We sailed on Explorer of the Seas, Nov. 6-13, 2005, leaving out of Miami on a Western Caribbean itinerary. We flew down to Miami the night beforehand and spent the evening at a hotel near the airport, the Hampton Inn Airport South, recommended on this board.
The week sure went by fast... The first bit of the trip, getting to Miami, went without a hitch. No problems getting to the airport, once we got out of the massive traffic jam we were stuck in.
When we landed in Miami, our luggage was at The Baggage Claim At The End of the Universe, but I suppose the walking was good for us. No problem getting the free shuttle to the hotel, where we discovered that we were sharing our cruise with a group of psychics called the Sea Angels.
We shared a taxi ride to the port the next morning with two of them, one of whom kept trying to hit on my husband, though she was old enough to be his mother.
We got to port on Sunday a little after noon, and spent the next almost two hours standing in line, in the sun, waiting to get on the ship. There HAS to be a better way to do that; even just having a kiosk outside selling cold water and snacks would have been nice. Met up with my husband's parents and brother at the lunch buffet in the Windjammer once we were finally on board.
We had an inside stateroom on deck 8. At first glance it was disappointingly tiny, but as we unpacked, we found lots of nooks and crannies to store things in, and it worked out OK after all.
Overall, the food was plentiful and decent, if not outstanding. We did eat at Johnny Rockets one night, and that was the best burger I had all week. There was a $3.95 cover charge, but it was worth it.
Each night, Paul and I were amused by the fact that there was a different pureed fruit disguised as "soup" on the menu. Sunday was watermelon gazpacho, Monday was strawberry bisque (those were my favorites), then they did pears, apples, peaches, and mixed berries. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water, and lemonade were free. My brother-in-law got the "unlimited soda" option, but we didn't bother.
We ate all of our breakfasts and lunches at the Windjammer Cafe/Island Grill. Food was plentiful and usually hot, and the watermelon was almost always good. The staff was sometimes overzealous about cleaning the tables; once I got up to get some more fruit and came back to find that my drink, my plate, my napkin, and all my utensils had been cleared away!
Starting Tuesday night, I think, our cabin steward would fold one of our towels in the shape of an animal. We had a dog, a monkey, a sting ray, a sea turtle...
The lifeboat drill Sunday afternoon was hot and annoying and not over soon enough. I understand it's necessary, though. We were unlucky and got to stand around on the sunny side of the ship for it, with the sun right in our eyes. My husband got a massive headache from the sun, and lack of caffeine, and like a dummy I'd suggested we check all of our bags at the port -- including the one that had all our drugs in it.
So we went back to the stateroom in the hopes that our bags had arrived (or at least the one with the drugs in it) and so we missed the casting off, though while I was walking around later while my husband was napping, I did see a Celebrity cruise ship leaving port.
We couldn't stay very long at the Meet & Mingle because my brother-in-law was in the ping-pong tourney that started at 11am and we wanted to get some pics of him playing. I think there might have been more M&M-ing going on if they hadn't had us all seated at tables, which aren't very conducive to mingling, IMO. Still, it was nice of RCL to do it and provide us snacks and the free neck wallets.
Didn't see anyone else with a "Cruise Critic" sign on their stateroom door, so maybe those are passe now?
Monday was an "at sea" day and the beginning of our reign of terror in the trivia contests. My husband and I also managed some time alone in one of the hot tubs in the Solarium (the "no kids" pool/hot tub area) -- if I'd realized how rare that would be, I would have treasured it even more. The rest of the week, there was always at least two or three or four or a dozen other people around.
Monday was also when I discovered that people don't know what they're talking about when they say you can't feel the ship move, and I have the empty Dramamine package to show for it. Thankfully the medicine did what it was supposed to, and I only spent a couple of hours being queasy. So pack some Bonine or Dramamine even if you don't think you'll need it; you never know.
My husband's first three attempts to get a draft Murphy's from the English pub on board, The Crown & Kettle, were unsuccessful. The first night we were there, they told him "the tap was out." The cruise had barely started at that point, so we were all a little taken aback by that. Don't remember what they said the other two times, but eventually they had it.
The Schooner Bar onboard was the scene of all of our trivia contest triumphs -- eventual haul between my husband and myself was: six leather document holders, four leather luggage tags, and two waterproof wallet-thingies. We joked about asking the people who ran the trivia contests what they'd give us if we'd pull a "Black Sox" and throw the next contest...
Tuesday was cave-tubing in Belize and another long wait in line -- this time for the tenders to get to the port. Even though we booked the tour the RCL, it took us a long time to get off the ship. The whole process seemed very disorganized and frustrating.
After about a 45-minute drive to get to the site, we went tubing down an underground river and got to see (and bump our heads on) a variety of stalagtites and such. There were a couple of small, shallow, rapids, and one of those is where I got my "Belize tattoo," aka a bruise on my behind. I could have used more time in the caves to simply float around and look at the formations -- and a smaller tube for me would have helped my navigation attempts.
