This was my first cruise, and having spent the weeks leading up to it reading all the reviews there were on Cruise Critic, I still didn't quite know what to expect. I have travelled a great deal and had always thought cruises were for non-adventurous people; I expected that I would find myself bored with the idea after a short time so I made sure to book this shorter, five day cruise. I am in my early thirties and my companion was in his early twenties.
Having spent a few days in Florida ahead of time, we returned the rental car to the airport. Originally planning to take a non-NCL shuttle to the port, after meeting the friendly staff at baggage claim we decided to pay the comparable fare to ensure a return fare from the port upon disembarkation. We arrived at the port around 1:30pm and were on board in under half an hour, a fairly smooth experience. The only frustration coming from this was that our luggage was not delivered for several hours, until less than an hour before the ship left port. I was getting nervous until it arrived at the door, and rightfully so as another couple had their luggage lost at port and they did not receive it for two days when the ship reached Cozumel.
Our room was on deck 5, an outside room with a decent sized window. The wood paneling and decor of the room made it feel very comfortable. I was impressed with the size of the room and all of the storage space available. The bathroom was impressive as well, with sliding doors for the shower and the toilet for added privacy. The rooms were made up twice daily.
I found myself exploring the many decks of the ship frequently and always finding something new that I had missed a previous time. Shuffle board was fun to play but often there was a wait. The ping pong tables were almost always available; a few times I spotted errant shots going overboard. It was difficult to tell when the rock climbing wall was available; the staff acted like it was only there for kids as adults often lined up but were not helped unless they made an effort to get their attention. It was spring break and several hundred students, most from the University of Florida, were on board and looking to party. Having had enough of the party lifestyle I did my best to avoid them. It was a bit frustrating that it seemed much of the time the ship and more importantly the cruise director Clint were catering exclusively to the spring breakers. There was a comedian on board, an older man, who in his first show, which was mostly an open dialogue with the audience, seemed frustrated with all the spring breakers and didn't know how to tailor his material towards them. The advantage to all the spring breakers was that they only seemed to eat platefuls of french fries with ranch dressing. As such, they would show up at the buffet, pick up their fries, and cruise back to their rooms, leaving the many other restaurants open for seating most of the time.
I was very impressed with the food and became very accustomed to the five course meals, so much so that when the cruise was over I went through withdrawal. The main dining rooms were quite nice, though there wasn't always a large selection of items. The presentation was great though; one would easily pay $50 a person or more for each meal were it not on the cruise. The buffet always had plenty to choose from, and if they didn't have something you wanted you could usually find it poolside or on the outdoor bar and grill to the aft. As far as seating in the buffet, everyone crowded up at the front near the food, but if you took the time to walk to the back there was plenty of window seating and it made for a much quieter dining experience. Tip: At breakfast everyone lines up at the first omelet station, but there are several omelet stations throughout the line, so move along and get your omelet quick. We had one meal at the fee-free italian restaurant and it was well worth it. They brought out a large plate of various italian delicacies to start and it continued through several courses. I can't imagine what I would have paid for such a wonderful meal anywhere else.
Plenty of bars, and I like my drinks. My favorite for atmosphere was the Spinnaker Lounge, however it was used so much for various activities that it was either totally empty or overly packed; it is a great place to watch the sunset so long as no activities are taking place. The prices were reasonable, nothing more than you would expect to pay at any similar bar on land. Some of the bars were always empty which is a shame because they looked quite nice and would be more enjoyable if there were some people to chat with.
Being a person who likes to gamble, I had found very little information on ship casinos before my cruise, so I will try to focus on this section for my fellow bettors. The casino itself was nice, though a bit claustrophobic in large part due to the bright decor. I like to play poker and craps and will occasionally play slots, blackjack and roulette. There were plenty of blackjack tables and slots as well as regular roulette and video roulette (a fun game when everyone is playing) but there was only one craps table, and with all the hype that Texas Hold 'Em gets these days I was shocked to see there was only one poker table. The croupiers at the craps table could care less if you were there; they were the most despondent group I have ever seen. One of them gave me a nasty look after I hit a lucky streak and won a few hundred dollars (after having lost a few over the previous days); he looked as though I had robbed him. As for poker, they only had the one table and it was $5/$10 limit hold 'em. A bunch of novices were on the table, and I lost more hands than I won with idiots going in everytime with 2-7 off-suit. They did have some poker tournaments which I wish I had woken up early enough to participate in as it seemed only the more serious poker players were showing up to play. As far as the casino rewards program, unless you are going to dump a lot of money into slots, and I mean a lot, it is not worth signing up. There are virtually no rewards for the table games, so if you are a table gamer like me, don't waste your time. Just remind yourself this isn't Vegas; play a little for fun and save the rest of your money for your next trip to the Strip.
In Cozumel we picked Playa Mia, booked through NCL. The trip was supposed to start at 10am and I don't think we left for nearly an hour after that; very disorganized. Still, once we got on the bus and made it to Playa Mia we were in for a treat. All "domestic" drinks were free, which included Mexican beer, rum drinks and tequila drinks, among others. I had several mixed drinks and headed over to the buffet, which was decent though nothing to go out of your way for. There were plenty of water toys you could take out for free as well as other motorized ones you could rent. It was nice to just relax on the beach down in Mexico for a day and then return to the ship to wash up. In Belize we did cave tubing. I had heard that this isn't very worthwhile and that it doesn't last long so I wasn't expecting much. After a 45 minute walk through the jungle at Jaguar Paw resort (our excursion was through NCL though you could do it cheaper if you book online for a similar trip), we reached the mouth of the caves. The caves were much longer and larger than I had expected; I had taken a non-water-resistant camera so much of my time was spent trying to hold it away from the water. Still, I really enjoyed it and it lasted much longer than I expected. There were a few rapids which were pretty tame but added some excitement. At the end they had a chicken and rice meal which I felt was good despite smaller portions. The only frustrating part of the whole excursion was trying to get the bus out of the parking lot. It is only a one lane road in and buses were parked on both sides of it causing nearly total gridlock. After spending several minutes stuck some of the resourceful drivers found that a van was the main source of the jam so they got out and all lifted the van together, moving it out of the way. Only in Belize.
There is so much more I could talk about. The entertainment was pretty good when it wasn't catering to the spring breakers (take a hint, Clint, there are other people on board). The Second City comedy troupe was excellent and they even taught an improv class for people looking to learn the art. There was a magician who was a bit cliche but still entertaining.
After a quick trip to the buffet (everyone else was cramming food down their throats like it would be their last meal ever) and a short wait in line we were off the ship and through customs. NCL never gave us transfers back to the airport which they said we would find in our room but after showing my bill to the staff they allowed me to board the shuttle. Lots of traffic heading to the airport; it only made me wish I was still on my cruise.
Well I was really surprised at how much fun I had on this cruise. They are not just for senior citizens and families anymore (were they ever?). Cruises are for both the adventurous and the passive. On NCL the freestyle cruise attitude is more than just an advertising slogan. Your cruise can be whatever you want it to be. In retrospect I wish I had taken a 7- or 9-day cruise as five days was far too short. I never found myself idle, at least not when I didn't want to be. I will cruise NCL again, though I look forward to many cruises and seeing what the other cruise lines have to offer as well.