My cruise was, far and away, one of the most delightful, memorable, travel experiences I have ever had the good fortune to undertake. Celebrity Cruises really does live up to their tag line: they "treat you famously."
Of course, this is probably as good a time as any to tell you that the Celebrity Cruise I'm referring to occurred two years ago.
No, sadly, I am here to review my recent 8-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Spirit. And for every pitch-perfect note that Celebrity hit two years ago in Alaska, Norwegian struck nothing but off-key chords in the Caribbean. And while I understand that no travel experience is without its share of oversights and mistakes, I do not pay my hard earned money to come home and tell my friends "well, it wasn't terrible."
Being that we live in NJ, it seemed ideal that this cruise left from NYC. Now, we've all seen the movies where joyous people toss confetti and streamers to well wishers on the pier, as they embark on their exciting trip to far flung, exotic ports of call. Uhm, we (my wife, myself, 6-year old daughter, and 14-year old stepson) didn't have quite that wondrous an experience. In exchange for confetti and streamers we had poor ventilation and a departure terminal that had all the welcoming charm of Shawshank Prison. The Customer Service reps, whose job it is to inform and guide the guests through the embarkation process, split their time between barking orders and overt indifference to guests' questions. The terminal itself had seen better days - probably when folks were still tossing party streamers over the starboard side. It was dark and dingy and not at all inviting. In other words, it was the last place you'd want to begin your vacation. Note to NCL: If I want to visit a depressing atmosphere and experience people who despise their jobs I could go to any Department of Motor Vehicle office. Like it or not, the first impression people get of you begins at the pier. As it stands right now, your first impression is terrible.
Truth be told, I think the ship held up as advertised. All of the public rooms appeared clean and well maintained. You can plainly see an Asian influence throughout the ship, which I thought added a nice aura of elegance and sophistication, and an interesting contrast against the majority of the guests who I would classify as somewhat "blue collar." More on that later.
We had two adjoining staterooms with balconies on Deck 11. They were small but functional. I'm not quite sure why they felt the need to compartmentalize the already tiny bathroom into three distinct areas. But, it is good to know that, if need be, I have the ability to shower, brush my teeth, and urinate in a pet carrier. Other than a temperamental television and an accompanying remote that looked like it was once used for target practice, the room was fine. THANK GOD FOR THOSE BALCONIES! Because on a ship more than 900' long, our 3'X7' balcony was the only space that we could truly call our own. It wasn't anything special to look at, but it provided a much needed respite from life amongst the masses.
I'm a pretty easygoing guy. It doesn't take much to make me happy. A good book, a nice view, a comfy chair and I am good-to-go. I also consider myself a fairly well mannered person. I do my very best to say "please" and "thank you" when warranted, I hold doors open for people, I keep my voice at a reasonable volume when I'm in a group setting, and I never indulge in alcohol to the point where I become a loud, annoying, nuisance. It pains me to say this, because I want to believe that most people are kind and considerate of their fellow human beings, but I have never seen so many inconsiderate, ill-mannered people in my life, as I did on this cruise. Under the best of circumstances we should all strive to be considerate of one another. But on a ship at sea, with 2,200 people aboard in a confined space, it is imperative to be mindful of the other people around you. And while we came across people who did follow the adage of "do unto others," the vast majority did not. From teenagers loitering outside our staterooms at 1:00 in the morning to people cutting the line to disembark at the ports, I was appalled at the level of discourteousness displayed by my fellow passengers. If you want to drink yourself into a stupor and make a fool of yourself, do me a favor, go and do it somewhere where I don't have to witness it. I'm all for having a good time and enjoying yourself, but c'mon people, have a little courtesy for those around you.
So let me get this straight: I have the ability to send an e-mail to a friend from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but I can't secure a lounge chair around the pool? They can maneuver a 90,000 ton ship across one of the largest bodies of water in the world and always know, at a moments notice, exactly where they are, but I can't get a lounge chair? I've read it in other reviews and it's obviously something that has been happening for quite a long time, but can someone please explain to me how a person can get 13 towels, place those towels on 13 lounge chairs, and reserve those chairs for the entire day? And even more bewildering, how does NCL - or any cruise line for that matter - condone this behavior? I am on a Caribbean cruise. I know this might sound strange, but I would like the option of sitting on a lounge chair around a pool that I might - if the mood strikes me - take a dip in. I shouldn't have to develop a lounge chair strategy to make this happen. I shouldn't have to wake-up at 5:00am, and under the cloak of darkness, place books and magazines and towels and bottles of sunscreen, and tote bags and goggles on an entire row of chairs. And I didn't. My wife and I refused to help perpetuate this atrocious behavior that apparently, most people didn't have a problem with. And it would appear, neither does NCL.
