This was only our second cruise, the first was about 8 years ago on the Celebrity Horizon, a much older ship (so old that it didn't have balconies)! That cruise was a 7-night Western Caribbean with family, and although we had a great time it was not what I'd call relaxing. My most distinct memory from that cruise was laying by the pool for the first time on the last full day of the trip thinking, "Wow, this is great, why didn't I do more of this?"
So on this trip, my partner and I were really just looking to get away and relax for several days, and the Norwegian Sun proved to be just perfect for that.
As other reviewers have noted, embarkation did not go smoothly. We showed up at the pier at about 11:30AM, and there was a very long line running down the sidewalk in front of the pier. It was an unusually hot day in San Francisco, and it was a bit uncomfortable standing in direct sun for an hour, but we were excited enough about the trip that we didn't let it dampen our spirits. A woman with a clipboard walked down the line and called out for suite passengers to come with her for priority embarkation. We had booked a mini-suite, and asked her if that qualified, but it didn't.
Eventually we made our way on board and were handed a glass of champagne, and walked around the ship. We somehow got turned around while looking for our cabin and ended up on the wrong deck and wandered into the wrong cabin (all the cabin doors were open in this particular hallway). I have to admit that my heart sank a little when I walked in, this didn't look anything like the pictures of the mini-suites I'd seen on the NCL site, and the bathroom was tiny! We suddenly realized we'd gotten turned around, made our way up to deck 11 and found our mini-suite. Turns out we'd wandered into a regular balcony cabin.
I bring all this up because I read so many people online stating that there is really no difference between balconies and the mini-suites other than the curtain dividing the living/sleeping area, a few extra square feet and a bathtub. Having seen both cabin types, I can tell you that there is much more storage space in the minis. The bathroom alone is huge, and is combined with sort of a walk in closet area, and overall it's just a much nicer room. I had brought one of the infamous over-the-door shoe holders to use for storing stuff in the bathroom, and just laughed when I saw all the storage space. The shoe holder spent the entire cruise tucked away in my suitcase. There was a complimentary bottle of champagne in the cabin along with red wine from our online travel agent, and later in the cruise our steward gave us brand-new complimentary NCL robes (the lighter waffle-weave type). There were also heavy, terry cloth robes in the cabin for use throughout the trip.
We LOVED our cabin. As I said, it was on deck 11, and we found that really convenient. I got in the habit of bringing a couple of thermal mugs to the buffet every morning to get coffee to enjoy on our balcony. The coffee from the buffet always seemed a little hotter and better than the room service coffee. It was also nice to be so close to the pool, and convenient to just pop out and get cocktails to go from the Topsider's Bar at the pool. Word of warning though--if you're a light sleeper or you go to bed early, the deck 11 forward suites/mini-suites may not be for you. You can hear the thumping bass from the Observation Lounge until about 1:00AM each night. This didn't bother us (we live in a noisy neighborhood in SF and have grown kind of impervious to noise) but I can see how it might annoy some folks.
We stayed out on our balcony as we sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge and it was truly magical. Throughout the cruise we enjoyed so many awesome sights from the balcony: Flying fish, pods of dancing dolphins, whales, etc. Our steward, Noel, was terrific. Any request we made was handled promptly and he was always friendly when we ran into him around the ship. We got towel animals three nights, and being kids at heart we just loved that.
As for the food, I read enough reviews here on Cruise Critic that my expectations were pretty low. Our first night we ate at the Seven Seas, and both of our meals tasted like frozen dinners from the supermarket. Even with low expectations I was a little taken aback, like, "Wow, I didn't realize it would be THIS bad!" Dinner the next night at Four Seasons was not much better, but our experiences improved after that. We tried Il Adagio, and the room itself is great. Very special atmosphere, but we found the food just so-so. We went on to try the East West Steakhouse and had a fantastic meal there, fillet Mignon with choice of all sorts of delicious side dishes. We went back there a second time and ordered the same thing and found it just okay...the quality of the meat we'd had on the first night was much better. We had a good meal at Le Bistro and gave Seven Seas a second chance later in the cruise, and had a very good meal there. I guess the conclusion we came to is that you can't really say that any particular restaurant is great or awful, because you go back and it's not really consistent. We did manage to have some good meals throughout the trip though (more good than bad).
