So, the weather people around here all predicted about 2 feet of snow-for the ENTIRE winter. Boy were they wrong! My solution: run away to the sun and fun of the Caribbean on Explorer.
We booked these about 2-3 weeks prior to sailing. I'd been watching these dates for a while, and suddenly cabins opened. I'd hoped to not have to move between legs of the B2B, but no such luck. As usual, mom was ready to go as this is about the easiest, most hassle free trip she can take. So, after a visit with my TA (for a change of pace) and a couple extraordinarily long conference calls with RCI (and, wow, even the reps TAs call can be a little rude and very uninformed!) we were all set.
I spent the next couple weeks getting packed and arranging for transportation. Of course, in the week or so before we left, we had two MORE huge snowstorms! Thankfully we got plowed out in time (but, while we were away, we had another large dumping of snow-as I was greeted with a badly damaged driveway when we got home!)
As mom is confined to a wheelchair, I had to find accessible transportation. I'd found a company in NJ called Tru Limo (www.trulimo.com) that has a "London Taxi" that is accessible. We were going to use it last November, but it broke down on the way to get us. This time however, the driver arrived within the scheduled pick up window. My Aunt and Uncle had come down to see us off and helped to get mom and I out of the house! (Plus, they shoveled out another little pathway too! Thanks! ?)
We wheeled the chair into the vehicle easily enough, but there is NOT a lot of room for stuff. We had a LOT of bags, which the driver, my uncle and I were able to creatively load! Off we went for the hour-ish drive to Cape Liberty!
Even with the snow, our drive was only about an hour and a quarter-we pulled into the pier about 11:30 or so and for once, there was NO LINE of traffic! We literally moved nonstop until we got to the bus. Once we were off, the wheelchair pusher from the ship was wheeling mom onto the ship and instead of stepping on the bar to tilt the chair back to go over the bumps on the gangway; he kneed her in the back. Literally one second she was happy as a clam, the next she was crying in pain! Royal needs to spend 15 minutes properly training people in how to push wheelchairs! (Last time we practically got run over by the Adventure Ocean people who were going to stick the muster station wristbands on kids! Yikes!) While this may seem inconsequential to some, those who are confined to wheelchairs, or who care for such people, will know that it is NOT a minor thing. Luckily after a few hours her pain went away.
We were permitted to go directly to our cabin once I explained the situation to guest relations. Also, one of the crew recognized us from our last cruise, and knew we were doing another b2b so I really appreciated that we were able to not have to wait.
For the first leg, we were in JS 9618, the one under the Royal Suite (with the piano!) When I booked I had a choice of that cabin, or a connecting JS that was very far forward. I rolled the dice and hoped that I would not have the same sort of issues we had last year being under the RS. Luckily, I was correct. We only heard the piano about 4 times and only had to call GR once as it was VERY loud. After that time, the sound only lasted for maybe 5 minutes total. (I presume it was the child playing as it wasn't really a tune!)
As we'd been in this cabin before (pre-Flat Screen TV though) we knew what to expect. I asked for the little wooden ramps again so that mom could go out on the balcony once it got warmer and they were delivered probably the next day. (There was no hurry!! It would be a couple days before it got warm! LOL)
We again selected MTD and I'd arranged for our same table and same dining time before the cruise. (OK so it helps to have made friends with the dining room manager and the 2 lovely gals who are the hostesses!) We had a great server for the first leg, and I wound up getting him back a few days into the second as our new server was really not good!
A note about the MTD servers: They are supposedly the best of the best as they are guaranteed to get their tip money. They have to have an average score of their guest comment forms of close to perfect. Any time they get rated less than excellent, points are deducted from their score. Not every server can be in MTD. So, when our second leg server (and assistant) were particularly forgetful, I told the DR Manager and the next night, Rommel was back taking care of us. (Mainly me-mom ate many meals in the cabin!) The second legs' assistant server improved when Rommel took over. I guess that excellent service rubs off....
