Embarkation - Arrive via MIA (Miami International) via Air Tran from MDW (Chicago)on the same day. At the baggage claim area - NCL had people setup for $15 rides one way to the port. We were a bit late to get our bags so we missed the initial shuttle and had to wait another half hr. No problems there - the staff was informative, friendly. We dropped our bags off with the men at the shuttle waiting area and didn't have to bother with the bags again until the evening on the ship when the stewards dropped off our luggage outside the staterooms.
Upon arriving at the ship terminals, we were not given much instruction on where to go. I just figure that I should enter the entrance closest to the Norwegian Pearl. We had to fill out a form indicating recent medical history (for health reasons - viruses and such)- no big deal. We proceeded through the metal detectors, short queue to the counter to check in. Our photos were taken for the database, passport, documents, and credit card were processed. Oh, by the way, I found out that there were no cell phones allowed in the building (the lady counter gave me a stare down as I was checking my voicemail. I did not notice any signs, but no bother...) We went up the escalators, queued up alphabetically for our key cards. Juice and Water was offered to the side. Up the ramp, onto the gangway where we queued up again. Apparently we are forced to take an embarkation photo with our group (they try to sell you the picture once they develop them. I suggest not wearing blue, as the blue screen will have you as a floating head on the background of the finished photo. - unless the kids want to see that happen). Once we took our boarding photo, we proceeded to check out our stateroom on deck 5 - two decks below the main deck 7. Beautiful interior, wood accents, large murals of animals on the walls, helpful staff positioned at all common areas to answer questions.
Our stateroom: We had an inside cabin (which actually serves the purpose with which I intended this vacation to be). No windows, so very dark when all the lights are off - allows me to finally get some good sleep at night as I cannot sleep when there is daylight. Two twin beds on either side of the room. Very comfortable beds, with soft sheets. Bathroom was small, but expected. Shower gel, liquid soap and Shampoo are provided. Toilet is slightly angled, figure that if anyone is over 6 feet, its going to be a tough time trying to cram your legs against the wall when on the bowl. Convenient hang line in the shower (discovered 3 days later). Nice shower, never had a problem with warm water. The closet was somewhat annoying as I did not utilize many of the hangers. As the ship rocked back and forth - The hangers clanged against each other. Easy solution - place the hangers on the floor. The room was descent for two people. Lack of places to put the luggage, but we did not pull down the extra storage space (3rd bed bunk from the wall - so its our problem). Again, if you are taller than 6 feet, your feet will be hanging off the end of the bed. Small flat screen tv, I thought our stateroom was quite comfortable to regroup from the activities.
Dining: After exploring the stateroom, we were famished as we caught the first flight out of Chicago that morning. We proceeded to the Garden Cafe (buffet). Pretty extensive selection, though some selections repeated themselves. I read previously that generally, the soup is less than worthy of your palate. (generally a good rule t avoid the soup - just not interesting). I found the food on the cruise to generally lack flavor - not enough seasoning - probably not too bad for those sodium conscious folks.
I'll remark on the restaurants we tried:
Garden Cafe/Great Outdoors - place to just grab and go. We just came here mainly for ice cream, water, and coffee. Great outdoors is deck 12 aft - giving you a good outdoor cafe spot. Good place to just kick back.
Indigo - same food served here as the Summer Palace. To me, this place feels like a better dinner option than Summer Palace on decor alone (probably because I am used to urban eateries for dinner), but that is just my preference. Since it was just my friend and I on this cruise, we asked for a seat closer to the window as we were about to leave Grand Cayman. The hostess sat us down on a larger table for 6. It appeared that the manager was angry that she had done that - (probably because they would have to reset the place settings - the place was definitely not full for early dinner). We felt bad for the hostess since we saw her every day at the Summer Palace (our usual meet up spot). She was nice - remembered us.
Mambo's - this was the mexican restaurant. We ate here on day 1 for dinner. It was quite crowded, had a hipness and vibe to it. I had the fish, which was good - I've had better though. Apparently when you go to this restaurant, you should have the fajitas. I did not try em, but that is what you should get. Chips and salsa was not fresh I believed, but my friend liked em.
La Cucina - this is the Italian place on the ship. But to me, its the place where I had dessert. I am not a big dessert fan, but it appears that we tried everyone. My friend said that the tiramisu was good. Choco cake - please skip (its dry). Cheese platter was just ok - the staff was not too knowledgeable on the cheeses. I did grab a pizza - lacked flavor. I was not too thrilled with this place. They ran out of basil by day 3. I want my basil! La Cucina deck 12 aft is also open for additional seating during breakfast (when the main buffet dining room is slammed full - colder air conditioning and fewer people - can't beat that).
