We had a great time on the Explorer of the Seas, our return to Royal Caribbean after almost 15 years. Our very first cruise was on the Nordic Empress (now Empress of the Seas), and, 10 cruises on a variety of lines later, we decided to try RCCL again. A very pleasant experience ensures that we will be returning again.
We selected the Explorer after 2 lackluster Norwegian cruises in 11/06 and 3/07. Primarily we chose this cruise since we wouldn't need airfare. A 2.5 hour drive from PA and we were unloading our luggage and parking the car at Bayonne, NJ. Cape Liberty is not the prettiest dock area, but you can actually see the Statue of Liberty and NY skyline off in the distance. A note about the parking: You *must* prepay to park...so even if you leave your stuff and/or family at the terminal, make sure you keep your purse or wallet with you! They do accept credit cards. It cost $192 for 12 days of parking.
Embarkation went pretty smoothly. Suite guests and Crown & Anchor Society members (repeat RCCL cruisers) have a separate check-in line. Otherwise, you go to the line for the deck of your cabin. Lines moved quickly. Our check-in took almost no time at all since we had submitted all our background info (address, passport numbers, etc.) online. After check-in, we boarded a shuttle to the ship. All in all, unloading, check-in, and boarding took about 30 minutes, so we were onboard a little after noon.
The ship is simply gorgeous. It is obviously well taken care of and immaculately clean. The artwork is interesting and tasteful and certainly of a higher quality than on many other ships...I noticed photos by Annie Liebowicz (sp?) and a painting done by Tony Bennett. We saw almost no signs of "wear and tear" that were quite visible in the Norwegian ships (Spirit and Star).
As with others in the Voyager class at RCCL, Explorer has an indoor promenade featuring the 24 hour free Cafe Promenade (also with fancy types of coffee and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, which both have a nominal fee), various shops, Weekend Warrior (sports bar), an English-style pub, and various displays. At one end of the promenade are the Explorations (shore excursion) and Guest Services desks and the Champagne Bar.
I spent a lot of time in the ShipShape Center, which is up on decks 11 & 12 at the front end of the ship. I never had a problem getting a treadmill (there are about 15, facing the ocean), and there seemed to be a good variety of equipment. The whole gym/spa area is much more inviting and less intimidating than on many other ships. The areas for spa treatments are upstairs (deck 12), and the gym area is arranged in a circle with a wonderful hot tub in the middle. This was never especially crowded (though we were told the ship was filled to capacity) and was a great relaxation on cool days.
There is an ocean lab onboard the ship that you may sign up to tour, but sadly we didn't get around to it. There is also a screening room for movies down on deck 2, but the timing for them didn't really seem to coincide with our schedules. The library on deck 6 is pitifully under-stocked, probably due to the "honor system" of book check-out. Bring your own book if you plan to read.
We found the layout of the ship to be quite easy to navigate...far easier in fact than many of the smaller ships we have cruised on. Some basic things to remember: (1) Food is at the back of the ship. The formal dining area covers decks 3, 4, & 5 from the aft elevators to the back. The Windjammer buffet dining is deck 11 from the aft elevators to the back. (2) You cannot walk all the way through the ship on deck 3. Studio B, the ice rink, blocks access. So...if you have dinner on deck 3 (as we did), you need to get there by crossing through a different deck and using the aft elevators or stairs. If you choose deck 4, you will have to walk through the casino (ugh). (3) The Palace Theatre, where the main shows are held, is on decks 3 & 4. The front elevators are right next to it.
The one critique I would make of the ship is that there are too many smoking areas. It would not be enough of a nuisance for me to avoid the ship, but it is something Royal Caribbean could improve. A area or two should be specifically designated smoking and properly enclosed, so that others are not bothered. Champagne Bar is the only non-smoking bar (I think). Both promenade bars (the pub and the sports bar) allow smoking and are open to the promenade, so this area could get smelly at night. The Schooner Bar (by far the most popular bar) allows smoking, but only at the bar or the side tables by the windows. I heard a crew member actually inform a passenger that he couldn't smoke at a table in the middle...so he simply moved 4 feet to the bar. And what was accomplished? Nothing! Make the room non-smoking and be done with it!
Our fellow passengers were quite a mix of ages, with the average probably couples in their 50s-60s (some younger folks too). There were few children, and they weren't noticeable. Americans were mostly within driving distance of the port - lots of NJ, NY, PA, etc. We had also a very sizable foreign group on board...lots of U.K. residents, some other Europeans, and lots of Canadians.The Room
Since there were 3 of us (all adults), we got a Grand Suite. It was quite impressive at about 400 square feet. The bed was a large queen and the sofa pullout a double. There was also plenty of storage space both by the bed and in the closet/bar area by the door. The bathroom was bigger than ours at home, including a full tub, double sinks, more storage, and huge mirrors. Great, and also immaculately clean. A point to note, however, is that those who are very short or have mobility issues may have a difficult time with the tub. The side is quite high to lift your legs over.
