PRE CRUISE STAY: Spent two evenings at the Newark Elizabeth Courtyard by Marriott. Usually this is one of my favorite hotels. However, on this occasion, the place was under renovations, much to my surprise and dismay. Generally, when Marriott-branded properties renovate, this information is noted on the website someplace. Not so at this property at any time after making the reservation, up until check out, and even now, two weeks later! Their sister property across the parking lot-the Residence Inn, is also being redone. This information is noted in several places on their pages.
Alas, the place is a mess and the entrance nearest the elevator is blocked by all the contractors' equipment. Therefore, if you are mobility impaired, you have a very long walk. This hotel does not have a wheelchair for guests to borrow either. Most Marriott brands offer this for guests' assistance and convenience. Our room, an accessible double queen looked clean enough. However, upon further inspection, the shower seat was broken, as was the wall to the tub. This was also rather moldy. The toilet is very low and the grab bars are not conveniently located. This is really not a good option if you or a member of your traveling party needs an accessible room. We had several other issues as well, and for the inconvenience, we were offered free breakfast. The full buffet is 14.95 plus tax per person. Frankly this is overpriced for what you get, and for the quality of the food. I also took issue with the fact that one of the omelet chefs was chewing gum while cooking! YUCK!
We ordered in one evening-Chinese that took over an hour to arrive, despite at least two additional calls by a desk associate. (Incidentally, the PM shift at the desk is 1000% better than those working in the morning!) The second evening, I picked up food from Jersey Gardens diner across the parking lot. It is within walking distance but due to the extreme cold and wind, I drove over! Again, very good food, nice portions and reasonably priced! They even got it extra hot for me!
Finally cruise day dawned! We had arranged for Black Executive Cars to transport us to Cape Liberty. A fellow CCer used the same service. Both cars arrived 20 minutes early, at 10:10 AM. This company was great to work with, responded promptly to emails and I would use them again in the future. They sent SUVs as they guessed (correctly) that cruisers would have a lot of luggage! The only problem was that they don't have a little step to make entering the vehicle easier! Thus, if you are mobility impaired, make sure you let them know so they can bring a car. We managed just the same.
GUESTING: We arrived at Cape Liberty before 11:00AM and as usual, the worst part of the entire ordeal was the traffic getting into the pier. Yet, in spite of all that, we were checked in and seated by 11:15 AM! Our porter loved my home made baggage tags (again!) and he quickly got us a wheelchair for mom! We were taken to the special assist line and quickly checked in, but our SeaPasses were over in the Suite/VIP area. Not a big deal! We waited until boarding commenced at 11:45. Our "wheelchair pusher" was supposed to just drop us off inside the gangway, but we were able to get permission for him to wheel us up to deck 5! (And I think this was a treat for them as they work for the pier, not RC-thus they got to see the inside of Explorer!!)
I had booked a rental chair through Care Vacations so I ran up to the cabin to see if it was there. As promised, the chair was in the room. I had been given the combination to the lock when I booked, but it did not work. Guest relations was nice enough to permit me to call the company for the correct combination and we were all set. The company rents wheelchairs, oxygen and the like in ports all over. I wouldn't hesitate to use them in the future. Our small issue was that one of the foot rests did not function properly but we made do.
CABIN: Our cabin was 9618, a center hump Junior Suite, convenient to the Concierge Lounge and the like. However, this cabin is directly under the Royal Suite. In said Royal Suite is a Baby Grand Piano, on a MARBLE floor. Draw your own conclusions. I think I hated this cabin as much as the Aft JS on Enchantment that was directly over the Karaoke bar. I don't care how much money people spend to book the RS, nor do I care if they are the president of the company. Have a little common courtesy. There are people on the ship who might want to sleep between 1 and 4 AM. Those people may be in the cabins below you. Enough said.
Other than that, the cabin was in pretty good shape. RC has added an electric tea kettle to the cabin-not sure if they are in all the cabins or just certain ones. No chocolates on pillows, no towel animals for the first 4 or 5 days. The coupons in the Diamond/Plus book for the slots and free photo have been ripped out. I was informed by the GR manager that the photo vendor no longer wished to honor the coupons. Pity. However, I heard from several Gold/Plat C&A members that the BOGO coupons were in the books. Go figure. I would be happy with that deal!
