My wife, 8-year-old daughter and I sailed on the Explorer of the Seas June 10, 2010 out of Bayonne/Cape Liberty. We were attracted to this ship because we could drive to the port from our Boston area home, and the 9-day itinerary was nearly the same price as the 7-day Bermuda-only itinerary offered on NCL out of Boston. We have traveled a few cruises before, twice on Disney and one other on RCCL.
Embarkation-It was fairly painless, and we were aboard by about 12:30 after a minor delay that wasn't explained. Bayonne cruise port is pretty spartan but was easy to navigate, parking was no problem.
Stateroom-We had a category D1 stateroom aft (facing rear) room 1390 on deck 10. The great thing about the aft cabins is that the balconies are huge, over 12 feet deep instead of the usual 3 or 4 feet. There were two chaise lounges and a table & chairs on the balcony. For some reason these cabins are shown as "obstructed view" on the RCCL website. The only obstruction is the superstructure of the ship in the rear, there's still a fine view off the stern. The cabin itself was a little longer than most D1's, so we had extra room for luggage, so this room is a great value. It's directly below the Windjammer Buffet but we heard no noise from above, and the balcony is partially covered so privacy wasn't an issue. The finishes were in good condition, although the balcony deck and rails could use a paint job.
Dining-Food in the main dining room was decent, not exceptional but not bad, just what I expected when serving 1500 people at a time. I do wonder how one gets a decent table in the main dining room; on this trip as well as our previous one with RCCL we were relegated to a room off in the corner that was designed as a private dining room, away from the grand main space. We ended up not minding, as we had good tablemates to talk to. The Windjammer buffet food offered good variety with decent food. An exception was the curry dishes, which were often very good. One minor disappointment was dinner in the Windjammer. On a previous RCCL voyage several years ago, the Windjammer at dinner offered the choice of the buffet or ordering off the dining room menu. It was quiet, pleasant and the waiters were plentiful, a good relaxed alternative for dinner. Not so anymore. The Windjammer dinner here was a frenetic feeding frenzy, no option to order off the menu and the few waiters present were there mainly to sell alcohol. I don't know what possessed us to eat at Johnny Rockets, since I never cared for the one near our home, but this time, it was actually pretty good. We ate at the extra fee restaurant Portofino one night. My Filet was excellent; my wife was less enthused with her Tuna. Service is very attentive, but we felt just a little rushed. Still, it's a cut above the main dining room.
Fitness-The gym has a good variety of equipment in good condition, along with a sauna and steam room and a large Jacuzzi, no extra charge. I give it very high marks, although on sea days expect to wait for cardio equipment.
Entertainment- we only went to a couple of shows, but they were very well done, much better than I expected. With an 8 year old with us, it wasn't really practical to go often due to the late hour of some shows in the main theater, and some were of limited interest to children, naturally. The Ice show was very well done. Be sure to get your ice show tickets (no cost) on the first night of the cruise, some people were unaware of this.
Service- I would describe the service as uneven. Our cabin attendant and dining room server did a fine job, but elsewhere attitudes ranged from cheerful (Windjammer Buffet greeters) to surly (certain bartenders in the Royal Promenade and Viking Crown). On a modestly priced mass market cruise line like RCCL, I don't expect impeccable, fussy service, but they could do better here; they aren't in the same league as Disney Cruise line. They sometimes reacted oddly to simple requests. My wife asked for Diet Coke in the Windjammer; it took 3 staff, including a manger, to chase it down, and they acted as if this was a very odd request. (Soda was free on Disney, I guess we're spoiled...) The next morning there was no water at the beverage station, so I asked for it. I got the same odd look, as if I was the most high maintenance person ever. We asked for soda and water, but I felt like we had asked for caviar and truffles. On one occasion we showed up for ice-skating as was scheduled, and the doors were locked. Without apology the woman in charge shrugged and said there was a "scheduling conflict" and there would be no skating session. Scheduling conflict? Must have been one of those ice skating emergencies we always hear about, eh? The open skating sessions are run by some of the skating performers, and it's pretty clear by their attitude that they resent having to do double-duty dealing with the passengers.
