We live in central New Jersey and for the past several years we have sailed exclusively from the NY area to avoid air travel. We hadn't sailed RCI from Bayonne because there we wanted to experience the other new ships on other cruise lines sailing from this area rather than repeat a cruise on a 10 year old ship.
But we were very pleased with the excellent condition of the ship. And the RCI experience was just as good as we remembered it, in spite of many comments about things going downhill. But then again, people complain about things going downhill on all cruise lines. In some ways cruising is not what it used to be but it;s so much better in others and it's still our favorite type of vacation. As Billy Joel says, "the good old days weren't always good and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems"!
Embarkation: I'd heard a lot of negative reports from friends and CC message boards about the traffic into and out of the port, the bare bones warehouse-like terminal and the shuttle from the terminal to the ship. Frankly, no matter what we would find at the terminal beat having to fly to pick up the cruise.
But we had no problems at all. We left our house at 9:30AM for the 45-50 minute drive to Bayonne. We left early in case we encountered the traffic jam that so many people experienced.
We were at the pier before 10:30, checked our bags with the longshoreman and proceeded to the terminal. Since we are Platinum Crown & Anchor members and stayed in a Junior Suite, both qualified us for priority check in with our own departure lounge. There was no line for us and I noted no lines to speak of in the general check in area as well.
Because we were so early, we had a rather long wait before we could board. The priority departure lounge is near a door and it was quite chilly on this cold February morning. Boarding began shortly after noon. We hopped onto the first shuttle bus for the 1-2 minute ride to the ship.
Staterooms were not ready yet so we went up to the Windjammer for lunch, beating the crowds. Cabins were ready at 1:30 so we headed down to deck 9 to check ours out.
Stateroom: We were expecting our Junior Suite to be similar to the mini-suites we've had on Princess and NCL but the JS was much nicer. The room was huge. The queen size bed was very comfortable. There was also a sitting area with a couch, 2 cushioned chairs and a cocktail table. A counter ran along the entire opposite wall of the cabin. There were 2 "desk"-like areas with chairs and plenty of shelves and cabinets for storage. There was a flat screen TV with very limited reception. We had our cabin attendant empty the minibar so we could use it for our own beverages.
The best part was the HUGE walk in closet. This was bigger than most bathrooms I've had on ships! There was ample room for hanging garments and additional shelves lined one wall of the closet.
I was a bit disappointed in the bathroom. It was bigger than many I've had but for a cabin so large, I was expecting a bigger bathroom. It had only had one sink (not a dual vanity Princess' minisuites) but a very large bathtub which was great to soak in. There was 1 dispenser for conditioning shampoo and bar soap which is the only thing supplied in all guest rooms except for JS and higher. Because we were in a suite, we also had bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion that were replenished as needed.
The balcony was a nice size with 2 chairs, a lounger and a small cocktail table. If you wanted to dine outside, the table wouldn't be big enough. But it was great for lounging with a good book or a drink.
Our stateroom attendant, Joanne from St Vincent, was efficient. She kept our cabin spotless. Our requests for extra towels and plenty of ice were always fulfilled.
Dining: Food is always so subjective but I think sometimes people have high expectations of cruise ship food. This is not a 4 star restaurant with a celebrity chef. This is basically a huge catering hall feeding over 3,000 people several times a day. With a few exceptions, I thought the food was excellent. I'll break this down by the dining venues that we experienced.
Main Dining Room: When we booked the cruise we opted for My Time Dining. We remembered form our previous cruises on Royal Caribbean that tables for 2 are scarce and we prefer that to sharing larger tables. However, when we boarded, my husband went to see the Maitre D' who gave us an assigned table for 2 for late sitting, which is also our preference.
Our server was Joray from South Africa and her assistant was Oliver from Macedonia. Both were professional and very friendly. We enjoyed chatting with them every night.
We had soup as starters every night which were very good and always hot. Salads were varied and a nice size with your choice of about 5 or 6 different dressings including low fat.
Entree choices were the usual red meat, fish and poultry every night as well as a pasta and vegetarian entrEe. Grilled sirloin steak, chicken breast, salmon and pasta with Marinara sauce were available every night as well. Food was delicious except for the Lamb T-bones. This cut of meat is a lamb chop made to be grilled but it was prepared in a long slow cooked method causing the meat to be very tough and dry. Beef was tender and always served medium rare as requested. It never had to be returned once, as is sometimes the case. Desserts were okay, but then again, I'm not a dessert person, so something has to be outstanding to impress me.
Windjammer: We ate breakfast & lunch here everyday. The layout is great and everything goes very smoothly. There's never a long line even on the busy in-port mornings or sea day lunches. Tables are cleared quickly and announcements are made during busy times to gently remind passengers to vacate their tales when they're done as a courtesy to their fellow passengers. In spite of that, you still saw a few uncaring people reading a book or playing cards while others are roaming looking for a free table. That's not the cruise lines fault, however.
Breakfast had everything you could want from fruit, cereal and yogurt to eggs, pancakes, French toast, waffles, bacon, sausage hash, potatoes, etc. There were separate stations for made to order omelets and fried eggs. Beverage stations were manned by staff who had glasses filled with juices and water and would get you coffee or tea as requested. This actually is a smoother and quicker process than self serve. FYI, only orange and apple juice is available these stations, but you can request any one of the many available servers to get you other juices, such as tomato or cranberry. There is no additional charge for this.
