New Year¡¦s Eve Cruise 2003
This was our third New Years cruise, our first on NCL. My wife and daughter (age 11) have been on Holland America (5+), Carnival (2), Celebrity (1) all thru the Caribbean, Alaska, Bermuda and New England and think we know our way around ships, so NCL¡¦s ¡§Freestyle Cruising¡¨ was an interesting new option. It had a few plusses¡K but many minuses.
We chose this cruise because it left from NYC, avoiding the needs to fly at the holidays during an orange alert. We¡¦ve sailed out of NY several times and knew the drill, but NCL¡¦s was one of the smoothest embarkations ever, thanks in part to the pre-registration process for passengers on the NCL website. We arrived at the Passenger Ship Terminal about 12 noon, paid $168 to park for the week, and were thru the lines and on the ship in about an hour. We departed spot on time at 4 pm in time to enjoy the harbor at twilight.
One of the big selling points of ¡§Freestyle Cruising¡¨ was the choice of restaurants and no fixed ¡§seatings¡¨. We tried most of them, especially enjoying Le Bistro (at a surcharge of $12.50 per person). The Tex Mex eatery was only so-so¡K sort of like a Scandinavian¡¦s idea of Mexican food. And Bamboo, the ¡§all you can eat¡¨ sushi parlor was a rip-off. There¡¦s a $10 surcharge and only a limited selection of sushi, much of it pre-made and refrigerated. Anything more exotic than a tuna roll is priced a la carte. Most nights we went to the two big restaurants, the Venetian and Aqua. The food was good, though the portions were small and service, though harried, was slow. The upstairs buffet restaurant, ¡§The Garden¡¨, was pretty good though usually crowded. It¡¦s ¡§NY style deli¡¨ was mediocre. The 24 hour ¡§Blue Lagoon¡¨ was pretty good and very popular with teens. Don¡¦t miss the ¡§Chocoholic¡¦s Buffet¡¨, an afternoon exercise in obscene consumption of mass quantities of food by hordes of morbidly obese passengers.
There were two ¡§formal¡¨ nights, both optional. I only saw a very few tuxedos and a smattering of business suits. Another plus for ¡§Freestyle Cruising¡¨¡K you can wear resort casual attire any night you wish without feeling under-dressed .
My wife and daughter both went and said they enjoyed it : massage, nails, hair. As with all cruise spas, go up to the Spa and book early as soon as you get on board, especially if you want a massage on the first day at sea. Prepare for sticker shock when you get the bill.
This kids program was a big disappointment. On Carnival our daughter could sign herself in and out and come and go and she pleased. On NCL, any kid under 13 must be signed in and out by a parent¡K at least a 15 min. inconvenience for one of us as we had to go all the way to the top rear of the ship just to do paperwork. The counselors were mediocre, often sitting watching TV with the kids instead of leading activities. The final day at sea one of them even discouraged our daughter from even showing up instead of doing her job. She was tired and seemed intent on getting some rest instead of working with the kids. As a consequence, our daughter sat around complaining of being bored instead of being engaged with kids her own age. At holiday time all of the cruise lines bring on extra staff to handle the kids¡K usually barter work unemployed young people from Canada. They get a ¡§free cruise¡¨ in return for a few hours a day working with the kids. What paying passengers get is unpaid staffers with a bad attitude¡K kids who think they¡¦re on a cruise, instead of working a job.
The staff has to be given marks for trying. With 2,700+ passengers on this sell-out cruise, they were kept busy. But the food servers need a lot more training. While gracious, always referring to us as ¡§sir¡¨ and ¡§Madame¡¨, they lacked the profession panache we've come to expect in the main dining room of cruise ships. A few examples¡K In the Venetian: My wife drinks decaf. The waiter started pouring regular coffee (about an inch) before she stopped him. He went to get the decaf and tried to keep pouring, creating a half-caf mixture. Instead, he should have removed the mistaken half-pour and brought a fresh cup. Another¡K at lunch, also in the Venetian, we had a Thai salad which we both thought was much too salty . When we mentioned this to the waiter , she said ¡§Oh, I¡¦ve never had that dish.¡¨ What she should have said was ¡§I¡¦m so sorry. Can I bring you anything else, and please let me share your comments with the Chef.¡¨ At diner in Aqua, the server inquired how I wanted my leg of lamb cooked, and I asked for medium-rare. When she brought the lamb, she said that only medium was available.... period. She should have come see me as soon as she knew the situation, explained their error, and offered me the menu to select something else if I didn't want medium. It was ungracious and not focused on the needs of the diner.
