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Don Lance

Age: 65

Occupation:Travel Agency Owner

Number of Cruises: 16

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Norwegian Sea

Sailing Date: October 30th, 2004

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

First impressions can be deceiving! I will complete that thought process after I tell you a little bit about us. We are travel agency owners and love to cruise and to experience the ships that we sell. It is likely that we may look at things a little differently from other travelers so keep that in mind as you read our reviews. This was our 16th cruise, having sailed Norwegian twice before. Our first NCL sailing was on the Star, the first Norwegian ship to sail from Houston. The Star received lots of bad PR and was even negatively reviewed in the Houston press. We loved the cruise but thought the ship was just ok. We were happy when she was replaced with the Sea.

Other than sailing and reviewing this ship, we wanted to experience Freestyle Cruising. This would be our first experience with Freestyle, since our other NCL sailings were pre-Freestyle.

When ships began to sail from the Texas Coast, most of the passengers were from Texas. It is interesting that we met so many folks from across the country that had flown to Houston to take this cruise. Texas must really be seen as a cruise port. In respect for Texas residents who drive to Houston, let me give you a hint to avoid missing a turn. If you travel on I-45, past George Bush Intercontinental Airport, turn east on Beltway 8. Now here is my confusion. The Sam Houston Toll Road extends Beltway 8 west from I-45 and I expected to see it continue on the east side and circumnavigate the city. I planned to follow the signs to the toll road. Instead, it is called Sam Houston Toll Way on the west side of Houston but Beltway 8 on the east side. It does become Sam Houston Toll Way just before highway 225, where you turn east to 146 south and Barbours Cut. The toll is only $2.00 for the toll road and it is much easier to travel than to drive through Houston on I-45. Just remember to turn east on Beltway 8, don't get confused by other toll roads in the area and forget the Sam Houston Toll Way.

Parking at the terminal is a snap. The lot is just beyond the terminal. We drove to the terminal entrance and were immediately assisted by porters who took our checked luggage. Kayron took our carry-on bags and I parked the car. The parking process, including the walk back to the terminal was less than 5 minutes.

Embarkation is easy for Latitudes Members, folks who have sailed NCL before. The regular line was long and slow moving however. If you have sailed Norwegian, go directly to the Latitudes line and you will be walking the covered walkway to the ship in no time.

Now, to continue with our “first impressions”. I knew that the Sea had undergone refurbishing recently. This process is necessary to convert from regular dining to Freestyle Dining. I didn’t know what to anticipate since we had recently toured a ship in Galveston that had been “refurbished” and all we could see was new carpet. When we entered the atrium area, a two-story glass fountain that had 4 water-collecting pools at the bottom, greeted us. Water cascaded continually down these glass rods, making “Caution, Wet Floor” signs necessary. Seemed a little “80s” to me. We were escorted to a small elevator located on a white lacquered wall (not as striking as the elaborate glass elevators in the Atrium areas on the newer megaships) and then went to our cabin.

Our cabin was tiny and had metal drawers and closets. No way to keep noise down if your partner is asleep. The beds were in twin configuration and appeared not to be movable so we left them in their original position (we later learned that they could be changed to a double). The back of each bed had an upholstered bolster that lifted at night to make the sofa into your bed. Even with that bolster out of the way, the width of the bed is so narrow that you fear falling off in rough seas. Our cabin had a picture window that looked onto the side of a lifeboat but we knew we had an obstructed view so that was no surprise. The bath had a tile floor with a drain for the shower as older ships did. Sure enough, water collected all over the floor during a shower. The shower area was so small that a large person would have trouble staying inside the curtain. There were soap and shampoo dispensers on the wall in the shower and a large hair dryer hung on the bathroom wall. The hair dryer gets hot enough but does not blow enough air. Bring your own hair dryer!

We went to the buffet restaurant, The Big Apple, for our first lunch onboard. It is very small and the tables close. There are two identical, small serving lines that are U shaped meaning that you are back to back with those getting dessert when you are getting your entree. The “breath protecting” plastic shields were scratched and almost opaque so the food presentation was unappealing. The restaurant is located at the stern of the ship, with glass walls to provide an ocean view. This made the restaurant difficult to cool so it felt like a sauna. To me, the food quality was less than that of the average cafeteria. I did notice a line to a Pasta bar but had enough food on my plate not to sample it. Hamburgers were being cooked on the starboard side of the pool deck and a sandwich bar was offered on the port side deck but it was too hot in Houston to want to sample these outside. Our first lunch was just not good.

