Three of us went on the 9 day Explorer of the Seas cruise from Bayonne, New Jersey (or Port Liberty as RCCL refers to this commercial port) to the Caribbean and back on January 2, 2009. We are an older, semi-retired couple (I am 61 and my DH is closer to 70) and we took with us our almost 20 year old son, who loves to cruise on college vacations. We chose this cruise to avoid flying to Florida and to fit with DS's college break schedule. We expected a large contingent of college-age students on the ship and hoped that the Explorer would satisfy DS's need for an interesting cruise ship. This was my 23rd cruise and my sixth on Royal Caribbean. It was, however, my first in a long time on an RCCL ship and my first on one this big. My last cruise on RCCL had been on the Radiance of the Seas.
Embarkation: This was without a doubt the worst embarkation experience of any I have experienced. The line of traffic to get into the More
area where luggage is unloaded was very long when we arrived at about 11:15 a.m.(and based on conversations with others it was just as long earlier and later). When we finally arrived in a loading "dock," we pulled in and easily unloaded the car. DH and DH waited while I parked the car. This part was easy - the guys stop the line of traffic so you can back out and then you simply make a couple of left turns into the parking lot. You pay (now $173 since it just went up, self-park, and walk back to the shed. There the three of us walked down to the entrance to the registration area where we found another line for the security x - rays.
When we entered the registration area itself there was a choice of regular Check-in (humongous line) or Priority Check-In (long line). We opted for the latter and found a line much, much longer than any I have ever experienced (on virtually every other ship, I have either walked right up to the counter or waited for a few minutes for check-in; here the wait was at least 20-30 minutes.)
When we arrived at the counter and handed over our Set Sail Passes, matters deteriorated. For some reason the computer system conflated part of my name with part of my son's name and my middle name was now listed as his which meant that it didn't match my passport. My Crown and Anchor number and status has disappeared. None of this made sense. All three names had been correctly listed on the RCL website, which I visited regularly in the weeks before we left. The representative had to go and check with a supervisor and then take my materials to a different computer in the main check-in area to re-enter the names correctly. All of this took several minutes. Then after we got our SeaPass Cards and presented them to the woman taking photographs for the card, she also had a problem with my card and had to take it somewhere to straighten it out... another delay. By the time we got to the bus, I was regretting the decision to take this cruise, but my unhappiness wasn't over yet.
We were able to get right onto the bus and drive over to the ship. I went up to the desk to try to get my C and L status reinstated on my card. The very nice person at Reception explained that she couldn't do a thing about this, but that she would send an email to Runi, the C and L Ambassador, who would be on duty at 5:00 p.m..
Since it was now about 12:45 and the rooms would not be available until 1:30, we went up to the Windjammer Buffet to get some lunch. I had another bad moment while walking through the buffet, which was packed with people. We went as far aft as possible, which was the area in which we ended up eating quite often during the cruise, and surveyed the tables. I spotted one that had just been vacated and heaved a sigh of relief, still thinking such a big ship with so many passengers had been a bad mistake.
Next I went to get on line and found no trays. This bothers me. On NCL they had no trays and I complained bitterly since I often had to carry food from the buffet to another area to find a seat and then run back and forth to retrieve silverware and other food and beverage items. It is so much easier to do this with a tray! If ever I had considered switching from Celebrity back to RCL, this one little item made me wish I was on a Celebrity ship with a tray covered with a linen napkin to keep everything from sliding. I ran into another lady looking for a tray, who became one of my friends for the week. We both asked staff about the missing trays and were informed that they would go and get us a tray if we wanted one.
Slightly mollified, I sampled the famous fried chicken some people rave about. It was good fried chicken, not extraordinary. I also liked the variety available, and found the buffet to be quite good for lunch all week. On the first day they had hamburgers and hot dogs, French Fries, soup, fish, paella, carving station beef, Brussel sprouts (why Brussel sprouts I have no idea since I don't think of this as a particularly popular vegetable), cheese, fruit, small sandwiches, and a nice array of desserts including fruit tart, brownies, coconut cookies, coconut cake, and apple strudel. The coconut cookies were good (and always available, but I don't think they are worth raving about).
