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Mike Astrab

Age: 32

Occupation:Attorney

Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Explorer of the Seas

Sailing Date: April 24th, 2004

Itinerary: Western Caribbean


***PRE-REVIEW EDITORIAL COMMENT

Part of my reason in writing this review is to pass along my experience. I have extensively reviewed the other reviews posted on this ship and most of the other ships in the RCCL fleet. I can honestly say that on my two RCCL cruises and my one Carnival cruise I have yet to encounter a single crew member that was the slightest bit rude or didn’t seem to care about his or her job. When I read the overly-negative reviews that I see here, I am compelled to conclude that the reviewer, while possibly having a valid reason for making the complaint(s), must have approached the situation in a negative way…Here is an example – On the Royal Promenade our first day there was a table advertising Explorer’s soft drink card ($42 bucks for the week for unlimited soft drinks). For some strange reason, however, the table had many cans of beer on it as well. A passenger approached the table and asked if alcohol was included. The crew member politely said that the card only covered soft drinks. Following this, the passenger rudely and loudly yelled at the crew member for having the beer cans on the table – valid complaint? Yes. Correct approach to the situation? No. It’s all in the way you approach the situation. If your attitude is that the crew members are there to be your humble servants and must heed your beck and call and make everything absolutely perfect, then you will have a disappointing experience. Throughout this review I will point out passengers who I thought crossed the line as opposed to slamming the crew members. I think that this will give a better perspective to some of the negative reviews.

Thus endeth the sermon…On to the review!

This cruise was my third cruise and my wife’s fifth. Each time seems to get better. This was our first time on a Voyager-class ship and its going to be difficult to downsize after our experience! I’ll start from the beginning…

We flew out of rainy Cleveland on 4/23 with our 2 year old son, who was going to be spending the week with my parents in Miami. Upon arrival in sunny Florida we spent the day lounging around and getting psyched up for the trip. Went out to the beach in Hollywood and saw the line of ships offshore awaiting a morning port call.

EMBARKATION/CABIN

Absolutely flawless! We arrived at the port at about 10:50 and we were in our cabin by 11:20. Security was a breeze and we even spent time hunting for an upgrade (none available). Cabin was not ready at that early hour, so we dropped our carry-ons in the closet and set out to explore the Explorer. To digress for a second, we had one of the famous Promenade-View rooms. Although it was of more than acceptable size and the bay window had a large sitting area, I would not book this cabin again. We had a balcony on Grandeur of the Seas and this, in my opinion, was a HUGE step down. Just don’t like not being able to look outside and see what is going on…Had no idea if the ship was in port or had sunk while we were sleeping.

THE SHIP

WOW! That is all I can say about this ship. It is frigging huge! The Promenade is such a unique feature and we spent a great deal of time there drinking coffee and people watching. There is a 24 hour café that serves pizza, cookies, small sandwiches and (for and extra fee) Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. There is also an English-style pub and a sports bar (only shows ESPN International, meaning LOTS of soccer). This area is where the shopping is as well and the standard on-board shops are present. MONEY SAVING TIP: We did not take advantage of this, but on the first night the booze store had a 4 for 1 charge for instant pick-up, meaning that the $9.50 charge for being able to open the bottle immediately applied to four bottles instead of the usual one bottle. Here’s a shot of the Royal Promenade:\

The Pool Decks are, like everything else, HUGE. Until common courtesy becomes commonplace, there will always be a problem with saving chairs. Being unfailingly polite, I am not the type to throw someone’s towel and/or book on the ground, but when you see the same chair with the same towel and book for five hours, it is very tempting. There is tiered seating for the sun deck and there are chairs on the upper-level Sports Deck as well. An area that we found to be less crowded is the stern, but it is also directly in front of the children’s play area, so it can get very noisy with screaming children. As to the pools, they are large and never quite busy. For once there were ample hot tubs in the main area, as well as a couple big ones in the adults-only Solarium and another in the fitness center. I was told that the solarium hot tubs were on average much warmer than the pool tubs, but the only night that I used a pool tub I also had pretty bad sunburn, so it seemed pretty darn hot to me.
The fitness center is huge and I was able to immediately get onto a machine without waiting on the three mornings that I got up the motivation to actually go. It was a little weird at first – The center is above the bow of the ship. As we were pulling into Jamaica the ship was making a hard port (left) turn. My usual view at my rec center is either of the person in front of me or of the woods behind the center. Being on the elliptical machine and sensing and viewing the ship’s movement made me feel slightly out-of-whack for a couple minutes, but I adjusted quickly. Keep this in mind if you are prone to motion sickness. I did not utilize the sauna nor the weight area.

