Occupation:Cruise Agency Owner - NACTA Board Member
Number of Cruises: 27
Cruise Line: Norwegian
Ship: Norwegian Sea
Sailing Date: June 3rd, 2001
Itinerary: Canada / New England
By Jim Terracciano, CTC, MCC
From June 3 through June 10, 2001, a group of 25 professional travel agents and National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (NACTA) members sailed aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sea. This seven night sailing which was round trip from New York City, covered a Canada / New England itinerary with stops in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bar Harbor ME, Boston MA, Martha’s Vineyard MA, and Newport RI.
The agents were asked to help conduct an intensive review of the ship and the ports of call. Specific topics included such areas as Cabins, Deck and Pool Area, Health club and Spa, Entertainment and Shows, Nightlife and Lounges, Shore Excursions and Onboard Shops. Additionally an overview was formulated for the areas of Ports of Call, Overall Service, Dining and Food and the Embarkation / Disembarkation process.
To ensure that the main areas were covered, “teams” of agents were assigned to each. At our last meeting each team gave their report and then all the other members were asked for additional comments. From this combination of information we developed the final conclusions on these areas. Everyone contributed to our conclusions on the general areas of service, food, etc.
While it is impossible not to infuse some personal opinions into a review, we went to great lengths to approach each area of the cruise from the perspective of a neutral observer. While not everything we saw or experienced may have been consistent with our ‘individual’ tastes, we realize that there is something for everyone. What we are presenting then are our collective observations. We leave it to the reader to decide if this product and/or itinerary are right for them. We will offer a day-to-day rundown of the cruise activities, then report on each of the above areas individually.
June 3, 2001 – Embarkation in NYC
Those who have cruise out of NYC before know that the passenger terminal is a hotbed of activity on embarkation/disembarkation days. On this date there were three major ships in port, the Norwegian Sea, the Royal Caribbean Nordic Empress and the Pacific Princess. My wife and I elected to drive to NY from our hoe in Maryland. The trip in was very easy and parking was available right on the dock (through ITO Parking, NYC Passenger Ship Terminal, 711 Twelfth Ave. New York, NY 10019) at the rate of $18 per night, $126 for our weeklong cruise. Those of us that arrived at the dock relatively early found that disembarkation for the previous passengers on our ship did not actually begin until approximately 11 am. Until this process was completed the representatives from NCL were not readily available to answer questions from the embarking passengers. Baggage handling procedures were a bit confused, but as this was the first sailing for this itinerary it was hoped that improvements in this area were simply a matter of working into the routine. We were met onboard by an officer and handed off to a steward who showed us to our cabin. Once we confirmed that all was well, we moved on to the Casino to open our onboard credit account. Several of us noted that many other lines now include that process at check in, which saves the passenger an extra trip. The process itself was exceptionally easy and afforded us the opportunity to quickly get to know where some of the major rooms were onboard so it was not that much of an inconvenience. A buffet lunch was available at the Big Apple Café and we were ready to take advantage of it. After the mandatory lifeboat drill we were ready for our departure, passing some of the most impressive sights that any embarkation port has to offer. For those who might not have ever seen her, the sight of the Statue of Liberty gliding slowing past on the starboard side is one to behold.
June 4, 2001 – Day at sea
During our only sea day on this itinerary we took the opportunity to meet and get to know each other better. We discussed some current industry issues and then talked about the process for our review. After lunch we all went about the ship exploring, or relaxing as we chose. This was to be our ‘formal night’ so we were going to meet at 7 pm for a group photo. This was taken out on deck by the pool. The photographer did a great job getting almost 40 people arranged in a way that made for a very nice shot. After the picture came the Captain’s Welcome Aboard cocktail party in the Stardust Lounge. The service there was good and the drinks plentiful. We were cordially welcomed aboard and introduced to several key members of the staff. This was the first, and only, ‘mixing’ of the formal types and freestyle types. Having a large divergence in the styles of dress takes some getting used to. As more and more lines go to their own variant or dress codes perhaps these styles will mix more easily. For now it was a bit unusual and somewhat disconcerting to walk down a passageway in formal attire and meet up with others in ultra casual dress, and all be correct. Perhaps this manifests itself more so on a smaller ship such as the Sea, and would be less apparent on the mega ships? After dinner it was on to the evenings activities; the show for some, casino for others, something even more relaxing for yet others.
