My DH and I traveled on the Explorer of the Seas on the 09/26/09 cruise to Bermuda leaving out of NJ. We had GS #1552 on the 10th floor (forward).
Profile: Husband/Wife in 40s, upper middle class, 1st time traveling without children (teenagers), two other cruises on Carnival only (Most recent: 08/2007), first RC cruise, picky but reasonable traveler.
GRAND SUITE REVIEW and amenities Grand Suite (GS) was wonderful, spacious, clean, airy. The GS amenities were nice. This is our 1st time booking a suite. I am surprised that RC doesn't better publish all of the amenities: The obvious... of course the room size is bigger, you have a large balcony with 2 chairs and one lounger, bathroom is very large and includes a tub, concierge lounge including free cocktails in the evening (5-8:30), pressed clothes on formal night. We didn't know until on board that we could order in room service from the main Dining Room (MDR) menu (vs Windjammer in a regular room) and that Portifinos is reserved from 8:00-2:00 for suite guests to eat in. This was a very nice option if you don't want to take the time to be waited on in the MDR for breakfast or lunch but find the Windjammer crowded, loud and hectic. You can help yourself to the food in the Windjammer and simply cross through to Portifinos (next door) to eat in a nicer, quieter setting. We read that suite guests get priority seating and saw some confusion on line if this was actually the case. It appears that you need to ask at the venues. We did that at the (fabulous) Ice Show and were escorted to a roped off area to prime seating with more legroom. But if we hadn't asked, we wouldn't have known about it as its discrete. The survey forms referenced reserved lounge chair seating (we don't know where this was but could have been a nice benefit). FYI - at the Ice Show, they removed the ropes and open any remaining seats in these areas about 5 minutes before the show began. This is possibly what lead to the confusion - depending on what time you arrive.
CARNIVAL vs ROYAL Royal: (+) Shows are WAY more professional, entertaining. Ice Show is a must! (-) Food quality in MDR was not exceptional but fine. I felt that Carnival Dining had better selection and food quality overall. (+) Guests were cordial, patient, and polite on the Explorer. Note: I read one of the reviews about lack of courtesy on Explorer with NY/NJ guests as we left out of Cape Liberty. We found our fellow guests to be courteous and friendly. Now, our previous Carnival cruises were in the summer months with a lot more (both) parents/children with conduct issues and this cruise had mostly couples or families with very young children. (+) Room size and layout were larger than expected. We arrived on board at 12:30 and took the opportunity to walk in the cabin areas and see the insides of the various rooms. I was surprised and how large the regular balcony rooms were and I think its nice to have the option on the inside cabins with the windows overlooking the promenade. We also checked out the suites up (in size) from ours. I actually was happy that we didn't pay THAT much as our GS suites were perfect for our needs (2 people). (+) the activities were diverse, fun, interesting, and well executed. I dragged my DH to the Day 5 Cooking Demonstration that we thought would be on cooking but was more about comedy that included a cake. Hilarious! Explorer also offered way more physical activities for the kids than our previous Carnival cruise. Our kids would have enjoyed that.
Carnival: More inclusive on price. RC found a lot more opportunities to try and charge you more. I think its ridiculous to charge me for the cruise and then want to charge me $15 at dinner for a better cut of meat when you also offer restaurants with $20 seating charges. Also, I selected the (strawberry) Lava Flow at Dizzys for $6.75. The waiter advised that it came in raspberry or mango as well. I ordered the raspberry and got a bill for $10+. It turns out the raspberry costs a couple dollars more which we weren't advised. I also think its a mistake for RCI to precharge me for tips (My Time Dining and Suite Stewart). The service was fine. On Carnival I found the service to be outstanding. That may be the difference.
Our other cruises were on ships that had been out for a number of years. Both lines put forth a phenomenal amount of effort in upkeep and cleanliness. While I have read critical remarks about the Explorer's wear-and-tear. I personally am MORE impressed that it looks so well maintained than disappointed at seeing a few shabby spots. They are going to dry dock in Jan 2010.
BERMUDA We didn't understand why so many fellow cruisers that we spoke to were returning for the same (Bermuda) cruise. I personally have been to a number of other islands and while nice, I wouldn't actively seek to return.... until I visited Bermuda. I am so impressed with the people of Bermuda. They are so genuinely friendly (versus 'we make money from the tourists so we will tolerate them' friendly). My husband and I like to try and get off the beaten path and brought our own gear but rented (pedal) bikes and took the Rail Trail. That in itself was the adventure! As the trail was a previous train track we incorrectly assumed it was continuous (for the most part). The trail is a beautiful way to the see the island but broken in MANY spots and lacks sufficient and well placed signs. This required asking repetitively for directions. Islanders went above-and-beyond to help us. They are a proud, kind, and happy people.
TIP: While we had planned to bike up to St Georges (appox 25 miles) we altered our plans, rode into Hamilton (approx 12 miles), and took the ferry back to the ship on the orange line ferry directly in front of the ship. They allow you to take pedal bikes on this ferry. We went to return to Hamilton later in the afternoon (5:00ish) and realized the orange line stops running around that time. We didn't realize that the blue line is just around the inlet and runs every 30 minutes up to 7:00ish.
MONEY SAVING TIP: A free walking tour of Hamilton is offered starting at the Hamilton Information Center at the Hamilton docks at 10:30 and 2:30 on Mondays, Wed, Fridays.
St Georges - We heard the caverns/caves was great along with the horse and buggy ride in St Georges. We did the St George trolley and were very disappointed.
We aren't big beach people but come on, you can't go to Bermuda and not see the beaches! So, even though we were leaving port at 5pm and had to be on the ship at 4:30 we left via taxi for Horseshoe Beach via Taxi at 2:30. We had a GREAT taxi driver - Frank Barbosa (Like Pirates of the Caribbean). He took us to the beach and then offered to wait the 30 minutes we had to enjoy the beach. It was nice he didn't charge us then for the trip to the beach as we really didn't have to worry about his changing his mind and leaving. Then he turned off the meter and waited while we swam in the ocean and had some time to walk on the beach. In fact we had a few moments to stop at the top of the entrance to the beach for a margarita. He was knowledgeable and happy to share his knowledge of the island with us. If we had to do it again we would have taken a taxi as a tour of the island. He advised they were all individually owned (no cab companies). We were glad that we didn't just do the Snorkel Park at the Dockyard (too touristy and we heard it was actually near the sewer/waste elimination tube).