The Sports Deck is great – Contains the mini-golf, basketball area, in-line skating, and, looming above it all, the mighty rock wall. We played mini-golf the first night out – It was pretty cool, but the wind on the deck, coupled with the ship’s movement, made it challenging at times to get the ball in the hole. One gripe…the “rock” walls in the course are actually composite materials that have no bounce to them – one major strategy in mini-golf is to ricochet your ball off of the walls to get to where you are going. When the ball hits these walls, it just sits there and dies. No ricochet whatsoever. Keep that in mind! Due to our inability to properly plan, we did not use the in-line skating area. My wife did climb the rock wall and had a blast – it is harder than it looks (overhangs) and requires decent upper and lower body strength. You are harnessed in and given safety equipment and have a one-on-one with a crew member, so you are not left unsupervised during the climb. One thing I did wonder about but neglected to ask…The rock wall is located on the ship’s funnel, which is also (I believe) where the ship’s horns are located. I wonder how frigging loud it would be if the horns went off while someone was near the top of the wall…

I utilized the running/walking track on a few mornings. Big enough and not too crowded. One piece of advice…get in your running in the morning before the decks fill up with sunbathers. Due to the layout, there are deck chairs all near the track – I saw people running in the afternoon and trying to dodge people laying out or walking around looking for a place to lay out. Use a little common sense and do not attempt to work out during the afternoon hours if the area is crowded – You are not going to get in a quality workout and will probably end up torking off a lot of people in the process.

This class of ship is really neat in that the bow of the ship is open to passenger access. You can walk up nearly to the very tip of the ship (and if you are quick can do the “King of the World” thing before security is dispatched to remove you – remember the Bridge is directly above you here). It is VERY windy up here, so keep that in mind if you have a cap or lightweight family member that you don’t want to lose.

The Casino was very generous to me! I am usually the King of Breaking Even, but this time the slot machines gave me back around $400 over the week. One negative here – I love video poker, but the only machines they had were crappy progressive multi-game machines with bad payout schedules. I only played twice during the week. I am a nervous gambler and did not play any table games during the week. I was doing well enough on the slots that I did not have the desire to go elsewhere to gamble. One thing the casino crew needs to work on – throughout the week there were a LOT of teenagers playing the slots. Although I did hear them being told to leave, there was no follow-up enforcement of the rules. I frankly could care less, but in one instance I kept getting bugged by a group of kids to help them cash out a small jackpot that they had won.

The internet center is very large and has easy-to-follow instructions so that you can sign on. READ CAREFULLY – The cost is very high, so unless you absolutely need to communicate with the outside world, I’d suggest not partaking.

I’ll cover other areas of the ship as I go through the day-to-day activities that we partook in…

DAY ONE (Saturday, April 24th)


Following embarkation, we just walked around the ship checking things out. Around 3:00 we met up with fellow members of our Cruise-Critic board at the Sports Bar. I have never done the CC thing before, but I would strongly recommend it. It was great having a group of people that you have a basic relationship with before you even board. We traded shore excursion ideas amongst each other beforehand and ended up on many of the same trips throughout the week.

There was a welcome-aboard show in the evening that provided a sneak peek at the rest of the week’s shows. There was also a gymnastics duet from Poland that was downright freaky and exciting and a comedian who was so-so.

We just kind of relaxed this night and got into the groove of having a week of doing everything yet nothing ahead of us. Dinner was a half-hour later than normal (we had second seating) and was typical RCCL – This will go for the whole week – It was very good food. Nothing exceptional, but nothing exceptionally bad. For a kitchen tasked with serving 3000 people in a three-hour time frame they do a hell of a job. If you want to be waited on like a king and have gourmet everything, give Crystal or Seabourne a call. You get what you pay for (and a lot more, in my opinion). Our waitstaff, Fernanda and Carmella, did a great job at taking care of us throughout the week.

