My partner and I were on our third cruise for Thanksgiving (our second with RCI, the other was with Norwegian). It was a last-minute decision to take this cruise, which impacted some of our experience (see below), and because of my work schedule, we only had this one option of sailing on Explorer of the Seas. I had wanted to sail Celebrity out of Cape Liberty on their new ship, but I wouldn't have been finished with work in time to sail. Overall we had a good experience and we'll talk about each section below.
EMBARKATION: This was quite a mess, as you can read on many other reviews. The terminal is just as low-class as everyone says, however check-in itself was very easy and fast. The problem came when it was time for boarding. We were given a number (44 in our case) which was what we were listening to in order to know when it was our turn to board the bus to take us to the ship. Because the check-in lines were divided by which deck your cabin was on, and because the person who handed out the numbers for boarding was at the end of the line for checking-in, you could get a number much higher than someone one else who came and checked in later through a different line (I know that's kind of confusing to read, but trust me, it was a mess). Anyway, it meant that people who arrived in the waiting room after us got on buses before us, and then when they got closer to calling our number, they just called "numbers 41-47", which was basically the entire terminal. There was a stampede for the doors, which defeated the entire boarding process itself. It was also very difficult to understand what they were saying over the speakers, I can't imagine what people for whom English wasn't their first language were thinking!!
Disembarkation when we got back was the exact opposite experience. We chose the "Express Departure" option which meant you had to carry your own bags, but you got to leave before everybody else. It was very easy and we were off the ship and through customs within five minutes.
PUBLIC ROOMS: Most were very nice. Everyone has talked about how EOTS is getting run down, which is definitely true, and the decor is a little dated, but we managed to overlook most of it. The main dining room was our favorite, the decor from 10 years ago still looked modern and fresh. Some of the bars had seen better days, and I thought the theater was a little dated as well, but we weren't in there that much, so it didn't matter.
CABIN: We had stateroom 8518, which was a superior oceanview with balcony. It seemed a little smaller to us than our stateroom on Serenade of the Seas, but after awhile you get used to anything and don't notice the difference. I thought the decor was very dated looking in the stateroom, and didn't care for the pastel colors. However, the bed and bedding was very nice, and it's much better to get a good night's sleep than rave over how beautiful the room is and have a crappy bed. Our stateroom attendant, Janel was the best and that made up for any aesthetic issues. One thing we didn't think about was that the room had a connecting door to the next one if a family wanted to have two staterooms together. The problem was that you could hear EVERYTHING through that door from the other stateroom (talking, TV, etc.). Also, if they had their balcony door open, it made a very loud whistling noise in our room as the air was sucked through the door that connects the two rooms. We would not do that again. The TV gets very few channels and half of them are in foreign languages, which is good for the international guests, but then some of the English channels wouldn't come in because of poor satellite signal, so you ended up watching the same TV episodes over and over again on sea days.
FITNESS: The gym was pretty good, no complaint about the cardio or weight machines. I didn't use it as much as I planned to (cruise lethargy disease set in instead). My partner complained that the aerobics room was not air-conditioned well which is not so fun when you're working up a sweat.
ENRICHMENT: We only went to one lecture, which was about Puerto Rico, one of our ports of call, and we found it a bit boring, so we didn't go to any others, even thought we're the type who generally like those things. Maybe the lecture was dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, but we thought it didn't need to be presented like we were in the 4th grade...
RATES: This is the main reason we decided to sail on this cruise at the last second. The price was so good, we didn't think we could pass it up (so we didn't!!). RCI has always had good pricing, and we definitely got our money's worth even though there were some complaints to be had.
DINING: This was one of the main problems of the cruise. First, because we booked so late, all the tables for the main dining (6:00) were already taken, and we were forced to do 8:30PM instead, which is really late for us. We could have done the "Anytime Dining", but that forces you to pay tips in advance, and also to sit in a different section every night. This is what we had on Norwegian, and we were anxious not to repeat that experience again, so we starved until 8:30 each evening. Based on the number of empty tables we saw at the late seating, we probably could have begged/whined and been moved to the 6:00, but after asking once to be moved and being told that there was no space available, we gave up and didn't ask again. Our mistake. The other main problem on this cruise was the quality of the food. The food in Windjammer tended to be stale and cold. The most surprising thing was that the tongs on the buffet would be scalding hot, but by the time you got to your table, the food was nearly cold. I learned to eat in numerous courses, with just a little on my plate so it wouldn't get cold by the end. Also, we figured out a recipe for lemonade that wasn't completely watered down. We figured out on about day three that the lemonade (one of the free beverages available) came out of the dispenser at room temperature, so that when the waiter poured it into a glass of ice, the ice would instantly melt and water the lemonade down to a distasteful level. Our recipe for delicious lemonade is this (serves two people):
2 glasses lemonade without ice (ask the waiter)
1 glass lemonade with ice (that's already sitting on beverage counter)
Take all these items back to your table. Add ice to each glass of room-temperature lemonade to water it down (it is pretty strong without it). If you run out of ice, add cold/watery lemonade to your first glass until it is the strength you like it. This worked wonderfully for the rest of the cruise!