Fellow Travelers- The predominantly New York/New Jersey crowd on this trip was friendly and reasonably well mannered, more polite than on a previous cruise dominated by people from a certain other part of the U.S... I'll leave it at that. It was a good mix of young to old, a fair number children but their numbers are sure to increase as more schools let out for summer. The ship was sold out but it never felt overwhelmed with people.
Other Facilities-The pool deck is well laid out, with two side-by-side main pools and 4 hot tubs, much nicer than Disney's too-small main pool. A minor quibble was the temperature of the hot tubs; certain ones sometimes became so hot they were unusable. Chair hoarding occurred but wasn't out of hand, we always found a spot. The ever-present house band on the pool deck played way too loud, many passengers were complaining about it; you couldn't have a conversation without shouting. Just turn it down a notch and it would be fine. The children's pool isn't a very nice space, rather dark and confined, but our daughter has pretty much outgrown kiddie pools anyway. The "Royal Promenade" on deck 5 is a mall-like space, with bars and stores with the usual trinkets and duty free stuff. There's a snack bar here that offers free pizza and other snacks, with Ben and Jerry's ice cream at extra cost. The Viking Crown complex of lounges, at the top of the ship, offers a fantastic view and is a nice space to hang out.
Itinerary-Bermuda is a very pleasant Island, easy to get around due to a good bus and ferry system. You don't need to do an organized tour here. Buy a one or two-day bus/ferry pass at guest services on board, and you'll be all set. Bus maps/schedules are also available there. Hamilton is easy to navigate, and is worth a look around. We also went to the Crystal cave, which is an interesting underground cavern. Even though scheduled bus service is limited on Sundays, they ran extra busses directly to Horseshoe bay beach just for cruise passengers, at regular bus fares, passes valid. This service started around 9:15 am, departing from near the ferry dock at King's Wharf. Horseshoe Bay is a terrific beach, so it's a good Sunday option when not much is open in town. In Nassau, we opted for the rather expensive "Aquaventure" tour at the Paradise Island resort. I was apprehensive as I had heard mixed reviews, but we had a great time. The river pool was terrific. Getting there was a bother, however. After leaving the ship, the large tour group is given wristbands, then slowly led to a ferry, then there's another line for a shuttle bus after you get off the ferry. All together, this took over 90 minutes even though the resort is just a stone's throw from the dock. If we were to do this again, we would just get our wristbands and go get a taxi. It would save tons of time and the taxis aren't that expensive, $4 per person. We took a taxi back to the ship. Our last stop was Coco Cay, the RCCL private island. It's a nice layout with plenty of chairs, a fair amount of shade, and calm water for swimming. Watch out for seagulls at lunchtime, they're very aggressive! This time of year the water is exceptionally warm. Tendering to shore was well organized and no hassle.
Children's program- Our daughter participated a few times in the kid's club, and she enjoyed it. The program staff was enthusiastic and friendly. On some days they offer an option for the kids to have dinner at Johnny Rockets before the evening session, which was nice to have on our night at Portofino. The nights this is offered are listed in the daily Cruise Compass information.
To get off the ship, we signed up for the express disembarkation. In this system, you carry all of your own bags off the ship, and are the first group to leave. It's a good idea, although the elevators were awfully crowded with baggage-laden passengers so it got a little hectic. Still, I prefer it to sitting around waiting for your group to be called, which can last until 10:30 or 11 am. We were in our car and on the road by 9am. (I'm puzzled why the traditional RCCL departure system takes so long. Our last RCCL cruise was on the much smaller Grandeur of the Seas and it took forever. On Disney, everyone was free to leave by around 9am with the bags waiting for us in the terminal.)
I like this ship. It is well laid out, there's a lot to do, we never had a dull moment and despite the criticisms mentioned, we had a good time. My only lasting negative impression is that they need to polish their service. For the most part you get what you pay for; this is a mainstream, middle-of-the-road cruise line and if you set your expectations accordingly you'll likely have a good time, too.