Independence of the Seas - Maiden Voyage

In February 2007, Royal Caribbean International made the shock announcement the third ship in their Freedom class, Independence of the Seas, would be based in Southampton in the summer of 2008, replacing Navigator of the Seas which hadn't even begun what would now be her one and only season.  This was quite a coup for Southampton as Barcelona is the number one cruise port in Europe while Southampton is number one in northern Europe and showed the confidence RCI had in the city.  It would be the largest ship ever to homeport in Europe and cross the Atlantic with fare-paying passengers once the season was over.  Confusion reigned over which was the maiden voyage when the itineraries were announced.  There was a four night trip to Cork on the 17th May while and eleven night to the Canaries on the 21st.  The press release had been no help, stating only the maiden was mid-May so travel agents sold it as the longer trip.  

They went on sale on the 14th March and, imagining how fast it would sell, I was on the phone as soon as the lines opened.  Due to their single supplements being so high, I could only afford the four nights on the 17th which would be calling at Cobh and then have a two hour stop at Guernsey for tax purposes.  After almost twenty five minutes of plugs for the Flowrider and things, I got through to Clare who was really helpful.  As I had booked an Oceanview on Navigator, I went for a balcony this time to have something different.  Of course, I didn't know then I would be upgraded to a balcony on Navigator!  Surprisingly the single supplement wasn't the usual double which I was pleased about.  I had a budget and if it had gone over I'd have opted for Oceanview.  I may have gone cruising barmy but I'm not stupid.  Not yet anyway!  Clare looked at the cabins available for E2 grade and selected 9242, one of only four on Deck 9 and the highest that grade went to.  She also informed me I would receive a free bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries.  Not keen on champagne but doing these cruises has given me the taste for it and white wine back, albeit limited amounts, but it was free so I wouldn't turn it down.  One of the advantages of travelling alone - no sharing freebies!!!!  Pity the cruise fares are a disadvantage but I digress.  

I absolutely loved my short cruise on Navigator and it's a shame Freedom class are just a modified version of Voyager class.  There are a few differences to explore but at least I'd know my way around!  Independence was floated out at Aker Yards in Turku on the 14th September 2007 so progressing nicely.  Another eight months the brand new ship would have arrived and I'd have the set!  That in itself is unusual as we would normally see one of a new class rather than all of them, let alone get to keep one for six months.  On the 5th December a letter arrived.  The ship would be early and as a result they had brought the maiden forward to the 2nd May.  We all had the choice of leaving it on the original date or transferring at no extra cost.  I got on the phone immediately!  Also travel agents henceforth began referring to the short as the maiden, which is what I'd told people all along.  Good marketing on RCI's part.  Many people try out a ship on a short rather than long so it was one way of guaranteeing those who loved it would want to go back.  The 17th would now be the third cruise and we missed the Elvis convention - yay!!!!  When I paid the balance off on the 7th January the SetSail Pass was ready to print.  They sent me an updated statement afterwards giving me a £10 credit as they had added the fuel supplement online which I'd paid.  Time to relax and await the arrival on the 25th April of the latest Royal Caribbean mega ship!

The ship was named by Elizabeth Hill on the 30th April and the ship sailed for a two night charity cruise with Sir Steve Redgrave to raise money for his charity which is affiliated with Royal Caribbean for initially two years.  Press, travel agents and some other lucky punters were aboard.  Then on the 2nd May she came back to prepare for her maiden voyage.  This would be my third Royal Caribbean cruise, having done
Navigator exactly eleven months earlier (and I'm still waiting for my Crown & Anchor membership pack which was supposed to take four-six weeks) and Vision with Amy back in March.  We fell in love with Vision to the extent we affectionately nicknamed her Ducky Bum.  Independence is a genentically modified Ducky Bum!  While doing variations on a design gets boring, I am pleased overall Royal Caribbean have stuck with rounded sterns and sleek lines rather than flat things which make ships look more like buildings.  I also love their set up and the ship interiors are magnificent.  The staff go out of their way to make sure you have a fabulous time.  I found out shortly before sailing the company started the year I was born so there's an affinity there.  No chance of a freebie for my 40th then? Hehe.  As the date had changed, so had the ships in with us.  Originally we would have had Oriana and come back with the QE2 and Arcadia.  Now it was Ventura (having just returned from her maiden voyage) and Queen Victoria, returning with Aurora and QV.  Consecutive cruises with Ventura on the sailing date and coming in with Aurora.  I was so excited I went for the ferry but got an earlier one as all I could think about was boarding that gorgeous ship waiting at City Terminal AND docked the correct way round!  Woo!  No time wasting!!!  Thank you ABP and RCI!

