Just to give you some background, my husband and I are mid-to-late 20s. We are child free, US citizens, and this was our third cruise (previous cruises were also on RCI to Hawaii (Legend) and Nassau/CocoCay/Key West (Majesty)). I write this for people who want a very detailed play-by-play of the cruise, and I will try to include things I wish I had known before taking this trip. Warning: it will be long.
We sailed on the Explorer over the week of Thanksgiving. We flew to Ft. Lauderdale the day before boarding and stayed at the Marina Marriott. A note of warning: before you take a cab, be sure to check for their registration paperwork on the windshield and their fares posted clearly. There are many unregistered cabs that linger around the airport, so be wary of random cab companies that offer you a flat-rate. Usually, they are just as much as a reputable company.
Since we could not get a transfer from the airport, we caught a cab to Miami the next day for around $80.00. The pier was in total chaos. I recommend finding a porter. They will help load your bags onto the ship so that you do not have to carry them through the huge, long boarding line. Be sure to have a tip ready before you leave your bags with them. Check-in also felt disorderly. There did not appear to be as many agents as usual to assist with check-in. Make sure you have your boarding pass (you can print this when you complete online documentation.) They will make you get it out early on in line.
We booked a balcony for this trip. Before, we have had oceanview rooms. The balcony is particularly nice for someone who tends to get violently motion-sick, and I think it will become a requirement for me in the future. (On the Legend, I ended up in the infirmary when we hit rough waves in the Pacific.) Despite a fierce hurricane season and tropical storm Gamma passing nearby, this was the most calm cruise for us yet. Still, it is nice to be able to get fresh air in your room if you get nauseous.
This ship itself is fantastic. I feel that, while you gain the benefits of a large ship with many options (murder mystery dinner, ice skating, etc.), you lose the intimacy and individual attention of a smaller ship. Don't expect to see yourself on the cruise in review video much with so many people onboard.
Our room attendant (from Costa Rica) was the best yet. He never failed to greet us by name when we walked by. Normally, we split our meals between the Windjammer and the formal dining room, but this time, we only ate in the formal dining room three times. Our waiters were good (two from India, one from Turkey), but dining service was a bit slow on the nights we ate there during second seating. If you tire easily, I would stick with main seating. 8:30 is a terribly long time to wait for dinner if you had a busy day and plan to go to a post-dinner show. Also, stick with a smaller table. The conversation is so much more enjoyable when everyone can be involved. I want to mention that the cruise director Carly (from Wales) was the best one yet. You see her everywhere, and she is so energetic and outgoing.
*************************************************** A few quick tips... If you have sailed on RCI before, be sure to apply for the Crown and Anchor program. You can get back-credit for previous cruises, and you also get a nice coupon book on your bed when you arrive. We had coupons for 10% off the spa, 10% off RCI brand logo products, $5.00 internet credit, buy one get one half off wine, etc.
Book for spa appointments as soon as you get on the ship. We went in before dinner on the first night, and most sessions were already full. (Spa pricing varies. We got the couple's massage on Thursday for $325. My husband also recommends the hot stone massage for $175.) Both of our massage therapists were from the Philippines.
Either bring a tux from home or just wear a suit and tie on the two formal nights. My husband has rented twice now, and the tuxes onboard just don't fit well. Tuxes and suits were split 50/50 on this ship. I still appreciate the men who wear tuxes, but I fear it is a dying trend.
Also, unless it is a necessity, don't buy any RCI logo clothes until the last day. Everything goes on sale and you realize that you got ripped off the rest of the week.
Here are some recommendations based on daily activities:
Monday (day at sea): Go watch the belly flop contest. Unless you are a die-hard shopper with serious money to spend, don't bother with the discover shopping talk. (People started lining up for it an hour and a half early stretching up flights of stairs). We watched it on TV, and the giveaways didn't look worth all of that line fighting.
Tuesday (Belize): We did the "Lost World Canopy & Rappelling Tour" operated by Bak-a-Bush. We purchased our excursions through the ship because we were unfamiliar with Belize. We drove out on an old school bus to a remote area. We started out in the mouth of a cave, then we hiked into the jungle and went swinging through the trees on a series of zip-lines. It was fantastic. The ages varied from about 10 to 60. There was quite a bit of walking and climbing at the beginning, then we just zipped through to many platforms. There were two rappels (about 500 ft. down according to the guide). My husband is ex-Army, so he had no problem with this. I was terrified. Truly, this was one of the most incredible moments in my life. If you want to feel like a daredevil with the reassurance of a safe environment, you will love this tour. No time to shop, because this is a long tour.
