This is gonna be lengthy, so sit right back while I tell a tale, a tale of a fateful ship.... This review will have tips that are worth knowing, sprinkled in with observations and general knowledge. We had cruised on Explorer's sister ship, the Mariner , 5 years ago, so we were familiar with her layout. I have to say that I spent HOURS online at this site and others trying to glean any information I could get, because we had never sailed from New York before and also because the Explorer was in dry dock in January. I became concerned with the amount of negativity about Cape Liberty, the food, the ship, the staff, the passengers, the everything...that was posted. And of course, once read, it's like trying to unsee something you've already seen. But, I went into this with a positive attitude and I am pleased to report I was able to sustain it throughout the entire trip. My husband and I are both mid 40ish, traveling with 2 teenagers, boy and girl (14 and 15 respectively) and my parents, mid 60ish. The embarkation and debarkation portion of this review is written from the view of driving ourselves to/from the port, because said husband absolutely, positively refuses to fly. We are from Michigan and it is typically an 11-12 hour trip in good conditions to get to the port. Luckily, we came in between snowstorms-we passed a section of I-80 that was still being cleaned up, 2 days after the fact, from a 30 car/20semi pile up. We stayed at a Comfort Inn in Fairfield, NJ (1-973-227-4333) less than 30 miles from Cape Liberty. Due to them not keeping to our request of a 1st floor room and the elevator being broken, we were given our rooms for $55 plus tax. Can't beat that! I mention this hotel because it has the most outstanding Italian restaurant on the premises I have ever encountered. We luckily got in without reservations as it only has seating for about 30 persons. The food presentation and amount of food (enough for a lumberjack or Oprah) was phenomenal. My dad, who is very hard to please (but doesn't think he is) raved about his meal well into our cruise and also mentioned it on the drive home. We tried an appetizer of fried green olives because this is something we'd never encountered before. They were awesome.
Embarkation-In one of the reviews that I really enjoyed by a retired policeman, he mentioned that he'd rather be early and wait in the terminal than come later and have to wait in traffic. We all agreed on that philosophy. Nothing worse than sitting in traffic in a place you are unfamiliar with and not knowing what's going on. I checked www.seascanner.com to see where the ship was and saw it was just docking at 7:00 a.m. Another cool site is www.marinetraffic.com and that is helpful within a few hours of the ship arriving or departing from Cape Liberty. It gives the actual (not scheduled) position of the ship. Being as our ship had arrived, we packed up and left for the terminal and arrived there at about 9:15. Minimal traffic, dropped our bags with a porter (tip them) at the side of the white tent and drove up a little, turned left and in between the buildings was the parking attendant. You pay $19 a day up front and it was $228 for our 12 day cruise. The parking attendant actually had us go across the street to a closer parking lot as they were attempting to snow plow the main lot once the debarking passengers left. The lot we ended up in, was a stone's throw from the ship. The Statue of Liberty was right there across the river with Manhattan in the background. Might I mention it was about 34° and this is very weird when a person is used to getting on a ship tropical climates. From the parking lot (which has a HUGE amount of handicapped spots-so no worries for those folks) we walked a short distance to the white tent again and went through security, were given a number and a health form to fill out. They sat us in the lounge where you could enjoy lemonade and coffee with cookies. At 10:30, we went partially back out toward where we came in after they called our number and you present your health form, passport, credit card if you are charging on your sea pass account and online reservation check sheet to the RCI personnel and BINGO, you've got yourself a sea pass! They process the Platinums, Diamonds and suite holders in a separate area because they get priority check in and they get on the buses first. Being as we were one of the first to arrive, we were on the bus right behind them. That being said, they started buses for regular passengers at about 12:00. We enjoyed sitting in the lounge people watching, but were becoming concerned that we weren't seeing any kids around our children's ages. There ended up being about 94 kids in their age group and that was plenty. We were told that some cruises have had up to 1350 kids on board. I will take a moment here to thank the powers that be, that ours was not that populated. Ok, I'm back. The bus ride was about 1 minute. And there we were. In writing this, I wish there I am. You cannot enter your stateroom until 1:30 (or perhaps a few minutes sooner) when they release the rooms. Keep this in mind when carrying on, because you will be dragging this around with you until then. The Windjammer was already open and that's where we headed. So glad we were early because later people arriving had a hard time finding a place to sit. As soon as you are done eating, be nice and leave so other