This was a relatively painless experience for us. We took a bus shuttle down from Albany, NY to the pier. Our luggage was unloaded and we went in to the registration area. There was a short line where we gave them our Set Sail Passes. They gave us our SeaPass cards, we had our photos taken and then we went to the waiting area with our pier shuttle number. It was around 11:00am at this point. We had coffee and a cookie while we waited for our number to be called. Just before noon our number was called and we boarded the bus to the ship. We were on board by a few minutes after noon. Our room wasn't ready yet, so we brought our carry-ons with us to the Windjammer for lunch. If you can get the Honey Stung Chicken while it's fresh and hot, it's very good. It used to only be available on embarkation day but now you can order it anytime you want from room service. After eating, we went to our room which was now ready. We dropped off our carry-ons and made reservations for our first night of My Time Dining. Our luggage had not arrived yet so we headed out to explore the ship. Soon it was time for the mandatory muster drill. We did not have to bring our life jackets to the drill. Ours was inside in the Columbus dining room. We went outside to watch the ship narrowly squeeze under the Verrazano Bridge. It was cold and windy but we got some good shots so it was worth it. We were told that the NY Jets - New England Patriots playoff game would be on at the 19th hole lounge near Dizzy's but it was closed for a diamond members function. This meant that the only public area to see the game was at the Weekend Warrior Sports Bar on the Promenade. Much too small for everyone interested in the game, so we went back to our room to watch. Our Jets won which made a great start to our cruise. Since we had MTD, we ate in the Columbus dining room.
We chose an inside cabin since we don't spend much time in it anyway. Sleeping, showering and changing clothes several times a day is the only time we're in it. With the beds pushed together, there was only a few inches between the foot of the bed and the beginning of the love seat making for a tight squeeze. The bathroom, especially the shower area, is on the small side but it wasn't really a problem. The bed was comfortable and there was plenty of bedding. There was only one outlet in the entire room so a power strip would definitely come in handy. We liked the location of our cabin which was midship starboard not too far from the elevators. This was very convenient. However our cabin steward left her cleaning cart right outside of our door all day long. It only was removed at nighttime. We were the only ones this seemed to happen to and we just laughed it off and took a few pictures of ourselves pretending to clean the ship!! While our cabin steward was polite, she was not very personable and never once called us by name. Our cabin steward on the Explorer last February, Omelle, was exceptional. He did a fantastic job and we spent a great deal of time throughout the cruise talking with him about a wide variety of topics. We definitely missed the interaction this time.
We thought that the Explorer still looks good especially considering it's age. My wife doesn't like most of the artwork aboard the ship, but that certainly is subjective and really didn't bother us in the least. We had fun joking about the tin-foil giant bunny rabbit. When you see it you will know what we mean, and no, it is not actually a rabbit. We mentioned in our review last year that we don't like where the jogging track is located since it leaves very little room to move about. They have the track right in the middle of the pool chairs. It gets very congested since you can't get around without walking on the jogging track.
We had the My Time Dining so we were seated in the Columbus Room on deck 5. We enjoy the flexibility of not being locked in to a set dining time. The wait staff for our MTD was excellent. Our waiter was Marlon from the Philippines and Zarko, from Croatia, was our assistant waiter. I've read a lot about the temperature of the food being lukewarm but we never had an issue. Everything that should be hot was hot. We felt the quality of the food was good to very good. We weren't always thrilled with the selections. They repeated several entrees on throughout the cruise. We like trying new and different things and there wasn't really a lot of creativity on the menu. Twice we ate dinner at the Windjammer because we weren't interested in the sameness of the entrees being served. We only did one breakfast in the dining room. They have one special that changes each day. It was quicker and easier to just go to the Windjammer. We went twice for the sit down lunch. The salad bar alone is worth going at least a couple times. The salad bar features fresh veggies, shrimp, chicken, cheeses and many other items. It is not your average salad bar and you should certainly not miss it. We did have one bad lunch the last sea day. We ordered a fish fry that tasted and smelled very fishy. There also was a special breakfast buffet on the last sea day and it was spectacular in taste and sight. Get there early and bring your appetite and camera! Also, as New Yorkers we know good cheesecake and I am happy to say that this year each cheesecake we had was very good. Last year (except for captain's night) what they served as cheesecake was a cheaper, lighter, fluffier version. This time we were served REAL cheesecake. We usually ordered two appetizers and desserts and it is a nice way to sample different foods. The portions are not too big so go ahead and try anything that looks good! We also should note that the demographics on this particular cruise skewed much older than last year when we did this cruise. This meant that some of the entertainment may have been geared for an older audience and the regular dining assignments (not MTD) have been changed from 6:00pm to 5:30 and from 8:30pm to 8:00pm.
