ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL EXPLORER OF THE SEAS Western Caribbean Cruise Aug. 14 - 21, 2005 By Mary & Vincent Finelli
For us the perfect Caribbean cruise consist of the following: Having lazy sea days cruising over sparkling calm turquoise waters; spending active times in sun drenched exotic ports; and gazing at a distant moon in a star studded sky. We love to cruise when there is a full moon and on August 14th it was close to full. We had the amazing star studded nights, incredibly pleasant seas and on the first night there was way off in the distance a spectacular lightning show so far away, there was no audio, only video of fantastic glowing and flashing lights in the clouds.
Every evening we saw Venus and Jupiter so very bright in the sky. Since this was our third trip on the Explorer of the Seas, we won't describe the ship in specific terms (see our previous reviews for details). Instead this review will concentrate on life onboard.
EMBARKATION -- Port of Miami is easily accessed, but with adequate security. We arrived at 12:30 pm and were processed at the counter for suites, since the Ambassador Lounge for the Crown & Anchor Diamond members was not in use. There were promises of assistance with the wheel chair, but at each juncture, we were spurred on with ..."there should be assistance ahead." However, we never did get help.
With Royal Caribbean International (RCI) it is usually more advantageous to be a repeat passenger and belong to the Crown & Anchor Society, so that you may be the recipient of special perks and service (i.e. coupons for discounts in the shops on board, wine tasting, the Casino, and other amenities). We were checked in, on board and had spoken to the dining room personnel--- all in less than one hour. Now, it was time for the Windjammer Buffet. This nicely designed area has several serving islands, thus there are no long lines.
THE SHIP -- The Explorer of the Seas was launched in September 2000 and is now approaching her fifth birthday. She weighs 137, 308 tons, is 1017.19 feet long and has a beam of 137.76 feet. Her international crew numbers c. 1,214 and passenger capacity is 3,840; this cruise she carried 3,619, many of which were families with children on a final fling before going back to school. She has a cruising speed of 23.7 knots and is every bit as beautiful and elegant as when we sailed on her inaugural cruise. Although she bears the onslaught of thousands of passengers every week, her upkeep is magnificent and she has just passed the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) inspection with a near perfect score of 98!
The Explorer of the Seas, as a sister ship of the Voyager Class (Voyager, Explorer, Adventure, Navigator and Mariner of the Seas), has the unique Royal Promenade, a four story mall with side walk cafes, boutiques, sport bars and an English Pub. This is the site of parades, mini shows, live bands, singers, jugglers, comic entertainment and the Captain's welcome aboard reception. The other spectacular features of this class include Studio B with an ice rink and high quality skating shows; the rock climbing wall; a 9 hole mini golf course; the basketball and volleyball courts; the Viking Crown Lounge with its panoramic view of the sea and Dizzy's Jazz Club; and a Skylight Wedding Chapel which can accommodate 60 guests.
Deck 11 has the gorgeous Solarium with a lap pool and two huge whirlpools. This is a very private area in the early morning hours (7 to 9 am) where it is silently guarded by bronze statues of two Matadors and a bull on one end, and by two Grecian styled horses with clipped manes on the other end. This class of ships was built in "cookie cutter" fashion and only the decor differentiates one from another. Explorer's decorations are simple and tasteful --- just the way we like it!
FOOD & SERVICE -- RCI has standardized its menus across the fleet and caters them to its American clientele. Recently the menus have been down sized both in content and actual size. We found the new menus more handy; even though there were fewer selections on the main dining room menus, we found them to have enough variety to make most passengers very satisfied. Some of the memorable appetizer offerings were Duck Pate`, Shrimp Cocktail, and Escargot. Soups included French Onion, Tuscan Tomato and Cream of Asparagus. Among the entrees we liked the following: Duck A L'Orange, Rack of Lamb, Atlantic Cod, Main Lobster Tail, Filet Mignon and Prime Rib of Beef. Desserts on board are wonderful and fresh: RCI's famous huge cookies (chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin etc.), soufflés with hot vanilla sauce, hot chocolate cake, flourless chocolate cake and excellent apple pie a la mode. In addition Johnny Rockets has great shakes, burgers, fries, apple pies and brownies.
Service in the three dining rooms (named for the famous explorers: Magellan, Da Gama and Columbus) was excellent with our Waiter Urban Dias and his Assistant Serdar Karabas. The pace of the meal was nice and they were friendly and very efficient. In the specialty restaurant Portofino, there are still the huge oversized menus and a huge number of selections available. The service was excellent as well as the lovely atmosphere. There were some new offerings which we enjoyed: the Goat cheese soufflé served on wild greens with mushrooms; the spaghettini with lobster was superb; and dessert was an almond torte with zabaione and wild berries (yum yum!).
We had dinner with Captain Ole Johan Gronhaug again; he is a very pleasant gentleman who should be proud of this magnificently run ship. Naturally it was our best meal on board. We met some interesting people from Turku, Finland and had animated conversations with Purser David Warren who made us feel at home. Concierge Martin Sanchez was very helpful throughout the week with tickets and daily papers (Vincent was very happy reading the Italian newspaper La Stampa).
