January 14, 2015.
By Dave Beers, Editor Of CruiseReviews.com
I just returned from an 8-night cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s sparkling new Quantum Of The Seas, which the cruise line calls the world’s first “smart ship”. I had been aboard for a complimentary 2-night travel agent/travel media sailing when the ship arrived at Bayonne in November, but earlier in 2014 I booked the 8-night cruise in anticipation of better experiencing the ship since two nights aboard any ship simply doesn’t provide enough time to assess it.
My January 3-11 cruise had but two ports-of-call with most of the cruise spent at sea on the long transit from Bayonne to San Juan, to nearby Labadee on the north coast of Haiti, and then back to New Jersey. Generally it was a good cruise and I personally like the Royal Caribbean brand (full disclosure – I am a Diamond Plus member of the Crown & Anchor Society), but there are some challenges still to be ironed out on Quantum as the ship moves forward in its operational life. Here are my thoughts about various things I experienced on the cruise.
Embarkation At Cape Liberty Cruise Port
Part of the “smart ship” mantra is the “smart check-in” process used for Quantum. This allows guests to do most of what is normally done at the pier – including entering credit card information for the onboard account and providing a photo image for security – at home when completing the online check-in process. The idea being that when you arrive at Cape Liberty the agents in the terminal would just scan your SetSail barcode with their tablet computer, verify the information is in the system, and you are on your way to the ship almost instantly. That’s how it is supposed to work.
I was traveling with another cruise journalist – Paul Motter, the editor of Cruisemates – and when we arrived at the terminal it was fairly chaotic. We gave our luggage to the porters and they put RFID tags on the bags and gave us a tag stub for each one. This is so guests can track their luggage from pier to cabin door using the “Royal iQ” smartphone app. We then waded through the crowd outside the terminal and entered.
Passengers gathered around the roving agents who are stationed immediately inside the terminal door. A worker directed us to go through security after she issued a boarding number tag to us, but said no more. Once past security we wandered around for a few moments before noticing check-in desks along the far wall and got in a line, so we were pretty much checking in the ‘old way’ and not the ‘smart way’, at least entirely. By the way, our SetSail passes had boarding group assignments on them so I never understood the reason for another one to be issued to us at the door. We also had an appointment time to check-in listed on the SetSail passes, which appeared to be entirely meaningless.
We finally got checked in after the security photos were redone (the agent didn’t like the ones we had each uploaded), and then the security photos were checked yet again when we ‘boarded’ the ship while still in the terminal, this done by scanning our SetSail passes at the security checkpoint at the base of the escalator to the ship.
We did manage to go from luggage drop-off to walking aboard the ship in about 25 minutes, but it was not as “smart” as it was when I checked in for my two-night cruise. I’m still not sure what is wrong with the “old” method of checking in. It works, is familiar to people, and is more organized. My advice is to arrive after 1pm if you can. You’ll be glad you did.
Aboard the Quantum
When you board Quantum Of The Seas you enter by the Royal Esplanade. This is an open area with shops, bars, and snack venues located on either side. There were crew standing around but not saying anything unless asked, and nobody said anything about when cabins would be available, but since we knew our way around the ship we immediately went to the cabin anyway, just to see if it was prepared and ready, and indeed it was. With Quantum, your Seapasses (cruise card) are not issued in the terminal but instead the card for the lead name on the booking is in a sealed envelope at the cabin door. You use this card to enter the cabin and the other cruise cards, and nifty RFID wristbands for everyone, are in the cabin in a special cradle on the beds.
We had a category D8 balcony cabin near the bow – cabin 6128. It was comfortable and had the most storage area I’ve ever had in a standard balcony cabin. The balcony was also larger than is typical on recent new ships from other cruise lines. A 50” flat screen TV faces the beds and is also hinged so it can swing towards the sofa for viewing. The bathroom is the usual size (small) and has very little shelf space for placing personal items. However, in the big picture the balcony cabins on Quantum are excellent and since they are the most plentiful category of cabin, you’ll likely find yourself in one should you cruise on this class of ship.