We noticed that the servers are rotated throughout the ship's various restaurants, buffets, snack bars, etc. Our head waiter one night was mopping floors in the buffet the next day. I guess NCL figures they can use a staffer anywhere, but there's a trade-off. Servers don't learn the fine points of excellent service that's appropriate in a formal dining room. In fact, we thought the servers in the Venetian seemed stressed and were often confused about where tables were, leading us to wonder if they are trying to compensate for inexperience or poor training. My wife's pet peeve about the Venetian, the main dining room: Guests arrive at the top of a flight of stairs that go down into the dining room. The "greeter" inquires about the number in the party, decides where to seat you, then calls the table number down the stairs. The space and noise in the room requires the "greeter" to call the number loudly and sometimes repeatedly, and it made my wife feel like we were dining at IHOP. Not very classy or personal, certainly not the way a formal dining room should be run.
How do you motivate a staff when they all share tips ($10 a day per person)? On most ships with fixed seatings you get to know the waiter, they go out of their way to please you and are rewarded accordingly. On NCL you may never see the same waiter again, so the service is cordial but just so-so. Some waiters, bar tenders and cabin stewards were wonderful. Most were just adequate.
We had two cabins¡K an outside twin with a balcony and an inside single. They were both fine¡K smaller than on Carnival, but well appointed. The showers were bigger than on most ships, but why no bar soap? The ship is quite new, and it shows. The public rooms are lovely and very tastefully decorated. The ship was spotless, even after a very messy New Year¡¦s Eve. Cleanliness and hygiene were a top priority with hand-washing lessons on the TV and waterless sanitizing stations greeting you at every restaurant. It paid off¡K none of us got at all sick.
We rarely chose a cruise by its itinerary. It¡¦s the calendar that dictates our choice. But we were pleased with the two US ports on this cruise¡K Port Canaveral and Miami. The tour options at both were phenomenal. Nassau was nothing new to us (and only a 6 hour stop). NCL¡¦s ¡§private island¡¨ Great Stirrup Cay was nice, but far too small for our mob. The biggest surprise was our first and last days, leaving and returning to NYC, sailing along the East Coast. I was fearful of gale winds and blizzards, but it was sunny, calm and in the 50¡¦s.
The stage shows were spectacular, especially ¡§Bollywood¡¨, one of the most creative such shows I¡¦ve ever seen at sea. The ship¡¦s big band was excellent as was the magician / comedian. But celebrity comedian Jimmy (Dyn-o-mite) ¡§JJ¡¨ Walker was just awful¡K not funny and on stage three nights! I¡¦d have much rather seen some newcomer than witness this has-been! Another plus¡K a big movie theater showing almost first-run titles (repeated the next few days on the in-cabin TV system).
A negative¡K NCL charges $3.95 for daily ¡§newspapers¡¨ (photocopied satellite versions of the NY Times, Wall St. Journal, etc.) which other cruise lines disperse for free. And the TV only offers CNN, TNT and ESPN. Why no local channels while in port???
NEW YEARS EVE
Here, NCL scored big points. Admittedly, they were hawking their own champagne all evening. But there were free glasses of bubbly for all to toast in the new year at midnight as well as hats, noise makers, streamers and little glow-sticks. The mob scene around the pool on the top deck was festive, unlike on Carnival last year where it was filled with over-boozed, under-aged teens¡K a bit scary for my daughter. The scene in the Spinnaker Lounge was even more civilized thanks to the big band and a definitely more adult crowd.
This is easily the worst part of any cruise¡K the mad crush to get off the ship. But here again, NCL¡¦s ¡§Freestyle Cruising¡¨ scored major points. While we arrived on time at 8 am at the dock in NYC, there was no mandate that we had to vacate our cabins and sit in the public rooms as on every other cruise line. So, we enjoyed a leisurely sit-down breakfast in the Venetian restaurant and lolled in our cabin for another 90 minutes before our ¡§color¡¨ was called. We strolled off the ship about noon, found our bags, cleared Customs and were in our car driving home in about 15 minutes¡K amazing!
WORDS OF ADVICE
"X As soon as you¡¦re on board, book dinner reservations at the specialty restaurants. They accept reservations 48 hours in advance (ie on Tues. you can book for that night and Wed.), so book early for the best times.
"X If you don¡¦t have a reservation, eat early (by 6 pm) or late (after 8:30 pm) and you¡¦ll never have to wait.
"X Get a soda card (actually a sticker on your key-card). It¡¦s $28.75 for the week, but worth it if you drink a lot of soda.
"X Bring your own soap. The cabins only offer liquid soap and shampoo.
If anyone has any specific questions, I¡¦m happy to answer them as best I can. Others¡¦ comments have been most helpful in the past, so I¡¦m happy to reciprocate. Just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org