June 5, 2001 – Halifax, Nova Scotia
Our arrival into Halifax took on an ominous flavor as we approached in a heavy shroud of fog. We docked at the pier in Halifax Harbour, which put many of the city’s main sights and attractions within walking distance of the ship. Points of interest included The Citadel, a star shaped fort that sits high above the city and protected it from invaders between 1749 and 1906, when the British Army left. At the base of The Citadel sits the Town Clock, which has kept time since 1803. Also within walking distance was the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Inside are found many original artifacts from the Titanic, with Halifax having played an important role in rescue and recovery operations during that disaster. Many of the victims of the Titanic sinking are buried in Halifax. Close by is a great assortment of shops and restaurants, including Pier 21, which is the last remaining immigration shed in Canada. Today it is a National Historic Site. Some guests elected to take excursions outside the city, but it was possible to tour the main attractions by motorized amphibious ‘ducks’, or be transported by a unique version of a rickshaw pulled by an eager and friendly young guide.
We generally found this town to be very charming, steeped with a sense of history. The people we encountered were friendly and hospitable. The USD goes a long way due to the conversion rates, but if you paid in USD almost all of your change was returned in Canadian. Not much good if you are only going to be there for a day. It is recommended that very small bills be utilized to limit the change received, or use your credit card for larger purchases.
June 6, 2001 – Bar Harbor ME
Bar Harbor was our first port requiring use of tenders. These were local contract tenders, not the ships small ones. Norwegian’s tender process was determined by what you were doing that day. Those with scheduled shore excursions were told to meet in the lounge at a certain time. Those going out on their own had to get a tender ticket and wait for their number to be called. There seemed to be some confusion in the process at first, not the least of which was compounded by the tender operators having problems approaching the ship and securing their lines. Again we factored in that we were on the first sailing so we presumed that these problems would again be worked out as the operators and ship personnel became more familiar with each other.
Bar Harbor offered plenty for us to do. Some of us chose to stay in town while others took excursions to places like Acadia National Park, or went hiking, biking, whale watching or kayaking. In town you were treated to another great blend of shops and restaurants. Some of us took advantage of the local proliferance of lobster. I made it my mission to try to find the biggest lobster I could, and managed to end up at a restaurant right on Main Street called Geddy’s. This was a very casual eatery that had a live lobster tank that you could pick your meal from. I found a 3.2 pounder that satisfied my every lobster fantasy. It was cooked perfectly, served with plenty of drawn butter and cold beer – what’s not to like?
This was another port that is not a bustling city, yet offered a variety of activities that were more than sufficient to occupy your time in port. The shopkeepers and restaurateurs were friendly and helpful. The local guides were knowledgeable and entertaining.
June 7, 2001 – Boston MA
For many of us who were veteran cruisers, having a port stop in a major U.S. city was a bit of a novelty. In Boston we had our second, and last chance to dock. As usual if you were on a shore excursion your transportation from the dock was included. For those striking out on their own there was either a long walk from the dock to the downtown attractions, very few cabs, or a shuttle bus. The shuttle cost $8 per person round trip and was somewhat slow leaving a number of passengers waiting at the dock. Once in downtown the focal point became the Quincy Market, a collection of trendy shops and restaurants offering every variety of food you could imagine. From here there were any number of directions to go and far more than anyone could do in one day so it was important to chart out your course to make the best use of the time. There were also a number of excursions that went outside of the city including stops in Marblehead, Salem, Concord and Lexington. One of the in town options was walking the ‘Freedom Trail.’ Following this clearly marked 2.5 mile path throughout the city you came across such historic sites as Boston Commons, the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, the Boston Massacre Site, the Paul Revere House, the Old North Church, the USS Constitution, and the Bunker Hill Monument. The history of the city tends to reach out to you. Knowing that we were there for only a day seemed to intensify the experience.
