As a first-time cruiser, I went with Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas from Feb. 5, 2010 to Feb. 14, 2010 to the Eastern Caribbean (San Juan, PR; St. Thomas, VI; Samana, Dominican Republic; Labadee, Haiti).
There were some good things and some bad things and, frankly, I'm not sure I'd cruise again at all, or if I did, cruise again with RCCL. Some things were under RCCL's control, others weren't, to be fair.
For example, while the East Coast was being battered by two major snowstorms, we felt the effects at sea. We travelled through a category 2 hurricane with winds around 120 MPH. The ship, she was a-rocking side to side and front to back! Obviously, this isn't the cruise line's fault and the captain did what he could, I assume, to minimize this. But it wasn't fun and we hit it coming and going. The decks were closed, which left cruisers to fend for themselves for things to do, unless you liked the activities. Here are some random thoughts:
Activities: Most kicked in toward the later part of the day or in the late evening. Given that the decks (and therefore the pools) were necessarily closed, having more activities during the day would have been good. Frankly, I wasn't interested in the art auction and thought it was a strange place to have one. I would have liked more participatory activities--a mid-day dance, crafts lessons, organized card or Scrabble tournament.(And none of these should incur additional cost.) Most activities were only a half hour. Then you waited around for another one to take place. Skip the seminars and such--people are looking for fun, not to learn financial strategies. Don't get me wrong. Jimmy and his Cruise Director crew did well with the events they did--dance classes, trivia sessions, etc. But there was s much downtime in between these half-hour sessions that it seemed like there was little to do. Great hugs, though, Jimmy! And Sonia and Theresa did a great job in teaching the dance classes I took.
Wine Package: Okay, this was bad. "Due to logistical problems, your wine package was cancelled." The reason? We were told the pallet with the wine for the package (which apparently is different than that sold at dinner) never made it to the ship. So, that meant we were no longer entitled to the 25% discount for ordering the wine in advance. Hint to RCCL: Extend the discount to affected cruisers to the OTHER wine--the wine you can order at dinner. Saying, "oh well, too bad" just was a bad bit of PR. And while the bottle of wine you sent to the cabin was a nice apology, the fact that it was the cheapest bottle of wine you sold made the apology seem insincere. I would rather have had the 25% discount and you know what? You would have made more money in the longer run. I only ordered two bottles of wine during the entire trip--not the cheapest but definitely not too far from the bottom of the price list.
Itinerary: Maybe the point of a cruise is to spend time relaxing as you travel to the first destination, but I was bored. And you know what? That meant I ate...and ate...and ate. Luckily, I only gained five pounds, but being bored isn't good. We didn't have enough time on the islands and way too much time on the ship. As for the destinations, overall, there should be some way to get people off of the ship and not have to encounter people hawking their wares onshore. The onslaught of taxi drivers, tour guides and so on was offputting and many were rude and pushing and shoving people who were saying no to get to ones who might say yes. Given that there were a number of senior citizens in my group, this was indeed a dangerous thing.
Ports: Too little time and the only focus seemed to be shopping. Providing information about things to do in port--places to see, how to get there, etc..--that didn't mean you *had* to buy an excursion would have been nice. And reduce the focus on shopping. Not all of us actually enjoy it. Recommendation: Do your homework before you leave on vacation. If you take information about what else there is to do other than shop or buy a cruise line excursion, you'll be in good shape to explore and not have to depend on the cruise line for info.
Food: Chef Craig, you seemed nice and very competent. However, use some spices! The food was beautifully arranged, plentiful and the selection quite nice (although more Chinese and Japanese and maybe some Mexican and less Indian), but often was quite bland! I realize that you can't over-spice things as people having differing tastebuds, but *some* spice is better than none. And if you don't want to spice things while cooking, how about setting out a spice counter where you can help yourself? E.g., I would have killed to find some oregano (fresh or dried) and garlic powder to sprinkle on the pizza and give it some taste. Salt and pepper (which also seemed to be missing from most food) only goes so far...