These inner tubes were a blast from the past, too -- no fancy bright-colored ones with handles, no sirree. These were actual, black tire tubes, big ones, like from trucks.
There was a lot of bumping around, and a few points where the guides wanted us to all turn off our headlamps so we could experience the darkness. Right at the beginning, my husband and I had gotten separated, but every time someone bumped me in the dark, I called out, and finally we found each other again. It was like the reverse of that kids' swimming pool game, "Marco Polo" -- this time I *wanted* to be found. :)
A couple of times, my husband had to rescue both me and another woman in our group because we'd gotten out of the main current, and like I said, it was hard for me to paddle (short arms, big tube). He lost his wedding band at some point in the river.
They provided lunch for us; chicken breast, red beans and rice, soft drinks, and slaw. Everything was good except the slaw; I'm not a fan of slaw in general.
We got back to the dock with just enough time to pee and catch the next-to-last tender back to the ship, so we can't really say we saw much of Belize. We would have had more time to explore the shops around the dock area if we hadn't been so late getting started. I'd like to go back and visit some of the Mayan ruins.
Wednesday was Costa Maya, which is essentially a tourist area built along the Mexican coast, specifically for cruise ships. The pier can take three of the big ships now, but plans are to expand so they can handle up to six at a time. A lot of cruises that didn't originally stop there have substituted Costa Maya for Cozumel, but we were scheduled to go there anyway.
Originally we hadn't booked any shore excursions for Costa Maya; we were planning to use it as just a relaxing day. But at the last minute, they added a dolphin swim, so I signed up, since that was the shore excursion I'd originally booked for Cozumel. Turns out that they are planning to open up a dolphin swim program at Uvero Beach/Costa Maya anyway, but they opened it a few months early because of Hurricane Wilma.
One of the other places up near Cozumel -- either Xcaret or Xel-Ha -- had to move their dolphins, so they took them in at Costa Maya and opened early. The group is called Via Delphi.
It was one of those rare experiences of a lifetime. Unforgettable. Wonderful. Fascinating. Worth every penny, even the overpriced photo I bought (because we couldn't take our own cameras). I did get stung by a jellyfish or something (stinging cells?) while on the dolphin swim, but it wasn't too bad. Benadryl cream and aloe really helped.
There were only 8 of us in our group, including the trainer, and five dolphins, so that was a great ratio that provided lots of interaction and lots of opportunity to touch, pet and just observe the dolphins as they swam around.
When we first walked up, the trainer said, "Hi! Welcome to our 'swimming with sharks' program." Heh.
I had some time after my swim to hang out at Uvero Beach, but at that point just wanted to get back to the ship to put something on my stings and get some lunch. After lunch, some of us went back to the shopping area just off the pier and poked around for a bit.
I found some Dia de los Muertos figures for a friend, and did some haggling at the Taxco silver place and finally walked away with a silver/blue opal dolphin pendant. It's supposed to be bad luck to wear opals if they're not your birthstone, but what the heck. Amethysts aren't my birthstone either and I wear them all the time.
Thursday should have been our day at Cozumel but was another "at sea" day instead. I still got to do a dolphin swim, though, and my husband even still got to do a mini-tequila tasting. He'd signed up for one on Cozumel that obviously got canceled (due to Wilma completely flattening Cozumel), but at Costa Maya one of the liquor stores was offering a few free samples of a couple different tequilas.
Neither of us really drink it straight -- Jose Cuervo on the rocks, yeah right. Bleah. In a daiquiri, yes. But my husband said the second one he tried was really smooth, so he bought a bottle. A nice, expensive bottle (cost about as much as a good single malt), that leaked in our baggage, so that when we landed at our home airport and he went to put on his sweatshirt, he smelled like he'd been on a five-day bender in Tijuana.
So Thursday we just relaxed and took it easy. Skipped dinner in the dining room in favor of a romantic evening just the two of us -- we went up on one of the upper decks to watch the sunset instead, then back to our stateroom for a bit, then dinner at Johnny Rockets, followed by dessert at Ben and Jerry's (mint chocolate chunk ice cream, a favorite of ours). It was a nice break from the standard ship fare.
Thursday evening my husband started coming down with the sniffles and by Friday it was a full-blown cold.
Friday was Grand Cayman and our swim/snorkel with the stingrays. My prescription snorkel mask worked great -- if you wear glasses and plan to do any snorkeling, I highly recommend getting one; most dive places have stock prescription lenses and it shouldn't cost more than about $65. It's totally worth it to be able to see underwater!
The stingray experience was fun, if frustrating at times. We booked through the ship, and there were over 100 people in our group. The ratio of people to sting rays was too high, and with so many people waving pieces of raw squid at them, sometimes it was hard to attract the stingrays' attention.
