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Cruise Ship Review

Explorer of the Seas - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Dining

The three-level formal dining room is one of the most stunning in moderately priced lines: a magnificent space linked by a grand staircase, dramatic fluted, gold-leaf columns, golden velvet curtains and a ceiling dome with gold sky burst rays, stars and fiber optics. Each of the three levels is themed to a legendary explorer: Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan, with mosaics on the walls celebrating their journeys.

Explorer of the Seas now offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining with pre-determined tablemates, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options (such as grilled sea bass with ginger lemon sauce), vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin). Service by the international staff was attentive and friendly.

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can always snare a quiet little table for two. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer Cafe, Explorer of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre.

The primo dining experience onboard occurs in the intimate, 88-seat Euro-Italian Portofino Restaurant. Menu items include risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites). Service and cuisine are exceptional, but be prepared for a long dinner. While Portofino is a reservation-preferred restaurant (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rocket's, a 50's-style dining venue. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service between 5 a.m. and midnight (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended); late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Effective March 1, Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Dress Code

During the day, dress is casual. Evenings are either casual, smart casual or formal. On casual nights, suggested attire is sports shirts and slacks for men and sundresses or pants for women. On smart casual evenings, men should don jackets and tie, with women wearing dresses or pantsuits. On the one or two formal nights per cruise, men can choose from tuxedos or suits and ties, while woman usually wear cocktail dresses.

Fellow Passengers

Royal Caribbean typically appeals to couples and singles in their 30's to 50's as well as families of all ages. The median age is in the low 40's on seven-night cruises and in the 30's on three-and four-night cruises, passengers 50-55 and over tend to dominate 10-night and longer cruises. Royal Caribbean attracts passengers that are looking for an affordable, active vacation.

Family

Explorer of the Seas is an outstanding choice for family cruisers. The facilities on this ship are among the largest in the industry -- encompassing more than 16,000 square feet -- and include a large playroom, an outside area with splash pools for little kids, a video arcade and a teen nightclub (Optix) with a dance floor, DJ booth and soda bar.

Royal Caribbean's excellent Adventure Ocean Youth Program divides kids into age-appropriate groups. For instance, Aquanauts (the program for ages 3 to 5) may feature activities like "Alphabet Scavenger Hunt," story time and Adventure Theater acting classes by Camp Broadway. Explorers (ages 6 to 8) play backwards bingo, make their own surfboards and engage in basic science activities. Voyagers (ages 9 to 11) play foosball and capture the flag, as well as engage in science experiments that range from earthquakes to hailstorms. Even the teens are divided into two groups. Navigators (ages 12 to 14) have "open-mic" karaoke contests and a rock-wall challenge. And, the coolest group (ages 15 to 17) -- so cool, they don't have a kitschy name -- has its own dance parties and arcade competitions. In addition, Royal Caribbean has partnered with Fisher Price, Mattel and Crayola to offer a variety of kid- and family-friendly games and activities for all ages.

Generally, activities at Adventure Ocean cease during lunch and dinner times (children's menus are available in the main dining room), but there is the occasional organized meal outing (to Johnny Rockets, for instance). On sea days, you can leave your kids (ages 3 to 11) at Adventure Ocean for a noon to 2 p.m. lunch-and-play for a cost of $7.95. Plus, My Family Time Dining offers an option that lets kids finish dinner in the main dining room in 45 minutes, then get escorted by Adventure Ocean counselors back to the kids' club to play (letting Mom and Dad enjoy a more leisurely meal).

Late-night group babysitting in the kids' areas (for ages 3 to 11) is available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for $5 per hour, per child. In-room babysitting for kids over the age of 1 costs $19 per hour for up to three children within the same family and requires a 24-hour advance reservation.

Fitness and Recreation

Voyager-class ships -- and Explorer of the Seas is no exception -- are famous for their "get out there" philosophy, when it comes to onboard recreation. As such, a huge area (aft) is dedicated to the pursuit of athleticism. There is, of course, the rock-climbing wall rising 200 ft. above the sea (instruction is available), along with a golf simulator (for an extra fee), full-court basketball/volleyball, a rollerblading rink and miniature golf. The ship also offers a handful of ice-skating opportunities on sea days at Studio B. There is a jogging track on Deck 12 (five times around equals a mile), and a dive and snorkel shop on Deck 11, where there are additional fees for classes and gear.

