The ports we visited were Bermuda, St. Maarten, St. Thomas and San Juan.
Port/Check In: Do NOT follow your GPS directions! Ours was convinced the ship was all over the place, except where it actually was. Thankfully, we could see the ship for quite some time and finally found the parking lot.
The drop off area can be congested. We arrived around 12:15 (which was later than we had originally planned) and were glad we got lost and were late. We ended up at the very last drop off spot and had to wait a few minutes for a porter to spot us to take our luggage. It did seem like there were a few stragglers still leaving from the previous week's cruise which could have added to the confusion trying to get a porter to help us.
I did the unthinkable and decided I was going to try to get a case of soda onboard. I do not drink any of the soda that you can get with the package, otherwise, I would have just done that (and that is what the boyfriend did). I was fully aware that there was a chance it would not make it onboard but I figured, what's $4 anyway? I wrapped the case in clear tape ALL the way around (I didn't want it to break on someones' luggage) and just stuck two luggage tags on it and off it went with the porter. A few hours later, it was in our room.
We were able to do priority check-in, as I am diamond, but it seemed like the regular line was going much quicker, as they had more staff available. The woman directing people to the correct line did not seem convinced I was diamond even though it said on my Setsail pass that I was...oh well.
Once checked in, we were able walk right on board, as there was no one else in the waiting area.
Ship: I have been on the Explorer 2 times prior to this one (as well as two other Voyager-class ships) and as always, I'm instantly impressed once onboard. It's hard to believe the Explorer is over 10 years old. Everything was clean. Sure, the ship could use a new coat of paint on the outside, but cruising up and down the East coast takes a toll with the ever-changing weather.
There were a LOT of passengers with walkers or scooters so this would often cause the elevators to be slow or full. We ended up walking to avoid having to wait a long time.
Seating in the theater wasn't an issue if you got there 10-15 minutes prior to the start of the show. Most times we just sat up in the balcony instead of trying to find two seats together on the first level. There were a lot of people who were saving multiple seats for friends or family who weren't there yet, but you get that anywhere. What can you do?
They did have a section reserved for gold card holders at both the theater and on the pool deck, but it was never filled. It's too bad they don't open up the extra seats once the show starts instead of leaving all those seats empty.
Finding a chair on deck was never an issue (unless you wanted to sit in the shade) as long as you went up on the top deck. We often wouldn't be up on deck until after 10:30 or 11 am and always found two chairs together. They did have staff going around and removing towels on any chairs that were empty after 20-30 minutes but I only saw this happen a few times as most people took their stuff when they went to get lunch, etc.
Room: We had an interior room on Deck 6, which we booked as a guarantee at an incredibly low price! If we had the choice again, we would book another guarantee. We didn't tend to spend a lot of time in the room so this worked perfect for us. I took a peak into the promenade rooms and our set up (bed facing the door, couch between the bed and bathroom) made the room seem a lot bigger than the promenade rooms, which had the bathroom, bed facing the wall, then the couch.
We only had one room next to us, with the stateroom attendants' closet on the other side but we never had any noise issues. Occasionally you could hear kids running up and down the hall on Deck 7, but nothing on our deck.
We got towel animals every other night, for a total of 4 during our 9 night cruise. And yes, we did have washcloths!
Staff: All the staff seemed to really love their jobs. They were very friendly, always saying hello, and asking how your day went. We had one charge on our account from our mini bar even though we never used it, and the Guest Relations staff took care of it without any questions asked.
MDR: The only downfall was that our waiter and assistant waiter didn't seem to be able to coordinate with each other. Often times we'd get our meal and it would be 15-20 minutes before the assistant waiter would come over with toppings (sauce for the shrimp cocktails, cheese for the pasta, etc).
I was under the impression from a few comments that this was their first time working together and/or they were both new to working on RCCL. Because of this, we often were the last ones in the dining room and dinner took closer to 2 or 2.5 hours. Thankfully, we had a good group of tablemates and enjoyed dinner.
In regards to evening wear, we saw everything from jeans, hats, tshirts and flipflops on formal night, to very elegant formal wear. We tend to like to dress up and did every night, but I would guess only about 60-70% of the people did, even on formal night.
It was a little disappointing when we were putting in the effort to dress nicely, as if we were at a nice restaurant and obviously some people thought they were at their local McDonalds, but such is life. We didn't let it ruin our dining experience.
Food: Food is very subjective, but we sat at a table for 8 in the MDR for the first seating and collectively struggled each night to find something off the menu. Our ages ranged from late 20s to mid 60s and we were all surprised at some of the things being offered.
