A little background. As you may have guessed, we (myself, DW, & DD's 22 & 20) have sailed NCL five times over the last 3 years. Our first cruise 3 years ago was a 12 day double holiday - Christmas & New Years and we fell in love with cruising. The last 2 years we have sailed only the New Years week as the double sailing was not offered by NCL. We love sailing out of the NYC area as it is easy for us from the Canadian side of the border in southern Ontario to get to NYC without flying. Love you Amtrak, at least you don't have competition. Friends put us onto Royal sailing out of NJ. The 14 day double holiday cruise fit into our schedule and price range (2 inside cabins), so goodbye NCL hello Royal. This review will be lengthy (you have been warned) and will tell not only of our experience on this cruise but will be a bit of a comparison between the two cruise lines.
Travel to NYC was easy, we came in the day before the big storm. It was amazing to see snow in Times Square and Rockefeller area. We had arranged a car service (excellent job Black Executive Car) to pick us up at the hotel in midtown at 11:00 and take us to the pier in Bayonne NJ. They stated it would take I hour. They lied. It took 35 minutes to get from the Hotel to the one lane road leading to the pier. From there it took almost an hour to get to the tent/terminal. We were told this extremely slow drive up was due to the snow, that other times it is not like this. Once we were able to unload the luggage, we joined the lines into the terminal. Getting sail & sign cards, photos, registering etc was relatively quick, painless. The terminal was half tent, half empty warehouse. Nothing lavish, but we never stopped moving in the various lines. From luggage drop-off to short bus ride to the ship the process took less than an hour. NCL sailing out of Manhattan offers the same quick registration process, with a nicer terminal, no need for a bus ride and quick unloading of luggage, never spent more than a few minutes in lines waiting for taxi to pull up. Score: 1 for NCL.
Once on board we were able to go directly to the cabins, this was approx 1:15 p.m. That was pleasant as we could unload carry-ons earlier than expected. We were not welcomed aboard by anyone, there was no welcome aboard Champagne or OJ as we have experience on NCL. Lunch at the Windjammer was nice, it was busy but not impossible to find a seat. In fact we never had to hunt that hard to find a seat here all cruise long. (NCL buffet was often packed and finding a seat was very difficult especially at sail away). Maybe the number of people who missed this cruise due to flights cancellation had something to so with this. We did not have to take life jackets to the life boat drill. We received all of our pieces of luggage before the life boat drill at 3:15. Score: Even.
Our roll call was very active, there was a private online site where pictures were posted so even prior to boarding our fellow cruisers felt like friends. A gift exchange was planned. A sail away informal meet & mingle was planned immediately following life boat drill in Dizzy's lounge. The official meet & mingle was scheduled for the first sea day 1:00 p.m. in the Chamber. Immediately following life boat drill we went to Dizzy's on deck 14 and met with many from the roll call. A great group of people. The meet & mingle in the Chamber was attended by approx 60 people, a great turnout, a poor venue. The venue was too small and poorly structured for this type of get together. The gift exchange was a lot of fun and well run by Nancy & Joe. Royal sent 1 (one) yes one junior crew member to attend, he conducted a few raffles and basically seemed lost as what to do. Thankfully Carrie and Jane were well organized and they arranged introductions, and the flow of events. This group had been conversing for over a year and seemed very comfortable with each and a good time was had by all. So much so in fact that before we left we agreed to meet for lunch on a sea day. The group wanted to linger but the Royal rep began to clear us out as the room was going to be used for another event. Before we left we arranged to meet for drinks on a another sea day agreeing to meet back at Dizzy's. The Royal rep after a quick phone call told us we could not meet there. What?? He said we could not have Dizzy's on that particular day and time for an exclusive event. We had not asked for an exclusive event, just to meet there at the bar, yes there is a bar there for drinks. Did Royal not want our drink business?? This really floored me. On all our previous NCL cruises we had 8-10 officers show up for each meet & greet as they call it. We twice had the hotel director come, give out his personal card to everyone and ask everyone in attendance to call him personally if they had any problems. If one of these gentlemen had been present at this meet & mingle I assure you not only would we have been given Dizzy's or some other venue to meet again but there would have been food etc at that gathering. Score: A big one for NCL.
That evening at promptly 6:00 p.m. we entered the dinning room and quickly located our table. (travelling with three women I assure you this was the only day we were prompt). We meet Trevor our Waiter and Vivek our Assistant waiter. They were excellent. In very short order they discovered that we were water drinkers and our glasses were rarely empty. Vivek also discovered we were tea drinks and after the second day he never asked again but faithfully delivered four pots of hot water and a selection of teas to our table each night as dessert was served. I threw him off as twice over the course of the 14 days I asked for coffee instead. They were an excellent team and we enjoyed their sense of humor. By the end of the cruise we had pre-arranged/ pre-paid our tips and readily gave them the envelopes plus extra on the last night. I felt very sorry for a waiter a few tables over. On the last night the entire table of 8 did not show up yet they had been there each and every night prior. We had asked for a large table but our table was one for 4, it was not a problem as we enjoyed each others company and shared many a laugh usually at my expense. The food was excellent, as it had been on NCL as well. All the meals were great. You might ask what did we eat, my answer would be, what didn't we eat. I found the potions of the entrees on the Explorer slightly larger than those on NCL. On lobster night I asked for an promptly received a second tail and the two were more than enough for me, especially since I had to save room for a couple of desserts.