The ship's main pool area features two adjacent pools, two jumbo-sized and two regular whirlpools, and stadium lounge seating. One interesting note: One of the pools and a whirlpool have hydraulic lifts for the disabled. The solarium pool is an adults-only area. It's boasts a Spanish theme with bronze bullfighters and a bull, mosaics and fountains. Its retractable glass roof makes it possible to enjoy the pool and two whirlpools rain or shine.

With more than 15,000 square feet of workout, aerobics and spa facilities, the ShipShape Vitality Day Spa and Fitness Center is among the largest afloat. The oceanview gym with stereo and TV monitors offers 20 treadmills, 18 Reebok strength units, 14 recumbent and upright cycles, eight steppers, six Body Trecs and free weights with multiple benches. There's also a group exercise room for fitness classes (some, like spinning and yoga, charge a $10 fee), an indoor thalassotherapy pool (free of charge) and men's and women's locker rooms with a steam room and a sauna.

The Steiner-operated spa has 14 multi-purpose treatment rooms, a hair salon and relaxation area. It offers an excellent range of treatments (massages, facials, Ionithermie Algae Detox). Service in the spa was outstanding -- and the quality of the treatments themselves was very high.

A couple of caveats: The prices are customary for at-sea treatments, with a basic 50-minute massage now costing $119 or more. A manicure is $29; a pedicure is $45. The spa did offer "discounts" on port-of-call days (and as the cruise wound down). And beware: Treatment employees may engage, somewhat aggressively, in the much-loathed "Steiner Product Pitch" at the end of your appointment.

Entertainment

Where do you even begin? It can be very hard to relax on Explorer of the Seas -- even on sea days -- because of the head-spinning array of activities that run from dawn to dusk and beyond! The ship's entertainment staff offers an intriguing blend of options, and everyone, from the most traditional passenger to the completely contemporary traveler, will find something to do.

Highlights? During the day, you'll find plenty of traditional cruise activities, such as bingo, dance lessons (line-dancing), horse racing, art auctions, seminars (on everything from healthy eating to gemstones), Mr. Sexy Legs contests, bridge pairing, arts and crafts workshops, and films in the tiny cinema on Deck 2. More unusual activities include rock-climbing wall competitions and "Ice Planet" -- the ship's ice skating show in Studio B, complete with falling "snow." Throughout the day and night, there's often some type of performance along the Promenade, such as a parade or performances by comedians or musicians. Royal Caribbean does not offer much in the way of onboard enrichment.

At night, the Palace, the main show lounge, is the place to see Broadway-style revues. The four-deck-high, 1,350-seat theater has an opera-house ambience and excellent sightlines. The Casino Royale beckons with a Vegas/rock 'n' roll theme and 300 slots, 10 blackjack tables, three Caribbean Stud tables, three roulette wheels and a craps table. Other options include the Schooner Bar for late evening sing-alongs round the piano; Maharaja's for live music in an India-themed secondary lounge with impressive elephant sculptures and a very refined interior decor; Weekend Warrior for watching sports via satellite on multiple televisions; and The Chamber, a fun nightclub designed to resemble a Gothic castle, with stone columns and arches and a dance floor flanked by chrome suits of armor.

Cabins

Out of 1,557 staterooms, 939 of these have an ocean view (765 have balconies) and 618 are interior staterooms. Twenty-six cabins are wheelchair accessible. A hallmark on this ship's class is the Royal Promenade-facing staterooms (138 on this ship) that overlook that engaging thoroughfare -- these are a step up from the usual inside cabin. A warning however: Privacy is at a premium with these cabins because they do not have privacy glass windows. Also, due to the late-night reveling that goes on, all but night owls may find them noisy.

