Norwegian Sun 10/23/2005 - 10/30/2005
This is our eighth cruise, our third on NCL, and our first on NCL Sun. We are an active, professional couple in our mid-thirties, cruising for the first time with our son, who was 15 months old at the time of the cruise. We were traveling with a group of family & friends which totaled 8 adults, plus our son.
As a preamble to this review, this cruise was originally a four port/two sea day cruise leaving out of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, the port was changed to Houston and one of our port days (Playa Del Carmen) was shortened to only a two hour stay on the same port day as Cozumel. NCL gave a $50 per person ($100 max per cabin) credit for these changes.
Hurricane Wilma devastated the Yucatan peninsula the Friday before we boarded, so NCL had already re-arranged our itinerary, moving the Cozumel port day from Tuesday to Friday, in hopes that Cozumel might reopen by the end of the week. I think most of us passengers knew that there was little chance that Cozumel would be ready to accept cruise ships even by Friday, after seeing the news coverage. But, we all held out hope that we might make it to Cozumel or that NCL would substitute another port. As the week began, we got no updates as to the situation with the cruise excursion desk still maintaining that we were going to Cozumel on Friday. On Wednesday night, they pulled the Cozumel excursion forms, but still no official announcement was made. We overheard other passengers and even crew members speculating about a substitute port, but still nothing official was stated by the captain. Finally, on Thursday, the captain made an announcement that Cozumel was still closed and Friday would be an at sea day. So, our cruise ended up being a two port/4 sea day cruise, which I think most passengers found incredibly disappointing. And, while most seemed understanding about the weather and the condition of the ports being out of NCLs control, most also thought that NCL should have planned better to have provided us a substitute port. In NCL's defense, the Carnival ship in the area also did not substitute a port for their planned Cozumel visit. Our group was mostly disappointed in the lack of information and communication about the situation throughout the week and the likelihood of a substitute port. Our group felt we were intentionally kept in the dark. As compensation, we got free rum punch on Friday by the pool between 11 am and noon.
Our cabin Our balcony cabin on Deck 8 Mid had plenty of room for two adults and we even had a crib added for our 15 month old. The bed, which we believe was the standard "two twins pushed together to make a queen" fit together nicely without the ridge in the middle that we have experienced on a couple of other cruises. There was a mini-fridge, which we used the entire week for our son's bottles and snacks. There was only one outlet in the bathroom marked "for shavers only" and only one outlet in the bedroom, which we were constantly using for the baby monitor, recharging camera/camcorder, etc. We were never able to use the nightlight we had brought. Would have been nice to have a couple of outlets in the bedroom. There was a couch, which we never seemed to use to sit on, but was great for holding all our stuff throughout the day. The room had plenty of closet, shelf, and drawer space. We were surprised that the balcony didn't have plexiglass, just had rails. We would have been able to use it more if it had, but with a 15 month old we had to be extremely careful with him carrying toys, sippy cups, etc out on the balcony for fear he would throw them overboard between the rails. And, we felt that if he had really tried he could have crawled underneath the bottom rail.
Our cabin was kept very clean by our steward and his assistant, though we didn't feel that they were quite as attentive as other teams we have had. Though there were three of us, we only got two sets of towels and a call to the Reception Desk one afternoon for another set didn't result in immediate attention, though we did have the third set later that evening when we returned to our room after dinner. One morning, our son spilled milk on his crib sheets, so I took them off, laid them on the bed and used a backup sheet we had brought from home for the rest of the day. They did not replace the soiled sheet with a clean one, so we kept using our backup sheet the remainder of the week. But, when we had to pack that sheet on the last night, not only did they not bring an NCL sheet - they took the crib away. We returned from dinner and immediately called Reception to get our crib returned. It was returned a short time later by our room steward, who never really apologized, but blamed the disappearance on his assistant. Though we have left extra tips for our steward and assistant on other cruises, we didn't feel this team deserved more than the standard tip this cruise.
