Let me start by giving a little background on our group. First of all this was a trip to celebrate my in-laws 50th anniversary. Included in the group were: me, a cruising addict since I was 10, since I am in my mid-thirties now, a lot of cruises; my husband, a reluctant cruiser, I make him go anyway; my in-laws who are in their mid-70s, veteran cruisers and my brother-in-law and his wife, first-time cruisers. My husband's family have traditionally done sailboat vacations for family trips, but I convinced everyone that we should do a cruise instead. None of us had done a Voyager-class ship and my MIL really wanted to go to Belize, so it was decided that we would do the Explorer of the Seas Western Caribbean. We chose the end of April for the weather and the smaller amounts of kids.
Since the in-laws paid for the cruise, we were able to splurge and fly first class from Sacramento to Miami. We flew Continental Airlines, a red-eye flight with one airplane change and arrived in Miami on time at about 11:30am the day before the cruise. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables booked through Priceline for less than $80. The hotel was fine, except that the rest of the family was in Miami Beach, so meeting up with them was a challenge, as is driving in Miami. Good Lord, what a mess! After checking in and resting a bit, we met up with the rest of the family at their hotel in Miami Beach. After a few pre-dinner cocktails, a limo provided by the South Beach restaurant we had reservations for arrived. Now this sounds like a great idea, eat at our restaurant and we'll provide the transportation. They don't tell you they are picking up people in every other hotel in the area as well. Can you say sardines? Dinner in South Beach was good but expensive of course.
One thing you need to know is I am an obsessive vacation planner which my husband loves to make fun of but always appreciates when everything is taken care of and done for him. Now, when my BIL said we'll meet you at the ship tomorrow at 3, he was the recipient of the "are you kidding, what the heck are you thinking" look from me. I told him to be at the pier at 11:30. "But the book says we can't board till then", followed by his wife Shar saying "do what Ang says, she knows things." Needless to say Shar and my in-laws were there at 11:15. We managed to drop the rental car off and immediately got on a shuttle dropping people off at the pier. Explorer was the last drop off, so we arrived at about 11:20. We found Shar and Mom and Dad, but no Mike (bil). He had dropped them and their luggage off and then gone to return their car. One thing you need to know about Shar is she is "very" claustrophobic. No elevators, no crowds of people, none of it. A very familiar phrase on this trip was "Am I going to be okay with this?" We managed to get upstairs in between arriving groups, did the obligatory picture and got through security. At this point Shar is saying this isn't too bad, I can handle this. Then we got into the main check-in area. Oops, time to pop a Xanax. This is when I got to play hero. Since I am a Platinum member, I asked the representative standing by the check-in line if we could go to the platinum check-in. Sure, just go down there. Come on everybody, let's go. 5 minutes later everyone has key cards in hand and we are heading up the gankplank. Shar just whispered "Its like travelling with Oprah". I am her new hero. We checked out the cabins, very nice, met Sherman our cabin steward who was fabulous the entire trip and headed up to get some lunch. After lunch the boys wanted a cigar so we went up on deck, stopping at the pool bar for tropical drinks and sort of staked out a spot that seemed to become ours for the rest of the trip. While checking out the ship, there was a speedboat that had caught fire near us so it was kinda cool to watch the Coast Guard deal with that. We ate dinner that night in the dining room. Food was good, but not as much variety as I remember. That evening the boys discovered the cigar lounge. They ended up there every night after that. It seemed the same group of people managed to find their way there every evening. Mike (BIL) even found a "dive buddy" for the scuba dives he had booked.
We had a D3 category balcony on deck six. I have to confess I was worried about being in a cabin this size as we normally travel in a mini-suite and our last cabin was the Grand Suite on the Diamond Princess. But really, it was fine as we did not spend all that much time in the room. Dave (husband) enjoyed having the balcony to enjoy a cigar now and then, and having the 3 cabins right next to each other we could talk just fine out on the balconies. In spite of the fact that I overpacked as usual, there was plenty of storage space for everything I brought. I like the sliding door in the shower instead of the "friendly" curtain that we have had on prior cruises. Nice touch RCCL. Sherman was our cabin attendant and she was wonderful. We always stopped to talk with her in the hallway and she was great. I even got my first towel animals. She was shocked to hear that in over 30 cruises, I have never gotten a towel animal. From that point on, she made an extra special effort with them. This was the cruise where there was an outbreak of Norovirus. Fortunately, no one in our group was infected, but there were people on our hallway who were quarantined with it. Sherman told us that several crew members had it so they were all working lots of extra hours covering their workload as well as their own. I didn't notice any decrease in service at all.
Belize: I had booked a combo cavetubing-ziplining tour independent of the ship with Nacho and Cynthia for much less than what the cruise line was charging. I knew we would be tendering in to all ports except for Costa Maya, so was prepared for it and we managed to be on the second tender off the ship. Nacho was waiting for us and off we went. There was another group ahead of us that he wanted to catch up to, so we flew to the Jaguar Paw Resort. Believe me when I say we flew. The resort is well outside of Belize City and we had to pass through a few police checkpoints before we got there. Interesting, to say the least. We did manage to catch up to the rest of the group at the ziplining course. This was amazing! I have a fear of edges, not just heights, but edges, so the first platform got me a little bit. But after that first zipline, the fear was gone. I could have done the tour over again I loved it so much. You get to know the people in your group well standing on the platforms waiting to go to the next one and found out that we had all found this tour through Cruise Critic. After the ziplining we changed into bathing suits, grabbed our inner tubes and made the trek to where we got in the water. The water was cool but not cold. It was cool going through these dark caves with just a helmet light to guide your way. I would recommend this trip highly!
