This cruise diary was originally posted in daily installments on the Cruise Lovers Facebook group and the Cruise Critic forum and details our Spanish Mediterranean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas between 26 July and the 9 August 2014. I’ve made a few tweaks, amended a few typos and added some of our holiday photos.
I didn’t realise how long it was and I’ve had to break it up into separate posts. This is the first which covers days 1 to 5 and visits to Vigo, Lisbon and Gibraltar. Click here for part 2.
Independence of the Seas – Spanish Med Cruise – Day 1
I’ve decided to live blog our latest cruise, I love reading reviews and thought it might be fun to share the story of our family summer holiday at sea.
Firstly a bit of context so you know who we are. I’m Nicky (43) sailing with my husband Andy (51) and our gorgeous little sailor Finn (6). We are from the UK and live in the hills above Manchester. This is our 10th cruise, our 3rd so far this year (yes I’m a very lucky girl!) and I love cruising, a self confessed cruising geek. We have cruised lots of different lines, don’t necessarily have any brand loyalty, we’ve enjoyed RCI, Carnival, NCL, Thomson and most recently the MSC Divina – that was in April and my husband was adamant it was our last cruise for a while, not a chance I thought.
I was researching ideas for our summer family holiday and just couldn’t get inspired by the idea of two weeks in an all inclusive hotel and summer is a little hot for a city break with a 6 year old (although last year we had a fab land based holiday in Toronto) so I started taking a sneaky peak at cruise sites. I stumbled across the RCI Spanish Med cruise on the Independence of the Seas, it was departing in summer holidays on a fabulous family friendly ship with an amazing itinerary including Vigo, Gibraltar, Barcelona (one of our favourite cities ever), Ibiza, Valencia, Lisbon, Cadiz oh and a stop in Palma, Mallorca where happily my Mum lives so I can tick off a family visit too! Absolutely perfect I thought, now I just had to convince the husband…..
Several weeks of badgering, being a lovely wife and much red wine later he finally cracked and allowed me to book it on the proviso that I’d already had my main holiday (on the MSC Divina in Yacht Club) so I could only have an inside cabin to keep the cost down. Well I logged on to look at prices and sadly all the inside cabins had gone (hurrah!) so an outside it was, well so I thought. I called my amazing travel agent (who I have spent a small fortune with over the years) who called me straight back to say she had a guaranteed balcony for the price of an outside – did I want it? Did I ever! So we booked and the holiday countdown started.
We’ve never sailed on the Independence of the Seas before but had done the Oasis of the Seas on a back to back a few years ago so we had a good idea what to expect, a little like Oasis but without the park or the boardwalk. That didn’t stop me reading a million reviews and joining a few Facebook groups to help the days pass by and add to the excitement.
We were hugely excited about sailing from the UK as it’s not something we’d done before having always opted for fly cruises, the last one involved a particularly long, arduous flight and two hours at customs. The idea of avoiding that was heavenly and also as I get older jet lag and a 6 year old is not a great combination.
Anyway a few weeks ahead of boarding I logged in to RCI to do the paperwork and noticed our cabin had been allocated, I nervously checked the deck plan as I realised I was taking a bit of a gamble with a guaranteed. To my absolute delight we had been allocated cabin 7408, a corner aft balcony. I googled it and found a YouTube video showing the cabin and balcony which was huge. I couldn’t quite believe how lucky we were, happy days!
Ok, that’s probably enough background so on to the holiday. Manchester is around 4 hours drive from Southampton so we decided to break the journey (and start the holiday a day early!) by driving two thirds of the way and stopping near Oxford in a Premier Inn. We made a lovely day of the journey stopping at a National Trust property to enjoy the glorious sunshine and a fabulous lunch. This turned what I thought might be a painful journey in to a lovely adventure and we arrived at the hotel relaxed and excited. The next morning after a leisurely breakfast we hit the road for an hour or so drive arriving at Southampton docks around 10.45am. I’d booked parking at the docks, yes it was a little more expensive than off site parking but absolute heaven to turn up, park, have our luggage taken straight off us by a friendly and helpful porter and then take a three minute stroll to the ship. At first sight the Independence of the Seas is incredibly impressive, my 6 year old was squealing with excitement (and I was only marginally calmer!). We headed into the terminal to find hardly no queues at all and as gold members we we’re given gold stickers and fast tracked through although I suspect even without a sticker you wouldn’t have been waiting long. We were through security, straight to the check in desk and had our key cards in our hands within minutes. We then followed the ‘to the ship’ signs where boarding had already started.
We swerved the ships photographers as always and headed up the gang plank to hear my favourite phrase in the world – ‘welcome aboard ‘ and that satisfying ding as they swipe your card.
Rooms aren’t available till 1pm so we went up to the top deck to explore. The pool areas are lovely, the adult only solarium looks fabulous with cantilevered whirlpools hanging off the ship although I’ll only enjoy that properly if Finn does Adventure Ocean. There is a central outdoor area with stage and bars and a huge splash zone kids pool which Finn was very excited about. We’ll definitely be sampling this on our first sea day I’m sure.
We headed to the bar to have our first drink of the holiday. We had pre-purchased the select drinks package that gives us any beer and wines up to $8 a glass plus unlimited sodas which is more than enough for us as we don’t really drink spirits. I think this was about £20 a day so really four or five drinks and you’re already saving money. It’s a bargain for us – last time we did RCI they didn’t do all inclusive packages and our bar bill getting off a back to back on the Oasis was eye watering. It’s nice not to have that concern this time.
