Background: I am an avid cruiser and this was my 10th cruise. I have cruised out of almost every southern port in the US (Miami, Charleston, Port canaveral, Jacksonville, Tampa, New Orleans, and Ft. Lauderdale). We choose cruises for proximity (we always drive to port), price, and itinerary (pretty much in that order). This cruise was unusual since it was just me and my 19 yo dd and we booked it at the last minute, just for fun! We have usually cruised during Thanksgiving or Spring Break, so this was a different experience for us.
Pre-cruise: We drove from central Ohio to Miami Sunday afternoon to Monday morning, straight through! It was about a 19-20-hour drive with many stops. I should say, I DROVE 14 hours and DD drove around 5 hours total and slept most of the rest. The drive was uneventful, but (and I say this every time-we always drive) I wouldn't recommend it! Makes for a long first day. However, if it means cruise or no cruise, then I say drive if you have to! Cruising is the very best vacation ever. Trust me.
Miami is hotter than heck! In all my travels, I had never been to FL in the summer, and all I can say is WOW! It was SO freaking hot/humid! Picture the most hot/humid afternoon in July in the Midwest and then picture it like that in Miami at 10:00 in the morning! I always thought I'd want to move down there later in life, but now I'm not so sure. I digress though...cruise review coming up!
Arrival and embarkation: We arrived at the Port of Miami around 11:00 a.m. Signage was useful for finding where to go. We pulled up to the porter stand where I was told to go across the bus/taxi lanes to a desk where they would tell me our cabin number and give me new luggage tags. When I got to the desk, the woman had to call inside to get the cabin assignment as it was still listed as cabin "99999" on the manifest she had. That took a couple of minutes, and then we were on our way to park in the garage right across from the terminal entrance. The garage is $20/day and you pay when you leave by credit card or cash using a kiosk they have there.
When we entered the terminal (and the blessed air conditioning), there was no waiting whatsoever for anything! That was a first for me, and would become a theme throughout this cruise. Those of you who have cruised know that waiting in lines is to be expected. Not this time for us!
After the screening, we went right up to the past-guest check-in and were given room keys and assigned to boarding number L1. Since I would be putting cash down for our account (instead of a credit card), I would have to do that at the reception desk upon boarding. That is the usual procedure.
There were maybe 100 or so passengers already waiting in the boarding area when we got there so we found a couple seats, expecting at least a 30-minute to one-hour wait. Just as I was doing that, they called our group to board first! I was pleasantly surprised by that! Must have been in the first 50 or so past-guests to arrive, I guessed. We boarded right around noon or maybe a few minutes before.
Next, we headed over to the reception area to open our account, but stopped on the way to "check" our carry-ons so we wouldn't have to lug them around until 2:00 when the cabins would be ready. That is a great free service that Carnival does not offer. That took only about 5 minutes. Then, the reception desk had no line and I was able to put my deposit down quickly. This no line thing was becoming a pattern already! One thing I did not like is that I couldn't put a spending limit on my DD's card. On Carnival and Costa, they do allow you to do that so you can keep check of the kids' spending on board. No big deal, since it was just me and her and she is pretty responsible.
While I was at the reception desk, my hubby calls and gives us great news! He looked up our cabin and said, "You got a balcony room on deck 10!" I didn't know whether to believe him or not (he likes to play jokes on me for fun)! He was totally serious though! Yay for the "Upgrade Fairy"! We were upgraded to a category BB balcony room on deck 10 from a possible category N inside/no-window cabin on deck 3!
What a pleasant surprise! I have never had a balcony room. We always book lower midship-sometimes inside, sometimes outside, but never have wanted to drop the bucks for a balcony since there are usually 4-5 of us traveling; it can get expensive. So, next I grab a celebratory drink (frozen fru-fru-type) special (forgetting that you have to pay tax while still in port)! That was the most expensive drink I had all cruise.
