WHO George in NY ( 51 ) and Linda ( 46 ). Cruising since honeymoon in 1984 on board NCL Skyward at 16,000 tons. Have cruised 30 plus on numerous ships including, NCL Skyward, Starward, Norway, Seaward, Dreamward (2 ), Celebrity Zenith (9), Horizon, Century (2), RCI Grandeur (2), Sovereign, Monarch, RV Viking Star, Carnival Celebration and who remembers ;) I was original Cruise Guide for The Mining Company for those that remember and also an outside agent for a cruise agency some years ago after retiring young in 1990. Definitely a cruiseaholic! Besides sailing many I have also had the pleasure of touring many of the new builds when they passed by NY piers. No doubt the Zenith is our favorite ship both for intimacy of it's size and many memories she holds for us.
AIR PACKAGE Phooey, no more, nope never again. Too much money for too little value at $380 pp what I got was early a.m. Delta express flight, you know the ones that have three blankets for one hundred and twenty passengers. That followed by a connecting tour of Atlanta on the way home! So what to do? Low and behold RCL offers " custom air " which means for yet more dinero, 75.00 bucks a head they will try again to get it right! I thought nada to myself.
A quick visit to the net and better flights, better plane, better times, direct, and best of all 300.00 cheaper! Even with the 100.00 cancellation penalty and absent ground transportation, still a good savings. Also saved us flying into FFL and being bussed into MIA as RCI planned to do. Went direct to Miami and paid for a cab, just 17.50 plus tip. airport to Miami in comfort. No more air/sea packages for this guy. Should have listened to my TA Tony who recommended this method in the first place. This will teach me that when traveling that " best way to go " can change and it pays to listen to a travel pro even when you have lot's of past experience. Things change!
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency which is located both near the pier and Bayside Market. Bayside is by the pier and has restaurants on the water, boat rides, horse carriage rides, and shops. A great pre-cruise, get in the mood happening.
We were meeting up with our friends Len and Karen from Texas later in the evening. We originally met Len and Karen as tablemates on board the Carnival Celebration in 1988 as tablemates. Through the years we have become great friends and have been in almost daily contact via email. Six years ago we again cruised together on RCI's Monarch of The Seas so this would be our third cruise together. We have also met up on land a couple of times through the years. We were really looking forward to cruising together again!
Cruise Day The hotel - Hyatt Regency Miami - Embarkation
Staying at the Hyatt as a RCI pre-stay gives you transportation to pier and express check in. The new and great deal this truly provides is in getting onboard nice and early! Almost like getting an extra cruise day! In previous years RCI had pre-check in at the hotel and then bussed us to the pier later, around one P.M. This time we were directed to check out and meet RCI staff in the lobby for direct transport to the pier at 10:30am. The bellhop advised that luggage would go directly from the hotel to the pier without any further handling by us. We met in the lobby and off we went arriving at the pier before eleven. There we were ushered into the pier facilities built new just for the Voyager class ships. This is very large and comfortable embarkation facility. We checked in and received all our sign in cards etc. right on pier and proceeded up to the ship. Something new for us is the process of having your photo taken with your sign in card. The card does not contain your photo , rather, a photo is entered into the ships database with the card information. Next the customary embarkation photo and onto the ship. Following what appears to be a new policy of many lines you no longer have to wait for 12 pm or later to board but can get on early with the proviso that your cabin is not ready as yet. So we went to our cabin and deposited our carry on's and proceeded to start wandering the ship.
CABINS One of my assigned duties once on board was to immediately check out three cabins that a friend was considering for a January cruise. Another positive of boarding early is that all the cabins are pretty much open and being made up allowing you to sneak around and check various categories out. In this case there were three cabins I had to see. An added bonus was finding the Royal Suite open as well. So for those that are considering like cabins I will include the photos here. The three cabins I had to check were 1692 and 1698 on deck ten. These are AFT balcony cabins actually facing the wake of the ship. In the case of 1688 it is a corner cabin which presents an unusual footprint and was of special interest to my buddy as he is taking his family and could use a little extra space. The 1692 also faced the wake but proved much smaller. Finally 9322 on deck 9 was a standard side view cabin.
