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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

November 1-8, 2003
Eastern Caribbean

by Ronald Epstein

This is actually my second cruise with Royal Caribbean. Last year I sailed on VOYAGER OF THE SEAS resulting in a vacation beyond my wildest dreams. I never thought I would enjoy a cruise, but sailing with VOYAGER and ROYAL CARIBBEAN made me a believer. I plan to do a cruise every single year.

Anyone who has never taken a cruise has no idea what they are missing. Imagine boarding a floating city where you unpack, travel to new ports and get pampered by the ship staff. While most people quickly turn away from picking a cruise as a vacation due to its price, I believe that you do get your money's worth.

Let me talk a little about my vacation on EXPLORER OF THE SEAS. As I stated above, this was my second cruise and I think that because of the great time I had on VOYAGER OF THE SEAS, my expectations were very high. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed with EXPLORER OF THE SEAS, especially in the food and Guest Relations department. More on that in a moment.

Boarding the ship was relatively easy. We arrived early and were on board shortly before noon. Had lunch at the Windjammer which was very nice.  The only aggravating part of the entire journey involves the mandatory "muster drill" that happens at 4:00pm. It took about 25 minutes to get through and if you don't get lucky enough for a station inside the ship, you are going sweat it out on the deck for a long time. It was a very uncomfortable drill, especially because was hot and people were closely packed together.

Also, something new this year, because of the events of 9/11 all crew members must attend a HOMELAND SECURITY check that takes place in the dining room before the ship disembarks in St. Thomas. This goes for EVERYONE, regardless if they are leaving the ship or not. Fortunately, this went quite fast. Show your passport and sea pass card to the agents and off you go.

Not very impressed with the ports of call. I must admit that I didn't do any excursions at any of the ports, so my opinions are based on an individual who just walked off the boat with a group of friends and walked around. 

SAN JUAN is a very poor city. The shopping here is not as good as the other ports, and the only thing we found somewhat interesting in walking distance was the fort and lighthouse that stands beside an old cemetery.

ST. MAARTEN & ST. THOMAS are shopper's paradises. Found some good  deals on jewelry and cologne here. In ST. THOMAS our group arranged a terrific catamaran trip that was the most talked about event of the week.

NASSAU, BAHAMAS was a bit dry. Not much to do there but shop. Some friends went to the Atlantis hotel, but it is VERY pricey. Lunch for two cost just under $90 and a trip through the aquarium is about $25. Most felt it was not worth the price. 

Now let me talk about the ship...

My Cabin: Again this year I chose to stay in a "C" cabin. These cabins are now also known as "JS" cabins. If you can afford it, these are the best cabins for the buck, especially suited for couples who want a roomy cabin with a wide and relaxing balcony view. Trust me, passengers who bought lower cabins were envious of the "C/JS" cabin that I had. The room steward, Kenneth, was okay. I tipped him $30 right off the bat, promising more to come. You would THINK that would garner more knocks on the door asking if I needed anything, but unfortunately, I never saw him much after that. The only "extra" I got out of him was a bathrobe. Can you believe that the "C/JS" cabins no longer come with bathrobes? There were two on THE VOYAGER OF THE SEAS, but none here. The room was clean and was kept clean. Everything seemed to work well. 

Drink and Food: The first disappointment was that there is no longer an alcohol card that can be purchased for about $40. Guess Royal Caribbean was losing money and discontinued this 12-drink card. They also greatly jacked-up the price of their soda card which allows you unlimited refills the entire week. That card used to cost about $20. It now costs over $40. They hand you a cool Coca-Cola drinking mug, but the price of this card is certainly way overpriced.

I started my first night eating in the Dining Room. For me, once is fine. There is something to say about being served food, but the reality is that the food is extremely portioned and that if you are a big eater like me, you'll find yourself asking the server for seconds or thirds. I will say that service in the dining room is very good. You'll be amazed how the servers learn your name and eating habits after the first night. In fact, after being absent from the dining room for 6 nights, I was shocked that my server remembered my name.

