Our First Cruise on Royal Caribbean by Gary & Thelma: Explorer of the Seas Cruise Review by COOPER&LOUISE

Explorer of the Seas 4

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Our First Cruise on Royal Caribbean by Gary & Thelma

Sail Date: November 2010
Destination: Southern Caribbean
Embarkation: Bayonne (Cape Liberty)
I am 59. My wife is 51. This was our 1st cruise on Royal Caribbean though we have cruised 4 other times; once on Carnival and 3 times on NCL. We are polite and not picky. We do not drink much on cruises. We spend the money on excursions. I am a scuba diver so a lot of this review includes those experiences. Because my wife is a sunrise/sunset junky and because many excursions leave early, we were on an early schedule for almost the whole cruise.

I liked this cruise. I thought it was a great value for the money. The only thing I hated on the cruise was the coffee. Everything else varied between ok and great!

If you live within driving distance buy a GPS. The address of the Cape liberty port is: 14 Port Terminal Boulevard, Bayonne, New Jersey 07002. The RC phone number for questions is 800-256-6649. The website for the port is www.cruiseliberty.com The website has a Mapquest link so you can also print a map.

Day 1 Sunday

We left Allentown, Pa at More 10:30. We arrived at the port at noon (1/2 hour faster than normal due to light Sunday traffic and my speed-demon daughter/chauffer). Traffic in the port moves decently. There are many pull-in spots to unload luggage. There are baggage handlers and the luggage bins are within 30 feet of the drop-off. The line to get your Sea Pass is 30 more feet. The bus ride from the terminal to the ship takes less than a minute. We were on the ship by 12:45. We were in our stateroom 8289 by 1:30 PM. The Terminal is not heated but there is a restroom.

We spent our 1st few minutes onboard in the WindJammer buffet restaurant. It's on deck 11 aft. Except for the cafe Promenade on deck 5, all the food is in the back of the ship. The Windjammer is understandably busy during boarding, but you can find a seat. If you sit at the very back, or on the port side, you can see the Statue of Liberty.

The lifeboat drill was at 3:15. You no longer have to bring your cabin lifejacket, but drill attendance is mandatory. Ship departure was smooth and scenic. Passing just beneath the huge bridge is always fun.

We had booked 1st dinner seating but were given 2nd seating. So our 1st order of business was to change back to 1st seating or get My Time Dining. This occurs in the Columbus Dining room on decks 3 & 4. Good luck on getting The My Time Dining if you did not book early or have pull. We have neither and the wait list was 50 long. It can even be hard to get 1st seating. However, partially due to luck and partially because my wife and I did not treat the staff rudely (the staff member told us he often gets threatened by guests) we managed to get our seat changed back to 1st seating. And that turned out to be super!

Not only did we get a table near the windows, but we were also seated at a table for 8. The other 6 seats were occupied by 3 sisters and their spouses. They had driven down from Canada to take this cruise. They opened their lives and conversation to us and we had a great week. Though we did not do excursions with them, we often met in the course of our day and ended up chatting in one of the many gathering spots. Their friendship was the icing on the cake of great cruise.

Our cabin 8289 is a Promenade Room. Most ships have interior rooms or some view of /access to the ocean. But the Explorer has rooms that overlook an interior mall (The Promenade) on deck 5 too. The mall is maybe 30 feet wide with stores, bars, eateries along its city block length. There are Promenade facing rooms on decks 6,7,8. You enter the room via normal ships hallway, but you have a big picture window on the other side of the room overlooking the Promenade. You can hear the few louder Promenade events but the noise is not an issue on deck 8. Our table mates, who had Promenade rooms on deck 6, noted that the noise was more bothersome. But, no one thought it was a major issue. My view is that it is great for people watching and feeling like you are more involved with the ship's happenings.

Our cabin size was fine. There is more than enough storage for 2 people. The bed is comfy. Our cabin attendant Anand (from India) did an admirable job; as did almost all the ships staff. I also think my fellow cruisers were a civil lot.

