This was our second cruise this year on Sun and eighth cruise overall for DDP and me. Previously we have cruised on Celebrity to Alaska, NCL Sun to the Western Caribbean and South American, Atlantis (Gay Charter aboard X) to the Eastern Caribbean, Eastern Med on NCL Jade, Costa Eastern Caribbean, and Thanksgiving 2008 to the Mexican Riviera on NCL Star.
All in all, we had a pretty good experience. We were introducing some friends to cruising and they enjoyed it. Our only real complaints all had to do with delays in embarkation and debarkations. This was Sun’s first departure from Cape Canaveral and there were numerous problems both for our departure on October 16th and our return on October 23rd….and chaos reigned during our immigration clearance in Key West.
We decided this was the Tardy for the Party Cruise!
We departed RDU aboard Southwest on Friday around 5pm and after an uneventful flight arrived in Orlando. I checked us in exactly 24 hours ahead and we had boarding passes B24 & 25 so not exactly great but we both ended up with aisle seats so no real complaints. For the return, I did the earlybird check in for $10 each and we got A20 & 21 so if you want to be sure you get a good seat, it is probably worth the money. We arrived in Orlando about 10 minutes early and so did one of our friends flying in from Chicago via Airtran. We had rented a car from Avis to get the three of us to Port Canaveral using a coupon from RentalMamma.com, the cost was $44 including all taxes and fees. While DDP collected the luggage, I headed to the Avis counter. On the way there I noticed that my confirmation printout had the “preferred” logo on it and since there was a loooong line in the terminal, I headed on out to the garage to the preferred counter. When I got to the agent she pointed out that I wasn’t a preferred customer, the logo on my confirmation was simply letting me know that this location had a preferred desk. I nicely asked if she couldn’t go ahead and check me in; she said no that I had to go back inside….so back I went. Of course by now the line was even longer – turns out they had a server issue and had to prepare each person’s contract by hand! It wouldn’t have bothered me so much but there were four agents working their butts off in the terminal while two of the three at the preferred counter in the garage were doing nothing when I was there the first time nor again 45 minutes later when we went back to the garage to get our car…..oh, well, no biggie/ Not gonna let it ruin our vacation, we were off to Port Canaveral. The drive was quick and easy – would have been quicker and easier if I had of remembered to bring quarters for the toll, but 45 minutes later we were at the Country Inn and Suites and checked in. I had booked about a month pre-cruise on Priceline - $70 plus tax and fee – total of $85. Room was fine, front desk staff pleasant. We were given a parking pass that we didn’t need so we could have parked there for the whole cruise even though according to what I read on the great “I worked at Port Canaveral” post, you aren’t supposed to be able to when you book through Priceline. Our only complaint with the hotel was the breakfast. It was a madhouse, our first of several that day. Too many people in too small an area and with the exception of the cereal, none of the food including the coffee was very tasty. Wasn’t a big deal at the time as we thought we would be having lunch in Sun’s MDR by noon or shortly after….but as noted in the headline to this review…..our first lunch like so much else be tardy.
For reasons that I still can’t figure out rather than being at the terminal at 11:30 am as planned, WE were a little tardy getting started and didn’t get to the Avis office until about 11:30. We waited maybe 10 minutes for their complementary shuttle, and were off to the ship. After dropping other passengers off at Carnival’s Dream and Disney’s Magic, there were just the four of us heading around the parking lot to Sun. We quickly hit what looked like a 5 o’clock traffic jam - taxis, cars and shuttles all backed up. The Avis driver mentioned that Sun hadn’t started letting passengers off the ship until sometime after 9 am even though it had been in port when she came into work at 6:30. We finally made it to the baggage drop zone, dropped them and then walked to get in the long line waiting to enter the building. We got in line at about noon. We had four other friends who were also joining us on the trip and they had all stayed at the Residence Inn and had arrived at the terminal around 11:15. They texted us that they were in the cattle corral waiting to check in. The line we were in moved relatively quickly and we were through security by 12:30 when we joined the cattle corral. We finally made it to the front of the line so we thought we were home free. It quickly became apparent that at least some of the tardiness was due to the inexperienced agents checking everyone in. Although there were several (six or seven?) manager types moving from one check in station to another, it seemed that almost all the agents were waiting for help. Our agent had to be reminded –by us no less - to go get our key card from those boxes “over there” and then she handed them to us before she took our pictures! After pointing that out to her, we finally had our key cards and headed on over to the “sit in those chairs until you are called” zone. From here we watched row by row go have their embarkation picture taken and head down the glass enclosed walkway to the gangway. After 20-30 