Summary: Not having been on Royal Caribbean International (RCI) before, we were uncertain of what to expect given a number of negative reviews posted in the last six months. For us, this was a surprisingly enjoyable cruise with a higher energy vibe compared to other ships we have been on. While the pricing were extremely favorable, there were some cutbacks in product presentation that go along with discounted pricing. Despite an unfortunate incident later in the cruise, we did have a good time and like the current Governor of California, “we’ll be back”.
Background: Mary and I (Bob) are an early 60s couple, recently retired and living in Brooklyn, NY. This is our 31st cruise, mostly Holland America with a number of cruises with Celebrity, Princess and NCL. We have cruised in the Caribbean, Alaska, Panama Canal, transatlantic and Hawaii. While this was our first RCI and first Explorer cruise, our cruise credits with Celebrity qualified us for Diamond level perks.
The Itinerary: The Explorer has been doing alternating 9 day cruises to Bermuda and the Caribbean or the Bahamas with 5 day Bermuda cruises. This is a 9 day cruise leaving Bayonne Thursday with stops at Bermuda (Saturday 9AM to 5PM), St. Maarten (Monday 12 noon to 9PM), St Thomas (Tuesday 7AM to 5PM) and San Juan (Wednesday 7AM to 2PM). Sea days are Friday, Sunday, Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday with the Explorer returning to Cape Liberty Cruise Port (aka Bayonne Military Ocean Terminal) on Saturday nominally at 7AM. Note the term nominally.
The Ship: The Explorer is the second of five Voyager class ships whose most notable feature is the Royal Promenade, a four story high, three lane wide indoor atrium that extends about 300 feet through the center of the ship on deck 5 between the forward and aft Centrums. The Royal Promenade has “window” rooms that look out onto the promenade from both sides on the upper three levels and a mix of shops, bars and eating venues on the first level. The Centrums are another feature of RCI ships and these extended from deck 3 to deck 12 forward and to deck 14 aft.
Most of the public spaces are on decks 3 to 5 and decks 11 to 14. The main dining room is aft on decks 3 to 5 with buffet options in the Windjammer Café aft on deck 11. The bars are on decks 3 to 5 and 11 to 14. For more information on the Voyager class of ships, go to this URL http://voyager-class.com/. Being over ten years old, the Explorer does show some signs of wear and tear that could have been addressed in the recent dry docking. The crew makes good efforts to keep her in reasonably presentable condition but they can only do so much if headquarters scrimps on ship overhauls.
At the aft end of the Royal Promenade are the library on deck 7, the internet café on deck 8 and the Concierge Club for Suite pax on deck 9. Mary who is a retired librarian found the Library to be a pleasant place to sit and read. She did note some deficiencies in the library operation that may be due to cost cutting. For one, there is never anyone from the cruise staff there to check material in or out. Everything is done on the honor system. Passengers choose a book from the shelves; enter their name and the title with the date of borrowing into a loose-leaf book. When the material is returned, the borrower is supposed to enter the date of return in the same line and drop the book into the book drop. Needless to say, the shelves in the Explorer of the Seas Library were sparse. Also, not much effort was made to properly shelve books; books that should have been in the collection were misfiled on the paperback exchange shelf.
Another cost costing casualty is the daily news briefs that we received on every other ship we’ve taken. These news briefs are an eight page 8 ½ x 11 brief that offered bits of the world outside the ship. It might have been a feed from the New York Times, the Times of London or the Toronto Globe and Mail. Whatever it was, it was welcome. We didn’t have this on the Explorer of the Seas. Getting CNN or the BBC World Service was also difficult to manage on the in-cabin TV. We found about the attempted bombing in Times Square on Sunday when we stopped off for a drink in St. Thomas on Tuesday. It would have been nice to learn about this a bit earlier.
Pre-cruise: Living in Brooklyn, we arranged for a private car service to deliver us to Cape Liberty via the Brooklyn Bridge and the Holland Tunnel. Tolls for the tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike extension were $10 RT. Total fare with tolls ran $100 with a nice tip. The traffic light for the turn onto Port Terminal Boulevard was the main delay point. Door-to-door for us was less than an hour. After delivering the luggage to the porters, we had our boarding papers and ID checked at the entry to the terminal building. You should have your SetSail Pass and passport/other government ID in hand when you enter the terminal. Immediately after entry, you clear the standard airport security system (carry-on x-ray and metal detector portals). After security, you enter the main hall with multiple service positions for getting your room/ID card. For Diamond/D+/Suite customers, there is a separate VIP service area to your left when you enter the main hall. Not sure if we saved time there since the main hall was not busy at 11:30. After getting our room cards, we had to go to a separate service position where our pictures were taken. After about a 5 minute wait, we boarded the shuttle buses for a 3 minute ride to the ship. Carry-on luggage had to be held in your lap as there was little space to put them on the floor; no luggage racks.
