PART ONE - THE SHIP
We just returned last night from a wonderful week on Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. We had a wonderful time, on a wonderful ship, with wonderful people! I will begin with a general review of the ship & it's services and then continue with a review of what we did each day.
This was a Family Reunion Cruise. In addition to my husband Steve, our daughter Katie & myself we had along my sister's family of four, my brother & his son and my mother who celebrated her 75th birthday year by treating our family to this unforgettable vacation. Our "kids" were ages 15, 20, 22 & 24.
The ship is beautiful. She was definitely the most impressive ship in any port. Although she is 5 years old & due for dry dock in September she was beautifully maintained. The carpets in the public areas were perfect and we only saw small signs of wear in a few spots in the cabins. To be quite honest, if I hadn't been looking for them because of previous reviews on Cruise Critic, I would have probably never noticed any of them. My husband sells glass to window companies, so he noticed a few window "IG" units that had failed & will probably be replaced in dry dock. There is artwork throughout the ship that is museum quality. I particularly liked the various sculptures found throughout the ship. We enjoyed the Promenade area and only a few times found it to be overly crowded. The Solarium area was my favorite "pool spot". It was relaxing to sit in the solarium and watch the waves go by! My other favorite "relaxing" public area was The Viking Crown Lounge. Even though we are not big drinkers by any means we loved the views and the piano music. My husband & I were able to sneak away and found total relaxation there. I had a Bahama Mama & felt totally decadent! The elevators were crowded and slow when there were big events like shows, mealtimes, and after tenders returned from port, so at those times we learned to take the stairs. After those meals I needed the exercise! Otherwise the elevators were fine.
Staterooms were very nice. We particularly enjoyed our balcony stateroom #7284. The room looked small when we first entered, but once we unpacked we found there to be plenty of cubbyholes and closet space for everything. We almost didn't use our over-the-door shoe holder, because we didn't feel we needed the room. However, we did put it up and found it made a great place to stash little things, which really helped with "clutter control"! The balcony held 2 chairs and a small table. We had breakfast on the balcony on 4 mornings. It was really hard to go back to reality after that! I will be spoiled for life because of that!
The recreational facilities on the ship were superb. The rock-climbing wall was used heavily by several members of my family and they said it was a very good wall. My 24-year-old nephew is a climbing enthusiast (he even built his own wall at home) & he enjoyed it very much. The exercise equipment room and the beautiful spa area impressed me. While using the treadmills you are looking over the ocean. Beautiful! The pools were nice & large. I saw some evidence of chair hogging, but we were always able to find a chair when we wanted one.
My husband & I went to every production show. My favorite shows were the Coasters and Mirage and the Ice Show and... oh well, I guess they were all my favorites! We did not get to "The Quest" as we were exhausted from a long excursion. However, I know we plan to go to it on our next cruise!
The food....all I can say is that anyone who says that their dining experience was anything less than excellent much be used to a much better everyday dining experience than I am! What a treat! Our wait staff in the dining room (our waiter Rana & his assistant Fernando) were attentive to our every need. What a let down to go to Burger King on our way home. I waited for someone to come place my napkin in my lap but finally gave up because my french fries were getting cold! My 22-year-old daughter told the headwaiter the first night that Rana was excellent and every night after that she was given every dessert on the menu! She was embarrassed, but we all enjoyed it because we all got to sample a little bit. We enjoyed every meal. We almost always ordered more than one appetizer & several times the guys in our group each had two entrees. My favorites were the Shrimp, Prime Rib & the Bananas Foster . I always went with Rana's recommendation & he never steered me wrong. I was a bit disappointed in the steak one night (not the every day steak - I knew better!) and the lobster was not as sweet as I've had in the past. However, I still had three tails so It wasn't that bad! The food in the Windjammer was very good and the service also excellent. We never did go to Johnny Rockets, but my husband couldn't pass a soft serve ice cream without getting a cone. My daughter won a free dinner for two at Portofino's at our Meet & Mingle Party so she took her 15-year-old cousin. They were very pampered and spoiled there.
I would never hesitate to return to this ship. The only aggravating part of this trip was embarkment & disembarkment. However, I don't believe those were RCI's fault. More about that later.
