We were eleven adults from NYC, San Francisco and Ohio who met in Miami and did a pre-cruise at the Marriott Biscayne Bay. I love their pre-cruise package...nice room...great view of the port. Excellent dinner in the Bay View Lounge as well...all for $149 a night! We were all repeat cruisers but this was my husband and I's first RCCL cruise as well as our first 7-day cruise. I will sail with RCCL again in a heartbeat.
This was to be a 7-day cruise, but Hurricane Jeanne gave us another sea day and we were more than fine with this arrangement. A Saturday to Sunday trip (pre-cruise at the Marriott and 7-day cruise) ended up becoming a Saturday to Tuesday trip with 8 days on board and both a pre- and post-cruise stay in Miami. With the exception of two in our party, we were all of the mindset of having fun, going with the flow and not sweating the small stuff...can't tell you how much that attitude can get you on a cruise....we had a ball!
Embarkation was painless and we were onboard by 11:25 am. Our wonderful room steward, Francesca, told us our room was ready when we went to drop off our bags, so we unpacked, put on our swimsuits and headed out to explore the ship. She's a beauty. I just loved the public spaces on this ship. The Royal Promenade was actually smaller than I anticipated but oh so charming and immediately my hubby knew he was going to be spending a lot of eating time at the Cafe Promenade...their sandwiches are excellent. Dizzy's Lounge was my favorite drinking spot high overlooking the pool area and ocean and my hubby fell in love with the cigar bar (Connoisseur Club) that is tucked into a space right outside the Maharaja's Lounge. We went to check on our dinner reservations and found that our request for a table for 11 had not been filled. They had us sitting at two tables next to each other, but we were able to fix that by the second night. Our party met up at the Solarium pool which became a favorite daytime spot for all. I have to admit that I loved having no children in the pool.
Food: Have to say I was a little leery after reading posts regarding the food quality on RCCL, but overall we were very satisfied. The dining room food was excellent. Gary and Carlos, our waiters, were attentive, funny and a pleasure. We had a window table on the third floor of the dining room. Everything we ate at dinner we loved and doubling up on appetizers (me) or main courses (my hubby) was not a problem. Some of my favorites were the Escargot, Duck a l'Orange, a wonderful Fish Dip, a mushroom in pastry appetizer and an onion quiche. On day 5 or 6, hubby and I called in for room service at the exact time of our normal seating (8:30) and we were able to order off of the dining room menu for that night. I thought this was a nice touch on Royal Caribbean's part. Our friend Linda, an opera singer, was encouraged to join the waiters on Italian night and it was great fun. We all just laughed and enjoyed our way right through dinner each night. Going with a large fun group is the way to go!
Due to the hurricane, we had the Sunday night menu twice, with some interesting substitutions when they were out of certain ingredients needed on the menu. Our male tablemates rented tuxedos for both formal nights (hubby needed a little prodding) and I have to say, in addition to how great they all looked, it just did something for the formal atmosphere at the table...it made the dinners seem just a little bit more special.
With the exception of breakfast, the Windjammer was so-so in both quality of food and selection. I ate what I liked and passed on the rest. No biggie. We actually opted for sandwiches and desserts in the Cafe Promenade for lunches most of the week. Got decadent and ate lunch at Johnny Rockets twice (oh the cholesterol level!). Loved the onion rings and the singing waiters. The Gala Buffet was a wonder to the eyes. Alas...late seating does not bode well for one's appetite at midnight but we made a trip to the buffet nonetheless to enjoy several of the wonderful chocolate dishes.
Cabin: I just loved this balcony cabin. I found it to be cozy and comfy and there's nothing better than the sound of the ocean right off the bed. My twin sis, staying right next door, opted to request a better mattress as theirs looked and felt flat and uncomfortable. They received a regular sized bed that did the trick. I know many say they don't spend too much time in their room, but on a 7-day cruise, I did not feel like I was missing much if I opted to relax with drinks or room service for an hour or two on one or two afternoons. The room became another destination for me on this cruise. It was so relaxing! Loved the safe, the nooks and crannies everywhere for putting away stuff and thought the double-doored shower was great. Two of our travel mates stayed in an Owner's Suite and had us up for cocktails before dinner and the suite is truly amazing (loved the 40" plasma screen TV)...just too expensive! I'm more than happy with #8358. We had coffee each morning early on the balcony and it was a nice way to start the day.
Ports of Call: I was so excited about several of our ports of call and they did not disappoint. Old San Juan was not great, but then again, I think that was a mixture of previous hurricane conditions, and our general lack of planning for the port. It was the only port we did not do intensive research on and were actually more than content to just walk around and see what was there. Hubby walked to the fort and saw a wonderful band and dancing show. The rest of us walked through the town and visited the Wyndam Casino on the way back. Honestly, I was more excited for upcoming St. Thomas and St. Maarten.
