Ship: Norwegian Sun Itinerary: Chilean Fjords - Buenos Aires to Valparaiso Sail dates: January 31 to February 14, 2010
Embarkation: As several other CC members have noted, the Port of Buenos Aires can be chaotic and disorganized during peak boarding times: all taxis and large tour buses enter through one gate and then jockey for position in a huge traffic snarl in order to let passengers out curbside. Additional confusion results from a single sidewalk (with very little signage) that requires passengers to proceed to a luggage intake station through a doorway on the right, then double-back to the actual terminal entrance door on the left. During our embarkation there was very little guidance from NCL staff, who were present on the scene but not active - some had signs in their hands that they held close to their sides instead of up in the air, while others just stood and stared blankly at the pandemonium without the slightest attempt to guide anyone. Once inside the terminal, a long line lead us to passport control, and passengers who refused to queue in single file (cutting the line to visit with relatives and jockey to get a little further ahead) further compounded the chaos. Processing was even halted at one point so that the overwhelmed agents could take a break, but this resulted in even longer lines to leave the port.
Once through passport control, diesel buses carried passengers to the ship, weaving under cranes and through stacks of cargo containers. Reaching the gangway at last, we entered the ship on Deck 5 and faced a very long line in the Four Seasons dining room, where room cards were being issued. As suite guests, my spouse and I were pulled from this queue and separately checked in by staff in the lobby area of the Il Adagio restaurant. After taking photos, we were led to an adjoining room for a one-on-one talk with ship concierge Karin, who asked if there was anything she could arrange for us as we settled in. The one request I had - to reserve a spot in the thermal suite in the spa - was for naught...despite web postings to the contrary, there is no thermal suite on board. As Karin explained, "This is an older ship, and it does not have the amenities you might expect on newer, larger ships." Indeed.
Ship: The Norwegian Sun, built in 2001, is a smaller vessel that feels somewhat dated and out-of-touch even though it is relatively new (perhaps this explains a planned dry-dock scheduled for fall 2010.) Public areas are small and a bit on the claustrophobic side, and the awkward deck layout, which is configured around a giant central kitchen area on deck 5, prevents easy walking from venues located at opposite ends of the ship. The atrium features four "Panoramic Elevators" that, after leaving decks 5, 6 and 7, travel the remainder of their journey inside a white tube - hardly "panoramic" at all. There are many rust spots all over the exterior decks of the vessel that are in need of painting, and plastic flowers and Papier Mache rocks abound - no fresh flowers were to be seen. The daily newsletter is laughable - frequent misspellings, incorrect information, and page after page devoted to getting you to spend money on jewels, artwork, massages and excursions. I know these elements are part of the cruise line revenue stream, but honestly, NCL goes above and beyond any acceptable levels of advertising when 6 front-and-back insert pages are spent trying to pry your money from your pocket. Separately, the passenger composition on this South American itinerary was largely comprised of travelers from France, Germany and Latin America, and as a result, I observed willful disregard for the rule against smoking in individual cabins and public areas despite admonishments from the crew. Indeed, when walking down the halls of decks 9 and 10, the cigarette smoke coming from cabins was so thick that it would make me cough out loud. I saw several cases of plumbing problems - for example, on embarkation day inside cabins 0129 and 0329 were flooded so badly with sewage that carpets were pulled up, odorizer was sprinkled on floors and giant fans were in place for at least 2 straight days.
Serious customer service issues exist on this ship. Bartenders and bar staff are competent and friendly (especially Marvin in the Observation Lounge), but much of the food service team seems to be preoccupied with socializing with each other - when interrupted from this pastime they are often surly and occasionally downright rude. When we got up to take a look at a breakfast fruit buffet in the Four Seasons main dining room, one server admonished us to sit down immediately and barked, "Let us do our job and you do yours!" During the mandatory lifeboat muster, our station leader - an onboard entertainer named Alan - practiced his dance steps while the drill took place. At the same time his station partner informed us, "Remember you are at Muster Station R. You know what Station R stands for? R is for rich. Like you." (Presumably because this station is a meeting point for suite guests.)