Summer Palace - this was our default dining choice, we had a meal here quite often. Service overall on the ship was fantastic. When I took breakfast here on my own one day - it took forever to grab my fruit and toast. So if you are looking to grab a quick bite, this is not the place, but service is quite quick for a service restaurant. We purposely went back on board for lunch on our port of Cozumel - great food that day! We had the beef curry (which was simply the best dish that I think I had on the cruise). The Filipino waiter served us the night previous and he said that the Curry was good. I figure, there must be some Indians in the kitchen because that curry was fantastic. Food at Summer Palace was generally pretty good. Great venue during the daytime as I think its too dark at night.
Blue Lagoon - we went here twice for late night. We tried the wings - the diners next to us remarked that they didn't like the flavor of it - I still ordered it anyway - that remark setup a 2 hour candid conversation with the table next to us - good times. Food was just ok here. I tried fried rice, wonton soup (why did i try the soup again?), burger, wings, fish n chips, chicken strips (these were pretty descent). The night previous we were hanging with the dancers from the featured show - the dancers are very easy on the eyes.
Cagney's Steakhouse (additional fee) - Not a bad place - if they had flame broilers. Disappointing. I definitely know my steaks, and electric broilers and lack of seasoning do not deliver what we want to see in a steak. My friend and I both ordered the ribeye med rare however, my friend's steak was well done - no problem, sent back and the result was med rare. I probably should have sent my steak back - instructed them to give me the steak and let me season it myself. Not really an issue as we were munching on another entree while we waited for my friend's steak to return - we had the Ahi tuna as well. Not too thrilled about that as well. That was served rare - believe it would have been tastier if it was a bit more cooked through. Sides were not too inspiring, but actually had salt! For dessert, I had the bananas foster. Great treat there - and I specifically told the waiter that he needed to put on a show for me - let me see some flame on that brandy! He did and I got other diners in the restaurant to order that as well. We probably should have had the prime rib in additional to our ribeyes and tuna.
Sushi Bar ($15 additional fee)- We really enjoyed our time here - our last supper on the cruise. We went to a sushi demonstration earlier on the cruise - so we met the sushi chef who was quite entertaining with her quirky jokes. "real -imitation crab meat, and the eel is still being caught (we ran out)". We sat with one of cast members of Second City and the Magician's wife - had some entertaining conversation there. The fish was good. I like the dynamite roll (yellow tail, salmon fried tempura maki roll). Sushi was just ok. They were running out of stuff by the last night so if you want sushi and fresh - go for the 1st few nights. Nothing too big to rave about. I had a sushi craving - just order whatever you want.
Topsiders - I believe this is the poolside buffet that is open during the daytime. I think breakfast is available too during the days at sea. Nothing better than grabbing a burger or a hot dog quick and going back to relaxing on the pool deck.Entertainment: the performances were quite entertaining. The favorites of mine were the two variety shows. I was able to meet a few of the dancers while on excursion so just getting to know them and see them perform was a "smashing" good time. The featured singer Theo was good at singing (can't rap or dance though.) The other vocalist was Jessica (also happened to be the company manager of the dance company - she was fantastic - gorgeous, great voice, and unlike Theo - has a few good dance moves). Fantastically choreographed, entertaining all the way through. There was also a High rings presentation by a husband a wife dual - my are they flexible! Great show!
Magician - We only saw part of his act - as we were trying to make it to the newly wed's game show in the Spinnaker lounge (my favorite place). Husband and wife dual - entertaining illusions.
Ventriloquist - He was pretty funny - but the show started really slow in the beginning. Enjoyed the performance - he is pretty talented with voices and physical humor - good audience interaction in this one, but again, we only caught part of the show as we were trying to get seats for the Adults only Second City show at the Spinnaker Lounge. We loved his Bird puppet that tried to lay an egg. Might not be appropriate for children though - somewhat edgy content (but I am not familiar with what children encounter regularly these days, so might be normal for them.
Second City - it appeared as though this group was the largest draw throughout the week. They held a workshop on improv and did three shows of improv. Audience volunteers need to know that they have to be creative in order to make the show good. We had a lady volunteer that was very timid - not good for spontaneous creativity - deadened the show quickly. The adult show was laugh out loud hysterical!
Newly wed game - this was well run by our cruise director Simon Murray - we had a "Smashing" good time!
Battle of the sexes - This was not run by our cruise director - it was fun, but the questions and layout of the show was no where near as fun as if it was played in a "Family Feud" format.
Perfect Couple - this was a good time. But there were kids around and the content was definitely NOT kid friendly. (kids should have been stopped at the door).