people can enjoy their first meal too. This is a great opportunity to explore your new surroundings. We had signed up for My Time Dining when we reserved our cruise (all gratuities are paid in advance-room attendant included) but remember this. Reservations are suggested even on the first day. On our particular cruise they had allowed for 400 MTD's. I talked to one passenger who tried to get MTD when reserving her cruise and it was already full, so reserve early. We stopped by the reservation desk, Deck 5 dining room and made a 6:15. That is the time we picked for the entire cruise, (when arriving for dinner we made the next night's reservation every day), and were so blessed to get the same table next to the windows every single night. The reservation ladies were absolutely gorgeous and a delight to work with. I want to take the time here to thank our absolutely wonderful waitstaff, Romeo (Head Waiter-amazingly entertaining and gracious), Venito Braganza (Waiter-very efficient and funny-even though we didn't get to hear him sing...), Ritish (Assistant Waiter-always, always smiling and happy AND singing) and Jackson (Assistant Waiter-always smiling and attentive-especially knowing how my family likes bread.) It was a pleasure to know them for 12 days. So, in summary MTD worked exceptionally well for us. The time we picked got us in behind the herd going in at 6:00 for main seating and we never once had to wait.
Food-after reading so many negative things about the food, I was almost apprehensive about what we would encounter. All I can say is, those people who complained should consider the millions upon millions of people starving around the world and basically stop sounding like fat cat capitalistic pigs. People from other nations already think that that is what we are like, so let's not add more fuel to the fire. The food was wonderful. There's no need to go into the amount of food, which is almost embarrassing. One of the big favorites of ours was the Tutti Salad in the Dining Room for lunch (on sea days). You get in line, point out what all you want, they put it together and toss it, you eat. Another fave, (taken from a tip on this site) was the mini croissant sandwiches from Cafe Promenade-open 24/7), and if you are a scone lover, watch for the cranberry scones. They had those on two different nights. Windjammer is open 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (if you like sushi, it's available every evening!) Room Service is 24/7 and free unless between 12 a.m. and 5 a.m. -then there is a $3.95 charge). My dad was recently diagnosed with Diabetes and he did very well because of all the sugar free choices and he was able to keep away from the potatoes, rice, bread etc.
Drinks-There's no getting around it. Drinks are expensive. The only free alcohol on board was at the art auction and if you don't like champagne or trying to figure out the confusing information of the auction itself, avoid this venture. I did learn some interesting facts only about the artists they were pushing but because of the champagne, I don't remember them anyway. Previous reviews had said that RCI really pushes the drinks, but I did not find this so. Mostly on the pool decks the servers would be milling around and it was comforting to me that if I wanted a drink, there would not be a wait. RCI automatically tacks on a 15% gratuity to every drink. At dinner, I would occasionally have a glass of Cabernet and they ran between $6-$11 + gratuity. We are not pop drinkers so did not participate in the soda fountain program. I would not pay $3 for a bottle of water either. What we did was this. You are allowed to each bring a bottle of water aboard with you. I packed a variety of those powered singles by Crystal Light, Arizona, Lipton, Propel and Gatorade. We just kept rinsing and refilling. My son ended up being the only one to add the powder to his water. Tip: always carry water with you when you leave the ship. Touring is thirsty work. On the night of departure, one of the servers came around Deck 12 with hot chocolate that was about $6.75 and you got to keep the thermal glass. He added a hearty dose of Bailey's for an additional $3. I have to say it was the best hot chocolate I have ever had. My husband complained of the price, but took back his comment when he discovered a couple days into the trip and burning his hands from the flimsy paper cups provided for coffee from Cafe Promenade, that he could put is coffee in the insulated cup! We're all about repurposing! Milk, coffee, water, OJ, iced and hot tea, chocolate milk and tomato juice-(breakfast, ask for it)are free.
Shows-I only made it to two of the shows in the Palace Theatre. Vibeology was entertaining. Lance Ringnald-2x Olympic Gymnast was absolutely fantastic! My mom made it to almost all the other shows and she said they were all good, but that the gymnast was the best. The ice shows were both awesome, the second one, Spirits of the Season, was spectacular. The first night on board they hand out tickets for the first showings of the ice show, so it's a must to get them if you plan to attend. They are handed out in front of Studio B on Deck 3. While there we signed up for the art auction and got free champagne and an art print. If you miss things like the Love and Marriage Gameshow or the Cake Decorating Battle Royal etc., RCI does show them on a continuous loop on the TV in your room.
