We began planning this cruise vacation a year and a half ago when my cousin's wife brought up the idea. What started out as our two families quickly blossomed into five families, six cabins five kids and ten adults. We really couldn't have asked for a more fantastic travel group.
When setting this up, we reasoned that we had to be in a bigger ship with more to do, a more stable ride and more room to spread out. We also wanted to leave out of the New York Metropolitan area since most of our party could simply drive that morning (and to remove the airfare for the families). The Explorer of the Seas had all of this covered.
Travel to Port of Embarkation
Since we were coming from the west, it was a straight shot into the area via I-78 then RT. 440. You really can't get any easier. Having left from Manhattan and Brooklyn, I can honestly say that this is much easier...until you get near the water. Once you make the turn into the port area, you find it is not well marked. Still, there aren't many places you can go. But it isn't difficult to drive in circles until you figure out that you should have gone to the right.
There are always trade-offs. To get the easy travel to the port (without fighting Manhattan traffic), we had to enter a port facility that was designed for container and other cargo ships. It is very run-down looking, very industrial, very scary. It does not look like it is in a good neighborhood.
I do have to applaud Royal Caribbean as they went out of their way to make this experience pleasurable. We were first directed to pull over alongside a long tent where we off-loaded our luggage making use of the nice tags RCCL sent us. As our bags vanished, we were directed to drive around the building and back to the fenced in parking lot. We then walked back to the tent.
In the tent, the heat was building and the people were milling. In one, unobtrusive spot to the side, a doorway led to the check-in area. Nobody was in there. We walked right up to the counter, filled out paperwork, got our room keys, gave them our credit card and were directed to our first picture of the cruise.
Then we sat for 30 minutes.
At 11:30, they led us to busses that drove to the ship where we boarded from the first floor. We were then directed to the Windjammer Buffet on the 11th floor. The food was decent for a buffet.
We booked this cruise 15 months ahead of the trip and were able to get the perfect room for us. We prefer window rooms on lower decks (less movement) near the center of the ship (even less movement) that are conveniently located (less walking) and somewhat isolated (less traffic). We found this exact room on deck 3.
The room was a great size (for a cruise ship), offering plenty of storage space with several hidden nooks, crannies and cupboards. Whoever laid out the room did a great job. There was even plenty of room to move around with the three of us in there.
The beds were actually fairly comfortable and plush. One of the women in our group was so enthralled with the bedding that she wanted to buy it. Luckily, we had a coupon for that.
The bunk beds were done in a manner I had not seen. They flipped up into the ceiling and lay flat so that when they were away, they did not look at all like you even had a bed in the ceiling. This really gave a better feeling to the room (and more headroom too).
The bathrooms were not as spacious as the rooms. I actually have not seen a bathroom this small on a cruise ship in years. It had been a long time since I had to dry myself off outside of the shower. Otherwise, they had adequate storage space and a nice layout (if too small).
Electrical outlets were missing in places they were needed. The bathroom had one, but it was European and most Americans do not have the necessary power converters to use them. In the room, there were two on the desk. At first, this was not an issue, but by the end of the trip we had no good place to plug in an alarm clock (something we always bring) and no place to set up a music player. What was different at the beginning and the end of the trip? Our room. Due to a water leak in the Aquarium Bar (above our room), they had to move us to the 6th floor. To be sure, they upgraded us to a balcony room facing out the back of the ship. While we now had a very quiet balcony and a somewhat larger room, it was in the most inconvenient location on the ship. Still I am grateful that they hold back rooms for just such an emergency.
I always find it interesting to watch what happens when there is an issue and am usually pleasantly surprised to see how the cruise lines handle those issues. This one did not disappoint me. When they first told us we were changing rooms and set up the new room for us, they were not sure how to move our stuff. However, when I asked for some very specific pieces of equipment (rolling carts with big tubs), they ran quickly to get them. We only lost a couple hours of our vacation re-setting-up the room.
We actually did not lose any of our things as the salt water from the aquarium poured through our ceiling. I was a little miffed that my scuba equipment, the only things that got wet, were now, once again, drenched in sea water. I had just finished getting all of the corrosive liquid off and now had to do that all over again. And, for those of you wondering, yes. It was nicer to have a balcony to put out my gear to dry.
The ship was definitely dated, but very well maintained. The decorations and layout came together to let you know that the ship was not new. But RCCL takes exceptionally good care of her. Sure, there was some minor rust in remote nooks and crannies, but otherwise, you can tell that they spend a lot of time making sure every works perfectly.
Every ship has different areas that are "hidden gems," and the Explorer is no different. I am sure that people will disagree with my list (or think I erroneously left places out).
The "adults only" pool is very quiet, has no games assaulting you and enjoys a laid back atmosphere with nobody begging you to buy drinks. You can if you want to, but there is no constant hawking of beverages here.
