Cabin 8235 (Balcony)
I did not have high expectations for this cruise. I have not been on NCL since my honeymoon in favor of RCL and Holland America (Alaska). Although a more casual atmosphere was appealing, for a short cruise and ... Read More
Cabin 8235 (Balcony)
I did not have high expectations for this cruise. I have not been on NCL since my honeymoon in favor of RCL and Holland America (Alaska). Although a more casual atmosphere was appealing, for a short cruise and smaller ship I expected the combination to mean an older more "worn" ship. But we really wanted to try this itinerary (Cuba!) and the price was right for a balcony cabin.
Embarkation was very simple and stream-lined. We returned our car to Alamo, a shuttle was waiting there and delivered us to the port and the porters took our bags (we could also have kept them with us). We had not printed the bag tags and the porter had a ready supply - all we needed was the cabin number. Cabins were all ready by 1:30 and I believe we had our bags by 3 or 4 (well before dinner in any case).
This ship was incredibly clean - spic and span in every way. This included the cabin, which seemed in good repair as well. The ship condition was great (better than my last RCL Caribbean cruise, tbh). Plenty of seating everywhere we went (even free lounge chairs not too far from the pool mid-morning on sea days), decor not particularly dated (though typical cruise style), lots of bars open and accessible at all times, elevators working and not too crowded - no complaints, much to my surprise.
We loved having a balcony and the location on deck 8 was perfect, no noise except chairs moving on the balconies next to ours (those chairs scrape). We were down a long hall between elevators. We were always on the port side, which was great in Cuba for the view (not so much the smell of the harbor). Bed was comfortable, towel animals every night, safe easy to use, mini-fridge empty and water (to purchase).
We thought the food on the cruise throughout was fine. We generally ate sit down meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and the dining room was empty, no waiting. I did have eggs served under cooked (sent back) and over cooked (they sent it back before we saw it, but made for a long wait). Other than that some food was really good (breaded flounder - could have eaten it every night), steak with chimichurri sauce, and the rest without complaint if not special. There is minimal if any dressing up - I like to but my husband is happiest in shorts (he doesn't mind getting out of his t-shirt into a collar shirt, but we saw plenty of t-shirts in the dining room too). One dining room and one restaurant (the French theme one) claims to require pants/dresses at night but at least the dining room didn't turn people away.
We did a couple of meals at the buffet when it made sense because of shore excursions - best food there in our opinion was ethnic Asian (Indian, Chinese, and other). There were always grill type food (burgers, dogs, bbq, sausage), excellent fries, and soft serve at the buffet on the aft deck with outdoor seating. Food and service excellent, choice of one each red/white as part of the free bar program. They do not make a big deal out of the free bar program (remember to carry a little cash if you want to tip the bartenders) but it was surprisingly nice - sodas for my husband whenever he wanted (he isn't a fan of iced tea) and cocktails for me without worrying about all of those upcharges. Cagney's (last night) was terrific - the ribeye is immense and could feed two, loved the fries. It was good for a special meal, but honestly I could also have enjoyed the dining room again. The freestyle dining meant that we could eat as a twosome without a lot of rushing on day one to get one of the few tables for two at a time we wanted - and then no rushing to get to dinner "on time" each day. In fact we had a window seat most days, no reservation. Reservations were recommended for large groups. Seats, at least indoor ones, around the buffet were harder to come by but we usually managed. Outdoor seating was windy but pleasant. Plenty of hand sanitizer available and we didn't get sick at all. Be aware that it wasn't too hard to get dishes that were "gluten-friendly" (they even have gluten-free bread on request) but while NCL makes it possible to work with the kitchen to pre-order gluten-free items it adds a lot of hassle and limits food choices accordingly. Plus I think a lot of mistakes must get made between the dining room and the kitchen, anyway, based on how other things came out. Be careful however you handle any dietary restrictions.
