We had a group of 23 people sail on the Explorer of the Seas leaving Miami on January 20 and visiting Labadee, San Juan, St. Thomas (St. John) and Nassau. Our group was comprised of people from 14 to 78 years old. Business associates, family and friends comprised the group.
All of us flew to Miami the day before scheduled sailing. We always travel to the departure city a day early since we nearly missed a ship for flight delays several years ago. Most of us spent the night at a new LaQuinta Inn and Suites at the airport. This limited service hotel was great. It had a pool and a hot tub and provided a complimentary continental breakfast. Others in our group stayed in South Beach and at the Hyatt Regency Miami. We made arrangements for shuttle service from the hotel to the pier. Travel time was approximately 20 minutes from the airport hotel.
We arrived at the ship about 11:20 AM. Passengers were being boarded when we arrived. Most of our group got in line to check-in. My parents were with us and my dad required a wheel chair to get from the dock to their room. The distance was a bit too far for him to walk. When we requested a wheel chair, a Royal Caribbean (RCI) attendant took us to a separate waiting area. He took my parents cruise tickets and birth certificates and returned within five minutes with their cruise cards (room keys). In the meantime, we went to the suite check-in line (this is a separate line from the main check-in and not easy to see with the number of people in the terminal. If you are booked in a suite (CAT C or higher) be sure to ask an RCI employee where the suite check in line is. Our check-in was complete in about five minutes. Our entire group was checked in within 20 - 25 minutes. Overall, RCI handled embarkation very well.
The Explorer of the Seas is an unbelievably beautiful ship. First, you are awed by her sheer size. While she isn't really all that much longer than some of the other megaliners, she is very wide. You notice just how wide when you step onto the pool deck or look down the Royal Promenade.
The artwork on the ship (if you enjoy looking at art) is wonderful. There is a good mix of art created out of different media (paintings, sculptures, fabrics, metal, mosaics, etc.) and you are always coming across something new. I spent a couple of hours just walking around the ship and taking photos of "stuff" I liked.
I have to agree with other reviews I read. The ship never seemed that crowded even though they said the cruise was sold out. There are a lot of options and places for people to go and they never seemed to congregate in one place. Even the pool deck was comfortable and there were always plenty of deck chairs.
REALLY COOL STUFF ON BOARD
The stage drape in the Palace Theater (the prettiest I've seen on a ship)
Metal Angel sculpture aft hanging from deck 12 (I wanted to bring her home but she wouldn't fit in the overhead on the plane!)
Tiered pool deck
Glass overlook into the bridge (fun place to watch them "drive the ship")
Being able to walk to the VERY FRONT of the ship (probably my favorite thing) the way you could on the Titanic
Moving golf sculpture in the 19th hole (very strange but fun)
Paul McCartney's guitars (fore staircase, sorry but can't remember what deck)
The ice skating show
The sound in the main theater
Glass floor with artwork underneath at the Casino entrance (careful, it's pretty but easy to trip over)
Plenty of deck chairs
A promenade deck that you can walk all the way around
We were in a CAT C cabin at the rear of the ship. We've been in this type of room for the past several cruises and really like it. One word of warning however for those who have had these rooms on the Rhapsody or Vision. The balconies on the Explorer are not nearly as big back here as the Rhapsody or Vision. There is a huge space from the end of the balcony to the end of the ship so you are not really over the water like on the other ships. Of course you can see the water, but the feeling isn't the same. We'd probably pick a cabin on the side of the Explorer should we ever cruise her again.
Our cabin (7692) itself was wonderful. There was more storage space than any other cabin we've had in the past. We had empty drawers and shelves! One great thing about this cabin is that it is wider than those on the side of the ship or the Rhapsody/Vision. When the couch was pulled out for our daughter's bed, there was plenty of room to walk by her bed to get to the balcony. A very nice improvement. In additional to the pull out couch there were also two chairs and a coffee table in this part of the room. It was a great cabin!
