Since this is my first review I wanted to introduce myself. I'm a 45 year old male who just took his first cruise with girlfriend, father, and brother, sis in law, aunt and father's girlfriend in our group. Since we were part of a larger group (my father's high school reunion) we also had some friends of my father's along. A pretty big and diverse group; my girl and I were the youngest.
I live in NYC and because of where I live I'm exposed to high quality food and entertainment, so I think my standards are probably different than someone who is from elsewhere. I've traveled the world quite a bit but I never book packaged vacations or tours. My girl is an extremely experienced world traveler and also a polyglot (4 fluent, 4 passable).
We were both a bit apprehensive about cruising and really had no idea what to expect. Our worries were pointless though; we both loved it and would do it again!
As part of our package deal we stayed at the Comfort Inn Cocoa Beach. The only nice things I have to say about this hotel were that the staff was friendly and it was cheap. The rooms (I checked 4) were all very musty smelling and the hotel is pretty run down. The bedspread in my room looked as if someone had given birth on it. The pool area looks nice, but the age since last refurb really shows at this place. The hotel bar was so smoke filled that even the smokers in our group couldn't stay a minute.
Getting the large high school reunion group to the port (about 70 people) was interesting, but we made it with no problems. I was surprised how long it took to get on the ship from that point. As first time cruisers we weren't in NCL's Latitudes program, so we had to wait in a LONG line. It seemed this process could have been run more efficiently, there was a lack of coordination among the people directing passengers to the agent once they reached the front of the line.
We made it on board by 2pm and went directly to our cabin, 0059, a BA (I think, or BB) balcony room on Deck 10, aft. Some of our bags were already there! I was immediately impressed with the layout of the cabin, it seemed there was no wasted space. The cabin had a light and airy appearance once the balcony was open. The wall storage units were really great and I found my "over the door shoe storage" unit almost useless. The TV is small, but we aren't TV watchers anyway, so we only used it once or twice for the news. I wish the ship had CNN as MSNBC and Fox are both so biased, you can't make heads or tails of anything.
The drawers in the wall storage units looked pretty dirty on the insides, but we tried to wash them out and nothing came off, so I guess they were just scuffed. The bed was made into a king and was very comfortable. The couch was a little weird, when I sat on it the weight of my body pushed the seat cushion away. I'm 6'2", 205lbs, so I'm not unusually large. A minor thing.
The balcony was big enough for 2 people and we spent a lot of time out there in the provided bathrobes. Sea mornings and evenings, port arrivals and departures, really lovely. Having breakfast and coffee delivered before sunrise and watching the ship pull into San Juan was an experience I'll never forget.
Our only problem with the cabin was in the bathroom. The bottom of the bathroom door was very rusted and deteriorated. I didn't think much of it until day 4 of the cruise when something in the bathroom started leaking. We would wake up in the morning and find the bathroom floor, and the rug outside the bathroom door soaking wet. Given the drains in the bathroom I'm not sure how the rug got wet. We reported it to my cabin steward, and he came back with a repairman, but it was never fixed. We just ignored it.
The shower was a little small; I had to turn off the water to lather up, but otherwise completely adequate. While the ship does provide shampoo/bath gel, I recommend you bring your own.
Our steward was not to be seen much, which I appreciated, but we did find it a little odd. We saw the steward who worked the cabins down the hall all the time and rarely saw our own. I actually tipped the down the hall guy $20 mid voyage because he had been so helpful.
Overall I though the Sun was in nice condition, very clean and well maintained. The ship's staff was excellent and being a midsized ship, we saw the same folks over and over. I wound up taking notes by mid week so I could remember everything for the Style cards I wanted to fill out.
The lifeboat drill was held before we left port (about 4pm as I recall) and was well run. I was glad we had this drill before leaving as the ship is very confusing to someone who has never been aboard anything that large before. I was surprised at the number of passengers who were grumbling about the drill...I guess short memories are prevalent.
Once I got the hang of the ship I thought it was very well laid out but I was late for dinner with the family once or twice because I went forward instead of aft or vice versa.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and tried to enjoy as much variety as possible! The buffet was well laid out, and I found it amusing that people would wait in a long line on one side of it while the other side, with the exact same items, was empty. My girl loved the pasta, stir fry and salad stations, while I consistently went for the Indian dish that always seemed to be present. Some of the best Indian food I've ever had, so I can't recommend it enough. My girl was equally impressed and she travels to India for a month every year.