Wednesday (Costa Maya): We were late getting off of the ship, because the Disney Magic was arriving, and they would not let us unload passengers until Disney had been cleared. We went on a tour of two of the Mayan ruin sites (Zabanche & Kohunlich). While the tour guide (Diana) was very good, the ride to the first site was over 2 hours long. Then, it was another hour to the next site, and another 2 hour ride back to the pier. I would recommend taking a shorter tour of Kohunlich. It is beautiful, and you can appreciate it more when you aren't rushing through it to make the bus ride back. No time to shop here either due to the late disembarkment.
Back on the ship, we skipped the Planet Ice show. (If you want to go, stand in line the very first time they offer tickets! They sold out so fast we couldn't get them.) I would opt for an early dinner at Johnny Rockets. It is only $3.50 per person, and they will feed you whatever you want. (The $3.50 is also waived with a Crown and Anchor coupon.) I highly recommend the Love & Marriage Game Show. There was also a midnight buffet.
Thursday: We were supposed to be in Cozumel, but Hurricane Wilma caused great damage, and we weren't able to dock there. We felt we should have had more time in Costa Maya or Grand Cayman, but this did not happen. There was a blackjack tournament & a guest talent show. At night, I enjoyed "Fast Forward" which featured songs from Flashdance, Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, Fame, etc. We skipped the scavenger hunt, but we saw video that was taken there, and it looked like a lot of fun. I would definitely go if I had the choice again.
Friday (Grand Cayman): We took an excursion to a rum cake factory, a turtle farm, and the town of Hell. Be sure to bring cash so you can take home some great rum cake. We bought banana and key lime flavors. Hell will only accept Cayman postage. I wasted about 10 US stamps trying to pre-stamp my postcards to avoid a wait in line at the post office. You can buy stamps at the Devil's Hangout and mail your cards there too. Our postcard just arrived today (almost 3 weeks later!) Tip: Eat off the ship at the Paradise Bar & Grill. Our meal was $45.19 before tip, but we got some of the freshest seafood and my husband got to eat a turtle burger (yes, after holding them at the farm). Tip: There was a huge line to board the ship. We ran far past the "all aboard" time, but the ship did not leave. Don't panic when you see the line. As long as you are in line by the all aboard time, the ship won't leave you. Tip: If you miss all other shows, don't miss Beatlemania. This is the only band I know of where people of all ages know all the words and sing together. Great cover band. There is was also another midnight buffet.
Saturday (day at sea): Be sure to complete your customs forms so that they are completed when you get back to Miami. Earlier in the week, we filled out a request form to be off the ship early since we had a morning flight from Ft. Lauderdale. The cruise ship assigns luggage tags by color based upon when you are supposed to leave the ship. Don't worry. The purser's desk told us that they can trade your color if needed. You can also purchase travel vouchers at the purser's desk to the Miami or Ft. Lauderdale airport. ($20 p/person to Ft. Lauderdale)
Be sure to go see the men's sexy legs contest and the farewell variety show (which featured the very blunt comedian Craig Carmean). We also went to the final Planet Ice show. Even though we didn't have tickets, the attendant let us in right before the show started, and we had no trouble finding a seat. In fact, we probably got a better seat than we would have on opening night, and we never had to wait in a long line!
This is the night when gratuities are given. Guidelines are $9.75 p/person/day. You can pre-charge gratuities to your room or give cash. We went ahead and pre-charged gratuities then gave extra cash as we wanted. I noticed that the dining room was quite empty on tip night. Very large tables (that I was told ate in the dining room every night except Saturday) were missing. To me, this is terribly rude. Please. If you are going to enjoy the service of the formal dining room, at least drop by with a tip.
Be sure to leave your tagged luggage outside your door before midnight. It will be waiting for you on a carousel once you get off of the ship in Miami.
Overall, we had a great trip, and we are planning on cruising with RCI again soon. The best vacations are the ones where you take something home with you other than a tan. From the adventure, to the culture, to the dinner conversations, I feel that I am a richer person for taking this trip, and I would highly recommend both the ship and itinerary.
I hope that this review has been helpful.