We just returned from a great week aboard the Explorer of the Seas, traveling the Eastern Caribbean run from Miami to San Juan, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Nassau before returning. Stacy and I were celebrating our honeymoon, and we had a marvelous first week of married life together among the crew and passengers of the Explorer.
My last cruise was 20+ years ago aboard the RCI "Song of America", at the time one of its newest and largest ships: 750 passengers, 32,000 tons, 705 feet long. Of course, almost petite nowadays compared to the Explorer at 1100+ feet long, 3500 passengers, 142,000 tons! So I'll have some compare/contrast thoughts in here comparing cruising now to twenty years ago, along with the typical review information.
Food: We had so many good meals on board, and cruising still offers many many opportunities to pack on the pounds. That said, we were pleased with all the healthy choices that were available, and that helped us avoid much of the weight gain that you hear about from cruisers. Breakfast at the Windjammer always included lots of fresh fruit choices, yogurt, cereal, and the like, much like we'd enjoy at home. We made conscious choices at bfast and lunch to avoid a lot of the heavy stuff, both to keep us from getting "weighted down" during the day's activities, but also to save calories/"points" for dinner choices and the great desserts that we'd rather spend calories on.
We never had breakfast or lunch in the dining room, it was always just more convenient to have a quick break in the Windjammer or Island Grill. Reviews I'd read before sailing had a slam or two about the Windjammer buffets, but I had no complaints at all. We always got their pretty early in the bfast / lunch cycle, so the buffet contents seemed pretty fresh and appealing. We also were amazed at all the choices, fresh salads, grilled fish of one or more different types each day, omelets or pasta made to order, fresh-baked pizza, even sugar-free desserts if you so chose.
We enjoyed our dinner companions, although I was surprised to have the dining room about 1/3'rd empty each night...that's different than I experienced before. I think the current times are more informal, and people are more "inward" due to a lot of social influences. When I sailed 20 years ago, dinner each night was the main event, and a big point of cruising was meeting new people. What I saw on Explorer was more people choosing to just be with family / their own group, and avoiding the more formal dinner interaction.
And speaking of "formal"...that's another thing that looks like it's going away, the whole notion of dressing for dinner. It only took my first night, when we waited outside the Columbus dining room with a crowd of dinner guests in tank tops and shorts, to realize that the suggested attire of sport coat and slacks was only mildly suggested! That shouldn't really be a surprise: the business world has gone casual, so it's not hard to envision cruising would take it down a notch as well. Our two formal nights had those who did show up in nice attire, but I'd guess the dining room to be only 1/2 full those nights, as so many opted out of this activity. It's nothing that diminished my enjoyment really, but just one of those things you sigh about as the world changes a bit over time. I must be getting older!
We had a nice variety of entrees each evening, and it was easy to order a 2nd entree if you wished. Like others had said, our waiters soon learned our preferences, so loving bread I was always served two rolls at a time, as well as getting my iced tea dosed in double glasses. I ordered a medium-rare steak one night which was delicious and high-quality, and typically picked fish or fowl other times. Desserts were also special, and our waiters would usually bring one or two extra's that we hadn't ordered to share with the table. The only disappointments were the flaming desserts...out of three orders, they only flamed tableside one night. Too bad, it's a great show!
Entertainment: We went to the Palace Theater each night to begin our entertainment, and the shows were great and high-caliber. We really enjoyed "Spectrum", the Motown/R&B retro group on Wednesday night, and although we'd missed the Monday ticket handout for the Ice Show, we did get a couple from Guest Relations the day of the show and enjoyed it so much. Both are "shouldn't miss" events IMHO. I'd read so many positive comments about Explorer's cruise director Clodagh O'Connor, and she did a great job introducing each night's show, and hosting the Love & Marriage show (think "The Newlywed Game") one evening. Our favorite evening activity, besides hot-tubbing (and it was good to go to the ones in the Solarium at night, not crowded at all and peaceful), was salsa dancing at the Aquarium Bar. We pretended we knew how, visiting with the wonderful Cuban-American couple we met at dinner. Great music, and caipirhinia's for $5, how can you beat that?!
Activities: We work out twice a week at home, so we brought clothes and got our workouts in on the Explorer as well. We passed on swimming / sunning during the day...the sea days were sooo crowded up there, we decided to skip it and do other things, and there's plenty else. Actually, the last sea day we just crashed in our cabin, watched a couple of old movies, listened to the sea outside the balcony, and just relaxed. Stacy the Minnesotan took me ice skating that Friday as well, and I was a little rusty...okay, a *lot* rusty! No bingo, crafts, dance lessons, art auctions, or casino for us either, though all were available.