The ship's crew is multi-national and so were the guests. You might think a ship leaving from Bayonne would be almost all US Citizens but there were also many from Canada, The Ukraine, and Germany. Of course the guest age was mostly older, but it wasn't wall-to-wall walkers and scooters. There were probably less than 100 kids on the ship. All were well-behaved as far as I could see.

Our waiters for table 576 were Imdat and Adem from Turkey. They were super! If you get them you will be happy. The appetizers and mains range from ok to good. The Indian dishes are surprisingly bland. Many of the appetizers and mains are too. I thought the food was of good quality, but I missed the exquisitely seasoned dishes I have eaten on other cruise lines. We still ate a lot though.

The desserts were great. Many of those were a taste sensation! The breads are good too. If I had my way I would promote the dessert/bread chefs and send the rest for remedial seasoning training.

Lemonade is the best included beverage. They water down the coffee in the dining room which actually makes it a little better than the strong, sour brew they have in the Windjammer and Cafe Promenade. But the Cafe Promenade has hot chocolate- a tastier selection if you want a hot beverage. I do not tolerate tea very well, but they do have it in all food areas.

The 1st seating show is at 9PM in the Palace Theater on decks 3 & 4 forward. There we met our cruise director Jimmy and enjoyed the comedy of Rick Star (who was funny but not hysterical). We turned in early because it had been a long day.

Day 2 Monday At Sea

We tried breakfast in the main dining room. It was nice but there weren't any great menu items so we used the Windjammer for the rest of the cruise. The open decks were still too cold to spend much time on, so we focused on ship acclimation and excursion decisions. We also did a Cruise Critic "Meet and Greet". This may have been nice for repeat cruisers but was a non-event for newbies like us. The RC singers & dancers entertained us with hits from the 50's through the 80's at the 9PM show. Everyone was great.

Day 3 Tuesday At Sea

It was warm enough to go swimming today. So we migrated to the pools & hot tubs on deck 11. We also saw the 1st of 2 ice shows at 3PM in studio B. We had picked up tickets on day 1 outside Studio B from 5:30 to 7:30. There was a looong line for the tickets, but all show times still had tickets by the time we got to the front of the line. If you miss the ticket distribution, they also keep them at the courtesy desk on deck 5 and at the show. We loved the ice shows. Everyone did. The rink is not cold, so you don't have to worry about dressing up warm.

The show for the evening was Dominique, a violinist. She gave us a warm, funny, musical evening.

We took ballroom dancing lessons for a month before our cruise. We thought RC would have a lot of that. They don't. We did dance at various times throughout the week and tonight was no exception. But the ship's music is not geared towards ballroom dancing. It is much more in the salsa, Caribbean/reggae, and easy listening categories. We loved Roman Dembitski who played classical guitar, but he didn't play dance music. I did however; buy his cd because he was so good. In any event, we managed almost no ballroom dancing due to availability and the fact that we retired early to save energy for sunrises and excursions.

Day 4 Wednesday Labadee, Haiti

We were both in the early morning swing of things by today. We did the 5 lap mile walk on deck 12 as we did most mornings when it wasn't too cold. We disembarked for our 9:15 Dragons Breath Zip Line excursion at $79 per person on Labadee. They have a shorter practice line you do 1st to give you the feel for it. Then they take you by truck to the hilly top of one side of the bay and you zip 2600 feet to the lower other side of the bay. Very neat! I am mildly afraid of heights, but it was ok. Everyone did well. It may sound and look a bit scary, but it was more cool and fun.

After the zip we shopped a bit at the craft stands. Most of the stands have the same stuff. The vendors are very pushy- not mean or nasty- but very insistent. They make it a little hard to disengage. It's the same for Samana. But that is not as much the case for the other islands. The residents on ST Thomas, St Kitts, Antigua (pronounced Antiga), and St Maarten all value politeness.

We managed to squeeze in a 2nd excursion and tried snorkeling at $42 per person. There must have been 30 people in the water following one guide. It was way too many people for one guide and lots of us got bumped into or accidentally finned (kicked) by other snorkelers. The water depth ranged from 5-30 feet with most of the excursion in the 6-10 feet range. We saw coral, fish, sea urchins, and some small flamingo tong shells. After the dive we did just a little more shopping and headed back to the ship. It had been a busy excursion day and we never got on the beach. The entertainment compound on Labadee is owned by RC and is very clean. They are constantly enhancing it. People refer to it as RC's private island, but I do not think it is totally surrounded by water.

