Maiden Voyage in the Eastern Caribbean, Oct. 28 to Nov. 4, 2000
This was our 12th cruise in the past four years, including five cruises on Royal Caribbean ships: Grandeur of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas, Majesty of the Seas, Sovereign of the Seas, and now Explorer of the Seas. It is evident that we keep coming back to Royal Caribbean. We have also sailed on the Grand Princess, Norwegian Wind, Century, CostaVictoria and three times on our favorite ship, the CostaRomantica. As we write, we have booked passage on the new ships the CostaAtlantica in December and on the Millennium in January 2001.
Having sailed on the Voyager of the Seas, which is the Explorer's sister ship, we were aware of what to expect on this cruise, but it turned out to be even better! The Explorer of the Seas met our expectations and raised the bar for all of our future cruises.
The Explorer's inaugural voyage was even more interesting than our cruise on the Voyager. Since there is no difference in the floor plan of the two ships, we knew our way around this gigaship and we have some comparisons to make with her sister ship. The Explorer, because of her size, takes up two piers in the Port of Miami (Piers 4 & 5) and she dwarfed other ships in this and every other port. From the upper decks we looked down on the Ryndam, Norway, Fantasy and Disney Magic-- a very interesting aerial view.
The Explorer was true to the elegance which we had seen on other Royal Caribbean ships: a combination of beauty and utility makes sailing on her a pleasure. Once again there were Studio B (the ice skating rink), a wall for climbing, a full basketball court, the Dunes (a nine hole mini-golf course and putting green), and an in-line track, etc., which are features not found on other cruising ships, except on the Voyager. But it is the concept of the Royal Promenade which sets an ambiance different from all ships but the Voyager of the Seas. It gives cruisers an opportunity for Euro-style walking and browsing in shoppes (the perfumes are the best buys) and enjoying a coffee or ice cream while sitting in front of a café and meeting up with new acquaintances or just people watching. The centerpiece of the promenade is an old black Harley Davidson motorcycle with side car that presents a backdrop for many pictures, and the sound effects that go along with it are great. In contrast, the centerpiece of the Voyager's Royal Promenade was a beautiful red Morgan spider. We were favorably impressed by the attention to detail and the gracious service, which we found unparalleled.
Since we are Crown and Anchor members (repeat cruisers on Royal Caribbean Lines), boarding was quick and easy. We had booked only two weeks before sailing, so we picked up our tickets at the pier, but once we filled out two cards, we were escorted to a private room with comfortable chairs, where we were processed in about twenty minutes and received our boarding cards (which also serve as onboard charge cards and cabin keys). So, in less than thirty minutes, we were on board having had our photo taken and heading toward our cabin; however, there was no escort in uniform taking our carry-on luggage and leading the way, as there was on the CostaRomantica.
Our cabin #9288 was a Category D9, Superior Ocean View, with a balcony which held two chairs and a small table to which our steward, Othniel, added a lounge chair for my wife who usually needs wheel chair assistance. On this cruise, however, she was doing well; I needed physical therapy and used the lounge chair much more than she did. It was a godsend for me. Entering the cabin, on the left was the bathroom with a triple mirror and medicine cabinet, a circular shower stall with curved sliding doors, large enough to be comfortable, without the feeling of claustrophobia. The tile with crocus bud motif of blue, aqua, green and coral was a nice designer's touch.
On the right, there was the large closet with removable hangers and shelves, roomy enough for the empty luggage (until we bought out Labadee). Luggage can also be stored under the bed. Beyond the closet was the large mirrored vanity with more drawers for storage and a hair dryer. Then there was the minibar/refrigerator, interactive TV and wall safe all in a wall unit with additional shelves. Across from this was a coffee table and the convertible sofa, which could have slept two more, but there were just the two of us. The bed was listed in the brochure as queen size, but it was actually more like a king size with a head board of aqua suede (just like the one on the Voyager).
The cabin color scheme was a restful medley of blue, aqua, coral and beige. The bed cover was a woven patch work of the same colors, and the woven woolen blanket was hand-finished with an old fashion blanket stitch. There were dotted Swiss sheers and heavy drapes to close out unwanted light. The placement of the bed allowed us to see the stars at night. Needless to say, we felt right at home. From our balcony we saw other ships cruising in the area, lovely spectacular sunrises, stars, and an isolated raging storm with lightning fireworks, which fortunately, according to the captain, only lasted seven minutes. All of these experiences made our cruise exciting.
The beauty of taking an inaugural cruise is that the freshness of a new vessel is apparent, everything is in "shipshape" condition: carpeting, upholstered chairs, walls and cabins are sparkling, and so it was with the Explorer. However, some of the crew and systems are also new and untested. Happily, we only experienced two glitches and they were quickly remedied. First, Room Service had not yet tried their interactive TV program for orders and we noted when ordering breakfast that there was no way to specify a delivery time. After the first attempts, both using interactive TV and calling Room Service by phone to reorder, the order still did not arrive. We had appointments at the Spa, so when we were told we could reorder with a delay of 30 to 45 minutes, we cancelled the order instead. The cancelled breakfast arrived anyway, two hours late. After that José Carrasco, Room Service Manager, corrected the problem and all subsequent orders were prompt and delicious. He also knows how to apologize -- the chocolate dipped strawberries were appreciated.
