My second cruise in two years, I must say I very much enjoyed the Explorer of the Seas. I went the summer of 2006 with my soon-to-be-fiancee Nicci on the Eastern Caribbean tour on the Carnival Legend out of New York, and I didn't know what to expect with the switch to Royal Caribbean -- this time around we were going with Nicci's alumni group in October on a shorter cruise to only one port in an inside cabin rather than a balcony (more on this later), so naturally I had trepidations. Well, for the most part, there was no need for any.
Embarkation at Cape Liberty in Bayonne was an absolute snap. I was a little surprised that we had to take shuttle buses to the ship, but they were quick and uncrowded, especially as our luggage was efficiently taken at arrival. The ship itself was beautiful, with very lush artwork and fastidiously-clean public and private rooms. In fact, I even didn't really mind the inside cabin so much, as it was spacious enough...but I think the arrangement of the furniture inside could've been better, as our couch was placed right next to the edge of the bed, so you had to climb over it to get onto the bed. Nevertheless, this was only a small problem. Dining for the most part was also excellent, especially in Portofino's, the specialty Italian restaurant, but I must admit that breakfasts onboard were very lackluster, especially in the dining room, where the lackluster service actually caused one couple we dined with to get up and leave without touching their food. At night, however, our staff was courteous and alert, even the head waiter going so far as to give us a copy of a recipe which was unavailable in the Royal Caribbean cookbook. The only place we didn't hit was Johnny Rocket's, something which in retrospect I wish we did, because you couldn't go wrong for the price of eating there. Even the bars were attractive, especially the aquariums in the bar outside the casino...which itself was nice, but nothing too spectacular. One gripe: for having no smoking in certain areas of the casino, it sure smelled like cigarette smoke in there a lot, and in fact, a lady lit up in front of us, causing us to go to another machine. While we contributed to the problem by not reporting this to anyone, this policy should be enforced more.
Bermuda itself made for a lovely destination, with perfect weather there. The Royal Dockyards was a great place to dock, with convenient ferry service -- definitely purchase a pass onboard though, it's worth the money. Opting out of a shore excursion for the morning and afternoon, Nicci and I instead took a local bus to Elbow Beach, quiet and serene and beautiful. At night, we took the Sunset Catamaran excursion, which gave us a breathtaking view of the sunset, but be forewarned, especially if you use local buses, give yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship, as we didn't even have time to shower before the catamaran took off. All in all, I could've used more time in Bermuda, but I'll also comment on this in a second.
The cruise director and staff were wonderfully pleasant, and I very much enjoyed the shows onboard. I think Nicci was even happier, as she had done the Carnival Legend three years in a row and commented how she had even heard the same jokes from the same comedians all that time. The adult pool and spas, being open 24 hours a day, was very welcome, with attractive decor. The waiters plying liquor got to be a little too much after a while, and I was certainly surprised at how early the bars shut down by the pool, but you tend to shut this out after a while, and at least there were always deck chairs available. The towel exchange service was also nice. One other regret I had was that I didn't get a chance to go ice skating onboard, a very unique opportunity at sea! I think the only two problems I had with the activities were, as far as the ice shows go, you have to get tickets very early to see them, as there are only a limited number of seats around the rink, but, leading to my second concern, there were very few announcements about ANYTHING onboard, let alone the ice shows. This is very different from Carnival, and, truthfully, I actually missed such announcements, which I would tend to also shut out of my attention after a while if they got too numerous. Still, when you compare this to being able to actually play miniature golf on the activities deck, listen to great jazz at the jazz club (for which, honestly, they needed more shows!), view the bridge from windows placed above (different than Carnival's no-access policy), and even be able to stand at the very front of the bow (also different than Carnival), the annoyances were far outweighed by the fun. The big thing I missed, compared to Carnival, was a water slide, but I will live without it! Finally, debarkation was just as easy as embarkation, and one thing I think RC does much better than Carnival is the looped debarkation video, explaining everything at one's own convenience.
Overall, I think the only problems I really had with this cruise had to do with its length. Certainly, five nights was much too short: just when you are getting into Bermuda and the cruise, you have to leave! Also, relatedly, it just seemed as if the price was a little steep for such a short trip, even for an inside cabin, which I don't think I would ever book again but which the price of a balcony for only a five-night on this ship made a far more attractive deal. I also think there were some advantages to going in October -- namely, the relative paucity of children. In the end, though, I honestly can't say whether I preferred Royal Caribbean over Carnival; the two lines are certainly equivalent, each having their own strengths and weaknesses. What I can state definitely, however, is I didn't regret going on this ship for one second, and if I could take a longer cruise on a Royal Caribbean ship, I would do so in a heartbeat.