We are a working couple in our early 60s. We have sailed NCL at least a dozen times (we are Platinum). We’ve sailed other cruise lines as well. Our first cruise ever was on NCL in the early 1990’s and over the years we thought the ... Read More
We are a working couple in our early 60s. We have sailed NCL at least a dozen times (we are Platinum). We’ve sailed other cruise lines as well. Our first cruise ever was on NCL in the early 1990’s and over the years we thought the product had become stale but NCL is back and in a big way, but there are things they still need to work on.
This was our first cruise on one of their new Breakaway class ships. The Bliss is considered Breakaway-Plus (not exactly sure what that means). She holds almost 5000 passengers. We had 4200 fellow passengers on our sailing with a variety of ages and nationalities and very few children. Here’s a breakdown of our cruise with grades.
>Pre-Booking through Cruise Planner – B
Like most cruise lines, NCL offers to book excursions before the sail date. However, what was available before embarkation was not a complete list. In fact, a couple of ports were showing only a single or no excursions. This influenced the “Free at Sea” options we chose, which probably cost us $ because we did not go with the shore excursion option. We chose the dining and the 250-minutes of internet options. Granted it was a re-positioning cruise so ports were a new itinerary, but NCL should be more on the ball with this. Plus the ports changed multiple times up until a few weeks before the sailing.
>Doubletree Hotel at the Port – A
We chose to go a day early and stayed at the Doubletree at the port, which is one of the closest hotels and set in a marina, resort-like area. Very nice. We used points, but did it early. Good thing we did because the hotel sold out the night we were there.
>Embarkation – A-
Fast and easy. Arrived after the early crush (around 1:30). No lines. They didn’t take our pictures for the on-boarding but rather scanned in our passport photos. Only negative is the industrial setting of the port, not exactly attractive. And it is too easy to get lost driving to the port or head to the wrong one (Long Beach). Which we did.
>Cabin – C
We had an aft-facing balcony on the 14th deck. Typical configuration with two choices; bed by balcony or couch by balcony (we had the later). My husband described cabin as functional but small. One asset was the many ports for charging electronics. Actual USB ports were by each bedside and at the desk. Balcony was over-sized but the deepest (biggest) aft balconies were lower on deck 12. You could easily fit lounge chairs on the balcony we had. If you want them, ask the room steward. The cabin was tight for storage space. If it wasn’t for the two big drawers under the couch, we would have had significant problems with storage. Bathroom was tiny, but shower was a little larger than typically found on cruise ships. The room had creaking around top of balcony door especially at higher speeds which actually woke me up several nights. This room was smaller than we usually go for, but we wanted the aft, and it was this room or the Haven suites $$$.
The flat screen TV was an LG. Another post had indicated you could connect wirelessly to the TV from an iPad. We couldn’t find this option and any extra video ports were disabled. Fortunately, the optical-out for sound worked which my husband used for his hearing aid device (ComPilot). There were several free movie channels plus pay-per-view movies. There was no guide to the free movie schedule so we had to get a printout from guest services. Worked fine until several confusing time changes and NCL neglected to shift the movie schedule. NCL really needs to work on this and publish the schedule in the daily planner, through their app, or online.
Unfortunately, we discovered NCL has ruined the aft cabin experience with this ship layout. Disturbing our sleep were disco-style parties that went on until well after midnight three decks above us on deck 17. This is the new Spice H2O NCL is using, and retrofitting on some ships. It serves as an outdoor disco. Problem is it uses massive stadium speakers bolted to the deck and the noise travels through several decks and also comes through balcony doors. SERIOUS design flaw. Between us were two decks, usually a safe bet, with cabins on deck 15 and the spa on deck 16. The music was blasted in this open air venue at the aft of the ship. I can only imagine how bad it was for the cabins above us on deck 15. The over-amplification of the bass caused some adjacent drinking glasses in our cabin to shimmy and clink together. My husband went up one night to try to get the DJ to turn it down and the DJ tried to defend the volume. My husband said when he got up there it was so loud it was uncomfortable. On the next to last night of the cruise we were awakened at quarter to one by the LOUD vibrating bass coming from the multi-speaker towers as well as other speakers on the multiple tall poles. This time it was a private function that went on until 2 a.m. We complained to Guest Services, but they really were unable to influence the DJ to turn it down. Found out later it was a CREW party! So much for passenger consideration!
