Explorer was our first cruise, and apparently our homework paid off. It also helped that our local travel agent performed a few key moves that ensured the ideal balcony stateroom location and gave us many helpful hints (such as instilling the concept that we should always be open to changing our plans when/if such changes need to happen).
The ship has been extensively profiled by other more qualified people, but suffice to say that we were not fully prepared for the sheer size of her, and how 3,200 passengers plus 1,000+ crew manage to live onboard without constantly rubbing elbows was beyond us. Having said that, there were certain patterns exhibited by passengers that led to lineups here and there so we quickly and easily figured out how to avoid them. On a related note we tendered 2 out of 4 stops but RCI had so many tenders for our ship that we could literally get on and off at will without any lineups or delays. It was like having our very own personal water taxi service and demonstrated RCI's commitment to excellence. A nice surprise indeed.
The service throughout the ship was uniformly outstanding, even at insane hours (i.e. 4:30AM). Main dining room cuisine was consistently excellent and the casual buffet (Windjammer's) only took things down a notch or two but made up for it with a surprising variety of fresh and healthy choices (which perhaps explains our minimal weight gain during the cruise). Our waiter Everton had 15 yrs experience and it showed. He was a master of his profession, a true gentlemen who was never obtrusive but who somehow managed to anticipate our every need and answer it immediately. Even when members of our table showed up at different times Everton always managed to spend time with them to ensure they had all the info they needed to have a great meal. And then somehow he got all our food to arrive together, each and every time. If I had to single out one person on staff who never ceased to amaze us it would be Everton. But Debbie (our stateroom attendant) needs recognition too, as she was a constant source of grins, giggles and helpful info. In these days of constant stress it was a joy to be greeted in the hallway by beaming Debbie, even as she worked constantly from dawn to dusk (and beyond). A truly lovely lady. The cleaning was constant and was incredibly thorough. I caught sight of a Supervisor running a white-gloved finger up INSIDE a ceiling component near one of the elevator lobbies, so when I asked him if he did that all the time he showed me his list of over 200 picky little things he inspects every single day...and then he grinned and said "This is just the official list. The other list", he replied while pointing to his head, "is much longer".
One of my favorite activities was a pre-dawn wander around Deck 4, a lovely wide and mostly protected deck that encircles the entire ship. We cruised during a full moon, so the color of the waves as we eased silently along was breathtaking. The dining rooms extend to the very edge of the hull, so Deck 4 actually cantilevers out at that point to give a wonderful view fore and aft along the hull. It got a bit gusty out there during a Force 7/8 gale on Day 6 but that was fun in its own way too. At 6AM the gym opened up and even for you non-gym types it really is quite nice to be way up on Deck 11 above the bridge watching the sun come up as you work up an appetite---or work off the previous overindulgences (!).
A hot sun and warm water are 2 things you won't find in Toronto in December so we stuck to snorkeling and beach trips for the most part. Belize was "rustic", so for those who would rather shop than hike or swim expecting you might want to stay on board that day. Those who went diving or who ventured farther inland enjoyed their trips but there really isn't much going on in town. Costa Maya was a pleasant beach day for us at a private beach booked through RCI. Full size motorcoaches took us about 40 minutes up the coast to a charming beach that you could literally walk along for miles in peaceful solitude. In Cozumel we went "drift snorkeling" with the current along Palancar Reef. This was truly the highlight of our trip. The water depth varied from 25' to 130' along the way, and one of the guides invited a few of us to the edge of the reef where the bottom just fell out of sight. We later found out that we had been floating in about 3,200' of water. The sun's rays as they sparkled in long lines of shimmering intensity towards the cobalt-blue depths were incredible. Grand Cayman saw us frolicking with the stingrays on a sandbar a few miles offshore, and I'll be the first to say it took a bit of getting used to. But if you're visiting the area we recommend it. Take some time for downtown while you're there, because it is the most tourist-friendly we encountered all week. Perhaps the sheer wealth of all the financial institutions helps (there are approx 500 banks on GC) but this was the one port of call that appeared to have an economic base aside from cruise ships. Seven Mile Beach must surely rank as one of the best beaches in the world simply for the quality of the sand itself. I can't find the words to describe the texture but suffice to say it's pretty nice. Island taxi transportation is safe, fair and easy to find.
Overall,and in spite of adjusting our plans a few times due to weather or the odd logistical hiccup we can honestly say this was the best vacation either one of us has had. As I type this review we are working out the details for another cruise with RCI either on Explorer again or on Freedom/Liberty with a few more members of our family.
Happy Cruising, Alan & Teresa