December 30, 2011 – January 6, 2012
Seven-Night New Year’s Cruise to Port Canaveral, FL & Nassau, Bahamas
We booked this cruise in May 2011, and for months leading up to it, I read dozens of reviews, watched numerous Youtube videos, and spent quite a lot of time on the Cruise Critic RCI boards. For me, the anticipation leading up to a cruise is almost as exciting as the cruise itself, and I hope that this review—as I relive my own experiences—will help you to imagine yourself onboard the beautiful Explorer with me. As I read others’ reviews, those I enjoy the most are the ones which are as detailed and thorough as possible, allowing me to fully share in the reviewer’s experience. I hope that this review does the same for you, and I look forward to your comments and questions along the way. Enjoy, and thank you for reading!
My girlfriend and I are both twenty-three, and this was our fourth cruise together. This was my sixth RCI cruise (first time Platinum!) and seventh overall. This was her fourth on RCI and sixth overall.
Embarkation Day in Bayonne, NJ
This cruise sailed out of Cape Liberty in Bayonne, NJ. We live about an hour away—in New York—so my brother drove us to the port, thus allowing us to save on the cost of a car service (more money for the casino!). We left the house around 9:45 a.m. and arrived at Cape Liberty just before 11:00 a.m. There was very little traffic getting to the port; I had read that the port starts to become very congested around 11:00 a.m., so we must have just missed the rush. My brother dropped us off, we gave our luggage to a porter, and we entered the terminal.
The terminal itself looks a bit dumpy (for lack of a better word). The luggage was being stored in—and the porters were operating from—underneath a large tent-like structure. We noticed a handful of people waiting on benches underneath this “tent”; it seemed as if they were still waiting for rides from the last cruise. We felt bad for them and happy for ourselves at the same time, but we both knew that in just seven days we would be in their shoes.
Once we gave our luggage, we walked into a large room to go through security. There was no heat in either of these rooms, so make sure you dress warmly. Security was quick and painless, and we immediately went to the priority check-in line (my first Platinum perk!). However, the line was about the same (only a few people in front of us) for the regular check-in, so this “perk” was not much of a benefit.
After checking in, we were given bus tickets (you have to take a sixty-second bus ride from the terminal to the ship itself), but our ticket number had already been called by the time we got to the bus area. We boarded the next bus and were boarding the ship (on deck one) within minutes. Overall, the terminal facilities at Cape Liberty were a bit shabby and without heat, but the check-in process was more efficient and faster than Miami and Fort Lauderdale and took no more than twenty to thirty minutes from the time we arrived at the port to the time we boarded the ship.
Prior to coming on this cruise, GF and I had agreed to take the steps as often as possible, since we LOVE to eat (LOL), so we boarded and immediately took the steps to deck five to check out our table assignment. We had requested a table of eight young people, and we were assigned a beautiful table. We then set out to further explore the ship. I had been on Navigator of the Seas in 2005, but neither of us had been on Explorer. We usually rush to the Windjammer and then to the pool to catch some rays, but since it was far from pool weather, we decided to explore the ship first. (We did have a beautiful day, however, as it was in the low-50s and sunny all afternoon.)
We walked on the promenade (a beautiful, mall-like central hub of the ship) and took some pictures. It was fun seeing everyone so excited and ready to start their vacations. We also stopped by Guest Relations and picked up a Compass to see what was going on for the rest of the day. We then headed up to deck eleven to check out the pool. Somewhat to my surprise, there was relatively warm water in the pool. I wondered whether they brought that water up from the Bahamas or just heated it. The hot tubs were on as well, and you could see the steam coming from the top of each one.
We stopped at the pool bar and got two strawberry daiquiris—our traditional first drink on a cruise. We took a picture as we sipped them and then decided to lay in some of the lounge chairs by the pool. We kept our jackets on and chose two chairs right in the sun, and it actually felt very nice—our vacation had begun! A few other people saw us and also plopped themselves on the lounge chairs. Had it been colder or less sunny we wouldn’t have done this, but we sat outside for about thirty minutes enjoying our drinks and the warmth of the sun.
The Windjammer opened at 12:00 p.m. the first day, and at around 12:30 p.m. we decided to get lunch. The Windjammer is the only place for lunch on embarkation day (aside from Café Promenade), so it was packed when we entered. The congestion was probably even greater since no one was in any rush to get out to the pool, being that it was winter. We searched for a table before getting food, since there was literally nowhere to sit when we first came in. It took us about fifteen to twenty minutes to find something, but we ultimately did get a small table and sat down. We got our food, and I ordered another drink from a bartender walking around (a Bahama Mama—the drink of the day).
