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Zamgwar

Age: 49

Occupation:Theater Lighting Designer

Number of Cruises: 4

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Explorer of the Seas

Sailing Date: February 14th, 2004

Itinerary:

While my tan is still dark, my waistline still swelled, and my memories clear I will endeavor to return the kind favors of the many that have gone before me, by passing on my impressions of my 2/14 sail aboard the Explorer of the Seas.

To set a base line, we set out with a total of 32 old and a few new friends, with most relationships going back 25 years. There is no greater joy than vacationing with friends who know you well enough to tell you your breath stinks. Rather than being a vacation, it always is more of a seven day party, that moves around the globe.

It is important to note that due to our schedules we only travel as peak week touristos, at a time when virtually the entire United States (except for New Hampshire-go figure) is off from school for February break. This was our third group cruise together, and my personal forth cruise. It was our first experience with Royal Caribbean, having sailed NCL and Princess previously.

Depending on when you sail, your mileage may vary.


The Ship

Perhaps the most disheartening words I ever read in a cruise review are “enough is written about this ship, so I won’t bother you with that”. If you’re like me when anticipating a cruise or researching a ship, you voraciously seek every description of the ship you can find.

You care not if someone’s assistant waiter’s name was Julio, or that they sat next to a flatulent man on the plane to Miami. You want to know about the ship.

It is important to note, our gang could have a great time floating at sea in a leaky row boat, albeit a big leaky rowboat. I am happy to report Explorer of the Sea’s is far from being a big leaky rowboat.

She is in fact beautiful. She towers above the port of Miami, nose to nose with her sister, Navigator. They gleam bright white in the embarkation day early sun. The vocal excitement level of our group of 32 became absolutely electric as our bus drove into the port and the massive size of these ships filled our entire field of vision.

Seeing her for the first time is definitely a “holy wee-wee” moment.

Upon boarding Explorer, I was pleasantly surprised to find a very tastefully done vessel.
The twin atriums soar in breathtaking a splendor of brass and glass with nary a bit of neon glitz to detract from them.

Her interior public spaces are not only covered with works of art, but are pieces of art themselves.

A graceful marble, glass and brass grand staircase makes it way down to the Palace Theater in the bow of the ship. This huge state of the art theater (this from someone who makes their livelihood in the theater) houses one of the ships most remarkable works of art. A shimmering Main curtain, painted with elongated, symmetrical people. The curtain absolutely bursts to life with color, when the front of house theater lighting comes on.

Also located in the bow are a number of other wonderfully designed public rooms.

The Schooner Bar, is a wood toned nautically themed space. There are ships models in cases. The room is lined on the starboard side with enormous portholes topped by whimsical sail shaped faux hatch covers that are done in rich woods. The same shapes are mimicked as open arches protruding from the walls above tables on the opposite side of the room. Rigging surrounds a masthead near the bar. A cannon guards the entrance way. It a great place to have a drink, some easy conversation and soak in the piano bar atmosphere.

Just off the Schooner Bar is the ships disco, the Chamber. Most pictures don’t do this medieval setting justice. This room is meant to be best seen, in its own light, rather than a camera’s flash. Stained glass windows line the entrance corridor. High backed arched “kings chairs” are throughout. There are suits of armor, torches, and faux stone finishes. It is a very impressive space. I would love to say I spent many a night dancing here. Surely my entire group meant to. Sadly, however, it fell under the category of “we’ll go tomorrow night”, and never made it back. The ship is huge, the week is short, and many things fell into that category.

One deck up you’ll find the “Connoisseur Club”, a richly wood paneled room where cigar aficionados can enjoy a smoke, a cognac, and a chat. The room is one of the ships most intimate spaces and easily leads to quick conversation with newly discovered friends. On both occasions that I enjoyed this space, I was immediately welcomed by those sitting there, and invited to join into the conversation. If the room had leather furniture it would have been a perfect men’s club setting. Then again, I am far from the perfect man, (just ask “She who must be obeyed”) so why quibble over small points.

The Royal Promenade is a breathtaking space, and most do consider this the heart of the ship. Its lighting design is done well, warmly lit in the evenings in cool blues and reds and brightly lit in the day. With the promenade view cabin windows above it, it does achieve very successfully, the effect of being on a street. It is definitely unique as a gathering space and makes transits across the ship easy.

For myself, my ventures there were only to get to my daily 5pm slice of Pizza and a chocolate chip cookie at the Café Promenade, or to get to one of the aft or forward cocktail lounges. While I did enjoy a fine martini in the Crown and Kettle Pub, with its dark wood paneling and pub feel, I prefer to be constantly reminded I’m on a ship. I’m frequently on a street. I’m only on a ship once every other year. I need windows to the sea.

These windows were once again found aft in the Aquarium bar. The lounge is split by the aft atrium and the main restaurant entrance. It is a GREAT space done in warm blues and greens, surrounded once again by six foot porthole windows, and rather large, though a tad murky, fish tanks teeming with tropical fish. It featured ice cold martinis in properly chilled glasses, served up to ever present live music, ranging from an unusual trio made up of an oboe, a violin and a piano to a jazz quartet.