On a positive note about the crew, Concierge Karin is a very hard worker who aims to please. I've read complaints on CC that "she is never at her desk," but in reality this is because she is constantly in motion, running all over the ship to take care of guests. She is extremely accommodating and courteous, and the majority of this crew would do well to model their behavior after hers.
Cabin: We were booked in Cabin 0265, a Penthouse Suite located aft on the Norway Deck. This cabin is spacious (the photos of the living room area on the NCL website really do not do the size of it justice) and generally well maintained. The bathroom is large, with a separate glassed-in toilet closet (like many cruise ship WCs, this one has a slight smell of sewage), a double-door-enclosed shower, and a Jacuzzi tub that is large enough for a 6-foot tall adult to lie down in. The bathroom has only one sink, however, so washing up and shaving are a one-person-at-a-time affair. Lighting is good in the bathroom, but one minor annoyance: you cannot turn on just one light, say only over the sink - you must turn on all 12 recessed spotlights or none at all (kind of disruptive if you have to get up in the middle of the night). In addition, it sometimes took as long as 15 minutes to get hot water in the bathroom, so if you are in a hurry, plan on a cold shower.
Closet space in this cabin is not as generous as one would expect, especially for a 2-week itinerary. There are lots of drawers, though, and a separate make-up table area in the pass-through closet space between the bathroom and bedroom. The bedroom is nicely-sized, with a very soft marshmallow mattress and a separate set of glass doors that open onto the best thing about this cabin - the generous wrap-around aft balcony, which features room enough for two chaise lounges as well as a table and three regular-size chairs. Watching the world go by on calm sea days makes the investment in this suite worthwhile.
Negatives about Suite 0265: no coffee maker or kettle (let alone the cappuccino machine advertised in most NCL literature describing Penthouse Suite amenities), no in-room Wi-Fi, no extra blankets or pillows without making a special request, and large tube-style Panasonic televisions that are well past their prime, to the point of being nearly unwatchable. A Sony DVD player with surround-sound is outfitted in the living room, but I can't imagine blasting the speakers while watching a movie from the onboard library. A connecting door to the smaller balcony room next door would make this an ideal suite for sharing with kids or another couple, but in our case our neighbor used it for eavesdropping (as he made clear while we were out on the balcony, when he leaned over the dividing barrier and asked about things that had been discussed in private). Beware: noise (and the odd piece of toast flying off a plate) is also sometimes an issue from the Great Outdoors Cafe located on the deck above - diners frequently drag their chairs (and tables) as they jockey for position alongside the rails. One saving grace during our cruise was that the cafe space above this cabin is unusable in cold or inclement weather, so the noise factor wasn't as bad as it could have been.
The Penthouse Suite comes with Butler Service - ours was a rather shy man named Orlando. In addition to bringing ice (and unpacking your clothes if you ask), the butler brings complimentary canapEs in the late afternoon and also delivers room service orders (room service in this suite is a complicated affair in which you call the room service number, they hang up, locate your butler, and he calls you back to take the order and subsequently deliver it). I had but one request of Orlando - to supply a bottle of whiskey for evening drinks. I told him I understood that I would have to pay extra for the alcohol, but he gave me a funny look and informed me that I would have to pay for each shot in the bottle individually! When I asked how that could be possible, given that guests can purchase a dozen bottles of wine from NCL without a "per-sip" surcharge. He just shrugged his shoulders and later I received an explanation from the Concierge: It is supposedly a (newly-introduced) fleet wide NCL policy that guests cannot purchase a bottle of liquor onboard, even if they are willing to pay an exorbitant amount for it - apparently because some guests cannot be trusted not to drink it all at once (how this gets around being able to drink a whole bottle of wine at once is beyond me). In any event, it is nonsensical that a suite guest cannot request a bar setup with a single bottle of liquor for the duration of a two-week cruise.
Our Cabin Steward Fidel was perhaps the best we have ever had on any cruise - he visited several times a day and our suite was kept immaculate at all times.
