My wife Ginny and I took our first cruise on Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class ship, Explorer of the Seas, from Miami to the Western Caribbean. This large (138,000 gross tons) ship provided us several new cruising experiences, highlighted by the Royal Promenade and the ice skating rink. Everything was bigger and grander than most ships because of the extra space. But the extra space and passengers did not make things crowded. In fact, it was just the opposite, from embarkation to disembarkation.
We arrived at the Port of Miami by car, having driven south from Melbourne. Sunday traffic on I-95 is tolerable. We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and were on the ship shortly after noon. We did notice people still disembarking as we went to check in. Rooms are generally not available until 1 p.m. but buffet lunch is available in the Windjammer Cafe, so the timing works out.
HINT: Use the on-line check in. In this case it really seemed to work, with special lines and signs to expedite boarding.
Disembarkation was even easier. We elected to use the "express roll off" option in order to meet other travel commitments. The "express roll off" was advertised to start at approximately 6:45 a.m. It started at 6:40 a.m. and we were in our car and headed out of the parking garage before 7 a.m.
HINT: Position yourself to use the "express roll off option" if you want to get off the ship early. That means being able to transport your own bags safely.
The Ship Explorer of the Seas in the Voyager Class is definitely in a special category and needs to be experienced. We are already booked for our next Voyager class cruise. I'll describe it deck by deck.
Deck 5, the Royal Promenade, extends the length of the ship from the dining room aft to the spiral staircase in front of the Palace Theater at the bow, about 600 feet. We debated whether the Royal Promenade reminded us of a street in Venice (my choice) or Rome(Ginny's choice). It turns out the promenade is modeled after a street in Milan, Italy. The wide promenade includes the Cafe Promenade (no-extra-charge food and coffee), the Crown and Kettle English pub, the shops, the Weekend Warrior sports bar, a spiral staircase midway in the promenade directly into the casino on Deck 4, guest relations, the Connoisseur Cigar Club, the Maharajas Lounge and more.
There is a walkway over the promenade, and three floors of inside cabins with window views into the promenade. It is decorated with sculptures, artwork and models including a 1936 "Knucklehead" Harley Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar. The Royal Promenade is especially active in the evening and is a great way to get from the ship's bow to its stern, or from dinner to the theater.
Deck 3: the ice rink. The ship features a large (for a cruise ship) ice skating rink complete with professionally produced ice shows and the opportunity for passengers to ice skate and/or take skating lessons from the performers. Deck 3 also includes the main level for the three-level dining room and the photo gallery.
HINT: Tickets are required for the ice show. Get them at the first advertised opportunity in order to get your first choice. The tickets were no extra charge. The seating around the rink is somewhat limited but everyone who wanted to see the show appeared to have the opportunity.
Deck 4: the casino and lounges. The casino is the largest we have encountered on a cruise ship and had a nice selection of games. Although it was crowded at the usual times between dinner and the shows, the crowds were lighter than we experienced on other ships. The lounges are larger and grander than on smaller Royal Caribbean ships. The Explorer's Schooner Bar, for example, is larger than the Sovereign of the Seas Schooner Bar. The Aquarium Bar actually has four separate aquariums, one at each corner. Deck 4 also has two eco-learning centers, one for water and one for air, both worth a visit. The deck is surrounded by an outside promenade deck.
Top decks: the buffet and sports activities. For the physically active there are the usual top deck activities related to the swimming pools. The Explorer also has a rock climbing wall, putting green, golf simulator and basketball court . Elsewhere you can play shuffleboard, jog, walk and use the exercise room.
Food We thought the food was very good. The dining room had a nice selection that included meat, fish and pasta at every meal. There is no open seating for dinner in the main dining room. It's either early or late seating. The buffet restaurant, the Windjammer Cafe, was one of the best operated buffets we have experienced. It has four different buffet lines and staggers them to restock and clean. The food selection was very good and the crowds were not bad. Hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza were also available, and throughout the day you could get sandwiches, pastries and cookies.
HINT: The Promenade Cafe is open early on disembarkation day and a great way to get a quick bite to eat and a cup of coffee if you are leaving early.
Special notes The elevators, at each end of the ship, were very responsive and well located for getting around. There was no disembarkation talk in the theater because it was done via television and printed instructions -- a huge and very positive change. There was a virus breakout (one day flu) on the ship that was handled very efficiently with extraordinary cleaning and sanitizing. We also witnessed special crew training that was impressive.
Ports The Western Caribbean ports are nice. Both Belize City and Costa Maya have developed or are developing special shopping areas at the piers that are modern and have good shopping. The tours include nature and Mayan ruins. The Mayan ruins accessible at Costa Maya and Cozumel are worth the visit. Cozumel is still experiencing major post-hurricane problems including the total destruction of its major pier. Grand Cayman is one of our favorites because it appears to be a prosperous and busy city as would be expected of a major banking center.
We have made a few cruises to the western Caribbean and this one was extra special because of the ship. The Royal Caribbean Voyager Class ships definitely are a worthwhile cruising experience.