“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, an narrow-mindedness” ~ Mark Twain
One of my all time favorites quotes… RSVP vacations gives the room steward little cards to put in our cabin each night, and that was one of them. I thought it quite fitting for the cruise. We’re at sea today, our last sea-day, and thought it might be a good time to start writing my review of the cruise. Derek was very encouraging, as I think he was dreading the long blog post. I’ll let him actually post it and populate the pictures!
So, let’s start from the beginning. We left Wednesday, and the day started out a bit rocky. We decided to leave the Jeep at home and take a taxi to the airport. It cost less for two taxi trips than a couple days of parking at the airport, even in the cheap seats, so it was a no brainier. Well, there are two taxi companies in West Des Moines, and of course the Des Moines companies, but they make a big deal about coming “out this far” (because you know, Des Moines is so big and has SO much traffic…) In any case, Derek had a bad experience with one of them, and I used the other one the day I had starting trouble with the car, and he was fine. I called him Tuesday to make an appointment, and we agreed that 10:30 on a 1:00 flight should be fine. Well, he ran into problems, and after 15 calls (most originated by him) he sent his college. We made it, but not until about 12:30, which even if it is DSM, makes me nervous. The owner of the cab company was super apologetic, and offered to give us the ride for free. Our driver was, well, he was interesting, and in the short ride we heard all about his travel adventures, mostly centering on his trip to Duluth, MN to “Visit his father in the correctional facility”. <Sigh>
Anyhow, made the plane to Chicago, and only waited a few minutes in Chicago for the next plane to Miami. I am not a big fan of O’Hare, however, being that we had the same airline for both legs it was much easier. The trip from ORD to MIA was pretty rough, turbulence-wise. In reality, we were extremely lucky, as we were in the air an extra hour before we landed because we had to divert around all the storms in the South East. Several people we have talked to on the cruise had to rearrange travel plans to make it—many gave way to travel from plane to drive.
So we made it, got the car (a stupid big Tahoe), and headed to my Aunt and Uncle’s place north of Miami. It was a short drive, but made interesting with the Miami driver’s and the thunderstorm in progress. We made it, feeling terribly guilty that we arrived so late. My Aunt greeted us, and we hurried off to bed.
This is the first time we have seen their new house. It was absolutely beautiful. Sitting on one of the channels off the Intracoastal Waterway, and the weather was perfect for our stay in Miami. We had a great time, as we walked down Hollywood Beach, and had dinner at a local bar on the oceanfront. Then on Friday, Uncle Dave took us out in their boat on the ICW, almost down to Miami. It was perfect weather, and a great way to spend the day. We finished our visit with a nice dinner and a couple bottles of wine.
Our next night was at an Extended Stay near the airport. This allowed us to get reorganized, do laundry, and be close to the airport to turn in the rental car Saturday morning. All went well, and made it to the rental place shortly afternoon, and took a shuttle they provide free to the cruise terminal. We weren’t supposed to get on board until 3, but we had no problem and short lines boarding around 1:00pm. We met up with our friends Don and Troy at the cruise terminal and all boarded together.
Once on the boat, our rom wasn’t ready yet, so we headed to the “Welcome Aboard Lunch”. It was in the Calumet and Manitou Buffet on deck 14. The ship itself (MSC Divina) is absolutely gorgeous. In a few area’s the ship’s decor is a bit over the top, but Derek said “It isn’t tacky, but one more piece of bling would make it tacky.” I dunno, I thought the “Crystal Staircase” and the “LED Glass Elevators” were a little too much…
We enjoyed lunch with Don and Troy and explored the ship a bit before we are told that our rooms are ready. Our cabin (10127) is on Deck 10, and is a pretty standard balcony stateroom. It’s nice, and very clean. We met our Cabin steward Noronha Olimpio. He’s from India we learn, and over the week we learn how any hours, etc. he works to keep us all very happy. His hours are 7am to 3pm then 5pm until 11pm, 7 days a week for 9 months. He seems to understand English well, but then in some cases I think he is a just pretty good actor and just smiles a lot and likes to greet us. Regardless he did a nice job.
The Ship itself is flawless, and run very “European” very laid-back crew. It is very obvious that MSC is “new” to the American tourism market. The other ship we were on, it was rare we would interact with a crew members that didn’t speak English well. In fact it was almost as if they were “hidden” while here it is quite common. I’ll touch more on the differences later, but first impressions are very positive.
We get settled, and our friend Jared comes to visit with his friend Mark. Chat with them for a bit then we go explore the ship a bit more, then meet up with Don & Troy who introduce us to some of the other Iowa group. Meet some cool people, and had a few drinks. Derek decided to purchase a beverage package, which included 105 vouchers, and we would split it. Well, It was a “Good Deal” but honestly, we just don’t drink that much, and with the cruise nearing an end, we are finding ways to “Get rid of” drink tickets… The group decided to all go to the main restaurant for dinner, which was the “Black Crab”. Now for this charter cruise they do dinner a little differently than the typical cruise ship. It is open seating, you basically queue up, and the Maître D’ seats your group, and if you’re just a pair, they join you with another table. Well, they sat 8 of us. They give you a menu, you order from the several selections of the evening, and they serve you. It is fairly formal in the dining room. Our first meal took almost 3 hours. Not off to a good start when the waiter actually said to one of our table “It’s Saturday, please excuse our bad service, as we’re all tired and just want to go to bed”. I was a little taken back, but the meal was fine, and we got through it. I forget what we had… The menu is very Italian, a lot of pasta, lots of Italian style cooking.
We spent the first two days at sea, attempting to keep up with the plentiful and varied entertainment. All of which has been excellent. Another MSC boon is the ship’s own variety show is spectacular, and hands down some of the best live performance we have seen anywhere, particularly on board a ship. In addition there is all the RSVP added entertainment, which again has been top notch as well. I also have to add a bit about our cruise directors. On the last RSVP cruise (2007, Princess) I do not recall the cruise directors so involved. Here we have Andre, and Brad. Andre is the Ships Cruise Director, is from South Africa, and has been hilarious paired with Brad (the RSVP cruise director). The two play off each other well, and are almost as entertaining to watch as the rest of the entertainment. Well-done guys.
I think it was the second night we saw Leslie Jordan in the main theater, who was incredible. We saw him on the boat prior, and he is genuinely a nice man as well.
The following day, we landed in St. Maarten, Philipsburg to be exact, which is on the Dutch side of the island. The port area there is very nice; however not far out It does get a little slummy. Last time we were year we headed to Maho (or Sunset) Beach, where the airplanes fly in real low, a definite must see, but we wanted to be adventurous. We did the “Saint Marten by Jeep” excursion. It was about $100 per person. The nice thing about the excursions is that while they may seem pricey, the ship or RSVP has already checked them out, and there is some guarantee that you won’t get ripped off to badly, as well, they ensure you make it back to the ship in time. The All-Aboard call was for 4:30, and we didn’t get a good start until 11:45… Anyhow, after a short walk to the transport hub, we jumped on a cute little Nissan bus. They took us to the Jeep Rental place where we formed four-somes. We ended up paired with Cruze and Sam, a couple from Miami. None minded if I drove, which was a mixed blessing. Cruse was a riot, and Sam was pretty funny in his own way, and made the trip that much better. We were afraid we’d be stuck with some WWII piles of crap, but we actually had 2012+ Jeep Wranglers. It was an “On-Road” tour, which I was a little disappointed about; I thought we would at least have some trails… Our Guide gave us small handi-talkies, which ironically were Baofeng Ham Radio models (Similar to what we just purchased to stay in contact in the ship). He then gave us the “Rules of the road” as there were 7 jeeps in total, his only rule was “Don’t let traffic in our caravan” which was much easier said than done in Saint Marten! Particularly from someone who doesn’t like tailgating, it made the driving a little stressful, but we got used to “Closing the gaps” and running stop signs in unison… He took us to a few photo op spots, as well as Palm Beach Resort, where we had lunch and were allowed some time on the pristine beach. The trip ended with an hour of shopping which was… well we could have skipped that part. Then, we were whisked back to the ship, with Minutes to spare before we departed. Having the Balcony room has been particularly nice for port days as we can watch the ship coming into port and leaving from our staterooms.
Port Day Two starts with a early arrival to San Juan. We had nothing really planned, so jumped off the ship early and found the ferry station next to the port. Rode across the bay for $.50 each, and some crazy taxi driver took us to the Bacardi Distillery. The tour was about an hour, with free rum at the end. From there we headed back to Old town and found the Fort. Derek made me walk up the steep hill and then found the entrance. We stood in line for about 15 minutes, and the line wasn’t moving. I heard them talking about a 30 minute movie, etc. It was Hot, stinky and I just really wasn’t into it. I left. I think Derek was a little disappointed, he said I was “Having a moment”… but I did find a place we could take some pictures. Got yelled at for climbing on the wall, and then decided to walk around Old town. We looked for a local restaurant to have lunch, but each one we found was closed. Seems that over ½ of Old Town was for-sale or out of business. Derek did find a gift shop and bought t-shirt and some other trinkets. We ended up eating at Senor Frogs. I had never been before. It was… interesting with loud music, staff dancing, most patrons wearing balloon hats and contests for free shots. Had lunch (Service was horrific) and went back to the ship.
