First I want to state that this was our first cruise and we were slightly nervous going into it with all the "negative" reviews about this ship and itinerary. I also held a special agenda which was to propose to my girlfriend of 10 years and as she would say, "finally get married!"
With two weeks to go from the embarkation of our cruise, we contacted our personal cruise consultant to arrange for what NCL calls a 'transfer', which is essentially prearranged transportation from the airport to the pier (and vice versa on our return). We were originally going to take a cab, however upon researching the area neighbouring the pier the day of our embarkation we discovered that there was a huge jazz music festival taking place causing road closures, massive traffic jams etc... Our PCC was absolutely no aid whatsoever telling us, somewhat rudely, that it was too late and we should have researched this much more thoroughly before the cruise (We planned this whole shindig in less than a month as we decided it was vacation time the beginning of June!!!) I was slightly upset that NCL didn't seem to care for the "last minute vacation bookers" even when we paid top dollar for the fare rather than the reduced fare most cruisers got when they pre-book months in advance. However our PCC did tell us to look for the NCL staff at the baggage claim area and arrange transportation with him (stiff fee) provided they still had room on their vehicle. Since they had a huge coach bus, they were more than happy to oblige in providing us with passage. The short trip from the airport to the pier (20-25 minutes) was a pleasant surprise as our driver was very informative and provided an excellent running narrative as we traveled through New Orleans.
We got jitters when we first spotted the cruise ship which seemed so colossal next to the pier terminal. Since we were sailing the weekend of July 4th, the ship was pointed East on the Mississippi River to allow us safe sailing away from the barges setting up the firework displays. We got off the coach bus and met the first porter who asked that we ensure that our luggage made it safely off the coach. Once this was done, we were directed to the terminal for processing to get aboard! Since our flight was delayed so long, it wasn't a surprise to see such a lengthy line of people checking in, however we moved pretty quickly and efficiently. The check in process simply involved us showing our booking info, giving them the method of payment (we chose to use my Platinum AMEX) but you can use cash, traveler's checks, or debit cards in lieu of using a credit card if preferred. Just make sure you have enough money in your debit account to account for whatever amount NCL will "hold". Since I have notifications each and every time my AMEX is used sent to my blackberry, I was surprised to get a notification of a "hold" on my cc for $300 (I later discovered upon the return to New Orleans and the subsequent of turning my phone back on, that NCL had made several "holds" in $300 increments as our onboard charges got higher). Since I didn't really care for what NCL decided to "hold" and since I was officially on vacation and since we were already planning a bar tab 3-4 times that amount between the two of us during the duration of the cruise, it was a moot point to worry about. They will also take your picture with a webcam and assign that image to your keycard which from the moment you step aboard acts as your identification, charge card for any additional purchases, and your room key. The picture is NOT displayed on the card, but rather within their internal system so each and every time you go on/off the ship for shore days they can "swipe" you in and off the ship. They have computer stations set up to display your image for identification purposes, as well as stations the servers use around the ship at bars/clubs to verify the image to the person ordering drinks/specially meals/gift shop purchases onto the card.
When we first came aboard, we walked into the Grand Atrium from which you could visit the reception desk, the restaurant reservation desk, the shore excursions desk, as well as take in the music of not one, but two baby grand pianos (one location in front of the glass elevators, another at Champagne Charlie's up one level but completely open to see and hear). The view of the glass elevators and shops were also magnificent. Since we had been traveling all day and standing in lines, we went in search of a place to eat. We were continuously directed towards Raffles Court located on deck 12, but I had done some reading of CruiseCritic.com reviews and knew from others that while they won't tell you, if you make your way to the Windows Main Dining Room located deck 6 aft, you'll discover that it is open and ready to serve. We sat down next to a wonderful view of the Bridge next to the pier we were docked and enjoyed a light late lunch with almost the entire room to ourselves. Our first experience with the servers was that they seemed slightly pushy and overeager to please. While this might bother some cruisers, it didn't bother us as we understood that many of these people are from other parts of the world where "having space" isn't the norm. Today many Americans seem to be uncomfortable when people they don't know continually invade their "immediate space". If this doesn't bother you, you will not have issues on this cruise. If it does however bother you, please try to be understanding that these employees of NCL are accustomed to other cultures and are simply trying to do their jobs in pleasing you.
