DEPARTURE: The departure from Port Liberty was relatively smooth, but not nearly as nice as from the busier ports in Florida. The benefit to us was what should have been a 40 minute drive from our home in central New Jersey. Unfortunately, the drive was closer to a full hour, the last twenty-minutes of which were spent waiting in traffic within view of the ship. Traffic was in a standstill coming off of route 78 onto 440, waiting for a left-hand-turn arrow at the light into the port. The light is badly timed, and only lets a few cars through at a time. (Arriving back in New Jersey we observed that the problem was even worse for the folks trying to get to the ship for a Saturday departure.) A hint, at least until the traffic pattern is fixed, is to drive past the port, then make a U-TURN later down the street so that you can come in from the other direction.
Once at the terminal I dropped the family and our luggage at the loading area, then drove a short distance to the parking lot, where a shuttle returned me to my waiting kin.
Having completed our pre-boarding paperwork online, it was still a significant wait to get to an agent who could check us in. We got in line about 12:00 noon, which is the beginning of boarding. Once checked in we had no delay getting on the bus which drove us to the ship. It was now about 1:00, so we decided to go straight to our staterooms, and were pleased to find that they were clean and ready for us. My wife and I had a balcony (7638) and our kids an interior just across the hall (7639). I make it a practice to give an advance gratuity to our stateroom attendant, who greeted us warmly and treated us like royalty throughout the week. Thanks Maritza!
After a quick lunch in the Windjammer, we started touring the ship, losing the kids when we passed through "Optics," the teen club. Right away they started making friends.
The sail away was breathtaking as we passed under the Verazano Bridge. I urge you to get either as high on the ship, or as far forward as you can for this part of the trip. It's a beautiful view. "Thank you" to the Coast Guard who escorted us out into international waters.
FOOD: We found the food in the main dining room to be very good, although our kids seemed to go for simple dishes like steak or spaghetti or chicken fingers on the nights we ate there. We were at a large table with two other families, and we all got along well. My sense is that portions have gotten smaller since our last voyage, but the selection was very good. The only real disappointment was lobster night, when the lobster was overcooked and sort of tasteless. Lobster night, by the way, is the last formal night - the second-to-last night of the cruise. We learned this several days into the trip and shifted our Portofino (specialty restaurant) reservations to an earlier evening to avoid missing it.
Unfortunately, we had a very slow waiter, whom I will not name here. One of our children has ADHD, and has a very hard time sitting and waiting at a table. On several nights we were seated at 6:00 and still hadn't received even our appetizers by 6:45. Meanwhile, other tables around us were already being served their main course. We complained to our waiter and headwaiter, both of whom assured us that this would change (blaming the kitchen), but we gave up and began eating most of our dinners in the Windjammer. Well, let me say that this was not in any way a step down from the dining room! The food at dinner in the Windjammer was fresh, varied, and delicious. In addition to the typical stews, potatoes, etc., there was usually a "make your own pasta" station, a Mongolian Barbeque where you could choose your own ingredients for a stir fry, and even a "make your own pizza" station. In addition, there was always a selection of Asian and Indian dishes to choose from, steak, prime rib, etc.
On the few nights when my wife and I returned to the main dining room (without kids) we certainly enjoyed our meal, but ultimately decided to have our "farewell dinner" up in the Windjammer.
Of course there were always a wide variety of desserts, and every night included at least one sugar-free selection. Many desserts look better than they taste, but we always found something to satisfy - especially the Key Lime Pie on the last evening.
There is a Cafe on the Promenade that is open 24 hours for snacks, including pizza, sandwiches, cookies, and desserts.
Portofino, the specialty restaurant, was amazing, and you should plan to eat there one night for a cover of $20/person. The service was attentive without being overwhelming. The food was five-star. I enjoyed a seafood risotto that rivaled any I've ever had. The Tiramisu dessert was out of this world. My wife's seafood skewer was very good, but she wished she'd had the filet. A very nice night "in."
