This was my first cruise with RCI, although I have over 300 sailing days on Cunard. I selected Explorer of the Seas because I live in the New York metro area and wanted a respite from the cold and a getaway to the sunshine that did not involve the hassle of air travel. There was much that was good, along with some that was not as good, and then there was some that was not good at all. First the good.
As a modern cruiseship, Explorer of the Seas is visually agreeable in design. Less boxy than most cruiseships and sporting a slightly elongated bow and more rounded stern, Explorer is pleasant to look at. While not a liner in design or speed capability, the ship, nevertheless, handled 35 foot swells and 70 mph head winds for the first two days quite well. The public areas appear to be well-maintained. In a conversation with the supervisor of housekeeping, I learned that carpeting was replaced in many of the public areas and that marble floors were ground and polished during the recent drydocking. I enjoyed most of the onboard art in the public areas, especially the works by celebrities in the forward stairway.
My balcony stateroom on Deck 8, while comfortable (I traveled solo) and clean, was a bit tired-looking and showed some signs of wear and tear (chipped furniture edges, stains on the sofa, paint flaking on balcony furniture) as well as some inexcusably poor maintenance and neglect (paint spattered on the balcony floor, unvarnished balcony railings throughout the entire ship). The pastel color scheme was safe but uninspired, and the clunky tube TV made the best argument for an overall need for updating in the staterooms. The bathroom, while small and compact, was clean and bright, right down to the grout in the tiles. There was more than ample closet and drawer storage space. My friendly and polite stateroom attendant made up the room quickly and provided the final evening turn-down service after I left the room for dinner. I especially enjoyed the towel sculptures that awaited my return to the stateroom each evening.
My dining selection was traditional late seating at a table for eight. I was fortunate to be seated with three delightful couples from England and another passenger whom I knew from a previous Cunard QE2 cruise. The generic banquet style food for the appetizers, entrEes and desserts was decent, if not adventurous. The sides that accompanied the main courses, however, consisted of a few broccoli florets and carrot logs (of the packaged variety) scattered haphazardly about the plate. When I asked the server on one occasion if the mashed potatoes were of the instant variety, his uncharacteristic silence confirmed that they were. The waiter and his assistant provided consistently outstanding service. The lunchtime salad bar in the main dining room, which I enjoyed on two sea days, was always very good. Other than one occasion, I avoided breakfast in the dining room which tended to be a long and drawn-out business. I took my breakfasts and some lunches in the Windjammer, opting for simple made-to-order omelettes or fresh fruit for breakfast and a salad and a piece of broiled fish for lunch. I steered clear of everything else. The extra-tariff alternative restaurant Portofino, however, offered an excellent dining experience. The pear salad appetizer, the filet mignon entrEe and the panna cotta dessert were very good. While I am a "foodie" who enjoys cooking and dining out, I do not go on a cruise for the food or with high culinary expectations. The dining experiences were exactly what I expected from RCI in this regard. Most generally, I was more pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
The Dress Code was all over the place. On the three designated formal nights, many gentlemen wore tuxedos or suits or jackets with ties. I opted for a tux for the first two formal evenings and a dark suit for the last. Some flaunted the dress code altogether by appearing in the dining room without jacket or tie. One passenger who blatantly violated the dress code by wearing shorts in the dining rebuffed the maitre d' who challenged him. The smart casual nights, which suggested jacket without tie, were all over the place as well. Most generally, attire became more lax as the cruise went on.
Our ports of call consisted of St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Dominica, Barbados, Antigua and San Juan, all of which I had visited before with the exception of Barbados and Dominica. I availed myself of two RCI shore excursion, one from St. Thomas to St. John which was pleasant, and an excellent excursion to the Morne Trois Pitons Unesco World Heritage site in Dominica that featured a eco hike to the Trafalgar Falls and a 90 minute aerial tram ride through the rain forest canopy escorted by a local guide. In all the other islands I dodged the usual shopping scene and opted for beach opportunities using local transportation. Orient Beach in St. Maarten and Needham's Point Beach in Barbados were particularly delightful. Our port call time in San Juan, however, was way too short, an opinion shared by many other passengers. Ironically, San Juan was the most culturally rich and interesting port on the itinerary with so much to offer. While I have spent many winter breaks in the San Juan area and throughout Puerto Rico, I was still disappointed that our port time was limited to only six hours.
The entertainment on board consisted of production shows, stand-up comics and port talks on shopping, all of which I avoided. The two ice shows which I did see were excellent. The fitness center, which I used every day, was adequate, although most of the cardio equipment was not as up to date as that found in health clubs and on other ships. There were opportunities to participate in (or observe) rock-climbing, miniature golf, in-line skating or cheesy "art" auctions which should be banned from all ships. The Royal Promenade, which I dubbed the mall of the seas, offers diversions in the form of cafes and pubs for people-watching and stores for shopping. The overall effect, however, disassociates one from making a connection with the sea, which, for me, is what being on a ship is all about. We have plenty of malls on land.
Now the not as good. The general ambience on this ship is very noisy. There is almost nowhere where there isn't a loud band playing or amped-up, piped-in music blaring from speakers. Even in the quieter areas forward of the deck above the pool area, loud piped-in classical music is playing all the time. The quietest place for reading was my stateroom balcony. Moreover, there were constant interruptions about bingo, port shopping lectures or those dreaded art auctions that were downright disrespectful to band members, for example, whose performances came to a dead stop when these inane announcements were made. The worst aspect of the RCI experience was the Port Liberty Cruise Terminal, which is abysmal, and some aspects of embarkation day. The port facility is a testament to inefficiency. The single lane drop-off/pick-up traffic lane results in bottlenecks and delays. The location of the ship, which is docked at a distance from the terminal, requires passengers to board shuttle busses to be driven to the gangway and for luggage to be loaded onto trucks and transported to ship. No wonder some passengers did not get their luggage until almost midnight. Once aboard the ship, passengers generally had to mill about the ship, mainly in the Windjammer, because staterooms were not yet ready for occupancy. A general announcement was made around 1:30pm informing passengers that staterooms were ready.
While my first RCI experience was a mixed one, there are ample reasons for me to consider another cruise on Explorer of the Seas. The convenience of the nearby port, however inferior, in combination with the enthusiastic and hard-working crew who earnestly communicated a desire to make one's vacation a good one, made this cruise holiday a most generally enjoyable one. I conveyed my praise for the crew's efforts one day to the captain who had a good sense of humor and was always very visible and accessible.