Warning, this is a long review, but I wanted to give everyone our opinions of the trip. I had read a lot on these boards about the Explorer and how things have "gone downhill", but we were very happy and surprised to find that we didn't find that to be true. We were a group of 10 adults ranging in age from 27 to 59. We had 4 first time cruisers, 2 who were new to RCCL, and four of us who had sailed on Voyager previously. We enjoy fine dining and participate in many activities around the ship. We drink moderately and do not do the nightclub scene too often. We cruise to relax and don't sweat the small stuff- just to give you an idea of the type of cruisers we are. Also, we went into this cruise realizing that this was not Cunard or Celebrity or a higher end cruise line. Overall, we, as a family, felt we got a phenomenal value for our dollar.
Embarkation: We arranged for a car service to drive us from our home in ocean county, NJ to the cruise port. Luckily, the car service was able to push back our leaving time by 4 hours due to the ship returning late. On the sailing before us there was a medical emergency and the ship had to turn around to get close enough to San Juan for a medical evacuation. In any case, we arrived at the terminal at 3:15pm to utter chaos! People were still trying to leave, and we were all itching to board. Porters checked our luggage, but gave us little direction about where to go from there. We waited in a line for about 15 minutes and then were processed and handed our seapass cards and were given #22 to board the buses to the ship. Note: A couple in our group who decided to get there at 1:30pm because they couldn't wait, were processed, but were not given their seapass cards because they were too early. They had to wait in line a few hours later to get them. For the next 4 hours, we waited in the terminal. There were plenty of seats and an abundance of food and snacks and drinks provided free for the delay. We were really surprised at the amount of food they kept bringing out (hoping to avoid a mutiny from the crowd) - there were sandwiches, hotdogs, pasta and sauce, cookies, soda, water, and coffee. It was a nice touch to a rotten start to the cruise. The waiting was VERY long and there was very little information about boarding times. We finally got onto the ship at around 7pm. By this point, we were tired, cranky, hungry, and just wanting to get going already. The dining room was open seating for the night and was only until 8:30pm, as the muster drill was scheduled for 9pm. We were able to get a table for 10 that turned out to be our regular table! We had a good laugh the next night when we found our table and had the same wait staff as the night before. The dining room staff was phenomenal - they got us in and our in an hour - well fed and ready for the muster drill. Actually, the whole cruise, our waitstaff of Wirawen and JoRhonda were amazing!
Dining: We had main seating which worked well for our group. As I said above, the waitstaff was wonderful! The food was well prepared and well presented. Even a picky eater in our group had no problem finding something she liked every night. From previous reviews, I had expected lackluster food in the dining room, and was VERY happily surprised. Our only complaint was addressed after the second night and we never had a problem again. A few of us are tea drinkers and the tea water our first real dining night tasted strongly of coffee - a big no-no for tea drinkers. We mentioned it to the Wirawan and after that, the tea was perfect. Our waitstaff made a WONDERFUL effort to get to know our likes and dislikes and addressed every little need. I drank a lot of iced tea the first night, the rest of the trip, I had a large glass brought every night. 3 of us ordered tea the first night with milk - it was brought automatically every night after that. But the biggest attention to detail I can mention was my mom's tea. The servers were bringing just a regular no-name tea for us each night (fine, not a huge deal), and my mom had snagged a tea bag of her favorite tea from the cafe promenade and brought it to dinner one night and slipped it (unnoticed we thought) into her tea pot. The next night, JoRhonda brought out her tea with that type of tea. No little detail was left unattended. We also celebrated 2 birthdays, including a 50th birthday on the first formal night. The waitstaff allowed me to come early to decorate the table, and then stopped their work, and insisted on helping me to decorate the table to get everything ready. We also had one person come done with a bacterial stomach bug and after a trip to the infirmary, he and his wife were quarantined for 24 hours to their stateroom - even though, once he got some medication and fluids and was feeling fine. While, they could order the rest of the meal via room service, lobster was not being offered for room service. Our waiter packed up 3 plates of lobster and shrimp for them and I was able to bring it up to their room. Again, as I said, Wirawen just went out of his way to serve us all.
