We arrived by car at Cape Liberty and finding the cruise terminal was exceptionally easy as the directions from Royal Caribbean (RC) were simple to follow. There was signage to the Cruise Terminal to keep us from second guessing the directions and one simply can't miss the mammoth cruise ship sitting in the harbor as you approach the city of Bayonne. Bayonne isn't the prettiest area in the world, but it was sufficient for the purpose. We pulled right up to the terminal, a porter took our bags, and then I parked the car not more than 1000 feet from the terminal at a cost of $15/day. We then went through security, checked in, had our photos taken (which seems to be a very common occurrence on a cruise), got on the bus to the ship, and were onboard in less than an hour. It truly could not have been easier!
We had a family ocean view (FO) stateroom aboard the Explorer which was a great cabin. There are very few of these on the ship and I will tell you that it met our needs quite well. The family staterooms look forward on the ship and have two very large portholes that allow one to have an exquisite view! Since we were just a few decks below the bridge, we had almost the same view at the captain. In addition to the main queen sized bed made from twins, there was a small sitting area with a couch, chair and coffee table, and a small room with bunk beds in it. The bathroom was cozy, but from what I've read, that is to be expected on ships. We had more than enough room and it really was a perfect cabin for families. RC says that 6 can fit into the room (the couch unfolds into a double bed), but I would say that it would probably be a tight fit for a family of more than 4. Since we had 4 in our room, our son and my grandmother were considered 3rd and 4th passengers, which really reduced the price and this option was much cheaper than two separate rooms. I would have really liked to have had a balcony and that is the only thing that would have made our room absolutely perfect. Our stateroom attendant was great too. Somehow he always knew when he could come into our room for service yet never disturbed us. Our son really enjoyed the nightly towel animals and went running to find and then thank "Mr. Greg" after seeing what animal he had left. I think that it was one of the highlights of the trip for our son.
Adventure Ocean, which is RC's kids club, was an integral part of our cruise. Upon boarding, they have an open house where we were given a tour of the facilities, an overview of the program, and paperwork to fill out. We then were given a beeper so that we could be reached if there were any problems while our son was in the program. That was really nice as we could be reached anywhere on the ship and didn't feel the need to constantly check in when he was in the program. And they did beep us when we were really needed (ie: one day he really wanted a nap so it was good that they could easily find us). We have not a single negative thing to say about the program as it was absolutely fabulous! Our son had more planned activities to choose from than we did! Face painting was one of his favorites (he became known as Spiderman around the ship because he always seemed to be painted like the infamous superhero). Some nights the staff took the kids to Johnny Rockets so that the parents could enjoy dinner without the kids. A nice touch considering that the dinners were rather lengthy. Plus, every single one of the staff in the program was excellent and really seemed to enjoy the kids (and by the end of the cruise, our son loved every one of them too). The program truly was terrific. One bad thing about our cruise was that there were very few kids and at times our son was the only one in the program. We were told that typically there were approximately 600-800 kids on board and during our sailing; there were only 8 in our son's age range (3 - 5) and 30 total under the age of 17! I think that the staff outnumbered the kids on our sailing at least 3 to 1. While our son really enjoyed the program, I think that he and the other kids would have had a much better time had there been more kids. That is probably a problem with going up north in September/October when most families have kids in school. Overall, staff service in general on the ship was exquisite. Every single one of the crew that we encountered was helpful and seemed genuinely happy. Now I know that is part of their jobs (they have to be happy or they can go home, as we were told) but they really did seem to enjoy what they were doing. We spent a lot of time in the Cafe Promenade and had some really nice conversations with those that worked there. It is open 24 hours a day and it really was like going to your neighborhood coffee house. It was a nice, relaxing place to hang out. It did get crowded right after a show, but once people got their cookies, had their tea and moved on, it quieted down again. I think that the Cafe Promenade was our favorite place on the ship. Our second favorite was the 19th hole as it was a really quite place to hang out and the views were spectacular. Plus, the moving gold ball contraption (I have no idea how to explain what it is but you'll know what I'm talking about) was mesmerizing and is something that should not be missed. Many on the ship never found this private hideaway, which was great for us.