We went to the main dining room for lunch as the thought of going back out into that Miami heat was not on my top-ten list of things to do. They had a limited menu, but service was good and the food was of good quality. After lunch, we did venture up to the pool deck (deck 11) to check it out and people watch for a while. This ship has a very nice pool deck! The rooms were ready right at 2:00 as promised. We headed to our cabin which was just one floor down from where we were sitting outside and just a few steps from the elevators/stairs! Did I mention that I love the Upgrade Fairy?
Cabin: The cabin was on deck 10, forward, port (left) side of the ship. The room was clean and I found the dEcor quite refreshing and bright (I like bright, cheery colors). The location was excellent as far as being close to the pool deck/buffet, and close to the atrium elevators which can get you quickly to the reception desk (deck 5), dining rooms (deck 6), and casino (deck 7), as well as the indoor bars/venues throughout those middle decks. The only down side was we were under the exercise room, directly under the free-weight area, I believe. It was quite noisy at times, but not anything that would ruin my cruise. If I had small children napping during the day, I probably would have been very annoyed. There are balcony cabins on deck 9 which would be a better choice for quiet I suspect, as they are between floors of other cabins.
Now, remember I am usually a Carnival cruiser...and they have the largest standard cabins in the industry (185 sqft). So, this cabin looked small to me, in comparison to even a "steerage" cabin on Carnival. I can't imagine how small the standard inside cabin must feel on this ship if I found the balcony cabin small (I think their inside cabins are like119 sqft and ours was probably 150 not including the balcony). I'm by no means complaining! Just making an observation.
Inside the cabin, there was a small sofa that could open into a 3rd bed and our beds were pushed together to make a Queen. We decided to leave the beds together since it would have decreased the usable floor space if they were apart. The closet was average size with plenty of hangers for the two of us on a 4-day cruise. Drawer space was lacking, however. Three teeny drawers and one shelf inside the closet, under the safe. Again, not complaining, but providing information! Pack accordingly!
Other differences I noticed (between this cabin and the Carnival cabins): The bathroom was smaller (if that seems possible!) than any I've ever had. I mean, really, really small! I'm an average-size Midwestern girl and I found the shower to be uncomfortably small. Get used to the shower curtain touching you. Good thing it looked like a brand new curtain (or had been washed) as the folds were still in it. I saw some large passengers on board and I don't know how they did it! Amenities were a bottle of men's aftershave lotion, a bottle of body lotion and there were soap, shampoo, and body gel dispensers.
A big plus was the small refrigerator! I guess all cabins on this ship have them (not so on my past Carnival cruises). I took all the minibar crap out and put our water bottles in there. Then, when my smuggled 3 Liter box of wine arrived safely in my checked luggage, I put that in there too (very snug fit)! The TV was miniscule! Not that we watched it a lot, but I have never seen such a small color-TV before. They may want to invest in some wall-mounted flat-screens or something.
The bed was hard as a rock! Had I thought to do so, I should have asked for one of those egg-carton foam mattresses to put on top. The Carnival comfort bed definitely wins in that department!
Balcony! Having this was a nice touch! The balcony was about 3.5 x 9 feet (guessing here). There were 2 chairs and a small table on it. It was nice to open the door and hear the ocean at night and go outside whenever you wanted. Part of the reason I've never booked a balcony cabin was I was afraid I would never want to go back to a regular inside/outside cabin. Am I hooked? No. I could have lived without it and wouldn't book a balcony at the regular charge. Just not worth it for me. To each his own!
Muster Drill: Muster drill (life-boat drill, safety drill, or whatever) was HOT (and not in a good way)! Miami is HOT! Did I mention how freaking hot it is in Miami in the summer? Anyway, when we arrived, they did not have us on their drill manifest (see above re last minute booking). We probably could have skipped it and they would never have known. I would NEVER do that though! It was so hot, that once people with young children showed up, they checked them off the list and told them to go back inside. Same thing for older pax or "anyone feeling not well" or something like that. I told DD to pay attention to the instructions because those were the people who would need our help in the event the crap hit the fan later. NCL has done away with bringing the orange life vests from your cabin to the drill and making you put it on (as has Carnival). That is probably a smart move as they were always so dirty and could spread germs. The drill went fast and no one had a heat stroke during it that I know of!