Often overlooked, or perhaps better phrased overstepped, are the floors. Throughout the promenade area they range from highly polished inlaid wood parquets fore and aft featuring the Explorer’s “compass” logo, to cobblestone-esque tile on the “street”. Do occasionally look down when you walk. It not only helps you navigate after a long evening of “cocktailing”, but is full of visual surprises.

The Casino is a big, glitzy casino. There are ample slots and tables and more than enough ways to rid yourself of the extra vacation dollars you may be burdened with. It was however, the first casino afloat that myself and “she who must be obeyed” ever ended up ahead in. Granted it was just a few hundred bucks which we applied to knocking the tip of the iceberg off our week’s bill, but we won all the same. I therefore loved the Casino.

Out the doors on deck four, (four deck for you true old salts) is the exterior promenade. A very, very broad space running completely around the ship with the added bonus of being able to walk to the very tip of the bow. On a daily basis when weather permitted, “She who must be obeyed” and I took 8 lap strolls around it to fight off the ever present tide of drinks, chocolate chip cookies, pounds of bacon, multiple meals and the other endless evils that one suddenly deems “okay” when on a cruise.

The more you eat, the less a cruise costs right?

To me personally, on any ship, there is no greater place to feel at sea, than on an exterior promenade. It links the cruise industry, with the time when ships were transportation rather than a vacation. Sadly, there is almost no wood apparent, except for a small swath of teak, on its narrowest part, as you pass the main restaurant. The deck is fully carpeted, and except for the railings and an occasional crew door, lacks the seafaring “charm” of a true promenade. Even “teak look” floor padding would have added the more warmth and traditional color to the area. Still a full wrap around carpeted promenade is preferable to two short dead end promenades.

Any promenade is preferable to a sidewalk full of snow, in front of your house.

The pool deck is a vast tiered area. The main pool is the center for sea day activities with teak deck areas, two large hot tubs, showers and misting stations, two over flowing FRESH WATER POOLS ( a surprise to me, for all reviews state these are salt water pools-perhaps it was just my week of travel), a pool bar, a skybar and a bandstand for the mandatory island music. It is where our group spent the bulk of the week. Being poolside on a cruise ship, during a sea day, is heaven.

It is also the most controversial area of the ship. Everywhere I went during the week (from restaurants to guest services) it was overheard to be a hot topic of conversation. Having been on four cruises I have been lucky enough to never have been bothered by “chair saving”. Arriving around 9AM on other ships, we have always been able to find ample deck chairs together.

The deck chair situation on Explorer was deplorable.

Though our group was always able to procure at least 8 chairs together using commando tactics, it was at Herculean effort. Our early risers (before 8AM) would go to pool deck and “hold until relieved, hold until relieved”. Little was done by the chair police to clear the hundreds of chairs which sat for hours with towels, rather with bodies.

The pool deck chair situation is compounded by the running track on the upper pool level. It is an approximately 7 foot wide area, running around the entire top deck, which is “verboten” to deck chairs. It is a very, poor concept. We actually saw several unfortunate confrontations between joggers, walkers and sunbathers throughout the sea days. If I “ruled the waves”, I would have closed the running track after 9:30 am (opening the deck four Promenade at the same time to runners) and laid out an extra row of deck chairs around the entire top of the ship. It would have added extra 200-300 chairs for people to lay towels on and then not sit in.

Mind you, our eight chairs, for our group of 32 meant we were all able to enjoy the music, warmth, sun, and sea days in shifts, but I am aware many weren’t. I felt sorry for them, at least until the Skybar staff made me forget.

A wonderful area of the pool deck is the adult’s only solarium. With jets of water criss-crossing the small FRESH water pool and padded pool chairs, the columned finely tiled area is filled with objects d’art and has the wonderful feel of a Spanish courtyard. It has a large almost always empty hot tub. It is where I ventured to every time I needed to cool off from the Caribbean sun. My only question is why it didn’t have a retractable roof for foul weather days?

I have to look up the meaning of solarium.

While I never used the health center of the ship, many of my group did. I lead a very healthy life in the real world. I do everything I can to counter that on vacation. I did walk through it once and was very impressed. It is FILLED with a wide variety of equipment, has a large aerobics room, and a large hot tub. It is lined with floor to ceiling windows that look out on the bow. Those who did use it, did say it was the BEST “resort” health club they have ever seen.

I have saved my favorite space for last. Dizzy’s in the Viking Crown on the top of the ship. This room is as nice a room as I have ever seen on a ship, and right up there with the Norway’s “International Café”. There are small glittering fiber optic star accents throughout. An Art deco bandstand, with a keyboard painted stagefront and a fiber optic star curtain stands in the center of the room. The space is surrounded with floor to ceiling windows, a wonderful “WPA type” jazz mural and pictures of Jazz greats line the walls. The furniture is arranged in great conversational settings of chairs and sofas. The lighting at night is indirect and very warm. On both formal nights our group met there for cocktails. Standing in a tux in this marvelous room was the height of the cruise experience. We also used the space for card playing during our foul weather day, and went there for any other reason we could find an excuse for. Going to the Jazz Club, the one night there actually was Jazz (most nights its Latin music-go figure) was as good a cruise night as I ever had..

