The start of the cruise part of our vacation was a little rocky. This was our 10th cruise on NCL, and as Gold members of Latitudes, we were hoping for a little better treatment for the embarkation process. Another ship, the Coral Princess was boarding at the Vancouver pier at the same time, and everyone on the pier was herded in the same line - a LONG line. Fortunately, it moved quickly, but we were still in a line, moving or not, for over an hour,with thousands of other passengers (5500 was a number I heard). It turns out that line was just for Customs. We didn't know that. Once thru Customs, we were split off from the Princess people and herded onto another LONG line. There was a special (short) line for passengers that had suites, but there was no mention of Gold members or higher (and that's supposed to be one of the perks of the Latitudes program). Finally, after 1 and a half hours in line, we finally got on board the ship. The staff behind the counter was very nice, but the ones acting as shepherds to all us herded cows were not. Not that they were nasty, but they were not interested in answering questions and just basically did their jobs which were to push us in the right direction.
Once on board (whew!), things were fine again. We ditched our carry-ons in our room and headed out for lunch at the Garden Cafe. I personally like the food there. I prefer to eat mostly veggies, and there was always a wide assortment of them there, prepared in all kinds of ways. Due to the diverse nature of the passenger base on this cruise, it was apparent that the menu was diverse enough to try to satisfy as many as they could. There was always a selection of Asian stir-fry dishes, as well as Indian foods along with the comfort foods like mac and cheese, steamship style roasts and of course the typical hamburger and hot dog assortment, etc. Our only complaint is that because it is kept hot on steam tables, the food doesn't stay hot for very long, and by the time we found a table to sit at, got our drinks, etc, the plate was frequently quite cold. Don't know how that could be fixed, however.
Our balcony stateroom was beautiful, impeccably clean. Man, I just wish that NCL would consult some women, especially those that go camping in rec vehicles when designing a cabin. ALthough there was ample space, it was organized in all the wrong ways. Cubby shelves were very large, and two of them were so high that they could only be seen into by NBA basketball players. My little 5'5" frame could not even reach into it. So it became useless. There was no desk drawer. NCL issues incredible amounts of paperwork in the forms of advertising or information,much of which I like to save, and there was no place to put it. It had to be left out on top of one of the tiny vanities. The hangers in the closet are very bulky and noisy. Because of their design, it is very difficult to remove them or to take clothes off of them without making a lot of noise. On long cruises, there never seems to be enough. I usually bring my own thin ones, which are much easier to use. I would also love to see a magazine rack on the wall of the bathroom next to the toilet, for obvious reasons. There's just lots of empty space It could even be a place to store all that blasted paperwork!
Our Meet & Mingle was wonderfully organized (Thank you, Tom), and the company was fun. Very disappointed that there were absolutely no staff from NCL there. Such a difference from our previous Pearl experience where we met all kinds and levels of staff! Heard a rumor that Cruise Critic functions are no longer going to be considered any different than any other group and therefore require no attention other than the refreshments that NCL provides. That's unfortunate, really. It doesn't look good on the CC boards if NCL comes across as less caring than other cruise lines. But, if the executive decision has been made in that direction, then the chips will fall where they may.
In general, we were satisfied with the food, both in the buffet and Summer Palace. Let's put it this way, we certainly never went hungry. I was, however, disappointed in the sugar-free desserts in the buffet. There were 2 or 3 offerings every day, but they were the same ones, every day. There is so much that can be done with Splenda, and fruit and even Jello, and with the products that are now available and the expert chefs that are on board, you'd think that they could come up with some pretty spectacular things. I wasn't looking for spectacular, necessarily, but the offerings they had (chocolate /strawberry mousse or "cheesecake") were bland and pretty tasteless. Day after day...... Once in awhile they did have a sugar-free ice cream, or a low fat or fat-free one. That was great. But it wasn't always there. I know that there are some ice creams that are fat-free with no sugar added that are out of this world, and cost the same. THAT would be great.
We had nice surprises in our room just about every day, from canapEs to chocolate covered strawberries. Sometimes got treats from the concierge, sometimes from the manager of the Latitudes program for being Gold members. The first one was a bottle of wine with a fruit basket. The wine was a special treat for sure. The other treats (with the exception of the strawberries - yum!) were nicely presented, but too often went to waste because we were already full. Maybe food isn't the best Perk on a vacation that seems to already be centered totally around food.
The shows varied greatly. Having been on NCL 10 times over the last 20 years, 7 of the cruises being in the last 5 years, (ah, the wonderful empty nest), we have seen the Jean Ann Ryan shows multiple times. The same show. We were on the Pearl 9 months ago when she was brand new and first started doing her Caribbean itineraries. The shows appeared to be the same this time, at least substantially. My hubby and I happen to be theater people, he as a sound and lighting professional and I as a costumer, so watching that aspect of the shows is great. But the content gets old after a little while. The cast is very talented and well directed, and still did a wonderful job, full of energy, which is key to a stage show like that.