The show for the evening was Jordan Bennett who is married to Dominique. But while Dominque had a good feel for what audiences wanted to hear, Jordan didn't. He sang a lot of slow, talky show tunes that I really didn't like. I kept wishing I could change the channel or gong him (remember the Gong Show?). But, he did sing, The Bright Side of Life, which I hummed for the rest of the week. His show was followed by the disco show in the Promenade. We watched that entire event from the comfort of our couch in the Promenade Room.

Day 5 Thursday Samana, Dominican Republic

we met in the Palace at 8:15 for our Sea Lion encounter. From there we were escorted to our tender to motor to Cayo Levantado, an island in Samana Bay. Note- if you elect to go to Cayo Levantado in the morning, they do not start return trips to the ship until 1pm. There is no way to get back until then, so prepare. This is not RC owned real estate, but there are restrooms and vendors. You can buy souvenirs, food, rent snorkel gear, scuba dive, get a massage, lie on the beach, swim, get your photo taken with a giant iguana, etc.

Our Sea Lion Encounter was short (1/2 hour) and expensive at $139 per person. And you can't video or take pictures. They take pictures but they do not video. The photos were expensive and we did not buy any. Tip- if you don't mind not having you in the picture you can video the next group's ocean part of the encounter from just down the beach.

The 1st part of the encounter took place in a small, shaded sandy compound. They bring out an 8 year old sea lion that personally interacts with everyone. We hugged her, touched her flipper, and fed her a fish. You kiss her on the cheek and she kisses you—think big, fishy, doggy-like face with whiskers. After about 15 minutes you walk 100 feet to the beach and stand in chest deep water. Once you are lined up, an 8 year old male comes out and swims amongst you. Everybody gets to hug him. Then you go back to the lockers in the compound and get all the stuff you didn't want to get wet. Note- we all worried about leaving our stuff in an unlocked area. They have a bank of small lockers but no locks. Theft does seem to be an issue on tours. I am sure the resulting theft complaint would shut down an excursion pronto.

After the encounter we lay on the beach and took some photos. I had swim goggles which I made due as snorkel gear. I found a couple of large starfish (1 foot in diameter) and some shells. Don't try to keep the starfish. They will stink badly in short order. Just look at them and put them back down. The water around the beach is mostly sand with some sea grass. At 1pm we headed back to the ship. This is the 2nd time we have been to Samana and still not technically been ashore. The 1st time we whale watched (February Cruise on NCL) and this time we went to an island.

I don't have too many other notes on this day. The evening show in the Palace Theater was the RC singers and dancers doing show tunes. The sets were great, the songs were not. For some reason they focused on slow show tunes or 2nd rate songs from different musicals. Once again I kept wishing for a gong or a magic that would make them sing the good stuff. My wife is more practical. She just went to sleep.

Day 6 Friday ST Thomas, US Virgin Islands

We always docked in the 7-8AM range and we always got off the ship on deck 1 soon after. I had to meet for a scuba dive at 12:15 so we did a bit of shopping at the Havensight shopping mall near the ship. We mailed postcards at the post office and Marty (the ship's shopping director) helped us buy a Phillip Stein watch at Diamonds International.

The Underwater Safari Dive Shop is located in the mall near the ship, a 5 minute walk. We collected our gear and made a short walk to the marina to catch our dive boat. The dive boat then made a 10 minute trip out to Buck Island for 2 dives. We spent half the time near the wreck of the Cartanser Senior and the other half on Wye Reef. The wreck is currently in 50 feet of water and pretty broken up at this point. Beside the wreck the highpoints of the dives were seeing banded coral shrimp, large hermit crabs, a field of garden eels, a spotted drum, and a lot of pretty soft and hard coral. The significant thing about this dive for me was that I also dived on this wreck in 1982. So it was fun coming back to a wreck I haven't seen in 28 years.

