SPLENDOUR OF THE SEAS- ROYAL CARIBBEAN’S STALWART

Splendour Of The Seas off Santorini

Splendour Of The Seas off Santorini

Looking at the graceful, flowing contours of Splendour Of The Seas, it’s hard to believe that the Royal Caribbean stalwart is now some seventeen years old. Always gleaming and recently extensively refurbished, the 70,000 ton Splendour has been a consistently successful team player; never really a headline maker, but rather a solid, workmanlike ship with a unique style and vibe of her own.

Part of this relatively low profile comes down to her being the second member of the six ship, oddly named Vision class. Twin sister ship, Legend Of The Seas, was the trailblazer for this innovative new class. The namesake ship was actually the last of the sextet to enter service.

Splendour Of The Seas debuted in Southampton in March of 1996, almost a year after her sister. I visited her then, and found her to be a hugely impressive ship. As with all of the class, a huge amount of floor to ceiling glass was used in the superstructure, to bathe the ship in natural light. The two deck high dining room was especially stunning, and must still rank as one of the most beautiful ever installed on any ship.

The showroom was pure Art Deco and, as with her sister ship, there was a conscious effort by Royal Caribbean to provide bigger cabins than the company ever had before. Gone were the ‘get out there’ shoeboxes of the Sovereign class; Splendour showcased over two hundred balcony cabins; a huge amount for that time.

These ships also began Royal Caribbean’s relentless march towards bigger, more amenity laden ships. Splendour featured a full, eighteen hole mini golf course on her upper decks, and it was a huge talking point at the time.

She soon settled into popular cruise service, mainly in the Mediterranean, but within three years she was eclipsed by the mammoth Voyager Of The Seas, the first of a five ship series that was, incredibly, twice the size of the Vision class.

These behemoths upped the ante enormously in the amenity stakes, and it was eventually decided that all of the Vision class ships should be retro fitted with some of the new eateries, leisure and entertainment options- such as the rock climbing walls- that have become as much signature Royal Caribbean trademarks as those famous Viking Crown lounges of old.

The result is, quite literally, the best of both worlds. Splendour Of The Seas remains relatively intimate, yet still replete with a conga line of cruising goodies comprehensive enough to satisfy the most jaded of travellers. She usually sails from the stunningly beautiful backdrop of Venice through the spring and summer, to the highlights of Croatia and the Greek Islands.

At the end of autumn, the Splendour usually relocates to South America, crossing the Atlantic in good time to offer that continent when the weather is usually at its best. Typically, she operates a series of three to seven day cruises from Santos, the port for Sao Paolo.

For those looking for an elegant, accommodating ship that offers more than just a little charm and style, the Splendour Of The Seas is definitely one of the better choices out there.

VOYAGE REVIEW- ROYAL CARIBBEAN’S MAJESTY OF THE SEAS

Entrance lobby on Majesty Of The Seas

Entrance lobby on Majesty Of The Seas

The Majesty Of The Seas now sails three and four night cruises from Miami every week. The three night Friday departures head first to Coco Cay, the company’s ‘private island’ in the Bahamas, and then on to Nassau on the Sunday. The four night, Monday sailings add Key West to the first two ports, as well as some extra sea time.

I took two of these short, three night cruises within a month of each other, in September and October 2008 respectively. The standards on both cruises were pretty uniform, with very little real variance one way or another.

Majesty Of The Seas was one of Royal Caribbean’s first real mega ships when she made her debut back in 1992. She originally ran seven night cruises to the eastern and western Caribbean but, as newer, more amenity laden tonnage came on line for Royal, she and her two sisters were relegated to these shorter runs. Still, Majesty offers many of the trademark Royal Caribbean experiences, and enough style and diversity to make for a weekend break with a real difference.

Majesty’s debut came before the industry’s headlong surge towards flooding the cruise market with ships flaunting row upon row of balcony cabins. Because of this, what we have is a very elegant, graceful profile, with a soaring prow, a knuckled cruiser stern and, naturally, the signature Viking Crown, the Royal Caribbean trademark lounge, that surrounds the aft placed funnel, and still looks like a flying saucer. The ship is one of the most genuinely beautiful still sailing Florida waters, and she possesses a finely honed sense of style that goes a long way to making up for her small cabins, and the relatively few food outlets on board.

The champagne terrace

The champagne terrace

The atrium lobby extends through five levels, and doubles as both an on board crossroads, and a people watching centre. Shimmering brass balustrades, polished marble, wooden flooring and etched glass help to give this soaring space a sense of stunning grandeur, making it the focal point of the ship at any time of the day or night.

