We are two single women in our 60s who just returned from our 14th cruise (in four years) with RCI. Yes, we love RCI because it always delivers for us in predictable ways. This cruise was especially anticipated as it followed two major surgeries. In July I had a hip replacement, followed by infection and a second surgery in August. So when Oct. 1 finally arrived, I was ready to roll. What a way to get back to life!
We drove from Williamsburg, Virginia to New Jersey a day early and enjoyed a pleasant six-hour trip, with a stop in Baltimore's Inner Harbor for lunch. Our New Jersey accommodations were at the Newark Liberty International Marriott located in the Newark Airport loop (about 15 minutes from the cruise port). We paid $159 for a no cancellation room (not a big deal since we always purchase trip insurance) and a $25 parking fee (expensive, but worth it for a full service hotel with all the amenities, so need to leave the hotel). Our top floor room allowed us to watch the planes coming in for landing and taking off. We were even able to see a very distant, wee Statue of Liberty through our camera's zoom lens. The hotel had a comfortable lounge with pub menu, an elegant steak house, and an Italian restaurant which was featuring a wonderful whole lobster dinner ($25) the night we arrived. It really put us in the mood for more lobster to come in the New England and Canadian ports. We felt very safe parking our car in the hotel lot (secured) as well as moving about the hotel. We slept like babies, thanks to sound proof windows and plush beds. This hotel is primarily for business travelers, but we did see cruisers later on the ship who had been at the hotel. We would readily stay at this hotel again.
Prior to arriving in NJ, we had initial anxiety about driving to Cape Liberty from our hotel. There were a number of highways to negotiate, road construction, poor signage as well as possible port confusions for dropping off luggage and parking in the extended stay parking lot (secured; $19/ day). This anxiety was totally unfounded. Several posters on the Cruise Critic East Coast Departure board and Meet and Mingle Board gave us very clear directions and precautions. They were so clear we hardly needed our auto navigational system. We left the hotel around 10 AM. We stopped leisurely to take photos on Terminal Boulevard near the cruise ship. The new golf course (links style) was clearly visible and was the site of the Fed Ex playoff tournament last month. National TV coverage of that tournament captured the Explorer of the Seas in its stately departure from Cape Liberty as it approached and narrowly (!) cleared the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. It was incredible to watch and to imagine that soon we would be on board ourselves. In fact, when we reached the terminal after our photo stop, we were unloaded, parked and sitting the the Diamond/ D+ departure lounge by 11 AM waiting for transportation to boarding. It couldn't have been easier. We want to send special thanks to you who gave us guidance.
Embarkation was uneventful, as I think it should be. A luncheon party on the Explorer briefly delayed boarding, but we were able to sit comfortably. Coffee, juice and pastries were provided. We were then called to begin boarding the shuttle buses that would transport us the short (really short) ride to the ship. I should mention for those who may have trouble with making a fairly high step to board a bus (as I did)--this is where you may encounter a problem. When we were told we could begin boarding the bus, there was a terrific rush of people to the bus door. Stampede may be a more appropriate word. But two kind people helped me up, and away we went. We boarded the ship before noon and were soon seated in the Windjammer with its bountiful buffet.
After lunch we checked in with My Time Dining (entrance to the Main Dining Room on Deck 5) to schedule our dinner for the next two nights (thereafter scheduled daily). After countless cruises where we have been paired up with people with whom we have little in common and must search for conversation, we prefer a table for two. We are very social people and love to meet new friends. We simply like to choose them ourselves. We also abhor a 5:30 or 8:30 dining time. On the Explorer we were given several choices of times for a table to 2. We usually selected 7:10 or 7:30 PM. There was never a wait and we usually had a table by or near a window. Our main waiter was Glen (table 612), who exceeded our expectations each night with his charm, eagerness to please and expert service. I have read that Explorer had issues with MTD earlier, but none was evident on our cruise.
We booked a D1 cabin, 9620, on the middle of the hump, port side. The convenience of this location could not be improved. We were steps from the elevators, which delivered us to immediate access to the dining rooms, Windjammer, lounges, Guest Services/ Promenade and other centrally located areas of the ship. After many cruises in the D1 cabin, we have learned to accommodate ourselves to the smallness of the room. The closet space is adequate. The bathroom comfortable for one. The shower claustrophobic. Perhaps my biggest issue with RCI cabins is the inability to curtain off the beds from the TV and sitting area, so that if one person wants to sleep she does not have TV glare to contend with. Our cabin steward was Raymond ("everybody loves Raymond" he said and he was right) who answered our every wish and maintained the cabin spotlessly. He left us delightful towel animals every night. Explorer is scheduled for dry dock in January and I would except some renewal would be in the works for the cabins. Newer flat screen TVs would be nice. Although having said that, there was nothing about my room that would prevent me from traveling the Explorer again. In fact, I intend to book another cruise shortly. The cabins simply show their age, but they also show good maintenance. The public rooms, I should add, were quite beautiful.
