My wife Lisa and I are a married couple in our upper 20s. This was our third cruise with Royal Caribbean within the last three years (the prior two were Adventurer Southern Caribbean, Sovereign Bahamas) and our fourth overall (other was on Carnival's Valor to the Western Caribbean). This combined with our Bahamas trip on the Sovereign has convinced us that we are spoiled, as we can now only sail on relatively large ships, like the Explorer of the Seas. It's like buying a king size bed after the honeymoon and then having to sleep in a queen ten years later. It can be done, but not without leaving an aftertaste.
This voyage also marked our first time in Bermuda.
Our cruise left from Bayonne, New Jersey, which was good for us since we didn't have to fly. As for embarkation, we were quite pleased. We have sailed out of Puerto Rico, Miami, and Port Canaveral, and we both thought that Bayonne provided the smoothest and most efficient embarkation experience that we have had to date. We dropped our bags off, parked the car, and were on the ship and in our stateroom within about 20 minutes. This included check-in, security, and taking a three-minute shuttle ride from the port terminal to the gangway of the ship. Other reviewers I've seen have complained about the shuttle buses, but we had no problems at all.
THE SHIP & ACTIVITIES
Our honeymoon was spent on the Adventurer of the Seas, which was the same class vessel as the Explorer, so we knew what to expect. Even so, our last cruise on the Sovereign of the Seas had disappointed us a bit, so it was nice to be back on a ship like the Explorer. Almost anything you could think of was there - Royal Promenade complete with a coffee shop and stores, casino, pools, rock climbing wall, nine-hole miniature golf, large theater, several bars and lounges of course, an ice rink, and many other typical amenities. One of the nicest things about this ship is that you can actually walk to the very front just like the couple in the movie Titanic, which is great for when the ship is pulling out.
As non-smokers, one thing that annoyed us somewhat is that the bars and lounges were occasionally smokier than we expected. An example was the Maharajas Lounge - nice lounge, with smoking tables on the left and non-smoking on the right, but we were on the right and for a while thought we were on the left. Even the bars in the Royal Promenade, although they have a few tables outside of them, even those areas tend to get a bit smoky as more folks pile into the bar areas themselves.
The voyage was a bit rocky the first night & second day, largely because Tropical Storm Ernesto had just passed through and was still affecting the ocean swells a bit. Many people around us were saying that they were seasick. My wife and I were fine, however, and we have been seasick on other ships where we thought the motion was much worse than it was here. On the next-to-last day, the weather was rainy and windy, limiting people to activities inside the ship. We found however that there was enough to do inside for us to spend the entire day in activities, relaxing, or packing, and so we didn't even really notice that we couldn't go up to the pool deck.
Our stateroom was midship on Deck 8, and it was all that we expected. We purchased a cabin with a balcony, and the cabin was plenty big enough for the two of us. Our pleasant stateroom attendant kept the room clean and well-supplied, and we did not have any maintenance issues. Of course, we bought a few pictures, although not as many as we had on previous cruises.
Activities that we did included napkin folding, bingo (twice - didn't win, of course), greeting card workshop (just my wife did that one), and The Quest - which you must see to believe, so make time to see it. We also took a few pictures at the Midnight Gala Buffet, which is always a sight to see. There were many, many other activities, and we just couldn't get to them all. An example would be the art auctions, which we're not really into and so did not attend.
I made use of the casino for a few hours on a couple of different days and came close to breaking even via craps and Caribbean Stud. My $20 for the blackjack tournament disappeared in a puff of smoke thanks to an ill-timed dealer blackjack that wiped me out. By the way, prior to this cruise, I had no idea that Texas Hold 'Em had finally found its way onto cruise ships! The Explorer had two limit $5-$10 tables, which shocked me since I had never seen them before. I asked when they had started this and was told that the tables had been in existence for at least six months. (Note that the casino isn't open when the ship is docked in Bermuda due to customs regulations.)