The balcony was definitely the largest I've ever seen on a ship. We had room for a lounge chair and side table, two regular chairs, and a table large enough for a meal for two. The great thing about this balcony was the amount of privacy. Unlike some ships, it was quite enclosed, so there was no noise from neighbors and no one could see onto the balcony from above or below. It also felt very safe. Being November, however, we were not able to spend much time out there on the sea days down or back.
Having a concierge-class suite has definite perks. We received a key to the Concierge Lounge on deck 9. Every day, continental breakfast was served there in the mornings and complimentary hors d'oeuvres and drinks were served from 5-8PM. The Concierge Lounge wasn't especially impressive...small, cold, crowded, and extremely bright, though the seats were comfy. Hors d'oeuvres and drinks were also served in The Chamber, a really cool Medieval castle-themed lounge on decks 3 & 4. These were free! So, we ended up hardly ever paying for drinks; we'd just stop by The Chamber before dinner. It's not a full bar menu, but you can get soda, wine, beer, or some mixed drinks.
The Service & The Food
Overall, probably the best service we've ever had on any of our 11 cruises. We didn't encounter a single crew member who wasn't friendly or helpful. Command of English was also a marked improvement on this ship. No one was ever pushy or bothersome about drinks, photos, or the like, and they went out of their way to be nice. Our cabin steward, waiter, assistant waiter, and head waiter were all fine people.
Food was definitely above average, both in the dining room and at the buffet. The dining room menus usually had about 5 appetizer selections and about 5 entrees. In addition to the featured entrees (which were sometimes a bit odd), there were alternate selections of things such as Caesar salad, sirloin steak, grilled chicken breast, or salmon which were less adventurous but more reliable. The chilled soups were yummy. I had beef several times during the trip - prime rib, filet, a couple of sirloins - and they were all excellent, tender and cooked to my specification. I had some other very good entrees as well, including buttermilk fried chicken, coq au vin, pork chops, and ham. They think nothing of bringing extra food if you desire it...and my table did. Some people got more than one lobster tail and extra shrimp cocktails or desserts were no problem either.
The Windjammer buffet food was certainly buffet food, but at least it was good buffet food with a variety of selections, nice presentation, and good taste. I think this is the first cruise I've been on where they haven't ruined scrambled eggs. At lunch, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, salad, sandwiches, pasta, and desserts were always available, along with a variety of ethnic foods. While sometimes finding a table at peak times (late breakfast) could be challenging, the food lines themselves were never a problem. They also have a variety of free drinks - 3 types of juice at breakfast (orange and 2 that varied) and water, iced tea, lemonade, or fruit punch at lunch or dinner. We sometimes took our plates out by the pool or back to the room and no one ever hassled us.
We only got room service once for breakfast, and that was fine too. Here's a tip: if you want to order room service for breakfast, don't fill out the breakfast card in your stateroom. Use your interactive TV to make your selections; there's much more offered through the TV.
Cafe Promenade serves pizza, small sandwiches, and dessert items. Fruit is also available. We found quality to be good here as well. No complaints.
Besides Ben & Jerry's at the Cafe, there are two restaurants on board with a cover charge: Johnny Rocket's and Portofino's. Portofino's is an Italian restaurant on deck 11 next to the Windjammer. I'm not sure why someone would want to pay extra for a hamburger or pasta when you can get them at home or elsewhere on the ship, but whatever floats your boat, so to speak.
Our favorite part. The main stage entertainment was quite good. We only missed the first night's welcome show (sleepy). The production shows were Vibeology, Fast Forward (80s movies), Invitation to Dance, and another that I can't think of the name of. Invitation to Dance included a competition from 2 passenger couples who had been selected earlier in the week. All 4 were good shows and featured a live orchestra. The other entertainers included two older male singers (pretty good), one female singer/comedian (hilarious), and a Temptations cover group (not bad). The only really weak performance was the comedian at the farewell show. No one was laughing and he couldn't understand why. We were in the balcony, so we just got up and left. Many people did.
The ice show is a must-see. For a small theater/rink, the show is amazing. The best way to be sure you see it is to get a ticket, but if you don't have one, they will still let you in if the theater isn't full. There aren't really any bad seats, either.
Steve Green played piano and sang almost every night in the Schooner Bar. He was extremely popular. If he didn't know a song, he'd find it for you and play it the next night.
There were other musical acts at various times/locations around the ship, but we didn't really pay much attention. Mostly the others were "background music" for people chatting and drinking in the bars/lounges.
One of my favorite events on every cruise is the "Love and Marriage" (Newlywed-style) game show. It's hilarious every time even though usually pretty much the same questions are asked. Allan, the cruise director, did a fabulous job as host.
They had some other fun and funny cruise staples such as Karaoke Idol, Quest, the Battle of the Sexes, and the Liar's Club.
Trivia and Name That Tune were very popular on this cruise. Evening trivia was usually so packed at the Schooner Bar that finding a seat was a challenge. Maharajah's Lounge would have been a much more spacious spot, but sadly this beautiful room didn't seem to be used for very many events. The ship also offered the usual variety of fitness classes, lectures, ping pong, etc.Ports
We rarely choose a ship based on the ports. We had already seen all but one of the ports, and frankly, we aren't overly impressed by any of the Caribbean islands. The ports of call on our itinerary were: St. Maarten, Antigua, Dominica, Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Thomas, and San Juan. We chose to disembark at Dominica, Barbados, and St. Kitts. If we do excursions, we always book through the cruise line for the convenience, and this time we were able to pre-book the tours on the internet.
