London Heathrow T5 was packed! As was our BA 777. A good flight over to EWR on the Saturday before our cruise. After a 45m wait in line for the cheerful chappies at immigration we picked up our luggage and went down one level and out to bus stop #5 to wait for the Marriott Shuttle bus. We could see the hotel - just the other side of the parking lot - DH wanted to walk but I figured out there would be some sort of obstruction. The bus that runs every 15 minutes arrived after 20. The hotel is like every Marriott we have ever stayed in, and we were quickly checked into a room on floor 10 - looking straight across the parking lot back at the #5 bus stop. It would have been possible to walk, so long as you crossed the road by the toll booths. I wouldn't like to do it with luggage. Hotel was clean and our floor looked recently refurbished - new carpet and new bathroom tiles. The concierge lounge didn't open on Saturdays according to the sign on the door. After dumping the luggage we set off for the Mall. Using EWRs extensive efficient system of the free hotel shuttle busses, we caught the Marriott bus to P4 which seems to be the hotel shuttle bus meeting point and then we caught the Elizabeth Courtyard by Marriott shuttle which takes you to a hotel right opposite the Jersey Gardens Mall. The mall is large, with a wide range of shops. We got some very good deals on children's clothes, but did notice that with the collapse of the £$ that prices were in general much higher than last year, and this was not going to be a cheap holiday as we usually have in the USA. Then with jet-lag catching us up we collapsed into Chilis's for a meal. This is a special treat for us as we don't have Chilis in England. Sad but true.
Sunday The following morning, instead of paying $17 for the Marriott breakfast we just got coffee and blueberry muffins from their small Starbucks concession in the lobby. At 10 we checked out. We had prebooked a car with Black Car Transportation LLC www.blackexecutivecars.com - they were there waiting with a huge SUV! $45 set rate to the port of Bayonne, which considering the traffic was very good. I would recommend them. The port of Bayonne looks like something out of WW2 - a single road in, with rubble on either side, a slow moving line of traffic but we eventually dropped off the cases at 11.20. The port was already crowded, and there was little room in the Platinum/Suite check in. At 12.30 they finally started boarding. Although the check in is probably only 100yards from the ship you have to board a shuttle bus. Onboard Explorer looked in good shape. The staff always seemed to be polishing, painting or replacing during our whole trip. She was pretty full with 3209 passengers on board. Fewer than 100 children I would say. The rooms ready at 1.30. Our 3 suitcases were outside our door already. Impressed. We had an Aft JS #1394. A large room - I would say about 27' x 12' - there was a large sofa, two arm chairs, and a glass coffee table. The curtain divider between bed and sofabed was about 2ft so not good for sharers unless you were really close. The main feature of this room though was a huge balcony of 12ft square. The balcony had two loungers, two chairs and a proper height table on it. It was totally covered so we got very little sun. We were parallel with the highest row of the 'superstructure' at the back of these ships, so we could clearly see over it - and it didn't impair our view. The ceiling was very high - about 14' which made it very echo-y - so be careful of what you say (or do) as your neighbors will hear. The wall to the left was solid metal, so we only had the dividers to our right side. Our neighbors on either side were also from England. There were a lot of Brits on this ship (855 according to the CD)
Being a JS there was a bath tub, with a flappy curtain, but this one behaved itself and didn't try and get to close and personal with you. The newly announced perks for suite guests meant a few changes - this included a tray of bathroom products 'Inspired by Nature' displayed on a nice dish. We had bathrobes and our seapass cards were silver, clearly printed to show we were in a JS and that we were Platinum members. The TV had an interactive menu where you could order room service, see your account so far (dangerous) or watch pay movies. These cost $12.95 and included quite recent releases like Quantum of Solice, Changeling and Slumdog Millionaire. There was also a kettle, two china mugs and a selection of teas (no coffee) which we never used. The hairdryer was in the top right drawer of the first dressing table (we had 2!). It was the sort where you keep your finger on the button to make it go. We got CNN news for a few days otherwise it was just FOX news channel, plus the usual shopping, shore excursion channels and a few movies such as Shrek. There was ample storage with the walk in wardrobe with 24 coat hangers, and 6 shelves. There was a tall cupboard with 5 shelves, 10 other various drawers and of course the hidden small shelves behind the glass mirrors.