We were just finishing with our late lunch when the PA system announced that the staterooms were ready for us to "move in" for the week. We made our way through the floors to our Balcony Stateroom (10602) and upon arrival were very pleasantly surprised just how roomy the space was. We aren't small people but we were still very comfortable while waiting for our luggage to arrive. The room stewards and dock porters were working hard to deliver the bags in front of each stateroom (you NEED to use the luggage tags they mail you or you can print out tags in your e-docs in order for the stewards to know what is going where). Since this cruise was operating at full capacity, there was a LOT of luggage for these guys to haul around. After waiting till 3:30ish we set off to find our luggage as it had yet to arrive. We found my girlfriend's carry on from the plane and checked bag further down the hall from our stateroom in such an area where they MUST have passed our door to deliver these in the improper spot. My luggage was nowhere to be seen, and at 4 pm we were required to attend the muster drill where they instruct you to how to use a life vest as well as introduce you to your section leader who would be in charge of the life raft your stateroom was assigned to.
Upon the return to our stateroom, my luggage still had yet to arrive and I was getting slightly irritated since it had been a long day and I wanted for nothing but to take a cold shower and change my clothes. After watching the stateroom television for a few minutes (one of the very few times we actually used this) to watch the instructional programs about the ship and what services they had, and what activities we could do, we discovered to the 'Freestyle Daily' which is similar to a newspaper which you can browse through and see what is happening for that day with locations and times. The Daily's were an indispensable source of information to us each and every day. On shore day's we also received additional pages describing the pier/dock areas and what kind of shops/activities were available for those cruisers without any planned excursions.
My luggage did finally show up and I got to take my cold shower and cool off. The bathroom we had was quite large and we were very pleasantly surprised with the set up. The toilet was sectioned off with its own door so if necessary, one of us were able to take care of business while the other showered. It was a loud surprise the first time we flushed the toilet and heard a VERY brash suction of the waste leaving the bowl. The shower itself was quite roomy and had a glass sliding door - It also had 2 shelves for shower products such as shampoo and soap, however there was a dispenser on the wall which provided these should you choose not to bring your own. The sink area was conveniently set up with angled mirrors and numerous shelves for storing toothbrushes and paste, mouthwash, shaving products, beauty products, etc...There was an very odd looking contraption secured to the wall which I knew was a hairdryer from reading CruiseCritic.com reviews. Reviews I read stated this did not work, or was never hot enough to actually be useful, however I used it many times (mainly to defog the mirror after showering --- WORKED GREAT!) and each time I used it the force of air and heat output seemed much more than adequate. There was also a plug on the hairdryer for men who use electric shavers, or maybe even for women who want to use other beauty tools such as a curling iron.
Upon stepping out of the bathroom from my first shower we could see the ship using it's thrusters to push away from the dock and we were on our way! My girlfriend and I used this time to unpack our luggage and stow everything away. We had four small drawers under a countertop on which we had a coffee maker and coffee making supplies. The television was installed above this countertop with a shelf for the ice bucket and glasses and another cubby hole which we used to store our camera, and other everyday items for ready access. The closet was pleasantly huge with more than enough hangers for our use. In addition to the top self (which wasn't really usable due to the lift vests and extra blankets/pillows) we had 5 medium sized cubby holes on the side of the closet perfect for our folded shirts and shorts as well as other items we had packed away like our hats, her purse and my "man purse" she took to calling. We had plenty of room for unpacking and stowing away every item in our two large checked bags and two large carry-ons. All four pieces of luggage fit perfectly (with room for more) underneath our queen sized bed. The bed was actually two twins assembled together, but it was hardly noticeable.
One negative drawback during this whole process was my girlfriend discovered the two zipper tabs and luggage lock from the carry-on were missing. Additionally there was a huge gash along the top of her carry-on which led us to believe something of a catastrophic nature had to happen for this bag to get caught and ripped as it was. As we unpacked she did discover that the luggage lock and two metal zipper tabs were at the bottom of her bag under a mesh type of garment. These had to have been inserted into the bag through the huge gash. We were lucky that from the point of leaving our bags next to the coach bus on the pier to getting the bag unpacked in the room that the zippers did not fail and pull open only to spew the contents somewhere on the pier or in the ship. We made a complaint of this on the "Dear Prem" complaint cards located in the Grand Atrium. Essentially we said we were upset that this bag made the trip to the pier successfully only to be ruined and near destroyed while being transported a distance of 250-300 feet from the pier to our stateroom. We received a reply within 24 hours asking of we would allow a steward to pick up the bag and deliver it to a seamstress who would attempt a repair. Once this happened, we never heard back on a status until the end of the 2nd shore day...And only after we called the reception desk to inquire. Within 5 minutes of our call, the bag was back in the room and mended very nicely. While it might not have been perfect, the gesture was greatly appreciated and allowed us not to have to worry about finding another bag for her to get stuff home.