Passengers: The passengers were mostly 30-somethings. The only children on board were very small ones—not old enough to be in school yet. My daughter is 19 and starts college this week, where I suspect most have already started, so there were few passengers her age. Lots of couples and singles and groups of friends of ages late 20's to elderly were aboard this sailing. There were a lot of folks from Florida, but also a lot of Easterners/ Midwesterners too. Everyone was well-behaved and pleasant! This was not a "party boat" like others have mentioned, although I suspect the weekend 3-day cruises are more rowdy.
There were quite a few Canadians and several Europeans on board (pasty white Canadians with funny accents, Europeans pretending they don't understand English, men wearing Speedos, and adults changing clothes on the pool deck in full public view). There was also a fair contingent of GLBT folks on board. I probably wouldn't have noticed, except my DD (way more "hip" than I), asked me on day 2 if this was a "GLBT cruise or something?!" After that, I did notice some openly GLBT folks. I only mention this in my review so that those who are GLBT may look into this cruise as a friendly option; and so those who would freak out about having openly GLBT folks on their cruise may look elsewhere. It matters not to me.
I had mentioned there was no waiting in lines for anything. I'm not sure if this was because of the design of the ship, crew/pax ratio, lack of large numbers of families on board, or if the ship was not sailing full? As I said, we always travel on holidays/spring break, and usually on Carnival. If NCL has a higher crew/pax ratio and better ship design, then bravo on the not having to wait! I do think they may not have been sailing full though (especially given the huge upgrade we got...who gives away balconies for inside GTY?). I will have to test out this theory on another cruise during peak time soon.
Dining: Compared to Carnival, NCL wins this category hands down! Freestyle (dining without schedule in whichever dining room you want to) takes some getting used to, but I had done it before on a previous NCL cruise in 2005. Back then, I think they had both traditional and freestyle. For those not familiar with traditional cruising, you are assigned a table in one dining room and eat dinner at a set time every night. Sometimes with a large table of strangers who you may or may not get along with, sometimes as a family/couple...you just never know until you get there. NCL's "Freestyle" is more like a normal land-based restaurant where you show up whenever and they give you a table for however many are in your party.
Eating Dinner on "Formal or not Formal" night on NCL
Anyway, I never did get used to having to have my card swiped for meals. Carnival has added the anytime dining option, but we elected scheduled dining by choice on our last cruise with them. I find it eliminates the need to decide amongst the family what time to eat. Anyway, it was nice to dine wherever and whenever we wanted. I did miss having a table with other passengers though. DD and I would have enjoyed meeting other passengers.
The food was very good! I don't know what the NCL complainers are talking about! If Carnival is 3-star, then NCL is 3.5-stars. So far, in my experience, Costa wins for food (4 stars). Everything I ordered was delicious! Stand outs were the scallop appetizer, Caesar salad (which I ordered every night), the (always available) steak, the lobster tail on lobster night, the mocha chocolate mousse dessert the last night, and DD enjoyed the prime rib. The only contest Carnival wins here is the molten chocolate cake. That dessert is to-die-for on Carnival, but just average on NCL. That was my one and only culinary disappointment the whole cruise!
We ate breakfast in the dining room twice, which was fine. The buffet was always a good choice for breakfast or lunch. There is a sports bar that is open all night and we ate once there (I had fish and chips—excellent, DD had burger and fries). One tip for the buffet is to go to the stations out back where the lines are shorter (although, as I said, there really were no lines anywhere). We ordered room service for late night once, which was delicious. We also ordered it for debarkation-day breakfast. We did not try any of the specialty-pay restaurants. The BBQ lunch on the private island was good too. We were well fed! If you can't find something you like, you are seriously picky.
