I must let you know that this is not the first cruise our family has gone on, but it was the first time we booked a cruise on the Norwegian line. Our very first cruise was on the Disney Magic for just a 3 day short cruise to Disney's private island and back - it was a trip which was combined with a stay in Disney world and my husband's parents were the ones to arrange everything as the vacation was for my husband's siblings and their families in celebration of his parent's 50th wedding anniversary. It was another 10+ years before we booked our next cruise, and this time we booked a 7 day cruise out of Fort Lauderdale to the western Caribbean/South America on the Holland line. And, four years after that cruise we took a cruise out of New Orleans to the Western Caribbean on the Royal Caribbean line. Each trip has been so different and each cruise line has its "likes" and "dislikes" from our family's perspective. We have found that for us, sailing on the newest ships with all of the different special features, like rock climbing walls, characters, ice skating rinks, and water slides, are fun for a short while but they really do not make a cruise. Rather, we have found it is the staff of the ship and the ports that the ship visits which make or break a cruise vacation for us.
In looking for another cruise line to try this time around, we found the itinerary of the Norwegian Sun for the 10 day Eastern Caribbean to not only satisfy our desire to visit some places we had never been before (St Thomas - here we had been, Dominica, Barbados, St. Lucia, and St. Martin) but also the reviews the crew of this particular ship had been given made us think we had found the makings of a memorable vacation. The other surprising detail on this particular ship was that they had rooms which could accommodate 5 people, standard rooms that is not suites. We actually unpacked 8 suitcases when moving into our room, two which where oversized, and everything fit!
Before when we have traveled on cruise ships we have always had to book two rooms and pay the adult rate for our two boys, but with this room set-up we only had to pay two adult rates and three reduced children rates. The only thing that concerned us about booking such a room is that no where on the Internet could we find a picture of what one of these rooms looked like, but we trusted that sleeping all in one room for 10 days would be fine and booked an interior room (something we have never done before either, always opting for a window or balcony) and started planning our trip.
I have to say that planning for a cruise is just about as much fun as going on it. Not only is it important to make sure that you pack the right things, but also that you research the islands you will visit on your trip and plan out how you can get the most of the 8 to 9 hours you have while there. As I stated above, we had 5 island stops on this trip and with my husband and oldest son now completely certified scuba divers, the trip excursions were planned a bit around the islands they wanted to dive around. They ended up picking St. Thomas, Barbados, and St. Lucia for their three sites to do 2-tank dives at, and then we planned more family type excursions on Dominica and St. Martin. (Since I didn't dive, I am not going to be writing about that part of our trip, but the reports that came back from the guys was that the diving at all the sites was wonderful - they dove through wrecks and saw lots of great sea life too.)
Keeping safety in mind with my husband and oldest son away diving those three days, I opted to arrange the bit more costly excursions through the ship those days to ensure we got back to the ship on time and were able to see the part of those islands we didn't want to miss. But, having visited St. Thomas before, and having a sister who used to live on the island we just made that day a shopping day and a day to get Maggie's hair braided by one of the locals at the docks. (It was an easy way to keep the bangs she has been growing out, out of her face for the remainder of the trip.)
On Barbados we went on a 4x4 excursion that took us through sugar cane fields and then into a nature preserve/animal sanctuary where we were able to interact with green monkeys. And then on St. Lucia we took a bus trip to the end of the island, seeing sites along the way, and ended our land trip at a drive in volcano where there were mud baths we were able to get into and rub on our skin to absorb all the wonderful minerals that were in the mud. Our trip then took us onto a catamaran where we were able to tour the entire the length of the island again, but this time at sea and we also had the opportunity to swim off the boat onto a beach to enjoy the beautiful waters before returning to the ship.
