Royal Caribbean InternationalExplorer the Seas ReviewBermudaCindy Rouse
Occupation:Elementary School Principal
Number of Cruises: 5
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Explorer of the Seas
Sailing Date: June 25th, 2006
Itinerary: NOT FOUND
Royal Caribbean International
Explorer of the Seas Cruise Review
We just returned from an
excellent cruise on the Explorer of the Seas to Bermuda. This will not be a true
review, but I will include impressions and tips for future cruisers on the
Explorer out of Bayonne. I will also make comparisons to Princess, since
questions about how the two lines are similar/different seem to come up quite
frequently. After sailing on the Grand in March and the Explorer in June, I feel
that the two lines are more similar than different, with each doing some things
better than the other. I would happily sail on either cruise line! They both
have their strong points, and both are far better than being at work!
We were a group of eleven family members…7 adults and 4 children. In order to accommodate all of us getting to the pier, we hired a mini-bus through Empire International. They provided excellent service and were very prompt on both ends of the trip. We arrived at Cape Liberty about 11:00, and were able to find a porter to take our luggage immediately.
We were surprised to find that there were still many passengers disembarking from the previous cruise, but once we checked in we found that the Cape Liberty cruise port is different from others we have sailed from. The ship isn’t docked right by the terminal, and to board or disembark passengers have to take a shuttle bus to/from the ship. This slows down the boarding process, as well as disembarkation. We checked in right away, and then went to a very roomy lounge to wait for our shuttle bus to the ship. Shuttle numbers are handed out as you check in, and they are given in the order you arrive. Several wedding parties boarded first, and then general boarding began at 12:30. We were on shuttle number 7, which went to the ship at 12:45. I didn’t think the wait was bad at all, especially given the number of people to embark (our sailing had 3,500 passengers).
We were able to go straight to our cabins, since it was 1:00 by the time we were shuttled to the ship to board. Our family had 4 cabins on Deck 9. Our stateroom attendant for 9302 was Sophia. She was pleasant and efficient. I took one look at the sagging mattress and asked for an egg crate topper, which she got us with no problem. Everybody went up to the Windjammer except me and Jim. We were in charge of Portofino’s reservations, and I wanted to make a salon appointment for Monday afternoon (formal night). We had no problems with either reservation, but unfortunately we made our reservation for Portofino’s for Wednesday night, which means we missed lobster/prime rib night in the dining room. If that’s important to you, pick a different night. Even though there’s only one formal dinner on the 5-night cruise, they do still serve lobster in the dining room on the night you leave Bermuda.
The Explorer is a beautiful ship. It’s very dramatic without being gaudy or overdone. Even though there were 3,500 passengers on board, I only felt like it was crowded a few times…in the photo gallery, at the pools in the afternoon on sea days, and leaving the theatre after a show. Those are places where it can seem crowded on any ship, and the Explorer was no different. I thought the layout of the ship made sense, and even though it’s so big it was easy for me to find my way around. For example, the public restrooms were located in roughly the same place on each deck. That sounds like a trivial thing, but it does make it easy to know instinctively whether you should be looking for something on the port or starboard side of the ship. I was impressed with the stability of the ship. For most of the trip I felt very little motion. The Atlantic was unbelievably calm, and we never had more than 4 foot swells all week. Because of her large interior spaces, I didn’t feel a strong connection to the sea when I was in many of the public areas. I ended up spending more time on my balcony than I have on some other ships just so I could have a quiet place to read and gaze at the water.
There were several things on the ship that I thought were a “don’t miss.” The ice show was spectacular! The skaters were all very talented and I was amazed at the things they were able to do on a fairly small rink. The parade down the Grand Promenade on the first night is fun and energetic. The parade is at 10:45, but passengers start lining up much earlier. The singers and dancers wear very elaborate costumes, and the parade has a Mardi Gras feel to it – minus the beads and debauchery! We watched from a little balcony near an elevator bank and had a great view of the festivities. If you’ve always wanted to see the ship’s bridge, visit the “Peek-a-Boo” deck to watch the staff in action. There are several windows where you can see into the bridge, which looks like something out of Star Trek. Finally, all the way forward on Deck 5 (but accessible only from the outside stairs on Deck 4), you can walk all the way to the bow of the ship. Think about the “king of the world” scene from Titanic, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I thought that was neat just because on so many ships that area is off-limits to passengers. Of course, I don’t think a re-creation of the movie scene would be looked upon favorably, but it’s still a neat place to go and watch the ocean!
Bermuda is lovely, but very expensive. We did the “Wildcat Around the Island” high-speed boat excursion the day we arrived, and thought it was outstanding. It was a great way to get an overview of the entire island in a short amount of time. The second day we were in Bermuda we went to Hamilton and walked around/shopped, but we thought prices were very high and we didn’t buy too much. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken another excursion. Other family members did a boat/beach/lunch tour that they said was very good, and a glass-bottomed boat trip that was just O.K.
