Embarkation: actually quite easy, well organized and quick. Being docked at the MSC container berth was not a bad thing as there was no congestion, but then having to park the car a mile away in the northport garage was interesting. A shuttle took you back to the ship. A steward takes you directly to your cabin.
Cabin...small (140 sq. ft)but well laid out. Absorbed the contents of our over-stuffed suitcases with the many nooks and crannies built in everywhere. Bed was on the hard side. Shower was SMALL...had to step out if I wanted to change my mind. But we use the cabin only to sleep, shower and change, so size was not an issue for us.
Food: wide range from a few times barely edible to generally very good. With 5 or 6 course meals, we usually waddled away quite stuffed. Generally speaking their Italian dishes (pastas, rissottos, lamb, veal and fish dishes...e.g. must have had calamari 4 or 5 different ways) were good to great (e.g. a mahi mahi day 1), sometimes even exotic (e.g. cuttlefish ink risotto). Beef was hit or miss. Potatoes many nights were boiled. Fruit however was varied, plentiful and always very fresh. Breakfasts were better in the dining room (first time on ANY cruise=ship where I actually enjoyed and ordered eggs benedict more than once). Lunch buffet usually had a good salad bar, a good italian dish or two and a carving station, which had anything from roast turkey breast to pork roast to lamb leg to hip of beef, depending on the day. Hot dogs and hamburgers were available at the grill on deck (some complained about undercooked hamburgers...but that's hearsay...i don't even try that stuff on cruiseships.) Pizza station on the other side had a wide range of pizzas, and some again on the wild side, but there was usually something recognizable and tasty.
Dining room...our diner waiter was efficient (we got what we ordered, in the right order, at the right time) but was abrupt to the point of being rude to us. Conversation was stilted at best. Also, my wife was less then impressed as he usually served me first, and leaned over people to serve. Suspect language and training issues here.
Booze. We are wine-drinkers and ordered their wine package ($150 for 10 bottles...that's right $15 a bottle) for wines that ranged from $20 to $26 a bottle on their regular wine-list. Good variety of Italian wines (surprise?) to try (and we did). This made the wine package a great value. They also had a cocktail card at $69 for 12 (normally $6.90 each). If you like mojitos, they made them right (no packaged chem mix) on this boat - with fresh limes and mint leaves. Addictive, and you get your vitamin C to boot. Our favorite bartender Charlie also got us hooked on his "BBC". Look for him in the Beverly Hills bar.
Entertainment; We're usually thinking amateur hour with American Idol or "so you think you can dance" rejects staring as the ship's entertainers, but this ship had some really good talent, a lot of variety spanning a wide range of tastes...and all done well. If you didn't like it it wasn't because they weren't any good, it just wasn't your cup of tea. First night, first show, first song/act started with a song/scene from Phantom of the Opera....when they keyed up the music my first inclination was to look for the closest exit, but once they started singing, we realized that they could pull this off. Rather than a lot of folks who were poor singers they had two that could sing well. Rather than a large troop of dancers who were mannequins for their costumes, the dancers could dance. There were also acrobatic type folks that gave cirque-de-soleil style shows. And then they had the classical shows...a Russian concert pianist who gave his own concert, a couple of opera singers who gave an opera performance, and then one combing the pianist and opera singers. Then finally, there was the "entertainment team" which was an enthusiastic and fairly talented group of young folks that usually lead the second show in the Lirica lounge after 10:15 p.m., as well as the evening pool party one night as we left costa maya. Dave on the previous cruise sought out a mexican type band, which was indeed very good. We were also impressed by the "Studio Band" which accompanied the late shows and was the main dance band. Long sets, good variety of dance music (up to the 90's). The weakest of the entertainers was the magician, his most memorable act being playing a piano while it did a 360 while levitated in the air above the stage.
Costa maya...there is not much at the port, so we took the dune-buggy tour from the ship. We had a blast. Saw the fishing village and the country-side, snacked at a beach stop and drove the buggies back to the ship. The guides went out of their way to make sure we had a great experience.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica...very poor people at this port. However, we did a private tour with Oscar Brown...had a lady named Carmen who was a great guide. My only issue was that while lunch was included, we did not stop for lunch until 3;00. Seems like most of of the Oscar brown tours landed at this beach-front eatery...don't get me wrong the food was good, but eating lunch at 4:00 is not my idea of appropriate timing.
Panama: the ship does not enter the canal, so we did the canal excursion by ferry from the ship. The Canal experience was really interesting but the tour was way too long. It didn't help that at the end there was a one hour trip on the ferry to the debarkation dock, then wait a half an hour for another ferry to debark, then another half hour for the ferry captain to figure out how to dock the ferry. Followed by a 1 1/2 hour bus-ride back to the ship. Left NO time for shopping....got back almost 2 hours after the ship was scheduled to leave. Thankfully it was a ship's tour, and they would notice 370 missing passengers.
Cartagena Columbia....took the ship's city-tour. Tried to arrange a private tour but was way more expensive than the ship. Cartagena is an interesting city...really wish we had more time there.
Private island.....beautiful beach, unfortunately it started raining after an hour or so. Also, not completely private. There is a really nice hotel on the island. Also, For the NCL ship parked in Samana, it was a ship's excursion ($$). As a result, any food or beverages were not included.
Bottom line...great cruise at an unbeatable price. Met lots of nice folks. Much younger crowd than HAL, with an age demographic probably more like Royal Caribbean (kids free promotion to thank, I suspect). I must say, though, that the seniors on board were among the more energetic that I've encountered - one lady i talked to had gone hot air ballooning over Australia half a dozen years ago for her 75th birthday. Also interesting that one couple had been on Lirica last year and swore they'd never go again...but found that it had improved greatly and after this experience, would go again. As would we, given the right ports and price.