June 8, 2002 – Martha’s Vineyard MA
Martha’s Vineyard was approached by tender and the process seemed to go fairly smoothly. We were disembarked at Oak Bluffs, one of several towns that make up this 20-mile by 9-mile island which is located approximately 5 miles off Cape Cod. Tours of the island were arranged as shore excursions, could be done on buses or trolleys once at Oak Bluffs, or could be done on your own by rental car, jeep or motor scooter. As interesting to some as the beauty and history of the island was, others were enamored by the veritable list of who’s who that are current or former residents or property owners. Names like Kennedy, Carly Simon and James Taylor were prominent.
This was more of a relaxing port meant for sightseeing and fantasizing. I tried a local favorite, quahog chowder (clam), which was outstanding. One of the prettiest sites on the island was that of Gay Head Cliffs on the very west end of the island.
June 9, 2001 – Newport RI
Newport was another tender port. While the going ashore process seemed to go smoothly, coming back was another story. Somewhere along the line the number of tenders was reduced so that at last call there were 3 – 4 times as many passengers to come back as there was tender space. Needless to say the ship was late leaving Newport.
Newport is another beautiful town that is full of modern adventure and fascinating history. As one of the country’s premiere sailing ports, Newport is home to many racing boats. As we were tendering into port our operator was pointing out numerous sailing vessels that had competed in and/or won previous America’s Cup races. These can now be chartered for day trips. Also in port was a large catamaran named “Play Station”, which is the property of the owner of the popular game by the same name. It was either the current or former holder of the transatlantic crossing speed record for its class.
On shore Newport’s number one attractions are its ‘mansions’. These are huge estates, each one more magnificent then the one before it, that were the former ‘summer cottages’ of the New York elite from the 1800’s. The majority of them (approximately 10) are located along a three-mile stretch of Bellevue Avenue. From the dock it was possible to walk this route and stop to see any of the mansions. Pictures could be taken fro outside, but an entry fee was required at each site. There were package tours available from NCL, or at the Newport visitor’s center that allowed for entry into specific mansions. A trolley also ran this route and you could pay as you went or purchase an all day pass. Once back in town again you were surrounded by several areas of shops, boutiques and eateries. All seemed more of the upscale variety.
June 10, 2001 – Disembarkation in NYC
The disembarkation process part of NCL’s ‘freestyle’ seemed to work fairly well. We did not have to have our luggage out until 3 AM as opposed to the much earlier times that some lines require you to do so. In the morning, albeit early, you could have a full breakfast or have the normal continental fare brought to your cabin. After that you were allowed to wait in your cabin for your disembarkation color to be called. Our cabin steward stopped by one time to see if we were still aboard, and finding that we were he immediately and graciously informed us to take our time departing and hoped we enjoyed our cruise. There was never any pressure for us to vacate. Once our color was called we found our luggage and a porter easily and exited the terminal. Since we had driven I needed to go up to the parking level and retrieve our car, then pick my wife and our luggage up at the drop off area. This is always a slow process in at the NYC pier, but not one that I would say took an inordinate amount of time. The one complaint I have heard, and have experienced this same problem in the past, came from those trying to catch a cab. There is nothing the cruise line can do about this since it is under the control of the NYC authorities. As best as I can determine even the port authorities have limited control since they cannot demand that a certain number of cabs be placed at the pier’s disposal on disembarkation day. If you plan on taking a cab away from the pier, make sure you leave plenty of time to get to your destination. Waits of 2 or more hours are not out of the question.
