This was a wonderful cruise that exceeded my expectations in almost every way. There was one small service glitch that was upsetting on the last day, which I will address later, but I am not allowing it to taint the memories of this amazing cruise experience.
I had planned to go on this trip with a friend that I always travel with, but she became ill at the last minute, so I invited my 79 year old grandmother. At first I was concerned that she would not be able to keep up with my high energy activity level and I thought I might be slowed down, or be forced to spend my days alone. It turned out she was an excellent travel partner.
Spending time alone:
There are a few points I would like to make about the prospect of being alone on this ship, as on my sea days I was by myself while my grandmother played bridge. This ship has plenty of activities to participate in that facilitate interaction with passengers, and I found the environment to be very friendly and upbeat where one could meet people throughout the day just about anywhere. And no, I'm not naturally extroverted, but I found plenty of interaction with fun people whenever I wanted it.
Also, I did not attend singles parties, but they have them on the first night, broken down by age groups. Several people who were traveling alone met and became friends, or in some cases more than friends, for the duration of the trip.
We arrived at the pier at 11:30 AM on Sunday. Arriving at this time, when the cruise line suggests 1PM, has always worked to my advantage, because usually I'm on the ship in no time and taking photos before it's all crowded. Not this time. I didn't realize that "freestyle disembarkation" meant that people were just getting off the ship at that time. Usually they kick you to the curb by the crack of dawn.
We stood in line for about an hour before they let us inside to the next line, where we waited to get on line to check in (yes by now we stood in three) then we went to the next line to get the key card and then the final line to get photos taken and get on the ship. Confused yet? We were, because they had no signs to tell you where to go each time, so we found out by word of mouth and by getting on wrong lines a few times. We do have Latitudes (past passenger program) which is supposed to make it easier, but the line for that was just about the same length. So I think the total was about two and a half hours.
On the positive note, it was nice to sleep in on the morning when the cruise ended. As I waited in line for embarkation, I knew I'd appreciate this when my time came, so I was not too impatient.
I am very picky and all noise bothers me at night, so I purposely booked a cabin in the very bottom in the inside (#4579) hoping to find quiet. This was a category K, one of the lowest. They wanted to book me a guarantee category, but I forced a cabin assignment so there'd be no surprises. My grandmother was concerned about this cabin down in the "dungeon" but to her surprise, it was very nice and spacious and we didn't miss the window too much. We tuned the TV to the outside camera which served the purpose of a window for us.
Fortunately this room was in a quiet location. You can hear other passengers in the hall or neighboring rooms if they are talking loud or banging around, but this was not a problem as it never became excessive. I have heard people on the upper decks talk about noise above their cabins and things that sound like heavy items dragging repeatedly across the floor keeping them up all night. We did not hear anything of that nature. We were also in a good location for minimal rocking during rough seas. When the ship was rocking, however, there is an orchestra of rattles and squeaks in the ceiling of the cabin. This didn't bother me as it melded together as a constant sound because it was so continuous. Also, I travel with a "white noise" machine that masks little annoying sounds.
The cabin had adequate amenities like a small fridge, hairdryer, one outlet, TV, safe, and a decent sized bathroom with a nice sized shower. The shower had a sliding glass door so you are not attacked by a curtain and you don't have water all over the floor. There is liquid shower gel and shampoo in a dispenser. There is no bar soap. I brought an extension cord, realizing there was only one outlet and I have multiple appliances. I ran it under my bed so my nightlight and "white noise" alarm clock could sit on the night table. Keep in mind, there is no clock in the room, and if you have an inside cabin, it is pitch dark without a night light.
The beds were very comfortable. Everything was very clean and this is something else I'm normally very picky about. The cabin is decorated in cheerful bold tropical colors, and there were plenty of mirrors to help it feel spacious.
Drawer space in this cabin was lacking for two people, and I lived mainly out of my suitcase and off one shelf. There were only three small drawers, but plenty of closet space for hanging items. I didn't have many hanging items since the dress code is mainly casual. I had one dress for "formal" night, and the rest were khakis or slacks and sweaters (yes, sweaters. They really ran the AC cold even thought the outdoor air was never above 75 degrees).