We ate in the Seven Seas dining room for breakfast several days and it was excellent. My eggs benedict were perfectly poached and the hollandaise was fresh and made from scratch! We learned on the Behind the Scenes tour (more on that later) that "Freestyle" dining is much easier on the chefs/kitchen staff and one of the things it allows them to do is make hollandaise in small batches, fresh! We ate dinner in the other MDR twice and found it enjoyable. The lobster tail isn't worth it if you've ever lived in New England, but everything else was good. Portions are a bit small, so order two if you are the hungry type! No one cares!
I also tried Adagio, the Italian add on, East Meets West, the steakhouse and Tepanyaki, the Benihana type add on. I'd say the food, service and presentation in each of the add ons was better than in either MDR. We thought it was worth it and enjoyed each of them. Tepanyaki was hard to get reservations for so book that early on. It was a TON of fun, enjoyed by all. We also ate fish and chips (and wings) in the pub (windjammer?) and it was really good. Surprisingly so! I wish the bars had more variety or better beer on tap or bottle. American micro brews are some of the best beers in the world at this point (sorry Belgium) but weren't to be found onboard.
The coffee on the ship is pretty poor, even in the add on coffee place that sells Lavazza. I wish I had brought own pour over filter setup. I'm a huge coffee snob, and think Starbucks is garbage.
Excursions/Ports of Call
I stayed away from the packaged excursions with two exceptions which I'll get to later. I saw how a few of them were run and decided it wasn't for me. When we got to St. Thomas we hopped a cab/ferry and cab to get to Trunk Bay Beach on St. John. The NCL excursion arrived at the same time and it was led by a very loud man who shouted a lot. That type of thing isn't for me. When we passed our fellow passengers later in the day, they were all sitting in a tightly packed group on a large and mostly empty beach. Not sure why, but it didn't look like fun.
Our first port of call was Nassau, Bahamas. We decided to hoof it over to Junkanoo Beach after we arrived in port and while it was pleasant, the amount of broken glass in the sand was astonishing. A public beach, I guess not maintained. We spent a few hours there in the sun and water, and then moved to the huts for cold beer and coconut. Not a bad way to start the holiday. We ate in the area near the dock and it was the most expensive gyro I've ever had in my life @ $15. I'm not much of a shopper, so Nassau otherwise held little appeal.
The horse and carriage rides looked interesting, but I thought the horses looked like they were poorly kept and half starved. I'm no expert on horses, but I do know that when I see horse after horse with ribs sticking out of their sides that something is wrong. I know animal rights people want NYC to ban these rides, I can't imagine what they would think if they saw Nassau.
St. Thomas/St. John
Coming into the port of St. Thomas is so breathtakingly beautiful I still daydream about it. It seemed like we were cruising into heaven. We got off the ship promptly and took a cab to Red Hook, and from there the reliable ferry to St. John (departs on the hour on each end). Another cab to Trunk Bay and we were at the prettiest beach I've ever seen. Supposedly rated in the top ten beaches worldwide, this place was ideal for sunning, swimming and snorkeling. Beautiful fine sand, lovely scenery, underwater marked snorkeling trail, gorgeous fish, showers, bathrooms and lifeguards (it is a US National Park after all) it was the highlight of my vacation. One of my beach photos on my work computer is my background right now. Cabs were easy and readily available for the trip back to the ferry and then again to the ship. It took about 1.5 hours each way, and left us too little time on the beach. I wish we had arrived in St. Thomas earlier in the morning! We all had drinks a bar near the port upon our return and then did a little shopping...I got a shipwreck coin! (at least I hope it is)
Arriving at San Juan at dawn was lovely; I have some beautiful photos of the fort we passed on the way into dock. We got off the ship first thing and started wandering Old San Juan. Found an amazing coffee shop and had a fantastic brew. We eventually made it to Castillo de San CristÃ³bal where we met up with my family. Any fan of history will love San Juan, especially the forts. I only wish I had made it to both forts, but there is never enough time in port it seems. We made our way from the fort to a fantastic Puerto Rican restaurant run by a friend of mine from college. Right near the cruise ship docks it was a cheap and fantastic meal that everyone in our group enjoyed.