Previous Explorer cruisers will note I have never mentioned the Champagne bar, The Maharaja Lounge, or the sports bar. I saw them, looked in them, but never actually made it to them.

Like I said, It was a big ship, and even with two bonus sea days, there was so much else to do.


The Cabins-

I find it almost laughable about the amount of concern on message boards and newgroups over what a particular cabin on a ship looks like. Unless you're sailing on an old converted ocean liner (cough-Norway-cough) with the exception of category they're all the same right?

Well mostly right. There were some slight differences.

Our group had a boatload (excuse the pun) of cabins. Fourteen cabins to be exact. They all fell into the categories of D9, DA and a few scattered inside N's for the kiddies, and for the most part were located toward the aft.

Four of us, including myself, had the much talked about cabins; 8390, 8690, 8692, and 7688.

The D9's and DA's (which the above four rooms are) are indeed to be considered Cabins, rather than Staterooms. At 177 square feet, they are tight, but not uncomfortable for 2.

Our Cabin was corner aft, 8390. It was, as they all were, very nicely appointed in kind of pastel colors with light wood appointments at the closet and the desk/make up table, with a thankfully round cornered queen bed, and a two seat sofa with a small coffee table in front of it. The entire cabin springs up on you as you open the scalloped cabin door. That's because it's all RIGHT THERE, two steps in front of you. The two steps you take are the length of what is a very cozy but workable bathroom featuring a "star trek transporter tube" shower.

For all but two of us, it was the smallest cabin we've ever had on a ship. That didn't make it bad; it was, after all, a cabin on a ship. What could be bad about having a cabin on a ship! It was just, smaller than we were used too. After some ingenious work by the "unpacking fairy", all our suitcases were put away, the charm of the room took over, and size was forgotten.

There were plenty of drawers and hangers. The closet was large enough to hold our "25 pound overweight big as a frigging house suitcase", all our carry-on bags, and a weeks worth of hanging clothes.

Make that more than a weeks worth. "She who must be obeyed" brought home four untouched outfits.

Our Garment Bag stowed nicely under the bed, as did the Emelda Marcos collection of shoes we brought on.

The room had a mini bar, with enough room to store our bottles of water and a bottle of champagne. Contrary to all newsgroup and message board reports, we fondled and examined the items in the mini-bar and were never charged. They are NOT touch sensitive.

There was a hair dryer in each cabin, though "She Who Must be obeyed" feels it is important to note that you must hold the button down to operate it. RCTV is a great innovation. You're able to watch your bar tab grow daily, rather than being shocked by it all at once. There seemed to be plenty of movies, for those who wish to watch them. I wasn't one of them. I would have loved to see a daily weather report, the ships location, and a line-up of activities on the tube, but settled for my growing bartab.

Our cabin, as well as 8690 had a single outwardly opening door to the deck. Also contrary to other Voyager glass ships, this door was FULL GLASS not half glass as has been reported. The door allowed plenty of daylight in, and the room was always bright and cheery.

The deck is what moved these rooms up from average, to spectacular. While the decks on the side DA's and D9's hold a comfortably a small cocktail table and two chairs, the aft cabin decks are very large. Ours held two lounge chairs at an angle, plus two chairs and two cocktail tables. All this plus ample room to move about, it was our best deck to date.

Explorer has no place on it to sit and watch the hypnotic wake go off in the distance. It is a design flaw in the ship to be sure. Having my own private wake facing deck made me overlook the flaw. We ordered breakfast five of seven days and had it on the deck. We had night caps on the deck. The stars above were clearly visible without the glow of the ship surrounding us. Passing ships twinkled in the night. We watched the wake turn bright blue green as we approached the Caymens. Schools of dolphins danced behind the ship. I could easily look to the side, and have a completely unobstructed view aft.

I am now doomed to always have an aft cabin, the view was glorious.

For those that will ask, 8390 & 8690 were identical cabins. 8692 had a slightly larger deck, but lacked the overhang that the corners have, to give privacy and half sun/half shade. 7688, had an even larger deck (boarding on enormous) with a side six foot (at least) port hole opening and a double sliding glass door.

However the aft design superstructure (you have to see it to understand what I'm talking about) begins to become part of the view. I imagine from the center aft cabins on deck 7 down, it would absolutely impede the view, making these cabins less desirable to those who wish to watch the wake. I would have hated a center aft on deck 6, even though it was a pricier cabin.

A word of warning about the aft decks. From time to time, the ship "belches". When you're beside the pool and this happens, it usually results in someone joking and saying "sorry, I had the Ranch Steak".

The belching is from my best guess, the ships engines purging itself of "gunk" (to use the nautical term). The "Gunk" exhaust pipes seem to be visible on the ceiling of the aft exterior promenade on deck four.

The gunk expels itself as a huge, thick cloud of black soot. I was on my deck at one of the rare times it happened, and went back into my cabin looking like I was about to participate in a minstrel show. I kid you not. I laughed when I looked in the mirror.