Breakfast was mainly the Windjammer. Lunch was alternated between the Windjammer and the main dinning room. The jammer had a nice selection for both breakfast and lunch. The food could have been hotter. The main dinning room lunch featured a make your own/select your own salad that was a meal in itself. You actually didn't make it, staff mixed together whatever ingredients you pointed out and they cut it and mixed. This was an excellent feature. Late night food consisted of the Cafe on the Royal Promenade. The choices were limited but quick, there was pre-made sandwiches, pizza and sweets. NCL offers the Blue Lagoon, the selection is much better but you have to wait for service. I like the pre-poured juices in the Windjammer for breakfast and lemonade and iced tea for lunch. This really helped avoid long lines at the drink stations. I also enjoyed milk in the carton as compared to milk out of a machine. Score 1 for Royal.
Entertainment: The ice skating shows were excellent. The rest of the entertain for me was somewhat lacking. I rarely found the entertainment that entertaining. Of the various shows we went to I found NCL's production shows are simply better, the comedians, juggler, magic acts were all better on NCL. Score: 1 for NCL
The activities and cruise directors staff running them were excellent. There were a ton of activities. I wish I could have cloned myself in order to participate in all the activities I wanted to. Trivia was fun and challenging, the promenade parade was entertaining and fun, the deck party was a great lively time. New Years on the Promenade was a ZOO. But in a good sense. Everyone told us it would be packed and this they did not lie about. It was packed and them some, but it was a lot of fun. At 11:30 the promenade was virtually impassable yet it amazed me as to where people were trying to inch their way to. We picked a spot at 11:00 and stayed. Games were a lot of fun and well organized, a few times they utilized a raffle for those who wanted to participate. I thought this was fair for all. Many times it is only those that sit down front or those that are the loudest that get selected. The Quest!! What can I say, I got suckered into participating. Thanks Carrie & Tim. Actually it was a lot of fun and Dave the CD was an excellent host and really got the energy level up. (If you see pictures of me, that's really my twin brother). Generally the cruise directors staff was engaging and very friendly, they would often stay and chat after an event even though they were heading to another. Score: 1 for Royal
The ship offers a wide variety of amenities, more than any ship we have been on before. Hard to believe that in 14 days you still run out of time to do everything you want but we did miss out on some of what the ship offered. Things we did do and enjoy was the separate adult pool and hot tub area. Though it was a times difficult to find chairs in this area it was never as crowded or as crazy as the main pool area and the hot tubs only had a few adults in them. The indoor hot tub in the gym area was nice and I did use it twice. The gym was well equipped and again busy but I could always find a machine I wanted. Ice skating was fun, something I have not done in years. Especially important was the fact that none of the activities had a cost to them. Perhaps in years to come and I don't want to give Royal any ideas but I thought for sure there would be an ice skate rental fee, and a fee for the rock climbing wall but there was none. We have sailed on the NCL Gem and did do bowling but there is a charge. Score 1 for Royal.
Non scoring items.
The ports of call were Caribbean Islands. If you have seen one you pretty much have seen them all. They were hot and sunny, which is exactly what we went for. We did go to beaches on Antigua - Valley Church; Barbados - Accra; St. Thomas - Secret Harbor. All on recommendations from CC. All were excellent. They were for the most part not crowded even though some islands had several ships in port, they were quiet with anywhere from 0 to 3 vendors spotted. All offered chairs for rent, Valley church does not have umbrellas but none were needed as there was plenty of shade. All of the beaches were lovely, Valley Church is definitely one we will go back to again.
We booked three shore excursions through Royal. Two were excellent and came exactly as advertised: River Tubing in Dominica and ATV Adventure in St. Marteen. The third a snorkel excursion in St. Kitts was disappointing to say the least. It was advertised as 6 hrs and it including lunch on the beach. The snorkeling was only 45 minutes and after this the Catamaran became a party boat. If I wanted a party boat I would have picked a different excursion. This one did not list that refreshments would be served free on board. With a 6 hr excursion I was looking for some serious snorkel time. I will take the blame as I did not specifically ask Royal how much time was spent in the water. Some of their excursions did advertise the amount of time and this is what I complained to Royal about. The description they provided for this particular excursion did not match what was offered. If their description had indicated that you would be in the water for 45 minutes and that free refreshments would be served on board I would have booked a different snorkel adventure. Live and learn I guess.
The ship was heading to dry dock after our cruise. There was some rust stains and many areas that required paint, new carpets and furnishings replaced. My house requires repairs, paint and TLC every few years and thousands of people don't pass through it on a weekly bases. Therefore all things considered I thought the ship was in pretty good shape
Disembarkation was easy. We choose to do the self disembarkation. Probably a mistake considering all the luggage we had, but we made it. The ship arrived back in port early. They started to announce that those who had chosen self disembarkation could head to the gangways on deck 1. We had barely gotten up at this time, so after a quick breakfast we headed to the gangway at 7:45. We were off the ship, through customs and back in the terminal by 8:05. I contacted Black executive car as originally we had not arranged for them to pick us up until much later. They said no problem to come early and were there in 20 minutes. The trip home was uneventful. We made it back to the train station in Niagara Falls NY to find our car buried in snow. But after sitting for 15 days in the cold and snow the car started up right away. Score 1 for Saturn.
Overall we had a fantastic cruise. We made many new friends and fell in love with Royal. Many on the roll call, including ourselves have booked this cruise again for next year. My scoring has NCL 3; Royal 3. Therefore the only conclusion I can come to is there are two cruise lines that I love. Two cruise lines that I want to sail on again and again. Damn you both NCL & Royal. I had better not check out any other lines anytime soon.