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:
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.
Now that we’ve got a fair few sailings under our belt, we thought it was time to start casting some (more) judgement. First off - Battle of The Brits.
Having cruised with P&O, CMV and Fred Olsen, we’ve pretty much sailed on all the popular lines aimed at the British Market. We haven’t sampled Marella (formerly Thomson Cruises) yet, maybe someday. Maybe not.
We’re not including Cunard in this, given that the onboard currency is the US dollar, or any of the boutique lines sailing the in the Highlands and Islands.
So, of the three, which would we suggest? I think it’s clear that, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t choose any of them for our holiday, but, on balance, P&O wins.
Firstly, if travelling with children, do not even consider CMV or Fred Olsen. It’s not an option on many of their sailings, but they do offer “multi-generational” voyages during the school holidays; your children will be bored to tears and will make wretched every dull day. Most of P&O’s ships (some are adult only) do cater well to kids, particularly the latest ones.
Many people seem to favour CMV and Fred Olsen because of the smaller ships - professing fear at the prospect of a boat “crowded” with thousands of people. In practice, we found public space at far more of a premium on those smaller ships that we did with P&O. Of course, this may be because people are happier to remain in their cabins on the newer P&O ships, which offer a large number of balconies - something reserved for only the highest cabin grades on the older vessels of Fred Olsen and CMV.
One of our reasons for choosing P&O may be slightly contentious, but we value the wider range of opportunities to pay extra for food. We know that the all-inclusive aspect of cruising is important to many and the main dining room food on P&O is, possibly, the worst of the three. However, the extra-cost restaurants on P&O were good, particularly the Indian. And, while it may be a bit better than P&O, I wouldn’t want to eat Fred Olsen’s included food every day for a week.
What might make you choose CMV or Fred Olsen? If you really want to sai from a regional port, rather than Southampton, P&O isn’t going to help you. On a tight budget, CMV is probably an good value way to get away for a short break. Conversely, Fred Olsen seems to be the most expensive of the three and I have no idea how they justify that.
The overall verdict on Fred Olsen? Tolerable, but not for us.
The problem is that nothing was outstandingly good. In terms of soft product, the service was friendly, but slow, the food was mediocre and the selection of drinks and wines was poor. Being an older ship, the hard product is also not competitive - there are few rooms with balconies and none of the additional or expanded features (such as a large spa) that you’d find on a modern vessel.
We also found this ship far more crowded than much larger ones we’ve sailed on - finding a quiet place to sit was a challenge.
Furthermore, this was not a cheap option, like CMV, Fred Olsen’s average daily rates are at the higher end of the mass market, which makes their penny-pinching refusal to accept American Express all the more exasperating.
We won’t be rushing back.
Given that this was a short cruise, we carried our own luggage off, the entire process taking only a few minutes.
There’s plenty of pickup space at the Port of Tyne, so arranging and then finding an Uber wasn’t a problem and the city centre and train station is only a short drive away.