Our room was located near to the cross hallway where two of the atrium elevators were located. However, we rarely experienced much noise except for the night before disembarkation when a group of children (sounded like middle school range) were running up and down the hallway, one of them crying, around midnight until another passenger told them to quiet down and go to their rooms. Then, on disembarkation morning, we were awaken by some staff who were in the hallway talking and laughing loudly at 6:00 am as they folded sheets and got ready for disembarkation. They quickly complied when I peeped my head out the door and asked them to be quiet.
The bathroom was an average size, for a cruise ship, but we felt this one had less room for storage and one of the smallest showers we have had. There was a hair dryer, which indeed did get hot and had three power settings. There were soap and shampoo dispensers in the shower and another soap dispenser by the sink, which were always kept full. Everything was in great working order with plenty of hot water and minimal temperature fluctuation, even during peak water usage times - like right before dinner. The ship -- We found the NCL Sun to be quite roomy. Our cruise was almost sold out, but other than at embarkation, the Chocoholic Buffet, and the Reception Desk on the last day, we never had to wait in any long lines. And, even though the immediate pool area was crowded during our three warm at sea days, there seemed to be plenty of open lounge chairs on the other sun decks around the ship. In general, the ship was very clean and tidy.
For embarkation, we had pre-purchased NCL airport transfers. Just as expected, there were two ladies near baggage claim with NCL signs welcoming us. We approached, and she crossed our names off her list, instructed us to claim our bags and then come back to her. However, after we had our bags and returned, she was nowhere to be found. We waited at that spot for a while, then one of our party started walking around to find her. We eventually found her at an NCL desk on the other side of the baggage area. She told us the next bus should be leaving in about 30 minutes. After forty five minutes, we overheard her tell another passenger who apparently had been waiting longer than us, that some buses were on the way, but that they had not expected so many of us to come at one time. How can they not know this when we were required to give our plane information to purchase the transfers? After waiting an hour, we were directed to a bus. The transfer to the port took 40 minutes and the bus was clean, air conditioned and the ride was pleasant.
We got to the pier at 1:00 pm. We were given color coded passes and told to sit in a waiting area for our color to be called. We only had to sit for about 10 minutes (we were Latitudes members), though others in our party who were not Latitudes members waited 20 minutes. Once called, we showed our passports and cruise tickets, and were directed to the security line. The security line was moving slowly, then stopped moving at all - we could see that they were not letting anyone through the two metal detectors set up. We were told that they had to hold us in the terminal, because the check-in line on the ship was too long. They did have someone walking around with cups of juice and water, which was much appreciated. After about 30 minutes, the security line started moving again and we went through with ease and walked onto the ship via a very long ramp. We were directed to the Stardust lounge, where several representatives were checking passengers in. We had pre-registered on-line before our cruise, so all we had to do for check in was to set up our on-board account with a credit card and have our pictures taken. This went fairly quickly and we were on our way to our cabin, where our luggage was already stacked by the door in the hallway.
We immediately went to the buffet, since we had had no food since breakfast, and set off to explore the ship and investigate our dining options for the week. To help us plan our week of dinners, we checked out all the specialty restaurant menus (on a table in the Grand Atrium by the Reception Desk on embarkation day till 5 pm) as well as the Seven Seas and Four Seasons menus for the week (available to browse through at the Reception Desk). We made reservations for two nights - one at Ginza and one at Pacific Heights. Reservations could be made for any day of the cruise till 5 pm each day either at a desk in the Grand Atrium on the 5th floor or by calling from your cabin phone. After 5 pm, you could still go to the restaurant to try to get a reservation for the same night. Following this, we attended the muster drill at 5:30 pm, which seemed well organized and quick. We had no life jacket for our son, but one was brought for him when we asked our cabin steward.