THE ENGINE: Let me address this near the beginning. San Juan was cancelled and we were notified the 1st day by Capt.Gunnar Todal (who would wind up being Captain #1 of 3!). We were also notified that we would receive OBC for the inconvenience, which would be refundable if not all used. Those in JS and above received $100 USD PER PERSON. All others received $75 PER PERSON. I was happy with this offer. I did not personally hear anyone complaining about the amount. That's not to say everyone was happy, it was just my experience that no one was upset with this amount. Thus, I would up with $200 for booking this trip last year, $200 from Captain Todal and RC for skipping SJ and $120 for the fuel surcharge refund. Not bad. Also, our port stay in St. Thomas was extended from 7AM-11PM! (Actually we got into port around 3:30 AM!)
As for whether or not the engine is completely fixed, we never received official notice. Attempts were made in Bayonne to work on it, but give me a break-have you SEEN the Hudson River?? Crystal clear, warm and blue would NOT be adjectives one should use when describing said river! (Look, I'm from Jersey-anyone who lives here or in NY would argue with me! ?
Divers spent the better part of the day in STT working on the prop. I saw numerous pieces of bronze metal (looking like blades from very large machetes) on the pier. I posted some footage on webshots. There were tugs on standby in at least the first couple ports but I am not sure that they were used. Never saw them after St. Maarten if I remember correctly.
I was advised by fellow CCers here to look at the wake. On various days it was alternately normal looking, or a little bit weird. I'm not sure we will ever officially know if the prop was fixed until Explorer heads into drydock.
In any event, no other ports were changed and we made good time. Since the ports are close to each other there really wasn't a need to go much over 16 or 17 knots. And on the way home, it seems that we were averaging 17-18 knots since we had an extra day to return due to Tortola being cancelled way back in the fall.
While in St. Thomas, we were joined by Captain Tor Olsen (I believe). He informed us that he was a substitute Captain and would be with us for a few days as Capt. Todal was in Miami, along with other bridge officers, to "assist in the investigation" of the prop damage. Once we got to Antigua, Captain Sverre Ryan, Explorer's permanent Captain, joined us to take us home! (And, try as we might, we just could not convince him to take us to, say the Bahamas or Bermuda on the way home! ? )
EXCURSIONS: We solicited the assistance of the Shore Excursions staff to determine which tours would be appropriate for a person who is somewhat mobility impaired. Unfortunately, there are not many options. One tour in Dominica was billed as accessible. Yet, the mini bus, even with a wheelchair lift, was VERY uncomfortable. It was very hard to walk through the small aisle to get to the seats. On our particular tour, there were two wheelchairs and one scooter. This would have been fine if it was only those people with their escorts. However, they filled up the bus with other able-bodied people thus causing overcrowding. And a group of passengers insisted upon speaking loudly in a foreign language this making it impossible to actually hear the guide. About 1 hour into the tour, we asked for a cab to take us back to the ship. The driver offered to take us back to the pier, so that is what we did. We were given a refund.
There was nothing appropriate in Barbados so I spent a few hours at the shops on the pier. The staff on the ship arranged a private tour for us in Antigua. We were to have a special van with a chair that could be lowered to the ground. About 1 hour before we were to meet the tour, the Shore Ex manager called me to let me know that the special van would not be available as the lift was broken. He was ale to arrange for a van-taxi for just the 2 of us. The fee would be the same as the Best of Antigua tour, and it would be the same tour. That would have been fine, but the tour was not narrated, we missed 2 of the stops and the two that we did see were disappointing. We went to the national park but have no idea of what was actually there. Next was a stop at the dockyard. We could have joined a tour there, but that was so disorganized that no one seemed to know what was going on. Also, the boatyard itself is really not wheelchair accessible. Yes, you can push the chair along, but the pathways are very bumpy and uneven resulting in a less than pleasant experience. I notified the Shore Ex staff of these issues. I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the tour operator that the ship uses here. There was an obvious lack of communication and my tour was a full 30 minutes too short. Due to these issues, we were given a partial refund (which is what I asked for)
PORTS: We've been to both St. Thomas and St. Maarten before so these days were mainly spent relaxing on the ship and shopping near the pier. Dominica's pier is very small, and there are a limited number of shops. We were all given surveys to complete about this port. I was really not impressed. Their infrastructure is also in very poor condition. We were very afraid while on our short tour-the edge of the roads pretty much just falls off!
