For some background: I'm 27, my husband is 29, and this was our fourth cruise together and our first ever on Royal Caribbean. We previously sailed on the Caribbean Princess, Carnival Conquest and Carnival Miracle.
We live in Michigan and I hate flying, so when possible, we cruise out of the East Coast so we can drive there. It takes us about 10 hours to get to the New York/New Jersey area by car, and it's worth it for me — less stress, and easier to take more luggage! :) This was our first cruise out of NJ; our last cruise, on the Miracle, left out of NYC.
HOTEL: I'm starting here for anyone planning to stay near Bayonne, NJ, prior to departure. I was a little apprehensive because I'd read a lot of posts stating that Newark wasn't the best area and that the hotels were pretty sub par. We stayed at the Wyndham Garden Hotel - Newark Airport and it was excellent. The hotel was formerly a Ramada and is in the final stages of renovations. It was clean, had pleasant dEcor and the staff was friendly and helpful. There was a well-equipped exercise room with a flat panel TV, several cardio machines and weights that I used twice before we left. There is only an outside pool, so obviously we didn't use that. There is an attached restaurant that was so-so but adequate for our needs. We booked a "park and fly" package, which allowed us to leave our car at the hotel for the entire time we were gone. It cost far less to do that than to park at Cape Liberty. My husband had stayed at a Wyndham before, so when we arrived, there were snacks and wine waiting for us, along with a handwritten welcome note. Very nice!
EMBARKATION: We had heard horror stories about the traffic in Bayonne and people being stuck in cabs while the meter ran, so we booked a car service to take us from the Wyndham to the port for $45 each way. It was fine and it was nice to have the peace of mind, knowing we had transportation taken care of, but I don't know if it was really necessary.
Embarkation itself at Cape Liberty was the most organized I'd ever seen. We arrived around 11:30 a.m. and quickly found a porter who took our luggage. The lines were brief and after checking in, we moved into the main terminal, where there was plenty of seating. Each passenger received a number for a short shuttle ride from the terminal to the ship itself; we were given #27 and we were on the ship by 12:30 p.m. or so. The Royal Caribbean staff did a good job of making sure people went in the proper order. We saw a woman holding #39 try to sneak on our shuttle, and they turned her away. (Unfortunately, this was just one of many line jumping incidents that occurred throughout the trip...more on that later.)
SHIP: This may sound nitpicky, but I have to say that our first impression of the Explorer, dEcor wise, was not a great one. Our staterooms were not ready when we boarded, so we headed up to the Windjammer Cafe for lunch. The hideous white lattice/yellow wicker theme in there became less grating over the 12 days, but we much preferred the ambience in the buffets on Princess and Carnival. The stairways are carpeted in obnoxious hues of pink and blue and the hallways are peach and mint green, as are the staterooms. It's very late-80s, early 90s-esque. The stateroom also was showing its age; the carpet was pulling up and there was a fair amount of wear and tear in the bathroom.
However, the ugliness ended there; Explorer's public areas are absolutely gorgeous, from the village street-like ambience of the Royal Promenade to the exquisite three-story dining room. I can't even begin to describe how awe-inspiring the rest of the ship is. We loved the Viking Crown Lounge, which overlooks the entire pool deck and encompasses Dizzy's Jazz Lounge and the 19th Hole; Maharajas, the secondary activity lounge, which had a Middle Eastern theme; The Chamber, which has a medieval feel, with high-backed bar stools and secluded velvet booths; The Palace, the gorgeous main theater; and all of the cool bars and shops along the Promenade.
We were extremely impressed by the Solarium, the adults-only pool area with gigantic hot tubs, a pool, cushioned deck chairs and a bar. Unlike on Carnival, the adult only rule was enforced. You could always find a spot in the pool or hot tubs. We never used the regular pool area, since we adored the Solarium so much, but there were multiple pools, several large hot tubs, multiple tiers of deck chairs, and two separate bars there.
