Explorer of the Seas 9 night Bermuda and Eastern Caribbean Cruise 7/6/2007
BACKGROUND INFO: This is my 6th cruise and 2nd with Royal Caribbean. I (29 y.o.) was traveling with my husband and my mother and her husband. All of our previous cruises were out of FL, but this time we didn't want to bother with flights and booked from Bayonne, NJ.
EMBARKATION: We drove to the port from Maryland. Not a bad drive except that Mapquest.com directions to port were WRONG and deposited us on the dead end side street in the middle of Bayonne. Overall it took us an extra hour to backtrack and get to the port. On the plus side the embarkation process was a breeze, especially comparing to Miami port and overall chaos. I would say from the moment we dropped our luggage and parked the car it was about 15 min to get to the ship (bus ride included). Since we got there a little late (see above) by the time we boarded Windjammer was closed, so we had to get sandwiches at Cafe Promenade (they had better food anyway!).
SHIP: This was my first ship with Promenade in it and I LOVED the convenience and party feel of it. Overall, ship was in good shape (couple older carpets here and there, no biggie) with very impressive art and artifacts collection. I really liked the whole "explorers" theme and actually read the plagues describing what those people did and where all the treasurers/knickknacks come from (am I the only one who actually does this?). In my opinion this was the best laid out ship from the once I have been on. The 5th floor Promenade really helps to keep things in perspective and never get lost/stuck. Otherwise the layout is pretty standard with pool deck and Windjammer (buffet) being on the same level and extra smaller sun decks above. Note: for whatever reason this cruise everybody got up early, so by 8:30 am all the choice chairs were taken (even earlier in the Solarium) and this is with "pool police" in full force. This was the first ship where they actually enforced the "no saving chairs" rule!
STATEROOM: We had an inside cabin on 10th floor. Nothing to write home about - all standard stuff. We had enough closet space to unpack two 42" suitcases. Bathroom is tiny (as always); I like the cabin vs. curtain shower stall. As always, we have not spent much time in the cabin aside from sleeping (hence the inside cabin). I didn't notice a lot of wear and tear, except some buttons on the safe door were worn out. Note: if you use conditioner in your hair, bring your own stuff, the only thing they have in the shower is shampoo/conditioner mix and it is terrible.
DINING: We ate pretty much all breakfasts and lunches in Windjammer and all dinners in dining room. According to previous reviews food in Windjammer was supposed to be better than dining room, but I completely disagree. Overall food was good - nothing undercooked or smelling/tasting funny, nothing had to be sent back (unlike my last experience on Carnival). I found that buffet didn't have a lot of variety for lunch (some Asian dishes on the side tables don't count) - it was just burgers/hot dogs/fries/salad. But the one time we ate at dining room for lunch the menu was quite impressive. Not to forget the Cafe Promenade - excellent "European style" sandwiches with selection changing daily. Of course we had to go to Portofino's and while the food was good and service excellent, for me it was a bit of let down - I wanted a large steak or lobster or something equally spectacular - and "Italian" just didn't cut it, there is nothing that gives you that upscale feel as good as steakhouse's cart of meat and seafood in front of you ?. The dining room stuff was very efficient and professional (as always on Royal) and it was consensus of our whole table that our assistant waiter deserved an immediate promotion.
SERVICE: As I said earlier, service was consistently excellent throughout the ship. This is why RCCL is my absolutely favorite line (I tried Carnival, NCL and Holland before). Granted, Holland has good service too, but the age groups are just too different. We had awesome and ever patient room attendant, excellent service in the dining room and got to know some bartenders - all of this really makes your cruise so much more enjoyable.
ACTIVITIES: OK, normally I do not set even a foot in the gym on the cruise, but this time I actually went to 2 aerobics classes (great workout and no extra fee) and used treadmills (excellent water views). We also did mini-golf - tons of fun, but the course is in pretty bad shape (wrinkled and warped), so if you take your mini golf seriously this is not for you. We did not participate in anything else, aka "poolside Olympics", "best legs", etc., but they were surely fun to watch.
ENTERTAINMENT: This is the only category where Carnival in general is superior to RCCL. Of course there are your standard shows and acts, but there were no places for people over say 25 to dance after midnight - disco had only techno/rap music, the jazz lounge was a complete snooze fest and even though I love Latino music (one of the reasons why I am RCCL fan is because they have Bolero lounges) I am not that good at it and the dance floor in Bolero's was so small, that 2 couples dancing semi professionally covered it all (same ones every might, staking their seats before dinner I presume ?). The quality of the production shows was very sub par with one singer practically shouting the whole time. OK, enough grumbling, there were some excellent options too - Ice Show (an absolute MUST, the skating is not all that spectacular till you actually remember that you are on a moving ship with a rink about a quarter size of the usual one), Piano lounge (not as good as the last guy we seen on Carnival, but it was still fun) and Guitar Guy in the Crown &Kettle pub (nice variety of known and less known songs with guitar accompaniment). I also liked the "Island Parade" done on the last formal night.
