November 6, 2005
This was our fourth cruise in two and half years. Cruising is addictive and is now our favorite hobbie. We’ve sailed on RCL – Enchantment, Carnival – Conquest, Celebrity – Century and now NCL – Sun. This is a long review, but it is comprehensive and you can read the sections you’re interested in. A quick summation is at the end.
Port of Houston
The NCL port for the Sun is not in Houston it is actually in La Porte, TX located on the gulf coast between Houston and Galveston. Approximately 18 miles Southwest of Houston from the I-610 and 225 junction. If your driving to the pier parking is very reasonably priced at $49 for an average sized vehicle and $98 for an oversized vehicle (RV even RV with trailer, oversized is double price no matter the size) for the week. This was the least expensive pier/port parking we’ve experienced. The walking distance from parking lot to the terminal is less than a city block and a quick and easy walk. The port/pier its self was by far the least attractive pier I ever expect to encounter (they are however building a new pier according to the pier staff). There are shipping containers as far as the eye can see around the port. No photo opportunities here. The containers are everywhere and even the NCL Staff photos at the pier can’t totally crop them out of the photo.
Pier Terminal, Boarding and Disembarkation
We arrived later than usual (our fault not NCL) at 2:30 pm into the Terminal. The terminal building is very simple construction and small design in compared to other terminals. Boarding is not first come first serve. It is by random sections in the terminal, unless you’re a VIP or guest with a suite. We waited approximately 30 mins in the terminal (air conditioned) before moving to the board process. There was another 10 to 15 mins outside the terminal in the heat waiting before be allowed to walk to ship. Once on the ship we were directed to the Stardust Lounge where we received our Sea Passes and directions to our stateroom. This was very organized and went very quickly, maybe 5 mins and we were not the first guests into the lounge. From here we stopped off at our stateroom and were quickly on our way to the Sun deck for a cocktail. The disembarkation on the final day of the cruise was highly organized and well managed. Our scheduled disembarkation was 9:30 am. We knew the night before when we were going to be called so we didn’t have that “hurry up and wait all morning”. We actually slept in!. When we were called to disembark at 9:30 am we were ready and relaxed. The process went fast. The line at the terminal for baggage and customs was a long one. I thought we’d be there all morning. But it too was fast. Maybe only 30 mins maybe less. This was the best and fastest disembarkation I have experienced. The airport transfers were equally organized and quick with priority service for passengers with early flights or special needs. (Good luck with that on Carnival. If you have an early flight you might make your flight with their airport transfer, but better have a back up plan).
Sailing in the Gulf of Mexico vs. Straits of Florida
Being our second sail out of the Gulf of Mexico I would have to say there is more consistent motion throughout the duration of the cruise sailing in the Gulf than in out of Florida in the Straits. However, I spoke a few passengers who were sporting the Dramamine patch and they all reported it worked wonders and any “sea sickness” was gone within an hour of using the patch. I hear a prescription is needed to get it. The patch is somewhat flesh toned and about the size of dime which adheres to an area just behind the ear.
We were on the Norway deck 10 #0-130 Aft (at the rear) in an inside room. Inside rooms are the best bargain so long as you don’t require natural light. It’s a little like a week long stay in a very large walk-in closet with amenities. However like I said it’s a bargain price. We were Aft (at the rear). We usually stay mid-ship, but honestly I didn’t notice any more “rocking ‘n rolling” than in the mid-ship cabins on other ship out of the Gulf.
The staterooms are smaller than the other ships we’ve sailed (all have been interior rooms; Celebrity was the largest room). The room décor was average and simple, but well maintained and very clean. A couple of nice perks was the mini refrigerator and the mini DVD player in the stateroom. You can rent DVD’s on the ship. There was only one closet with some hangers which had handy slide out built-in wire baskets along one side, which were useful. There was only one set of four small drawers for the remaining clothing. Surprisingly between my husband and I our excruciation wear (6), smart casual/country club casual (12), dress suits and formal wear (11) did fit in the spaces provided. Attire on this ship was noticeably more causal than even Carnival. There was also only one Formal Evening. The bathrooms on ships are always tiny, but the shower here felt particularly tiny. The little extras like cotton balls, cotton swabs, mouthwash, tooth paste, shaver and other small items were also missing here (lotion, soap and shower cap were provided).
Ship and Common Areas
The NCL - Sun has been very well maintained and sparkling clean. The overall décor was disappointing. Other ships had far more opulence and grand common areas. Don’t expect to see exotic woods, much marble, much commissioned art or lavish fixtures. Its mostly common veneers, very little marble and simple ceramics. The hallways throughout the ship are very narrow and the elevators are very small in comparison to other ships. The Observation Lounge (Forward deck 12) and The Great Outdoor Café (Aft deck 11) have great views and fewer guests than some of the other common areas and lounges. The pool deck on 11 was crowded, but typical of other ships.
