Western Caribbean ~ December 5-12, 2004
Itinerary: at sea ~ Belize ~ Costa Maya ~ Cozumel ~ Grand Cayman ~ at sea
I recommend and urge you to read and compare Cruise Critic's comments on RCI's Radiance, Mariner or Navigator Western Caribbean itineraries over Explorer's Western Caribbean itinerary (see Ports of Call below).
Explorer of the Seas is a huge ship loaded with amenities. This was our first cruise on a "Voyager class" ship. We sensed very few bumps or rolls while the ship was underway, though there were some spots aboard more prone to vibrate than others. It took us about two days to familiarize ourselves with the locations of things without studying the conveniently located deck plans. You will need to be mindful whether you are forward or aft when you are inside. Most places are easily accessible, but we needed help finding Studio B and Maharaja's (though we were on the right deck we learned we couldn't get there from where we were). The ship has a spectacular Royal Promenade designed to look like a narrow street lined with shops. Several parades and numerous street market sales happen here. As you can imagine, it often gets crowded. With a 3114 passenger capacity you will learn to anticipate long lines. I honestly feel some lines could have been avoided if more crew had been assigned to help guests. Many fellow cruisers agree that there are too few elevators. At peak usage times we found the stairs a quicker alternative. Though the interiors are kept polished and clean, this ship is beginning to show her age: stained/worn carpet, frayed furniture upholstery, and rust are evident.
Staterooms: Ours was an ocean view with balcony. It was quite efficient and compact though it took consideration for two people to move about in it simultaneously. The balcony proved to be a blessing many times. Oddly, our toilet (and as we discovered many on our deck) sometimes would not flush. Our minibar refrigerator did not keep contents cool nor were there controls to lower the temperature. Our outstanding steward kept us supplied with ice. If you dropped the soap in our narrow little round shower you would be challenged to pick it up. We learned to have our camera ready for the thoughtful surprise when we returned to our stateroom in the evening.
We had friends who booked a Promenade Stateroom with a bay window view of the Royal Promenade. The view is spectacular and they had a ringside seat for the parades and events. But they also had to be mindful to close the curtains because people can see into their stateroom. This stateroom would not make a good choice for those desiring to retire before midnight because you can hear the music and chatter coming from the "street" below.
Dining: Our assigned table was on the third floor of the main dining hall, furthest back in a dark little corner next to the drink station with a porthole view of a lifeboat. What on earth had we done to Royal Caribbean to merit this? We were later told that we booked early and got our table assignment early - RCI assigns from poor seating to best seating. Go figure. We could have requested a change of table from the Food and Beverage Manager but we preferred to stay with our outstanding and friendly waiter and assistant waiter.
We learned that some guests stayed away from the two formal dinners because they did not bring a formal gown or a tux. Please don't do this! On formal nights most ladies were wearing pantsuits or "Sunday ensembles" and most gentlemen wore coat and tie. The most outstanding meals are served on formal nights. I'd recommend the duck and the lobster. The meals served on other nights are very good. If you prefer a different side dish from another entree than the one shown for your entrEe your waiter can usually bring that to you. Vegetarian and "lite" meals are also available.
We ate breakfast in the Windjammer. There is a buffet often with fewer people in line out of sight in the very back. There you will find "Egg Harbor" where your chef will cook your personal omelet, including a shrimp omelet. The aft seating has a panoramic view. We observed that table service remarkably improved when the manager or an officer was present. Oddly, tomato juice, grape juice, V8 juice, prune juice and chocolate milk are not available.
We ate in the main dining room for lunch twice. We do not recommend this. They try to herd guests to a table where other guests are already eating. You can request a different table, but half way through your meal new guests will be herded to your table. The menu is quite limited and the quality of the food is not as good as the dinner meals. We recommend going to the buffet lunch in the Windjammer.
The Windjammer also offers a snack service mid-afternoon. Many guests take these poolside or to their rooms. This is probably better for those who have second seating dining.
The are several "Arctic Zone" free soft serve ice-cream stations on board. Soft and hard drinks are available for a price. We packed beverages in our suitcases. Had our colas and rum been discovered they would have been confiscated. Cafe Promenade has 24-hour food and coffee service.
For a $20.00 per person charge you may make reservations for a table at Portofino's where exceptional Italian cuisine is prepared and served. For a $3.95 per person cover charge you may eat at Johnny Rockets - but their shakes are an additional charge. Their burger and fries were about the same as in Windjammer's but the onion rings are special. The jukebox was fun.
We consider the food very good overall and plentiful. Those wanting consistent 5-star dining may be disappointed on this moderately priced cruise, but we found the food to be better than expected.
