For our fiftieth wedding anniversary, we decided to do a full transit of the Panama Canal. We had done a round trip partial transit ten day cruise several years ago, but this time decided to do a full transit.
We embarked on the cruise in Miami, FL. We are wintering in Apollo Beach, FL, near Tampa, so we and the other couple cruising with us rented a car and drove to Miami the day before the cruise. We stayed in the Best Western in Kendall overnight, turned in the car at a lot near the cruise port, and took the free shuttle provided by the rental car agency (Budget) to the port. We arrived at the port at around 12:00pm. We had a fairly short wait outside before the line started moving, and once the line started moving, we were onboard by about 12:45, and our room was ready for us.
We had a mid-ship balcony cabin, 9068, so we were very centrally located for everything on the ship. The cabin wasn't as large as others we have been in, but it was sufficient. It could do with some new carpeting and new drapes. There was a king size bed, a couch that could be made into a single bed, a table, and a chair. The table was under the TV, which was on the wall, a flat screen LCD TV. The on/off button on the remote didn't work, so we had to turn the TV on manually, but all the other buttons worked. TV is very limited - MSNBC, FoxNews, BBC News, CNBC, a sports channel, and several NCL channels where they showed movies, TV shows, and the game shows that were played in the Spinnaker Lounge in the evenings. It was not interactive like on some cruise ships.
Our room steward was very nice and very accommodating. We had to ask for robes twice before we got them (on other cruises they were already in the room). There was also a refrigerator that was full of booze and sodas that you had to pay for. Also, in one of the closets, there was a safe for valuables. There was plenty of storage space, hangers, drawers, and shelves, so we could unpack our suitcases for the 2 week trip and place them under the bed to get them out of the way. Part way through the cruise they gave us an offer for laundry - fill one bag with laundry and they would wash it and fold it for you for $19.95. It's a great deal and was good for the whole trip. We only had laundry done once.
We had the six night dining package, so we ate in five of the six specialty restaurants, and they were all wonderful! Teppenyaki is a Japanese hibachi grill where the chef prepares the meal right at the table. You could have steak, chicken, fish, or any combination of them all. It was wonderful!! Moderno is a Brazillian steak house where servers come to your table with several different types of meat - chicken wrapped in bacon, beef, sausage, pork ribs, beef ribs, and lamb. Plus some delicious grilled fresh pineapple. La Cucina is a delicious Italian restaurant with wonderful food. Le Bistro is a great French restaurant, and Cagney's is a wonderful steakhouse. We ate in all of them, and the food was exceptional! We made reservations in all the specialty restaurants before we got on the ship, and I'm glad we did, because the restaurant reservation desk lines were always very long. We also got the times we wanted by making our reservations early. One restaurant that always seems to fill up quickly and is a favorite is the Teppenyaki hibachi grill. It has very limited seating and is very popular.
For lunch, we ate in Tsar's Palace several times because we really liked being served rather than standing in line and then looking for a table. Another nice sit-down place is O'Sheehan's Irish Pub with pub food. We ate there a few times (it is complimentary). The only problem with it is that the menu is the same every day. At Tsar's Palace, it changed from day to day. One place we found our last couple of days on the ship was La Cucina for breakfast and lunch. It is open for both meals, and is very quiet and out of the way. I wish we had found it earlier in the cruise!
For dinner, we ate in the specialty restaurants, in the Azura main dining room, Tsar's Palace main dining room, O'Sheehan's, and up in the Garden Cafe. The Garden Cafe periodically had themes - one night was Asian food, and one night was Caribbean food, etc. We loved the freestyle cruising, where we could go to dinner any time and anywhere we wanted.
Entertainment was some of the best we have seen on a cruise ship. The Jewel singers and dancers were extraordinary, and they had a wonderful Broadway singer come sing for us, a comedienne who was hilarious and included her 8 year old daughter in her final performance on the ship (they both play the violin), and a fantastic Russian acrobatic couple who did all kinds of acrobatics using trapezes and long pieces of fabric. There was also a magician and a hypnotist. The cruise director, Iain, was hilarious and ended every show with a "joke of the day." He also hosted silly game shows, and in the afternoons, did Q&A's with the entertainers.