Mary Ann Yao, the Loyalty Ambassador, helped us with Crown & Anchor information (all passengers become Gold Members on their second cruise; Platinum after their 5th cruise; Diamond after their 10th cruise; and Diamond Plus after 24 cruises). There are many perks with each level including discounts, upgrades, on board receptions and gifts of wine and memorabilia.
We always say that RCI's crew is the friendliest and this cruise was no exception. The Captain sets the tone and character of the ship and the very competent Captain Gronhaug sets a fine example. Loyalty Ambassador Mary Ann, Concierge Martin and Chief Purser David are all a credit to RCI. Food on board is very good in preparation, taste and presentation. Service on board is excellent.
CABIN -- Junior Suite #9328 is located on Deck 9 very near the rear elevators. It is spacious and decorated in cool colors (peach, aqua and blue); there are wood cabinets and three large pictures; we especially liked one beautiful floral painting of a pansy and a calla lily. There is a wide entrance with a huge dressing room/closet on the left. Inside is a wall of shelves and a wall of rods with wooden hangers. Next, there is a desk with many drawers, and a separate mirrored and lighted vanity and a bar area. There is a small refrigerator and a personal safe. We use the safe so that we never carry wallets or purses while on board, all passengers need with them is the ship's card.
When entering on the right is the large bathroom with a full tub/shower (with safety rails) and mirrored cabinets. Next, there is a king size bed flanked by night stands and reading lights. There is a sitting area with a sofa, coffee table and and two upholstered arm chairs. The far wall is all glass to the balcony. This balcony is wider than most since this suite is where the ship angles out. There were two chairs, two small tables and a chaise lounge. Our cabin steward Delia was wonderful; she was so cheerful and pleasant and kept everything neat and clean --- she anticipated our every need.
ENTERTAINMENT -- Cruise Director Ms. Clodagh O'Connor put life into the daily activities on board. Her perennial joke of sailing us all back to her homeland Ireland was most welcome to us having been there for a too short visit last fall. Explorer is similar to her sister ships in offering more on board excitement than any other cruise ships. There are sports, swimming, dancing, live music and a constant 24 hour food marathon. The children's programs were well used this cruise, and we spoke with many parents and "kids" who were very happy and enthusiastic with the well organized activities for all ages.
The live shows in the Palace Theatre were good. We have to mention two of them, because they were very entertaining: Comedian Richie Minervini, and singer Tony Tillman with his outstanding tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. as "Bojangles." However, the most impressive one is "Planet Ice," a very entertaining ice-skating performance by Olympic quality international skaters. They received a well deserved standing ovation. There is plenty to do and see on board.
DEBARKATION -- This was incredibly easy since Mary Ann arranged for wheel chair assistance from our cabin. However, many ship board personnel lack the credentials to accompany passengers through the passport area. Thus we found ourselves waiting for assistance for one half hour at the passport control. The luggage is tagged by color; however, it goes around on just one conveyor, so there was another long wait there. After that, customs was quick and we were off by 9:20 am.
PORTS OF CALL -- Day 1: Embarkation Port of Miami.
Day 2: At Sea.
Day 3: Belize City, Belize. This was our third visit here. This port is becoming more popular with cruising ships, mainly for the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere (Great for Scuba) and a beautiful coastline, as well as a lush tropical forest.
Day 4: Costa Maya, Mexico. This was our first visit here. It is known for Mayan ruins, lagoons with sparkling blue waters and virgin beaches. Great shopping right at the end of the dock.
Day 5: Cozumel, Mexico. This Island off the coast of Mexico is a well known port of call for many cruising ships. It is famous for the best snorkeling area in the Caribbean. Some of the interesting excursions offered by RCI are the Mayan ruins of Tulum and the Xcaret Eco-Archeological Park. Also, there is great downtown shopping.
Day 6: Georgetown, Grand Cayman. A well known port of call in the Caribbean. Some good shopping, but not inexpensive. Interesting excursions: Stingray City (swimming/snorkeling with stingrays); Visiting the Turtle Farm, with creatures from a few ounces to a gigantic 500 pounds; and the Two Men Bubble Sub, also known as SeaMobile Submarine, which we did a couple of years ago (diving in a glass bubble sub for a 360 degrees view of sea life in the coral reef).
Day 7: At Sea.
CONCLUSION -- This trip combined all of the elements of a perfect cruise---- Sun, Moon, Stars, calm sparkling sea and rest. Just how lucky can we be? Well, two days after arriving home, we were facing Hurricane Katrina heading for a direct hit on our hometown. We were spared the full force, since it made landfall in Broward/Dade Counties just south of Boca Raton, Florida. We still have our wonderful cruise memories of beautiful skies and great weather.
This was our 52nd cruise and our 26th on RCI ships. We have not yet had a bad cruise, but some cruises have been better than others. We have already booked seven future cruises: The next on the refurbished Sovereign of the seas, Sept. 5; then on Carnival Glory, Oct. 1; Star Princess, Oct. 23; Navigator of the Seas, Dec. 3; Costa Magica, Jan. 8, 2006; Carnival Liberty, Jan. 29, 2006; and finally on the next RCI behemoth Freedom of the Seas, Sept. 24, 2006. Between now and then, we may book a few more cruises for the spring and summer of the coming year. Happy Cruising!