Food: We were all VERY happy with the quality of the dining room selections. The soups, both warm and cold, were Excellent! My only complaint was my lobster on formal night was overdone. But overall, considering the shear number of people on the ship, we cannot complain about our meals. Portofino's was above and beyond excellent. Definitely worth the extra charge, and then some! Windjammer food had a nice selection - it was buffet food. But to be honest, it was better than most buffets that I have had. We enjoyed it for lunch and breakfast most days and never went hungry. We loved the little sandwiches and pepperoni pizza at the Cafe Promenade (perfect for the late night hunger from an early dinner and a busy night), the ice cream machines by the windjammer, the room service snacks and the afternoon tea snacks in the windjammer. It was nice to have the selections of iced tea, lemonade, and fruit punches free for the meals too. We only wished that there was some sort of cold drink station for iced tea/lemonade in cafe promenade. They only offered water, and just sometimes you wished for a flavored drink without ordering room service late at night.
Drinks: We love the after-dinner cordials. Expensive, but we love them! Our bar server, Tom (aka "Yummy Yummy") was awesome. Again, noting an attention to detail, he had our names memorized from the seapass cards after the first night. However, around the 5th night, he realized we were calling my dad a name different from his card (he actually goes by his middle name) - he caught on and questioned us on it. Bar service at the pool was a little slow, but very entertaining!
Entertainment: Dave Chapman was the cruise director and he was great, but I don't go nuts about the CD as some do on this board. The production shows were good. The Cool, Swingin show didn't impress us, but Fast Forward and Invitation to dance were fun and entertaining. We started off with 2 comedians who were so funny we cried. We were still laughing at their jokes this morning at disembarkation. There was a violinist who was wonderful - and we kept seeing him and his family all over the ship. The ice show was so much fun - you CANNOT miss it! I luckily got tickets for our group the first night before they ran out. We also had Charo perform on the cruise. She surprised a lot of people with her Spanish guitar. She was funny, did a little of the dancing and jokes she is known for, then she played and stunned everyone. It was actually a good show. Love and Marriage show, was as always, a riot. We also did Quest - I managed to captain our team - we lost, but let me just saw that my parents saw a whole different side of me that night. ? YOU MUST DO THE QUEST!!! We played a lot of trivia, lost each time, but got to know a great crowd of people! We loved that the evening trivia was in Maharaja's lounge and not in the schooner bar - more room for the crowds.
Casino: Was smokey most of the time. We wish they had more non-smoking times in there, so we could play more. I had fun with the $5 Blackjack tables and the blackjack tournament. My husband found a calling playing craps, winning the payment for most of our seapass account. My dad found some luck with the Wheel of Fortune slots. Our only negative here is the Texas hold 'Em table. IT was electronic, which we knew, but to buy in, you have to activate an account with a minimum of $100 to even sit down. Also, a lot of the fun was lost without a dealer. Not a deal breaker for the trip, but not enjoyable.