The food was fine. Some was excellent, some was not so great but we didn't go hungry that's for sure. I got my favorite thing, potato croquettes almost every night of the entire vacation. Boy those little devils are delicious! (Basically mashed potatoes formed into little logs, probably lightly breaded, then deep fried! YUMMY!) I skipped one dinner (Italian night I believe) the 1st leg in favor of make your own pizza in the Wind Jammer....that was really good.
As the menus have been posted, I didn't write them all down, and forgot to get the copies of them that I'd asked for......but they've been posted several times and, at least on Explorer, have not changed.
Our CD for this leg was Jimmy Rhodes and frankly he just bothered me. After thinking about it for the whole cruise, I determined that he tries too hard.....this is hard to explain. Dave Chapman was CD for the second leg, and when I compared the two, I concluded that the job just comes naturally to Dave; whereas Jimmy seemed to be 'acting' in the role of CD. I am not one who really cares WHO the Cruise Director is, but after the first day, I was tired of Jimmy. His announcements, especially the muster drill script, were often hard to understand. I guess it was just his delivery. (I worked in radio when I was in college. I don't claim to be a voice and diction coach, but he was hard to understand. He's from the US of A, from the South. I generally understand "Southern" but, well Dave's Australian accent was easier on my ears!)
Our ports on this leg were St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica and San Juan. I didn't really do anything in any of them except some shopping and interneting! LOL! (Although we have become addicted to Pandora jewelry and the Pandora-esque stuff as well!) I just don't get why Dominica is a stop. Granted, I suppose it's nice if you do a tour, but there is really no point in stopping there. (Except for Rituals Coffee-kind of a Caribbean version of Starbucks-and they have internet!)
Quick note about the 'guaranteed shopping' stores. Well, I bought my bracelet and the sales girl sold me one that I thought was too big. It was-it fell off my wrist in the cabin-but I found it easily. I asked Vince the shopping guide if I would have a problem exchanging it in 6 days when we got back to SJ and he said no. Well when I went to change it, another clerk was working and she gave me the 3rd degree even though it was 6 days old and I had the receipt. She measured it, then measured the one I requested, and really was not too nice about the transaction. I said, well, your store is on the guaranteed shopping program. She did change it for me but I brought it to Vince's attention when I saw him again. He said that maybe he should have gone with me. I would suggest that if you are on a cruise and have a problem, first, notify the shopping guide (I am speaking only of the shops on the map that are part of the program) and maybe take that person with you to assist in the transaction.
We had a great cabin attendant who really accommodated us. She worked around us and we really appreciated that. Many of you ask about bringing gifts for crew. As the 1st leg started on Valentine's Day, I made up a couple dozen little goody bags with candies and handed them out to various crew members. They went over VERY well. I guess I spent about $10 or so and it was worth it for the smiles we got! Many of them said no one had ever done anything like that before. I also took a bag of Tootsie Pops to the Spa/Salon---the people up there went nuts. I had to explain what it was as many hadn't heard of them before. I became known as the candy lady (which isn't such a bad thing!_
Actually, Tess our cabin attendant mentioned that she loved her junk food so when I got to San Juan, I got her some of her favorite stuff as she wasn't able to get off the ship that day. (7 AM-1 PM port stop) Boy was she thrilled. (Of course she thought that a few packs of cookies and some Chex Mix was too expensive a gift.....not at all!!) So...if you want to be a hero, bring some candy! I gave a bag of little Hershey's chocolate egg things to Putu, our second cabin attendant!
Since Explorer just got out of drydock, everyone wants to know if the ship looks different. Sorry to say, no. There are some changes near the pool-they redid the deck covering I believe. Also, there are murals and a painted floor on deck one (so that when guests use that area for boarding, it looks less ugly). Some of the Grand Suites appear to have gotten new, wicker furniture and comfy cushions for the balcony furniture (although some still appeared to have the older loungers just with Solarium-style cushions on them) and there's new carpet around the ship.
