Free and Easy -- A Cruise on the Norwegian Sun
This is a review of our vacation on the Norwegian Sun from January 23 to 28 from New Orleans. While the cruise wasn't quite "free" (especially considering the plethora of onboard charges) it was free-style -- which is NCL's trademarked approach to cruising that does away with fixed dinner seating (offering instead a broad array of options - many at extra charge) and no dress codes. Our departure from the "Big Easy" provided the remainder of my title. Because our ports of call of Cozumel and Costa Maya have been well covered in many other reviews, I will not discuss them, but will briefly talk about our experiences in New Orleans.
We're a gay couple in our 50s from San Francisco and are experienced cruisers -- this was number 17. We've cruised on all the major lines in the past 20 years and generally prefer a classic cruise experience.
In short -- it was a great time. The ship was beautiful, the service was top-notch and we loved New Orleans. Although we were apprehensive about NCL's freestyle cruising, it worked well. I have been on more impressive ships and had more luxurious experiences, but I believe NCL aims for a solid above-average experience without false pretense and delivers what they promise in understated and consistent style.
Pre-cruise stay in New Orleans.
This was our first visit the Crescent City, but it will not be our last. We arrived on Friday night, four days before our departure on Tuesday.
I used Priceline to get a nice price for what was supposedly a 4 star hotel, the Wyndham. Although the hotel was certainly a reasonable deal for the money we paid, the experience was decidedly not four star caliber. For instance, on Monday morning, the maid knocked on our door at 10 AM asking if she could make up the room. We said that we were still getting ready, but would be out of the room in about an hour. She got upset and told us that we were her last room on the floor to clean. (Not only is that not our concern as guests, but this is in a city where the bars are open 24 hours!) I realize that staffing is a real problem in New Orleans right now, but this service with a shrug attitude permeated the establishment. Another example of their lack of concern for details is apparent when you see the hotel from the river. Only one letter of the hotel's name is lit and fully intact in their large sign -- and they've been reopened for over a year since November 2005. The location was good, the room was fine -- the experience just ain't what they claim.
New Orleans itself was intoxicating. One of the few cities in the US with a unique look, attitude and lifestyle -- we quickly fell in love with the place. The French Quarter was mostly untouched by Katrina as was the CBD (Central Business District) and the Garden District. I can't count how many times people thanked us for visiting -- they need the business. Unfortunately, just about half of the city has not returned yet, so some establishments are still hurting for business. (Good for restaurant reservations, not so good if you want to meet locals at a bar)
What about Katrina? Unfortunately, it appears that homes in about 60% of the residential areas of the city are still mostly unoccupied. The debris has been cleared (no small feat) and many homes have a FEMA trailer in the front yard as the house behind is undergoing or awaiting repairs. We took the highly recommended Gray Line Katrina Tour. It lasts 3 hours and takes you through most of the affected neighborhoods as well as a view of the sea walls, canals and infrastructure that failed. It was led by two long time residents who shared many personal stories. It is not ghoulish at all and you really need to see the scope of the destruction to comprehend the loss and the challenges. Fascinating and highly recommended.
Pre-cruise Booking, Check-in and Disembarkation
We booked the cruise last summer with a friend who works for an online site. The site is well-designed and contains a wealth of information. This particular cruise was a spectacular deal and perfectly fit our needs for schedule and itinerary.
The NCL website is lame. Evidently they believe that too many details or too much information would simply confuse their customers. Want to know about whether there is a self-service laundry aboard? You better be prepared to examine each floor of the deck plan, there is no mention of it on the site -- and forget about getting an idea of the turn-around times or pricing for laundry service. Although you are encouraged to pre-register online, it took me many attempts -- that function was out-of-commission more then it was up.
Check-in went smoothly (for us) -- luckily, we've cruised NCL before and are Latitudes members. We were able to go to the very short Latitudes line and saved about an hour in line. The Julia Street Pier is behind the Riverwalk Marketplace adjacent to the convention center and convenient to the big tourist hotels.
Disembarkation was less smooth. Because of congestion and some later complications on the river, we arrived about 2 hours late. The crew was not responsible for the delay and they did their best to get everyone off the ship as expeditiously as possible. I did get irritated by the "express disembarkation" people who clogged everything up at the start as they wheeled their many suitcases off the ship.
Norwegian Sun -- the Ship
The Norwegian Sun was built in 2001 and was all bright and shiny having completed a two week drydock in Mobile AL immediately preceding the cruise -- most likely this was the explanation for the abbreviated 5 day itinerary. Her hull was freshly painted with the new NCL signature artwork of not surprisingly, a sun! (I had originally hated these NCL hull paintings, but they're distinctive and I like em for these ships.)