While it only affected my deck once, my friends in 8690 & 8692 awoke to find their decks, towels, and deck laundry covered in black soot. Course, speed, and wind spared the starboard decks. While I found it laughable, my friends were less amused. The ship offered them an upgrade to a minisuite, and gratis laundry service. Rather than packing up and moving they settled on a thorough cleaning of the deck.

Also for those who will ask, both those cabins were occupied by two adults and a child in the pull down Pullman. They said they found it a little TOO close, and they will next time opt for more space.

The D9's were only marginally larger at 188 square feet. The bed was further from the door, and the couch sat three, instead of two.

A design flaw in all of these cabins is what I call the "heart attack closet door". Quite simply if someone had the closet door open, and was at the closet, when someone opened the cabin door, the two smashed into each other with a large bang scaring the bejeepers out of all involved parties.

By far the cabin find in our group was 9676 (a D9 balcony) which had an adjoining door to 9681, a category N, inside. The kids were placed in the inside, the adults on the outside. It was kind of a two bedroom suite, without the cost of a two bedroom suite.


The Food and The Restaurants

On a previous cruise review I wrote in regard to a balcony, had I never had one, I never would have wanted one. Now I can’t cruise without one. To turn that around, if I had not had spectacular meals on three previous cruises, I never would have missed them on this cruise and this ship.

I have been known to eat meat on a stick in New York City and enjoy it. I used to gobble up airline food, when there used to be airline food, and enjoy it. That is not to say that the dining experience is akin to airline food or meat on a stick. In those instances, I knew what to expect, and enjoyed them for what they were. I had expected dining to at least approach the level of my past experiences. It didn’t

Food is not a strong suit of this megaship. Perhaps it was the week. Perhaps it was just this ship. Maybe the head chef had a 7 day hangover. Maybe my taste buds had a seven day hangover. I had after all been soaking them in gin all week.

The three tiered main restaurant on Explorer, adds to the list of truly spectacular spaces on the ship. There was always dinner music being played on the balcony. The room is done in lavish red black and gold. There are elegant soaring golden cloths mimicking columns, a grand staircase, wonderful furnishings and the gold “compass” logo set against a blue starlit ceiling, the room is breathtaking.

The meals weren’t.

They weren’t bad. Heck I’ve eaten much worse stuff (see above). They were just average. A few items were excellent, but for the most part no meal as a whole was a stand out. It was the same opinion of my 21 of fellow adult cruisers, 4 of which who had never been on a cruise. 3 thought the food was downright awful. I don’t agree with them.

The 8 kids thought all the *free* food everywhere great!!!

No one went hungry or died from anything they ate, and we all indeed gained the proper amount of weight in seven days. Not having great dining experiences, however, was a blemish on the ship, though not on our fun.

The bartenders on deck made sure of that.

In addition, the service at all four of our tables, each being served by different wait staff, was very spotty. It was not at all what we had seen in the past. Some from our group did however, on the third night, speak to guest services, and the service and timing of the meals improved considerably. It still didn’t come near our previous cruises, but it was much better than the first two days.

Our headwaiter came up and apologized and told us we should have spoken to him directly on the first night. He was right. We learned a lesson.

Remember, it’s always better to speak up while ON a vacation, than to speak up afterwards on the internet. The former holds a better chance it will improve your vacation, than the latter.

I actually think the dining room is understaffed and overworked. This is the first ship I’ve been on that didn’t have wine stewards, and the task had to be handled by the waiter and assistant waiter. The result always ended up with those who ordered wine having to wait. On one evening it took 20 minutes to get a bottle of wine uncorked.

Nothing gets scarier than a woman having to wait for her wine. It’s like a tiger having to stare 20 minutes a piece of meat outside of a cage. The tiger can get very angry and its handler has a good chance of getting bit.

My tiger was angry and the bites I have are still healing.

I must point out, I never had that problem. I ordered Martini’s from the Beverage hostess. She was there in a flash when I arrived, and on several occasions had my drink in my hand before I ordered it. All those who ordered from the beverage hostess had the same service. She only had one job and did it well.

It is also important to note, that we had late seating. Children were PROMPTLY served, lest they start wining and pass out in their chicken fingers, which was a plus for parents.
Young “Joey” who sat at my table always had a large platter of French fries put in front of him immediately after sitting down.

Johnny Rockets on deck twelve is however a good thing. The space is a stylized 50’s dinner tucked aft on the starboard side, with indoor and outdoor vinyl booths. There is a takeout window which makes for quick poolside snacks. Its burgers were great. Its onion rings pleasantly greasy and its shakes thick enough to burst a blood vessel while attempting to suck them through a straw. The burgers are indeed the thing here, everything else is just average.

It is also the ONLY venue on the ship with outside dining. No outside dining is definitely a large design flaw of the ship. It is the first ship I’ve been on with no readily accessible way to eat outdoors.

Another good thing was the Promenade Café on the Royal Promenade. It is brightly appointed traditional café full of intimate groupings of tables and chairs. Fresh flowers are clustered around the room in vases. There are once again large portholes to the sea.

There is also an “al fresco” area on the Royal Promenade that is perfect for people watching.

The Seattle’s Best coffee was the best coffee on the ship. The variety of snack sandwiches were very good, the daily specialty pizza (number three on the daily pizza list) was great. The chocolate chip cookies were scrumptious.

