Departure Port: Sydney
Voyage: Three nights at sea (29 November – 02 December 2015)
As the number of Australian passengers taking a cruise grows seemingly without any limitation, ships are in turn growing to meet the masses. Explorer of the Seas, which sails under the Royal Caribbean flag, is the largest ship ever based in Australian waters.
I have travelled with Royal Caribbean on two previous occasions and as the world’s second largest cruise line, they are a slick, professional operation which delivers a fun, entertaining and youthful approach to cruising, catering to the young through to the young-at-heart.
The embarkation process was noticeably fast this time around, perhaps because the ship had been in port since the night before on this occasion, so had been cleared by local authorities earlier and was therefore able to spend more time disembarking passengers from the previous cruise. Saying goodbye to more than 3,000 people and hello to more than 3,000 more in the space of a few hours is an exercise in military-like precision. Like most cruises, a passenger’s stateroom is not always ready immediately on arrival so bags are checked in while necessary items for that day should be carried personally, such as essential medications and swim gear. The weather was great on embarkation and the pools were full.
Stateroom: Deluxe Ocean View Stateroom with Balcony – 8/10
Modern cruise ships are exemplary in being able to make use of every possible square inch and the staterooms on Explorer of the Seas are no exception.
Explorer’s staterooms offer a comfortable king bed which can be split into two single beds if required. A large television sits directly in front and can be pulled out ever-so-slightly from its wall mount and rotated to face the adjacent couch. A small desk with tea/coffee facilities runs along one wall.
There is ample space for storage, with no less than 15 different drawers, shelves and compartments. The balcony is actually quite spacious, with plenty of room to move into one of the chairs and making for a fairly comfortable place to watch the sea drift by while reading a book.
Passengers usually take a little longer to adjust to the size of the bathroom, which is typically minimal in size. The basic shower, toilet and vanity is all there along with more storage space, however it still feels very tight. The hair dryer is located inside one of the compartments out in the main part of the room, not in the bathroom itself and so changing clothes and drying hair should be done outside of the bathroom just for the extra space.
Any more than two people into one of these basic staterooms would be a squeeze, but they still provide everything one needs to sleep. With so much going on throughout the ship, the stateroom shouldn’t really become your main hangout.
Daily activities: 10/10
In plentiful supply around the ship and delivered to your cabin each night is the Cruise Compass – Royal Caribbean’s daily round-up of what is scheduled for the following day. Fold it up and keep it with you in your pocket or handbag for easy reference. Unless you’ve found a great lounger poolside and still in handy access to the bar, the biggest question you’ll ask yourself each day is ‘Where do i go next’? This guide will often answer that question.
Depending on whether you’re enjoying a day in port or a day at sea, this guide will contain different information. If going ashore, guidelines to ensure an orderly disembarkation and return to the ship are provided. Sea days however are the best time to be experiencing all you can about the ship. Dining times are provided, along with lineups of bands and shows scheduled for the day.
On a huge ship like Explorer of the Seas, several events were slated for nearly every waking hour, making it impossible to do everything. On my personal radar were multiple trivia games on different topics, a mini-golf tournament and lessons on how to enjoy the FlowRider surfing simulator.
Other options include fitness classes, educational seminars, classes teaching practical skills such as making Christmas crackers, how to make a martini and more, karaoke, game shows and more. You’ll always have something to do if you wish.
For all the hype surrounding big name Broadway and West End-style stage shows coming to cruise ships, often it can be the unheralded organic productions developed within which provided the greatest thrill and the most enjoyment. On this cruise, the first evening show consisted of ‘Invitation to Dance’, a spicy Latin number consisting of a series of song and dance routines, backed by the ship orchestra and engaging set designs.
The following night saw ‘Aussie Boys’, a trio of experienced musical theatre performers who had formed their own group, singing and dancing their way through some well-known hits of The Seekers, Bee Gees, Men at Work, Peter Allen and more.
Shows are not limited to the theatre, with the onboard ice rink playing host to the ‘Spirits of the Seasons’ ice spectacular. The ship’s band of professional skaters delivered a spellbinding show with colourful costumes, well-choreographed dance routines and audience interaction which was deservedly rewarded with a standing ovation.
In addition, the final evening of the cruise saw the crew send-off the passengers with a farewell party on the central Royal Promenade dubbed ‘Rock Brittania’. Performed by the ship’s enigmatic Cruise Director Graham Seymour, the show took passengers through some of the greatest musicians to emerge from the United Kingdom including The Who, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Spice Girls and many more. Unmissable.
Food is undoubtedly the backbone of every cruise ship, and judgement by passengers on the quality of the epicurean offerings is often based on meal service. Over a three-night cruise, we experienced many of them, some included in fares, others at a surcharge.
Sapphire Dining Room: A three-storey gargantuan of a restaurant, but one which runs like clockwork. Diners are escorted to their table immediately on entering by a long line of wait staff. Service follows quickly thereafter, with the meals returning just as quickly. Sapphire has honed its craft and even with so many people to serve, does so very well.
Chops Grille: Quite a large venue considering its status as a specialty restaurant. The menu is largely limited to meat, so while vegetarians and vegans are most welcome, they may find desirable options more limited. Steak, chicken and seafood are the central elements and the the room itself is well lit and sets a comfortable tone. Royal Caribbean advises guests dining in Chops Grille to allow 2-3 hours for a sitting, so be mindful of this if you have activities planned that evening or are keen to see a show after dinner.
Izumi: Much smaller in size, a quaint venue serving Japanese cuisine with around 20 tables. Be sure to book in at least a day ahead to maximise your chance of securing a table. I am not personally a regular patron of Japanese dining, but Izumi really worked well for my taste. A strong menu selection of sashimi, sushi and share platters with a good mix of vegetarian options, spicy tuna, champagne lobster and other oriental delicacies.
Johnny Rockets: The classic American diner style was taken to sea by Royal Caribbean a few years ago and is usually found on an upper deck, at the side towards the back of the ship, with tables overlooking the ocean and inside. Good for lunch on a sea day, but the best advice one can give when dining here is to be patient. Another person or two on the wait crew wouldn’t go astray here and while the signature dance performance is certainly a positive distraction and intended as good fun, doing so while hungry diners waited for their meals was not the best time to be dancing. When the food arrived though, it was delicious!
Cruising is an ultra-competitive game and while every cruise line has its own nuances, more often than not it is still an immensely enjoyable experience and a great way to holiday. Australians will love travelling on Explorer of the Seas as it tours New Zealand and the South Pacific islands for the rest of the summer. I would definitely travel on this ship again.
Matt Lennon travelled on Explorer of the Seas by invitation of Royal Caribbean International.