Just got back and I must say it was the most fantastic vacation without our children ever! Highlights: Best Western South Miami for pre-trip accommodations Johnny Rockets 50's Style Cafe Catch A Wave Snorkel and Bond Adventure in Cozumel
We started by arriving in Miami early. We stayed and the Best Western South Miami. Their moto is "best kept secret in miami". I would agree. The hotel wasn't close enough to the ocean to walk there, however it was very close to the public transportation system and for $1.50 per person you could travel pretty much anywhere you wanted to go in Miami. It was also within walking distance to Bayside shopping center. We felt safe walking and spent about 4 hours there and still didn't get a chance to take it all in. The hotel had a free shuttle service. This service included transportation to several area hot spots, picked us up from the airport and delivered us to the Miami Cruise ship port.
The rooms where clean and the front desk was very helpful. The airlines lost two of our bags. The front desk was very attentive to this stressful situation which allowed us to feel comfortable leaving the hotel to site-see while waiting for our bags to arrive. They had a wonderful breakfast which was included in the price of the room. It had many hot selections like eggs and bacon along with fresh fruit, cold cereals, and a mix of pastries. They were under renovations at the time but even that was not an inconvenience as they kept it pretty well sealed behind plastic barriers. If you're looking for a pool this hotel falls a little short here. They have an out door pool surrounded completely by the hotel. Rooms are built forming a square enclosure. The pool is not heated and doesn't get much sun. This might change during different parts of the year, but in January the area is pretty shaded by the walls, this makes for a very cold pool. We did not swim here.
The Explorer sailed on Saturday. I would recommend this to anyone who has to travel to Miami. By leaving on Saturday we were able be home on Saturday giving us one full day to "get our act together" before returning to work. The hotel shuttle delivered us right to the Explorer at about 12:15. The driver helped get us a porter who took our bags and helped us find our way. Embarkation from the time we tipped our hotel shuttle driver to check in took about 10 minutes. It was very quick and easy. There wasn't a line at all and the Royal Caribbean employees where ready and waiting with a smile and a big Welcome. We were on board, had checked out our rooms and were eating lunch in the Windjammer Cafe by 1:00.
Our rooms where nice, we had an inside cabin. Two small beds are pushed together to make one big one. I was afraid this was going to be a little like sleeping on a sofa sleeper, but was pleasantly surprised. I never once felt a crack or hard spot. My husband has a bad back and he never got up with a backache. We would stay like this again. The rooms are small but not so that you're uncomfortable and we didn't spend much time here anyway. One night it was very windy and when in the hallway you could hear the wind whistle from under the doors of the outside cabins. We thought they had their door open but later found out they didn't. The couple across the hall from us said they had to stuff towels to stop the wind whistling so they could sleep at night. The couple at our diner table said they enjoyed the balcony in the mornings and it was nice to have a private place to enjoy the sunshine but was irritated by the noise also. They did say they would pay the extra to have the balcony again as the benefits were worth the cost.
The food was terrific. Always plenty more than you could eat. We traveled with my sister and brother in law (the eating machine!). Even he had his full. We laughed and said we never thought we'd ever hear those words come from his mouth! Buffet food was typical buffet, not much you can do when trying to keep food warm and ready at any time of the day. We ate breakfast and some lunches here and were always satisfied with the quality and choices offered. The dining room was very nice. Our waiter Erkan and assistant Clint were the shining stars in service! Erkan always had a suggestion for what was going to be the best, he even got me to try escargot! I must agree that it really was pretty good. Clint was always ready with the drinks and bread choices. After the second day it was like he could read our minds and we never had to ask for anything! We were all surprised to hear he had been recently promoted to the dining room. His service was excellent.
We did not eat at Portafino's. This restaurant cost extra and with the other choices available did not feel the need to even try it. Apparently many others on board felt the same way as many nights we walked past the doors we did not see anyone in there.
Of all the food choices though I'd like to give my compliments to Johnny Rockets cafe. This 50's style diner serves up the "BEST" onion rings I've tasted in my life! We ate lunch here every day we could and had many "snacks" here after diner. We were talking about it to the couples that sat at our dining room table and got them hooked too! Many nights we were walking out as they were walking in. It is the best place to get burgers, hot dogs, chili cheese fries, onion rings, milk shakes and many other fast food choices. We did notice the service personnel worked very long shifts. The same people who opened everyday, closed everyday. Even with these long hours they always smiled and laughed with us when we'd crack a joke. They even agreed to take a picture with us to put in our memory books. No tipping required here and I didn't see anyone leave one, so I know these people here were sincerely having as much fun as we were!