After we finished putting everything away we stepped out onto our balcony which was much larger than anticipated and had two comfy chairs and a little table. We weren't too thrilled with how dirty the Plexiglas was underneath the railing, but it's to be expected from a ship sailing in saltwater seas day in and out. After spending some quiet time together we decided to venture out and explore the ship.
The Garden Room Main Dining Room:
We only ate here once despite how calm and relaxing this atmosphere was - The food was very good and the proportions were adequate. We only had a very short wait as it was a peak dining hour. The room was quite crowded with the people next to you able to hear your silent whispers and other dialogues.
Windows Main Dining Room:
The picturesque views were fabulous. It truly was a "windows" dining experience each time we ate here. The only complaint I had here were that the food proportions were on the small side, leading me to wish I ordered more. Only once did we encounter a long wait (also a peak dinner hour AND it was lobster night) but we decided to go elsewhere without lines.
Blue Lagoon Cafe:
We ate here several times as it was situated in a very convenient location mid-ship. The drawback for this was that anyone going from one end to another on deck 7 HAD to walk through the Cafe. The layout however is tastefully done, so there never really was an issue while enjoying a snack or while walking though. The burgers and wings were wonderful! My girlfriend ordered the 1lb of crab legs one night (at extra charge) and was satisfyingly surprised with the proportion of crabmeat on the dish.
Raffles Court & Terrace:
We ate here whenever we were in a hurry (shore days before we went ashore) and enjoyed made to order eggs, omelets as well as many types of breakfast meats and pastries in the mornings. The food was served buffet style which allows that it may sit in the open for some time. A few times I tried the pancakes (I am a diehard pancake lover) and they were very stiff and hard to chew. One morning they were quite crunchy. This was one of the few disappointments I suffered through on this cruise. Something worth a mention are the Washy-Washy people who were quite honestly in my opinion VERY annoying. I understand they are doing a job to sanitize people's hands before entering the buffet, but are their antics really needed? The second day I was aboard and exploring the ship, I encountered a family with a small boy maybe 5 or 6 years old who was spun and flung around like a rag doll to the point of sheer terror and tears on his face -- I was utterly shocked and hope the family reported this but since that washy-washy person was still there later on into the cruise, I believe it went unreported.
This is an Italian restaurant set up in the back of Raffles Court. We ate here once with a reservation (made minutes before we arrived from our stateroom phone). The food was quite good with large proportions. I made the mistake of ordering two entrees for myself (Chicken Parmagina and Penne Pasta with meatballs) as I was quite famished that night. The servers didn't mind at all and we were served very quickly. The atmosphere here was extremely quiet and relaxed. For a makeshift restaurant in the end of the buffet area separated by a huge curtain, it really did seem to be its own space.
This is another "buffet style" dining venue with grilled hotdogs/burgers, etc...located right by the pool. I grabbed snacks here a few times but only when we were at sea. My germaphobic alarm went off each time we were at a shore and there were flies and other insects invading this open food. Plus the slaws and other "need to keep cold" items didn't seem to be cared for properly as far as they sat out in the open sun for seemingly a long time. This is an excellent place to eat a quick snack but only when you see fresh food getting put out!
We ate here twice, once with a reservation and once without. Both times the food was excellent and you were served what you ordered at a decent proportion. Want a 10 ounce Filet Mignon Rare? You'll get it. Want it cooked thoroughly and like charcoal? You can get that too. My girlfriend got a lobster tail with her meal (at additional cost) and said it was very good.
You can order pizza (which wasn't very good) 24/7 but that is pretty much the menu. There is a limited breakfast menu but nothing to write home about. My girlfriend tried to ask if we could order off a menu for a specialty restaurant and have it delivered to the room (we were willing to pay the charge) but we were told this wasn't an option.
Tivoli Pool & Hot Tubs:
I was somewhat unhappy that the pool was always filled with saltwater. I understand we were at sea and salt water was readily available (they drain the hot tubs and pool each night to clean and replace the water). The saltwater didn't stop me from enjoying the pool several times though...It was always a nice refreshing dip after soaking in the hot tubs - Which were extremely spacious. There was a hot tub at each corner of the pool and they were advertised to be over the temperature of 98 degrees, but never over 104 degrees. It may seem that the pool and hot tubs are always crowded and for older cruisers, even those not so comfortable in their skin, that they wouldn't get the chance to use this space. Not true at all. On the first shore day I discovered that this entire space is almost void of people and I took advantage of this repeatedly. While my girlfriend and I didn't really have many shore excursions planned, I worked our shore days around into a schedule so that we'd be on the ship and in a hot tub relaxing when everyone else on the ship was ashore. It was heaven!
