My cruising group consisted of: my wife and I, my eldest daughter (who is about to become an officer in the US Army), my youngest daughter and a very good friend of mine along with his wife. Our age range was from 56 to 27 and all were seasoned cruisers with NCL. In my review I will rate each review category with my own arbitrary experience using a rating system from 1 to 5; 5 = Outstanding, 4 = Excellent, 3 = Satisfactory, 2 = Marginal, and 1 = Unsatisfactory. In general I am not easily impressed, I like to stick to the facts, but I also try to provide a neutral point of view so that you may draw your own conclusions. This particular review may be a little long but there is a lot to say about this ship and itinerary.
Embarkation: 4.5 Stars
NCL has online registration that includes e-tickets. You just print out the forms and have them checked at the pier inside the main building. At check-in I used the Latitudes line – it was very short and moved fast. NCL does not take the top registration form away from your e-docs, rather they photo copy this form on a machine that is shared with a number of other check-in agents, so our only wait was for our check-in agent to get his turn at the copy machine. Then you go upstairs in the main terminal to hand in your pre-registration form and will get your actual room key card, you then have a very short wait (2-3 minutes) to get your photo taken and then you board the ship. I arrived at the pier at about 11:00am and was on board in less than 35 minutes, everything moved very fast. Note: you will get your room luggage tags along with your e-docs, if you decide to use these instead of the ones sent to you in your cruise packet, make sure you print them on heavy duty paper and laminate them with packing tape so they do not fall apart during the luggage handling.
Cabins: 4 Stars
Our entire group had Inside Cabins, they are a little smaller than other ships I have sailed(143SF), but well laid out and THE QUIETEST cabins of any ship I have ever sailed, it was GREAT for sleeping, plus no announcements were piped into your cabin, big kudos to NCL for their soundproofing. The cabin was equipped with a small fridge, a combined his/her’s closet which I did not like as I enjoy the separate closet arrangement, and an easy to use room safe. The storage space was adequate, however my one issue was with the bedside tables – they don’t have any drawers and are flimsy and open ended – which made them pretty useless for the usual nightstand storage. There was a TV and it showed limited programming but a good selection of relatively new movies throughout the cruise. Additionally, I missed the TV feature (on newer Carnival ships) of being able to view my room bill and the daily dinning menu. The cabin bathroom was nicely laid out however; the “Commode” will be a problem if you are over 6ft tall as it sits at an odd angle. The shower was spacious (for a cruise ship) and it had a door instead of a curtain, which was also nice. You are supplied dispenser soap and shampoo but NO other amenities such as toothpaste, shaver, etc. (NCL should consider supplying the toilet accessories as they add a very nice touch). Be warned that the dispenser shower soap is not the most effective method of cleaning – bring a shower puff or your own soap! Our cabin steward was fine; he did the basic twice a day cleaning and had a few smiles in the hallway. Overall, nothing special or out of the ordinary about room steward service. Two members of my party complained about the bed mattress and said that it was the hardest and most uncomfortable of any cruise ship (this was a younger and an older person’s assessment), personally I thought it was adequate but could use improvement.
Dining/Food: 4 Stars
“Freestyle” cruising is the concept that NCL promotes and the idea is that you can dine wherever, whenever. What you need to know is that all this “Freestyle” comes with a not-so-free price tag. For free, besides the buffet and the two main dining rooms (which have identical menus, just different decor) you have a choice of an Italian and a Spanish/Mexican Tapas restaurant (I did not eat at either the Italian or Tapas place as my research had indicated they were both just “ok” at best). For a cost of $15-$20 + per person you can eat at your choice of five specialty restaurants (Le Bistro-French, Cagney’s-Steak house, Chin Chin-oriental fusion, a Sushi bar and a Japanese Teppanyaki place). Depending on what you order in these restaurants there may be an additional charge for the “upscale menu”, so your bill could be $40+ per person. I ate at Cagney’s the first night because I had a 2 for 1 coupon. We made reservations the minute we walked on Board and had no issues getting our time slot for 6:30pm.
The food was very good but the service was extremely slow – we finished our dinner at around 9pm! Later it was explained that the staff was short handed that night but I thought almost 3 hours for a party of 6 was out of control. At the Latitudes party my daughter won a free dinner for two at Le Bistro, so our group ate there one night during the half price happy hour and the service and food were excellent – we were in and out in less than two hours. The other 7 nights I ate in the Tsar’s dining room because it had a nicer view – huge picture windows where you could see the sunset and twinkling lights of the ports as we departed. I found the food and service to be excellent – I would not hesitate to recommend eating in the main dining room every night; save your money for other things! After/between normal dinner dining hours there is a very nice (and free) small restaurant/snack area called the Blue Lagoon (a waiter will take your order and you order from a limited menu) – they serve great hot wings and fresh fish & chips. During dinner hours they serve the Tapas menu. Additionally, the Blue Lagoon is also a great secret for a quiet breakfast. Even though the breakfast menu is limited, I found it to be the perfect setting, never crowded and chaotic like the buffet. The buffet on deck 11 was excellent – the selection of food for every meal was great.