Upon boarding, we went to the Windjammer Café for lunch and walked around the ship until our room was ready at 1:30PM. Also on deck 11 forward of the Windjammer are the Adult and general pool areas and the gym. Deck 12 has more spa facilities forward with a sun and running area amidships and Johnny Rockets and some teen and children areas aft. We went to the Main Dining Room (MDR) to check out our dining arrangements. We got our luggage about 3:30 PM and were unpacked by muster drill at 4:15PM. Muster drill did not require that you bring your life jacket. After muster drill, we met a number of people from the cruise critic roll call for sail-away at Dizzy’s on deck 14 (Viking Lounge).
While I am sure it is very convenient for those who live west of the Hudson, Cape Liberty is a bag hung on the side of a cargo port. The New York Passenger Ship Terminal in Manhattan does have traffic backup problems but it at least had decent interiors and semi-enclosed boarding ramps. The Brooklyn Cruise Terminal has a completely enclosed boarding ramp and a very good traffic pattern for embarking and disembarking passengers. Neither require pax to cram into shuttle buses to a windblown entry tent. Perhaps the situation will improve as further development occurs on the Bayonne peninsula, but until then, beware the bag.
The Cabin: We booked a Junior Suite cabin 9554 portside forward near the forward Centrum. The cabin is about 276 feet2 with a 69 feet2 balcony. In size, it was midway between the smaller mini-suites on the Princess Grand/Crown class ships and the Penthouse suites on the NCL Dawn/Gem. Entering the room, there is a short hallway with a walk-in closet on the left and a full bathroom on the right. On the right side of the hallway is mirror and small table bolted to the wall for incidentals. Beyond the bathroom on the right side is a king size bed, a couch, two chairs and a glass coffee table. On the left side, beyond the walk-in closet is a dual vanity and desk area that runs the length of the cabin. The vanity area just beyond the closet has a full height cabinet for clothes storage, has two 220V and a sound switch for the PA system on the left side of the main mirror and two 110V sockets along with lights switches for the mirror on the right side. Since the 110V plugs are grouped together, you will need either an extension cord or a power strip if you electronics use wall wart chargers. There is hidden storage behind the two angled mirrors on each side of the main mirror and two small wooden doors covering yet more storage on each side of the mirror area. The vanity desk has a center drawer and four drawers on each side of the kneehole. The plug-in hairdryer is in the top right drawer.
Next to the vanity desk is the entertainment section with a 26 inch flat screen TV on a rollout platform. The rounded bottom section might have held a VCR and/or DVD player but none was evident as far as I could tell. There is a two shelf storage unit above the TV. There are two 110V sockets on the left side of the rollout platform used by the TV and cable distribution unit. Next to the entertainment unit is a worksurface with no drawers or power plugs and a full height bar cabinet with a refrigerator on the bottom, and alcove for the ice bucket and a two shelf storage unit on top. Both vanity and worksurface areas have chairs for sitting. The reading lights by the bed also have a directional LED light for reading without disturbing your partner.
The bathroom had ample shelf space with storage behind the two angled mirrors and a storage shelf below the countertop. The bathtub had ample room for showering. Amenities included bath soap, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner and body lube. There is a razor point with both 110V and 220V outlets. The razor point is powered only when the bathroom light is on. The room appeared to have been refreshed recently with new carpets, firm bedding and reasonably clean upholstery and wall coverings. The balcony had two chairs a small table and a lounger. The balcony light is by the couch. The balcony appeared to be recently painted; at least the paint stains on the deck seem fresh. The railings had been sanded but not sealed. No teak on the veranda deck. The junior suites (which do not participate in the suite amenity program) are paired up with the second cabin being a mirror image of the first. Since these suites take up the space of 1-1/2 regular cabins, the numbering skips between junior suite pairs. Our cabin was 9554; the other cabin in the pair was 9558.
The Ports: We docked at Kings Wharf at the Royal Naval Dockyards on the northwest tip of Bermuda. There is a maritime museum at the dockyards along with a shopping mall and an assortment of restaurants. We took the ferry into Hamilton (you can get tokens for the ferry ride right at the pier; $4 each way). After doing a little shopping and sightseeing in Hamilton, we came back to the ship, had lunch and then went to see the maritime museum (still a work in progress, but interesting nevertheless). Weather was sunny with temps about 70 F. The Clock Tower Mall at the dockyards had a good selection of vendors though there were some empty spaces. There was a fundraising event called the end to end walk which goes from the eastern tip of Bermuda in St. George to the Dockyards in the west. The event was very well attended and the dockyards became quite crowded and noisy by the time we left.
