We’re going to split the Royal Caribbean embarkation process into shore side and on-board, because there was a dramatic difference in the experience each end of the gangway.
In the terminal at Southampton, check-in was running like a well-oiled machine - from taxi to ship, through check-in and security, took a matter of minutes. We were aboard by 1130 and advised that the cabins would be ready by one.
On the ship, the situation was less impressive - mainly because some cruise lines sailing in Northern Europe seem unable to react to bad weather. The large indoor bars, such as the Cosmopolitan Club, were not opening until one, when people would, presumably, be heading to their, freshly available, cabins. Outdoors, at the poolside venues, barmen valiantly kept vigil over empty decks as every sensible person took shelter from a nasty storm. The buffet was open and, predictably, was mayhem.
As an aside, on this trip we experimented with coach travel, on National Express, rather than train or car to reach Southampton. That won’t be happening again. Ten minutes after boarding we realised that we were sitting in a damp seat - we shudder to dwell on what the liquid might be, but tell ourselves it was spilt mineral water. Fifteen minutes after boarding, the coach pulled off to a service station for a thirty minute comfort break.
Coming on the heels of planning cruises with CMV and Fred Olsen, Royal Caribbean’s website was a dream.
Planning spa treatments, specialty restaurant bookings making payments worked smoothly - as well it should in 2018. Check-in was also seamless, with credit card details taken online, and the baggage tags printing flawlessly on European (A4) paper - a feat some other large lines fail to manage.
At just shy of 140,000 gross tonnes, with a capacity of almost 4000 passengers, Navigator of the Seas was the world’s largest cruise ship from her launch in 2002 up to 2005, but is, incredibly, now a mid-sized member of Royal Caribbean's fleet.
The ship does, however, have many of the amenities found on its newer, larger, sisters, including multiple bars, restaurants, and endless distractions for children.
Aboard, two things about the ship are striking. First, it’s width. This isn’t so obvious inside the huge broadwalk area, but when you’re on a high deck, looking down on spaces that have two swimming pools, side by side, you realise that this ship is massive. Secondly, the space available, despite the 4000 other passengers, is remarkable - it was never difficult to find a quiet space in a bar or lounge.
The ship also contains a surprising amount of art, including some Dale Chihuly glass sculptures.
What we’re trying to say is that you shouldn’t be put off by the large size or mass-market position of this ship - it’s actually quite pleasant.
Royal Caribbean has, perhaps more than any other company, defined what we now expect in modern mass-market cruising. Back in the early 1970s, when Carnival and Norwegian were sailing a motley collection of aged ocean liners and warmed over ferries, Royal Caribbean order three purpose-built ships, launched in consecutive years, from 1970. Song of Norway, along with her sister ships, Nordic Prince and Sun Viking, introduced features that have no become trademarks of the Royal Caribbean experience, notably the Viking Crown lounge, wrapped around the funnel.
Since then, Royal Caribbean has continued to introduce new ship classes which represent a step-change from what came before them, from the first modern megaship, 1988’s Sovereign of The Seas, through to the 6500 passenger leviathans of the Oasis class, four of which have been launched since 2009.
Royal Caribbean ships are filled with features to keep the whole family entertained, from rock climbing walls to surfing simulators. The large size of most of the ships in the fleet mean that there are plenty of options of eating and drinking, many of which are arranged around an internal “broadwalk” that has become a hallmark of the line. These vast internal spaces, lined with the windows of interior staterooms with a “view” highlight just how large these ships are and lead to charges that the whole experience has become too removed from the sea and the ports - everything on the ship faces inwards. If you’re holiday choices are dominated by the need to entertain children and teenagers, you may not think this a terrible idea.
After a few months of inactivity (actually, crouched in a darkened room, rocking from side to side, trying to forget the horrors of Fred Olsen's Balmoral), we're off again.
This time, it's Royal Caribbean's huge Navigator of The Seas. Now, we are led to believe that Royal Caribbean has some sort of fancy internet service that's actually usable, so we should be posting live to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook - follow along!