This was my third RC cruise, first time on Explorer of the Seas. The cruise was out of Bayonne, NJ, and if anyone at RCI is listening, I heard loads of people wish for more cruises out of the NY port. It was so easy to sail out of Cape Liberty (Bayonne)--parking is a breeze (although costly), and the port is very conveniently located.
This cruise was shortened by one day because a passenger on the previous cruise had to be airlifted off the ship which involved a detour that set the ship back one day in returning to Bayonne. We were notified several days in advance, so other than dealing with the disappointment of losing one vacation day, everything went smoothly. Incidentally, the cruise line issued credit to our shipboard account for the lost day. We had no problem spending it on various things offered onboard (primarily booze and excursions), but we were told it would be refunded to our credit card if we didn't spend it. It was a welcome gesture, given that the terms of the ticket contract specify that the cruise line doesn't legally owe a passenger anything for unscheduled changes in itinerary.
Days 2 & 3:
At sea. The weather was fine. The captain of this ship was very visible throughout the cruise and there were several opportunities to ask questions, which he and his staff answered candidly. The ship is in fine shape, despite some postings to the contrary, and I did not see anything that wasn't well-tended.
There was a fanatical effort to squirt us with antibacterial hand sanitizer at every opportunity, which I personally don't care for, but I understand the rationale. I gather that there was some illness onboard, but it wasn't apparent other than the hand sanitizer dispensers at every crossroads and constant reminders to use them frequently.
The food was excellent, and believe me; I am fussy to the point of hating to eat out, so it's no casual comment for me to rave about the food. I did not have a single meal that wasn't delicious. We had one meal in Portofino, and it was one of the best restaurant meals I've ever eaten. Next time, I think I'll eat there twice! The small premium for the meal is well worth it. The shipboard headliner entertainment was also professional and most enjoyable. Same goes for the various musicians in the bar venues.
I should qualify my food review to say that I avoided the Windjammer as much as possible. There didn't appear to be anything pleasant about that experience unless you wanted to grab something quick and easy. I gave in and had breakfast there a couple of times, but did not find it to be at all enjoyable. The dining room experience I had was great. The salad bar options in the dining room were excellent, along with diverse and delicious entree selections. You won't find those choices in the Windjammer.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
We pulled up alongside of many other cruise ships in the port of Old San Juan. I am not a fan of cruise excursions, so we just walked around Old San Juan, which is right at the end of the pier. It is very hilly, so make sure you are up for strenuous walking if you intend to circle the entire area, which is possible to do on foot. There are ample opportunities for organized local tours as well.
The entertainer on Day 4 was a musician named John Bressler. He talked about himself during the act, and we discovered later on in the evening when we bumped into him in a bar that he lives about 5 miles from us. Small world! His show was excellent--his rendition of MacArthur Park was better than the original. We were surprised that we had never heard of him in our local area.
Philipsburg, St. Maarten
Having read up a bit on this port, we knew that our best bet to do a little shopping was to high-tail it early to the water taxi that takes you to town. The distance from the pier to town is walkable, but it takes about half an hour to make the walk. We booked a cruise excursion to the beach in the afternoon (more on that later), so we wanted to get a little shopping in before that. The water taxi to town is $6 round-trip, and quickly gets you to the town center from the pier. We walked around town for a while, but it wasn't terribly interesting. I recommend buying any duty-free alcohol that you want to bring back from one of the many liquor stores along the main drag in Philipsburg. The prices were excellent, and the stores we went into offered free delivery to the ship.
When we returned to the ship by way of the water taxi around 11 am, the line of tourists waiting to go into town on the water taxi was unbelievable. I bet those people waited for the better part of an hour to get on a water taxi. Thank goodness we went and returned early, so we beat the rush. We did not wait at either end.
We signed up for the afternoon Orient Beach Break excursion. This is the first RC excursion I've ever taken, and although it was organized well, it was horrible. Let me rephrase that: if you enjoy shopping at the mall on Black Friday, you might enjoy this outing. We were taken to a beautiful beach, but to a very small private section that was wall-to-wall beach chairs crammed together with barely enough room to walk between the rows. From the moment we sat down, we were bombarded by locals who were trying to hawk their CCC (Cheap Crap from China). They were relentless---polite, but really annoying after a while. I understand that they need to make a living, but this was not an asset to the outing. If they put a bunch of shopping huts along the beach and let people shop voluntarily without being accosted, they'd probably sell a lot more of their junk. If I go to St. Maarten in the future, I will take a taxi to a beach area that is not a cruise ship destination. There were nicer beach spots along Orient Beach that looked quite pleasant. There was literally one restroom (one toilet for each gender) for our private area of the beach. They plied us with rum punches the entire time, so use of the restroom was pretty much a given. Now go ahead and guess whether or not there was toilet paper. HAH! Just another fun twist to the afternoon.
Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas, USVI
We signed up for the 6-hour cruise excursion to St John. The excursion left right from the end of our pier, and took us to St John by way of a very pleasant boat ride with a most informative skipper--I think his name was Captain Jack. He was full of all kinds of fascinating USVI trivia. Once in St John, he gave us the info we needed to head to the beach without further ado. We took a taxi to Trunk Bay ($6 p/p each way), paid the national park fee at Trunk Bay (I think it was $4 each). There is a place in the park to rent beach chairs and umbrellas, as well as snorkel gear. There's a hamburger joint there, so if you're good with standing on line for ages to get a pretty lousy burger and a can of stale beer, you're in the right place. Next time I will buy food in town before heading to the beach and eat in one of the very nice picnic areas. There are adequate facilities for changing and using the restroom at Trunk Bay. This is not a deluxe beach experience, but it is easy, cheap and fun. Trunk Bay beach is pretty much unsurpassed in beauty. It would have been possible to make the trek to St John without taking the cruise excursion, but we felt that the extra cost to take the cruise trip was worth it because of the fact that the outing left right from our pier. Otherwise we would have had to take a taxi to the ferry port in St Thomas, and then deal with the public ferry schedule. Not impossible by any means, but the cost differential wasn't that much. So this excursion was a thumbs-up experience. Captain Jack supplied us with ample very tasty rum punches to make the return trip extra pleasant.
Days 7, 8 & 9
At sea. There was plenty to do on the return trip. Again, the food and entertainment were fabulous. The two ice shows during the cruise were very impressive--it's hard to believe that people can skate like that on a tiny rink on a moving ship. They are very talented performers and athletes, to say the least.
My only complaint about the cruise was that it was literally impossible to get a deck chair in the sun on the warm days. Although staking out chairs is technically against the rules, there is no enforcement, understandably, and people simply hog chairs for an entire day whether they are using them or not. I couldn't bring myself to stake out a chair, but I guess that is what you have to do.
If you plan to use the internet, consider yourself informed that bandwidth and latency are dismal at best, and you will spend an insane amount of money watching your screen refresh. I use Yahoo mail, and I think I paid $30 to see a list of messages a couple of times. I could barely interact online, nor could I even see my ISP webmail account---the refresh was so slow that I gave up. I overheard people in the computer lounge cursing the slow response of the computers. Next time, I will not bother with the internet--this is vacation, after all. There were free wi-fi hotspots in each of the ports we visited, and if you really need connectivity, explore that option. I bought a shipboard internet package as an alternative to a traumatic cell phone bill experience after a previous cruise. The internet package was cheaper than my cell phone bill, but basically useless. Forget it, you're on vacation! Do you really need to know what's happening at home or on Facebook?
I would have loved to take some "inside" tours on the ship, maybe the kitchen or other operations areas not normally seen. They offer a behind-the-scenes tour, but I believe it costs about $150, which is way more cash than I would fork over for that kind of experience. I might cough up $30 or $40 for some portion of that type of experience, but I guess the insider tours are for people with loyalty connections or more discretionary funds than I am willing to part with. For a company that is clearly expert at mining their passengers' wallets, RCI is missing the boat on this particular cash-gathering opportunity.
One more comment about Explorer of the Seas. Within 5 minutes of boarding the ship, it was apparent to me that the art collection on board is simply amazing. Perhaps most people take the artwork for granted, but when I climbed the stairs to my stateroom when I first boarded, the stairwell was plastered with original photos by Annie Liebovitz, guitars signed by the Stones, Springsteen and McCartney, as well as sculpture and art in a variety of mediums. I took one of the art tours, and learned that Royal Caribbean spent many millions of dollars on shipboard art commissions. There were cases along the stateroom hallways that had all kinds of fascinating art pieces from various parts of the world. One of my favorite installations were a series of gorgeous Venetian glass art globes that adorned the Viking Lounge. I spent considerable time wandering around the ship just looking at the art, which is all museum and gallery quality. If you travel on Explorer of the Seas, take some time to appreciate the artwork--it's truly a treat.
All in all, it was a lovely vacation. The cruise ports we visited are terribly generic, but we knew that going in. We went for the service, food and opportunity to relax, and got what we went for. We will keep an eye out for interesting cruises out of New York or Baltimore. Pay Attention, RCI!!!!