I left for this cruise with some trepidation after reading mostly unhappy review written in November for this new itinerary. In addition, after 17 cruises, this was to be our first Freestyle dining, and we have always enjoyed late traditional dining. The cruise leaves from New Orleans and stops in Cozumel, Roatan, Belize, and Cancun.. all great snorkeling/diving locations, and two of which I had never been to before.
We left on Friday, Dec 12, for a two night pre-cruise stay in New Orleans, staying at the Riverside Hilton. There were about 200,000 extra visitors in town for the weekend, including a minor league baseball meeting. We took a limo from the airport for $35 to the hotel. We walked to dinner at Mulate's, a classic Cajun/Zydaco place across the street from the Juliet Street Terminal. The weather was cold and showers, but it doesn't hold down the revelers on Bourbon Street. We lunched on Saturday on Acme Oyster House, enjoying oysters on the half shell and the Peacemaker Po'Boy, half oysters and half shrimp. We had seen it on the Food Channel. We also ate at Olivier's and had oysters at Felix's on Bourbon Street. We even won a bit on the slots at Harrah's Casino!
On Sunday, after church at St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square, we packed and checked out at noon. The taxi ride, three blocks with luggage, was $7 per person!! Taxis are expensive in the Big Easy. There was no delay in checking in and we were aboard in 15 minutes! Due to all the news about cruise ship Norwalk virus, they had all passengers sanitize their hands before boarding there and in each port, as well as at the entrance to all dining rooms and buffets.
We had a large ocean view cabin, 7246, on Deck 7. In addition to the queen bed, it had a single sofa bed, coffee table and chair and TV, separated by a curtain from the queen area, where the dressing table was located. Plenty of closet space in two closets but drawer space was not plentiful. I was pleased to find that even at noon, the cabin was ready and contained a bottle of wine from the TA and the champagne I had arranged through a pre-booked NCL anniversary package. Our luggage, however took about 4 hours to get to the room.
There is no "Lido" deck. The only buffet is in an area called the Sports Bar overlooking the stern. It is really much more than a bar. It does have sports TV but it contains a buffet line.. two short ones really.. plus the beverage area. It serves three meals a day, and at breakfast there is a French toast/pancake station. While not large, we never had to wait for a table. The turnover is adequate.
There are two regular restaurants open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Four Seasons is a pleasant large dining room the width of the ship on deck 9 but allows pedestrian traffic to flow through the room. Distracting, and while we ate there the first night and had exceptional service at a table for two, we didn't return except for the night of the Chocolate Buffet. The other is The Terrace, a multi-level sunny dining room overlooking the stern pool on deck 9. We ate 5 dinners and several breakfasts there. This is also the restaurant designed as the optional formal dining room on optional formal nights. A third restaurant, open normally only for dinner, is an Italian-style Trattoria on deck 10 overlooking the stern, specializing most nights in Italian food, pasta, Osso Bucco, and so on. We chose not eat there. There is also a French-style restaurant called Le Bistro on deck 9 with a $12 pp cover charge and extra charges for the top menu items, like surf and turf. The food if fine and well presented, but the service is slow and not on a par with specialty restaurants we have eaten in on other lines. In addition, we were seated by the curtain separating the room form a bar and passageway, causing unwanted noise in the intimate setting of the bistro. Even with a reservation we had to wait about 15 minutes for dinner with the restaurant only 2/3 full.
Another dining location is on the pool deck on deck 10. At breakfast there is a small continental breakfast buffet line in what serves as a cafeteria-style pizzeria in the afternoon. There is also an omelet and hot food line set up by the pool. At lunch and dinner every day there is a BBQ style meal, often with ribs, hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, etc. A great idea and alternative, but it was cool weather this trip, and a bit windy. There is not much for late night appetites other than some finger sandwiches in the casino from 1120-1230 nightly, and room service, which has a VERY limited menu.
We ate at various times from 7-9pm nightly and only one night had to wait about 10 minutes for a table for two, and that was the first formal night in the only restaurant reserved for formal dining. Except for LeBistro, the restaurants do not take reservations for dinner except for 5:30pm and after 9pm. The menus change daily in The Terrace and Four Seasons and Sports Bar, but the don't change in Trattoria or LeBistro.