Galaxy of the Stars:
This is the main enclosed observation deck/room where many on-board activities took place. Surrounded by the panoramic views of the water at sea or both the water/shore when docked, it was always nice to come here and relax with a drink or two. My girlfriend and I enjoyed many games of Bingo, as well as watching the game shows performed here, and participating in many of the themed activities such as the Cowboy Ho-down, The White Hot Party, and more. I found the "secret staircase" which led to the bridge viewing room. This is a small room showing awards and plaques dedicated to the ship and well as some notable notes about the ship's history. One wall in the room is solid Plexiglas where you can see the entire bridge and watch the crew doing their work. It was a sight I'll remember for a while as I watched the ship's crew being very attentive as we left New Orleans and cruised down the Mississippi River full of ferries and barges at dusk.
We only used this area once as we were interested in booking our next cruise with NCL and were told that the NCL website was free to use on the cafe computers. This area has around 8 -10 computers available for your use, as well as an adjoining library with books you can check out to read during your cruise. We didn't stay too long here as the internet was VERY slow to load as to be expected at sea.
We "donated" money into the slots here on the first sea day as we were able to obtain free slot play coupons online prior to our cruise which were loaded onto our Casino at Sea Cards when we signed up for these. Gambling was fun but I didn't like the enclosed space full of smokers -- Being a former smoker myself, I was worried about getting exposed by too much smoke making me crave another cigarette. On this cruise, the only time this happened was in the casino. We didn't visit the casino again until our last sea day to cash in some of our printed slot tickets as well as some of the money we won playing Bingo. On a whim, I decided to play $100 on a dollar slot machine betting the maximum which was $5 per bet. Without going into details, I will just say that the winnings paid for our very large on-board tab!
We took in several of the shows and enjoyed each one. As we weren't too stingy with money, we had the privilege of sitting in the front (advertised as the best seats in the house - One well drink minimum for each seat) for all but one show. That single show (the second show for us) we decided to try the upper level, and it turned out to be an erroneous move. Needless to say we stuck to the front row thereafter. We took in the 'Welcome Aboard Show' which featured a small bit of all the other shows on the first night. The second night saw us at the 'On Broadway' show which while very interesting to watch, seemed far too hurried as they moved though 6-7 different shows that are showing or have been shown on Broadway in the span of 55-65 minutes. We skipped the Acrobats show on the third night and the Comedian's show the fourth night. We WHOLLY enjoyed 'The Second City' show in the fifth night of the cruise. FUNNY FUNNY FUNNY!!! I was the "Creepy guy staring at me from the front"! The sixth night saw us at the 'Elements' show which is NOT TO BE MISSED! It was such a great show that we went to both shows that evening! It made us sorry to have missed the Acrobats show earlier on the cruise. On the last sea day we skipped the 'An evening of Cabaret' show and went to the later 'Variety Showtime' show. This show was very hands on calling out the members within the audience and having some join the Magician, Jorgos on stage. All in all, we enjoyed our time spent at the Stardust Theater.
Photo Galleria Shop:
It was always nice to go each evening to spot our pictures. We joked that on our next cruise we would dress as Waldo and play 'Where's Waldo?' when looking for our pictures. Each time we were able to find our photos we grabbed these we "hid" them behind our Embarkation photo. This way on the last night of the cruise, we were able to head down to the shop and purchase the photos we wanted as they were already bundled together. From another review on CruiseCritic.com, I read that if you didn't want to pay the extorted prices of the pictures, you could ask about getting these on a thumbdrive or Cd. The first person we asked this question was very rude and implied that we were being cheap. Shocked and appalled we asked to speak to her manager. A man with the name Greg on his name tag came over and rudely explained that the photos were property of the NCL Cruise line and they could not provide us with a Cd, but only copies of the photos themselves. I pushed that it made poor business sense not to offer customers options and referred to reviews on CruiseCritic.com to him. Further pushing got him to offer an electronic copy of any of the photos we purchased. Satisfied with that offer, we purchased nearly all of our pictures. Although, sadly, on arrival of being home, we looked at the Cd and saw all the borders, frames, etc. put into the pictures we brought and paid for were stripped, as well as any pictures we took with a green backdrop (where they edit in images of the cruise ship, etc.) were also stripped and simply show us in front of green walls. I am VERY upset as we paid a lot of money for these photos and if this is how they treat customers, many of which the photo shop is their last connection with NCL before disembarking. Had it not been that my girlfriend and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of our vacation, this incident might have put us completely off of the NCL Brand. This is definitely something NCL needs to investigate and fix!