Karaoke - Some people could actually sing pretty well. People danced, good times!
Talent Show - this was a good time. The kids actually outshined the adults. Amazing piano player 16 years old. Blew everyone away!
Poolside relay competitions - this was a hoot to see. a larger woman on the team was push into the pool by her own teammates in an attempt to advance on the other team. The Host was a stickler for following the rules too much - he awarded the victory to the much slower team. Good time though.
Ice Sculpture - this was done poolside. Simon the cruise director tried to narrate during the 15 minutes it took to chip away at the ice. It was way obvious that it was a dolphin - the kids were going to jump Simon because Simon kept trying to create doubt among the kids. The statue was placed at the buffet during the evening.
Towel folding - you know those towel animals that the room attendants fold when they turn down your bed? My friend learned to how to make em. I just stayed poolside and read my book while that activity took place.
Dance lessons (with Ron and Suzanne) - good time there. Always more women then men - so figured that I give this a try. Went fine until my partner tried to lead us. This was held at the Spinnaker Lounge.
Bliss Lounge - Shadow dancers - they got everyone off the hoping dance floor to showcase the shadow dancers (same folks from the variety show behind a screen.) It was a mood killer as many women still wanted to dance. A courageous lady grabbed this other gal and they started dancing with the shadow of the guy behind the screen. It was a good time to watch that. They were smokin' hot! Eventually everyone else got back onto the dance floor and it was a good capper to the night.Public areas -
Spinnaker Lounge - this is located on 13th deck fwd - this is a good place to go to at night. lots of activities here. I was pulled onto the dance floor by the cruise staff while we were shipping off from Miami on day 1. I guess that sure started the party as other people joined in dancing a few Caribbean dances. I loved the bar there. Spacious and great music through the day time. Nice loungers as well.
Bliss Ultra Lounge (deck 7 aft)- if there was a Club on board, this would be it. Lights and loungers all around. Smaller bar - but great decor. There are flat screens and large beds for lounging. Great place to grab a drink and chill. The teens infested this place during the daytime (thankfully - they're not allowed past 9pm). There's a bowling alley - for a fee in the Bliss as well (the only one on the high seas apparently).
Casino (deck 7 aft)- I did not spend much time here - air quality not too good - I am sensitive to smoke. Never saw it packed full when I passed by throughout the day and night. They have all the usual slots and table games. They also open a poolside blackjack table during the daytime.
Bar City - This was a nice space - there were three bars right next to each other - close to the piano lounge, cigar lounge, and the French restaurant Le Bistro - which I actually heard some good things about - but I don't like French food). I did not spend any time here. I treated it more like a hallway then anything else. Good place to grab a drink - and chat with people though. Never saw it packed.
Duty Free shop - this area looked to be quite large. It curves around a bit so makes the space seem larger. They had some liquor tastings for 2nd night so I took a few shots and headed on my way. The usual stuff you expect to see at duty free's and ship gift shop.
Poolside - obviously the most happening place on the ship. The children's pool and jacuzzi area was always packed - the never-ending line for the water slide. adult pool and jacuzzi area was not too bad. Did alot of time in the jacuzzi chatting it up with gals from NYC. I happened to discover that Port side of the deck is for smokers (also where the ping pong tables are), Starboard side is for non-smokers. They had Caribbean Vibes band play during the daytime - I hope you like that song from the "Come to Jamaica" commercials - the Bob Marley "One Love"...they play it everyday - probably 1st three songs... I love that band! They are awesome!
Glacier Atrium - This is where the kids play Nintendo Wii Tennis during the daytime on the big 2-story TV screen. Mambo and Blue lagoon are located on the 8th while the reception, cruise excursions departments are located on the 7th. Open area - ceiling has simulated blue crystal stalagmites. There is a band that plays regularly in the early evening here. They are pretty good - I listened to them while I was waiting for my table at Mambo - they do some great harmonies.
Deck 7 promenade - This area is probably the best area to sit and read a book all day. Not as frequently traveled as the interior part of the ship. Its covered from the sun because of the lifeboats that are hanging above. Just watch the seas roll by. Very peaceful.
Climbing wall and basketball court - I did not go to this part of the ship much. Just past by it on day one. I doubt they had any volleyball games going - which was especially disappointing to me.
Fitness Center - this was a great place. Gets packed during certain hours though. They had a few classes about flattening stomachs, acupuncture, detoxing, nutrition (partly as a way to sell a spa treatment - but pretty informative). Great view of Cuba the day I visited. (Probably should have spent more time in the fitness center than the restaurants...)
