After months of planning, embarkation day had finally arrived. It took two taxi runs to transport us and all of our (my) luggage from the Premier Inn to the Southampton Port. We arranged to arrive at eleven, which was the earliest time that we could begin to board the ship. We were not alone. The port was bustling and we watched as porters loaded our luggage.
Here's a cute picture of Dan, Zoe and Felix, as we were waiting for Dan's parents to arrive in the second taxi run.
Let me take you back to our pre-trip planning for a moment. Royal Caribbean International (RCC) has a terrible website. It's slow and it's difficult to navigate. In every case, it was easier to call with a question, even thought it meant being on hold for thirty minutes. The phone operators were always very pleasant, however, theY often provided conflicting information. This was especially true when my father-in-law spoke with them regarding formal nights. Two phone calls and an email later...we still had no idea what to expect.
This website snafu spilled over to embarkation day, when we had printed the wrong paperwork. It ended up being quickly resolved, but not before a rather grumpy employee barked orders at us. To be fair, I think that she may have been a port employee, rather than someone with the cruise line. RCC had extremely friendly staff.
We booked two Grand Suites and with this, came a ton of perks. The first perk was a separate queue for embarkation. We were given a blue sticker, which fast tracked us on to the ship. Paperwork issue aside, boarding was lightening fast.
At check-in, we were given our Seapass. The Seapass is key to everything on the ship. It's a room key, an identification card and it's a charge account. RCC operates on a cashless system, so all charges go through the Seapass. We elected to put a credit card on our account for the balance, but we also had a choice to pay cash. As a bonus, we had almost nine hundred dollars in shipboard credit via a promotion when we booked through Costco Travel. We elected to not give the kids charging abilities on the card and due to his age (5), Felix's card did not function as a room key. Our Seapass was gold to identify us as suite guests.
The first stop after check-in, was the obligatory boarding day picture.
After the picture, we took the kids over to a booth where they met an employee from the kid's club named Splish-Splash. All of the kid's club employees have crazy nicknames. Splish-Splash, who ended up being one of Zoe's favorite Kid's Club attendants, gave each kid a red wrist band. They wore the wrist band of the duration of our cruise and it would be used to identify them, if there was an emergency or we got separated. Luckily, we never needed the wrist bands.
We didn't have access to our rooms before three, so we explored the ship and had lunch at The Windjammer. The Windjammer is the casual buffet option on the ship. It's popular, especially on that first day. This is where our best suite perk came into play. As a suite guest, we had the option to eat in Chops Grill.
Chops is a reservation based steak restaurant in the evenings, but for breakfast and lunch, it's open as an alternative dining space for suite guests. Seriously, this is the biggest reason for booking a suite. If we didn't have this perk, murder or suicide would have occurred on our vacation. At times, the crowds in The Windjammer were unbearable. It was such a treat to have a quiet dining room to enjoy our meals and we got to know the staff, who were wonderful.
Rooms on cruise ships are notoriously small. Although I had been on three previous cruises ( Big Red Boat, Carnival and RCC), I had only experienced interior staterooms. I was really curious to see what we were getting for splurging on a suite.
Our room was amazing! It was spacious, not even feeling cramped when the couch was transformed into a bed for the kids. The balcony was huge and let a ton of light into the room. The best part, we had ample storage for all of the (my) luggage.
The bathroom was surprisingly large, with double sinks and a soaking tub.
The balcony was massive and pretty much where I parked myself with a book for the entire two weeks. I absolutely loved the deck and I can't imagine doing a future cruise with an interior room. Nope, not happening.
On the last day of our trip, as I was packing, I thought that I had better take some detailed shots to show off the storage in the room. Please mind the mess.
First, the vanity. As my readers know, I love my make-up mirrors, so that was a huge feature for me. However, look at all of the drawers and cupboards. Plus, the giant mirror is also hiding a cupboard. I had no idea about the mirror until a week into our trip, when my mother-in-law clued me in.
Storage in the bathroom was more than we needed. We couldn't possibly fill all of the drawers and vanity cupboards behind both mirrors. I have a lot of grooming products, but I couldn't meet RCC's expectations!
We had two end tables on either side of the couch and they both doubled as storage space.
We had one big closet and a half closet. Plenty of space for all of our clothes. Another suite perk, fluffy robes.
A note on laundry; we paid to have a majority of it done on the ship. Yes, it was expensive, but it also saved us a lot of stress. We didn't have mounds of dirty laundry everywhere and since we were also traveling after the cruise, we needed clean clothes for the our final week in Europe. Plus, it kept the peace to have the kid's favorite items cleaned for them. We never paid for the same-day laundry, but sending it out non-rush, usually guaranteed that it would be back the next day. I had one tank top ruined, but it was delicate and I probably should have known better than to have it cleaned with the regular laundry.
One way to save is to take advantage of a laundry special. They ran it twice during our cruise and it was thirty dollars for all that you could stuff into a special plastic bag. Only certain items counted and it was a basic wash without pressing, so for stuff like tee-shirts, socks and undies.
In addition to the closet space, there was ample drawer space.
The cupboard on the far left in the above picture, held a refrigerator. The fridge was a stocked mini-bar, but it also had room to add our own items, like macaroons from France!
There was a large counter and even more storage above the drawers.
Our suite attendant, Pedro, was great. He brought us a fresh bucket of ice every afternoon and made the most incredible towel animals every evening. I'm going to dedicate an entire future post to his towel menagerie.
A little more on the suite perks. We had a concierge lounge that was run by Denzil Fernandez. Denzil sent us an e-mail greetings prior to our trip and he outlined several of our perks. We were given a fruit plate on arrival and complimentary formal night attire pressing. One perk that the kids liked, was the ability to borrow movies and Play Station 3 games. Denzil had a large selection of DVD's and games in the concierge lounge.
Although we didn't make use of it much, the concierge lounge was open for us to use and it had complimentary drinks and nibbles in the evenings. It just didn't feel like an appropriate or fun place to bring the kids, so we only visited to see Denzil. He helped arrange excursion tickets for us and he resolved a dining issue.
We let the kids run wild when it was empty.
We also had a special roped off area of lounge chairs by the pool, which were first come/first serve for suite guests. We only found them to be full one time. We didn't see any of the main stage shows, but if we had, there was also a section of seats reserved for suite guests. We did see the ice show and when we arrived, Denzil escorted us to seats in the front row and asked if the kids wanted to take part in the show. More on the ice show in an upcoming post.
Towards the end of our trip, we started to feel like we were being followed. We had a lot of staff members in dining, especially management, going out of their way to make sure that we were happy. Then, one morning, I noticed a list at the front desk of Chops Steakhouse. It had all of the names of the suite guests and their room numbers. The Explorer of the Seas has over three thousand passengers and I would estimate that only maybe a hundred of them are suite guests. We were definitely getting a large dose of personal service.
After cruising in a suite, I'm officially spoiled. While planning the cruise, I frequented cruisecritic.com as my primary resource for planning our vacation. It's a great site run by fellow travelers that offer personal vacation experiences and advice. One of the big debates that came up frequently on the RCC board, was whether or not the suites are worth the extra expense?
Yes, Yes and Yes!!!!
Some people argued that a Junior Suite is good enough, as it gives you a little extra space, but is more affordable than a Grand Suite or above. The Grand Suite is the lowest category of suites that still gives you the suite perks. You get none of the perks in a Junior Suite. Our Grand Suite was amazing, but it was really having those perks that impacted our vacation enjoyment. Seriously, having the quiet dining room to escape the madness at Windjammer was worth thousands!