As we set out across to Town Quay, a Red Funnel ferry blocked the view of the new gorgeous one, clearly not realising everyone must gaze upon Indy's enormousness and beauty and not the ferry.
Queen Victoria was the third Cunard ship to be docked starboard in QEII in two weeks.  The QE2 was first when she returned from her final world cruise on the 18th followed by the QM2 on the 22nd. Both ships travelled up to Western Docks so no idea why QV was the wrong way round unless it was to make sure she didn't slip out and spoil our party.  As I was too early I waited at Town Quay then got a taxi so arrived a little earlier than my noon time.  There was my ship looking gleaming and beautiful in the sun.  I was delighted we would be sailing on such a wonderful day.
The porter took my case and we had a brief chat.  After taking some pictures I entered the terminal.  The Southern Daily Echo were handing out a free maiden voyage special edition of the paper which wasn't much of a special edition.  Just a wraparound cover and some insert which could easily fall out.  The queue was nonexistent so straight through to security then check-in.  I had a bit of a panic when I lost my credit card.  When I had gone through security, the bloke had told me to put everything in the tray which included my documentation.  I'd put the card with that so it would be east to find.  The lady at check-in took me back there and thankfully we found it.  After being given my Sea Pass, which was delightfully colourful with a picture of a Freedom class ship on and 'Inaugural Celebration 2008', I received a free Independence of the Seas canvas bag and made my way to departures.  There were a few people sat waiting and you could get refreshments.  There was also a sign saying boarding was 2pm despite the fact you could go straight on.  I took a few photos and off I went, stopping only at the top of the escalator for the boarding photo.  Every one of the ground staff was as excited as me at this event.
More beaming staff greeted you as you boarded Deck 4 and the waiters had trays of welcome aboard drinks, soft and alcoholic.  I grabbed some bubbly then sat in Boleros to drink it.  It was only 12.15pm, the cabins would be ready at 1pm so I had a little time to kill.  Once my drink was gone I went to explore.  Casino Royale, also on Deck 4, was a little disappointing after that on Navigator but I did like the James Bond murals and the stairs changing colour.
The Viking Crown is a little nook between the casino and entrance to the Labyrinth nightclub and looks part of the Schooner Bar,  It features a small display of artifacts from Royal Caribbean's heritage going back to Song of Norway.
The Schooner Bar is identical to those on the Voyager class ships.  The only real difference was the smell.  The ropes didn't half stink so you knew you were on a brand new ship!  The Labyrinth club too is again similar to Voyager class.  There's certainly a familiarity with reusing designs but it can also make it a bit boring if you like to discover new things and layouts like me.
Up to Deck 5 where the Royal Promenade is.  Perhaps it's because of doing Vision and Indy so close together but I prefer the Centrum on Vision and where the shops are.  Having everything so close together, including a few eateries is a good idea, but it gets really crowded just to walk through because of also having two bars there.  Also, due to this Royal Promenade, a design fault has been left over from the Voyager class ships.  Not enough stairs and lifts.  There are three lifts each side at either end of the Promenade and that's it.  You can also only use the portside Centrum lifts to get to the Viking Crown Lounge which is a pain.  With more passengers on the Voyager and Freedom class there should be more lifts and stairs.  I hope this is recitifed on Project Genesis or there'll be pandemonium. Sorrento's was an Italian pizza place and extremely popular throughout the cruise, although I must confess I never once went in for a slice.  The Pyramid Lounge was forward with doors leading onto Deck 5 and the walkway to the all-important bow!
The touch screen deckplans were a new innovation for this class and replaced the pocket ones you never got anyway.  We only received one on the ship tour on Navigator and didn't get anything on Vision apart from a photocopied A4 sheet when we checked in.  A shame really as touch screens are no good when you're lost outside.  Easier to get your pocket deckplan out and have a look.  With norovirus always a worry they are also very unhygienic.