Lunch had plenty of variety every day. There were 3 different soups, several hot dishes, veggies, potatoes & starch. Some of the fish and meats were sometimes a little dry from sitting on the heated tables, so I looked for the dishes that were just put out which tended to be moister and juicier. There was also a pasta & pizza station and grill area with burgers, hot dogs and fries. Note: burgers are precooked and placed in a steam tray so if you like medium rare burgers forget it. There is also one station devoted solely to Asian food, some of which was very good and some just okay. Unfortunately, sushi was only available one day at lunch but is available every night at the dinner buffet. We often took some back to our cabin to enjoy with pre-dinner cocktails.
We actually ate at the dinner buffet one night. The selection was much better than I would have expected, but I really have limited experience with buffet dinners on cruises since this was our first time. We always eat in the MDR or specialty restaurants. But this was Super Bowl Sunday and our late sitting would have interfered with the game so we opted for a quick buffet dinner. This was when we found out about the sushi, which was varied and fresh.
Portofino: I know many would disagree, but I found this to be just okay. I actually won dinner for 2 in one of the many on board raffles so I can't complain too much. But if we had paid $40 for this meal, it would have been a disappointment. It was the least memorable meal I've ever had in a specialty restaurant on any cruise ship.
I ordered the Seafood Skewers which gets many raves on these boards. I found the seafood to be either mushy or dry and overcooked. I also had a side of the Spaghetti Frutta di Mare. I also found the fish to be overcooked and the sauce very bland. My husband had the Veal Saltimbocca which was very tender and tasty but the accompanying mushroom risotto was sticky and cloying. The high spot was an order of the Papardelle Pasta with Mushrooms that he ordered as a side. That was the only really good thing we ate that night. Also, we were advised that many wines were unavailable that night. Oddly enough, they were the only ones under $50 a bottle. We opted for 2 glasses instead and I noted that we weren't the only people doing that.
Entertainment: We saw 2 of the 3 production shows, missing the first one because it was Super Bowl Sunday and we went to Studio B where the game was being shown on a big screen. The shows were okay and I thought the singers were much better than the dancers in general. There was one dancer who did a solo to "Maniac" from "Flashdance" and she was absolutely terrible.
Ice show was fun to see. The skaters managed to keep their balance quite well considering the ship's motion.
Other entertainment was, well, entertaining but not outstanding.
Spa: Unlike most newer ships, the Explorer's spa doesn't have a thermal suite. However, there was a thalassotherapy pool and men's & women's sauna & steam room, all of which were free of charge. None of these were ever crowded even on the cold sea days when going outside was not an option.
I had a couple of spa treatments. Prices and services are on par for any cruise ship. Thankfully, the sales pitch at the end of the treatment to buy the overpriced Elemis products was not as aggressive as it is on some ships. Or maybe Steiner has listened to customers complaints and has finally tuned it down in general.
The gym is well equipped with the usual cardio machines. I never had a problem getting a treadmill, although I rarely went early in the morning. I actually prefer walking outside, but there's no wrap around outdoor promenade. The walking/jogging track is up on deck 12, which I find too windy &/or sunny. Also, unless you do you laps early, the deck is too congested with sunbathers.
Casino: We love the penny slots and there was an okay assortment, given the size of the casino. However, it was tough to get a seat at times. But get with it RCI. Where are the EZ Pay machines which print out vouchers or machines where you draw off an account? Why are we still handling coins in the slot machines?
The biggest drawback in the casino, however, is the smoke. It is one of the few indoor venues where people can smoke. Many used it as a smoking lounge, particularly on those cold sea days. The casino is smoke free on formal nights and I wish it were that way all the time.
Ports: San Juan - We didn't arrive until 3:00PM so walked just around town a bit. We've visited this port many times and have seen most of the sights in and around San Juan.
St Thomas - Another port we've been to numerous times. I love the beaches here, but the Oasis of the Seas was in port as well as 4 or 5 other ships and I could just imagine what the crowds would be like. We opted to go shopping downtown and then head back to the ship for lunch. Walked a bit more around Havensight after lunch and then went back on board.
Samana - This was our first time visiting the Dominican Republic. We took the ship's sponsored excursion to Cayo Levantado and loved it. The beach is clean, the water calm and there's enough space so that people aren't on top of each other.
Labadee - We haven't been here in many years and were amazed at how it's been built up. It really looks like a resort not just an out-island beach and barbeque. I was a bit skeptical about heading to Haiti so soon after the quake, but I'm glad we did. The ship dropped off much needed food and medical supplies as well as several mattresses that they no longer needed. Proceeds from all sales on the island went to quake relief. We bought a few things at the greatly expanded vendor stalls. A few of the vendors tried to play on your sympathy but most were just trying to earn a buck.
Disembarkation: Fast, easy and efficient. We did not carry off our bags but chose the traditional method instead. We requested an 8:30AM departure time and we were off by 8:45AM. Hopped on the shuttle, picked up bags at the terminal breezed through customs and were home by about 10:30AM.
I would definitely sail on the Explorer again or on any other ship the RCI might reposition to Cape Liberty. In the Q&A session with the Captain and some of his senior staff, the Captain did say that there were no current plans to bring any other ship in. He also said that the port is not deep enough for any of the Freedom class vessels, but he didn't mention Radiance class!