Food: Overall, the food served on the NCL Sun is consistently mediocre - poorly prepared, sloppily presented and more often than not, reheated from a frozen state. Interestingly, during a casual conversation with the Food & Beverage manager, he revealed that (despite an itinerary with close proximity to some of the best meat and seafood on the planet) none of the protein served on the Sun is fresh. That's right - all steaks, poultry and seafood items are shipped frozen to the ship from Miami because of potential labor strikes from dockworkers and other food providers in South American ports. It's unsurprising then that the resulting meals are less than spectacular. One thing to remember when dining on this ship - the service staff has been indoctrinated with a set order in which to deliver food, and any deviations or special requests (like a pre-dinner cocktail or an extra piece of bread with your meal) cause confusion and turmoil. Service staff is also not very competent, often mixing up orders and dropping food and utensils - the crashing of plates, silverware and glassware onto the floor is a constant in nearly every dining venue on the Sun. The "Freestyle" concept really is kind of a joke - if you don't plan ahead, you really cannot eat "whenever, wherever" - walk-up to the desk of a specialty restaurant without a reservation and you will get a blank stare and a "No!" Here then, is a rundown of each of the restaurants onboard:
Concierge Lounge: Our first dining experience on the Sun was lunch in the Concierge Lounge, set up in the Il Adagio specialty restaurant. Warning signs that a bad meal was forthcoming appeared right away: our waiter was shuffling his feet and singing to himself, even while taking our order, and the tablecloth was stained with food from a breakfast that had been served earlier that morning. I asked for a Diet Coke and 20 minutes later received a Beck's Beer in a bottle. I asked again for a Diet Coke, and this time received a Pepsi in a can. After my third request for a Diet Coke, our server informed me that they only have Pepsi on NCL (first time anyone ever told me), so I said "Okay, let me have a Diet Pepsi then." 42 minutes and $2.24 later, I received the one and only soda that I had onboard. My lunch consisted of a Caesar Salad that would be best described as a few leaves of Romaine lettuce floating in two cups of salad dressing, followed by cold and inedible hamburger "sliders" and French fries that were still partially frozen. I skipped it.
Breakfast is offered in this venue as an amenity for suite guests, and the service was admittedly better than this first meal, but you have to know how to order. If you want a regular amount of cheese on your omelet, specify "extra cheese," otherwise the omelet arrives dry. If you want your English muffin toasted, you must specifically ask for it to be done.
Teppanyaki: During the check-in process, Concierge Karin encouraged us to make a reservation for the Teppanyaki specialty restaurant, because "once everyone on the ship hears about how good it is, you won't be able to get a reservation." We took her advice and made a booking for our first night on ship. After our party of four was seated at the 12-person grill, we placed an order for cocktails. A couple of the requests (a gin martini, a blended margarita) seemed to vex the waiter - a hunch that was proven true when the drinks did not appear until 52 minutes later. After being served soybeans, soup and a salad, our two teppanyaki chefs appeared - making nervous jokes and fumbling a bit as they started juggling knives and spatulas over the steaming hot grill. I had just remarked to my brother-in-law that "This can only end badly..." when one of the chefs lost his grip on a twirling spatula and it sailed across the grill and hit my spouse square in the chest, covering him in food and sauce. After he excused himself from the table amid gasps from our fellow diners, the chefs proceeded to juggle raw eggs, which they also dropped with splats onto the floor. Everyone at the grill grew visibly agitated at becoming the next victim, and I said, "Maybe we should stop the juggling and proceed with the cooking." No one laughed. Neither did I when my spouse returned and the maitre d' failed to compensate him for the $25 meal surcharge - instead she offered a complimentary t-shirt cleaning (even though he was wearing a dress shirt and dress slacks). The evening was ruined, as you can imagine, but admittedly the food was fairly tasty (if diners can manage to avoid wearing it).
Four Seasons: Our group of four encountered mediocre food and very surly service in this main dining room (in fact we had a running debate over whether the service is worse in the Four Seasons or the Seven Seas - food is from the same kitchen, and only the serving staff distinguishes the two main dining room venues). Bland dishes like chicken breast with instant mashed potatoes and frozen vegetables abound. On the accident front, I had a shrimp cocktail spilled all over the table in front of me one evening by a sloppy server.
