Explorer of the Seas review
November 10-20, 2011
This review will hit the highlights of my recent cruise on Explorer of the Seas, my 11th time on that ship. Many of my friends were on this cruise, so I had a great deal of fun and laughter! This time, my aunt, a first time cruiser, joined me.
Pre-cruise: As usual, I stayed in the area of EWR airport, this time at the Residence Inn on Glimcher Realty Way in Elizabeth opposite the Jersey Gardens Mall. Great location, wonderful hotel. I secured a park & fly rate, and was able to leave my car there an additional 3 days with no problem, nor extra charge. I also got a status upgrade to a 2-bedroom suite. As we were there on a weeknight (M-W) there was a free 'managers reception'. That evening's fare included burgers and hot dogs along with baked beans and salad, so we got free dinner. They used to serve (sell) adult beverages (beer and wine) but I did not notice the sign, and it wasn't really needed anyway.
The room was great-clean, 3 TVs, 2 bathrooms and a full kitchen! The next AM we had a free hot breakfast buffet. You can choose from a variety of foods including make your own waffles, eggs, breakfast meats, breads, potatoes, juices, coffee, tea, cereal and more! Great way to start off our cruise!
We were picked up by my usual car service, Black Executive Cars. The time was set for 10:30. We got to the lobby about 10:10 AM and the driver was already outside. Loaded up the brand-spankin' new Suburban and set off for the short (about 20 minute) drive to the pier. We paid $50 each way, but I think that the rates have gone up. I tipped him about $10-15 dollars. We had 4 big suitcases, 2 smaller carry ons, and a couple 'overflow' bags on the way home!
Upon arrival at the pier, shortly before 11, we unloaded and gave our bags to the porter, with a $10 tip. (I like my bags to arrive in my cabin...DRY please!) Into the terminal through the not-too-long-but-very-slow-moving security line. Why do I ALWAYS get stuck behind people who have NO CLUE what to do, and then not understand the screener! In any event, once through that we were ushered into the Diamond Plus line to check in. (Seems that they rearranged the check in and seating areas, but not a big deal.) My Aunt does not have a passport (technically not needed for this type of cruise). We brought her BC and marriage licenses to connect her names. This took all of an extra 15 seconds. Not bad at all. Again, the traveler needs to know the documentation requirements for their cruise and places visited, but in THIS situation, all that was needed was photo ID, proof of citizenship and connecting of names.
We then waited in the Diamond/Diamond Plus seating area for about 30 minutes until boarding started. Our ticket number for the bus was 5, but there were people from the general boarding area with that number also. If RCCL wants to give suite and upper tier members 'priority boarding' then all people seated in those areas at the start should be taken to the ship first. Again, not a big deal, more of the principle. We ran into 138east and WallyGator in the waiting area!
The ride to the ship is all of 5 minutes, but it is both too far, and too dangerous, to walk to the ship. (Don't want anyone to get run over by the trucks that are there to provision the ship!)
While on our way to the Windjammer, the first crew member we ran into was Captain Olav Nyseter. Very nice man, lots of fun, ALWAYS on time (as long as the weather isn't causing an issue).
After lunch (including Honey Stung Chicken that was pretty lousy-but hey, it's a tradition!) we toured the ship a little until 1:30 when cabins were available.
Our cabin was 8332 which is a balcony just a couple behind the 'hump' on the starboard side. GREAT location right around the corner from RC on Line, and 1 deck below the Concierge Lounge. (Carlos Ortiz was the Concierge in the lounge. I didn't use either the Diamond Lounge or the overflow CL-which I believe was in the card room).
Plenty of storage, very clean and our cabin attendant was excellent. Our luggage had begun to arrive shortly after 2 and we were totally unpacked by 3 PM. Works for me!! Maybe the large tip resulted in our bin of bags getting on the ship fast?! Ha Ha!
I had MTD and had pre-reserved all the dinners. However, the table location the 1st night was bad, and the servers were just not good. I always give leeway on the first night, as you never know if the wait staff is new, or if they have been rearranged, or whatever. Even allowing for first night foul ups, service was still terrible. I managed to get the matre d' to change the table for the second night. I even had one of my former servers! I'd planned on keeping that table, but 8 of us CCers decided to dine together each night. Luckily, we got a table with the same wait staff so all was wonderful!
I will not dwell on every meal in the dining room, suffice it to say that all the food was very good to excellent, and we never went hungry! My Aunt and I dined with 138east, Mr. & Mrs. WallyGator, Radio and Mr. & Mrs. MedicKen. Needless to say, we had a VERY good time every night! We will be talking about our dinners and laughing for many months to come! Most mornings, we all ate together in the Wind Jammer, again, laughing and just having a great time!
One night, several of us received an invitation from an officer to join him for dinner in Portofino. In all my RC cruises, I've never eaten there. The meal was absolutely wonderful. LOTS of food. I had the risotto with prawns, the filet and the tiramisu. WAY too much to eat, but the evening was fantastic and it was very nice to receive this invitation. Very much appreciated and again, another evening of wonderful memories.