However, the guest entertainers are fantastic. We have always been so pleased. Second City delights us always, no matter how many times we see their shows (Some parts of their routines were the same too - but still funny) and the comedian (David Nasta) made us roar. He's truly a funny guy. He frequently strayed off his prepared routine and was able to ad lib funny comments on things he got from the audience. Enjoyed Bob and Sara Trunell also (again). They do a combined magic/illusion/comedy show that is very entertaining.
With two of our four days being at sea, I was disappointed in the line-up of activities. There were many activities to be enjoyed, but they were not well distributed so you could enjoy many of them. There would be stretches of hours with virtually nothing except shopping or spa, etc. Then there would come a clump of activities, all scheduled exactly at the same time. Martini and margarita clinics were held at the same time in different bars, for instance. I had a hard time deciding which one to do, since I wanted to do both. Had they split them up, I could have participated in both and NCL would have made more money off me. I don't think it would be difficult to rearrange the schedule so that passengers could flow from one activity to the next.
One activity that was very well received and that I happen to love is country line dancing. I attended the class one afternoon taught by an adorable staff member named Isabel, and for once, dancing had also been scheduled in the lounge the same evening! We were in our glory. Not only was Isabel there but many of the cruise staff were on the floor, helping newbies learn and interacting with all of us. I met some fabulous people on the dance floor that day, and we all felt like old friends by the time we saw each other that night. Too bad it was the last day of the cruise. If it had been the first or second day, and then repeated throughout the cruise, we could have made some "friends" that we could look forward to meeting at other times. HINT TO NCL. MORE COUNTRY LINE DANCING, MORE OFTEN. Those of us whose partners don't care to dance really appreciate the opportunity to dance without needing a partner. And it was terrific exercise!
Another thing we thought was strange was the fact that despite two full days at sea, there was no pool band. They had one for sailaway out of Vancouver, but the band looked like it felt out of place, like they'd never played in that area before. The weather, altho chilly, was not rainy, so many people congregated outside. Brave souls (and there were quite a few of them) went into the hot tubs and the pools (which were heated fresh water), and the atmosphere could have been a little more charged if a pool band was there sometimes. Perhaps because of the short repo? We did notice that many of the staff seemed brand new and unfamiliar with things in general, so maybe they had a major staff shift.....
Disembarkation was pleasant, sortof. We chose the latest time to disembark, since we had a 1:30 flight from Long Beach, and plenty of time. That part was great - walked off when we felt like it. The luggage collection lines were very small at that point, so we found our bag in about 2 seconds, literally, and strolled out to get a cab. That's where it got a little hairy. We had no reservations, and it seemed that even if you did, you were out of luck. Lines were long for the Prime Time and Supershuttle, and the cars were not returning quickly - I guess the traffic, as usual in LA was bad. So we did spend a lot of time waiting for a shuttle to come back. But the weather was decent and why be in a hurry to rush to an airport to just do more waiting? It worked out fine, in the end. I did not realize how long it took to get to Long Beach Airport from the pier - on the map it seems so close. Don't know if it was closer than LAX or not. But what a cute airport! Small and personal, it is simple and short to get your pass and get thru security. I love small airports, and this one's a keeper if we do this port again. With 2 metal hips, I always set off the alarm and have to go thru the full pat down routine before I can board. This can add a great deal of time and frustration at a major airport.
Things have changed so much over the years. Freestyle cruising, as well as deeply discounted fares, has created situations that are not optimal for service and put more pressure onto staff. I've heard many people complain on many cruises that service just ain't what it used to be, and they're right. HOWEVER, with cheaper prices come staff reductions. The cabin steward that used to only have a handful of cabins to attend to would so frequently be in the hall folding towels or just generally working around, available to talk, available to be more attentive to our needs. The cabin load on the stewards has more than doubled over the years, from what I can see, and they barely have time to do the essentials. Being available for my every whim is just not possible any more. The newer ships also keep the stewards work areas sequestered in secret hallways, out of view, so we just don't see them as much anymore. So if it looks like the service is lousy, it seems to reflect on a bad attitude of the steward, but may in fact be a result of too much workload. I miss the days of conversing with my steward, finding out more about his/her homeland and family, developing a rapport. I think I caught a glimpse of my steward three times this trip as he was rushing around trying to take care of what he had to do. Conversation was just too much of a luxury. But when I did ask him for a top sheet (they use duvets which are much too warm for me) and an egg crate mattress, they were on my bed that night. Cabin make-up times and turn-down times were much longer than in the past. But I don't feel I can blame the stewards. Those people work extremely hard and get what seems to be very little for it. And some obnoxious passengers can turn their lives into hell very quickly.
Same goes for the staff in Summer Palace. In the traditional dining experience, a waiter would have maybe 5 to 7 tables to take care of, all of whom would have the same passengers for each meal. He/she devoted himself to those passengers. Now, it appears that there are many more tables that become the responsibility of each waiter, and if all of them are full, he has to race around to take care of everyone. One of the downsides of Freestyle.
On the whole, I enjoyed my cruise greatly. I always do. I find the experience to be delightful, relaxing, and very fulfilling. The food is plentiful and delicious, the staff very pleasant and helpful, and with just a few little tweaks here and there, could be downright perfect.