The second problem was that our vacuum toilet would not flush, but a note to Chief Purser, Gary Davies, brought swift action and a plumber who told us the system was so new that it only needed a minor adjustment and from then on it worked perfectly. Mr. Davies also knows how to apologize: a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was sent to our table at dinner that evening -- an excellent choice! And many thanks to him for this courteous attention. These people showed their desire to do whatever it takes to please the cruisers.
The scent of newness is a wonderful thing, but, after only a few days the odor of smoking could be detected in the corridors leading to the cabins and on our balcony. The next door cabin toward the front of the ship was inhabited by two chain smokers, and since we were downwind, we had to leave the balcony several times due to unwanted smoke and at times keep our sliding balcony door shut so that our cabin would not fill with smoke. Our suggestion to avoid this condition would be to create non-smoking areas, as the Norwegian Cruise Lines has, whereby the smokers are placed on one side of the ship, e.g. portside, so non-smokers would not be subjected to secondhand smoke.
All things considered, this ship is the largest cruise ship ever built and no expense has been spared to make it beautiful and comfortable. Although most passengers we encountered felt as we did that the two "Tinfoil" sculptures hanging from the ceilings of the two Centrums, at the ends of the Royal Promenade, could have been done without. The many replicas of ships, pictures and art works added to enjoyable strolls around the ship. The concerns we mention are minor considering the enormity of the ship and its complexities.
The most unique item on the Explorer is the Atmospheric and Oceanographic Laboratory on board, which is a joint effort with the University of Miami: studying ocean currents, atmospheric conditions and collecting valuable data of wind and water parameters which will be useful to scientists in weather/hurricane forecasting, and will give a better understanding of global warming and other environmental problems. Ship tours of these facilities really impressed me as a retired Professor of Environmental Health.
There are three separate dining rooms on three levels sharing a "sweeping staircase" and a chandelier-less (contrary to the brochure) centrum -- Deck 5's dining room is named the Columbus, Deck 4's is called the Vasco da Gama and Deck 3's is the Magellan, where we dined. The carpeting and the cobalt blue-rimmed china presented a sumptuous background to the excellent food. The Executive Chef, Edward Rachny, has truly elevated dining to a higher level. With the exception of the CostaRomantica and the Grand Princess, we have not dined as well on any other ship.
The meat entrées were superb: Prime Rib, Filet Mignon, Peking Duck, Veal Osso Bucco and Veal Cordon Bleu were all excellent. The salads and the desserts were deliciously fresh ( A++ for the Swan Chantilly, Chocolate Soufflé, Chocolate Velvet Cake and the various fruit tarts which were mouthwatering). However, the pasta dishes and some other Italian entrées did not meet our expectation. Of course, the wait staff can also affect one's dining pleasure and we had both efficient and personable service in our waitress Szilvia Rostas from Hungary, Asst. Waiter Biler Muftuoglu from Turkey, Sommelier Ariel Callants from the Philippines, and Mr. Bryce Clarke our Head Waiter from Australia who kept a watchful eye on all. The dining room service, food and ambiance were all top notch! EXCELLENT!
The alternative dining in the Windjammer buffet is much improved over that of the Voyager. The lines were short except for those waiting for breakfast omelets. Here we would rate the buffet good to excellent. We also tried Johnny Rockets, which was fun with its chrome/red naugahyde booths and jukeboxes (what a trip down memory lane); try the chili, onion rings, double hamburger and American apple pie.
We also dined at the "upscale Euro-Italian" Portofino Restaurant where reservations and a $20 cover charge per person are required. The table by the window overlooking the sea was lovely and the Maitre D' was most cordial -- but I have been exposed to the best of both Italian home cooking and the finest Italian restaurant dining, and I feel Portofino needs either a native Italian chef or a name and menu change.
Of course our best meal aboard was at the captain's table; we were pleasantly surprised when we received our gold lettered invitation. Captain Olav Gunnar Nyseter and his gracious wife Barbara were wonderful hosts; his pride in the Explorer and his concern for passengers were very much evident. Our choices from the menu were Escargot, Caesar Salad, French onion soup, Filet Mignon/Veal Cordon Blue and chocolate velvet cake. We also had exquisite white and red wines. DELECTABLE!
Most of the entertainment on this cruise was well-performed and enjoyable, but of the usual fare. The jewel in the Explorer's crown, though, is STUDIO B's Planet Ice Show "Explore a New World." The skating was first rate, as were the sound and lighting effects. Robert Stempfl's acrobatic performance with a huge metal wheel was thrilling and he and the entire cast drew a long standing ovation. Whatever you do, do not miss this show! The piano music in the Dizzy Gillespie lounge was excellent, the Aquarium Bar is stunning and so is the Chamber, decorated with suits of armour, torches, etc. The Casino was nice and we left a bit of our money there, however -- as usual the slots were tight or maybe we were just unlucky.
Ports of Call
On this cruise there are four ports of call and two days at sea (as compared to three ports of call and three days at sea for the Voyager of the Seas):
We have been to the Caribbean many times and we actually cruise for the shipboard life and not for the ports of call. We normally stay on board, because on port days we can enjoy the ship without crowds.
The night before debarkation we received our yellow tags for our luggage and a surprise: two inaugural commemorative spyglasses in small wooden boxes. What a souvenir -- we will not forget this cruise! This was the simplest and quickest debarkation ever. No complaints, and everything was planned and executed neatly.
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Vincent & Mary Finelli have written many reviews for the SeaLetter and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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