Lunch in the Windjammer that first day was underwhelming and seemed to be of a lower quality than on previous cruises. We ate there several more times throughout the week, but I was really not very impressed with the quality of food in the Windjammer. The hot dog buns were stale (not just that first day), the meat dishes were not all that flavorful, and nothing really stood out. Some of their sandwiches are very good, and GF really enjoyed the pasta and salad options. There is definitely no shortage of food from which to choose, but I wasn’t crazily in love—as I have been on past cruises—with the Windjammer. Nonetheless, we had a nice first lunch and left as soon as we were done eating. (They were making announcements requesting that people leave their tables as soon as they were done.)
After lunch, we headed back out to the pool deck. It was a bit windier now, but we were still enjoying the warmth of the sun and the vacation feeling. I got another drink, and we went to check out our cabin when it was ready (rooms were ready at 1:30 p.m.). We were on deck six on the hump on the starboard side. We had originally booked an inside room, then switched to an inside guarantee when the New York residents rate dropped by several hundred dollars, and then to a balcony guarantee when that rate dropped significantly. This was our first cruise with a balcony, and it was more expensive than any of our previous cruises. However, I doubt we will ever be able to go back to an inside (or even porthole) room after this. I had originally stood firm in my belief that money saved on a cabin can be put to better use in the form of drinks, shopping, gambling, excursions, etc. However, our balcony brought us so much enjoyment that I don’t think we could ever go back (unless the choice was between an inside cabin and not going at all).
Our room was facing the terminal (as opposed to New York City), so there was not much of a view that first day. However, it was great having all that light flowing into our room and being able to open the door and smell the fresh air. After checking out the room, we headed back up to the promenade. I got a pina colada at the Crown and Kettle, an Irish pub. The pub itself was dark inside, but they had tables just outside on the promenade itself, and I really liked this place and its atmosphere. Unfortunately, however, they did not have any beer on tap—a small sacrifice IMHO.
We sat at one of the tables on the promenade until they announced the muster drill. The ship was set to sail at 4:00 p.m., so the muster drill was held at 3:15 p.m. It was cold (our station was outside on deck four), and I was admonished for having a drink with me (I had to warm up somehow!). The muster drill was over in fifteen minutes, and we headed back to the room when it was done.
We then decided to check out the spa. We had agreed that we would both get spa treatments, but we hadn’t made any reservations in advance. We inquired about spa specials on port days, but there were no desirable times available. Also, they told us that we could not use our Crown and Anchor discount coupons on a port-day promotion. Since the 10% and 15% discount coupons that GF and I had, respectively, made the price similar to any port-day promotions they were offering, we just booked for 10:45 a.m. the next day. On a future cruise, I would recommend making a spa reservation in advance so that you can have more options in terms of the timing of your treatment. Almost all of the other available time slots were early in the morning—not something we wanted to do. We didn’t book in advance because we thought that we would take advantage of some of the port-day promotions offered onboard, but I believe (though I am not positive) that you can book online and get refunded to your onboard account the discount you get from a C&A discount coupon. In the future, I will look into this and probably book in advance if we plan on doing the spa.
We went back to the room for a bit (something we never would have done if we had an inside room) and then noticed that the ship had started sailing! I looked out from our balcony and saw the Verrazano Bridge straight ahead. We rushed up to the pool deck and went to the thirteenth deck in the front of the ship to watch as we sailed underneath the bridge. It was absolutely magnificent to watch, the sky was a beautiful red, and the cool breeze actually felt perfect. A lot of people—including us—were taking video, and it really does feel as if you can touch the bottom of the bridge as the ship just barely clears it.
Afterwards, we went to the gym on deck eleven for the spa raffle for which we had signed up. They raffled off a few good things (spa treatments, gym classes, etc.), although we would have only been interested in a few of the things and had to listen to sales pitches from different people before the raffle winners were announced. We didn’t win anything, but it was worth a try. It was also funny to watch, as the winners were required to dance to music before claiming their prizes.
We then went back to the room and showered and changed for dinner. We had the 8:30 p.m. seating, but we wanted to be dressed and ready so that we could get ice show tickets at 7:30 p.m. and make the 7:45 p.m. show. On the way to pick up ice show tickets in the Maharajas lounge on deck five, we stopped at the complimentary liquor tasting on the promenade. I tried two different liquors—one I really liked and another I found absolutely grotesque.
