Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas
September 17th - September 22nd, 2006
Bermuda Bound Redux!
Explorer docked at King's Wharf, Bermuda!
It's been 3 years since we last cruised on Explorer of the Seas, and a year since our port-shortened Bermuda cruise aboard Voyager. This cruise to Bermuda was PERFECT timing (even the crew commented on this: Ashley, Explorer's gracious cruise director, said we couldn't have picked a more perfect week!). Tucked between a series of hurricanes all headed towards (but mostly sparing) Bermuda that disrupted a few cruises here and there in this time frame, we had the best week of all as there were no threats in sight (although hurricane Helene did make for a spectacular beach day as she passed... more on that below).
Late summer warmth at Cape Liberty, Bayonne, NJ gave us a sunny warm departure date on Sunday the 17th. We were onboard by 12:30pm... literally right from parking the car and handing the luggage over to a porter. The cabins were off limits till 1pm as they were still being cleaned, but we saw a door that was left open accidently, so we decided to sneak a peek at our inside Promenade cabin as this was a first time experience in this sort of stateroom. It literally feels like an outside cabin with a big window box that you can sit in and watch the "street" below. Real cool. After this, our cabin steward (Robert) kinda shooed us away as the cabin wasn't really ready yet, and we scampered back to the aft stairwell.
On our way, we peeked into many different sorts of cabins... inside rooms, balcony rooms of differing sizes and some incredibly large outside rooms fore and enormous balconies aft. Once we rejoined the rest of the ship, we headed up to Portofino's and made our reservations for dinner for Monday night then we moved onto the Windjammer for the buffet lunch (it's sort of a ritual that once onboard you always head to the Windjammer to start stuffing your face). Nice food selections and tasty tidbits. We also noted (approvingly) the ship's emphasis on keeping the passengers and crew safe from viruses! Installed all over the place were hand sanitizing units that auto dispensed sanitizer with just a wave of your hand beneath them. (Update 2009: this is typical now across RCCL and Celebrity fleets) Nice touch... and I'd say 99% of the people were using them! Later we went back to our (now ready) cabin, and jumped into our trunks then sat by the wonderfully empty pool area. (*sometimes, the best time to get any spot around a pool area is embarkation day; many people pack their suits and have no access to them- or they're too busy trying to figure out the lay of the land. Diane and I are old pros, so we know what to do and where to go.) One older gentleman was sort of indignant that I was swimming while he "was still waiting for his <blanking!> luggage!" Oh, well.
The day was gorgeous and we eventually went back and did the mandatory muster drill and then we got a spot at the bow for the passage under the Verrazano Bridge... always not to be missed on cruises from Cape Liberty. Dinner was a delicious prime rib in the main dining room!
Monday the 18th was a glorious day at sea, a mostly sunny and warm day spent in the ship's Solarium. We ate at Portofino's and had a phenomenal dinner there. Interestingly enough, I found the Portofino's on Explorer to be much prettier then that in the Freedom... and the food was also superior. I had the exact same meal in both (the filet mignon) and the difference was staggering. On Freedom, I had to cut the top off the filet because the chef coated it in some sort of salty glaze (I didn't send it back as I figured this was just how they were preparing them, and the rest of the cut was perfect); on Explorer, this "glaze" wasn't there... it was just a perfect filet cooked right. I told my waitress about this and she smiled and brought over the Maitre'd who told us (with great pride) that Explorer's Portofino's had consistently gotten high marks for food and service of late. (Note: this isn't to say a meal at Portofino's isn't a good idea on Freedom. On the contrary, things will only get better as this new ship's cook-staff gets into the groove. The difference here is that Explorer is in the groove!) We had an excellent meal... and they even sent us a "Thank-You" note for eating there at the end of the week. (never got that before! maybe it was my positive comments?)
Tuesday the 18th we spent most of the day at Bermuda's beautiful, but secluded, Elbow Beach. It took quite some time getting there and once there, you need to walk around the block and down a long but gentle sloping road to the beach. Elbow beach is pretty, but there's no real public facilities around (unlike Horseshoe Bay), so after a while, it gets kind of dull.
