Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Mariner of the Seas Review: Day 1

On 30 January 2015, I stepped aboard Mariner of the Seas by Royal Caribbean, the largest cruise ship in Asia at that time.

If you ask me just 2 or 3 years ago, I must admit to you that I will never imagine myself going on a cruise. At least in Singapore, the general impression is that cruise ships are places for people to gamble day and night, free from governmental restrictions. However, after watching a documentary on Royal Carribean's Oasis Class ships, it gave me a lot more confidence to go vacation with this cruise line.

Of course, I live in Singapore and my family has a tight budget, so we are not going all the way to Florida for the Oasis-class ships. Instead, we settled for the next best thing - Mariner of the Seas. Please take note that as there are a lot of things to cover, I will split this trip into 6 posts - 1 for each day of the cruise, a ship overview of Mariner of the Seas and our short shore excursion at Penang.

Mariner of the Seas at night, taken at Penang.


I booked the cruise online about 4 months before the cruise - 3 Night Penang Cruise with Mariner of the Seas. When we booked, it was one of the last 4 passenger balcony staterooms left. I think that this ship was built at a time (ie. 10 years ago) when family cruising is not as common as today so there are fewer family (ie. 4 guest) staterooms.

We paid about SGD 2200 for the cruise, including taxes and service charge. We had to pay a SGD600 deposit within 3 days of booking and the rest had to be paid 3 months before the cruise. As with all cruise lines, Royal Caribbean has a stringent cancellation policy, so decide carefully before booking. I heard from other guests that you may get better rates if you book on special rebates with tour agencies.

The website is very intuitive and I experienced very little lag. However, POSB users, please take note that Royal Caribbean does not accept the POSB Everyday Savings Account Debit Card for payment. If you live in Singapore, you can visit the Royal Carribean (Asia) office at Springleaf Tower to make payments.

Location of Royal Carribean (Asia) Office at Springleaf Tower

Getting to Cruise Terminal

Since November 2014, the Marina South Pier MRT Station is open. This means that there is direct subway connection to the Marina Bay Cruise Center. However, only 1 out of 4 trains on North South Line head to Marina South Pier station, so it is imperative to look carefully and board the correct train.

The number 5 and Marina South Pier name indicates that the next train will head to the cruise terminal

The train station is typical of Singapore MRT Stations built since the Circle Line - wide platforms with large open spaces and lots of artificial light. Signage is sufficient even for a first time traveler. However, there is a very long walk to the cruise terminal (thankfully it is sheltered).

Trains arrive here at 20 minute intervals during off peak periods

Vaulted ceilings is common feature among new Singapore MRT Stations

The station entrance. Notice the covered walkway to the right.

Embarkation @ Marina Bay Cruise Centre

Unlike many cruise terminals which is built on land with only a small quay section protruding into the water, the Marina Bay Cruise Centre is actually a giant jetty protruding out of the mainland. I suppose this arrangement allows deeper ships to dock, though the ships still have to come really close to shore.

The Cruise Centre looks rather typical from the front

Unlike airports, the baggage check it is actually located near the bus unloading area on level 1. This is a convenient option as we did not have to carry the luggage up to the check in desks above. The departure hall is two levels up and accessible by escalator.

Baggage check in is located at the bus unloading area

Proceed up the escalators in the background into the departure hall

The check in desks were located at both sides of the departure hall and there are signs to guide passengers to their assigned desks. There are sufficient desks to ensure smooth check it with minimal waiting time.

[tip] You will get your SeaPass card here. This is your room key, on board spending card and passport if the ship is stopping by at a foreign port of call.

These signage are identical to the ones at Changi Airport!

Check in counters are assigned according to decks of the passenger's staterooms

There are ample check-in counters though I wonder why there is no overhead information boards like at the airport.

One thing I do not understand is the system of assigning colour codes to boarding passengers. With this system, we had to wait till our colour is called before we can enter the immigration room. I think this is not good as a whole swath of people will enter the immigration room at the same time, creating congestion there versus if people streamed in slowly like at Changi Airport.

Overall, it took 30 minutes from entering the Cruise Centre to stepping aboard the ship.

Each guest is assigned a SeaPass card which is used as a room key, on board credit card and passport. The passport will be taken by the ship for safekeeping.

Immigration is complete once you can see the ship. The immigration sign on the picture is for alighting passengers. The gangway onto the ship is actually similar to those at the airport.