The ship had hand sanitizers everywhere and they expect you to use them! They also spray your hands as you're coming aboard at embarkation and at each port. The dispensers are located at the entrance to every eating venue and the casino.
Itinerary/ports: I have been on seven-, five-, four-, and three-day cruises. Four days (like this one) is one day too short for me. I like 5-day itineraries (6 would be even better, but there aren't many of those). Seven days is one-day too long for me. Anyway, that's my perspective. This cruise had no sea days. I did not like that as I love sea days. Not a deal-breaker, but wouldn't have been my choice of itinerary if I had taken the time to plan it. Since it was a last-minute thing, we were stuck with a port each day ;-)
Freeport: I had been there once and knew it was nothing to write home about, so we stayed on board and sat on the balcony, slept, ate, read, and went to the art auction. Freeport is a place to either book an excursion through the cruise line (which I almost never do-rip off!) or take a taxi to "Our Lucaya Beach" and shopping for $5 each way. Been there, done that. So, in essence, that was our sea day. However, there is not much going on activity wise while the ship is in port, unlike there would be on a scheduled sea day. There weren't any scheduled fun activities, but plenty of time for rest and relaxation without the normal hustle and bustle of all the people who had gotten off the ship.
Nassau: Been there, done that, and wrote the book! When we arrived, it was pouring down rain! I was sleeping and woke up to this strange sound outside the balcony door. I couldn't figure out what that loud static-type noise was! I got up and opened the curtains to see that it was just the sound of a torrential downpour hitting the deck outside. That was something I'd never experienced in a ship cabin before since we've never had a balcony room in the past.
I thought, here we go again! Seems like 50% of the time I've been to Nassau, the weather has been bad. It cleared up by like 10:00 though, so DD and I went for a walk around town. We found a free museum of Bahamas history and went through that. We looked around some of the shops, but skipped the straw market this time. I think this was my 5th or 6th time on a ship stopping there. I noticed this time it seems to be in somewhat of a decline from what I remembered. I'm sure the poor economy is not helping their tourism trade.
It was pretty hot outside, so we headed back to the ship fairly early. I stood on my balcony to watch for "pier-runners" which was kind of a letdown this trip. There really weren't any. For those of you not familiar with cruising, pier-runners are the people who almost get left behind because they are too stupid to be on time for the ship's departure. Sometimes they do actually miss the ship. Sometimes the ship comes back for them, sometimes not. Anyway, this has become a favorite pastime for my hubby and me when leaving any port having a "Carlos N Charlies" or "Senior Frogs" bar for stupid people to get drunk at and miss their ship that has been blowing the very loud horn for the past 45 minutes and calling their names on board to please check in with the registration desk. I normally don't revel in others' misery, unless they are stupid.
Great Stirrup Cay: Beautiful place! DH and I had stopped there on NCL Majesty in 2003. It is a beach day with no worries on the cruise line's private island! We headed out to the far right area (when viewing from the ship) where it was peaceful and not crowded, but a bit far from the "facilities" for my liking. They had a BBQ picnic lunch with burgers, dogs, chicken, cold salads, baked beans, slaw, etc. The only freely available cold beverage was ice water. They will sell you pop and alcohol at inflated prices. No free iced tea available there (as it was on board). I had brought water bottles and Crystal Light drink packets, which worked out nicely.
The tender (boat that takes you from ship to shore) ride was scary! It was quite choppy that day. It was a little better on the way back. Good thing they have large, relatively stable tender boats. Take your Bonine if you are faint of stomach. We had no wait to tender each way. We arrived on the island around 9:30 and there were plenty of loungers to choose from. By about 11:30, it would have been hard to find seats together. If you want shade, definitely get there early.
Activities: I spent time each night in the casino. It is an OK casino. I didn't win anything big, but did have some small wins to keep me going once I found the right machines to play. I did see a few larger jackpots won, so it does happen! Just not to me.