In the main dining room for dinner, we had quite a mixed experience. Some of the food was pretty good, some of it was OK, and some was awful. At one dinner, I sent back a leg of lamb that was delicious, but our waiter had inadvertently put mint jelly in the middle of the gravy instead of on the side of the plate, which made all the gravy just taste like mint. My partner had asked the waiter a question at the same time that he was serving the mint jelly, so that's how it landed in the wrong place which was an honest mistake. After trying a few bites, I asked our waiter to bring me another serving without the jelly, I just couldn't get around gravy with it in it. He did so very graciously, but the next piece of lamb was dry and tough, even though the first piece had been wonderful. We had several experiences like this. On the first night, I didn't want broccoli, so I asked if there were any other vegetables available. They brought me my entree served with green beans, carrots, and turnips. The green beans were fine, but the carrots and especially the turnips were basically raw. We mentioned this to our waiter, who apologized profusely and brought out some more which were somewhat more cooked. The whole experience was fine, but what happened was the head waiter got involved to make sure we were happy, and then to make up for it, he brought us a full plate of vegetables EVERY night especially made for us. I'm not much of a veggie eater myself, I only complained on the first night because what was sent out to us was raw. Somehow they got the impression that we loved veggies and needed to have an extra plate on top of our regular dinner in order to be happy. About half way through we had to tell them that although we greatly appreciated the gesture, we couldn't eat all that extra food!!
We think part of the problem with the food in the main dining room (which was also often lukewarm and not hot) was that it was obviously prepared in mass quantity and no one was looking after each individual dish before it went out into the dining room. This was the same problem with some of the desserts. I ordered cheesecake one night which arrived at my table warm. Warm cheesecake is not an appetizing thing. I explained to our waiter that cheesecake should be served cold, or at least cool. He brought out another piece which was somewhat better, but I suspected that the cheesecake servings were simply sitting on some table back in the kitchen, and were not kept in a refrigerator as they should have been. We had the same problem with salad in the main dining room, which arrived with lukewarm wilted lettuce.
ENTERTAINMENT: I went to a few of the shows in the theater, which were OK. I thought the live band was very good, the singers were OK and the dancers were pretty good, but the whole thing never really added up to a great "show". I also went to one of the ice shows. Getting tickets was a little confusing. On the first full day at sea, there was a big announcement about getting tickets from 9-11AM for the ice show. Since there were two ice shows that day, I figured the enormous line going ALL the way through the promenade was for people who wanted to go to the show that day, and I didn't feel like standing in line that long, so I thought I'd get a ticket on a later day in the cruise. Well, it turns out that the line was so long because that was the ONLY day you could get tickets to go and see the ice shows for the entire cruise. On the other hand, once you got past the first day of the ice shows, they started announcing that there were lots of empty seats available and you didn't need a ticket anyway. I guess the long lines/tickets were just for people who wanted to see the ice show on the first day. The ice show was pretty good, I don't know how they do all those jumps and lifts while the ship is moving!!
SERVICE: Whatever complaints we had about our stateroom or the quality of food in the main dining room was completely made up by our stateroom attendant, Janel, our waiter, Khatri, and our assistant waiter, Andreja, all of which were outstanding in every way. I can't say enough about how wonderful the three of them were. Especially our waiter Khatri. Not only was he there at our beck and call, but he was always gracious whenever we had a complaint and was always eager to fix it ASAP. The only problem was because we liked him so much, I felt guilty about complaining about the food! We knew it wasn't his fault that things weren't cooked properly and it was clear that he wanted us to have a great experience in the main dining room, so we tried to find a balance and only complain when something was really bad. Everyone else we came in contact with on EOTS was great as well. Always smiling and happy and eager to help when needed!!
SHORE EXCURSIONS: We'll cover this in the port reviews below.
VALUE FOR MONEY: As mentioned above, we were very happy with this overall. We wished the food had been better, but considering the price we paid for 11 nights with a balcony, it was a great value.