Now, if you think that the above excursions were a bit out there for you, then the family days we planned may put you over the top. On Dominica, I found a recommendation on tripadvisor for a guide name Levi who runs a tour group called Bumpiing Tours. After looking at all of the tours his company offers and reading all of the great reviews people had given him, we decided to book our whole family on the tour he calls Middleham Falls & Titou Gorge. The day excursion got us off the boat bright and early with a quick van ride up a very windy road. After entering the botanical gardens at the top of that road, we had a very strenuous 1.5 mile hike (mostly up and down on a narrow path) to Middleham Falls where we were able to climb the rocks down to the base of the waterfall and take a dip in the very cold but refreshing water. Our tour then took us back the same 1.5 mile path to our van for a quick bite to eat and drink and then we were off to Titou Gorge. Now, if you have ever seen the movie Pirates of the Caribbean II, the movie was filmed on Dominica and Titou Gorge is the location for one of the very funny, but yet exciting chase scenes. Thankfully our trip was just fun and a bit exciting with no chasing, but than again swimming up stream in a cliff lined gorge with water over 10 feet deep below you and about 65 degrees is exciting enough for me. My husband and oldest son also took up the challenge to jump off the small water fall into the gorge, but I swam back with the younger two who were rather cold and needed some warming up - actually I did too as my muscles seized up after a while. The last stop for the day was at the hot springs at the base of Trafalgar Falls. It was a nice way to warm us all up after our cold dip and a relaxing way to end our very exciting day on Dominica.
The second excursion we planned on our own was in St. Martin, and with it being our middle son's birthday we allowed this adventure seeking teen to plan our day. After giving him a variety of options as to what he could pick to do on the island, he chose to have us all go zip lining at a place called Loterie Farm on the French side of the island (St. Martin is half French and half Dutch). And, I guess with all of the exciting diving my husband had done, I was elected to join the boys on the advance zip line
and ropes course while Doug stayed with Maggie on a course that was closer to the ground. So, despite the costly cab ride to the farm and even more costly price we paid for the 1 hour of zip lining we were afforded, it was a thrill that was worth the money as we flew between the tree top canvas of some of the last remaining natural forest on the island of St. Martin. To finish off the day, we returned to the ship for a short lunch and then took a short walk to the beach where Doug swam with the kids and I did a little bit of duty free shopping. All in all it was a really nice way to spend our last island day before starting the journey home.
So, now back to the ship. There are so many highlights it is hard to even know where to start. First of all, I have to tell you that on our drive down to Miami (yes we drove from Minnesota) I was reading the message boards on Cruise Critic and found that a few of the other passengers who were joining us on our cruise that Norwegian was offering upgrades for some of their cabins. So, I called Norwegian and asked if an upgrade from our inside room was possible, and after a few minutes of waiting our family was transferred, free of charge, to a window room. The room layout for an inside family cabin that sleeps 5 is very similar to the layout for the window family cabin that sleeps 5 (the reason we know is because our room keys when we got onto the ship were programmed for the inside cabin while all of our luggage had been transferred to our newly acquired outside window cabin). The space was tight and the nice bed was relinquished by my husband and me so that our teen boys did not have to share beds, but the couch with the added foam mattress (which we requested per a recommendation on Cruise Critic) was suitable for sleeping the two of us and the pullman was occupied by our daughter Maggie. And, for the first 7 nights of our cruise, we did rather well with all of in one room - that is until we had a bit of a water issue.
Our last island day, the day we had been on St. Martin, the boys had showered and headed up to the teen area on the ship while Doug and Maggie transitioned from the beach up to the kids swimming and hot tub area. With the time I had alone, I thought about going up to the spa to shower and then sit in the steam room and sauna as I had most days of the trip, but considering we would be headed out that evening for a nice dinner I opted to stay in our room and take a quick shower before Maggie and Doug returned.
Here is where the water issue I spoke about above came into play. I quick set the water in the shower, flushed the toilet and then jumped into the shower, making sure to not take too long so that if Maggie needed to use the restroom I would not be occupying it for too long. That being said, it was a good thing I did take a short shower that evening because with the shower running I was unable to hear the clean water in the toilet still running - running out onto the bathroom floor and even over the drain that is by the door to prevent the shower from flooding over into the room. When all was said and done, me done with my shower and the toilet flow reset, half the carpet in our room was soaked. I quickly called the front desk and they were very quick to send up a technician who started looking into the issue with the toilet, but at the same time our room steward was quick to tell me that there was going to be no possible way for our family to sleep in that room because they needed to get the carpet cleaned and then dried with some powerful blowers so that a mold problem didn't develop.
In the end the staff could not put us into any 5 person room because there were none left - the room we had previously booked had been taken up by one of the parties which had boarded just that day in St. Martin because they had been on the Carnival ship which had been stranded in St. Martin for the past 3 days and they were the last few who had been medically unable to fly off the island. So, in the end the only way to get us all beds was to upgrade us again - we ended up with two rooms for the reminder of our trip, an inside cabin which we gave to the boys and a balcony which Doug and I stayed in with Maggie.