My 6 year old was desperate to explore so we headed to the Royal Promenade a huge mall that runs along the centre of the ship on deck 5. We had a stroll, collecting menus and leaflets for the speciality restaurants and then headed to the Schooner Bar for a cheeky glass of wine, well I need to get value from that drinks package! We’d worked up a bit of an appetite so we headed to Sorrentos a pizza place on the promenade that also does panninis and desserts and had a few slices that weren’t exactly gourmet but were very tasty and soaked up the alcohol!
It was now 1pm so we headed up to the 7th floor, the corridor door wasn’t quite open so we waited in the library where my 6 year old was delighted to find a kids section and promptly borrowed some holiday reading. The doors soon opened and we headed to the aft excited to see our room. It’s quite a trek however I guess that will help with walking off the inevitable cruise calorie gain.
We opened our door and were delighted with what we saw, a lovely, spotlessly clean, spacious stateroom with large queen bed, sofa and good size bathroom however what really makes this cabin is the beautiful corner aft balcony. It is huge and has two sun loungers, a table, two chairs and a porthole to one side and a regular balcony to the other giving you two different sea views and a lovely mix of sun for me and shade for the boys. We so lucked out getting this and I’m beyond thrilled at the idea of having it for two weeks!
Two of our three cases arrived so I started unpacking. I have a small confession here, we had packed a couple of wine boxes in our luggage. In my defence we have booked and paid for the wine package so it’s not to save money it’s actually to save my legs walking back and to the bar from our room. I just wanted to enjoy a glass or three on my amazing aft balcony. One of the cases with a box arrived but the other didn’t. An hour or so went by and I was getting extremely nervous I’d be called to the naughty room! I’d already worked out what I was going to say, i.e. I was saving RCI money by drinking my own wine : ) Anyway thankfully I was worrying unnecessarily as our final case arrived a short while later – phew!
I unpacked and relaxed on the balcony and then there was a knock at the door, Delores our state room attendant arrived to introduce herself and check we had everything we needed. We gave her a small initial tip to ensure a constant supply of fresh wine glasses and towel animals and then headed up to muster. The muster was quick and easy and conducted in glorious sunshine, not something I was expecting on a UK sailing. We then took the 6 flights of stairs to the top deck as the queues for lifts were pretty long and taking the stairs always means you can enjoy a guilt free dessert later.
There was a sail away party up on deck with the entertainment crew doing the Macarena etc. I bet they have to go on a training course to learn those dances. Another glass of wine later and we enjoyed a Caribbean style band and Finn and myself had a paddle and dance in the shallow pool. We’d all slipped into holiday mode very nicely.
We went back to our room to change for dinner which was casual dining tonight. We headed to the King Lear dining room for anytime dining and happily there were no queues. I had tried to reserve online our preferred time but the RCI site won’t let you as it’s a 14 night cruise with 3 people that’s more items that your basket allows. I called but they said just to do it on board. It wasn’t an issue as the staff happily booked us in and we were whisked to our table. We met our waiters Jose and Dominic who were friendly and helpful, keeping our glasses topped up and delighting my six year old with a napkin mouse (who now lives in our stateroom!). The dinner was delicious and both Andy and myself enjoyed a lamb broth followed by a fabulous traditional English roast beef dinner with garlic roast potatoes, gravy and even a Yorkshire pudding. It amazes me how they cater for so many so well and the food was piping hot. Finn enjoyed the kids menu and our waiters brought him fruit to start without us even asking and then he ordered chicken strips which were delivered with a ketchup smiley face followed by a delicious chocolate brownie that I helped with!
After dinner we met up with the family of someone I’d been chatting to on a cruise Facebook group. She has a 7 year old and the boys played together beautifully while we enjoyed another glass of wine in Boleros – yes I think we got value out of the drinks package today! They headed off to dinner so we explored a little more. We found the swings in the solarium and met a lovely family on their first cruise and chatted for a while. We were going to explore further but it was a bit windy on deck so we headed back to our aft balcony for a nightcap. Finn and myself snuck off to grab a cheeky slice of Sorrentos and were planning to make the opening night parade but holiday exhaustion got the better of us so it was an early night all round.
I was a little worried about the infamous Bay of Biscay but hardly felt any movement, a wonderful night’s sleep later and we are now ready for day 2 – more to follow later….
Independence of the Seas, Spanish Med – Day 2 – Sea Day
As a family we love sea days. I always think it’s a perfect way to spend a second day giving you a chance to find your sea legs and explore the ship. My six year old wants us to go on a cruise that is purely just sea days as he never wants to leave the ship, so much so that disembarking at ports usually involves a little bribery around a visit to a toy shop.
We started the day in a lazy fashion, the boys had a lie in while I wrote the first instalment of this blog and then we headed for an al a carte breakfast. This is such an indulgent way to start the day and one of the things I love on a cruise. You rarely get waitress service at breakfast in any hotel these days and trying to feed a 6 year old at a buffet is a far from relaxed experience. We enjoyed a full English with proper back bacon rather than that American streaky stuff. This was served with fabulous hash browns and eggs any way we liked. We were happy to share a table so there was no queuing and we met a nice Scottish couple enjoying a good conversation around the Commonwealth Games, Scottish independence and plans for the cruise – a lovely and social way to start the day.
A quick note on wifi, one of the main reasons I’m able to write this blog and respond to comments etc. is because of the very reasonable wifi package. RCI do a 14 day unlimited wifi package which you can use on up to two devices at any time for $269 ( this included a small gold member discount of 10 or 20% I think). I was pleasantly surprised by this as we run our own business and despite having a great team back in the office I do like to check emails while I’m away. We’ve paid significantly more for wifi on previous cruises and it’s a joy for it to be across a few devices and unlimited. This saves all that remembering to log on or off as previously I have forgotten and lost valuable data allowance.
We left breakfast and headed to the Royal Promenade and collected our tickets for the ice show for the show times we wanted. The queues were small although apparently you don’t necessarily need tickets as you usually can get in on standby if there’s space.
We then headed to the King Lear dining room for the Cruisecritic meet n mingle. I think there were around 50 people however as it was in the dining room everyone sat in their own groups at tables so there wasn’t a lot of mingling if I’m honest. On arrival we were given a free RCI branded notepad and pen and there were refreshments available (cute little filled croissants, cookies etc). The event was hosted by Alison the activities manager, a northerner from Darwen not far from where we live in a village in the hills outside Bury. She did a great job of getting people laughing and there was a raffle where you could win a range of prizes from the good (bottles of champagne) to the less good ( a fridge magnet). I think everyone won something. We won a camera case or as Alison put it a hamster rucksack which my son’s toy doggy is now wearing.
Following the meet n mingle it was back to our room to relax for a little while and enjoy the lovely perspective from the aft balcony looking back on the ship’s wake. As that’s also our surname it seems very apt and I think I may be requesting an aft on future cruises as I’ve been spoiled by the space and views we’ve got on the Indy.
Finn decided he wanted to try kids club so we headed up to deck 12 aft, to sign him in. Our cabin is well located for Royal Promenade, dining and kids club and the exercise walking the corridors to our room is a bonus. Sign in at Adventure Ocean was quick and easy, the RCI kids staff really are some of the best at sea and so welcoming with children who may seem shy or hesitant. Finn was given a free Adventure Ocean lanyard for his sea pass and he skipped in happily to join the others in Explorers, the club that caters for 6 to 8 year olds. This allowed me and my husband a little us time so we headed to the top deck to explore.
We went to the flow rider – to watch not participate! I think we’re both a little old / lacking in balance for that kind of thing! It was still great fun as the music was blaring, the sun shining and everyone having so much fun. The young guys having a go seemed to be loving it and the instructors were showing everyone how it’s really done, at one point deliberating doing tricks that soaked the spectators – us included! Still it serves us right for sitting at the front, we chose the raised side seating later in the day!
From there we went off to the climbing wall. The teenagers on board really are having a riot, we peeked into their hangout space The Living Room too and I’m sure if you have a teen you won’t see them at all for two weeks. It certainly beats the wet caravan parks I holidayed at when I was a teenager.
We visited Olive & Twist aka the Viking Lounge, a bar at the very top of the ship. This is another RCI concept I love, great views in a peaceful setting. At noon we headed back to collect Finn. You get to Explorers through the huge video games arcade and a build a bear style shop. It’s like exit through the gift shop and I’m sure will cost us dearly later in the cruise – clever planning RCI!
Although it was lunchtime we still weren’t that hungry after our huge breakfast so we headed back to the room to relax. I just grabbed a slice of pizza from Sorrentos on our way and we thought we’d wait till dinner to eat properly.
The plan for the afternoon was the art auction, unsurprisingly Finn wasn’t keen so he wanted to go back to kids club. We dropped him off and headed to the auction or so we thought. We made our way to the art gallery on deck 3 as that seemed logical but they’d moved the event to the Pyramid Lounge. We had a quick explore of deck 3 stumbling across the ice rink, the ship’s TV station and the karaoke lounge which also has private karaoke booths if you don’t want to make a public display of yourself!
We finally found the auction and were giving our lot number. We’re no art experts but we do buy a bit and collect a little at home so I was keen to see what they had and maybe pick up a piece as a nice reminder of our trip. My husband collected our glasses of free champagne and we settled in. The auctioneer was rather cheesy to say the least, he proceeded to run through a long list of rules (which were already written on our lot cards) and then brought out print after print of quite frankly overpriced rubbish. Nobody was bidding, in fact he was bidding against himself to try and create some interest. I almost felt sorry for him but the champagne went down well. We left after half an hour and my husband likened it to the art version of ‘inch of gold’. He often offers to buy me an inch on our cruises – too generous I know!
We returned to our balcony for a glass of wine and then picked up our son. It was formal night at dinner which I love but my husband isn’t quite so keen. He refuses to do black tie but did manage a jacket and shirt and Finn wore a cute linen suit so we scrubbed up okay I think.
We made our way to the dining room and were seated in a different section to our first night, this time with sea views. Our waiters were Edwin and Vicky and worryingly our table number was 666 but there wasn’t any devilment to be had. Andy had scallops and double chicken consommé as he couldn’t decide which he wanted, the waiter happily brought both. I don’t usually do seafood but bravely had a taste and even I thought they were delicious. I had a very tasty chicken salad which was more chicken than salad then for mains I had Beef Tenderloin which was delicious, served with mash and asparagus which was cooked perfectly. Andy had Strip Tenderloin with a jacket which he enjoyed. Finn requested a fruit salad with extra strawberries and was given a huge bowlful in addition to his regular fruit salad, he then had a pizza with fries. I forced myself to order a dessert (well I have been on a pre- cruise diet for months prior to this) and enjoyed a yummy vanilla and strawberry cheesecake.
After dinner we headed to Boleros, bumped into the friends we’d met yesterday and enjoyed a drink and chat while listening to the band. We were people watching and I was pleasantly surprised by just how dressed up everyone was for formal night, the majority of men were in tuxes and the ladies looked fabulous. There were some very cute little boys in their bow ties and girls in Disney style princess dresses and even the odd kilt! Very different to some of the Caribbean cruises I’ve been on where the dress code is often loosely interpreted.
Following drinks Andy headed off to bed, Finn and myself weren’t tired so we decided to explore the ship. First stop was the cupcake cupboard to sample the cakes, we had two small ones at $1.50 each and they were gorgeous. They also do cupcake decorating lessons which are probably great fun but I’m no Mary Berry so I guess I’ll pass on that.
We strolled the Royal Promenade visited all the shops and then went to the Pyramid Lounge for a nightcap and to watch the band who were great. We then had a quick walk along top deck where it was beautifully warm with hardly any breeze and surprisingly quiet. Finally we visited guest services as there was no queue. The team were very helpful, checked our account and confirmed our on board credit had been applied – now what to spend that on? They also provided a free sewing kit on request as we need to repair a broken sun hat.
Then it was time for bed after a lovely day at sea and we returned to the cabin to be greeted by a towel elephant and to read the cruise compass and plan tomorrow’s adventures. More to follow soon…
Independence of the Seas, Spanish Med – Day 3 – Vigo
A leisurely start to the day resulted in us missing the a la carte and buffet breakfast options in the MDR so there was nothing else for it – we had to brave the Windjammer.
We made our way to deck 11 fearing the worst having seen it described on numerous boards as akin to feeding time at the zoo. Well it was busy as expected but after a bit of circling we found a table and proceeded to tuck into a delicious breakfast of French toast, American style sausages, home fries and ham – both the boys said it was actually tastier than yesterday’s a la carte. On leaving the Windjammer we spotted the English Fayre section which includes black pudding, back bacon etc. if a full English is what you prefer. The quality and variety was excellent, the food was hot and the staff were friendly and helpful clearing tables quickly with a smile so I’m struggling to see why anyone has felt the need to complain at all. I’m sure we’ll repeat breakfast there over the fortnight’s cruise.
We returned to our room, grabbed our belongings and made our way to the gangway on deck 4 which has a promenade style deck. This is great as it means you aren’t queuing in stairways or corridors to disembark but instead you stroll down an open deck in glorious sunshine, a nice feature.
We were soon off and quickly ashore. Just opposite the port terminal there is a large three story shopping mall, if you take the escalators inside to the top you can exit into the town avoiding the steep walk on foot. We navigated the narrow streets, glancing in shops and headed towards a fort my husband had spotted from our balcony. We easily reached it and enjoyed fabulous views of the Independence below us and the stroll helped walk off a few cruise calories too. We ambled back down taking a slightly different route and stumbled across Vigo’s main shopping street which was lined with lovely floral planters and lit up by the sunshine. It was hot, hot, hot so much so it was possibly the only time my six year old has been begging to go into shops – to enjoy the air conditioning! We were searching for a Camper shoe shop (lovely Spanish shoes) but sadly couldn’t find one, still there are plenty more Spanish ports to go so I’m sure we’ll solve that before the cruise ends. We did however accomplish one mission which was to find a toy shop and 10 euros later we had some tiny plastic Pokemon and one happy six year old : )
By this point it was 12.30 local time so time for our first grown up refreshments of the day. We found a lovely little square surrounded by pavement cafés and practised the only Spanish phrases we know, vino tinto y cerveza por favour! Suitably refreshed we made our way back to the ship and were soon on board. You can’t help comparing cruises and I was looking at the decor of the Independence thinking although it doesn’t compare to the more stylish ships we’ve recently enjoyed such as the drop dead gorgeous Italian designer beauty MSC Divina, I actually much prefer the Independence for its facilities and atmosphere. I suspect sailing from the UK means it feels a little more like home and with lots of friendly fellow guests on board, it’s been very social so far. I can forgive some slightly dated colours or fabrics as I think the atmosphere is what wins you over. It does make me think I’d like to try Quantum from the UK next year as that could be the best of both worlds – just need to work on the husband now….
Unbelievably I was feeling a little peckish – I swear your stomach grows on a cruise! We checked our lunchtime dining options which were Johnny Rockets, Windjammer or room service but we opted for the ease and choice of Windjammer. Lunch was much calmer than breakfast with plenty of available tables. We sat in the front section and within seconds a lovely, helpful waitress came over calling Finn her little prince and taking a drinks order. Two glasses of wine and an iced water were with us within minutes and she even offered to get us some food if we wanted. We declined and took it in turns to check out and choose from the many options. Andy went to Jade, an oriental / ethnic section serving Chinese, Indian and Thai at lunch and dinner plus sushi in the evening I believe. He had stir fry pork and a lemon chicken with rice. I explored the main section and chose Chicken Schitznel and meatballs and pasta which were absolutely gorgeous. Finn enjoyed his first hot dog of the cruise and definitely not his last I’m sure. I vowed not to do puddings at lunch so I resisted temptation and we left to change into swimwear.
Next stop was the brightly themed kids H20 Zone. I had read on these boards that the pools on the Independence were heated, well I can categorically tell you that they certainly aren’t on this one. Wowsers it was chilly but certainly refreshing when the temperature in the sun was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit so we weren’t complaining. Anyway we bravely took the plunge amid much squealing ( both me & Finn) and I was delighted to see he’d not forgotten how to swim, a skill he only recently learnt on the last cruise. The kids area is great fun with water shooters, cascading buckets, a waterfall, pools for tots and a lazy river. If you don’t have kids avoid this area like the plague and head to the adults only pool in The Solarium!
It was 2.45pm and Finn had a play date at kids club with his new friend Jaxon so we got dressed and I dropped him off. I came back via the Dog & Badger to collect a wine on my way before chasing the sunshine around my balcony for an hours quality me time. I was amazed how busy the Dog & Badger was on a glorious day, that said it was mainly blokes enjoying a quiet pint presumably while their better halves were sunbathing or enjoying all that Vigo has to offer. All in all I thought Vigo was a nice port, not the prettiest we’ve visited but very easy to DIY for a meander, a drink, a bit of shopping etc. We saw some lovely beaches from the ship a short taxi ride away around the bay which could be a great idea if you don’t fancy the main town.
I collected Finn from kids club and he’d had a great time, hot and sweaty and chatting ten to the dozen about variations on dodge ball and new friends he’d made. We went back to the stateroom to change ahead of the Strings ice show at 5.15pm in Studio B, the ice rink on floor 3.
We arrived five minutes before the show started but there were still plenty of seats so we found a spot with a good view. The storyline was at best tenuous but the performances were excellent. I had my heart in my mouth as they did the ‘headbanger’ on a rocking ship (you know you’ve watched too much Dancing on Ice when you know the move names!). Yes there were a few tumbles but the production values were great and the skill levels high. My only slight issue is Finn now wants to go skating this week and I’m living in fear of having to step foot on the ice as I have no natural balance!
After the ice show it was off to dinner, back on table 666 – good job we aren’t superstitious. Dinner was lovely, I had chicken and rocket salad with a pepper dressing and mustard crusted beef with Yorkshire pudding and Andy went for Cock a Leekie soup and Singapore noodles – delicious all round and plates cleared. Finn went for fruit salad and chicken strips, service was great and the wine was flowing but we didn’t manage dessert. I’ve noticed the menus have a distinct English theme heading out of Southampton, lots of dishes I’ve never seen on Royal Caribbean before, nice to see they adapt and cater to local markets. I Really must try the afternoon tea they apparently serve in the Windjammer daily.
The captain made an announcement just before we sailed to warn us of high winds and possible turbulent seas, he said it could get quite rocky and to watch our step and hold rails around the ship. I was a little concerned but felt hardly any movement at all during the night. The Independence is one of the most stable ships I’ve ever sailed on, the wind was whipping round the balcony a little but other than that no problems at all.
We retired to our room to relax for a little while and watch the sunset slip into our porthole so we could photograph it. Slight issue, we blinked and missed it, oh well plenty more nights for that opportunity I suppose.
At 9pm it was time for a show in the Alhambra theatre which is deck 3 & 4 forward. Tonight’s show was a headliner, this is where acts are flown in specially rather than the resident entertainment team. It was a band called the Zoots who did a 60’s covers set. They were tight and professional as they rolled out hit after hit and everyone seemed to be enjoying it and clapping along. It was fun but nothing spectacular and my husband thought they were a bit Butlins – that said we do occasionally go to Butlins for the odd weekend with friends and their kids and we always have a great time!
Finn was exhausted after a day of fun and about 40 minutes into the show was nodding off on my knee. At 6 he is now far too heavy to carry the length of the ship (quite a way on the Indy!) so we snuck out before the end and strolled back to our cabin.
A small nightcap later and it was time for sleep ahead of Lisbon adventures tomorrow…
Independence of the Seas, Spanish Med – Day 4 – Lisbon
We awoke early around 7.00am eager to get up on deck to view the Indy sail underneath the famous 25 April suspension bridge across the Tagus Estuary. This was probably the one occasion our gorgeous aft balcony wouldn’t deliver the best view so we hot footed it to top deck with a matter of minutes to spare. We were rewarded with fabulous views and an optical illusion that really does make you think that perhaps the captain has misjudged his course, the clearance is literally a matter of feet. We obstructed the jogging track taking numerous photos (really people you are on holiday, who jogs on holiday?!) and looked out at Lisbon excited for the day ahead.
Next was the important matter of breakfast and keen to research the ship thoroughly we opted for buffet in the main dining room. We were quickly given an amazing table, allocated by Mary the lovely head waiter from our evening dining room, right next to the window – Obviously Finn got the window seat. We went to look at our options, it was a very English offering, all amazing quality but not quite the variety of the Windjammer yesterday. No pancakes or French toast and limited pastries but the full English on offer was delicious. Service was top notch, our waiter providing a diet coke on request as I don’t do coffee or tea and quickly taking away plates as we finished. We left with our stomachs lined ready for Lisbon, the city of seven hills.
We didn’t really have any plans for Lisbon, in fact we don’t really have any plans for any of the ports. That’s not to say I haven’t done my research but I’ve realised that the absolute beauty of this itinerary is that you really don’t need to do excursions to get the most out of the ports of call. Almost all of them can be enjoyed with a short stroll or shuttle bus. We slapped on the sunscreen and made our way off the ship.
We exited to glorious sunshine and passed through the port gates. My husband had spotted the hop on hop off bus from the balcony and suggested we check it out. Amazingly after 10 cruises, goodness knows how many ports, we’ve never done a HoHo bus however today it seemed like a great idea. There were a few options for transport including an RCI transfer into the city but we spoke to a really helpful salesman on the Yellow Bus company who offered us a day ticket at 15 per adult and Finn would be free, this included two bus routes, free red route trams and the funicular railway. This seemed like an absolute bargain so we jumped at it, boarded the bus to be given headphones for the commentary and made our way up to the open top deck. To my absolute shame Finn, my 6 year old loudly pronounced Mummy I have never been on the upstairs of a bus before! Well holidays are all about new experiences!
It was an absolute highlight of the trip, sitting aboard an open top bus in the glorious sunshine with a child squealing with delight as the trees almost brushed us. I really enjoyed the headphone commentary in English (and also numerous other languages at the push of a button) which points out the landmarks and showcases the highlights of Lisbon. If you have ever tried to walk through a city with a small child whose legs are tired you’ll understand, I honestly think I may be HoHoing in every port from here on in! We did the complete blue line tour back to the terminal taking in the sights for around an hour and then continued back into the city. Our plan was to have a quick break for an ice lolly and a drink and then take a tram ride and the funicular.
Sometimes things don’t quite go to plan as we found a lovely side street restaurant and ordered a bottle of wine ( it made sense economically – honest) to sip at on an outside table. The service was great and the food being served around us looked fantastic but we were still full of cooked English. On leaving we walked through the restaurant which was barbecuing fabulous fresh fish and meats so if you’re in Lisbon be sure to check out Aldea on Rua da Vitoria just off the R.do Oura, it looked amazing. The wine was reasonable at 11 a bottle for a very drinkable Portuguese vintage, even on the main drag the prices seemed reasonable but we’ve learnt that it’s always better to head to the side streets for a better experience and deal.
The wine soon got the better of us so instead of heading for a tram or the funicular we ended up with a little retail therapy and found an incredible nearby shop called Tiger. It was like Muji but full of quirky, funky things at rock bottom prices. We bought a fly swatter, a sumo money box, a festival of Britain style coat rack, a kaleidoscope, a wine decanter and a pigs bottom fridge magnet (Finn’s choice) – as I said fabulous shop! I also had my eye on a 6ft cactus coat rack but thankfully sense got the better of me and we left. We then stumbled into a Camper shop, the fabulous Spanish shoe brand from Majorca that has stores all over the world these days. We love their shoes and I expect we’ll be leaving our Spanish cruise with several pairs each. Today was Andy’s turn and he now has a gorgeous new pair to add to our collection.
Time was ticking on and tummies were rumbling so we jumped a cab back to the ship, a bargain at 5 plus tip. There were some short but quick moving queues for security and we were soon back on board. We went to the room to drop our shopping off then myself and Finn went to Sorrentos to collect pizza and drinks. Sorrentos were serving hot roast lamb sandwiches with gravy jus, well it would be rude not to so I ordered two for myself and Andy (who had insisted he wasn’t hungry), pizza for Finn and a diet coke for me. The lamb sandwiches were scrummy and promptly wolfed down. I asked if they did wine that was in our package and they happily gave me two of those mini bottles ( the type you get on the plane) which made carrying so much easier. I’ll be stopping by regularly to pick up those in future!
We relaxed in the room for an hour while I made a start on this post and then Finn decided it was time for a swim. We made our way to the H2O Zone while Daddy enjoyed a rest. Thankfully the pool was distinctly warmer than the day before and as the sun beat down it was really refreshing. We swam, splashed, shot water cannons, stood under tipping buckets and conquered Finn’s fear of water on his face by running the gauntlet of a spraying corridor of hoops, I was very proud. After all that fun it was time for an ice cream from Sprinkles, a free self serve machine on the top deck serving vanilla, chocolate and a mix of the two flavours. If you wanted more variety they do have a Ben & Jerry’s on the Royal Promenade where you can get a range of flavours in tubs and cones for just a few dollars. I was a little disappointed that they don’t do their infamous hot core sundaes here as I was hoping to try one. I’d seen them at our local cinema but refrained as I was on a pre cruise diet, a fairly regular thing as I’m nearly always pre cruise!
Following the ice cream we went back to the room to change for dinner. I enjoyed a glass of wine in the sunshine on our balcony as we sailed away from Lisbon watching hundreds of jellyfish in the waters below.
Finn wanted to spend the evening in kids club as tonight was PJ movie party where all the children go in their pyjamas and watch a movie. This is a great idea as it gives parents a bit of ‘us time’ to enjoy a meal without having to discuss Minecraft videos or play noughts and crosses on the kids menu. As Finn insisted on going we decided to take full advantage and book a meal at one of the two speciality restaurants. We fancied Giovannis Table, an Italian restaurant that costs $20 a head however when we called to book they were doing a Murder Mystery night which isn’t really my husband’s thing as he lives in fear of audience participation! So we booked Chops Grille, billed as the best steakhouse at sea and costing $30 a head.
I took Finn up to Adventure Ocean and it reminded me of our very first cruise 4 years ago when he was just two. We were onboard Ocean Village (a cruise line that sadly no longer exists) in the Caribbean. It was our first proper holiday away without taking either set of parents with us and to our delight the kids facilities were amazing so much so our boy would have spent his entire holiday in there had we let him. They also had a night nursery complete with cots where you could drop off a sleeping child and they’d give you a buzzer so you could go out for dinner knowing the staff would contact you if necessary. We had many amazing nights enjoying dinner where I got to talk to my husband and eat hot meals – a really luxury as any newish Mum will understand!
The Independence of the Seas has Royal Tots & Babies, a similar programme for 6 months up to 3 years although I think there is a small charge. 3 – 5 year olds are catered for in Aquanauts, Finn’s group is the 6 – 8 year Explorers and there are the 9 – 11 year old Voyagers. Each group has their own dedicated play room and space with age appropriate games and toys. There are a range of free organised activities every day from 9am – 12pm and 1pm – 5pm and children can attend a kids tea in the Windjammer with youth staff between 5pm – 6.45pm again free of charge. There’s another free session between 6.45pm – 10.00pm and finally a late night party zone from 10.00pm – 2.00am for parents who want to dance the night away but there’s a $7 per hour charge for this. Finn has never done the late one before but said he wants to go so maybe later in the cruise we’ll be trying to stay awake so he can party the night away!
He skipped into kids club and we went to Schooners Bar for a pre dinner drink. At 7.30pm we made our way to Chops Grille located on deck 11 aft. It’s a separate restaurant located next to the Windjammer. Sadly it wasn’t all we’d hoped for, in fact it’s probably the only disappointment of our cruise so far. I may sound a little negative here but as you can hopefully tell from my posts I really am a glass half full kind of girl. I can only share how it was for us on the evening. We were met on arrival by a member of staff who was on a mobile phone and proceeded to chat for a few minutes leaving us standing there. Once he finished his call he then said, let me get the host and again we were left just stood there. A few minutes later the host arrived, checked our booking and escorted us to a nice table of two with sea views. The restaurant lacked character compared to the Chops Grille we’d visited and enjoyed on Oasis of the Seas which felt much classier and was located in Central Park.
The waiter arrived with menus and wine list. I already knew we couldn’t use our drinks package in speciality restaurants so I looked at the wine list to order a bottle. We’re no wine connoisseurs (although we drink plenty!), at home we’re just as happy with a box and rarely spend more than five or six pounds on a bottle. We selected the house wine at $40 which I was confident would be very drinkable. Unfortunately our waiter told me that was no longer available and suggested we try another at $108 for the bottle. I politely declined the blatant upsell and requested another at $45 a bottle that was also not available so we finally found a Shiraz at $45 which was. I was in need of a drink by then! Annoyingly he also tried to upsell us on water too, offering Evian or a sparkling ootion until I requested just iced water. Not a great start to what was supposed to be a wonderful date night dinner for two.
Undeterred we pushed on and glanced through the menu and the waiter came to take our order. For starters I opted for the duck salad and Andy had the mushroom soup. We both ordered the 10oz filet mignon, mine cooked medium well, Andy’s medium then we asked if we could share a portion of the jumbo shrimp in addition. We’d done this previously and if you ask for a second main in the main dining room to taste or share it is no problem whatsoever, in fact the waiters seem delighted to do this. We were therefore surprised when the waiter said we could have the additional entree but we would be charged $10 extra for this! The service was very grumpy, our waiter less than helpful and he made us feel uncomfortable for even requesting the third main. We refused the extra charge as a matter of principle as we’d already paid over $100 for our meals and wine and felt this was yet another attempt to rip us off – as the menu leaflet clearly states a fee is applicable, not fees. It set the meal off to a bad start and we were unhappy diners. Finally sensing a little atmosphere the manager came over and explained we could have the shrimp after all. I’m glad they sorted it out but it still left us disappointed with the whole experience.
The food arrived, starters were okay, my duck salad was nicely presented and Andy enjoyed his soup. The steaks arrived, Andy’s was over cooked arriving well done rather than medium but mine was nice, the sauce was good and the side dishes plentiful and tasty. The waiter was hastily pouring our wine during dinner and as soon as the bottle was empty suggested another which we declined. We didn’t stay to order dessert although the couple next to us did and the portions looked huge. We left disappointed with the entire experience and won’t be repeating it. The menu describes it as upscale dining, overpriced more like….
We picked up Finn from kids club who’d had a whale of a time, watching Spy Kids and decorating an Adventure Ocean pillowcase he brought back with him as a souvenir of his evening. We came back via Sorrentos on the Royal Promenade so he could have late night pizza and it was incredibly busy as there was a party starting with singers on the bridge. It felt very crowded so we escaped back to the cabin to relax.
We are looking forward to a morning at sea as we don’t dock in Gibraltar till lunchtime, Finn is very excited to see the monkeys!
Independence of the Seas, Spanish Med – Day 5 – Gibraltar
We’re now well and truly in holiday mode waking later than usual with Finn still asleep at 9.30am, exhausted from all the fun he’s been having. By the time we were all up and dressed our only breakfast option was Windjammer. We arrived around 10.30am, just making it, as breakfast closes at 10.45. The restaurant was quieter than our previous visit and we easily found a table. I sampled the pancakes and waffles which were delicious, Andy enjoyed a full English and Finn snacked on American style sausages, his new favourite dish.
After breakfast we took a wander along top deck. The plan was to have a leisurely morning poolside as we weren’t docking in Gibraltar till 1pm however it was very windy and the H2O zone sprayers etc. had all been turned off to avoid accidental drenchings! We checked out the flow rider, mini golf and climbing wall but the wind was so strong we went down to the Royal Promenade to escape it. We stopped by the Dog & Badger (an English pub which bears no resemblance to any I’ve been in, more like a medieval tavern!) for a lunchtime glass of red. It also serves a wide selection of beers and traditional pub snacks like pork scratchings and crisps. We then went back to our balcony to watch our arrival in Gibraltar, impressed by the size of the Rock as it loomed into view. There was an incredible yacht moored next to us in port with a helicopter on board, apparently Roman Abramovich owns it’s sister ship – the things you can find out on the Internet!
We let the initial rush depart the ship and followed ten minutes later to find no queues as we strolled ashore into a sunny Gibraltar. Once again we hadn’t booked any excursions, our only plan was too see the infamous monkeys (search on YouTube if you don’t know what I mean) and Finn was very excited about this. I’d read on a few port guides that it was easy to get a shared taxi trip up The Rock so we walked into town. It’s about a ten minute walk from the port, easy enough but it was incredibly hot, 30 degrees, so I can see why some choose to pay for the shuttle bus. We did have a little grumbling about the distance and heat from a small child but a 1 ice lolly soon fixed that, much cheaper than a shuttle bus ticket!
We arrived in the main square which leads directly to the high street and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. As we were pulling into dock the town looked less than promising however beyond the high rises it has a quaint, Spanish village feel with pavement cafe lined squares, cool, leafy streets and some very recognisable shopping opportunities. The main square has a WH Smith and this was our first stop. We’d bought Finn two books to bring away and borrowed two from the library on board however by Day 5 he’d read the lot so we needed more. We bought 3 books from a small but well stocked children’s section and told him to make them last as I don’t think we’ll be finding any other English book shops on the rest of the itinerary. We explored the town with a sense of déjà vu as we strolled along what is in effect an English high street in the glorious sunshine having just departed a cruise ship. Strange but nice and good to see some familiar names. Next stop was Marks and Sparks as in a slight packing mishap we seemed to be a little short on underwear and I’d decided that it’d be cheaper to buy new than pay Royal Caribbean laundry prices. Incidentally if you do need laundry it’s actually not that bad. We were given a bag yesterday and you could fill it for a wash and fold service (ie no ironing so fine for underwear etc) for $30. Not extortionate but as I said probably cheaper to buy new if you can stumble across an M&S!
New supplies of knickers secured we were now ready to find those monkeys and headed along the high street to the taxi rank at the far end of town. The taxis are actually small minibuses, seating 8 or 10. It was incredibly hectic and a little fraught trying to get one as there was no queuing system with people just waiting for one to arrive and then approaching the driver. There were around 20-30 people waiting with more arriving by the minute and very few taxis. The drivers seemed to just choose who they wanted to take and at one point I was a little concerned we might miss out on the monkeys and have a very disappointed boy on our hands. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, a few more taxis arrived and a helpful, friendly driver welcomed us aboard. The cost was £22 or 30 an adult and Finn was allowed to travel free as he sat on my knee. As the ticket for access to The Rock is £10 anyway this is actually pretty good value as the one and a half hour taxi trip includes entry price to the Rock and the Caves. If you don’t fancy the taxi there is another way up, a cable car also at the far end of the high street. The cost is the same however the queues were apparently an hour or so long and as Andy suffers with a little vertigo I’m not sure that option would have worked for us. We shared a taxi with some fellow cruisers and set off up The Rock.
The trip is full of hairpin bends with sheer drops on one side so if you are of a nervous disposition think carefully about where you sit on the bus. Our driver and guide gave us some of the facts and history of Gibraltar as he was driving and our first stop was at a monument called The Pillars of Hercules which was a quick photo stop while the driver purchased our tickets. We boarded the bus again and then went to St Michaels Cave. This really was spectacular, a huge cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites which had been converted into a concert venue and was beautifully lit with changing colours. It was also a cool and welcome respite from the heat. We did see several people who had chosen to walk The Rock which would be a challenge at any time but navigating the steep, narrow roads in the afternoon sun must have been unbearable. There was a young boy who was ill in the cafe at The Caves and was clearly suffering from heat exhaustion after attempting it. The taxi was most definitely the sensible option. After the caves we exited through the gift shop (of course) and boarded our taxi once again.
The next stop was the much anticipated monkeys. We saw one clinging to the wing mirror of the taxi ahead which caused Finn to squeal with excitement and the adults to quickly shut the taxi windows. It was a little like Knowsley Safari Park only our driver told us to get out of the car! We had nothing to fear, the monkeys were freely strolling around us but provided you don’t touch them or get any food out they don’t come too close. We saw around 30 monkeys including some tiny babies clinging to their mums who were incredibly cute. We took some lovely photos and were touched by a plaque from the taxi drivers remembering one of the oldest monkeys who had passed away.
All too soon it was time to board the taxi and head down the Rock to our final stop, a photo opportunity by the cannons overlooking Gibraltar and the air strip. There were some fantastic views of the Indy on the way down.
Our taxi driver dropped us in the centre of town and it was a highly recommended trip although you may want to consider pre-booking to avoid the scrum at the ranks – I forgot to mention there’s another on the main square at the start of the high street too. After all that excitement we were in need of refreshment. All the pavement cafés seemed full however I spotted a bar on the main shopping street called The Royal Calpe with a sign for a beer garden. We went inside and found a gorgeous shady spot at the rear where we enjoyed a very reasonable bottle of red at just £7.95.
Refreshed and relaxed we made our way back to the ship on foot and were back on board a little before 6pm. We changed for dinner and made our way to the MDR. Our waiters Vicky and Edwin seemed delighted to see us and the feeling was mutual after the frosty service at Chops the night before. The head waiter who is called Mary is an absolute delight, popping over regularly to check all was okay and she was horrified when I mentioned our Chops Grille experience. I had bresola and rocket salad to start, Andy had breaded mushrooms followed by Mulligatawny soup as he couldn’t choose between the two. For main I had a roasted pork with mustard crust and Andy had strip steak. Finn had fruit salad and pizza – again. All was delicious and the service was wonderful as ever.
We returned to our room for sailaway and watched the Rock grow smaller amidst an amazing sunset from our balcony. An absolute bonus was the amazing display of dolphins in the wake of the ship as we left, a lovely end to a perfect day.
At 9pm Finn decided he wanted to go to kids club so we dropped him there for an hour while we went to the Olive and Twist lounge for a glass of wine. It’s a lovely spot at the very top of the ship that’s usually called the Crown Viking lounge on other RCI ships. There were plenty of small kids in the bar all holding toy monkeys after our trip to Gibraltar! The Olive and Twist is supposed to be child free after 10pm, we left just before that to collect our six year old from kids club but they didn’t seem to be asking anyone to leave.
We picked up Finn who’d had another amazing time and then we fancied a final nightcap. The plan was to go the Schooner Bar to see the pianist but he wasn’t on and there were no spare seats so we went back to the Royal Promenade and sat outside the Dog and Badger, a great place to people watch. We dropped by the CupCake cupboard on the way back to our room then it was time for bed, looking forward to a leisurely sea day tomorrow.
We filled in a room service breakfast order and settled in for a good nights sleep, more tomorrow….