I was recently very lucky to be invited on a three-day sample cruise aboard the newly revitalised Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas, and I kept a diary of my voyage. Here’s the final instalment.
So, with the relaxing day out of the way (I know right? What a chore!), we’re looking to take advantage of as many activities as possible today. The Sapphire Dining Room has a full breakfast buffet, including hot and cold selections, fresh fruit and juice, and all the cereal you can eat. We choose to order from the menu a breakfast of eggs benedict for me and scrambled for Lu. We sit at a table with a bevvy of veritable cruise veterans. As this is my first voyage, I take in all the wisdom of these savvy sailors. The main dining room fare is fine and we walk away feeling satisfied and ready for a day on the decks.
First call: FlowRider. I watch as pseudo-surfers, young and old, tackle the artificial wave, and I tag on to the end of the line for my own attempt. Again, I meet Tim, who is as excited as I’ve seen a grown man to get onto this wonderful wave machine.
Finally it’s my turn and, nervously, I hop onto the board underneath and jump headlong into the wave. I spin 360° to applause from the crowd. Everyone around the FlowRider – surfers, staff and surveyors – are all so supportive. I come off the board trying to do a trick far outside my capabilities, but boy, what a lot of fun! Lucy jumps in and is, perhaps surprisingly, more comfortable on FlowRider waves than she is on solid ground. It’s just that easy – for some!
I am due for an interview with the Explorer’s Hotel Director Gordon Marshall and the Executive Head Chef, so I relinquish my place in the line and head back to the room, but only after we promise to head back later in the day to tackle the stand up surfing.
I quickly shower, throw on jeans, thongs and a t-shirt, and head off to meet our host.
Gordon is an absolute treat to meet. Affable, funny, with a Scottish accent as thick as the hair on his head. As we turn on our voice recorders, he recommends we use Google Translator so we can better understand his dialect. Having been at sea for 18 years, the first question I ask him is how he began working on cruise ships. His answer is, as you would expect from a Scotsman with a typically Scottish sense of humour, both heartfelt and hilarious.
“On my second month on board ships, I met my wife. So I was going to come on and enjoy the life of a single man at sea, but, I was a bar waiter back then and I met this very nice bartender, who was my boss at the time [and is now my wife]. I’d had a plan to join the police. So, I thought, I could go home to Glasgow and chase criminals through the rain with a stick, but I thought, ‘no, I think I’ll stay here on the ship with her’. I already had the uniform, so I was half way there! So, yeah, it’s been great.”
Gordon then goes on to explain how the captain started out as a seaman, painting and polishing the railings, until he worked his way right to the top.
I’ve always thought it would be kind of romantic to work aboard a cruise ship, and it seems that opinion is partly proven. We rifle through Gordon’s life on board, before getting into the technical stuff, such as where are the best ports (Sydney rates very highly), what are the differences between Aussies and the citizens of other countries (Aussies drink a lot), and what do they do with naughty people (put ‘em in the brig! Not really, it’s more like house arrest).
Chef takes us through the logistics of cooking for 3500 people, all of whom have different tastes and want to eat at any time throughout the day. He explains how they receive deliveries of fresh produce every seven days, and how the move towards being able to accommodate various cultures, people with food intolerances, vegetarians and vegans is an ever-increasing priority for Royal Caribbean. Aside from overseeing all the food venues, 130 chefs and 60 utilities staff, he spends most of his time seeking feedback from guests in an effort to constantly improve the food and service.
The Explorer of the Seas can accommodate 3500 passengers, with a further 1500 staff attending them. The logistics of keeping everyone happy are simply astounding, but, somehow, they manage to do it. I am nothing short of impressed by their professionalism and willingness to please. And yet Royal Caribbean has plans to introduce something akin to personal butlers for staterooms – and this is with its already amazing stateroom attendants in attendance!
Our interview ends, but we are being given the incredible opportunity of meeting the man in charge, Captain Kjetil Gerstad. After heading up a few levels, we enter the secret sanctuary of the ship’s ‘higher ups’. Straight off the bat, the captain shows his lighter side, then his quarters. Let’s just say, when you spend most of your life on a ship, you’d want a stately room. And the captain’s room is no less than a small apartment. Think mahogany, brass, model ships, mini kitchen, full-sized lounge room and all the amenities of a furnished apartment.
As we proceed to the bridge, Captain Gerstad proudly shows the Explorer’s ‘trophies’ – all the keys to the ports it has called home throughout its life. We head to the bridge listening to the tales of the high seas.
The bridge is huge, takes up almost the entire width of the ship. Quite an expanse. So big, you could ride a scooter through it. (Well, the captain can!)
