Explorer of the Seas - Sept 25, 2010
Yeah, okay, so after writing this, I realized just how long it was. So for those of you with short attention spans, here's the high points: WE LOVED IT! We wanna do it again soon, and have already booked our next cruise. The food was great, the pools were fun, the shows ranged from good to awesome, the room was small but good (and my son and I loved the balcony, even though it was small too), and maybe next time we'll see more of Bermuda (but what we saw of it was good, too).
Anyway, on to the details.
My wife has been on two other Royal Caribbean cruises, and has been on this 5-day Bermuda Explorer cruise on one of them, so we took her word for it that we'd love it, and indeed we did!
Got up early (well, earlier than usual) Saturday morning and drove to the dock. We took the advice of folks on the boards, and took the PA turnpike (from Lancaster) to the NJ turnpike, to exit 10, and followed 440 up to the Cruise Port. It was as easy as could be, and we managed it with no trouble at all. 3 hours from home, including a stop for coffee on the NJ turnpike.
Arrived at 11:30 at the port, found our way from 440 down to the end of the peninsula, and had no trouble dropping wife and kids off with our bags, despite their still being quite a few people outside just getting off the ship from the previous cruise. We got advice on the Cruise Critic boards to get there around 11:00, and it's good advice, as right after we got up to the desk, the line behind us went from short to long very quickly. After maybe a 10 minute wait, we took the bus over to the ship, and went onboard. The whole boarding process went very smoothly.
As it was lunchtime, we went up to the Windjammer for the lunch buffet. As buffets go, the Windjammer is top notch: great selection, and very good quality food. I'd overeaten and made myself ill on vacation a few months prior, and was determined to not repeat the mistake; while Royal made very sure we weren't going to go away hungry, it was very easy to eat both light and healthy onboard the Explorer.
After lunch, we did a bit of exploring of the ship (the pictures don't really do it justice; it's BIG), then went to check out our room and drop off our carry-ons. We booked a balcony room, 8516, which is the foremost balcony on deck 8 portside. I'd heard the rooms were small, but while I certainly didn't mind it, putting two adults and a 9 & 13-yr-old into one room was a bit tight, especially at night when the sofa bed was opened into a bed, (not much room to walk around).
We also went down to see my sister-in-law's room, which was aft family suite 9694. That was nice sized as a hotel room, and just plain HUGE compared to ours, with two bedrooms, a sitting area, and a balcony which (according to Royal's site) was bigger than our whole room, not to mention having a wonderful view out the rear of the ship. (Okay, enough room-envy.)
The pools, up on deck 11, were a nice size (for the number of people in swimming, which considering the time of year, weren't many), and were all clean and in great repair. They drain and refill the pools often? daily? with ocean water, which surprised us all, and slightly annoyed my daughter, as the water stung her eyes a bit. (Of course, she was still in the pools more often than anywhere else on the ship, so it didn't slow her down much.)
There were also four hot tubs up on deck, which got more use, and could be difficult to find space in, especially on sea days when many people were poolside. But when we were in them, folks were friendly, and we enjoyed it.
Another "feature" of the main pool area was that it was quite windy most of the time. Being 11 decks up and open on the sides, there wasn't much to slow the winds down, which given the nice temps was usually fairly pleasant, although you wouldn't be bringing a deck of cards poolside to play with family. (We did bring Rummikub, a tile game, which worked just fine.)
Foreward of the main pool area is the solarium, which is adult-only, so we didn't use it much, but it was also a very nice area, much more quiet than the main pools (which usually had either music playing over the speakers or a live band playing), and less breezy as well. We did use it as a shortcut to the stairs to get to our cabin quite often, though, so we got to see it several times.
Aft of the main pools and up a level is the little kids' pool area, with a slide and baby pool. I took my daughter back there, but at 9 years old, she was a bit old to be going there. There were plenty of smaller kids there, and they were all loving it, and my kids would have, too, at that age. And being at the tail of the ship, if you weren't watching the kids, the view off the back was great.