By the standards being set throughout the industry in most of the new ships coming out, the cabins on the Sea are best described as small and functional. Our group had standard inside and standard oceanview cabins. All were approximately 114 square feet. They included bathrooms with stall showers, TV, closets and shelves, and 2 single beds that can be made up to a queen. Because the ship was sold out we were not able to tour other categories to get a good look at the size and amenities they offered. There was adequate room to store clothing for a 7 night cruise, but some in our group found it necessary to request additional hangers. Our cabin was meticulously maintained, but as is the case throughout the ship, the Sea shows her age a bit in the décor. Overall there were no real complaints about the cabins themselves, although on this ship the cabin location is important. Those who’s inside cabins were in the bow claimed to be able to feel quite a bit of ship pitch and experienced a rude awakening by the deployment of the anchor. Midship is certainly more desirable as it tended to eliminate both of these problems. Normal ship noises were filtered out extremely well leading us to believe that the ship itself was well insulated.
While not part of the cabin size or dimension review, the consensus seemed to be that NCL’s previous policy of allowing smoking only on cabins on one side of the ship was preferable to their present policy. Odors from previous occupants smoke, or neighbor’s cabins was reported. A question that was asked by some, including this writer, was why smoking is allowed in any cabin? The safety risk of someone smoking in bed can be frightening.
DECK AND POOL AREA
Overall this area received good remarks. The deck areas were open and accessible. The promenade deck was totally devoid of chairs which made for easy access by walkers and joggers, although it was reported that the deck could be slippery in places if wet. The fact that jogging was only allowed on this deck, and not on the upper deck of the ship, was seen as a good policy for all. The sports areas on deck, including a golf driving net and a basketball court seemed to be popular with the passengers. There were 2 pools and 2 hot tubs. The hot tubs were reported to be just that, with good temperature, while the pools were reported to be a bit cold. As is usual on every cruise ship, that didn’t keep the kids onboard, and several of the more adventurous adults from jumping in. As a high traffic area there were some spots on the outdoor deck carpeting that were showing wear and could stand replacing at the next dry-dock session. While it also pertains to the onboard dining and will be addressed in more detail later, one of the most popular areas onboard was the deck barbeque.
HEALTH CLUB AND SPA
The first thing one realizes upon entering this area, especially the health club, is that this ship was originally built prior to the at sea health craze. While NCL has done the best possible with the area available, the health club is very small. There are nine power assisted exercise stations, 3 stairmasters, 3 exercise bikes and 3 treadmills. There was no regular attendant on duty when our members checked it out. Thinking this may have been an added area, the only access to the exercise area is from out on deck, not the interior of the ship. On the plus side, it was open 24 hours, the views and lighting were good and the temperature was kept at an appropriate level.
In the spa the pedicures and facials were rated as good, and there was good availability for appointments. One of the things that got our members attention was that the staff was not at all pushy on trying to sell after care products. They concentrated on the procedure at hand. As on other lines that staff are contract employees, not NCL personnel. The pricing, while still significantly more than the same procedures on land, were deemed as competitive.
ENTERTAINMENT AND SHOWS
Overall this group rated the entertainment as good. As with any cruise some were more impressed with one show over another, but this is a product of your own personal taste. While I would not rate 42nd St. as among my favorite musicals, the performers did a great job. Anyone that can dance and run around a small stage, keep up their lines and sing, do quick costume changes and get it all right, on a moving object deserves your respect. Even though freestyle dining prevails onboard, the main shows were scheduled at the same times each night. Some consideration could be given to staggering the times some to accommodate anyone who likes to eat at a certain time in the evening and has the luxury of doing so because of freestyle. In the main show lounge there never seemed to be a problem finding seats in the area you preferred, provided of course that you arrived in reasonable time. Bar service was available prior to the beginning of the show, and sometimes ran into the start of the production as passengers received their orders. One member noted that it did not appear that the crew attempted to enforce to ‘no children in the front row’ rule.