Explorer has an excellent gym, with weight machines, ellipticals, treadmills, recumbent and regular bikes, and stair-steppers. There also were hand weights, dumbbells, mats, balls, and an aerobics studio. There's a large hot tub in the middle. My only complaint was that a few of the machines broke down during the 12 days and were never repaired, but overall the gym was great, probably the best I've seen on a ship. I was in it twice daily, trying to work off all of that great food!
We were in 8275, an interior stateroom overlooking the Promenade. We had a nice little windowseat from which we watched the parades and celebrations below. (I would have never ventured down there to watch in person — it was mass chaos. The Promenade truly is a unique concept, but logistically it's a bit of a nightmare at peak times. It seemed like people were constantly congregating in the pathways and tripping over each other.) We were impressed by how soundproof the room was. Also, Royal Caribbean definitely has the best bathroom setup of all the lines we've been on, because the shower has actual sliding doors. On Carnival, the curtain was always billowing out, which meant the bathroom was constantly soaked.
Also, we got CNN and some CBS shows in our stateroom. Not a huge deal (because honestly, who has time to linger in their stateroom?) but kind of nice to be able to stay up to date on the news, etc.
DINING: The dinners in the dining room on Explorer were by far the best we've ever had on a cruise ship. The pastas were amazing, as were the fish entrees. The desserts...my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Several nights I ordered two because I couldn't decide. I'm sure our waitress thought I was a total pig. The baklava was absolutely incredible, and they had several delicious cheesecake variations, including Irish coffee, dulce de leche, etc. I really could go on forever about the dining room food...but I'll shut up now. We loved our waiters, Maliah from Trinidad and Wilmor from Nicaragua. They were very friendly and accommodating and quickly learned what we liked. Wilmor always brought my husband iced tea with dinner, and brought me coffee with skim milk and Splenda with dessert.
We were disappointed in the food in the Windjammer, the buffet area; it always seemed to be lukewarm and the selection was pretty much the same everyday. The pizza was good, as were the French fries and desserts, but the burgers were dried out and the buns were always cold and stale. Breakfast service in the dining room was slow (20-40 minutes for an omelette?!?!?), so we usually did breakfast in the Windjammer. They did make omelettes to order in Windjammer, and they had egg beaters and egg whites available. Overall, I would say the buffet food was the worst we've had on a cruise, but the quality of the dining room dinners made up for it.
The food at Johnny Rockets was great and worth the $3.95-per-person admission charge. The burgers were far superior to those in Windjammer and you get unlimited fries and onion rings. The waiters sing and dance to songs like "Love Shack" and "YMCA" and are very friendly, shouting "HELLO!" when you arrive and "GOODBYE!" when you leave. Get there early if you want a seat!
Snacks also were available round the clock in Cafe Promenade, which we nicknamed "Cafe Devil," because every time we walked by we ended up talking ourselves into a cookie (or two, or three...). The oatmeal raisin cookies, which seemed to be in never-ending supply, were absolutely heavenly. They also had little sandwiches, fruit, pizza, cheesecake, coffee and water for free, and specialty coffee and Ben & Jerry's ice cream for a charge.
ACTIVITIES/ENTERTAINMENT: We adored our cruise director, Gordon Whatman, and Phill, the activities director. They're both British, and have wonderful senses of humor. They seemed to be everywhere at all times! They constantly had us cracking up.
We would say the production shows on the Explorer were MUCH BETTER than on our previous cruises; we loved them. We also went to one of the two ice shows, Spirits of the Seasons, and we were completely blown away. It was amazing. I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just say, don't miss it. The game shows were also fun, especially the Love and Marriage Show and Quest, which was a hilarious adult scavenger hunt in Studio B, the ice arena. Very entertaining. There was always live music in multiple lounges and frequent trivia games, dances, etc.
As on our past cruises, we loved the Park West at Sea art auctions. Tim Findlay, the principal auctioneer, was the best we've ever had. How someone can talk that fast, I'll never know. He and his team made the art auctions and seminars fun, educational and interesting. Some of the stories he told us made me look at some artists' work in a whole new light, and it was obvious he was passionate about his job. I would definitely recommend attending the art sessions, even if you don't think art's your thing. I would have never thought I would enjoy them until I tried them on the Carnival Conquest and got hooked!