Now for the inevitable comparisons between the Explorer and the Grand, and between RCI and Princess. I was a bit apprehensive about this cruise for several reasons. The first was the size of the ship, which I found wasn’t a problem at all, and the second was that our cruise in March was so outstanding that I thought this one would fall far short, and I was surprised and pleased to find that it didn’t. Finally, we usually cruise as a couple, and this time we were with my whole family, which meant an early dinner seating (we adjusted) and more time in the buffet (I still like eating in the dining room better). The two lines really are more alike than different, with each doing some things better than the other. For me, decisions about future cruises would come down to what I was looking for itinerary-wise, whether we’re traveling alone or with a group, and pricing.
EMBARKATION AND DISEMBARKATION – Both lines seem to have this down to a science. My last three cruises before this have all been out of Galveston. Embarkation in Galveston is much faster than it was in Bayonne, but I think that is because of the way the port is set up. The shuttle bus also slows down disembarkation in Bayonne, but once you reach the terminal the luggage is the most organized I’ve ever see.
CABINS – This is a hard comparison, because our last 2 Princess cruises have been in a mini-suite and on this trip we had a D-2 balcony. The D level cabins on Royal Caribbean are definitely bigger than the balcony cabins on Princess, but they’re nowhere near as large as a Grand class mini-suite. I like that non-suite cabins on Royal Caribbean have a couch, and I think the round shower doors are a huge improvement over the body-snatching shower curtains on Princess. Storage space was ample for at least a week. There were shelves in the closet and good sized drawers in the vanity. My mom had a junior suite, which appeared to have about the same amount of space as a mini-suite on a Grand class ship, but configured completely differently. The mini-suites on most Princess ships are longer than a regular cabin but still quite narrow, while a JS is no longer than a regular cabin, but twice as wide. A Princess mini-suite is divided into a living section and a bedroom section, while the junior suite on RC is one large room. The extra amenities for mini-suites/junior suites are very different. On Princess you get upgraded bedding and linens, champagne on boarding, luxury towels, and upgraded toiletries. On Royal Caribbean you get priority (suite) embarkation and access to the Concierge Club, which Princess doesn’t have. For right now the upgraded bedding in suites and mini-suites on Princess is a big deal, but since Royal Caribbean is replacing ALL their bedding you will soon be able to get a quality mattress in any cabin.
ADVANTAGE: ROYAL CARIBBEAN FOR NON-SUITE CABINS
TIE FOR MINI-SUITES/JUNIOR SUITES
DINING ROOM FOOD – I was disappointed with the dining room food on the Explorer. It tasted a lot more “banquety” to me than the food on the Grand. I thought most of the meats weren’t a high-quality cut, and the New York Strip was inedible. Five of us ordered the NY Strip, and we all left most of it on our plates. Hot food wasn’t as hot as it should have been, and I missed the little extras like fresh-ground pepper and parmesan cheese to taste. We prefer to eat most of our meals in the dining room, so I was disappointed to find that Royal Caribbean has gone with a set menu for lunch with only a soup and one entrée that change. Princess has a delicious pasta dish and several entrees that change each day for lunch, and a few “always available” items. I also found the availability of the dining room for lunch on the Explorer to be very limited. The dining room was only open for lunch on Monday and Thursday, our sea days. It was also closed on embarkation day. We spent a lot more time in the buffet on this trip than we usually do.
BUFFET FOOD – The Windjammer on Royal Caribbean has a wider selection of hot and cold foods than the Horizon Court on Princess. In the back part of the Windjammer is the International Café where Mexican, Chinese, and other ethnic foods are available in addition to the regular buffet selections. For breakfast there is a made-to-order omelet station in the International Café. The dessert choices are also more varied on RC than on Princess. What’s the nicest thing about the Windjammer on the Explorer of the Seas? The layout makes sense compared to the chaotic buffet set up on Princess. There were no traffic jams, and there weren’t people darting all over the place to fill their plates. The buffets on both cruise lines use the same oversized oval plates instead of trays, so you have to be seated and put your tray down before you get a drink. The drink servers in the Windjammer were readily available and we never had to wait long for service. About the only area where I thought the Windjammer fell short was hamburgers and pizza. They’re just not as fresh when they sit in warming trays as they are when you get them fresh from the grill or oven.
ADVANTAGE: ROYAL CARIBBEAN
SERVICE – Here’s where things get a little ugly. Our service in the dining room on the Explorer was quite poor. Out of seven adults in our group, five of us had cruised before on Princess, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Carnival. We all agreed that the service on previous cruises far surpassed the service we received on the Explorer. Our waiter and assistant waiter were slow and seemed unable to serve the food in a proper sequence. Often two things would arrive at once, and we’d have to make a decision about which item we wanted to let get cold before we got to it. They never asked our names, never seemed comfortable with serving the children, never figured out what we liked to drink, and just really did nothing to enhance the dining experience. If we hadn’t been a large table on a completely full ship we would have requested a change after the first dinner, but since it was a short cruise and it would have been difficult to accommodate us, we let it go. Here’s the little incident that still amazes me: On the last night when we got to dinner, there was margarine on the table but no butter. This was a problem, because we’re mostly a butter family. When we asked for butter we were told there was none on the ship, because they had run out. We found this puzzling because we could see people at other tables eating butter. Our assistant waiter insisted there was no butter anywhere on the ship. Because we were a bit frustrated with our dining experience by this time, my brother-in-law went up to the Windjammer, where what did he find but hundreds of pats of butter! He loaded up his pockets and brought it down to the dining room. About the time he returned the assistant waiter decided he’d better find us some butter. He got to the table with it the same time my brother-in-law returned and put the butter from the Windjammer on the table. At least Alan (the asst. waiter) had the grace to look embarrassed and he steered clear of our table the rest of the evening. That’s just an example, but it seems like that’s how it went for us in the dining room all week.