The shows that we went to were entertaining. The comedians were good and the juggler/magician was the best that I have ever seen (not that I've seen too many magicians or jugglers). We didn't go to the singing and dancing shows, but my grandmother said that they were pretty good too. The ice show was unbelievable and I would strongly encourage one not to miss it. I think had we been able to get tickets, we would have gone twice; it was that good. We also really enjoyed the Love and Marriage show. It was put together like the old Newly Wed Game Show with audience members and was absolutely hilarious. If one only makes two shows on the ship, I would say it and the ice show were the two not to be missed. But, if you want a good seat at the shows, make sure that you get there early because there are limited view seats and it isn't good to sit behind a pole.
For us (remember, traveling with a 3 year old) Johnny Rockets was a popular venue. The burgers were great (actually, the best burger that I've had in a long time), the milkshakes were good, everyone raved about the onion rings (which I don't care for so can't be a good judge) and the entertainment (YMCA dancing) was entertaining. Our son really liked it. Plus, we had a really nice view of the shoreline as we were sailing out of port which is something that you don't get at your local neighborhood Johnny Rockets.
The gym was great and truly not very crowded. It had great views and more than enough equipment to keep everyone happy. I also splurged on a Hot Stone Message for my wife in the spa, which she really loved. During our cruise, they had spa signups where you could "bid" for a particular spa treatment at half price. I believe that they honored all of the treatments that were bid on so it was a good way to get a spa treatment at half off. They only offered them on port days, but it was a great way to get that sought after treatment for a much more reasonable price. We had a couple's message which was really great. There really is something about having a spa treatment at sea. I didn't care for the hard sale push afterward to buy oils and whatnot, but otherwise it was a really nice way to end our cruise (we did it on the last day).
I thought that considering that 3000+ people were on the ship, getting off of the ship was pretty flawless. Things seemed to move quite well when we were in port and tendered and debarkation was truly flawless. We were yellow, which is middle of the pack of colors. We waited in the Solarium until our color was called, rode the elevator down, got off of the ship, rode the bus to the terminal, a porter met us at our bags, went through customs, got the car, drove it around, stopped in front of the terminal where we loaded our bags. We were on our way home by 10:30. Again, it couldn't have been easier. One thing that I would recommend is waiting towards the top of the ship. The elevators go to the top, and then go down. So, if you are on one of the upper decks, you are almost certain to be able to get onto the first elevator that stops on your floor. We stopped on some floors but people couldn't get on because our elevator car was already full. The Solarium (on deck 11) was a good choice while the Palace or Studio B were not (the other places where RC recommended waiting). In addition, you have a view of the activity that goes on while the ship is in port. The operation of unloading the bags and loading of the ship was really entertaining and quite amazing. RC really does have this process down to an art form.THE BAD:
One bad thing about our cruise was that younger passengers certainly were in the minority. I don't have facts, but I'm certain that there were less than 500 people in the under 50 crowd on board. We really enjoyed talking with many of the older couples, but it was hard to find people on board that we had common interests with. Many of the activities that were geared toward younger people were canceled due to having few or no participants. But what really was disturbing was that we have never been on vacation with quite so many grumpy people. It seems like many of the older people just looked for things to complain about. One of their major complaints was that they had to walk too much. My question was, what did they expect on such a large trip? From our perspective (and my grandmothers), RC took good care of the elderly and had many activities and excursions geared toward them. They also seemed to be very accommodating in helping out with wheelchairs and the like when needed. Despite this, there seemed to be many passengers that complained the entire time. It was somewhat of a downer. Many were really upset with RC because we could not pot at St. John because it was too foggy. When we were standing on the top deck, we couldn't see the water due to the fog. How was the captain supposed to bring us in with fog that thick? It's not like RC could bring in giant fans and blow the fog out to sea! In any case, RC did a great job of improvising by immediately adding more onboard activities, opening the dinning room for lunch, extending hours of the shops, printing new schedules, etc. I was impressed with how quickly they were able to get it all together after the captain announced that we would not be able to go into port. However, that ruined the trip for many which was too bad because there were many other things to be happy about on our trip.