So if the pools were my daughter's favorite thing about the ship, the shows were my son's. We went to all of the main shows in the theatre, and the theatre itself was amazing: large enough that everybody who wanted to go could be seated for each show, comfortable seats, wait service for drinks before the shows, and good sound (not too loud, but quite clear).
They did an opening show the first night, split between a decent comedian and the cruise director, Chris Northey, telling us about everything to come on the cruise. Another night was a latin song-and-dance show; I'm not too much into dance, but it was fun, and the music was good. Yet another show was movie music, which my wife enjoyed more than the 1st, as she knew the music better. Another show was a juggler, who was very entertaining, (although not that great a juggler). Last night was a comedian, who was clean and hilarious.
Chris Northey was a great cruise director. While I rarely saw him outside the theatre, he did a great job hosting the shows. He did a game show called Love & Marriage, a take-off on the old Newlywed Game, except they had one newlywed couple and two older couples; very very funny. He also hosted a cake decorating demonstration with the head chef, which was merely amusing, but still good fun.
Then there was the ice show! They have their own ice rink on board, and we got (free) tickets to the show on our 2nd afternoon onboard. Not very heavy on tricks and jumps and such, but very well put together, with the costumes and story and such. All four of us really enjoyed it, and were talking about it for much of the rest of the cruise. And the "guest" skater was pretty amazing, with a number of hula hoop tricks that were just incredible.
Against my better judgement, we also did karaoke. Not just went to the show, which was really fun, to watch the great singers as well as the poor ones, but wife and I also sang a song (!). We're average to mediocre, and everyone politely applauded at the end; no humiliation at all. And yeah, there were enough really good singers there to make going worthwhile just to listen. Following karaoke was a No Wrong Answer gameshow, where the most popular answer was the "right" one. Lots of fun to watch and play.
So, the ship. Running down the middle of the ship is the Promenade. Maybe a dozen stores, including a duty-free liquor store, jewelry shop, clothing/logo store, a couple of the many bars, etc. This is where the parades and street parties took place, and just a great place to people-watch. And down at the forward end of the promenade is the cafe, where you can get free snacks (pizza, sandwiches, cookies, etc.) as well as drinks (coffee, tea, etc.), and paid-for Seattle's Best coffee and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. I'd heard other cruisers rave about the coconut ranger cookies, and while they were certainly good, my personal favorite was the rum & raisin things. (Gotta figure out how to make them, now that we're back!)
And speaking of food, there's the main dining room. We got an assigned table for dinner, and ate there three of our five nights. The food ranged from darn good (some kind of whitefish) to oh-my-gosh-wonderful (lamb shanks one night, lobster the next), with service that was very good by, say, Applebee's standards, and just decent by fancier standards.
We didn't do Portofino's while onboard, although we did do Johnny Rockets a couple of times. The deal there is a $5 cover charge per person, which covered food, with milkshakes and sodas extra. We got the peanut butter and chocolate milkshake, which was just awesome the first time, as it had big chunks of PB swimming in the shake (don't EVEN try to drink it with a straw). (Of course, we went back for more later, and it was merely a smooth PB&C shake. Disappointing that it wasn't like before, but still delicious.)
Then there were the bars. Prices were around $6-7 per drink, which included gratuity (I hate it when places do that, but what the hey), and were pretty decent. (FYI: I consider myself a middling home bartender, and mix my drinks stronger than the average bar, so feel free to ignore my criticisms here). We loved Dizzy's, and had Prince Charles (that's what his nametag said) take good care of us the whole cruise long, with virgin drinks that the kids loved, and margaritas that we loved. I also hit Crown & Kettle for a Guinness or two, and the Schooner Bar.
Yeah, the Schooner Bar. Decent as a bar, but a few times while we were on-board, they had a classical/Flamenco guitarist named Roman Dembitskyy who was just wonderful! (Okay, he dropped a few notes here and there, but compared to the pop-singing chester in Crown & Kettle...?) I made it a point to break off from the wife & kids a few times (i.e. while they were getting ready for other events) and catch parts of his performances, and really enjoyed it.