The consensus among the cruise media and experienced cruisers is that Quantum has a lot in common with the Solstice class ships of Celebrity Cruises. Royal Caribbean’s executives eschew this comparison, but with my apologies to them I also get the strong sense of being aboard Celebrity Solstice when roaming the interior of the Quantum Of The Seas. The décor, colors, elegant feel, it’s unlike any other Royal Caribbean ship.
There are a lot of spacious high-end stores on Quantum, selling watches, cosmetics, handbags, and jewelry from such famous brands as Cartier, Kiehl’s Cosmetics, Tag Heuer, Michael Kor’s, Hublot, and Bvlgari. By comparison, the logo shop shares space with the liquor store and is cramped, with limited choices. However there was a seemingly never-ending sales bazaar going on in the middle of the Esplanade, with periodic buying frenzies with guests standing three deep vying for position at the “Everything Is $10” sale and other similar events. It blocked off easy passage through the area, so if you see this happening head to deck 5 if you are heading forward or aft.
North Star, iFly, SeaPlex, Two70. Those who’ve been aboard Quantum or have just read about it know those names. They are the venues that provide the famous Royal Caribbean “WOW” factor.
We went up in North Star as the ship approached Labadee. It was a fun experience and of course everyone was taking ‘selfies’ once the pod achieved maximum height and we were towering over the water by 300 feet, but when the approximately 10 minute long ride was over I felt no compulsion to do it again. I suspect this is true for most passengers, which is good because North Star was first come, first served, and the line stretched for up to a 90 minute wait (they had signs at various points along the line telling how long the wait would be from that point). Do it once, take your selfies and video, and move on to the other neat things to do on Quantum.
SeaPlex is the place for bumper cars, roller-skating, or just playing basketball and other games. Bumper cars are by far the most popular thing, and so rides are limited to just 3 to 5 minutes before they stop you so others can participate. You can do it over and over though, as long as you wait your turn.
I didn’t try iFly but the ‘free’ ride is only one minute long after you are briefed on the process and weighed (look here for the weight and age limit). People who did partake looked to be thrilled by it.
Two70 was my favorite place on the ship. The multi-use space was a daily morning hangout for me, watching the sea go by. It seemed underutilized though, especially at night. They presented the Starwater show a few times over the course of the cruise, and there was an excellent cooking demonstration on one morning, and people would watch and applaud as the acrobats practiced every day, but not much else was going on other than living room conversations between guests and families seated on the chairs and sofas.
For a never fully explained reason, Royal Caribbean gave everyone on our cruise free internet, which is a major thing on Quantum because the ship touts the broadband O3b internet service. For most of the 8 days we had 24-hour access to true high speed internet at sea. I say most, because there were some periodic down times or sudden disconnects while the person next to you still had a good signal. However I did a couple speed tests and normally had a download speed comparable to a land-based DSL line, uploads were slower but I was still able to post numerous videos to my Facebook page mere moments after recording them. That was a lot of fun. Of course, along with free internet comes the lure of using it often, and thus on this cruise you couldn’t walk three feet without seeing someone with a smartphone stuck in front of their face.
There seemed to be a lot of down time on this cruise, where nothing was going on that interested me or many of the other guests. It was more pronounced at night but also evident during the day. So it was that people were often just sitting around surfing the internet, looking at Facebook, reading e-mails, and not much else. Earlier in the cruise Paul and I interviewed the ship’s IT Manager and he claimed the free internet was just to ‘test the system’ along with a couple of other vague reasons. Towards the end of the cruise I started to wonder if it was done just to give people something to do.
Mamma Mia is the Broadway show and it lived up to it in every way. Excellent full-scale production of 2.5 hours with a 15 minute intermission. Starwater is sort of surreal and while I liked it, some didn’t seem to ‘get it’. Please do see Starwater though, because I think it is wonderful.
