This back-to-back eastern/western Caribbean 14-day cruise on the Norwegian Sun was our 9th cruise and our 2nd with NCL. The cruise was enjoyable and relaxing; however, NCL's business model left us feeling less than thrilled with the overall experience. In fairness to the Sun crew, we found them to be friendly and helpful and about as good a crew as most we've encountered on other cruise lines. But if you expect a high quality cruise experience, expect to pay more for it once you're on board.
We observed that "Fee-style Cruising" might be a more accurate motto for NCL than "Freestyle Cruising". There was heavy emphasis throughout the cruise on selling you everything possible. The drink prices were high, especially once they added the 15% service charge to every drink. Beers started at around $5 for domestic; glasses of wine at around $6; mixed drinks at around $7; blender drinks at around $8, and prices go up from there. The coffee shop in the atrium on deck 5 could have been a much more pleasant and frequently used venue had they offered some sort of coffee card deal and provided faster service. As a result of the high pricing and very slow service we purchased only about 7 espresso drinks in two weeks. Also, their complimentary pastry selection was pretty much limited to several different varieties of pound cakes; a far cry from what we've experienced on Princess, Royal Caribbean and Holland America. The coffee at the espresso shop was good, but at the buffet not so good.
A word about back-to-back cruises for those unfamiliar with the concept; the day between segments is pretty much a wasted day, as the ship is busy disembarking the first segment passengers and embarking the new passengers. Some areas of the ship are closed for cleaning and maintenance, including the pools and hot tubs. The crew is concentrating on getting ready for the new group of passengers. The passengers continuing on for the next segment are required to leave the ship, pass through Customs and turn in their Customs Declaration Form and then wait until Customs clears the ship before re-boarding; the total process took us about 75 minutes. You do NOT have the option of staying on the ship. You end up paying for a cruise day without really getting the full benefits of a cruise day.
The embarkation at Port Canaveral went very smoothly and we were on the ship before noon. We found Port Canaveral itself to be less user-friendly than other ports we've sailed out of such as San Diego and Los Angeles. Port Canaveral is about 45 minutes away from the Orlando MCO airport. We used Cocoa Beach Shuttles to and from Orlando MCO and found them to be a very good shuttle service and reasonably priced (the cost was $40 per person round trip for four people). The port area is not within walking distance of any commercial area; it is strictly set up for motorized transport and during disembarkation is very congested with huge crowds spilling out into the driveway area looking/waiting for transportation.
The Norwegian Sun itself is a nice looking ship and appears to be generally well maintained but we did not find the public areas to be particularly attractive. The dEcor seemed to consist mostly of plastic flowers and cheap art. The buffet on deck 11 was frequently crowded and chaotic. The food was mediocre to good. The pool area was loud, crowded, and, at times very windy. The exercise facility was small and often over-crowded in the morning. If you opt to exercise on the promenade deck, the forward section is closed from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM because of the passenger outside cabins located forward on deck 6. There is no coin operated laundry facility on the ship and their laundry prices are high (once mid-cruise they have a $24.95 one-bag special; you have to itemize every item placed in the bag). We did not use the casino, but had to pass through there at times getting to the shops on deck 7. The casino was smoky and loud; we tried to avoid that area as much as possible. The cigarette smoke from the casino did permeate the shop area at times. The most enjoyable venue on the entire ship for us was our stateroom and balcony.
Our stateroom, balcony 0002 on Norway deck 10, port side forward, was small but comfortable and quiet. The balcony was tiny. Our room steward was excellent. After we had him remove the over-priced mini-bar contents and provide us with robes and more comfortable pillows we thoroughly enjoyed the room and the location.
The cruise started on a sour note when we found a memo on our door stating that our luggage required further screening due to indications we may have violated their policy regarding bringing contraband items on board. We reported to the "naughty room" in the atrium on deck 6 to retrieve our luggage which contained two bottles of sparkling wine. After paying the required $30 ransom (they call it a corkage fee) we had to haul our own luggage back to our stateroom. The cruise contract states that you can bring wine on board subject to a $15 per bottle corkage fee. However, they do not tell you how. Their policy and procedure is clearly intended to discourage you from bringing your own wine on board through hassle, humiliation and inconvenience. Obviously, it must cut into the profits on their overpriced adult beverages. The effect of all this, rather than building customer loyalty, is to alienate their passengers. At the beginning of both 7-day segments of the cruise there were a lot of unhappy campers waiting in line outside the "naughty room" to get their luggage out of hock. A number of people had tried to bring hard liquor on board; the ship confiscated those items per their policy. They did, however, allow up to 4 beers per person to be brought on board the ship in the various ports.
The freestyle dining worked reasonably well. We went to dinner between 6:00-6:30 PM and usually had a very short wait for seating. The dining room stewards were friendly; however, the service was slow. It generally took 80 to 90 minutes for three courses. This is the slowest we've ever experienced. The food was mediocre to good; not excellent. The pastry selection and quality was disappointing. The best pastry was the key lime pie which showed up on the menu only one evening. We were unable to find it again; perhaps it was served in the premium restaurants. We did not utilize any of the premium restaurants, believing, as a matter of principle, that the price of the cruise should include a fine dining experience.
The ports of Nassau, St. Thomas and San Juan were enjoyable first visits for us. We took local tours in St. Thomas and San Juan for $20 to $25 per person. The 2-hour tours at least gave us a chance to see some of the islands other than the port areas. The local guided tours were well worth the money. Our favorite port was San Juan. The Puerto Rican coffee was excellent.
NCL's private island, Great Stirrup Cay, was a bit of a disappointment. We visited there on both the eastern and western Caribbean legs of the cruise. The first time, we rented a clamshell shelter for $30 and spent a good portion of the day in it and out of the direct sunlight. Shade is at a premium on Great Stirrup Cay. It is more of a desert isle than a tropical paradise; lots of sand and little vegetation. The palm trees appeared to be slowly dying. The ship anchors and passengers tender to shore. During both stops the wind and waves made tendering a real adventure. We made the best out of our first visit to Great Stirrup Cay, but stayed on board during the second visit; once was enough for us. The buffet food on the Cay was very much like on the ship, but you eat under covered shelters which can protect from rain but not wind. The wind made it a challenge to sit down and enjoy the meal.
On the western Caribbean leg of the cruise we visited Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. We took a local guided tour in Georgetown, Grand Cayman. The tour was a bargain at $20 per person (visited hell rock formations, rum cake factory, 7-mile beach and turtle farm/dolphin discovery). We just shopped in Cozumel and Ocho Rios as there is plenty of shopping within walking distance of the ship. The pina coladas and conch fritters at Margaritaville near the ship in Ocho Rios were excellent. The most aggressive sales approach we encountered was in Ocho Rios. Even near the ship you're approached by tour operators, taxi drivers and vendors every few paces. After hundreds of "no-thank you" we were happy to be back on the ship.
The entertainment on board was generally mediocre, especially the music. We did enjoy the two juggler/comedians and the two male vocalists who were excellent. During the 14 days on board we attended 6 or 7 shows. Entertainment does not appear to be one of NCL's strengths.
Regarding disembarkation; we'd recommend against the on-your-own disembarkation where you carry your own luggage off. Many people opted for that approach which resulted in real traffic congestion and slowdown of the disembarkation process. We used the colored tag approach to disembarkation and it went very smoothly.
The cruise was enjoyable, but there are a lot of other cruising options out there. It would be difficult for NCL to entice us into a third cruise with them; our two least-favorite cruising experiences have now been with NCL.