As for the Windjammer, the food was more than adequate, and quite good, all week. Its pretty much "safe" food, so enjoy!

DAY TWO

This was a stop in Nassau, which was a substitute for Labadee. Being a lover of history, it absolutely amazes me that the suits at RCCL did not do a little research into the violent history of Haiti before they laid down a chunk of cash to buy and develop the Labadee property. It appears that this stop will be down for quite a while, if not permanently, due to the inability of Haiti to maintain a stable government for more than two weeks. Oh well…

We did not do an organized excursion at Nassau. We slept in a little then walked (yes walked) to the Atlantis. It took us about a ½ hour to walk there and was a little nerve-wracking at times…Being a Sunday, many of the shops were closed and the streets on the way to the bridge to Paradise Island were pretty deserted. A couple of times I had to keep an extra eye out as we walked near certain areas. I think I was over-reacting, but keep that in mind if you want to walk over there. The Atlantis is beautiful and VERY EXPENSIVE…A chocolate chip cookie and two pops ran us $9.00. We managed to walk out of there up $1.00 after hitting on a slot machine…WOO HOO!!

***Negative Review digression…I have seen many negative comments regarding beach access at Atlantis and the resort’s rules limiting such access to guests only. After having been there, I am in total agreement with Atlantis’ policy. This place is huge and extremely expensive. It was filled with cruise ship passengers milling about the public areas. If everyone were to be given access to the beach/waterslide area, it would be ridiculously crowded there as well. The guests who pay the grossly expensive rates at Atlantis deserve an area or two that they can enjoy without too much crowding.

Back to the review…Following our victorious exit from Atlantis, we walked next door to Cabbage Beach…It is beautiful here and is open to the public.

We made it back to the ship and had lunch at Johnny Rockets, which is very popular and faithful to the menu back home. Later on we went to dinner and then experienced adult karaoke night in the Maharaja’s Lounge. It was above-average…the best was truly Frankie from Hawaii who did a dead-on rendition of Colin Raye’s “I’m already there.” After that, we went to the Chamber nightclub, which is a two-level affair reminding me of a dungeon. Typical house/dance music that I enjoyed in college. We were up pretty darn late.

DAY THREE

Due to being up pretty darn late the night before, we slept in, as this was our first day at sea. I did go down to the ice rink to get our tickets to the Ice Show, which I would strongly suggest going to see. We really just kind of bummed around this whole day, laying around in the sun and not doing much of anything. This is the beauty of cruising – there was plenty to do if you want to do it. We chose to lay around, but there were plenty of planned activities as well. The belly-flop contest was a big draw and there was great calypso music all afternoon on the pool deck. The Art Auctions are interesting as well…We did not think this is something that we would enjoy, but ended up going to a couple and buying some nice works at cut-rate prices. I’d suggest at least checking one out during the cruise.

DAY FOUR

This was Jamaica day. We did not utilize any of RCCL’s official excursions at any point during this cruise. They are expensive and very crowded. We heard good buzz about Phil Lafayette online and booked a tour with him. For $50 a head, we and about ten others boarded his air-conditioned bus and toured the Ocho Rios area, stopped at Fern Gully (rain forest) to view some out-of-the-way small markets, saw a spice garden with a very large marijuana plant growing off to the side and watched a road-side “fireman” dance with fire-sticks. Phil is great – he loves his country, is very-well spoken and goes out of his way to show you a good time. He took us to a small waterfall area off the beaten path and then it was off to the White River for tubing. This was like the “lazy river” rides at theme parks around the country. Guides were posted along the way to make sure you didn’t get tangled up in the brush on the banks and there were some cool rapids to liven things up. Definitely a great stop – the ride lasted about 45 minutes and then it was off to Dunns River Falls. DRF is a 600 foot waterfall that cascades its way into the sea at an angle that allows it to be climbed without too much difficulty. There are guides available to assist the climb, which is done in a human-chain method. Watch out for the underwater rocks…my shin hit one that almost ended my climb (I now have a scar as a permanent reminder of the trip). There are certain portions that I would deem to be a little difficult, but nothing unmanageable. I would definitely recommend this stop, but with the following proviso: AVOID AT ALL COSTS THE SHOPPING AREA AT THE TOP OF THE FALLS…This is the Jamaica that we have heard about. The vendors were aggressive *()&*(s who accused us of being racist for not buying anything and who literally got into your face if you did not make a purchase…My suggestion is to keep walking – do not stop, do not look at anything…There is a way to bypass this area, but we screwed up…Make sure you ask your tour guide how to avoid the area.