At 78,000 GRT, she's a mid-sized ship and can comfortably handle the Panama Canal (good thing because she's heading to Alaska in May). I had been convinced that ships were getting too big -- however cruising on the Star Princess and Voyager of the Seas demonstrated that it's not the size, it's what you do with it! Passenger flow was adequate, but limited by the galley on Deck 5 (One of those cases where you had to go up a deck and then back down if you wanted to get to the large Seven Seas Dining Room at the rear of the ship.)
There were an adequate number of public rooms and lounges. We spent most of our times in the attractive wood paneled Wheelhouse bar midships on Deck 7 or the large Observation Lounge forward on Deck 12. Additionally, there's the Dazzles disco, a sports bar, a champagne bar, coffee bar and a cigar room.
We found a problem that was new to us --seating. More specifically, there were too many chairs. It was as if an airline designer transferred a coach cabin to a lounge. Chairs are lined up cheek and jowl. (Do chairs have jowls? I know they hold cheeks!) It's difficult to get to many chairs both for passengers and service staff. The crowding was exacerbated by their unusually low height. My knees started hurting, found I had little leg room and then I noticed -- the chairs in the lounges are all about 3-4 inches too low. (There are benches in Dazzles disco - compare the height to the club chairs next to it) I don't know if this is due to the Singapore-based ownership of the line or an attempt to disguise the low ceilings of most decks, but it was irritating!
The decor is understated, which can be a blessing. There is a nice atrium with the requisite glass elevators. There are just two staircases (it could use one midships) and ample elevators. There is a lot of shiny faux wood paneling with little artwork. The good news is that the incursion of "art auction crap" was limited. (On other ships, the ton-o-Tarkays on easels obliterates expensive art collections on the walls) The bad news is that the small amount of permanent artwork aboard was poor.
We had a standard outside cabin. It was "cozy." as tiny as on our previous NCL cruise, the Norwegian Majesty, but still quite small. However, there was no problem fitting our clothes into the closets and drawers provided. The bathroom was likewise compact but OK (the shower was as tiny as on the Star Princess). The small TV featured the usual cruise channels (shopping lecture reruns, view from the bridge) as well as CNN and channels for free movies and documentaries (including the excellent series "The Only Way to Cross" by John Maxtone Graham).
We met our cabin stewards in the halls, but there was no card with their names in the cabin and they did not introduce themselves at the start. Importantly, they kept the cabin clean, well stocked and were pleasant and helpful when we met them in the hallways. Again, they provided a high level of warm and professional service typical of the ship.
Not only was there no card with our steward's name, there was a general lack of information in the cabin. Most importantly to me, there was no deck plan. (I love deck plans!). There were cards at the Guest Relations desk with the profile cutaway approach with the rooms listed for each deck, but not the classic plan. In their defense, the elevator banks and stairways have clear displays with full deck plans and info.
Food and Drink - Doing it Freestyle
This was essentially our first experience with freestyle dining. Our only previous NCL cruise had been on an Atlantis full-ship gay charter and the freestyle concept was just beginning to be introduced to the fleet. In contrast, by this cruise, freestyle has become the distinctive advantage of the line, and this ship had been designed especially for the approach.
We were pleasantly surprised. I had been expecting below-average food and lackluster service in the free dining rooms. That was not the case. The food was good. Some items like the dessert souffles were standouts, most easily met our expectations. Occasionally I would find an item that was well-prepared but simply not to my liking -- but I give them credit for being somewhat adventurous in their recipes. We ate almost all our meals in the Seven Seas Dining Room. One HUGE advantage of freestyle dining is that the dining rooms are configured with many tables for 2 or 4 -- so if you eat breakfast or lunch in the dining room, you won't be seated with strangers and have to go through yet another iteration of "first meeting cruise chatter" as during open seating on other lines ("Is this your first cruise?" "Where are you from?...")
On our first dinner, we had the pleasure of being served by Allan. He was superb and we requested his tables later in the cruise. Almost without exception, the service staff was friendly, eager to assist and professional.
We ate one dinner in the Le Bistro restaurant. This is an extra-charge restaurant which serves French food. Even before the freestyle concept was introduced, many NCL ships incorporated Le Bistro dining. Our experience on this cruise was far inferior to that six years ago on the Majesty. Let's start with the surcharge. There is a $15 per-person charge for dining in the venue. Unless it's $25. The "chef's special tasting menu" costs an extra $10. Now, if the special menu was truly special and featured paired wines, extra courses or even an amuse bouche, that might conform to what I would expect from a tasting menu. Instead, it appears to be another way to slip another extra fee onto the bill. For the extra charge you can select chateaubriand or rack of lamb (both for two) in lieu of the "standard" main courses on the Le Bistro menu. We ordered the lamb, and while it was good, it was nothing special. What should be a simple standout item was clueless - their specialty French onion soup. The onions and broth were fine, but it was missing the classic toasty gratinee topping. Instead, there were 3 large croutons and some grated cheese in a melted sludge at the bottom of the bowl. With small improvements in the menu and preparation and with a refinement of the service, it would easily justify a premium surcharge without silly gimmicks.
