BACKGROUND: Total of 9 cruises (four this year alone) and 5th with RCI but this is our first holiday cruise. Travel To Cape Liberty: We left on a slushy/snowy day and opted to use a car service for the 60 mile trip to the port. The ride to the port was smooth and uneventful and we arrived at the entrance to the port at 12:20 PM. However, there was only one lane of traffic to the terminal and it was another 65 minutes before we left the car with our luggage.
EMBARKATION: Lots of people checking in at the same time. Security and the RCI check-in process was a slow process - over 2 hours. Muster drill was already in progress when we boarded the ship.
STATEROOM: D2 balcony. Very clean. We are heavy packers (5 suitcases + 2 carry-ons) and still managed to stow all our clothing and in the closet and drawers. Four empty suitcases fit nicely under the beds. The bathroom was small but functional. The sliding shower doors are so much better than the curtain!
SHIP INFO: The ship seemed too large on the first day but we became comfortable very quickly. There was a big tree in the promenade and pointsettias and wreaths in some areas, but definitely not as many holiday decorations as I expected to see based on the rhapsodic descriptions of holiday cruises on the this site. Automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers were available at the entrance to all the dining venues and at the gangway and staff was present to ensure it was used. This should be a standard feature on all ships (absent on Enchantment in October and Brilliance in November) as there are still an amazing number of women who fail to use wash their hands after using the restrooms (I'm sure the same applies to men). We missed the retractable glass roof in the solarium (available on Brilliance).
DINING: There were many choices at all meals. Taste was good or very good, not 5-star, but certainly nothing to complain about. We had breakfast in the dining room only twice (Day 2 and Day 11) and went to the Windjammer the days because we like to get the day started off quickly. The waitstaff in the Windjammer will bring your preferred beverages to your table. We had lunch in the dining room only once - it was excellent and the salad bar was superb. Had a late lunch one day in Johnny Rockets while ship was in port -great fun and the food was wonderful, although we had no room for dessert. Otherwise, lunch was only fruit or a small sandwich from Cafe Promenade. We opted for late seating and had all our dinners in the dining room except for the evening when we were seated at the Captain's Table.
ACTIVITIES : Dave Chapman is an incredible cruise director with a great sense of humor. His "Morning Show" routines were very funny and not to be missed. The Love & Marriage Show is always great, especially the couples who have been married for the longest period of time. Despite our middle-age status, we had fun trying to rock-climb and ice-skate. We are not pool people or sun worshippers, so I don't have any first-hand knowledge of "chair hogs", but based on other behavior patterns, I'm sure there was no shortage of this species on board. The Screening Room (movies) was very small for such a large ship . It would be more appropriate to run the movies continuously instead of just 2 or 3 times a day, particularly on sea days. The library does not have a great selection of books (Princess is much better) and again, it seemed to be too small for the number of passengers on board.
SERVICE: The crew was incredible - always smiling and doing everything possible to ensure all passengers have an unforgettable cruise. We received stellar service from our cabin steward (Cesar) and dining room waitstaff (Premikumar and Venis). Dean and Oana in Windjammer always remembered we preferred green tea. Luz in Guest Relations, Dwayne from the Bar Staff, and Runi (Loyalty Ambassador) were also outstanding. The entire crew was extremely friendly and upbeat, although they were surely missing their families at this time of the year.
ENTERTAINMENT: We attended many (but not all) of the evening shows in the Palace Theatre and enjoyed the ones we did see, including The Happenings, Antonio Salci, Beatlemaniacs and two RCI productions - Fast Forward and Vibeology. The ice shows are not to be missed. We avoided all those bars/lounges where smoking was permitted (Maharajas Lounge, The Chamber, Dizzy's Jazz Lounge) unless completely unavoidable (e.g. Catholic Mass was held in Maharajas despite multiple requests for a change of venue). RCI should reconsider their smoking policy and make all public lounge areas non-smoking just as Princess did. Smoke permeates even to non-smoking areas - e.g. the Schooner Bar (directly adjacent to the Casino) and mid-Royal Promenade area near the staircase to the Casino. Latin Rumba was usually in the non-smoking Aquarium Bar and they were very good. Passengers: There were 3502 passengers and over 1200 crew members. I don't have the exact breakdown, but passengers from the US were in the minority on this cruise - many Europeans, primarily from the UK. Lots of kids and teenagers but only a few disruptive groups (always the same kids). There were also many rude, thoughtless passengers suffering from entitlement mentality. Grand Prize to the man who instructed his children to block entrance to the elevator "to make it look like it's full so no one else can get on. " Second Price goes to the man in the second row of the icerink who made a fuss because an elderly couple was holding a front row seat for someone who went to the restroom, jumped over the the seatback to stake his claim (needless to say, there were many other seats available); and then several days held three front row seats for over 20 minutes until his wife and daughters came barreling into the ice rink, shoving people out of their way. Third Prize to all those who left their open strollers (including strollers) in the hallways at all times, blocking doorsHonorable mentions to the many people who left plates of half-eaten food on the floor at the elevator banks, insistently pushed the "door close" buttons while others are trying to board and held the elevator doors so that they could discuss the day's plans with their friends.
PORT & SHORE EXCURSIONS: After an exhausting 12-night Mediterranean cruise on the Brilliance in December, we decided to take it easy on this sailing and just relax.
Labadee, Haiti: Sunny, 82°F . Went ashore for only a couple of hours as we are not into sunbathing or watersports.
San Juan, PR: Sporadic showers, occasional downpours, 82°F. Christmas Day, thus no ship excursions (cruiseline-recommended shops were open). This was not a problem for us as we visited our family but there was a lot of grumbling from passengers as originally, this was to be a sea day.
Philipsburg, St Maarten: Sunny, 82°F. Took a water taxi from the pier to the town pier - good shops, great food (coconut shrimp, conch fritters, jerk ribs, fresh hand-made chocolates) . Took ship excursion "Natural Wonders" - the description is more exciting than the tour itself. Basically a visit to a small zoo and bus tour.
Roseau, Dominica: Sunny, 83°F. Not much to see near the port. Took a quick walk to the Anglican cathedral and then back to the ship.
Bridgetown, Barbados; Sunny, 86°F. It's Sunday and we were informed that apart from shops in the terminal, everything is closed in town. Happily shopped for T-shirts for the family.
Antigua: Rainy, with several downpours, 82°F. Booked the "Rainforest Canopy"excursion because the last sentence in the description was "this is for the faint-hearted." That was a typo - the word "NOT" was omitted. Only one of us enjoyed the ziplining!
Disembarkation : Quick and smooth with luggage in hand and through Customs/Immigration by 9:35 AM.
SUMMARY: Great cruise despite the behavior of some passengers. Explorer is a beautiful ship and is in good condition. Not having to fly during the holiday season (or worry about luggage weight limits) is a big plus, well worth a couple of rocky days at sea.