Barbados was fine BUT everything is closed on Sunday. I would have been better served booking a tour, but at this point we were so frustrated with the shore excursion selection that we decided to pass. The only thing open was the shops at the pier. There is an OK selection but this really wasn't the true Barbados. In the future I will be sure to take an excursion or hop a cab over to one of the hotels.
Antigua was probably my favorite island. However, do your shopping in other ports. Everything was very expensive. I saw tee-shirts for $25 and they were not very nice. We did purchase a mahogany carving at the dockyard and, when I think about the prices for souvenirs in general, the price wasn't bad, and at least it was MADE in Antigua.
THE SHIP: Overall Explorer is in decent shape. Sure there is some wear and tear throughout but this is to be expected from a ship that sails full nearly every sailing. Some outside cleaning was done in port, but, from the looks of things, the cleaners would, for example, wash decks 9 and 10, then ride up and down the length of the ship gazing out at the scenery. I would venture a guess that this is not a good way for RC to spend their salary dollars. I also wonder why RC can't spend some money and varnish the teak on the balcony railings. We were docked opposite a Princess ship in Antigua and their railings are shiny! Also, their cleaners did a better job cleaning balcony glass. They actually WIPED it! I would also prefer to have the sheets changed at least once or twice during a 12 night cruise vacation. I can appreciate "Save the Waves" but really, can we have some fresh sheets? Also, much of the linen has stains. I presume that they have actually been laundered, but RC needs to look into the equipment and chemicals being used to launder the linen. There shouldn't be mascara stains on pillowcases, nor should there be food stains all over the duvet covers! Yuck!
THE PASSENGERS: VERY few kids, thank goodness. Of course there were a few who's parents thought it was cute if they ran up and down the hall outside our cabin, but all in all, this was a 10,000% improvement over the Thanksgiving cruise. Otherwise, there were the usual rude passengers who cut in line for the elevator, etc and those from other countries who pretend to not understand English. And the ones who are very inconsiderate of those in surrounding cabins-at all hours of the day, night and early morning, often resulting in a lack of sleep!
THE CREW: Our dining staff was fine. In fact, our assistant waiter should be promoted. What a delight. Our waiter was Constasio (a/k/a "Con") from India, assisted by Jevy-also from India. Moses was our head waiter. He was nice, but we didn't see much of him until lobster night! Also, the bar waiter in the DeGama dining room was Levi and he too was wonderful! We had table 465, a table for 2 which, thanks to our Maitre d' from our Thanksgiving cruise, was arranged in advance! Sometimes it pays to have friends in high places. We were also visited nightly by our server from our last trip, Jeannebive-great to see her.
Our cabin attendant, Anna from Jamaica was feeling ill the first couple days so her helpers tended to our cabin. It was kept clean and tidy so no real complaints there. Again, our attendant from last time, Emerlyn stopped by several times to visit!
Generally, service in the Windjammer was slightly better. There were a few shining stars, and a few who really didn't seem to want to work. Those who didn't want to do their jobs were, thankfully in the minority.
We did run into one particularly rude crew member as we were going to one of the ice shows. This was brought to the attention of both the GR manager and the Activities manager. In subsequent contacts with him, he seemed to have underdone a major attitude adjustment. Sure, maybe it was a bad day, but people in the hospitality industry especially need to leave their bad days in the cabin! Berating a guest in a crowd is not such a good idea! At one point, due to his rudeness, and the incessant noise from the cabin above, we considered getting off the ship!