Great Stirrup Cay
I'm not sure what to say about this place...most of my group thought it was downright ugly, but some folks we met thought it was very pretty, so YMMV. I was very disappointed with GSC, the construction is still well under way, not "almost complete" as we were told and the island isn't pleasing to the eye. It looks like it was designed by the Army. Blockhouses, beach chairs, transplanted palms and mangrove, it looked like it was still a satellite tracking station. It was a windy day so most excursions were cancelled, including the only one I signed up for, waverunners. The island was so ugly that I went to cancel the waverunners before I knew the wind had done it for me. I was really disappointed in GSC, I wouldn't want to visit there again. It does look like in 4-5 years it will be quite lovely, once the construction is done and the artificial beauty finished, but right now it got a big "meh" from everyone in my group. My father took the eco tour excursion and thought it a waste of money.
The DJ on GSC played techno music for the first hour after passengers started arriving on tenders and eventually my girl went and asked him to find something more appropriate for the demographic. He switched to a much milder set of island(y) music. Thankfully, the pool band, Titanium, showed up and we really enjoyed having them play in the background.
Behind The Scenes Tour
While not an excursion per se this is something you need to sign up for early as it sells out. The tour takes you through the ship to see the kitchens, food storage areas, laundry, theater, crew quarters and best of all, the bridge. I was fascinated with most of the tour, the kitchens are spotless and really something to see. That part of our tour was led by Sous Chef Edward St. Clare and it was wonderful. I used to work in a hotel laundry, so seeing the ship's operation was quite impressive. I could have done without the theater, but we were given as much time as we liked on the bridge and had all our questions cheerfully answered by the ship's second officer. If you have any interest in these things I can't recommend this tour enough.
I thought this area was the weakest part of the cruise. I didn't enjoy the vocal styling of the piano bar player, nor the guitar player Cat. I'm picky about music and see so much world class entertainment in NYC that I found these folks to be third rate at best. When my girl and I finally decided to give the piano bar guy a chance and sat down to listen to set, he started singing the Beatle's song "Yesterday" but changed the lyrics so the song was about "Vasectomies." Maybe this is funny to some folks, but I thought it was just crass. We left.
We danced to Latin music on two nights, and the Latin band was good, but the female vocalist who occasionally accompanied them was really off key. We also enjoyed the big band music/dancing evening.
I don't like broadway shows, I'm not a fan of the brassy singing style, so the "shows" on the ship were skipped. Others in our group enjoyed them.
The best part of the entertainment was the poolside band, Titanium. These guys were talented, fun and I was very glad they came ashore at Great Stirrup Cay. They made the trip musically for us, and I was glad I got to meet them and tell them so on the tender back to the ship.
My idea of "Activities" on board sounded something like "Paulo, can I please have another Pina Colada?" but the ladies did a few including some dance classes, a massage, some consultations, and my sister in law did a "port shopping orientation." Except for the shopping orientation the ladies very much enjoyed everything they did.
After 24 hours of "moderate" seas I was about ready to take the patch or some Dramamine, but we arrived in port shortly thereafter and I was fine. I went the whole trip without any motion sickness or meds. On my behind the scenes tour the 2nd Officer told us the captain had rerouted the ship on our return to avoid those moderate seas. The return voyage was really smooth. Thanks Cap'n!
The Casino is really smoky, even with the filters going full blast. One evening in there (we won! Thanks SlotPlay coupons!) and the clothes we were wearing needed to be washed. An unfortunate side effect of the smoky casino is spillover smoke into the Champagne bar. We wanted a drink there but passed as it was stinky. I was disappointed that smoking was allowed on balconies, because the cigarette smoke was omnipresent whenever we had the door open or were on the balcony.
I wound up filling out seven "Style" cards for the staff that were most helpful, but it seemed that everyone went out of their way to be helpful. NCL has a 30 day guide for the staff on how to interact with passengers and I think it was well thought out. I saw the guide several times while touring the crew and kitchen areas. Some sample guidelines "when a guest is within 5 feet great them by name" "when a guest is within 10 feet say hello" and so forth. Well thought out and effective.
I love "ethnic" food and when I found out the crew cafeteria had specialties that appealed to various ethnicities on the crew, I wanted to try it! As I said earlier (and if you haven't dozed off by now) the Indian food at the buffet was terrific.
My last vacation was a villa rental in rural Tuscany, and my girl and I both thought it was one of the best trips we ever took...this cruise came in a close second. We loved the ship, the line, the staff and the experience of being at sea. It was a truly remarkable and enjoyable experience. We are already thinking about our next cruise (on NCL) and my coworker at the desk next to me just booked his first, also with NCL. The memories of my sunny Caribbean winter will keep even this jaded New Yorker warm over the next few chilly months.