The timing of this cruise gave us the opportunity to witness some extraordinary moon rises over the sea --- with a red gold shimmer on the water, which erupted into a perfect full golden Harvest Moon. Our tiny grandsons were mesmerized by it. We were revisiting the Explorer of the Seas on a family reunion. We had sailed on her in October 2000, her Maiden Voyage to the Caribbean. The five Royal Caribbean International (RCI) Voyager Class ships are a destination in themselves, boasting of four deck tall Royal Promenades, which can be a meeting place, shopping mall, the scene of parades, or even the site of the Captain's Welcome Aboard Party.
RCI Voyager Class ships, the Voyager, the Explorer, the Adventure, the Navigator and the Mariner are the BEHEMOTHS of the Seas. They have lengths of 1,020 feet; beams of 157.5 feet; drafts of 29 feet at 138,000 gross tons. Their passenger capacity is 3,114 and carry a crew of 1,200. This voyage, Captain Ole` Johan Gronhaug stated that there were a total of 4,600 souls on board. This is a floating small town!
On board with us this cruise were two of our sons, Nicolas and Marcello and their wives Laura and Paige respectively and our two grandsons, Nicky and Marcello. Also on board was Mary's sister Elizabeth with her husband Vito and their daughter Rhonda, son-in-law Richie, two grandchildren Michael and Mallory and friend Jamie. The ages represented in our group were from eighteen months to sixty-eight years old. We had babies, teenagers, thirty something, forty and fifty and sixty year olds.
We feel this class of ship best accommodates all ages and we are right: ice skating, in-line skating, golf, basketball, gyms, extravaganza shows, night clubs and more! Since, we have reviewed the Explorer before, here we want to concentrate on the logistics of traveling with family groups.
EMBARKATION Since there are eight of us in the family, we arranged for a limousine to Miami as did Elizabeth with her family. The grandsons require car seats and the limo service was kind enough to store their seats until the next Saturday pick up at the Port of Miami. The one hour ride from Boca Raton to the port was fun for all --- we checked our luggage curb side and proceeded to the Crown & Anchor Society Express Check-in. We were quickly expedited and on our way to the ship with only fifteen minutes "Curb to Cabin." Our cabins were 7600, 7606, and 7608. The proximity to each other was handy during the cruise. We booked this cruise early in order to select these cabins. At the same time, Vincent arranged for a large table for nine at Main Seating (6:00pm) and a table for six at Second Seating (8:30pm). We ate early with Elizabeth's family and returned to our cabin, so we could baby-sit while our sons and their wives could dine elegantly. Elizabeth's family rotated dining at second seating, thus allowing for family gabfests. All cruisers know that the evening meal in the beautiful three tiered dining room is something not to be missed. We checked on the dining arrangements as soon as we boarded. There are two nice alcoves on each side of the entrances to the dining room which, we now feel, should be reserved for large families or groups traveling together. It would enhance the family time on board.
CABIN Our Stateroom 7600 is wheelchair accessible, something Vincent has needed since his double back surgeries have left him partially incapacitated. This cabin has a double wide door and when entering on the left, there is a huge bathroom with safety rails all around and a handy mirrored medicine chest angled in the corner. The shower is 4x4 ft. with both high and low shower heads. Continuing in the room, on the left are a hide-a-bed sofa, an upholstered arm chair and a glass coffee table, which we slid under the desk whenever our grandsons were in the cabin. There are also a T.V., a mini refrigerator, a personal safe and a desk/mirrored vanity. Entering on the right is a long, handy shelf with a mirrored wall, a triple armoire, and a closet with shelves. There is a king size bed with two night stands and reading lamps strategically placed.
The far wall is floor to ceiling windows with a door to the verandah which had two chairs and a small table. In addition, the wonderful cabin steward Roxanne brought a chaise lounge for Vincent, who spends a lot of time on the balcony. This is something that Holland America on our last cruise on the Zuiderdam refused to do. We felt it was unfortunate, especially since the wheelchair accessible cabins have oversized balconies and their occupants would most likely enjoy the added comfort. Roxanne is one of the most competent and pleasant stewards we have ever had. She anticipated our wants. Thanks Roxanne!
The color scheme in this cabin was reminiscent of the Vision of the Seas, a combination of pale blue, dark blue and and lavender with an abundance of light oak wood. It was very restful and comfortable.
THE SHIP Of course, this ship was brand new, when we were last on her, and after two years of carrying almost one half million people, she has been kept sparkling clean and still looks incredibly new. Captain Gronhaug should be proud of the Explorer which is run like a five star hotel.