We found a great variety of passengers on board. There were many families with small children. They were well contained for the most part in the extensive children's program, but it was hard to have a meal without a screaming baby or whining child somewhere nearby (my grandmother thought this was cute, but I found it less than adorable). Throughout the buffet area there were always tons of noisy children. This was less prevalent in the dining rooms, but there was still no getting away entirely unless you go to a specialty restaurant.
With that in mind, this is a very good choice for families with children because they really cater to this. The children's pool area on the back of the ship is like an entire water park with giant dinosaurs and water slides and nooks and crannies of pools and sprinklers, and even a hot tub. There are fully packed schedules for children of all different age groups.
We met several passengers traveling single, and some younger people traveling with an older relative, like myself. There were also a good many young couples, middle aged married couples, or people traveling with groups of friends. I saw a good variety of all ages.
I think almost 90 percent were from New York, and the rest from New Jersey and Connecticut. There were a few foreigners, but who knows? They might have been from New York too. I think they must have run a local special or something because they filled the ship to full capacity within the last few weeks before sailing. We got a great deal and so did everyone else we spoke too.
Everyone we met was very friendly and seemed to be having a good time.
There are at least ten restaurants on this ship. We ate at five: The Venetian (traditional dining), The Aqua (Contemporary Traditional), The Garden Cafe (the Buffet), Le Bistro (French specialty with $12 cover), and Bamboo (Asian specialty with $10 cover or ala carte sushi or $10 all-u-can-eat sushi). • The Venetian The food here was good and the service was polite, but it took about 2 hours to get through a meal even though the dining room was not busy. We thought it was a fluke the first time, so we tried again, and the same thing happened. The ambience of this dining room is very nice. This is the largest one with sweeping sea views from the rear. I had the best salmon dinner one night here, but we went elsewhere for meals for the rest of the cruise.
• The Aqua The food here was also good and service was much more attentive and quick. The room was nicely decorated in teals and blue with a water theme, but it is smaller and more cramped than the Venetian. If you do not pick a location carefully, there could be plenty of foot traffic brushing by behind your chair. It is also noisier with clanging dishes and busy bus stations due to its condensed layout.
• Le Bistro This normally has a cover charge of $12 per person but we tried this because we won dinner for two here at the Latitudes party drawing. We found the service to be excellent and the presentation of the food was great. Very gourmet looking upon delivery, however, the flavor was no better than in the regular "included" restaurants. I had the salmon (as I always seem to) and my grandmother had filet mignon. Everything tasted just okay, but service was impeccable and ambience was great.
• Garden Cafe For some reason my grandmother enjoyed this noisy crowded buffet and as a result, we went here everyday for breakfast and lunch. When I say noisy and crowded, I speak relatively because it is better than many I've tried on other ships, but I always find this kind of dining chaotic. There seemed to be a good variety of food here that was about the same quality of what would be found in the dining room. There are several stations of regular food, a vegetarian station (which went unmarked and people got confused), a NY deli, and a children's buffet with a special seating area (although as I said before, children are found throughout). There is also a fresh fruit station, dessert station, and cheese selection, as well as some freshly cooked "pick your ingredients and they'll cook it" setup. In the morning this is eggs and omelets, and at lunch, it might be a pasta dish or something, and at dinner, carved meat (I was horrified to see a whole sucking pig being carved one day with its head looking at me with olives for eyeballs). Also, they provide antiseptic towelettes where you pick up your tray and silverware. There is a sign stating to "Please Use". I think the intention was for people to wipe their hands before they touch the buffet utensils, but I didn't see anyone do it. Knowing this, I followed suit and used the wipes after I touched all the germy handles, being careful to only take food from the back of the bins.
