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Royal Carribean's Rhapsody of the Seas:


As with the other ships in RCI's Project Vision, one enters Rhapsody of the Seas through the Centrum, a soaring, seven-deck atrium, stunningly decorated, with floors of stately white marble softened by plentiful organic elements: living plants, soft leathers, muted wood tones, kinetic water sculptures. But the literally breathtaking centerpiece is "Diadem," a huge hanging six-story construction of wood, metal, enamel and composites, in which an orb of blue and green cloisonne is embraced by seven sixty-three-foot swirling "reeds," seemingly like a planet carried by a ship, sets Rhapsody's artistic theme, for which I have coined the term "Astro-Nautical," a blend of images from the heavens and the seas, which is carried forward through every aspect of the ship's design. Ceilings and carpets often utilize stars and planets in their designs, while rich woven wall hangings picture undersea life. More than a million dollars was spent on Rhapsody's art collection, an unusually high figure for a ship with fares in the low midrange. The other main attribute of Royal Caribbean ships is present as well, an energetic, friendly, accessible cruise staff, whose infectious ebullience creates the casual fun counterpoint to the artistic refinement of the physical ship. The ship itself exudes class; the cruise director and staff make sure that that touch does not come with white gloved stuffiness. Passenger flow is excellent, but we did experience bottlenecks. Particularly slow and frustrating was disembarking at Grand Cayman, which is a tender port. In addition, big "events," like the famed midnight chocolate buffet, drew so many people, and such a long line, that we gave up and went to bed. Layout-wise, the galley is tucked behind the two-deck Edelweiss Dining Room, depriving diners of a view astern, but avoiding the inconvenience of having to climb or descend a deck to skirt the galley.


Service and cuisine exceeded my expectations. Having said that let me add a caveat: Royal Caribbean is not a "foodie" line like its sister cruise line Celebrity. When you order a burger or duck you are rarely offered an option in how it's prepared (i.e. medium rare, medium well, whatever). Still, I found the food to be hearty, good, plentiful if not innovative. Service at dinner was unobtrusive and thoughtful. RCI makes up a "Ship Shape" selection list each night from the regular menu, but fails to include nutritional information. There are vegetarian options on every lunch and dinner menu. Breakfast and lunch buffets are served in the Windjammer Cafe, and lacked variety. The Windjammer also serves as an alternate, casual dinner venue, for which no reservations are necessary. Twenty-four hour room service from a limited menu and selections from the dining room menu during mealtimes are available through room service. Offerings are just fair but service is generally prompt. There's a hot dog and hamburger grill in the Solarium. Royal Caribbean has introduced a somewhat complex drinks-package on board. Adults and children can buy an unlimited soda card for $33 and $21 respectively (plus 15 percent tip). Adults can buy, for $29.95, twelve 16 oz. non alcoholic drinks (works out to about $2.50 apiece) or $44.85 for 12 alcoholic drinks (about $3.75 per). You buy the cards (or, in the case of soda, stickers) at any ship's bar.


The most recognizable public room on Rhapsody of the Seas is the signature Viking Crown Lounge, which, as on Enchantment and Grandeur, sits atop the Centrum rather than astride the stack, and is reachable directly from the Centrums twin glass elevators. Recognizable, yes, but it feels far from the action (except, perhaps, for the late night crowd) and on my visits there I found it sparsely attended -- though a great place to watch the ship come in to port. At the foot of the Centrum, on Deck 4, is the surprisingly warm and inviting Champagne Bar. I am not usually fond of atrium bars, finding them too open and overly trafficked. Here, though, the largeness of the lounge is carved up by the insertion of curving partitions, the separation accentuated by ample placement of plants. Our other favorite lounge was the clubby, yet whimsical Schooner Bar - the best tables are those that look out on floor-to-ceiling glass windows onto the promenade one deck below. Here, the floor is actual teak decking, varnished and polished to a rich, glossy mahogany sheen. Several tables feature ersatz bits of masts and rigging sprouting from them like transformed umbrellas, the ceiling is decorated to simulate the surface of the sea as seen from below, and the keels of simulated boats descend from that ceiling. Shall We Dance, located at the stern, is the ship's secondary performance venue but is strangely off-the-beaten-track as you must walk through the Schooner Bar to get to it. Evenings, the library is open for cigars and cognac and, as it has its own balcony, is a charming spot for a post-dinner drink (and didn't stink too much of the smoke). Another favorite public space is RCI's new "Royal Caribbean Online" Internet lounge, which offers real-time access to the Web 24/7 for fifty cents a minute. It's easy to email; computers are outfitted with software from the best known ISPs, from AOL to Hotmail to Yahoo, among others. The room is beautifully designed with three "stations" of four terminals apiece and bordered by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean and the top-most part of the Centrum (which means you can hear the pianist playing below). There are no self-serve laundry rooms on Rhapsody.


