Background - DH and I are a mid-50's couple from the Los Angeles area. We have cruised 4 times on NCL in a mini-suite (Star 2007) and owner's suites (Pearl 2007 and Majesty 2009) and once on Crystal Cruise Line in a balcony cabin. DH has emphysema so we travel with a portable oxygen concentrator (POC) and we spend a lot of time in the cabin. Pre-cruise, Hotel, etc. - Pre-cruise we contacted the NCL Access Desk to let them know that DH has emphysema and was bringing his own POC. We flew into Ft. Lauderdale from Ontario, CA on Continental. We booked a towncar with Larry's Limo for the ride from FLL to the Doubletree Grand Hotel in Miami. Frank was prompt, friendly and helpful. It was $89 for the ride which included his gratuity and the parking for him to meet us inside. We booked at the Doubletree Grand for their "cruise special" which included a king bed condo with a bay view, breakfast each morning and a shuttle to the port. It was nice, but the room lacked some of the comforts of a regular hotel room: Kleenex, luggage stands, paper and pen by the phone, and the king seemed more like a queen. The hot breakfast was nice: eggs, potatoes, a choice of ham, bacon or sausage, toast and coffee. The shuttle was good and on time. We were able to switch easily to an earlier shuttle when we ran early getting ready to leave.
Embarkation - The shuttle dropped us at the luggage bins. We asked for a wheelchair, but we had to walk across the parking lot to get to the line to go inside. The NCL employee we asked quickly went to find one, came back, said they were all taken, but if we could get inside, there was a place to wait for one just before security. We waited with about 4-5 other people waiting for wheelchairs. It was about a 10-15 minute wait, and then they wheeled us to the front of the security line. We "declared" our wine, so they took us to the corkage table to pay $15/bottle. As we had booked the owner's suite, we were shown into the VIP lounge to be checked in, meet Ryan Rabe, the concierge, and then were escorted to our suite to drop carry-on luggage, then went to lunch at Cagney's.
Cabin - The AA Owner's Suite is amazing! There is no way to explain how spacious it is. It has a large living room with sofa, arm chair, chaise lounge and TV/DVD player with Bose speakers and a half bath by the cabin door. Set apart is a dining table for four. In the corner is a bar with Lavazzo espresso/coffee machine. Off the living room is a broad balcony looking off the starboard side. Through the living room is the bedroom with a chair, a desk and chair and a king size bed with a TV/DVD player at the foot of the bed. Beyond the bed is the door to the front balcony that overlooks the front of the ship. From the bedroom is a door to the bathroom and dressing room. The bath has double sinks, a toilet cubicle, stall shower and tub. There is a large porthole looking out the starboard side of the ship and a window to the living room balcony. The dressing room is spacious with lots of drawers, shelves and 2 safes. The only complaint we had that didn't get resolved was the slight sewage/sludge smell that came and went in the toilet room. We told Juremar, the butler, who told the steward, who did something to clear the drain, but it continued to come and go throughout the 14 days. Included in the fare are a bar setup (three bottles of your choice of liquor or wine), champagne at embarkation (can be exchanged for wine), fresh flowers, replenishable bottled water, soft drinks and mixers. Butler Juremar was very helpful in every way and very professional. He works in conjunction with the room steward to be sure everything in the room was the way we wanted it. He also handles the room service and provided menus from the MDR each day so we could decide what restaurant we wanted to eat at that night. He kept us supplied with cups, glasses, and coffee supplies. He brought us canapEs each evening. He replaced our fresh flowers mid-cruise. Juremar was outstanding! Concierge Ryan Rabe was also very helpful and very professional. Ryan handled got the tickets for us to the Murder Mystery Dinner and the Behind the Scenes tour. He automatically provided us with priority tender tickets for ports where we tendered. He often was in the Stardust Theater 15 minutes before the show with reserved balcony seats for Courtyard and Owner's Suites guests. He also assisted us in coordinating with security when we had a CC Poker Cabin Crawl that ended up in a CC member's Garden Villa. I booked the specialty restaurants myself, but if there had been any problem at all, he said to call him to see if he could work it out. Ryan was excellent!
Dining - Breakfast and Lunch With the suite comes the perk of Cagney's for breakfast and lunch. The breakfast menu is wonderful: waffles, French toast, eggs benedict (traditional or with crab cakes), eggs and bacon and more. They also provide a breakfast buffet with cereals, juice, fruit, breads and pastries, salmon and cold cuts, etc. For lunch we most often chose the sliders with Cagney's fries and the fatoush with grilled pita (a salad with vinaigrette and a choice of grilled salmon, chicken or ?? with a grilled pita). I loved them both. DH also had the French dip sandwich and said it was okay, but didn't order it again.
