Waiting in line for our first time on the cruise ship’s bumper-car ride, I paused to look at a photo in my phone. The man behind me poked me in the ribs, saying, “You got to keep the queue moving.”
Cruisers sometimes get testy on a big ship, and Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas — full capacity: 4,905 passengers — is among the biggest. There was a fabulous range of things to do on our August voyage from Britain to Spain and the Mediterranean, and a daunting number of shipmates wanting to do them. Even before we set sail, we worried: Would we have to fight crowds not just for rides and entertainment, but also for deck chairs, bar seats and other cruise staples?
In other words, would this mega-ship be too mega?
Dizzy at sea
The challenges began soon after we signed up for the 14-night cruise. The first task was to reserve dinner times and seats for the three featured stage shows ahead of boarding. How hard could that be? After all, we were picking meal and theater seats some 11 weeks in advance
Oh, the naiveté.
It’s not just that Anthem is big. It’s that the ship, like its sister Quantum of the Seas, has scuttled the main dining room, replacing it with 18 varied eating sites. Those thousands of passengers were all circling for dinner reservations, making sure their meals wouldn’t overlap with their stage shows, spa appointments, onboard surfing lessons or simulated skydiving.
So we had to schedule some choices via the Royal Caribbean Web site. We eschewed the “dynamic dining classic” plan, in which guests pick early (5:45 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) seatings and rotate, along with their tablemates and waiters, through four restaurants: American Icon Grill, Chic, Grande and Silk. This plan is “complimentary,” meaning the meals are included in the cost of our passage.
Instead, lured by the promise of eating where and when we wish, we chose “dynamic dining choice.” (So did most of our shipmates.) However, like world peace, dynamic dining choice turned out to be a noble but not easily achievable concept.
Eighteen eating venues, 14 days. If on Tuesday we aren’t departing Gibraltar until late in the evening, would I be able to make early evening plans onshore and still dine before 8:30 p.m.? On Thursday, a sea day, if we want to see the “We Will Rock You” show, where do we have to eat and by what time must we be done? It felt like those high school math questions about the proverbial two trains traveling from different cities at different speeds. I had a headache. I created a spreadsheet using Royal Caribbean’s online scheduling tool.
Once we eliminated the pizzeria, patisserie, coffee shop, hot dog stand, sandwich-to-go place and the big buffet at Windjammer (the Coastal Kitchen is reserved for suite guests, who also get priority restaurant booking), our dinner options boiled down to the four “complimentary” dinner venues plus seven “specialty” restaurants that would cost extra.
How much extra? The site was far from clear. Instead of listing per-person or per-item charges, the site designates cost with a range of dollar signs. Wonderland, the ship’s foray into molecular cuisine, was “$$$.” With no idea how much cash this translated to and having sampled other such kitchens, we passed.
Compounding our food frustration was the so-so quality of the meals that were included in our fare. The only reliably good dinners on Anthem required extra cash, a situation common to other non-luxury cruise lines. The pasta and lamb chops were tasty at Jamie’s. The steaks, delicious at Chops.
Windjammer, the complimentary buffet, served ample and reasonably good fare. When my husband decried the lack of iced tea and tuna fish at lunch, the solicitous staff prepared both for him. But I wanted a sit-down dinner, one where I wouldn’t have to race a little old lady to a four-top.
The decor of the restaurants varied — red accents in Silk, the Indian-Asian restaurant; stalactite-like glass chandeliers in contemporary Chic. That’s nice, but it would be nicer if the food also differed substantially. Even though the venues switch menus every four days, the new bills of fare replace just a few appetizers and entrees, many of which we had already encountered.
That duck that was served succulently à l’orange in Grande reappeared the next day in Silk, dried out and shellacked in hoisin sauce. Silk’s chicken tikka masala tasted much like the version served at lunch in Windjammer. As we heard one cruiser sum it up: “It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s all the same.”
As on all ships and, especially on mega-ships, there were seat-savers. The pool attendants told me that some passengers come out at 5:30 a.m. on sea days to place towels on deck chairs, and all outdoor and indoor solarium seats would be claimed by 7:30. I took their word for it because I slept in. I used the lounge chairs on my quiet cabin balcony.
Because we had pre-booked “Spectra’s Cabaret,” we arrived only 15 minutes prior to showtime. Not a good idea. Doors had opened 45 minutes before and by then a line trailed down the hallway. We ended up balancing on bar stools in the last row.
