Having been on 1 cruise before (a Western Caribbean itinerary on the Radiance of the Seas 18 months ago), I was quite excited to be sailing with Royal Caribbean yet again on an even larger ship, and a longer cruise. My excitement paid off and we had a wonderful cruise.
Getting to the Port:
We flew on Air Canada Jazz from Toronto to Newark at 6:30am on June 11th. The flight was on time and very organized. From EWR, we took a taxi to Cape Liberty, which was a set fee of $48 plus tolls, which brought it to $51. Our driver even went out of his way to stop at a convenience store at no extra charge so that we could purchase some cases of soda to take onboard.
We arrived at the cruise terminal around 9:45am, and there was still a significant amount of traffic heading into and out of the cruise terminal as passengers from the previous cruise were still disembarking. Once we pulled up to the building though, it was smooth sailing. Our luggage was whisked away immediately, and after going through security, we were sitting in the large lounge with cookies, lemonade, water, and coffee awaiting check-in. Check-in began around 10:15am, and we had our sea-passes in hand shortly after, and waited another hour or so until the buses started running to take passengers to the ship. The bus ride was about 2 minutes, and we were quickly exploring the ship.
The Captain was Olav Nyseter from Norway, who we were told is the longest-serving captain with RCI. Cruise Director was Dave Chapman, and Hotel Director was Xavier Matthias. All of the employees on the ship were very helpful and friendly, and the service in general was great.
The ship is beautiful. I had read a lot about wear and tear being prominent around the ship, however I hardly noticed any at all. If I searched hard, I saw a couple areas where the carpets were a bit dull, but really, dull carpets did not make or break the cruise for us. The Royal Promenade was great, with multiple stores, bars, and the popular Cafe Promenade. The pools and surrounding areas were clean and well-kept, the Sports Deck looked brand new with a very clean mini-golf course, excellent in-line-skating area (even the rollerblades were in good condition), basketball court, and of course, the rock-wall. We enjoyed spending our sea-days at the Solarium pool, as it was much quieter and the chairs were more comfortable than at the main pool. Chairs were hard to come by at either pool anywhere in the shade after about 10am, but we usually woke up early to maximize our pool time, so this was not an issue for us.
The Propeller Status:
As most of you know, one of the ship's propellers was damaged in the winter after hitting some coral reef. It appears to have been fixed, as our itinerary was the first to be put back on the original itinerary. We made it to all of our ports on schedule, and the ship sailed at top-speeds of 22 knots. There were some vibrations at times which I don't recall feeling on our previous cruise on the Radiance, however it did not bother us (just our towel-bunny which was found shaking on the bed!).
We opted to save a bit of money and go with a promenade-view stateroom on deck 7 mid-ship. While I missed being able to see the weather outside before leaving our room for the day, the room was more than adequte. Yes, it was small, as most rooms are, but once we unpacked, we managed to find a spot for everything with leftover storage space to spare. The trick is to use all of the little cupboards and shelves. We didn't even need the over-the-door-shoe-hanger which we had forgotten to bring. Our bed-linens for the 2 twin beds were not worn-out as other reviews have stated, and the beds were comfortable, although a bit hard for our liking. We requested foam mattress-toppers, which were unavailable, however our cabin stewardess Mariana was able to put extra duvet's under our sheets, making the bed much softer and more comfortable. Mariana did a great job keeping our room clean, and we just left her notes whenever we needed anything. She even removed the items from the in-room-fridge and put them away on a top shelf so that we could use the fridge for our own beverages (which by-the-way made it to our room just fine with the luggage tag we attached). The air-conditioning worked great in the room, as did the hot water (it was even too-hot at times!). We just had a problem with the shower-head in the room spurting water in funny directions when in use, which was fixed quickly after a visit to Guest Relations. While I would prefer a balcony in order to check the weather and see the world outside, I did enjoy the window in the promenade room - it was great for people-watching, watching the parades on days 1 and 9, and just to see what was going on below us. Just remember to close the curtains when needed, as the rooms across can see in when they are open! Turn-Down Service was a nice-touch, and although there were no chocolates on our pillows at night, once again, this did not ruin our cruise - we hardly noticed it. We did however, receive towel animals each and every night!
