Having wrapped up our Navigator of The Seas, we have now sailed with each of the three massive lines focused on the American mass-market; Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The big question for us is “are these three lines interchangeable, or is there a noticeable difference in product quality amongst them?”.
As far as we’re concerned, there are, indeed, differences and there is a clear best choice, so, let’s rank them, starting at the bottom…
Third Place - Norwegian Cruise Line. As compared to its two primary competitors, NCL offers a less homogeneous hard product, with a fleet which remains something of a hodgepoge. In our experience, we found that, not only was the ship crowded, but the cabins were cramped and there were few appealing public spaces. Food was disappointing and the bar offering didn’t really cater to people who enjoy decent wines or spirits.
Second Place - Royal Caribbean. If our reviews were based simply on the number of bells and whistles attached to the ships, RCCL would win hands down, they offer a modern fleet which is continuously renewed with vessels which set new records for capacity and variety of facilities. In contrast to NCL, we found plenty of places to sit in peace and quiet, despite the vast number of fellow passengers. Like NCL, food was nothing to write home about, but there were at least wine bars and cocktail venues catering to grown ups.
First Place - Carnival. In our experience, Carnival is in a different league from it’s principle competition. Yes, some of the ships, including Triumph, are older, but ongoing improvement projects keep them relevant. While there are noisy kids arcades and clubs, there was also appealing bars and quiet lounges. The staff on Carnival were friendly, attentive and enthusiastic - really contributing to a great atmosphere in places, notably the pool bars and casino. Food, perhaps because it has no pretension to being haute cuisine, is far superior to that offered on RCCL or NCL - the sea day brunch is particularly good.
The downside to Carnival is that, unlike both NCL and RCCL, they offer very infrequent cruises in Europe and almost never anything sailing from the UK. That being said, if we were already in the US for work or another holiday, we wouldn’t hesitate to add a short Carnival sailing on to the end of the trip.
Royal Caribbean have one big attraction from our perspective - they offer cruises on modern mega-ships from Southampton. With the possible exception of the newest P&O ships, if you want to depart from a UK port on a ship that has enough bells and whistles to keep a brood of children distracted for a week or two, Royal Caribbean are, really, the only game in town.
However, if you’re not travelling with kids, we don’t see much attraction. Sure, despite the massive size, we found the ship spacious and a fairly pleasant way to get from A to B, but it didn’t offer anything exception that would transform our time on board from a journey into a holiday. The food in particular, even the extra-cost options, is mediocre, at best.
As ever, passengers aboard Navigator of The Seas have the choice of leaving at a set time, with their luggage collected the night before, or walking off, carrying their own bags which, on a short cruise, is easily done.
We found ourselves through immigration and getting into a taxi ten minutes after leaving our cabin. We were slightly concerned about finding a taxi as there were two other ships docking at the same time as us, but it didn’t seem to be a problem.
The overwhelming majority of passengers on Navigator of The Seas were travelling in family groups - large multi-generational family groups were particularly noticeable. There was also a smattering of hen parties, but that’s to be expected on shorter sailings.
As usual, everybody we met was very friendly, but this isn’t a ship we’d suggest for people who’re looking to meet new friends.
There is a wealth of activities on Navigator of The Seas for kids, far less effort has been spent on their parents.
Rock climbing walls, crazy golf, flowrider surf simulators, ice skating… Kids are kept busy. Yes, arguably, all of these facilities are, arguably, open to adults, but on this sailing they would certainly feel out of place - these areas were, essentially, a well equipped nursery.
So, what is left for adults? Trivia quizzes, scavenger hunts and shuffleboard tournaments. Tha’ts about it, unless you want to be sold to, in which case there are the inevitable Park West art auctions, pre-owned Rolex sales and endless “information” events from the spa, gym and jewellery shop.
Our advice - buy the drinks package, you’ll need it to power through the tedium, particularly if the weather confines you to the indoors.
As we try to do on every ship, to ease comparison, we sampled a deep tissue massage which, in itself, was excellent.
The rest of the spa experience was less appealing, mainly because the hard-sell is relentless and completely tone deaf.
In the waiting room, somebody was pushing acupuncture hard. Straight away, we explained that we live in mortal terror of needles, but still, the sales pitch continued. The very notion of acupuncture on a moving ship just screams potential catastrophe - we could crest a sudden wave and have a kidney speared as the therapist lost her footing.
Once safely away from the terrifying needle lady, the massage began with an immediate upsell to include hot stones ($20). The post-massage product sell verged on physical assault.
The spa suite also seems to be directly the kids area, so the “relaxation” time is filled with the sound of running.
Navigator of The Seas offer multiple drinking venues - in addition to the cocktail lounges and pool bars found on every cruise ship, there’s also a pub and a wine bar. Our favourite venue was, however, the retro Schooner Bar - the signature cocktail lounge found on all Royal Caribbean ships.
