This will be a long review but may be of more interest to those looking for information on those: * cruising with the Norwalk virus around * traveling with young children (under 3) * worried about expensive shore excursions * interested in comparing Carnival's Mexican Riviera cruise 4 years ago to NCL present day * curious about the "cover" charge restaurants * a perspective on the staff
NORWALK VIRUS and EMBARKATION: Our cruise had an interesting start. The embarkation was a bit disorganized but nothing too bad. There seems to be an advantage to being able to show you are a "Latitudes member" (sailed previously with Norwegian Cruise Line-NCL) with some shorter lines to simply check in but NCL still seems to group you based on when you arrive at the Pier. As hundreds of people arrive, they seem to break you into groups of 30-50 which they stagger to check in. So you sit in a large room waiting for your group number to be called. The weirdness began almost right away with every adult getting a sheet of paper asking if you are currently in good health (no fever, no sickness, etc). It looks like a standard form. But on the back, in the same font and format, it proceeded to tell you that the same ship which arrived the same day (Jan 27) had an outbreak of the Norwalk virus (Norovirus) in which 9% or approximately 230 passengers and crew came down with major gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. So of course we were all sitting there, 4 hours away from departure, wondering what in the heck do you do now? All you luggage has been checked in, you are minutes away from boarding the ship, and you are presented with this? If you are in good health you can't be feeling too great about this and if you happen to have elderly, children or pregnant group members you might even consider panicking. Well, they pretty much have you and I did not see anyone bolting out of the waiting area.
After entering our room and settling in, we started flipping through the Guest Guide book. All of a sudden a note popped out, with the same day's date, stating "We were sick in this room with Norwalk virus. This is a sick ship. The crew will not tell you." This was a lovely (sarcasm) way to kick off our trip. And we hadn't even set sail yet. So we checked with our room stewards who assured us that the rooms had all been sterilized extra and the ship had been cleared to go. Despite this beginning (and this is the last I will say about Norwalk virus) no one in our group came down with it and the precautions taken by the ship and crew seemed satisfactory to me. There were daily announcements from the Captain almost nagging us to wash our hands and avoid hand shaking. The crew was using spray bottles of some sterilizing agent to mist your hands as you entered any food area. And there were motion activated anti-bacterial gel dispensers in all elevators, restaurants and public areas to use. In fact, the staff insisted on using these prior to entering any food area. All buffets were converted so the staff on the other side of the sneeze guards had to do the dispensing. There were no tongs or spoons for community use. Even the drink dispensers for coffee, tea, juice, milk were roped off so the staff had to use their gloved hands to dispense and hand to you. As you can imagine, this caused lines to form and I cannot say there were too many pleased faces when people had to stand in lines for a simple beverage in the morning. With all the staff redeployed to serve the buffet foods, dispense drinks and spray antibacterial misters, it is amazing the ship could still function.
TODDLER INFO: We happen to have a toddler (under 3) who was quite content to simply explore the open spaces of the ship. The children's area in the back of the ship on the 12th deck is great because it has easy access to the casual dining Market Cafe, is next to the ice cream counter which is open until 5pm, and basically out of the way of any grumpy adults who want nothing to do with kids in their area or pool. There are about 4 pools, two of which have slides which have a height MAXIMUM - so it really is for little ones. There is also a Jacuzzi which seemed to fit a few adults or about 10 kids at a time. The NO swim diaper policy is for real - basically not potty trained, no kids in pool. NCL cites some health standard. Perhaps the circulation or chlorination is not good enough if there is an accident of the bigger kind. I am not sure about the logic since I