The Explorer has a computer area on deck 8 where one can use the internet for $0.55/minute, or there are packages available with cheaper per-minute rates. You can also use the internet on your laptop in this area, or various other hotspots throughout the ship (i.e. the promenade, the solarium). I brought my netbook and was even able to pick up a signal in our room. I purchased the cheapest package for wireless, which was $28.00 and offered a per-minute rate of only $0.47. It was a little bit slow, but it worked just fine and served it's purpose for e-mailing home. The rates and packages for wireless internet and using the Explorer's computers are the same, so it's entirely up to the cruiser whether or not to bring their own computer. The convenience of being able to access the internet from our stateroom made bringing the laptop completely worth-it.
There were more activities each day than anyone could ever attend - something for everyone, from financial lectures to various dance classes and jewellery-making (sign-up early! we missed out because it was full already). Twice during the cruise there was a "Walk for Wishes", in which one could make a donation to the Make-a-Wish Foundation which grants wishes for seriously ill children. There were also signs around the ship advertising the opportunity to make a donation, however nobody was pressured into anything, nor were they looked at differently whether they took part or not. At various times throughout the cruise, the rock wall, ice skating rink, and in-line skating areas were open - check the cruise compass for the times, but be aware that the in-line-skating was closed when wet. Mini-golf was in great condition and was open all the time, as was the basketball court, table-tennis, etc. Board games and cards were available on deck 14 all the time, and were also in good condition. Various contests took place throughout the week, including the Men's sexy-legs contest, belly-flop, and "ultimate hunk" competition. There was also karaoke at various times throughout the cruise which ended in the "Karaoke Superstar" competiton in the Palace Theatre.
There has been recent talk about large cutbacks in live music, however this was not evident on our cruise. There was a lot of live music throughout the cruise, and this was all listed in the daily Cruise Compass. The pool band was out every day as well. The nightly shows were much better than our last cruise, and included some wonderful comedians (Miguel Washington and Jim Colliton), an impressionist (Scott Record), a singer (Hal Frazier), and some Royal Caribbean singers and dancers shows, including Invitation to Dance, which was choregraphed by Dancing with the Stars which was good, and some other shows which were just "okay". The ice-skaing show, Spirit of the Seasons was wonderful - there were 4 shows on 2 days throughout the cruise (days 4 and 8), all of which were the same. You just have to pick up your tickets in advance as listed in your Cruise Compass.
Food and Drink:
Bar Service was continuous around the pool areas, and you never had to wait long for a drink of your choice. The waiters were always walking around with trays of various drinks (including the drink of the day), and were happy to bring you any other beverages as well. There was also an abundance of bar service in the Palace Theatre, as well as Studio B.
Main Dining Room - We opted for My Time Dining this time around, quite excited that we could eat whenever we wanted. On the first night when leaving the dining room, we were asked by the hostess what time we would like to make reservations for the following evening. We replied that we were not sure as we wanted to look at the cruise compass first, and were told no problem, please call to make reservations once we did that. This set the tone for the rest of the cruise, on the fact that reservations are required in My-Time-Dining. We chose to eat at different times each night, which resulted in our being seated at different tables and with different waiters each night. While this did not bother us, it did create some inconsistencies as far as service was concerned. Mid-way through the cruise, we started requesting a window table, but did not receive it. On the second last night, the head-waiter Jacob told us that in order to get a table by the window, we would have to eat at 6pm or 7:30pm. We made reservations for 7:30 and showed up at 7:15 and got our window-table. The service was hit and miss with My Time Dining - sometimes it was very fast, while other times we had to wait for water and were never offered bread, or waited an hour for our entrees (on the last night). Despite the gaps in service, it was nice to eat alone each night, and the flexibility was worth it despite the fact we needed reservations. We sometimes had to wait for about 10 minutes to be seated if there were people in line ahead of us, but this just gave us time to read the posted menu.
The food in the Main Dining Room ranged from average to very good, and there was a good selection on most nights. There is also an "always available" menu consisting of grilled chicken, salmon, pasta, and steak for those who could not find anything they liked on the nightly menu. Some dishes worth trying include the caesar salad, chilled fruit soups, vegetarian samosas, Thai shrimp, and the eggplant mozzarella tower. The waiters were great, and if I couldn't decide what to order, they brought me one of each (this even resulted in 5 desserts one night as they all sounded delicious). I had read that the desserts in the MDR have been gelatinous, and I did not understand how cheesecake could be gelatinous, but now I do. Many of the desserts did have a bit of a jiggly consistency, but most were still good.