In all bars, the service was good and any cocktails we ordered were well made. There are masses of children waiting at may bars to have their “bottomless soda” cups refilled - there has to be a better way of handling this.
We’ve touched before on the notion that the “free drinks” package on cruise ships merely creates a pricing floor, particularly for wine. The wines available within Royal Caribbean’s drinks package isn’t great. However, some decent glasses are available for a small supplement (e.g., $3 for Whispering Angel rose).
Many of you are, we’re sure, busy people, so we’ll skip the preamble and just say that food aboard Navigator of The Seas is not good. Not good at all.
Those of you wanting to know the many ways in which the food is bad, please read on. In addition to the main restaurant, Navigator of The Seas offers a variety of speciality restaurants, we sampled a selection of them during this short voyage.
We started off seeking lunch in the buffet on embarkation day. Amongst a scene straight out of Bedlam. Eventually, we snatched a seat and wrestled two slices of pizza from a station - it tasted of nothing and had the texture of plasterboard.
That evening, we had dinner in Choppes Grille, the ship’s premium steakhouse. This started off well then went downhill consistently. We had high hopes for the meal when the bread was served with butter that was at room temperature and spreadable, then noticed that we were waiting ages for our wine to arrive.
The appetisers, an iceberg wedge with blue cheese and shrimp cocktail were good, but the New York strip steak was mediocre. Worse, the sides, usually our favourite part of the steakhouse experience, were bad. Asparagus was OK, truffle fried were like cardboard and the mac ‘n’ cheese was weird and bad. To be frank with you, we didn’t think it possible to create a mac ‘n’ cheese that we wouldn’t lick from the dish, so full marks for effort on that front.
Dessert of Mississippi mud pie was basically a cheesecake that tasted of plastic.
Fearing the buffet, the next day we took breakfast in the main dining room, where we were served a passable cooked breakfast. Later in the cruise, on a sea day, we returned to the main dining room for lunch. After some waiting, we found this to be an odd hybrid of buffet and a la carte; the buffet salads and noodles looked unappetising, so we ordered fish and chips, which turned out to be extremely poor - soggy fish and stale chips.
After being so pleasantly surprised by Guy Fieri’s Burger Joint on Carnival, we were keen to try out Royal Caribbean’s competing venue - Johnny Rocket’s Diner. As soon as you sit down, you are served a massive pile of beige food, featuring (yet more) stale fries and passable onion rings with ranch dressing. The burger is OK, but the whole experience feels fairly miserable and isn’t a patch on Carnival’s offering.
Izumi, the “Japanese” restaurant offers beautifully presented, but dull and oddly westernised dishes - almost cooked “sashimi” and truffle California rolls.
Our one venture into room service was horrifying. An interpretation of a Philly Cheese Steak was edible, if tasteless, while chicken noodle soup may well have been dishwater and the quesadilla was just a mass of melted cheese accompanied by a selection of jarred salsa, guacamole and (separating) sour cream.
Sabor usually serves Mexican food, but, on sailings from Southampton, switches to Indian to align better with British tastes. Here, we got off to a good start with decent deep fried prawns, but the breads and curries were not as good as you’d buy in a meal deal from the refrigerator at a Waitrose or Tesco.
Similarly, Giovanni’s Table, which is a $30 upcharge per person, serves the sort of Italian food you’d object to paying £15 at a Zizzi’s on any British High Street.
Overall, we found Royal Caribbean’s food offering massively disappointing, especially in comparison to what we experienced on Carnival.
For this sailing we were booked into what Royal Caribbean describes as a “mini suite”; the key word being “mini”.
In fairness, the cabin was spacious and had plenty of wardrobe space, but the lack of any reasonable desk or even a decent coffee table was bemusing. As a “suite” we also had a bathtub, rather the usual, tiny, shower.
We had two more serious issues with the accomodation, one, we imagine, specific to this cabin and another more general…
For some reason, the strong smell cigarette smoke kept wafting into the room and it proved impossible to work out what the source was.
Secondly, before deciding to sail on Royal Caribbean, you should know that, more than any other line we’ve experienced, they are engaged in a war on sleep. Announcements, often to summon individual passengers to Guest Services, ring out at all hours of the day and night and are clearly audible in the staterooms.
For what it’s worth, we cannot imagine how noisy the “inside” cabins overlooking the Boardwalk are.
As one of the largest ships afloat, Navigator of The Seas offers almost any facility and amusement you could conceive of. From ice rinks to casinos, theatres and cinemas. We’re going to rely on photos more than words in this article, but there were a few attractions we didn’t want to photograph for fear of intruding on the privacy of other guests, notably the Wave Runner surfing simulator, which was heaving with excited families, even in a freezing fog.
Additionally, it’s worth nothing two points: