Salty Sails Anthem of the Seas

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I should begin this review with a confession. I am a techy, a bit of a nerd, kind of a geek, and definitely a fan of the “connected” world. I enjoy the modern conveniences of the internet-driven world from my smartphone to my tablet, from streaming music to streaming television. One of the biggest drawbacks to cruising for me has always been that heading to sea meant leaving all that connectedness at home. Billed as a “Smart Ship” from Royal Caribbean, I was about to put Anthem of the Seas to the test. She passed with flying colors.

A week day arrival in Cape Liberty comes with all the pressure of commuting through New York City from Connecticut. While driving to the pier is easy enough, it made just as much sense to hire a car service and let someone else deal with rush hour traffic. Once at the pier, dropping off luggage and checking in with a Royal Caribbean pier coordinator was simple. You see, unlike most other pier check-ins, you’ve already provided your photo and other important information ahead of time. The RCCL personnel simply need your paperwork and their own handheld tablet to get you checked in. It was smooth and effortless as was the security scan. We went from car to ship in roughly 15 minutes. Nice!

Once aboard, it is the ship’s beauty that takes your breath away. There is the Royal Esplanade with its welcoming array of shops and restaurants and the Via, an open area connecting midship to the Two70 that is just awe-inspiring. We headed topside and settled in just outside the Solarium Bistro where a welcome aboard lunch was available. We opted for a healthy soup and salad here and neither disappointed.

By 1:30, the cabins were ready for occupancy. Instead of picking up your room keys during check-in, the keys are ready for you at your cabin, which was very convenient. Cabins are large and lush. We had a balcony cabin with a slightly larger balcony because of its location on “the hump”, one of the outcroppings in the design of the ship. Quite spacious and provided a little extra area for enjoying sun and morning coffee. The cabin itself is well-appointed and even included USB charging ports near the desk, which were just perfect for keeping all my i-Goodies charged and ready to use.

If you have been on cruise ships that offer standard satellite-based internet service, you have likely spent far too long watching icons spin endlessly on your desktop as you try to collect email or load your Facebook page. With Voom, the name of the high speed internet service aboard Anthem of the Seas, waiting like that is a thing of the past. I experienced email and the web as fast as at home. In fact, I was even able to hold video chat sessions using both FaceTime and Skype with family and friends. It’s that good and worked throughout the ship and our cabin, including out on our balcony!

But the technology doesn’t end with Voom. For a small fee, you can purchase a smartband that will do everything your room key can do. The room keys and the smartbands are radio-based chips that do everything from open your cabin door to making purchases at the ship’s stores or restaurants. If you’ve used a Disney MagicBand then you know exactly how these work. I found it incredibly useful when carrying items like pool towels or a cup of coffee back to the cabin. A wave of the wrist towards the door and the smartband unlocked the door. Very smart, indeed!

Throughout the ship are kiosks powered by tablets sporting the Royal IQ experience. Simply swipe your card or smartband over the tablet and your customized cruise planner appears. From these stations you can do all sorts of things like make restaurant or show reservations, check your account balance, even check out the day’s events. Off to the ship’s photo gallery where more interactivity awaits you. If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered why ship’s photographers print so many photos that go unclaimed and ultimately discarded. It’s a wasteful practice that ends on Anthem of the Seas as all of your photos are available digitally. You can select the ones you want to print or you can simply download your photos. Perfect for all you Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat users and not a shred of photo paper is wasted. Smart!

A smart ship like Anthem of the Seas also needs a “Wow” factor to impress cruisers. Again, this ship delivers. The NorthStar is a gondola-type ride that takes you from the top of the ship to above the top of the ship! You can see a view from above the ship that few can claim to have seen. Even if you don’t actually ride in the NorthStar, you will marvel as it lifts guests high above the ship. It looks like something that shouldn’t be on a cruise ship but it delivers on the promise of “Wow”! As does the iFly which is a freefall simulator onboard the ship. Suit up and get ready to hover on the wind as the simulator lets you experience skydiving from the comfort of the ship. The FlowRider is not unique to Anthem of the Seas but it is impressive to watch folks “surf” while onboard. There is also a rock-climbing wall and all kinds of sports and amusements offered in the SeaPlex, a multi-use sports area that also offers a trapeze experience as well as bumper cars at various times during the cruise. Traditional court sports like basketball and soccer were also offered. A giant space dedicated to so many different activities… you guessed it – that’s smart!

Folks my age and older who have been cruising for more than 30 years will want to know about the more traditional cruise ship offerings of dining and entertainment. There is plenty of both but I want to talk about the entertainment first. Reservations are recommended for the premier production shows and you can make them online even before you set sail. The first show I saw was “We Will Rock You”, a full-blown 2-hour spectacular with 24 songs from Queen. The show was adapted from a long-running London production and was spectacular, in my opinion. If you don’t care for the music of Queen, you might still enjoy the production for its comedy and dance numbers. The second production show offered in the Royal Theater was “The Gift”, a show I had to miss due to a scheduling conflict. I heard it was good but not as good as “We Will Rock You”. I’ll catch it next time. The other production I enjoyed was “Spectra’s Cabaret” held in the Two70 Lounge showroom. The Two70 is a high-tech wonderland of panoramic movie screens, robotic TV screens, and performers that enter from the ceiling as well as from below stage. The quality of the show was on par with what I would expect to see in Vegas and while there is no real story line to the show, there is plenty of entertainment as live performers interact with the robotic elements to create a grand spectacle. “Spectra’s Cabaret” is a great use of the Two70 theater and all of its glorious wizardry. There were other cruise ship style shows during the cruise – a juggler, a ventriloquist, and vocal group, and assorted singers but none that impressed me as much as the featured production shows. That’s what happens when you go on a lot of cruises. Eventually, you’ve seen most of the touring acts. I get my best entertainment at dinner…

Which brings me to the restaurants and the food on board. There are many complimentary restaurants and several specialty restaurants where you pay a fee to dine. We purchased a package that included 5 specialty restaurants. We also added an extra specialty meal as the ship offered our level of return cruisers a “buy one, get one” offer the first or second night of the cruise. Too good to pass up, we dined 6 dinners at specialty restaurants and 4 at complimentary restaurants. The results were mixed.

Chops is a Royal Caribbean signature steakhouse found on many of the ships across the fleet. I have always enjoyed my meals there and this cruise was no exception. Food was delicious and prepared as ordered. Service was very good. We ate there three of the six specialty nights I especially enjoyed the 9-ounce filet mignon and the “Everything Tuna”.

Izumi is a Japanese-themed restaurant found on several of the Royal Caribbean ships. If you enjoy Sushi, Sashimi, and various sushi rolls, this is the place to dine. Everything was fresh and delicious. The only items missing from this Izumi compared to others we have dined at was the popular “Hot Rocks” style dinners. This is a smaller Izumi than others we have been at and I don’t think they have the space to prepare and offer the full menu. Be forewarned if you are looking for “Hot Rocks”, you won’t find it at this Izumi!

Wonderland is a fanciful restaurant where “Alice in Wonderland” is the theme and curious epicurean fare is at hand. Each course was fun and inventive with dishes like “Liquid Olives” and “Buffalo Deviled Eggs” were presented with flare. The wait staff are dressed as the Mad Hatter and the décor is whimsical and fun. Since it was included in our package, we were eager to try it and it did not disappoint but there was no need to go back a second time once we dined there once. It was somewhat reminiscent of Q-Sine on Celebrity Cruises but not quite as good as Q-Sine, in my opinion.

Jamie Oliver has created Jamie’s Italian restaurant aboard Anthem of the Seas and it is everything you’d expect. Great Italian food, plentiful courses, fresh ingredients and a nice experience. In addition to a lovely dinner, we also took advantage of lunch there on one of the sea days when they are also open. The Plank of Italian Cold Cuts was a favorite as was the fried calamari appetizer. The only disappointment was the lamb entre which they refuse to cook anything but medium or better “for health code reasons” I was told. Since I like mine rare to medium rare, I was quite disappointed in the lamb. However, the truffle pasta will more than make up for it as it was delicious! We went back to this restaurant one day for lunch as they offer a discounted rate to do so. They also withhold a few of the dinner menu items (like the truffle pasta) at lunch but this meal was also delicious and a nice change of pace for a little money.

We ate lunch in Michael’s Genuine Pub one day and were not disappointed. Menu items are a la carte and a bit pricy but quite delicious and well prepared. Service is excellent and the pub atmosphere is warm and friendly. Meant to go back there for dinner but simply ran out of days to do so. The pub hamburgers are generous enough to share and the fish and chips served pub style were a nice treat.