ENOUGH WITH THE FOOD!!! Look, I want to eat well on vacation, but the subject of cruse ship fare has reached mythical proportions (and PORTIONS), so this will be my very last comment on the subject of food on the high seas. Overall, I found the food good. I'm not going to go into the minutiae of each and every experience, but there is one point I must address, and that is the deceptively named "freestyle cruising." I say deceptive because it isn't true.
On paper, the idea of freestyle cruising allows you to eat when you want, where you want. Sounds simple enough. It is a much different reality. I think most people would tell you that the food in the specialty restaurants is superior to the food in the two main dining rooms (as is the service). However, in this case, better food comes at a premium: an additional $20 per person charge. Here's a nutty idea, rather than charge people even more money to have a better dining experience, why not make a concerted effort to improve the dining experience throughout the ship, and lose the extra charges? Now the whole "whenever" aspect. You can not just walk into a specialty restaurant - you have to make a reservation. Again, sounds simple. And it is, if you don't mind getting up before the sun to stand in line at the restaurant reservations desk to take a shot at nabbing a table. Again, a vacation shouldn't require developing a strategy to obtain a lounge chair, or in this case, to dine. I don't know, for some reason I thought that Freestyle Cruising wouldn't involve quite so many…lines. It sounds like it makes things easier, but it's the exact, exasperating opposite.
OH, one more thing. NOTE TO NCL! You know those signs that you bother putting at the main dining rooms and the specialty restaurants? The ones that tell guests what they can and can't wear? ENFORCE IT! If I go through the hassle of bringing appropriate attire, and I wear that attire in Windows, and I look over and see a table full of teenagers in t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, it kinda makes me feel like, hmmmm, what's the word? An idiot! Enforce the rules or lose the rules.
Bermuda: It rained. Tortola: Went to Cane Garden Bay beach. Decent, not great, but we had a very nice time. St. Thomas: We shopped, we went on an Atlantis Submarine ride (not worth what we paid but now I can say I’ve been on a submarine), and we shopped. Oh, and they have shopping there.
Lacking. I heard that word throughout the cruise. And not just from my own mouth. People we spoke to said the same thing. There was something about this ship, this cruise line that just wasn’t up to snuff. None of the staff were overly friendly. Believe me, I don’t want to be best buddies with a waiter or a room steward, but there was just something that was off about the way they went about their business. My stepson, who was on a personal mission to drink his $69 worth (we purchased the soda package) of Diet Coke on this cruise if it killed him, told us that every time he went to the bar, the staff acted like they were doing him a favor by getting him his drink. And this is a 14-year old picking up on this. Look, there are lots of ships out there with comparable amenities and itineraries. When it comes right down to it, the only real differentiator is the service you receive. And the only way NCL differentiated itself to me on this cruise was their enthusiasm and willingness to sell me three $69 soda cards (that’s $207 for those keeping score at home), but their lack of willingness and respect when it came time to serve us our sodas. Lacking….SORELY lacking. SUMMATION
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to those of you who have read this far, that I would not go on another NCL cruise. But I’m afraid it’s done something even worse: it might have put me off cruising for good. And that’s a shame. Because I think it’s a very special travel moment to stand on the deck of a ship, turn 360 degrees, and see nothing but sea. I think it gives us, in a very small way, an idea of, and appreciation for, what sea explorers 500 years ago accomplished. But now I feel like that special moment has been irreparably tainted. And while I’m sure NCL won’t waste a moment’s time worrying about the loss of my business, I feel really bad about what I might have lost.
I’m sure that it will come as a surprise to you to hear me say that I had a really nice time on this cruise. And I owe that solely to 3 people: my wife, my daughter, and my stepson. Because for 8-days, while standing in ridiculously long lines, gazing longingly at empty lounge chairs, excusing the inexcusable manners of fellow passengers, and being treated as far from famously as one could possibly be treated, they reminded me that what matters most is sticking together no matter what obstacles you face.
So thank you NCL, we couldn’t have done it without you.