Reviewing our RCCL 9-Day Cruise: 2/13/09-2/21/09

I’m finally getting around to posting a review of our most recent cruise: a 9-day trip to the Caribbean onboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas. I’ll be breaking it down in manageable increments over the next few posts: first, departure from Bayonne’s Port Liberty and the two At Sea days, then a review of each port (Labadee, Haiti; Samana, Dominican Republic; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; and San Juan, Puerto Rico), and then a wrap-up of the last two At Sea days.

Some general impressions of the ship: this is the same vessel we sailed on back in August, 2008, when we took a 5-day cruise to Bermuda and back. Once again, the highlight of the ship is the bustling Royal Promenade, with its shops, restaurants and lounges. Its central location made the Promenade a magnet for people, especially during sea days or to kill some time before dinner.

Speaking of meals, the food was very good on the Explorer, and there were many dining choices to suit every style of eating. A few quick reviews, in no particular order:

Cafe’ Promenade (Deck 5)
Rich and I always woke up earlier than the kids did, but we didn’t want to go down to breakfast without them. The Cafe’ Promenade was a great option: one of us would hop down to Deck 5 and grab some coffee and a few pastries to nibble on until the kids were ready to go to the Windjammer. The smartest thing we did was bring our insulated travel mugs with us. They held more coffee than the ship’s cups, and at one point, they ran out of lids, so our mugs definitely came in handy. This was also a great place to snag a slice of pizza or a wrap sandwich, without fighting the crowds in other parts of the ship. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was also a nice treat, but the service was slow and there is an added charge, so we didn’t do it that often. The kids preferred the free soft serve up on the Pool Deck anyway.

Windjammer Cafe’ and Island Grill (Deck 11)
We ate here every single day. This is definitely the best layout I’ve seen on any ship when it comes to buffet dining. The staff does a great job cleaning up tables quickly so that seating is available for guests. We are a family of 5, so it can be tough to find a table large enough to accommodate us, but we were usually able to get something without too much hassle. One morning, when the Windjammer was really packed, one of the staff took my tray and motioned for me and the kids to follow him. I wasn’t sure where he was taking us, but he suddenly ducked behind a partition and the next thing you know, we were in the Portofino dining room–beautiful tables, quiet atmosphere–it was a nice treat. Rich said that this is a perk usually reserved for suite guests, but I guess it was so crowded, the guy decided to give us a break.

The food at the Windjammer was also excellent, and we were surprised that the coffee wasn’t half bad. My youngest daughter is a picky eater, but she was always able to find something to her liking at the Windjammer.

Dizzy’s Jazz Lounge (Deck 14)
One of the nicest things about this place is that it is a no-smoking bar. We came here a few times to hang out for a half hour when we wanted to escape the crowds and find a quiet nook. They give you a glass cruet filled with trail mix to go with your drinks.

The 19th Hole (Deck 14)
This is where we decided to do our Sail Away meet-up with the folks from our Cruise Critic Roll Call thread on Unfortunately, this is a smoking lounge, which makes it a tough place to spend any length of time if you’re a non-smoker. The highlight of this bar is the “mousetrap” contraption–it’s absolutely mesmerizing, and my kids loved it. The frozen drinks are very pricey here, so stick with a beer.

Portofino’s (Deck 11)
Rich and I ate here once, the day after Valentine’s Day. The ambience is lovely, but we felt that the pacing was a bit too slow. I know, it’s supposed to be a “kinder, gentler” dining experience, set apart from the hustle and bustle of the other dining rooms, but after a while, we found ourselves twiddling our thumbs wondering when the heck the food was coming out. There’s an extra charge for this restaurant, and while the food was nicely presented, I didn’t think it was any more flavorful than what we had in the main dining room.

Johnny Rockets (Deck 12)
We took the kids here for lunch one afternoon because we’d heard that it was “must do”, plus, we had a coupon in our Gold Crown & Anchor book. Again, there was an extra charge involved, and we had to wait a while before we could get a table.

The kids killed some time at the arcade until we were finally seated. Bottomline: it was a good burger, the tabletop jukebox was cute, and the dancing wait staff was fun, but the food was nothing to write home about. The milkshakes were a bit hit with the kids, and we enjoyed our lunch, but I wouldn’t wait more than 15 minutes for a table there again.

Crown & Kettle Pub (Deck 5)
This place is always hopping, and I think it’s because it has a nice vibe to it. It feels like an old English pub, and the cafe chairs out front give you a perfect spot to sit and people watch as folks stroll the Royal Promenade. There’s a sports bar located right across the way–with all the same drinks–and that place was almost always empty.

Columbus Dining Room (Deck 5)
We ate dinner at the Columbus Dining Room every night except one, and we loved it. The service was wonderful, and the food was terrific. One night, escargot was on the menu, and it was just as good as (if not better than) the escargot I had in Paris.

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