Standard cabins are comfortably spacious, attractively decorated in earth tones with art on the walls, quality fabrics and fine woods. Cabins feature twin beds that can convert to queen-size, phone, television with closed-circuit and satellite programming options, mini-bar, hair dryer and individually controlled air conditioning. Bathrooms are basic and only suites have tubs. The showers, however, have those wonderful, half-round sliding doors, a fabulous improvement over icky, clingy shower curtains. Soap and shampoo are provided (suites get mini-bottles of Royal Caribbean's Vitality shampoo, conditioner and lotion).

Inside cabins range from 160 to 167 square feet. Category G cabins, inside with Royal Promenade views, have blackout curtains and special glass in the windows to reduce noise. Outside cabins come in three varieties: regular (180 square feet), large (211 square feet) and family (265 square feet -- it can sleep six with a sofa bed and a small second bedroom with bunk beds). Balcony cabins range from 173 to 188 square feet with 47- to 50-square-foot private verandahs.

Moving up a notch is the Junior Suite. It's the smallest, coming in at 277 square feet with a 69-square-foot balcony. Just a bit bigger than the standard balcony, the extra perks (beyond space) that come with the Junior Suite include a tub in the bathroom, and a bigger living room area.

The remaining suites provide access to the concierge and definitely move into the higher-ticket arena. At 610 square feet, the Royal Family Suite's grand claim is two bedrooms plus a sitting room; the second bedroom has the usual twin to queen bed configuration plus two Pullmans that come down from the ceiling. Balconies are bigger, too, at 234 square feet.

The Grand Suite is just a larger "junior," but it's quite a bit larger at 381 square feet and features a 95-square-foot balcony. The Owner's Suite offers more amenities and features even beyond increased square footage; passengers booking this category of accommodations get a bathroom with whirlpool, bidet and separate shower, along with separate bedroom and living areas (with queen-sized sofa bed). Measurements are 506 square feet for the cabin and 64 square feet for the verandah. And finally? The piece d'resistance is the Royal Suite, which comes with all the Owner's Suite amenities plus a baby grand piano, a balcony that measures 170 square ft. (outfitted with better-than-standard furnishings, including a dining table); the stateroom itself is 1,188 square ft.

All suite-holders are entitled to use the Concierge Club on Deck 9. This windowless room features continental breakfast and a cocktail hour. Upon request, the concierge on duty handles special requests for reservations -- alternative restaurants, spa, etc.

Tip: Families should book as far in advance as possible -- a year ahead of time if you can -- to have the best choice of family-friendly staterooms (including connecting cabins), particularly if you are traveling during school vacation periods.

Public Rooms

Quite pleasing to the eye, this ship is pleasantly decorated in warm tones with plenty of maple paneling and features an impressive $11 million art collection (highlighted by the work of Hollywood stars like Tony Curtis, Peter Falk and Anthony Quinn). The Royal Promenade is the heart of the vessel. You feel like you are in an upscale mall as you walk this longer-than-a-football-field and wider-than-three-lanes-of-traffic boulevard anchored by two atria that are marvels of marble, trees, greenery and colossal sculptures. Diversions on the promenade include the Crown & Kettle, a traditional English Pub; a 24-hour cafe for pizza and pastries; Ben & Jerry's ice cream; Weekend Warrior sports bar; and shops selling everything from ship's logo items to designer merchandise by Versace, Bulgari and Lladro.

While the Royal Promenade is the place to be for a street-fair atmosphere, there are many intimate spaces for quiet times onboard including the Aquarium Bar, with beautiful tanks holding 56 tons of saltwater and hundreds of tropical fish; a clubby cigar lounge; the nautical-inspired Schooner Bar; a well-stocked library; Seven Hearts Card Room; the Champagne Bar; and the Skylight Wedding Chapel (at the highest point on the ship, on Deck 15).

An Internet Center, royalcaribbeanonline, is open 24 hours. The cost for Internet access, via Wi-Fi or at a work station, is 55 cents a minute, or you can buy packages of 60, 90 or 150 minutes for $28, $38 or $55, respectively.

There are no self-service laundry facilities.

