Explorer wins in the largest, most original ship categories

Cruise editor Brian Major sampled a two-day cruise to nowhere aboard the largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean International's Explorer of the Seas. His report follows:

Size matters. After only two days aboard Royal Caribbean's newest ship, the 138,000-ton Explorer of the Seas, the significance of scale is quite apparent.

Explorer's size makes the ship a true seagoing resort, allowing for such a broad array of activities and facilities that passengers will have to remind themselves that they're actually at sea.

My October cruise aboard Explorer was one of several two-day sailings to the ever-popular destination of nowhere (more specifically, 50 nautical miles off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.) and did not include any port calls.

That was probably a good thing because there was more than enough going on aboard Explorer, and I wasn't sure two days would allow me to experience all (or most) of this ship's impressive array of amenities and facilities.

Not to worry -- Explorer proved to be such an attractive and interesting ship that it was hard to sit still for any decent amount of time. The vessel really did offer something for everyone.

In fact, Explorer's incredible diversity makes this ship (along with sister vessel Voyager of the Seas, introduced last year) a rarity in the cruise industry. Voyager and Explorer are vessels that will chart the course for future cruise-ship design.

No doubt you've heard the reports of Explorer's rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink and interior staterooms that feature views of the ship's dining, shopping and entertainment boulevard.

I can faithfully report that all of these facilities do exist as described and, furthermore, they attracted the full attention of the passenger contingent.

Indeed, the lines were at times up to 20 people long for rock climbing, which took place on a specially designed wall attached to the back of the ship's smokestack.

As it was, our voyage only included one day at sea, but the rock-climbing activities continued right through sundown.

Explorer's ice-skating rink seemed smaller than I (and others I spoke with) initially envisioned.

In fact, the relatively small rink added an extra element of unpredictability to one evening's entertainment.

It often appeared as if the show's skaters were about to vault beyond the rink's boundaries.

But the show went off without incident, and, considering that we were aboard a cruise ship, the rink still weighed in as very impressive.

The same can be said of the entertainment boulevard, which was lined with a coffee shop; a sports bar; ice cream stands; duty-free stores and boutiques; a game room featuring video games from the early 1980s (just the ticket for the thirtysomething crowd), and props, like a circa 1920s motorcycle with sidecar.

The boulevard resembled a small corridor at some upscale mall or shopping-intensive airport and, based on our two-day experience, will be very popular with passengers.

Speaking of popular, Explorer guests should try to sample the Johnny Rockets restaurant as soon as possible after boarding because any significant delay will result in a long wait on a line that often stretches well beyond the front door.

The restaurant seated only about 100, so it was difficult to determine if it was extremely popular or simply not large enough.

The staff was fun-loving and, like any respectable diner crew, offered a dance routine whenever their favorite songs (specifically, "YMCA" and "Respect") were played on the jukebox.

The cuisine was typical diner fare, but the milk shakes were worth the wait.

Explorer also has two scientific facilities: atmospheric and oceanographic laboratories created in partnership with the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

The atmospheric lab was situated in a small room near the ship's bow mast and was staffed by a friendly science guy who gave a good (if lengthy) explanation of the lab's functions.

The oceanographic lab was another story.

It's located on a lower deck and requires passengers to walk through what are clearly crew and staging areas.

Once in the lab, there wasn't much to see, as hands-on experiments weren't yet set up when we arrived.

Royal Caribbean will have to settle some access issues if the company is going to promote this area to passengers.

But there was very little to complain about on a ship with so much to offer.

In addition to Explorer's impressive array of bars, lounges and kids' facilities, there was a 15,000-square-foot spa and gym, a full-sized basketball and volleyball court, a miniature golf course and an in-line skating track.

OK, the skating track was a bit narrow, but again, this is a cruise ship.

Explorer also offers an Internet center, several cafes and lounges, a large casino, two sports bars, a cigar bar, a jazz club and a 24-hour ice cream and yogurt bar.

There's also the Chamber, a disco designed to resemble a Gothic castle.

Because our cruise to nowhere offered no port calls, it was impossible to determine the ship's methods for embarking and disembarking passengers for sightseeing.

But with only two days aboard, that was a good thing.

Explorer is the type of cruise ship that will attract the younger, resort-oriented passenger base that cruise lines are always seeking, simply because you never feel as if you want to get off.

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