The second formal night, I was invited to dine with the Staff Captain. Of course this conflicted with my friends' surprise plans for my birthday. I did sit with them for their early dinner, snacking on the chilled peach soup and a couple Savory Bites (I am NOT used to eating at 8:30-I didn't want to get one of those nasty hunger headaches either!) They did get the servers to bring me a piece of pie with a candle and everyone sang so that was really nice!!
That was also the night of the Fisherman's Platter (lobster tail and shrimp.) I think everyone except for one person ordered this. The tails were a pretty nice size, and our server Anthony brought out about 4 or 5 extra dinners in case anyone wanted more! Suffice it to say that all the plates were empty! He also arranged for escargot every night (2 orders-they got shared amongst about 5 or 6 of us) and for my favorite thing-potato croquettes! (I even shared!!) Never got around to asking for Grand Marnier soufflÃ©-but there's always next time!
Dinner with the Captain/Staff Captain can be a long ordeal. I was, again, honored to be invited and the meal was very good. It is just hard to eat that late, and the large, round table for 12, coupled with the general noise and echoing on the lower level of the dining room makes for VERY difficult conversation. That said, surf and turf was good, and the ice cream in the almond bowl was yummy! I have a nice photo to commemorate the event. I hadn't expected this invitation so it was a nice surprise, albeit one that came, initially, the night before at 10:30 PM.
As for the ports, suffice it to say that the weather was almost perfect (save for a spotty shower to two here and there, sort of like what I call "Florida Weather") In St. Maarten, we walked around and rented 2 chairs and an umbrella from a vendor on the beach near the water taxi stop. I stayed for a short time, my aunt stayed almost all day (a trend that would continue in St. Thomas as well!) For you shoppers, liquor seemed much cheaper here, so you may want to buy some of your
more expensive items here. The Johnny Walker Black was about $8-10 cheaper here than in St. Thomas and on the ship.
At the suggestion of Radio, we headed to Morning Star Beach in St. Thomas. Great idea-it is lovely. Apparently all beaches in St. Thomas are public, so even though the Marriott hotels are there, you can use the beach and rent chairs, plus purchase drinks and food if desired. Cabs were easily obtained by the front desk or bell staff. I got my Aunt situated on the beach and I proceeded to take a peek around the resort.
I walked over to the Frenchman's Reef part of the hotel and took a tour. Come to find out, at least half the resort was without air conditioning. Glad I was going back to a nice cool cruise ship. The hotel has been renovated since I was last up there. But, given the rates they get, I was not really impressed. The rooms are a bit banged up and nothing really special. I did get some photos. Again, it isn't bad, but I'd rather go to the Harbor Beach Marriott in Ft. Lauderdale! Shorter flight for one!
San Juan was a quick stop so aside from a little shopping and a trip to La Bombonera bakery, I didn't do anything. It was a pretty day though, and we were joined by a Carnival ship and a 'Dam ship too.
For Labadee, I thought about reserving a cabana if possible. Several of us had decided that if one became open, we'd take each other. We lucked out and got one of the standard cabanas for 6 of us. This was well worth the money, if only for the comfy chairs, shade, ceiling fan and better food. The beach and water were lovely though somewhat rocky-if you're going to swim, I suggest water shoes. This was probably our hottest day in a port and having the shade and cool fan (plus a cooler with bottled water) was really nice. Several other CCers also had cabanas in various locations. We had a super time on the beach. Now of course, I am spoiled. (I had contacted the concierge in the week prior and he told me that he would put me on the waiting list. Luckily, not all the cabanas were sold to suite guests, so as a Diamond Plus member, I was able to get one.)
We did partake in a couple of Labadoozies to wash down our yummy lunch. The regular barbeque features hamburgers, hot dogs and I think chicken and ribs. In addition to that, the barbeque on Barefoot Beach (the suite area/cabana area) offers steak, prime rib and shrimp. Yum!)
Our CD for this cruise was Luke Aerowsmith. He was fine, though I am not one who really cares who the CD is as long as it isn't one of the few that I really do NOT like. My major complaint was that he, and the activities manager made too many announcements. Also, I got at least 3 "telemarketer" calls from the art auction person and the "diamond" (as in gemstone) "expert". THOSE really got me mad. I much preferred the short time when there were NO auctions on the ships. Oh well.....I just wish they would stop. At one point, in the CL, the speaker was SO loud that you couldn't hear the person sitting on the couch next to you.
My other main issue on this cruise was the "future cruise consultant/Loyalty Ambassadors". Neither really wanted to take the time to look up pricing! (Uh, that is their JOB!) And, if you did NOT want the RCCL Visa card, they really gave you the brush off. I booked one NextCruise for Royal and a Celebrity Passages open booking. Turned both in within 20 minutes of each other on the 1st full day at sea. Got one back in 2 days and had to ASK for the second, a week later. Please! I suggested on the survey that they set aside a few hours to sit in the CL and book cruises for Suite/D+ guests. My appointment was interrupted twice, once by an irate Gold member who didn't get an upgrade and wanted to know why (get in line behind me! ) and another person who is Gold but who's SeaPass card didn't SAY that! So, the LA slapped a sticker on for her...and my 30 minute appointment was now down to 15 minutes. No wonder why it's so hard to get anything booked!