Dining

The three-level formal dining room is one of the most stunning in moderately priced lines: a magnificent space linked by a grand staircase, dramatic fluted, gold-leaf columns, golden velvet curtains and a ceiling dome with gold sky burst rays, stars and fiber optics. Each of the three levels is themed to a legendary explorer: Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan, with mosaics on the walls celebrating their journeys.

Explorer of the Seas offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining with pre-determined tablemates, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options (such as grilled sea bass with ginger lemon sauce), vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin). Service by the international staff was attentive and friendly.

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can always snare a quiet little table for two. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer Cafe, Explorer of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre.

Other complimentary options include Jade Sushi and Asian-Fusion (adjancet to the Winjammer complex), with self-explanatory cuisine. On the Royal Promenade, the Cafe Promenade features light fare at all times (pastries in the morning, sandwiches at night); try the pizza, it's excellent.

The primo dining experience onboard occurs in the intimate, 88-seat Euro-Italian Portofino Restaurant. Menu items include risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites. Service and cuisine are exceptional, but be prepared for a long dinner. While Portofino is a reservation-preferred restaurant ( pre-cruise reservations can even be made online), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rockets, a 1950's-style dining venue. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Enjoy impromptu waitstaff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rockets food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service between 5 a.m. and midnight (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended); late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.The second of five in the revolutionary Voyager-class series that started with Voyager of the Seas in 1999, Explorer of the Seas follows the floating resort concept, boasting an a wealth of facilities, activities and entertainment. Amenities include a 60-foot-by-40 foot ice skating rink/concert venue/TV Studio, rock-climbing wall, inline-skating rink, a shopping/dining/entertainment boulevard, miniature golf, wedding chapel, florist, full-court basketball and spa/solarium complex. Active cruisers of all ages, from children to seniors, will find something to enjoy. There is plenty to appeal to every age group, making this a great ship for multi-generational reunions.

Despite all the amenities, we'd be remiss in not mentioning that the ship been out-sized and out-classed by the line's Freedom- and Oasis-class ships -- but Explorer certainly has its advantages. It's Royal Caribbean's dedicated New Jersey-based vessel and one of the line's most reasonably priced. (It's not uncommon to see fares starting in the $60 - $75 a night range.) And with so much going on, you may not end up missing Freedom's surf simulators or Oasis' Central Park.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $5.75 if you're in a suite); and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily tip him or her unless the service was special. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.Second of a series that debuted with Voyager of the Seas in 1999, Explorer of the Seas is truly a destination in itself, boasting an unprecedented wealth of facilities, activities and entertainment. Amenities include a 60 foot by 40 foot ice skating rink/concert venue/TV Studio, rock-climbing wall, inline-skating rink, a shopping/dining/entertainment boulevard, miniature golf, wedding chapel, florist, full-court basketball and spa/solarium complex. Active cruisers of all ages, from children to seniors, will love this giant of the seas. There is plenty to appeal to every age group making this a great ship for multigenerational reunions.

Dining

The three-level formal dining room is one of the most stunning in moderately priced lines: a magnificent space linked by a grand staircase, dramatic fluted, gold-leaf columns, golden velvet curtains and a ceiling dome with gold sky burst rays, stars and fiber optics. Each of the three levels is themed to a legendary explorer: Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan, with mosaics on the walls celebrating their journeys.

Explorer of the Seas now offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining with pre-determined tablemates, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis.

Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options (such as grilled sea bass with ginger lemon sauce), vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin). Service by the international staff was attentive and friendly.

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can always snare a quiet little table for two. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer Cafe, Explorer of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre.

The primo dining experience onboard occurs in the intimate, 88-seat Euro-Italian Portofino Restaurant. Menu items include risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites). Service and cuisine are exceptional, but be prepared for a long dinner. While Portofino is a reservation-preferred restaurant (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rocket's, a 50's-style dining venue. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service between 5 a.m. and midnight (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended); late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

Public Rooms

Quite pleasing to the eye, this ship is pleasantly decorated in warm tones with plenty of maple paneling and features an impressive $11 million art collection (highlighted by the work of Hollywood stars like Tony Curtis, Peter Falk and Anthony Quinn). The Royal Promenade is the heart of the vessel. You feel like you are in an upscale mall as you walk this longer-than-a-football-field and wider-than-three-lanes-of-traffic boulevard anchored by two atria that are marvels of marble, trees, greenery and colossal sculptures. Diversions on the promenade include the Crown & Kettle, a traditional English Pub; a 24-hour cafe for pizza and pastries; Ben & Jerry's ice cream; Weekend Warrior sports bar; and shops selling everything from ship's logo items to designer merchandise by Versace, Bulgari and Lladro.