RCCL has ample staffing in the buffet and uses staff to serve beverages. You can go over to the beverage station and ask for coffee or a glass of ice, or juice in the morning, but it's really easier to ask your server to get drinks. Inexplicably, there was no milk available on day one. The guy said they would have it the next day for breakfast. Since I was trying to add skim milk to my coffee, the promise of milk in days to come didn't help.
On the way into the buffet the first day soda cards were on sale and I really liked that the servers all had pitchers of diet coke and regular coke. Once you showed your card, getting sodas was easy. Although this lunch was far from gracious dining (and I love that NCL has lunch in the dining room on day one and wish other lines would do that, too!) I felt better about our cruise after lunch. Between the charming servers in the buffet and the quality of the lunch, things started to look up.
Cabins: Rooms were now available and we went down to deposit our carry-on luggage and check out our accommodations. (The bags arrived around 3:50 ) Hmmm, another surprise! This was the smallest balcony cabin and the tiniest bathroom I have ever had on cruise ship... amazingly small with limited space for three people to store their gear and move around. Our DS slept on a pull-out couch which had to be fully opened every night. When his bed was out, it was necessary to squeeze past and difficult to sit at the desk. I much prefer the couch we had on the NCL Sun, which could be made up into a single bed, although I know DS liked stretching out when sleeping.
The bathroom was so small that I hit my elbows all week long and frequently knocked things over trying to maneuver around. I did like the door on the shower and the pretty blue tiles around the sink. There was a container of shampoo/conditioner in the shower, soap and no hand lotion. I asked our Cabin Attendant for some lotion and the next day he remembered to bring me some... another little RCCL economy.
The bed was comfortable but I didn't like the bedding. I have slept under many duvets on other ships, in hotel rooms, even all over China, and this was the heaviest duvet/quilt I have ever had. I had to kick it off almost every night and would have preferred something lighter. At home we sleep under a winter weight duvet that is very warm and yet lightweight. The Explorer duvet was heavy...(it's difficult to explain, but you have to experience it to understand what I'm trying to say.) I didn't like the pillows either - first time I've said that in 23 cruises.
I should also mention that I learned after booking that Deck Six has balconies which are different than those on decks higher up. Our balcony did not have the clear lower section that made viewing the sea easier, but it was adequate. On the plus side, we were situated on the port side which meant that before sailing we had a great view of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan. On the way South, I enjoyed the sunrises (not that I planed to awake at that hour, but if I happened to wake up, the sunrise was terrific) and on the way back I loved the afternoon sun. We got back into port about 5 a.m. on the last morning and I was able to watch the sun rise over lower Manhattan... something I've never seen before... quite beautiful!
Another high point for us on the afternoon of embarkation was meeting our cabin attendant, Vincelaus. This guy is terrific... perhaps the cheeriest personality and the best Cabin Attendant I have ever had. He made us feel welcome and quickly provided the extras we sought (more hangers and towels). We went for a walk around the ship, made a dinner reservation for Portofinos, and unpacked after our bags arrived. Then it was time for the boat drill (we were among the lucky people who got to do this in the dining room, but others were out on the decks) and the Sailaway. We went up to Dizzy's and Cloud Nine to watch the Explorer sail out of the harbor and under the Verrazzano Bridge. I have sailed under this bridge several times, but never on a ship this large and it is interesting to see how little space there is between the top of the ship and the underside of the span.
Runi, the Loyalty Ambassador and Future Cruise Consultant Since it was now almost five, I went down to Runi's desk (conveniently located down the hall and around the corner from our cabin) to straighten out my Diamond Status. She fixed my card, but more importantly, she made me feel that I was a valued customer and a new friend. I am now firmly ensconced in the Runi fan club ... what a great asset she is to this ship and this company! All week long, seeing Runi was like running into an old friend.
