In 2002, we were wowed by the Explorer of the Seas as we ventured on our first Royal Caribbean cruise with our family. Eight years later, the Explorer is sailing close to home out of Bayonne, New Jersey. Could the second time around meet our already high expectations? This review summarizes our feelings about our New England/Canada cruise, an itinerary that we have done on Celebrity and Princess. All cruises are good ones, we've been on eighteen, so any criticisms have to be considered in light of our previous experiences.
EMBARKATION It took us only 35 minutes to drive from southwestern Queens to Bayonne. Contrary to reports on Cruise Critic, there were no construction delays or traffic jams at the port. We arrived around 11:30 a.m. and porters were available to take our luggage and direct us to the parking area. There is a shuttle bus to the check-in area and once in line, 45 minutes were needed to pass through security, get our sailing pass and head up to the Windjammer Buffet for lunch. Parking is $19 a day, a fair price when you consider that many local car services don't want to go to Bayonne.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE SHIP We already had recollections of our first cruise on Explorer and what remained etched in our memory was the Royal Promenade -- for the uninitiated, a mall at sea. Somehow, this time the mall-like atmosphere wasn't as electric. The area seemed dark and crowded, the free ice cream bar replaced by a Ben & Jerry's and lots of tables cluttering the walkways hawking merchandise at "sale" prices. The ship is maintained in very good shape but does show its age. This being a cool weather cruise, not many passengers were on the pool decks on sea days so the interior areas, conference center and promenade were always crowded.
OUR CABIN Our cabin, room 1643, was an interior guaranty on deck 10 midship. The location was good -- opposite the suites and there was no noise from the pool deck above. Our steward, Diosdada, did a great job and fixed a menagerie of towel animals that greeted us as we opened the curtains that separated the sleeping and seating areas. The lighting was the best we've had on a cruise. There was no space between the bed and the wall when the beds were pushed together to form a king so getting in was a challenge! If you are particular about a hair dryer, bring your own. We brought along our netbook to use in the ports and it did not fit in the safe. There was plenty of storage space and having a sofa was nice.
DINING We chose My Time Dining (MTD) and had to pay our gratuities in advance. I didn't mind at all except for the fact that a gratuity was included for the head waiter who we never saw in nine days. Our servers, Beatrice and Clinton did a great job. The beef and seafood dinners were very good; the always available choices, not so much. If you spring for Portofino's, you'll have a great meal with wonderful desserts. At breakfast, we went to the omelet station in the buffet. There were servers who offered to bring you coffee -- very nice. There were so many choices in the buffet that you could always find something appealing. Only the cafe on the promenade was open after 9 p.m. I thought the food surpassed my expectations. The only criticism I have is that there is no free ice cream on board (except for dessert at dinner). That's a major change from our first Explorer cruise and the option of frozen yogurt under an ice cream sign on the pool deck didn't cut it for me.
ACTIVITIES Kudos to Royal Caribbean for not cutting back on activities on both sea days and port days. There were enrichment activities, arts and crafts, food demos, trivia, movies, etc. Again, on sea days with cool weather, many people were interested in the programs and the spaces were over-crowded. I did attend the water color classes, port lecture on Maine, and one of the financial seminars. It was ironic, at least to me, that the financial seminar dealt with managing debt. After all, what would Suze Orman say to a caller who asked whether she could afford a cruise when she had credit card debt? (Denied!) It was fun for me to participate in the Crossword Challenge and many of the trivia games. Both Jacinta and Pablo did a great job. The members of the activities staff took their jobs seriously and were always on time and upbeat. The gym had a plethora of treadmills and machines the latter, according to my husband, reminded him of a medieval torture chamber. (He used them!)
ENTERTAINMENT Be sure to take the time to see the Ice Show -- it's offered six times. You do have to wait on line for tickets, then wait for the doors to open and wait for the show to begin. But it's a spectacular show considering that you're on a cruise ship! As for the other entertainment, it's okay. The jazz singer had a great voice, the impersonator/comedian was pretty funny and the production shows were high energy. There were no acrobatics like on many cruise ships today. The piano bar had a charismatic singer but unless you arrived early, no seat for you! The space was much too small. On one night when there were two ice shows, the entertainment in the theater was bingo. That was very disappointing and I was happy we had reservations at Portofino's that night.
PORTS OF CALL Other than Bar Harbor, all of our stops were in cities, not tourist areas. We have been to all the ports on previous cruises or on our own. We had beautiful weather in the low 60s except for Boston (around 70). Portland, Maine, has a renovated waterfront area that was fun to explore. Saint John, New Brunswick, has lots of small museums and places of historic interest. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy the Jewish Museum that had artifacts from its once thriving community. One room had wedding announcements and gowns from the 1920s-1960s that was pretty unique. The Police Museum was also very out of the ordinary with its rich collection of memorabilia. At Halifax, we walked to the Botanic Garden and explored the historic cemetery. The Immigration Museum in the port is a real treasure. The ship offers a shuttle to Quincy Market in Boston ($16 per person) and it's easy to discover the city on foot from there. Bar Harbor was the only tender port. The tenders were "open" to all after 10 a.m. but it still was an hour wait to get on the tender and travel to Bar Harbor. If I had to do it over, I'd take a ship tour in the a.m. to get ashore quickly and visit Acadia National Park. We've always had bad weather there so I didn't book a tour independently, and if I had, I might not have gotten there on time. The town is very pretty but is too touristy for my taste. We did find free wi-fi in every port and used our netbook.
DEBARKATION We were given a fairly early departure time and were off the ship by 10 a.m. There weren't many takers for express debarkation since you had to haul your luggage on that shuttle bus. Royal Caribbean deserves some credit for having lots of color combinations on the luggage tags. There weren't many suitcases to search through to find yours and there was even staff to help out. Very nice! We were home by 11 a.m. Yay!
FINAL COMMENTS We've done a similar itinerary as I mentioned earlier, and this time we had cooler weather both on sea days and in port. I didn't need the umbrella I carried with me but it would have been nice to have a daily newspaper like in days of old cruising. The captain announced a tornado in Queens and Brooklyn and we had to wait a full day before we reached port and called home. Luckily, our neighborhood had no damage. We had many cruisers from Europe and the west coast who hoped to see fall foliage (we knew better); only one tree in Bar Harbor had some color. This cruise has an itinerary that appeals to those who are interested in history or seascapes. We've been on several Norwegian cruises lately and enjoyed the varied dining venues (even if you had to pay) and the more casual dress. If the price was right, I'd sail out of Bayonne again but I like a smaller ship on a fall cruise.