A sampling of dinner menus included Prime Rib the first night, Lobster and Beef Wellington on the second night (first formal night), rack of lamb, sea bass, veal marsalla (Italian night in all restaurants), steak Diane at Captains farewell dinner, leg of lamb. In summary, the food was excellent, as was the service in all food venues except LeBistro. People remembered us, and while we varied out times, we felt similarly to when we dined in traditional dining rooms. The wait staff, with or 2 exceptions, work extremely well together.
NCL also offered a buy 5 wines and get one free offer. The wine list is nice and is reasonably priced (many nice wines $20-28). We took advantage of the offer. I had also purchase an Anniversary/Honeymoon package in advance which included a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries on arrival, canapés one night in our cabin, the cover charge for two in LeBistro with a bottle of house Merlot, and a reception one night with champagne and cake with our celebrating couples where they took a photo which was provided at no charge to us. An excellent value. The souvenir glasses for specialty drinks were in glass glasses, not plastic cups. Nice, but harder to bring home.
The productions shows by the Jean Ann Ryan Company were good, but the adagio pair were superb.. especially on the nights when the ship was rocking and rolling. They also offered comedy and variety shows, and a Mardi Gras night in the showroom. There were two regular musical duos who played contemporary and dance tunes in Lucky's Bar on Deck 9 and in the Observatory lounge on deck 12 overlooking the bow. We especially enjoyed a couple, the Two Tones, in Observatory Lounge and spent some time there every night before or after dinner dancing. There is also a piano bar musician playing evening in an open bar area, and a DJ playing in Dazzles nightclub.
While we had read in their literature that one night would be an optional formal night, we found out to my wife's consternation when we got aboard that there would be two. We enjoy formal dress. I found that the dress of passengers on these optional formal nights was better, and tuxes more widespread, than on my last cruise on Carnival Victory! Freestyle! And there were no lines for portraits, one of the things I most dislike. Prices were reasonable: $19.95 for the first portrait and $14.95 for a second pose if purchased at the same time/checkout.
The internet café also offers wireless cards for your laptop for rent, as well as normal internet service/computers. The charge is 75 cents a minute, with some packages at $55 and $100 equating to 50 cents and 40 cents a minute, respectively. I didn't use much internet!
The wine tasting is $10 per person, with mediocre wines. I passed on this one as too expensive. Bingo cost my wife $39 each time she played. Quite high. Slots were unproductive for us. The casino had various tournaments but was not crowded.
The Ports The sea days were Monday and Saturday. We have been coming to the Caribbean the second week in December for 23 years and never had bad or cold weather.till this week. It started with cold and rain in New Orleans. Monday at sea was mostly too cool to sunbath or use the pool. Cozumel Tuesday we arrived in Cozumel to 86 degree sunny weather. The ship berthed downtown across from Carlos and Charlie's/Senor Frog's at Punta Langouste, much better location than the new international piers. If you didn't need to go to a beach, you would not even need a taxi the whole time in Cozumel. Everything is within walking distance. We taxied for $15 to Mr. Sancho's beach, just beyond Playa Sol beach where we had been last April. Sancho's has everything Playa Sol has but no admission charge and no crowds. We loved it. Even the snorkeling was better near some sunken boats and debris about 50 yards out from the center of the beach. Taxi back to the ship to drop off our gear and then into town to shop for my wife's ruby ring for her anniversary present, then to Carlos and Charlie's to await the ring's sizing. A nice excuse. We added to our collection of shooter glasses. Looked a bit like spring break in December, in fact. Liquor and cigarettes in the duty free shop at the end of the pier were cheaper than aboard ship, where the selection was VERY limited. They do hold all liquor purchased on or off the ship in bond until the last night. I did pack a few miniatures and two splits of champagne which came through intact.