The next morning we got a call from Guest Services offering us a substantial amount of on-board credit as a “good will gesture, not compensation” for the inconvenience. Must be some legal thing. That is when we found out that the private function was the second CREW PARTY in the last seven months so they were really partying. I asked if the lower decks complained (e.g. deck 12) and the Guest Services guy said not so much but mostly the upper decks which tells me we were not the only ones complaining. Because of this I would not recommend an aft cabin on any NCL ship with Spice H2O. It is no longer sufficient to check that there is nothing noisy on the deck above you. NCL has full control to fix this by adjusting volume, but until they do I would avoid an aft location.
We had a total of six specialty restaurant meals. Most specialty restaurants on the Bliss have outside, café-style seating on the Promenade deck. We ate outside when we could. Really liked that. We really did not have problems making reservations, but we also like to eat earlier (5-5:30) so we beat the rush. Plenty of choices.
>>Main dining rooms Savoy and Taste – A-
This is one area that really stood out as a major improvement from our previous NCL cruises. I usually ordered fish dishes and all were very good to excellent. Service was adequate to excellent. We didn’t try the Manhattan room but was told that was the busiest of the three main dining venues. But also the noisiest, so we avoided it. Also tried the Savoy dining room for lunch one time. Had an excellent grouper sandwich.
>>Garden Cafe – A-
Great selection and nicely prepared food. As is typical, finding a seat was tough at peak times. Indian and Asian food stations were very good. They even had Middle Eastern food. They also had hard ice cream with a few of the more unique flavors rotated daily. Good traffic flow patterns and lots of space and stations so no real waiting to get your food most times. One complaint is that it took at least two go-rounds in the painfully slow toasters to get your bread/English muffins/bagels even lightly toasted. But they had multiple omelet stations and lines were very bearable. Secret for a quiet breakfast is to either get cold items (muffins, cereal, yogurt, juice, coffee) on the deck below in the Observation Lounge or get your hot items in the Garden Cafe and take them to the Observation Lounge. The Observation Lounge is huge and quiet Note: the aft cabins are a LONG walk to the Garden Cafe, probably close to a football field.
>>Le Bistro – B
Ate there twice. First time service was outstanding and second time not so much. Waitress seemed impatient and somewhat condescending with our questions when placing our order but seemed to have lightened up over time. Do try the highly recommended lamb chops. One of the best meals for the entire cruise. Wish they had a non-fru-fru salad on the menu but they did get me one as a special request. Husband had the onion soup and thought it was fabulous. Husband had foie gras and said it was first rate, as good as he has had in France. Wine steward was really good and made great recommendations. Very knowledgeable and down to earth.
>>La Cucina – C
Ate there very early in the cruise. Ordered steaks that were somewhat dry and I saw the waiter wipe his runny nose with the back of his hand which is not only gross but unacceptable. I’d be grossed out if the cashier at Macy’s did this when buying a shirt. Did mention this to a manager of a different specialty restaurant but we couldn’t remember the name of the waiter. I would think they could figure it out from our reservation.
>>Los Lobos – A-
Fabulous service - hands down best service on ship. My complaint was that they marinated their meats before grilling them, giving them a more stewed taste rather than a charred grill taste. So Carne Asada was not to my liking but it’s all relative. And the portions were huge...too much food. They make guacamole at the table and used two big avocados and then added tomatoes, onions, etc...which made for a mountain of guacamole. Very good though. The upbeat and attentive waitress brought us stuff to taste and drink in addition to what we ordered. I couldn’t eat more than a third of the food before me at best. We sat outside on a lovely evening so overall a really nice experience.
>>Cagney’s – B
I ordered the prime rib and a HUGE slab of meat was before me. Almost grossed me out. And it fell apart like bar-b-que which is not how I am used to eating prime rib. Didn’t have a nice roasted flavor either. I felt horrible about wasting so much food but barely ate any of it. My husband had the filet which he said was perfect.
>>“Q” – A
Our cabin neighbors loved it and thought the smoked chicken was the best ever. They were in a Haven suite and thought that was the best food on board. However a couple we met on an excursion thought it was a poor excuse for bar-b-que which turned off my husband, but I still I wanted to try it. My husband grew up in Texas and he does his own smoking of meats with fancy man-cave smokers. In addition our cabin neighbors said the place has a C/W band that added to their dining experience. My better half finally relented and we tried it late in the cruise and am so glad we did. The smoked meats, especially the brisket, were outstanding. The brisket had a smoky flavor, was tender and melted in your mouth. It had the characteristic red ring that a true smoked brisket has when properly prepared. We spoke to the manager and they do indeed have a smoker on board and use oak and mesquite woods for 6 hrs at 225 degrees and then finish in a warm oven, so the chef knows what she/he is doing. If you love good Texas style bar-b-que, don’t miss this place. Only negative was that there are no windows or outdoor seating so place feels somewhat like a cave.