Above the bridge is an observation window allowing you to watch the bridge officers do their jobs. Well, not all aspects. There are regulations forcing them to close the blinds while the ship is docking. And, a few other times, they close them for whatever reason they close them. Still, the bulk of the time, you can watch all the buttons blink and the monitors flash. I hope that is what they are supposed to do.
On the third floor, near the photo gallery is a mock-museum of some obscure 1950s era mock-technology. I guess it was used for a show that no longer is performed. Still, it is cute and the displays are worth a look.
Also, near the photo gallery is a large window, behind which are the TV studio controls. It is absolutely fascinating to see how complicated all the monitors and switches look.
The promenade on this ship is not a complete oval track. The part of the walkway at the front of the ship is actually up one level on the fourth floor. Regardless, it is very quiet, very peaceful and usually empty. All in all, it is a nice place to hide.
The helipad at the front of the ship offers buffeting winds and the most stunning starscape I have seen in years. Of course, you have to go there when it is dark...and it is very dark. But, once your eyes adapt, the number of stars you can see is only exceeded in grandeur by the Milky Way's brilliant display. And, considering that this doesn't cost anything, it is easily the best feature on the ship!
The shopping left a lot to be desired. Despite the size of the ship, there were no more shops than on a much smaller ship. What was even more shocking was that the product selection was poor at best. Outside of logo products, they did not have many of anything. And, when they brought out the products for their "sidewalk sales," they took it all off the shelves in the shop leaving those shelves empty and abandoned looking.
The casino was always crowded in the evening. I was glad I didn't gamble, not because of the costs (people seemed happy with the rate of payout), but instead because smoking was allowed in the casino. I guess I've been spoiled living where smoking is banned in almost all restaurants and bars.
The ships photographers were great. They were not intrusive and they were very approachable. They may have needed more help on the last day handing out ordered pictures (that were already paid for), but I can honestly say that this was the first time that I did not feel like I was being assaulted by the photographers. The price of the pictures wasn't too bad either. Twenty bucks per shot or thirty for two (although that may have been with a coupon). I know that many people may think that is a lot. Maybe I am getting old or maybe I am steel reeling from the cost of my son's senior portraits, but I actually thought the costs were not out of control.
There is an arcade strategically located next to the kids clubs. I was shocked at how much it cost to play just one game. I don't actually know what it costs to play a game in an arcade since I haven't done so in 5 years (or more likely more). I can tell you that the RCCL greatly helps out parents by putting a limit on how much their kids can spend in the arcade in one day: $70.00. Yes, seventy bucks. I know this because my son blew threw that in an afternoon and was subsequently cut off by the cruise line for the day...and by us for the rest of the trip.
Let's get this out of the way quickly, the Windjammer was not worth the time. I am by no means a buffet snob as I found great steam tables on other ships. However, the flaccid quality, monotonous selection and limited hours really didn't add up to a good grade.
I get it. The buffets are for quick snacks, people who don't like adventurous dining and those who don't want to be so formal. However, we do need food that is at least a little interesting. To be sure, there was a great Asian inspired table buried at the back of the room. And, the food that changed was not bad at all. However, the pasta, desert and breakfast selections never, ever, EVER changed. They had the same mushy pinwheel cakes and four cookies throughout the entire cruise...and there wasn't even milk available to dunk those cookies.
The service in the buffet was a totally different story. It was great. In jest, I mentioned the "lack of milk for my cookies" issue to another passenger. A crew member overheard it, got milk and hunted me down to give it to me. I was impressed. They also had great drink service in the buffet. Well, breakfast offered limited juices or fresh squeezed OJ for $2.50. But, the other meals all had plenty of iced tea and lemonade like substances ready for the taking.
The biggest buffet disappointment was the hours. By 9 PM, it was closed. Neither late night snacks nor post show foraging was allowed. Instead, you were directed to room service where they did you a favor and did not charge a fee before midnight. Honestly, I am used to all night buffets on cruise ships or at least an all night restaurant with a decent selection of food. The all night restaurant on the Explorer had one finger sandwich, three so-so cakes and the same cookies every day. I actually came back from the cruise with no additional weight. What a let-down.
On the other hand, the dining room was very good for dinner. Unfortunately, breakfast was not bad, but the same ever day (typical on a cruise ship) and lunch was pretty good, but only seemed to have 2 or 3 different menus. For those people who stop what they are doing, get dressed (from the typical pool wear) and actually go down to the dining room, the cruise line could at least have something more stimulating.
I did notice that for breakfast and lunch in the dining room, there was a breakfast bar or salad bar. It almost felt like they were testing the waters to see if they could get away with keeping the dining room closed during lunch and breakfast. And the often sub-standard service did not help.