Concierge Lounge On this first evening on the ship I was eager to explore the Concierge Lounge. By now I had my Diamond Status restored (along with bathrobes in our Cabin) and DH and I went up to the Deck 9 CL to see what the fuss was all about. All I can say is Wow! We stood on line to pick up some drinks from the terrific Casey (and learned to arrive in the CL after the Main Seating folks had gone to dinner!) and then sampled the very nice food on offer. The offerings varied each evening but there were both hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, including shrimp, eggs rolls, chicken wings, tempura, chocolate-covered strawberries, and other tasty "could ruin your appetite" goodies. We grabbed some seats (nice leather couches and arm chairs) and met the first of a series of lovely people who seemed to populate the CL. Ricardo, the Concierge, who had been working at his desk, walked around the room and introduced himself. He explained how the CL works and provided us with CL keys (since we hadn't received them in our cabin due to the C and L snag). Then we went down to our first dinner on the Explorer. We never did use the CL overflow up in Cloud Nine since the main CL was closer to our cabin, but others told us it was very nice up there.
The Ship: This is a very attractive ship, which despite its age is kept in excellent condition. We did notice a few stains on the carpet, but considering the wear and tear of a full ship and weekly trips from the wintry northeast, the ship looked good. I like the layout of the ship - even though it's large, nothing is that far away from you. I did find it surprising that there are no aft stairs or elevators... you always have to walk to the middle to get up and down. Being positioned on Deck Six, we used the stairs all week and only took the elevator two or three times. The walk from the cabin to the stairway was just part of the exercise.
The public rooms are especially nice and we liked the theater and the oft-mentioned strange, but beautiful curtain. It's also odd that although there are holes in the arms of the chairs in the theater for drinks, our drinks never fit in the holes. This is annoying, because you have to hold onto your glass during the show, or worry that you'll knock it over if you put it on the floor.
Although we rarely used the promenade area or the bars, they seemed to be popular and there were always people hanging out in this area. We used it to get to various locations on the ship and managed to check out all the shops, but there were certainly no bargains all week and for perhaps the first time in 23 cruises, I bought nothing onboard from the shops.
I did sample the spa one day for a $99 Spa Heaven Package. Another strange thing happened. I was waiting for my appointment, and time passed without anyone showing up. When I checked, it seemed that my masseuse had taken another person from the waiting area by mistake (strange that she never checked our names!) Instead I was given Dorine, which turned out very well since she was a delight to speak with and an excellent masseuse. The spa is adequate, but I have been in nicer spas on other ships.
On the second day, the sun was shining and the air was warm when we got up. We took a long stroll after breakfast and explored all of the outdoor areas of the ship including the mini-golf, climbing wall, Johnny Rockets, Ocean Adventure for children, the solarium and the outdoor pool area. Although it wasn't yet swimming weather, it was nice enough to sit outside at the pool wearing just lightweight jackets... that's why we came on this cruise!
Dining Room: As requested, we were seated at a Table for 8 (I always ask for a large table). The first evening six of us appeared and on Day 3 the missing couple introduced themselves and joined us most of the other nights thereafter. All of our dining companions were in our age range (OK,slightly younger) and the table was one of the most homogeneous to which I've ever been assigned. We enjoyed the company of the other diners although we were disappointed one couple we met on the first night opted to eat in the Windjammer for the rest of the cruise (they discovered how much they liked the buffet and the flexibility to eat when they wished when they missed the Late Seating due to the football playoff game schedule over the weekend).
