Universe Explorer by Don McKenzie Alaska July 23, 2002
This review covers over round trip from Vancouver to Alaska in July, 2002. The Universe Explorer was built in 1957 and showed signs of its age. We found the ship clean, friendly and crowded. Its passenger space ratio is one of the poorest at around 30. In contrast, Princess, Holland America and other ships average around 40.
The cabins are somewhat small and are normally used as student dormitory rooms for the Semester at Sea program. The rooms vary in size from around 100 sq. ft. to over 200. Ours had a 16 inch porthole. The room keys are normal metal keys which can be easily duplicated. You must remember to lock the door each time you leave. There are no room safes however there are free safe deposit boxes at the purser's desk. The lack of a room safe is a definite inconvenience and forces you to trust your cameras, etc. to those who have access to your room. There was a fairly high level of white noise in our room but little other noise from neighbors or the bathroom. During the day there was loud pounding and scraping somewhere outside our cabin, but it always stopped in the evening. The beds are about 32 x 78 inches, and can, with difficulty, be pushed together against the wall so that it was difficult for one person to get out. The ship did not provide us with double or queen size blankets so we had to cope with The cabin TV was a small 1985 Panasonic model with no inputs for video cameras, but with a good picture. There were only three channels: a documentary channel which only broadcast about 25% of the time, a movie channel which showed movies about half the time, and the third channel was the so-called Instant! News channel with text of news which was often 1 to 2 or more days old. A large amount of Instant! News was devoted to sports. Most all the on-board lectures were broadcast live on the cabin TV's. Other ships' TV systems normally have CNN, a bridge camera, a location and weather display, and some local channels when in port.
Bathroom: in our bathroom everything worked perfectly. There was a real non-vacuum flush toilet, and the water pressure and temperature consistency were excellent. Others however reported problems with the water temperature. There was adequate storage space in the bathroom. The bathroom had four regular 110 volt outlets in addition to four in the room. This is more useable outlets than I recall on any other ship.
The hallways: The hallways are wide, never have service carts blocking them and are used to listen to the few ship announcements as they can't be heard in the rooms. As a consequence, they are great places to socialize.
Some of the lifeboats provided an amusing sign of the ship's age: they are hand propelled. If they were used, passengers in the lifeboats would be required to pull long bars which are connected to the propeller shaft which propels the boat.
Dress code: There was virtually no dress code. On the captain's welcome night at least a third of the men wore ties and then never again. Jeans are the order of the day on the Explorer. Eating facilities. At times the upstairs cafe did not have enough seats for those wishing to eat there so we had to go to another area and ate with the trays in our laps. The food was average to excellent. The appetizers and salads were excellent as was the dining room service. There was no room service. There was no alternative dining except on special occasions so that if you missed the ten minute dinner leeway you had to wait for the late night buffet. As a consequence people were very prompt.
Public rooms: The center of the ship is the main lounge in which all the featured events are held. It does not have enough seats for the passengers so often there was standing room only. It is somewhat of a theater in the round with the band area taking up about one quarter of the seats. It was frequently packed to capacity with no seats available.
It is not a champagne ship; there was no free champagne at any of the parties, but there was wine and some hard liquor drinks available.
There are no art auctions and there is a great library in place of the casino. (If you are ever tempted by an art auction, be sure to look up the piece on the internet before bidding.) The ship has the usual daily activities announcement sheet (The Daily Explorer) which was distributed to each cabin. It was informative however it could not list a city name without an exclamation mark following the name.
The ship has recently started an enhanced learning program. Passengers pay about $20 an hour for small (not to exceed 15) discussion groups. This idea has potential but for the two classes my wife and I signed up for, much of the material was repeated in the public lectures. I would probably not recommend these extra classes. My astronomy class presented some good basic content, but I was surprised that the instructor wrote and spoke positively of modern day astrology. The public lectures are quite good, but are often so crowded that we went back to our cabin to listen to them on the television.
The bicycles on board are a fun diversion. You rent them and can ride them in groups in all the ports. They are somewhat pricey though at $41 for a half day and $75 for a full day. There are no self service washing machines, but they do offer to wash and fold a small bag of laundry for $6.
Ironically, the ship offers about the cheapest way to see Alaska as well as among the most expensive. The smallest cabins sell for well under $100 per night while the larger cabins often sell for in excess of $200 per night which is more expensive than what you have to pay to sail on the Crystal Harmony to Alaska (Crystal prices were advertised for as low as $1899 for 12 days or $158 per day).
Would we sail on the Explorer again? Probably not mainly because of the price. We would not want to stay in one of the 100 sq. ft. cabins, and the larger cabins are more expensive than those on most other ships. The Universe Explorer will not be used for Alaska in 2003.