PART TWO - THE PORTS
We arrived in Miami on Friday night for our Sunday Western Caribbean Cruise. We stayed in the Holiday Inn at Bayside. We had a port view room on the 9th floor. The room was clean and sufficient for our purposes. It was conveniently located near the port and across the street from Bayside Marketplace, which we enjoyed. It was late Miami time when we arrived (11:30 PM) and we hadn't eaten yet. We went to Bayside & were surprised to see it still hopping. We grabbed a quick bite and went back to the hotel after enjoying some music in the center of the marketplace.
On Saturday we got up late and then went down to Bayside and went on a 1-½ hour cruise of "Millionaire's Row". It was very enjoyable & I highly recommend it. By the time we returned other members of our party were arriving, so we went back to relax & tidy up. At 6 PM the 6 members of our family who had arrived met two other families from our Roll Call, Indy Cruiser & DisneyGirl21, at Bubba Gumps. We had a great time & everyone got to know everyone else a bit.
Sunday morning we awoke to find The Explorer of the Seas bigger than life outside our window. Even though she was a bit away she was so impressive. By the time we all had breakfast & were packed up it was 11:00 so we decided to head over to the port. Because my mother had her car there we took the eight of us who were at the HI over to the ship in three groups. We were all there by 11:30. However, my brother & nephew had stayed at the Days Inn & had free shuttle service & they were there by 10:00. We felt sure that we would be able to get on the ship right away. However, because the previous passengers had not cleared customs right away we were not able to board until 1:30. My brother, who was there earlier boarded at 12:30. In the meantime it was a very long wait in line with not enough chairs. Once onboard we were able to go to our staterooms & then had some lunch at the Windjammer. The rest of the day we relaxed & explored the ship.
Monday was a sea day for us. At 10:30 AM we met at Portofino's for our Meet & Mingle. I was disappointed that everyone who had signed up wasn't there, but those who did had a great time! We got to know several of our Cruise Critic friends pretty well by the end of the cruise & I feel that our cruise was so much better for it! We saw quite a bit of Tim & Lisa (Tim&Lisa) & Cheryl & Dave (DisneyGirl). We also enjoyed the time we had with Steve (IndyCruiser) and his big family. We just wish we saw more of you! We enjoyed meeting all of you other great CC people & are looking forward to continuing to chat with you in the future! Afterwards, everyone went to do what they wanted and our family met later for dinner. It was a very nice day.
Tuesday was Belize. My husband went with the three oldest kids Cave Tubing and they had a blast. They booked through the ship and were glad they did. It was a long day & they got back after they ship was suppose to sail. Of course, the ship waited for them. The rest of us went on the Lamanai & New River Excursion Tour. We also booked through the ship due to the fact that it also was a long excursion & we traveled far from the ship. It was very hot in Belize. The cave tubers stayed cool in the water. On our excursion the 25 mile boat ride both ways was delightful. We saw lots of wildlife, including baby crocodiles (where was mama???) and a lot of beautiful fauna. The boat went fast, which kept us cool. We docked neat the ruins of Lamanai & had a nice picnic lunch of chicken & rice under a thatch-roof cabana. Then we began a one mile round trip hike through the jungle to the ruins. My mother had hurt her leg a couple of months ago and realized right away that she wouldn't be able to do the hike over uneven ground & up some short but steep hills. Our guide's young assistant made sure she got back to the cabana ok. I should have gone with her. As I said, it was very hot. It was true jungle & the humidity was stifling. I am used to heat in Phoenix but I couldn't take that. When we go to the ruins my sister & her family climbed to the top for some awesome views. They then poured water over my head as I was showing some signs of heat exhaustion & we hiked back. I made it to the boat with their help and after about 10 minutes back on the water I was feeling more myself. I purchased some beautiful hand carved bowls and a figurine at the boat dock & we then traveled back to port on an air conditioned bus. Except for the heat it was an excellent excursion & I would recommend it to anyone in good physical shape. My mother also enjoyed it even though she didn't do the hike as the river ride was long and fantastic.
