This was our first cruise on a NCL ship and we were a little skeptical after some of our friends had taken a NCL Hawaiian cruise last year and did not seem to be very impressed with their experience. They reported that the food was not as good or offered as many selections as they had on their previous cruise. We did not find that to be the case and thoroughly enjoyed the freestyle experience. As a matter of fact we ate most of our meals in the Garden Cafe as opposed to the other dining rooms. Eating fancy is not as high on our priority list, but we do appreciate having a varied selection to choose from and the Garden Cafe offered many specialized and ethnic/national selections throughout the cruise.
We had booked a guaranteed inside cabin but did not find out until a week before we embarked which one we were assigned. It turned out to be on Deck 11, cabin number 11057. It was a nice cabin but it took a while to get used to the rare sideways set up since every other cabin we have had on cruises was arranged where the foot of the bed faced the entry door. This cabin had the right side of the bed facing the door and was a little cumbersome because the dresser drawers blocked the closet doors when they were opened. We had multiple problems early with the toilet, ranging from no water to overflowing and flooding the bathroom floor. We were surprised to find a complimentary tray of chocolate covered strawberries sitting in our room after one repair job.
The port call at Cartagena was much too short as we were not let off the ship until after 7:30am and had to be back at 2:30pm. We took a Sites of Cartagena tour that filled almost all of our port time. At the last shopping stop in the New Town area I was standing near a cafe and pulled out my iPhone to see if I could find a free wifi site and only found ones that were password protected. While standing there a waiter walked up and handed me a piece of paper with the password to the site written on it. Unfortunately we had to leave before I could do any more than download my recent email so we could not eat anything.
After two days at sea and one day in Columbia we started our east-west transit of the Panama Canal early on the morning of the fourth day - entering the canal at 7:00am or so. That meant that we had to get up early and eat early to get on deck and witness entering the first lock. We transited the same time as the Norwegian Sun, with them in the southern lock and us in the northern. It was a nice way to accomplish that, and allowed us to see a similar ship make the transit. Finding a place to see and photograph the transit was a challenge, since almost all the rail positions were quickly occupied by fellow travelers. While eating lunch we talked to a couple that clued us in on a little known fact that if we went to deck 8 and walked to the front of the ship we could walk through a Crew Only entrance and get out on a very nice viewing area. The staff had erected two dining flys and had water and liquid refreshments available. There was never a crowd and there were plenty of places to take some great photos as we transited the other locks and passed under the Bridge of the Americans. No, it really was not crew only for this portion of the transit and paying passengers were welcome.
The entertainment offered was filled with very good and very average offerings. We especially enjoyed the Oh What a Night (Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons) tribute show. Our favorite evening entertainment was sitting in the Star Bar and listening to Jim Badger tell jokes and play wonderful tunes on the piano. That because our standard evening venue. His quick witted humor escaped some of the other passengers, but the ones that caught on early were kept in stitches. Other musical entertainment we enjoyed was the Beatles tribute group Paperback Writer Tribute, and a Beach Boys tribute group that performed one of our sail away parties. Oddly enough, the ship's cast and musical selections were less entertaining than we have experienced on other cruises.
INSIDERS SCOOP - at the rear of the Garden Cafe on the port side, is a coffee machine that at first looks like the other coffee machines in the Garden Cafe, but actually brews each individual cup fresh. It grinds the beans and steams out fresh coffee one cup at a time. In the same food topic, I was concerned that the ship description talked about "scooped" ice cream and made it sound like there was no soft-serve stations available - but never fear, there is one in the Garden Cafe and one on the rear of the ship at the Great Outdoors, but not one near the swimming pool area. I was also concerned that unlike other cruise lines, there appeared to be no cookies to munch on. After a couple of days I finally found that they are available, but we only found them at the afternoon tea food line in the Great Outdoors and only available for a couple of hours each day - so stock up if you want one later in the evening.