• Bamboo This is the "Asian Fusion" restaurant with a $10 cover ($5 if between 5:30 and 6:30) or ala carte sushi. They also have all-u-can-eat sushi for $10 where you take all that you want from a conveyor belt that rotates around the bar with dishes of sushi selections (this is amusing to see). The selections were varied, but they were missing some of my favorites, so I opted for ala carte. I spent $4 for 2 rolls (12 pieces) and was full. They threw in a 3rd roll (6 more pieces) complimentary. With this I got a seaweed salad, miso soup, green tea ice cream and coconut ice cream (yes, two desserts). My grandmother spent $5 and got Peking duck and shrimp tempura, along with all the appetizers and dessert. The service was absolutely terrific and the food was the best here! The ambience is very nice and open as this overlooks the piano bar on the deck below. You can listen to music from the piano bar as you dine and people-watch. My grandmother does not care for this kind of food, otherwise I would have dined here everyday.
I made a point to attend all the shows I could during this trip. The major production shows were very good. The dancers and singers from the Jean Ann Ryan Company were excellent and there were even some very capable acrobats that never ceased to amaze the crowd.
There were 3 major shows in the Stardust Theater: South Beach Rave, Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and Bollywood (I still don't know what the name means, but this is a huge show that everyone loves with acrobats swinging from ceilings and amazing feats of flexibility and dance moves). The theater is very impressive and the sightlines are unobstructed. I found there was a lack of legroom though unless you were on an end, and I'm not tall. There is one row with lots of leg room, but this is used as an aisle throughout the show. Bring sweaters because there are AC vents that blow out of the setback in front of you.
Then there is also the "Welcome Aboard variety show", the typical ventriloquist/comedian with audience participation which was just okay, and the usual passenger talent show on the final night.
In the Spinnaker Lounge, which is the forward facing and very unusually furnished club on deck 12, there was nightly musical entertainment. This also serves as an observation lounge. (If you go all the way up to the front and into where the glass enclosure juts out under the bridge, you can see a very cool view of the length of the ship. This was particularly fun for observing huge swells during rough seas as they splashed up thirteen stories high.) We heard and excellent singing trio called Modal Magic. There were different themes each night. They also played outdoors by the pool.
We also saw a comedian named Bob Ramsen who was surprisingly hilarious! He did three shows, all three of which I saw, and the first one was by far the best. He seems at first like he is very disorganized, stumbling with words and like he is going to stink. He even tells some very bad jokes at times. But this unpolished natural way about him accents the comedy. I laughed so hard I was in pain and so was my grandmother. We were in tears practically rolling. And I will tell you, it is typically very unlikely for me to roll with laughter at a comedian unless he is Jerry Seinfeld or equivalent.
On several occasions we also enjoyed the pianist/singer Pamela Stanley who played nightly in Gatsby's. This is a piano bar that serves as almost a second smaller atrium. The performances were themed each night, for example: Broadway Favorites, Jazz, or Classics. She was excellent.
This is probably the most attractive ship I have ever been on. It is brightly decorated but not gaudy. There is pleasingly colorful artwork throughout. There is a several (at least 4 or 5) deck high central atrium with sculptures, skylight, waterfalls, and glass elevators. There is artificial foliage throughout, but it is tasteful. Lighting is subdued and contributes to the ambience.
There is a huge wraparound promenade on deck 6. This is nice for walks, but no jogging is allowed. There is jogging on one of the decks above the pool area. The pool area is very nice. There is one main pool which is a very good size, and there is also a smaller wading pool. This is separated by the stage for entertainment. There are also four hot tubs in this area as well as a large forward facing hot tub on one of the upper decks. The children's pool area is very impressive on the back of the ship, as I mentioned earlier. I actually used the children's hot tub because the children were all in the adult pool on the one day I went to use it, and I had the whole children's area to myself.
