Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas
One morning I get up early and head to the gym at the front of the ship. I jump on the treadmill and start running. The panoramic windows around the room give me a 180 degree view of where we’re heading.
We could be going anywhere right now, though. I wouldn’t know. I doubt many of the people on this ship would know, if they weren’t told. It’s all just blue out there. Staring out the window, I can see we’re moving somewhere at least.
I keep running on the treadmill. My efforts aren’t getting me closer to anywhere but I think I need to keep busy so I don’t feel like I’m standing still. Yet it makes no difference. No matter how fast I run, I get nowhere faster. I jump off and head to the buffet breakfast.
This is the cruising life that I have discovered.
It all begins
Let’s go back a step, though, and allow me explain where I am and what I’m doing on board a ship. Because this isn’t just any old thing – this is the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Explorer of the Seas, which has just arrived down in the Southern Hemisphere for the summer and will be the largest cruise ship based out of Australia.
I have never been on a cruise before and, I have to admit, would have been one of those people previously who would’ve turned up my nose at the thought of being stuck on one for any lengthy period. But, at the same time, they have always fascinated me. When I was offered the chance to spend four nights on board so I could get a taste of the ship and write about it, I thought it would be a good opportunity.
I join the Explorer of the Seas in the New Zealand capital, Wellington. From here we will head across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. No stops – just water. It’s not a typical cruise experience but it gives me a good chance to explore what there is to do on the sea.
There are grey skies when I board in Wellington in the morning. An ominous sign – perhaps of the hair colour of my fellow passengers.
I head straight up on deck and… it’s empty. A cold wind blows across and drags with it the music from a sad speaker. The bar is closed, there’s nobody in the pool, and I’m glad I’ve got a sweater on. It’s the only thing I’m glad of. What have I done?!
It’s not the best introduction to the Explorer of the Seas but, fast forward a few hours, and it’s a different story. What I hadn’t thought about is that most of the passengers were using the day in port to go out and explore Wellington. The ship was basically deserted as people looked around town. It was only me foolish enough to head up on deck expecting to be entertained.
By the afternoon, the sun has come out and the passengers have come on board and many are up on the top decks.
The bars are open and a band is playing calypso pop (as I have decided to name it) in front of the pool. There’s movement and noise everywhere and, as we start to pull out of port, I get rather excited.
I run around, trying to look at everything from different angles, waving to the people I imagine are on shore, thinking about what suckers they are, not here on this enormous cruise ship. Hasn’t my tune changed!! (To calypso pop?)
Days without land
By definition, a cruise ship is designed to take you to new places. One of the great appeals of travelling like this is that you never have to change rooms but you can be in a new city every day. It’s a bit like teleportation – just with a bit of a longer wait and more bingo.
So it’s a strange experience for me to have several days where there is no new place. Although, having said that, the Explorer of the Seas is a new place for me so I decide to treat the ship as the destination.
Life on a ship is different to life on land. You lose perspective. Everything you need to know is contained within this metal hull. You lose sense of time and even sense of the date. Luckily there is a reminder on the floor of every elevator of what day it is. (I don’t know who replaces them but they seem to be up to date even minutes after midnight.)
Royal Caribbean clearly realises that cruise ships are more than transportation these days and they have decked out (see what I did there?) the whole vessel with things to do.
Up top there is a putt putt course (from which I lose a ball somewhere overboard…), a surf machine called a Flow Rider and even a climbing wall. All of them are relatively empty for the days I am on the cruise because this trip is aimed at an older market. Now that it’s based in Australia and it becomes more of a family and party ship, I imagine this will be a popular area.
Of course there are pools and hot tubs, conveniently located close to bars and the self-serve ice cream machine (I swear someone filled up a pint glass and not a cone one time!). But these are standard fare on cruise ships these days. Explorer of the Seas takes the facilities even further – with an ice rink and a 3D cinema a few floors below.
Some people choose not to use any of them, it seems. As I mentioned, the passengers on this trip are older than usual – mainly because of the length of the route (16 days from Perth to Sydney via New Zealand).
In fact, about 900 of the 3000 passengers have come all the way from Southampton in the UK – more than two months at sea. So it makes sense that many people just spend their days sitting on a deckchair reading a book, doing crossword puzzles, or crocheting (or knitting – what’s the difference?!).
But you can’t do that all the time and if the surf machine and the climbing wall aren’t your style… well, then there’s the social agenda!
A social cruise
A chirpy blonde young British woman is reading out the answers to the evening’s trivia competition at one of the bars on level four. There are several trivia events each day and they each have a different theme. This one is ‘Eighties Music’. (I think it is referring to the decade, not the age of the participants.)
The blonde compere reveals one of the answers from a musical question: “Yes, it’s ‘Land Down Under’ by Men at Work.”
Someone quickly shoots up their hand, and shouts out even faster: “Excuse me. I think you’ll find that the correct name of the title is just ‘Down Under’, thank you very much!”
Some people take their social events at sea very seriously. And fair enough – after all, there are some free Royal Caribbean pens on offer as a prize!