Our tour lasted about six hours and was well worth the money. I would strongly recommend Phil. This, however, was the Explorer’s last stop in Jamaica for the foreseeable future – the new itinerary includes Belize instead. The grapevine said that part of the reason was due to ongoing customer complaints about aggressive vendors, but I do not know for sure what RCCL’s official reasons were for changing the intinerary.

One more suggestion…Our day was cut short when the one credit card that we took with us that day was rejected in several stores. We had to tramp back to the ship. Turns out that a business we’d used that card at several weeks earlier had been burglarized and a lot of credit card info had been stolen. Thus, our card was on a fraud watch. When Fleet saw a charge in Jamaica pop up, alarms sounded and they shut the card down. It was nice that they did this, but it also would have been nice if they’d told us they were watching our card. The suggestion is to call all of your credit companies and inform them that you are leaving the country – even without the fraud watch on our card, we learned that many companies will automatically reject foreign charges without prior authorization from the customer (my American Express card was fine, however).

We heard that Margaritaville, which is Jimmy Buffett’s bar, was a blast, but by the time we got done dealing with the credit card it was too late to head back to the shopping area near the ship to experience it for ourselves.

We went to Portofinos this night, which is Explorer’s $20 a head Italian restaurant. Excellent service, terrific food and well-worth the money. We lucked out and managed to get an 8:30 reservation at about 5:30 that afternoon, but I’d suggest booking as soon as possible. We did experience our MORON OF THE WEEK here, however. Upon arrival, we noticed a table of four very loud (and drunk) women who looked like they had just walked out of an 80’s photo shoot (big hair, big earrings…). One of them had a walkie-talkie (great idea that I’ll touch on later) and was using it in the restaurant to communicate with her son Joshua. Now, first off, the mere use of this radio inside of the restaurant was rude, but she was screaming at her son, who was screaming back at her, and between the two of them the tables surrounding them were getting very upset. With an accent that had Long Island all over it, she would bellow JOSHUUUAA into the radio…”JOSHUUA…GET DOWN TO THE ICE RINK FOR THE SHOW…GET IN LINE AND WAIT FOR US JOSHUUUUUA.” Joshua, who sounded like he was equally obnoxious, would scream back at her but we could not make out what he was saying. Luckily, they were getting ready to leave, so we knew it would soon be over. Being a luxury-type establishment, the staff lets you relax during the course of the dinner. These classy ladies, however, wanted their check so they could go join JOSHUUUA and the remainder of their group at Studio B (Ice Skating). One of the other “ladies” in the group called over a member of the staff, who I believe was Filipino. The woman proceeded to loudly tell the staff member, with hand gestures, that they needed their check “because they had to go bye-bye,” because obviously the crew member did not speak a word of English nor, being a foreigner was she able to understand English. The manner in which this communication was made was absolutely insulting to me and almost caused me to get up and smack some common sense into the side of this woman’s big-haired head. I restrained myself

and the group left to polite applause. I hope that a member of that group reads this review and, in reflection, is embarrassed about their behavior, but my guess is that the word “class” is not in their vocabulary and that this behavior is absolutely normal for them. If by chance one of them writes a review, I can see them complaining that the staff was rude and that they could not speak English and that they took forever to get them a check…Other than that, we had a great experience!

DAY FIVE

Today we stopped in Grand Cayman, the oft-cancelled tender stop and my favorite port of the trip. This place is spotless and everyone drives BMWs, Lexuses (Lexi?) and Mercedes. There is plenty of money here due to the off-shore banking that is putting GC above Switzerland for such purposes. We booked online with Soto Cruises for snorkeling and took a three-stop trip for $25 bucks a head. There were two boats in our group and our boat only had about 20 people on it. The guides were very friendly and the areas that we visited were excellent – great visibility, no crowds and plenty of snorkeling time. You could pick out the ships with official excursions – they had about 100 people each on them and those people probably paid a lot more than we did! The stingray experience was one of the more interesting things that I’ve ever done…the animals are very friendly and our guides were very helpful in “capturing” one and allowing us to feed, pet and even kiss the ray. They look really cool coming in from the open sea– almost like a group of stealth fighters streaking towards their target.