Service (Very Important on a cruise)
In my opinion the quality of service and the friendliness of staff can make or break a cruise experience. On the NCL – Sun the staff did a good job. No matter what the staff was doing they stopped for a moment smiled, made eye contact and usually greeted you with a friendly feel good kind of statement. They drink gratuity is 15% and added to all bar beverages. One most ships the tipping for your room attendants, servers and etc are recommended at you can tip more or less depending on your level and quality of service for the duration of the cruise. On NCL – Sun it was an automatic hospitality service of $70 per person ($140 per cabin, double occupancy) for the cruise. Personally didn’t like it. I had no idea who got what or how much. We always tip our Cabin Stuarts/Room Attendants a little extra. There so stealthy, you almost never see them. But your room is tidy, fresh towels, and in the evening the bed is turn down with a little chocolate for each of you, this is typical of the other ships we sailed on as well.
Dining and Restaurants (Very Important on a cruise)
First of all there was never a shortage of food! There were plenty of places to dine. And you didn’t have to limit yourself to the food areas. They would set a BBQ buffet next to the pool, hors d’ouvers in the casino, and many areas with just deserts and occasionally champagne too. The quality, flavor and presentation were generally good too. However, I did not care for the “Free Style Dining” in the evenings. The formal night was a mess with only one restaurant seating formal attire. We waited 45 mins in line and the serving staff were so rushed and short with us that we left before coffee and desert, but not before sitting there with empty glasses and no service for 20 mins. Personally I do not think the wait staff has any incentive to provide exceptional service since they odds of returning to the same restaurant and being seated in the same section are remote. On other ships your wait staff quickly learns your tastes and your name not to mention the new friends you will meet. On the NCL you will most likely dine as just the two of you. The 10 food areas were a bit much and I didn’t feel that the specialty restaurants were worth the extra $$+tip. The service, quality and choices were too similar to the Free Four Seasons and Seven Seas restaurants where the dining experience and the food were very good (excluding the formal night).
1.) Ginza/Sushi (a la carte pricing)
2.) East Meets West/Steakhouse (per person surcharge + tip Lobster was an additional charge)
3.) Le Bistro/French (per person surcharge + tip)
4.)Il Adagio/Italian (per person surcharge + tip)
5. Seven Seas/Continental (Free)
6. Four Seasons/Traditional (Free)
7. Great Outdoor Café (Free Buffet)
8. Garden Café (Free Buffet)
9. Pacific Heights/Pasta (Free)
10. Las Ramblas/Tappas (Free)
The food at the buffets was average and changed daily, no disappoints here with good variety. The room service is 24 hours and free with a limited menu as it is with most ships, but you should tip a buck or two. The food quality with room service drops dramatically, but service is fast and friendly. I liked that before your morning room service was delivered they would call you to let you know it was on its way. Morning room service can be ordered the night before by filling out the order form which is supplied in the inside cover of the three ringed ship information binder located in your stateroom. Then place it on the outside door handle of your room.
Casino and Bingo
If you’re a gambler NCL has the best variety of Slots machines with penny, nickel, quarter and dollar machines. If you’re a slot player sign up for the Casinos at Sea players card. They have several money drawings a day with their points system. Table players will find several blackjack tables, one roulette wheel, one craps table, and other table games. Table games are reasonable with a few $5 and $10 tables and even a $25 table for Blackjack. You can redeem your players points for cash or even apply them to a future NCL cruise. I was impressed with the casino. The blackjack and slot tournaments were drug out for three days of “buy-ins” before the final. That was disappointing. But the cost to enter a tournament round to qualify for the final was only $10. The ships Bingo was seriously pricey. This was the most expense bingo I’d seen on any ship or land for that matter. I mean $$$. One plus, was that if you wanted to pony up the bucks and play bingo you could play with traditional paper sheets or by digital consoles.
Ships daily activities were good. Things like family feud, win loose or draw and the newly wed not so newly wed activities were a blast. Although many of the activities overlapped so you had to choose one or the other. The evening shows were less than expected. I think NCL needs to up their budget and get some additional professional entertainment. Five of seven days were staff performances. There’s only so much that can be expected of staff performers. And a juggler. Professional or not I can see that on street corner. The game room for kids has good variety, many are older games, and are .50 cents a game. That’ll add up quick for mom and dad.
Good value priced cruise, but not a traditional cruise. Was the least expensive cruise we’ve taken.
I would recommend NCL – Sun to a friend, but inform them of the difference between a traditional cruise liner and NCL Free Style Cruising. (My in-laws loved Free Style. We did not.)
While the décor was minimal and stateroom smaller than expected, it was a pleasant cruise.
NCL – Sun has been well maintained and sparkling clean
Friendly and accommodating staff met expectations (that was not the case on Carnival – Conquest or surprisingly Celebrity - Century)
Buffets were average as expected with good variety. Evening dining quality was good with no need to pay a surcharge for nearly the same menu and service options.
Disembarkation was organized, professional and fast with priority disembarkation for passengers with early flights and special needs. This was an outstanding process that far exceeded expectations.
Roatan, Honduras had the best snorkeling I’ve experienced and far exceeded expectations when compared to 11 other Caribbean Islands. Tip: Hire a guide privately and negotiate your price for his service for the whole day. It’s surprisingly inexpensive and you can see more of the island and visit more than one beach. He will take you to best spots, which are free, with very very few other tourists to disturb the wildlife on the reefs. And bring your own snorkel gear to insure a good fit and cleanliness. Caution: These are natural wild reefs with ALL types of reef dwelling creatures pay attention to your eco and marine creature surroundings.