The first teething trouble I encountered was at the Wipeout bar near the Flowrider.  I ordered a Bahama Mama as Royal Caribbean do terrific cocktails.  The barman couldn't put it on my account and told me to go to Guest Relations to have my card activated.  Later when I did I was told the card was fine but the system had a few gremlins.  That was such a relief.
I made my way to my cabin as it was gone 1pm.  There were crew on hand to direct you.  I was told at one point I was on the wrong side when I wasn't.  I took a photo of below from my deck then went hunting my cabin down.  It was easier to find that I'd imagined so I took a picture of the door to show how close it was to the stairs and lifts.
The layout was again similar to Navigator apart from having flat screens now.  The TV channel choice was lacking.  Not even BBC1 as had been on Navigator.  Wonderful webcam they really ought to put online.  There were actually two cams.  One overlooked the H2O Zone and the other the bow.  The announcements channel played more modern music.  The sofa was as comfy as that on Navigator while the bathroom and balcony the same.  The dressing table chair sounded like frying food when you stood up.  Maybe it's because it's new.  There was no ice in the bucket as there had been on Navigator and Vision despite the mini bar having drinks.  There wasn't even anything saying the name of the steward.  Because of being based in the UK they had tea and coffee making facilities in the cabin.  This was a hilarious attempt.  I had been told they introduced them on Navigator but it must have been after my trip and something they must work on.  For a start we need proper cups but they supplied one saucer with two spoons.
Time for another wander along the Royal Promenade.  Usual places like Cafe Promenade, Vintages, shops and the pub (called the Dog and Badger on this ship).  But there were also new additions including A Clean Shave where men could have an old-style grooming experience minus the cut-throat razor.  I was told they use Mach 3's and it was very busy during the previous charity cruise.
It's funny how the navigational info is different.  Vision's was excellent and really detailed as it flicked through.  How would this fare?  They have two webcams which you can watch.  One looking over the bow and the other the H2O Zone, which is what you would see on the info channel.
As I was on the phone, my freebie arrived and this was the first time I saw my steward.  He'd brought two glasses so I told him I only needed one.  There was a 'With Compliments' card attached from Royal Caribbean and Clare.  The strawberries were delicious.  Really fresh and juicy with lots of flavour.  Some of the best I've ever had.  Thank you Clare and Royal Caribbean!
Lifeboat drill was 4.30pm.  We were being filmed so had to wave to the camera like loonies.  I chatted to an elderly couple whose first cruise it was and then a travel agent who had been on the previous charity cruise and stayed on.  She said she had done one of the HALs and liked Arcadia and Queen Victoria because she knows her way around.  Hell of a dash afterwards back up from Deck 4 to Deck 9 before heading outside for sailaway.  As I was buying a drink we blasted once.  As I made my way to Deck 12 we blasted again!  When I reached the side I noticed we were moving so were slightly early. We did go first.  Yay!!!!  Absolutely crap send off though.  No fireworks or firetugs.  Many people had no idea what Queen Victoria was but knew Ventura.  Ventura surprisingly didn't follow as we neared Queen Victoria.
As we passed I saw the last of QV's ropes thrown into the water.  We blasted to each other and she was already moving out before we were completely clear.
As I was watching QV head to the turning circle, Caryll said hello.  We hadn't seen each other since Constellation so it was good to see her again.  She was travelling this time with her friend Sandra and they, along with many others, had come straight from Ventura's maiden. They were given a salt & pepper set without the date or ship's name on and a certificate.  One of the higher Portunus tiers had a mug with your own name on.
Finally in the distance we saw Ventura moving!  Took her flipping time. She was going to be miles behind QV now.  I wonder why she was late when it would have made more sense for QV to have been last, having to turn.


© Patricia Dempsey 2nd-6th May 2008
Not to be reproduced without permission