Deck 2 has Category I Outside Cabins, the Entertainment Complex, the Conference Center, and the main floor of the Palace Theatre, which is simple in decor, but functional with excellent acoustics.
Deck 3 has Category H Outside Cabins and features Studio B, a hi-tech sound stage/skating rink and the Chamber, a nightclub with gargoyles stain glass windows and Knights of the Round Table atmosphere. Aft is the Magellan Dining Room.
Decks 4 & 5 are all public areas. Forward on four is the balcony of the Palace Theatre; next to it is the Schooner Bar and mid ship is the Casino Royale with its Las Vegas decor (two larger-than-life fiberglass statues of show girl at the entrance). Toward aft is the gorgeous Aquarium Bar flanked by educational exhibits and walls of aquariums. All the way aft is the Da Gama Dining Room.
Deck five is the most interesting deck afloat. Forward is the Observation Deck, which allows passengers to go all the way to the prow of the ship. This can be the most exhilarating place to feel the wind and the ocean air, while getting the best unobstructed view of the ocean. Access to this area is one of the best kept secrets: go through the side door of the Maharajah Lounge near the Connoisseur Club (Cigar club).
These ships of the Voyager class have double centrums, one at each end of the Royal Promenade, with banks of elevators in each. In between the centrums is the most wonderful indoor promenade, with stores, cafes, bars, pizza, desserts and sandwich areas, coffee/tea and water stations, an ice cream Bar (with sprinkles and jimnies), jewelry and perfume shops. All the way aft is the Columbus Dining Room, the top tier of the triple deck restaurant.
Decks 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10 are all cabins.
Deck 11 forward has the Bridge, and the Ship Shape Spa & Fitness Center. There is the Solarium, strictly for adults only, with a swimming pool and two whirlpools. This area is decorated with many majolica pitchers and vases and life-size bronze sculptures of matadors bulls and horses. Midship is the main pool area with two swimming pools and four whirlpools. Aft is the Portofino upscale restaurant ($20 per person), and then there is the most popular place on the ship: the Windjammer Buffet. Most Americans can't resist a buffet.
Deck 12 has some unique areas: a jogging track, the Club Ocean Arcade, the Kiddie Pool and the Children's play area, and then the popular Johnny Rockets (a 50's retro diner with juke boxes, red naugahyde and stainless steel everywhere) which offers both inside booths and outside tables. This was our grandsons' favorite dining place --- French Fries, Onion Rings, Floats and Apple pie, also great hamburgers and hot dogs!
Deck 13 has the Rock Climbing Wall, Basketball and Volleyball Courts, the in-line track and the mini golf course "The Dunes."
Deck 14 has the Viking Crown Lounge, an area surrounded by lounges: Dizzy's jazz music bar and the 19th Hole Sports Bar where Elizabeth and Vito cheered this year's playoff team, the Boston Red Sox, until they went down in a heartbreaking loss in game seven to their old nemesis, the New York Yankees!
Deck 15 has the Skylight Chapel which can accommodate 60 guests, an ideal place for weddings at sea. FOOD The first impression is that the food is plentiful and the portion sizes are huge. The menu is varied and as Vito said the steaks were always as ordered ---- No errors here: medium rare was truly medium rare, an accomplishment in itself. Executive Chef Leigh Hesling serves 19,000 meals per day. That's incredible --- From the freshly baked cookies (oatmeal raisin, macadamia nut, chocolate chip, etc.) to the beautiful dessert stations and crisp salad bar in the Windjammer, to the Dining Room's great assortment of entrees, everything was truly appetizing!
As usual, the best dining on board is at the Captain's table. Captain Gronhaug proved to be a most cordial and informative host. The menu included Citrus cured salmon with dill cucumbers, Wild mushrooms in flaky puff pastry, French onion or Roasted peach soup, House salad of escarole and vine ripened tomatoes, Surf & Turf (lobster tails and filet mignon), Seafood Brochette (skewered scallops, shrimp and lobster) and Asian Pork tenderloin Wellington. Dessert was the ultimate enticement: an edible bowl of caramelized sugar and almonds filled with wild berries and vanilla ice cream. All served under the guidance of Maitre d' Harry Simons. This was a night to remember: Great food; Great Company. Thank you, Captain Ole` Johan!
SERVICE Hotel Director Sue Richardson has everything under control and service is snappy, pleasant and prompt. We had breakfast in our stateroom every morning and it was always on time and hot: omelets, bacon, toast, croissants, juice and coffee. Every "Thank you," was answered by the staff with "My pleasure." and a smile.