Now believe it or not, I was so intent on photographing several cabins that I forgot to take proper shots of ours so you will have to live with a description. The cat B, 1324, that we had is located on deck 10 just where the ship bows out and had a great balcony size wise easily fitting two chairs, a chaise, and a small table. The bathroom which I really regret not photographing, featured two sinks and a bathtub and was huge compared to any bathroom previously encountered within my own cabin. Unlike most bathrooms where you can sit, shower, and brush your teeth all from one location, in this one you had to move about :) Lot's of mirror and cabinet space behind the double sinks.
Lot's of glass covering entire bed to balcony area wall. Good sized living area with couch and two chairs. You will not want for space in a cat B.
Hairdryer located in a drawer by large mirror and cosmetic table is wired in and fairly powerful, more so than any other encountered on board ship. Wall safe in cabinet and multiple lighting throughout cabin with slide dimmer switches. Caller ID phone with programmed room service etc buttons. Plenty of drawer and closet space and a mini bar under bar that contained soda and peanuts and the like, no booze. No price list but it is not complimentary I am told. We only used it as a refrig so don't know much else.
Category B and above suites come with access to the Concierge room and services which are provided by John ( from Hawaii ). John stopped by the cabin when we first arrived to leave our Concierge access key and information packet. He is a real friendly and great Concierge host, you'll love him, and just not for the booze and hors d'oeuvres either. The Concierge room is located on deck 9, between port and starboard and is actually almost hidden. A special key card allows entry to a lovely room with leather couches and chairs. An hour or so before dinner various alcohol, wine, beer, and sodas are available at a self service bar. Hot and cold munchies also provided and best of all they are all complimentary. In addition you may borrow DVD's ( cat B suites have DVD and CD players in cabin ) and CD's here. John, as Concierge, will also secure your ice show tickets ( they are free to all but required as ice area is small and limited in seating for shows) paid excursion packages, and so forth for you. Best of all though is just John's great attitude and personality. Okay the free booze is a biggie. We used the room to meet almost every evening and much to our fascination is was seldom occupied by other guests. This room also has 24 hour coffee machine and copies of Times Fax, daily compass, and so forth including dinner menu. We really did enjoy the amenity! You also get a little something delivered to the suite each afternoon such as strawberries dipped in chocolate or cookies and so forth.
THE SHIP The words that come to mind, are LARGE, BIG, Holy Cow! The Voyager class ships are by far unique to anything I have ever sailed before. Virtually a city upon itself with just about every amenity you would find anywhere. I have to admit at this point that although this was a great cruise and a wonderful experience that I would be hesitant to sail this class ship again. This because my personal preference would definitely lean toward smaller and by smaller I even mean the previously defined mega ships in the 70,000 plus range. A ship this size really eliminates the last vestige of shipboard intimacy, something I enjoy. Many of the crew even advise that despite living onboard for months that they don't even know each other in many cases. The ship is just that big! In many ways to me, more like going to Disney World than sailing a cruise ship. For that reason I am surely glad I sailed her but this is not a ship that I feel I would want to repeat again even though we missed so many of the things to do the first time. But don't get me wrong, this is a wonderful cruise and an elegant ship to say the least. Everyone should try this one once at least just for the astonishment she brings to you. This is not another ship, this is another world.
Want a old fashioned diner? You got it with Johnny Rocket's. A must do while onboard for the old burger and shake lunch. Food is included but shakes and drinks are additional but the shakes are worth the price just like I had heard from others. And do try the onion rings best I ever had. Best time to try to get a seat is when the ship is in a port and many are off on the island.
Want to climb the rock wall, play miniature golf, go ice skating or roller blading, then this is the ship for you. Plenty to do for the exercise oriented among us. Now myself, I am a cold beer and a soft seat kind of guy so I passed on much of that. Also being generally lazy I never even saw the exercise rooms and equipment. Heck I wouldn't even mosey up to take a photo in fear someone, Linda, would try to get me onto some machine. I am told, however, by Linda who frequents the gym equipment that there was an excellent selection of great machines all usually available. We did note, however, that some classes like yoga and spinning, carried additional $10 per class add on charges. This according to the daily compass. Which brings us to one of my favorite subjects nowadays.
NICKEL and DIMING I have been a big protester of ADDED charges onboard ships recently. I will say that I really did not feel nickel and dimed on the Explorer. YES there were those exercise class add on charges ( not for machines etc just those special classes like spinning ) but I was happy to see that ice cream was not only available free but all the time. There is a great ice cream yogurt dispenser complete with a fixings bar located on the promenade. Another cone machine on the pool deck. I don't know if they were 24 hours but certainly they were there and functioning almost 24 hours. No attendant, no charge, just step up and fix yourself what you need.