PORTS: This cruise had an excellent mix of days at sea and ports with 2 days between last port of call and Bayonne, this allowed for enough time to wind down some and not feel so upset disembarking ?. First port of call was Bermuda (Royal Naval Dockyard) This is the only port where we have not been previously and where I actually bought an excursion through ship (waste of money). We went on the "Dockyard Trolley Tour" that was advertised as a tour of the Dockyard with the museum, etc. I booked because my husband is military buff and LOVES all this stuff. It turned out that the stinky (diesel) trolley actually takes you around some side streets while the guy in it complains about property costs, public housing and pricey gasoline. After disappointing tour we went to Horseshoe bay - kudos to the Bermuda authorities, they had 2 tourist agents working near the ship (very friendly and knowledgeable) and organized constant stream of buses going to the most popular places. We did not have to wait more the 10 min going in either direction. The beach was great, sand pink and beer cold - what else can you ask? We planned to return to the Dockyard with some time to spare for Naval museum (my husband) and shopping (my mom). In the end when we got to the Naval Museum it was closed (it officially closes at 5 pm per all guidebooks, but the last person admitted is 4 pm and not a second later ?, of course we were at the door at 4:02), so I had to promise my husband to go back to Bermuda. The shopping I found extremely overpriced, so we didn't get anything except rum cake and 2 souvenir glasses from Frog&Onion pub that came with our beer. St. Maarten Originally we were supposed to arrive in Philipsburg at noon with a sea day between Bermuda and St. Maarten, but due to medical emergency (some moronic teenager breaking his/her leg on the rental scooter ride in Bermuda (there is a reason to all the warnings!) and not wanting to admit it to parents ended up with compound fracture, so he/she could not be airlifted and we had to turn back to Bermuda after about 4 h sailing out, so it cost ship about 8h travel time). We finally arrived in St Maarten at 4pm (not bad all things considering), so there was no time to go to Orient Beach (MAJOR disappointment, St. Maarten stop was one of the reasons why I chose this particular itinerary). But thanks to Andrea (shopping director) the stores in Philipsburg stayed open till 8pm and that gave us tons of time to shop and enjoy the city. The ship didn't leave St. Maarten till about 11pm, so a lot of people stayed in the city and had dinner there - dining room was half empty that day. St. Thomas With all the shopping taken care of the previous day and extended stay hours (from 8 am to 7:30 pm) to compensate for St Maarten we have decided to take a trip to St. John on our own. To be honest, I am not sure if it would have been better to just buy the trip from the cruise line. It is expensive to get there (about $44 pp round trip with Trunk Bay admission) and of course all the taxis and ferries (especially ferries) run on "island time", aka whenever they please or get enough people on board. We got off the ship around 10 am and didn't get to Trunk Bay until noon. On the plus side, Trunk Bay is breathtakingly gorgeous; my mom even did some snorkeling and thoroughly enjoyed it. Water was calm and warm and the views are so pretty… After leaving the beach around 3 pm we headed to Cruz Bay and had lunch there (good extremely expensive food) and caught 5pm ferry back. Mind you the actual traveling time between Trunk Bay and the city or St John and St Thomas is never more then 20 min, but because of "island time" it all turns out into hours. We were back at Heavensight around 6:30pm. The cruise organized trip would have cost around $65pp and included island tour and admission to Trunk Bay, but would have given us only hour and a half on the beach. I am still debating what is better deal - less money and more beach time, but a lot of nerves, or total relaxation but less beach time. San Juan We have previously visited only airport grounds in San Juan, so it was a new city for us also. I found it gorgeous with interesting architecture and a vibe of a European town vs. anything this side of the pond ?. Of course, we had to visit both forts/castles (El Morro and St Christobal) and spend ridiculous amount of time there (as noted earlier, my husband is a military buff). Out of those two I would suggest just visiting El Morro for people interested in history/military stuff (my hubby even found an embedded into the wall shell from Spanish-American war somewhere in the basement) it is much more authentic and gives you better feel for the history of the place, but it is about 1.5 mile hike away and the grounds are quite extensive too. For people who just want to see the fort and take some pictures AND still have time for other things the best bet is St Christobal fort - basically same stuff with more restored things, but it is 5 min away from the pier and has excellent picture opportunities with your ship in the background. Naturally after 3 hr in the forts on the short stay (we were there from 8am (but nothing opens till 9 am) till 1:30 pm) we barely had time to have a beer at Hard Rock Cafe and buy couple T-shirts at Del Sol. On the way back to the ship I did stop by in couple jewelry stores and the deals were not bad, actually better then St. Thomas.
DISEMBARKATION As soon as your color is called the process is fast and painless, but it is a pain to wait for the color ?
SHORT SIDE NOTES - we traveled in the prime kids traveling time, but the ship/kids programs were so well organized (or we just had better mix of passengers?) that kids (even teenagers) were not a problem. Kids had full run of the aft of the ship on deck 12 and had a lot of opportunities to work the energy out in activities. There was not many problems with teenagers either (surprise!), you know normally they overrun the ship by about 10 pm and walk around in large LOUD gatherings most of them drunk (I absolutely hated this about Carnival). - St Thomas immigration procedure was the fastest and the best organized one ever. It took us literally 5 minutes to go through the whole ordeal. Note: once they put that smiley face on your card (which means you went through the process) you are good to go ashore and don't have to wait for the whole sheep to wake up and decide to show up at Immigration like on other ships/lines. - I have complained previously about the ParkWest art auctions, this time we still went and were pleasantly surprised (not by prices, they are still WAY too high). The auctioneer was pleasant and actually funny and didn't make a sour face and insult passengers after nobody took him up on the "original Dali, etc." offers. - The other thing I normally grumble about is Photography. Normally they are very pushy and expensive. This time pictures were still expensive, but they at least had some variety in size/prices/looks. For example pictures from dining room on formal nights were done with ship background and info and were only about $14.99. Unfortunately, photographers themselves were pretty bad, so we still didn't buy any pictures ? - I have never seen so many fresh injuries/casts on board as on this ship. Could this have been due to the skating rink? It seemed like you see a new cast everyday ? - The wine packages they sell you in the dining room are not worth the money. I can't say it is a rip off, because in the end you do save money buying the wine as a package deal, but even in the "diamond" package wine selection was terrible. So if you really like your wine, buy by the bottle, otherwise, stick to cocktails.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed the cruise, decided that anything less then 9 days is not going to cut it for us any longer and are planning to go back to Bermuda soon.