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Rhapsody 's return is music to the ears

By HARRY SHATTUCK, Houston Chronicle Travel Editor
this article appeared in the February 24, 2002 edition of the Houston Chronicle

RHAPSODY of the Seas' officers and staff concede they had no idea what to expect when the 2,000-passenger Royal Caribbean ship sailed into Galveston last fall (2001) to begin a nine-week test run.

"But the reception we got was amazing," says Californian Patrick Olin, who as hotel director oversees the Rhapsody 's day-to-day operations. "Our tag line is that we're the friendliest ship on the high seas, and that fits so perfectly with Texas hospitality."

"The Texans were so fun-loving, always smiling and eager to participate, that our staff felt we could do no wrong," says cruise director Nicki Stevens, responsible for the vessel's entertainment and activities.

"Even the stevedores came up to us and asked, `What can we do to help?' " says food and beverage director Diane Taggart. "That's unheard of. And Galveston must have the friendliest cabdrivers anywhere.

"We can't wait to get back."

Fulfilling requests, she promises to bring yellow mustard this time. And lots of Tabasco. Maybe even a Texas wine or two.

The Rhapsody , launched in 1997 and easily the largest passenger ship ever to call Texas home, returns to Galveston April 14 to begin year-round Sunday departures to Key West, Fla.; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico.

While not of the magnitude of newer Royal Caribbean ships - the 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas and Adventure of the Seas, all with ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls and miniature-golf courses - the Rhapsody boasts several firsts for a Texas-based vessel:

1. A large number of staterooms with balconies overlooking the ocean with 229.

2. Open-air spaces that cover most of two decks, with two swimming pools, one for adults only in an Egyptian-themed solarium with a retractable glass canopy.

3. An air-conditioned lounge with picture windows - the 250-seat Viking Crown, a Royal Caribbean hallmark - perched atop the ship, allowing panoramic views during the day and serving as a disco at night.

4. The Centrum, a striking five-story atrium flanked by glass elevators.

5. Also prominent are an 870-seat showroom, a 575-seat lounge where dancing is a nightly ritual, several other venues for relaxation and libation, a spa offering a wide range of treatments at an extra charge, exercise facilities, an Internet center with Web access and e-mail privileges for 50 cents per minute, a large casino, a library and a shopping complex.

Like Carnival's 1,486-passenger Celebration, which has operated four- and five-night cruises from Galveston to Mexico since September 2000, the Rhapsody of the Seas places heavy emphasis on youth programs and the expanding family-vacation market.

Separate supervised Adventure Ocean programs are operated (at no charge other than the cruise tariff) for ages 3 -5, 6-8, 9-12 and 13-17. A teen center includes a disco, video games and a living area.

Almost 300 of the ship's 1,000 staterooms contain space for third and fourth passengers.

A recent Rhapsody sailing from Tampa, Fla., featured the three ports included on Galveston itineraries and provided a taste of what Texans can expect.

Consistent with the approach on all 14 Royal Caribbean ships and on Carnival's 16-ship fleet, activities are scheduled almost around the clock.

Evening entertainment in the main showroom includes a big-band revue and a Mardi Gras-themed song-and-dance extravaganza as well as performances by comedians, illusionists and vocalists. Established artists appear on a rotating basis; on the Tampa sailing, the Drifters were showcased.

"Royal Caribbean has a standard program, but we're looking to gear that more toward Texans, perhaps working in more country-and-Western themes," says Stevens, who hails from England and alternates with a Texan as Rhapsody cruise director.

Dinner in the two-story, 1,200-seat Edelweiss Restaurant is typical of large-ship productions: two seatings, assigned tables, friendly but rushed service from a multinational crew, loud noise, hit-and-miss food quality (tender beef, dreadful lamb roast, succulent lobster tails, dried-out vegetables).

One disappointment is that Royal Caribbean has eliminated wine stewards, entrusting that responsibility to assistant waiters (some with little or no knowledge of the wine list and too eager to push packages with set prices) unless passengers are assertive enough to request guidance from the maitre d'. (Carnival also has no wine stewards.)

On a more positive note, the persistent will find a good selection of wines, many priced at less than $30.

Breakfast and lunch follow an open-seating format in the main dining room, but up to 80 percent of the Rhapsody 's passengers choose an alternate buffet in the 710-seat Windjammer Cafe next to the main pool.

Reports of crowding and bland food at the buffet preceded this cruise, but reality was a pleasant surprise: always an available table and chefs unafraid to use seasoning (a welcome contrast from the main restaurant) in dishes such as blackened mahi-mahi, tequila chicken, vegetarian chili and beef fajitas. Unlike on many ships, the buffet offerings didn't duplicate the dining-room menu or recycle day-old concoctions, except for a stellar key lime pie, and there were no complaints about that.

"We've learned that we have to be careful, though, with what we call our Tex-Mex dinner," Olin says. "Texans know the real thing when they see it."

As for that yellow mustard: "We found out it's a big deal for some Texans (who made up 80 percent of the passenger load last fall); they weren't satisfied with the fancy stuff," Taggart says.

"You'll now find bottles of Tabasco on tables in the Windjammer Cafe, too," she adds.

Casual dining is available at night in the Windjammer, and an Asian feast that attracted the ship's captain and other officers is highly recommended.

Don't fret about dressing to the nines anywhere, unless it's by choice. Two formal nights are scheduled on weekly cruises, but only about 10 percent of male guests wore tuxedos on the sailing from Tampa.

On that cruise, filled to capacity and blessed with sunny weather, an ample supply of lounge chairs was available on open decks even at midday. Interior public rooms were rarely jammed, and a variety of lounges with comfortable seating satisfied cravings for mood music or upbeat sounds.

But Royal Caribbean needs to rethink its out-of-the-way location and limited staffing for a small counter serving hamburgers, hot dogs and pizzas. At mid-afternoon, this was the only food outlet other than room service, and it wasn't unusual to wait 15-20 minutes in line for service.

As on many ships, beverage costs continue to escalate ($5.50 for a tropical cocktail), but a variety of pre-paid cards offer limited savings on multiple purchases of fountain soft drinks and non-premium alcoholic beverages.

The Rhapsody is tastefully decorated throughout, with an eclectic collection of artworks gracing public areas. Some wear and tear was noticeable, but the ship is scheduled for a weeklong refurbishment before arriving in Galveston.

Standard staterooms are 148 square feet and well-furnished. Several categories of suites are available, the largest measuring more than 1,000 square feet. For the budget-conscious, 407 inside staterooms are a bargain. Fourteen staterooms accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.

Shore excursions, which are detailed on Royal Caribbean's Web site ( www.royalcaribbean.com ) and can be booked online, should appeal to almost any interests.

From Galveston, the Rhapsody will call first at Key West, a 3 p.m.-to-1 a.m. visit that allows participation in popular sunset sailings and immersion in the town's lively nightlife. Passengers can choose among 20 excursions on Grand Cayman and 25 on Cozumel. A heavy emphasis is on diving and other water sports.

The ship will dock at Key West and Cozumel, but tendering is required for Grand Cayman, a time-consuming process through which passengers are transported between ship and shore in smaller boats.

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