My wife and I (veteran cruisers who have sailed on multiple different cruise lines) took the NCL Sun on a 15-day repositioning from Miami to Los Angeles through the Panama Canal. As discussed below, our experience on the Sun was mixed, but mostly positive. A lengthy, detailed review follows.
Embarkation was a breeze. We never arrive early, 'cause that is when everyone else arrives. Instead, we arrived about 2 PM for the 5 PM departure, and we were all checked in and in our cabin in less than 20 minutes.
We had an inside cabin, number 9134. The cabin was clean and spacious, well-appointed and with a lot of storage. It had a couch and enough floor space that one could even do some sit-ups to try to burn off some of that plentiful food. The room was well soundproofed, with no discernible noise from above, below, the adjacent rooms, or the hallway. My wife said, however, that the hairdryer was worthless. Its one of those wall mounted units, and it lacked power, did not heat up enough, and it was mounted over the toilet in such a way that you could not use both the mirror and the dryer at the same time. So bring your own hairdryer! And our cabin steward was great. But the stewards are always great, on all the cruises we have ever been on!
The ship itself was midsized. The ship hardly rocked the entire trip, smoothest cruise ever. Of course, that probably has more to do with the weather than the ship itself. The ship was well maintained, and the dÃ©cor was nice, with little sign of wear and tear. The Sun did not have as many activity choices as the larger ships, but the tradeoff is that you can reach everything on the Sun without walking forever like you do on the larger ships. We only went to a few of the Sun's evening shows, and we enjoyed Judy Kolba, a singer/comedian, and another comedian named Rex Havens.
Some thoughts about the food service, and then a discussion of the food itself. In the sit-down dining rooms NCL uses Freestyle dining, meaning you can go to either of their two regular restaurants at any time they are open without pre-assigned seating times or table companions. The advantages of freestyle dining over traditional, assigned dining is, of course, the flexibility freestyle offers. The disadvantages of freestyle dining in comparison with assigned dining are potentially twofold: 1) you may have to wait for a table, and 2) you might get poorer service because you don't get to know your table staff well and they are not competing directly for your tip money. However, we found the freestyle dining on the Sun to be very well run and without any of these disadvantages. We generally ate between 6 and 6:40 PM, and never had to wait more than two or three minutes for a table. Also, our servers each night were pleasant and efficient. Of course, with freestyle dining you don't get to know your tablemates that well, since you switch them up very night. But there is always the chance that, in traditional dining, you will be assigned seating with someone you don't care for, and have to spend the entire trip eating with them. So, all-in-all, we liked the Sun's freestyle dining. More and more cruise lines are offering this besides NCL.
The buffet arrangement on the Sun, however, is strange and does not seem to work well. The Sun doesn't have clearly marked, separate buffet stations like we have seen on other cruise ships. Instead, the Sun has three separate buffet lines, with the main one running along the starboard aft, and the other two smaller buffet lines hidden in the aft part of the ship. The main buffet line is long and snaking, and the food items are arranged sort of haphazardly along the line. For example, the desserts come before the Wok cooking area, what is up with that? And it is not always clear when or how you can skip portions of the main line, and so the line often backed up at the buffet entrance, which was a soup area that required assistance from behind the counter. Also, the buffet always seemed crowded, because the aisles were narrow and we were always bumping into people. As I said, we found this very strange. NCL obviously knows how to set up a proper buffet area, because the buffet on the NCL's Spirit (which we sailed on last fall) was very nicely set-up.
And now some thoughts on food quality, a particularly important area on a long cruise such as the Panama Canal repositioning!
My wife and I thought the food on the Sun was generally good. We all have certain foods we eat or don't eat, and sometimes on a ship like this you don't know what they are going to offer, and whether it will be well prepared. For me, then, it is important that the regular dining room have a decent every-day steak option, and the Sun did not disappoint. The Rib Eye in the Seven Seas dining room was properly cooked to Medium (as I requested), and it was tender and flavorful. I ordered it several times throughout the trip as I was sometimes unsure of the other offerings, and the steak was always good. It was particularly good in comparison with the every-day steak option on other cruises we have been on, such as the top sirloin we go on the RCL Navigator. Uggh. Also, I like Caesar Salad, but sometimes other cruise lines we have used cut corners in preparing the Caesar. Not on the Sun. Every Caesar I had on the Sun was made from fresh romaine lettuce, had freshly prepared Caesar salad dressing (i.e. with egg, garlic, oil, anchovies, and parmesan), and was topped with plentiful shaved parmesan cheese. Eaten plain, or sometimes topped with chicken or shrimp, and you have the very definition of "Yum.â€ Bravo. Also memorable was the Surf and Turf night " the steaks and lobster were both very well prepared. As for breakfast, we usually ate in the buffet. The layout of the buffet is not particularly good, with long serving lines that cause backups and crowded sections. Breakfast options in the buffet were limited, but the things I like (scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, potatoes, cereal, and cottage cheese) were mostly well prepared and tasty. Well, except that the cottage cheese became more like ricotta cheese on the last few days of the trip.
