We traveled out of Bayonne on 2/6 on the Explorer, traveling with my parents and our 3yo daughter (if anyone from our sailing is reading this, perhaps you recall a chatty blonde...there were only about 5 kids her age on the whole ship). We (my husband, myself and daughter) are Diamond members.
The check in process was smooth and without any issues. Left my parents' house on Staten Island at 11:15...we were ON the ship just after noon! Talk about fast.
Upon walking on the ship, a staff member asked if we had MyTime. We did...he said go straight to the MDR and make our diner reservations. Huh??? After a ton of questions on cruise critic, and multiple convos with RCI CS phone people, we chose to switch from the main seating to MTD since 6pm was just too early for us on previous cruises (We like to eat at more like 6:30-6:45), and we should just go straight the MDR every night when we want to eat...that waits are rare, maybe 10 minutes. At the MDR we were told that reservations were booked solid ALL 11 nights, and that the only time we could make a reservation (which were told me had to at that point if we wanted to eat at all !?) was 5:45 or 7:45. WTF? We took a 7:30 reservation for the first night and put our names on the waiting list for a cancellation. Fortunately by the end of the evening, a 6:15 reservation for the whole cruise had opened up and we grabbed it. (more about our dining experiences to come)
First thing we did was hit the Windjammer for lunch. It wasn't too busy yet. I finally tried the famous Honey Stung Chicken. (note: def only served on Day 1 in the WJ, but it is available on the Room Service menu).
Hit the room next: a JS on deck 9 on the hump, with a sofa bed for our daughter. The room was neat upon arrival, but strangely "dirty." Every drawer or cabinet I opened had some piece of trash in it...a tag from a new shirt, a business card, a DIRTY TISSUE?! The fridge had old milk in it from the previous sailing. We met our attendant soon after, and promptly handed him a full trash can. After this issue though, the room was immaculate the rest of the week.
Before dinner, while DD was napping, MH and I went up to the Diamond Lounge to unwind and have a drink. The bartenders up there were very friendly and remembered us when we returned only 2 more times the whole trip. (Its hard to take advantage of happy hour when you are entertaining a 3yo!) Happy hour was from 5-8pm and there was free wine and beer and a 20% discount on mixed drinks. No Diamond Concierge though, as we had seen on the Independence. No biggie, just something I noticed.
Dinner the first night was at 7:30. Fortunately DD took a late nap so she was in good spirits and OK waiting so late to eat. We sit at 7:30 and we sit...and sit... and sit. FINALLY, after about 20 minutes, the waitress came to take our drink order and give us menus. Then the asst waiter came over to take our drink orders again? Then we had to flag the waitress down by 8 to take our order, and she gave us a snotty reply along the lines of "i know i need to take your order but i'm helping another table right now." needless to say, dinner was long and drawn out due to poor service. the waitress didnt seem to care about anything. And she never smiled once.
The second night, for our 6:15 reservation for the duration of the trip, we were seated elsewhere and requested to just reserve that table for the duration just to ensure the time and it was a good location by the main entry and the balcony. But again, the service was just awful. Most nights, we didnt have menus, water or bread until at LEAST 6:30. Some nights we didnt order until 6:45. Our waiter would be GONZO. Of course, my 3yo would be climbing the walls by then (thank god for an ipod with movies and headphones, but still...). On previous cruises, the waiters would know by the night 2-3 that these drinks should be on the table when we arrive: a coke for my hub, a diet coke for my mom, and a dry martini with olives for my dad. On previous cruises, the 2 sodas would be refilled before the last glass was empty. This time...we would sit forever waiting for the first drink and then refills. Granted, you can have bad service during the main or late seating, but part of me believes that this was all MTD related. Because you have people coming in and out all at different times or intervals, the wait staff just cant keep up with the difference in schedules.
The food, overall, was fine but very "assembly line." It was just....blah. This was our 3rd year in a row sailing RC and the 3rd year in a row we have seen the exact same menus. I'm sick of KNOWING that prime rib and pork medallions will be served the first night on board. I'm bored of the mushroom pastry and sweet onion tart appetizers. Maybe some people like the predictability, but not me.