Wednesday was Costa Maya & I think it had to be my favorite day. Because of the CC boards, I knew that we just had to go down to the little town of Majahaul. Most of our group went early and staked a claim on the beach at Tapas Bar. (Maybe I wasn't saying it correctly, but when I told everyone that we should go to Tapas they all looked at me quite shocked. When I said "But it is a real popular place" my Mother said, "I bet it is!" It turns out they thought I said "TOPLESS Bar!!!) Steve & I met up with them a bit later as he had a real sore throat & we went to the ship's doctor first. We had a great and relaxing day. We sat under a big palm tree and had a nice shaded table. We ordered a large seafood plate at Tapas to share, several orders of nachos & the biggest shrimp cocktail I had ever seen. We snorkeled & shopped. My Mother had a massage, my niece got her hair braided and my brother & nephew rented jet skis. We felt very safe. Vendors came to our table frequently, but they left without a hassle when we said , "No, thanks." My daughter the music major and nephew bought conch shell horns and we had a beachside concert. Later on the ship I heard many people say they were disappointed with Costa Maya. When I asked them if they went to Majahaul they looked at me blankly as nowhere was it mentioned in the Compass or on the ship. I am so grateful for CC, otherwise we would not have known of it either. The only thing that marred the day was that my sister, who has food allergies, had a bad reaction to something she ate. After a few scary moments she was ok, but went back to the ship early. The rest of us were fine & we don't know exactly what caused her reaction.
On Thursday we were in Cozumel. My husband, daughter & myself went to Tulum & Xel-Ha. It was a wonderful excursion, also through the ship. It was another long excursion & even though we got back just before the ship was scheduled to sail, we were back about ½ hour after the "All-Aboard". Tulum was beautiful. Although it was hot it wasn't as hot as Lamanai because it had a nice sea breeze. I also learned from my previous experience and took advantage of the tram on the way back from the ruins instead of trying the hot 10 minute walk. After Tulum we went to Xel-Ha which is a gorgeous park with a salt water lagoon. It was like swimming in an aquarium. The fish were beautiful and just everywhere. We had about 2 hours to snorkel, which was enough. The park had much more to do, including a dolphin encounter. We could easily go back there and spend a whole day! If you go I would suggest a waterproof watch. You are let off to go on your own after an initial orientation. We didn't have one, so we put my watch in our beach safe, which leaked. Fortunately it kept working. As it is, we left two members of our group behind who didn't make it back to the bus on time. We waited 15 minutes, but because the park is so big there was no way to find them. The guide said that they would put them on a taxi if they made it back. I don't know if they made the ship or not!
Six other members of my family were planning on going to Chankanaab Park, but discovered a resort near the dock called "El Sid". They went to a one hour long time-share presentation, which they said they enjoyed, and then had the rest of the day to enjoy the amenities of the resort. They had great snorkeling, a nice beach and a resort-style lunch for $31 for the six of them. They highly recommend it.
In Grand Cayman on Friday we had booked a tour with Native Way for Stingray City & the Coral Gardens. Again we can thank our CC friends for recommending this tour. The tour was very professional. We had only a few of us on the boat compared to the huge numbers we saw on the ship's tours. Our guides spent a lot of time with everyone and we each got to personally interact as much as we wanted with the friendly stingrays. I would have liked more time at Coral Gardens, but then we also had some time to shop before returning to the ship. Most of the people on the tour were from Cruise Critic, so that made it even more fun! Again, we got to spend some time with Tim & Lisa and Cheryl, Dave and their 4 year old Max.
Saturday was our last day at sea & we enjoyed it thoroughly. We mostly relaxed while the "kids" in our group played their hearts out. My mother & I lost $50 at Bingo, and then she won most of it back in the Casino. Another good day.
On Sunday they made us leave the ship! What a sad day. We did enjoy being able to just relax down by Ben & Jerry's while we waited for our color to be called. We were one of the last colors, so we had a longer wait than some of the others in our group. A special treat was when one of the Coasters, who was staying on board, came by and sat down with us. He had been with the group 27 years and was such a nice guy. We chatted for at least ½ hour before our color was called. After we were called we thought we would be quickly off the ship. We were called about 11:00, so it was already running late. However, we did not get off until after 1:00. We stood in line almost 2 hours! Also, there was still a pretty long line behind us. It was hard on my Mother, and she is in pretty good shape! I know that the hold up is at immigration, but some sort of seating should have been made available. We were booked with American Airlines at 4:45, so we had plenty of time, thankfully.
All in all, it was a great vacation. Next time we will probably book shorter excursions, but I'm glad we did the ones we did. We are now anxiously looking forward to our next cruise on the Jewel, in April, 2006!