Our past several cruises on Royal Caribbean had mediocre food. I'm happy to report that the food quality and choices on the Explorer were greatly improved. Every meal in the dining room was excellent and everyone in our group felt that way about what they ordered. The choices and the quality in the Windjammer also improved although you still have to remember that this is a buffet line.
The food at the Promenade Cafe (open 24 hours a day) was also very good. The pizza, while still not as good as Princess, was steps ahead of the cardboard pizza served on the Rhapsody and Vision. The pastries, cookies and sandwiches served here were also very good.
As I read before cruising, the food in Johnny Rockets was really good. We had late dinner seating so we went up to Johnny Rockets each afternoon (OK, not every afternoon) about 4:00 for a snack. It was never crowded at that time and we never had to wait for a seat. We also ate lunch here around 2:00 PM the day we were in Nassau and didn't have to wait. The only downside was the extremely slow service. For an area that they serve a lot of people and often have long lines, you would think they would put quicker servers in this area.
The production shows (done by the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers) in the theaters were terrific and far better than those offered on previous cruises. The sound is state-of-the-art and the voices of the four main stars of the show rivaled Broadway singers. The featured entertainers weren't the best but the talent of the production shows made up for it. The ice skating show is amazing and shouldn't be missed. Tickets were easy to get (and free). An important note, however; the ice show was only offered on two evenings on this cruise.
Lounge entertainment all over the ship was good. Nothing spectacular but consistently good.
THE ROYAL PROMENADE
The Royal Promenade area was very pretty and helped make the ship not seem so big. I always had my parents walk across the Royal Promenade to get to and from the back of the ship. It seemed much shorter than walking the long hallways of floors with cabins only. There was also plenty of space along the Promenade where dad could sit down and rest for a moment if he tired from walking.
I didn't think that there was all that much more "shopping" available on the Royal Promenade. It's just in a much bigger space than on other ships. They used this area for receptions and parades and I often felt it had somewhat of a Las Vegas feel to it. Do we really need Las Vegas at sea?
For anyone thinking about booking an inside cabin that overlooks the Royal Promenade, be aware that they do parades in this area at least four nights and some of them happen as late as 11:00 PM so it is very noisy.
CREW AND SERVICE
Dining Room We had two tables for ten in the dining room that accommodated our group. We had two different waiters (actually one was a waitress), but shared the same assistant waiter and assistant Maitre D (formerly called Head Waiters). Both of our wait staff were good but the server at our table was a bit abrupt and hurried all week long. Our assistant waiter, Sarkan, was fabulous. One night when someone said the iced tea didn't taste the same as the night before and she thought it was instant tea, he told our assistant Maitre D who went and brewed fresh tea for her. His comment was that he wanted to make her happy and if her tea didn't taste right, he wanted to fix that!
Our assistant Maitre D, Laurent, was also outstanding. He made our group feel important and nothing was ever too much trouble. We celebrated two anniversaries and a 50th birthday during the week and he took care of all the celebrations to make it a lot of fun.
Bar Service If you want good bar service on a Royal Caribbean ship, always go to the Champagne bar. You can buy wine and champagne by the bottle here and they will keep the wine for you if you do not finish the bottle. The serve hors d'ouvres and goodies here if you have a drink and they make a point to get to know your name and what you like. We've had similar service in lounges on smaller ships, but this was the only place on the Explorer that offered bar service like this.
One of the most astonishing things I've ever seen by a Bar Server occurred in the sports bar one afternoon when we sat down with a piece of pizza. She was standing at the end of the bar reading a book from the ship's library. She looked up at us when we came in (no one else was in the bar at the time) and looked back down to continue reading. After about four or five minutes, she walked to the table next to us to pick up a cup and napkins and walked back to the bar. Then she finally came to our table to ask if we wanted a drink. I was so shocked I didn't know what to say. After she brought drinks, she went right back to reading her book at the end of the bar. I guess it's getting difficult to get staff for cruise ships too!
