We sailed from 12/13 to 12/20 with a group of 10 family members that included my parents, my husband's parents, our daughters, and an uncle and his girlfriend. We used a travel agent out of Dallas and booked a balcony on Deck 9 for us and an inside across the hall for our two daughters, and if I would change anything, it would be to book a room mid-ship. We were forward and the walking was a bit much at times. The room was nice, seemed to be about the usual size, and the bathroom was the largest we have ever had. It was nice to have the sliding door to the toilet area and the sink/vanity area was nice and large. We really liked the sliding door to the showers instead of the shower curtains we have had in the past. Our daughters' inside room also had a larger than usual bathroom. We had a small sofa bed in our room, but we did not use it. Although we have sailed once before with NCL, we are not big fans of the freestyle concept; however we took this cruise because it included Guatemala on the itinerary and we had never been there.
This was our 8th cruise, but several of our family members had never been on a cruise before. We drove to New Orleans (in a pouring rain) the day before the cruise and spent the night at the French Quarter Holiday Inn where we were able to leave our vehicles for the week in covered parking. We saved the just-under-100-dollar port parking fee by taking advantage of the special rate the hotel offered. We ate dinner that night at Deanie's which is about a 2 block walk from the hotel. It was great and the cheese cake was the best I have ever eaten! We ate breakfast at the hotel's restaurant the next morning. We left the hotel at 10:30 in the morning by taxi to head to the fabulous ship.
Embarkation was smooth and easy. Those who are Latitudes members will board a little earlier than those who are on their first-time NCL cruise. There is a seating area for those who arrive early (like we did just before 11 A.M.) and then groups are called to go through the line to board. Champagne awaits passengers as they board, and the buffet was open for lunch when we boarded. We spent a little on beverages while walking around the ship, as my husband used a radio headset to listen to the New Orleans Saints game which was not being broadcast on the ship. (They were showing the Green Bay game, which was not well received by the masses of people wearing Saints jerseys!) By 1 p.m. we could go to our rooms and put our belongings away. We had a two-person room steward team, and they seemed to have worked non-stop throughout the cruise. Our rooms were always very clean, ice buckets filled, and they were very friendly. We spent a bit of time on our balcony on embarkation day, listening to the Saints game, and watching other passengers arrive. We had all of our luggage by 3 p.m. which was the fastest ever! Shortly after arriving on the ship, my mom suggested dinner reservations for all of us for that night, so I went to the reservation desk on deck 7. The lady there told me I would need to go to the dining room to make the reservations, so I went there. The staff there told me I had to make the reservation at the desk on deck 7, so I went back, and of course the original person was not there. I made our reservations for 5:30 in the Garden Room. I visited this desk a few more times during the cruise to make reservations for the regular dining rooms, and they always were able to accommodate my requests. During the boat drill, I was told I was not allowed to take pictures, but then others arrived and began taking pictures, and they were not told to stop. The staff members checked a list of cabin numbers as we arrived so they knew who was there and who was not.
We registered our 12 year old daughter for the kids' crew activities at a desk on deck 10, aft. I had to read and sign several pages of information. They did not inform me that our daughter would need to stay in the activities for two hours minimum and later in the trip this caused a little problem with her curfew. I had to visit the kids' center to discuss this with them so that she would be allowed to leave on time. She participated in the activities each day and she commended one of the counselors on a STYLE card at the end of the cruise.
There was a terrific concert with Jo-El Sonnier on the first night, and we loved listening to his Cajun-style music. We were exhausted after the day's events, and we went to bed rather early. We ate almost all of our breakfasts and lunches in the Windows dining room. The menu is the same each day for breakfast, except for the disembarkation day, on which they have an "express" menu. The lunches were varied, and all of our meals were great. This ship has the best coffee (in the dining rooms--not the buffet) of any ship we have sailed. Also, our room had a small automatic coffee maker, which was nice for the mornings. Our daughters' room (inside, deck 9) also had a coffee maker. They tended to give us decaffeinated coffee, though. We ate almost all of our dinners in The Garden Room, and we adored the Maitre'd, Neno, who is from Hrvatska. He visited with us every night and when we saw him elsewhere on the ship, he always spoke with us and entertained us with tales about his journeys and life. We loved our food at every meal. Desserts were delicious, too! Many times we would have two appetizers or even two entrees. We tend to avoid the buffet, but my in-laws ate there several time and said the food was great. We had a meet and mingle for the first sea day. It was held in Henry's Pub on deck 7. A lot of the senior officers attended the event and whenever we saw them later, they always made a point of speaking to us. Our cruisecritic group also had a "slot pull" that morning, during which we each put $20 into a machine, and at the end we each had a whopping $3! Someone said the slots were looser on the first night, and later in the cruise (on Friday and Saturday nights) my mother-in-law won several hundred dollars on the slot machines. My husband and I didn't visit the casino after our slot pull. I visited the Internet cafe and purchased a 100 minute plan for $55.