The captain’s wheel, which I so hope to see, is non-existent. Well, barely. It looks more like a racing-car steering wheel. The bridge controls are extensive, complex, and look more like an intricate electronic arcade game. Screens and monitors, buttons and lights. It’s like being on a spaceship. Which, when you think about it, is not far from the truth: it’s a vessel that explores the far reaches of the sea, from port to archipelago, from harbours to oceans and islands.
The captain is charming, and even allows me to sit in the ‘driver’s seat’. It’s a thrill that immediately sends me back to childhood – every young boy’s wish come true.
I walk away in a kind of wondrous state. I know, it sounds corny, but to sit in the captain’s chair … Even Matt Lennon, Editor at www.cruiseadvice.com.au, who has, not surprisingly, done it a few times says “it’s always a thrill”.
I meet up with Lucy, who’s been lounging poolside and is sporting a lobster tan, and we head to the Windjammer Buffet for a DIY dining experience. All the food at Windjammer is inclusive, and I’m blown away by the selection, which caters to all imaginable food choices. There’s a buffet for vegetarians, a buffet for gluten-free feeders, one for the kids and a whole hoard for us omnivores. No one is left out, and if you can’t find what you’re after, the staff will point you in the right direction. They’ll even cook you up some fresh fries if you ask them nicely. (Thank you!)
We have our fill and, as promised, we revisit the ice show, and enjoy the acrobatic skills of ice skaters, who somehow make the smallish rink seem so much larger. The show is called Spirits of the Seasons and features skaters from all over the globe. With its cute choreography and dazzling displays of skill, set off by a fancy lightshow and climaxing with a freakish wheel of death kind of act, I’m glad I returned to see it in full.
After the ice extravaganza, we head for more FlowRider action. Back in our bathers, we jump on the end of the line and wait our turn, watching an impressive older fellow fighting it out with the waves. And boy, does he floor it. But not before he rides that wave for all it was worth. The crowd is, again, of all ages. From 16 to 66, everyone raring to have a go.
It’s my turn and, to cut a long story short, my feet fall immediately out from under me and I go crashing to the canvas, so to speak. I’m sure it looked funny. Just how funny, I’ll find out when I check the video later. Lucky it’s just as much fun watching others do it.
Lucy, on the other hand, turns out to be an unexpectedly natural wave rider. She’s upright for ages and receives applause aplenty, as she manages to master the machine-made waves. I am so impressed. I feel quite the proud partner.
We leave the waves for calmer waters, and head to the sky bar for a quiet beverage. As we sit and stare out to sea, appreciating many subtle shades of blue, we already wish we could stay longer. Three days is nice. Seven days would be just right.
Our table at Giovanni’s Table is booked for 9pm, so we meet up with the people we’ve met on the cruise and have a few brews. Parting is always such sweet sorrow, so they say, but we’ll always have those days on the Explorer.
But it’s not over yet. Our meal at Giovanni’s Table is – how do I put it? – sensational. And we are honestly having to fight them from putting more in our mouths. That’s an Italian thing, I suppose, and they certainly nail that whole ‘Italian hospitality’ culture.
Full to the brim, exhausted from our physical activity, touring and grazing, we watch over Rock Britannia street party in the mall and decide that now’s a good time to pack our bags for our early morning docking. I’d love to hang around, but I’m pretty keen to see the sunrise over Sydney Harbour, as well as watch the ship pull into port.
Just as we open the door to our room, and as we are speaking of hanging around, we spy, above the bed, a terrific little towel monkey that our stateroom attendant, Loyal had made. It is a work of art, and is a really nice send off from an even nicer man. So, thanks Loyal!
We gush over our towel monkey, and begin to pack our bags so we are ready to get up and go first thing in the morning. We turn out the lights on another night, smiling at the wonderful time we’re having.
I awake at 4am. Don’t ask me why. I mean, it’s not as if I haven’t seen the sun rise over Sydney before. It is, however, the first time I’ll see it rise from this magnificent floating metropolis. I sit on the balcony as we pull close to the rocky cliffs of what I think is Newcastle and we watch in wonder as we head towards the heads of the Harbour.
Lucy wakes up and we head to the bow for our Titanic moment (Spoiler alert: there was no Titanic moment). Instead, we watch the sun try to fight through the clouds, and although we only see a glimmer of pinkish-grey, we are still happy to be up and about and seeing the city as it looms larger before us.
After a quick coffee at the Café Promenade, we’re ready to roll. We settle our accounts and disembark the Explorer of the Seas with no trouble at all, with a that smile still plastered on our faces, but some sadness in our hearts. We really don’t want to disembark. As I said earlier: three days is nice, seven would be nicer.
Leon and Lucy stayed on the Explorer of the Seas as part of a media famil.