We had several lunches at The Great Outdoors, which serves standard hot dog/hamburger fare. The food is nothing special but adequate, and it's very nice to sit outside aft under a shady canopy. On the last full day of the cruise we were treated to lots of whale sightings from that spot while we ate lunch. Fellow cruisers were jumping up and down and applauding the whales. It was a blast.
As for the main buffet, the food was mostly fine, but dealing with the buffet line could be too much sometimes. As I said, I popped in there for coffee every morning and since the coffee station was separate from the main line I didn't have any problems, but every single day I heard passengers complaining that someone had cut in front of them. I really don't think this buffet was designed to have a single line, you're supposed to just approach the station you want to go to and get what you want. The first stop in the line was an omelet station. People waiting five minutes for their omelets to be made apparently felt that people who wanted the pancakes (which came after the omelets) should stand behind them for five minute instead of just going to the empty pancake station and tossing a few on their plate. All this could be solved if they had an NCL employee to act as wrangler in there. "Are you waiting for an omelet, Ma'am? No? Great, then proceed to the pancakes!"
Because we had so many sea days we spent a lot of time hanging out at the pool, which was great. I only saw serious chair-hog action going on one day. When we arrived in Mazatlan, it was an extremely hot day and since we didn't have an excursion planned we decided to skip that port. We had no trouble getting chairs in the shade by the pool, but they filled up quickly and we noticed that there were about ten loungers in a row in a prime shady spot that people had "reserved" by placing books, towels, and t-shirts on them. All day long seniors and disabled people wandered past looking for a nice place to sit in the shade and looked longingly at these unused loungers. The chair hogs must have gone into the port for the day, because they didn't show up to claim their spot until the very end of the day. Unbelievably selfish! But like the buffet line, it would be nice if there was an NCL employee assigned to the pool area to handle stuff like this. The only staff I saw by the pool were the drinks waiters and they had enough to deal with. I sat speechless and watched one day as a lady brought a diapered infant into the main fresh-water pool. This is not only against the rules, it's also just plain gross! I stuck to the salt water pool after that. There is a kid's pool, but it didn't seem to get much use.
As for shore excursions we didn't do as many as planned. We had a beach excursion planned in Cabo that was cancelled for lack of interest. There was a big thunder and lightning storm early on the day we arrived in PV, and the Las Caletas trip was not officially cancelled, but they gave us the option of not going/not paying, which most of the people in line decided to do. Going to the beach in the rain is one thing, but being on a catamaran in a lightning storm sounded a little scary.
One of the highlights of the cruise was taking the Behind the Scenes Tour. I would not have known how great this was had I not read about it in the NCL forum here on Cruise Critic. There was an announcement made about it in the Freestyle Daily on the second day of the cruise and we signed up for it immediately. When the day came to take the tour (it cost $50) only 14 of us had signed up for it. Incidentally, we ran into a couple of experienced cruisers who tried to dissuade us from doing this tour, "It's a rip off! They don't show you the ship, they just take you to Dazzles and show you a movie about it!" None of this was true, and I'm glad we went. We were taken throughout the ship, down to deck one where the crew stays, saw their nightclub/lounge, went through the galleys, the provisions, backstage at Dazzles, and eventually to the bridge which was just thrilling!
Overall I thought the service on the ship was very good, in many cases excellent. We filled out several STYLE cards at the end of the cruise complimenting our regular drinks waiters and our Steward. We only encountered less-than-polite service once, from the hostess at Il Adagio. Our friendly, "Hellos" were met by her with a sour stare, then she walked us by several empty window tables and I asked if we could sit at one. This prompted a "No" as she continued walking and led us to a noisy table directly across from the kitchen doors. We sat down, realized it was so loud that we couldn't hear each other, and when an employee came to greet us at our table we asked if we could switch to one of the empty window seats and he said, "Sure!" He re-seated us, and Little Miss Sunshine, the hostess, proceeded to stomp down the aisle and loudly chew him out. Weird. Still, only encountering one bad apple on an 11 day cruise is pretty good, I think.