When the servers bring out the plates for the main course, I thought the dancers from the showroom had come up to perform "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast. The waiters parade showy silver domes and then present the plates "just like in France" as they assured us. They lift the domes with a "un, deux, trois, voila!" (we somehow missed that move when we've dined in Paris). Since our rack of lamb was sitting tableside, I must admit that all that drama was a bit much for a plate with a carved potato, broiled tomato and a small bundle of beans.
Our other complaint with the experience was due to the reservations host. At the start of the cruise, we reserved a table for 8:00. A couple of days before, we realized that the production show would be the same night at 9:30, so I went to the reservations desk in the lobby to reschedule it for an earlier time. The hostess assured me that 1 hour would be sufficient in Le Bistro but humored me by moving it to 7:30 (I had actually requested 7:00). Since most items in the restaurant are cooked "a la minute," it actually takes about 2 hours. We literally had to run down the stairs from Deck 12 to 6 in order to make the show. The person who gave me confident misinformation was on duty during the entire cruise, and I wonder how many other passengers were affected. Her lack of knowledge in this area indicates a shortcoming of the NCL training for that task.
The buffet was problematic. We ate there for the welcome aboard buffet and one breakfast. The layout is confusing and there simply is not enough room in the room! On the plus side, the food was fine. ...that is except for the vanilla bread pudding. It had a dense, plastic-like consistency and bore no evidence of any bread whatsoever. Aside from that quibble, the buffet quality was on a par with most cruise ships.
One other specialty restaurant deserves mention. Las Ramblas is a tapas bar and restaurant. Unlike the other specialty restaurants, you do not need a reservation. In fact, it's a great place to stop for a pre-dinner appetizer and drink before heading to a different restaurant. We enjoyed each of the six items we selected and I especially recommend the escargot!
There are enough different bars onboard meeting to fully meet your drinking and socializing needs. As with everything else these days though, the story is increasing charges for extras, while keeping the basic fares low. I actually remember when drinks aboard were cheap. That time is long gone. They were now what I would expect to pay at a nice bar ashore -- but still less than at a hotel. However, they are as weak as (insert pithy comment here). Margaritas tasted only of overly-sweet mix. I'm sure there must have been some tequila in there, but you couldn't prove it by me. My partner ordered a scotch and soda and got a highball glass with soda and a slight taste of scotch. For the first time ever, I got a very rude surprise when I saw the statement at the end of the cruise. (I swear it was the extra charges, I really didn't drink THAT much. Really.)
Fun and Games Activities and Entertainment
We caught three shows, the two production shows and a variety show featuring the comedian, Bud Anderson and the singer, Chantz Powell. All were very well done. Since our previous NCL cruise was an Atlantis charter so we had never seen the acclaimed Jean Ann Ryan Dancers. (Atlantis provides their own entertainment --in our case, Deborah Harry who was so out of it, she forgot the lyrics to "Call Me")
I can see why the Jean Ann Ryan company is so well-regarded. The dancing was truly impressive and the choreography inventive. It's hard keeping the razzle-dazzle without being tacky and taking creative risks without scandalizing the audience or coming off as painfully pretentious. (Exhibit 1 - Debbie Allen) Their two shows "Que Noche" and "Cirque Pan" were much more dance-oriented than other shows I've seen -- and benefited from the emphasis.
One thing I noticed was the lack of stage tricks. All the shows had a single backdrop and very minimal movable set pieces. For much of the 90s, it seemed that ships were competing on features in their showroom stages. On the Star Princess the stage could have rivaled any Academy Award set with three elevators, a rain curtain, a huge fly space and more. However, last year on the Voyager and on this ship, the shows were done with a single set -- mostly concert-style with the band on the stage. I had first thought it was the result of changing expectations and an audience more attuned to rock concerts than Broadway shows. Now I wonder if the lines are cutting back on staging to reduce costs. (If that's the case, I'm not gonna' complain too much - I'd rather they cut some stage effects and keep the live musicians!)
I appreciate lines with a policy of limited announcements over the ship's speakers, and thankfully, I hear less of the calls to bingo than in years past. To the Cruise Directors' credit, there were only 1-2 announcements per day of the cruise staff activities. Unfortunately, that restraint didn't extend to the onboard "Diamond Expert" or "Future Cruise Booking Expert" and others shilling stuff under NCL's banner.