PORTS / EXCURSIONS
We only made one stop on this voyage, which was a two-day stay in Bermuda. The timing was lucky for us - if we had gone the week prior, we would have had to deal with Tropical Storm Ernesto, and if we had gone the week after, we would have had to deal with Tropical Storm Florence. So the weather cooperated for us. We docked in King's Wharf (aka The Dockyards) and were the only boat to be docked there. Four other ships were in Bermuda, two docked in Hamilton and two docked in St. George. We attended the shopping talk on the day prior to port but didn't actually shop. The professional shopper on board seemed to know her stuff, but she reminded me of the guy that used to do the commercials for Micro Machines cars - she spoke about 100 words a minute. I felt I needed a catnap just from listening to her.
We did two shore excursions. The first was the Hamilton to St. George Highlights Tour, which was essentially a six-hour bus tour that went from Hamilton to the Botanical Gardens, the Bermuda Aquarium / Zoo, and Fort St. Catherine. We had to catch a ferry from our boat to Hamilton to pick up the tour, so we were required to buy transportation passes on the ship prior to arriving in Bermuda in addition to the excursion price (pretty cheap - $12 per day per person, which gives unlimited bus & ferry access). The ferry was a bit late in departing from the pier, so our tour began 30 minutes late. This shortened our stay at the Botanical Gardens, but our pleasant and knowledgeable driver was able to make up the time and make the ride around the entire island quite enjoyable. The tour ended in St. George, which admittedly didn't have too much for us to see, and we had to catch the next ferry back to the boat. Overall, the excursion had a rocky start but ended well and really allowed us to see the entire island in a few hours. Recommended.
The second excursion was one of our favorite parts of the cruise, the Restless Native Catamaran Cruise. Sounds corny, but it actually was close to four of the best hours of our trip. The catamaran picked our group up at the pier by the ship. As we sailed for an hour to our snorkeling spot, the host provided some history and trivia. Her son even baked cookies during the ride. When we got to the snorkeling spot, our host actually explained what we would see and showed us pictures of every fish that we would see underwater along with explanations of them. Having been on a few snorkeling runs, we had never experienced this before and were thrilled to know what we were actually seeing. The snorkeling was very good, and the host actually did it with us and pointed out fish and areas of interest along the reefs. Rum swizzle was waiting on board for our group as we returned to the ship. All in all, a HIGHLY recommended excursion that no snorkeling fan should miss.
Overall, Bermuda seemed like a reasonably safe and comfortable island. We would definitely go back to visit some of the beaches, which we didn't get to this time around.DINING
We still prefer Royal Caribbean's food over that of Carnival, but only slightly. While in most cases the dinners in the dining room met our now-extremely-high expectations, there were a couple of disappointing dishes. The filet of beef on formal night was a bit tough and flavorless, kind of like what you might get at your cheap cousin's wedding. The New York strip steak, as other reviewers have mentioned, was also somewhat disappointing. (I can probably grill steaks better than that - and I can't cook or grill a lick.) However, most other dishes were incredibly tasty. My favorites were the mahi-mahi in sweet & sour sauce, a wonderful shrimp & crab bisque appetizer, and of course the lobster tail of which I had two and almost a third. My wife had an onion pie appetizer of sorts that she really enjoyed.
The best part of dinner was our service. We requested a table for two when we got on board and were initially told that none were available, so on the first night we sat with three other nice couples and watched as our head waiter interrupted his welcome speech to us in order to take a call on his short-range cell phone. (Bad move, buddy.) The next day, however, we received a note in our stateroom informing us that we were switched to a table for two! Very impressive - nice job, Royal Caribbean. At our new table, our waiter and assistant waiter were OUTSTANDING, the best that we have experienced on any cruise. They were polite, very fast, catered to our every request, and overall made us feel very comfortable. We gave them a bit more than just the standard prepaid gratuity because they really deserved it. As far as the head waiter goes, we were just happy that he didn't interrupt any of his brief conversations with us to take phone calls.
One thing my wife did NOT enjoy was the dining room's coffee. For New Jersey folks that are used to Dunkin' Donuts, Wawa, and Starbucks, this coffee left much to be desired. We occasionally stopped in the coffee shop, Cafe Promenade, so that she could get a decent cup of Seattle's Best Coffee which she said was an improvement. I took those opportunities to grab a few free cookies from the cafe, and she occasionally had a sandwich which she enjoyed. (Try the pizza too - it was pretty good.)