On the last night the internet was down for several hours and I unfortunately lost the use of about 30 minutes. I always like to upload pictures to face book on the last night, but I wasn't able to do that this time. My older daughter and I participated in the digital scavenger hunt on Monday and had a lot of fun. Everyone who participated won a deck of cards. That night there was a show called Duo Acrobatique that was pretty amazing. All of our group really enjoyed it, including our 12 year old. That night there was also the usual Newly wed/not so Newly wed game, and we laughed a lot at that.
On Tuesday morning we awoke early to prepare for a day of scuba diving in Costa Maya, which has always been one of our favorite ports. After several attempts to dock, there was an announcement that it was unsafe to dock there due to choppy water and winds. The captain tried twice to dock. We were pretty disappointed in missing a dive opportunity, but we love sea days, so we managed. There was a "new" daily printed and several activities were added to the day's events. I ordered a drink called the Rebellious Fish that was really delicious. It came in a souvenir glass fish bowl that I packed in my carry-on bag to bring home. That evening we attended the ballroom dance class and realized that we didn't like this style of dancing much. We like to two-step and waltz, but the ballroom style was very different. Apparently this was the second class they held, so we were behind and couldn't catch up. We then participated in the Comedy Battle Game show and Music Trivia. These were fun activities and arriving early for them allowed us to have great seats for Jo-El Sonnier's show.
The next morning we docked (about an hour late) in Guatemala. We walked around the shopping area for a little bit while waiting for our tour to leave. We booked a private excursion with Gus to visit the Las Velas Beach and Seven Altars Waterfalls. We rode on a boat to Livingston and sampled some local fruit. We then walked through the streets for about 10 minutes to get on a "taxi." Our older daughter is very safety conscious and definitely did not appreciate having to stand in the back of a Toyota pick-up truck with 13 other people. On our ride, we passed many malnourished dogs. The dogs that lived near the dump were rather healthy and as we passed we could see dogs and children eating items from the dump. We rode for about 15 minutes standing in the bed of the truck (and holding on since the roads were very bumpy), and then we got out for a LONG walk. We didn't realize we would be walking for about an hour and a half to get to the falls. The walk was made even more challenging by the uneven terrain and multitudes of garbage we had to step over and on as we walked. We got to see a variety of coconut trees and stopped at a very nice Garifuna temple that our guide, Jerry, said was the oldest temple in Central America. My husband and our younger daughter jumped into the pools and were refreshed by the water. We ate fresh bananas and started our LONG walk back. During the walk we heard the unmistakable sounds of gun fire nearby...our older daughter definitely was disturbed by this. Part of the way along, we stopped and Jerry asked if everyone wanted to eat at a beach restaurant. I asked what we were allowed to order since we had paid for a lunch as part of our tour, and we were the only ones who had paid for this. We had booked on the Internet and the others had reserved their tours at the cruise terminal. By the way, each of them paid 35 while we paid 69 each. He said the lunch would have to be back in Livingston and the rest of our group wanted to eat in town, also, since the restaurant was serving only American-style cuisine. Our girls were a bit hungry and I gave Jerry a dollar to buy some chips for us at a road-side stand. For one dollar, we were able to get 6 bags of chips! Everywhere we went, the native people stared at us; they didn't seem overly friendly, except for the small children. On the taxi ride (yes, again, standing in the back of a Toyota truck) back to Livingston, Jerry offered to add lunch to anyone else's day for $10, but they all opted to eat elsewhere. I was doing the math, and I was a bit irritated that we had gotten the same excursion that everyone else had for double the price...but anyway, we ate a delicious lunch at Gus' restaurant that included rice, potato salad, shrimp, and fried fish. Then we walked back to the boat launch and waited to board a boat back to the ship. My husband had accidentally left a ship's towel on a different boat earlier, but the captain had held it for him, which was very nice. As we waited, we were watched by men wearing black who carried weapons. The boat ride back to the ship was pretty rough and one of the passengers got a big scrape on her arm and a bruised tail bone as we bounced along. We spent some money back in the shopping area at the cruise terminal and the people were very willing to barter here. I especially appreciated the beaded items that were available here and wished I had brought more money with me to spend on souvenirs. As I said earlier, I chose this cruise so that we could visit Guatemala. Now that we have seen it, we don't plan to visit there again.
Back on the ship that night we ate our only dinner in Windows as my mother had made reservations for the entire group to eat together. We watched the Second City's 50th Anniversary Show which was very funny. We wanted to do some other activities, but after three hours of walking in Guatemala, we were all exhausted and went to bed early.