St. Maarten/Martin met and exceeded our expectations. We spent the day at the Grand Case Beach Club. We wanted something a little off the beaten path, not resorty and on the French side and we were very happy with our choice. Grand Case is this wonderful little town with what look like pastel-colored cottage residences dotting the beach but are actually amazing French restaurants (a few Italian ones as well). Grand Case is known for the cuisine and rightly so. The beach club was a few minutes walk to this part of town. The beach club had two small but beautiful beaches that were separated by the Sunset Beach outdoor bar and restaurant and the pool. It is a charming property and we fell in love with it. We are already planning our next vacation to stay in one of their condominium studio apartments next year. We had called weeks ahead and they quickly set us up with beach chairs, umbrellas, snorkel equipment and water mats (which I just love to lull away on). Just lift the little umbrella on your chair and in moments someone is there to take your food or drink order. The mountains of Anguilla and Creole Rock can be seen out in the water and from the water, the hills and pastel homes of St. Martin were lovely...either way, the view was amazing. We had an amazing lunch out on the patio of the Sunset Cafe overlooking the ocean...more outstanding French food. They sent us a complimentary carafe of their own homemade liquor filled with mango, orange slices and pineapples...it was heavenly. On our way back to the ship, we quickly toured Marigot, the capitol on the French side, and cannot wait to get back and spend some real time there. Great outdoor food market and we hear that the croissants are not to be missed at Zee Best cafe. Two in our party opted for shopping in this port and took a water taxi into Phillipsburg. They found great bargains, came back with new jewelry and loved Front Street (repairs and all).
For St. Thomas, we again opted to go somewhere that was not too busy or resorty. We choose the Sapphire Beach Club on Sapphire Beach and had another great day. We spent half the day on the beach and the other in the pool. What a beautiful pool...we got great pictures and swam, took the sun, shared our space with several iguanas and lunched poolside as well. As you can see, most of us were not that interested in shopping, at least not for a half-day port of call. I look forward to shopping in more earnest for our land trip to St. Maarten.
Hurricane Jeanne (or Jeannie, as our captain referred to her) kept us from our last port, Nassau. Again, no problem, mon. Can think of much worse than another sea day on Explorer of the Seas. Our Captain was excellent at keeping us informed about the weather and if I'm not mistaken, it was Friday sometime when we were informed of our extra sailing day due to Miami's ports and airports being shut down. So, we ended up with three sea days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) at the back of our cruise and we were all fine with that. Free Internet access allowed us to change our airline reservations and make reservations for a post-cruise stay at the Marriott. I saw so many people in panic mode, waiting on long lines in the Internet cafe on Deck 8 or on three hour lines for land phones on Deck 1. We opted to hit the Internet cafe at 2am, quickly reserve a room at the Marriott for our return, checked in with the kids and our jobs and called the airline once we were near Miami and had cell phone service. No panic...just time for another drink!
On-board entertainment: Cannot say enough about the Ice Show. What these skaters do within the small-sized rink is truly amazing. We loved it and it was an onboard highlight. Caught one of the headline shows (can't remember the name) and it was the last night for this show after a six-month run and the energy of the players and the audience was very high. The Love and Marriage game was a hoot. They picked funny couples and I was laughing so hard I was crying. Jazz in Dizzy's Lounge and the Latin music in the Aqua Bar were two different spectrums of enjoyable entertainment. Dizzy's Lounge was also a great spot for mid-morning Scrabble...what a view!! The Casino was bigger than previous Carnival Cruises and several of us did well at both the slots and the Craps table. I lost about $100 over the course of the week, but had budgeted for that, so que sera sera. Linda, our opera singer, is also one heck of a Craps player and came away a winner almost every night. One of us won $1000 on the slots. The guys in our group were thrilled to catch NFL games on Sunday and Monday in the Weekend Warrior bar on the Promenade. The spa/salon was beautiful and while we used the gym, we all decided that $120 for a massage was just a little over the top for us...got one at home when I returned for $75. Don't dance, but loved the Chamber...what a cool space. Several of us did the tour of the Weather/Atmospheric Lab and it was worth it. There are interesting little instruments all over the decks of this ship and we found out what they were all there for. Lots of data being collected...very interesting. My hubby climbed the rock wall twice and had a ball. Several of us played miniature golf and just loved the look of the sports deck. Lots to do.
On Friday, trailing the hurricane, there was some wind, wave swells, and overcast weather. The ship never felt different and no one complained of sea sickness. On the contrary...we headed to what had become a wave pool on the pool deck and had a blast. On good waves, you started in the water and ended up sitting up on the side of the pool...too funny!
Overall: We had so much fun on this cruise. We have fallen in love with the Voyager-class ships and can't wait to board again. There seemed to be very few children on this cruise (time of year?) and saw no loud and out of control adults or children, no running in the halls, etc. Never had a problem getting a pool deck chair either in the Solarium or at the other pools. Must spend a moment commenting on the service aboard this cruise. Can't say enough about the quality of service with a smile. From the room steward to the dining room and Cafe Promenade waiters to the bartenders...everyone had a ready smile and a ready hand. I was so impressed with the level of service and felt truly pampered on my vacation. Perfect blend of activity and relaxation and a great bang for the buck on our Explorer of the Seas Eastern Caribbean cruise.