BACKGROUND: We are a family of 5 ( me, DW, DS16, DS7, DS7) on our first RCCL cruise although we did cruise out of NY on the NCL Gem 2 years ago and, will make some comparisons along the way.
ARRIVAL AT PIER: Since you Americans are not into snow tires and stayed away from the roads in droves that Friday morning, our drive into Cape Liberty was very smooth ( sorry Meg no traffic ) and were at the port by 10:45 a.m. This is where the problem started, we were stuck for almost 1 1/2 hours in a slow-moving one lane line of cars. It seems that we shared the same lane as those arriving to pick up disembarking passengers. Note to RCCL: Please find a way to separate disembarking passengers from those arriving to embark. NCL Gem: The Manhattan Pier is much easier to access and more pleasing to the eye. Advantage NCL.
EMBARKATION: We finally arrived at the run-down warehouse / circus tent they call a port at 12:15 and were having lunch at the Windjammer by 12:45p.m. Registration /security check / embark photo went quickly and smoothly. So quickly had to steal a couple of those cookies as we headed to the shuttle bus. NCL Gem: Just as smooth but no shuttle bus. Advantage NCL
STATEROOM: My wife and I had a balcony #6668 and my kids were in an inside cabin #6667 across the hall. We were pleased with the size of the cabins / bathrooms / storage. The tv is still the old tube type but since I do not cruise to watch TV..no biggie here. The furnishings did show some wear and tear but acceptable. Strangely we liked the privacy of our bunker style balcony which sheltered us from the winds and rain. NCL Gem: Since the ship was only a few months old, obviously the staterooms were fabulous with flat-screen tv and modern furnishings. Advantage NCL
DINING: Being Italian and the son of a former chef, I certainly enjoy and understand good food. Firstly, the Windjammer ( buffet ). We found breakfast / lunch and afternoon snack time to be quite good with plenty of selection . Hard to understand those that say it is all the same food. Maybe so but there are dozens of different foods to choose and we did notice that there were a few different items each day at lunch / supper like very good sushi. How much variety do we need ?? How much do we have at home ? Dining Room: We had MTD and ate supper every night in the dining room. Firstly in regards to MTD, as long as you remember to make reservations by late morning, you will get the time and table you want. We were served for most of the trip by Venito and Anish and they were fabulous. Venito even cut the meat for one of my twins. Too bad we can't bring them home. Ah the food..we all enjoyed the variety ( different menu every night ), the presentation and the quality of the meals and came away very impressed. Again I have a hard time understanding some critics of the food..I would love to eat at their homes if they consider this sub-standard food. Geez..we had lobster, tiger shrimp, great roast, sirloin steak...! Promenade Cafe: This is the 24 hour eatery where we enjoyed at all hours a good coffee, pastries, cookies, sandwiches and great pizza. We loved this place and hung out here often for snacking. Portofino's : This is the specialty pay restaurant that due to the quality of the food in the dining room we did not attend. Room Service: Only ordered breakfast once and arrived on time. Tried to order a late snack but was told 45 minute wait so we cancelled and went to the Promenade Cafe. NCL Gem: We were not impressed by the dining room or the impression that you need to dine at the several pay restaurants to get better food and service. What the Gem did have and Explorer did not is poolside grills and a deck off the buffet to dine open air which I think is great ! Advantage Explorer based on quality of food and service.
AMENITIES: We did not try the spa for financial reasons..yeah there prices do not conform to our pocketbook. Unfortunately due to the weather and sea conditions did not make much use of the pools but I think they should be heated a little more that 76 degrees for comfort. As far as the entertainment areas, we loved that Palace Theatre, Studio B ( ice-skating rink ), Maharaja Lounge and the bars that line the Royal Promenade. The biggest positive for us was the Royal Promenade. It's great ! with its shops, bars, cafe it makes for a great area to congregate when Mother Nature does not cooperate and, RCCL makes good use of it with their parades, disco night, sail-away parties. Casino was of a good size but didn't donate too much..not much of a gambler. The arcade was quite large and a big hit with the younger crowd. NCL Gem: Pool area advantage Gem with their great couches and funky recliners. As for the rest, especially because of the Royal Promenade..Advantage Explorer !!
ACTIVITIES / SHOWS: We went to all the shows including the late night shows such as Love & Marriage, the Quest, Adult comedy and the Liars Club. With the exception of Liars Club which was horrible and can claim to the title of fastest to clear a room of passengers since the Titanic, the shows were great ! My kids and wife (?) just fell in love with our Cruise Director Dave Chapman. Dave was hilarious !! His dirty dancing routine at the Love & Marriage show was worth the price of admission...oh that's right it was free..whatever..he's good !! There were activities poolside such as Belly Flop and Sexy Legs which were hilarious ( thanks to Dave ) but were limited due to weather conditions. NCL Gem: The shows were OK and there was very little in activities other than bingo or art auctions and, the CD was not very good. Advantage Explorer.
ITINERARY: First Stop San Juan: Did some shopping and walked around the old town. Second Stop St.Thomas: Shopped in the morning and went to Meaghan's Bay for the afternoon. Was crowded due to 5 other ships in that day including Oasis but we enjoyed our day. Third Stop Samana: Hired a local cab to give us a tour of the town (?), to a waterfall and to a nice beach. We enjoyed the tour but my teenager didn't like seeing the poverty. Sorry but the whole world isn't like Montreal or NY..call it a life lesson ! Last Stop Labadee: Even though it rained off and on we spent most of the day and enjoyed ourselves. RCCL has done an incredible job with their private stop. It has gorgeous beaches; plenty of loungers; water park area for the kids; roller-coaster ( which is a blast ); zip-line; volleyball / basketball / soccer fields; great areas for the BBQ lunch and covered seating areas; amazing look out area formed out of rocks..etc ! We were blown away and really disappointed that we couldn't fully appreciate it because of the rain. NCL Gem: Because t is only a 7 day cruise the stops are limited to Florida and the Bahamas. Also their private stop ( Great Stirrup Cay ) does not come even close to Labadee. Advantage Explorer.
KIDS CLUB: Adventure Ocean as it is called on RCCL because of its hours ( open when at stops, late night hours @ $5 per hour, suppers at Johnny Rockets ) and their great activities along with a great staff ( Matt you and your staff are awesome ) made our vacation !! We were able to leave our twins ( who literally cried to go every morning and cried to stay at the end of the day ) with peace of mind and enjoy shopping at our stops and enjoy all the shows including the late night shows !! NCL Gem: Although my kids enjoyed the kids club their hours were much more limited such as no hours when at port, no suppers or no late hours. Because of their more extensive hours and better overall program advantage Explorer !!
DISEMBARKATION: We did the Express carry your own luggage. We had a great full last breakfast at the Windjammer at 7:00 a.m. and started heading out at 7:45 and was in my van driving home by 8:30. No problem other than trying to get an elevator. NCL Gem: Same thing..no problems..no advantage here.
FINAL COMMENTS: This was our first cruise with RCCL and the Explorer. Although Mother Nature tried to rain on our parade with her 15 - 25 foot waves, 100 mph winds one night and generally cold conditions for the first 3 and last 2 days...WE LOVED THE EXPLORER AND WOULD WITHOUT HESITATION CRUISE RCCL AND THE EXPLORER AGAIN !!!