The location of our table on the 3rd deck (Magellan Dining Room) left a lot to be desired. It was next to a window (useless since we dined at 8:30 in January - no views ever) and sandwiched between two very noisy groups - a table filled with guys and only a couple of women (I think this was a fraternity reunion group) and a table filled with young children. The good part was that most nights the children ate and then left, but one night they celebrated a birthday and needed to be there for the entire dinner hour until the birthday cake was served and the birthday songs sung. That was a night in which it was difficult to carry on a conversation. The frat guys were always there. If we hadn't felt an obligation to be there most of the time for our tablemates, we would have opted for more dinners in the Windjammer.
Table service was excellent. Our team - Nathaniel and James - were very nice guys and very professional in their work. On the first night I asked if there were bread sticks and James managed to procure them ("your sticks," he called them) every night. I also asked for half a cup of coffee and that is what I was served every night (after checking that this was my regular order and not a one-time choice). DH and I received our Diet Cokes (mine with ice and his without) without having to ask after our first night and refills were supplied as needed. One of the people at our table was on a gluten-free diet and great care was taken to make sure that her needs were met. Both Nathaniel and the Maitre'D consulted with her nightly and I was impressed with their efficiency in this respect.
Food in the Dining Room was very uneven and generally disappointing. The menus were interesting and the food was good, just not excellent. One surprise for me was the Prime Rib (available two nights) and not good on either occasion (I thought the first night must be a fluke, but apparently not). I rarely encounter a piece of Prime Rib that isn't good, but someone must have bought the worst beef on the market to produce this meat - not prime at all! The sirloin used for the Steak Oscar was also second-rate... very tough and full of bristle. Some nights one of our tablemates (who usually ordered steak) thought it was good, but I had no luck with my beef orders.
Among the better fare tasted during the week, I enjoyed the Tiger Shrimp, the Lamb Shank, Escargot, Duck ala Orange and the various breads. I liked the Indian curries available on the menu each evening, and sampled several of them, but it would be good to have a little more variety in the ethnic offerings or at least vary the Indian dishes.
Another odd situation was that more than once something was on the menu, but not available. That happened with Samosas (one of my favorite things). They substituted egg rolls and the explanation was that they ran out of some ingredients. I was told they would have samosas after St. Thomas, but I never saw any listed. They also substituted lobster ravioli one night for another dish, which they listed and then didn't have.
One night they had a coconut parfait listed on the menu which turned out to contain no ice cream. It would help if RCCL would show the table the dessert tray the way Celebrity does. Then there would be no surprises and you would know which dessert you really wanted instead of which dessert you thought might be good.
We had breakfast in the dining room on several occasions. On Day Two, we went down to the dining room and met a lovely couple from Glasgow. I ordered Eggs Benedict (always perfectly done), but Scottish couple made the mistake of ordering soft boiled eggs, which first came underdone, and then came back overdone.
Lunch was available in the dining room on sea days and since I like to meet people at the large tables used for open seating, we went down there most of the days it was open. The menu was good and they have a large salad buffet in the center of the dining room where people can choose the fixings (including shrimp and chicken for their salad) if they prefer that option to what is available on the menu.
Food in the Windjammer Buffet: As noted on Day 1 I enjoyed the variety of offerings in the Buffet. As noted elsewhere, sometimes the food wasn't heated well enough, but that is partly the nature of a buffet like this.
I especially liked the Asian section at lunch and sampled most of the curries available, which tasty. They have pre-made sandwiches, pizza, hot dishes, a carving station, burgers, fries and hot dogs, soups, pre-made salads and salad ingredients and dressings to make your own salad, and of course a selection of desserts. None of the lunch food was terrific, but there was plenty to eat and most of it was decent.
Breakfast fare was standard and never varied (as noted elsewhere it would be nice if they had a "special" each day or something to produce more variety, but pretty much everything you'd expect was available. I ended up by accident on the "Eggs to Order" line on the first day and most of the time that moved very quickly and efficiently. The fruit was always fresh and delicious and while the waffles (cooked elsewhere and left sitting in a tray) can't hold a candle to those on Celebrity (which are cooked to order), you could eat waffles, French toast, pancakes, eggs, omelets, shrimp fried rice, excellent potato puffs, bacon (often too greasy), sausages, oatmeal, cold cereal, Danish pastry, cookies, croissants, and muffins. The toasting operation was quite efficient and all sorts of breads, bagels and muffins were available. As always, the servers in the Windjammer took orders for drinks and brought juice, milk, coffee, tea or cocoa when asked.
