This was a first cruise for me and for my 2 sons, ages 13 & 15. We went with my mother, who has cruised before, but not for a very long time. So I got to see the cruise experience from the vantage point of 3 different generations. As many reviewers before me have said, Explorer is a very beautiful ship. It is also unbelievably huge, and when our bus from the airport got its first glimpse of Explorer & Navigator docked end-to-end at the pier, everyone gasped!
I will try to write the rest of this review by topic, to make it simpler.
CABINS: We were originally booked into 2278 and 2280. Somehow (possibly because I was having a birthday during the cruise) we got an upgrade, and ended up in 8582 and 8584. That was mostly a good thing, but it also created some problems. #1, our suitcases were delivered to the original rooms, because that was what our luggage tags said, so our stateroom attendant had to track them down. #2, the flowers that my wonderful husband arranged to have delivered on my birthday never arrived (and of course I didn't know to be expecting them....) But our cabins, tho small, had cozy little balconies with 2 chairs and a table. Before the cruise, I would have said who cares about the room or a balcony -- I'm only going to sleep there. But actually it was very pleasant to have a private place to sit and watch the waves, or have a cup of coffee. It was also a very convenient place to hang up the handful of clothing items that I washed out in the sink!
FOOD: I had read some reviews that had led me to believe that the food would be only average, but it was outstanding! We were at the 6pm dinner seating in the Magellan dining room, and the menu, tho not extensive, was creative and different every night. Our waiter Gabriel, and assistant waiter Eliseo, were friendly and attentive, and knew our names and preferences after the first evening. We did not try the "Portofino" restaurant, as we saw nothing on the menu that seemed to justify the $20 per person upcharge. "Johnny Rockets" may have been terrific, but one encounter with the 40-minute wait to get a table or even to get take-out items, and I didn't care to find out. It was possible to eat 3 meals a day in the dining room, but we fell into a pattern of eating breakfast and lunch (when onboard) at the "Windjammer"/"Island Grill" buffet. The quality there was more uneven. The breakfast eggs and potatoes were randomly either pretty good or horribly soggy. But there were all manner of muffins, croissants, bagels, and pastries. At lunch, salad fixings were plentiful, as well as a daily-changing array of hot items. And, because of the many reviewers who warned that the coffee was dreadful, I have to say that (au contraire) the coffee was excellent -- in the dining room and at the "Windjammer". The dessert selections were seemingly endless, and they were all first-rate!
ACTIVITIES: My kids found the "Adventure Ocean" program before I did, and were hardly ever seen (by me) again! The 13-year-old was in the 12-to-14 group, and the 15-year-old was in the 15-to-17 group, so they enjoyed the chance to have fun with separate crowds of kids. I swear that 80% of the passengers this week were from the Chicago area, and to my stunned amazement, my older boy managed to find a crowd of kids who all live within about 15 miles of us! One cautionary note, particularly with older teens: despite a supposed midnight curfew for kids, there were significant crowds of teenagers running around the ship at all hours of the night, long after the "Adventure Ocean" activities were over. Some of these rather-enterprising teens discovered that age limits on purchasing liquor were either non-existent or not enforced in our ports of call, so were able to buy small (read "easily concealed") bottles of alcohol for, let us say, recreational use. Also, in Ocho Rios, many of the kids were solicited by locals trying to sell them marijuana. So the opportunities for teens to get drunk or high did exist (thru no fault of RCI). It's a good idea to keep track of who your teens are hanging out with onboard, just as you would at home.
I cannot begin to describe all the activities available for adults! The ship's features -- e.g., the pools, the spa, the casino, etc. -- can be read about on RCI's website, but nothing compares with firsthand experience. The Royal Caribbean Singers & Dancers are a very talented group, though the shows themselves were of variable quality. Still, I would strongly recommend going to these. The ice show is outstanding, and it really is unbelievable that they can skate with such precision on a moving ship! James Andrews, our cruise director, seemed to be everywhere at once, and did a great job! I had some sort of therapeutic seaweed wrap & massage in the spa -- it was insanely expensive ($194 for 90 minutes!) but it really did feel wonderful, and rid me of years of pent-up tension in my neck and shoulder muscles. The karaoke was delightful, and all very good-natured. Basically, everything that we attended was worth the time spent. And the 3 generations all had different things to do. On each cruise, they create a video with cruise highlights, and it is available for sale at the end. At the variety show on Friday night, James showed us the week's video. I didn't buy it (I had taken plenty of my own photos), but we did get a kick out of seeing me and my younger son in the backgrounds of some of the activities. James also ran thru a list of his 10 favorite questions that passengers have asked the Guest Relations staff: these included "Do these stairs go up, or down?" "Is the water in the toilet fresh water or sea water?" and "Can I pay off my seapass account with my seapass card?"