Though the bottom-end cabins, at about 150 square feet, are hardly palatial, they are comfortable and practical, and even the smallest cabins feature a small sitting area. Storage space is generous. Cabins feature televisions, phones, safes and toiletries. Rhapsody has just added hair dryers to every cabin though robes are only available to those who have booked category A suites. Nearly 40% of the outside cabins have balconies. Only two cabins on the ship (8086 and 8586) have obstructed views. The jogging area has a public room deck between it and the highest passenger accommodation deck, so noise is not a problem. Cabin service was exceptional, unobtrusive and thorough. My cabin stewardess (and others, too) created imaginative towel-people and creatures, a whimsical touch that was obviously appreciated by passengers who propped these "soft sculptures" in their window.


Done in rich jade-green marble with furniture upholstered in matching leather and peach and turquoise brocade, Rhapsody's Broadway Melodies Show Lounge is one of the most functional and intelligently designed we've experienced. Sightlines from either the main floor or balcony are excellent. Seating is on fixed banquettes, which guarantees adequate space to enter and exit rows, and space is maximized by eliminating tables in favor of drink holders on armrests. On a one-week cruise expect one show featuring a name entertainer -- ours was a guy from "Star Search" whose name I can't remember (and had never heard of)- with two production shows, three evenings of variety acts, and a farewell show. The casino has slots, dice and all the requisite card tables. We found the casino staff unusually friendly and helpful. I've never had so much fun losing money. The casino's decor continues the overall ship's them in a charming and whimsical bent, adding the concept of luck to the astronomical elements, resulting in accents that are astrological and supernatural. The intra-ship television channel features numerous channels of professionally produced promotional videos and a rather scrawny selection of movies (that never seemed to play on schedule) but, in spite of in-cabin materials promoting its interactive uses the interactive part doesn't exist.


The main open central outdoor area has a large, heated pool surrounded by four hot tubs. Toward the stern is the Egyptian-themed Solarium with the secondary pool and another two hot tubs. This area is covered by a retractable glass dome (strangely, on our western Caribbean cruise it was never opened). There is an additional small sunning area in the bow. Rhapsody has a perfectly adequate gym for a ship this size, with eight treadmills and exercise bikes, step machines, etc. A second room offers aerobics and free weights. Steiner's of London has the usual spa installation aboard. Besides fitness pursuits, the cruise staff conducts a large number of games, competitions and other activities both on sea days and in port. As on other RCI ships, this cruise staff seemed to truly enjoy the activities they supervised and participated in.


Rhapsody has an extensive children's program called "Adventure Ocean," for kids from three (or when toilet trained) through seventeen. The children are broken up into four age groups: Aquanauts (3-5), Explorers (6-8), Voyagers (9-12), and Navigators (13-17). Group baby sitting is available from the youth staff from 10 p.m through 1 a.m. nightly, and, on port days, from noon till departure. The rate is $4 per hour per child (who must be at least three years old and potty-trained). In-cabin sitting is available through the purser's desk and must be booked at least 24 hours in advance, based on availability. Minimum age is one year; the charge is $8 per hour, in cash, for up to two children within the same family, $10 per hour for a maximum of three children in the same family. RCI will not accept pregnant guests in their third trimester. Rhapsody offers one of the most varied children's menus in the industry, with kids offered a choice of thirteen different main courses.


During the winter western Caribbean season Rhapsody alternates home ports, offering roundtrips from Tampa, Galveston and New Orleans. As a result the ship dynamics tend to feature a majority travelers from the region where the ship is based. For instance, on my cruise out of Galveston, roughly 80 percent hailed from Texas. Royal Caribbean typically appeals to couples and singles in their 30's to 50's as well as families of all ages. The median age is in the low 40's on seven-night cruises and in the 30's on three-and four-night cruises, passengers 50-55 and over tend to dominate ten day and longer cruises. Royal Caribbean attracts passengers that are looking for an affordable, active vacation.


Expect two formal nights each cruise. Most men opt for dark suit instead of tuxedo, and women choose cocktail dresses rather than lavish gowns. The remaining nights are casual, with sport shirts and slacks recommended for men, and sundresses and khakis for women.


$3.00 per person, per day for room steward and waiter; $1.75 per person, per day for the assistant waiter. A gratuity for the head waiter and maitre d' is left to the guests' discretion. Guests can buy tip vouchers with their on board charge card, then give the vouchers to the appropriate personnel.

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