We sailed at 5, it was a dry overcast day but still got great views of the Manhattan skyline and it is always fun seeing if we can squeeze under the V Bridge.
One of the first things we did when we boarded was sign up for MyTimeDining. We had registered in England but apparently this had not been communicated to the ship. One small section of the deck 5 dining room was set aside for this and it seemed to be popular. We requested a table for 2 at 7:45. We were sat at a table for 2 at 7:45. Our waiters greeted us by name, the food appeared freshly prepared and was always hot. We had friends doing Traditional dining and they said they sent their food back a few times for being cold. We were being ambassadors for MTD telling everyone we spoke to how good it was! Martina was the MTD hostess. Apparently after April 19th it is going to be expanded to the whole 5th floor of the dining room. There were 140 signed up for our cruise and we were told that they had assigned their best waiters to this to ensure great service. One night we didn't make a reservation just to check out the time we had to wait for a table - it was about 25 seconds - so either way MTD was a winner for us. An early night. No towel animals and no chocolates on the pillow.
Monday. The Atlantic was like a pond for our whole trip down. The skies were sunny by around 10.30. We breakfasted in the MDR where the 'rules' say you must have Eggs Benedict. Service was slow, and our table mates were miserable. No offering of toast, no jam ready on the table, and I am glad to say they seem to have stopped the buffet display for breakfast in the MDR so it is waiter service only. The CC M&M was held in the Chamber. A good turn out of over 70 people I would guess. Unfortunately, there was no senior members of crew, no Q&A session, just a few prizes (the winners were people who I can't remember having posted…typical). After this we did a small gift exchange. It was good to put faces to names, and real names to screen names! The weather in the afternoon got murky. We went to a trivia quiz and didn't do well. (FYI: Michelangelo spent 4 years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) Formal night - I would say over 65% of men were in full tuxedo, We even had a few kilts. The rest were in suits. No smoking that night in the Casino either. Again our table was ready at 7:45 - you just reserve the time you want each day. The Filet of Beef was probably the most tender I have ever tasted. Again hot and freshly prepared. After dropping $25 in the casino, we ended the first full day with a few Bellini Sunsets in the Champagne Bar. Stingray towel animal tonight.
Tuesday A beautiful sunny warm day. The CD Mike was not as 'in-your-face' as some of the other CDs we have had, but we realized he was an amusing, (dishy) Australian with a dry sense of humor! We also started to realize that there were a few subtle changes -there seemed to be fewer announcements, and they were always asking if the food was ok and to our liking and inviting us to feed back any comments. This could be asking for trouble with the whining Brits on board ("It's not like P&O…") I spent the morning in the Solarium, Quiet and more importantly child free. The sun was hotter than I thought so I was soon a painful lobster color, as were a lot of other people too. There is the new reserved seating area for suite guests - this is on the stairs either side of the Pool Bar - so looking straight onto the main pool, with the noise of the music, the competitions, the line dancing lesions….some of the worst seats in the house IMHO - so no thanks, not for me - I'll stick to the Solarium. Not that JS guests are allowed to use this area anyway…. There seemed to be a proliferation of new Pool attendants in luminous yellow jackets, I guess they are there to remove the chair hogger towels, as we always were able to get a seat in the Solarium it seems to be working. You sign out for your towels giving your room number, but they don't check this off when you return them so I don't see how they can monitor this. At 10:30 we did a CC Cabin Crawl, which was great fun to see all the different rooms from inside to ocean view to balcony to suite - I have no idea how the girls in the Grand Suite organized to have a whale jumping outside their balcony, but they did! Amazing to see nature like this. Our strenuous activity for the day consisted of a round of mini-golf. The course seems to be also in good repair. DH signed up to the internet - it was very easy to do and cost $38 for 90mins. We had the C&A Welcome Back party at 5:15 - apparently there are 1400 repeat cruisers on board. The Captain said a few words -mostly how excited they were about Oasis (I read the subtext to mean "Have you booked it yet..") The show that evening was the Las Vegas Tenors, they were great singers. We dropped by another quiz, and based on our success of yesterday helped out with a few questions (FYI: the original Star Trek mission was 5 years) As we were dining late in Portofinos we deposited $140 into Wheel of Fortune and walked away with $141. Mustn't spend all those winnings at once. Portofinos was excellent as usual. A towel bat hanging over the bed.