As part of entertainment we included the Internet café. This is located in a large hallway adjacent to the casino / shop area. There were 8 computer stations, and on this particular cruise we never experienced a problem finding an available station, or had any wait over more than a couple of minutes. NCL offered an unlimited use package or a pay as you go package. The unlimited allowed you to log on using your own ISP (we used AOL) and send or receive e-mails for a flat fee of $89.95. For someone who spends a considerable amount of time online this is probably the way to go. If not, consider the pay as you go plan. Even though we logged on everyday we still did not use enough minutes to make up the $90. On a previous cruise, on another line, the same package was $99.95, but that was for 11 days, not 7 and there it was a true bargain. You could utilize this area 24 hours, which is great for people who actually live in other time zones or abroad. One member thought the area was cold, others did not. Again, personal preference.
NIGHTLIFE AND LOUNGES
The members of our group utilized the lounges and took in the various forms of nightlife to varying degrees. The lounges and bars offered a wide variety of options that made it easy for everyone to find a comfortable spot. For some it was the deck bars, Coconut Willy’s or the All Around the Town Bar. The service there was usually fast and there was ample seating. All Around the Town was one of two spots onboard where cigar smoking was allowed. Because it was outside, it did not cause a problem. The other designated cigar bar was Gatsby’s. It was reported that the ventilation here was excellent. We used the Stardust Lounge for a couple of our informal meetings. This was apparently a well-kept secret because every time we were there we seemed to be the only ones, which obviously made for great service.
The bartenders all seemed knowledgeable in that no complaints were heard about anyone not being able to get their favorite drink. The selection of liquors and beers was excellent, actually eclipsing some ships I have been on in the Caribbean. One of the few complaints heard about this area was the so-called Martini Bars. This is a trend in cruising, but the pricing from NCL seems way out of line. Prices for drinks that were less complicated than other call drinks were sometimes priced twice as much or more. Single drinks ranging from $6 to $12 was a bit much. The other liquors, wines and beers were comparably priced with other lines.
The casino on this ship is somewhat small by new ship standards, but seemed to handle the number of passengers interested in participating very well. A couple of our members had some success this trip and everyone who did spend some time there said the payoffs seemed fair. While sitting at the Caribbean Stud Poker table on formal night, I had an experience I have never had on a ship before – the pit boss bought drinks for everyone at the table. None of us were high rollers so I was even more surprised. It was a very nice touch.
On this itinerary a fairly good mix of shore excursions was offered. The ports lent themselves to self-exploration if you are not a fan of organized tours. The usual caution exists for those passengers though – make sure you get back on time! The reports on the ships excursions were predominantly positive. One of our members went ‘whale watching’ in Halifax and stated that the trip to and form the sight were much longer than the time actually on site. Also she stated that she believed there were too many people on the boat causing everyone to become very protective of their spots on the rail, which kept you exposed to the elements for the entire trip. The tour guides were reported as being well informed about their subjects. Once again this was an area that probably will improve on subsequent sailings as the line and the tour operators become more familiar with each other.
On the Norwegian Sea all of the shops are in one centralized spot. This was determined to be a good thing. The selection was good, as was the service and displays. There were several ‘sidewalk’ sales, yet because of the way the shop area is situated, they never caused a traffic jam in the area. The products offered were the standard cruise ship fare and the prices seemed comparable with other ships and lines. Duty free liquor appeared to be a very good value.
There is an onboard ice cream shop called Lickety Splits. While there were no complaints about the product or the service, the mention of this shop brought out the ever-present debate about paying for a food product onboard. The consensus here is the same as I have heard about other lines that charge for ice cream – offer a less known brand and serve it free.
The food on this ship received an overall good review. There were certainly no complaints about selection between the many different dining options you were offered. One of our members was a vegetarian, and she stated that the selection in that area, specifically the dinner entrees listed as vegetarian, left something to be desired. Perhaps the least favorable comments came in reference to the buffets in the Big Apple Café. The lines moved extremely slow at all meals and the food quality seemed substandard when compared to any of the other restaurants. The on deck barbeque and ethnic buffets did get high praise. The main restaurants were considered good, with a varied selection each night. Probably the best food onboard was at Le Bistro, the alternative dining room that required reservations and a $10 per person cover fee. While those of us that ate there agreed that the food was outstanding, the issue of the cover charge sparked what has become the standard industry debate. (This will be addressed further in the next topic area where we will discuss ‘freestyle dining.’) Many of us took advantage of the free room service, especially for early mornings and a light breakfast. Our order was always correct and served with a smile, but the nicest feature was that you receive a phone call alerting you that it is on the way. An especially appreciated touch when you are in the middle of getting dressed for the day! Food was available at the appropriate times throughout the day and night making it virtually impossible to get too hungry.