There were only two other ships in port the day we were there, so things were not that crowded. I have read reviews where eight ships were tendering in passengers, so I can’t say my experience would match up to what someone else might experience with bigger crowds.

DAY SIX

This was our final port – Cozumel. Upon being escorted into the harbor by a Mexican patrol boat (with its .50 cal machine gun pointed AT the ship), we docked at the International Pier, which is about a five-minute cab ride to San Miguel, where another major dock and all of the main shopping exists. We chose to go on our own to Chankanaab, which is a national park about five minutes by cab the other way down the road. There is also a bike/scooter path that takes you there as well. Admission to the park is $12 a head and it is beautiful. There are FREE lounge chairs and thatch umbrellas lining the beach and the snorkeling is very good here. There are plenty of fish and they are not shy. I also came within a few feet of a barracuda, which kind of freaked me out. There are dive/snorkel shops here and it costs about $9 per person for full snorkel gear.

Chankanaab also has in-water experiences with Dolphins and/or Sea Lions. We did not do these, but heard rave reviews from people that did. There are a few restaurants here as well as a walk-through botanical garden and replica Mayan artifacts arranged in a “dig” area. A beautiful lagoon is on the property with some temples across the water that provide for great pictures.

We did not manage our time well and so we did not see all that Chankanaab has to offer. We would, however, recommend it. Its close to the pier and has everything you could want for a fun day in Mexico.

Following Chankanaab we went to San Miguel and did a little shopping, then wrapped up the stop in Carlo’s & Charlies, a legendary bar that serves “yard high” drinks. A couple of Long Island Iced Teas later I was ready to party!

Later that night we assisted in helping a couple of our Cruise Critic compadres avoid paying duty on the booze that they bought by sitting in one of the hot tubs until 5:00 in the morning…It was a wonderful and relaxing night and I had by that point completely forgotten that I had a busy law practice that was probably going down the tubes as I bobbed around in the middle of the ocean.

DAY SEVEN


The last day of our cruise consisted of sleeping in until about 11:00 in the morning. We chilled out for most of the day and slowly began packing for our return to reality in the morning. We had more lunch at Johnny Rockets and checked out the onboard pictures that we’d had taken throughout the week. The dinner was the usual farewell and tips were given to all of our service providers. We turned in early out of sheer exhaustion.

DEBARKATION

Pretty flawless. Unlike past cruises, you aren’t assigned to a particular area of the ship. One tip, however. We spent time on the pool deck. For whatever reason, the announcements regarding tag colors were not being made out there and we did not realize that our color had been called about a ½ hour earlier. If you don’t hear an announcement for a while, make sure you ask someone!

The luggage area is like an airport. There are belts for your luggage – it is not like the warehouse that we have experienced in the past where everyone’s luggage is just sitting in a huge room.

TIPS/SUGGESTIONS

1. We brought some Motorola walkie-talkies with us. These were great for communicating and we did not have any reception problems anywhere in the ship.

2. Be nice to the crew members. They work very hard for their money and deserve respect…They are not peasants there for your pleasure. If you truly do have a negative experience, report it. Just remember, the way you approach a situation will affect the way that the situation is handled. You are not the only passenger on the ship!

3. Do some research on-line and consider visiting Cruisecritic.com or AOL’s message boards. The tips that we received were great and we also formed a little pre-cruise community. Going onto the ship we already knew about 15 people and had our excursions booked for a much cheaper rate than what RCCL was offering
.
4. Book spa treatments/Porotfinos right away…They tend to fill up quickly. Also, check out the shops on the first and last night…They run specials on items at those times.

5. Carry a change of clothes in your carryon, including a bathing suit. Despite their best efforts, it still sometimes takes a while for your luggage to get to your cabin on the first day. Also, put unique markers on your luggage. We bought some neon handle covers from Brookstone that made our luggage very visible.

6. RELAX…Do as much as you want to do, but don’t think that you can get everything done – Its not possible!

I hope this review is helpful to you. If you have any additional questions, or if you need a criminal defense attorney in the Cleveland area (need to pay for the cruise, after all), please feel free to e-mail me at MKAstrab@aol.com!

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