Just returned from Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas Northern Europe and Russia cruise.
THIS IS A FULL REVIEW.
Explorer is 20 years old and smaller but otherwise identical layout to Freedom and Independence of the Seas, sharing the same (but smaller) Deck 5 central shopping mall idea, Schooners Bar, triple-floor Sapphire Dining Rooms, Windjammer buffet, ice rink, FlowRider and Dizzys/Sky Bar etc.
The August cruise from Southampton to Northern Europe was perfectly pleasant. Oslo, Copenhagen, Tallin, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Skagen (Denmark) and Stavanger (Norway) and the weather was kind, but lazing in the sun on the main deck was possible on one day out of 14, although I spotted several people, probably from Newcastle on Tyne, out there in their bikinis in Force 8 winds!
This is an easy cruise to access all the cities visited. All ports were quayside docking and all within easy walking distance of the city centres (Helsinki and Stockholm a couple of miles away but with cheap public transport from the quayside). Don’t fall for the cruise-line’s nonsense of buying their organised trips or paying an extortionate $40 for their own local shuttles - every city had cheap (typically $3 per trip or $10 for a 24 hour ticket covering all busses, trams, water taxis and metros) and regular public transport always right from the quayside.
We organised our own tours through local operators, but in cities like Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Tallinn you can walk everywhere. In every case, local tours were 50% cheaper than the cruise line’s official tour, and usually better. In Skagen we just walked but a friend rented a car for $35 for the day and visited everything there was to see - more than any of the organised tours. In Stavanger we booked a 3 hour fjord cruise with Rödne Tours from a booth right next to the cruise terminal for $40 each when we arrived, but I’d recommend pre-booking in case there’s more than one cruise ship in port. In St Petersburg we booked a 2 day tour with TJ Tours just 5 days before arriving and had a great experience with our own guide and a comfortable Mercedes minibus, all meals and water included, visiting more locations and for longer than the best available cruise-line tour for half the price ($250 each). You must book with an official Russian tour operator to get your necessary temporary Russian visa - you can’t visit St. Petersburg unaccompanied (well, not officially) but it’s as simple as booking online with a tour operator such as TJTours, SPB or Alla Tours. We found many fellow Americans were scared stiff of Russia, thinking the “Reds” might not like them. Well, that’s simply not the case. They are lovely!
The guests on this cruise were 60-70% British. Some Americans and Australians for whom this was usually one half of their European cruising (the other half being a Mediterranean cruise, but not always with RCI). The Brits were a mix of classes, lots of blue collar families but nice, friendly and honest in the way Brits usually are. A couple of dozen feral kids under 10 running around, living in the elevators with no parents or ship security enforcing some manners. A public keel hauling of the worst offender would soon restore discipline (this is a joke, btw). .
The negatives on this trip were all on board the ship. Having cruised with Royal Caribbean several times a few years ago, these are the noticeable differences – a general decline in standards whilst RCI try even harder to screw every last penny out of their guests:
- Sapphire Dining Room - food still ok but menus not quite as varied as before and some dishes simply not up to scratch. Service definitely slower and poorer than we’ve experienced on any other cruise or cruiseline. One night we waited 30 minutes for our order to be taken. Another couple next to us waited 90 minutes for their main course. Lots of complaints heard about this. The dining rooms seem to have more tables crammed in and they’ve dispensed with the nightly “Showtime” singalong by the waiters. Coffee and liqueurs used to be offered automatically, now you have to ask. No chocolate mints anymore. MyTime Dining is a shambles. Dress codes are not enforced at all - families in tee shirts and shorts - even on Formal Night. This is not what I pay my cruise bucks for. If diners want to dress in shorts, send them to the Windjammer. There IS a choice! Hey, Royal Caribbean - stop this race to the bottom and restore some semblance of style to your ships.
- Bars. There seem to be fewer waiters going round taking orders. Best bar for cocktails is still Schooner. Dizzy’s on the 14th floor has a good atmosphere (but the air con is always too cold). Some evenings it’s taken over by a “silent” disco, which actually means drunken guests singing the chorus of two different songs out of tune at the top of their voices. Silent it is not! Why on earth they can’t hold this in one of the disco clubs is beyond me. Drink prices noticeably up. $6-10 for a beer, ordinary branded spirits $10-15 and wine at $11-16 a glass. Cocktails typically $12 and up.
- On board sales bargains - e.g. watches and jewellery. Quality and variety on offer is poor and prices are the same as high street. The rest of the goods on offer was tourist tat, overpriced by 50% compared to identical tourist tat in each port. On board bargains used to be one of the joys of cruising. It isn’t any longer. Art and overpriced jewellery auctions did zero business. I never understand how they make money, but this cruise full of savvy Brits wasn’t going to part them from their money.
- Windjammer Buffet. A glorious spectacle of excess. Food quality is awfully variable, from awful to variable yet never excellent. If you want to watch fat people getting even fatter, pushing and vying to see who can pile their plates highest and yet still leave enough waste food to feed New York’s entire homeless community, then this is the best free entertainment venue on the entire ship! The number of electric buggies plus the constant feeding frenzy was like that scene out of Wally...... Not offendin’ anyone, just sayin’....