We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches here. After a while breakfast can get a little boring. Lunch was usually pretty good with a decent selection from pizza to steak, chicken, seafood and pasta to name a few. There are many selections to choose from and you will not go hungry. We liked the Jade section that featured Indian and Asian dishes. Unless you get one when it first comes out, avoid the hamburgers. They sit in a pan and aren't too good. The hamburger buns aren't the greatest either. They are too big and never seemed fresh. I'm not an Atkin's diet person but I started eating the burgers without the bun and they were much better. Milk, coffee, tea, lemonade and new this year, a diet flavored water (crystal light) were served each day.
As we commented in our review last year, we aren't big fans of the Promenade Cafe. It's great for coffee and early morning treats but the selection was very limited. The Rum & Raisin bars were very good! They don't have much of a selection rotating the same tiny sandwiches and snacks. The only pizza I saw there was cheese or pepperoni. They need a place where you can get things like chicken wings, burgers, fries, nachos, etc. Since they do not have a fryer in the kitchen I don't expect bar food will be served anytime soon in the Promenade Cafe. Late night munchies must be satisfied by room service.
Our room service experiences were excellent. Since the Promenade Cafe is so lacking, room service is the only place to get real food late at night. We ordered twice from room service and each time they delivered our food hot and fast (30-40 minutes.) We had our best burger from room service and you can also now get the Honey Stung Chicken. Room service is free unless you order between midnight and 5:00am then it is $3.95. Just remember to give the delivery guy a few bucks as a tip!
We did not eat here. I don't think hamburgers should be extra on a cruise. I guess this is why they don't do daily poolside barbecues on the Explorer. However, we did hear that the food was good but not exactly the same as going to a "real" Johnny Rockets.
This is one area that I think has gone downhill since our last cruise. It seemed like there was less entertainment than last year. On more than one night there wasn't even a headline show. The Love and Marriage game was the main event one night and the one ice show, Spirits of the Seasons, was a main event another night. In the past, these were secondary events. We never saw a comedian until the last night and he was only mediocre at best. One night they had the person who sang the Happy Days theme song, Bobby Arvon. He was okay, but he really didn't have enough good material for the length of the show. There were several (too many for me) of the Royal Caribbean Singer and Dancer shows (The same ones that never change.) They might be good at what they do but I don't need to see them every other night. The second to last night they had the Platters. They were very good. There was also David Pengelly a singer humorist who's act was called With Strings Attached. He played the ukulele and was very funny. Another act, Los Pampas Gauchos, was from Argentina and they danced (of course) and used whips. This again was not enough to sustain the length of the show. It should be noted that the Cruise Director, Jimmy Rhodes, is a former dancer and apparently is partial to the dance shows. There was a female singer, Dolores Park, which we missed but heard that she was just so so. The highlight for us was The Platters concert. They were terrific. The poolside reggae band last year was the best we have ever seen on any cruise and this year the band, Caribbean Fusion, was almost as good. They featured a steel drum player and that was a treat. There also was a salsa type band, Salsa Magic, that usually played at the Aquarium bar and we enjoyed listening to them play and sing in Spanish. People were dancing to them and having a good time.
While it seemed like there was less entertainment, we thought there were more organized activities this time. There were several tournaments such as ping-ping, ladder ball, beanbag toss, mini-golf competition, foosball, rock climbing, basketball, soccer and trivia contests. On our last cruise they had these also but this time they had several of each. Not just one or two times. This gave you more to do when you weren't on an excursion. They had a Finish the Lyric Game show, the Love and Marriage Game, Battle of the Sexes and of course the legendary Quest. Our team won! They also had a late night Poolside Party and Buffet, a Latin Poolside buffet, a Chocoholic buffet and on the last sea day, a big brunch buffet in the dining room. This was our second cruise with Jimmy Rhodes as Cruise Director. We never saw him except at the headline shows. His staff however, was excellent and we saw them everywhere.