We enjoyed the entertainment more than we expected too. The ship production staff put on a great show of 70's and 80's music - good band, some excellent singing, great dancing. And we loved Alex Orttiz, the comic (sad to have missed his third show, a late night unrated one on the last night - we decided to get some sleep). Neither seemed too old or dated. We also spent a little time and money in the casino (slots only - came out $10 ahead). Not too smoky, bar open, and they had some little sandwiches out and fruit during the day on the at sea days. This is the first ship that I ventured into the library (I always have a lot of reading material with me) - they had a new crossword (or more) daily, which made me happy, and cards and games. My husband enjoyed solitaire and we saw others playing cards or monopoly. We didn't use the pool but sat out near it (again, got a seat at an umbrella table near the bar on both at sea days). Nice beach towels are offered in your room for the pool, not the usual small worn out pool squares, and are exchanged on the pool deck whenever you want a new one. We enjoyed looking at the art from Park West (art auction was a bit of a bust but glad we stopped in). We aren't much for organized activities but there was a couple of "sip n paint" that seemed fun and up to date and other things going on all the time. Not sure if it was the itinerary or a really good kids program but there were not a lot of rowdy or misbehaved kids, teens, or even drunk college-aged kids, even with the open bar.
Key West was a late arrival (4 pm) and that meant the Hemingway House was closing so that excursion was cancelled. That was a real disappointment. The conch train (an open air tram) tour we took instead was informative but the "dad humor" of the driver I could have done without. If you want to go to a bar and drink, or shop, you'll find plenty to entertain you in Key West, but we walked Duval Street in the heat for awhile, felt we had seen enough and headed back to the ship. We were greeted with ice cold washcloths and drinks on the ship - really appreciated!
Cuba is also oddly timed - the "second day" really means an extended evening to go to a cabaret or nightclub, as the ship departs port at 6 am the second day! Just be prepared. We took the pricey full day excursion to Vinales Valley and were so pleased with it. It is a 12 h day - debarking and passport control takes time, plus a long drive in each direction. But the drive was interesting, the tour guide super knowledgeable, the bus nice (even the bathroom was usable and clean enough), with enough stops to get out and see things. The main stop was a farmer's home - Benito actually looks like Hemingway and is a real charmer and glad-hander. You learn about tobacco (not the season to see much but a demo), see a cigar rolled and smoke if you like, tour his home, drink Cuban coffee with rum if you wish, buy coffee beans (we did - they are good), and visit his livestock and walk around the farm near the house, and a short walk to the village center (interesting). The valley is truly one of the most beautiful places I've seen (ranks up there with Denali in Alaska). Lunch was a little disappointing in terms of food in a few respects. If you are vegetarian there isn't much for you - we are not but there were a few in the group, not complainers but I felt for them. You need to be prepared to eat foods that might not be recommended for travelers - fresh fruits, fresh and cold cooked vegetables, and ice were all served to us! We ate everything and had no issues, but if you are nervous or have a sensitive stomach perhaps not for you. Everyone got a bottle of water and a small glass of coke (with ice) - rum was offered for the coke. After the fruit and salad with a kind of dry local cracker bread we were served a roast chicken (mild spice - tasty but dry), boiled or steamed potato, and rice and beans (also tasty but dry!). Cans of local sodas and beer were offered too. Dessert was a small slice of bread pudding (yummy) and Cuban coffee (kind of like espresso) with rum again if you wished, and/or sugar (no milk). There was live music (great) and the setting is beautiful. The other stops were for a rest area, an overlook with view and a kind of huge strange mural (each had tourist bars, snacks for sale, and souvenirs). Finally the rum factory was not in production when we were there so we instead went for a short visit to Vinales town center - not as much of a tourist area as old Havana and really cool. You could eat/drink, shop, visit the church or cultural center that had some local art, or sit in the square. We really loved the whole day and felt we saw and learned a lot about Cuba for a short one day visit. We were too exhausted for any evening activities, but there was certainly time to do that too. We had shore excursion credits and a ship credit so that made the excursion more affordable, but it was still a pricey addition. We are happy we did it anyway.
My final observation is that I have never been on a cruise where I felt the crew (and especially cruise director, who was adorable) cared more about the guests having fun and enjoying themselves. I was truly not expecting it and really each staff member we dealt with was smiling, pleasant, professional, and most of all caring. Good for NCL and would definitely make us consider them for another trip.
Debarkation was also a breeze. We kept our bags and were able to get down the elevators and off the ship to the waiting rental car shuttle with no stairs or steps or stops except to scan our cruise cards a final time and show passports. There was a short line at passport control that moved well. We had our rental car and were on the road by 8 am! Read Less