For breakfast they have waffle and omelet stations as well as a variety of breakfast items, excellent lox and Eggs Benedict that some members of my party swore by. For lunch they had a variety of hot items, a sandwich bar, salad bar, make-your-own soup and stir fry stations, make-your-own pasta station, pizza and calzones, burgers and fries and sushi. Soft serve ice cream with toppings is also available and free daily – a nice touch. In the buffet, the food islands organization and display is done well – hardly ever felt crowded or had lines. However, a huge negative of the buffet on this ship is there are no trays to carry your food, this is a major inconvenience, as you cannot carry more than one plate at a time and certainly not a drink so you have to get your plate, set it down and pray that the wait staff does not take it while you go back for a drink. Unless you are eating with others and ask them to watch your plate, this becomes a big hassle and many passengers felt the same way – I would often watch some passenger’s plate while they rushed to the drink station. In addition, the seating area tables are very close together and you get to hear everyone next to you. Per the Freestyle dress code, no jeans or shorts are allowed during dinner in the main dining rooms (they enforce this so be forewarned), but jeans are allowed in the pay restaurants (money always talks). I would say about 75% of the passengers were nicely dressed during the evening hours.
When I walked by the buffet at night there were people eating in shorts. Also, at the buffet, shirts are required – no bikini tops or shirtless men allowed. Another negative of the Freestyle concept that I do not like is the wait staff rotation. They are rotated nightly between stations in the main dining rooms, so if you want to sit at the same table hoping to get the same waiter two nights in a row it is impossible. I personally do not like this; I like to get to know my waiter and vice versa; it makes for a smoother and more pleasant dining experience. To insure that my party of 6 was always seated together for dinner, a non peak dinner time (same time every night) was reserved with the maitre d’ on the first night. The first two dinner seatings, although we had a lovely table with a view, we found the service to be just average. On the third evening we found a waitress team (“Vi” from the Philippines) that was head and shoulders above others and we demanded to be seated at her table from then on. Of course, our demand was met with a smile from the maitre d’. As a matter of fact, the service from the maitre d’ was probably one of the best experiences we have had on a ship; all our demands were met with a smile and “no problem;” she even visited our table nightly to check on us. Perhaps it was because it consisted of an all-female team? Note: if you enjoy wine with dinner, be prepared for sticker shock as the wine prices are high. NCL did not offer the buy five get one free, instead it was buy nine get one free – not exactly an amazing deal by anyone’s standards.
Public Rooms: 4.5 Stars
Simply beautiful and YES Non-Smoking with the exception of the casino. This was the first ship I have ever sailed that smoking was only allowed in the casino (and of course, outdoors). The ship was nicely decorated and in tip-top condition. There was plenty of space to move around and you never felt crowded even with 2000+ people on board. The ship was designed with the 5th and 6th decks as the main hubs of activity, i.e. shops (located in the aft area), lounges, photo gallery, reception, etc. The Casino is located on deck 6 mid-ship, however unlike other ships where you have to walk through the casino to get to other public rooms, the casino has one entrance in and out, so if you are walking down the hall, you can enter the casino or choose to keep walking past it. Additionally, there is also a high wall blocking the casino from passenger view and preventing the smoke from filtering outside. The only problem with this design is that the casino is VERY smoky – more so than on other ships, but I guess you can’t get it all. The duty free shops on board were well stocked and I enjoyed window shopping. Restrooms were easily marked as was each deck with signs, arrows and maps. It did not take long to figure out the layout and if I was unsure, the maps were always there when I needed them. Elevators were plentiful and were always operational. The gym was free; however there was a daily charge to use the SPA (an area with various whirlpools, steam rooms, saunas, showers and tile lounges). The gym only offered one bathroom for each gender, one shower and a steam room for free. To use a sauna or a spacious bathroom you had to pay for the one to use in the spa – $20 per day! I found it outrageous that to use a sauna I have to pay a daily usual fee. Note: internet service prices are VERY high on the ship – $.75 per minute!