The itinerary was fantastic. We saw four places we have never seen before - Cartagena, Colombia, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, Corinto, Nicaragua, and Puerto Quetzal, Guatamala. Plus, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas, where we have been before. Not to mention the whole Panama Canal, which was spectacular. We had a narrator that spoke about the workings of the locks, the history of the canal, and about Panama. We also saw a National Geographic documentary on the making of the Panama Canal the day before we got to the canal. They showed it on the big screen in the Stardust Theater. My husband and I both said that our favorite part of the canal was seeing the "Culebra Cut" where they had to blast through the mountains to get the canal through.
All the shows were held in the Stardust Theater, a huge theater on decks 6 and 7. They also showed big screen movies in there on sea days and held port and shopping talks in there. Plus, anyone who went on any NCL excursion in any of the ports, met in the Stardust Theater and went off the ship as a group to get on their buses. It meant much less pandemonium on the pier.
The game shows were held in the Spinnaker Lounge, a lounge at the top front of the ship. During the day you have beautiful views of the sea or ports of call. At night there is always something going on in there. Also, on sea days, Spinnaker is called a "quiet zone" for most of the day, so if you want to go up there and read a book or rest in a comfortable chair, that's the place to go for peace and quiet.
Drinks on this ship are the most expensive I've ever seen on a ship. A glass of Chardonnay was $8.95, or $11.50 if you wanted a large one. A single shot of "bar" whiskey was $8.50. If you wanted single malt Scotch, it was $10.95. Many people had the Ultimate Beverage Package as their booking bonus, so there were lots of drinks being passed out. On other ships, we've seen 2 for one drinks in certain bars, but not on this one. The only special was the drink of the day, and that was $7.95. They did have two Martini tastings, with different Martinis at each one, and they had several wine tastings - we did one of them. They also had a Mojito tasting which we didn't do, and a Margarita tasting, which we also didn't do. All of the bar waiters are extremely friendly and accommodating. Service was excellent.
Shore excursions were great. We did one in all but one of the ports. The guides were very informative, spoke very good English, and were friendly and funny. In Cartagena, we did the Magnificent Cartagena shore excursion. We saw a beautiful church and we also walked through a section of the old city that was beautiful, and went in two museums. In Puntarenas, Costa Rica, we saw a nice folk dance show put on by children, and they even got my husband and brother-in-law up and dancing with them!
In Corinto, Nicaragua, we saw two beautiful and totally different looking churches. In Puerto Quetzal, Guatamala, my husband and I didn't do a shore excursion because nothing offered looked interesting to us, so we just got off the ship and walked around the thatched-roof "Palapa." There were lots of things for sale, but I just bought a magnet. In Acapulco, we went to see the cliff divers and had a spectacular view of them, then were taken to a couple of places to shop. In Cabo San Lucas we did the Snorkel and Sail to Santa Maria Cove. It was a beautiful trip. My husband snorkeled and I stayed on the boat. It wasn't a sailboat, which was a little disappointing, but it was a nice, comfortable boat.
My husband is a jogger, so he spent a lot of time up on deck 13 on the jogging/walking track. He also went to the fitness center and used the treadmills and lifted weights.
There is a walking area on deck 7 where you can walk all the way around the ship, which we would do from time to time. They ask that you walk only, not run or jog on that deck.
Disembarkation was wonderful and perfectly smooth. We were flying out the day after we got off the ship, so we signed up for an excursion in LA. We did the excursion that took us through LA, to Hollywood, and then to the Farmers' Market for lunch, then to the airport. We got off the ship, went through customs, went to the black zone to pick up our luggage, and went to our waiting tour bus. At the end of the cruise, we were dropped off at the Southwest terminal where we printed out our boarding passes, then went to the bus stop where the hotel vans stop. It was so easy!
My husband and I were both concerned that a fourteen day cruise would be way too long and we would both go stir crazy, but that wasn't the case. We both had a wonderful time!
This is a very nice cabin, a little worn, in need of some new carpeting and new drapes. For the last part of the cruise, we couldn't get the room warm enough, so we wore our robes all the time, and stayed covered with beach towels and blankets. There was plenty of storage space, and we liked the configuration of the bathroom with the sink in the middle, the toilet in its own space on the left side, and the shower on the right side, each with its own door. Have never seen a bathroom like it on any other cruise ship.
There was a king size bed, a couch which would make into a single bed (we never used the couch for a bed), a chair, and a table next to the wall under the TV. On the table was a coffee maker which we also have never had in a ship cabin before. It was nice to be able to get up in the morning and have coffee on the balcony without ordering room service or going up to the Garden Cafe to get it. One thing that was missing was a table to put drinks on while we were sitting on the couch, but we brought the small table that was out on the balcony inside and used it.