Brief background: my son turns 18 in November and for his birthday present he chose a trip. Thought we (just he and I) would try a cruise. I chose Royal Caribbean specifically because of their children's program - the other lines I looked at grouped "teens" as 12-17 yr olds, but RC split it 12-14, and 15-17. They also offered Teen Excursions at port. More on that later. I booked a 5 night on the Explorer of the Seas from Bayonne/Cape Liberty NJ to Bermuda.
Boarding: incredibly simple and quick. From drop-off to being on ship was less than 30 minutes. I had all of our paperwork fully completed and had checked in online. I had my passport, my son had driver's license and birth certificate (I know there have been many threads about single parents and traveling - we had no problems). Were on board about 11:30, cabins not ready til 1:30 so it was time to explore! It was great - played a round of mini golf, got my first pina colada of the trip, went to the library for a book and basically got the lay of the land.
Cabin: fantastic. No complaints. Sure - the railing could use some paint but I've read some really nit-picking reviews here and I have to say - overall - very good. We had a balcony room and loved it. Tons of storage! Very well laid out cabin. Our cabin steward - Chanel - introduced herself right away and took excellent care of us. It was also very quiet.
Sail away was nice - got wonderful pictures of the skyline and the bridge. It was very chilly so didn't stay on deck too long.
Food: The food in the MDR - EXCELLENT! I skipped the lobster tail the last night (living at the beach seafood isn't a biggie for me) and got the prime rib - OUTSTANDING! Just like the filet of beef earlier in the cruise it was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Have never had anything nearly as good. The scallop risotto was incredible also. Ate in the MDR 3 nights and had impeccable service from waiter Anthony and asst waiter Jean. Forgot to write down the head waiter's name - but he was excellent as was the "shooter girl." They sang "Happy Birthday" to my son and it was one of the highlights of the trip?
The sushi in the Windjammer was very very good as were the desserts. One minor gripe - many of the dishes were missing signs - especially desserts. May not seem like a big deal but I cannot eat artificial sweeteners and there were many sugar-free desserts, but since there was no way of knowing what was "sugar free" and what was full of old-fashioned natural sugar I had to pass on a few. Also, some of the more "exotic" dishes just had the names and a brief description would have been helpful. Little tip: everybody stops at the first station - salad. You can grab a plate and just go to the other stations.
My son loved the Cafe Promenade - the pizza and cookies especially, and the croissant sandwiches we both loved. A good place to get coffee and tea 24/7.
For breakfast we used room service - loved sitting on the balcony with my Danish and coffee in the morning while my son was in the shower and dressing, then we would switch.
We went to Johnny Rockets twice - the chocolate shakes were excellent (and my son works in an ice cream parlor so this is his expert opinion lol). Melvin Reyes is the BEST - when he sings "Stayin' Alive" it made our day.
Childrens' program: This was the one HUGE drawback to our trip. As I mentioned earlier, this was our first cruise - we have no loyalty to any cruise line. I chose RC mainly because of the amazing children's program, particularly the fact that they advertised that shore excursions would be organized for the teens. I also needed a vacation and had visions of my son and other teens heading ashore while I enjoyed a massage or checked out some of the seminars or classes. Didn't happen. The first day my son discovered that because of the supposed lack of teens aboard there would be one big group aged 12-17. There were never any excursions mentioned and when I asked at the Guest Relations desk was met with a few blank stares. Did my 17 yr old son want to hang out with 12 yr olds? Nope. But he didn't want to chill with his Mom either.We ended up spending a lot of time at the arcade or walking around the top decks. Finally the 3rd night a few other older teens showed up -apparently they had looked in at the club early on and when they saw the younger kids decided to ditch it. The last two nights were enjoyable for my son but the lack of excursions or activities for the older teens was a sore point. I realize that many parents do not take their kids out of school for vacation in October so I expected the numbers to be low but there were 54 teens aged 12-17 on our cruise, and the following cruise - a 10 day to the Caribbean - had 150+ (according to the Teen Club employee). Even with 54 kids, if a sign up sheet was posted to gauge interest in excursions I am sure there would have been many who would go.
Quest: I won't give anything away - it was great fun although there was a family on our team who had played before and it kind of spoiled the fun for us newbies as we couldn't really participate - they knew the secrets already.
Shows: The Ice Show was really good, the "Fast Forward" was enjoyable, the comedian was hysterical at his earlier show, I did go back for the late night "adult" show - it was mainly crude sex jokes. I'm not a prude (at all) but thought his earlier show was much smarter and funnier.
Port: There was another ship in port the same time as we were and the lines for transportation were the worst I have ever seen. Incredibly disorganized, no signs anywhere advising which line was for St Georges and which was for Hamilton. Very very frustrating.Was ready to give up and go back to the ship after an hour, as many did. Ended up in Hamilton - tourist trap shops - then made our way to St Georges - same thing. Did find the Swizzle Inn - HUGE portions, great service and strong rum swizzles? Had booked the Bermuda Triangle Glass Bottom Boat tour - highly recommend - one of the high points of the trip. Funny, knowledgeable, and really interesting. Great guys!! The second day in port we stayed close at the Royal Naval Dockyard - more touristy stuff.
Misc: I did try the Line Dancing class - with 5 other women, 4 were of the retired age. It was a bit disturbing that someone (guests in their early 30's) came in and videotaped us the whole time - was surprised the instructor didn't say anything - I did turn to the camera, smile sweetly and say "I don't want to see this on YouTube!"
The art auction - Peter Max - was very good, learned a lot about the artist.
The photographer - got a few great pics of my son and I - well worth the $20 each.
Thank God for the arcade - kept my son entertained and I beat him in Skee Ball and Guitar Hero.
Purell - at the gangway and in front of all food areas. BUT - not in the casino or the arcade - two places it is needed.
Elevators - SO SLOW!! Ended up taking the stairs 90% of the time.
Disembarking was a breeze - we had a late number/color so stayed in the cabin until 10:30 before making our way down.
Overall impressions of Royal Caribbean - to quote my son - Mom, we are both too young for this cruise. Meaning - if he was in his mid-20's and drinking and dancing - great. If I was a more sedate mother (I'm a young 39), then I would have enjoyed playing bridge. I didn't want the "party atmosphere" of Carnival and the Freestyle Cruising of NCL didn't appeal to me. Because of what RC promised in the way of the Teen Programs I chose them but unfortunately in that regard they did not deliver. It was a very enjoyable trip in all other areas but this downside negatively colored the whole experience.