If you are a big seafood fan, you will probably be happy to see that there is almost always a shrimp or scallop entrEe on the menu. Unfortunately, I don't eat seafood a lot and did not want to eat it every night.
The chicken and steak that are offered as alternatives every night were much better than most of the daily entrees. I missed a lot of the desserts that they used to have (the sugar free swan, baked Alaska, etc). The sugar free desserts ended up being tastier than their regular counterparts.
I did try most of the cold soups and I would highly recommend them (except the lettuce and I think it was cucumber). A few people at our table had the mustard-custed steak and asked for seconds and thirds they liked it so much.
The Windjammer had a lot of great breakfast options, and there was never really any line to get an omelet in the morning, which my boyfriend did almost every day. Again, always smiling staff asking if they can get you anything to drink, or clean your table right away.
In terms of lunch, neither of us were really impressed with anything. It seemed to be pretty much the same thing every day (with the leftovers from dinner the previous night) but we certainly didn't go hungry!
We splurged one day and got the Ben & Jerry's ice cream and it was fabulous. I also enjoyed the frozen yogurt that was always available up on the pool deck outside the Windjammer (the strawberry is the best).
Apple juice, orange juice, flavored water (flavors variety throughout the week) for breakfast. Iced tea (nonsweetened) and lemonade, as well as the flavored water were available in the Windjammer for lunch. Milk, iced tea and lemonade were also available in the MDR for dinner.
We never had dinner in the Windjammer but a couple at our table did and they said they preferred that to the MDR (they weren't the dress up for dinner and have it take 2 hours type).
Bermuda: I had only been to Bermuda once years ago on a cruise out of Boston and was really looking forward to going back. Unfortunately, once we got to Horseshoe Beach, it started to rain. We ended up only staying for about 2 hours before we gave up with the rain and wind.
We took the bus there and back and had ZERO issues. We had to wait less than 5 minutes to get the bus from the dock and then had to wait about 10 minutes to get the bus from the beach. For $4 each one way, it was a LOT cheaper than us taking a cab (which would have cost probably closer to $15 per person one way!) The buses were air conditioned and clean with plenty of seats for everyone.
St. Maarten: We decided to venture over to the airport and Maho Beach. For anyone who has NOT experienced this, I totally recommend going just once. If you don't know what I am talking about put "Maho Beach St. Maarten" into YouTube.
After being blasted by sand for a few hours, we decided to head back into town and boy, am I glad we left when we did! It took us over an hour and a half to go what should have taken 15-20 minutes. They are doing construction on a bridge on the island, which forces everyone to go on one road and traffic is horrendous. The taxi driver said this was typical from 2 pm until 8 pm at night EVERY SINGLE DAY. He said the bridge work has been happening for a month and they expect it to take another 4-6 weeks. Thankfully our boat didn't leave until 9 pm so we made it back in plenty of time.
Given that we were in port from 12 noon until 9 pm, it didn't leave a lot of time to go to the beach and go shopping. The shops closed around 6 pm so that is also something to take into consideration if your ship is docked until 9 pm.
We ate at Johnny Rockets that night since we had a 2 for 1 milkshake in our diamond booklet and my boyfriend has never been to one. Given that for $4.95 it's all you can eat (with drinks costing extra) we definitely got our $4.95 worth of food. They kept on bringing over fries and o-rings without us ever asking.
St. Thomas: We went to Emerald Beach, which is part of the Best Western Hotel. There is free access to the beach, you can use their bathroom facilities, rent beach chairs ($7) or umbrellas, and there is a restaurant/bar on site. The beach was absolutely beautiful, but zero snorkeling. We stayed there for a few hours before heading into town. It's nice that this beach is close by and not as popular as Magen's Bay or Sapphire Beach, but just as beautiful (in my opinion!).
We did some shopping in town and almost every store had some kind of sale going on. If you are looking to shop, St. Thomas is the place to do it!
San Juan: We were only in this port from 7 am until 12:30 pm. Our plan was to go to the forts which are just a few minutes walk from the dock. We got to the first fort around 8:15 to find out that nothing really opens until 9 am so we spent most of our time waiting for the fort to open. Once we left there around 11, there wasn't too much time to explore the downtown area, which, if you have been there before, you know we didn't miss out on much.
Everyone we talked to (passengers, staff, etc) agree that being in San Juan for that amount of time was a huge waste since there isn't enough time to leave the city and explore the much more beautiful parts of Puerto Rico. I was shocked at how openingly the staff expressed annoyance at this port and my guess is that they are even more limited on having time off the ship. Everyone agreed that more time in St. Thomas would have been a much better option.