Bars, restaurants and shops fan out aft from all the different levels of the atrium. The Majesty and her sisters were built with all of their cabins in the forward part of the ship, while the public rooms and facilities were largely stacked up in the aft half, like the tiers of a wedding cake. The idea, mostly successful, was to keep the noise of late night revellers away from soundly sleeping families with children.

Cabins are not the strong point of this class of ship. I opted for a basic inside on both trips and, at 118 square feet, they are among the smallest afloat. That said, they are more than adequate for a long weekend, and you’ll be spending a minimal amount of time in them in any event.

Sure, you’ll get pretty damned intimate with your shower curtain, but the new bedding is supremely comfortable. Plus, with a location near the base of the atrium, these cabins are hard to beat for sheer good value. I knew pretty much what I was getting (especially on the second cruise) and both cabins worked out pretty fine in practice.

Boleros

Boleros

And I could have opted for one of the slightly larger outside cabins, or even one of the sixty two balcony cabins that were shoe horned on board during a later refit. At the top end, there are some fabulous, very expansive suites that are not overly priced for that self indulgent weekend splurge, especially if your plan is simply to spend as much time on board as possible.

Up top, the vast amount of sun deck embraced two good sized pools, twin hot tubs, a pair of bars, and a raised walkway that circled all the way around this area. Although expansive, this space was always crowded at sailaways, and when deck and pool ‘games’ were in progress. That, however, is also true of a great many larger and more modern ships as well.

Majesty’s signature Viking Crown lounge offered sweeping views through some 360 degrees, at any time of the day or night. The sheer size of the interior came as something of a surprise, but it never seemed to get as much use as I had expected it to. Perhaps it’s location away from the main run of lounges and bars affected that. It seems to be a problem among many large cruise ships.

Inside, Majesty had just been comprehensively refreshed, with a massive upgrading of all public rooms that helped to make her feel vibrant and alive. A popular addition was Boleros, a new lounge where sizzling salsa was served up with lethal Mojitos, to provide one of the most jumping hot spots on the ship at night.

The Viking Crown

The Viking Crown

The elegant Schooner Bar, with its sailing ship theme, was a personal favourite, perhaps because it featured the same piano player on both cruises, an American gentleman whose solid repertoire of seventies soul standards had the entire room singing along each night. He really was superb, as were the Long Island Iced Teas served up here. However, for some reason, Royal Caribbean was still serving up champagne in white plastic ice buckets; this was tacky, and I hope that it has been changed by now.

Was there any sense of being nickled and dimed? Well, yes, but no more or less so than on any of the competing mainstream cruise lines. And, after all, saying ‘no’ is not exactly rocket science.

The main show lounge had some decent productions, including Signed, Sealed, Delivered, a big Motown tribute show that was saved until the last night. This room still has the original, barrel shaped chairs on swivel bases, and these point up the ship’s true age perhaps more than anything else on board the Majesty.

Food wise, the two main dining rooms offered fare that ranged from good to sometimes excellent, with decent menus. If the service was sometimes a little rushed, it was still oddly in synch with the frenetic pace of the cruise itself on both weekends.

Right forward, the vast Windjammer Market Place laid out a huge buffet for all main meals, though the layout was more than a little confusing, with parts of the room roped off at times for no really obvious reason. Part of this complex also housed Sorrentos, a complimentary, round-the-clock pizza outfit.

The Schooner Bar

The Schooner Bar

The only extra charge eatery was Johnny Rockets, the American style diner franchise and, with prices at around $3.50, it was hardly an extortionate rip off. The food, fun and service here made Johnny Rockets one of the most hopping venues on the ship.

The food is not gourmet quality, something impossible to achieve with around 2700 passengers on board what is, in effect, a small floating town. But you are not paying gourmet prices either, and what you get- both in terms of quality and quantity- points up just what a bargain contemporary, mass market cruising still is in this day and age.

Majesty proved to be a solid, stable ship that impressed at every turn. She has a lovely, upbeat vibe that is an intrinsic part of her continued success. Embarkation on both cruises was achieved in an astonishing fifteen minutes, from start to finish- full marks to Royal on what remains the most efficient embarkation process of any Florida based ship. It is also worth noting that leaving the ship in Miami at the end of both cruises was equally painless.

Coco Cay is the company’s private island, so once ashore we went for a day where the options included volleyball, jet ski-ing, shopping for native crafts and the obligatory T-shirts. There was a vast buffet lunch, served under cover, that was constantly replenished. There was an aqua park for the kids, and no shortage of sun loungers and hammocks, as well as bars aplenty to serve up your favourite cocktail in paradise.