The Windjammer and the Island grill are two more delightful spaces. They are done in bright yellows and greens with wicker seats, plenty of live plants and spectacular ocean views throughout. They offer a very wide variety of foods for lunch, though breakfast was always the same.

Once again the food was average. A few things at lunch were good. The desserts at lunch were EXCELLENT, but most of the food was just average. The breakfast buffet DOES have an omelet and egg station in the Island grill. Being able to get eggs over easy and fresh made omelets is a big, big, plus. One of our group didn’t realize this was there until the last day, and was sorry he missed it.

A standout on the ship, is the extra charge Portofino restaurant. We initially weren’t going to eat there, but caught up in the embarkation excitement, booked a dinner for adults only there. We are glad we did. The food and service was as good as we have ever had on a ship.

The room is a small setting, second only in intimacy to the Connoisseurs Club. There are wonderful floral bouquets throughout, and more table attendants that you can shake a stick at. Salads are prepared table side. Food is cooked to perfection. Everything is flavorful. There were no senseless injuries due to wine waiting.

I could not however order two entres in this space. You can do so in the main dining rooms.

There were also two midnight buffets. One on deck, and one in the main dining room. Having just finished dinner at 10:30pm, it would have been suicide to attend one.

Once again, the less than great experience may come from sailing a peak week, but then again all of our “great dining experiences” were all on peak weeks. I tend to think 3600 passengers is just too much to handle in two seatings. Royal Caribbean should certainly consider the free style dining of NCL or the personal choice dining of Princess for this size vessel. It seems to fare well for the food quality of other lines.


The entertainment & Activities

My background training in college was musical theater, and my instrument was French horn. Before making the switch to a life in theater, I spent 8 years as a High School Band director. I have in the past 10 years, been involved in over 500 productions. I know when things are bad and know when they are good, and can at times be a real performance snob.

It is possibly the only thing I am capable of being a snob about.

I am certainly not a slave to fashion (99 percent of my wardrobe is Hawaiian shirts and the remaining 1 percent is formal wear). I relish the thought of a day of eating carny food and as previously mentioned happily munch on meat on a stick from push cart vendors.

I am fully capable of spending a day with breakfast stains on my shirt, missing large parts of my face when I shave or having soap from my morning shower in my ear.

Just ask my wife.

One area in which Explorer absolutely shines, is entertainment. The ship is brilliant at it. This is part in parcel to the incredibly large stable of musicians on the ship, and the astounding technical prowess of the ships two large performing venues.

There was live music everywhere, and I mean everywhere. It's what made the Palace Theater Main Stage productions unique. On my previous cruises, main stage productions have always used a mix of canned (pre-recorded) orchestrations with a live rhythm section. Not on Explorer.

There was at each Main Stage show, a 10 piece band backing up the singers and dancers. They were either on stage in a "Hollywood squares" type set up, or the pit, which rose up from the floor via hydraulics. Coupled with marvelous lighting design, fantastic stage effects and a visually stunning background star drop, this made the main stage productions a treat.

A most unusual combination of a violinist an oboist and a pianist frequently played in the Aquarium Lounge or on the main dining room balcony. The lush timbre of this trio always soothed the party animal in me and caused me the pause, sit down, and listen to at least one number, before running off in search of my next libation.

The poolside reggae/Island band was the perfect excuse to bop my head, order a drink, and forget the deck chair situation.

There were pianists in Dizzy's in the early evening, the Schooner Bar, The balcony of the Main Dining room and at the Aquarium Bar. The Aquarium bar also featured a jazz quartet from time to time.

There was a vocalist who played guitar and led sing-a-longs in the crown and kettle pub.

Dizzy's featured a Latin band most nights, although it really sparkled the one night they had an 8 piece Jazz band and two marvelous vocalists performing all the great Jazz standards. It was also the only night Dizzys was really packed. Considering the hour of performance was 12:00am to 1:00am, and the place was full, RCCL should really consider changing this venue to full time Jazz. It is what this space screams for. Had it been there nightly, I'm sure the club would have been packed nightly. At the very least, we would have been there nightly.

I suppose that would have meant there were that many people less in the Casino on a regular basis, so bookkeeping may play a hand in this.

The vocalists in the mainstage shows were all beyond reproach. While the dancing was on the light end ("She who must be obeyed" is a choreographer) the live orchestration and butt kicking vocal work made up for it.

The comedians were funny. Especially since one was an almost spitting image of one of our group of 32. People all week came up to our friend Tom and congratulated him for the great performance. We all did our best to keep a straight face he explained the rigors of shipboard comedy, or why he had red hair on stage and black hair on deck. ("If I didn't use some sort of disguise, I would have to spend my Caribbean days on the bottom of the ship. I have a very small room")

The Drifters headlined the last night of the cruise backed up by the House band. Now that was a rip. The whole theater sang along with "under the boardwalk" and "on broadway".

Krews Komic jugglers popped up from time to time, including once in an elevator to the surprise and delight of those who used the lifts.

The Quest Game in Studio B was absolutely hilarious.