Breakfast is served daily in the MDR, and there was a good selection from eggs benedict to smoked salmon, omelettes, cereals, etc. We ate there for breakfast twice and enjoyed it both times despite the fact that the selection is not as big as in the Windjammer.
Lunch is served in the MDR on Sea Days, and consisted of various menu items (i.e. burgers, steak sandwiches, etc) as well as a very large, well-presented salad bar which consisted of about 8 types of lettuce/greens, various proteins including chicken, shrimp, beef, ham, cheeses, etc, and countless toppings from marinated mushrooms to roasted red peppers, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, corn, eggplant, and more, and a selection of dressings. All of this is prepared in front of you to your liking by the chefs.
Windjammer Buffet - We ate at the windjammer for most breakfasts, some lunches, and 1 dinner, and the food ranged from slightly below average, to very good. The breakfast selection is the best, with everything from a made-to-order omelette station, to french toast, pancakes, waffles, various cereals, yogurt, hashbrowns, breads, pastries, smoked salmon, etc. Lunch and afternoon snacks were adequate, with pastas, salad bar, make your own nacho's/taco's, burgers, fries (really good), pizza, sandwiches, and much more. The honey-stung chicken on the first day was not as good as I expected, but not bad either. Just a boneless, skinless, fried chicken breast. Dinner at the Windjammer was pretty good, with various salads, a make-your-own pizza station, make your own pasta or stir-fry station, sushi, etc. Oh and we can't forget the low-fat-frozen-yogurt machines located just outside the Windjammer beside the main pool - delicious! The machines are open from 11am-9pm daily.
Cafe Promenade - Open 24/7, the cafe has a variety of cookies and pastries, pizza, and sandwiches. They also have a self-serve coffee station with coffee, various teas, etc. There is also a Ben and Jerry's located there, as well as Seattle's Best Coffee. Ben and Jerry's pricing is not bad ($2.88 including 15% gratuity for a small scoop), however be forewarned, they do not allow sampling to determine which flavor you want.
Johnny Rockets - We ate here twice, and the food was great, as was the service - worth the $4.95 cover charge. The staff are wonderful, and whenever anyone comes in or out, everybody yells "HELLO" or "Bye-Bye". They bring fries and onion rings with onion dip and make a ketchup happy-face immediately upon being seated. Whatever you want to order other than drinks is included in the cover charge, so you can eat whatever you want. The burgers and desserts were great! Also if you are a Crown and Anchor member, there is a 2 for 1 milkshake coupon in the coupon booklet - be sure to use it!
Room Service - There is a pretty good Room Service menu, although we only used Room Service for breakfast on 2 early port days. Choices for breakfast include cereal, pastries, fruit, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, bacon, etc. The first time, the food did not arrive between 7 and 7:30am as requested, so we called down at 7:35 and we were told that they called and someone picked up and said they did not order room service. They must have called the wrong room since our phone had not rung. Our breakfast arrived shortly after, and they apologized for the mistake. The second time, we received our order even a bit early (6:55am) however we were missing one item. We called and told them and it arrived at our door 5 minutes later.
There have been some questions as to what's included as far as beverages go - iced tea, lemonade, coffee, tea, and water can be found at the Windjammer and MDR. Chocolate Milk and Milk are also free (you must ask for the chocolate milk in the Windjammer as it is kept behind the counter), as is Hot Chocolate which is located in Cafe Promande. Apple and Orange Juice are free with breakfast as well.
The ship was sailing filled to capacity, with guests ranging in age from infants, to young couples, to families, to seniors. Nobody felt out of place. The majority of people seemed to be from the area surrounding NJ (Ohio, NY, Boston, etc), although there were also guests from elsewhere in the US, Canada, England, etc.