Shows: We recommend seeing most of the (free) shows. Our cruise's celebrity headliners were Herb Reed and the Platters who gave a thrilling performance. We strongly recommend the Ice Planet (ice-skating) show. These talented skaters do amazing things on that little ice rink. (Yes, this ship has an ice rink.) Sit up close and they're "in your face." BRAVO! The Royal Caribbean Singers & Dancers "Everything Old is New Again" show was excellent. If you are looking for a Las Vegas style showgirl presentation you won't find it on this cruise. The comics were funny but we offer one word of caution, some of the comedian's material is not suitable for children. The show we recommend skipping is their "Fast Forward" tribute to dance musicals. We guess the director assumes a naïve audience who has forgotten what disco sounded like. (One example: they performed "Disco Inferno" - a hard driving classic with a dominating bass line. They performed it with the bass barely audible and with a rock drum beat, not disco. They didn't attempt "Stayin' Alive" or "Night Fever.") The band was positioned in a "Hollywood Squares" like set...and the music was just that: "square." Our band is stuck on the "Entertainment Tonight" theme.
Our cruise director was generally entertaining but sometimes her verbosity bordered on abuse of a captive audience.
One of the funniest shows on our voyage was the "Love and Marriage" Show. This has a "Newlywed Game" format but features one newlywed couple, one couple married very many years, and one couple in between. The success of this show is dependent upon the couples selected from the audience, but we believe yours will be as hilarious as our show."
Dancing: Really, we just desired one romantic slow dance with our beloved...not a chance. The music was either background listening or megawatt. Advertised "ballroom" dancing was all 1940's. Dancing was controlled line dancing or forced theme. We observed that the music on this ship is all about party and selling drinks. There is not much romantic atmosphere or slow-dance music in the clubs on this ship. Sadly, this is the one area we found most disappointing. Our feelings were amplified by the fact we were celebrating our anniversary. (FYI - we let RCI know we were celebrating our anniversary. We received nothing at all - not even a card from guest relations.)
Ports of Call: General Information: We found the time at ports of call too limited. We believe time at sea is unrealistically long probably in hopes that you will spend more money aboard. You'll enjoy an all night "cruise to nowhere" from Belize City to Costa Maya and again between Costa Maya and Cozumel. Even the sail from Cozumel to Grand Cayman was slow. Seven Seas Voyager was docked at Cozumel when we left, she was already docked when we arrived in Grand Cayman. You will receive brochures in your stateroom directing you to shops and businesses that are probably partners with the cruise line or who have paid for an endorsement. The cruise line seems to discourage you from leaving the tourist village. I foresee a trend that cruise lines will continue to develop controlled tourist enclaves at their ports of call to increase their profit margins.
Belize This is shore excursion day and there are several highly recommended ones: Xunantunich w/Marimba lunch, Lamanai & New River Safari, Barrier Reef and Beach, and SNUBA. You will need to bring insect repellent if you go ashore. In December it was over 90 degrees F ashore. Our tour guide told us in the summer it can get to 120 degrees F.
Xunantunich is a spectacular mountain Mayan ruin with a tall pyramid. Select this tour if you want to climb the pyramid but you will need to know this: the way up has steep, narrow, uneven steps along a sheer rock facing without handrails. I felt like Indiana Jones when I reached the top. The view is worth the effort, but for some, not worth the risk. Most of this all day tour is spent on a bus or in a tender. The marimba lunch is a gastronomic adventure. Our marimba players were in need of practice and their instruments were in need of repair.
The Lamanai & New River Safari will get you close to jungle nature. My tour did not encounter a lot of wildlife - except bugs. A friend who took the Barrier Reef and Beach was thrilled at having seen so many fish snorkeling - and having consumed so much beer at the beach party. Reports from friends who took the SNUBA tour sounded different and exciting.
Costa Maya: This is "beach day" or "stay aboard ship" day. This is the tourist village the cruise lines built. The stores are extensions of the shops on the ships. Go ashore and you're still in the cruise line's enclave. It's a gated enclosure that keeps locals out and tourists in. There's a nice little beach park right next door, but you are not permitted to go to it. There are shore excursions here, but none highly recommended. If you really must shop, take a bus into the village about 5 minutes away. They sell Mexican crafts for less there. We strongly recommend saving shopping for Cozumel and Grand Cayman. There is a large saltwater pool here worth swimming in and hammocks on the beach to lounge in.