minutes, our row was called and off we went. Finally at 1:45 we swiped our keycards and were aboard! So what was usually a 20-30 minute process had taken over an hour and a half. I was pleasantly surprised when Cruise Director Pedro remembered me from our April Round the Horn cruise and greeted me on the other side of the swiping station with a big smile and a “welcome back to Sun!” We quickly headed directly to the Seven Seas Dining Room and had our “we’re on vacation” margarita and a very nice, relaxing, lunch before the dining room closed at 2:30. After lunch, we found our rooms and dropped our luggage and headed to the Muster Drill. If memory serves me correctly it was slightly delayed from the planned 3:30 pm. Muster was the usual cluster but it is much nicer now that you don’t have to carry or wear your life jackets. We had a good laugh from one of the two slightly tipsy young ladies (with heavy southern accents and margarita glasses in hand) who while discussing what they needed to know should the abandon ship alarm sound, looked up at the lifeboat hanging overhead with its number and port of registration painted on the side, pointed at it and said “NASSAU’s all you need to know”
After muster, we headed to the Great Outdoors for a shady sailaway….little did we know then that It was going to be a sunset sailaway! Apparently in addition to whatever issues had made the debarkation tardy for the TA passengers, and the issues with the check in agents that made us late boarding, there were also issues with bunkering – loading fuel - so as we sat drinking in the Great Outdoors, we watched Dream, and then Magic leave and then finally shortly after 7 pm, we finally heard the horn and we were off….only 4 hours tardy! After three extra hours of margaritas, we headed to Pacific Heights for a delicious dinner and then after DDP’s and my traditional stroll on the deck off to bed we went.
Ship & Cabin
Sun is scheduled for drydock in January. Hopefully in addition to whatever engine and hull maintenance they do, they will take the opportunity to redo some of the interiors. The ship is clean and well maintained but the interiors are dated and some of the softgoods – sofas in the rooms in particular are worn. Sun has what some say is an unusual layout in that to get to Seven Seas – one of the main dining room on Deck 5 at the stern – you have to first get to the stern via Deck 6 and then go down to Deck 5. . The up and over maneuver has never bothered us and we think having the theater on the stern with the dining room makes it convenient for most. The best part of Sun as far as I am concerned is The Great Outdoors. This large shady space on the stern is great for breakfast, lunch, pre-dinner cocktails, moonlight desserts or just lounging and reading a book.
We booked Stateroom 8305 a “deluxe” inside forward on Deck 8 across the hall from our cruise virgins who had an outside with a picture window. The NCL deck plan made our room (and some similar ones nearby) look larger than the typical inside and some difference in the description made us worry that the beds couldn’t be combined into one bed. I did lots of asking and looking around Cruise Critic but we weren’t sure what we would find until we opened the door and saw one big bed – we both think it was actually bigger than the one we had in our BD in April but maybe that was an optical illusion. We were very pleased with the room layout. Because of its layout, there was lots of open floor space, very generous storage, a full size sofa and none of the tight spaces with corridor, bathroom and closet doors all fighting each other for the same square footage. The room was definitely worth the extra $30 per person it cost us.
Neither of us typically enjoy the theater shows aboard ship – this cruise was fairly typical in that regard. We went twice and later said we wished we hadn’t. The first was for the comedian, Rod Long. He had a couple of funny lines but no more than three! The second was for “Encore”. NCL’s troupe’s salute to several Broadway shows – Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Wicked and a few others. It was fine but if we were onboard again, I wouldn’t bother going. We didn’t go but I heard several other guests discussing BONK, a comedic, physical comedy game show in less than flattering terms. The opposite was true for Jeri Sager, a former Broadway singer. A number of folks said she was a great. I am sorry we missed her. We did become regulars at Progressive Trivia – regular losers! Even with our one perfect day when we got all 20 questions about the 1980s correct we still ended up 5th at the end of the week. At least it was a fun way to start our Pre-Dinner drinking each evening
DDP and I have determined that we enjoy being on our own while in port so we did not take any of the ships excursions. Additionally, given our ports, we had decided to take it easy and treat this as a vacation rather than feeling the need to have educational tours. Unless you consider learning about tequila educational!
The cruise opened with a sea day and we enjoyed relaxing all day long… from breakfast at The Great Outdoors to pool time to Progressive Trivia to pre-dinner cocktails to our first dinner at the Seven Seas. We had enjoyed the Margarita and Muddling and Beer and Martini tastings on previous trips but unfortunately they only offered the Beer and Martini ones on this cruise….and at a time that didn’t work for us. The one Beer tasting we tried to go to, didn’t have enough participants so we did our own…more expensive but ….