Roatan Wednesday we arrived in Roatan with cloudy sky. We had to tender in, but after another ship left at midday, the Dream was berthed at a pier. An island 37 miles long and 2-4 miles wide, it is about 35 miles off the coast of Honduras and known for its diving/snorkeling. Taxi to the west end is about $26, so we chose to sign up for an excursion for $32 pp about 3 hours before it was to leave. As we left the ship the heaven opened and we were literally deluged. Onto school buses and over the mountains to Tabayana Beach. The BBQ there went on, but little else. It showered lightly on and off all day, and the lifeguards said don't bother with a mask and snorkel, as the water was rough and murky from the storm. A beautiful beach but a disappointment. That night there was a note in our room that we had been credited 25% of the cost of the excursion. NCL was on the ball. It was very rough and windy the night we left, and the promenade deck was closed.
Belize Thursday was to be Belize, the other snorkel port I had looked forward to. I had signed up for a catamaran snorkel adventure scheduled to leave early in the morning. Up at 6:30 we found no land in sight. At 7:50am, the time we were to depart, the Captain came on the PA system and said that due to the rough weather and the need for tendering, they had decided to bypass Belize. They refunded the excursion fare. They had worked on an alternative and said we would arrive in Costa Maya for a 1-8:30pm visit. It was still cool and cloudy. The Golden Princess and NCL Sun were berthed there, too. This is a site developed just for the cruise lines. It contains a small shopping mall, several nice bars and restaurants, a pool, a performance area, and is a jumping off point for tours to various sites in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Still cool and cloudy, I didn't want to pay a taxi to go anywhere, but noticed a beach immediately adjacent to the pier that had a swimming area shielded from the surf. A private area, we rented a chair and enjoyed the beach. I snorkeled and it was terrific. Many fan coral, many fish, including some large ones. I didn't notice the lack of sun. The had some bars and a restaurant, and bathrooms available, too. We wound up back at the mall in a bar similar to a Carlos and Charlie's with alcohol related activities on stage and a lot of fun. Not a bad day after all, but not Belize.
Cancun Friday was Cancun, arriving about 8:30am. Weather was sunny and about 72 degrees. The ship anchors just off Isla Mujares. They are not permitted to use their own tenders, and must use Mexican tenders. They shuttled for two hours, with passengers using tender tickets to get aboard, until opening the runs. We went down at 10:30 to get a ticket and were aboard in 10 minutes. It is a 30 minute tender ride to Playa Tortuga. They offered a free shuttle bus to Playa Flamingo in the hotel zone, where Planet Hollywood and Pat O'Brien's are located. We have spent two weeks total in Cancun and know the area well. We shopped at Flamingo, and then took a city bus for 50 cents each to Senor Frog's for chips and afternoon refreshments. Another bus back to Playa Tortuga, where there is a nice beach with chair rentals, a Fat Tuesday's on the beach, and a small bar/souvenir area. After a brief time on the beach we caught the last tender back. This was the second optional formal night and Captain's Farewell Dinner. After the production show the Captain and representatives of the crew, including the "Star Performer" voted by the passengers, went up on stage to say farewell and thanks.
The last sea day, Saturday, was 70 degrees and sunny. Baggage didn't have to be out in the halls until a 1am deadline, leaving plenty of time for the last evening activities and the packing. From the Observation Lounge we could see the ship approaching the Mississippi.
On Sunday, the ship arrived about 6:30am. Breakfast was available until 9am. Passengers can stay in their cabin until their debarkation color tag is called. Our color was called about 10:15. There was no line-up or document inspection by immigration for U.S. citizens. Very leisurely freestyle departure. Taxis to the airport are readily available at the terminal for $28 for two people. They also had bus transfers available, $10 pp payable at the door. We arrived at the airport about 11:30 for a 1:30 flight and were pleased to see an Acme Oyster House there where we could purchase po'boys again for lunch.
In summary, we loved it. Freestyle offered us everything traditional dining offered plus the freedom to arrive in the dining room when we wanted to. The embarkation and debarkation were a joy. Food was terrific. And two of the four port days were lots of fun. We'll definitely cruise NCL freestyle again. I was most impressed with an attitude of customer service throughout. Well done NCL.
P.S. The staff we spoke with admitted that at Thanksgiving they had about 300 kids aboard and it made for longer lines. Over Christmas they were expecting 500 children. They do have youth programs for 2-5, 6-12, and teens, but the extra bodies do slow things down and can make for some lines. On normal weeks they seem to have worked all the bugs out on this new itinerary.