The dreaded 4:30 muster was no longer uncomfortable and interminable. For now we were able to find our stations sans life jackets, assemble, mingle, joke, and watch the inevitable late-comers,stroll to their stations. The instructions were thankfully brief. RCI has a winner in this new policy. And like children released from school, once the muster ended, we were off to our favorite sail away location. Sail away! what can be better? We headed to Dizzy's to find and match faces with names from our Meet and Mingle discourse over the past months. This is one of many benefits of Cruise Critic which allows us to connect immediately with each other. All in the environment of pulling away from the pier, heading out to sea, and the joy of cruising. If you haven't been in Dizzy's approaching the Verrazano, sailing under those girders and narrowly clearing, all the while engaged in excited conversation, snapping photos, sipping a beverage, and feeling all your cares slip away, then you need to book the Explorer. It's different.
The Explorer offered a remarkable variety of activities and entertainment throughout all levels of the ship and throughout the day and night. For one who simply wanted to read and watch the ocean, I found myself doing very little reading. There was so much to do. If reading is your choice, however, head to the Viking Lounge (Dizzy's) early because it is a hot spot for readers and ocean dreamers (and nappers) during the day. The Ice Show, as usual on the big ships, was excellent. The casino was kind to me. The parades were wonderful. I cannot speak to the theater entertainment. The nightly music in the Aquarium Lounge was fantastic. We had cold, rainy weather most days and the outside decks were not much in use, although I was highly impressed to see one older guy climb the rock wall to the top and ring the bell! The inside activities were well attended and fun--captain's talk, cooking demo, arts and crafts, bingo (!), trivia, you name it!!!
We had cruisers from diverse locations. The US was represented by seemingly a lot of people from the West Coast, not simply the East Coast and Northeast, as I had expected. Royal Caribbean dress suggestions were adhered to imperfectly. On formal nights most of us looked good, but not necessarily formal. I didn't know what to make of the man who came to the main dining room on formal night in a football jersey and jeans. He seemed an effrontery to the rest of us. During the day on sea days, dress standards ranged from resort casual to sloppy. On shore days and rainy days, jeans and sneakers and raincoats predominated. I understand and appreciate Royal Caribbean's continued publication of its dress codes (formal; smart casual; casual) as an attempt to encourage some sort of dress behavior on board for the benefit of us all, but I wish there would be some enforcement to prevent blatant disregard (such as the football jersey) at dinner. I know this is a controversial issue, with opinions as diverse as the people who cruise.
We are Diamond cruisers who enjoyed Diamond benefits for a brief three cruises before they were rescinded. RCI offers in their stead a nightly Diamond event in the 19th Hole (Deck 14 behind Dizzy's), which featured free wine and champagne and cocktails at a 25% discount. This is a smaller lounge with a wall of glass windows overlooking the ocean and totally wonderful to experience during sail away. We give special thanks to Melvin and Bridget who were so good to us throughout the cruise. We didn't miss the Concierge Lounge a bit and the room was never overcrowded.
We must say that they staff and crew on the Explorer were efficient and unfailingly upbeat and friendly. Would that all the world could be so staffed by such giving, attentive, and smiling people who really seem to care about those they attend to. I have never felt anything false in the RCI staff and crew.
A word about food. It's not why I cruise, but it seems to be a big issue with readers and reviewers. Certainly, it's a large part of what we pay for, so it should be largely without complaint. In fairness, though, we should not expect haute cuisine--this is, after all, a cruise ship where thousands are being fed. I found the dinner entrees to be quiet good, if not excellent. Some of the appetizers were tepid. The breads and desserts always wonderful. Lunches in the dining room, especially the salad bar were very very good. And how could anyone complain about breakfast in the Windjammer? I looked forward to each of my meals and found the Explorer to be as good, if not better than other Royal ships. Don't miss the rice pudding. The escargot. The filet of beef. Pancakes. Mashed potatoes and turkey. Portofino $15 steak. Prunes?
Finally, debarkation was slow, but efficient and orderly. I have read about mass chaos, but not on my cruise. We had Gray 2 tags. We began to leave at 8:30 and left in stages--down to Deck 1; wait ten minutes or so; then, on to the bus for transport to the terminal; wait to leave the bus until the bus in front was empty and through the terminal; then off the bus; find luggage (really easy) and on through customs. A short walk to the parking lot for us and onward to Virginia! All told, about a hour from beginning to end. More tedious than timely, but not stressful. Not a bad way to ease out of a cruise and acclimate oneself to a new reality.
Look for us on these future cruises: January 23, 2010 Oasis of the Seas; April 10, 2010 Navigator of the Seas TA; and January 2, 2011 Explorer 14th night Caribbean.