Coco Cay, Bahamas

Coco Cay, Bahamas

Like most islands in the Bahamas, Coco Cay is long, low, and garlanded with spectacular beaches, lines of towering date palms, and random clumps of scrub bushes. This is hardly Indiana Jones territory; you are required to do nothing more adventurous than kick back at your own pace. As the ship’s tenders come and go more or less all day, you can pretty much come and go as you please.

Nassau was next; in the forties, fifties and sixties, it was considered a very chic and upmarket destination. But years of tourist saturation have jaded it to the point where charm of any sort is almost non existent. The much hyped straw market is the most hideously over rated attraction on the entire Caribbean cruise circuit, and verges on the grimy in places.

Still, there are some fine old colonial buildings in the town itself, and the shopping is bliss for those so inclined. Many make for nearby Paradise Beach, and the hulking Atlantis casino that looms over it like some kind of alien mother ship.

A more pleasant and peaceful alternative is to buy a day pass for one of the private beaches, such as the one at the Hilton Hotel, where there are still more than a few traces of the elegant Bahamas lifestyle of old. For around $20 each, this is a good value way to spend a day in Nassau.

Because man cannot live by bread alone

Because man cannot live by bread alone

In sum, this short cruise provides for a nice, invigorating short break on a well programmed, charming ship that has got its act pretty much together. Majesty Of The Seas offers more than enough for adults and children of any age to enjoy an inexpensive, hassle free breather from the usual daily grind. These Bahamas cruises also work as an excellent add on to a few days spent in one of the Florida theme parks, or even Miami itself. They are also good as ‘taster cruises’ as a prelude to something more ambitious.

The bottom line is, as always, ‘would I do it again?’ The simple answer is a very definite yes.

Top travel suggestion; if time is tight, and you have only a week or so to play with, then why not tie in a short cruise with a few days on Miami’s world famous South Beach, and enjoy the best of both worlds? Lovely.

ANOTHER MONARCH BOWS OUT….

CNV00179The next few weeks will mark the final voyages of Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas before her transfer to Pullmantur, the Spanish subsidiary of RCCL. Once there, she will rejoin her sister Sovereign, best remembered as the groundbreaking, 1988 built Sovereign of the Seas.

That will leave only the third of the original trio- Majesty of the Seas- still in service with Royal Caribbean, but for how much longer? The company sensibly delegated the ‘Majesty’ to three and four day short cruises out of Miami some years ago, where her tiny inside and outside cabins would not be such an issue for passengers more interested in hard partying than in stateroom parameters.

The Majesty of the Seas now stands alone as the last of that pioneering generation of mega ships that propelled Royal Caribbean to stratospheric levels of success. All three ships in the trio boasted a cabins forward/public rooms aft configuration that was briefly in vogue at the time. There were no balcony cabins at all in the original design, although all three ships were retrofitted with a single deck of balconies later in their careers.

CNV00085Each featured a vast, expansive atrium which still stands as a benchmark for maritime elegance. Cool, airy and undeniably classy, these became the forebears for the legions of imitators that followed in their wake.

They also incorporated the vast Viking Crown lounges, cantilevered around the funnel like some predatory mother ship from a fifties sci-fi flick. These ones are on a much bigger scale than the far more intimate venues on previous ‘Royal’ tonnage, Even now, they remain some of the most spectacular vantage points of any ships at sea.

CNV00091This class was ultimately seconded because of the lack of alternative dining options, as well as the dearth of time killing facilities gifted onto their more expansive, shiny new successors. Nobody liked those small cabins very much either, despite the fact that they are perfectly functional and fit for purpose.

I did a couple of three night cruises on the Majesty a few years ago. I liked the ship immensely; a modern classic with a beautiful, flared bow, a graceful counter stern, and a quite remarkable stance when seen from the shore. She was crowded and, at times, some areas were downright rowdy.

CNV00124But the value was extraordinary, and they had shoehorned a branch of Johnny Rockets, the famous retro fifties diner chain, into her upper deck. It didn’t much matter that the ‘sit up and beg’ barrel chairs in the main show lounge were obviously dated nineties relics.

More importantly than anything, Majesty remained a happy ship; a hard working, honest lady still making scores of often first time cruisers happy. There was a pianist who sounded like a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder on both cruises. His nightly shows were always packed.

CNV00132I hope these great ships are remembered and valued properly; they became ‘also rans’ in Royal’s meteoric ascent all too quickly, though understandably so.

The excitement that they generated at their launch all seems a long time ago now. But if you are in Florida for the weekend, you really could do a lot worse than take a quick, giddy spin on a ship that has become a true modern classic; a staple of the cruise industry that has charisma by the boatload. I doubt you’ll regret the experience.