Another mega-ship malaise is tendering — that is, taking a motorboat ashore when the ship is moored away from a dock. Fortunately, it happened just once on our itinerary, at Villefranche. Even though we had purposely waited to get in line until after the morning rush, we had to wait 45 minutes to board a tender. And with no staff monitoring the port’s taxi stop, some of our fellow passengers pushed and cursed as they cut the line to get a cab.
So that’s the bad news.
The good news: Size has its pluses, and Anthem does many things well. It takes a grande dame to accommodate activities that require space and special equipment. After all, we’re not just talking about scheduling another trivia session in the piano bar.
SeaPlex, a two-level indoor multipurpose center, offered bumper cars, roller skating, soccer, basketball and trapeze. In surrounding nooks, passengers could battle it out on Xbox, foosball and other games. Outdoors, passengers could rock-climb, surf at the FlowRider, get a panoramic ocean view from the North Star observation pod, and fly in the Ripcord by iFly skydiving simulator — a 23-foot glass tower that was a sort of vertical wind tunnel, where you rode 100 mph upward air currents. It was a cruise favorite, and its staff literally climbed the walls.
Royal Caribbean also offers quality children’s programs. Kids and teens enjoyed designated sessions at SeaPlex and at the other activities. It’s an Instagram and Facebook moment when your grade-schooler (or spouse) glides on a trapeze or scampers to the top of the rock wall.
Adults got to play, too. Chasing my husband in bumper cars brought back the nostalgia of beach boardwalks when my sister and I smashed each other in much-less-padded vehicles. Although we waited an hour for that first bumper session, subsequent rides required only a reasonable 15-minute wait.
When I canceled a skydiving slot, the Ripcord by iFly staff told me I could easily rebook, even though the skydiving simulator was popular.
Anthem doesn’t skimp on entertainment. Headliners belted out songs; a violin virtuoso delivered vigorous Mozart and pop tunes; a comedian elicited guffaws; the ship’s staff chorus line sang and danced to rock music; and the hypnotist got laughs by turning guests into goofy minions. (My travel companions thought the hypnotists’ volunteers were plants, but I thought they were real passengers.)
Two70, an airy showroom with dazzling technology, presented the “Virtual Symphony”: Sixteen cameras projected a lifelike video onto a two-story, extra-wide screen while scenes of musicians popped on and off additional video panels. The images and the clear sound produced a realistic experience. One Virtual Symphony showcased accessible classical music, such as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” performed by the American Symphonic Orchestra. The other delivered Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns’ exuberant rendition of jazz, pop tunes and their own songs.
“We Will Rock You,” the music of Queen grafted to a plot, was entertaining. Less so were “Spectra’s Cabaret,” a deconstructed, Cirque du Soleil-type spectacle that lacked cohesion, and the “The Gift,” a treacly homily with rousing technical effects.
Royal Caribbean also used technology to ease the crunch of the mega-ship’s passengers. There were no long lines to register at the beginning of our cruise; staff members with tablets met us in the check-in area and 15 minutes later we stepped aboard. By downloading the Royal IQ app, using the tablets at guest services or the interactive television in our cabin, we kept track of our schedule, purchased shore tours and booked restaurants.
And there was no need to scroll through the hundreds of photos taken by the ship’s staff to find our smiling group. After I entered my cabin and the photo’s place or date, the photo department’s computer pulled up the images using facial recognition.
So, is the mega-ship too mega? It depends on what you want.
Those accustomed to fine dining without extra fees and little hassle when booking meals and activities should not board.
But if you like a variety of entertainment and can put up with the frustrating pre-planning and so-so food, or can shell out for better fare; and if you want to sample surfing, rock climbing, skydiving and ramming each other in bumper cars — especially good choices with children, teens and 20-somethings along — then run up the gangway.
IF YOU GO
Royal Caribbean International’s Anthem of the Seas
The Anthem of the Seas offers trips from Southampton, England, in September and October, including eight-night transatlantic cruises to New Jersey, three-night Paris/Bruges cruises and 13-night Canary Islands cruises.
From Nov. 10 through April 2017, the Anthem of the Seas will be based in Port Bayonne, N.J., sailing five- to 12-night cruises to Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Canada/New England as well as some three-night getaways with no ports.
Cost varies with cruise length, cabin size and location. For a typical 10-night cruise to the Caribbean in winter, the cost ranges from about $974 per person, or $97.40 per day, to $2,900, or $290 per day.
Stapen is a former USA Today travel editor, contributes to many publications. Follow her on Twitter @familyitrips. Her Web site is www.gfvac.com.