Background Information First cruise with my 11 yr old daughter so we booked a mini-suite with balcony (11th floor pool deck) on the Norwegian Sun for extra room and NCL for the fun factor. This was my 5th trip to Alaska (4 were by truck to Hyder, Tok, Eagle, Chicken and Top of the World hwy). We paid a premium for this vacation versus a 4.5 Star All Inclusive Resort down south. We usually get last minute bookings at the Resorts so I estimate this trip (base price only without excursions, drinks, etc) cost 23% more than a 4.5 Star Resort. For a normal Resort booking (not last minute) the base price of the cruise was around the same (but the resort food, drinks, and beverages are always included). With all the extras (drinks, food, water, drinking glasses, excursions, flight to Vancouver, hotel in Vancouver) this week was 2.5 times more expensive than an 4.5 Star All Inclusive Resort in a sunny destination. This is something to keep in mind as fuel prices are only going up and NCL is already selling some ships and leasing them back to raise their cashflow.
Drinks & Extra Costs Nothing is cheap. At Le Bistro they filled the water glasses before the meal and I was charged $4.75 + the 15% autotip for the water. They add another line for the actual server tip so you can reward a really good water pourer if you like. Also they won't sell you bottled water or any beverage at the store on the boat so you need to buy it from the bar. A mixed drink was $5.25 - $5.50 (Martinis $9.75) and the dispenser cola they use was undrinkable so my wife asked for real Coke in the glass. No problem, now the drink is $5.50 + $1.75 for the mix + 15% auto gratuity with a line to add a tip for the waiter. You also need to add the automatic $10 pp per day they add to your bill for misc. tips and the US cash the room staff are anticipating so expect to spend an additional $100 per day just to survive above and beyond your original cruise price. If you can drink the bar soda they have a card you can buy for $34 for 20 carbonated drinks (doesn't include juices, water, etc) . This seems like an incredible amount to spend for an undrinkable beverage shot out of a bartenders wand.
If you go on three excursions add an extra $1000 - $4000 as they start at $149 for anything more than a city tour and the helicopter trips are $300 - $450 per person. Our final bill was slid under out door at 4 AM on the final morning and totaled three pages. Overall I paid around 2.5 times more than a 4.5 Star all inclusive resort for a room 1/4 the size and no sand. If you like sand then the resort is the way to go down south. For my daughters drink they charged $3 every time for the glass. I told them "no souvenir glass" but was told we can only supply the kids drinks in this glass - it was a smoothie - expect to pay $7.75 with no alcohol and without the tip. The ice cubes and stir sticks are currently free but I expect this will change on the F3 ships.
Corazon Tequila is fairly premium but they are buying it Duty Free and they charge $10.50 a shot US without the tip. The pop mix they use is undrinkable and don't think you can buy mix onshore because they won't let you back on the boat with even a single can of Coke and they X-Ray the shopping bags at every port. "SOUND GENERAL QUARTERS captain and call Homeland Security- someone has tried to sneak on a six pack at Skagway!!!!" Their Duty Free Tequila was same price as in Mexico so it is a good deal but you can't see it until the end of the cruise. All the Duty Free is a good price.
Hotel Info (if any) One night at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver C$382, and they even put all out bags on the boat for us in the morning. This is a first class hotel, one of the best in Canada and you can't go wrong staying here. The hallways and doors are finished in birds-eye maple and there are totem poles from Stanley Park (circa 1920) in the lobby. God save you if you use any of the extras provided in the room - I believe the Oxygen was $85 and the drinking water would have been around $8. We worked out that bacon and eggs would be $27 per person so we walked underground to the food court next door (8-10 restaurants. )
Ship Info It is a good sized ship and provides everything you will likely need. I estimate they spent around $900,000 for the week on Bunker C fuel oil alone which works out to over $400 pp so it isn't a cheap cruise for NCL. They make around 14,000 meals a day and the Rule of Thumb is folks take exactly twice as much as they will eat for lunch and breakfast buffets but temper this by adding a lettuce leaf to their plates during dinner. The captain and crew seem fairly competent.
