I'm not your usual cruise passenger. For instance, I travel alone, which means I get the privilege of paying twice for my cruises. Also, I'm a seasoned traveler outside the cruise world and I know how to travel well without spending a fortune.
EMBARKATION - Due to weather problems the flight to Miami arrived late. There was a couple from my hometown on the same flight and we both repeatedly called NCL to explain what was going on and find out if we would be allowed to board late. We each received different and conflicting answers, they were told yes they could board, and I was told no one time, and yes the next. NCL denied us boarding when we reached the ship at 3:30 pm. Departure time was 4 pm. instead of the usual 5 or later departure for cruises. The other couple had trip insurance and turned around and went home. I figured that I would lose a day and just fly to the first port of call. Since getting a flight to the first Port, Samana, was deemed "iffy", due to a frequently closed airstrip, I ended up shelling out almost $1,000 extra to fly to St. Thomas, the second port, and spend two days basically waiting for the ship.
Upon boarding in St. Thomas, the staff at the Guest Services Counter were not sympathetic to my experience at all. I couldn't even get a "we're sorry you were told wrong and that you missed 2 days of a 7-day trip". However, in fairness to NCL, I was given a cabin upgrade to an outside window cabin and there was a bottle of champagne and fruit in the cabin. Needless to say, the trip got off to a bad start.
ROOM - You've heard it all already. The rooms ARE small, but if you have traveled to Europe or cruised before, you are used to small accommodations. The rooms were very nicely finished and had mahogany detailing in the cabinetry similar to what you might find on a fine yacht. Although small, the bathroom in the cabin was so well appointed, I would have been happy to have it as a bathroom in my home. The cabin and bath were spotless and were maintained that way the whole cruise. Again the mahogany trip was carried into the bath and although it was a vinyl covering in the toilet area and shower, it was well done and looked good. Both the toilet and the shower had sliding privacy doors which would have made it possible for two people to be in the bath at the same time. There was shower gel and shampoo provided in the shower, liquid soap dispenser in the vanity area, and a bottle of premium lotion provided in the bath. The room was quiet and enjoyable, except for the last morning, due to it's proximity to the bow thrusters, docking back in Miami was an early morning wake-up call, whether you wanted one or not.
FOOD - If you want to know about NCL's specialty restaurants, ask me. Except for one meal in the Summer Palace dining room, I elected to eat my dinners in the specialty restaurants.
CAGNEY'S The first evening, I ate at Cagney's. I found it to be an excellent steakhouse restaurant. The decor is dark woods, and deluxe all the way. Unfortunately, the paintings of cows, cowboys, and still lives of ropes, branding irons and such seemed a little disingenuous and uninspired for the other upscale furnishings in the room. The food was excellent for any restaurant, though portions are small. That's probably intentional to prevent waste, and based upon the usual cruise ship policy, it would have been possible to request additional portions. I enjoyed the crème brulee so much that my request for a second helping was immediately and enthusiastically fulfilled.
On my second visit to Cagney's two nights later, I was not only remembered, but was seated in a completely different section of the venue so that I wouldn't "have the exact same dining experience". A thoughtful touch. At this outing, I splurged and paid not only the $25.00 cover charge, but an additional charge of $10 to select from the premium menu offerings. I selected the surf and turf. Again, the lobster was small and the filet was probably 4 oz. I felt cheated and that I shouldn't have to ask for seconds when I'm paying $35 over the main dining fare. My advice is go and enjoy Cagney's but don't spend the extra $10. The regular selections on their menu are outstanding, and the premium selections are not worth the extra money.
LE BISTRO - ...is considered NCL's "flagship" dining venue (if you'll pardon the pun). Indeed, the art nouveau ambience, (including an original Renoir) is somewhat reminiscent of Maxim’s in Paris and is impressive, but... If you are a seasoned traveler, don't go to Le Bistro expecting French cuisine. While, at best, the dishes are French inspired, they are not true French cuisine. If you’re looking for French food, Le Bistro will disappoint, and is definitely not worth a second trip, so I cancelled my second reservation and ate dinner in the Summer Palace the last night of the cruise. Where, once again, my bottle of wine was waiting for me, and there was even enough left for a last-night encore. If, however, you are looking for a Disney-esque version of the French restaurant experience, Le Bistro is a pleasant evening out with “safe” menu choices.
WINE - Since I was traveling alone and I enjoy a glass of wine with my dinners, I opted to purchase a bottle. At $35, the wine was pricey, but since there was enough in the bottle to enjoy a glass each night with dinner, I felt it was a good value. After dinner, the bottle is marked red or white, and marked with your cabin number. You can request the bottle when you dine at any of the venues. It's also an excellent way to avoid being given the "wine-list-sell" each night at dinner.