Bingo-had tried that on a previous cruise, very, very expensive. Had no desire to do so again.
Casino-we are not big gamblers, but did enjoy playing the slots on the smoke free nights (formal nights of which there were three). Even though it was supposed to be a smoke free environment, this did not stop a few of the human chimneys. We actually came out about $90 ahead of the game.
Parades-never made it to either one, but heard from others they were fun.
Teen Club-as I said, glad the numbers were small. We saw our kids the first day and after that rarely saw them. This is not to say that we didn't march right in to their Optix club and check up on them during the day just to make sure they weren't tearing the ship apart or annoying the other passengers. They both met kids from all over the world and have, since we returned, joined up with them on Facebook and My Space with pictures and videos.
Seminars & Talks-tried these in the past, not big spenders, didn't bother.
Crafts-we didn't go to the first one which was a bookmark, because we thought it would be a cheesy paper bookmark. Went to the second one, a suncatcher, and was shown the bookmark by another passenger and wished we had went to that one. Very cool projects-kudos to Sue and Kathy.
Clothing-3 formal nights, smart casual and casual, check RCI site for what that means. We way over-packed. Next time I'd take half as much and employ the ships laundry service. About part way through the cruise they supply a bag and whatever you can fit in the bag is $25.
Pictures-I have to commend the photo shop for recovering the photos from my daughters camera when she accidentally formatted the stick half way through the trip. It cost $30 for the recovery and to burn them to a CD and worth every penny. I did notice (and remember) that RCI likes to take your picture at every opportunity (a mere 19.95 per shot, that's right just 19.95, plus free shipping-I jest. There's no shipping involved.) I did not recall them taking so many pictures in the past. They unfortunately set up in a couple different spots right in front of the dining rooms and staircases. I witnessed a show getting out and the people coming up the stairs were actually walking in between the subjects and the photographers. Cables were snaking all over. This did not bother me, but seemed it could be a hazard for the main body of passengers who were mostly, it appeared, over the age of 70. Maybe even 75. Outside of a nursing home or hospital, I have never seen so many walkers, wheelchairs or Amigos. We had one cute gent with his pants strapped up under his armpits, traipsing around with a walker that was equipped with one of those bells off a bike and a rubber bulb horn that he would sound off whenever he passed someone in the hallways. But I digress. See more about passengers in the passenger section.
Passengers-this cruise had very few kids (abt 10%) 20ish (about 2%) 30-40-50ish (abt 25%), and the rest were all older. The pros of having an older crowd on board: they weren't clamoring to climb the rock wall, ice skate, in line skate, or play basketball and volleyball. I didn't get to the clubs, but would imagine break dancing would have a whole new meaning to them. Getting a deck chair in the sun was totally doable because this age group is already aware and living with skin cancer. Cons: being middle aged we are kind of used to moving at a faster pace and for the most part the older generation once they set course did not alter it. Ever. Not to the sides, not the speed, nada. We kept a sharp eye out for the walkers, wheelchairs etc., because it only takes getting hit in the back of the leg with a wheel chair once (thank you to the lady who rammed her "mummy" into my leg while I was standing in line for ice show tickets-didn't see that one coming...) for one to exercise extreme caution. The other thing I noticed about passengers on this ship is that skinny/normal weight people made up about 10% of the population. That estimate might even be a little on the high side. I can say this with great authority because I myself am overweight. I am tall, so that helps distribute the blubber. However, in this crowd, I probably would have been considered almost svelte. What a sad state of affairs! I heard several nicknames for our ship: the large barge, S.S. Geritol, Cruise of the Living Dead etc. This cruise has made me resolve to really hit the exercises upon our return. As for rudeness, I heard a lot of stories from other passengers but only experienced one that must be told because of it's sheer absurdness. We had just got back on the ship from San Juan and entered the elevator on Deck 1. (We almost took the stairs to Deck 6, but mom thought her knee couldn't take it.) There were probably already 8 of us in there when the doors started to close and a guy yells out that we had room for a couple more. I could feel the rest of us thinking various forms of "rats" and rolling our eyeballs. So a guy, two kids and a woman board the elevator. The woman was the last one on and threw the elevator into Overload, which will not do anything until someone gets off. Everyone, except apparently, the woman, knows the rule that the last one on has to get off. She didn't move. At all. People started telling her the rule. Nothing. Buda like, she stood there. One of the guys gave her a shot to the shoulder to get her to move. She thought the young boy shoved her, and tore into him. Still no movement. Finally another guy said he would get off and she didn't even move for him and she was blocking the doorway. Needless to say, a couple of our fellow elevator riders let her know by various names what they really thought of her. The kicker here is she got off the elevator on Deck 2 and told us she was not the various names people had called her. All that for one deck? Ah, the irony.