- Theatre Entertainment. The in house ‘orchestra’ is a great bunch of talented musicians tied to performing holiday camp-standard routines. The in-house song and dance reviews were nothing special, in fact highly avoidable. A couple of guest bands were excellent, though - a Beatles tribute band and The Wild Boys in particular were very good. A visiting West End singer, magician and a hypnotist who were all pretty mundane. I fell asleep during the hypnotist act. No idea why.
- Round the Ship entertainment. There’s a talented solo guitarist playing a repertoire of 30 almost recognisable pop hits in a vaguely classical style. He looks tired and bored, but go and ask him to play something decent, like Tarrega or Rodriguez, and he perks up! The House Band is OK, best when they are doing live karaoke. Lead vocalist loves herself but the drummer is the better singer. The reggae band are very good. There’s a very camp Liberace clone who knows his downmarket audience to a Tee! Straight from Phoenix Nights! Truly awful....unless you like that kind of thing.
- The usual selection of half hour games and quizzes, presented in a generally lacklustre way, always in a hurry, formulaic and rushed. Too few staff?
- Casino. Never more than 1/4 full. The Brits obviously don’t gamble. The ship did nothing to entice them in, so each night it was the same 50 American faces playing the slots and a handful of tables. At least half the croupiers looked dead or asleep. They could have jumped ship for two weeks and no one would have noticed. A missed opportunity.
- Cruise Director. Every other Cruise Director we’ve had has been the life and soul of the ship - always about, saying hello, geeing people up. Not this one. Known as “Hello Clo”. Been in the business 27 years, apparently. Never saw her round the ship saying hello to passengers, never saw her on the gangplank, only on-stage introducing the acts. Something missing here.
- Photographs. Still expensive but with many more photographers and backdrops. The old style of printing out thousands of photos on paper for you to peruse has been replaced with a dreadful touch screen system. The staff said it was more popular but I doubt it.
- State Room Stewards. Great, as ever. These people work the hardest on the ship and deserve the biggest tips.
- On Sea Days the ship was heaving with people because it was too cold out on deck. 3,500 bored passengers wandering round inside an already crowded ship, all looking for something to do. You would think the Entertainment staff would make a bit more effort and lay on extra entertainments when it’s too increment to go outside, but no. Nada. Nothing. This, above all else, was the weakest element of the cruise.
The Ship. 20 years old and looking its age. It had a refit in 2015 but there are a lot of defects. Lifts out of action, PA systems on their last legs, cutlery in the dining rooms old and knackered, large viewing windows which had gone opaque, furniture a bit tatty. Lots of maintenance engineers fixing things discretely. Many staff just seem to be tired, going through the motions. Even the Captain’s daily announcement was delivered in a flat, monotonic voice. The only time he sounded enthused was in Stockholm, probably his home town.
I heard that Explorer of the Seas is due another refit to take away some public areas and add more cabins, so this ship is likely to get even more crowded. I hope the staff-guest ratio increases but somehow I doubt it.
Would I cruise with Explorer of the Seas again? No.
Has my opinion of a Royal Caribbean been tarnished? Yes.
Cruise destinations. 9/10
Value for Money. 7/10
3rd floor ocean view cabin. Perfectly ok, quite spacious, good value, excellent state room attendant.
Walked into the city. Clean but clinical. No one about except tourists. The Norwegians spend their summers at their country homes. Very sensible.
Lovely city. Easily walkable. Take the canal trip to see most of the sights.
Nice old city. Easily walkable straight from the cruise port.
Walked the city. Visited the Church of the Rock.
Walked and used public transport. Visited Vasa museum and ABBA museum. Took a water taxi to and from the cruise ship. Why use any other form of transport?
Walk the town direct from the cruise terminal. 10 minutes.
Best tip if you want to explore is to hire a car for the day. $35. The local Budget car rental office is a tiny franchise - it’s a gas station with about 4 cars to rent, 1/4 mile from the ship. The lady who sells your gas gives you the keys to the car. It took 2 minutes! The best and quickest car rental experience ever.
Booked this by stepping off the cruise ship, through the port gates and 50 yards there’s a Rödne Tours tent selling tickets. Paid $50 and stepped into the fjord tour boat 15 minutes later. Half the price of their competitors (GoFjord) and 1/3 the price of the cruise ship tour.View All 68 Lysefjord Reviews
Amazing city. Take a smaller, minibus tour with TJ Tours, SPB or Alla Tours. Half the price of the cruise ship own tours. Forget the scare stories about visas - provided you book with a local tour company the visa is all taken care of. We booked online using a mobile Phone only, 72 hours before we got to St Petersburg. Email confirmation and credit card transaction proof by email sent within 5 minutes, ticket + visa documents (which you must print out on board ship) within 24 hours. Russian immigration took 10 minutes.View All 378 City Tour Reviews
Great embarkation. Fast and simple. We arrived after 2pm which was quieter.