Buy/Don't Buy: Don't bother with the Port and Shopping Book ($25) unless you know you're shopping and spending until you drop. Most vendors gave you the "extras" even without the book. Basically, you're spending $25 for them to advertise to you. Needless expense. Many times, I felt that I was a walking wallet and all RCCL was trying to do was get money from me. I told them on my suggestion form to lower the price of drinks, for example, or have a happy hour each day--they'd earn more money. I know that I certainly didn't drink what I would have if the drinks had been cheaper.
Overall: I'd say it was okay. I don't know that I'd rush to do it again.
We went to Samana, in the Dominican Republic, which is not listed in the port selections. This was the only island on which I did an excursion. It was well worth the money ($65) and it was a biking, hiking, kayaking trip for five hours. For what it's worth, it was run by CS Adventures and our guide, Haji (from Pakistan originally) was awesome. He was fun, knowledgeable and obviously proud of his home of 21 years. Now for the bad parts: The "bus" was an open air jalopy with bench seats--with very little suspension. Given that the "highway" is an unpaved road with potholes big enough to swallow a dump truck, it was a tad uncomfortable. It will be nice to see the DR in about five or 10 years when tourist money has helped to better the lives of those who live there. The part of the island we were on had no running water or electricity. (So, how *does* a toilet flush without running water? The answer--there pretty much are no toilets!)
We drove about 35 kilometers (about 21 miles) to where the bikes were. The bikes were in poor condition. Chains needed lubing, brakes were not working great, one bike had only a front brake (luckily no downhills) and tires were not adequately inflated. The bike I was on was like riding a blender... The road surface was rough, although these were "comfort" bikes with mountain bike tires. (The saddles were utilitarian.) The scenery was pretty--a bit wild and unrefined--but what I most will recall is the awful conditions of the "homes" and animals we passed along the way. The poverty was prevalent. The people were nice enough, although somewhat shellshocked it appeared to see so many tourists. The animals (horses, goats, pigs, etc.) were often tied up on the side of the fire road we were on and most, if not all, completely underfed. A British woman in our group got so upset that I thought she was going to go find the owner of a horse that had his bones sticking out under his skin and open sores on him and beat the pulp out of him!
We then got to the end of the fire road and it became a path/trail, which meant our hiking portion began. After being given cold water, we walked maybe a mile to the edge of the ocean to see a blowhole. It would have been a little more majestic if the tide had been coming in. So, basically, we saw a hole that had a force of wind coming out of it and nothing else. Then we waited around for the truck to return and pick us up. There was, of course, the obligatory local selling handicrafts. No one bought anything that I was aware of.
The truck then bounced us to another location, maybe 10 miles away where we got to a "shopping district." We were able to use the bathroom (again, no running water) and then left and were taken to Las Galeras, a beach, for the kayaking portion. The beach was beautiful. There were tandem kayaks, which wasn't great for me as I was on the excursion by myself. Luckily, there was one other person on the excursion also by himself, so we paired up. Most of our group didn't bother to kayak. We were given one hour to paddle around in circles in one cove. It was somewhat boring. The others all just swam or sat on the beach.
Then we left, took the 45-minute drive back to the ship and called it a day. My suggestion to the tour company is to up the price a bit and include lunch. We left the ship at 8:30 a.m. and got back at 2 p.m. While the shopping district had places it appeared you could buy food, the beach had a restaurant on it and it would have been easy enough to arrange for a buffet lunch along with the kayaking/swimming.
If the price is still the same, I would suggest doing this tour. I disagree with the "strenuous" rating. It wasn't that hard but you do have to have some kind of active lifestyle. I'm overweight (quite a bit) and had no problems whatsoever.
Labadee, Haiti. I didn't like this at all. It was a private beach owned by RCCL and surrounded by a wall. It was like being in an enclosed theme park. We ate lunch, wandered around a bit and, of course, were targeted to buy things. The few local vendors who were there were not necessarily the most pleasant. I had one vendor who tried to sell me something that I had briefly admired. When I politely said no, his tone of voice changed and he said something I believe to be derogatory in his native language to another local behind him. Lovely, huh? We bought a few things from the marketplace vendors then went back on the ship.
I would have tried the one activity they had there--a sort of wire slide from the top of a hill to the beach--but it was $85 per person. Had it been more reasonably price--or free, since we were, after all, on a private beach owned by the cruise line--I would have done it. I didn't go to the beach, but heard from others that it was rocky as was the water.