Other Highlights & notable notes:
On the first day we noticed that the same alcohol drinks were priced differently throughout the ship. It would vary from anywhere to 50 cents to a dollar sometimes as high as $2 from bar to bar. Not sure why this was set this way, but it didn't stop us from having fun. Something else to remember-- If you don't plan on keeping the souvenir glasses, tell they you don't want one. Otherwise you are going to pay extra for this, and if you leave it, they just wash them and resell to the next person. Only a few times at dinner did I get a soda (we didn't have the soda package as it isn't possible for us to drink $50 worth of soda in a week!) for dinner. As I have a very developed taste I was able to detect the cans we received as close to stale. Further investigation where we looked at the bottom of the cans, showed each can being within 1-2 weeks of use by date...I'm unsure if it was standard practice that ship had soda so close to use by codes (being in the food business, I understand the importance of use by codes not that the product is expired, but the taste starts breaking down and tastes just blah) or if it was just a coincidence.
As far of going ashore, we took in shopping with Kiwi James (on-board shopping rep.) nearly each day. He is there for you and will help you get the best price on anything you want to buy! Try and attend his seminars about going ashore for shopping as you will obtain valuable coupons and get the chance to start a charm bracelet with a new charm located in each port of call NCL has. This trip saw my girlfriend getting lots more jewelry than she had at the start of the trip!
Of the four ports we visited, I can honestly say we thoroughly enjoyed Honduras the best! At the dock area there is a little hole-in-the-wall shop that you can rent a car from - The brand claims to be 'Thrifty Auto Rental' but we didn't see this on any paperwork other than the sign on the shop front. Taking the risk we used my AMEX to rent a nice mid-sized SUV and toured the entire island, far from the touristy shops and traps. We met some very interesting people and made lots of new memories, especially the one where I had to drive backwards 45 mph down a very narrow alley and street full of people and vendors after having driven up the wrong way two miles (there are no signs anywhere!). We were laughing the entire time as we were being chased by other cars and motorcycles! At Belize we were tendered ashore by a great crew. We did an island tour with the Calypso Train Company that was fun and educational, although brought us through some downtrodden areas. While some might see this as negative, it was clear that the people of Belize City welcomed us and were quite proud of what they had. I was able to leave the tour with a much greater appreciation for what I have.
Ken Mills our Cruise Director was hysterical, although some of his staff members were fond of repeating the same jokes over and over. The bar staff we encountered were excellent. To name some names, Kadek was by far our favorite bartender. You can usually find him each evening at Champagne Charlie's, and that man makes a great Mudslide and BBC! He always had the time to chat a little and talk to us about things to do on the ship as well as what we shouldn't miss. Rakesh was a server in the Stardust Theater and remembered us every time! Always knew our names and made sure we had a drink anytime we wanted. Christina and Liezl were two of the servers at the Galaxy of the Stars, and they always greeted us with a smile and perky "Hello!" each time we crossed paths. On the day of disembarkation, Liezl was stationed at the gangway and when she saw us gave both of us a great big hug and told us she can't wait for us to come back! (Don't worry, we can't wait either!!!)
Our room steward and maid were awesome, although we weren't ever able to catch their names. Each night we returned to the cabin we had fresh ice and a towel animal!! Going into the cruise, my girlfriend was hoping for the frog, while I hoped for the monkey...We weren't disappointed! We also had an elephant, mouse, and shark made for us! The bathroom and cabin were always straightened out and fresh towels for the pool delivered daily.
We were also honored to meet the CEO, Kevin Sheehan who we learned had snuck onto the ship at Belize. We met him at the Officer's Profile where a small group of us were able to sit and talk with the Captain, the Hotel Director, and the Food/Beverage Director on the ship. Lots of great questions were asked and answered, and we were all surprised when Kevin (sitting among us as a guest) was introduced by the Captain to help answer a question about Project Breakaway. He really seemed like a true down to earth guy.
These 8 days & 7 nights will be remembered a very long time by the two of us. Thank you so much Norwegian for the 'Vacation of a Lifetime'! We're already looking to book a group cruise for a group of family and friends as well as our honeymoon cruise! And if you're still wondering, she did say yes!!!