I've been on quite a few of the other lines, Carnival, Princess and Royal Caribbean among them, and onboard those ships, it seems like there's always someone trying to sell you something - a photographer wanting to take your picture every night at dinner, an overeager waiter pushing an overpriced tropical drink in your face every time you set foot on the pool deck and pre-port "briefings" that seem more like infomercials for the local diamond emporium. But there was none of that on this cruise. It was a peaceful, laid back experience and exactly what I was looking for.
Let me start at the beginning; I received a postcard that promoted the "Passport to Central America" Enrichment Voyage. It said there would be college professors onboard and more of an educational focus to the cruise. I was intrigued and called to ask some questions. Sharon, who made my reservation, was delightful. She told me about the Enrichment Sessions that would talk about the history and culture of the places we would visit, and she said I'd have the chance to sign up for "Field Programs" in the ports. I figured these would be typical cruise line shore excursions, but I was surprised by what was offered.
The price was right, and they even included an air ticket roundtrip to Nassau, Bahamas where the ship docked, so I reserved a place. I was going to be traveling alone, but there was a really low single supplement, so the price was very reasonable. Sharon said they try to offer reasonable single supplements for most of the Enrichment Voyage cruises.
On May 11, I flew to Nassau from Ft. Lauderdale. I arrived a bit early in the day, and there was already a line waiting to board the ship. The embarkation was a bit chaotic, but a staff member told me later that this was the inaugural Enrichment Voyage and that they would work out the kinks in the boarding by the next sailing in December. Once onboard, I was really impressed by how clean and neat the ship was. During most of the year, the MV Explorer is occupied by over 700 college students sailing around the world during the semester at sea program. But you'd never know it - everything is spotless and immaculate. For this sailing, the passengers were mostly seniors. At 66, I fit right in. There were some couples in their mid-forties, and a few in their 80s, but it seemed like mid- to late-60s was about the average age. There were a few alumni from the semester at sea program onboard, but those under 40 were definitely in the minority.
I had booked a Junior Suite on Deck 3. It was a bit more pricey than an ocean view room, but it was large and had a sitting area and was worth the extra expense, especially if there had been two of us staying there. In the room there was a television (no cable or satellite TV, just closed circuit movies and transmissions of shows and presentations from the main lounge), a telephone (you could call other staterooms or buy phone cards at the pursers' desk to call international to the States) and, to my surprise, a refrigerator. I love to keep a cold bottle or two of water on hand. There was also sufficient closet space; for two people it would be a tight fit for clothing for a longer cruise, but the space is well designed and more than adequate. I'm glad I brought soft-sided luggage, though, as finding a place to store a hard-sided bag would have been a challenge. Of course there was a bathroom with a shower, again, not huge but very clean and comfortable. A stateroom attendant made up the room in the morning and brought a bucket of ice and freshened up in the evening - over the two weeks I rarely saw him, but he was always friendly when I did. There was a very limited room service menu (a couple of sandwiches and cookies, I think, that were available in the afternoon), but I never took advantage of it.
The common areas of the ship were very nice - a couple of bars and lounges, including a piano bar and wine bar that served what must have been close to two dozen different wines, a pool and a "sports court" with a basketball hoop that was netted in so you wouldn't lose the ball off the ship. There was a main lounge where the performances and many of the classes (what they call Enrichment Sessions) were held, but surprisingly, no casino. They took out the slots and tables and put in a library (quite a few books) and a computer lab (at least 20 computers) with believe-it-or-not free internet access. I've paid close to $1 a minute on other ships to check my email or get the news from home, but here it was free. My favorite space on board was the Adventurine Panoramic Lounge at the front of the ship on the top deck. Big picture windows wrapped all the way around the lounge and provided a great view, and the bar staff knew how to serve a great cocktail. In the evening, the Panoramic Lounge turned into a disco, and Blake the DJ was there late into the night playing a lot of good music. I didn't take advantage of the facilities, but the Jade Spa, also on the top deck, had a full list of massage and spa services and the adjacent salon was available for haircuts and to take care of the nails.
There were two main dining areas onboard, the main Aquamarine Dining Room and the Garden Lounge buffet dining room. Every morning and afternoon (even on port days), both breakfast and lunch were served buffet style (with the same menu) in both dining rooms. Breakfast was the full spread you'd typically find at a buffet breakfast, with everything from prunes to eggs to bacon and hash browns. Lunch was a selection of usually one hot entree and a number of cold sandwiches and salads. For all the buffet meals, there were attendants ready to help carry trays and get the coffee, iced teas and juices that were included with the meal. I usually ate breakfast and lunch in the Garden Lounge and sat out on the back deck and enjoyed the fresh sea air. We had great weather for just about all of the cruise.
For dinner, table service was offered in the Aquamarine dining room. Except for two nights, there was no assigned seating or assigned dining times you could go whenever you wanted between 5 and 8 and be seated with new dining companions each night. Two of the nights were considered "semi-formal" Captain's Dinners, and most of the gentlemen wore suits (or at least jackets) and the ladies brought out the fancier dresses. For the Captain's Dinners, there were two assigned seating times, and for those dinners you were assigned to a specific table and the menu was a little fancier. A buffet-style dinner (again, with the same menu as the main dining room) was served in the Garden Lounge in the evening. Outside of regular meal hours, there were snacks available for purchase at the Pool Bar and an afternoon snack was offered in the Garden Lounge. On a few evenings, they served a special "Late Night Snack" on the pool deck around 10 pm. My favorite was the chicken satay they grilled and served with peanut sauce. There were also mini cheeseburgers and a couple of other different things on different nights. When the Late Night snack wasn't being served poolside, there was something available (light sandwiches or a fruit plate) available in the Garden Lounge.
The food was good. Not gourmet by any standard (I hadn't expected it to be), but fresh and tasty and more-or-less comparable to what I've had on Carnival. A bit of a bigger selection of hot entrees for lunch would have been nice, but I always found something that I enjoyed.
The Enrichment Sessions were interesting; I thought Dr. Schoenherr's presentations on marine life and coral reefs were the most interesting, but also got a lot from Dr. Brandt's musical sessions. There was also art workshops (though all were filled to capacity and I didn't make it in) and book club discussions with a literature professor. There were hour-long pre-port Enrichment Sessions the night before each port of call. I attended several, and they covered the Field Program logistics for each port, tips for sightseeing if you were going out on your own, information on the currency and all the facts you need to go into a new place with a feeling of confidence. And no, there were no infomercials for diamond stores.
The excursions offered in each port were, I thought, a step above what you typically find on a cruise. They were a bit more educationally-focused and in-depth than most shore excursions. My favorite, by far, was the zip-line tour in Costa Rica. I've never been so exhilarated as I was riding those cables! The tour companies used for the programs were professional, all the guides I had were great, and the coaches and vehicles were modern and clean.
There was entertainment offered in the main lounge most nights, featuring a soprano singer, a pianist / vocalist and an amateur barbershop quartet called "Just Olde Friends." I heard mixed reviews of the entertainers, but frankly, I enjoyed all of them and they were a welcome break from the loud, brash Vegas-style shows I've had to endure on every cruise I've taken.
All told, I was looking for a different cruise experience and I found it. I wanted something laid back, relaxing and not so in-your-face as the big cruise lines. Plus, I learned something along the way and met some new friends. It's a beautiful ship, a great crew and overall, was a great value. I hear the MV Explorer is sailing up the Amazon River this December. I just might find myself onboard.