For disembarkation, there was an option to keep your luggage and carry it off yourself at your leisure (I think it was called Express Disembarkation) OR you could set your luggage out by 3 am and the porters would take it off the ship for you and you were assigned a color group. We set our luggage out, and waited for our color group to be called the next morning to leave the ship and get our luggage. We were allowed to stay in our cabin or in any of the dining areas or lounge areas while waiting to be called, and we really enjoyed that option versus our previous experiences of being herded to a specific area to wait. Everyone had to be off the ship by 10:00 am.
Some general things we liked: the temperature in the public areas on the ship was usually comfortable (we have found other cruises to have the AC turned up way too high); and, we liked that the photography staff did optional portraits almost every night (not just formal night).
Some things we didn't like: no free beverage that was caffeine free except water (we would have liked to have a lemonade or fruit punch option); and, we thought that many guests dressed a bit too casual in the evenings.
The service -- Aside from the cabin steward staff and the main dining room wait staff, the staff around the ship were very friendly and efficient. We enjoyed the cruise director and his staff and thought they did a good job with entertainment.
The food -- This was our second experience with Freestyle dining and we came out of it with the same feelings as with our first experience. On the pro side, we loved the flexibility of eating dinner at any time (restaurants open 5:30 till 10:00 pm, last seating at 9:00 pm). We ate as early as 5:30 pm and as late at 6:30 pm, with a group as small as 4 adults and as large as 7 adults plus highchair. In general, we found that most people ate around 7:00 pm, so the early times were never a problem with getting seated. There was only one night we had to wait for a table at Four Seasons, and that was only for about 10 minutes. Though, the same night in Four Seasons, we also had to wait about 20 minutes for a high chair to be available. And, we liked going to different restaurants with different decor and menu styles. On the con side, we missed the camaraderie you develop with fellow passengers assigned to a big table in a traditional dining arrangement. We also missed having the same wait staff each night, as they really get to know you over the course of the week and know whether you like ground pepper, whether you order from the bar, etc.
We ate breakfast each morning in the buffet, which always had a good variety with made to order omelets and waffles. The waffles were great - as long as you got them hot off the griddle. And, we found the two buffet lines outside at the back of the ship to always be much less crowded than the two inside. The tables located by the inside lines were usually always full, but we enjoyed either sitting outside by the pool or at the back of the ship, where there were always tables. And, one cooler morning, we sat at a booth in Pacific Heights which was also very pleasant. They had a juice/coffee station located there for your convenience and it was quieter than over by the buffet line.
We ate lunch mostly at the buffet also. Again, the lines at the back of the ship were always less crowded than the main two inside lines - with one of the lines in the back always having hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza. Each day had good variety of hot entrees, desserts, salads, fruit, and bread. We also enjoyed the fresh made sandwiches from Las Ramblas on Deck 12 for some of our lunches. This isn't highly publicized, but was open each day for lunch.
Pacific Heights was "Cooking Light" themed. The food was good, though a couple of our group commented that it could have been a bit more seasoned. The service here was very good - the waiter spent extra effort entertaining our 15 month old. The menu was limited and set, and while we really enjoyed our meal there, we never returned because we had already eaten the items we wanted there.
The only fee restaurant we tried was Ginza, for the Teppanyaki Grill. It was $12.00 for most of the combination meals (we had Filet and Shrimp). Service was great and the food top quality - definitely the best meal we had all week.
Four Seasons and Seven Seas were the two main dining rooms. We ate one night at Seven Seas, but since it was in the back of the ship and you could feel more ship motion and the engines were louder, we ate at Four Seasons the other nights. These two dining rooms usually have the same menu (though there are slight variations). We found the service, in general, to be below our expectations in both. The waiters did not seem to be familiar with the menu items when we asked questions about ingredients, the plates were often not cleared promptly, we often had to ask for drink refills, and one night we were not even asked if we wanted beverages. Some nights, it seemed to take a long time for entrees to arrive and one night we waited a very long time for our desserts.
We liked the ice cream/yogurt bar - good ice cream, good variety of flavors and toppings and great hours.