To our slight dismay, our kids didn't really go off to do anything in the kids' activities. They went to the arcade a few times, son (13) for Guitar Hero, and daughter (9) to play skill games and collect all of the crappy little pieces of plastic. But they did enjoy themselves, with daughter's favorite thing, as mentioned, being the pools and beaches, and son's favorite being the shows and the virgin Lava Flows in Dizzy's, and both are looking forward to our next cruise.
Oh yeah, the ship actually went somewhere! Bermuda! Almost forgot about that, really, since we were loving the ship so much. We docked in the Dockyard, at the western end of the island, although because of the reefs around Bermuda, we ended up coming in from the eastern end of the island around sunrise, and went past the northern coast of the island, before using the bow-thrusters to spin the ship around and come into the dock. Really fun to watch, especially as our cabin was port-side, which ended up being dock-side as we arrived. (But the view out the starboard side, in port, was equally wonderful, as the island wraps around the ship, so don't feel like you need to be port-side to enjoy the view.)
Getting off in Bermuda was quick and painless, sort of. It happened maybe 25 minutes late, but once it started, it went quickly enough, and we were on dry land again. We screwed up a little bit, in that we had wanted to book the zoo excursion for Monday, our first day in port, but goofed and booked it for Tuesday. As it was 24 hours ahead of time, Royal let us cancel the excursion and get a full refund, at which point we went back on shore, and spent a few hours at Snorkel Beach, letting daughter get her fill of the beach.
Yeah, Snorkel Beach. We didn't bring snorkels with, so it was mostly wading for wife and I, and some swimming and sand-castle building for son and daughter (mostly daughter). The music was annoyingly loud through the speakers, (and why exactly they were playing techno escapes me), but apart from that, the area was pleasant and clean. We then went back to the ship, and had the place mostly to ourselves, which was much nicer.
On board, there was plenty to do. We went mini-golfing a few times; the greens were in fine shape, and the times we were there, there was usually only a few other groups playing, so there were no lines and no wait. My SIL and I also did the rock wall, which was fun, albeit surprisingly tiring. (We had maybe a 15 minute wait for that.)
Okay, the mundane: our room. The one place you're not supposed to spend any time while onboard. Well, daughter still wanted to hang out here and watch TV at times, so we ended up back there maybe an hour or two throughout the day. As I mentioned earlier, the room for the four of us was tolerably sized while the sofa bed was a sofa, but cramped at night when the sofa bed was made up. (We've since booked another cruise, with two adjoining interior Promenade cabins, to make sure we have room for us all at night and in the mornings.)
But the bathroom was surprisingly nice. It was one-person-at-a-time, to be sure, but everything actually worked! (I'm used to hotels, where something is either poorly maintained or peeling up at the edges, etc., so a well maintained bathroom is just a joy to behold!) And while the water pressure wasn't great (I'm sure they're short enough on fresh water, being in the middle of the Atlantic, and all), it was enough, and I loved the circular showers, with magnetic seals on the doors. (I want one at home! Get rid of the darn curtain!)
And I mentioned that we had a balcony. You could only fit a couple of people out there at a time, which tended to be my son and I, and it was surprisingly nice to sit out there and enjoy the sound of the water coming off the bow as we sailed, and the view of the ocean passing by. In the week after we returned, I kept looking out the window at home and at work, and was continually disappointed by the lack of ocean there.
A few odds and ends: there were a surprising number of wheelchaired passengers on-board. Everything except our room was nicely accessible, with halls and passageways wide enough to pass any chairs we encountered. (My mom's in a wheelchair, and has been my whole life, and my dad's in one now, too, so I'm a bit conscious of such.)
Also, this was my first cruise, but we've already booked another, about a year out, to have to look forward to. On the one hand, I loved sailing out of Bayonne, NJ, as we skipped the whole airport experience (and the attending hassles), but on the other, our next cruise is out of Orlando, and if we have no flight issues, we'll be able to be in the warmer (swimming) weather sooner that way. We'll see which I prefer after #2.
Right down the line, it was a great experience, and one that I hope to repeat over and over again through the years. Maybe someday I'll try a line other than Royal, but I'm sold enough after Explorer of the Seas that for now, we'll try other Royal ships, and see what we love best.