Dining - Dinner - We tend to go to dinner anytime between 8:30 and 9:30 in the evening. We ate in Indigo MDR most nights, and we never had to wait more than the 30 seconds it took the maitre d' to locate a table for us. We found the food and service to be very good to excellent; better than expected. On previous cruises, we found the food and service in the MDR to be inconsistent, usually very good to okay, with the rare exception of barely acceptable. We liked the menu selections; the left side of the menu changed each night; the right side of the menu remained the same each night. The bottom line is that we ate at the specialty restaurants less often than we expected because we enjoyed the Indigo so much. Specialty Restaurants - Well worth the surcharge. Lotus Garden, Asian Fusion - We started with the Crab Wontons and the BBQ ribs. Wontons were good, but the ribs were outstanding. The sweet and sour pork and scallops were good. The dishes marked hot were hotter than I like. If we went back we'd order the BBQ ribs and the pork fried rice for our entreE. Le Bistro -They have changed the mushroom soup, for the worse according to DH. He remembers them serving a more traditional mushroom soup in a bread bowl. This time he was presented with a soup bowl with large chunks of sautEed mushrooms, and then they poured the cream of mushroom soup into the bowl. The tenderloin of beef was excellent and the Napoleon chocolate cake was delicious. Service was very good. Cagney's - Huge jumbo shrimp for the shrimp cocktail, filet mignon cuts like butter. DH loved the lobster bisque. Outstanding as always. Teppanyaki - We love teppanyaki. The meal presented was delicious with a few things that would have suited us better, but it's more an issue of personal preference than anything wrong. Mambo's - We're more mex than tex. We loved the taquitos, tortilla soup, and quesadilla for starters. By the time we got to my tostada salad and DH's lobster tacos we were just about full, though they were very good also. DH liked the tacos very much and at his request, additional guacamole and pico de gallo was quickly and generously supplied. The tostada was not a traditional tostada; it was a bit more like a southwest chef's salad. The complimentary margarita was about 1/3 the size of a regular margarita, but still tasty. Blue Lagoon - Loved their burgers, fries, tomato soup and the brownie sundae. Room Service - The suite room service menu is great! We liked the sandwiches for lunch: BLT, turkey hoagie, tuna melt, burger or hotdog. Also, an omelet is always available. We had pizza for dinner one night that was tasty.
Entertainment - We aren't big entertainment people. Kevin Byrd, very funny, good at audience participation without making the person look dumb. Creative and funny. Sharkbait had high energy, amazing skills and good fun. The 'Oh What a Night!' tribute show was very good. The singers were amazing at covering the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli with their vocal range; a good, fun, hum along show. The only Jean Ann Ryan show I saw was Garden of the Geisha. I had a hard time getting past the liberties taken with the Japanese theme, but the adagio (sp?) dancers were unusual and fun to see.
Panama Canal - This is indeed the crown jewel of the whole cruise. I highly recommend reading Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal by David McCullough ahead of time. It made me appreciate the experience more than I could have imagined. We sailed into the harbor of Colon, Panama about 7 am and were at the first lock about 8 am. The Island Princess was just ahead of us, and it was fascinating watching her rise and move forward. Throughout the day we sailed slowly through Gatun Lake. As we went through the Culebra Cut there was a fierce thunderstorm that demonstrated the difficulties the builders of the Canal faced. The Pedro Miguel lock, Miraflores Lake and the Miraflores locks all went by quickly. We sailed out of the harbor at Panama City about 3:30 or 4 pm. I felt the guide hired by the ship to explain what was happening could have given us more frequent updates or more information. Bottom line - The transit was everything we thought it would be and more. Honestly, having the Owner's Suite with front and side balconies made the transit even more enjoyable.
Ports - Since DH is not as interested in getting off the ship, I took the excursions I wanted to take on my own, except for the one some on our Roll Call took together.