Entertainment: 3 1/2 Stars
Room for improvement here. In the evening, you will find a guitar player near the “Bar City,” he played Spanish type music and had a regular following, listening to one or two numbers was nice, but it got old fast. In the Fyzz Lounge, before the disco started at 11:30pm, there was a three piece band that should have had a neon sign saying “WE WILL PUT YOU TO SLEEP,” need I say more? At the Spinnaker lounge on deck 11, there was a livelier band, it OK and the best of the three mentioned. A few nights I stayed up late for the disco which was held in the Fyzz lounge but it was never very crowded even though it was the best place to dance. The DJ was very accommodating in playing a variety of songs, but NCL has strict policies on the types of music that the DJ can play (absolutely no hip hop or rap) and even stock, interesting policy and it made many of the passengers (the few that even went to the disco) upset as a result. The DJ played everything I requested so I was a happy camper. As with other NCL ships, the Spinnaker Lounge is definitely the best place for the disco but for whatever reason they choose to have the band instead of the disco, which is a major downfall. The shows on board were held at the very lovely Stardust theatre, however as a frequent guest during all ship shows, I was very disappointed in the nightly offerings and left quite a few of them early. They featured the usual dance musical, boring, but I did enjoy the comedian/juggler. The “cirque” show was VERY nice and a must-see! On one evening they had an improv comedy show and is THE WORST show I have ever seen, many people left in the middle of it. However, the next night that same improv group had a passenger interaction show in the Fyzz Lounge and I have never laughed so hard in my life, so maybe they should just make the Theatre show a passenger interaction show. I will give HUGE thumbs up to the entertainment activities done by the cruise director’s staff, the theme nights were great fun and the karaoke was well done.
Excursions/Ports: 4 Stars
As a rule I rarely take ship excursions, but in Antigua I really wanted to do yacht racing and NCL now has the monopoly on this – you have no choice but to book the private excursion through them. It was $699 for a total of 6 people, so you could divide the cost up between your group, but it was still a bit expensive ($20 more than you would pay booking it on your own). All the arrangements made by the ship were up to par and it ran smoothly; the actual excursion itself was also good fun and I would highly recommend it for those physical enough to take it. Note: this excursion is listed as a level 1-2 when it comes to adventure and risk, let me warn you it is a level 3+. At all the other ports I did on my own exciting and unique adventures – email me for details or read about the ports on my website.
Activities: 4 Stars
A variety of daytime activities are offered throughout the cruise. From the usual trivia to the Very Expensive Bingo (Bingo on this cruise is more like a poor investment choice rather than a lighthearted numbers matching game – cards for the games start at $29 and get into the $100s). NCL is now promoting this small handheld bingo computer that allows you to play 100 + games simultaneously for a cost of $100+. So if you are like me and want to buy a card and have some fun, you basically throwing your money away and have very little chance since your one card with six boxes is competing against people with 100+ cards. In an effort to make money, NCL has taken the fun out of the game for the casual player – you can have more fun at the casino for that much, so if you want to play Bingo plan on $100 every time! The popular not-so-newlywed game, liars club, margarita and martini tasting (great deal for $15), etc. were all good fun. They had two late night activities – after 11pm – that were very entertaining – a risqué game show the second to last night and “Full Monty” type show mid cruise. They were the hit of the cruise (note that they WERE risqué and only 18+ allowed but still VERY fun for the passengers) and fully packed the Spinnaker Lounge. There did seem to be a LACK of activities during the final day at sea and a lack of consistency in each day’s events. You would have a day or evening filled with activities all bunched together, and then you would have a lot of dead time where you had no other choice but to hear about the art auctions over the loudspeaker. Sometimes activities were offered between 6:30 & 7:30pm, a time where many people eat dinner and this was quite annoying. Huge kudos to the cruise director Julie and staff, a very friendly bunch always visible and organized (with the exception of the lady who did the Charades game one night).
Disembarkation: 4 Stars
You leave when you want to depending on your connecting accommodations. Breakfast buffet is open till 9:00am and you have limited room service available that morning. Prior to disembarking – a few days before – you get specific luggage tags color based on your transportation connections, and then you wait in your staterooms until your colored tags are called. You can also choose to self-disembark where you carry your own luggage off and are the first off the ship – I prefer this method rather than searching through piles of luggage and putting my bags outside my door the night before. It was smooth and quick – we were off the boat in less than 30 minutes and easily found a van that took us to the airport. However, everybody does need to be off the ship by 10:30 so you can’t hang around that long. Note: the Miami airport was VERY crowded the day we docked and a madhouse in terms of check in and lines everywhere, so make sure you allow at least two hours at the airport prior to your flight!
I loved this ship and it had an itinerary that is not to be missed, in fact I loved it so much that I plan to sail the identical itinerary again! NCL also seems to promote and reward the Latitudes Members, however I was very disappointed by the way NCL is starting to nickel and dime passengers – shame on them when they could become tops in the industry! Tipping at the end of the cruise follows the standard of it being automatically added to your room bill each day. All this talk about lack of service since tips are automatically charged to your room is just not true! The entire staff from the busboys to the officers seemed very friendly-everybody had a smile and was willing to help. Bottom line, I would not hesitate to recommend this ship to anybody, pack your bags and book this ship!