentive – when we switched our notification from ‘do not disturb’ to nothing at all, he noticed and made up the room.  We didn’t even have to put in the ‘make up room’ sign.  He also made up these neat little animals by folding towels.  And, he added the great touch of using my sunglasses to spice up those little surprises – he showed creativity.
  • The Compass, their daily publication of what’s going on that day, was quite useful.  It had a lot of information, but if you pay attention to stuff like when to get off the ship, how to handle a port that uses tenders, it’s very informative.
  • The captain seemed to care about our experience.  He claims to have gotten closer to Hubbard Glacier on this trip than he ever had because the seas were calm.  If that’s true, then that’s really making an effort.


Overall, the Radiance served its purpose as a floating hotel, a consistent ‘home base’ for a trip with multiple ports of call.  RCCL served its purpose in providing a solid itinerary and, overall, a framework for a passenger-friendly experience.

Overall, I thought the cruise was just fine.  It served its purpose.  Yes, getting up at 6 to be shuffled off the ship at Seward in a hurry was tiring, but they sure gave us a lot of information on it, got us our luggage tags early, and our bags were waiting for us at the airport.  So maybe they are a bit industrial in approach, but they get the job done.

And the excursions are great.  I’ll review them in another post – this one is long enough.

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