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Ruth Hunter

Age: 54

Occupation:retired procurement manager

Number of Cruises: 7

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Norwegian Sea

Sailing Date: November 29th, 2003

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

First, let me thank those who previously posted reviews of this ship and itinerary. Their experiences and advice improved my cruise experience. I will reiterate here the advice they provided that was helpful to me.

This was our second cruise on this ship and this itinerary. Known as the “Texaribbean Cruise”, we took it the first time in September, 2000, before it was discontinued by NCL. When we saw it had been reinstated, we remembered it as our most enjoyable cruising experience and booked passage not only for ourselves, but also for our son, his wife, and their two children. I guess repeating the experience is the highest commendation we can offer for the ship, the itinerary, and the cruise line!

THE SHIP -- Norwegian Sea is a medium to large cruise ship. She is older, and although I’ve read that she was redecorated earlier this year, she appeared the same as I remembered her. Although rather mature for a cruise ship, she is well-maintained, and her advanced age did not detract from our experience in any way.

The cabins are small. The showers are small. The wardrobe is small. None of this matters to me. I don’t go on a cruise to sit in my cabin. The space is adequate for sleeping, storing a week’s worth of clothes, and bathing. Unpack immediately and store your luggage under the bed. If you want the twin beds made up as one queen bed (which means you’ll probably have to enter the exit the bed by crawling off the end), just tell your room steward or leave a note on the bed the first evening.

EMBARKATION & DISEMBARKATION -- The Sea arrived in port for our cruise four hours late because of strong headwinds that delayed her arrival. Consequently our boarding was delayed, but when one considers the problems the staff had to overcome in this transaction, our debarkation went pretty smoothly.

Our passage involved quite a lot of “ship” motion. I believe high winds causing choppy and high seas were the reason for our rough passage. Although I occasionally get car sick, I wasn’t troubled by seasickness. The other members of our group were bothered to a greater or lesser degree, but even they seemed to acquire sea legs by the second day. None of us ever use doctor prescribed remedies (the patch behind the ear.) There are pills available onboard at no cost. I’ve no opinion on which remedies work better. If I felt anxiety about the possibility, I think I’d bring my own Dramamine purchased in a pharmacy before boarding. I wouldn’t use the ear patch because of all the negative side effects (dizziness and a feeling of being “loopy”) that I heard described by the other passengers.

Expedited disembarkation is offered by NCL as long as you carry off all your own baggage. Half of our group took advantage of this while the other half used normal disembarkation in which the cruise staff moves your luggage from the ship to the customs area and you disembark in assigned groups. Our expedited group was off the ship at least an hour before the standard disembarkers. Being able to await disembarkation in your own stateroom instead of crowding 1800 passengers into public areas is also a nice NCL accommodation.

THE STAFF -- Onboard this ship it is superior to others I’ve experienced in terms of friendliness, courtesy, and helpfulness. The one exception to this was our room steward, who was inferior to any I’ve had before. I want to believe I was assigned an inexperienced person who was not representative of all stewards on this ship. Coincidentally, this was the first time I’ve had a female rather than a male steward. I don’t want to think that gender played in role in the quality of service I received, but my steward did the absolute minimum in all ways. After six previous cruises (this was my third with NCL) I’ve come to expect those little personal services that result in higher tips: washing out the souvenir glasses one acquires on the first day of the cruise; folding up clothing left draped on a bed or chair; clean drinking glasses every day. On this cruise I received no extra service, and I tipped accordingly.

A word about tipping. NCL adds $10/day/passenger to the credit card account of the travel. (This daily amount is $5/day/passenger for children 12 and under, and non-existent for children 2 and under.) It is my belief that this is done to counter the tendency of some cultural groups to not tip at all. The crew members with whom I discussed this practice were of the opinion that Americans as a group expect to tip, and Southerners (of which I am not one, but my husband is) are more generous than “Yankees”. But tipping is not part of the culture for a lot of other countries. Consequently, a lot of cruise lines have gone to the standardized tip-added-to-your-onboard-account practice. Travelers need to realize that this still remains an optional, not a mandatory, charge. Guests may visit the purser’s office to have this charge reduced, increased, or removed altogether. Because so many guests under-tip or fail to tip, the crews prefer the automated tipping system. As a passenger, I don’t like it. I prefer to reward according to service.

I had expected that, as a result of this standard tipping practice, service would suffer. I was delighted to find that service seemed to be BETTER than on previous cruises! Perhaps the entire crew now has a vested interest in being nice to EVERY passenger, not just their “personal” passengers. I don’t know the reason, but we very pleased with the courtesy, friendliness, and service received while onboard, especially from the food service personnel!