ENTERTAINMENT: The entertainment staff was excellent. We've heard many rave about Cruise Director Jimmy Rhodes, and while he did an ok job, we didn't find him to be as engaging or funny as some others. The dance shows were out of this world, and the special guest talent was great. Don't miss the "game shows" led by the cruise staff on most evenings. They are lots of fun. One of the things we love about RC is that there are lots of venues around the ship where you can dance to different kinds of music. Lots of choices, whatever your taste.
Much has been written here about the Quest gameshow. Three words: Don't miss it. And don't miss the "Love and Marriage" show either. Both are side-splittingly fun and funny.
Do see the ice show. It was beautiful, and like nothing I've seen at sea. Included in your cruise price, but you must get tickets the first or second day on board.
CRUISE CRITIC 'MEET AND MINGLE': Well, we went. Pretty poorly attended, but got a nice note pad and had a nice conversation with one couple. I wish RC did a bit more to mix it up and help people connect.
THE SHIP: Explorer is very well designed and easy to navigate. Our stateroom was spacious compared to many others we've experienced, and we spend many hours enjoying the balcony. Do go for a balcony if you can. This is the only ship I've been on where you can walk all the way up to the bow, and I saw quite a few people doing the "Titanic" pose as they stood in the wind. We had very smooth seas, so it's hard to comment on the stability of the ship, but it felt great to me. Despite the size of the ship, and the 3100 passengers, it rarely felt crowded. There are so many different places to hang out that you can almost always find a great spot for you.
TEEN CLUB: There are two sides to this review. Our kids loved the teen club, "Optix." They made friends quickly and enjoyed the staff led activities which went until 1:00 every morning. My wife and I were a little underwhelmed by the supervision though. We came into the club on two occasions to see older teens making out in the corner, with the staff doing nothing to intervene. They can't stop teen hormones from raging, but can certainly move it out of a space being shared by 12 to 14 year olds.
PORTS: We stopped in four ports - Bermuda - We took a bus to the beach and had a great time. Total cost for the family, just over $20. St. Maarten - We took a cab to the "Tiki Hut" for some snorkeling. This is a nice, protected area, with a sunken boat, a sunken submarine, and a few other sights. Very little living coral. To our surprise, we found that several of the excursions from the ship came to the same place. It was a surprise because the snorkeling there was pretty bland, to tell the truth. Total cost for our family was $40 round-trip cab fair, plus rental of some fins. St. Thomas - A beautiful island that does have great snorkeling (off shore), but our kids had had enough of the sea so we rode a cable car up a mountain near the port (about $100 for the five of us!!!!), then did some shopping. It was a beastly hot day, so we didn't mind going back to the ship for lunch and swimming. San Juan, PR - Another great port, we took a free shuttle to El Moro, a fort that guards the harbor. A great place to tour! We walked back to the ship through the old city, and had great empanadas from a street vendor that had been recommended to us by a local. The ship spends a very short time in this port, which is a shame because we would have loved to explore more.
RANDOM OBSERVATIONS: • I loved the fact that there is little effort to push drinking on the ship. The bars are available, but I was never pestered by waiters trying to sell me the "drink of the day," and the entertainment staff didn't ever send the message that drinking was the point of the trip. • I also loved that there was little effort to push the other spending options. I found that store personnel were very happy to share tips about what to see and enjoy on the islands. The "Art Auction" was not in the middle of a big public space. • If you're a party person, there's plenty of opportunity to party. On the other hand, if you're not, you'll never feel pushed into a party you don't want to be part of. One of the advantages of a large ship. • Book through Costco! If you're not a member, join! We were given over $700 on-board credit by the Costco travel agency which covered all of our tips, quite a few lattes, and money to cash-out and bring home with us at the end of the voyage!
Overall, I'd do this trip again in a moment. The problems we experienced were minor. The overall experience was relaxing and fun.