Other dining venues we visited were Johnny Rockets (worth the $4.95pp and great for lunch on a sea day, but expect a short wait) and Portofino, which was incredible. The service here was OUTSTANDING. This is what the dining experience USED to be like. Our waiter mentioned he has been with RCCL for 10 years, and you could tell. His attention to detail was impeccable as was his demeanor. He also recognized me the next AM in the WJ and gave me a chipper greeting (when our asst waiter from the MDR saw us at the Promenade Cafe, he stared blankly like he had never seen us before). And the food was amazing. For appetizers we had the antipasti for 2, and i had the Ciuppin (seafood stew) and my husband had the minestrone. We practically licked our plates clean. Dinner was Chicken Saltimbocca for hub, and Osso Bucco with polenta for me. Amazing. We also each ordered a side order of a pasta that were listed as entrees (mushroom pappardelle for him, pesto linguine for me) and were not charged anything extra for ordering more than one entree per person (as the rumors have suggested on the boards).
Other food notes:
--The soft chocolate chip cookies and chocolate chip scones from the Promenade Cafe were both amazing.
--The frozen yogurt machines were out of whack almost the entire time. They were either empty, or making fro-yo that was too watery and would melt in about 2 minutes of dispensing it. --The pizza at the Cafe was hit or miss. Some days it was good, others bad. What do you expect from frozen pizzas? (And they are...I saw someone wheeling a whole cart of them at one point).
--By day 10, most venues like WJ and Cafe were out of skim milk. Sort of a poor miscalculation on RC's part. My daughter ONLY drinks skim milk (no juice or water), so having to feed her whole milk was hard (for me, not her... she just doesnt need the fat and calories being her only source of liquid).
--Finding peanut butter and jelly or yogurt at lunch proved nearly impossible on some days. They only put it out at breakfast. You have to find a staff member who is WILLING to go into the pantry and get it for you (some were not and told me that at lunch it was not an option).
--The "make your own stir fry" and "make your own pasta" stations at lunch were a nice addition. I also liked seeing the variety of cold cuts for sandwiches (salami, mortadella, etc.)
The spa was nice. We always hit the spa and treat ourselves to 1-2 services each on our cruises. My husband had 2 massages over the course of the trip and was extremely pleased with his therapist. However my therapist, while completely skilled in her job (the massage was great), tried to cheat me out of part of my session. I paid for a 75 minute treatment (25 minute salt scrub and a 50 minute massage). After the scrub, I glanced at the clock when the massage was starting and it was 3:15. Great massage started...when she told me to sit up and that I was done, it was only 3:45! She shaved 20 minutes off! By the time, I realized this, she had already left to get my receipt to sign and a cup of water, and I confronted her when she came back. She had the nerve to try to make ME sound like I was wrong! "I don't stare at the clock, I just do my job." "You had a slight sunburn, I didnt want to irritate it." At the end of the day, lady, it IS your job to watch the clock, and if my sunburn bothers me, I'LL tell YOU. We went back and forth for a bit, and she finally conceded and gave me an extra 20 minute leg/foot massage. Upon leaving I asked to speak to the spa manager, who was in a meeting, but she called me shortly after and resolved the situation immediately. She removed my gratuity and gave me an extra discount on top of my Diamond member discount (from the coupon booklet). Her name was Lana and was so nice. I believe she got off the ship after our sailing to return home for a while, but she said she'll be back, and I hope I get to meet her again in the future!
The pool decks were crowded but we never had a problem getting chairs poolside, as long as we up and out by 10am. We had one rough day/night at seas that caused ALL the pools to be emptied overnight. Thankfully that "empty pool day" was not a pool day anyway, and the pools were ful by the next seas day which was a gorgeous "not-a-cloud-in-the-sky" type day. I was disappointed that the kids pool area is COMPLETELY covered. I get keeping kids out of the sun, but it was COLD in the shade!!!! ANd its also SOOOO far away from everything else being placed at the very very back of the ship (clearly something they resolved when they built the Freedom and Oasis class ships).