There is also a place that I fell in love with, again on the Promenade and also open 24 hours a day. This is called the Cafe Promenade, a fantastic place for me anyway. This area serves the greatest little sandwiches, cookies, tarts, and pizza and there is no additional charge for any of it. You just step up and say give me this and give me that. There are coffee machines located there as well and a small bar to get that beer for the pizza. The bar of course charges as is the norm. You can sit inside or outside. After that mosey a couple of feet away and into the Sports type bar, or the Irish pub. Have to tell you, keep your rock climbing walls, the Promenade is the place you will find this degenerate :) And while you enjoy your booze, food, and people watching the ladies can shop away at the stores also located on the Promenade. If there was one innovative design to this ship that should be heralded, it is the Promenade. There are also various parades and music events held here during various times of the day and evening.
Everyone advised that the ice show was not to be missed and they were correct, it was great! The group of skaters on board were doing their last shows on this cruise and are to be replaced by a new troop but I am sure they too will be great. You must get tickets for the show, there is no charge but merely for controlling show crowds. There are several days and times for the show but you would be smart to get them early as possible no matter which show you would like to attend. Also seating is first come so don't be too late especially if there are several of you and you want seats together. The rink is small enough that you pretty much have a great view no matter where you are seated. There is no flash photography allowed but as you can see from this picture there is enough lighting from the show itself to allow for many cameras to take a shot without the flash.
Besides the ice show you have your evening Palace Theatre shows which were very good. We really enjoyed Paul Boland who does impersonations of a whole range of singers. This is not normally my thing but he was so good that you had to enjoy his performance and I did, at least up until I was grabbed with another gentlemen to gyrate both in the audience and eventually on stage to the singing of Elvis songs. Oh well into each life a little rain must fall. I apologize to my fellow passengers for having to endure this uncoordinated gyrator ;) The good news was that I did get a free scotch and soda out of it at least. Fortunately I have no photo's of this none event. We didn't make all the shows but the ones we did make were all worth going to.
There are also various parades and events held on the boulevard, pool games, and the usual fare.
CASINO The casino staff were very pleasant and extra tables were opened at busy times. There were some $5 and 1$ machines and lots of quarter machines. That's the good news. The bad news is that not only did I not win anything ( I did have a small hit on the $5 machine making $90 on a $10 investment ) I didn't see anyone else hitting anything either and I did spend some time in there. I played slots and Caribbean poker without success and Len played Blackjack with no great success. In fact the only time I made anything was when I made a quick stop at the Wyndam Hotel Casino near the pier in Old San Juan. A quick $100 profit for 10 minute endeavor. I actually saved money since I decided there was little chance of coming home a winner from this casino.
DINING The dining room is three tiered and magnificent in design. Most tables were for 8 and we were located on the second level. Food during the cruise was very good but I didn't much care for the actual dinner choices most evenings. You can order a steak or chicken any night, also a Caesar salad. I suppose because of this they didn't offer another beef selection most evenings. As a beef eater I would have preferred varied beef dishes as well. The only complaint I heard and also voiced was with the shrimp scampi which sounded much better than it was in reality. Not really any scampi I have seen, more just some split open shrimp which were under cooked. Our waiter and assistant waitress were exceptional always anxious to please and always remembering our preferences. Cheese and olive plates were requested the first evening and appeared every night after that without having to request again. Beverages were ready when we arrived at the table and refilled often, again without need to ask. A couple of waiter singing shows were presented during the cruise but you really had to be at the main level to see them other than the quick parade around the other floors. On lobster night we were rewarded with good sized tails and our waiter brought seconds and thirds without any request. The prime rib, served the following evening ( wish they had served those on lobster night too for a little surf and turf ) were excellent and very thick.
The Buffet area was very good both in food and design with a grill area aft for hamburgers and so forth. Various hot and cold dishes were provided and all that I tried were very good. Ice tea, water, and so forth were provided at several beverage stations and most times staff were there filling the glasses to keep from having jam ups at the stations. There was also beverage carts with bar waiter at end of line for those that wanted to purchase beer and soda. In addition hot dogs were placed by the pool in serving dishes for those that just wanted a small bite before going for the big meal. There was only one midnight buffet to my knowledge and honestly I didn't go. The other evenings staff walked around with various little munchies being served.