Our shore excursions included the city tour of San Juan, which really meant a tour of the San Cristobal fort (pretty interesting, esp. the dungeon where most inhabitants lasted a week or so in the heat...we were believers, the 90+ degree day we went it was plenty stifling in there!) and a long ride to the Bacardi plant tour and back. A shame about Bacardi, the actual tour building is pretty interesting, but they could do so much more to really treat their customers well. The bus pulls up to an open air building, crowded, where tickets for your free drinks are handed to you. Patrons queue up in a long line to be served an indifferent mix of Bacardi and whatever in cheap plastic cups from what looked like an igloo cooler. The gift shop was very nice, with a lot of cool logo items, we were disappointed to not find any stuffed bats, their logo mascot. What would have been great was a welcome center like the VIP lounge mockup inside the tour center, with drinks mixed to order. A lot more expensive, sure, but what a nicer message to send to those interested in your product. We succumbed to buying a bottle of Bacardi Special Reserve, 12 years old and oooh that smell...can't wait to break into that on the next special occasion!
In St. Maarten, we took in the America's Cup regatta, sailing on the 1987 America's Cup racers Stars & Stripes and True North. Fast, fun, and furious, I got pretty winded being a "primary grinder" on the forward winch, and was glad for the downwind legs to rest/recover/re-hydrate with Presidente beer. They allow non-active participation, of course ("iceberg watcher") but with Stacy along I couldn't wimp out with something like that! On one leg we were side-by-side, banked over, running full sails, about 19 knots or so...about 5 feet apart. Pretty cool!
Our St. Thomas activity, the Kon Tiki raft cruise, was cancelled the night before at 7pm due to too-few participants. Not RCL's fault, of course, but disappointing. We did a little shopping that morning near the ship, then about noon decided to take the beach trip to Meagan's Bay. We took some good photos along the way, the beach *is* pretty, but public and "natural", so it has rocks/sticks/some debris that typically is groomed out of hotel private beaches. We enjoyed the beach-side restaurant, and the "please don't feed the iguanas" signs.
We swam with the stingrays in Nassau, and that's a nice excursion. A large pontoon boat ferried us to Blackbeard's Cay to a beautiful beach where we signed release forms and were handed snorkel gear. We headed over to the stingray area and went snorkeling...wow, are those amazing creatures! Lots of underwater photos with our waterproof disposable cameras (which worked great, btw!), but the highlight was feeding time. Women on one side in the shallow part of the beach, men in a line across from them about 8 feet away, we were handed fish parts to feed the stingrays. The leader sounded a whistle, and here they came! (Apparently they knew this routine...). It was worth the price of admission just to hear many women shrieking and screaming as the stingrays circle their legs, brushing against them. They're really gentle and soft creatures, but egads the elicited a response! Fun to feed them, they basically "vacuum" the fish right out of your hand into their mouth, which opens on their underside. Fascinating creatures. We had about 90 minutes to just sun and swim on that nice beach afterwards, offered as it's own excursion as well (Blackbeard's Cay Beach Bash or somesuch, sans stingrays).
Cabin: We were surprised by the room we had in our cabin, a D3 grade balcony stateroom. Twin beds made into a queen, a nice private balcony, sofa, desk and chair, and a small but perfectly useable bathroom. Our attendant was so nice, he took special care of Stacy's sleep-friend Shamu the stuffed orca, and we had the towel animals each night when we got in. I'd ordered a floral bouquet, bath robes, and champagne/chocolate strawberries prior to boarding, and the quality of each was really nice. The flowers (beautiful pink roses) stayed fresh all week, the the robes were fluffy and well-loved by the end of the cruise. There's no timing on the champagne, though, so it was a bit of a pain to keep it chilled till we were ready to drink it later that night.
That's most of it. Some other odds and ends:
o The demographics have changed a lot in 20 years. On that first cruise, we had about 75% newlyweds, a few seniors, and perhaps one family. Really, no kids at all. Now, cruising attracts lots of families, who bring kids, in diapers, in strollers, whatever. It's just different than before. I'd be all for bringing toddlers and very young children to dinner each night, it's good practice for learning how to behave and dine in a nice place. What wasn't so cool was the couple of tables we had near us at dinner, where the 4 year-olds were allowed to run unsupervised amongst the other tables since the parents were busy "visiting". Time and place and all that, at least make the attempt to keep your kids "corralled"!
o Value is amazing. This ship had more of everything, yet the price was almost the same as 20 years ago. Wow.
o And the passengers were really an international mix too. So many Spanish-speaking, from Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Mexico. Fascinating, and also different from years before.
o Embarking / disembarking were lengthy, but I thought understandable, there's just a *very* large crowd to get on / off the boat. Coming home provided even more insight, getting all those people off takes a while, and we left (about 10:45 am) about the same time we got to the terminal to board. It is nice that first day to have the Windjammer / Island Grill open for lunch, and we'd followed advice to have swimwear and essentials in a carryon with us. That made it easy to change and go poolside just after we got to our room at 1pm and enjoy the ship right away.
We had a great time, and were treated very well. RCI does a great job!