It’s hard to separate a review of overall service from a discussion on the merits of ‘freestyle cruising’. NCL talks about having extra crew on its freestyle ships to help ensure speedy service. Lets address cabin stewards first. Ours was excellent, and we heard no real complaints from our group. He was just visible enough at the appropriate times to ensure that if we had a special request he was available to comply, but was not at all overbearing as we mentioned earlier when speaking about disembarkation.
The service from the deck attendants and busboys (and girls) on the deck spaces and the buffet areas was good. There was generally no appreciable wait to either order a drink, or have a table cleared. The cooks and servers working the on deck barbeque did an outstanding job. The waiters/waitresses and bus persons in the main dining rooms were one area on inconsistency. There were nights when the service was exceptional, and others, for no obvious reason, that it was slow or slightly disorganized. This may be one of the main areas of contention and debate on the ‘freestyle’ concept. The arguments and discussions appeared to breakdown along cruise experience lines. The more cruise experience one had the less they seemed to prefer this style. Suffice it to say the choice is not at all a bad thing, but it is sometimes not a replacement for familiarity. This perhaps speaks to the inconsistency issue in the main dining rooms. Advocates for the traditional cruise dining model are quick to point out that by the second night a good waiter and busboy team should know your preferences, such as drinks (water, ice tea, coffee vs. tea, etc.), breads, deserts, etc., all of which leads to a smoother, faster service. With a different server each night it can slow the process some. This is not to say that the service was bad, but that familiarity and consistency is lost. While having gratuities added to your bill is easy is it possible that it might cause complacency on the part of some crew members who are not as inclined to work to please the passenger?
By contrast the service in Le Bistro was as excellent as the food. Again, the debate of why you should have to pay extra for this. If under the freestyle concept all your gratuities are added to your bill and divided equally since you do not have the same servers, the question was asked, “what are we actually paying for in LeBistro?” While the question was asked of the Maitre’d, no real answer beyond service was received. If one was to say that the quality of the food precipitates the charge, does that mean that the standard food you paid for in your cruise price is of a lesser quality. The confusion among some kept them from experiencing this restaurant.
It would be farfetched to say that the service under the freestyle model is bad; it just once again comes down to a matter of your own preferences and tastes. While the luxury of complete choice may be inviting to some, others crave that personal touch. There is no right answer and as much of cruising, there is something for everyone.
This was a unique cruise experience. The itinerary was outstanding, offering many ports of call that people have never had the opportunity to visit before. It was a nice departure from the ‘normal’ ports of call we have all experienced over the years. The pace of the cruise is not a demanding one and gives you the opportunity to experience some great things, but not wear yourself out doing it.
While she is an older ship there is nothing so bad about the Norwegian Sea that would keep you from recommending her to others. As we have said throughout this review, personal taste should prevail. If you are allergic to or have a great aversion to smoke, this is not the ship, or perhaps line for you. If you were looking for a mega ship that is more important than the itinerary, again this would be a bad choice. But if you are looking for a great value, a new and exciting itinerary, the ability to take almost total control of when, where and how you do things while onboard, and can overlook some minor inconveniences, this is the cruise for you.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the representatives from NCL that we dealt with during this cruise, specifically and especially Ms. Heidi Ross, Group Service Coordinator aboard the Norwegian Sea, for all their assistance. They went out of their way to make our group feel at home and extended every courtesy possible. I look forward to the opportunity to sail with NCL in the near future.