On the VOYAGER OF THE SEAS I found myself eating nightly in the Island Grill. This buffet basically serves the same fare as the dining room. The food at dinner is pretty good. I ate 3-4 small steaks per night and helped myself to all the dessert I wanted. 

The BIG disappointment is the food in the Windjammer. Breakfast will make you gag. Eggs are powdered, waffles rubbery, and the pancakes hard as a rock. This is worse than the cafeteria food I had in high school. If you read a lot of reviews about ROYAL CARIBBEAN, then you hear bad remarks about their coffee. Well, I'll also testify that their coffee (Seattle's Best) is just horrible. It's overly bitter, not smooth. It can be difficult to drink, but unfortunately, it's the only way to get your morning caffeine fix.

Now, just completed my second cruise, I have come to the realization that food aboard ROYAL CARIBBEAN is not gourmet quality, even in the dining room. While the breakfast fare is horrific, the lunch and dinner fare is just above acceptable. You certainly get better food at a local restaurant. Speaking of which... know where the best place to eat on the ship? JOHNNY ROCKETS up on deck 11. From the moment you sit down you are treated to unlimited piles of freshly prepared onion rings and french fries. The burgers are VERY delicious, especially the DOUBLE burger which is very difficult to fit in one's mouth. I also recommend the BBQ burger topped with onion rings and BBQ sauce. You can eat all you want at no charge except for the malts which cost under $5. Soda is also an extra charge if you don't have a drink card. If you do have a drink card, the sodas come in a very large glass.

Internet Access & Guest Relations: The biggest battle I had on the ship concerned the Internet Access. I got one of those "Cybercabin" phones that allows you dial-up access from your room. The damn thing costs $100 for the week for unlimited access. I suppose that's better than using the ship's DSL speed access which costs 50 cents per minute. Well, the Internet connection was spotty for the first 4 days. There were blackout periods coming in and out of ports. Then, for the final 3 days, the Internet went down completely due to satellite problems. 

GUEST RELATIONS was absolutely horrible in helping us. They denied there were any problems, yet myself and 3 other friends all were experiencing down time. We were promised the situation would be looked into and we would get callbacks from tech support. The callbacks never happened. In fact, the problems were never properly relayed to staff members. One guy at guest relations got real snooty by telling me, "Didn't you read the fine print? These things are not guaranteed to work." Hmmm. Wonder if that policy applies to all their onboard services. I will say that in the end, after doing some extensive complaining, they refunded all 3 of us $50 each.

I would warn anyone who is contemplating getting Cybercabin to realize that these things don't work very well. The ships need to be outfitted for broadband access in every room with limited availability. Of course, I could just shudder at the thought of the prices they would charge.

Entertainment: I must say, Royal Caribbean consistently has the best entertainment. The ICE SHOW is an absolute "must see" event that will amaze you. We were also very surprised with our celebrity entertainer, CHARO. Here is a woman who was never promoted on The Tonight Show as an accomplished musician. I was just blown away by her performance and have come away with a renewed appreciation of her talents. 

I also must highly commend our cruise director, Gordon. This man was a treat to have aboard. He was very cordial, quite funny, and the sort of person you would want as a cruise director. On VOYAGER OF THE SEAS I never knew we had a Cruise Director. On EXPLORER, Gordon made sure that he mingled with the people onboard. Just a sensational individual who I would pick next year's ship solely because he was onboard.

Final Thoughts: Cruising is still the best value for the buck. Try spending a week going to different destinations, packing and unpacking at strange hotels, and eating all the food you can eat for the same price as a cruise ship. You can't.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN really does try to do everything they can to make their guests feel pampered. The entertainment is top-notch, and if you get Gordon as your cruise director you'll be in for an extra treat. Just don't expect much from the food. Try to stay away from the Windjammer at breakfast time, but indulge in the Island Grill at dinner time, that is, unless you want to be waited on.

Photo courtesy of Kvaerner Masa-Yards

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