Activities On the deck and around the pool area NCL doesn't offer much. Most of the upper level (Observation Deck) deck chairs were roped to the deck for the entire cruise and never came out. Inside they offer lots of revenue generating activities. At one point I walked through an art auction (a piece by the convicted felon Peter Max) and they were starting the bidding at $40,000. There were a lot of old timers in the room who NCL had no problem with swindling if they could. The gallery tried to put a $10,000 painting on my daughters ship cards and she is 11 so if you like fraudulent activities then stick with NCL. My wife asked how can these people sleep at night knowing they are swindling seniors of their life savings. I would research all these art outfits before you go as they are borderline criminal and outright frauds as Peter Max re-paints most of his greatest works to order and even used the same names many times and a lot of the Dalis are forged or just plain copies run off a press.
Entertainment - Think of a Filipino Tom Jones singing Beatlemania to a crowd of 50 year olds and you get the picture. The comedian pulled entire sections of his act (the funniest bits) off of the Jay Leno show so I can't call him a professional. The cruise director (Brett) quoted the Top 10 Strangest Things People have asked HIM on a cruise and he quoted Douglas Ward's list from the 2008 Berlitz Cruising Guide. I don't think Douglas Ward would have been too pleased but it fit in well with the phoniness of the artworks and jewelry.
Tracy Arm Easily the highlight of the cruise - scenery is outstanding and you can only see it by boat or ship. For once the captain said "Because we are entering Tracy Arm, an American National Treasure, we will be suspending all announcements while we are cruising in Tracy Arm". Nice touch. Made it to Sawyer Island and stopped due to the ice. You could just make out South Sawyer Glacier through the clouds. At one point I think we were looking at 10 waterfalls at once. Also - a total for four rainbows were witnessed in the Fjord.
Service & Food Very good in the restaurants where they charge a cover fee ($10 - $30pp). I heard terrible reports about the main dining room that doesn't charge - up to 2 hrs to get served and 30 minutes to bring water or tea. I also saw lots of people waiting outside to get a seat - up to 20-30 at a time. If you don't mind paying extra the service is very good. Drink service of course is great - $9.75 for a Cosmopolitan and they are using Duty Free liquor (maybe $7 per bottle tops). They even push the drinks at the breakfast which is tacky and of course the bars stay open as long as there are drinks to serve and money to be made. Best food is at the Steak House and Adagio the Italian place (both charge extra). Las Ramblas is good for lunch and is free - their soup is outstanding and they have the best entertainment. If you think cruise food should be good you will be in for a surprise. The buffet breakfast never changed over 7 days and the hot stuff was always cold and cold stuff was always warm. At La Ramblas which was quite good a lady complained "I can't eat here - the food isn't even cut up - I am expected to cut it up, lets go back to the buffet!!"
All Stops - there are a lot of Caribbean run and cruise ship owned jewelry stores that the "shopping director" will steer you to with names like Diamonds International or Tanzanite International. You will want to stay away from these like the plague and they are mostly scams who do the sell and switch for rings, sell rings where the stones fall out, cut and glue diamonds together to make the larger, etc. There agents earn a 16% commission on every sale and so does NCL so you need to ask yourself where that commission money is coming from. You will receive coupons onboard for free gifts so likely cant avoid them (the shopping map they handed out on the gangway only shows stores owned by their cruise lines. Look for stores that say "Alaskan Owned" in the front window and you will be better off. At one store "Diamonds International" we had coupon for a free whale tale pendant but they ran out so my wife was given a free set of diamond earrings. Free diamond earrings - just handed out to any stranger who walks in the door - hmmmmm something doesn't sound right here. If you decide the purchase a ring - keep that in mind - they can afford to give the stones away.
Went fairly well but the costs are extreme and most of the excursion companies are owned by the cruise lines (Holland America is the largest employer in Alaska). Everyone I talked to worked for companies owned by HCL. Many of the helicopter and float planes trips were cancelled due to fog so have back up plans.