Il Adagio: Dinner is reasonably good at this venue, which specializes in Italian dishes. Order the simple things, like an artichoke pizza, which is crisp and delicious. Service is sloppy, however: it took more than 15 minutes for a server to appear on one busy evening, and an additional 30 minutes to get glasses of water to the table. The reason, according to our server: "We have to go and find more water."
Le Bistro: Food and service were a bit above average in this venue. The cassoulet was decently prepared, with slightly overcooked but flavorful duck. The chocolate fondue was cold, runny and inedible, and although the menu advertises Crepes Suzette "prepared tableside," they are not, obviously for safety reasons (but then why offer it in writing?). If you order selections from the "International Cheese Trolley" for dessert, you'll receive a few slices of American, Swiss and Bleu served along with a plastic-covered packet of saltine crackers. Beware the extra charges for certain menu items that are in addition to the restaurant's $20 cover charge.
East Meets West Steakhouse: Food quality is slightly above average here, with fairly attentive service (although we were turned away in our first attempt to "dine whenever" at 7:30 pm despite the fact that only two of the more than 35 tables were occupied). Jumbo shrimp cocktails with a spicy sauce are a pleasure, and the wedge salad is a classic that was enjoyable. Not so great: gummy lobster bisque and defrosted steaks that were tough and overcooked despite a request for "medium rare." On another evening, to avoid the frozen steak, I ordered rotisserie chicken, which was dry and tough. Again, beware of the extra charges beyond the $25 cover - it's $10 more if you want that frozen lobster tail with your frozen filet mignon.
Sushi Bar: If you like sushi this is actually one of the better dining venues aboard the Sun. Although the fish isn't fresh, the hand rolls are well prepared and suitably spicy. Service staff are attentive and pleasant, a rarity on this ship.
Pacific Heights: Perhaps the worst of the specialty restaurants. After a conversation with the Food & Beverage Manager, I was under the assumption that this venue had been closed - but what he really meant to tell me was that its partnership with the food magazine 'Cooking Light" has been terminated. And with good reason: the Tomato Soup is like a can of Campbell's with a spoonful of Cayenne Pepper thrown in, and the Mushroom Quesadilla, seemingly filled with instant guacamole and slimy canned mushrooms, is perhaps the vilest thing I have ever attempted to eat. After ordering drinks, our server told us that the 40-minute delay in their delivery was because "The bartender is in the bathroom." When he finally returned to our table 20 minutes later with appetizers, the waiter looked at us and scornfully said, "You switched places on me!" We had not.
Buffet: Typical mediocre cruise-line buffet fare - nothing is great, nothing is horrid. Some tips: you don't have to form a single queue - go to the station that you want (there will be howls of protest, but the reality is, this was set up for diners to pick-and-choose from salads, entrees and desserts rather than follow one singular line). During peak lunch times, head out to the rear Great Outdoors area, which has a separate buffet queue featuring salads, burgers, and desserts. As part of the buffet breakfast in the Garden Cafe, waffles are cooked to order in the Pacific Heights venue, and there is virtually no waiting - probably because it is not advertised and you have to exit out of the buffet, head towards the Sports Bar and make a right to get there. You can also find freshly baked pizza (that is quite good) at Pacific Heights during the lunchtime buffet service.
Entertainment: Live shows: The "Gaucho de la Plata" performance was awkward and uncomfortable - the male "Gaucho" performer became winded after his first bolo dance, then proceeded to make several homophobic jokes in a row. Separately, the "Jean Ann Ryan Dancers" are actually fairly talented...unfortunately the material they are tasked with performing (especially choreography during the Broadway-themed "Encore!" show) is clunky and uninspired. Their "Cirque du Pan" show, a faux "Cirque du Soliel" retelling of "Peter Pan" is the best performance of the lot - fun costumes, cute sets and some impressive gymnastics and aerial acrobatics.
Bingo: The offering of every big cash prize came with an asterix: "$5000 Jackpot! *If you cover your card in 46 numbers or less." Isn't this a very low statistical possibility? Not even one guaranteed cash Bingo jackpot during a two-week cruise?