have seen Olympic sized outdoor pools closed down after big accidents and those are pools which allow swim diapers. Not once did we use the daycare/baby-sitting service which was really a personal preference of our own. We did check it out and looked sufficiently staffed with kids quite happily entertained. All the play areas were quite secure (only one entrance and on the highest 12th and 13th decks). You could see into the play areas through the windows on the walkways outside. The only downside of this kid's area location is that at times you would start to feel like you were breathing in the ships main exhaust fumes. Either we got used to it after a while or the winds started carrying it away. Food for kids is pretty straight forward. I have heard plenty of folks complain about NCL's "Freestyle" approach and it really is to each his own. If you don't like it, stick to the other dozen or so cruise lines which will sit you down at their one or two sittings for 3 meals or more a day. But for kids who take naps or get so involved with their new friends or activities, it was very nice to have the flexibility to eat whenever. Even with our toddler we were still able to make dinner reservations at 3 of the cover charge restaurants and 1 of the no-cover charge restaurants. The other nights we went to the standard restaurants, Versailles and Aqua, for dinner (more on this later). Also, Freestyle dining means a more casual dress code which is good for families too. Only one of the restaurants said no jeans after 5pm. The others accepted "presentable" jeans. And shorts and casual foot attire (i.e. sandals) were OK at all eating venues until 5pm. Again, this takes the pressure off the parents and kids. Don't get me wrong - we are not slobs and I respect the people who still dress up in blazers and sports coats but there is a bit more freedom for those looking for something a bit more relaxed. Our child happens to have some pretty extreme food allergies but we managed to do all right. There are signs everywhere stating you can ask the maitre'd regarding special requests but I think they are more on the lines of the basic allergies like nuts and shell fish. Get more specific on them and they are a bit at a loss.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: We did shore excursions at 2 of the 4 ports and paid for them as you would expect. For two adults and a child over the age of 2, paying $180 for 4 hours on the beach with lunch seems rather pricey. We did this in Ixtapa. But I think everyone realizes you are paying for peace of mind as far as transportation, coordination with the ship, and a restaurant with food and facilities that at least someone has approved. The other official excursion we did was a city highlights tour in Acapulco. In Cabo San Lucas, we paid $5 a person for a water taxi to the same beach the Excursion would have taken us to. For a group of five of us, we ended up paying $70 for lunch, beach time, a few chairs and umbrellas, and the transportation. The same excursion through the ship would have cost us over $300. Was it worth it? It is hard to put a price on peace of mind and I have read about the nightmare taxi rides to back alleys. But I was pretty confident the group of us could have overpowered the one little guy steering the water taxi had he decided to go the wrong way. And there were enough lifejackets in the boat even though we all could have swam to shore since it was so short. It sounds a bit extreme and I would never fault someone for doing all ship-authorized excursions (almost $200 a person to do some of the dolphin encounters) but the $230 savings we made is still a lot of money to us. So it was all good in the end. CARNIVAL vs NCL We have traveled on cruises only twice in our life although we have flown all around the world to five continents and dozens of countries. The two cruises we have done are on Carnival and NCL, both to the Mexican Riviera. Both included Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. Carnival included Mazatlan; NCL skips Mazatlan and instead went farther south to Ixtapa and Acapulco. Going farther south added a day at sea at the beginning so there were two full days at sea. But it was much warmer in those first two southernmost stops and those cities seemed a bit more exotic. It could be because they were new to us but I did prefer those two cities compared to Cabo and Puerto Vallarta. And I definitely did not miss Mazatlan this go around.
