Explorer of the Seas

I’m onboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas for its first sailing out of its new homeport of Sydney for three nights of waterborne fun.

It’s a full house and the 3,800 passengers onboard are acutely aware that they are here for a good time, not a long time. They fall upon the buffet and bar with a fervour usually reserved for those just released from prison. The safety drill is held just after 5pm, well before we’ve pulled out of Sydney Harbour, and one young lady is already so full of holiday cheer she can barely stand.

Short cruises are one of the fastest growing sectors of the market and in 2014 more than 350,000 Australians hopped onboard a ship for less than a week. The ultimate in short cruising is the ‘cruise to nowhere’, a two- to three-night break where a ship sails out of port and cruises around offshore at a very sedate pace without stopping at any ports.

Our crowd is remarkably well behaved. Passengers are a mix of Royal Caribbean’s traditional demographics (families with kids, friends and couples from 30 to 60) as well as people who are here to party, including a number of large groups in celebration mode. They range in age from a group of 19 year olds from Sydney’s west to more than 20 40-somethings from the Central Coast wearing matching singlets emblazoned with the words “Three days without the kids!”.

And that’s what this ‘cruise to nowhere’ is really all about. Find a deckchair by the main pool or (as I do) in the quieter Solarium area, order a brightly coloured cocktail and relax. Repeat as necessary. Meals mark the passage of time and there’s always the option of retreating to the air conditioned cool of the cabin for an afternoon nap.

Explorer is now the largest ship based in Australia, taking the title from Voyager of the Seas when she arrived in late November. The two ships are virtually identical, though Explorer weighs around 1,000 tonnes more than her little sister. She will be homeported in Sydney and sail around Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific before heading back to the Northern Hemisphere in late April.

The ship completed an $80 million refurbishment earlier this year, bringing it into line with the four other Voyager class ships. As well as a general refresh of fittings and furnishings, 81 interior cabins have virtual balconies, large screens that display a live camera feed from outside the ship. 24 new panoramic ocean view cabins have also been added on deck 12, surrounding the Vitality Spa, with floor to ceiling wrap around windows.

I’m staying in a balcony cabin, which is clean and bright and neutral. The shower has a sliding screen door, which is vastly preferable to the usual shower curtain that adheres itself to your back every time you make the slightest contact. Stairwells are stocked with an interesting collection of celebrity photographs (including many by Annie Leibovitz) though the effect is somewhat diminished by the walls of the corridors, which remain an interesting shade I come to refer to as Liberace pink.

On our first night we dine at Chops Grille, one of three new specialty restaurants onboard (along with Giovanni’s Italian and Izumi Japanese). It’s a dimly lit, stylish space reminiscent of Melbourne’s Attica, specialising in steak and lobster. I have one of each. The new R Bar (formerly the Champagne Bar) is the place for a nightcap, serving delightfully retro cocktails like a brandy alexander.

The Windjammer Marketplace is the main casual dining area, serving up the usual buffet staples. I confess that I am not a good buffet diner. I become overwhelmed with choice and end up wandering the counters, plate in hand, eventually stocking it with a strange variety of items I would never eat at home (Indian curry? Waldorf salad?) and that clearly don’t belong together. It’s a good thing I’m getting my nutrients from Bloody Mary’s.

The FlowRider surf simulator is Explorer’s most popular new addition and sits at the aft of the ship on deck 14. Lie down boogieboarding and stand up surfing sessions run throughout the day, and there’s always an eager queue of people ready to hurl themselves into the churning water with varying degrees of success. I’m told it’s not as hard as it looks, but I still choose to stay in the grandstands.

There are plenty of other activities onboard for passengers looking for something a little more strenuous than the deck chair/cocktail/nap routine. Studio B ice rink is open for passengers to skate as well as a truly impressive ice show by professional skaters. The rock climbing wall, mini golf course and basketball court entice active passengers, while there’s the opportunity for glory (or shame) in poolside competitions to find the sexiest man onboard or the best belly flopper.

If you’d prefer to continue the relaxation process, the Vitality Spa has more than 100 treatments on offer. I have a signature La Therapie Hydralift Facial that I am convinced leaves me looking younger and wrinkle free, followed by a consultation with the onboard cosmetic surgeon who disabuses me of this idea by recommending US$800 worth of muscle relaxants.

The festive atmosphere onboard carries through to the evenings. A pool deck party encourages late night dancing under the stars with a midnight buffet for refuelling. On the final night the Royal Promenade – a shopping and dining strip that runs through the middle of the ship – hosts an exuberant performance of British pop hits, complete with hundreds of tiny Union Jacks waved by the crowd.

There are more than a few sore heads when Explorer docks in Sydney as the sun rises on day four. People have made the very most of their time onboard, treating it as a brief hedonistic reprieve from their every day life. Regular cruisers (particularly regular Royal Caribbean cruisers) will notice a distinctly different atmosphere onboard when compared to longer itineraries. Make no mistake, these people are here to party. But if you’re prepared to get into the spirit of the fun it can be thoroughly entertaining and you’ll make plenty of new friends on the dance floor.

Highs: Lots of fun in the sun. Great treatments in the spa. Specialty restaurant dining is of a very high standards.

Lows: A computer glitch means check in and boarding take well over 90 minutes. Bars running out of key ingredients on day one. Service not always up to the usual Royal Caribbean standards – eg: tables left uncleared until cleared by guests themselves.

Best for: Party people of all ages, particularly groups. Families, couples and friends who don’t mind sailing with a more raucous bunch than is found on longer Royal Caribbean cruises.