Embarkation: This was our second cruise, the first one was with Norwegian in June of 2007 so I may throw some comparisons in along the way. It started on Dec. 11, 2009 at Cape Liberty Cruise terminal, NJ. This was also our 16 year wedding anniversary. The weather was extremely cold and windy but it was no big deal since we are used to it living 3 hours away in Pennsylvania. My group consisted of: me, my wife and our 12 year old son. We arrived at the terminal, a porter took our luggage, then I parked the car ($171 for 9 night cruise- be prepared for that if you're parking there for the week). We were then instructed by our luggage handler where to proceed from there. Next was the metal detectors then check-in (I highly suggest doing online check-in before hand and having all your stuff ready in one of your coat pockets, this saves a lot of awkward frustration digging through your stuff for a few simple things). After that there is a waiting area with refreshments until your number card is called to get on a shuttle bus over to the ship. Some of the terminal people hustle you a little bit to keep moving like you are livestock and I thought they were kind of rude but then maybe they're just ticked off about 3,000 people leaving them behind for the carribean. Once on board we swept right past the people herded like cattle at the elivator and we went right up the steps to explore the ship. It was only about 12:30 pm so we figured we would let the buffet rush die down a little while we worked up an appetite doing a walk-about. What a magnificent ship!! You can see in some places that the ship is 10 years old but the crew is always keeping after it repairing and painting. Not to worry though, the captain said this ship is dry docking in January 2010 for many repairs and some upgrades. In Comparison the Explorer (138,000 tons) is much more spacious than the Norwegian 'Dawn' which I think is about 90,000 tons.
The Ship: As mentioned above, she is 138,000 tons. I would suggest walking or running shoes to be worn through out trip if you really want to explore this awesome floating city. Lucky for us, my son has researched the layout of this ship for months and was quite useful getting us around. With over 3,000 guests on board, you can still find many places on the ship to be by yourself and try not to think about going back to the cold in a week. The Royal Prominade in the center of the ship is amazing and really cool but I'd avoid the area when RC tries to herd everyone down there to spend money. Do your shopping at an off time when everyone is at the pool. Check out some of the observation areas at the front of the ship and at the aft if you can. It's where I always had my wake up coffee which by the way you can get at any time free at the Cafe Prominade (deck 5). We had an inside category N cabin. We didn't seem to mind it to much with 3 people much since quarters are quite small in these cheaper cabins yuo'll have to schedule your showers accordingly. But still, it is what it is, a place to sleep, get showered and get dressed. Be sure to check in on your spending account on your TV in your cabin, that's really convenient.
The staff: Royal Carribean International is truely international. The staff is from all around the world and many speak very little english, just have patience but every once in a while you'll bump into someone who works there whom you can actually chat with. That being said, in general they really do try to make you very comfortable and happy. Our cabin maid slipped up on a few few minor things during the week like didn't replace soap when we ran out and never put ice in ice bucket accept for first day. But then maybe we're just getting what we paid for- cheap cabin, cheap service (nothing to moan about). Our waiting staff on the other hand was top notch. Head waiter (materde) what ever you want to call him was some really tall French sounding guy, not sure what he really ever actually did but he stopped at our table every night to check in on things. Our waiter was Edgar and missed very few things. The first night I think they noticed that I didn't like the one scoop of icecream idea so the next night they gave me two scoops and I didn't ask. Assistant waiter was Luiz and never were we without water or rolls when he was around.
Entertainment: Well worth the money you paid when you booked this cruise. Big broadway style dance shows, comedians, and a fantastic live orchestra. None of that pre-recorded crap here. Get to your evening theatre show early if you can, the best seats are in center about 5 to 10 rows back. Be carefull, there's a lot of rude seat savers. I only wish RC would have a few bouncers in there set them straight. My wife had a crush on the cruise director Dave so I had to get her picture taken with him, he was really funny and nice to talk to on the personal status. The ice show is awesome get the no cost tickets and see it if you can. The ship's raggea band was great but I wish they would play at the pool more than just a couple of times, it really sets the mood. There was no Jazz show that I know of at 'Dizzy's' except for the very last night at 11:00 pm when everyone is going to bed to get up early and disembark the next morning. I thought that was bad scheduling, I would have liked to see a good Jazz performance.
Food: I'm not real picky about food as long as I can get it when I'm hungary. The Windjammer buffet was great no complaints, ok maybe I had a stale donut one morning but whoop-de-doo. The buffet seamed endless and had different sections of salad, asian stuff, anything really. If you get there early enough in the morning go all the way to the back at the Island grill, the tables overlooking the aft are great. Dining room entrees were wonderful but bear in mind this is very fine dining and apparently fine diners don't eat very much because proportions are small but they will gladly bring you a double if you ask. Didn't try any of the food on the ship that you pay extra for because that wouldn't make much sense since you've already paid for plenty of food when you booked. But I hear it's really nice. We did however try Johnny Rockets with the $5 cover charge but strangely it only covers limited food and no drinks. I'm now kind of thinking that I could probably throw together a burger just as good at the buffet. They have Ben & Jerry's icecream for an extra charge at the Royal prominade and the cones are kitty size. But not to worry, there's free all you want icecream up at the pool deck almost everyday.
Ammentities: Ice scating, rock climbing, mini golf, nice pools and hot tubs all of which are there if your like all that or just grab a coffee and watch the ocean go by on outside deck 4.
Extra comments and advice: Bring enough pants and a windbreaker for the first couple of days on this cruise. You go from freezing to 85 degrees f. and it's really neat to experience in my opinion. Don't necessarily crowd the all the announcements on the ship, unless your into that whole bingo thing and spending pointless extra bucks on whatever. Explore and find empty areas of the ship, its really nice. Also, there is always somewhere to sit too, unlike that Norwegian ship by a certain time of day there is absolutely no where to sit except your cabin that was a bummer, I'd have second thoughts about Norwegian because of that. I wasn't really into the whole play dress-up formal dinner thing even though we did look really great. I wish RC considered some more freestyle dining options like Norwegian, no suits and ties there, that was nice. Feel free to check it out, but be weary of some of the things RC tries to get you to come to, sometimes it's just another sales pitch for something. The soda plan we got for my son was well worth it, endless drinks for him for about $45 and a really nice travel cup for keeps. The teenager program was pretty good, our son was there a lot so they must be doing something right. This was primarily a souvineer and shopping agenda for us this time, probably next time we'll do excursions. I say next time because I'm already pricing cruises for 2010!
Labadee Haiti, What can I say, its absolutely amazingly beautiful. RC put tons of money into their private beach paradise here including a brand new pier so the Explorer doesn't to tender boat anymore. Make sure you bring surf shoes, there is sharp coral and sea urchins when you swim out a little. Try not to touch bottom if you don't have to. RC catered a great buffet free of charge there and it was delicious. There is a building filled to the guills with great art and souvineers and the natives don't bug you. Beyond that there is a series of real nice huts full of souvineers but there they hound you like crazy to the point you can't stand it, I had to walk away before I got angry and we don't want any trouble in Haiti. I should mention there was jet ski rentals, zip lining at $90 a pop, and some other activities a sea salty extra price but we just like to stick to what we paid for when we booked, a nice relaxing day in paradise with lunch.