I don't like the restrictive alcohol policies that most cruise lines, including NCL, have. Given that you are not supposed to bring alcohol on board, and that they have a monopoly on alcohol sales, however, the Sun's wine packages were not too bad. We ordered the eight bottle premium package for $248 (average of $31 a bottle), and the wine was acceptable and a decent value for that price. NCL also had a pre-cruise special where if you prepaid for at least three specialty restaurant dinners, they would give you a discount and a free bottle of wine. We took advantage of that package, and my thoughts on the specialty restaurants follows.
The service we received in all the specialty restaurants was spectacular (kudos to Beverly, the Maitre' De for the 12th deck restaurants). In East Meets West Steakhouse, the ambience and all the food was just about perfect. The steakhouse was trying out a new menu with special certified Angus beef, and it was excellent. In Le Bistro, the French restaurant, the food was generally good. The mussels in cream sauce were to die for, and the crÃ¨me brule heavenly. On the flip side, for some reason they now put bread crumbs in the escargot garlic butter, which is not a good idea! Also, the flourless chocolate cake was poor. The Teppanyaki restaurant was fun (think Benni Hanna), as these restaurants always are. They do need to go easy, though, in putting soy sauce on the lobster, because lobster is already salty. As for Il Adagio, the Italian Restaurant, it was difficult to find, but the food was good.
The cruise stopped in several ports. We took ships tours in two ports (Cartagena, Colombia and Hualtuco, Mexico), and did few things on our own in another port (Cabo San Lucas), and I discuss those three ports and associated tours in the Cruise Critic ports section. In two other ports (Puntarenas and Puerto Vallarta) we took private tours, and I review those tours separately (and in detail) on TripAdvisor. As for the Panama Canal Transit (not technically a port stop), it is a bucket list thing that everyone should consider doing at least once. It takes about ten hours to go through the Canal from Atlantic to Pacific, and during that time there is always something interesting to see from the port operations on both sides of the canal, the locks themselves, the other ships, the engines that line the ships up in the canal, the bridges, the large lakes and beautiful rain forested islands, and the dredging and canal maintenance operations. We had the added bonus of all the activity surrounding the ongoing Canal Expansion, a seven year project scheduled to be completed in late 2014 or 2015. NCL provided an expert who came on over the PA system and discussed the history and ongoing activities in the Canal Zone. Very well done.
At the end of the cruise, we decided to take the option of disembarking early and rolling our own luggage off the boat. The boat was cleared for disembarking at 7:55 AM, and less than 20 minutes later we were off the ship, through customs, and looking for our shuttle to the airport. In other words, this was the quickest we have ever gotten through a cruise disembarkation. Fantastic!
Ok, for those few people still reading this long review, I will close with a few thoughts about the casino or, more specifically, the poker table. I love to play poker, and have played in many casinos, including ship casinos on Princess, RCL, and Carnival. In comparison with other casinos, the NCL poker operation is unacceptable. Basically, the house take (called the "rake) on the NCL Sun is just way too large, for both their tournaments and their cash games. For example, in cash poker games, most casinos on land take 10% of each pot, up to a maximum of four or five dollars per hand. The other cruise lines have slightly higher rakes than what you find on land. The NCL Sun, however, took 10% up to a whopping $25 a hand! That is simply crazy, since several times an hour the individual pots will go up to between $100 and $200 at the ½ NL cash Texas Hold'em game being offered. At such a high rake, over the course of a few hours only the house can expect to win -- not any of the players! And this rake probably explains why no one was playing at the Sun's cash game, as far as I could tell " which is the worst possible situation for both the ship and the poker players! If NCL's overhead associated with using live poker dealers is too high and so won't support a lower rake, NCL should consider going to the electronic poker tables found on most other cruise lines. Those electronic tables have a much more reasonable per-hand rake cap (usually 5 or 6 dollars), and this encourages people to play (On Carnival, for example, I played on the PokerPro electronic poker table an average of three to four hours a day every sea day). Just as importantly, a more reasonable poker rake will encourage poker players to book future Norwegian cruises. Poker is my favorite activity aboard ship, and so I, for one, will likely NOT take a Norwegian cruise again unless and until they improve their poker operation. And this is unfortunate, as most other aspects of the NCL cruise experience are very good.