While the Royal Promenade is the place to be for a street-fair atmosphere, there are many intimate spaces for quiet times onboard including the Aquarium Bar, with beautiful tanks holding 56 tons of saltwater and hundreds of tropical fish; a clubby cigar lounge; the nautical-inspired Schooner Bar; a well-stocked library; the Card Room; the Champagne Bar; and the Skylight Wedding Chapel (at the highest point on the ship, on Deck 15).

An Internet Center, royalcaribbeanonline, is open 24 hours. The cost for Internet access, via Wi-Fi or at a work station, is 55 cents a minute, or you can buy packages of 60, 90 or 150 minutes for $28, $38 or $55, respectively.

There are no self-service launderettes.

Cabins

Out of 1,557 staterooms, 939 of these have an ocean view (765 have balconies) and 618 are interior staterooms. Twenty-six cabins are wheelchair accessible. A hallmark on this ship's class is the Royal Promenade-facing staterooms (138 on this ship) that overlook that engaging thoroughfare -- these are a step up from the usual inside cabin. A warning however: Privacy is at a premium with these cabins because they do not have privacy glass windows. Also, due to the late-night reveling that goes on, all but night owls may find them noisy.

Standard cabins are comfortably spacious, attractively decorated in earth tones with art on the walls, quality fabrics and fine woods. Cabins feature twin beds that can convert to queen-size, phone, television with closed-circuit and satellite programming options, mini-bar, hair dryer and individually controlled air conditioning. Bathrooms are basic and only suites have tubs. The showers, however, have those wonderful, half-round sliding doors, a fabulous improvement over icky, clingy shower curtains. Soap and shampoo are provided (suites get mini-bottles of Royal Caribbean's Vitality shampoo, conditioner and lotion).

Inside cabins range from 160 to 167 square feet. Category G cabins, inside with Royal Promenade views, have blackout curtains and special glass in the windows to reduce noise. Outside cabins come in three varieties: regular (180 square feet), large (211 square feet) and family (265 square feet -- it can sleep six with a sofa bed and a small second bedroom with bunk beds). Balcony cabins range from 173 to 188 square feet with 47 to 50 square foot private verandahs.

Moving up a notch is the Junior Suite. It's the smallest, coming in at 277 square ft. with a 69 square ft. balcony. Just a bit bigger than the standard balcony, the extra perks (beyond space) that come with the Junior Suite include a bathroom with tub and a bigger living room area.

For those wanting concierge access, the remaining suites, definitely moving into the higher-ticket arena, start with the Royal Family Suite. At 610 square ft., its grand claim is two bedrooms plus a sitting room; the second bedroom has the usual twin to queen bed configuration plus two Pullmans that come down from the ceiling. Balconies are bigger, too, at 234 square feet.

The Grand Suite is just a larger "junior," but it's quite a bit larger at 381 square ft. and features a 95 square-foot balcony. The Owner's Suite offers more amenities and features even beyond increased squared footage; passengers booking this category of accommodations get a bathroom with whirlpool, bidet and separate shower, along with separate bedroom and living areas (with queen-sized sofa bed). Measurements are 506 square feet for the cabin and 64 square feet for the verandah. And finally? The piece d'resistance is the Royal Suite, which comes with all the Owner's Suite amenities plus a baby grand piano, a balcony that measures 170 square ft. (outfitted with better-than-standard furnishings, including a dining table); the stateroom itself is 1,188 square ft.

All suite-holders are entitled to use the Concierge Club on Deck 9. This windowless room features continental breakfast and a cocktail hour. Upon request, the concierge on duty handles special requests for reservations -- alternative restaurants, spa, etc.

