I’m a do-it-yourself traveler. I arrange all my own transport, accommodations and adventures. With the exception of places like Tibet or North Korea, I don’t join tour groups. Yet, for the final stage of this Caribbean odyssey, I decided to try something new.
I love traveling by boat. I wouldn’t be a knowledgeable traveler if I didn’t take at least one cruise. After a couple months of island hopping in the Caribbean (plus a previous voyage in 2013), there were only two notable Caribbean islands that I hadn’t set foot on: Aruba and Bonaire. A quick internet search found an 8-day cruise departing from Miami aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas that visited both these islands. Yay! I bought a ticket online and looked forward to being pampered en route to the last two islands I wanted to see.
When I booked this trip, the cruise was advertised as an 8-day cruise to Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba. I soon found out that a cruise ship is not a good way to get somewhere.
Twenty-four hours after booking my cruise, I received an email informing me that the ship’s itinerary had been changed to Grand Cayman, Curacao and Aruba. No Bonaire! I phoned Royal Caribbean to cancel my ticket and to request a refund. After waiting on hold for 3 hours, a service rep answered my call and told me that I was welcome to cancel my ticket, but that there would be no refund. “Read the fine print,” she said. She also informed me that I would not be allowed to disembark in Aruba and make my own way to Bonaire.
So, I decided to join the party. Click the play button below to see a 9-second sample of the next eight days.
I was impressed by the scale of this ship. The Explorer of the Seas can accommodate 4,290 passengers with a crew capacity of 1,185. (On my cruise there were about 3,000 passengers.) The ship is 20 meters shorter than the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered supercarrier.
I’d expected a humble stateroom designed for a solo traveler. On boarding the ship, I was escorted to a stateroom larger than some hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, with a panoramic view of the 4-story Promenade that runs the length of the ship’s interior.
I spent my first three hours exploring this gleaming party boat. On the top three decks, there were swimming pools and lounge chairs for those who feel the need to become sunburned. There was a jogging track, a mini-golf course, a basketball court, a climbing wall, an outdoor movie screen and a simulated surfing facility where a line of youths in cut-offs eagerly waited their turn to perform aquatic tricks for their friends.
The interior of the ship offered a casino, a 1350-seat theatre, several bars and cafes, a pizza parlor, a bakery and an arcade of shops selling alcohol, jewelry and clothing with Royal Caribbean logos.
This boat ain’t like any aircraft carrier I’ve ever been on!
At the stern of the ship was a vast dining area three floors high where all-you-can eat breakfasts, lunches and dinners were served. (I gained five pounds from the multi-course meals and sweet deserts.)
My favorite part of the ship was the ice skating rink. Mornings, the rink was open to everyone for free skating. Skates and helmets were provided. Few passengers took advantage of the ice rink, so I usually had the rink to myself, along with a family of Yoopers. Ice skating was a cool and refreshing alternative to lounging around the swimming pools in the hot sun. I don’t need to get any browner than I already am.
In the evenings, the nice folks who provided skating lessons during the day put on jaw-dropping ice skating performances, complete with spectacular costuming.
Cruising is a very social activity. I chatted with many of the 3000 Americans on this ship. Almost everyone was part of a couple, a family that does everything together, or a club wearing matching t-shirts. These groups are perfectly friendly, but they all have their own private agenda. There were three categories of passengers: (1) Twenty-somethings whose parents wanted to give them a present that involved “safe” international travel; (2) Newlyweds with little or no travel experience; and (3) Retired folks who wanted to get out of the house but don’t own a motor home. I met only one solo traveler, a dentist from San Francisco.
The crew who cleaned our rooms, cooked our meals, served our food and entertained us were from places like the Philippines, Argentina and Romania. They smiled constantly and followed professional guidelines not to fraternize too much with the passengers.
One of the popular options on this cruise involved the beverage package which allows an unlimited number of alcoholic drinks for $79/day. Since everyone wanted to get their money’s worth, it was normal to see people strolling around with drinks in their hands at 10am. (I didn’t buy the drink package. I limited myself to one or two $10 beers or $12 wines per day.) Between the casino and the alcohol, this is how a cruise ship makes its money.
For most of the ship’s passengers, the on-board dining, drinking, entertainment, dancing and activities were the primary reasons for cruising. Many folks didn’t bother to get off the ship at the ports of call. Naturally, I spent as much time ashore as possible to stretch my legs, get some air and look around.
I was pleased when we made our third and final port of call in Aruba. If I wasn’t going to see Bonaire, at least I saw as much of Aruba as I could. I gawked at the big, expensive hotels and manicured white beaches which are similar to those on the Cayman Islands.
I’d heard that the scuba diving is good in Aruba. I did a two-tank dive offered through Royal Caribbean. This was a well-organized excursion. Compared to other dive trips I’ve taken, I felt as though someone was holding my hand the whole time to ensure my safety and to guarantee that I returned to the ship on time. We visited two World War II sunken wrecks. The visibility wasn’t great because of wind and surf. I miss diving in beautiful Kosrae.
Satisfied that I’d experienced most of what makes Aruba what it is, I ended my day with a relatively cheap beer and meal on shore at a very touristic restaurant, and watched some of the more adventurous cruise ship passengers motor by in ATVs.
My favorite people on this cruise were the Green family. We ate and played dominos together. They’re New Englanders, so we might meet again.
This cruise has been fascinating and eye-opening. I’m glad to know from personal experience what a cruise ship is like. Cruising is pleasant, worry-free and luxurious. But to me, the most important elements of travel are meeting unusual people and experiencing other cultures. This doesn’t happen on a cruise ship. I prefer my style of travel. I’ll have to get myself to Bonaire some other time.
Bottom line: Cruising is not my cup of tea — or to put it more contextually — not my martini. David Foster Wallace wrote a wonderfully witty and clever essay about the modern cruise scene. Click here for some insights that he and I share and a few good laughs.
One convenience of the current style of cruising is the freedom from Covid restrictions. To board my ship, I had to produce my vaccination card and proof of a negative antigen test taken within 48 hours. After that, no further travel requirements were enforced for the entire trip, including the shore excursions. So, if you want to see multiple Caribbean islands with a minimum of travel headaches, cruising is a good way to go.
This may be my last blog posting for a while. I’m now in Las Vegas to organize an early summer road trip through some of America’s great national parks. Hopefully, I’ll get to my favorite campsites before the crowds do.