You can also catch sight of the loading process on from the terminal building

The First Impressions

The exterior of the ship looks ordinary, but the interior is really beautiful. It evokes a sense of elegance with the nice carpeted floors and woodwork. On every staircase landing and corridor there is a tastefully chosen artwork, and atrium is really well lit by skylights coming all the way from deck 11.

There is plenty of light pouring into the atrium.

The Schooner Bar is the first thing that you see on board. Notice the intricate woodwork and beautiful lighting
As the staterooms are not ready, we were politely ushered over to the dining room at deck 3 for lunch. We had to pass the casino along the way so it was a good chance to snap a picture. As with all cruise ships, the casinos on Mariner of the Seas cannot operate in port so photos are fair game! :P

The casino is actually smaller than I expected and certainly smaller than those on Star Cruise ships

Lunch @ Main Dining Room

The main dining room just screams elegance. The giant crystal chandelier in the middle is reminiscent of the steam liners of old, and there is even a titanic-style grand staircase at the far end of the dining room. As many tables are designed to accommodate larger groups of guests, my group had to share a table with strangers. The wait staff were very friendly and looked really eager to serve us.

This turned out to be the only buffet in the main dining hall. There were lots of my favourites like brownies, dory fillet, chocolate chip cookies and ham. My sister complained that the cheese does not taste so good, though I found the seafood salad surprisingly good. Hearing advice from my fellow community volunteers, I decided to go more veg for the first plate before turning to the meats.

Almost all of my favourite desserts are here!

To ease the transition into this American ship, some Chinese dishes are also served.

The breads on board are surprisingly good. I ended up eating 1 for almost every meal.

This is my "really healthy" first plate!

Royal Caribbean offers 4 types of sugars but I still cannot figure out which colour is which.

The Stateroom

As it was our first cruise, we decided to go for the balcony stateroom. Our stateroom is 7628 on the port side. It is decent sized though I wished the sofa bed could have a little more leg room. There are ample hangers in the closet and soap, towels and hair dryer is provided. The balcony door is quite hard to open though I must admit the balcony is a little larger than I expected.

[tip] Don't forget to bring along your American plugs.

This stateroom has a king sized bed a sofa bed that can accommodate 4 people

The balcony is a little larger than I expected and there is a small space between the curtains and the balcony door that is great for placing luggage.

We were soon greeted by our stateroom attendant Clemente and he gave us a really warm welcome. Wow, this type of personalised and interactive service is so different from the hotels that I used to stay on land. The bathrooms are small and the shower can be quite a challenge for the bigger sized people, though for me, it is quite comfortably sized. There is a separate knob to control water temperature and I think this is a lot better than the single knob system used in many hotels.

Cruise Director Ken will later refer to these showers as test tubes.

The first walk-around, movie screening

There are not much activities going on in the first couple of hours, so just like any other first time cruiser, we decided to take a walk around Mariner of the Seas. It is worth noting that up till May 2015, Mariner of the Seas is the largest cruise ship in Asia at 138,000 tons. We also tried to book a complimentary spa mini-treatment (most treatments are chargeable) but it is fully booked.

On the pool deck, the deck chairs are everywhere!

Here is where you top up money for the arcade.

The arcade on deck 12 is relatively small and features mostly older games
After that, we proceeded to the Savoy Theatre (main theatre) on deck 3 for a 3D movie - Penguins of Madagascar. There are ample 3D glasses provided though I must admit that the screen is a little too small and too far for the 3D to have a really dramatic effect. There is also a smaller screening room at deck 2 and I must say that the screening room is a much more conducive venue for movies. I wish there are more safety lights in the theatre stairs as the steps vary in height.

The screen is located deep inside the stage. This is good for presentations but not for movies

For the first screening, the theatre is quite empty. Later movie screenings are more crowded

Safety Drill

By Maritime Law, all cruise ships are required to do a safety drill before departure. As it is the same for all ships, there is not much to say. Simply proceed to the assembly zone on deck 4 according to the number on your SeaPass card. Unlike most bloggers, I actually advice you to go to the assembly area as early as possible for 2 reasons: 1) You can choose an inside standing spot which is less sunny 2) You actually help the ship to complete the drill faster. Clear signage is provided and staff are patient.

[tip] When the Captain announces that the alarm is to be sounded, COVER YOUR EARS.

Guests do not have to put on life jackets during the drill, though a crew member will do a demonstration

Come early so you can pick an inside standing spot that is less exposed to the sun.