Casino: Slot machines are like vacuum cleaners - 20 dollars on a 25-cent machine disappears in a flash. Tables were often empty, with dealers staring blankly and singing to themselves. The casino is closed while in Chilean waters (a significant portion of this itinerary), and it seemed to be primarily used as a indoor smoking lounge during inclement weather - the smoke is extremely heavy, with little or no ventilation.
Shop: Despite a sign that excitedly proclaims "We have everything you need! Toothpaste, Mouthwash, Toothbrushes!" - the first two on that list were not stocked during the entire 14-day cruise. When asked, a shop assistant shrugged and said, "We don't carry toothpaste." Separately, several days before the end of the cruise, the store manager encouraged me to take advantage of the "Buy 2, Get 1 Free" port-themed t-shirt offer, because "They will not be available for remainder of the cruise." The shirts were observed on offer long after - in fact, all the way to the shop closing on the final night.
Spa: I am an avid spa-goer, but having experienced the customer service levels throughout the rest of the ship, I opted not to partake of any spa treatments offered by the Mandara Spa. I do have one anecdote regarding the staff, however. My spouse approached the spa reception desk and inquired about getting a moustache trim in the salon (a service advertised on the salon menu). The receptionist told him "No, we don't do that." He walked away in frustration. A few moments later, I approached the desk and asked if it were possible to get my moustache trimmed. "Sure," the receptionist said, "when would you like to schedule an appointment?"
Enrichment Lectures: Presented by Assistant Cruise Director "Szolt the Bolt," these featured sixth-grade level Power Point presentations on such topics and the indigenous peoples and the geology/geography of South America. He was unprepared to give the scheduled talk on whales and wildlife, so he showed a video about Alaskan whales instead.
Excursions: Here are details on excursions offered by NCL:
The Lagoon Bluff: Based on rave reviews, our party of four reserved this Falkland Island penguin rookery excursion via the NCL website more than six months in advance. Once aboard, we discovered that the Excursion Desk staff had switched two of us to a tour time that departed more than 30 minutes later. When I politely asked for the new time to be switched back so we could travel together, the manager of the Excursion Desk told me, "You can either take the tour separately, or give me the tickets back...we have plenty of people who want to take this tour." I told him that this was unacceptable and to make it right. He eventually did, but every time I saw him in the hallway, he averted his eyes and would not speak to me.
Torres del Paine: A very long day that begins in Punta Arenas and includes a bus ride to the airport, a flight in a rickety Cessna plane (the windshield de-icers did not work and the pilot flew blind for more than 15 minutes of the 40-minute trip), a three-hour bus ride around the national park, a great Chilean lunch overlooking a stunning vista at a lake, and a repeat flight on said rickety Cessna. Embarrassingly expensive at just over $1000 per person - NCL should be ashamed at the premium charged for this tour, which ought to cost $500 tops. All that being said, the beauty of Torres del Paine cannot be overstated. Torres is a must-see destination that would be one of the high points of any visit to Chile.
Lake Esmeralda and Petrohue Falls: A scenic excursion as advertised, but expect to share your catamaran ride on Lake Esmeralda with 400 other guests, and just try to get a solitary moment (let alone walk on the trail) at the falls as 7 to 8 buses release their passengers simultaneously. Lunch, served at an estancia, was very good, and featured as an entree some of the best salmon I have ever tasted.
In Buenos Aires, Peninsula Valdes, Ushuaia and Valparaiso / Santiago we used private tour guides that were friendly, informative and significantly cheaper than NCL excursions. If you are interested in contact information, please send me a private message and I will be happy to share details.
Bottom Line: Our 14-day cruise around South America on the Norwegian Sun was a memorable one - the vibrancy of Buenos Aires and Santiago are thrilling, and the natural beauty of Patagonia is incomparable. Despite obtaining a significantly discounted rate by booking via the NCL website more than a year in advance, the nickel-and-diming that we experienced on the Norwegian Sun made this the most expensive cruise we have ever taken (yes, surpassing even a trip on the luxury line Crystal Cruises). And unfortunately, our memories of the ship are plagued by visions of incompetency and ineptitude that would be laughable if they hadn't cost us a considerable amount of money to experience.
"Do you have any money left? No? Ha ha!" - Cruise Director Pedro Cera, emceeing the final show of our cruise in the Stardust Theater.