This was our first time using Adventure Ocean. Our daughter had a great time and would beg us to go to "the club." We used it every night after dinner so we could go see the shows, and dropped her off at least once a day on every sea day. The staff was very professional. Every session had a theme (pirates, the zoo, the circus, superheroes, etc.) and she loved that. Sometimes they would take them out for "shipwalks" where the kids walk around and do obstacle courses or visit the Cafe for a snack. Very cute. There was face painting a few nights, and the last sea day they did a talent show in the Viking Crown Lounge. So cute! The 3-5yos colored cardboard guitars and jammed to a Spongebob song. (Note: There was most definitely at least one 2 year old enrolled in the program. I saw her age on the pick-up/drop-off sheet more than once. She must have been toilet trained to have been there, so I suppose that the bending of the rules varies from sailing to sailing. On this particular sailing, there were only 5 kids on the whole ship in her age group, so adding one kid was clearly not an issue for the staff).
The staff was extremely friendly. Wherever we went, someone would bend down to greet my daughter as "Princess." Good morning, Princess! Hello, Princess! She loved it and made A LOT of friends.
In random places, I'd occasionally smell that sewage smell in random places around the ship. Thankfully, we never smelled it in or near our room.
The Explorer is definitely showing her age, especially in the staterooms. The grout in our bathroom was on the gross side and peeling in some spots. The carpet was faded and puling up the edges. The furniture was banged up and scratched. It didn't ruin the experience, but all the little things add up, you know? I didnt see as much wear-and-tear in the public spaces.
The internet service was awful. They were aware of the problem and were refunding minutes and money as long as you complained. You could literally spend 5 minutes waiting for Gmail to load.
--The shows were OK. A little dated and clearly geared towards an older crowd (I'd say that 90% of the ship was of retirement age..we did pick this sailing because it was NOT President's Day week though, so it was partially expected).
--The salsa band that played at Boleros/Aquarium bar every night was fabulous. Definitely my daughter's favorite place to dance.
--The quartet that played in Dizzy's every other night was outstanding. Everything form the Beatles to Billy Joel. The name of the group escapes me now... New Age Quartet? "New" something.
--We saw one ice show and it was good. The second one just conflicted with other things we were doing on those sea days. We did take our daughter ice skating for the first time as well. They have skates as small as a toddler 8!
Port notes (see below for other ports):
Labadee - A day here never disappoints. We were able to snag one of the new cabanas that was built on Nellie's Beach. Ours was over the water, facing both the water and beach with its own private stairway into the water. The cabana comes with a "butler" for the day, cushioned lounge chairs, towels, a sectional couch for lounging and extra seating, the upgraded buffet lunch (behind the gates on Barefoot Beach), and a cooler full of ice cold bottles of Evian. The price: $200. Not awful if you are splitting with another party (beware though: they only allow 6 people per cabana) and well worth the premium for the refuge from the sun. We saw people fighting over the shady spots on the beach. With a 3 year old in tote, all conveniences are always worth the price. The only "complaint" was that across the water (less than 50yds away) they were building more cabanas...and the constant hammering echoing across the water was NOT cool. We mentioned it to a supervisor, and within 3 minutes, all hammering ceased. AH... peace and quiet.
Disembarkation: The last day we hit the WJ for breakfast at 8am. It was surprisingly empty. Our departure times were 9:45 and 10:15. When we arrived in our designated waiting area at about 9am, we heard an announcement that our numbers were called already, so we made our way towards the elevators. OMG. We must have stood there for lord knows how long. The sheer amount of people they allow to carry their bags off is insane. The luggage takes up the entire elevator, leaving room for no passengers. We finally got down, off the boat, through customs immediately, and found our luggage in about 2 minutes.
All in all, its hard to compare this trip to our last one on the Allure. They were 2 totally different experiences. I didn't LOVE this trip. I'm not sure we'll do such a long cruise any time soon (12 days is a LONG time) but we did book a 7 day on the Freedom next February (with them offering a generous Diamond discount plus OBC, it doesnt make sense to NOT book it since its refundable).