Finally, to chime in what everyone has said about Studio B's Planet Ice Show, DON'T MISS IT. The effects, the costumes, the choice of music ( a lot of The Doors), and the skating that is performed in this tiny rink are astounding. It is the only shipboard performance I have ever seen, that left me feeling as though I had "paid" for my ticket, rather than sat down for free. Abso-freakin-loutely brilliant.

As far as things to do on board ship, once again Explorer excels. "She who must be obeyed" and others in our group literally "got out there" and did what the RCCL commercial suggested. They rock climbed ( a real hoot), they roller bladed, they worked out in the gym, they had spa treatments and they played mini-golf. One afternoon, all the womenfolk and kids went Ice skating.

The result was not exactly "The Planet Ice Show" but was just as entertaining to watch. Four of us sat in the seats and acted as Olympic judges shouting out scores. It was hilarious.

WE all played bingo the last day. There was a 16,000 dollar cash prize for the final game which went to one very, very, very, happy player. Had I won it, I would not be writing this.

I would be drunk rolling naked on the floor in the wad of CASH they gave him.

In addition there were the standard pool games, Karaoke nights, trivia contests, art auctions, sporting events and a plethora of things for kids to do.

Entertainment and activities is a very strong suit of the ship. They took some of the edge off, of having two additional days at sea, the missed port of Labadee and the missed port of Grand Caymen.

Although even for me, who loves days at sea, four days was A LOT. Especially since the Grand Caymen skip was not a day to be topside. 40 knot winds, 16 foot seas and a ship rolling like a naked man with 16,000 dollars in bingo cash.

Even in THAT weather, there were still hundreds of towels on the deck chairs by the pools just in case.


What the kids thought

"What I liked most about the ship was the free stuff. And also the Freedom. Anything with the word free in it" Adam-age 8

We had a gaggle of kids in our party and they all loved the ship. In fact, truth be known, they liked it considerably more than the adults in our party. Explorer is a family friendly ship giving young kids big first freedoms and first choices, and parents time to have a cocktail without really worrying too much about there kids. Though someone always has to be the Mommy or the Daddy, it's done in shifts, and with far less stress than at a land based resort.

More than once I heard the phrase "Honey, go see where the kids are" and "Has anyone seen Alex since we left Jamaica?" At a land based resort these words would have been spoken in terror. On a ship they are followed by a laugh and a casual stroll.

But enough from me. Let's hear from the pro's.

Emily age 9 (I think), loved being able to choose from the adult menu. She never gets to do that at home at the price of restaurant dinners. She too loved the "free stuff".

If only these kids knew what the free stuff cost.

She gave the ship a 10, out of 10, in spite of having spent a very rough sea day throwing up. Emily hated the kids club. When I asked what she hated about it she said "Everything".

Her younger brother Joey gave the ship a 9, and asked his Mom and Dad when they could go on a ship again. He had his first plate of pasta on the ship (he's a very picky eater) much to the delight of his parents. He loved the kids club dearly. His rating was also surprisingly high rating considering he got his finger closed in between the cabin door once, and his father rubbed vinegar into an open wound while trying to rid him of "sea lice".

But that is another story.

Alex the younger gave the ship a 9.9. I don't know if he was in the kids club, but I do know he loved the free Ice Cream, and loved "all the stuff to eat". If the ship wasn't so rocky that it made him sick to his stomach, he says it would have been a ten

Chrissy and Alex (both age 13) gave the ship a 9. Alex favored Grand Princess because it was "nicer", though he thought Explorer was "pretty cool". Both really enjoyed not having to be with their parents everywhere for a week, and being able to go off on their own and hangout. I'm sure the feeling was mutual.

Katie and Emily (I believe both are 14) met on Grand Princess two years ago. They became phone pals, and made cross country trips to see each other. Katie's Mom and our group hooked up and viola! Another family joined our group. Katie thought the ship was cool with lots to do and gave it a 9. Emily gave it a 7 because of "stuff".

When you a 14 year old girl, there's always "stuff".

Jackie (young, sweet and cute as a button) gave the ship a 10 because it was fun. Another high score considering she spent a day with an eye infection

Adam, whose quote is above, thought deeply and gave the ship a 7. He said it would have "been higher if we made all the stops". As a matter of irony, his Dad who loves sea days, ALSO gave the ship a seven, and said ( I kid you not) "it would have been LOWER if it made all the stops".

8 other random kids I chatted with (always with their parents near), in the Promenade Café, and at Johnny Rockets all gave the ship 9's & 10's., one gave it a 7.

Some of their comments included; "Cuz I can play mini golf as many times as I want with the other kids and Dad doesn't say it's too much money" "Mom never lets me eat pizza everyday". "The pool slide is just for kids so the grown-ups don't hog it" "You wake up and you're somewhere else", and by far my favorite "Dad gets loopy and lets me spend like 30 dollars on video games"

The one who gave it a 7 said "Mom's food always tastes funny and she said the food on the ship would be better, but it tasted funny too"

Out of the mouths of babes.


The little things & My last 2cnts.

It's really the little things in life that make or break any experience. Many relationships have ended because of countless annoying little things that pile up day after day. I know things get pretty dicey around my house when I leave my shoes in the middle of the floor.