Other than that, don't expect brand new and shiny. The teak railings on the balconies were not even stained, but it looked like the balconies had been painted as I didn't see any rust on the balconies themselves. (Of course, there's still rust other places....there will always be rust.)
The ride down and back was a little bumpy this first leg....it would be a bit worse later on with a sudden wind shift and a 10-12 degree list due to that huge wind gust. Lots of people were complaining that they'd never been in such rough seas. I asked a few if they'd ever cruised from NJ (or NY) in winter-most said no, they usually cruised from Florida. Well gang, the north Atlantic, and crossing the Gulf Stream often results in a roller coaster. We just suck it up...and hit the Bonine. (This, incidentally is $8 in the gift shop. You can get it for free in the medical facility...but people actually paid the 8 bucks! Sheesh!)
On turnover day we were greeted with yet ANOTHER huge snowstorm and I wanted to make my usual run to stop and shop for some stuff. Due to the weather, my mom being in a WC and a few other seasoned citizens doing the b2b, the Guest Administration officer somehow managed to fix things so we did NOT have to get off and go through immigration. No idea how she did this, but I presume that the ship has a pretty good relationship with ICE and they were able to clear us as a group. (I did go through when I left on my trek. All the officers were doing was collecting the Customs declaration forms...they didn't even LOOK at ANY ID of ANY US Citizen. (Not sure about foreign nationals.) I think that since the weather was so bad and we were at least an hour behind in the "disgusting" process, maybe they just said 'keep it moving'.
I tried once to get to the store and there must have been over 200 people in the taxi line, so I went back to the ship and tried again about 40 minutes later. I eventually got to the store but waited a long time to get picked up. That's another long story as I was told one thing by the dispatchers at the pier (one of whom owns the company) but I finally got picked up. The cab driver took a different road into the pier to skip half the traffic, but it still took close to an hour to get between the buildings where you can cut over to get through the parking. I finally got OUT of the cab and walked the last 100 or so yards. The cabbie said I would get in trouble, but at that point I didn't care. I figured mom was worrying as I'd been gone close to 2 hours. (I guess I could have technically walked to the ship because anyone who would have stopped me was tied up with the rest of the crowds....I didn't-I went back through the terminal.)
I'd like to say something about going through the security screening at the pier. People..PLEASE do NOT hold up the rest of the line emptying your pockets and the like. Do it before you leave home or something. Put all your change, keys, etc into a baggie and throw it in the carryon. Some people held up the line so long that others behind them got impatient and went in front of them (not only me-there were at least 6 others!) One of the guards gave us dirty looks but one man said to her, "look, this line is really long and these 3 people are the cause of the back up!"
During the 1st leg, I went up and sought out our new cabin attendant. Plus, Tess found him and gave him the low down! We were in JS 1324 for the second leg. I don't think I'd book this cabin again. First, the balcony is really weird in shape and second, we heard noise from above several times every day. BIG, LOUD thumps. I still have no clue what it was, but once I called GR a few times and complained, it stopped. I am not sure if it was stuff blowing around on deck, or stuff being dropped or what, but really it was ridiculous!
Our ports for leg 2 were San Juan, St. Thomas, Samana and Labadee. The weather had been great all cruise until Samana. It was a bit cloudy although the sun popped out occasionally. However, Labadee was rainy! Again, I will say that I don't know why Samana is a port call. If you don't go to Cayo Levantado there isn't anything else really to do....I wish RCI would change this to something else, but it appears that next year, places like San Juan and St. Maarten are getting dumped in favor of Samana (and Labadee-but I like Labadee).
As mentioned earlier, we got a new CD for this leg and Dave and his crew seemed to have more fun. I will say though that the activities manager, and his "let's get ready to BIIIINNNNGGGOOOOOOOOOO" shtick got old!
One thing we've gotten to really like on Explorer is the salon. Sure it costs more than at home but it's right there, ON the ship and I can take mom to get fluffy! She really looks forward to this and since we don't do excursions or spa treatments, nor do we drink TOO much, we can swing the extra expense. Plus, Tori and the other stylists are very nice and lots of fun! (Chocoholics all of them too!)