Cartagena, Colombia - I booked the "Exploring Magnificent Cartagena" tour through NCL before the cruise. We went to La Popa monastery, the highest point in Cartagena. We stopped briefly for a photo op at the fort, took a walking tour of the walled city, had a soft drink or beer at an outdoor garden at the Hilton Hotel, and had two shopping opportunities. Our tour guide, Julio, spoke good English. He had lots of good information about the places we went. The most touching part of the tour was how he explained that Colombia is safer than ever because the government has worked hard to deal with the drug cartels. I sensed how much they want tourists to know it is very different than during the height of the troubles. Drawbacks - No matter where we went there were people in your face hawking items. I found the best approach was to keep walking, don't look at the merchandise or make eye contact and say, "No, gracias." The tour takes you to two areas to buy handicrafts and emeralds that are very crowded with too many tourists.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica - I took the "Aerial Tram and Rainforest Adventure". The guide made the tour! We had a young man (looked to this mid-50 lady like he was in high school) named Joseph who spoke good English and had a great enthusiasm for his country and ecology. The aerial tram was good, but due to the fact the tour is taken late morning, most of the wildlife is hiding from the heat or asleep. We saw some birds, iguanas, a sloth and a monkey. The walk after the tram was more interesting than I expected because of the guide. His information about the plants, animals and snakes kept my interest. Drawbacks - Not as exciting as ziplining.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala - A group of 13 from our Roll Call booked with Go With Gus for the La Antigua/Humanitarian tour on Sunday, April 18. There were incidents that created some problems with many in the group. The tour combines a tour of La Antigua and, the humanitarian portion of the tour involves a visit to a school to meet students, teachers and distribute the supplies we brought. Gus reduced the regular price of the tour in exchange for the supplies. Gus encouraged us to get off the ship as soon as possible, so we met him at about 8 am, though we didn't leave until 8:30 as they were trying to sign up people on the dock for tours. On the way to Antigua we stopped by the side of the road to sample about 5-6 different fruits of Guatemala. It was a fun experience! Just before arriving in La Antigua we were taken to a macadamia nut "farm". The owner is an American expatriate (a real character). He showed us how the nuts are processed and touted the macadamia tree for its ecological and health benefits. We continued on to a coffee plantation that was closed, either because it was Sunday or because the owner unexpectedly was out of the area; I don't know. Gus talked them into letting us in, and he gave a talk about growing and harvesting the coffee beans and showed us how they use the skins to make organic fertilizer. We hopped back in the vans to go to the Filadelfia Coffee plantation and we all got a cup of coffee (or tea if you don't like coffee). It was about the best cup of coffee I've ever had. From there we went to La Antigua and got out to see one of the 365 churches (one for every day of the year - most are in ruins from a major earthquake many years ago). From there we went to the best meal I had the entire cruise! Gus and Ira, his wife, took us to Cafe Panchoy Restaurant. They shared with us typical Guatemalan food. We had handmade tortillas with guacamole, black refried beans and pico de gallo; a chicken dish with potatoes in a gravy-like sauce, again to go on the tortillas; what they called tacos, but most Americans would recognize as taquitos filled with potato and cheese; carne asada to go on the tortillas (my mouth is watering as I write this!). I can't remember if there was more than this. There was more food than we could eat and it was all so delicious! This was probably the high point of the tour for me. Realizing it was getting late, and knowing we all were very interested in seeing the school and the children one member of our group suggested we skip the emerald shopping and we all agreed. Gus quickly agreed and we drove out of La Antigua. By the time we got down the mountain, we all realized we were getting very short on time. On the one hand we didn't want to cut the final boarding time too close. On the other hand, the humanitarian portion was very important to us. And on the third hand (?) Gus assured us it was possible to get back to the ship and if we went past final boarding, the ship wouldn't leave without us. It was a very difficult situation. We ended up going to the school (Gus had arranged for the children and teachers to meet us there even though it was a Sunday), practically throwing the supplies at the kids and teachers, jumping back on the vans and getting to the ship with 9 minutes to spare. Pluses - This was a very personal tour by Gus and his wife. They were gracious hosts and wanted us to enjoy ourselves. Stopping at the side of the road market to taste fruits was unusual in a good way. The meal was outstanding! So-so - When I realized macadamia nuts aren't indigenous to Guatemala I wondered why we stopped there. Drawbacks - Wish we'd had more time for the school. It was very stressful running so close to the final boarding time. Bottom line - I'd do it again.
Behind the Scenes Tour - The tour is pricey at $55, but it is a 2 hour tour. We spent a lot of time in the kitchens, food storage and food prep areas. We saw the laundry room. The environmental officer talked about how they process the sewage and trash on the ship. We walked down "I-95" the corridor on deck 4 that goes from bow to stern. We saw the costume room for the Jean Ann Ryan dancers and finished with the bridge viewing room where an officer talked to us about the ship. In each area they had set up demonstrations and had officers to speak to us and crew members working so we could get an idea of what happened there. They let us ask as many questions as we wanted and our group really took advantage of it. At $30 it would have been a perfect; at $55, I still wasn't sorry I took it.
Murder Mystery Dinner - The dinner was in Le Bistro and cost $20. Be prepared to read aloud and improvise. Pluses - It was fun and entertaining, the meal was very good, and it was fun to meet some other people. Drawbacks - The introduction was difficult to understand if you had never done it before. They booked an uneven number of people for our session so we had more people at our table than the number of characters. Bottom line -I enjoyed it!