Day 1 - Depart Cape Liberty at 5pm
Day 2 - At Sea
Day 3 - Kings Wharf, Bermuda (8am-5pm)
We purchased full-day bus/ferry passes for $12.00 per person from the booth on the pier (they also have tokens for 1 ride for $4) and took the bus from the Dockyard to Horseshoe Bay Beach. They added a large number of extra "Special" buses since our ship was in port, and these buses went directly to the beach. The driver was very friendly and helpful, as were all of the people in Bermuda. The beach was beautiful, although we did see about 4 or 5 Portugese Man-of-War get washed up on the beach. Apparently this is common at this time of the year, so be careful! They did seem to be doing a good job keeping them cleaned up though. We rented chairs for $10 each and dragged them down the beach to the left side to an area that was a bit less busy. Unfortunately it rained on and off all afternoon so we left the beach early, and headed back to walk around the dockyard, umbrella in hand.
Day 4 - At Sea
Day 5 - Philipsburg, St. Maarten (12pm-9pm)
Thanks to all of the recommendations on Cruise Critic, we booked a tour online with Bernard's Tours. We had Bernard as our guide and he took us along with another family and a couple all around the island, to Marigot on the French side, to Maho Beach to watch the planes land (and the people get blasted from the sand into the ocean when a large plane took off), and to Orient Beach (if you wish to avoid the nudity, stay on the left side of the rocks when facing the water). Bernard was great, had a cooler of soda, water, beer, and rum punch, and kept everyone happy. I highly recommend him. We then shopped around the port, which had quite a nice shopping area.
Day 6 - Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas (8am-6pm)
We got off the ship bright and early and took an open-air taxi to Magens Bay Beach for $8 per person. The ride was very scenic, particularly up in the mountains. At Magens Bay, the chair-rentals start at 9:30am, so we rented 2 chairs which I believe were $7 each and set them up in a nice shady spot under a palm tree. The beach is gorgeous with very calm water and fish that swim right around your feet (don't forget your camera!). Snorkel equipment is available for rent as well, and there are lifeguards along the beach. Unfortunately it started pouring rain there as well, so we took a taxi back to the ship in the late morning, had lunch, and took another taxi downtown for $4 per person to do some shopping. When it started pouring there, we went back to the ship and shopped a bit more. Luckily we had our umbrella's in hand.
Day 7 - San Juan, Puerto Rico (7am-2pm).
We booked The Original Canopy Tour through Royal Caribbean, and had a wonderful time. Our bus driver was hilarious and kept everyone happy on the way there and back, and the staff were all very accomodating and professional. There were 8 zip-lines and an assisted rapell, and there were staff members there every step of the way hooking everyone on and off of the zip-lines and safety-lines. There were drinks available for purchase at the end of the tour, however I would strongly recommend bringing a bottle of water with you (in some sort of holder or cross-body purse or small back-pack) as the hike uphill at the beginning of the course is extremely long and strenuous, especially in the heat. There was not only a very steep paved road that we had to walk up from the bus, there was a hike uphill on a path in the forest to get to the first platform... be very careful going up and down - it's not easy!. After our zip-lining (which was worth the hike!), we were dropped back at the ship (at pier 3), and walked up the street to Old San Juan to do some shopping at the Coach Outlet. Of course it started pouring rain here too, so back to the ship we went! Be sure to stay outside during sail-away from San Juan - there are amazing views of the forts on the way out!
Day 8 - At Sea
Day 9 - At Sea
Day 10 - Arrive in Cape Liberty at 8am
After waking up at 5am to watch the sunrise and watch as we went under the Verrazano Bridge, we ate breakfast in the Windjammer and then just sat and people-watched until we arrived in Bayonne right on schedule. We had requested the last departure time due to a late-afternoon flight, and we were off the ship at 10:30am. We had to wait quite a while for a taxi back to EWR which wound up being a taxi-bus with many other people, but the cost was lower, at $14 per person. We arrived at the airport around 11:15am.
We flew Continental back home from EWR to Toronto. Unfortunately we had a terrible experience with a lack of ticket agents to assist us at the airport, and an extremely long line at security, and we didn't make it through to our gate until 1:30pm. I'm not sure that I would fly Continental again despite the great price we received. Luckily our flight left on time and our luggage made it home with us!
All in all, we had a wonderful cruise, with the exception of the rain on 8/10 days, which is no fault of Royal Caribbean. We will probably cruise with Royal Caribbean again in the future, and despite the slow service in My Time Dining, we would likely go that route again simply for the flexibility. I'd highly recommend the Explorer of the Seas!