The only other service issue I noticed is that we found it less than easy to get drinks/wine in the main dining rooms. I really didn't expect this since so many reviewers complained that NCL really pushes the drinks on passengers. At Seven Seas the first night, we planned to start off with a cocktail and get a bottle of wine. The cocktails arrived when we were taking the last bites of our entrees, and we were never given a wine list. This happened in all the main dining/free dining venues--we had to ask, then wait for a wine list. In the pay restaurants they automatically give you a wine list with your menu. NCL lost revenue they could have made from us on a few occasions due to this.
As I mentioned, this was our first NCL cruise, and I really did enjoy the whole Freestyle dining concept of having a choice of when/where you want to go and not having to dress up. When we went on our Celebrity cruise with my family, we had the traditional experience of sitting at the same time at the same table every night, and getting dressed to the nines for dinner, even on non-formal nights. It was fun to have had that experience once, but I really didn't miss the whole getting dressed up thing. We wore nice-enough clothes to dinner but not anything at all formal. I've seen NCL reviews in which people complain that some passengers dress really inappropriately (ripped jeans, tank-tops, flip-flops) in the main dining rooms, but I didn't see any of that except for in the Buffet where you can where whatever you want (as long as you have a shirt/shoes on). And if you feel like dressing formally, you won't be alone, there were always a handful of people really dressed up.
We got room service many times for breakfast, and hung our order on the door card the previous night. Service was always prompt and they'd call to warn you so you could grab a robe before they came knocking, which was nice. We got pastries/muffins, juice and coffee for breakfast and they were fine. We were lazy one night and ordered room service dinner and we would have been better off grabbing something from the buffet. I got a tuna melt thinking that sounded nice and simple and it was a cold sandwich served with toast with about a tablespoon of dark tuna and a cold piece of swiss cheese. Not at all appetizing.
Fellow cruisers were mostly a friendly bunch - most of the people we talked to seemed to be from the SF Bay area, and there was always a relaxed, party vibe at the pool. I was impressed by how polite people were to their fellow cruisers, and the few exceptions I saw to that were handled by the fellow-cruisers with humor. Waiting in line to take the tender into Cabo there were a few passengers who got off the elevator, glanced at the line and clearly thought the line didn't apply to them and pranced up to the front. They got swiftly shouted down and sent to the back of the line by the rest of the passengers. It was pretty funny.
All in all, it was a relaxing, wonderful cruise. Sure, the food wasn't spectacular, but we didn't expect it to be. We booked this cruise kind of last-minute, in late August, and got what I think is a pretty good deal. The price we paid per night/per person wouldn't have gotten us a room in a fancy hotel, much less meals. For both of us the main attraction here was having a relaxing vacation and enjoying time at sea, and the Sun fit the bill perfectly.
We weren't that interested in the shows, though we enjoyed listening to the musicians in the smaller venues a few times. We popped in to Dazzles on to watch part of the big finale show, and it was kind of cheesy, dancers and crew doing a rousing rendition of, "We are the World." But like the food, we weren't on the cruise for the shows. We live in a city with endless great food options, and are lucky enough to see top-notch live performances on a regular basis. We just loved being on the ocean and travelling by boat in what turned out to be very luxurious accommodations (I miss you mini-suite)!!
We happen to live just a few blocks from Pier 35, so it was kind of awesome to just disembark, hop in a cab and be home in five minutes. We had such a great time that the day I came home I went to the NCL site to book the same trip for next year, but they're not doing it in 2010, so we booked a round-trip from SF to Alaska on Princess instead.
If NCL planned any itinerary round trip from SF I'd sign up again in a heartbeat!