Day 2 found us in Cozumel. I had arranged for Gerry the taxi man to spend four hours showing six of us the east “wild” side of Cozumel. He met us as scheduled and we started with a quick city tour and then headed towards the east side. On the way we visited the Mayan ruins and the Tequila “Museum”. The ruins to me were more reminiscent of the Greek ruins we saw at Olympia – foundations, pieces of columns, etc as opposed to the only other Mayan ruins I have seen which were Lamani in Belize. Those were more complete but eroded structures – stepped pyramids, statues, etc. The tequila was (IMHO) a very large glorified retail store – but we enjoyed it. For our $10 per person, we got an ok margarita, learned how tequila was made, tastes of a bunch of different (almond, orange, cherry, coffee) tequilas –including mescal – UGH and some really delicious aged ones. After we had our fill of tequila, we returned to the highway and soon found ourselves at a great little beachside restaurant, Mezcalitos where we enjoyed margaritas, shrimp, fish tacos - all were delicious. At the end of the meal, we were offered as many shots of different tequilas as we wanted all just for leaving a tip with the bartender. The restaurant had a small beach but our time was short so we after having our fill of shrimp and tequila we hit the road continuing around the island getting back to the pier just in time to buy a couple of bottles of duty-free tequila and get back on board.
Our next port was Santo Tomas in Guatemala. We had considered several options here – I really wanted to go to the ruins at Quirigua and contacted several tour companies ahead of time. However, because Sun doesn’t arrive until late morning, all of the tour companies expressed concern about being able to get there and back in time. While we like arranging our own port excursions, we have never and don’t want to ever miss the ship…so we decided we would wait and book something at the pier since so many on Cruise Critic said this could be done and sometimes for a savings. We ended up doing the Dulce River cruise with Happy Fish as their line was the shortest and their hawker was the friendliest. I had corresponded with them via email and had reviews of their tours on Cruise Critic previously so I knew that they were an ok service, Do be prepared for chaos inside the terminal building- tons of folks trying to get you to book with them, music, dancing…all in all a fun place but a bit overwhelming. We waited with our other Happy Fish and after maybe a 30 minute wait we and sixteen others boarded our covered boat and headed off for the river. We enjoyed our day on the river seeing the beautiful country. I will say though that even though I had been warned by some friends who had visited Santo Tomas before, I was surprised by when we were suddenly surrounded by eight or ten kids in dugout canoes hawking trinkets while repeating over and over “ un dollar, un dollar un dollar….”at one point, DDP said it was a little too Lord of the Flies for him. After a comfort break, we turned around and went back down river stopping at a small deck built over the river where a hot spring enters it. The more adventuresome in our boat climbed up the hill and visited a cave – I understand it was hot and steamy and presumably smelled of sulpha since the spring did down where we were. We had a beer here – they also had sodas – warm and some snacks and souvenirs to sell. After dipping our feet in the spring (they had dammed it up so you could see how warm it was, we reloaded the boat and continued downstream to Livingston. During our hour long stop here you could either take a quick tour of the city or sit and have a drink and lunch. We had lunch. DDP and I shared an appetizer of delicious grilled shrimp and a big bowl of Tapado – a coconut broth based soup with fish, crab, shrimp, and plantains. Both were enjoyable but we really didn’t need but one or the other. We left Livingston and had a nice fast ride back to Santo Tomas. We got back to the pier in plenty of time to do our Christmas shopping in the now much more subdued terminal. There were lots of vendors with beautiful embroidered goods, woven items, carved pieces and of course coffee ready to bring home…so much better than Starbucks. After doing more than our fair share for the Guatemalan economy, we re-boarded Sun and looked forward to what I had been told by previous visitors to Santo Tomas was an incredible farewell from the locals. We were scheduled to depart at 5 and at about 4:30 the local dancers started a show on the pier and all the tour guides cars, taxis and buses lined up behind them. Unfortunately, one of the NCL excursions was tardy for this party and those poor dancers and their drummers ended up performing for a couple of hours. Finally, with blue lights flashing from their police escort, the final bus arrived and we said goodbye to Guatemala. Unfortunately, a number of the locals cars and buses had left by that point so while we got a farewell, I don’t think we got the full horn blaring-lights flashing good-bye that Santo Tomas is known for….hopefully next time.