The breakfast buffet in the Windjammer was just okay this time around. The omelet lines were always quite long, and my wife and I both felt that the food quality was basically just average. In fact, we went to the dining room on the last day in the hopes of better food and less of a crowd, and we were pleasantly rewarded with tasty omelettes and good service. Lunch was better, with a pretty wide selection of tasty foods, including a mud pie on the next-to-last day that was sinfully chocolaty.
We did not visit Portofinos (fine Italian dining), so we can't comment on that.
We can comment on the bar servers. These folks watch the empty tables in every bar, lounge, pool area, and theater like hawks. Most of the time, it's fine and they deliver excellent service. In one case, however, we were traveling through a few rows in one of the theaters to find the ideal seats, and one of the bar servers decided to chase us down. Excuse me, Excuse me, EXCUSE ME was heard as we continued to look for seats. I turn around, and immediately hear, Would you care for a drink? Part of me really wanted to say to her, I generally like to have a seat before I have a drink, so stop tailing me and go chase another tourist. However, we politely declined and found our seats, at which time we were immediately besieged by another waiting bar server.
By the way, when on board a cruise ship, order a BBC - Baileys, Banana, and Colada. I find that the USA bartenders I ask don't know what this drink is, but it's mighty tasty.
The first evening was the Welcome Aboard show, which was a variety show including cool acrobatics of Majestic and some singing & dancing, of course. The best part of the show was comedian Carlos Oscar, who was quite funny. We would have liked to see his late-night comedy the following day, but we were too exhausted.
On the next morning, we got tickets to the ice show later in the afternoon. Our overall take is that it was weird but very well done. Considering how small the ice rink is, it's amazing that the skaters can get up enough speed to do some of the moves that they do. Not to spoil this for anyone, but I had never seen anyone help his partner do a back flip directly over top of him using nothing but his NECK to do it. Someone was eating his Wheaties that day. Don't miss the ice show - you'll have four chances to watch it, and you should definitely take advantage of it.
Monday evening was some sort of production show by the singers and dancers called Swingin something. I can't remember the exact title, which is parallel to my memory of the show itself It was average and nothing special, but decent since it didn't cost us any extra money save a couple of drinks.
Tuesday evening, our first in Bermuda, was a bit different. The ship decided to put on some sort of festival in the Dockyards. We went over to check it out, but weren't really all that impressed and didn't feel like being eaten by bugs to see the entertainment (singing & parade) that they were having. So we walked back to the ship, relaxed, and took it easy for the night. Most folks on the ship went to the festival, but we didn't hear any really strong opinions around whether folks loved it or hated it.
Wednesday evening was another production show by the singers and dancers, and this one we remembered. It was called Vibeology and was basically various different pop songs through the decades. This beat the heck out of the show earlier in the week the singing, dancing, costumes, and music selection were all top-notch and extremely well executed. I am surprised that others reviewing this show didn't care for it. I guess it's possible that the singers and dancers on our boat were that much better. Either way, we enjoyed this show quite a bit and recommend that folks not miss it.
Thursday evening was a Farewell Spectacular. Acrobats Majestic did an encore performance, then following a quick interlude by our cruise director (who was average at best), Michael James did a sort of action-comedy routine. He at first seemed like he was going to be really hokey, but he actually was extremely funny with impeccable timing and active involvement of the audience.DEBARKATION
Royal Caribbean is pretty good at this too, as is the port of Bayonne. All guests are given luggage tags of a certain color, and later disembark based on the color of their tags. The colors are in a predetermined sequence. We were smack in the middle of the list. Once our tag was called - which took a bit longer than we expected due to people not listening to announcements and going where they were supposed to go - we were off the ship and in our car within about twenty to thirty minutes tops. That includes the quick shuttle ride back to the terminal. We would definitely take another cruise out of Bayonne again. All in all, debarkation was almost as smooth as embarkation, even though it took a bit longer.
This cruise met the vast majority of our expectations. It's a great way to travel to Bermuda, particular for folks in the Mid-Atlantic region who don't want to go far but still want to travel on one of the bigger ships. Get out there.