We then got on line for ice show tickets (we were about twenty minutes early, since we wanted to get to the 7:45 p.m. show and didn’t want to be at the back of the line). Apparently, plenty of other people had the same idea. By 7:30 p.m.—the designated distribution time—the line was extremely long (get there early!), but it moved quickly. We got tickets for two different shows. However, we later found out that the upper-tier C&A event was an ice show! Therefore, we didn’t need to wait on line to get tickets, since we would be invited to the C&A show. However, we didn’t know this beforehand—something I think RCI needs to address. It was only a small inconvenience to wait for thirty minutes for tickets, and the special show was a nice surprise, but aside from a free drink, the special show was only a benefit insofar as it would have allowed us to avoid the ticket distribution mob. Not a big deal, however (the ice show was exellent BTW!).
After getting tickets and making a pit stop at the Café Promenade (to cleanse my pallet of the abhorrent liquor I tasted), we went to the Welcome Aboard show. The RCI singers and dancers were truly excellent on this ship (as they almost always are). The comedian, Hal Spear, was nothing great, but he was entertaining for the first night. We left the show a few minutes early, however, since we wanted to be a few minutes early to dinner the first night.
We went to our table for eight and sat down. Our waiter and assistant waiter introduced themselves and handed us menus—they were both very nice. We had a great experience on our last cruise sitting with three other young couples, and we were anticipating another similar experience on this cruise as well. However, none of the three other couples showed up! We waited until 8:45 p.m., but then we ordered and ate by ourselves that first night. It was a bit strange that three couples would all independently either switch or not show up, but we enjoyed excellent service and very good food. The maitre’d came over and asked whether we wanted to be moved to another table, but we told him we were happy sitting just the two of us at that table if the others didn’t show up.
We finished dinner and then headed to the promenade for the sailaway parade. The RCI parades are extremely corny but equally as entertaining. The costumes are magnificent, and the music and atmosphere are great. This was the only parade we attended (we missed the farewell parade), but I highly recommend you check out at least one.
The parade lasted about twenty minutes, and we then went to the casino. We arrived a little after 11:00 p.m. and inquired about the mini slot tournament listed on the Compass for 11:15 p.m. However, we were told that that tournament had already taken place and concluded. This was not the first time that the Compass listed incorrect times either, as the liquor tasting did not begin until about an hour after it was listed on the Compass. However, the listings were pretty accurate the rest of the cruise.
We tried our luck at a handful of games in the casino but with little success, as would be the case for much of the cruise. The casino is very nice and has a lot of tables, although not all of them are open all the time. They have blackjack, three card poker (which gets busy at night), roulette, one live poker table, a craps table, and one other carnival poker game I cannot seem to remember. The casino has a lot of slots and a bar in the center.
We really enjoyed our time in here (although we paid dearly for that time!), but I had two somewhat minor complaints. First, the tables are set up on one side of the casino floor, but about eight or nine tables are chained together to make one very large pit. Thus, to get from three card poker to craps, or from roulette to blackjack, you potentially had to evade oblivious, wandering gamblers and bartenders carrying trays of drinks. I think this section could be set up better, but I never saw any major problems as result.
A somewhat larger complaint I had was that there were no $5 blackjack tables. On every prior RCI cruise they have had at least one $5 blackjack table. They had $5 roulette, three card poker, and craps, but all the blackjack tables were $10 minimums. I usually bet $10-$15 in a land-based casino, but I really enjoy having lower stakes on a cruise, since my money has to last for much longer. I understand that table minimums must reflect business demands, but later in the cruise I asked them to lower the minimum when I was the only blackjack player for two empty tables and they still refused. Even in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, the supervisors usually agree to lower the table minimum if no one else is playing, so I was surprised that they refused to do so here. Nonetheless, the casino was still a lot of fun, and most of the dealers were quite friendly.
After making our donation at the casino, we headed back to our cabin. This was our first cruise out of New Jersey in the wintertime, so this was a very different first day in that we did not lay out in the sun but did more exploring. I didn’t feel as relaxed as I usually do after day one—probably because we spent some time rushing back and forth between places, but I was much more relaxed the following day. Overall, while this first day was different than usual, we had a great time and were very excited for the upcoming week. It was cold and windy out on our balcony that night, but watching the ship cut through the ocean water with the moon shining down was absolutely breathtaking. We went to bed both tired and excited for day two.
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