There is also a very well equipped fitness center and the usual classes. Some are free and some require a fee, anywhere from $5 for yoga to $25 for weight training and body fat/metabolism analysis (these are the ones I did). There is one instructor not to be missed. Debbie led many of the classes and did informative fitness lectures (nutrition, weight training). Unfortunately for us passengers, she is leaving in January '04 to start her own fitness training business in NYC. She was a very captivating and painfully honest instructor with a great sense of humor. The other instructor, Mike from Australia, really kicked our butts and I was in pain for 3 days with sore muscles I didn't know I had. He was very good as well. If you participate in 12 classes, you get a free t-shirt at the end. Walking on your own counts too as long as you log the miles.
Easy to miss if you're not looking for it is the Spa with its indoor pool and two Jacuzzis. This pool is nice for lap swimming as it is shallow but spacious, and it is maintained at 98 degrees. The one Jacuzzi is like the others outdoors, only it's inside. The other one is a big square thing with a giant chaise lounge shaped metal grate "bed" thing under the water that provides room for four or five people or so to lay and relax as the jets pulse from underneath. My only problem with this is that the water was a little to deep to lay comfortably with my head out of water. Otherwise, it's very relaxing and you feel as though you are in the lap of luxury.
One thing about this ship that I wish were different, but is the case on most new ships, is that there is no place to get away from bright light and watch the moon and stars. I guess it's a safety thing. Also, on the upper decks, there are glass panels attached beyond the railing, all the way around, so you have to stick the camera in the small spaces in between to get a clear shot, or look out one eye to view something if the glass is dirty. This was most likely to cut down on wind, and to provide safety. The promenade was always lit as bright as day. I guess as far as open decks, I like to forgo safety and have the darkness and openness. This is a personal preference since I know I will not be jumping over, but I can see where this would be a concern for children, or drunk adults. On some newer ships, darkness and solitude can be found on open aft stairwells, but this ship had none of those.
• Port Canaveral We went to Epcot. We took the shuttle from the ship for $28 per person. The commute was a little over an hour. I already had Disney passes, but for those who did not, the cost was an additional $50 or so per person. We knew that there would not be enough time, but some time is better than none. For Epcot, one needs about two days to do it entirely. We had about five or six hours by the time we got there. I know the park so I was able to prioritize, and we did three "countries" and four "future pavilions" and a little innovations, which is where they showcase futuristic technology. There was no resting or eating. No time for that. I think that someone would be able to do the Magic Kingdom effectively in the time allotted, and that is where most people went, especially those with children.
• Miami We did not do a tour with the cruise ship. Instead we took a cab to the new Parrot Jungle Island. http://www.parrotjungle.com/jsps/ This was nice, but not as nice as the old Parrot Jungle was when it was in Coral Gables. It looks like they are trying to fit it into a location that is more convenient for business, but is it missing the beautiful massive gardens it had before. By the way, this costs about $23 per person, plus $12 total for the cab there. Those who booked through the ship paid over $50. On the way back, we paid $1.25 each for the public bus which took us to Bayside Market (right near the pier) where we caught the Duck Tour http://ticketing.ducktoursmiami.com/ for $21-$24 per person (senior and adult). This is a two hour amphibious tour in a vehicle that turns from a truck to a boat. It drives around the city and through South Beach with the guide narrating, and then it drives right into the water and sails around the homes of the rich and famous. They supply each of us with a duck whistle so we can act like fools and have fun. I would recommend this tour highly. It is a good value and was a fun novelty.
• Nassau Due to rough seas, we went to Nassau on the day we were supposed to go to Great Stirrup Cay (NCL "private" island). We had a full day in Nassau when we had been expecting only a few hours. I guess this was a good thing. We went ashore and I was scrambling to find some information about the submarine tour or something of that nature. Since the seas were rough, all small boat things were not running. So we did an island tour with a local guide for $25 per person. We negotiated $20 but ended up giving the full amount because we thought he was so great. His name is Sterling and you should definitely ask for him! We discovered him in the tourist information building as he was holding a sign advertising an "Island Tour." The local guide is definitely the way to go! We went in a group of seven in a minibus. We saw all of Nassau, and we toured three different socioeconomic areas (poor, middle class, and wealthy). We got out and observed a local fish market as they prepared conch and various other freshly caught fish. He showed us two forts, each with their own guides who work for tips, and also the Queen's Staircase. He also gave us a tour of Atlantis, and he was very knowledgeable and thorough. We went throughout Paradise Island in detail and saw all the homes. He narrated throughout and he knew all the history.