The next day we had an excursion with Yhony, the master of the caves. Since we were not on an NCL excursion, we would need to pick up tender tickets. The night before at the show, they had announced that the tender tickets would be available at 7:15 at Champagne Charlie's. My family went to breakfast and I said I would meet them there in a little while. At 8:00, the staff member FINALLY arrived to hand out the tender tickets. I rushed to eat breakfast and our tender (#1) was called at about 9 a.m. We have been cave tubing and enjoyed the zip lines here before, so Yhony set up these two events for us. Although he takes large groups cave tubing in buses, he drove us in his vehicle and talked with us about his country. My parents (68 and 71) were with us on this excursion and this was their first time in Belize. Both of them rode the zip line and my mother waited on us when we went cave tubing. Our guide for the cave tubing was Ashton, who was terrific. He made sure all of us (especially my father) were safe on the walk, as it was a bit slippery with mud from the rain. He pampered us all on our trip through the cave and told us a lot of interesting facts about Belize. After cave tubing he drove us to Yhony's new palapa restaurant for a complimentary lunch which was absolutely fabulous. Delicious stewed chicken and rice were enjoyed by us all. Then Yhony stopped by to say hello again and visited with us for a few minutes. Ashton drove us back to the cruise terminal and shared more information about Belize and his life. He was absolutely a terrific guide, and this day was very special to us all with the personalized service that we got from cavetubing dot com. Our younger daughter got a few braids in her hair at the flea market outside the terminal. I bought a few items at the pharmacy at the terminal, and our older daughter bought a few souvenirs and gifts here as well. We turned in our bottle of cashew wine as we boarded. Back on the ship, we ate another marvelous dinner and then went to Henry's Pub to watch Thursday night football. After the game, we went to the Chocoholic Buffet to take pictures and got several snacks to take back to the room to enjoy.
The next day we stopped in Cozumel and we planned to scuba with Alison, as we always do. I called Alison as we ate breakfast and she informed me that the marina was closed due to choppy water. Our girls had planned to spend the day with my parents at Paradise beach, but our older daughter was not feeling well, and so we decided to rent a Jeep and show the island to our younger daughter. My husband and I had spent a week in Cozumel last December and had found a few things we really liked, so we took the opportunity to have a relaxing day. We drove to the east side of the island and explored the blow holes, and tidal pools and did some shopping at road-side stands, and then stopped at Playa Bonita for lunch and swimming. Water shoes are highly recommended here, as there are rocks and coral in the water. I took a little nap on the beach while my husband and daughter played in the beautiful water. Later we went back to the Punta Langosta pier, returned the Jeep, and did a bit of shopping. We rode on the bicycle taxis to and from the ship, and the ship's photographer took a picture of us on the "taxi" with Santa Claus standing next to us. This was just one of the photos I purchased. We took a formal family photo on this night and we didn't have to wait at all for the photographers. They did a great job of posing us and the pictures were all very good. When I went to make my photo purchases, my card would not scan. I had to go to the guest services desk to have new cards made. Since we had an extra card made, I asked if that one would still work and the staff member said yes, the extra key card would work. Luckily I went right to the room to check this out, and the key didn't work, so I had to make an extra trip back to the guest services desk to have the extra key card redone. I did a bit of shopping on the ship on Saturday. They had a 2 for $25 special on itinerary t-shirts and watches for $10, so I bought a few Christmas gifts. I picked up pink luggage tags so that we could disembark at 9:15 the next morning.
We again made 5:30 reservations for our large group to eat dinner in the Garden Room and we told Neno, the Maitre'd, that we needed to be finished eating no later than 7 p.m. so that we could go to Henry's Pub to watch the Saturday night game between New Orleans and Dallas. He made sure that our meal went a bit faster than usual so that we would not be late. Watching the game in the pub was really fun with mostly Saints fans attending. The few Dallas fans there were rather quiet. We then went up to the Galaxy of the Stars for a drawing of a 12 megapixel camera that we didn't win. We noticed that we were passing some oil rigs and other smaller ships so we went back to our balcony to watch.
On Sunday morning I got up early and went to the lifestyles room to pick up the bottle of cashew wine. I didn't have to wait long; there was only one person ahead of me at 6:30. I went to the buffet for a cup of coffee as our steward had not put any regular coffee in our room the night before--only decaf. The coffee in the buffet was horrible and I could not add enough sugar or half and half to make it tolerable. We ate in the dining room and waited for the call for our tags. Although there had been very pretty Christmas trees and decorations on the ship during our cruise, the next week would include Christmas, and the crew was busy adding more decorations to the ship. The call for pink tags was right on time at 9:15, and we got a line-backer-sized wonderful and friendly porter who collected our bags, and we were in the taxi by 9:35. The New Orleans port really has it together for disembarkation. We have never seen such efficiency and speed. (We have sailed out of Mobile, Galveston, and Houston in the past.) The taxi delivered us to the Holiday Inn and we were on the road within a short time. We had a great vacation and I am glad we went. If we ever cruise to Guatemala again, I will only shop in the terminal and get back onto the ship. We adored Belize and would definitely highly recommend Yhony for cave tubing. He also offers an ATV excursion, but we weren't interested in that since we have our own ATVs at home. We would also recommend the east side of the island for a relaxing day if the water activities are cancelled. We loved the ship, enjoyed the activities, and ate lots of delicious food. We would consider another NCL cruise, but we really prefer Carnival and Royal Caribbean.