Belize was our next port. DDP and I had been there on our first Sun cruise in 2005 and really enjoyed our trip to the Lamani Ruins, but decided to stay aboard and give ourselves an extra sea day by enjoying the ship while almost everyone else tendered ashore We had an enjoyable day sleeping late, a long lazy breakfast and lots (too much given how red we were the next day) of pool time on the almost empty pool deck. Our virgin friends did NCL’s excursion to Altun Ha and enjoyed the ruins but said they were not impressed with the tour guide and found the tour somewhat disorganized.
The next day was another relaxing day at sea ( I think I am ready for a transatlantic). Due to too much sun the day before we played cards in the shade by the pool and we looked forward to the White Pink (for breast cancer awareness even though none of the promotional material or announcements mentioned it) Hot Party. Because of the large gay group onboard (be patient, I will add my 2cents to that whole discussion at the end of the review) the party was more fun than any other I have attended. After way too many G&Ts and dancing, I stumbled back to bed around 1am which because the clocks were reset that night was really 2 which was much TOO TARDY given what we would encounter the next morning.
With our turndown service on Thursday evening, we received a notice informing us that everyone would have to go through immigration after our arrival in Key West. All US citizens needed to visit the officers in the theater while non –US citizens would do the same in the Observation Lounge. I thought to myself, well that won’t be too bad, better than doing it off the ship out on the pier in the sun. If I had only known. Each deck had an assigned time to report staring at SIX AM! Thank goodness we were on Deck 8 so didn’t have to be there until 6:35. We set the alarm for 6:20, brushed our teeth, slid into yesterday’s clothes and headed towards the stern. I thought lets walk on the promenade and see our former home from a new viewpoint. About halfway to the stern, we looked through the windows in Razzles and realized that the line from the theatre extended way back….so we headed inside and discovered the line went all the way to the atrium where it spiraled around…..TWICE. Imagine trying to find the end of a circular line which was constantly growing…and not moving. While standing at what we thought was the end of the line, we saw several disgruntled, rude folks arguing about where the end really was. Some friends who were a few folks ahead of us in line said they had watched the immigration folks boarding around 6:30 so apparently the mess may have started with someone being …that’s right, say it all together..Tardy. BUT, that doesn’t explain the complete lack of direction given by NCL. There was no crew helping to keep order. At one point, Pedro the Cruise Director even came on the PA and welcomed everyone to Key West and told us where the gangway was located and other than thanking us for our patience, never mentioned anything unusual was going on. After waiting for 15 minutes or so and getting tired of hearing folks arguing – I am sure my White Hot Pink Party hangover had something to do with my attitude, we headed back to bed. Just before 8, we got up, had a quick breakfast in The Great Outdoors and then headed down to the theater where we had about a 5 minute wait for the officials to glance at our faces and passports and give us a stamp. All in all, NOT the way you want to spend the last real morning of your cruise. If they don’t change the procedure and you have been to Key West before, I would advise you to sleep in, and head to your immigration station after the initial rush.
After getting our immigration stamp and having NCL punch our key card, we walked off at Pier B in Key West. We were afraid that they weren’t allowed to let anyone off the ship until everyone had cleared immigration but that wasn’t the case. DDP and I used to live in Key West and still own a house there (if you are interested in a great vacation home in Paradise, get in touch!) and our big plan for the day was to stop by, meet our new tenants, and check on the newly installed roof. We had made arrangements to meet our friends at LaTeDa for a bloody mary at 10 and then we did a quick stroll to the Southernmost Point (its not really but they wanted their picture there anyway) and then wandered up Duval back towards the ship. Given our “all aboard” time of 12:30, there really wasn’t time to do very much at all. We got back to the pier about 12 thinking we might beat the crowd-wishful thinking …it took almost 45 minutes to get back on board. So again, if you don’t have to get off the ship in Key West, I wouldn’t. It wasn’t’ worth all the waiting in lines. I said before we left that I wished we were visiting the private island or staying at sea, and I stand by that wish.
Sailway from Key West was beautiful and then we had our last lunch in Seven Seas, very relaxing, cool, and comfortable. The afternoon was spent relaxing and wishing the cruise wasn’t over.
DDP and I had a 4 pm flight out of Orlando so we were in no rush to leave the ship. We had pulled ‘gray” luggage tags which was scheduled for 9:30 or 9:45 departure. We went up to The Great Outdoors around 8 for breakfast only to discover that no one had yet left the ship. After breakfast, we went back and gathered our hand bags and returned to the stern to wait for our color to be called. Finally around 9:45, Pedro announced that express walkoffs could leave the ship. It was after to 11 before our gray was called. Other than this tardiness, the process was relatively simple and we were in the parking lot to meet the Avis shuttle by 11:40 or so. We hit the road for Orlando by noon and after a nice Vietmanese lunch got to the airport in plenty of time for our flight…which was of course…say it with me…Tardy!!!