There was a good mix of shipboard activities, including some things that are often missing -- arts & crafts and lectures. We missed the craft time (I'd like to think that it's because there would be no way of packing paper poppies - but what scares me more is the knowledge that if a project went home with us, I would need to be under deep cover to dispose of it).
There were two lecturers onboard. One of them talked about the Maya. He was a nice guy and a PhD. Unfortunately, his degree was in physics, as his wife mentioned when introducing him at the first session (evidently, the speaker's agency loves PhDs because they're easy to place). He was knowledgeable enough, I'm sure but he was continually surprised by his own PowerPoint slides and had poor presentation skills. We didn't see the other one who lectured on nutrition and health. I applaud NCL for continuing to offer a lecture program -- I would hope that they do a better job of selecting the presenters.
Unfortunately, the weather was at best overcast and at worst, windy rainy and cold -- so deck and pool games were out of the question. One night, they did a Caribbean deck party which was fun (with buffet, ice sculptures and carved fruit, tropical drinks and silly drag contest) but it lacked a vital kick of energy because of the cold wind that night.
The casino was great. Perhaps that's because I made $95 on my first night Of course, I later reduced my winnings to a net $4 -- but I'll take it! It was just big enough to not be too crowded, it wasn't obnoxious and most importantly -- there were $5 blackjack tables! Personally, gambling itself isn't a big thrill for me. I enjoy playing blackjack and socializing with fellow players and the dealer. I understand that betting is the price you pay for the game. I'm perfectly willing to drop $40-60 at the table -- it's just if that money is potentially gone in three hands, it's not worth it.
A fellow cruiser praised his hot stone massage aboard in the Mandara Spa. Knowing they had been bought by Steiners a few years ago -- and Steiners' well-known reputation for aggressively pushing overpriced products, I asked him if there was any pressure to buy stuff and he said quite the opposite. I hope this is consistently the case with the Mandara division. If so, Bravo!
Other items that have always been extra charge such as bingo and photos have gotten absurdly priced. If it's not awful, we usually purchase the boarding photo. (It's also the best time to peruse the photos for other gay couples) The nagging lack of information surfaces again -- there were no prices posted, I asked the cost and was told that I could get the photo in an album for $20. I asked what the photo itself cost without the album and I was told that the photo with extra wallet photos was $14.95 -- I said that was still too much and only then did she volunteer that the single photo was $12.95. (This isn't Mexico and I shouldn't have to barter to get to the price!) Likewise, the bingo has turned from an innocuous and cheap way to while away an hour to a grinding revenue center that can cost the unwary $30-50 for a single session.
We're In the Same Boat -- Passengers and Crew
I can't fully review the experience without discussing the demographics of the passengers and crew. Since so many of our cruises depart from cities which draw passengers from across the country, I forget that other cruises draw from the immediate area. (On a Bermuda cruise on the Zenith in '98, passengers from NY, NJ and PA were commenting on how far we had traveled for the cruise).
On this cruise, there were a large number of passengers who had driven to the cruise from AL, MS, TX, LA, TN and FL. We were in the minority of passengers with "northern accents." The largest group aboard were 300 members of a Mississippi church group. As on every cruise I've experienced, people were interested in having a good time and were polite to one another -- but as a gay, liberal San Franciscan, I had to bite my tongue a couple of times. (Those who know me will claim that that's not necessarily a bad thing!) I must, however share a couple of observations. I was surprised to see how Coca Cola is an appropriate accompaniment to all meals (The reflective red thermos cup was as garish as the Versace charger beside it in Le Bistro) and I was unaware that "yes" can be pronounced with at least 2 syllables.
That leads to the inevitable question I get from fellow "friends of Dorothy" (in case you were wondering what that's about in the daily cruise schedule, it's real old-time slang for "gay') Is there a problem being a gay passenger on a "straight" cruise? Of course not. Everybody treated us with respect as we treated them likewise. We also ultimately met over a dozen other gay cruisers so we had people to "hang with."
Finally -- as with my trip to Manila last September, I was charmed and impressed by the hard-working and genuinely friendly spirit of the many Filipino staff aboard. Salamat! (Thank you)
It was a wonderful cruise. We received great value for the money and will probably cruise NCL again in the future. It wasn't perfect, and yes, we may prefer other ships and lines, but I feel that NCL delivers on their Freestyle promises with a consistent, quality product. In the past I've recommended the line for people deterred by the formalities of traditional cruising. I'm grateful to report that the freestyle experience can be accomplished without compromise.