Shopping-on the last day RCI brings out scads of T-shirts that are normally $16.95 and sells them at 2 for $20. It will be mobbed. They have plenty.
Miscellaneous-on day 7, they had "midnight buffet" and pool party, day 10 BBQ poolside, day 11 (I think) they had food set up all along the Promenade with a GIGANTIC cake and chocolate sculpture. There were tons and tons of other things to do. Everything from ping pong to trivia to karaoke. The best part-you can do everything or nothing at all.
Itinerary-we loved the fact that you had 3 days at sea, fabulous time to totally relax, really get to know the ship. Then 6 days of islands-definite stamina involved here-then 2 ½ days to re-relax. It was perfect. Ports of Call-if you one of the people who like to see the ship coming into ports and watching the docking process, it's important you get up early. This is one of my absolute favorites of cruising. Unfortunately, I have only so much stamina and this past time does not allow for late nights, so there will not be much available information about the night clubs in this review. In fact, there will be none. We had a balcony cabin (we will never have anything less) and for peace and quiet nothing beats it. I was able to see sting rays jumping out of the water and doing belly flops (I didn't know they did this), dolphins and my mom saw flying fish from her balcony. While it's nice to be on deck 12 for a 360° view, rail space can be at a premium. We only booked one excursion through the cruise line. The other islands we bartered with local taxies to take us around. The excursion booked through the cruise line was my least favorite. I'll explain that in a minute. All of the islands were beautiful. That being said-here's where we went. Island #1-St. Thomas-we had already been a couple of different times so we didn't even do an excursion there. Did some shopping and it was hot. Very hot. This is what we wanted right? To get some sun and get away from winter. Our wish was granted twice over. Can anyone smell bacon frying? Speaking of which, I had bought a dry oil sunscreen. Big, big, big mistake. We were cooked. Probably there will be melanomas in our future. Yikes. There is a butterfly house right at the pier within walking distance, we did not go mainly because someone told us it was $15 each to get in. I don't like butterflies THAT much. Island #2-St. Maarten-we had been there once before but decided to take a tour anyway. Most of our tours were $20 to $25 per person and we would tip at the end. We had been to the butterfly place before so didn't go again. They have salt ponds there that they used to "mine" but they are no longer in use. I think a nice tour would have been to see how they harvested the salt, packaged, the history etc., but that's just me. We were able to do 45 minutes of shopping during our tour, which of course, not enough time. Ever. But we prevailed and got the gratuitous t-shirts, magnets etc. Island #3-Dominica- pronounced Domineeca- is a wild mountainous beautiful island. No beaches if you are a beach person. Bartered for a tour- and a woman popped into the van with us and said she was our tour guide. All the better, the driver can concentrate on driving he shoestring mountainous, no guardrail, sheer drop of roads. Half way through our very nice trip with tour guide informed us that she was paid separately. What we did was give her the tip we would have gave the driver, because this was not agreed upon. She got $30. I saw other tours with the same situation. If you want to see the Trafalgar Falls (and you really should) it's another $5 a piece and a hike (not too bad if you are not disabled and in at least half good shape. Upon return to the ship there is limited shopping and we were hounded by at least 20 tour guides to take a tour in the course of shopping for a half an hour. Island #4-Barbados-one of my absolute favorite islands. Be forewarned-do not wear camouflage on the island. You will be warned about this apparel choice because there are armed guerillas afoot. We had a wonderful tour and part way through we were at the top of the island and it had a rum shack and small souvenir place. I got a rum punch and my 14 year old son asked for a taste, so I gave him one. We were all standing at the counter. Little did I know that on the other side of my dad, who is a goodly sized man, was a policeman. Holy Mother! The woman who served me asked how old he was, I told her, she replied that he couldn't drink that, which I agreed. Then two guerillas (that's guerillas not gorillas) carrying automatic weapons walked past and took up residence at the corner of the shack. Double Holy Mother! Did