We only ate dinner in the Windjammer on one evening, but both DH and I were very impressed with the many possibilities. In addition to a number of the dishes being served on the menu in the Dining Room, there were Asian dishes. The sushi wasn't very good, but there was some of that along with vegetable tempura, soups, rice and noodle dishes, and various curries. They had spaghetti and other pasta with several sauces, pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries, and another of my favorite areas- baked potatoes, stuffed baked potatoes, scalloped potatoes and mashed potatoes. I'm sure I'm leaving things out because there were so many choices.
For dessert they had cakes and pies and cookies and ice cream with sauces and crepes. I was beside myself when the person walking in front of me snagged the last crepe. I asked the person serving the ice cream if there were more, and she sadly informed me that the crepes were finished. Since I had been looking forward to trying them and knew this would be my only visit to the dinner buffet, I expressed my unhappiness about that. She picked up the phone and asked the supervisor if he could help. He immediately came over and assured me that if I could wait a few minutes he would "make me some crepes and bring them to our table." I was delighted with that level of responsiveness and shortly ended up with more crepes than I could eat. I also made the acquaintance of the young woman serving ice cream, the very lovely Minna, who was surprised to discover I had recently visited her hometown (actually a city of eight million!) in China. Both Minna and Histert, her supervisor, embody the culture of the staff on the Explorer.. they do everything they can to make cruisers happy.
Portofino: We ate dinner at Portofino one evening. I made the reservation when we arrived on the ship the first day and chose an evening based on what I thought the dining room menu would be (but the order of the meals varies, and as it turns out I had the wrong night. Since it wasn't a formal night, though, it didn't really matter.
I had eaten in the Portofino on Radiance, and although I had not been favorably impressed on that occasion, after reading so many rave reviews was anxious to try this one. The evening started well. The restaurant is well decorated and service seemed excellent. We had the team of Lukacz and Bettina. After we perused the menu, Bettin, made several recommendations. Since these were in line with the dishes everyone raves about, we were happy to go along with her suggestions. The first course, a salad with greens and pears, gorgonzola and candied pecans was excellent as was the Tiger Shrimp Risotto. Unfortunately, the second part of the meal did not live up to the promise of the starters. The seafood entrEe (skewers of salmon, scallops, shrimp and lobster) looked great, but was tasteless despite the light tomato sauce. I just don't find defrosted shellfish that enjoyable. The dessert was a complete surprise. The dessert sampler looked beautiful, but was perplexing. While the tiramisu was delicious, it was the only one of the four desserts in the sampler that I enjoyed. The panna cotta was the hardest I have ever eaten (too much gelatin I was told), the flourless chocolate cake was bland and almost rock solid, and the white chocolate brulee was also too hard. Having dined in Murano on the Century in November, and in the specialty restaurant on Millenium last year, (both wonderful fine dining experiences) and having eated in Cagneys and the Bistro on several NCL ships in recent years I would have to say that Portofino doesn't begin to match up to any of the others, which have much better food and more sophisticated menus. Although Portofino is ten dollars cheaper ($20 instead of $30) in my opinion it isn't really worth it.
Johnny Rockets: We tried J.R.'s using our coupons. The fries and onion rings were served long before the drinks (which doesn't work for me... why aren't the drinks brought first?) and the burgers were greasy. Even DS didn't care for it. We made the mistake of saving this for the last day at sea, when everyone had the same idea. As a result, we would have had to wait too long for a table and ended up at the counter (which is where I usually sit in the JR's at home), but this wasn't a particularly good eating experience. Next time, I would gladly skip it and return to the buffet for lunch.