My wife didn't dive with me. She went shopping for gift liquor and a table cloth.

Day 7 Saturday St Kitts, British West Indies Leeward Islands

I wanted to do more diving, but Royal Caribbean does not offer a dive excursion on ST Kitts. I think this is because there is no decompression chamber on the island. A couple of days ago, I had talked with another diver in ST Thomas who recommended Kenneth Divers. The dive shop turned out to be a 5 minute walk from the pier. We got there soon after docking and found that Kenneth doesn't work on Saturdays for religious reasons. But he did set me up with Pro Divers: www.prodiversstkitts.com/ which is run by Auston and Margot Macleod. I arranged a dive with them for 12:15 PM. Since it was only about 9AM we spent the intervening time shopping.

I met Margot Macleod at the pier. She walked me to the dive boat which took us to their shop. I paid for my 2 dives ($111) and waited while a number of other divers showed up for the dives. We went out with over 15 people including 2 other dive masters, several locals, and several guests staying on island hotels.

Our 1st dive was on Dewars Reef which is about 20 minutes from the dive shop. The 2nd dive was on cable Reef which is about 10 minutes from Dewars Reef. The 1st dive took us as deep as 98 feet; the 2nd to about 58 feet. Visibility was a bit off that day according to Auston; easily 30-40 feet but not the crystal clear we all love. We saw several rays, a puffer, a turtle, at least 2 lobsters, a brown spotted moray, garden eels, and a small octopus. There was, of course, lots of pretty soft and hard coral. Great dives!

I found Pro Divers to be a friendly professional shop. They had great concern for safety and getting cruise ship people back to their ship in a timely fashion. According to Margot the shop is approved by RC for snorkel tours. But since the island has no decompression chamber none of the dive shops can be approved for diving. However, Auston did mention that there was a chamber on a nearby island. Another thing I liked about Pro Divers is that they have a dive computer as part of their gear. Though I have been a diver for 35 years, I only manage a couple of dives a years since my children (and grandchildren) were born. As a result I have no experience with dive computers and normally rely on the dive master's computer. So it was a treat for me to get a few minutes of instruction and be able to rely on my own dive computer for the 1st time.

I want to add general comments about cruise ships and scuba diving. If a dive excursion doesn't reach a break-even number of divers the dive is often cancelled. This didn't happen to me with RC but it has happened to me 3 times with NCL. Because of this tendency to cancel (usually at the last minute), because cruise excursions tend to be a little more expensive, and because the cruise ships don't usually offer dive excursions at all ports, a number of divers I have talked to have decided to book on the internet directly with a dive shop. Booking on the net has its drawbacks too, and the more that book on the net, the greater the chance the cruise ship dive excursion won't reach break-even. It is a dilemma that I don't have a perfect answer for. In the future I will continue to book dives through the ship because they guarantee waiting for you if you have a problem. They also check out their excursion vendors carefully. But I will also research a list of possible other dive shop options just in case.

I think I got back to the ship a bit after 4PM. My wife was done with shopping so we prepared for the evening. The show was an Elton John Tribute. I am not a big fan of Elton john, so I would have gladly skipped the show, but my wife wanted us both there. It turned out to be one of the better shows of the week. Like him or not, Elton John has a lot of good songs . I do not know the name of performer who did the tribute show but he was very good and very funny.

Day 8 Sunday Antigua West Indies Leeward Islands

I promised my wife I would not dive in Antigua. So we walked to the taxi/tourist stand near the pier and the stand attendant found us a tour guide for a 2-3 hour tour. Our tour guide was named Merchant. The fee for the tour is $25 per person paid to the guide (Merchant ) at the end o f the tour. We learned at lot about the island and make a number of stops that included Nelson Harbor, a small beach, and a craft stand. We stopped at an historic site which required a $7 entrance fee. Merchant told us the site would take about 45 minutes to tour. 4 people of our group of 6 could not walk very well, so we elected to skip the site. It was a nice tour. When we got back we shopped a little and then went back to the ship. One of the things that bugged my wife and I about the shops here and most stops is that almost none of the goods are made by the sellers. They are just selling clothes, jewelry, crafts, & souvenirs that are probably made in India, China, or the U.S. So, one can get pretty bored seeing the same goods in stand after stand after stand. There are probably a number of local craftsman, but we only found a couple during the entire trip.