PORTS: We loved this itinerary. Our first stop was St. Maarten, where we made the mistake of going to Marigot, on the French side. Unfortunately, there was some kind of celebration that day, so the stores were mostly closed, and our cab driver warned us that there would be a parade blocking the streets later in the afternoon, so we felt like we needed to hurry back to the Dutch side to avoid problems. We'd been there before, so it was no big deal. The last time we were there, we did a shore excursion involving shipwreck snorkeling, and it was great — I'd recommend that.
Our second stop was Antigua. Absolutely gorgeous, and probably my favorite port of this cruise (tied with San Juan). Based on posts we read online, we had a cab take us to Tony's at Dickenson Beach. It was truly the most beautiful beach we'd ever seen. Soft, silky sand, crystal blue water, with dramatic cliffs at each end. We rented chairs and a thatched umbrella and had lunch at Tony's. I think I took about 100 photos!
Third stop was Dominica. It was rainy when we arrived, but it soon passed. The island is gorgeous, very lush. We took a cab to Champagne Beach to snorkel among the bubbles, but in retrospect, we should have booked a shore excursion to Champagne so we could have approached by boat. We had to slide down a slimy rubber mat to get into the water and we had difficulty finding the "bubbly" areas. I ended up sustaining strange stings to my wrist so we got out of the water a bit prematurely. The guy who runs the dive shop told me it was stinging plankton or "sea ants," and it went away quickly, so no big deal, but I was freaked out before I knew what it was. I definitely would like to go back and try again.
Fourth stop was Barbados. Again, we decided what to do based on cruise forum posts. We took a cab to the Barbados Hilton and paid $25 US each to hang out there all day. It was beautiful, although I'm not sure it was really worth $50. We lounged on the beach, took tons of pictures, and used their pool, which is very nice.
Fifth stop was St. Kitts. This was the only place we had a shore excursion booked: the St. Kitts Scenic Railway Tour. I'm glad we did it; it was truly unique, although it ran a bit long. The train (which is a bit rickety) takes you through the countryside and a narrator gives you history and points out landmarks. There are free refreshments (daiquiris, rum punches, water, sugar candy) and a choir serenades you. The one thing that freaked me out was that the train crossed several deep ravines via extremely narrow bridges. I was pretty sure we were going to die ;) and a lot of other people looked pretty nervous, too, but it all was fine. I literally took 400 pictures during this excursion. A narrated bus ride takes you to and from the train, and it is very informative and entertaining.
Our sixth stop was St. Thomas. We'd been there twice before. This time, based on advice from the cruise forums, we went to Coki Beach to snorkel. We were blown away by the fish there. We brought our own snorkel gear, but rented snorkel vests and bought "fish food" (aka a milkbone dog biscuit) from Shocka at Prince Watersports. The fish were literally in our face. We heard there had been an octopus out earlier, but we didn't see him. We watched pelicans dive into the water right near us. Although there were some sketchy looking characters wandering around, we asked another couple to keep an eye on our bags and we had no problems. Afterward, we went shopping (of course...it is St. Thomas, after all :) in downtown Charlotte Amalie and at the dockside Havensight Mall.
Our final stop was San Juan, one of my favorites...we'd been there before and had a great time. We always seem to hear from people that they don't like SJ, and I think it's because some people never venture past the shopping area, which is only so-so. There are so many beautiful things to see in SJ...go out and EXPLORE! :) We printed out a self-guided walking tour from the New York Times website and traipsed all over Old San Juan, taking pictures. We went into El Morro but by the time we got to San Cristobal, we were exhausted, so we decided to save it for next time. At the NY Times' recommendation, we ate lunch at El Patio de Sam, where they have great burgers.
The two sea days before and after the seven days of ports were so-so, a bit dull. The first and last days were very cold, and our final day was horrendously rocky. A lot of people were getting sick — myself included, despite my scopamine patch. (As my husband said, it felt like we were in a Yahtzee cup and someone was shaking us. :) We had a similar experience on our last day on the Miracle, so I think it might be an East Coast thing.
