This was the fourth cruise for my wife and me; we had previously cruised on Princess ships for shorter itineraries, and now we were looking forward to a different cruising experience. Our first two cruises left from Port Everglades and making the airport-to-ship transfers was complex and very stressful. For our third cruise we left from Red Hook, Brooklyn and used a car service to and from the ship. This worked much better for us. So for our fourth cruise we wanted to see what would be available leaving from the New York area. We planned the cruise with my brother-in-law and his wife, who had cruised on a RCI ship out of Barcelona last fall and told us how pleased they were with that cruise. When they recommended that we consider this cruise, which was to leave from Bayonne, NJ, it looked like a winner based on its length, number of ports visited, and its embarkation point. When the date arrived the four of us took a car service to the port.
When we arrived at the terminal we checked our bags with the baggage handlers and registered. This went smoothly, but then we found that we would have to ride from the terminal to the ship on a bus! It seems that the terminal is about a half-mile down the pier from where the ships dock and we had to wait almost two hours for a bus, even though we had arrived at the terminal close to 12 noon, the starting time for embarkation. Most of the people we saw were pretty grumpy by the time they finally got to board the ship.
After we dropped off our carry-ons in our rooms, we went to the Windjammer Restaurant, the ship's buffet. We noticed at once that there were no hand-sanitizer stations. More about this later. It was difficult to find seating--the seating on this ship is not sufficient to handle the large embarkation crowd (our past experience on Princess vessels was that seating was more readily available). We were also disappointed with the quality of the food. It was nothing special, like food you find at a Perkins or Howard Johnson's. It was this way for the first three days. Our experience in the main dining room was the same. We were in the second seating group, and found the food to be very pedestrian for the first three days--and then it became much better.
We had selected inside staterooms, and were very pleased with their size and layout. The shower is quite nice with circular doors--no curtain--and a handheld spray. But don't try to make the beds into a double; there just isn't room unless you want to crawl over the foot of the bed to get from the bed to the middle of the room. The beds are comfortable and there's plenty of space in the stateroom to stow your clothes and your empty suitcases.
The emergency drill was routine, but we noticed that about half the passengers' muster stations were out on the deck. These folk had to wait out in the cold (February in New York) during the drill. Also, no information was given about emergency procedures other than to show how to put on the flotation vest and to caution people not to throw things, especially cigarettes, over the side.
Our cruise had two sea days each at the beginning and end of the trip, and there was plenty to do. One of our favorite activities is the art auction, and the ship's art auction team was excellent. There are plenty of lounges around the ship with a variety of entertainers; all were quite good, but the production shows were absolutely great. The ship has an ice skating rink too, and the two ice shows were excellent. The cruise director was top-notch, the best we've seen. But the real problem we had, one that caused us a great deal of worry, was the hand-sanitizing situation.
Apparently RCI has made a corporate decision that, since research has shown that hand sanitizing by washing using hot water and soap for 20 seconds is more effective than using a liquid sanitizer, they remove all the sanitizer stations. They posted little signs at restaurant entrances telling people to wash their hands before eating. We noticed that virtually no one entering the restaurants came from the restrooms. If they had washed their hands earlier, surely they touched stair banisters, hallway railings, door handles, and/or elevator buttons on their way to their meals! Also, *none* of the public restrooms had hot water! The best we found was tepid water in some restrooms. So on the second day the four of us went off to the Customer Relations desk to find out what was going on. That's when we were told of the RCI policy change and we complained vigorously, telling the agent that with virtually no personal hand sanitation, there was certain to be an outbreak of illness. (We also noticed that food handlers did not wear gloves.)
Then, on the fourth day, began heard from a crew member that a lot of passengers were visiting the clinic and some were being confined to their staterooms. Magically, crew began handing out sanitizing hand towelettes to everyone entering a restaurant. On the fifth day, the captain announced that there had in fact been an outbreak of norovirus (Norwalk virus) and the ship had reported it to the CDC. Later we heard that about a quarter of the passengers, some 800, had been affected and about 200 had been quarantined. We spent the next several days worrying about becoming sick ourselves. Fortunately we escaped becoming sick, but the worry put a real damper on our enjoyment of the cruise.
We had really good weather and got off the ship at all the ports (one of us joked that the longer we stayed off the ship the better our chances were at avoiding getting the bug). The land excursions were the typical ones for the eastern Caribbean islands. So we did some serious recreational shopping and a little exploring. Just getting away from winter was delightful.
One issue with the ship's environment: RCI bills the Explorer of the Seas as a "non-smoking" ship, where smoking is permitted in only a few locations. This is a disingenuous statement. Smoking is permitted in most bars/lounges, in the Promenade (a huge "street" with a six-story atrium in the center of the ship), most days in the casino, and on the starboard side on the open decks. None of these places are enclosed at all, and one must walk past these locations to move anywhere on the ship, so there is no place that is truly smoke-free. I think that the ship's air circulation must pick up smoke since I could smell it even in places where smoking is not permitted. Since I am quite allergic to smoke I avoid it as much as possible, but by the end of the cruise I had developed a bad cough.
I mentioned that the entertainment was excellent. So was the service. Every crew member we encountered was friendly and eager to help, even if their job was not direct customer service. The dining room staff was very professional and helpful and our cabin steward was efficient and thoughtful. The daily events calendar, the "Compass," could be greatly improved by having someone carefully read the times of shipboard events as published and compare them to the schedule. At least two events (one art event and one shopping event) had various correct and incorrect times printed in the communications.
Two things I wish the ship's personnel would do: if there's a delay at a port and passengers can't leave the ship at the announced time, there should be announcements to that effect. What happens is a mass of people lining up on the stairways and elevator lobbies, and normal movement around the ship gets difficult. Second, I would have appreciated more time to complete the passenger survey--it was distributed late on the last night. (Perhaps that's intentional so people can't have time to compose thoughtful comments.)
We wondered how easy disembarkation would turn out to be. It turned out to be really disorganized. There's got to be a better way to do it. There are several waiting places for passengers; we picked the theater, at the front of the ship. It turned out that when we were to leave, we couldn't go directly to the disembarkation point. We had to go up two decks, walk to the other end of the ship, and then go down five. Then we needed to wait for a bus to get to the terminal to get our bags. This whole process took something like two hours.
Summarizing our cruise on the Explorer of the Seas, we enjoyed it very much with the exceptions mentioned--sanitation and smoke. The entertainment was the absolute highlight. Where the cruise was good, it was wonderful and we really had a good time. But the parts that were less good were so disturbing that it affected our overall impression of the ship and our cruise. If you sail on a RCI ship, you should be aware of their cavalier approach to sanitation.