Room Service: We only tried this once for breakfast on a morning we had to be up and out early. I wrote in everything we wanted and checked off the various items on the card the night before and was pleased to find that they called on schedule and quickly delivered the asked-for items. We were missing a set of silverware, but our server quickly remedied the situation and we were quite satisfied with this experience.
Itinerary: On this cruise visited four ports in this order: Labadee, Samana, St. Thomas, and San Juan. With the exception of Samana, I have been to the other three before (we have stayed on St. Thomas and Puerto Rico and are quite familiar with both ports). The last time I was in Labadee was last year on the Millennium and I loved it at that time. This visit was rather disappointing. Here the disadvantage of a huge cruise ship is readily apparent - a tropical paradise becomes row upon row of chairs and crowded swimming areas. Part of the problem is that the Hideaway Beach is closed off while they build the pier. That's a shame, because it was a beautiful beach area and its closing has pushed many people into the now too-small Hideaway Beach. I would hate to visit Labadee on a Freedom Class or even worse, Oasis Class ship. Are they ruining Labadee asks one of the threads on CC. The answer is clearly "yes!" On the plus side, the tendering operation was smooth and easy.
Samana was interesting. This is a relatively undeveloped part of the Dominican Republic which RCL is using in place of Casa de Campo, which was originally on this itinerary. I have been to Casa de Campo and was glad they made the switch. Samana is gorgeous and when the area is better developed, it could be a terrific cruise port. Right now, the offerings are sparse and the roads are really terrible. Be prepared for millions of potholes if you venture out in a van.
We opted to join a group of Cruise Critic friends on a day trip to Playa Rincon organized by Casa Dorada. This involved a hours drive and a speedboat ride, but it was worth it. Once we arrived at the beach, it was beautiful and relatively empty. We didn't snorkel, but those that did said they saw lots of fish. We chose to relax on beach chairs, swim, and to eat lunch at the local fish restaurant - Rubi - where we shared a delicious platter of shrimps fried in garlic, rice and beans (we had a choice of potatoes) and salad (Catherine said she thought it would be okay to eat it, and it was). Our waiter, Fancy, was excellent. With a beer and soda, lunch came to $21. Local vendors offered coconut bread on the beach for those who skipped lunch. The beach was relatively empty, very clean, and the water was fabulous - great for swimming.
Casa Dorada is a new operation run by two ex-New Yorkers, Roberto Guzman and Catherine Delauria. They have a guest house and ferry cruise passengers from the dock to Playa Rincon using taxi vans and speedboats. They love their part of the island (and who wouldn't?) and were very helpful and pleasant. Our group opted to leave the beach at 3:15 and got back to the tender dock at 4:25.
We always go to the same beach on St. Thomas and that is Sapphire. I love Sapphire Beach. The water is a thousand shades of blue and very swimmable. We walked down the beach, rented chairs, and managed to have the area to ourselves for much of the day. Due to a labor dispute, the hotel restaurant is closed, but there is limited drink and snack service.
Because we had only half a day in San Juan, we just walked up to Fortaleza and strolled up to Walgreens to restock our pharmacy for the trip home (DS had a cold and needed some new cough supplies.)
Two and half sea days in each direction is a luxury I really enjoy. By the morning of the first day it was warm enough to sit outside with a lightweight jacket on, and by the second day it was great to sit in the Solarium and enjoy the fresh air wearing just a bathing suit. We were fortunate in that the seas were smooth in both directions and the weather was great.