Sail Away Party

What's one thing unique about a cruise? Well, its the sail-away party. Royal Caribbean's Dreamworks themed sail-away party is filled with energy and familiar characters like Alex and Gloria from Madagascar. There are many familiar tunes though I find it weird that the line "everybody dance now" is played between every single song. There is a countdown to ship departure though I do hope it is more dramatic (ie. confetti, etc). I love the poolside video screening live dancing from crew members all over the ship.

[tip] For a better view on this show, head over the deck 12 where you can see the whole performance area. If you are with kids, though, go do deck 11 so your kids can get close to the characters

This is your first opportunity on board ship to immerse in the Dreamworks experience

The deck entertainment team is full of energy

Usual Singaporean habit: Cameras UP! Note the countdown to cruise in the poolside screen (background)

Dinner @ Main Dining Hall

Food is always the highlight on any cruise, and Royal Caribbean certainly delivers. Before I talk about the dining experience itself, here is just some important info. Firstly, there are 2 seatings for dinner - 5.45pm and 8.30pm, which you can choose when you book the cruise. Your group will be assigned a table and waiter who will serve you throughout the cruise.

Please do look carefully for your assigned deck. For my family, we had an embarrassing moment when we tried to enter at deck 3 (we were assigned deck 5). We were greeted by the front staff then ushered to our seats. Our waiter Jeong and assistant waiter Li Yan were very clear in sharing about the various dishes, and also very humorous. 

Assistant waiter Li Yan helped us to take a photo!
The food is great. I am not kidding. The portions are just right, and the dishes really provide for a balanced diet. Dinner consists of a starter, main course and dessert. For the first night, the menu is western with Pesto Salmon, Pasta, Steak and a few other options. I chose a Steak for the main course and it is so much softer and juicier than those I get in the mid-range restaurants in Singapore (I don't dine at high end restaurants so I don't know).

Pesto salmon!

Dessert options include the Mango pudding and Chocolate Sensation, both of which have very rich flavours and look really elegant. Just a note: the Signature dishes are the same every night, so you can safely go for the daily menu and take the signatures on a later evening. If you are not full, you may also request for a complimentary second serving, though subject to availability.

So simple, yet so nice

Chocolate moose cake: my favourite! (well, almost)

Welcome Aboard Show @ Savoy Theatre

After dinner, the next thing we are looking for is entertainment. Well, Mariner of the Seas has prepared a special welcome aboard show. For first time cruisers, this is a must attend as the cruise director will personally share many essentials of cruising - from dining tips to show timings and much, much more. Even for experienced cruisers, you also will want to attend as the opening performance by an acrobat (I did not catch the name) is excellent. 

The Royal Carribean singers and dancers, and Mariner of the Seas Orchestra

The performance is split into 2 sections. The first is a plate balancing act and he really got the audience on their toes as he tried to keep over 20 plates located all around the theatre in balance while teaching some guests how to balance and spin cloths and plates. However, the second act is the really impressive one. He is able to balance on things that I never thought was possible, such as a candle, wine bottle and even a soccer ball.

The acrobat will even try to balance plates that are located around the audience, running around frantically as each plate starts falling over.

Doing a headstand is already not so easy, but balancing on a tiny bottle...

...or how about this: spinning 6 rings while balancing on a soccer ball

Ice Under the Big Top

One of the features unique to Royal Caribbean's Voyager class ships when they were introduced over 10 years ago is the Ice-Skating Rink, also known as Studio B. There, we got to watch an excellent ice production by an international cast of 8. However, as Studio B is very small, every guest is actually assigned a specific show timing assigned according to the main dining hall seating and stateroom location. For example, as my seating was at 5.45pm and my group stayed in a port (left side) stateroom, we had to watch the 8.45pm show on the first night.

The show is basically about the Big Top, a mystical artifact and the magic it produces when once the Big Top is lifted over the skating rink. We were brought to Russia, the Middle East and even a clown scene where 4 lucky children could ride on an ice train. The costumes are elaborate and the skaters are really talented with lots of spins, flips, duets, and even an aerial acrobatics scene!

4 lucky children could ride this train though I do hope they included safety belts as falling on ice is quite nasty

The Royal Caribbean ice crew!
We finished our day with some light snacks at Windjammer marketplace, and that's all for the first day. It was certainly an enlightening experience for many reasons, chiefly because of the warm and inviting service by the ship crew. It is also the first holiday where I did not have to travel 6 hours to the destination. Anyways, look out for day 2 of the cruise here, and don't forget to like the Second Drop facebook page!