After a few hours, we headed back to the ship for a late lunch and then went shopping in the mall area at the Dockyard. This mall is actually constructed inside the old buildings there and it's very low key... you could walk right by it and not know there's shopping inside. After shopping, we went back to have dinner in the Windjammer rather then the main dining room so that we could eat "on-the-fly" and get back to the Dockyard for the mini-festival RCCL held there. It was a kind of mini-fair with locals with booths and dancing performers and an excellent juggling act by Jeff the Juggler. (See: www.jeffthejuggler.com)
Wednesday we spent the day at the incredible Horseshoe Beach (my favorite so far in Bermuda)... this is truly a beach with everything: rock coves to explore, secluded coves, pink sand and just incredible views. The surf was whipped up into a frenzy as hurricane Helene was doing her nasty stuff way out in the ocean. The day was crystal clear though and sunny but the surf was just incredible! There were riptide warnings all over... one minute you were ankle deep and the next you were up to your neck. It was incredibly fun as long as you were cautious. (We saw at least one rescue by the lifeguards of someone that went out too far.)
The ship left port on time... but then incredibly as it was pulling away, it pulled back up to the dock to let on some passengers that were late getting back (it's always amazing to me that someone usually manages to be late on returning from port! Unless they have a valid excuse like their cab broke down, I think they should be left behind. There's more then enough information on when you're due back). Anyway, they were met by people on the top deck chanting, "Let them swim!!!" ... all in fun. That night, we rejoined our table companions, Tony and Sarah (very nice couple on a free cruise he won!) in the main dining room and had a tremendous lobster feast.
Thursday was another day at sea... sunny but very windy, so we did mostly ship exploring type of things. One of the first things we did was book our cruise for Liberty of the Seas next year with Russell, the Loyalty Ambassador. Then we went to a morning party for the Platinum and Diamond and Diamond Plus members where we ran into and Ron and Sue (Hello, RIbarfly!!)... a great couple with lots of excellent advice even for "seasoned" cruisers like Diane and I. They were fun to hang out with. I'm glad we met them by chance at the Schooner Bar the day before. Later we had lunch in the main dining room and after that, we made the perfunctory donations to the ship's casino. We also worked out in the gym (time to start shedding pounds gained on Freedom and Explorer... again!) and started packing for the return on Friday to Bayonne. The balance of the day we laid in loungers by the Solarium's port windows and watched the ocean roll gently by with the sun setting in the west. Wonderful.
Friday's disembarkation ran a bit behind, but once off the boat, we quickly found our luggage, rolled it out to the car and took off for home. What a great time!!!
As for Explorer herself, well she does need some refurbishing here and there, and her main pool area flooring needs to be replaced in many places. Her Solarium needs some of it's fixtures to be repainted and some missing tiles need to be replaced. Overall, she looks like a six year old ship (which by today's ship standards is getting up there) that's seen some rough times.
On the other hand as I said above, her food service is in many ways superior to the newborn Freedom of the Seas. I've never had such an incredible waiter as we had with Eduardo... he really needs to be a trainer of waiters! He's got the whole thing down to an art. Meals in the main dining room while very very good on Freedom, were outstanding on Explorer.
(Update 2009: Explorer was in the process of getting the new mattresses and linens the week we cruised that set Freedom apart from every cruise we've ever taken as having the BEST sleeping experience in the RCCL fleet. All of the old mattresses and linens are being donated to the poor... an awesome gesture by RCCL!) Explorer's gym facilities seem extremely antiquated when viewed against the offerings on Navigator, Jewel and of course, Freedom. I think it's time that the equipment be switched out for more modern offerings. Our cabin bathroom's floor looked a bit weathered and some of the fixtures in the cabin were scuffed and scratched up. Otherwise though, the ship is still a wonderful ship with a crew that couldn't be nicer. The most exciting news for us in NJ is the fact that next year, Explorer comes to Cape Liberty (Bayonne) to stay! She'll do year round cruises to Bermuda, Canada and the Caribbean based on the season. Yes, you can cruise out of snowy NJ and be on a tropical beach in a few days in the '07-'08 season... that's wonderful!!! (Update 2009: Explorer continues to cruise from Cape Liberty in Bayonne, NJ year round)
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