PORTS OF CALL: These were a mixed bag. We could not stop at Labadee because of the Haitian unrest, so substituted a stop in Nassau. We meandered around the streets near the pier, and the "straw market", but found the local merchants unpleasantly aggressive. On several occasions, vendors actually took hold of me or one of my children and pulled us in the direction of their particular stall. One elderly vendor told my 15-year-old, "Spend a dollar on an old woman -- don't be so selfish!" The kids were not in any way harmed physically, but they were quite shocked by the guilt-tripping and high-pressure sales tactics. They also didn't have a clue about haggling (we don't do that at our local mall!), so I had to drag them off for a crash course in how to barter! In Ocho Rios, we did a wonderful and fun river-tubing trip, but my kids waved at some local schoolchildren as we went by in our tour van, and were "flicked off" in response. I did try to give my kids a quick education in the economic and political issues that affect how cruise passengers are perceived by the locals, but the bottom line is that it lent an unpleasant atmosphere to an otherwise enjoyable vacation. Grand Cayman was a delightful stop, though. We did the glass-bottomed boat excursion, and then the snorkeling with the stingrays. Both were completely awesome! The water is so clear and so blue that you can see easily down to the bottom even in relatively deep water. To folks who are used to Lake Michigan, this was unbelievable! In between excursions, we had lunch at "Breezes", a little restaurant that is no more than a block from the pier, upstairs from a liquor and souvenir store called "Big Black Dick". (Hey, he was a pirate, and I didn't choose the name!) Cozumel was the stop we had planned as our big shopping day. My mother had purchased the "VIP passport" coupon book that is sold at the port talks onboard the ship, so we tramped from store to store collecting our freebies. Frankly, unless you really are planning to do major jewelry shopping, I don't think those books are worth the $20 -- the stuff you get free is all "dreck", and a coupon for 20% off is only meaningful if you actually buy something.... My mom bought earrings of "Caribbean topaz" -- this is a very pretty gemstone created (in 3 color schemes -- "morning", "afternoon", and "evening") by heating the gem to bring out multiple colors in one stone. However, "caveat emptor" has never been more applicable! The merchants have some real garbage (along with the good stuff), and will not hesitate to lie to you about the nature and quality of what they're selling! After all, what are you going to do when you realize you've been had -- fly back to Mexico to complain?! My mom (whose vision is not what it used to be) bought me a ruby ring at Diamond International (one of the stores recommended by RCI), and the ruby turned out to have a scratch on it, and a very unsightly inclusion within the stone (both visible to the naked eye, if your naked eye happens to have normal acuity). You could not possibly encounter such a stone at a reputable jeweler in the U.S. In retrospect, I wish we had booked some sort of excursion in Cozumel. We had an excellent lunch at "La Mission", complete with mariachi band. When we were shopped out, we made the obligatory tourist pilgrimage to "Carlos 'n' Charlie's". My older boy promptly disappeared into the mob of young folks out on the dance floor, and the next time I saw him, he had TWO young ladies hanging on him and dancing with him! If you like loud danceable music, dance floors crowded with nubile young bodies, and shots of "Sex on the Beach" (a drink), this is the place to be. My mother gritted her teeth for our sakes, and managed to stay there nearly an hour before hitting her limit. I'd say it's fun if you are under 30, like to dance, and like to drink. Slightly tamer fun is nearby at "Senor Frog's", of which there is also one in Nassau.
CREW: I don't think I've ever met a nicer group of people in my life than the crew and staff of this ship. Everyone from the waiter to the stateroom attendant to the ship's doctor (my mom came close to breaking her toe) to the captain was friendly, helpful, and genuinely interested in the wellbeing of the passengers. According to the captain, who spoke briefly at the Captain's Reception, the crew number 1207, and represent 66 different countries all working together in harmony. The waiters in the dining room not only waited table, but also sang songs for us in between dinner & dessert, in accordance with whatever the theme was for each night. My mother and I both chatted with some crew members, and learned that they sign on for contracts of varying lengths (months at a stretch), and work continuously for the length of their contract, getting some time off during each day, but no actual days off during their stint. Since Explorer runs 7-day cruises back-to-back, this meant that these folks had not had an entire day off in months! It's a wonder that they're even civil, let alone pleasant! The vast majority of the crew seemed to genuinely love working there.
MISCELLANEOUS ADVICE: (1) The weather in port was uniformly warm (80-ish), but the ship was very air-conditioned. Bring a light jacket for evening, and some long pants and shirts with long sleeves, in addition to the shorts and t-shirts. (2) Bring binoculars! Not only are they useful for the usual purposes, but they also would have been handy for trying to spot my kids (or anyone else) at poolside when I was looking down from deck 12! (3) If you are traveling with kids of any age, keep them right with you on all shore excursions! My mom encountered one woman as we were leaving Cozumel who was anguishing over whether her teenaged grandson had made it back to the ship -- she had last seen him at "Carlos 'n' Charlie's", and he had not met up with her yet onboard. (I don't know how that story ended....)
In summation, I would recommend a cruise vacation on the Explorer to absolutely anyone, regardless of age, physical condition, or activity preferences. There is truly something for everybody!