Frankly there should be "office hours" for C&A questions that are separate from new cruise bookings. It would make for happy people all around.
Our roll call for this sailing was very active. We arranged several activities including a gift exchange, slot pull, cabin crawl/poker run and mini-golf tournament. Our nightly 'meetings' were relocated to the 19th hole. They generally take place in the cigar bar, but for some reason, on this cruise it was too smoky in the Connoisseurs' club, even for the smokers! (When you can smell cigar smoke OUTSIDE of the club, you know the air cleaners aren't working. That and the bartender left the door open sometimes!) On a prior cruise, it wasn't too bad in there and I was able to attend the 'meeting' a couple times!
As for the condition of the ship, consider that Explorer takes a year-round beating being home ported in scenic Bayonne, NJ! Thus, there is some chipping paint here and there, and maybe a little rust. Oh well-who cares. That didn't detract from the cruise in any way. I will say that, on occasion, in various parts of the ship, I noticed a little sewage smell. I've also noticed it on every other cruise on any ship that I've been on. Not a big deal.
As a Diamond Plus, I had a very early number for departure. The ship docked at about 8:01 AM. I heard that there were some people who had 9:30 AM flights booked to Canada. Sorry folks, not gonna happen. The ship's arrival time on Sunday was 8 AM. No way to get off the ship, get luggage, to EWR, checked in, etc., in time for a flight that early-especially an international flight. The ship is due in at 8 AM- and, I would guess, according to the union rules for Sundays, no one works until 8 AM. (Captain Punctuality Olav said the first line would go ashore at 8:01 AM, and he was right. We seemingly floated around outside the harbor for several hours until we picked up the pilot around 6:30.) I will never understand why people will NOT book later flights. If it is too early, you will NOT make the flight!
Our number was called close to on time (about 9:30-9:45-we were first after express walk off and the suite guests.) Black Executive Cars arrived in less than 5 minutes after I called (I had called earlier to say it would be around 10 before we were out of the terminal.) Immigration took MAYBE an extra 20 seconds for my Aunt. (The agent ONLY wanted to see her BC-so once we showed him that-we were all set! He didn't seem to care about the connecting of names on return to the US of A, just proof of citizenship.)
We did get a porter who ushered us right through. The only real delay was the group of forge in tourists who all got off en masse before us. We waited on the bus for about 10 minutes or so until they got through Customs and Immigration.
The car service had us back to the hotel by about 10:30. After a quick stop for coffee on the NJ Turnpike, we were back in central NJ by noon. No traffic, no issues! Really easy to get off the ship this time.
Other miscellaneous notes:
After our mini-golf, about 15 of us headed to the MDR for lunch. (We split up into a couple tables.) Lunch in the MDR is offered on sea days and it is really a nice change. I had the Tutti Salad again (you choose what you want from LOTS of things: greens, meats, veggies, dressing, etc. They chop it all up in a huge bowl and off you go!) This is a nice change of pace from the hustle bustle of the Wind Jammer.
Never made it to breakfast in the dining room though. Instead, I'd grab a coffee in the Concierge Lounge and proceed to the Wind Jammer...our breakfasts were almost as much fun as dinner!
The weather overall was about 90% great, 5% mediocre and 5% icky. Seas were fairly smooth, just a few bumps here and there. I did see the "bags" deployed a couple times, but once I just laughed as it really was much less bumpy than in the past.
The RCCL 'swag' given out at the m&m was much better than in the past-in fact there were a LOT of free internet packages given away. Luke, the CD did show up as well. They stuck us in the Chamber which was kind of bad as it is very dark in there. I think we'd still have been able to fit up in the Viking Crown, which is much nicer-and easier to see!
One day we had a letter in our cabin about balcony maintenance. The letter stated that they'd like to paint, etc. for about 5 hours during the St. Thomas stop, but if that wasn't convenient, to let them know. I opted to have them do this during Labadee as I knew we'd be off the ship all day. (I didn't want to run the risk of getting too much heat/sun in St. Thomas, only to return to the coolness of the cabin and find all the furniture inside, and 2 guys painting!) I think that they did some scraping while in Labadee and maybe a little paint removal, but nothing major. It was nice that they are now proactive when it comes to the possible inconvenience for the guest. Several cruises back, on the 5-day leg of a 5 and 9 day back to back, there was so much scraping, cleaning and painting going on in our cabin, and those surrounding ours that we'd only have been able to use the balcony for Â½ of 1 day out of the 5. Apparently Royal Caribbean took the suggestion to COMMUNICATE!
All in all, this cruise was really wonderful. Aside from the Loyalty Ambassadors, we had no complaints. (Ok, well they made us get off the ship at the end!) This was a much needed vacation for myself, and I was glad that I was able to 'drag' my Aunt along. She had a wonderful time, and I think she's going to turn into another cruise addict!
Thanks for sticking around and reading this missive! Can't wait for the next one!