THE FOOD: Well......repetition comes to mind. Thanks to our former server telling our current servers that we liked our food HOT, we really had no issue at dinner. (Although I would have preferred the food to have been heated in something OTHER than the microwave as this ruined a few meals. Last time, our headwaiter instructed our servers to heat the food under the salamander!) BUT, shrimp 2 nights in a row??? Pork two ways for lunch, then for dinner??? The 12 night menus, along with "helpful" little comments, will be posted elsewhere. We skipped the 2nd formal night mainly due to a late lunch at JR's and, well, a less than enticing menu! There are probably three nights in a row that would be good for Portofino (in my not-so-humble opinion!) We had several breakfasts through room service, a couple in the DR and some either in or from WJ (sometimes I just brought stuff to the cabin!) Due to crowding on sea days (and maybe port days too) Portofino was opened as a satellite WJ dining area. Also, for those who love the Baked Alaska, global warming has set in! This is no longer offered on RC ships.
Food in WJ could be hotter, and more variety would also be appreciated. We had one dinner up there-we used the make your own noodle station, and it was very tasty and VERY hot! Yay! Desserts up there got boring, and for some reason, both on this cruise and the last one in November, the pastry chefs insist upon over baking the cookies.
No gala midnight buffets but there were a few poolside BBQs and late night buffets. Of course one of those was being set up in very strong winds. Not sure if people were actually able to get to the food!
Johnny Rockets wasn't bad. We only went to use our coupon. Some people rave about it.....however, it's JUST a burger...sure the fries, rings and malts are very good, but I wouldn't go if I had to pay the $4.95 cover.
Speaking of surcharges, yes there is now a $3.95 charge for room service delivery between midnight and 5 AM. This is mentioned on the interactive TV and in the daily compass.
DIAMOND PERKS: Well, one of the best perks is the Concierge Lounge. BUT, the cappuccino machine broke around 9 AM on Monday (the FIRST Monday) and it was due to be fixed in San Juan. Too bad the repair man was in SJ and we were not! Bummer. The lounge, and it's satellite were almost always packed. I went up to the satellite (I believe it was in Cloud 9) once, but it was very crowded as well. After that, I just went to the main lounge after the early dinner people left!
Ricardo the concierge is quite nice and he was able to arrange to get our passports stamped for us. Other than that and getting ice show tickets, we really didn't need too much other assistance, but when I did have a question he was able to get me an answer. And Ismael the bartender was always ready with my G&T!
The "POLAR EXPLORERS": We had a very active roll call for almost a year prior to this trip. We arranged for several activities in addition to the Meet & Mingle from RC. We wound up doing two slot pulls (the 1st was such fun we opted to do another!), a hometown gift exchange and a mini-golf tournament. One of our roll call members gave me a list of funny things to do but it was so windy that day (and half the ship wanted to play golf) that we just played! Very funny! I even won a prize! (We supplied our own....we had hoped that the ship would find us some free stuff, but I think that there may have been a communication breakdown! ? )
The M&M itself was in the Chamber and was packed! Lots of fun though-several prizes and a couple members of the activities staff were in attendance.
ENTERTAINMENT: Dave Chapman was the CD. I am not a person who is really affected by the CD one was or another. Dave was funny (his morning TV show was moderately funny) and seems to really enjoy his job. On the cruise prior to ours, he fell off the box during the belly flop competition into about 2 inches of water. I guess the box is fairly light and it started moving during a big wave, causing him to lose his balance! I also saw part of the Quest when they showed the Cruise in Review DVD during the farewell show. He seems to get really involved with that as well. He's really kind of nuts I would say!
As this was a long cruise, there were two ice shows, both of which were excellent. One of the days was changed due to the long port call in St. Thomas. Tickets will be distributed for the shows, so check your Cruise Compass so you don't miss out.
Only attended a couple of the headliner shows and they were pretty good. Frankly though, some of them were AFTER dinner, and I was basically ready for bed so I didn't get to all of them. But, as our substitute Captain Tor said, they are "well worth the price of admission!" THE WAY HOME: Let's just say that 20 foot swells and 50-60 MPH winds do not make for a pleasant sailing experience. Sure this is to be expected when cruising in the Northern part of the Atlantic in winter, but I just wanted to bring it to your attention. We were bouncy from say, the FLA-GA boarder all the way to the Hudson River. Captain Ryan did say that the seas would calm down by Thursday evening, which they did-to maybe 7-10 feet! Make sure to have some seasick meds if you are prone to turning green! Thursday was spent attempting to walk (not an easy task!) and packing. I should add that a good part of the day was spent in a horizontal position in a successful attempt to ward off, well...you know!!! ? Even several of the crew were sent to their cabins as they had turned a lovely shade of green!