BLUE LAGOON - Don't bother. As stated elsewhere, service is glacial and food is worse. They must work to make it this bad.
GARDEN CAFE – Although I had breakfast and some lunches there, the food is uninspired, lacking in taste and the venue is a cattle-call, especially at breakfast. Royal Caribbean’s Windjammer Marketplace does it better, but just a little. Tables for two near the large windows are slow to empty, while large booths back from the windows for 4 or more go unused. A long corridor down one side of the ship spilling out onto an open aft deck, this venue is poorly laid out and the artificial plants in the room are beyond tired. If you dine alone, don’t get up to get a second juice or coffee, because overzealous crew will clear your table and someone else will be sitting there when you get back every time. I didn’t waste my time on dinner here so I cannot comment on the quality or diversity of the menu in the evenings. I also didn’t discover the free ice cream machine on the rear deck outside this venue until the last day of the cruise. Bummer. If you like soda to drink with your meals, stop at the pool bar to get a refill first, you can’t get a soda here easily.
BLISS ULTRA LOUNGE – Wasn’t. Décor is a combination of Chinese brothel and bowling alley. Except for the bowling alleys, every evening visit between 7 and 11 pm found the location mostly empty, as were most of the other bars on board. Everyone must go out late or else they were all huddled in one bar on board somewhere, but I never found it. Out of curiosity, I showed up for the Friends of Dorothy meeting twice and no one was there either time. Although scheduled to happen each night in the Bliss Lounge, this meeting didn’t even rate a crew member showing up. During the day, all these venues were deserted, which is understandable to a certain extent, but none of them, save the pool bar, was staffed during the day, making it extremely difficult to find somewhere to get a refill if you have the beverage program. If you get thirsty, head for the pool deck or die. If you like Coke products, cruise on Royal Caribbean; NCL only serves Pepsi. Surely, an industry that prides itself on serving their passenger’s every whim could offer both; even if one was in cans.
LIBRARY – This ship has the best library I have encountered. Most days, it was extremely quiet and a great place to read and watch the ocean, even though it is near the pool and the card room. The card room did get noisy on rainy days but the library was full on those days and was noisy too. The library was staffed only 1 hour in the morning and 1 in the afternoon meaning the shelves were locked otherwise. They had a good selection of books if you were there when the shelves were open, but the crewman was late every day for library hours and some days didn’t show at all. When there, he bemoaned the fact that the latest books were in boxes in storage, because they didn’t have time to rotate the books, yet while he was there, he sat at the desk trying to figure out a library system that was down. Surely, they could assign one particular crew member to library duty so there is continuity and the library is managed properly. Other good places to read and relax out of the sun are the decks on either side of Cagney’s, which have lounge chairs and are covered with awnings. A tip for those who need it, the deck chairs on the promenade deck have pads on them and are more comfortable for afternoon naps and extended reading. A lot of people don’t know they are there.
STARDUST THEATER – Shows were plentiful and pretty good. Be sure you choose a Freestyle dining time that allows you to make the beginning of the shows. I like to eat late, and kept missing the beginnings of the late shows.
SHOPS – Like all cruise ships, if you see something you want, wait until the last day of the cruise to buy it when it will be on sale. Otherwise, you can do as well, or better, in the ports.
ART AUCTION – Most of the art auctions on cruise ships are run by Park West Galleries. By all means, go and drink their free champagne, even get a bid card if you want, but buyer beware: Even at auction, these prices are high, controlled by the auctioneer, not you, and you will not get bargains here. Buy only if you really, really like something. Do not buy for investment. E-bay is full of items purchased at these auctions that you can purchase for less than 25% of their sale prices on board.
CASH ACCOUNTS / DISEMBARKING – If you maintain a cash account onboard rather than a credit card, be sure you stop by the desk the night before disembarking to settle up. Ask them to print you a statement and check it carefully. Make sure you have a zero or a few dollars credit balance. I stopped by the night before and was informed I had a $6.79 credit on my account by the crew member at Guest Services. This was wrong! I OWED $6.79 cents. The next morning I was pulled out of the line at the gangway and waited for over an hour to pay the $6.79. There were only two crew members settling accounts and a line of approximately 30 people waiting to argue about their bills. One crew member handling payment only would have been a good idea. Also, if you board somewhere other than the embarkation port as I did, expect to be pulled out of line and to wait for at least an hour for a full customs interview.