Monday noontime saw us docking at the main pier at Phillipsburg, St. Maarten. There we took a private tour arranged by one of our cruise critic members around both the Dutch and French part of St. Maarten. We stopped at Maho beach where the planes come in perilously close to the road for landing (and blow sand and the unwary beachgoer into the sea on takeoff). If you see videos of planes landing at St Maarten on YouTube, they are not photo-shopped, they are real. We then went to Marigot on the French side for a rest stop and some shopping if you are so inclined and thereafter a stop at Orient Beach for a swim. Keep in mind that a part of the beach is clothing optional and what has been seen cannot be unseen. Afterwards, we returned to the ship with an optional stop in Phillipsburg for those who want to shop some more. The trip cost $35pp, about half of what the ship tour would cost. The tour was done through Bernard’s tour and he provided water, juice and beer in a comfortable air conditioned van. Bernard’s Tour is definitely worth considering.
Tuesday saw us docking at the West Indian Company pier at Havensight Mall. The Carnival Liberty shared the dock space with us. We just walked around a bit having done our beach thing the day before and enjoyed a relatively quiet shipboard “day at sea in port”. There is certainly enough to do whether you do a ship tour or on your own.
Wednesday morning we docked at pier 3 at San Juan. Normally, the cruise ships dock at pier 4 as the Carnival Liberty did. We walked around the lower part of Fort Morro, a 17th century Spanish fort at the throat of the entry into San Juan harbor. If you do this walk, bring lots of water and go early in the morning as the there is no shelter from the sun once it cranks around to the southwest. You can reach this area by turning left after leaving the pier and heading towards a broad plaza area with a fountain at the end. Turn left at the fountain and follow the walkway around the base of the fort, a 1 to 2 mile walk. On the way back or if you do not want to do the entire walk, the Red Gate is an entry into the old walled part of the city about a 1/4 mile past the fountain. The walk is well paved with benches for sitting. Water fountains are available, but we did not check if they were working. There are a lot of presumably feral cats around the base of the fort and we saw a number of pelicans diving for fish. We left at 2 PM for our return to Bayonne.
Dining: We had first seating at 6 PM, table 547 for eight people, Columbus, deck 5 portside. There were two other couples at the first night but for reasons not specified, one couple did not return to join us on formal night and thereafter. The other couple, Gene and Ann from Pennsylvania, was very pleasant and we got along well. Later in the cruise, we were joined by another couple who fitted in well. Our waitstaff consisted of Patrico and Gia and head waiter Jacob. They worked well together and dinner was paced to everyone’s satisfaction. Jacob came around at every meal to inquire about the quality of the food and service and to inform us of upcoming events. As a head waiter, he was much more helpful and informative than head waiters on other ships we have been on. The food in the MDR was the equal of what we have had on Princess and HAL last summer and fall. The meat quality was very good as was the seafood; I normally shy away from seafood on ships but at Jacob’s urging, I tried several fish and shrimp dishes and they were better than I expected with none of the fishy/bitter aroma and taste that sometimes accompanies ship board seafood. Service was first rate and the food, while not piping hot, was certainly at an acceptable temperature when served. Gia was prompt in topping off water, ice tea or coffee without having to ask. As Diamond members, we also had access to the D/D+ breakfast area which was very good, but we drifted back to the Windjammer for its greater variety. Lunches in the MDR were also very good with a spec your own salad bar and 30 minute hot entrée service (usually faster unless they got slammed by a large inrush of pax at lunch).
The Windjammer Café offers a large variety of foods at breakfast and lunch and we often found ourselves eating there rather than the MDR. The first part of the windjammer is divided into two sections which are opened at staggered intervals as needed. Further back is the Island Grill area which has a reprise of the selections in the Windjammer Cafe. In addition, the Island Grill offers spec your own omelets at breakfast and spec your own sandwiches at lunch. The breakfast offerings were the same day to day as was many of the lunch entrees. The hidden gem here is the Jade Grill which is one of three hot/cold food service islands behind the Island Grill area. The Jade Grill which is on the port side offers Asian entrees such as congee and miso soups, various curries and Chinese dishes and sushi that change daily. Seating in the Island Grill area is more available than in the Windjammer. The table servers come around to offer beverages (both free and extra tariff) and clear away used plates quickly, sometime a bit too quickly. We had dinner there once when our St. Maarten tour came back a bit late for dinner and the food selection was more expansive than what is offered in the MDR. There is no outdoor grill for burgers and such; the burgers at the Windjammer looked dry and overcooked. Although there is snack service from 3:30 to 5 PM each afternoon, the offerings were the same everyday.
