We chose this vacation to see how "Freestyle" and Norwegian would suit our needs, as we are planning a far more expensive "dream" cruise in the near future in a region served by this line.
Embarkation Day: We arrived at about 10 minutes before the appointed hour, but the ship was well behind schedule and we were required to stand in a cue on a sidewalk across the street from the port entry for approximately 45 minutes. Once we were permitted to cross and enter, the check in procedure was quick and easy, but then we were seated in a waiting area for another extended wait while the ship was prepared. As we visited with others, we found that this is a fairly typical occurrence on Norwegian. Boarding was a bit over an hour late.
The cabin: Because we were looking to "escape" from the stress of our work lives, we booked a starboard mini-suite with a balcony and full bathroom, and the floor plan suited us perfectly. We loved the privacy of the WC, separated from the walk-in closet, vanity station and sink area by a frosted door (these spaces all within a separate compartment). The bed was utterly perfect in size and support, and the full-sized sofa, while hard & uncomfortable, was placed for great views through the balcony. We had a tv but rarely used it aside from catching weather or other schedule information for the ship. Located on Deck 11, the pool deck, we had easy access to the buffet and poolside food areas and often took meals in the peacefulness of our room or balcony.
Common areas of the ship: We favor smaller ships and this one was approximately the same size as others on which we have sailed. This one seemed a little more compacted than others that we can compare. The Grand Atrium was pretty though did not offer a stunning or elegant space, its effect diminished because it is small and the perimeter is crowded with service desks and other business areas. The main passageways are problematic as the walking routes intrude through venue spaces -- right through the Dazzles night club, for instance, which seemed awkward; also, there were some areas that required a GPS system to get to -- for instance there was no direct indoor route from our cabin to the aft dining room. There were two dining rooms on board, though we were not sure why there were two since the same menu was offered at both locations. Several other dining options were available for up-charges, we dined at the Brazilian charcuterie and the sushi restaurants which offered mildly more interesting fare than the average food presented at the no-charge dining rooms. The ship offered a casino which we did not use because the odor of cigarette smoke was too offensive. Furniture in the dining rooms was stained and dirty, thermal coffee pots were corroded (I would not have kept some of the ones used to serve our breakfast in the seated dining areas to use for camping.) The ship also pipes out music -- rather loudly -- in all public spaces, perhaps to promote a party feel but after a day or so it becomes annoying, like the people on the beach who plant their boom box playing Aerosmith at full blast and then spend the rest of the day playing out of earshot while you are stuck with the noise. Even going out on deck to watch a sunrise, hoping for a peaceful, spiritual moment, there was outdated pop music everywhere. The only place to escape the music is your own cabin.
Service: Service personnel were cheerful but clearly exhausted from their hard work. As for housekeeping, our room was serviced twice daily and sometimes more, but there was literally dust in the corners and linens were unmatched (clean towels were delivered but one might be a fluffy new towel and the other a thin old one. No mint or chocolate on your pillow with turn-down, nothing special to make you feel pampered. Newsletter (really, mostly port advertisements) were delivered on a clip on the cabin door. Laundry services lost an expensive clothing item and offered nothing more than an incident report upon our request. As for food service, the food offered was adequate, some dishes rather good, breads were outstanding, and desserts were categorically a disappointment (don't look for chocolate on this ship! It is sparsely used.) We definitely did not like the freestyle dining arrangements as this means that tables are constantly being set and reset around you rather than the elegance offered when service tasks are performed between seatings. It also meant -- no chef parade, no dessert parade, no themed dining, no midnight buffets, and no chocolate extravaganza --in short, freestyle is not for those who are foodies or who look forward to fine dining experiences.
Entertainment: In short, amateur. No wonder they offer 2 for 1 martini happy hours...you will need two so as to forget why you decided to subject yourself to the shows. The "programs" offered seemed to be about commercial pursuits -- port shopping, galleria sales, alcoholic beverage "crawls," none of which interested us. We really missed having a naturalist to present information about the Caribbean environment -- we saw flying fishes from our balcony and I am sure there was much more we missed without some instructive help.
Ports: We had generally good experiences in the ports, which I will detail under "port reviews." In short, our best port experience was Belize, as was our best excursion. Overall, port times were long (except for Key West) and there was plenty of time to sight-see.
Here I will add our review of Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala (aka Matias de Galvez) because there is not a listing to select for it in the Ports Review section. The port is primarily commercial, so don't expect to see a beautiful port. (The part we could see was clean, however, for a busy port though there was a strong sulfur smell for a while). We were met by beautiful Guatemalan women in traditional dress, and a boisterous brass band! There is a bustling cultural center with a fiesta atmosphere, featuring Guatemalan music, dance, Gallo cervezas, and probably the best -- in terms of authenticity and price -- vendors for shopping during our whole cruise. Do know the vendors will quote a price in American dollars but will expect to be paid in local Quetzal, you will have to use the exchange service there in the building if you want to buy anything substantial in American dollars. There is everything from jade jewelry to exquisite embroidery, definitely the place to shop. Aside from the cultural center, there is precious little else to do. We were permitted to go "beyond the gate" into Guatemala, and we did walk a short way in but were hawked so heavily by the locals and had such a creep sensation of being watched that we returned to the (perceived, at least) safety of back on the other side of "the gate." If you want to see more, I would suggest that for safety and peace of mind, stick with a ship-sponsored excursion here. There are two very different worlds "inside" and "outside" the gate.
Pre-and Post Cruise: We flew into and out of Melbourne, Florida and enjoyed the ease of a small airport. We arrived one day ahead of the cruise and our pre-cruise hotel was at Wakulla Suites, which was spacious but not up to our cleanliness standard and we do not particularly recommend it. We selected Avis as our car rental, because they offer a free shuttle to and from the port, be advised that the driver is a Type-A personality, aggressive in his driving and language, and intimidating to the passengers. Our flight home (from Melbourne to the Midwest) was delayed until after midnight due to strong storms and tornadoes in the south, and we learned that in spring, the later in the day you fly, the more likely you will be delayed for southern storm systems. Our flights (Delta on the way to the port, US Airways going home) were otherwise as expected.
Children: We are older adults without children and we wondered if there were inadequate children's programs and activities because children were everywhere. They were even permitted in the bars, to request their cokes. Parents were bringing small, tired, complaining children into restaurants for late seating dinners. This had never been a problem for us on other cruise lines.
Overall: The Norwegian Sun experience was barely adequate, lacking in excitement and attention to detail on more or less every level of service. Freestyle seems to be synonymous with "Show me the hand,", "Do whatever, we don't care." We had a nice time in our ports, but the shipboard experience was not up to par, especially considering our level of booking and value for price paid. In the future we will save a little longer and book our future "dream cruise" with a cruise line that cares, one that provides for the little extras that make every day more special.