We also ate one lunch at Johnny Rockets aboard Anthem. This was, surprisingly, the greatest disappointment of the “pay for” meals. On the Voyager class of ships, this is one of my favorite experiences. On Anthem, it seems like an afterthought with inadequate seating, no table service, and no reason to come back. There is no reason to call it Johnny Rockets. They were even out of onion rings, a Johnny Rockets staple. No singing waiters, no ambience, nothing. This area should just be converted to a free poolside burger/chicken/hot dog grill. There is no reason to charge for this.

The complimentary dining rooms were truly a mixed bag. The Grande, billed as the more formal of the restaurants offered us a nice experience although I did not see the dress code enforced so while I was dining in my tuxedo, the guy next to me in the polo shirt did not enhance my experience. The food was good but not great. We dined in Chic one night for dinner and were served pork chops that had to be returned because they were not warm. The replacement chops were sizzling and delicious but why bother serving me the cold ones if hot ones are available? We did not dine at Silk or American Icon for dinner so I cannot comment on the food or service in those dining rooms. I will say that the American Icon dinner menu reminded me of Cracker Barrel style offerings so I didn’t bother. Silk’s menu was more Pan-Pacific and looked interesting. I did speak with some folks who enjoyed the food there.

Breakfasts and lunches were actually very good in the main dining rooms. We always enjoyed prepared as ordered omelets for breakfast in Chic and we had several tasty lunches in Chic, American Icon, and Grande dining rooms. Service was always friendly and the staff went out of their way to make sure all dishes were prepared properly.

Other complimentary dining options include Sorrento’s, a typical cruise ship pizzeria where flatbread pizzas by the slice or whole are the order of the day. They are alright but nothing special. We did enjoy the Solarium Bistro one night for dinner with friends. This is a fun alternative to getting dressed up for dinner and a great place for dinner with friends. While there are buffet options available here for soups and salads, there is also wait service staff for your entrees and a few upcharge options to consider. Our waiter, Radu, assured us that the lamb would be prepared to our liking so we opted to spend the $10 each for the chops. We were not disappointed and this lamb was superior to what we were served in Jamie’s Italian. If you enjoy lamb chops prepared rare to medium rare, this is the venue to order it!

We made a cursory pass through the Windjammer Café where food is available morning, noon, and night. You can have breakfast, lunch, or dinner here. We never did because I would more likely chew off my own knuckles than dine someplace where my fellow passengers get to touch everything. In the short time I was there, I saw someone pick up and put back a roll. I saw a child grab some salad croutons. I saw a person touch the milk spout where you pour your own milk. Sorry, cruise lines, I am pretty sure this is where norovirus lives and breathes. I just don’t trust my fellow passengers when it comes to food handling. I don’t eat at buffets back home and I surely won’t be starting here. Buffets cost cruise lines so much money and I understand the need to provide them but I just can’t get behind the idea of letting the untrained general public serve themselves food. Add in the gentle pushing and shoving that accompanies the experience and I see this as just about the worst experience on any cruise ship. No thanks.

We had one breakfast and one lunch at Two70, the nighttime showroom that converts to a daytime dining area. The bagels were quite good for breakfast and the famous Royal Caribbean Roast Beef Kummelweck sandwiches are particularly tasty at lunch. I don’t care for the seating options here and much prefer to see the same kind of food offerings at the Park Café on many other Royal Caribbean ships. Still, it is a nice offering and the sweeping views from Two70 during the day are a nice use of the space.

La Patisserie is home to the Starbuck baristas and the best coffee onboard. I had purchased the Premium Non-alcoholic Royal Replenish beverage package so I was a frequent visitor. Coffees and frozen drinks were excellent. The staff was friendly and efficient. I really miss those folks now that I am home. Great job!

The ship’s design is pleasing enough and for the most part, getting around Anthem of the Seas isn’t too challenging. You will have the usual challenges of fetching an elevator at prime hours when everyone is aboard. The Royal Esplanade can be a bit challenging to navigate when the retailers take over the middle of the walking area as it forces people to the very narrow sides. Add in a few scooters and you are quite bottlenecked at times. The shopping was adequate and typical of most cruise ships. There are many bars throughout the ship and all were nicely appointed and friendly enough. Lounge entertainers were quite good and several had large followings of people who frequented a particular bar because of the entertainment offered. The only thing I noticed missing was a live band offering ballroom type music. There were ballroom dancing times offered but always to pre-recorded music. The live bands were primarily offered in the Music Hall, a two-story dance club mid-ship designed to attract a younger audience with rock music, billiards, and a large bar. I didn’t particularly care for the décor or the use of the space but different strokes for different folks. It was packed and hopping most nights and was the place to be later at night as the parties often went into the wee hours of the morning.