The Chocoholic Buffet, held one afternoon in Four Seasons, was a feast for the eyes and stomach with quite a variety of chocolate goodies along with wonderful ice carvings and chocolate displays. The line was very long and there seemed to be quite a bit of confusion on how many lines there actually were going into the dining room and, once in the dining room, the lines then bizarrely split again creating more confusion and bad flow through the food areas. Arriving toward the end of the event, I was disappointed that they had run out of strawberries for chocolate dipping. Were told they were getting more, so I waited, but the promised strawberries never came. While waiting, the lady doing the chocolate dipping allowed a teenager to dip his own fruit, after he handled it on his plate - which I felt was very unsanitary and my thoughts were echoed by other passengers who witnessed it. The entertainment -- On our previous two NCL cruises, we had seen the production shows by the Jean Anne Ryan Company, so we opted to skip those this cruise. They were good to see the first time, but didn’t warrant a repeat performance in our opinion. We really enjoyed both guest comedians. They each did two individual shows on two different nights, plus a combined show on the last night. They also both participated in the Liar’s Club show, along with the cruise director and his assistant. And, one of them also did a short afternoon show in the Observation lounge. Their names were Fred Klett and Peter Sasso. There was the usual Newlywed game, which we always thoroughly enjoy. We also went to see the Friendly Feud, which we enjoyed. We didn’t get a chance to listen to most of the musicians, except for the band who played by the pool and a latin guitarist, both of which we enjoyed.
I also attended one of the country line dancing classes, which was very fun, and the fruit & vegetable carving demonstration. There seemed to be a good variety of other lectures, lessons, wine-tastings, etc, but we just didn’t have time to attend any of them. There was Hairy Chest competition by the pool which was entertaining.
I made it to the spa for a manicure on the first day, which was a pleasant experience and done very well – it lasted all week. Two of the other ladies in our group got massages (one the Hot Stone Massage and one a Neck/Shoulder massage) and both loved them.
There were two nighttime, poolside events. One was the sail away party and the other was an Island party later in the week. There was also a 50’s sock hop night, 70’s night, and two different Karaoke sessions. We didn’t get a chance to attend any of these, however, since our son was traveling with us.
Below is a summary of our days in port, so read on for recommendations on things to do.
Belize City, Belize -- This is a tender port. The ships have to anchor 4 miles from the pier, which is certainly the longest tender we have ever had. We had booked a shore excursion through NCL prior to boarding – the Cave Tubing and Jungle Trek. We were instructed to go to the Four Seasons dining room at 9:30 and we got there early. It was packed because apparently all the ship tours left from there. They began to call for tours to leave the room and go to the tenders. But, they would call several tours together, which seemed to lead to a lot of unnecessary confusion, both leaving the dining room and finding your tour at the pier. We felt it might have been smoother to only call one tour at a time. Though our tour was supposed to start at 9:30, we didn’t get off the ship, tendered, and on our bus till 10:30 – consequently, our tour returned to the pier about one hour later than scheduled.
There is a long bus ride, but watching the scenery and the small communities out the window was nice. We wound our way through the city, and then out on the highway. The last 7 miles to the Jaguar Paw resort was pretty rough (I can't imagine how often they have to change the shocks on those buses!!) On the way, our tour guide gave us a lot of good information about the country and the culture, explained the way of living, and inserted jokes and trivia. In addition, we took some good pictures along the way.
Jaguar Paw had bathrooms/changing rooms and they secured our backpacks while we were tubing. The weather was warm and sunny (mid 80's). The water in the river was warm, like unheated pool water. Once I got wet and into the caves, I did get a bit chilly, but didn't find it uncomfortable and it didn't hamper my enjoyment of the excursion. We tubed through Caves #3 and #4. We did about a 40 minute walk, carrying our tubes, through the jungle, and then the tubing part was about 70 minutes. Had to do more paddling with our hands that I had anticipated, but this is a river, so the current is subject to the recent rainfall. We didn't need bug spray the day we went. There were only two places we were told to "pick up our butts" due to shallowness and the guides took turns being motors for us, in a human chain. Saw bats hanging from the ceiling and interesting cave formations. It was a very unique shore excursion.
