We drove to the port and were pleased to note that there was very little traffic getting into and out of the port. Given the proximity to Newark International I was expecting hours of delays and had none. The port itself is not pretty. It is an industrial port with a warehouse for check-ins. They have designed things so that you drive up to the baggage drop off then go to the parking area. It is very easy and seamless. Parking is paid in full in advance so have your money ready after you drop off your bags. Once inside the warehouse and through security I was able to access the priority check in counter as I am a Platinum cruiser and my parents were in a grand suite. We were in a separate section and did not have to wait. We got our keys, took our picture and had a private bus area to get to the ship. Because it is an industrial port, you have to take a 2 minute bus ride to the ship. Overall it was the easiest and fastest check in that I have ever had.
Overall the Explorer of the seas is a really nice ship. They maintain it well and it is was a pleasure to walk around the ship. It is not perfect (I will explain later) but there was nothing about the ship that could spoil a vacation. I would go back on the ship in a heartbeat again and again for a relaxing vacation. There is no enrichment to speak of so history buffs will be disapointed. This is normal for RCCL though. If you want to learn while on your cruise go with Celebrity.
Pool Areas: They drained and cleaned all the pools and hot tubs at least once during our 5 days so they clearly work hard to keep the pool deck clean. This is obviously important as most people spend a lot of time there barefoot and we all know what kids do in pools. Enough said! In the adult only section the chairs had extra padding on them which is nice for your bottom. There was a bar open all day so you did not have to go far for refreshments and thankfully there were no kids around even though it was a summer sailing with a lot of families on board. Entertainment at the main pool area was nice. The Caribbean band allowed people to come up and jam with them which can be dangerous but there were several passengers with semi-professional bands that came up and actually did a great job. Given that my parents were in a suite they had a gold sea pass card and access to a private section at the pool so we had great seats and a full time pool attendant. If you had one of those magical gold sea pass cards you got everything handed to you. If you are in a Jr. Suite like me and had a regular card, but you could mooch off those with gold cards. RCCL has a policy of charging you for pool towels if you do not return them. Very annoying indeed, especially if your stateroom attendant runs off with them. I tried to explain this to the pool manager and got absolutely no sympathy from her. I was told by her minion at the computer that I had to go back to my room, find my stateroom attendant and ask him to bring me pool towels otherwise I would be charged for towels. This was the most annoying thing about this cruise and RCCL in general. Thankfully my parents had those magical gold cards so I returned a minute later with my father's card, flashed it to the pool manager and watched her face drop. Hee hee hee! After a long apology for treating me like a criminal and her blaming the poor minion (she was next to him the whole time and did nothing to help before so I cannot understand why it was his fault that she was being rude), I got ALL the towels I could carry.
Entertainment: We never went to any of the shows, there is only one show per evening and I am in the habit of going after dinner to see a show, not before. So that was bit annoying but I made the choice not to go so I must take some of that blame. I did see the ice show and as always it is not to be missed. They always do a great job of entertaining you and getting the audience into the show. The music was great but poorly mixed (transitions were awkward between songs...but again, I am being picky). Pool band did a great job as I already mentioned.
Food: We had the 2nd seating in the MDR and food was overall good. Nothing that blew my mind, but I am very fortunate to have eaten at some really great restaurants in my life so the bar is very high in my world. Service was excellent even though we changed tables a few times. We had asked for a table for 4 and I must admit that I expected to have one given that we were all in suites. We were put at a table of 10 with a family of 6 (4 kids under the age of 6 yrs old). Needless to say we bolted and the Maitre'D moved us with some difficulty to another table the 1st night and again on the 2nd night to accommodate some other guests. We were happy to move again to allow other passengers to sit together. The Maitre'd was all over us for the rest of the cruise because we agreed to help him (and had that magical gold card). Overall it was great MDR experience and probably one of the best that I have had. We had two sets of waiters because of the changes and they were both outstanding.