Wednesday A beautiful sunny hot day. We were due to dock at 3pm. Our day consisted of Breakfast, read book, lunch, read book, watch sail-in, and then disembark for some shopping and some margaritas' at Senor Frogs. We had been to San Juan before and it was very much as we remembered it. Silversea's Silver Cloud was also in port - little and large! We had a great dinner in a small restaurant close to the ship called Toro Salao. Were fast asleep long before sailaway at midnight. Towel doggie tonight.
Thursday We docked at Havensight in St Thomas. Crown Princess was docked over the otherside of the headland in Crown Bay Pier. Lots of shops near our port, but we had booked a tour with Godfrey for $25pp www.godfreytoursvi.com - a large open sided bus that seated 20. We were taken to the pretty town of Charlotte Amalie first for a stroll around the shops - diamonds, watches, more diamonds, more watches…then we went on an island tour. I did try on some 1.5ct diamond earrings, but to be honest, I feel that I can get a better deal with the clarity, caret and prices in Dubai. DH did buy a digital underwater camera in about 5 minutes flat. It is an Olympus 550WP which cost $199. We will find out if this is a good deal when we get home. It does take good pictures though! On the tour Godfrey was very informative and knowledgeable and we would happily recommend him. Only 6 of us on the bus wanted to spend time on the beach so he took us to Coki Beach. Beautiful clear water, and good snorkeling. A bit crowded. We paid $20 for two beach chairs and an umbrella, for that price I thought we got to take them home with us! Just as we were driving back to port there was a large ship pulling in - it turned out to be Celebrity Solstice (she had a medical emergency on board which caused her unscheduled stop), but - what a stunning sight. She docked right behind us. We have her sister-ship Celebrity Eclipse booked for next September so it was fun trying to spot our room. We had asked some friends round for drinks at sailaway. We asked for two bottles of wine, six glasses, 6 beers and 3 cheeseplates. The wine and two glasses arrived spot on time but the beer, cheese and the remaining glasses were 30 minutes late which I wasn't very happy with. The sun shone on our balcony for the first time this cruise and it was a beautiful sailaway. The show tonight was David Morgan and 'Chucky' - normally I hate ventriloquists but this guy was very very funny (or was it Chucky the duck that was funny…?). There was a 'dancing under the stars' pool buffet and party tonight. We were asleep long before that. Towel elephant is my favorite so far.
Friday Adventure of the Sea was also in Philipsburg port - a twin sister of Explorer. It was like cruise-ship-canyon walking between the two. We had arranged a car hire with Budget which cost $72. The car hire place is immediately to the right as you exit the pier. It was pretty immediate to us that we didn't like St Maarten nearly as much as St Thomas. We drove first to Marigot on the French side. The French side was much better than the Dutch side - the roads were maintained for a start! Then we went over to Orient Beach. Beautiful sand, large waves, but with what seemed like 1,000 people there, it was far too crowded for us. So back to Grand Case - now this was more like it. A charming street full of restaurants and a fantastic calm beach. We had a superb lunch at a lo-lo called Skies the Limit. A lol-lo seems to be a locally run café where the food is grilled for you over open drums. Very simple. The garlic shrimp was delicious and came with rice and beans, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, home made potato salad, home made coleslaw, fried plantain, and broccoli!. All for $12. Then we drove down to Maho to catch the planes. This beach was also very rough, I guess it was on the Atlantic side of the island again, so no swimming for us at all today. Maho is at the end of the runway. Literally. It is a great picture opportunity to watch the planes land over your head! After such a healthy (!) lunch we decided to pig out at Johnny Rockets that night. Burgers and chips and onion rings. Yum yum. After dropping $70 in Wheel of Fortune (not even one blinking 'spin') we couldn't decide if it was a rooster or a peacock towel tonight.