FREESTYLE -- No review of an NCL cruise would be complete without commenting on their Freestyle concept. This was my second Freestyle cruise, and it was superior to my first experience, mostly because I’m learning how to work the system to my advantage, and partly because of advice I picked up from a previous cruiser’s review. Savvy cruisers on a Freestyle cruise can have the best of both worlds: freedom to be casual and dine when and where they like without sacrificing the luxury and familiarity of dining in the same restaurant, at the same time, with the same companions and serving staff, every night of the cruise. This is how it’s accomplished. See the maitre d’ in the main dining room (Seven Seas) at 5:30 PM on the first night of the cruise. Explain that you prefer the traditional dining experience and request a table assignment (of the size to accommodate your dining group), a dining time, and a serving staff. Having an assigned time and location takes you out of the queue waiting for a table each evening, and you have the experience you want – a serving staff that becomes acquainted with your preferences and caters to them with charm and wit. (You should, of course, tip the maitre d’ for this special service. Our party of four adults and two children felt that $20 was appropriate, delivered to the maitre d’ personally on the last evening of the cruise.)

DINING & FOOD – On our first Texaribbean Cruise we were assigned to the Four Seasons (preceded the Freestyle format.) It’s a nice restaurant, but we preferred the Seven Seas. Four Seasons has windows on only one wall and feels more enclosed. The Seven Seas has windows on three sides. Our waiter and his assistant were charming and always went the extra mile to provide exceptional service. The learned that my daughter-in-law loves Brie cheese and the rest of our dining group also enjoyed a selection of cheeses. From that day on, when we were seated at our table, TWO plates of cheese would immediately appear. One plate was an assortment, and the other was entirely Brie and was placed wherever my daughter-in-law was sitting! One evening we’d returned from an excursion and just had time to change clothes before heading to dinner, so the adults requested cups of coffee before dinner. From that day on, the coffee cups appeared at the same time as the cheese, frequently even before we’d ordered our meals. We ate in the main dining rooms a couple times for other meals and were served by other wait staff. Without exception they were gracious, friendly, and did an exceptional job of making us feel pampered and cared for. At our first dining room breakfast we were watching a server fold napkins. We tried to copy what she was doing, so she took the time to show us the procedure. Our waiter noticed and spent several minutes teaching us other napkin folds (candles, fans, and the very intricate and difficult two-napkin swan.) Many times the staff we’d met in the dining room would see us in other areas of the ship and would take the time to greet us and chat.

Perhaps because of the Freestyle concept, the “theme night” concept enjoyed on other cruise lines seems to have become a thing of the past on NCL cruises. Guests still dress for the formal night, but on fifties night, we were the only diners in the main dining room that were dressed for the occasion. The same was true on Caribbean night, and so on. So just pack your docker slacks and shirts with collars, and you’ll be set for everything except formal night.

Availability of coffee 24 hours a day was great! This ship has a liberal smoking policy, but the dining rooms and main show room, as well as the port (left) side of the ship are non-smoking. I didn’t hear any complaints about the presence of smoke onboard.

My son’s family made extensive use of room service, enjoying bedtime snacks (sandwiches, cookies, milk) every night. They found the service a little slow until the word got around that they always tipped for good service. Suddenly their wait for room service went from 30-45 minutes to 5-10 minutes!

We found the quality of the food to be better than average. The availability was also important to my group. We’d experienced a cruise on which food was offered during proscribed hours only, and if you missed a meal, you just went hungry until the next designated meal! Food was always available and quite good on this cruise. The buffet offered different entrées on different days, with certain standard items available every day. I never figured out the story behind the availability of the Frosted Flakes cereal; it was offered the first and last days only. I thought they’d run out until they appeared on the buffet again on the morning of our disembarkment.

BEVERAGES – Be prepared. The only beverages offered in the dining rooms and buffet without additional charge are milk, coffee, tea (hot & cold), and water. (You can get chocolate milk or hot chocolate if you ask for it.) A soft drink in the dining room is at your own expense. The drink cards are expensive. In any given week at home I would never consume $18 of soft drinks. But I guess if they cost $3 each at home, I might be able to run up an $18 bar bill.

SHIPBOARD ENTERTAINMENT -- We went to the main showroom twice while on the cruise. Once was a guest performer, and once was the NCL staff entertainers. Both shows were fun but not exceptional. The onboard activities were the usual for a cruise. We took a dance class. We went to karaoke. Since we were traveling with family and made friends with other guests, we provided a lot of our own entertainment. The Latitudes Party (for Latitudes members – folks who’ve cruised with NCL more than once) was a pleasant surprise. I’ve quit going to the Captain’s cocktail parties held on formal nights as I’m not a champagne drinker. The Latitudes party provided a variety of complimentary appetizers and various mixed drinks as well as white and red wine and champagne. The staff where at our elbows with refills on both before we’d quit swallowing!

Don’t plan on watching TV. The choice/variety is pretty slim. Again, who goes on a cruise to watch TV? There are several movies that play during the cruise. By the end of the cruise, you’ll probably never want to see any of them again! The balance of the TV fare is re-re-re-runs of old sitcoms. If you haven’t seen the Honeymooners since it was released, you might be amused (at least the first time.)