Overall, I remain pleased with NCL’s food offerings. This trip we ate in the MDR for lunch twice, dinner 4 times, and in specialty restaurants the other three. There had been much discussion on the NCL board prior to leaving about changes to the MDR menu – more “always available” fewer changing items. This wasn’t the case on this trip. The menu was the same as it had been during the first week of our April cruise. Service for us was better in Four Seasons than in Seven Seas but that could have just been the luck of the draw. We only had to wait for a table once – and that was for eight. We were the second big table waiting so we went to the other MDR and walked right in. Highlights of the MDR menu were; watermelon salad – so delicious, beef wellington, and the lobster/grouper entrée. We had dinner in Pacific Heights one evening and again enjoyed the Chimichurri Steak, which we think is better than any of the steaks in Cagneys/East Meets West. However, the Thai Coconut soup recipe was different that previously and while tasty was too spicy for my taste – it was almost like they forgot to add the coconut milk. We enjoyed our dinner in Il Adiago, the OssoBucco is still one of the best dishes NCL makes, but I personally was very disappointed that they have removed the chocolate torte with dried apricots from the menu. It had been my favorite dessert on NCL since I had it on Jade for my birthday cake. Oh well, my waistline will be the better for it being gone. The rest of my group ate in East Meets West/Ginza for sushi one night. While I enjoy sushi, I don’t think it is a meal, so I asked and the maître d’ was fine with me preparing a plate at the buffet and eating with my friends. The buffet offerings that night weren’t my favorite but I didn’t go hungry. With the exceptions of the two lunches in the MDR, our other meals were eaten in The Great Outdoors. We usually had omlets or other dishes from the stern grill – I love their corn beef hash with over easy eggs and the Muslix is also one of my favorites. Lunch was typically a big salad from the GREAT buffet salad bar and either a calzone from Pacific Heights or a burger from the grill. To my mind, there is not a nicer way to have a meal than sitting on the stern of a cruise ship. DDP and I have just about decided we won’t take a cruise that doesn’t have an outdoor eating area away from the pool. The other food highlight of the cruise were pre-dinner drinks and appetizers either from Las Ramblas, or wings from The Sports Bar.
After booking our cruise, we discovered that there was a large (reportedly 500 strong) group of predominately gay folks on board. Through the gay board on Cruise Critic, I made contact with some of them and in fact considered for awhile becoming an official (rather than just presumed!) part of the group. However, finances and my frugality kept us from doing so. Because of the size of the group, it was hard to miss them and IMHO added much to the fun aspects of the cruise – I have never seen a “Sexy Legs” contest like that one! As gay men, my mini-group enjoyed having some “sistas” on board too. The group had a private party each night in the Observation Lounge from 8-10pm and since the cruise I have heard some rumblings on the boards about that, but the bigger issue that generated lots of post cruise (and apparently some on board from a conversation I overheard at the Reception Desk) were inappropriate activities taking place in public areas. I personally only saw one such activity which was one presumably intoxicated fellow tugging on his friend’s suit – which dipped and revealed a little too much of his backside. However, I don’ t think it was intentional and if it had of been a straight couple would have been just as accidental and just as inappropriate. There area reports of more inappropriate activites taking place and they may very well have. If so, then just like if they had of taken place by straight folks, it should have been handled by NCL Security and those who were offended should have (as EarlWarren stated on our roll call board) averted their eyes. I believe that the bigger issue for the complainers was not the actions of these few, but more the fact that there was a group of folks onboard different than themselves. I had a great conversation in the hottub one afternoon with a Canadian lady who said it had made her realize how it must feel to be the minority – she said when she got to the check in desk In Canaveral and looked around and saw so many men, she knew something was different. She said, she had enjoyed the cruise and it had given her a new outlook. Another lady I spoke with, said she had never seen so many happy and in love folks. Anyway, as I have posted on the boards, it’s the 21st century and if you can’t deal with two guys holding hands on their way to dinner, then perhaps you need to rethink your vacation choices.
With the exception of the Port Canaveral and Key West issues, it was a great cruise. Hopefully Sun will soon get the tardiness issues resolved. DDP and I enjoy NCL –the price is usually right, we enjoy Freestyle Dining and the informality and have met a lot of great folks aboard and will be cruising them again – apparently so will the cruise virgins – they bought a cruise reward!