We had one tribute band aboard – “Wanted” – which did a Bon Jovi tribute to a very high standard. They left the cruise in San Juan and the remaining nights of the cruise were fairly quiet in the Music Hall, although the band Horizon did play again after a two day hiatus for live music. This carries along with the comments about the ship not having a lot going on in the evening.
There were no solo guitarists playing in the pub or other musical acts aboard other than the reggae band that played the pool deck and I think one time in the evening, and the high energy latin music group that played nightly in Bolero’s. But if you didn’t like latin music, you were pretty much left listening to the background songs playing on the ship’s music system.
Of course the big deal on Quantum Of The Seas, first announced with great fanfare last March, is Dynamic Dining. This has become a lightning rod for many Royal Caribbean loyalists who decry the lack of a traditional main dining room on Quantum and are horrified that the company plans to roll the concept out to other ships in the fleet.
I became an early champion of Dynamic Dining because I like to see new things happen in the cruise industry, which I think in many ways is still clinging to the vestiges of the classic days of ocean voyages. On my media tour of the ship in November I got the 50 cent tour of all the Dynamic Dining venues, their kitchens (galleys), accompanied by the glowing commentary of Royal Caribbean’s Vice President of Food & Beverage. However I didn’t get to experience the full Dynamic Dining process on that cruise since we were assigned to specific dining venues for both nights. Well, I am now a Dynamic Dining veteran and while it worked okay most of the time for us, there were nights when I wished we were going to the old-fashioned main dining room.
Early in the cruise there were lines every night at the four complimentary restaurants – Silk, Grande, American Icon, and Chic. There were several reasons for this: guests with no reservations just doing a walk-up for a table, guests already seated were finished and lingering at their tables, and a shortage of staff meant tables were not being served quick enough and used tables not being bussed in a timely manner.
We interviewed the Food & Beverage Manager for Quantum and when I asked if Dynamic Dining had “had a lot of challenges to overcome” he quickly agreed that it had not been as easy as they’d thought it would be to implement. He told us they had undershot the number of tables needed for peak dining times, and the number of crew needed to turn over the dining room quickly enough. To that end he said the ship was going to have a “significant” increase in service staff “quickly” and when pressed he finally said that staffing would be boosted by around 30%, which indeed is drastic. I also want to note that Royal Caribbean has delayed starting Dynamic Dining on the Oasis and Allure Of The Seas, clearly because of the issues they’ve encountered on Quantum.
We were also told that Devinly Decadence would be changed to a complimentary dining venue, which has already happened. This will add more tables to the dinnertime inventory and hopefully alleviate the lines and other issues. The jury is obviously still out on whether this will work.
Food quality varied, sometimes greatly. We had an amazing dinner in the formal Grande restaurant, with delicious food and outstanding service. Silk was good but nothing extraordinary and the food was quite bland for Asian cuisine. American Icon and Chic were disappointing, with Chic coming up dead last by serving me an entrée of beef tenderloin that looked like a cut of prime rib but was devoid of taste and had the texture of a slab of bologna. The menu in American Icon was not very exciting and the Food & Beverage Manager told us they had been tweaking it based on feedback. I think it needs more tweaking. Service in American Icon was quick and the waiter was very pleasant. Our Chic waiter was neither.
For extra-fee dining we ate at Jamie’s Italian, Wonderland, Devinly Decadence (it was still a $25 surcharge on this cruise), and Chops. Jamie’s was outrageously good. One of the best meals I’ve ever had on a ship, or really, anywhere. Wonderland was also excellent, and just really cool in the presentation of the various courses. Chops is, well, Chops – an upscale steakhouse at sea with a sterling reputation for excellent food and service. They serve a great steak and side items, and a killer huckleberry cheesecake for dessert. Service in Chops was indeed high end. Devinly Decadance was excellent at dinner, not so great at lunch. I had chicken enchiladas for dinner there that were wonderful, but when Paul tried to order them for lunch they were out of them, and the burger they recommended took forever to prepare and was then pretty mundane. Our dinner server in Devinly was charming and knew the menu inside and out.