• Great Stirrup Cay This was the first time I had ever been to one of these "Private" Islands. We had beautiful weather for a day at the beach. We arrived early and were allowed to start tendering over at about 7AM. I got over there by about 9AM and it was definitely not looking too private with 2000 people on the beach. But overall it was very nice. The cruise line rents snorkeling gear, but I brought my own. Vests are required and provided for free. There are also guided marine tours which are included, although I had trouble keeping up as I kept fooling with my mask which was leaking and the surf was a little rough. I always enjoy snorkeling, but this was not the best if you are looking for quality and variety of the reef. For the casual snorkeler, this was fine. There seemed to be plenty of beach chairs if you walk down a bit and don't attempt to settle right where the tender lets out. One thing to note: I discovered I had been eaten alive by sand fleas, which did not become apparent until the next day. The lifeguard warned me, and I put on Off lotion, but it was too late. Other than snorkeling, included were a festive live Caribbean band, volleyball, ping pong, and a big buffet barbecue with fresh fruit and some Chinese giant wok creation (this wok was like four feet in diameter!). I didn't try the food because I knew we had to be back on the ship at 1PM and would eat there. It smelled and looked delicious though! There was also non motorized water equipment rental available (kayaks, floats, etc...). The day was enjoyable and pretty much what I expected.
Staff and Service:
I've read other reviews which had caused me to be concerned, but I found that the staff was wonderful in all the dining areas. There were times when the wait was long, but this seemed to be because the wait person was handling too many tables. They were always consistently courteous, and they were apologetic when there was a longer wait. I saw what they went through, and there was no way they could have moved faster. I have experienced the freestyle thing twice before, and I did see rude service on other NCL ships, but not this one.
We almost never saw our cabin steward, but she always did a nice job. I guess this is generally preferable to most people. There was the occasional "towel animal" and the nightly chocolate mint on the pillow.
The "glitch" which threatened to taint the memory came on the last day during disembarkation. I became horribly ill two nights before the cruise ended. I thought it was the lobster in the Aqua (which tasted "off") and became sick to my stomach, badly. The very next night it happened to my grandmother all night and into the morning of disembarkation. By this time I realized it was probably "that stomach virus". So I requested to get her off the ship before that crowd spills out into the terminal, when you inevitably will end up waiting two hours for a cab. She could hardly get out of bed, never mind deal with that. I also didn't think other passengers would enjoy being crowded up against someone getting intermittently sick. After lots of arguing, they allowed her to get "wheelchair assisted" disembarkation. They brought a guy down to roll her to the door where we get out, but then he left without further instructions. I asked for help with the chair, since I had both our rolling carry-ons, as well as my backpack, and I could not roll the chair too. My grandmother could walk off if she had to, but they said to get out early, the person must occupy the wheelchair. So I strapped my suitcase to my back, and my backpack onto the other rolling suitcase, and tried to push this chair over the raised doorways with one hand as three staff members stood there. No one could help. They could not use their walkie-talkies that were strapped to their sides to call someone. Well after that, they came running out to tell me that I can't take the wheelchair off the ship without a staff member to help, but they could not provide a staff member. So it's a good thing she could walk, because if she really couldn't, I would have had to strap her to my back too. Anyway, this effort resulted in us being third in line for a cab and was well worth the trouble. I just think they could have been less rude and much more helpful. I was very angry with this.
Other than this, we had a wonderful time and I would recommend this to anyone and everyone, especially those who are local to NYC. And even if, like me, you think you've been to more exciting places than the Bahamas, this ship is a great experience in and of itself. It's also really neat to sail from one climate to the next, from the snow and cold into the warm Bahamas breeze.