Every evening a programme of events for the next day is delivered to your room and it’s an impressive collection of activities.
There are the aforementioned trivia competitions and bingo games. There are lectures from experts and, interestingly, casual debates where people sit around one of the bars and are led through a discussion on a topic.
(I’m amused, as I wander through the ship trying to find a good spot for wifi, that I stumble upon a debate going on in a pub about whether constantly being connected online is a good or a bad thing.)
There are organised gatherings for people with different interests and even a regular lunch for those who are travelling solo, so they can get to know some of their fellow passengers. When I see groups of people sitting at tables around the ship playing cards together, I wonder whether they knew each other beforehand or met on board.
If I had to bet, I would guess the latter. (Well, if I really had to bet, I would go to the casino – have I mentioned there’s one of them on the ship too?)
One evening I meet an Australian woman who has been on several cruises but tells me this is her first one alone. She’s had a great time so far, though, and has made plenty of new friends. She’s alone right now, though, because she wanted to come and listen to the performer at one of the pubs.
This singer/guitarist plays most nights and has a loyal following amongst the passengers. I can see why – when I come back the next night he has learned a couple of songs that I requested the previous evening that he didn’t then know.
There’s no shortage of entertainment on Explorer of the Seas and different venues across the ship have singers, comedians, cabaret artists and dancers all throughout the day and well into the night. It’s impossible to see it all and, even within the one ship, you would feel lost if you tried.
Eating and eating
I do feel lost at first and, to get my bearings, I use the main eating area as a navigation point. (My room is down 5 floors on the right; the gym is on the same level towards the front; the library is… oh, I don’t think I ever found the library.)
It makes sense to use this restaurant as a constant reference because I am there constantly. One of the things I love about being on a ship is I don’t have to go out in search of food three times a day (as I usually do when travelling on land). I know that when I’m hungry, all I have to do is walk in to Windjammers (as it’s called) and there will be a buffet selection to choose from.
One day, when the crew is doing something a bit different and serving a bbq on deck, one of the people at my table comments that the steak looks good but they’re not going to have any because they had the chicken curry from Windjammers already for lunch. It’s only as I’m starting to say – and a few words do escape my mouth before I can stop myself – that the chicken curry was good, that I realise I too have already had lunch today and this is my second one.
Oh well, I had two breakfasts as well so I might as well just succumb to cruising life and keep on eating.
I imagine it would get a bit tiresome to go to the buffet three times a day (or more, if you’re like me) if you’re on a long cruise. Which is why there are a few other options on board.
There is a more formal restaurant spread over three levels where you will be served courses at your table, rather than having to go up to the buffet. The food is of a similar quality (very good, I must say) and I feel that you would come here for a change of scenery and style, more than anything else. It’s also nice to have waiters sometimes.
But there are also new dining experiences that have been added to Explorer of the Seas that I think are pretty impressive. I try out three high-end restaurants during the time I’m on the ship.
First there’s the steak restaurant where the meat is cooked perfectly, there’s the Italian restaurant where (like most Italian meals) there’s much more than I can finish eating, and then the Japanese restaurant with fantastic sushi and sashimi. (When the ship lurches a bit while at dinner, I joke with my travel companions that we just hit a whale and it’ll be on the table soon. I am sure the waiter laughs and then looks nervously at the kitchen!)
The meals at Windjammers and the other main dining room and free (well, included in the cruise ticket), but these other restaurants have an extra cost. At the Japanese restaurant, you pay by the item – but the other two have a fixed extra cost (about US$25-$30) and then you can order as much as you want from the menu. It may not be something you do every night but it’s nice to have the option for variety.
Ultimately it’s this variety on the ship that I find so pleasurable during the cruise. Oh, and I also like the familiarity and routine. Gosh, I’m confused. Why did I enjoy this trip?
I guess it’s that combination. When you don’t want to think, you don’t have to. You can wander up to get food without making a decision, you can sit by the pool and read a book, you can find the guitarist at the same pub doing the songs you asked for the night before. You don’t even have to choose new requests!
But when you get a little bored or feel like doing something fresh, there are always plenty of options available to you. The mind can be challenged at trivia or at a debate; the body can be invigorated climbing up a wall or on a surf machine; social skills can be put to good use with new friends.
You can make your cruise what you want it to be – and clearly that’s what people do here. It’s only on the final day as we pull into Sydney Harbour and get that magnificent view as we come in the heads that I see so many faces for the first time. Everyone is on deck to cheer and soak in the sights and I’m sure there have never been this many people on deck the whole time.
Maybe some of them just moved between their staterooms and the nicer restaurants. Maybe some spent most of their time in the casino, or others were hanging out at the events in the bars, or whiling away the time at the library (where was it?!).
It doesn’t matter. They made the cruise their cruise and that’s what you can do on a ship like this. It’s what I did. After a couple of days I stopped going to the gym. OK, I was getting lazy. But, also, I didn’t need that treadmill anymore. I didn’t mind standing still. I was busy enough.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Royal Caribbean International but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.