NCL Bliss - Panama Canal - November 2018 - 14 Days
We recently returned from a cruise aboard the NCL Bliss traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama Canal & Cartagena, Columbia. We enjoyed the cruise a lot. This being a ... Read More
NCL Bliss - Panama Canal - November 2018 - 14 Days
We recently returned from a cruise aboard the NCL Bliss traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama Canal & Cartagena, Columbia. We enjoyed the cruise a lot. This being a two week cruise at the beginning of November there were probably only 20 kids on the ship in total and the average traveler age was probably 60. These factors did influence our experience significantly. There were some highlights and there were some disappointments.
About us: We are mid 50's, have cruises 40+ times, were traveling with a group of 14, ages ranging from 50 to 85. Had never sailed on NCL. We booked a spa balcony stateroom, our rate included the unlimited beverage package and a dining package (we dined 9 nights in dining rooms with an additional cost(Specialty Dining), with a prepaid package for 8 of those nights) Dining Venues used: Manhattan, Savor, Taste, Tepannyaki, La Cucina, Le Bistro, Ocean Blue, Q, The Local, Garden Café, Los Lobos, Food Republic, Cagneys, Coco's, Margaritaville, Starbuck, The Bake Shop, and Dolce Gelato. Activities and entertainment we participated in: Cart track, both water slides, pools, spa thermal suite, massage, bowling, Jersey Boys, Havana, Happy Hour Prohibition, Beetles show, Comedy Social, and the Cavern Club.
Service was fantastic everywhere. There were times the front desk staff seemed uniformed about ports and times but other than that service around the ship was excellent, friendly and personable.
Dining was excellent. This was influenced by our decision to eat as many meal as we did in the Specialty dining venues. Our experience in the main dining room, (Manhattan, Savor and Taste) were hit or miss. Breakfast was good in Savor and Taste but sometimes very slow. Service in the main dining rooms was okay, one night GREAT! Food has very mediocre most nights in the main dining rooms. Our best meals were in #1 Le Bistro, #2 La Cucina, #3 Cagneys (We did do Cagneys and La Cucina twice) We were disappointed with Ocean Blue, didn't think it warranted the extra cost.
Coco's - we went for the staff and the fantastic treats! So friendly and so good!
The entertainment - both the Jersey Boys and Havana we two of the best productions I have seen on a cruise ship and with 40+ cruises we have seen a lot of shows. Great energy, production, vocals!
The ship is beautiful! Doesn't feel like a ship but more like a luxury resort. There are so many smaller venues that it makes it feel now so big. This is a BIG ship with 4000+ guests but spreads out the crowds fairly well, with a few exceptions. We were always able to find several deck chairs together but the decks were often full.
The spa thermal suite is beautiful and a great place to relax! There is a therapy pool, hot tub, snow room, salt room, steam room, two saunas, heated lounges, showers, locker rooms with views of the ships wake, padded lounge chairs. The space is coed and is generally full of folks but never had an issue finding a place. Some folks do drop the things on a heated lounger and then go to other spaces. That did make it difficult to find available heated loungers at times. There are signs that give a max time for the loungers but folks seem to ignore that. Overall a fantastic venue. Our room included access to the venue and a location on the ship that is close which we did enjoy. Not sure I would pay for this this way in the future. Would probably purchase a regular balcony stateroom and then pay for the weekly pass to the thermal suite. There are, however, a limited number of passes available each week so you'd have to book that early on embarkation do to ensure you could get a pass.
Could have been handled better:
The Garden Café - the ships buffet does become very crowded. They have done a great job of spreading out the serving stations and there were seldom lines at the serving stations. But, getting a table was always difficult! The staff was fantastic at clearing table and were very efficient in getting tables turned! It didn't help that we were often looking for seats for 6 or 8 at a time. It seldom happened that we could find two tables together. Most of the time we split up into 4's and sat where we could find a seat. It seems peak hours could be supplemented by offering a full breakfast buffet in Margaritaville or another venue. There were light breakfast items served in Margaritaville and in the Observation Lounge but some further way to lighten the load in the Garden Café at peak hours would be really helpful. Another time that was horrible was on embarkation day lunch. Two other lunch options identified at the gangway could have minimized the horrible experience that that first meal was.