Our ports of call:
Labadee: Very nice and relaxing. We did some hiking and some snorkeling. It was my husbands first time snorkeling, we didn't see a lot of fish but we did see enough to make it interesting and worth the $16 to do so. If you don't want to bargain stay away from the shops. We were the first group to walk up to the market as I had forgotten my hat and wanted to buy one. The Haitians were speaking in a language I couldn't understand other than one word..Americans.. We figured our pocket books were in trouble! It was fun and my husband learned very quickly how to get the best price. We ended up not only buying a hat but several items for our kids too.
Ocho Rios: Pre-trip I was most excited about this port. I've always wanted to climb Dunn's Falls and was not disappointed by it's beauty. I was disappointed though in the people here. They wanted our money and it was to the point it made me uncomfortable. To leave the falls we had to walk though a market place. The people here grab your arms and step in front of you. They even had signs that read "to ship" with an arrow that really took you to more markets. Later we found out there was another exit that by-passed the markets but you really had to search to find it. We also walked the streets of Ocho Rios.
I don't recommend this as people were begging all around and if you asked anyone a question they demanded you pay them for the answer. During our whole day here only once did we meet someone who was not looking for a "tip". This was a nice older gentlemen we passed on the street. He looked at our stressed out faces and said "smile mon..you're in Jamaica". This did make us smile and he was very nice to point out our destination. But this one person did not make up for the many others who made this port a disappointment. We bought T-shirts in the shops near Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville. These felt like high quality and all said pre-shrunk cotton on the collar tag. However after the first wash they shrunk so badly my husband and I no longer have T-shirts and our 7 year old now has three. Be careful!
Grand Caymen: All ships must anchor here and tenders take you to the island. The day before a storm went through and although we always had blue skies the sea had not calmed down. The tenders would not come out and get us because of the wave size. We and many other cruise ships scheduled for that day ended up with an additional day at sea.
Cozumel: Our Favorite port! We elected to shop in the morning and participate in the Catch the wave Bond Adventure excursion offered through Royal Caribbean in the afternoon. We took a taxi to the end of town and then walked our way back towards the cruise ship. The Mexican people were very friendly and never once did we feel uncomfortable. Yes they did call you out and ask you to look at their shops, but they were nice and if you walked in to look they let you. If you left without buying they always said Gracias. Never once did I feel overly pressured to purchase! The T-shirts we purchased here did not shrink and we are happy with all the prices we paid.
THE BEST PART: The Catch the Wave boat picked us up right at the cruise ship pier. They drove right (to go around the ship) circled back to the left and anchored. Yes, you could see the ship perfectly. If you are an experienced diver this is not the excursion for you. If you are a beginner or even have some experience with snorkeling I recommend it! The boat itself was clean. The people were very nice, asking and remembering your name. Included were nacho's and all you can drink (water, soda, mixed drinks, Coronas). They also had glass bottom boat rides. These tour guides would dive down and pick up "creatures" from the bottom and bring them up for all to touch. While snorkeling we saw many different fish. We did pay extra to enjoy the BOND adventure. If you want to do this make sure you pre-book it. They will not "sell" extra's once you are on board the catch the wave boat. The best way I can describe this is like an underwater motorcycle. From the shoulders down you are exposed to water but your head doesn't get wet. I would compare it to a helmet dive that others offer. You actually drive this and are able to control the speed and whether you turn right or left. Each BOND has a certified diver who guides you to an underwater paradise. They pick things up and let you hold them and point out those little things that the unexperienced might miss. The dive lasts about 20 minutes and is well worth the extra money! GO FOR IT, you will enjoy it!
We didn't have time to do all the things offered by the cruise ship for the days we had at sea. We were able to climb the rock wall, watch the ice show, play basketball, mini-golf, and watch many of their shows and comedians. All of which were top notch. You will never run out of things to do!
Departing was just as easy as embarkation. A porter helped us with our bags and then called a taxi to take us to the airport. We had a very wonderful time. My husband with was skeptical about the entire vacation when I booked it is already wondering when our next trip will be.