Dinner, fortunately, was much better. The menu had a decent, rotating selection every day as well as the same back-up items every day. The appetizers and deserts were outstanding. Some of the main courses were too. I found the cold fruit soups and the chocolate deserts to be particularly enjoyable.
Our waiters were phenomenal. We had an issue the first day in that our party of 10 adults and 5 kids were split into two tables of 8. But, the staff was accommodating and moved a small table closer to let the adults share one table and the kids be quarantined at another...I mean, the kids were allowed to enjoy their company at their own table. We also quickly learned to never ask how something is since each question resulted in one of those items being brought out even if we didn't order it. Of course, we couldn't let those extra meals go to waste. There are after all people starving down on deck 2. As the week progressed, forks flew across the table for sharing and tasting. I lost count of the overwhelming positive reactions from our group tasting experience.
In this increasingly complex world, we come into ever more frequent contact with alternate diets. The common one today is vegetarian. Every day there were offerings for the vegetarian pallet. However, every day there was also an Indian dish. I understand how Indian is generally safe for vegetarians, but I am sure that someone in the kitchen - in one of the kitchens on one of the ships - is creative enough to come up with vegetarian safe dishes that are not Indian. Don't get me wrong, I like Indian food, but every day? To pour salt in this wound, our waiter from Mumbai would not even recommend the Indian dishes on the menu so they couldn't be all that good (I tried them. I have had much better).
ATTENTION ROYAL CARIBBEAN: Your dress code is a serious issue. According to your published guidelines, on the 9 day cruise we were on, there should have been two formal nights (there were), two semi-formal nights (there were NONE) and the rest were to be smart casual. None of this was enforced.
On formal nights, I saw numerous guys without jackets (they at least had ties) and on casual nights I consistently saw guys wearing shorts and t-shirts. During the day, people in swimsuits were routinely allowed to dine...but they would not let me (in my dress shorts and Hawaiian shirts) cover my wind tussled hair with a hat. Again RCCL, I ask: WHERE IS THE CONSISTENCY? I usually cruise on NCL where the dress code is far more casual, but they at least enforce what little dress code they have.
I am guessing that the cruise industry is heading towards removing dress codes at dinner altogether. I know that it is getting harder to fill all the rooms on the mega ships and the target audience is not getting bigger. I get it. Carnival's changes are putting pressure on the other lines to change too. Still, there has to be a middle ground.
The bar service was actually very good. The bar in the adults only section on deck 11 was very well run. Really nice guys too! The only issue I had was when I tried to get a drink around the pool without going to the bar. The servers walking around would continually take my order but NEVER actually bring me my drink. I am sure it had something to do with my having the all-you-can-drink soda card. They don't get the bit gratuities off of that so they would rather just disappear. Not cool. I actually asked one of them to promise me to get my drink. He told me he couldn't bring soda. I pointed out that it is a bar item. And if I was buying one (as opposed to using the card I had already bought) he would bend over backwards to bring it. That guy actually got me my soda...and I never saw him again.
This ship was specifically chosen by our group because of its wide variety of activities. And, it did not disappoint. From climbing to ice skating (you must wear long pants) to a lesson on ice skating, there was usually something to keep you busy...until the last two days at sea. By then, you had done everything that wasn't on the daily schedule and the things on the daily schedule just were not really aimed at my demographic. Most of the activities were discussions, talks or opportunities to spend even more money. However, I still found a lot to do. I sat in the hot tub, read (really, just fell asleep after one page), sat in the hot tub, scrounged for snacks, sat in the hot tub and even surfed the Internet (at blazingly slow speeds).
I did not use this service, but my son and the other kids in our group did. It was often very difficult to pull the kids away. So, I can assume that they did a fabulous job. The "counselors" that I did chat with were absolutely wonderful, nice and extremely helpful.
There were two late-night oddities:
In the past, there was always a late night babysitting service for the smaller, grade-school aged kids. This time, it was highly organized as an extended kid's club...and there was an additional fee. PLUS, the apparently did REALLY cool stuff in this late night session because the kids were begging profusely to go. When I watched this unfold, I felt a strange similarity to toy advertisements at Christmas. Way to go RCCL. You have successfully persuaded the most persuadable to spend even more money.
The teens were pretty respectful and well-behaved, but not well-supervised at all...and it just got worse as the cruise progressed. I can honestly say that my teen was not part of that (he is more solitary and tends to pass out early), but there were quite a few older folks that had difficulties navigating the stairwells as a result. The teens would congregate in unsafe areas (people, you have GOT to stay off the stairs) and spend a lot of time near the elevators. What they were doing around the elevators, I have no clue. I do know that the stairwell congregation was a progressively worsening issue, but one that is quite common on cruise ships during the summer-break cruising season.