Labadee and Samana were the only 2 ports where we did not see another ship in port. Otherwise we shared dock space with the Azamara and Celebrity Cruise lines.

Day 9 Monday St Maarten Leeward Islands

I had 2 dives booked with RC on this island. We met on the pier in front of the ship at 8:15. My wife took an island tour which met at the same time and place. My dive cost was $137. Hers was $56 I think.

The Scuba Fun dive shop is about a 5 minute walk from the pier. Andy, our dive master, set us up with our gear. Our 1st dive site was Cable Reef and the 2nd site was Shark Hotel. Our 1st dive took us to 68 feet and the 2nd to 55 feet. We saw puffer, octopus, lobster, and barracuda. I saw almost no sea urchins. On the 1st dive I also saw the 1st shark I have seen diving since the 1970's when I dived in Subic Bay, Philippines. Our 2nd dive took us to the spot where they do shark feedings in the afternoon. Our dive was not a shark feeding dive, we just went to the spot where they do the feedings.

The feedings occur in a sandy spot marked with a bait box and a semi-circle of concrete blocks. Andy motioned the dive group to the blocks while he reached inside the box. There was no food in the bait box, but the action of opening it drew several 6 foot reef sharks who circled us for several minutes. This may sound foolhardy or frightening, but it was not. Reef sharks are not a particularly aggressive species and sharks only attack divers in Hollywood. So everyone in our group enjoyed the view of sharks swimming nearby. We had a cameraman with us who got pictures of the sharks in close proximity to us. It was my last dive on the cruise and it was very cool!

After the dive I met up with my wife for more ---- shopping. We did this in the area near the ship. We talked about taking a water Taxi to Philipsburg to shop, but my wife's tour had taken her there. She said the town looked like it consists of one jewelry store after another. We were a bit tired of jewelry stores by this point in the cruise so we elected not to go.

Our entertainment that night was 2 juggling comedians who excelled in both categories. Funny show! The ship also had a pool side Mexican Buffet in the 10-12PM range. There were 2 pool side buffets during our cruise, but neither one included beverages. So you had to visit the bar, go without, or shuffle off to deck 5 to get your own. I think they should have had water, ice tea, and lemonade.

Days 10 and 11 Tuesday and Wednesday At Sea.

On day 10 you can still enjoy the pool. We packed a bit over these 2 days. They had a comedian one night and a Motown show the other. Both were ok. Neither was memorable. On day 11 we camped out at a bar on deck 5, The Promenade, and enjoyed a lunch buffet. There was a parade just before dinner in the same location. You need to have your luggage in the hallway by midnight. In the early evening they give you any liquor you bought on the islands.

Day 12 Friday Bayonne, New Jersey

We had too much luggage so we could not manage express departure. We also did not want our daughter to have to get up crazy early, so we stuck with our 9:15-9:30 departure. We spent most of the time in the Windjammer which closes at 9AM. It is busy, but like departure day, you can find a seat. At 9:15 we headed for Studio B. They ran about 20-30 minutes behind, but it was a smooth event. You board a bus for the minute ride to the terminal. There are luggage attendants, so use one if you have a lot of luggage. Your bags are grouped by numbers which are clearly marked on your bag tags and on sign posts in the terminal. Customs took about 10 seconds. After that it is just a matter of looking for your ride to pull in and load up the luggage. I think RC runs departures and arrivals very well.

We had a really nice cruise. I would definitely cruise Royal Caribbean again. Less

Published 12/22/10

Cabin review: PR8289 Promenade Stateroom

Cabin 8289 Promenade Room. The Promenade (a kind of interior mall) is on deck 5. Decks 6,7, & 8 have rooms with a picture window overlooking the Promenade. Noise is not an issue on Deck 8. People & event watching is fun. The room is spacious for 2. Lots of storage. The king size bed is comfy. The bath is fine too. Never ran out of hot water. I miss an ocean view but this is much nicer then an interior room with no view of anything.

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