The dining room staff is sharp and efficient. Order ice tea or lemonade the first time and every day, thereafter it is there automatically. Our Waiter Fritz was superb and Asst. waiter Rufo was very observant and helpful.
Royal Caribbean's Crown & Anchor Society is the best organization afloat for repeat cruisers. Concierge Roberto Pita offered personal assistance in the Concierge's Lounge which is filled with amenities --- Breakfast buffet, cocktail hour, tender passes and ice show tickets. Danney League, the Loyalty Ambassador remembered us from the Grandeur Transatlantic crossing in May '03, and treated us like family. Martin Jackson, Chief Purser was very cordial and helpful. There is not a crew more friendly or available to passengers than RCI Crews. It is the reason why we have sailed more often on RCI than any other line!
ENTERTAINMENT This ship has more than the usual venues. The Skating Rink provides the setting for "Planet Ice," a must see spectacular. The mainly Russian performers were excellent. However, Elizabeth felt that the involvement of the audience in judging the individual performances was a bit demeaning to the skaters. Outstanding in this show were two ice skating pairs of Olympic quality, one from Russia and the other Canadian, and the breathtaking Steel Ring act of Olga & Alexi. Only the "Majestic" duo in the Palace Theatre was as exciting. These acrobatic dancers did a routine using silk cloths to suspend themselves out over the audience. You had to be there to believe it.
Of course, the Royal Promenade figures prominently in many of the celebrations aboard with parades featuring performers up close and personal throughout the week. It is the center of activities. Throughout the ship there is always something going on, such as Bingo, Casino Tournaments, Fitness Training, Sports Games, Trivia Sessions, etc.... We did not participate in many of them, but our family members did. Baby-sitting can take up time. However, we loved it and hope to do another family cruise soon.
PORTS OF CALL We did not go ashore in any of these ports, since we have seen them many times, but members of our group did. They participated in several shore excursions and activities.
* Day 1. Miami -- Departure 6:00pm * Day 2. At Sea * Day 3. Labadee, Haiti -- Arrival 8:00am Departure 4:00pm -- Here Vito and Mallory went parasailing, as we watched them soaring into the beautiful sky from our verandah. We knew then that they were having an exhilarating time and they did. Elizabeth and Michael rode the banana boat where some of the riders fell off, including Elizabeth. But it was fun. Most of the group participated at the barbecue on the beach which they thoroughly enjoyed: Broiled Ribs, Burgers, Hot dogs, etc., along with games and great fun at the beach. * Day 4. Ocho Rios, Jamaica -- Arrival 9:00am Departure 5:00pm -- Elizabeth and her family visited the Enchanted Gardens and climbed the spectacular Dunn's River Fall; Paige went horse back riding along the beach; Nicolas went shopping for the delicious Blue Mountain coffee. * Day 5. Georgetown, Grand Cayman -- Arrival 8:00am Departure 5:00pm -- Here many in our group took the Stingray City Swim and Snorkel Excursion. They enjoyed feeding and petting the friendly stingrays. * Day 6. Cozumel, Mexico -- Arrival 10:00am Departure 7:00pm (Scheduled); however, the ship departed four hours late (unexplained reasons). Here Laura had a beautiful experience Scuba Diving in one of the world's most spectacular sites, diving in underwater grottos and admiring amazing coral formations. Naturally, everybody went shopping for bargains.
SUGGESTIONS Elizabeth complained about the long lines at the buffet in the Windjammer, especially the first day at lunch, after embarkation, and on port days at breakfast between 8:00 and 9:00 o'clock. Our suggestion is cruisers should anticipate the lines of people at critical times and plan accordingly. We rarely encounter any lines on this or other cruises, since on the first day, if possible, we take an early lunch and on port days, we usually order our breakfast in the stateroom or go to the dining room where there is very little waiting.
Our daughters-in-law, Paige and Laura suggested that a ship's area or playroom should be dedicated to children under 3 supervised by their parents. It seems that older children have places and programs dedicated to them, but nothing is available for younger babies. We have noticed that more and more families cruise with babies, so it is appropriate to dedicate some facilities to them.
CONCLUSION We had a great cruise, even though on this trip we did not take any shore excursion or participate in many on board activities. We did see the "Planet Ice" show and strolled a few times in the Royal Promenade, but overall we had relaxation and enjoyed our family, especially the grand children. Of course we are going to cruise again on the Explorer or any other RCI ships, especially the new ones. We love new ships and the feeling of discovering them. We have already booked a cruise on the Serenade in December and another on the Mariner in February, while in between we'll be cruising on the new Costa Mediterranea. Happy Cruising!