I realize this review is already very lengthy, but I must comment on our Dominica fiasco. In Dominica, we chose a 3.5 hour tour called "Accessible Dominica" which advertised a bus tour and the ability to see the rainforest and waterfalls with handicap accessibility and a minimum of walking. Dominica is a mountainous island with steep roads, no painted road lines, and no guard rails. About 15 minutes into the tour, our bus decided it was no longer going to run while in the middle of a hair-pin curve going uphill. We all piled out to wait on the side of the road (about 16 of us) while another bus was called in to pick us up. While we were waiting, we watched other vehicles attempting to navigate this hair-pin curve while our bus was still blocking most of the turn. (A different "Accessible Dominica" tour bus that was coming downhill ripped off its muffler and loosened its back bumper trying to make the turn.) Finally, we got a different bus, which made it up the turn to pick us up. We piled in and went up to the top of the mountain, where there were cheap jewelry and handicrafts being sold. At this point, the air conditioning felt so good, no one was in the mood to get out, so we voted to just keep going with the tour. Little did we know, that the road we had just come up was the only road back. This would be the same road that our old bus was still blocking.
The question now became...could we make the turn going downhill with a full bus of people? The guide keep adamantly assuring us that everything was okay. The driver started into the turn; we heard metal scraping. Some passengers suggested we get out so the bus would be less heavy. Oh no, it's fine, she said. The driver went further, more scraping, cliff in front of us, the bus tipping at an angle as the side went up off the road. Passengers were becoming more vocal about getting off since basically everyone was trapped and terrified. But no, our guide seemed completely unfazed. After a few tense minutes, the bus made the turn, but at this point, the passengers (ourselves included) were ready to call it a day and head back to the ship. We weren't really comfortable with the guide's nonchalant attitude after 2 very dangerous experiences, the scary roads, or even the new bus since we didn't know what damage may have been done during all the scraping at the curve. Plus we had already wasted a hour, and we didn't want to get too far away and then miss the ship. The guide took a vote of who wanted to return to the ship, almost everyone raised their hands, but she still tried to continue the tour, much to the very vocal dismay of a pregnant woman with 2 small children.
To sum up, people were not pleased, to put it mildly, and the guides eventually agreed to taking us back, whereupon almost all of the group trudged up to fill out comment cards at the Explorations desk since we were informed that this was our only means of getting back our $42 per person. Over the next week, we periodically saw other members of the tour and no one had gotten their refund. On the last day, another cruiser from the tour mentioned that the front desk had said their comment card was lost and suggested we check it out. So, we went to the desk and were told the same thing. A load of crap. The girl at the desk called her manager, who had been informed of the situation and promised to refund our money and everyone else's from that tour. We checked our SeaPass account on the interactive TV (great invention!) later and saw the credit. The tour problems weren't Royal Caribbean's fault, and at least we got the refund straightened out.
Barbados...rained almost the whole day...not even going to write about it, but not the best excursion either. Again, not RCCL's fault.
St. Kitts was the only port we hadn't visited before. It was actually a pretty good stop. There was no one bugging me for hair breads, no people begging or hawking things, and everyone seemed pretty friendly. The ship docked right at a shopping plaza, which would have been convenient if you didn't choose to book a tour. We went on the Scenic Railway tour, which was actually half a train ride and half a bus ride. No scary roads and a bus that seemed to be in good condition. We were very happy. The Scenic Railway was also pretty good. I guess you get what you pay for: the tour was a pricey $99 per person. However, you get a free DVD, a bottle of water on the bus, and free drinks (soda, water, pina coladas, rum punch) on the train. The train has open-air seats upstairs and air-conditioned seats and tables downstairs. Nice bathroom too.
Overall, we are sure we will be back to Royal Caribbean. We actually talked with the future cruise consultant onboard and put down two open-ended future cruise deposits: 1 for Royal Caribbean, and 1 with Celebrity (their sister cruise line). We also enrolled in the Crown & Anchor Society, which is free to join. You start earning benefits when you reach 5 cruise credits. Cruises 12 days or more earn 2 credits, so we already have 3.
This was our longest cruise. Though we had a great time, we were ready to go home. Disembarkation took significantly longer than expected. Cabins had to be vacated by 8AM. Disembarkation was supposed to start at 8:30AM but didn't begin until after 9:00. We were assigned orange luggage tags, which was the third color in a list of about 8. As part of the concierge service, we could have gotten any color tags we wanted, but we figured it didn't really matter since we didn't have a plane to catch. We didn't end up getting off until about 10:30AM, which was not great, though over half the passengers were still stuck there. On the plus side, it was the easiest baggage claim we've ever had, customs wasn't bad, and the porters will take your luggage all the way out to the parking lot for you. And best of all, we could just get in the car and go home without ever entering an airport!