In Costa Rica we took the morning to walk to the end of the pier and shop with the local street venders. There is a coffee shop shop (Plaza de Cafe?) that gives you 20 minutes of internet access with a $2.00 purchase. I was surprised to find an email from my gmail account that warned me to check and change my password since they had noticed someone logging in with my account from a Costa Rica site. We took a very interesting Bus, Train, Boat tour and on the boat part were given a short segment of the Crocodile tour and got to see some crocodiles and many of the wild bird species and were treated afterwards to some local fruit and juices.
The stop at the port of Puerto Chiapis was a total disappointment. I would rather have had a sea day than that stop. There is only a small craft center at the pier and the pier is located in an industrial port. There was a taxi and shuttle available to a town, but the people that we talked to that took it said it was a waste of time. We would not even get off the boat if we ever went there again. Why NCL elected to make a port stop is beyond my understanding. Why not Acapulco instead? Probably the port charges, but it would have made this experience much better.
At Huatulco, we took a Bird Watching tour and it was very enjoyable and allowed us to see a lot of colorful birds. After we returned we walked around the shops and found an internet cafe that charged $3.00 for unlimited access, but there were so many connected that all I could accomplish was downloading my mail. I tried to Facetime our travel friends back in the States but the bandwidth was too slow to allow it. This port was a total surprise in how nice and modern it was. According to our guide the site was developed in 1984 and a lot of money and time has been expended to create a travel destination. We would definately come back to visit.
We passed on taking any tours in Puerto Vallarta . We did go to the Walmart there and picked up some Diet Cokes. The prices are all in Pesos, but they accepted US dollars, but only gave change in Pesos, so don't use large bills for small purchases unless you want to end up with a pocket full of Pesos. There is a nice modern mall near Walmart but don't go early since the stores don't seem to open until 11:00am. There is an internet operation right were you get off the ship that charges $3.00 for 30 minutes is $5.00 for an hour. I bought the 30 package but they didn't seem to monitor the time and I stayed on for 45 minutes before I elected to leave. The connection speed was much better and I had no problems doing anything I wanted.
Cabo Saint Lucas is a tender port and we were only allowed to leave the ship at 7:00am and had to be back on the last tender at 1:30pm. Despite that, this was the easiest tender operation I have ever experienced and only had to wait less than 30 minutes to board the tender going ashore and basically got in line and back aboard when our visit ashore was done - probably a 10 minute process. We did not do any tours here, just walked about the port and visited the shops. The weather was great to just walk around, but our friends who went snorkeling said the water was cold. Cabo offers many activities for those that want to do them. We got a great photo opp of the rock formations as we were leaving the port. As we turned north from Cabo, the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped. The sun decks that had been packed since the beginning of the cruise were ghost towns. People broke out their long sleeves and long pants and wore them for the rest of the cruise.
The final day was another sea day, with a surprise whale sighting. It seems like the cold weather has delayed their migration north a little. We spent part of the day packing and in the evening the crew talent show was very entertaining.
One final RANT - I would like to recommend a book on etiquette or just common manners to the couple who sat in the dining room on the morning we arrived at our final port of Los Angeles taking a whole table for four playing cards while dozens of their fellow passengers frantically searched for a place to sit and eat breakfast. What part of inconsiderate do you not understand? We finally asked them if they would please move their bags out of the empty seats so we could sit down and eat and they huffed up like we had kicked their puppy. Finally they packed up their cards and left without saying a word - and two fellow passengers happily sat down to eat. I did not regret asking them to let us sit down, there are plenty of places on the ship to play cards instead of in the busy dining room.
We self-debarked and set out looking for the place to board the Amtrak Shuttle Bus to Union Station. We finally found a small shelter just inside the guard gate to Pier 95. You can only ride this bus if you have a follow-on Amtrak ticket to another destination. You cannot just ride the bus to Union Station and not ride the train to another stop. We booked our tickets online at Amtrak.com.
We took the train to Oceanside and then went on to Escondido to visit family for a while. All in all, it was a wonderful cruise and we have great memories of all the fellow passengers we became friends with.