I finally did get one, but some inconsiderate jerk literally grabbed her away from me before I could give her my piece of squid (I know it was a her because the females are much larger than the males). I have to admit I was skittish at first; I'd never been that up close and personal with a sting ray before, much less such large, well-fed ones -- in such big numbers, too. I jumped a little when the first one brushed up against me, but I got used to it.
Eventually I got one to come over to me and follow me around for a bit, and I was able to hold one (got a photo). My husband and I both had disposable underwater cameras; we'll see how the pictures turn out. All in all it was a good time -- just overcrowded a bit.
Lunch on Grand Cayman was ex-pen-sive! I know our dollar is worth less than theirs (it's about $.81 USD to $1.00 Cayman), but still. Two burgers/fries, a coke, and a strawberry daiquiri, plus tip, cost around $40. That was a shock. FYI, that was at the Paradise, recommended by RCL.
Friday was also our second formal dinner of the cruise, and my husband's parents wanted to get a group photo of us. I think the formal nights are overrated; the food isn't really any better than it is on the other evenings, and I'm not one for much dressing up. But it makes the mother-in-law happy, so...
Saturday was our last at-sea day, so we went around cramming in as much vacation as we could: more swimming/hot tub sitting, played one last trivia contest -- actually our second "Name That Tune" competition, which we lost. Our great winning streak was finally broken. Ah well. Not like I needed another leather travel wallet. Hit the shops on board, etc.
Saturday night I felt the first twinges of a bladder infection, so we had to make use of the ship's medical facility. They were quick and courteous, though, and agreed with my self-diagnosis and gave me medicine and got me on my way in about 1/2 an hour. It cost about $250, though half of that was the drugs, but even so we found ourselves wishing that our healthcare back home worked so efficiently! Both the doctor and nurse who saw me were older Swedish women, and I have no complaints about the treatment I received.
We had to have our checked bags packed and outside our stateroom door by midnight, so that took up the rest of the evening. We got up around 6:15am on Sunday, finished up packing, grabbed breakfast and had to be out of our stateroom by 8am.
We headed up to deck 11 and hung out for bit, eventually playing a few rounds of ping-pong. Disembarkation was as long and frustrating as embarkation, but at least this time we were waiting on the air-conditioned ship instead of in the sweltering sun.
Since we had a late fight out of Miami (8pm), we were in the last group off the boat, and it took us about three hours total to get off the ship, clear customs and immigration, and get to the airport, where we sat for the next seven hours. We had airport transfer vouchers that we'd bought via RCL, and it was a little chaotic trying to figure out which bus we were supposed to take, especially since there are multiple signs up for Miami Itn'l Airport.
Once at the airport, we kept checking the departures board but didn't see our flight, and we were waiting at the gate that was printed on our tickets, D43. Around 7pm we finally found someone and asked, and turns out the gate had changed, to A14. If you've never been to Miami airport, let me just say that it's about a 1/2 hour walk, over a mile, from our original gate to the new one, and I was NOT HAPPY.
There were at least three shrieking babies on the flight, one in front of me, one behind me, and -- drumroll please -- one right beside me. Also, my husband and I weren't able to get seats together. This made me angry, but it also enabled us to switch seats when the screaming toddler next to me was drowning out the drums, bagpipes and electric guitar on my iPod.
Just about the time we had to run to the Departure Gate At The End Of The Universe, I snapped. "Cranky Laura" came out in full force. I'm an introvert's introvert, and a cruise on a Voyager-class ship is essentially a vacation that you're taking with 3,000 other people whether you like 'em or not.
I was tired of the noise and the people. Wherever I went on the ship, someone else was there. Even in our stateroom, I could hear the ambient ship noise. We were on deck 8, at the butt-end ("aft" is the proper term) of the ship, over the propellers. Dinner was shared each night with 1500 other people, divided into three 500-person dining rooms, stacked one on top of the other, connected by a grand staircase.
My father-in-law is deaf in one ear, and had requested a table by a window to cut down on the background noise to make it easier for him to hear. My in-laws' travel agent kept assuring them that they indeed had one large table (we had 19 in our group) and that it was by a window. Wrong! What we ended up with was two round tables beside each other, smack in the middle of the lowest level of the dining room.
This is the same travel agent who booked their cocktail party Sunday afternoon for the 19th Hole, even though it's just a "walk-through" bar and RCL doesn't book events into it -- we had to move to the 7 Hearts instead, which was fine, but my in-laws have definitely fired that particular travel agent!
Anyway, I was definitely on people overload by the time the trip ended. When we got home I just wanted to curl into a fetal ball, and stretch one hand out to pet the cats.
Would I cruise again? Maybe. It'd have to be a much smaller ship, though. The Windjammer Barefoot cruises look small and appealing right now.
I will say that it's awfully convenient to have food taken care of, and to be able to visit different places without actually having to move yourself, pack your bags, find another hotel, etc. And now that we've done it once, I'll be more comfortable about booking shore excursions not through the ship, which will save money and perhaps give us more individualized attention.
All in all,I'm glad we went, even if now I need some SERIOUS "alone" time to recharge.