Today is our last sea-day. I really like the sea days, and find them much more relaxing than the rush to get off ship and hurry up to see a place in 5 or 6 hours. Last evening the wind seems to have kicked up, and the seas have been much rougher. The boat was rocking pretty good for a while. Not like a small craft, but a gentle sway that makes walking in the corridors interesting. Derek said on the way back to the cabin after the late show “Did we drink that much, or is it just really rough out?” The size of the swell is pretty deceiving. We are on deck 10, and it doesn’t look too bad out, but when you get down to Deck 5, and close to the waterline, you can see the swell is over 8 foot. Most of the trip the depth according to our little TV programing in the cabin has been around 5500 meters. Wholly crap that is deep water. The water is so perfectly Azure Blue it is truly amazing.
Ok, So comparing the two experiences, and realizing the other one we were on was 2007. From what we have heard, RSVP typically uses Holland America. The one we were on was also an anomaly being it was not on HA. The ship itself is absolutely beautiful, although I do miss having a full Promenade deck to walk around. Here you are limited to most of one side on Deck 7. There are no chairs, nor can you see much because it is also the lifeboat deck. Other ships sacrifice some balcony rooms to move the lifeboats up, and allow you to walk under them, thus having a full deck near the waterline, which I would prefer. The crews for both ship has RSVP as their first “Gay” cruise. The Princess one had its hiccups in the beginning too, but came around fairly quickly. This one, the attitude is a little different. Please understand I am also being super critical here as well, because none of this has very negatively impacted my vacation enough to not do it again, but there are some things that need work. Bar Service is horrific. Remember what I said about English Speaking crew; well, just because you’re short staffed, it doesn’t mean pull housekeepers and think they can make drinks, or even look pretty trying. It just makes the situation worse. I do not think they were prepared for how much 3500 homosexuals drink. We were told we consumed 5 times the amount of what a typical sailing consumes in alcohol in the first 3 days. I know on the Princess one we ran out of booze and had to restock at one of the ports of call, here I don’t think that was a concern, but the staff to serve it has been. The most apparent difference with the staff has been almost a fear of engagement. On the other cruise, they quickly warmed up to us, and had a good time with it, joked around with us, made conversation, etc. Here, it is all “Yes Sir, No Sir” bullshit. Our room steward on Princess welcomed us by first name when we came on board. Ours technically did a superb job, but still never got much more than a “Have a good evening Sir” out of him unless I pressed, and never once did he state either of our names even though they were clearly marked on our door thanks to Derek’s sticker job.
Second, the “Voucher” program for drinks in general. Yes, it’s a great deal, but two of us, can’t finish it. It could have been slimmed down to about 10 tickets a day, and we would have been more than OK with it.
The Food. One of the highlights of any cruise is the food. And this has been “OK”, but just not quite the level I was expecting. Not saying we had “Bad” meals, but it all feels a little stale as far as selection at this point. The buffets have been pretty disappointing to be honest, and don’t change hardly at all. The Dinning room food has been better, with more selection, but again, very Mediterranean with little variety. Service has improved some, but not great. There are three main restaurants, Black Crab Deck 5, Black Crab Deck 6, and The Villa. They open them as needed, filling Deck 5, then 6, then the Villa. Because we go early, we always end up in the same one; I’d like to see the others… Personally I wouldn’t mind having an assigned time to eat, provided the entertainment was scheduled around or available outside those times.
Some have been complaining about no drink service in the main theater. OK, I get it, but I also don’t agree. The Main Theater is huge, 1600 seat huge. It is an awesome venue, and I can’t see drink service in that venue. Seriously, you would never believe you were on board a ship in this theater, as it is truly world class. My one “Bitch” though is the lighted steps. They use a lot of LED’s in the ship which is awesome, but wherever they found these LED’s for these particular steps must have not looked at the lux output, as they are the brightest LED step lights I have ever seen, and walking up the steps at certain angles in the theater its almost blinding. Most likely a control problem, which highlights the fact the crew just doesn’t seem dialed in. The other cruise, the crew we saw were actually sort into the whole gay cruise thing than really had fun with it. Here, they are still playing the subservient role, and not engaging.
So, I would do another RSVP cruise for sure. I think they have done a nice job, although I do think the next one we would look for a smaller boat, one with a crew that has done it before, and probably a location we haven’t been too, but so far, this trip has been excellent.