At times, the waves hit the ship so hard that you would think we hit something! Captain Ryan even skipped the farewell show-I believe he stayed on the bridge! At one point, the comedian during the farewell show said that it felt like we hit a "pothole!"
"Disgusting": We again used wheelchair assist. Getting off wasn't really an issue.... HOWEVER, we waited at least 10 minutes off the gangway in the FREEZING cold for a bus! THAT was a mess! The wheelchair assist people get off the ship away from the rest of the passengers. While the other people are under a tent with some sort of heaters blowing, wheelchair guests get to FREEZE! Ricardo was at the bus area again and tried to get a bus, but the driver insisted upon skipping over to the other gangway! This was just poor traffic flow. Again, I blame Cape Liberty. We've sailed from there 3 times, but this was the worst! Once off the bus and into the terminal, we found a porter and our stuff quickly and headed for customs. US Customs and Immigration took all of 15 seconds this time! We then headed for the cab line. We wanted a taxi....as in a CAR! They stuck us into a minibus! Really NOT practical if you are mobility impaired. After some discussion, we worked out a solution, but that whole experience was a disaster. I guess it was actually RC's airport shuttle, but he did take us to the hotel. It was a bit cheaper; however, it was much more difficult than a regular cab. And the woman dispatching was very rude. There were 8 people on the bus-6 for EWR and us for a hotel. EVERYONE complained about her! I blame both Cape Liberty and RC for this disorganization. Last time it was pretty smooth.
I wasn't really paying attention to times, but we went to breakfast around 7:45 and made our way to the wheelchair assist area before 9. We were off the ship between 9:45 and 10. I had early tags but since we didn't have anywhere to get to in a hurry, I swapped them for later tags. In hindsight, I will stick with early! The express walk off began between 7:30 and 7:45 but passengers attempted to get to the gangway before the ship was cleared which really clogged the elevators. Several announcements were made for people to WAIT until the ship was cleared so as not to block the gangway area-and you could hear them in the cabin; however, hundreds of people chose to ignore that part! (However, once the express walk off was done, I don't think you could hear the announcements!)
In conclusion, this cruise was a lot of fun. We were ok with the adjusted itinerary and OBC. We did begin to tire of some of the food and I think that some tweaking of the menus is needed. Granted, they are feeding 3,000 people numerous times per day, but there has to be something that could be a little different.
We did book another cruise, but I am not sure if I will keep the booking. We will most likely move it to a different ship. I did have a lengthy conversation with Runi the LA and she said they are going to do something different with the C&A discount coupons. I also expressed to her that the non-combinability of discounts is annoying. (I do not have the RC Visa and do not want it, nor do I want to buy stock!) Hopefully they will do something better with the coupon booklets as well.
I do believe that there is no such thing as a bad cruise-especially when the alternative is being home in the cold. This one could have been a bit better. Twelve nights is a great length for a cruise though and when I look back on it all, we did get a great deal-lots of bang for the buck when I think about the Diamond discount and C&A coupon that I was able to use last year! We are definitely considering giving Princess a try-maybe Celebrity as well. Cruising is a great value for the money and we love Royal Caribbean. We do get lots of benefits as Diamond members, but the cutbacks are starting to show. Yes, I understand that in this economy, everyone needs to make sacrifices. However, if there are to be cutbacks, perhaps they should be less noticeable to the paying customer!
According to Captain Ryan, Explorer will be staying in Bayonne for at least the next year, which seems to contradict information previously reported. I for one would like another ship, and maybe some different itineraries. Sure, it's farther from Cape Liberty to the Caribbean but variety is the spice of life! It's nice to be able to drive to the pier in under 60 minutes and this ship generally sails full. Maybe RC will reconsider giving us a bigger ship! Now, off to plan the next one!
Thanks for reading! Happy sailing!