Entertainment/Activities: RCCL definitely tried to offer something for everyone with the nightly entertainment. The evening shows included two RCCL singers and dancers show (the 2nd one was far better than the 1st), a late night "adult" comedian, a motown group, a very talent man who could play piano but was outshined by the RCCL band, a juggler who was on America's Got Talent, another comedian who played the guitar, and of course, the ice show.
Do not miss the ice show. It was excellent! It's amazing what they can do on such a small rink in the middle of the ocean. This was offered 3 times throughout the week but you do need to get tickets the day they offer them - I believe it was the first sea day - and they weren't offered any other times during the week.
The RCCL singers and dancers also preformed at various activities throughout the week, including during the late night BBQ/Buffet/On Deck Dance Party, which has replaced the Midnight Buffet.
There were also two parades during the week. One was held the first night around 11:30 pm and we missed it, and the 2nd was held the last day at 5:45 pm. I remember that these used to last over a half hour and be very good but the one at 5:45 was less than 10 minutes long and to be honest, kind of lame. They had a few people walk up and down the promenade in their costumes, while the singers sang a few songs but that was it. Nothing like it used to be! Hopefully the first night was much better so I would recommend trying to see that one.
There was also karaoke a few nights (the machine was broken at the beginning of the cruise but they got it fixed after a few days!), the normal "game" shows like Love and Marriage, Quest, Battle of the Sexes, etc.
RCCL also now partners with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to do a one-mile walk on one of the sea days (ours was the last sea day) and for those of you who don't know anything about Make-A-Wish, I would recommend looking them up. My family was fortunate enough to be a "wish family" years ago, and I am sooooo happy to see RCCL partnering with them! For only $10, you can get a t-shirt and do a one-mile walk (or just watch other people walk around the deck) and all the money goes towards the organization. It costs $5000 for one wish to be granted to a sick child, and during our cruise, over $3000 was raised. The captain, cruise director and a few other members of the crew also come out and do the walk with the passengers and it was a great time.
Cruise Director/Staff: The current Cruise Director is Jimmy Rhodes. He was HILARIOUS! I have never had more of an outgoing CD in all my previous cruises. His Activities Manager, Leigh, was also fantastic and the two of them working together was just amazing.
If they are still working together on your cruise, you MUST watch their "Morning Show" which is played over and over on the TVs. My bf and I would watch this every day and laugh the entire time. The two of them were also EVERYWHERE on the ship...there was not an activity, or event I didn't see one of them at.
Meet & Mingle event: This was my first time actually attending the M&M event and I was actually pretty impressed. The invitations were in our stateroom upon our arrival and kudos to Cruise Critic for designing such a great invitation (I'm in marketing and even I was impressed!). The timing of the event wasn't very good (10 am on our first sea day even though ahead of time on CC we were told it was at 11 am) so I understand why a lot of people probably didn't make it. If I had known there was going to be food, I probably wouldn't have JUST eaten breakfast.
There were quite a few prizes given away at the M&M including wine, internet credit, in-room movies (which we won but never found the time to use), specialty restaurant certificates, and excursions.
It was nice to put faces and "real" names to people we had been chatting with over the past few months.
Diamond Perks: This was my first cruise being diamond, but since it was my bf's first cruise, he didn't get any of the same perks as me. We did get two of the welcome abroad gift baskets (pretty lame, we never ate anything out of them) as well as two bottles of water. I got the diamond booklet but most of it involved spending extra $$ to get a small percentage off, so I only used a few things, like the free internet minutes and free photo.
I unfortunately didn't attend the "Top Tier Event" or the nightly cocktail events. The "Top Tier Event" invitation said that it was a "special" ice show, but I got the invitation AFTER I had already seen the regular ice show. Even if my bf had been allowed to go with me, I don't think I would have gone to see the same show again.
They were checking my card when I was using the coupons to make sure I was actually diamond, so I didn't think it would make sense to try to get my bf into any of the diamond events. Everything clearly stated that no friends or family would be allowed and I wasn't going to make a big deal out of it.
I did get my robe in my room which I really enjoy as I HATE getting dressed right after a shower and those towels are never big enough.
Disembarkation: This being my first cruise out of NJ, I was shocked to find out how late they would start letting people off! When cruising out of FL, we often would book flights home around 11:30, or 12 pm, since everyone tends to be "kicked" off the ship by 8-9 am. This time, we didn't dock until after 8 am, and the self-debark passengers weren't announced to start leaving until after 8:30-845. We were in group 4 and weren't called off until close to 9:30. We had a long drive ahead of us back to Boston, so we were happy to finally be on our way.