We found the included lunch (rice, chicken, slaw, and bottled Coke) to be very good and filling. And, we saw a pack of Howler monkeys in the tree right above the changing rooms.
I would recommend this excursion, whether through the cruise line or through a private company. I will say though that this may be challenging for small kids or non-active adults. Carrying the tubes through the jungle (a fairly level path but with lots of tree roots and general unevenness) would be tough for a small child. Our guide did carry one tube for an elderly lady in our group and I saw some husbands carrying their wives' tubes. The tubes aren't heavy, but are a bit awkward. There was some paddling required for movement as well as for steering, though the guides did often come to act as motors for people as we chained together by hand, especially helping the older folks and the women.
We all wore bathing suits; some also wore T-shirts and shorts over bathing suits. And, we took a dry change of clothes and ship towel and sunscreen. Anything you take tubing will get wet, so only a waterproof camera and yourself should be taken on the tubing - everything else can be left securely in a backpack or tote at the resort. Hats or sunglasses should be left in your backpack as the hat will probably get wet and be in the way of your headlamp and the sunglasses are useless in the caves and could easily get lost. Folks wore all sorts of shoes from river sandals, water shoes, old tennis shoes (they will get wet, so don't wear your good ones and socks are useless). Flip flops or mules would not work well, since they may come off in the river. There was a little gift stand at the resort with a few trinkets, and beer and ice cream could be purchased for lunch. Other than that and a tip for the guide, you should take little cash, and they did take US dollars. We only purchased a magnet, so we cannot really attest to the prices, although the same magnet was cheaper at the stores by the dock.
Once we arrived back at the pier, we spent about an hour walking around the “Tourism Area” which had some souvenir shops, a couple of bars, and several jewelry stores. Since we were the only ship in port that day and it was getting late, some of the shops had already closed. The area was fenced in from the rest of the city, and we had been discouraged from leaving the area. And, from what we saw from the bus, we didn’t miss anything in the actual city of Belize City. This is definitely not a “walkable” port and the best thing to do is to take an excursion to see the beautiful beaches, snorkel, scuba dive, jungle, go cave tubing, etc.
Roatan, Honduras -- This was a gangway port, so no time wasted on tenders. We elected to take an NCL excursion for this port called the Tabyana Beach Party. We made the reservation at the Shore Excursion desk during our cruise. We exited the ship at the time appointed (8 am) to meet our tour on the pier. We were showed to a school bus, and then taken on a 40 minute ride to the Tabyana resort, arriving at 9 am. The beach was beautiful with white, powder soft sand, and lots of shade trees very near the water. The facility had restrooms, changing rooms, bar, outside showers, gift shops, and snorkel gear rental. Lunch was provided as part of the excursion, which was a decent buffet which lasted for 2 hours. The line was always very long, though, from the time they opened till they ended. Lemonade, water, and tea were provided the entire day – though we found that they did run out of lemonade in the afternoon. There was a band that literally played all day and could easily be heard from the water – we enjoyed listening to them. This was a protected beach, so had little wave action and no undertow – great for kids and to just pull a lounge chair into the water’s edge or float on a raft. There seemed to be plenty of lounge chairs and there were bar staff walking around continuously to take orders. There was decent snorkeling right from the beach – water was very clear and a good variety of fish and coral formations. There were men on kayaks who were out in the water to assist and to make sure snorkelers stayed in the safe areas. There were other fee activities at the beach, like parasailing and sea kayaks, but we didn’t try any of them. Starting at 1 pm, the buses returned and began continuous cycles back and forth from the ship. The last bus left at 4 pm. We left around 3:00 and had a very short wait for the bus. Good views of the ship on the return bus trip. We didn’t have time to visit any of the shops within walking distance of the pier. Read Less