Background Married couple, early 50's, 22 cruises, 18 with RCCL. I am a long time lurker on these boards, and felt the need to share my recent experience on the December 14, 2007 sailing on the Explorer of the Seas out of Bayonne. WARNING: This review is mixed - my opinions based on my experience.
Pre-Cruise Flew into Newark the day before our cruise. We booked directly with Country Inn and Suites in Elizabeth, since it offered a free airport shuttle, free continental breakfast and was within walking distance of a mall and restaurants. The hotel was not fancy, but clean with a courteous staff. The hotel also offers "cruise and park" specials. The desk clerk hired a car for us the next morning for a flat rate of $42.00 and it arrived promptly at 10:30am.
Embarkation We got to the port at 10:50am and it was empty! The porters quickly took our luggage and we were on our way. Unfortunately the ship had not yet begun the debarkation from the previous sailing. It was either a storm in Puerto Rico, life preservers overboard, a rescue at sea or a passenger health emergency. We never heard an "official" answer. We took a seat in the priority embarkation lounge. The refreshments available were ice water, juice and cookies. The terminal quickly filled, so the refreshments and seating were soon gone. Apparently the traffic to get to the terminal was chaotic. Some of our tablemates were in such a long line to get to the terminal; they bailed out on their drivers and walked over a mile with luggage! Although people were getting grumpy and aggressive, the staff maintained a cheerful attitude. A little more information and little more food would have gone a long way. We re-started the check-in process around 2:40 and were on the first bus to the ship. All in all, it was amazing they moved that many people in such a short time.
The Ship The Explorer of the Seas is in excellent shape! We first sailed her in December of 2001, and she has been well maintained. Aside from a few areas of worn carpeting and upholstery in public areas, she looks brand new.
Our Cabin 7392 is a stern junior suite, booked for the space and the balcony view. On Voyager class ships the framework obstructs the view. The balcony had two loungers; two chairs w/footrests and a large stone table, which I loved. The walk-in closet was smaller than on other junior suites, but still larger than normal closet. The keypad was worn off the safe and had to be reset - a red Sharpie now marked the "open" and "closed" and we could figure out the numbers. The refrigerator did not work well. We soon noticed only one Diamond coupon book, no concierge letter and no concierge key. No robes, no beach towels. There was also no first day dining information or muster time notice. We politely informed our cabin attendant and she was immediately defensive, it was not her fault, showed us her "list" and sent us off to the loyalty ambassador. Our room was kept clean, but not always timely. We received exactly 3 beach towels in 9 days and had to ask for them. The ice bucket was hit or miss and often missing totally.
Crown & Anchor On embarkation day, the loyalty ambassador had a line of folks without coupon books or Diamond designation. It was not her fault either, she "thought" there was a Diamond lounge on Cloud Nine but was unable to reach the Concierge - and told us he did not answer his phone. She gave us our Diamond coupon book and suggested we go to Guest Services. The line at Guest Services was too long, and we gave up our quest for Concierge Lounge clarification. I have followed the Explorer threads on Cruise Critic for some time and expected an overflow lounge, but it would have been nice to be informed of the location. We were not allowed access to the Concierge Lounge; it was for Grand Suite guests and above. We showed up at Cloud Nine before dinner, and were surprised to see a "bar" set up - complete with Igloo and Coleman coolers! I asked for red wine and it was LaTerre Merlot - the only red wine served for all 9 nights. The next morning I showed up for continental breakfast and cappuccino - there was none. I do not have a problem with the use of an overflow lounge, it is necessary, but Cloud Nine was the wrong venue. Folks who booked their cabins near the Concierge Lounge were especially upset. Let me say that the gentlemen serving could not have been nicer - which was the only bright spot for me. We made our own Portofino's reservations based on what we thought the menus would be (thanks again Cruise Critic), booked our own excursions, got our ice show tickets ourselves and survived without priority tendering. The concierge benefit was totally non-existent for us - we never heard from or saw him the entire voyage. The loyalty ambassador sent 4 chocolate-covered strawberries on day 3 or 4. We did receive nice beach totes and the usual postcards.
The Dining Experience The best part of our cruise was our dining room experience. We had great tablemates, 3 young couples all from the East Coast whom we made memories with! We had the best waiter/assistant team we have ever had - thanks Charlton and Zheng! They were the perfect mix of friendly and efficient and recommendations were dead on. Our food was very good to excellent. My beef-eating husband occasionally resorted to the alternate menu, but for most people the selections were more than adequate. Portofino's was fabulous as always. We enjoyed the Savor luncheon as an excursion the last sea day and it was a wonderful opportunity (thanks again Cruise Critic). The staff in the Windjammer was the most friendly and efficient we have ever seen. The Windjammer menus were not as varied as in the past, but there was still something for everyone. The absence of hand sanitizer concerned me. I know they do not replace hand washing, but the hospital I work in has them everywhere!
Entertainment Overall, entertainment was good to excellent. Cruise Director Dave Chapman did a fine job. Earl Turner was one of the best headliner's we have ever seen! The new ice show was fabulous. I also enjoyed the "Invitation to Dance".
San Juan Arriving at 3pm, and having visited San Juan many times, we opted to shop.
St. Thomas We did a quick shop at Havensight in St. Thomas before heading to Sapphire Beach. We used Cruise Critic posted directions to take the $2 taxi near the K-Mart. It was more difficult than expected as several "regular" taxis stopped and even gave us a little grief about taking the "gypsy" taxis. We were re-directed twice and finally got the taxi the locals use. The beach was fine and I did a little snorkeling as well. In the interest of time and sanity, we opted to take a regular taxi back, at a cost of $20. We had no trouble getting back onboard, although others reported long lines.
Dominican Republic We must thank our fellow Cruise Critic folks for Bayahibe Beach - we proceeded to the taxi area and found 9 folks wanting to go to the beach. All eleven of us negotiated a van for $10 each round trip - our driver waited almost 3 hours for us. The beach was gorgeous! The little bar/restaurant there had great food, the staff was not English speaking, and the menus were in Spanish. Wish we had more time here and look forward to returning. There was about a 10-minute line to board.
Labadee Long lines to tender, we arrived at 8:30, lined up at 9:30 and didn't get there until 10:30. There have been significant improvements here over the years, and the new zip line appeared to be a big hit. The BBQ was the standard fare. It was a perfect day and everyone seemed to enjoy the port. No problem getting back.
Weather As we expected, it was cool leaving Bayonne. I was surprised RCCL was trying to sell Pina Coladas the first day, I think Irish Coffee or Hot Toddies would have sold better. By the first full day at sea, we were in pants and long sleeves. Second full day at sea was warm and windy, and folks were out on the pool deck. All our days in the Caribbean were wonderful. We had some rough seas on the way back. First full sea day back was a full day of pouring rain. Last day was cool and rainy. I booked a cruise out of New Jersey in December, weather was actually a little better than I expected.
Debarkation We were fortunate to be the first off after the self-service folks as we had a 12:30 flight. We left the ship at 8:30, and once again we were on the first bus back. At the terminal, we got a shuttle to Newark for $14.00 each.
Summary Overall, our cruise was good but not great. I am usually a big RCCL flag waver, but this was a little sub-par in my opinion and I am concerned. I booked 2 NextCruise reservations in the hope that the service issues I encountered were isolated incidents.