Specialty dinning: We ate at Portofino's 2 out of 5 nights. Once for my parent's anniversary and on the last night. I went the day before to speak with the Maitre'D about the anniversary and picked the wines. I paid for everything in advance so when we got there the next day we sat down, and the Maitre'D immediately brought the champagne that I had ordered and followed up with wines selected. The service was top notch (may have had to do with my arriving a day early to plan it and got some of their best wines), food was very good (again I set the bar really high), and they brought a little chocolate cake with a candle for my parents after dinner. Nice touch. They gave us cappuccinos on the house. When we returned on the last day we had the same wait staff and the experience was just as good. (minus the pre-planning and candles of course)
Rooms: We had a Jr Suite and it was my first time in a suite of any kind. Wow, so that is how the other half lives. I do not want to go back...ever! Really nice and spacious room, well appointed and very comfortable. Plenty of storage and to my absolute shock, a walk in closet. Yes folks, I walked into a closet to get my clothes. OK, so I was easily impressed. The bathroom was nice and had a large (for a cruise) bathtub/shower combo. The balcony had 2 chairs 2 tables and a recliner w/ foot rest. We sat on the balcony overlooking the Statue of Liberty and the NYC skyline as we sailed off with the champagne I ordered for my parents. A great start to the cruise. My parents had a grand suite which was also very nice and well decorated with the anniversary package I ordered. They did a great job of preparing the room with streamers over the bed and fun decoration hanging in the living room. The bar area was nice, but also doubled as your closet. Kind of awkward to go to your bar area and open the doors to get your clothing. While the room was very nice and spacious and the bathroom the size of some inside cabins, I actually preferred my Jr. Suite. Mind you the Grand Suite has the magical gold card so there are some benefits. One complaint many people make is that the paint on balconies is chipping and the rails are not properly varnished. They are correct, if you look closely the paint is not perfect and the railings are not shinny, but these are minor things that will not spoil your cruise and was by no means "dirty looking". It did not bother me and from experience is somewhat normal. They cannot go into your room regularly to paint and varnish...imagine the smell and inconvenience if they did.
We got a bridge tour and by chance the captain came on the bridge while we were there and he immediately joined our tour and spoke with us for 10 minutes answering all our questions and played along with some of the kids on the tour whom he had met the previous day in the kids program. The captain is very active with guests and makes a big effort to be present (pictures on formal night, walks around the ship talking to people, and makes 2 public announcements daily).
My Wife is a health nut and found the fitness area to be very nice and clean. Machines were good and there were plenty of machines to use if you avoid the mid day rush. One part that she was not happy about was the extra charge for very average aerobics or yoga classes. She felt that they were not worth the money and should have been free.
Overall bar service was typical for a cruise. Buy alcohol and they are all over you, show your re-fillable soda cup and they ignore you. Drinks were priced normally for a cruise and had a range for all budgets. Wine selection was pretty good if you pay as you go. The wine packages are very limited. They limit you to mostly Californian wines with the package and about 20% of the actual selection on board. Very disappointing if you like German Riesling and prefer a wider "worldly" selection of wines. Don't get me wrong, I like Californian wines, just not all the time so I paid as I went and avoided the packages.
While in Bermuda we docked for two days at the Dockyards. We did our own thing and used the public transportation (ferry and bus). You can buy passes on the ship and the ferry into Hamilton was directly across from the ship. Easy to use and find. The buses are air-conditioned (thankfully) and go everywhere on the island. There are 12 bus routes and only 3 major roads so navigating is easy. All the drivers are friendly and if you ask them to alert you when you are near your destination they remember to stop and call out to let you know you have arrived. Great service overall and best way to get around the island. Taxis are VERY expensive. Crystal Caves are worth a visit, any beach is a nice beach (hey it is Bermuda), and Hamilton is a very walk able town.
Disembarkation: We were the 1st allowed off the ship due to the fact that we were in suites. They had a private lounge at the front of the ship for us and the concierge personally escorted us when we could disembark. We had a private exit and bus waiting for us. We actually got off before most of the walk off guests at the main exit. Needless to say it was easy to get our luggage and my car was parked next to the warehouse so I simply walked 1 minute, loaded the car and drove out of the port before some walk-offs even left the ship. It was by far the easiest disembarkation ever. I know that Platinum, Diamond and Diamond Plus members had the same privilege as suites but left after us through the same private exit.
If you live anywhere on the Northeastern Seaboard, drive to New Jersey and park your car. Less expensive than a flight, no baggage restrictions and the Explorer of the Seas is a great ship, with a great staff and it makes for an easy vacation.
Two final ideas if you are driving. Bring some foldable/storable lawn chairs for the beach (you can buy them for 10 bucks just about anywhere with camping or patio furniture for sale). They come in a storage bag and you can just stick a luggage tag on them. I brought 2 of them and saved 40 bucks at the beach as I did not have to rent chairs. Hard if you are flying, but if you drive, stick em in the trunk. 2nd idea, get a book on CD for the drive. I had a 6 hour drive each way and got through a full on CD and did not even notice the drive. Use cruise control, make sure to just look ahead not to hit anyone and lose yourself in a book while driving to a wonderful cruise experience (or to forget the fact that you are heading back home to that pile of laundry in the trunk of your car after the cruise). :-)
Thank you for reading and I hope that this review helps you.