The one thing that I was most surprised about and disappointed by was the food. Now I didn't have a bad meal while on board, but I didn't have an exceptional meal either. Most of the food was fairly plain, a little bland, and quite frankly, rather unimaginative. Most of it was meat, potatoes or rice, and a vegetable. We did have seafood on a few occasions, but generally, it was nothing to get excited about. The dining room food was better than the Windjammer food, but there was more variety in the Windjammer. I expected the buffet to be more in line with some of the buffets in Las Vegas, but it really was more like a local cafeteria where there is a lot of food but nothing really exquisite. I think that the best meal that we had while on board was at Johnny Rockets. We didn't eat at Portofino's so I can't comment on that. We probably should have but since reservations were required and we never were quite sure if our son would crash early or not, it didn't materialize. Along with the food, we were also disappointed with the dinning room service. Not a single meal lasted less than 2 hours and it seemed to drag on considering that we were having simple 3 course meals. The service was rather inefficient and continued to be so even after discussing the issue with the head waiter. The servers were nice but somehow they either had too many tables or the food didn't come out of the kitchen fast enough. There were many times in which my drink glass remained empty for most of the meal too. This type of service was unexpected based on what I've read about cruising. The service at the Windjammer was great and there seemed to be more servers there than in the main dinning room. My glass was never empty in the Windjammer. Along the lines with dinner, it seems that many of the family or sporting activities were between 5 and 7. Having dinner at 6 prevented us for partaking in some of these activities. In addition, we were typically sailing out of port during dinner and viewing the shoreline from the upper decks of the ship while we were sailing out of port was one of my favorite things to do while at sea. So, if I had to do it over again, I would probably pick the later dinning or skip the main dinning more often. The final midnight gala was rather impressive and more along the lines what I imagined having the entire time. They served it on the second to last night, but many missed out because it was so late. I would have really enjoyed it had it been served during the day when I was actually hungry.
I was also slightly disappointed by the activities on board. Many of the activities were geared for a warm weather cruise and had to be canceled because it simply was too cold outside. No one wanted to play pool games or participate in deck activities in 50 degree weather (which was warmer than the average temperature for that time of the year). The Cruise Director (who was great otherwise) could have done a bit better of a job adjusting activities for a colder weather trip. In addition, several of the activities on board had very limited hours. The rock wall was not open as much as I expected it to be (and was closed many times when it was supposed to be open due to lack of participation or weather), the inline skating was only open during our dinning time and I was really disappointed by the limited hours that the ice rink was open for skating. It was only open when we were at sea (sparsely at that) and was never open during the evenings. Our chances to skate were extremely rare and it just so happened that one of the few sessions that we planned to attend was canceled. I think that we spent a total of 15 minutes on the ice and had it been open more, I suspect that we would have spent several hours on the ice. We all (minus my grandmother) really enjoy skating back home and the novelty of skating on the ship was very appealing to us. Our son was in tears because the last session that we went to was canceled but RC forgot to update the daily schedule to reflect the change.
The final negative thing I will say is that I was surprised (as many passengers were) that if you didn't book ahead of time, it was nearly impossible to book a shore excursion. By the time we boarded the ship, probably half of the excursions were already booked and by the second day of the cruise, almost all of the excursions were booked solid. One of our excursions was canceled the night before and we had absolutely no options to book something else. We ended up venturing out on our own and had a rather fine time. In the end, I think that with US and Canada sailings, I would book my own trips outside of the cruise line in the bigger ports. I know that in Boston, one of the excursions was a hop on/hop off trolley tour that was almost double the price if booked through the cruise line. In smaller ports, this strategy might not be wise because there aren't enough tour operators to go around and you may be stuck. But for the bigger ports, you can probably save some serious dough if you are adventurous enough to do it on your own. Based on what experienced cruisers say, you probably don't want to do this in some of the foreign countries as you can end up getting taken advantage of.PORTS and EXCURSIONS
New London, CT- We all booked the Essex Steam Train tour through the Cruise line. It was one thing that we all enjoyed and I would highly recommend it to young and old. If more of the leaves had turned (Sept. 29 was a bit early this year) it would have been absolutely gorgeous. Nonetheless, we had a great time and really enjoyed this trip including the scenery and narrative of the trainmen. The earlier trip was definitely less crowded than the later trip so if you want to avoid crowds, take the earlier trip.
Portland, ME- The excursion that we wanted to take was booked before we got on the ship (we booked our trips about 3 weeks before we sailed) and we weren't able to get in on the waiting list. However, this turned out to be a blessing as we ended up going to the Kids Museum in Portland. Our 3 ½ year old absolutely loved it and it was the best kids museum that we've ever been too. After playing the entire morning, we walked around the old town of Portland and did a little shopping. We also ate a late lunch at local recommended Gilberts, which just so happens to be a couple of blocks from the cruise port. We had excellent clam chowder and good lobster rolls there and the fried clams looked wonderful.