A quick note about fellow CCers and the M&M. Our roll call for leg one was very active and we had several planned activities. I made it to a few, but I was often in sleepy land! Oh well. It was really great to meet everyone in person and to see some pals from previous trips on Explorer (HI CAROL!!) Tony-thanks for the coffee, and to the people who had a newspaper for me---sorry, I completely forgot to come get it......
Our dinner server for this leg was, as I said not good. I gave him a chance for 3 days then decided that I would like someone else. The dining room manager fixed it for me, and the rest of the meals were great. We did buy a wine package. We got the 12 bottle, Platinum package and we used it for the entire cruise. I wound up bringing 2 bottles home. There was an issue for half the 1st leg in that several wines were not available. They finally showed up in St Thomas and I was happy. Coincidentally or not, the ones missing (a couple Kendall Jacksons and other things) were the most expensive per-bottle prices on the package....Hmmmm. After discussing this with the beverage manager and F&B director one of the problems was that the vendor was having trouble getting enough of the wines for the fleet.
Having attained Diamond Plus status after the 1st leg, the Loyalty Ambassador ensured that I got access to the Concierge Lounge and behind the scenes tours. The LA was actually the assistant LA. His main job on the ship is in the production shows. The regular LA had to leave suddenly so Jason filled in and did a pretty good job. I don't think he got much sleep for those 3 weeks! Another LA was due to arrive when we got off the ship on March 7th.
I made fairly good use of the CL during the second leg. It wasn't really ever too crowded. But, interestingly enough, the Diamond event in the 19th hole on the first leg was ALWAYS packed. I only went up there a few times. I also went to the Diamond breakfast room (Balboa-off the main dining room) a couple times. But, I really didn't feel like sitting through breakfast, AND the promised 'dedicated crew member to assist you' never appeared, even after telling the LA. Seems that this program had good intentions, but the ships are not following it exactly.
There were several complaints about the Concierge this trip. She will be going on vacation and the permanent concierge will return. Suffice it to say that there were a number of occasions when she was not in the lounge, when dirty dishes piled up and when she sat at the desk instead of mingling. I am not saying that the attendant is not a nice person, I just think that there are better ways to perform the functions of that job. Frankly, even though at first, I did not find the attendant in the Diamond lounge very nice, once I called to his attention that in 3 days he never bothered to introduce himself to me, he couldn't' do enough FOR me. He mingled with everyone, and introduced us to each other. He's part of the beverage department, but really he'd make a great concierge as he was pretty nice. (I'd been in the 19th hole 3 nights running, alone, and he never came over to say anything to me. Once I pointed it out to him, we had a nice talk......and he really did try!)
More than one person asked me if I was going to tip the concierge and a few of them said that they were removing the tip for her. (When the pre paid tip form is handed out to suite guests, there is a space to add a tip for the concierge) I did not tip her, as I didn't really have her do anything for me and I didn't feel that she did anything to deserve additional compensation. The bartender though did get taken care of.
Having been on Explorer so often, I wasn't concerned with hitting all the shows. I did check out a couple of them. One of the 'headliners' was actually a former Olympic gymnast-Lance Ringnald. He did a very interesting performance using the silks, a walker (as in a mobility device) and other things. I really enjoyed this as it was so different. I saw a couple production shows as well and they were good. Skipped the ice shows-there's always next time! There was also a Beatles tribute show that I heard was very good, and the return of Marty Allen and his wife Karon Kate. Missed them this time but they do an enjoyable show. She's a great singer and performer and even though Marty has been around forever (he is well into his 80s!) he still gets some laughs!