Alaska Crab Fishing/Aleutian Ballad - Ketchikan Excellent - go if you can. We fed eagles off the side of the boat (they dive for the herring heads), pulled up king and snow crabs in traps, hauled a 20 lb octopus onshore, watched a gillnetter haul in a load of salmon and told lots of fishing tales. Whale Watching (Allen Marine) - Juneau - met a pod of killer whales before we even got out of Auke Bay - watched 8-12 humpbacks bubble feeding against the shore of an island, saw 3 glaciers, had Dalls Porpoises swimming in the wake and saw lots of sea lions. Juneau is the place to be if you want to see whales. Juneau is "a quaint little drinking town that has a fishing problem" according to the T-shirts.
Chilkoot Lake Boat Trip / Haines, Alaska - you take a catamaran from Skagway. It was nice to see an Alaskan town not full of cruise ships and Caribbean jewelry shops. Lots of eagles and watched sockeye spawning in the lake. Missed some Alaskan brown bears by about 5 minutes. Haines is the place to see eagles and big Alaskan brown bears and it is a friendly little town too.
Summary Alaska has had the coldest and wettest summer on record with 3 days over 70 degrees F so far this year at Haines. The fog was so thick they ran the fog horn a lot of places. Everything cleared up at Johnstone Strait on Vancouver Island and many passengers noted this was the best scenery and best weather they had seen the whole trip. Biggest comment I heard was "where were all the glaciers - I though Alaska had those". I asked a kid in Ketchikan how long it had been raining and he said "How should I know - I'm only 6!!". Bring good rain gear as it never stops and don't sign up for anything silly (ziplining or snorkeling) that sounds like fun but might not be fun in the pouring rain. Temps stay between 55 - 59 as it is coastal so the rain isn't really cold like in Canada. Bring an umbrella if you want them to know you just stepped off the cruise ship - Alaskans don't carry them.
Travel To Port of Embarkation Westjet to Vancouver - no problems. A cab to the dock from Vancouver airport is $35 and NCL charges $30 pp to take you to the airport on a bus so decide what is the best value.
Stateroom It was OK - definitely get a balcony if you are going to Alaska - we spent lots of time watching from the balcony and could even see the captain when he went out on the wing. The mini-suites are big enough and I wouldn't go any smaller as all the rooms are tiny.
Dining See above - bring lots of money as it buys not only good food but also much better service. The buffet slop is edible not nothing more. It is one level above Mexican resort slop for taste and is well presented and they sell alcoholic drinks.
Children's Clubs It is down in the depths of the ship and my daughter went once and didn't like it. Going down there which was dark and dreary reinforced how nice it is to get a room on Deck 11 the pool deck so get one up there if you can. It was like being on the car deck of a BC Ferry and I got claustrophobic right away. Of course you really felt like you were on a ship down there - I think our room was about 100 feet above the water line so most of my photos look like aerial shots.
Entertainment See above - the guitarist was excellent.
Disembarkation Went with self serve - you take your own bags, they hit your VISA with everything so you don't even need to sign it or dispute it, and you have between 7:30 - 8:15 to get out. We started early at 7:20 and by 7:30 AM I was off the ship and actually through Canada Customs. I climbed in a cab at 7:35 AM and there were 12 waiting at the port. It couldn't have been any quicker and I didn't go in any special lines for the suites.
Things at Add If NCL could just install a contraption that could turn every guest upside down and just shake all the money out of them on the gangway this would save a lot of nickel and diming along the way. They have a captive audience on the ship for a week and they needn't take advantage of people for the sake of an extra buck. NCL does a lot of things right but the nickel and diming is relentless and it is a huge relief to get off their boats as the stress just evaporates. They need to consider how they treat their guests, or "marks" as they NCL like to refer to them.
I would go again and I like Freestyle 2.0 but I have a bit of an issue with how NCL manages their affairs.