SPECIALTY DINING – We enjoyed meals at Sabatini’s on the Grand and Portofino’s on the Explorer. They’re both excellent, but provide a very different experience. At Sabatini’s, you get to taste many small appetizers and pastas, and only order your main course and dessert. At Portofino’s you order everything off a menu like you would in the dining room. Although I enjoyed both experiences, I found Portofino’s more to my liking than Sabatini’s.
ADVANTAGE: ROYAL CARIBBEAN
FUN FOR KIDS/FAMILIES/LARGE GROUPS – This is also a hard comparison for me because we’ve never been on a ship and had children in our party before. I think a Voyager-class ship is an excellent choice for families and large groups. There are TONS of things to do, so everyone can find something that’s to their liking. Somebody in our group tried just about everything. We enjoyed the gym, rock climbing, art auctions, skating, the spa, the children’s club, golfing, and so many other things it would be impossible to list them all. All four children enjoyed their time in Adventure Ocean, and both of my sisters felt comfortable leaving their kids there. I did hear a few complaints on the Grand last March that people felt there weren’t enough organized activities in the Children’s Club to keep their children interested and involved.
ADVANTAGE: ROYAL CARIBBEAN
GOOD FOR COUPLES WHO WANT TO RELAX AND UNWIND – I found more nooks and crannies and quiet places to get away from it all on the Grand than the Explorer. I really missed the aft Terrace pool area that’s reserved for adults on the Grand class ships. Since the Explorer is so big and there’s only one adults-only pool (the Solarium) it was usually quite crowded and not very quiet. I spent more time on my balcony on the Explorer than I do on the Grand, just because that was a quiet place to read and watch the ocean go by. I usually catch some fantastic naps on the padded loungers by the Terrace pool on the Grand!
ENTERTAINMENT – I only saw one of the production shows on the Explorer, and it was just average. There were three production shows on the Grand in March, and they were all very entertaining. Even though I didn’t think the production show on the Explorer was very good, the ice show just blew me away. It was the most entertaining show I’ve ever seen on any ship. Both lines have the standard magicians, comedians, and lounge acts. I didn’t make it to “Quest” this time, but I went on the Rhapsody and thought it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Princess used to have “Pub Night,” but I wonder if that’s been discontinued since they didn’t have it on the Grand in March. There wasn’t a major entertainment option on the Explorer the night we were docked in Bermuda. Everyone was encouraged to attend the street festival at the pier put on in conjunction with Royal Caribbean.
PRICING – I found cruise prices to be higher on Royal Caribbean than on Princess. We paid about the same price for a balcony cabin on the Explorer for five days as we paid for a mini-suite on the Grand for seven days. I think part of that has to do with Bermuda cruises being expensive, and part of it has to do with RC being able to get top dollar for their Voyager class ships. I don’t have a problem with that because they are offering a unique product on those ships. I do have a problem with many of the amenities being shut down on port days, so a lot of the things you are paying for are taken out of the equation. The pools and most of the hot tubs were open, but the rock-climbing wall, the ice skating rink, and the dining room (at lunch) were closed. I thought drink prices on Royal Caribbean were higher than on Princess, and wine cost considerably more. Prices in the shops seemed to be about the same. Ladies, that includes the “Bijoux Ternier” stuff that all cruise ships seem to sell for $10.00 an item. After all, a cruising girl can never have too many fake pashminas, can she?
COFFEE – I included this category for all of us that love Princess but also love a cup of good coffee. Hmm…a cup of coffee made from syrup, or a cup of fresh Seattle’s Best? No contest here.
ADVANTAGE: ROYAL CARIBBEAN
I’ve probably gone on too long. There were other little things I noticed during the week, some that I thought Princess does better, and some that I thought Royal Caribbean does better. The food and poor service could have been a deal breaker for me if we were traveling alone, but wait staff is the luck of the draw, and I didn’t go hungry, even if I thought the food could have been better. Those negatives were overshadowed by what a great choice the Explorer was for a large group of cruisers of mixed ages. We all had a great time, and we’ve already booked the Mariner of the Seas out of Port Canaveral for the end of June next year. The bottom line is I wouldn’t hesitate to travel on either line at any time, and we’ll continue to sail both, making our decision based on the itinerary, cost, and the ship that best meets our needs at the time.