We flew with Virgin into Newark airport the night before the cruise and stayed at the Country Inns and Suites on a cruise and stay package. On arrival at Newark, immigration was the usual lengthy process and it took us quite a while to locate the correct shuttle for our hotel. There was another lengthy wait at the check-in desk at the hotel when we arrived (due to a large wedding party!) but eventually we got to our room which was a nice size and perfectly adequate for one night. We were rather hungry by this time though and the only real option for a meal was the Ruby Tuesdays next door. It was very busy but we managed to get a table. The food and the service were nothing to write home about but at least we didn't go to bed hungry.
We woke the next morning quite early and we had quite a view from our room, we could see the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the port and even the Explorer of the Seas (so at least we knew she had arrived on time!). We went to breakfast, which was a slightly strange affair with not a lot of choice in my opinion.
The day was very cold and there was snow everywhere, in fact there had been a big snow storm only a few days before. The shuttle bus took a while to load but eventually we were on the way to the port by about 12.10. The journey took about 30 minutes and then we had dropped off our luggage with the porters and straight into the terminal. It only took about 10 minutes to complete check-in and then we were on the Explorer and heading for lunch.
As expected the Windjammer was very busy already but we managed to find a table and enjoyed our first lunch on board. After that DH sampled a beer at the pool bar, sat in thick coat, hat and gloves! It was bitterly cold on deck but the views across to New York were beautifully clear.
Just after 1.30 we went to our cabin to drop off the carry-ons and meet our steward, John (he did a great job looking after us).We had an aft balcony on deck 9. The balcony was a good size; I really like the one's at the aft as there's not much wind when the ship's sailing and the view is always fantastic when leaving port. We had the same cabin on the Navigator OTS on our previous cruise. Even though we were familiar with the lay out of the Voyager-class ships we still went off to explore the Explorer. There were only a few differences and everything looked ship-shape to me. We went to our sail-away meeting with other cruise-criticers and then went on deck for the sail under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Wow, it certainly did look like we were going to hit - but at the last minute we seem to just glide under! By this time it was even colder outside although RCL doesn't miss a trick and there was a poor bartender wandering round in the bitter wind trying to sell hot-chocolate with baileys.
Our luggage was in our cabin when we returned so very soon all was unpacked and we were ready to enjoy our next 12 days on board.
Our first three days were sea days on the way down the eastern seaboard of the States and down towards St Thomas, our first port of call. There are activities on board to keep people busy and entertained but I must confess that I probably wouldn't do this cruise again because the first few days are just too cold and you can't really spend time on deck. I'm not really a sun-worshipper but I do like to get out into the open air on ship and actually see the open ocean. In fact that is my main dislike of the Voyager-class ships with the Royal Promenade is that once inside you could be in a mall somewhere and you just don't know you're at sea. There are just too few windows for me. I really like the Radiance-class ships with the central atrium (as we previously experienced on the Jewel OTS), it just feels more airy and I can see out!
Our first port of call was St Thomas and we had tickets for the Skyride to Paradise Point. Our information said it opened at 10.00 but when we walked there it was closed until 12.00 so we grabbed a cab and went into Charlotte Amelie. We had a wander around for a while and bought a couple of things before going back to the Skyride for noon. We took a ride to the top and the views were great and I took some lovely photos looking back towards the ship. At the top there are some shops and a bar/restaurant and I sampled the Baileys Bushwacker, which lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, DH wasn't feeling too well so after I saw the bird show (birds were very cute and entertaining) we headed back to the ship.
2nd port - St Maarten. We decided to take the local bus over to Marigot which was easy enough and gave us an opportunity to see a little bit of the island along the way. Marigot was picturesque but quiet so after a short stroll around we took the next bus back to Philipsburg. More wandering and some shopping and loaded up we headed back to the ship for lunch. After lunch in the WJ we took the water taxi back to Philipsburg and found a nice bar close to the beach.
3rd port - Dominica. We had arranged a private tour along with some other cruise-criticers to visit the Emerald Pool, Trafalgar Falls and Morne Bruce. The tour was great and we loved Dominica for its natural and unspoiled beauty and it was great not to have a Diamond store on every corner.
4th port - Barbados. We had booked a RCL tour of the island with a beach stop. We went over to the Atlantic coast, which was stunning, and the stopped at Carlisle Bay on the way back to the ship for a swim. Another great tour and after lunch we still had time to grab a cab and head in to Bridgetown to find a bar and enjoy a couple of beers. We really loved the island scenery on Barbados and would definitely come back here.
5th port - Antigua. Originally we were going to use the local buses on Antigua but in the end decided to have a lazy beach day the easy way and booked a ship tour the day before. It took us to Runaway Beach where we found some loungers under a tree and pitched up there for a couple of hours and lunch was included. After the tour we still had time to wander round St Johns for a while.
6th port - San Juan. We only had the morning here and decided to just walk through the Old Town on our own. From the ship we followed the Passage de la Princessa round to the old city gate and then up to the Fort San Cristobal (which was very interesting) and then back through the town to the ship. I liked the old town and it was really easy to explore on foot. Back on board we went to our cabin and from our balcony we watched light aircraft constantly landing and taking off from a small airfield . The ship set sail whilst we were having lunch in the WJ.
Our last two days were spent at sea travelling back up to NJ. The first day started out warm but became increasingly windy and the last day at sea was quite rough and a lot of people succumbed to seasickness. By the time we arrived back in NJ port we had 4 inches of snow on the balcony!
Food - The food and service was mostly good in the MDR but after 3 RCL cruises in two years we had grown a little tired of the same food menu. We did eat 3 times in Portofino and the food was great here but on one occasion the service wasn't.
Entertainment - we didn't see any of the shows.
Debarkation - this was chaotic and very slow, mostly as a consequence of the extra snow that fell the night before. After we got off the ship it took a long time to get a shuttle back to the hotel where we planned to leave our luggage whilst we shopped in a mall right across the road, That plan failed dismally as the mall was closed - no staff could get to work for the snow - so we ended up back in Ruby Tuesdays until it was time to head off to the airport for our flight home.
All in all we had a great holiday, enjoyed the ship (but not as much a the Jewel of the Seas) but wouldn't do this New York sailing in winter again.