One night while we were cruising, the ship suddenly listed to the port side, at about 4 AM. There was a really bad storm outside with some really cool lightening. I heard a couple things start to slide, so I got up and moved the breakables to safety. While the ship listed, it was pretty hard to walk. In fact, I stopped only when I bumped into the little wall by the closet. (Not hurt at all!) This lasted maybe 30 seconds to a minute and all was better. Captain Ryan came on the PA and said that the wind, which had been across the bow, suddenly shifted to the stern, and there was a gust of 100 MPH that came out of nowhere. This shift cause the auto pilot to stop working. The officers on the bridge at that hour took the WHEEL (yes, an actual small wheel) and steered the ship back on course, reset the auto pilot and we were on our way. (But I don't think we would have minded an altered course if it took us to, say, Hawaii!)
Lots of glass and bottles of booze and perfume were broken, as well as a couple of the glass display cases. I heard no reports of injury or windows under water, or anything of the kind. The liquor store remained closed for that day and perhaps part of the next. When they finally reopened you could tell that a LOT of bottles were destroyed. At no time did we feel that our safety was in jeopardy and it was nice to hear Captain Ryan's voice, even though a little part of me half expected to hear Oscar Oscar Oscar after the bing bong!
For those who keep track of this thing, Captain Ryan left for vacation on the 7th and after that, he will transfer to the Legend. Captain Olav will cover his vacation. At that point, Captain Carlos (who I believe is currently the master on Legend) will take over for Captain Ryan on Explorer. I'd always wanted to get a photo with Captain Ryan and I am glad that I did this cruise.
As D+ members, we had really early tags for departure-about 8:15 I think. As our car service wasn't due until 10, and I'd need a little extra time to get mom going, I asked for tags for about 9 or so which I got at GR with no trouble. We were off the ship, onto the bus, through immigration and such by about 9:35 or so. Thus, we beat our car. He arrived right on time at 10 AM and we were home, settled and I was en route to the grocery store by about 12:15! (The trip home took a little longer-seems that the roads were really ripped up in the last storm and the repair jobs are lousy! He was trying to NOT hit every bump!) "Disguesting" wasn't anywhere near as bad this time as it was in December in the snow. I think that snow just totally ruins everything. I was speaking to some of my friends who got off on February 26th in the snowstorm and they said it was horrible. I still say RCI needs to move the wheelchair departure area under the tent, but at least this time it wasn't so cold and yucky!
I kind of like having the tips all paid for before I get on the ship. Frankly I generally don't notice a difference in service, with the once exception of the 2nd server at dinner. We probably paid out an extra $100-125 in tips each week between extra for the wait staff and cabin attendant, room service and a bit of extra cash here and there to bar tenders. Aside from our wine package, salon charges, some frozen thingies, a couple souveniers and a $190 visit to the doctor for my bad headcold, we didn't spend all that much. (And the doctor's fee will be covered by trip insurance!)
Drink of the day prices have dropped to $5.95 without a souvenir glass. That's a nice savings. You can always get a glass, or buy them at the International food expo thing on one of the last couple sea days. The only souvenir container I got was the 1st day-that cute little Viking Crown cup that you can see by following the link below to my photos! ?
All in all we had a wonderful time. The passengers on both legs seemed pretty nice. Generally the wheelchair gets run over...this time, the vast majority of people didn't cut us off! Some of the kids were kind of annoying. (About 8 of them laid on the floor in front of WJ on a sea day and had a crew member take their photo. Very stupid and very unsafe as people had to almost climb over them to get through.) The few issues we had were addressed promptly and it was very nice to have so many crew recognize us! (The Hotel Director often teased me about this and that! The night we were in SJ, I was going to Starbucks in hopes of faster internet. He saw me at about 8 PM and said...'we sail at 11, be back on time!' LOL! Too bad he'll be on vacation when we are back in a couple months!)
Yes sailing from NJ in winter can be cold and bumpy. Sure, the pier in Bayonne isn't that nice and sometimes gets crowded and just plain stinks. However, being able to be on a ship in under 2 hours from front door to cabin door really has its advantages.
We'd like to see another ship and some other itineraries; however, even with the repetition, mom and I can still have fun.
Thanks for sticking around and reading my review. Happy cruising!