Cozumel: This is a "get out there" day. I chose the Tulum Express excursion. You will enjoy a 50-minute tender ride to Playa de Carmen. Then you have a 1-hour bus ride to Tulum, a beautiful Mayan ruin set on the seashore. The ruins are incredible but are roped off to keep you from going inside or climbing them. We were served a box lunch on the bus. We returned in time to shop. This is the place to shop for silver, leather and gemstones. Prices in Playa de Carmen are lower than in Cozumel, but the selection is not as great and your time is limited. The tender drops you off in Cozumel, not at the ship. There you rent a taxi back to the ship. We had learned of the normal taxi fare before leaving ship. Good thing, our taxi driver tried to stiff us. Also be alert for the "double swiping" credit card scam in Cozumel. It happened to our friends who discovered it when they got home.
The other excursion I recommend highly is the Dolphin Swim in Chakanaab National Park. You might save money booking directly with Dolphin Discovery and hiring your own taxi. It was fascinating listening to people at our table talk about all their excursions and experiences. We also recommend that you hire a cab to Playa Mia Beach where chairs, tables, umbrellas, mats, etc., are available free.
Grand Cayman: Grand Cayman Island is gradually recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Ivan. We highly recommend Seven Mile Beach. You can get there by turning left at the pier and walking the road a little ways until you come to the beach park. We walked down the beach and met some Explorer guests who booked the Seven Mile Beach Break excursion. What they got for their money was a rickety lounge chair (umbrella extra) and a watered down drink at a tumble down motel. Their taxi fare was extra. You can also take a bus to Cemetery Reef for free snorkeling. Grand Cayman is the place to purchase alcohol. You aren't permitted to take your alcohol purchase aboard yourself. The ship keeps your alcohol purchases to be delivered to your stateroom on the last day (RCI doesn't want to discourage any bar sales aboard ship).
Embarkation: Avoid the madhouse and check-in at 11:00 a.m. In my opinion, RCI should learn lessons about handling masses of people from sports arenas and airports. We saw people languishing in long, slow lines just to have someone look at their documentation and swipe a credit card to get a SeaPass. (It is possible to give credit card information via internet.) This is an area RCI really needs to improve on. You will need to keep some personal items and any medications handy. Our luggage was delivered to our stateroom at about 6:30 p.m.
Life Onboard: "Control without Organization". Passengers are constantly being herded into slow moving cue lines for most everything. Ever been to a major theme park? We waited 40 minutes in a line of hundreds of people to get aboard a tender. Yet there was only one crew member checking SeaPasses. Worse, inconsiderate people constantly break into lines. Crew members do not want to enforce rules for fear of getting a negative comment from a passenger.
It is difficult to go anywhere without a crew member trying to sell you a drink or take your picture. The photographers intruded upon our dinners and often set up equipment in such a way that passageways were blocked or severely constricted (where's the safety officer?) Drinks and photos have to be great sources of income for cruise lines.
A new twist on this theme came in the form of art auctions. Here it's the art expert versus you the art novice. Lured by the promises of "free champagne, free raffles, free art" we made the mistake of attending an art auction. We were quoted one price for the opening bid for a print, but the actual opening bid was $100 higher. Add to any winning bid price a steep "auctioneer's fee" and shipping charges. Needless to say, we didn't bid. We found the same print available at Art.com for much less when we arrived home. We did not receive any "free art" and the free raffle would be drawn at the end of the cruise. We had to run down the waiter serving just a little glass of champagne. We strongly caution Buyer Beware and know your art and its real value before you buy. If nothing else, we urge you to check the value of art prints on the internet before you bid or buy art aboard Explorer.
Speaking of internet, RCI charges a lot to use their internet services.
I wanted to talk to someone about joining the Crown and Anchor Club. I was directed to Business Services. No one was there. I did this several times and each time no one was there. I finally reached a person who refused to talk to me and passed me off to another person who was already speaking to a couple wanting to book a cruise. She said she wouldn't be available the rest of the day. I finally went to Guest Relations and got the information I wanted. If you want to talk to someone in Business Services you will need to be scheduled in their appointment book.
Know what you are getting into. U.S. law does not apply on the high seas. Besides, Explorer is registered in Nassau, Bahamas. The Casino "house odds" aboard ship are much greater than at Las Vegas or Atlantic City. The old saw, gamble only what you can afford to lose is advice to remember. Consider the loss the price for entertainment.
You may be enticed to cruise by the value fare but believe me, the prices of everything else quickly add up and can exceed original fare. A $12 wine in your store is $33 onboard. Bring your own bottle to the table and you'll pay a $12 "corking" fee. A soft drink is $1.50. Beer is $3.00 or more. In spite of the hype, cruises have seldom been "all inclusive." If you can be content with a stateroom and free meals then your cruise will be a bargain. If your idea of vacation is partying and drinking then cruises are an expensive way to do it.
If you are seriously considering taking RCI's Explorer Western Caribbean cruise my recommendation is to take a Western Caribbean on RCI "Voyager class" ships Mariner or Navigator. Their itineraries are better.