>>Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville – Not Rated
We did not eat at this outdoor hamburger eatery on the pool deck, and rarely saw others there. Made us wonder about the food turnover.
>>Oceanaire – Not Rated.
We considered eating at the Oceanaire (it is an up-charge from the dining plan) but decided not. While it serves all manner of fish, its forte is oysters which neither of us are fans of. We opted to get fish in other restaurants and avoid the up-charge.
>Entertainment - Bands and singers were outstanding – A-
The “lounge” pianist and singer was great (Suzanne?). Familiar Strangers was a great band with a super talented lead singer. The Latin duo was also great. Tried to see the British Beatles Band but the volume was way too loud, which seemed to be a constant in a lot of ship venues. There is a comedy club that seemed to feature different comedians every night. Some required reservations. We didn’t sit in in any of these.
>Theater – C
This ship holds Almost 5000 guests and the theater seats 800. Do the math. If you want to see a show you need to arrive 45-60 minutes early or you won’t get it a seat. Literally. You can make reservations for some shows but arrive early or you won't get the seat you hoped for.
Music in theater is very, very over amplified. Totally unnecessary – unless you’re trying to drown out bad singing. Drowns out singers and actually uncomfortably loud. I heard this complaint from other passengers as well. Saw “Havana” which was OK, but my husband could not hear the singing due to the over amplification. Also saw “Jersey Boys” which was pretty good, and better than “Havana”. But NCL has a problem on this ship with too much loudness (see Spice H2O and Beatles above) and needs to fire the sound engineer, and find another cruise director if this continues with passengers complaining, like on our cruise.
>>Ensenada - B
Did a winery tour. Did you know that there are over 200 wineries in that area? I didn’t. We took a bus to one of the oldest big wineries (L.A. Cetto) and got to sample some of their whites (pretty good) and reds (dreadful). The winery had a nice “Day of the Dead” altar. We stopped at a much smaller winery just for tastings. Their reds were even worse. We drove through some beautiful countryside. However, you did see the telltale signs of an improvised third world country though.
>>Mazatlan – B-
Mazatlan sits in one of the most crime-ridden Mexican states so we opted to simply walk around the old town. This was really easy to do and the town sets it up very well by painting a red stripe on the road guiding folks to the old town. The whole old town is only about a mile square. Nice feel. At the end we walked over to the tower to watch cliff divers, and then back to the ship.
The ship stopped at Guatemala City but everything to see is at least an hour bus ride away. (There is nothing except a tourist market by the cruise port.) There is a UNESCO city most go to, but we weren’t on this cruise to visit historical sites and did not want to suffer an hour bus ride each way. We’ve done these before and hate these bus rides so opted out. I stayed on board and my husband went on shore to the tourist market by the port. There was a lot there and he picked up a bag of coffee. Lots of vendors with similar stuff. Otherwise nothing special.
We had cruised half way through the Panama Canal years ago in an aft cabin and loved it. On that cruise we were able to carry on a conversation with the guy working the “mule”. This influenced our cabin location on the Bliss. We did not realize until we were on board that the Bliss goes through the NEW locks that don’t use “mules”. We were told this was only the second time for the Bliss and that the Bliss was so far the only cruise ship to use the new locks. Technically, the new locks are a marvel but the experience was not as interesting as the old locks to us. There were no stops and the start was O-dark thirty. (On the half-way transit, we were able to disembark in Panama and the market adjacent to the port was incredible). It was a different experience traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and fortunately the weather was overcast so we did not bake in the sun. There are a couple of bridges we went under and we went by the prison that had once held Noriega. NCL had arranged for a guest speaker who was an expert on the Panama Canal and he gave several talks. Unfortunately, his lectures were plodding and he kept talking about how great he was. At the end of one lecture, he made egotistical comments about himself and the sung ALL the verses to “It’s Hard to be Humble” acapella. Ugh...