Topside is a most impressive use of open space. There are two covered pool areas – one for adults only and one for families. The one for families is an actual swimming pool, the one for adults only is a series of cascading tiny pools where you can soak but not swim. While I preferred the adults only area, I was disappointed not to have an actual swimming pool in that area. The main pool outdoors features a beautiful large screen TV where movies and concerts are also shown. Decks above pool deck include sunning areas, some hot tubs, and the largest walking/running track I have ever seen on a ship. I worked off as much of the calories I could on the running track and found it particularly good for jogging, especially early before the crowds overtook the sunning areas. The Vitality Spa and Health Club were particularly well-appointed and large enough that getting an exercise machine was not that difficult other than peak hours of use.

One other comment on the ship’s design. If you have sailed on Celebrity Silhouette, you may notice a great similarity and feel some déjà vu as you navigate Anthem. I did, especially when I was noticing the “X” design on the windows on Deck 5 as you cross the ship. It is subtle but the similarities are apparent.

The cabin was quite nice, as you would expect on a ship that is so new. Again, the similarities to Silhouette are apparent, including the closets that surround the bed. Ample storage and a lovely sitting area were featured in our room as was a very large balcony as our cabin was situated on one of the “the humps” of the ship. These cabins are situated where the ship’s design bulges out a bit, creating an opportunity for a bit larger balcony. Morning coffee and afternoon sun were often consumed in this lovely bit of personal space. One disappointment in the cabin was the bathroom floor which groaned and squeaked. We brought it to our cabin steward’s attendant but there was nothing to be done. This was a defect created during the ship’s buildout and would require the floor to be lifted for the squeak to be corrected. It was a minor inconvenience but a disappointment nonetheless. A brand new ship shouldn’t have any squeaks to a floor that has no damage. Our cabin steward did a great job keeping our cabin Spartan and providing numerous towel animals to greet us upon turning in for the evening.

You may ask, who else was on board and what was the passenger mix? Well, since the ship sailed from Cape Liberty, the mix was largely folks from the Northeast, in particular the tri-state area. It’s just too easy to drive to the pier and head off to the Caribbean from here. That being said, I also met folks from Canada and other parts of the country who flew in because they were anxious to try this new ship from Royal Caribbean. While there were plenty of first-time cruisers onboard, I think the vast majority were cruise veterans. There were many families which meant many children. The line does a nice job of keeping the kids busy so I can’t say the abundance of children compromised my adult vacation experience other than a few children wandering through the casino every now and again. If you have children, there is plenty to keep them busy. If you want to avoid dealing with children, there are plenty of places to go where children are either not allowed or don’t care to spend time. If you are a sun seeker and wish to spend time at the ship’s main pool, you are going to be surrounded by children. If you head up a deck and sun yourself near the walking, jogging track, you will likely not be surrounded by children. I only used the main pool during port days when the families were largely off the ship and it was lovely. Overall, I found the mix of folks to be friendly and good-mannered and my guess is so will you.

The question I am most asked is “Should I go on this ship?”. My answer is “YES”! This is a thoroughly modern ship with some of the finest and most talked about amenities at sea. The production shows were spectacular. The specialty restaurants were awesome. The technology of the ship is impressive. If you have never been on Anthem of the Seas, I highly recommend you consider it at least once. That being said, if you dine strictly in the complimentary restaurants, I think you will find the dining to be average at best. I talked to many folks who said that while they enjoyed their initial cruise on Anthem, they didn’t think they’d be rushing back to sail her again. Once the initial “Wow” factor is gone, I think may typical cruisers who cherish things like complimentary dining and great shows every night of the cruise may consider Anthem a “one and done” experience. I am actually looking forward to sailing on her again and again because I believe I have found enough great experiences onboard that I wish to repeat. Even onboard for 10 days, I did not experience NorthStar, bumper cars, iFly, and the production show “The Gift”. I thought the specialty dining experiences were quite good and I would enjoy experiencing them again. The accommodations were excellent and the overall experience ranked quite high with me. Of course, one size does not fit all and your experience may differ greatly from mine. Given the fact I can be at the pier in just a few hours from home, I would be foolish to not sail her as often as I can. I hope to see you onboard next time!

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