Ports: Our ports were changed twice from the time we first booked our cruise. The last change eliminated Cabo San Lucas and replaced it with Ensenada. This change, the second change, was made right after final payments were required and therefore cancelation would require a penalty. The cruise line did provide a $100 ship board credit for the change, but those that have been to Ensenada know that it is not a port that should be on a 14 day itinerary where many passengers have paid in excess of $3500 per person. We made the best of it and found a San Diego company that took us wine tasting in the Valle de Guadalupe and had a fantastic time. The stop was then further challenged by the port call times. We were in port from 8:00am to 3:00 pm. However, that day was the day of time change due to daylight savings time and the ship choose not to change the time forward. Therefore our port time was 7:00am to 2:00pm in Ensenada. What is there to do at 7:00 am in Ensenada? Nothing! That felt a bit like smoke and mirrors. We only had one port where we were in port during a normal 8 hour window. Mazatlan, we were in port from 12:00 to 7:00pm. However, because you have make reservations for shows and dining in advance, made before the schedule change, the evening hours conflicted with a show. So we had 4 hours for that port. Costa Rica we docked in an industrial port that required a 35 minute shuttle ride to get to town. Holland America got to dock in town. With the changes to ports, the port times, and port locations, it didn't seem like NCL had the clout to get the preferred locations, ports or times or they hadn't don't the planning necessary early enough to do so. I would not do another NCL cruise to an itinerary where they weren't working a regular schedule. This in essence was a repositioning cruise for the ship, moving from summer in Alaska to winter in the Caribbean. These were port that, for this ship, they would only be visiting twice a year and they didn't have the on the ground infrastructure to accommodate a ship of this size. This could also be seen in the excursion offerings they had. Overall they were very limited and lacked in depth of experience. We sailed on Celebrity earlier this year from Chile through the Canal to Florida and the excursion offerings were much more extensive and interesting. As a result of this we booked all but one excursion on our own with private tour operators in the ports. But, if you were not comfortable doing this the ports would not have been a very good experience.
Panama Canal Schedule: We asked three days before our canal crossing what the schedule would be and the front desk staff was very uninformed. He told us that we were scheduled to arrive at the canal between 3:00am and 6:00am. When I asked if we would be entering the locks or going through the first set of locks in the dark he said we could be but not to worry because the entire crossing would be a large part of the day. This was disappointing since the cruise lines itinerary indicated it would be daylight crossing. We asked again the night before and the front desk was still very vague. We were again told we would arrive at the Bridge of the Americas at around 3:00 am but they were unclear when we would enter the first lock. With the size of the ship we had to cross under the Bridge of the Americas at low tide which I understand that cruise line cannot control but will 4000+ passenger that paid for a panama canal cruise you would think they would have more definitive information. We ended up crossing under the Bridge of the Americas at 2:40am. I did make it out on deck just prior to passing under the bridge and it looked like there was only about 15 ft to spare. We had one member of our group that needed a place to sit to watch the crossing so I went to the observation lounge to sit in a seat for him until we starting entering the first lock. At 2:50 am there was a full row of people already at the windows, many of which spent the night in a chair to get a good seat. At 5:00 am, still dark, we moved forward toward the first set of locks. I called other members of our group and the one showed up for his seat at 5:30 and the rest of us headed to the bow of the ship to watch. The canal crossing was very interesting. Given the size of the ship we transited through the new panama canal locks. By the time we entered the third lock in the pacific side set of locks the crowd had thinned out and from that time on you could find a place at a rail or anywhere around the ship. We watched from the stern on deck 8, the rail on deck 7, the rail on deck 19, the bow, the waterfront on deck 8 and the observation lounge. There was narration that was happening during the day but there where many of the deck areas where you couldn’t hear the narration.
Margaritaville: This is fantastic venue but few people ate there. The most I saw during our cruise was three tables at one time. We ate here once and the food was good but didn't feel like it was worth $14.95 per person more than a meal in the buffet, the local or the dining rooms. One of us had a burger and one fish and chips. The food was good and the setting is nice but I think it just costs too much. I bet they would grow their business exponentially if they lowered the price to $7.95
Reservations: Reservations are required to soooo many things on this ship. I was very proactive and made dining and show reservations as soon as they were available in advance of our cruise. That was very difficult with a group of 14!!!! Finally got help from some in the groups department which was greatly appreciated. Even with reservations if you wanted good seats you needed to show up for shows an hour in advance. There were always standby line available and usually folks in those lines got in but you would sit in the back or have to look around a pole.
I think a key reason we had a great time on this cruise is that we knew what could about what to expect or we were willing to be flexible with those things we couldn't arrange in advance. There are a lot of opportunities to spend extra money on this ship, gelato, bowling, go carts, shows (Happy Hour Prohibition, included drinks), Starbucks, chocolates, cookies..... but we knew that and did the things we wanted to...the moto was "We're on Vacation!"
This is beautiful ship with more things to do and experience that you can do in a week or even two weeks. They have put together a fantastic staff that is eager to serve and are so gracious. I did say a few times, and I have 4 kids that are now in their 20's, I'm not sure I would want to be on the ship during a normal peak travel week with 1000 kids on board. You'd wait in line for the water slides, and the ice cream machine in the buffet, you'd have a hard time getting a reservation for the go carts and laser tag and the buffet would be even more congested. I liked being the Kid on the ship! Read Less