>>Costa Rica - B
Did a coffee plantation tour. Beautiful drive up through the mountains of this volcanic country. Reminded me of the Hawai’ian islands. Tour was outstanding and Costa Ricans view their coffee with passion. Felt like I was on a winery tour with tastings. The guide even instructed us on how to sample the coffees by rolling it around in our mouth, noticing the color and scent. Like wine. We stopped for lunch at a buffet type place with not very good food and more than enough time in a big somewhat cheesy souvenir shop. While there, they also did a short presentation on a hydraulic power station that was very old. They did a demo and had antique woodworking equipment being run via belts. Hard to see, hear and understand the guide here but mildly interesting. Crowded with lots of tour buses hitting this stop. Money exchanged was in dollars, and right across the street where my husband went to get a local beer they only accepted local money, so obviously a this lunch/shopping stop was a tourist trap.
>>Cartagena – D-
Busy, crowded, hot, humid and unrelentingly aggressive street vendors that required almost constant comments of “No thank you” from me. My husband just started saying no with a very stern voice. However there is a really nice park with a zoo, gift shop and restaurant right where you catch boats to get over to the Walled City. The park is a five minute walk from the ship. I would definitely recommend the park and it’s free admission. The actual boat ride over to the Walled City takes about 10 minutes but loading and unloading takes a while. We walked around the Walled City but it really wasn’t enjoyable for me (weather and vendors) so I took an earlier boat back and spent time in the park with the zoo. My husband stayed in Cartagena and did the Inquisition museum tour ($8) which he felt was totally not worth it. Only a few replicas and was really disappointed.
>Debarkation – D
Long lines to leave the ship for the terminal to retrieve luggage. One of our three suitcases was not with the other two. With the help of a NCL staffer, we found it misplaced on the other side of the big terminal after a half hour of looking. Not sure why our yellow-tagged bag was with the green-tagged ones. Had to go through customs and finally made it outside to catch the shuttle to the rental car pick-up location. The first shuttle was full so waited about a half hour for the next one. The Miami port terminal, thankfully, is being renovated and enlarged. When it was built, cruise ships had about 2000 passengers and now they can have 5000 to 6000. This terminal cannot handle the increasing number of passengers.
Got to the rental car place and loads of people were waiting outside for both Budget and Avis as they didn’t have enough cars. We were early so they would not even consider giving us a car until our reservation time. When our reservation time rolled around, they still didn’t have a full-sized car as reserved so they ended up giving us a small SUV. When we turned it in at the drop off near our home, we saw a sneaky upgrade charge we were not told about and thankfully the agent refunded it. In all our years renting cars for work and vacations, we’ve never been subjected to an upgrade charge when the type of car we reserved was not available and they had to substitute.
1. Have breakfast in the Observation Lounge forward on deck 16. No hot food (except some hot cereals) but nice choices including the BEST mango and strawberry yogurt ever. Coffee/tea, cereal, pastries, juices etc... Peaceful, comfortable and nice view anywhere you sit.
2. Download the NCL app. Use the app to make reservations for tours, restaurants, shows... Made restaurant reservations during the life boat drill! They are still developing the app so you can’t see everything on your phone that you can on TV staterooms such as the navigation map, but you can see what is going on at that moment.
3. Got the WiFi pkg but not sure we needed it as could easily check e-mails and text messages in ports of call. However, NCL offers a $9.95 per cruise per device setup where you can call and text each other’s phones on board. Do this! You can be anywhere on the ship and still reach your significant other or kids.
4. Husband has a hearing aid device (Compilot) that he connected with fiber optics to the back of the TV in the cabin so that it could communicate directly with his hearing aids. So he could watch TV with the sound muted and I could sleep if he watched TV in bed.
5. Many of the specialty restaurants have outdoor seating. Highly recommended.
6. We didn’t find out about the Vibe option until late in cruise. The Vibe is a separate outdoor setting with padded lounge chairs that is quiet and capacity controlled. I think it’s well worth the extra charge and will jump on it for my next NCL cruise (not all their ships have this option but I think it’s on most of the Breakaway class ships). This can only be booked once on board and is first-come, first-serve, unless you are in a Haven suite. By the way, the Haven folks also have another separate area.
7. Do the slides by the pool. They’re fun and seem safe. One is a platform drop with two loops. You are in a standing position for this one and are dropped. The other is an inner tube sluice through tubes. If you’re a lightweight you may get stuck in the stand-up one where one loop goes against gravity. Crew said this most often happens with folks wearing tee shirts. Some folks had to be “rescued” which was no big whoop. Read Less