The Windjammer buffet is very nicely laid out with lots of seating and of course a wide variety of foods. I think the food quality was similar to the Windjammer offerings on the other ships. When you enter the Windjammer you should walk all the way around it first, front to back. That’s because there is more to it in the back that many people never see, such as empty tables, more serving lines, and a pleasant outdoor seating area. The big deal though, is the freshly baked cookies they constantly put out. They are REALLY good, still warm from the oven. Windjammer has a full service coffee bar and also bar service.
Sorrento’s pizza is on deck 4 and all they serve is pizza. However you can custom order one from the ingredients they have displayed. I felt it was very good pizza.
Cafe Two70 has the famous roast beef sandwiches served on kimmelweck rolls. These are devine and people order hundreds of them daily. Great salads and breakfast items are also served.
Cafe Promenade is small on the Quantum, but has basic coffee and little pastries and finger sandwiches. The Patisserie across from it is the large coffee lounge, with high end coffees, teas, candies and pastries – with prices on them.
A lack of staff also impacts the bars and lounges on Quantum. The only venue that was properly staffed was Michael’s Genuine Pub, where service was always quick and excellent. The other bars were pretty much just covered by the bartenders with bar waiters far and few between. I think I saw one waiter working the pool bar a few times, never more than that. Same for the landmark Schooner Bar, which was often exasperating in a quest to be served.
Those working the bars tried very hard to keep up, but generally if you wanted a drink you had to go to the bar and get it, or else sit at the bar. Thus the bartenders were often overwhelmed. Given that Quantum is headed for China in a few months, and the Chinese do not spend a lot of time in bars, to me it seems Royal Caribbean has already decided to staff the bars and lounges for the Chinese crowd and that staffing plan is currently in effect aboard Quantum, much to the detriment of the guests sailing from Bayonne.
Despite the above, the cocktails were always excellent, service was with a smile, and I was happy in the end.
I don’t understand why, and perhaps the logistics are more problematic than I realize, but there were a lot of things unavailable on the Quantum Of The Seas. American Icon features an “American Classic” sazarac cocktail on the menu, but they were out of the special ‘buttered popcorn infused syrup’ needed to make the drink. Jamie’s Italian has a Moretti Italian beer as one of two featured beers on their menu, but it was out of stock. The ship had no souvenir Coke cups to use with the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines until mid-way of the cruise when they received them in San Juan, so the machines were out of service for 4 days. There were at least six other examples we noted. Why? The ship sails from Bayonne, New Jersey, with New York City right there. Anything in the world can be sourced in New York. It was baffling.
In the end I liked Quantum Of The Seas but I didn’t love it. It didn’t leave me wishing my cruise wasn’t over, which is the feeling I get when aboard the other ships of Royal Caribbean. It’s strange to feel that way, but I was not disappointed to leave the ship on the last morning of the cruise. Quantum is marketed at the millennial generation, not me and the other baby boomers. I guess they hit the mark. But hey, when they get the O3b internet on the other ships in the fleet I’m going to be a very happy Crown & Anchor member!
There were two primary complaints I heard on this cruise – “There’s nothing to do” and “You have to schedule everything”. So on a ship with all the ‘stuff’ that Quantum offers, people were bored. And if you want to eat or see a show, your path to success is to make sure you have a reservation. I can’t say that I disagree with either one of these. The question Royal Caribbean has to answer is, why are people saying this? As they say, perception is reality. But none of this was to the level of making it a bad cruise, just a cruise where you wondered if you were missing something.
In the meantime, I look forward to seeing the lessons learned from Quantum applied to the next ship in the class, Anthem Of The Seas, and then to Ovation Of The Seas. Royal Caribbean is a well-managed cruise line and they are quick to learn from their errors, and to remedy them effectively and quickly. I do feel confident that when Anthem Of The Seas arrives this coming spring, it will begin its operational life in much smoother waters. I hope to check out Anthem Of The Seas later this year and see.