The staff on the Norwegian Sun was also very good to compensate us for having to move all of our luggage that night to our new rooms and quick make up some beds for the kids sleeping on the couches, and so they left us a bottle of wine in each room with plates of chocolate covered strawberries. A nice gesture from the staff in showing they really wanted to make our trip the best possible even amidst the topsy-turvey situation we had to go through on the evening of our son Timothy's 14th birthday.
Each of us have our favorite places on the ship when we cruise and I thought I would highlight them here. If you would like to see a video that our kids made giving a tour of the ship, you can check out their video on YouTube - this is a rather fun activity we have the kids do at the end of our stay anywhere we go because they get to share their trip highlights and see our vacation stay from their point of view. For my husband, his favorite place is on the upper sun deck where he can rest and read in the warm sun, yet away from the party pool crowd that is usually a deck or two lower and more towards the middle of the ship. For me, I love to visit the gym each day and then spend some time in the spa resting in the steam room and sauna. For those of you who like this option, on the older ships these amenities are usually open to the general public, but on the newer ships they are making it a pay option or something only those who have spa suites can access, just something to consider if you want to cruise and pamper yourself a bit too. Additional to the sauna and steam room, I also treated myself to at hot stone massage since I was also celebrating my birthday while we were away - what a relief to my aching muscles that had developed while we were driving for three days on our way to Miami! As you can guess, the favorite place of our boys on the ship was the restaurants, but each had their favorite venue. Our oldest, Thomas, said the best meal he had was the lunch he and I had together at the sushi bar the last afternoon of the cruise - it was an additional cost for this eating venue, but to feed my sushi loving child it was much cheaper than any restaurant I have taken him to otherwise. Then for our middle child, Timothy, he loved all the burgers, bacon, and pizza he could get his hands on - the child gained 7 pounds while we were away and that was not in fat, he definitely grew in our 2 1/2 weeks away as well as put on some muscle from working out in the gym with me many of the days on the ship. For our daughter Maggie though, the highlight of the ship was the kids program and I will take the next paragraph to got into more detail regarding children's programs on cruise ships and why the Norwegian line was a real hit this time around.
Just to start off this discussion I must state that cruise kids programs can be a bit difficult to review, as we learned especially on this cruise. When on the Disney cruise years ago, Thomas our oldest was only 18 months and so we could not even use the kids program aboard (they usually need to be potty trained to be checked in), and so the Holland ship was the first time we had any experience we had with a cruise line kids program and for that trip our children were quite satisfied to stay and play with us most of the time, thus the activities offered for the kids on the ship were a bonus. Now fast forward to our trip last year on Royal Caribbean and the kids programs for both school aged and teens that delighted all of our kids as well as our exchange student. As we learned on this cruise though, the kids in the program have just as much to do with the success of the kid's activities as the coordinators and activities themselves. Unfortunately the other teens on this trip were not very delightful and our kids had a tough time being around their very inappropriate behaviors, thus leaving them most of the time to hang out in the teen area when no one else was there for free time, or else looking for other things to do on the ship with us or on their own. The grade school kids program was a much better experience for our daughter, than the teen program was for our boys. It was a delight for our daughter Maggie, who loved the counselors so much and the programs they offered each evening - we had the toughest time getting her checked out at night, she wanted to stay until the final minutes so she would not miss a thing. The best part of the program, and unique to the Norwegian cruise line, is the staff person on board who trains the kids to perform circus tricks. The kids got to try out a lot of different things, learn some new skills, and then on one of the last days at sea they put on a performance for anyone on the ship who wanted to attend - it was really fun to watch and you could tell the kids loved it as much as the audience. The one thing we as parents greatly appreciated too about the Norwegian line kids program was that the kid itinerary for the entire cruise was given to us the day we left - that made it much easier to plan around and to get in all the things the kids wanted to do as well as the adults.
For the rest of the highlights, where do I start. We had our family portraits taken and I also set up a session to have my photo taken for future publications, we had lots of great tasting and finely presented food (three course dinners, late night and early morning buffets, poolside barbeques, and even some multiple course breakfasts), we shared great adventures (as you read above), we took in stride the ups and the downs, and amidst the smiling friendly crew of the Norwegian Sun we did it all on the beautiful calm waters of the Southern Caribbean. It was truly a trip that we will remember and talk about for years to come.