I should also mention that the day we boarded Explorer was Super Bowl Sunday. The game was shown in Studio B, the ice arena, and at several of the bars. It was a "world feed," so there were no commercials. :( We were among a handful of Patriots fans on board, so we were bummed by the outcome! We started out in Studio B after dinner, but I got cold, so we watched the rest at the 19th Hole. Apparently hot dogs and chili (which we heard was not great) was available in Studio B during the game, but we went to formal dinner so we didn't have any.
DISEMBARKATION: Disembarkation is never fun, but it was very organized. We waited in The Palace for a few hours watching CNN until our color was called. Once it was, we got off quickly and were promptly shuttled back to the terminal, where we waited for our car. (They told us just to call 30 minutes before we needed them to be there.) We were very impressed.
OVERALL: We had a wonderful time on this cruise. We found Royal Caribbean superior in terms of dining room food and entertainment compared to our other cruises, and we adored the ports. Yet, when we discussed it at the end of the cruise, my husband and I still found ourselves feeling like we enjoyed the Carnival Miracle the best out of all of our cruises, and we couldn't quite put our finger on why.
I hate to say it, but I think it was because of the people on Explorer. I've never encountered so many rude people who didn't think that rules applied to them. Other passengers were constantly trying to cut in line and getting in arguments over it. For example, the art auctions were quite popular, and a line often formed at Maharajas in advance. One woman shoved her way in front of my husband and several others, and when my husband politely brought it to her attention that other people had been waiting for awhile to get in, she glared at him and turned back around. We're not standing here for our health, people! Get in line with everyone else!
I wasn't the only one who noticed it. On one of the last days, I was in Cafe Promenade, and wasn't sure if a woman was in line for sandwiches. I tapped her on the shoulder and politely asked her if she were waiting in that line; she said no but seemed appreciative that I had bothered to check. As I stepped up to the counter, she said to my husband, "You can't possibly be American — you must be Canadian." (She was British.) My husband told her, no, we were American, and she said she was surprised, because we were the first polite Americans she'd met on the cruise. Isn't that sad? There were many foreigners on the ship, especially Canadians and Brits, and I'm dismayed to think that the behavior of some passengers was determining their view of Americans. Obviously, this wasn't Royal Caribbean's fault, though. Rude people are everywhere, unfortunately! :)
Also, since it was a 12-day cruise, the clientele was significantly older. I would say that the majority of the passengers were upward of 75. Subsequently, we felt like we didn't really fit in, and a lot of the entertainment, such as the music in the piano bar, was targeted toward that age group. The piano bar was our favorite place on Carnival, and although Ed Manego in the Schooner Bar was extremely talented with an excellent voice (think George Michael-esque), he was always playing music more suited for the older set. I longed for some Billy Joel or Elton John... We had been warned about the possibility of older crowds on longer cruises by people on the online message boards, but we didn't think it would make a difference. It did. We're by no means "partiers," but it's just not quite as much fun when everyone else on board is from a totally different generation.
There also seemed to be a lot more lines on the Explorer than on our past ships, but that may have been simply because of the number of passengers (3,100). Having to "hurry up and wait" for everything got a little old by the end of 12 days. We had to arrive 20-30 minutes early for every single activity or show if we wanted to get a seat. And, as I mentioned, there were a lot of sneaky line jumpers who were constantly cutting to the front. In particular, ice show ticket distribution was completely disorganized and frustrating. They really need a better system for that.
I don't want to make it sound like I'm complaining. I just think the best reviews are the honest ones that include both the good and bad. All in all, we had a fantastic time. We visited some beautiful ports and made several friends (Hi to Joe and Dot from Jersey, our tablemates in Magellan dining room!) My husband and I would definitely try Royal Caribbean again, but would probably choose a smaller ship and a shorter itinerary with hopes that our fellow passengers are in a similar age group. But for next year, we're eyeing the Norwegian Gem or one of the new Carnival or Princess ships.
Please feel free to e-mail me with any questions at email@example.com. I'd be happy to answer them. Thanks for reading!