BAR SERVICE Might not have bothered having any at dinner. This was one area that really fell short in dining room. The bar waiter came around the first evening with the after dinner shots in those souvenir glasses. I bought one and he never came around again. In fact even when we requested bar service no bar waiter showed one evening. Another evening one couple got drinks and not only never saw the bar waiter for a second round but he didn't even come back to have them sign for the drinks.
Add to that the fact that there are no wine stewards either, the waiters now have to serve the wine, and there was little drinking around us at dinner. Doesn't seem to make sense eliminating wine stewards since with no one really coming up to ask about wine or recommend no one at our table bothered buying any the entire cruise. Seemed that the waiter had more than enough to do without serving wine.
SERVICE IN GENERAL Service through out the ship was generally very good and the staff were pleasant and friendly, always tried to be helpful, no complaints. Room service was good, usual minor screw up on orders from time to time but on time. In fact if you order by TV almost as soon as I clicked to finalize the order the phone would ring, room service to confirm my order. You can order by sticking the old card on the door at night, by phone, or by TV menu. They also always called to ask if they could serve your order before they came and always asked if they could come in. We noted the second day that our air conditioning wasn't working very well and when I called there was a service man there in moments. This of course was after the lady that took the call asked me if I had the deck door open. I did assure her that I was aware that if the deck door was open hot air comes in ;) After the technician checked I knew we had a bit of a real problem since first there was one guy, then two, then three, and finally a real Officer from engineering. They went about opening walls and ceilings while being very apologetic about disturbing us. Within an hour or so they located the problem and it was repaired properly to where we set the thermostat from full to warm it worked so well.
Another time I stopped a staff member to ask where the Concierge room was. He didn't know and was very upset that he didn't have the answer and asked me to please wait while he found out. He then went to a phone to call someone and get the information. He was very apologetic that I had to wait for answer, I assured him of course that I appreciate his efforts.
ODDS and ENDS This is definitely a family cruise ship as evidenced by the number of kids on board. This makes for much of the standard bell ringing and running ( many cabins have door bells ) away antics, reversing do not disturb signs to please make up room side and so forth. Kids will be kids I guess. The main pool areas had many kids enjoying themselves during the day also. The nice thing is that there is another pool area, the Solarium pool, which is adult only and nice and quiet for those who prefer to relax a little more.
Something a little more serious that I would note is that we on two occasions saw young teenage girls that were quite obviously very high and acting a bit wild. Whether they brought something with them or managed to get a hold of something onboard who knows but I would offer a caution to parents that checking the kids should not go out the window simply because you are on a cruise. If I still had young teenagers, especially attractive young girls, I would not want them to unattended onboard any ship but especially one this size. The annoyance factor is something we can live with but their safety factor is another.
Someone had posted on RTC newsgroup that the staff had told him that there was a morale problem due to lack of staff and added work load. From talking to some staff they do apparently feel that they are being overworked, like waiters having to be wine stewards and the such, yet I must say they did not let that effect how they interacted with passengers. All the staff we encountered worked diligently and with a smile tending to ours needs. I did note though that there appeared to be much less staff than one would expect on a ship this size with this many passengers.
I didn't cover ports as they are standard ports of call for Eastern Caribbean. I will mention that I had been concerned about Labadee being over crowded with this large a ship but indeed it didn't feel that way. Several beaches and lunch areas, good sized tenders, so all in all wasn't bad at all. We did the wave runner tour on Labadee which I would recommend with the caution that this is not an easy wave runner ride around. For whatever reason they run this at a race from point to point always running at full throttle which is about 55 mph. Between speed and jumping over waves while making sharp turns it is comparable to riding a bucking bronco. Your arms and legs will feel the ride by the time you finish the tour.
One final note * dress as cool as possible when you board. As is usually the case the lifeboat drill is held prior to sailing and it was hot in Florida. Couple that with the longest drill I have ever seen and many of the people were starting to complain that they felt that they were close to passing out. Most started removing life vests long before drill was over. Besides having to group up over three thousand passengers the drill was a very extended one as the announcements were repeated in at least 5 languages and they actually checked off each cabin and how many people were there from the cabin. So if you can wear shorts or light clothes when you board do so.
I know there are a million things I haven't covered so please feel free to email me any questions I might be able to answer. This is a big ship so I guess it rated a big review :)
As I stated the cruise was great, the ship wonderful, but for me, I really have no urge to do one this big again as a personal preference.