Saturday Today was Dominica. We had a private tour booked with Antours for $45pp via www.antours.dm. A chap by the name of HenryFord met us at 9am from the pier and took us on a 6hr tour of this very interesting different verdant island. We visited Trafalgar Falls and the Emerald Pond, ate local fruit and saw black sand beaches. At last we felt like we were in the 'real' Caribbean - not a Diamonds International to be seen anywhere. It costs $1 to use the bathrooms at all the major sights so have some change ready. Apparently it rains 350 days a year up in the rain forest - we must have hit one of the 15 days as we were very lucky with the weather. Yet another beautiful day. After a few local beers we returned to the ship in time for our second C&A party - this time for Platinum and above at 5:15. We did get canapés this time. A second formal night. CD Mike must have made the kangaroo towel.
Sunday Barbados today and the trip I had been looking forward to the most - swimming with turtles. We had booked via www.shasacatamaran.com for $60pp for a 3hr swim. This company is run by a charming husband/wife couple named Jason and Tess. Tess met us at the pier. There were only 4 of us on the trip. She drove us down the coast a way pointing out fantastic villas, condos and the famous Sandy Lane hotel (where Simon Cowell stays - he wasn't there…!). The big bonus about this catamaran is that Jason actually puts up the sails and we sail her, not just motoring, There was ample beer, soda and rum punch if we wanted. We sailed to a spot where there was a sunken wreck and lots of fish, and then on to where the turtles were. He pointed out the ships tours - which can take up to 145 people. Yuck. We had the most fantastic relaxing day under the sails, and I would highly recommend them. The Windsurf was the only other ship in port. That night was a comedy show by Wilde and James - very very funny indeed. They are comedy jugglers but this description doesn't do them justice. The towel was rabbit shaped tonight.
Monday Talk about saving the best to last! Antigua was just beautiful. Sea Princess, Fred Olsen's Boudicca and Sea Cloud were also in port so it was pretty crowded. As we had been told we were docking at 10am we had breakfast on our balcony, but we were in by 8.30. We had another tour prebooked with www.tourguidegordon.com. Our guide for the day was Abe. The other party never showed so it was just the two of us for the day. He charged $40pp and $5pp for the National Park entrance. This is a lovely island, and one that we would happily return to. We had an airconditioned van, with a supply of cold drinks and beer. He even got us chicken wings and chips (that is crisps for the English readers) for our lunch. Abe took us round the sights, Nelsons Dockyard was fascinating, and then to Long Bay for our last swim in the Caribbean! It was very shallow and the water was crystal clear. At the port there is the main street (with blinking Diamonds International) but if you head to the right there is a small boardwalk with a much nicer, more charming selection of smaller shops and cafes. There was a Mad Hatters party with buffet by the pool. We got a towel frog.
Tuesday The first of our 3 sea days. A noticeable change in the weather with overcast skies and about 6' waves. Some people were already lurching from side to side and there were 'barf bags' on each staircase! Personally I like the slight rocking motion. We had breakfast in the MDR again, and then spent a lazy day on our balcony. The benefit of being at the aft is that it was totally sheltered so no wind at all. DH accessed the internet again, fast connection and he was magnanimous enough to allow me 15 mins on it too. We skipped lunch in readiness for another dinner at Portofino. The steak was to die for! It was delicious. This was followed by a successful night in the casino where we won $204 on roulette. The towel dinosaur pushed the elephant out the running to be my favorite of the trip so far.