Conversely, it's the thousands of wonderful little things and attention to detail that separates a Disney World, from Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in NJ.

That is not to say a day at Great Adventure isn't packed with fun. It's just not packed with eye candy and zillions of little things to discover when you're not screaming down a 45 degree hill at 65 miles an hour in a roller coaster.

Explorer *IS* without a doubt a big and beautiful ship. Anyone who would say less is on crack.

But perhaps, at least for me, she is too big a ship, with too many people. While I absolutely loved her marvelous space, activities and entertainment, I did dearly miss a lot of "little things".

But before I delve into those, I must point out the little things that were wonderful.
When I'm on vacation, I always "accent the positive". Heck I save and anticipate for over 700 hundred days for each cruise I go on. While it is sometimes hard to "eliminate the negative", if I don't have a good time, it's my own damned fault for letting things bother me.

The housekeeping staff of the ship, that I had *one on one* contact with were great. All those who traveled with me felt the same. The Cabin stewards were terrific and did a great job. Even though the "towel monkey" that ours left hanging in our room scared the hell out of "she who must be obeyed" and myself when we returned one night. He got us bathrobes when we requested it. He brought a plastic champagne bucket to replace the ice bucket to chill our "adult beverage". He was great.

I even tipped a cabin steward who wasn't *MY* cabin steward. He made me laugh every day. Early in the morning as I walked to breakfast he could be heard singing Bob Marley songs as he cleaned. I joined him in a chorus of "Buffalo soldier". For the week when he saw me coming he would yell out `Ere comes Mista `Appy!

The Jamaican Bartenders & bar staffs throughout the ship, (especially at the Skybar) were simply the best I've ever experienced. Martini's were perfectly chilled and all drinks were consistently good. They were personable, polite, fast, and very quick to learn your name. In fact they were the only ones on the ship that I'm certain knew my name.

Of course they had seen it on a zillion bar receipts. Repetition does reinforce learning.

But there in is the rub, learning your name. It gives a sense of personal service. It is one of the little things that get lost in the wash of 3500 fellow passengers. For me this was most missed in the dining room.

Though our friends travel as a group, we do not vacation as a group. I like to think of it as going on 32 separate vacations together. Dinner on a ship is the only time (save our traditional raucous, drunken sail-away on deck) that we are together as a whole. For us, on previous cruises, it was the height of each days cruise experience. A time to recap and enjoy the entertainment of our company and argue over who has the best table service.

This trip was easy, no one did.

As I have said earlier, the probably cause for this is that the dining room is seemed to be understaffed, and preparing meals for 1750 people at a sitting may just be too much for the kitchen. Once again Explorer may just be too big a ship for me.

Several of my fellow travelers dishes came out cold. My meats were for most part cooked medium rare, with the one exception of my prime rib. I did send it back, and what returned was exactly the same. I could live with that. The whole issue of no wine steward was a major issue, at dinner. Had the wine service been as fast as liquor service (which was perfect) the average nature of the food would have been easily overlooked. We had all read the reviews on the ship, and knew what to expect of the food. We were disappointed by the service. It could have made all the difference in the world.

I must point out we did (as I stated earlier) speak about the service, and it did improve slightly, but the wine situation never really worked itself out. Add a wine steward and make the wine drinkers (who were mostly the womanfolk) happy.

If the womanfolk are happy, the menfolk are happy, and everyone is happy. Take that from Mista 'Appy.

The deck chair situation was another one of those little things that was a burr in the side of not only my group, but many, many people. It could be solved by more frequent patrols my the "towel police" or as I mentioned earlier, simply adding more deck chairs on the running track after X'o'clock. This has never been such an issue on any other ship during February break.

Once again, 3500 people may just be about a thousand more than I want to travel with.

While the Royal Promenade is indeed a wonderful space, it is entirely an interior space. I missed the constant views of the sea as I strolled along the interior of the ship. I missed the way sunlight plays and sparkles on plants, fittings and furniture through banks of windows on a glorious sea day.

To be at sea on a ship is almost dreamlike. It strikes the primal seafarer within, that all original non-native North Americans began as. Sort of like going back to ones roots, only in a markedly nicer boat. I always need to be reminded I am at sea.

I missed not having a convenient way to eat my lunches outside. I missed accessible poolside munchies. While there was burgers and hotdogs in steamers tucked by the ping pong tables, there's nothing like the smell of stuff cooking to make your nipples hard, and your tastebuds tingle while enjoying a seaday by the pool.

We did have one other very unfortunate incident which we felt was all "size of ship and lack of staff" related. While taking our group photo on the "notoriously rocky" sea day that was to be Grand Cayman, the motion got to be too much for one of our younger sailors. To use the nautical term, she "puked" on the stairwell to the Palace Theater. She had been doing this in her stateroom all day, so I trust me, I've seen worse.

I went to college after all.

Members of our group blocked ends of the stairwell to prevent anyone from slipping because the "damage" was almost invisible, and the ships photographer called maintenance. Ten minutes later he called them again. Fifteen minutes later he called again. Twenty minutes later one of my party called. A total of twenty five minutes later I went to guest services and told them we were still waiting and my party was blocking off the stairwell. She called and sternly asked someone get there in two minutes, I heard her.