Tip: Families should book as far in advance as possible -- a year ahead of time if you can -- to have the best choice of family-friendly staterooms (including connecting cabins), particularly if you are traveling during school vacation periods.

Entertainment

Where do you even begin? It can be very hard to relax on Explorer of the Seas -- even on sea days -- because of the head-spinning array of activities that run from dawn to dusk and beyond! The ship's entertainment staff offers an intriguing blend of options, and everyone, from the most traditional passenger to the completely contemporary traveler, will find something to do.

Highlights? During the day, you'll find plenty of traditional cruise activities, such as bingo, dance lessons (line-dancing), horse racing, art auctions, seminars (on everything from healthy eating to gemstones), Mr. Sexy Legs contests, bridge pairing, arts and crafts workshops, and films in the tiny cinema on Deck 2. More unusual activities include rock-climbing wall competitions and "Ice Planet" -- the ship's ice skating show in Studio B, complete with falling "snow." Throughout the day and night, there's often some type of performance along the Promenade, such as a parade or performances by comedians or musicians. Royal Caribbean does not offer much in the way of onboard enrichment.

At night, the Palace, the main show lounge, is the place to see Broadway-style revues. The four-deck-high, 1,350-seat theater has an opera-house ambiance and excellent sightlines. The Casino Royale beckons with a Vegas/rock 'n' roll theme and 300 slots, 10 blackjack tables, three Caribbean Stud tables, three roulette wheels and a craps table. Other options include the Schooner Bar for late evening sing-alongs round the piano; Maharaja's for live music in an India-themed secondary lounge with impressive elephant sculptures and a very refined interior decor; Weekend Warrior for watching sports via satellite on multiple televisions; and The Chamber, a fun nightclub designed to resemble a Gothic castle, with stone columns and arches and a dance floor flanked by chrome suits of armor.

Fitness and Recreation

Voyager-class ships -- and Explorer of the Seas is no exception -- are famous for their "get out there" philosophy, when it comes to onboard recreation. As such, a huge area (aft) is dedicated to the pursuit of athleticism. There is, of course, the rock-climbing wall rising 200 ft. above the sea (instruction is available), along with a golf simulator (for an extra fee), full-court basketball/volleyball, a rollerblading rink and miniature golf. The ship also offers a handful of ice-skating opportunities on sea days at Studio B. There is a jogging track on Deck 12 (five times around equals a mile), and a dive and snorkel shop on Deck 11, where there are additional fees for classes and gear.

The ship's main pool area features two adjacent pools, two jumbo-sized and two regular whirlpools, and stadium lounge seating. One interesting note: One of the pools and a whirlpool have hydraulic lifts for the disabled. The solarium pool is an adults-only area. It's boasts a Spanish theme with bronze bullfighters and a bull, mosaics and fountains. Its retractable glass roof makes it possible to enjoy its pool and two whirlpools rain or shine.

With more than 15,000 square feet of workout, aerobics and spa facilities, the ShipShape Spa and Fitness Center is among the largest afloat. The oceanview gym with stereo and TV monitors offers 20 treadmills, 18 Reebok strength units, 14 recumbent and upright cycles, eight steppers, six Body Trecs and free weights with multiple benches. There's also a group exercise room for fitness classes (some, like spinning and yoga, charge a $10 fee), an indoor thalassotherapy pool (free of charge) and men's and women's locker rooms with a steam room and a sauna.

The Steiner-operated spa has 14 multi-purpose treatment rooms, a hair salon and relaxation area. It offers an excellent range of treatments (massages, facials, Ionithermie Algae Detox). Service in the spa was outstanding -- and the quality of the treatments themselves was very high.

A couple of caveats: The prices for treatments have risen to breathtaking levels, with a basic 50-minute massage now costing $120 or more. (The industry average is $99.) A manicure is $45; a pedicure is $65. The spa did offer "discounts" on port-of-call days (and as the cruise wound down), but that just brought the prices down to industry-normal levels. And beware: Treatment employees will engage, way too aggressively, in the much-loathed "Steiner Product Pitch" at the end of your appointment. The products are also over-priced. Just say no.