THE ON-SHIP RESTAURANTS The main dining hall which most people would associate with cruising is Versailles. The dEcor is more formal and this is the only restaurant which would not allow jeans of any type after 5pm. But no reservations are accepted unless you have a large party. I believe they said at least 10 if not more people are required for a reservation. There is another main dining area called Aqua which is less formal but still a nice setting. Aqua is only open for dinner but serves the exact same menu as Versailles for dinner. With a child in a high chair we really found this setting more child friendly. The reservation system is a bit confusing. You can make reservations for dinner a maximum of about 2 days in advance. For example, if you want to eat at "Cagney's" steakhouse on Friday night, the earliest you could make a reservation is the day before on 7am when the reservations desk opens. So really about 36 hours in advance is the earliest you can book. Some people have complained on these message boards about this procedure but in our experience, we were able to make almost all of our reservations when we needed it and the format keeps people from just booking all kinds of restaurants and canceling or not showing up at the last minute. They also charge you the "cover" charge if you do not cancel by 5pm. The cover charges were another novelty. The charge per person ranged from $10/person for Ginza (Asian fusion) to $15 for Le Bistro (French) or sushi in Ginza to $20/person for Cagney's. The reservation system gets more confusing when you learn you can make reservations for Endless Summer (Mexican food) or La Trattoria (Italian) but there are no cover charges for these restaurants. We have eaten at some of the better French and Asian restaurants in the Los Angeles area but are far from being experts. Regardless, we definitely had our opinions about the ship's Ginza and Le Bistro restaurants. Ginza with its additional 12-seat Teppanyaki area is definitely supposed to be a Japanese themed restaurant. But the main menu has all kinds of other Asian foods blended in its menu in an attempt to offer some variety. I paid an additional $5 to the cover charge in order to order from the sushi menu. I found most of the sashimi quality to be decent. We were 4 days into the cruise so I suspected that much of the sashimi could have been previously frozen fish. Some may be horrified to hear this about sashimi but if you have ever been to the Tokyo fish market you would know that some of the most expensive sashimi comes from flash frozen tuna which is thawed once it is unloaded from the fishing vessels. We found Le Bistro to be quite good for French food. Again, not like the 5 star restaurants you would find in a major metropolitan area but pretty good for a floating vessel at sea for 8 days straight. We also got into Cagney's. At $20 a person you might argue that expectations should be high but find me steakhouse nowadays where you can get more than an ice tea and an appetizer for the same price and then start your complaining. The meat quality was decent. I was able to taste the prime rib, ribeye, fillet mignon and lobster. The lobster was definitely from the freezer but was good enough. A few of the premium meats and/or lobster required an additional $10 to the cover charge. The only restaurant we found to be disappointing was La Trattoria. Upon entering, we tried to overlook the fact that the setting was really just the second half of the casual, buffet area where breakfast and lunch are served. But the food was just not good. Compared to a steak house, French food, and Japanese/Asian fusion, I would think Italian would be the easiest to replicate. Not so. The ravioli was not original, the sauces watery, the entrees rather bland. Maybe we have been spoiled by all the good Italian food available in the states but whatever the case, contrary to other posters here, we did not find La Trattoria up to the same standards. The two restaurants we never made it to were Endless Summer and Soho. As a lobster fan I might have been interested to see if they really had a lobster tank to pick your own like they claimed but you will have to rely on another poster.
THE STAFF: I have read quite a few comments about the staff on this ship on these reviews. The comments range from criticism of incompetence and apathy to praise for going the extra mile and constant friendliness. I could see where both comments come from but tended to see more of the positive side. We did have a waiter or two who just seemed tired and not very friendly. But those were the minority. NCLs Freestyle policy of automatically charging $10/day per adult and dividing the money amongst the cabin stewards and wait staff probably contributes to this. Why would a waiter or waitress try extra hard if there was not at least some minor incentive? We had the advantage of being able to speak to some of the crew in their native language and probably heard more than the average passenger. The staff works long days and told us 4-6 hours of sleep a night was not unusual. Add to this some very rude passengers who expect to be treated like royalty and it really was not worth it to some of the staff. In fact, as good as we may think they have it, there were more than a few who were looking forward to finishing their last few weeks or months of service and never coming back. The annual take home wage is definitely below US standards for the poverty level. Of course it is all relative since the poverty level in the US may be considered a good income in some of their home countries. And I think the pay may be tax free and the staff is getting room and board. But some of the criticisms I have read previously just seem unfair. We found our stateroom entirely livable and cleaned very well every day. I figure some passengers were in inside staterooms in doubles for about $50 per person per night. Combined at $100/night with food and entertainment and passage to Mexico, what kind of rock star treatment are some of these people expecting? For the most part, I found the crew to be quite pleasant. I never found a smile at them returned with anything other than another smile or greeting. I just wonder what types of attitude preceded some of the reported rude staff behaviors.
Overall, I tend to agree with many of the previous posters who state that Freestyle cruising is not for everyone. I just wish more people would read up on it before booking their cruise because they are such downers to be around on-board when they talk about never booking with NCL again.
Good luck with your cruising!
P.S. - the "lap" swimming pool is a joke. I say it during a tour of the spa. It would have been $22/day to use the spa facilities which included the lap pool. Unfortunately I could easily have pushed off the wall and reached the other size without lifting a finger