I mention the automatic weapons? Ok, everybody back to the van. I though my mom was going to have a stroke over the deal, but she had her rum punch, chugged it down and was better. We were in Barbados on a Sunday and most shops in town are closed. We shopped right in the cruise terminal and found everything we were looking for. We had also stopped at an open air tent market along the way and the prices were all comparable. My mom wanted to see Orchid world (add $10 please) and she and my dad went in while the rest of us cooled our heels on the shady porch and had fun watching a tiny anode. Island #5-Antigua- another fave. We had a wonderful tour with a tour guide named A.C. Lawrence. He was a retired policeman with a great sense of humor. Very wonderful and informative tour. He took plenty of time to stop where ever we wanted for pics or to purchase one of there tiny pineapples (excellent-not acidic at all) and to answer all questions. Island #6-San Juan-excursion purchased through the cruise line. We took the Bacardi Rum Tour. Since 9/11 you do not get to see actual bottling. It is mostly a herding process from room to room with talking tour guide and/or video. The tour did come with 2 free drinks which were good although 9:30 a.m. is early to drink even for me. Also, for some reason I got extreme heartburn and a headache from the rum. Kind of weird. The rest of the tour was good around Old San Juan and as we were only at the island for about 5 hours we had to really move it. A word about independent tours-on some of the islands there is a hierarchy to the order in which the cabs are parked. Those drivers who walk up from the back of the line, tick off those at the start. Agree to a price before entering the vehicle, make sure it's in U.S. currency. Have the driver actually show you his vehicle. Unfortunately on Barbados, we thought the driver was pointing to a newer vehicle in the line and he took us to the one behind it, which unfortunately had no air and the radial belts were showing through one of the tires on the front. On a hilly island this is NOT good. But we made it back alive, jumped out and kissed the ground and went back to the ship. I'll have a double please bartender.
Weather- ok, so the eastern seaboard was hit by several freak blizzards causing some anxiety for our travel group. Luckily as I said we left in between two storms, one chased us right out of town. The first day and a half were nippy. By the end of the 2nd day it was 60ish out. My daughter and I suffer from motion sickness-so I had stocked up on Dramamine and our Dr. gave us a prescription for the patches. As a triple backup in case those two items failed, we also went to an acupuncturist and had tiny titanium balls stuck to our ears, which are supposed to last 10 days. These did not work for my daughter-she wore a patch for the first couple of days until her sea legs "kicked" in. They did work wonderfully for me. Until the last day when we entered yet another blizzard with Gale 11 force winds (60+ mph) and 20' swells. Then I had to take a Dramamine and so did my husband. The ship handled the storm wonderfully, the crew battened down the hatches (you could not go outside) and barf bags were hung by the banisters with care. So, perfect weather except for the 1st and last day which you are packing and unpacking, saying hello and good bye to the ship and it's passengers anyway and you don't feel like you would be missing something outside.
Passports-we carried them onto each island. Only had to show them getting on the ship at embarkation, getting on the ship at San Juan and at customs getting off the ship.
Debarkation-being as we drove, when RCI put in the Day 4 Daily Compass about express departure, we signed up for it immediately. They only allow so many passengers to debark in this manner. Pros-you are first off the ship-no waiting for colors to be called, you don't have to put your luggage out in the hallway the night before, and you don't have to go find your luggage in customs, you can wait in your room until they say the ship has cleared customs. Cons-you have to carry your own luggage and it's extremely difficult to catch an elevator. Luckily, my parents were able to get on an elevator, but there were four of us and we went down 6 flights. It wasn't bad at all. We actually beat madre and padre down to the 1st deck. Have your customs form (1 per family) filled out and in hand and your passport open to the photo for after the bus ride. We sailed right through and out into.....a foot of snow. I almost wheeled my luggage back around and demanded to be let back on the ship. Ah, well, until next time...bon voyage!