Library - this was a good place to read. Comfortable accents and usually pretty calm and peaceful here. If you are looking for a book - you could only grab em off the shelves when there is cruise staff present. Usually morning and afternoon hrs only.
Ports of Call -
Cozumel - I elected to not do an excursion for Cozumel. The main walk it totally commercialized - if you have no care for eating pricey dishes that you get back at the local mall(we're in Mexico - food should be cheap!). Senor Frogs and Carlos & Charlies bars are happenin' - good music and the wait-staff forces hotties to dance with them. Walked around a bit away from the main strip - visited a local produce market and tried to interact with the locals a little. Apparently there is an all-inclusive resort not too far away - There was an American lady from Houston named Sherry that was trying to sell the cruisers $35 all day, food and drinks at a resort about 5 miles down the road. Since our last call was only 4pm this day - we opted not to do so since we got off the ship late. We sat and talked to some gals from California and Washington and grabbed lunch back at the ship. We somehow managed to squeeze a trip to Carlos & Charlie's beach (public beach)(we got free welcome drinks, free umbrellas and just sunned for about 1.5 hrs before we headed back). The beach was only about 3-4 miles away by cab. The food looked pretty good. The wait staff put on a good show for us. There was one suave character that had the girls swooning. Another waiter just had no game at all - too aggressive. The food looked good, but I didn't have any. We found a cab back with no problem. The sand was kind of rough - did not like it too much.
Grand Cayman - Georgetown - we tendered on a boat to the shore. Caymans are fantastic. But you need to leave the central Georgetown area immediately! Take a $4 cab ride to the Hyatt resort- free umbrellas and less crowded (we asked a local from Scotland where to go). And a nifty water sports rental place right there (I think it was called "red-sail sports"). We para-sailed and kayaked. Believe its cheaper than what the excursions through the ship had. We took a speedboat ride to the parasailing boat. The total time out there was about 60-75mins. But you are really in the air for 15 mins max. Great view of the island, the coral below. Very smooth, not scary at all. I did catch a serous wedgie since i sat up too far in my harness. But it was a good time. Walked along the beach to the Royal Palm (which apparently all the cabs dropped people off at). I will most definitely return to the Caymans - the sand is soft, water is clear and warm. Good times to just chill.
Summary of the cruise (1st time experience)
Freestyle cruising - some people complained about not getting reservations and all. Its not that difficult - they take reservations starting the day prior - just place a call to the reservation desk during the morning. Sadly a family in front of my were turned away after waiting in line for a good 5 minutes because they did not have reservations. They seated me in Blue Lagoon area which was empty so I figured it did not really matter. Just reason with the hostess - I think you could get your way. I heard many good things about the Teppanyaki and Le Bistro. I've had both Styles back in Chicago and I did not like em so I avoided them. But check it out - looked like people were having fun. Its a running joke that if anything was out of the ordinary - we just called it part of the "freestyle" experience.
The food on board is not what you expect from a 4-5 star restaurant -so don't even try to compare. I was not too focused on the food. The service experience overall was exemplary so that made up for the lack of seasoning. I think they needed to add more salt in most dishes. Some people liked the desserts, I am not a big fan. I would say avoid the puddings, chocolate cake, definitely have the Molten Choco cake (special at the main dining rooms one night), and the bananas fosters at Cagney's. Chocolate bar was average - I happened to like the dessert sushi (I like seaweed of strawberries and rice). For those hardcore steak enthusiasts - avoid the Cagney's steakhouse- I doubt it will match to your expectations in terms of flavor - again - service was great.
They give you a list of things to do during the morning, day and evening hours. It looks like a schedule, but you just do what you want to do. There are a few interesting things, but I think they should organize a volleyball tournament or something (my own take). There was a Singles mixer each night that was never well attended - good Frank Sinatra music throughout all hours at the Star Bar on deck 12 midship though. I just used the time to find out about the cruise staff and their lives on board. They really work really hard - no days off, working every day for 10 months - most are far away from their families and they try their best to serve us on our vacations. The performers are on shorter contracts and seem to be able to enjoy the cruise and amenities much more than just the cruise staff.
Disembarkation - I would say leave prior to the last hour possible. It gets to be quite a ridiculous queue on your way off the ship. Since I was staying an extra day in Miami visiting a friend - I did not have them take the luggage off for me. I left when I wanted....the "Freestyle" way - which meant that I had to wait 20 minutes in line to disembark...Customs was painless - moved quickly - having nothing to declare and US citizen.
I enjoyed my time thoroughly on board. Food was just ok. Staff was tops, entertainment was tops, organized activities could be run a little better, but generally a good experience - I will definitely cruise again with NCL.