Ports: Labadee - canceled due to bad sea conditions for tendering. 1 tender actually made it out to the beach and was called back. Disappointing, but we were happy to be inside of Dizzy's lounge when it was torrential rain at 11am. After that, it ended up being a nice, warm afternoon and we spent it by the pool. Extra activities were added to the cruise compass to make up for the lost day. By this point, people were a little bit annoyed as we had started out late from Bayonne and now we missed the first port. On the plus side, we were able to get into Casa de Campo at 8am as opposed to 11am. Casa de Campo: We took the shuttle to the Marina in the morning ($5 pp roundtrip). It is an upscale shopping area in a planned community. Everything was perfectly manicured with beautiful flowers along the road and lush greens and palm trees everywhere. We walked around and looked at the yachts. If you are looking for something to do in port - this was VERY safe and protected. The shuttles ran every half hour. However, if you want to see the real side of the country, this is not for you. We took the shuttle back to the ship, grabbed a quick lunch in the windjammer and then did the Country Safari excursion. For $59pp, it was really a waste. We went to a sugar cane plantation which we liked, but then they took us to a nursery to show us some orchids - it was like I was at the local nursery- no big deal. We then went to a little shop in La Romana where we watched people making cigars by hand. I got the feeling that this was staged just for our excursion and not a real shop. The cigar smokers in the group were a little disappointed. We had a good time, but overall, the excursion wasn't much. I definitely recommend spending the money and just making this stop a beach day. The ship's excursions were only so-so. We heard people complain that while on the skeet shooting excursion, one of the guns broke and it wasn't real skeet shooting (not sure why). If they want to keep this port, RCCL needs to add some better excursions. St. Thomas: We did the Discover Scuba excursion through the ship. We had a late start with immigration which actually pushed back the start time of the early morning excursions (like ours) and wrecked havoc on all of the later day excursions for Scuba. We had a great time, though we thought the "teaching" portion of the excursion was a little lacking. The dive shop just wanted to get diving and didn't provide strong instruction for people who had never done it before. We also wished that they had fitted our equipment better. However, once on the dive, it was AMAZING - we got to check out a wreck and a reef - not bad for just us beginners. It was also nice as they split the group into 2 and so we got about 45 minutes of time to go snorkeling around. The amount of fish that we saw were unbelievable! I highly recommend getting into the water at this port. After the excursion, we took a taxi over to Morningstar beach for an hour or two, did a little shopping, and just enjoyed a wonderful day. Others in our group loved Meagan's Bay, but with 6 ships on the island that day, it was very crowded! San Juan: We did the Old San Juan and Bacardi tour. We loved the tour of old San Juan, but felt the Bacardi company's tour was very rushed. We didn't get to see everything at one spot before we were ushered to the next stop. On the plus side, we did get 2 free drinks each and enjoyed the fine Bacardi libations! ? After the tour, the husband and I went in search of authentic Puerto Rican food and found a little local place for some arroz con pollo. Yum! We enjoyed the port, but just wish we had more time to walk around before the ship had to leave.
In booking shore excursions I had a problem with how the shore excursion staff handled a wait list for the country safari. - In a nutshell, they had a cancellation and instead of going on to the names on the waitlist, they gave the spots to the next people in line who wanted to book the excursion. When I questioned them on it, both of the girls insisted that it had not happened as such and each insisted that they had not done it (but there are only 2 girls who work at the desk) Again, not a thing to ruin a vacation, but not a professional way to do things.
We also enjoyed watching the NFL playoff games at the Weekend Warrier - with all of the NY fans present, it made for a fun game. If they offered hot wings or some bar food here, I don't' think the husband would have ever left.
As for negatives, the carpet on the pool deck was coming up in spots, but the crew was working to re-glue it. The pools needed to be cleaned more often, or at least skimmed to remove the cigarette butts that people had so kindly dropped into the pool. We also wished that they enforced the age restrictions on the hot tubs a little better as the young kids jumping into the hot tubs made it not enjoyable at all. We also had some parents who felt that they did not need to watch their children at the pool. Kids were running around, jumping in and splashing all around with no parents in sight. The Deck police ended up positioning themselves by the pool and had to try and control these kids. The mini golf course was a lot of fun, but it was in poor condition. In spots, you actually sank an inch or two. My mom was not comfortable walking on it at all. Also, my parents had a problem with their air conditioning not working and despite numerous attempts to fix it, it never did cool down in their room (however, they were very happy with how RCCL was prompt in trying to remedy the situation each time). No major negatives, just little things to note. As I said, we all had a great time!
All in all, it was a WONDERFUL vacation that we completely enjoyed. We got 6 more people hooked on Royal Caribbean and we all booked a "Next Cruise" while on board. If you have any questions about the ship, ports or whatever, I will be happy to answer them.