The school vacation for Presidents' Week ensured that this cruise was sold out and that many cabins were filled with families. Even though a near record 3600+ passengers were on the sailing, the ship seldom seemed overcrowded (aside from children and teenagers "overusing" the elevators). There were usually deck chairs to be had in the sun or the shade. The pools were not overly full at most times. The ship offers a great range of children and youth programs combined with a variety of sports to keep the young passengers occupied. Meanwhile the many lounges, decks, bars, restaurants, promenade, shops and casino offer a variety of pastimes for everyone. There are also usual activities such as bingo, karaoke, etc. that the cruise director and his staff provide. One suggestion would be a little more emphasis on port and geography lectures (that have nothing to do with shopping).
Embarkation was a little tedious with slow-moving lines going back and forth through tensa-barrier formed lanes. Seating passengers in a waiting room and then calling them up in group numbers would reduce this stress.
The public rooms on the ship are magnificent. The Main Dining Room is three decks high with an open middle with a grand stairway connecting the levels. The theater is also three decks high with good sight lines from almost all of the seats, the exception being the obstruction caused by the necessary support pillars. The stage has a good-size fly space allowing the quick changing of sets. Other lounges all over the ship offer some good spaces to get away from the crowd. A great view can be enjoyed from Dizzy's on the 14th floor. The art work all over the ship is innovative and pleasing.
The cabin we had was not large but well planned for our needs. There was more than enough space for everything we had. I can see that things would become cramped, however, if we had had children in the cabin with us. The bathroom, though small, is well-planned. The water pressure is good and the shower stall is round allowing for a 6'4" man to easily shower. During the cruise the suction function to flush the toilets failed twice in areas of the ship, but it was quickly repaired.
Our room steward, Victor, did a great job keeping the room clean.
There is a two-story fitness and spa area with enough exercise machines that one seldom had to wait to use one. There is an outdoor running track that is 1/5 of a mile around. Since it is also used for everyone using deck chairs in the area to access them, serious jogging during the later daytime is a challenge. It is best to rise early and use the track before the "sun bunnies" arrive on the scene.
Enrichment is one area in which that Royal Caribbean has a mixed record. There are plenty of sports activities and games (trivia, bingo, etc.) but there could be more background and cultural presentations. There was a port lecturer who was very good, but her presentations were planned right in the middle of lunch with the consequence that few people showed up.
Rates: Of course I wish they were cheaper. Supply and demand economics dictates that prices will be higher when more people can cruise, such as during school vacations. Overall, even though the price was higher for this 9 day cruise than for the 12 day one immediately following us, we were generally satisfied with the value for money we received.
Dining in the Main Dining Room (MDR) was generally excellent. We had a late dinner seating at 8:00 pm. Since the ship's clocks were set ahead an hour during the first night of the cruise and not set back until the last night, this was actually akin to eating at 7:00. The ship also offers "My Time Dining" for those that wish to come when they want. We are not particular fans of this since we enjoy having the same wait staff and the same table mates each evening. We usually manage to make some friends with whom we retain contact after the cruise.
We tried the buffet on deck 11, the Windjammer, twice for lunch. The food quality and selection was nowhere near the same as in the MDR at lunch. The quality and variety would be analogous to "Home Town Buffet" which is a cut below "Golden Corral". Also the tables were sticky and soiled even after having been cleared and wiped. So we had all of our meals in the MDR and found almost everything to be of excellent quality. Our evening waiters, Javier and Caesar, were attentive and knowledgeable. What was good in the Windjammer was the Sushi selection in the evenings that could serve as an appetizer before a late dinner.
There is also a Cafe on the Promenade open day and night that offers a selection of fruit, sandwiches, rolls, cakes and cookies free for the taking. Tea and coffee are also available. Room service is also available day and night with a better selection than many other lines offer.
We did not use the places that charge a cover for food such as Portofino's of Johnny Rocket's. Why pay extra when so much good food is available included in the cruise price?
The entertainment on the ship is generally of high quality. Especially worth mentioning is the show band that performs mostly in the theater. This group, consisting of two saxes, two trumpets, a trombone, guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, was one of the best rehearsed and tight sounding groups I have heard anywhere. I waited to hear the lead trumpet player chip a high note, for example, or for an ensemble entrance to be slightly not together - it never happened! Otherwise there is live music all over the ship in different styles.
There are 8 dancers and 4 solo singers for the shows. There is also a substantial and very good ice-skating team to put on one very impressive show in the ice-skating rink. Free tickets are given out for this in advance. They put the show on 3 times since the space only seats 400.
The service level on the ship was generally very good. Everywhere, except in the Windjammer, was well-cared for and meticulously cleaned. Even thought the staff might not be as outwardly friendly, greeting everyone in the hallways all the time as is the case on Princess, the service itself - which is really the important thing - was outstanding.
This is the biggest and most magnificent ship we have been on. We will certainly want to sail with the Explorer again in the future.
Port Review for Samana, Dominican Republic (since it is not in the Port Review drop-down menu): Rating 5+
In the morning we did the "Cave and Mangrove" tour offered through the ship for $79/p. This provided excellent value for money. It was billed as a 3 hour tour, but they gave us 4 hours and never rushed anything. The town of Samana has no cruise ship pier so the passengers are tendered to land in small boats in a kind of all-day "water taxi" service. Our tour left in a boat directly from the ship so we did not need to tender ashore first. It also brought us back directly to the ship. Here is the accurate brochure description: "By speed boat, visit Lor Haitises National Park, a sanctuary where you will see many migratory and indigenous birds that inhabit the island and mangroves. Your guide will explore the cave system [with you] and tell you about the history and people that inhabited them." As we were viewing different birc sanctuaries from the boat, the pilot and guide were very conscientious about passing every viewing point twice so that each side of the boat had equal opportunity to see and photograph everything. We visited 2 caves, both of which contained drawings by the original (now extinct) inhabitants who were there when the Spanish arrived.
I the afternoon we tendered to Samana and walked along the shore promenade. We walked about 25 minutes to get to the "Bridges to Nowhere", pedestrian bridges that offered great views of the water, the town and the little islands that they connected to.
Port Review for Labadee, Haiti (since it is not in the Port Review drop-down menu): Rating 5
This is a small peninsula on the north coast of Haiti that Royal Caribbean has leased and turned into a private resort for their cruise ship guests. This area is fenced off from the rest of Haiti and passengers are not permitted to walk out of the area. There are a number of excursions available that take passengers various points of natural interest, but most passengers just enjoy the area of Labadee. There are beaches, walkways, cabanas, as well as a zipline and roller coaster (for a fee). The use of the beaches is free. A free barbecue is served in different picnic areas. Locals have some shops set up selling crafts. Expect to be subjected to aggressive marketing if you even look at a display. Haggling over the price is expected. Never pay more than 30-50% of the original asking price.
Since we are not "beach people" we enjoyed the various walkways, some of which are nicely secluded in hilly, wooded areas, along with wonderful views. One thing we hope will be implemented in the future are some more extensive hiking paths on the same mountainside the zipline and roller coaster use.