Ports of Call
This was our first time to the Royal Caribbean leased port. Your choices are an overpriced Royal Caribbean excursion or hangout at the beach. Since we have our own snorkel equipment, we hung out at the beach. For the price of a tip, you can get chairs there too. When you get to the beach, walk down toward the volleyball courts. This is where there is a lot of coral and has decent snorkeling. It's a little shallow in some areas so you have to be careful not to touch the coral. Royal also provides a free barbecue buffet lunch which was very good. There are bathrooms, a bar and a few local crafts and shops there as well.
We had booked a Horseback to El Limon Waterfalls through Terry Tours Samana but it got cancelled because not enough people had signed up. We weren't interested in any of Royal's excursions so we just took a tender and walked around the port area for a little while. We aren't shoppers so there wasn't much to do. We bought a couple CD's from a local musician and then got 2 El Presidente beers (made locally in the Dominican Republic) and enjoyed the nice weather. I would recommend having an excursion if you go to Samana.
We have been to St. Thomas many times before and decided to just grab a taxi to Sapphire Beach. We had heard that Coki Beach and Sapphire Beach were the 2 best places to snorkel in St. Thomas. We have been to Coki before and did like it there. Sapphire however was much better when we were there. There was a lot of coral and colorful fish right off the beach. We also saw a 5 foot long barracuda! Other people saw turtles and rays that day. We will definitely go back. Nice peaceful beach also.
We have never been to St. Kitts before so we booked the RC Rainforest Hike. We loved it! They first take you to Caribelle Batik for a brief visit. Then the local guide, David, took us through the rain forest. He was excellent. He showed us plants and told us their medicinal purposes. We tasted several fruits and nuts growing there. There were vines that many of us swung on. While you don't have to be in fantastic shape, it is an uneven hike, crossing streams on rocks a few times, up and down hills as well. If you like an active, entertaining and informative excursion, this is it!
We booked the Eco-tour through Adventure Antigua. We've read so many great reviews and wanted to give it a try. They pick you up right next to the pier on a catamaran. From there, they showed us many sights and took us through the mangroves where we saw starfish. We then stopped at Great Bird Island (we went there last year as part of the Antigua Paddles excursion). You can hike up to the top for a scenic view or hang out and swim. This was also our first snorkel site. Not the best snorkeling there. This is where they served lunch consisting of barbecue chicken, pasta salad, tossed salad, fried plantains and banana cake for dessert. The next part was the highlight of the tour. We got to hike up on top of Hell's Gate. We have seen it before but this time we actually got off the catamaran, swam 100 feet or so and then hiked up to the top. It was awesome. If you are afraid of heights, I would not recommend doing this. The trail up is rough and at points you are only a foot or so from falling into the ocean as you are climbing up. From there we went to the main snorkel site. Our guide led us around and we saw a lot of coral but not many fish. Once back on the catamaran they served us rum punch for the ride back to the ship.
We have also been to St. Maarten several times so we decided to just take a taxi to Orient Beach. They drop you off near Bikini Beach and if you head to the right, you can find better prices for chairs and umbrellas. We paid $10 for 2 chairs and an umbrella. The tide was too rough for snorkeling that day but swimming was nice. Depending on how many people are in the taxi it cost about $6.00 per person each way to the beach. There are a lot of local vendors who walk the beach trying to sell their goods to you.
There was a little bit of delay in disembarking. We were told that it was due to the unloading of luggage. We were assigned to wait in Studio B. It's not the greatest place though because you have carry-on luggage with you which makes getting down to the seats difficult. Therefore, most people just stood. They did have coffee and pastries for while you wait. Once we were called, you swipe your SeaCard one last time and leave the ship. Then it's off to find your luggage which is easy because you just look for the section given to you. Then a porter brings it through customs with you. We then just had to wait for our bus and we were headed home.
This was our second time on the Explorer of the Seas and we think that it is a very nice ship. We love leaving from the NY/NJ area where we don't have to fly. We have our third trip on the Explorer booked already for this December. The prices have been too good to pass up. We are hoping that the rumors are true and Royal moves a different ship like the Liberty of the Seas up to Bayonne, NJ.