THE FRONT DESK ROCKS! The folks at the customer service desk were absolutely the most helpful and friendly individuals. They were super efficient and great at keeping the line moving. The surprising thing was that there were not many of them. They worked long hours and I am sure took a lot of abuse from angry passengers. There's is most definitely a thankless job that I saw them do flawlessly. Kudos!
Service in the rooms was also above average for cruise ships these days. Both of the room stewards we had were fantastic....I think. I never actually saw them, but things were magically done way before they were necessary. Definitely the hallmark of great work!
The nightly singing and dancing numbers were nice. No better, no worse, just nice. Maybe I expected more, or maybe the shows really were somewhat below par. To be sure, the performers did an excellent job with the material they were handed. The shows were just not well written and definitely not larger than life. There were two notable deviations: The parade down the promenade and the ice show.
I don't remember what the event was called, but the "parade like show" taking place in the central shopping mall had energy that was missing from other shows. The situation allowed the performers to get the audience heavily involved. Unfortunately, it blocked my path to the little cafe where they had cookies 24 hours-a-day: A small price to pay.
The ice show is a "must-see." Seriously, it was very well choreographed and had great costumes. PLUS, after a long hot day, it was nice to sit in the cold room. There was one small oddity. The only items on the ship that I found to be poorly maintained were the TV monitors at the ice rink. The colors were way off, which affected negatively the audience's ability to play the game they broadcast while we were waiting for the show (guess the flag).
Port & Shore Excursions
One of the ship's gems is definitely the dive shop on deck 11. Whether you snorkel or scuba dive, they can help you. They folks in the dive shop were amazingly helpful and informative. I dive, and I brought my own equipment which they were more than happy to help me adjust. Then, a fairly crucial piece of equipment died after my second day of diving (I had another day of diving yet to go). The dive shop came to the rescue! They opened the shop late at night (when they were not scheduled to be open) just so I could purchase one item and save my dive. These guys really impressed me. As a diver, I can honestly say that when I chose my next cruise, my decision will be seriously swayed if the ship has a dive shop.
As for the diving, I did book dives through the ship in Bermuda and St. Thomas, both of which I had previously dove. The down-side was that the tropical storm that had just passed through stirred up all the muck, dragging down the visibility to a paltry 40 feet or so.
In Bermuda we dove a wreck of a ferry and then Blue Hole (which I had previously done). Despite the poor visibility, there really was a lot to see. The ferry was still intact allowing you very easy access to swim through multiple levels. Blue Hole had excellent visibility when you were in the hole. Once you finned out through the cave, the visibility was back to 40 feet. Still, I got some fantastic pictures.
In St. Thomas, we had one dive site that had a fairly deteriorated metal wreck and a reef. Both were pleasant dives, although a bit of variety would really have been helpful. The bigger down-side was the dive boat. They had no dunk-tank (an essential barrel with fresh water to clean the highly corrosive salt off your equipment) and the boat was just a pontoon boat which always has a higher risk of losing loose equipment. The boat was definitely disappointing.
In St. Maarten, I stayed with my family and took the Golden Eagle Catamaran excursion. I have done this excursion every time I have been in St. Maarten for the last 16 years. It is definitely a wonderful experience. Over the years, they have had to replace the catamarans. The one they have now is taller so it stands further out of the water. This was the only let-down since the lower vessels allowed you to lay on the netting and get a continuous spray of water in your face. WARNING, this excursion does go to the French side of the island and stop at a nude beach. We did not see nude people. Well, I didn't anyway. Even without the "beach sights," I would still highly recommend this to anyone.
In San Juan, we just took cabs to El Morro. This is a 500 year old fort that has protected Puerto Rico successfully (mostly). It is an amazing piece of history that is run by the U. S. Park Service. This well maintained facility really does let you imagine what it would have been like...
After El Morro, some of our party decided to stay and shop. The real problem was that you had to be back on the ship by noon. There was absolutely no time to do anything. I know my cousin did not like the island as a result of this. It is a shame really. There is so much to do on this island. However, since the ship is very big, it moves very slow. I think the top speed was about 23 miles per hour. As a result, the ship had to move at maximum speed from noon of that day, and all day for the next two days just to get back to Bayonne on time. There really was no other option.
Getting off the ship was very, very easy...once they let us off. This time, they randomly assigned us 10:45 as our departure time. This is easily 90 minutes later than I ever left a ship. Thankfully, we had no flights to catch. The biggest down-side was that there was no coffee or Danish available after breakfast and before we were let off the ship.
Overall, I would say the Explorer of the Seas was very nice with a lot of things to do for the younger and older crowds. It was not the best cruise I have ever been on, but it wasn't anywhere near the worst either. While the quality of the food was not what it should have been, the service of that food was impeccable. And that excellent service did not stop at the dining room exit. It really was experienced wherever you went on the ship. And, considering that it leaves from the New York metro area and most did not have to fly, it was really very convenient.