Entertainment: We went to the show every night. The comedian on the first night , David Cornier, (who returned for the late night show several days later) was sometimes hard to understand and not very funny. In fact, the only reason to have him on the late night was so that most of the audience would be drunk and laugh at everything he said and did... his routine wasn't actually late night material. I have seen the magician (John Lewis) before, and think he's excellent. David Morgan and Chuckie are another act I've seen and while it's okay, RCCL should come up with some better entertainment. I'd be happy to listen to good singers every evening rather than mediocre comics. I thought the singers and dancers were perhaps the most talented group I have ever seen on a cruise ship, but the first two shows were too similar - very loud and busy...and did I say loud? The third show, "Invitation to Dance", was quite good. At least in this one there were some changes in tempo and mood and the dancers seemed a little less robotic. We also had Marty Allen and Caron Kay one night. All of his jokes were OLD, but when an 86 year old comedian is still performing, you have to give him some credit. His wife, Caron Kay, who is a singer, was very good.
We loved the ice show. We went to the second show on the first day it was offered (a sea day) since I had read that if you wait, sometimes the show is cancelled if the seas are rough). The skaters were very good and the show was a pleasure to watch. In fact, this was the best show we saw all week.
The parades were sort of silly, but a nice touch. It was more enjoyable to watch the performers on the last night (when they had become familiar and we knew who they were) than on the first night when it was more like a bunch of people in costumes parading up and down the promenade.
Last, but not least, I thought the Cruise Director, David Chapman was terrific. Here is a Cruise Director who has it all - big personality, good looks, talent as a comedian, and a great Australian accent. I thought he was especially funny doing the Love and Marriage Game (which I have seen at least 15 times, and maybe more. The questions and the format are old, but a really funny cruise director makes it fun, and Dave was totally in his element doing this. Bravo!
Fellow Cruisers and Explorer Staff and Crew: I enjoyed getting to know people on this cruise. There were a surprising number of people from all over the U.S. and many international cruisers. I especially enjoyed chatting with people from Canada, Germany, and Mexico. People were quite nice and extremely polite... instances of bad cruise behavior (with the exception of chair saving) were few and far between.
As noted, service on this cruise was wonderful. Cabin staff, dining room staff, buffet servers... virtually everyone who served us was terrific. One day I met a server named Imade in the Dining Room. DS was sleeping in and not eating and I asked him if I could take some rice pudding back to the cabin for him since he loves it. Back came Imade with "pudding to go." The service was like that all week. Even the security people smiled and were friendly (I think that's the first time I've ever noticed that!)
Debarkation: Compared to embarkation, debarkation was a breeze. We chose to put our bags out the night before, went to the dining room in the morning for a last breakfast of Eggs Benedict, then went back to the cabin and picked up our hand baggage, went to our assigned area (and found that the others had just left), walked to the exit, and were on the bus in short order. When we got to the shed, we picked up our bags and rolled them out to the parking area. There had been an ice storm the night before, so we had to chisel the ice off the car, but once we did that, we were quickly on the road out of the port and on to the turnpike.
Overall assessment: There's no question that the idea of taking a cruise from your homeport has huge advantages. Nonetheless, RCL needs to do a much better job of fixing up Bayonne and making the embarkation process smoother and more pleasant. As many others have noted, what makes this cruise a pleasure is the excellent staff and crew on the Explorer. I also think the CL is a winner - I'd be inclined to return to RCL to have this perk every night. On the other hand, the dining room food quality is too uneven and the mix of assigned dining and improved buffet is a problem. I think next time, after they have instituted My Time Dining we would opt for that and perhaps that will be better.
One more thing...My DS loves cruising, but he prefers NCL. I thought he might like the Explorer, but he didn't and the reason he gave was that there really isn't a good place for older teens (past 18 and not yet allowed to drink on RCL) to hang out at night. The opening night mixer in the Chamber was awful ... far tMillenniumoo dark and noisy to meet people... and in general he had a problem since he was hanging out with 17 and 18 year olds (who weren't allowed in the disco). An ice breaker in a better location for the 18-21 crowd on the first night would have been a great improvement over what they had.
Would I take this cruise again? I might. I love the home port convenience and the staff and crew of the Explorer. Going to sleep in frozen NJ and waking up to sunshine and warm air without having to spend hours in an airport is wonderful so more cruises on the Explorer are a possibility, but not a top choice.