One other note about the bars and bar service. An extremely high percentage of the ships crew could be found in ALL bars throughout the evening, to the point that some bars were filled to capacity without seats available for passengers. It's something we hadn't seen on any ship prior to this one. All bars, except the Champagne bar seemed short on servers.
Cruise Staff The Cruise Staff is made up of the Cruise Director and his staff that plans the social activities on board. If there was one major down fall on the Explorer it was Cruise Staff. There were not friendly or outgoing; when they were supposed to be greeting guests (at the Captain's Reception for example) they were talking to each other and ignoring passengers. On 50's and 60's evening, two of the cruise staff were busy fixing their hair in the theatre glass doors instead of greeting passengers. There was one cruise staff member (Erin) that never smiled (and I saw her frequently). Perhaps many of these staff members were on the ship for a while, were nearing the end of their contract and needed a vacation, but they rank at the bottom of all cruise staffs we've seen and this was my 13th cruise.
Housekeeping Our cabin attendant was terrific! Friendly, efficient and creative. Exactly what you want from your cabin attendant. All others on the housekeeping staff were friendly as well. They always greeted you as you walked down the hall, no matter what floor you were on. The Cruise staff should take a lesson or two from them.
Captain Johnny While the cruise staff was lousy, the captain was the BEST. He was out and around the ship more than any other captain we've had, talked to everyone, always joked in his broadcast messages, even danced in the disco one night!
There were plenty of activities to keep one busy on the Explorer. You're probably familiar with most of them…ice skating, rock climbing, roller blading, putt putt, great hot tubs, bingo, etc. But one thing that they didn't have were activities that got people together to meet others. Things like trivia or name that tune on previous ships were good activities that allowed you to meet fellow passengers. You won't find it on the Explorer. And in the evening, it seemed like they tried to pack too many things in … you'd get to one thing and all of a sudden it over and they are herding you to something else.
PORTS OF CALL/SHORE EXCURSIONS
We didn't do this cruise for the ports of call. We really did it for the ship. All the ports of call were fine although it was cool in Nassau and those who took the snorkeling excursion here froze in the water. Also, some people in our group did the Stingray excursion in Nassau and said it was terrible….five stingray that seemed poorly cared for in a pen with 70 people from the excursion. Sounds like if you want to do a Stingray excursion do it in Grand Cayman.
We took 20 people to St. John for the day when we docked in St. Thomas. This has become an annual event for us. We rent an open air taxi for the day, stop at Cruz Bay water sports so people can rent equipment, called a grocery store and ordered picnic lunches and spent the day at the beach! The views and beaches of St. John are marvelous and everyone had a good time here.
Labadee and San Juan were fine. Nothing exciting to report at either stop.
After a great week (other than some of the staff) we had a disappointment disembarkation. It was a MESS!!! Again, it was mostly staff attitudes that made this so unpleasant. Royal Caribbean staff were actually yelling (and I honestly mean yelling) at people for absolutely no reason. I wish I had my video camera along so I could have sent it to Royal Caribbean. Their personnel as we left the ship was so nasty (before we got to the luggage) that the entire situation could be enough to skip RCI in the future. There were times throughout the week that RCI staff should have been yelling at passengers, but this wasn't one of those!
All cruises are good and everyone in our group thoroughly enjoyed this cruise. Personally, the Explorer, as pretty as she is, is a bit too large for us and we prefer smaller ships (the Vision, Mercury or Ocean Princess are about as large as we'll normally go in the future). The bigger ships with all their activities make it harder to relax and they lack the activities that allow you to get to know other passengers and crew. I feel like I need another vacation now! We also have a serious concern about the higher percentage of poor staff. When we began cruising 11 years ago, a poor crew member was few and far between. They were very noticeable on the Explorer! Fortunately, there were also a lot of great crew members as well. One has to wonder how the cruise industry will be able to continue to staff the increasing amount of inventory that is coming on-line in the next several years. Hopefully, they'll manage.