We attended the champagne art auction. What a rip off! I can't believe anyone actually falls for this ruse. We sat through it though, in case our tickets were drawn for one of the raffles. We each had one glass of champagne and that was really all you could get because they only served it for a short time and you had to go get it from the bar. The auction was really annoying. First and last time for me doing that!
We went to see the comedian, Rich Purpura one night (not the late-night adults-only show, one of the earlier "family friendly" ones). He was a sort of magician/comedian. He was pretty funny! I especially liked the jokes about cruising. For example, he was a large man, and said something about in the shower he just soaps up the walls and turns himself around! Funny because of the teeny round shower stalls in the cabins! He is worth going to see.
The other show we attended was the last night's fountains variety show. This included a couple numbers by the dancers, a short show by the comedian, and a weird thing called "Fountains" done by the cruise director and his staff. This defies explanation, so I won't even try! It was a fun show.
Poles in the show theater were abundant. It seemed like there were lots more of these view-blockers than I remember on past cruises. Good thing about them is if you arrive late, you can always find a seat behind one of them! The theater was really nice other than that. The dEcor was subdued and pleasant, and the acoustics were fine. It was of a size/configuration that every seat (not behind a pole) was a good seat. On the Carnival ships I have been on, the main show lounge is always in the front. This one was in the back of the ship.
We did not attend the Quest game, or any other of the game shows. DD went to the jewelry seminar and got her free emerald chip. We also did not attend the white hot party. People seemed to be enjoying the Atrium bar whenever I walked by there. We may have missed the rowdy crowds by selecting activities that did not include dancing/partying. Never even saw Karaoke. Couldn't tell you where/when they held it. Like I said, we slept, ate, and lounged around a lot!
Debarkation: We woke early Friday morning to pack up and get out as early as possible. We were self-carrying our luggage off so we wouldn't have to wait to be called. We needed to get on the road ASAP to get home in time for DD to make it to National Guard drill bright and early the next morning! This was the first time I've done self-assist (carry your own luggage off). Usually, I try to stay on the ship as long as possible! Anyway, again, there were no lines at all to debark. They cleared us to leave right at 7:30. We left around 7:45 and we were in the car by 8:00. Easy peasy!!!
Other random thoughts: Service was excellent throughout! I can't say enough positive things about the crew! The cruise director and his staff were fun, friendly, and not at all annoying, like cruise directors can be sometimes. The dining room staff was excellent! Our room stewards were friendly and efficient, although we only ran into them a couple times. We got 3 towel animals, and our room was kept clean and turned down/made up at appropriate times.
DD said she thought Carnival's ships were slightly cleaner. She notices little things that I don't (like wall scuffs, for example). I thought the ship was as clean as any other I've been on. Drink waiters were plentiful enough, but not intrusive. Buffet tables were cleared quickly and there was always someone cleaning the food areas to keep them clean.
The pool deck was large with plenty of places to sit and no chair hogging that I could see (but there was no at-sea day, so that may have made a difference). They had a nice basketball court, but no mini-golf as found on all Carnival ships. The casino was the only really smoky place, and they had no non-smoking area of the casino, which Carnival does (and practically no one ever uses). If you are a smoking Nazi, stay away from the casino.
While I think all cruise staff members are overworked, regardless of which cruiseline, it seemed less apparent on NCL than it has on my recent Carnival sailings. The staff here were "happy", or at least gave that appearance. I have seen some very unhappy crew members on my last 2-3 Carnival cruises. It was refreshing to see crew members who seemed to enjoy being there.
That's about all I can think of! I will definitely sail NCL again, but will also use Carnival or Costa if the right price/dates/itineraries arise. Feel free to contact me at mommy 3k3 at yahoo if you have any questions. I would be happy to answer. I'm definitely leaning more toward NCL now, especially since the kids are growing up and they were our main purpose for sticking with Carnival for so many cruises. Carnival does have an excellent kids program and seems a bit more young-family oriented than NCL.
If you are thinking about this 4-night cruise, go for it! We had a great time.