My grandchildren are of an age (10 and 12) to use the ship’s youth program. The kids went once and never went back again. The majority of the children were much younger, and since the group spans ages 6 to 12, the activities were too simple and boring for my grandkids. However, at their age, they were not a problem to keep with us, and they enjoyed swimming in the pool or playing ping-pong poolside while the adults were drinking coffee and socializing with other adult passengers.

COZUMEL -- Since we’d taken this cruise three years ago, we knew what to expect in the ports. Cozumel has gotten more commercial during that time. The merchants aren’t nearly as eager to negotiate (aka haggle) over price; they seem to have the attitude that there will be another cruise ship along tomorrow with guests willing to pay their exorbitant prices for souvenirs and gee-gaws. The prices in Cozumel seemed very high: $3.50 for a beer and $2.50 for a can of soda. We ducked around a corner, found an ex-patriot American, and were directed to a location that sold canned soda for 85¢ and beer for $1.00.

There is a great excursion that we’ve found available only in Cozumel: SNUBA! If you like snorkeling, you’ll love SNUBA Diving (CZM-959). It utilizes a regulator (similar to SCUBA, I’m told), but the air tanks float on top of the water, and the swimmer is connected to the air source by a long hose. It requires no certification and provides the novice the experience of swimming along the bottom, in close proximity to coral and tropical fish. Dives are all supervised by an experienced SCUBA diver. (Bring cash for drinks after, as swimming makes one thirsty, and even water is not free on this excursion.)

ROATAN – Honduras is still primitive, but it’s growing rapidly. In three years a lot of foreigners have discovered this location and are busy building homes and condominiums. The locals have also gone commercial and are hawking souvenirs along both sides of the (currently dirt) main road. The big attraction in Roatan is snorkeling along the second largest barrier reef in the world. Luckily for us, we’d taken this excursion three years ago. Tabyana Bay was gorgeous then, but the snorkel adventure excursion (RTB-047) was cancelled this trip due to weather conditions. Do take some excursion that will get you up on top of the island. The view is worth the trip.

BELIZE – We were disappointed in Belize. We went on the Wildlife Adventure (BZE-007) and found it to be long, boring, and over-priced. The guide was very knowledgeable on local flora and fauna, but we thought a half hour was too long to spend idling in the river mouth, hoping for a viewing of a manatee’s nose! If you’re interested in manatees, go to Sea World in Orlando and see the whole thing through the glass wall of the aquarium. The guides seemed to pace the boat trip up the river to the tourists’ comments. Consequently, one woman was able to keep us moving at a snail’s pace by spotting numerous blue herrings, each of which had to circled about and inspected! A better pace throughout the boat trip would negate the necessity to race the last few miles to make up time spent dawdling on the first mile. The iguanas were spectacular, but again, close examination of one or two pretty much covers the subject. We didn’t feel it necessary to linger over EVERY iguana, bird, and mangrove tree.

The food provided on this excursion was also a disappointment: beans & rice, one piece of chicken, and a lettuce (only) salad without dressing. The location where we dined was nothing you’d want to save a snapshot of. The bus to the zoo was air-conditioned, but poor pacing of the tour resulted in our almost running through the zoo to see each of the indigenous animals and still make it back to the port for the last tender back to the ship. We would have much preferred less time on the river to allow more time at the zoo. There was no time for any shopping or browsing. And, smokers take note: this is virtually a six hour non-smoking tour. It is also moderately physical, what with the jog through the zoo! We did not feel this tour was worth the price ($85).

CANCUN – Fortunately, the cruise ship ports in Mexico bear little resemblance to the border towns. Cancun and Cozumel are both quite modern and definitely oriented to their tourist industry. On both our cruises we participated in the 4X4 Caverns & Beach Exploration (CNC-096), and we’ve been delighted each time. Government regulations are becoming more stringent, even in Mexico, but we were still able to swim in the cave lake. Driving your own jeep definitely adds to the fun! The beach café where we were served lunch was very nice, and the food was good, too. The beach left something to be desired because the bottom of the bay is covered with grass. This isn’t pleasant to walk in. The water stays quite shallow for quite a distance from the shore. This is not a good location for snorkeling. The guides on this excursion are consummate actors and quite fun. For $4 more than the Belize excursion, it was a far better value for me. (Be prepared for a LOT of jeep driving in a standard transmission vehicle.)

TIP – If you’re driving to the port, a great place to stay overnight before and/or after the cruise is the Best Western in La Porte, Texas. It’s a clean comfortable property that provides continental breakfasts, and it’s less than three miles from the port. They allowed us to leave our car in their lot during the cruise, using a cab to get to and from the port ($10/carload each way.) This was easier and cheaper than port parking ($49).

The Texaribbean Cruise on Norwegian Sea is STILL my favorite cruise!

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