Costa Maya: For us we really didn't have anything planned for this port. Dave and I left the ship early before it got too hot a took the tram to the mall/village they have built at the end of the pier. I thought it was very nice, we enjoyed shopping and walking around looking at everything. As the day heated up, we went back to the ship and relaxed. Later in the day I went back with everyone else and did a bit more shopping. All in all a good day. However, it was the first of several trips to the medical facility. My FIL developed an abscessed (sp?) tooth and needed antibiotics for it. The swelling was bad at first, but subsided quickly with the antibiotics. The place was packed with people exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Luckily we are a family of Purell addicts.
Cozumel: I had pre-reserved a day at San Francisco Beach which included food, drinks and beach access. Mike was doing a current dive through the ship with several people we had met through the cigar lounge. The rest of us grabbed a cab and headed to San Francisco Beach. The area is still showing the effects of last year's hurricane season, but is starting to come back to life. It didn't affect our enjoyment of the area at all. All I can say about our day at San Francisco Beach is WOW! The staff there was amazing, taking great care of us waiting on us hand and foot. It is located right next door to Paradise Beach which was a total zoo with easily 300 people there. Including our 5 person group, San Francisco had 8 people total. It was so relaxing just laying on the beach and taking turns using the float mats we had rented. After about 4 hours of this though we decided that was enough fun and sun. Here's where the fun begins. FIL stands up and instantly collapses. We cover him in wet towels to cool him down. The staff helped Dave get his father up to a cab to get him back to the ship where we can get him to the infirmary. We grab a van and head back. Along the way we have to stop to let a cruise passenger off at a different ship. FIL thinks its our stop, tries to get out and falls out of the van scraping himself up. We get him back in and tell him to stay put! When we get back to our stop, Dave blocks his father from leaving the van while the driver goes to security to get a wheelchair. They come and take us around the side directly to the waiting tender where they carry him down the steps. I cannot say enough about the people in Cozumel, they were just so incredible. When the tender arrived at the ship, Shar and I were the first off the ship to let them know we needed a wheelchair and escort to the infirmary. Of course FIL, being stubborn, was refusing to go; however, his son is even more stubborn, so he did get him to agree to get his blood pressure checked. Upon first arrival, they could not even get a blood pressure reading. Not good. When they asked him how much water he had been drinking, he told them none. The rest of us had been very careful to remain hydrated, how could we not notice that the man doesn't drink water, ever! Word of advice, drinking only coffee, wine and vodka does not keep you hydrated. They kept him that night until 11 pm. We were lucky we didn't lose him. He was never allowed to be without a bottle of water after that. That night was pretty much shot, everyone was wiped out. Dave and I had dinner up in the buffet and it was just right for us. The boys spent some time in the cigar lounge and crashed early. Shar and I went to the Newlywed Show, which was absolutely hysterical. My sides hurt from laughing so hard.
Grand Cayman: No excursions planned here, Mike was diving and the parents were still recovering from the excitement the day before, so Dave, Shar and I who are all animal freaks headed to the turtle farm. We loved it. They are doing a huge expansion that when complete is going to be great. Then lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe which was very good and some shopping. About that time the scuba group was returning so it was back to the Hard Rock for them to eat and back to the ship. We never seemed to have a problem with tendering, never long lines or waits, I thought they handled 3000 people really well. The rest of the day was spent at our spot just above the solarium pool (smoking section) reading, listening to music and relaxing.
SHOWS: We never saw any of the main shows so I cannot comment on them. However, we did watch the Karaoke, the ice show, the Newlywed Game and Quest, which I knew from the Cruise Critic boards was a not to miss event. Our section won thank you very much.
CASINO: We spent time in the casino every night and while it didn't treat the rest of the family well, it seemed to like us. Dave did well, up over $500 for the trip on craps while I did well at the slots. The next to last night I stayed to play while everyone returned to the cabins. At 2 am I hit a $5000 jackpot on a dollar machine. All in all, we came out over $6000 ahead for the trip. We were happy.
DINING: We ate at the specialty restaurant one night to celebrate the 50th anniversary. What an experience. Well worth the $20 per person. We ate at the buffet everyday for breakfast and at Johnny Rockets a couple of times for lunch. What a fun place and great food. We didn't mind the cover charge at all.
SPA and SALON: I had 2 different experiences here. I had an appointment at the salon to have my hair washed and styled. I arrived 15 minutes early, only to be still sitting there an hour later waiting. I finally just left as there wouldn't have been time to have my appointment and make dinner on time. I was extremely disgusted with the whole experience. Later in the cruise I had booked a massage and facial combination that was on special. Totally different experience. I was in the room within 5 minutes and had an amazing 1/2 hour massage and a facial that made my skin feel so soft. If only the salon side could take lessons from the spa side.
DISEMBARKATION: We went to the Platinum lounge to wait for our color to be called. It didn't take long and we were off. We said goodbye to everyone while waiting for the luggage and off we went to the Miami Airport and back to reality.
This was probably one of the best vacations I have ever taken. The ship was wonderful, we never felt crowded or rushed. Never had bad service from a single crew member, everyone was friendly and helpful. The folks in the infirmary are angels, doing an amazing job under less than ideal circumstances. Everyone in the family got along and had a wonderful time just being together which can be a rare thing for families these days. My grumpy, "I hate vacations" husband even said that this was a great trip and he had a blast. The ship was large enough that Shar didn't have any claustrophobic problems, we just took the stairs a lot. I would do this trip again tomorrow if I could.