At thirty five minutes members of my party went to the restrooms, got paper towel and water and began cleaning it themselves. I went to guest services and informed them we were doing this. I did so politely but firmly. I am just not the "going ballistic" type. The guest services manager picked up the phone and went ballistic. She used words only a true sailor would use.

By the time I returned forward, swat teams of cleaning staff were descending on the area from all directions, including the ships head of facilities. If we were outdoors I would swear they came in by choppers. The facility Director apologized and said with the seas, the staff was very busy. It was a main central stairwell on the Royal Promenade. It took 45 minutes to respond. The guests started the cleaning process. It was an entirely unacceptable situation, and he agreed.

It was one of those "little things" that can end relationships.

Even in spite of all of these things, all in all I had a great vacation, I always do. We all did. When you cruise with the group of people we do, it's impossible not to, unless you the cruise ends up with you sitting in a life boat singing "nearer my God to thee". It just wasn't the best cruise I ever been on. Grand Princess still holds the title of being, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.

Norway, with her class and charm (and that's with her lack of windowed dining and activities) is second best, and because my glass is always half full, Explorer was third best.

Regardless of all the little things or lack of them, nothing beats seven days at sea, with people whom for the most part first became your friends when big hair and disco was in style.

Now many of us are in the little hair, and slipped disk category, but the fun is still the same.

One of the things I always do on a cruise, is during the last day out, speak to as many people as I can and ask them how they enjoyed their week and the ship. I do this everywhere I go on vacation, not just cruises. It helps me level the playing field and give a broader opinion for those who may journey behind me. I always make sure when asking people about their week that they understand to "put aside" the things that are out of anyone's control. Those being weather, and missed ports.

Lord knows everyone whines about missed ports. It happens. No port is guaranteed, it says so on the ticket. I think they started printing that there after Titanic. I only whine about bad weather, I could always use another day at sea.

Of our group of 25 adults, there 2 who had cruised more than seven times, 2 that had only one other cruise, 4 first timers and 16 who had gone on at least three other cruises.

20 gave the ship a 7. As one said so eloquently "It wasn't a ten, but it certainly wasn't a 5.

All 20 said while they would consider RCCL again, they wouldn't consider it for 2006. 12 of them said if they cruised RCCL again, they would definitely go on smaller ship with a higher staff to passenger ratio.

Two gave the ship a 4, and two gave the ship a 3 and weren't sure they would ever consider RCCL again. Interestingly enough those four will venture out in two weeks on Carnivals Spirit, and promised a review for me.

I spoke to 47 other adults at various chatty venues around the ship on Friday, mostly at bars. Nothing like a few drinks to get folks chatty.

12 were multi cruisers having been on various lines with a batch of cruises under their belts. They gave three 9's, three 8's, four 7's and two 6's

14 were primarily RCCL cruisers, they gave one 10 seven 9's, five 8's and one 4. The "4" had taken Navigator last year and immediately booked Explorer for this year. She said the difference in service and deck chairs was night and day, and would not cruise Explorer again.

4 Canadians at a corner table near ours in the restaurant were first time cruises. Three gave the experience a 5, because of a rather large "issue" they had (I didn't ask) and the forth gave it a 10, and stated "it was the best vacation he's ever had".

10 were Celebrity or Princess cruisers exclusively, and they handed out three 8's, four 7's and three 6's.

4 more I met at the aquarium bar were first time cruisers, three gave it a 10, and one gave it a 9, all said they would rebook the ship in a heartbeat.

Three were exclusively Carnival cruisers, and all gave the experience a 9, but noted dinner was better on Carnival.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a solid 7 for her magnificent beauty, plentiful activities and wonderful entertainment. Do realize everyone is different, and there is nothing more subjective than a personal viewpoint. Depending on your week, your waiters, and if the chef is sober, your experience could quite possibly be a 10+

Ours was on the Norway in 2000, and if there was ever a ship that had as many 1 ratings as 10 ratings, that was it.

All things now said, I'm glad to have experienced the ship, and for "she who must be obeyed" she certainly "got out there" and tried all Explorer had to offer and was glad to have tried it as well. She had a great time, but said “1000 less people next time.

She *IS* “she who must be obeyed”.

For our group, members have already begun to look into Celebrity's Millie Class, and Princess' Coral Class for our 2006 spin. Possibly even a Golden Princess Southern Caribbean run out of Puerto Rico. I wouldn't be surprised if our group passes 40 in size next time out. There are three more families that have sworn not to miss another.

For those who stuck this entire review out to the bitter end, thanks for reading. For those who require such information, we had early debarking (white tags) and our entire group was at the airport by 8AM (some with bags already checked at the AA counter at the pier) checked in, through security and drinking Starbucks overpriced coffee by 8:40.

Debarkation and Embarkation were the easiest we've seen. I was especially surprised debarking went so well considering the reviews I read. We had no problem making our much sweated 10:55am.

Smooth seas, friendly skies and happy sails to all of you. May your next vacation be your best.

John
Office of Missing The Jamaican Bartenders
The Zamgwar Institute
zamgwar@aol.com

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