Family

Explorer of the Seas is an outstanding choice for family cruisers. The facilities on this ship are among the largest in the industry -- encompassing more than 16,000 square ft. -- and include a large playroom, an outside area with splash pools for little kids, a video arcade and a teen nightclub (Optix) with a dance floor, DJ booth and soda bar.

Royal Caribbean's excellent Adventure Ocean Youth Program divides kids into age-appropriate groups. For instance, Aquanauts (the program for ages 3 to 5) may feature activities like "Alphabet Scavenger Hunt," story time and Adventure Theater acting classes by Camp Broadway. Explorers (ages 6 to 8) play backwards bingo, make their own surfboards and engage in basic science activities. Voyagers (ages 9 to 11) play foosball and capture the flag, as well as engage in science experiments that range from earthquakes to hailstorms. Even the teens are divided into two groups. Navigators (ages 12 to 14) have "open-mic" karaoke contests and a rock-wall challenge. And, the coolest group (ages 15 to 17) -- so cool, they don't have a kitschy name -- has its own dance parties and arcade competitions. In addition, Royal Caribbean has partnered with Fisher Price, Mattel and Crayola to offer a variety of kid- and family-friendly games and activities for all ages.

Generally, activities at Adventure Ocean cease during lunch and dinner times (children's menus are available in the main dining room), but there is the occasional organized meal outing (to Johnny Rocket's, for instance). On sea days, you can leave your kids (ages 3 to 11) at Adventure Ocean for a noon to 2 p.m. lunch-and-play for a cost of $7.95. Plus, new My Family Time Dining (rolling out, fleetwide, by July 2009) offers an option that lets kids finish dinner in the main dining room in 45 minutes, then get escorted by Adventure Ocean counselors back to the kids' club to play (letting Mom and Dad enjoy a more leisurely meal).

Late-night group babysitting in the kids' areas (for ages 3 to 11) is available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for $5 per hour, per child. In-room babysitting for kids over the age of 1 costs $10 to $15 per hour and requires a 24-hour advance reservation.

Fellow Passengers

Royal Caribbean typically appeals to couples and singles in their 30's to 50's as well as families of all ages. The median age is in the low 40's on seven-night cruises and in the 30's on three-and four-night cruises, passengers 50-55 and over tend to dominate 10-night and longer cruises. Royal Caribbean attracts passengers that are looking for an affordable, active vacation.

Dress Code

During the day, dress is casual. Evenings are either casual, smart casual or formal. On casual nights, suggested attire is sports shirts and slacks for men and sundresses or pants for women. On smart casual evenings, men should don jackets and tie, with women wearing dresses or pantsuits. On the one or two formal nights per cruise, men can choose from tuxedos or suits and ties, while woman usually wear cocktail dresses.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $5.75 if you're in a suite); and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily tip him or her unless the service was special. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance, added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Dining

The three-level formal dining room is one of the most stunning in moderately priced lines: a magnificent space linked by a grand staircase, dramatic fluted, gold-leaf columns, golden velvet curtains and a ceiling dome with gold sky burst rays, stars and fiber optics. Each of the three levels is themed to a legendary explorer: Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan, with mosaics on the walls celebrating their journeys.

Explorer of the Seas now offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining with pre-determined tablemates, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis.

Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options (such as grilled sea bass with ginger lemon sauce), vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin). Service by the international staff was attentive and friendly.

Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can always snare a quiet little table for two. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.

The Windjammer Cafe, Explorer of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre.

The primo dining experience onboard occurs in the intimate, 88-seat Euro-Italian Portofino Restaurant. Menu items include risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites). Service and cuisine are exceptional, but be prepared for a long dinner. While Portofino is a reservation-preferred restaurant (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge.

Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rocket's, a 50's-style dining venue. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.

Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service between 5 a.m. and midnight (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended); late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $5.75 if you're in a suite); and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Royal Caribbean also recommends $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter, but we don't necessarily tip him or her unless the service was special. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance, added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

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