Hotel/Pre-Cruise Info: We stayed in Jersey City at the Courtyard Marriott ($200/night) and would recommend it. It was right next to the Path with great access to Manhattan. We enjoyed Jersey City, especially the riverwalk near the Hyatt: gorgeous! We took the Path into NYC, got ½ price Broadway tickets (info at www.tdf.org) to Chorus Line, (great) and ate at Lattanzi on Restaurant Row (fabulous).
Travel to Port/Embarkation: We took a taxi to the port ($35), left the hotel about 10:20 a.m. and were in the Windjammer eating lunch at 12:45 p.m., all positive considering that the ship ahead of ours was late, registration itself was delayed, and there were a couple of HUGE wedding parties waiting to be boarded. (a suggestion for RCCL: increase the communication at the waiting area a bit. It is disconcerting to get an information sheet saying that lunch starts in the Windjammer at 11:30, then see a sign that says boarding is at 1, then actually board at 12:25.) All in all, very well organized and painless.
We went to the fifth floor for sailaway, which is very dramatic and we enjoyed the vantage point. We encountered one of the famous "packs" of pre-teen and teenage kids, a bunch of girls who started having a spitting contest (yes, I said spitting) to see if one of them could get one into the ocean. Naturally, no parent was around. It did not cut into our enjoyment of the moment, and, certainly, going under the Verranzano Bridge was quite the sight.
Ship: We were amazed at the size and beauty of the Explorer. We loved all of the art and discovering all of the places and spaces. However, I did feel crowded, especially on the bad weather days (see below) and on the sea days. That is my opinion/idiosyncrasy only and I know that most people do not share it. Although I never waited in a line for long, and was always served quickly, I just felt like people were everywhere. I will say this: with the many activities and services it offers, the Explorer of the Seas would be a bit of vacation heaven for me... if about 1000 fewer passengers were on board.
Stateroom: Our cabin steward was pleasant and we enjoyed the towel animals. The new bedding was great. Having the over the door shoe organizer in our bathroom was a lifesaver and we stored lots of stuff in it. The pullout couch was a bit of a negative: stained more than any furniture I have ever seen before in any hotel, dorm, or library. How RCCL could allow that to remain in the cabin is beyond me. The size of the pullout was good, but our steward could not provide us with an eggcrate, which I think should be mandatory since there is essentially no mattress. We enjoyed the balcony when we could (see weather below) and basically looked upon the cabin for what it is supposed to be: a small, functional place to change, sleep, and regroup. For those things, it worked.
Activities: When we arrived on board on Sunday, it was misty, and we had clouds, rain, lightning, thunder and wind from that point until noon Tuesday in Bermuda. The sun was out from noon Tues. until sunset Wednesday, when an enormous storm with 40 mph winds became part of our adventure. Thursday, at sea, was gorgeous and we enjoyed the pool and later, watching the sunset and the moon rise. Bonine saved the trip for us: one DD and I are prone to motion sickness and the Bonine worked amazingly well.
The bad weather limited us, but we made the best of things, and enjoyed the library, spa for massages, rock climbing wall (I watched, DD climbed), the Promenade etc. We loved the Cafe: the cookies, coffee, sandwiches, etc. were very good. DDs roamed on their own quite a bit. They did not use Adventure Ocean, but they enjoyed the arcade, the promenade, the shows, (the comedian, Anthony Griffith, was hilarious) ice skating and the pool and hot tub. It was a good opportunity to teach some financial responsibility; they had a daily budget, and they used it well. Speaking of fiscal responsibility, (!) DH and I lost a bit at the casino, but had a lot of fun.
Every evening, DD and I had an after dinner drink at Dizzy's, which we absolutely loved. We thought the drink prices bordered on bargain compared to Chicago restaurants (Grand Marnier $5, Courvoisier, $8). Watching the many weather patterns through the gorgeous windows, sipping on a drink and talking together was very relaxing and a high point.
Dining: For breakfast and lunch, we used just about everything: room service, Windjammer, Cafe, and Dining Room, and they were great. Our dinnertime Dining Room experience was wonderful. Zoltan was our waiter and Cesar Sanchez our assistant waiter and they were hard working, polite, and professional. We had a table for four on the fifth floor at the top of the steps and it was perfect, and we think the Room itself is beautiful. (One gripe: RCCL does not enforce the dress code; lots of junky looking shorts, though it says no shorts in the Compass, and we saw jeans on formal night!)
We enjoyed the food throughout the ship, thinking it good to great. The baked goods-- breads to pastries to desserts-- were especially good. We were pleased with the variety of foods, especially in the Jade section of the Windjammer. The children to tried out several new dishes and they added some foods to their palate.
Service: The workers on board were great (with one exception in the disembarkation, see below) and we were admiring of how hard they work for so many months in a row without a break.
Shore Excursion: We took a number 7 bus through blustery winds and rains to Hamilton on Tuesday. Fortunately, the weather improved and we walked around and had lunch at The Spot Restaurant where they had a great fish chowder. We took the ferry back and enjoyed that informal tour of Bermuda. We took the Restless Native Catamaran Cruise on Wednesday and highly recommend it. I think experienced snorkelers might be bored, but it was great for our family. The catamaran ride was wonderful, beautiful scenery, we loved getting off the cat into knee high water, the snorkeling was fun and we saw a lot of beautiful fish and coral. The cookies were delicious and the tour talk was informative. It was a jewel of a day in that beautiful country.
Disembarkation: Going ashore in Bermuda, there were signs everywhere marked "Gangway." Inexplicably, they were nowhere to be found for disembarkation. We had pink labels and were the second group off, and we were called by about 8:45 a.m., but we could not find the gangway! We did not hear them announce middle elevators only and we went from one end of the ship to the other trying to disembark, joined by a bunch of other passengers in the same predicament. When getting off, we suggested to one of the workers that it would be a good idea to put the "gangway" signs up for disembarkation also. (The worker replied "You have been on this ship for five days, you should know your way around." As mentioned above, she was the only negative in terms of staff and definitely an exception, but an obnoxious one.) Otherwise, it was an amazingly well organized procedure, and we had our luggage, went through customs, boarded a bus to the airport, waited on the bus for 20 minutes, and arrived at Newark airport by 10:30.
Summary: We would recommend this type of vacation to families and the Explorer as a great cruise opportunity. Some of the things that I did not like are things that others (including my own family members) would not mind at all. As mentioned above, there were moments (the evenings at Dizzy's, Restless Native) that were perfect vacation times. I hope that all of you experience those perfect slices of vacation and many more.