Halifax, Nova Scotia- The excursion that we were supposed to go on (sea kayaking) was canceled the night before so we were on our own and were a bit discombobulated due to the abrupt change in plans. We left our son on the ship and did a little walking around to see if we could find something else interesting to do. I was hopeful that we could still find a kayaking tour on our own, but it was to no avail. We ended up going back on board and got him so that we could all take an amphibious tour of the city and harbor (The Harbor Hopper). While it was a good tour and he enjoyed it, I would probably skip it in the future and tour the Citadel and gardens myself. The gardens were absolutely beautiful. We ate a light lunch in the old market but I'm sure that there were better places to eat in Halifax. My grandmother took the horse drawn carriage tour and really enjoyed it. She said it was at a slow enough pace that she really got to take in the sights instead of simply rushing by (which is what we felt about the Harbor Hopper).
Saint John, New Brunswick- This port stop was canceled due to the fog, which was disappointing. We were to take the covered bridges biking tour, which I think would have been beautiful. It was inland a bit so there was a good chance that the leaves had turned there.
Bar Harbor, ME- By far, the very best stop for us. We were going to rent a car in Bar Harbor at the airport, but apparently others had the same idea. The cars were booked up several weeks in advance. So, we decided to hire a taxi for the afternoon which was a wonderful decision! Mary from At Your Service Taxi Company was absolutely great. We discussed with her what we wanted to do (see some of the sights in Acadia and do a little hiking) and planed our trip with her. It was much better than renting our own car because she showed us some sights that we would have missed, suggested a wonderful hike, and was really a great tour guide. The company has a standard tour of Acadia that takes about 3 ½ hours but you can adjust it to your liking. I think that the personalized tour was much better than any offered through the cruise ship and if you got together with another couple or two, it would be just as economical. They charge $70 an hour, but 6 people can be accommodated in their minivans. Split 6 ways, that's just $40 a person. We also did a little shopping in the quaint little shops and got a bite to eat at local recommended The Lobster Claw. The place is a little shack off the beaten path but by far the best chowder and crab roll that I've ever had. It is family owned and has about 4 card tables and several mix and match chairs, but definitely a place to stop in at. Bernie is the owner with a bit of a personality. He'll take great care of you and you will certainly be treated to some great seafood. The lines of locals getting takeout can be somewhat long during lunch, but trust me, it is well worth the wait.
Boston, MA- We booked a Whale Watching trip through Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC) on our own and were treated to a great show. We saw three different Humpback whales (two swimming with each other which is rare) and a couple of Meinke Whales. The boat captain got close enough to the whales that we were sprayed by them when they surfaced. It was truly incredible. Because the whales were putting on such a good show, the tour operator let us stay out an extra 30 minutes. That made the trip 3 ½ hours. When we were coming back into the Pier, the New England Aquarium Whale Watching tour was heading out. It seems to be more popular as the boat was bigger than ours and much more crowded. I'm glad that we went on the one that we did because we didn't have any problems getting an unobstructed, front row view of the whales. BHC typically offers two whale watching trips, but on the day that we were in port, the 10:00 trip was the only one headed out (12:00 was canceled). After whale watching, we again asked locals where to go. This time they sent us to the Barking Crab. Again we tried the chowder and lobster rolls, but ventured out with steamed mussels too. The mussels were very good, but the chowder and lobster rolls were a bit disappointing after the great meal we'd had in Bar Harbor. I think that I'd try a different place the next time we are in Boston. Most don't know about this but a local told us about the old Custom House (a couple of blocks from the Aquarium), and it is definitely worth a visit. They offer a free trip up to their observation deck, which has great views of the harbor and city. There is a $12 shuttle into Boston, but we opted for a taxi to and from the pier, which ended up costing about $8.00 each way. Considering that there were 3 of us, we ended up saving money with the taxi and didn't have to wait on either end for the shuttle.
The Explorer was a beautiful ship and the crew was absolutely wonderful. The kids program was outstanding and we all had a great time on and off of the ship. The food on board could have been better and some of the activities could have been a bit better managed, but considering that RC was trying to tailor to 3000 plus passengers, I think that they did an outstanding job. This was our first cruise and while we thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I think that we will try some of the other cruise lines to see if they can improve on some of RC's downfalls. However, another cruise with RC is not out of the question and we would be more than happy to cruise again on the Explorer. The close proximity of our home to her embarkation port is especially appealing but also knowing that we will have a great time is also comforting. As I started out saying, I'm suffering from Post Cruise Depression Syndrome and am already looking into booking our next trip.