Yet another food venue is the Café Promenade in the Royal Promenade on deck 5. This is a 24 hour eatery which offers continental breakfast in the morning and light sandwiches, pizza and snacks the rest of the time. If you get it fresh, the pizzas were good, otherwise they were dried out. Seattle’s Best coffee, regular and decaf, along with hot water for hot cocoa and various teas and iced water is available at all times. Extra tariff items include specialty coffees and Ben and Jerry Ice Cream. We did not try Portofino’s, the extra tariff Italian restaurant nor Johnny Rockets, the 50s diner but we heard positive reviews from other pax about them.
Entertainment: The cruise staff headed by Mike and Becky put on some good entertainment including a staff parade in the Royal Promenade the first night out and other activities there as well. If you have a chance, do see the ice dancing show in Studio B which is offered several times during the cruise. It was a refreshing change from the regular run-of-the-mill shipboard entertainment and the dancers are quite good. Wear a jacket or at least a long sleeve shirt as Studio B is quite cold. Open skating sessions were also offered. The Quest also held in Studio B is a late night, adults’ only game show that can be quite hilarious and/or scandalous depending on your level of prudishness. Did not get to try the rock climbing wall; maybe next time.
Mary hooked up with a good trivia team and they won a number of daily games as well as the ultimate trivia contest which was held over five sea days. We did see two production show and they were good for what they were. The activities were definitely higher energy than other ships we have been on. For Crown and Anchor members, there was a private party in the Maharajah Lounge spread over three sea days since there about one thousand C&A members on board. For the hundred plus Diamond/D+ members, there was a second party on the way back. The Captain, Olav Nysetter, was quite visible around the ship and mingled freely with the pax. In St. Maarten, it began to rain in the evening as we were coming back from the Windjammer and Captain Nysetter was walking along the pool deck closing the open windows to keep rain out of the sheltered part of the Pool deck. That speaks volumes about his management style where he will step in to take action rather than call on his staff to do so.
The Staff: They were uniformly friendly and helpful from our MDR waitstaff to our room steward and bar staff. Our room steward Debbie from Costa Rico, efficiently tended to the room once she synched into our morning schedule. When we got into our room, she came around and explained the changes that RCI recently implemented and we had her empty the fridge and put the ice bucket there. One of the Diamond level perks are complimentary wine and 25% discounts on other drinks in the 19th Hole bar on deck 14. The staff there tended to our needs very nicely. Also of note is a kinetic sculpture using billiard balls that is fascinating to watch.
The Pax: Sailing out of the metropolitan New York area, most of the pax are from about a 2-3 hours drive of NYC though we met people from the west coast, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. The pax are ethnically diverse with many of them from Asian and Eastern European backgrounds. There were some children/teens (I know teens hate to be lumped in with the younger crowd, but they will grow out of that soon enough), but they were neither noticeable nor obnoxious. We did notice a significant number of pax who were mobility impaired and some who were definitely well-fed. Fortunately, the hallways on the ship were wide enough to accommodate those who needed extra space.
Post cruise: We normally use express checkout when it is available and we did so here. The staff had us come to designated areas grouped by order of signup and there we were assigned disembarkation numbers. Since we arrived 8 hours late, I had previously contacted our car service about the arrival time change. What I did not (and in retrospect, could not have known is that cellphone service on the Bayonne peninsula is very spotty. I could not get a signal using Tracefone nor could others using T-mobile. As a result, I have to cancel the pickup after the fact and use a local cab service. The local cab service had cars available to drive us home and the fare was reasonable. In the future, I will use the local Bayonne cabs for homeward bound service rather than risk not being able to contact a third party cab. We got off the ship by 4 PM and arrived home by 5:30 PM.
Oscar, Oscar, Oscar: At about 9:00 PM Wednesday, we heard the preceding call over the PA system indicating that someone went overboard. We later found out that an assistant waiter had gone over the railing and missed second seating muster for the wait staff. Immediately after the Oscar call, the ship came off way and made a sharp banking turn to port to retrace our route from San Juan. Based on information over the PA and other sources, we were about 160 miles north of San Juan. The rest of that night, many of the crew were on deck looking for the missing waiter. About 6-7AM Thursday, I heard a turboprop plane overfly the ship at low altitude and I assumed that the Coast Guard had arrived. Shortly thereafter we turned north and picked up speed. The Captain announced that the Coast Guard had indeed arrived and that the Explorer was released from search duties. kept us informed of the search and rescue process and of our expected arrival time in Bayonne. Since we spent about 9 hours searching, there was no way we could arrive back at Bayonne on time. As it was, we did arrive about 3 PM Saturday, 8 hours later than scheduled. Sadly, no trace was found of the missing crew member and the Coast Guard called off the search Thursday evening.