Wednesday Second sea day and still a bit 'wobbly'. We went to two trivia quizzes and yet again didn't do very well. (FYI Roger Moore is in 7 James Bond films; and the country with the most hurricanes is Japan) Formal night followed by a group called The Happenings. They had hits back in the 60's - hand on heart I can honestly say I have never heard 'See you in September' before but the more senior members of the audience seemed to enjoy them. Another towel monkey.
Thursday The final day - time to do everything we haven't done. Or perhaps not. I went to the spa for a sauna and a steam. DH caught up with more email. We packed, and we generally lazed around. It was really rough and rainy outside.
Disembarking on Friday was a bit of a slow chore. We had a time of 9:15 and we finally were off by 10:15. Our car was waiting and we went on our way.
Food and Drink This is a very subjective matter, but generally the food was very good. There were days when I just felt like I couldn't face another mouthful though! As mentioned before it was always hot and freshly prepared. Outstanding mention must go to the Vidalia Onion Tart (of course), fillet of beef on day two which was very tender, the lamb t-bone osso buco style where the meat just fell off the bone, the lovely spicy vegetable samosas, the pad thai, the roast turkey and finally the bread pudding with chocolate sauce If you get a chance try all of the above! The Asian selection in the WJ was also always very good, with sushi in the evenings. People always question the drinks prices - well our final bill was just under $1000which wasn't bad IMO for 12 nights bearing in mind we had a bottle of wine each night, and always a few drinks before and after dinner. Specifics: a diet coke is $2.24, two Coronas are $11.60, and a pint of Miller Lite is $5.75, a Mango MaiTai is $6.61, a Martini is $9.20. A very drinkable bottle of La Terre Pinot Grigio is $26.45 - all prices quoted include the 15% grats. In the duty free shop 200 Marlboro Lite ciggies were $23.95 A litre of Gordons gin was $9.95 as was a litre of Stoly Vodka.
The ship cruised at 20 knots for the whole time, as we were at the back we saw no evidence or felt odd vibrations or jerky movements caused by her poorly propeller. We had 9 straight days of calm seas and sunshine, and saw no rain at all for the entire cruise until the last afternoon.
If we had to put our ports of call into order of favorites then it would be Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, St Thomas, St Maarten and then San Juan.
A List of No's (not all 'no's' are bad) Chocolate on pillows at turndown Daily newspaper sheets Smoking in the Royal Promenade at all - not even in the Pub Smoking in the Casino on formal nights Hand sanitizers at the restaurants Trays in the WindJammer (I know they haven't been there for years but I miss them) Canapes for us at the C&A party Buffet in the MDR at breakfast Baked beans at breakfast in MDR (it is an English thing). I did find some hidden in WJ under the Asian Jade section though. Bridge Cam on the TV so you can see where you are going
Day/Dress/Entertainment Sunday Day 1/CasualWelcome Aboard Show with Ed Regine Monday Day 2/Formal/Fast Forward Tuesday Day 3/Smart Casual/Las Vegas Tenors Wednesday Day 4 San Juan/Casual/Movie: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Thursday Day 5 St Thomas/Casual/David Morgan and Chucky, Blades ice show Friday Day 6 St Maarten/Casual/Caribbean/Vibeology Saturday Day 7 Dominica/Formal/Bill Fellows Sunday Day 8 Barbados/Smart Casual/Wilde and James Monday Day 9 Antigua/Casual/Invitation to Dance Tuesday Day 10/Casual/Cabaret Showtime, Spirits of the Seasons ice show Wednesday Day 11/Formal/The Happenings Thursday Day 12/Casual/Jeff Harms
OK, so we never made it to the ice shows, or the production shows, we never went to Bingo, or the art auctions, the enhancement lectures, or the late night pool parties, or the Love and Marriage game show, or Quest……but we relaxed, read books on our beautiful balcony and had a fabulous cruise. We will be cruising again with RCI in September for our 9th cruise (where we will be Diamond!) - so they must be doing something right!