Now to complete our “first impressions”. I am a real cruise enthusiast. I love the allure of the open sea and the romance of cruising. So far, I had found no romance. We made reservations at Pasta’s for our first evening dinner. Pasta’s is one of two specialty restaurants requiring reservations. This was our first experience with Freestyle dining. We asked for and received a table for two (“Dine anytime, with whom you choose, dressed as you like, at any restaurant that you select” says the NCL brochure). I love people but part of the “romance” is to enjoy a good meal with just Kayron and I. The service was wonderful and the food was excellent at Pasta’s! I was beginning to be caught up in the “allure”. The “romance” was beginning. After this delicious meal, we went to the adjacent Gatsby”s Wine Bar, had an after-dinner drink and enjoyed great guitar music by Shane Cammell, from New Zealand. At some time during that evening I realized that my attitude had completely changed. I was thoroughly enjoying the romance of the evening and the allure of the sea. I was hooked! This was going to be a great cruise!

Day 2. I am an early riser. I love to walk the deck for about an hour before everyone else gets out of bed. The promenade is located on deck 6 and only a few brave folks were up at that hour. Walking was no problem on the leeward side but on the windward side I was facing about a 30 MPH wind coupled with the force from movement of the ship. I estimate the total wind in my face to be about 45 – 50 MPH. That was enough wind to blow my outbound foot into my inbound foot and to push me into a run on the downwind leg. For a time or two, I really felt like I was going overboard. The placement of the walking/jogging track, the slant of the bridge area of the ship and the currents caused by headwind made it a treacherous to walk. I completed my trek in about an hour and was glad to get back inside. I noticed later that they roped off the bow area due to “high winds”. Anyway, I made my way back to our cabin, woke Kayron and we went to breakfast.

One note about the stability of the Sea. She is only 42,000 tons and could be rough. The seas each day during this sailing were about 4-8 feet and the ship did move a little. I saw some folks who appeared a little green but to me the movement was minimal for a ship that size in these seas. I think the Sea has good stabilizers and I was impressed by the ride.

Again, let me describe a dissimilarity between ourselves and other cruisers. We have discovered that we enjoy the service and ambience of eating breakfast and lunch in the dining rooms and not at the buffet restaurants. We chose a table for two in the Four Seasons dining room and had a great breakfast. There is an unhurried atmosphere in the dining rooms and the food is fresher than the serving line food in the buffet. Again, I enjoy eating with Kayron and visiting with folks seated at tables next to us by mutual agreement rather than forced conversation.

The Internet Café was next on our agenda and we set up a block of time for later use to keep us in touch with our office. Next, we went to the shops for presents for the family. Lunch was again in the Four Seasons at a table for two.

I need to devote some space to Le Bistro our dining choice for our second night. This is a Mediterranean Restaurant, close to Pasta’s on the 10th floor. The elevator that takes you to the 10th floor is only a 4 person elevator and I suggest walking up if you are at all claustrophobic. Le Bistro requires reservations and there is a $15.00/person service charge. We have eaten at specialty restaurants on other ships, some that charged a cover charge and have always enjoyed the experience. We do not mind paying extra for great food and good service. This was a truly memorable experience and was perhaps was one of our best ever meals at sea. We began our meal with a Caesar Salad, individually prepared. My entrée was a Filet Mignon and it was to die for, requiring only a fork to cut it. Béarnaise sauce and mixed, grilled vegetables accompanied the steak. To me, it was easily as good or better than any steak I have eaten from any restaurant on land. The desert was Banana’s Flambé, which was prepared by the headwaiter, individually to your order. I love the ceremony of visibly prepared food, especially flaming foods. Following dinner, we visited Oscar’s for a nightcap while enjoying great piano music. This was another great night at sea.

Day 3. I want to mention the Seven Seas Restaurant. We ate there on the third night and wondered how it would compare with the specialty restaurants. Once again we requested a table for two but we did enjoy talking with folks at the adjacent table. I would have to rate our meal as one of the better “dining room” meals that I have eaten. I ordered “Cowboy Steak” which was a thin piece of sirloin, covered with onion rings and sitting on a bed of French Fries. It was excellent! Overall, we really enjoyed our meals onboard and repeated our choices on the last three nights, doing Pasta’s, Le Bistro and the Seven Seas again, in that order. We were never disappointed.

Rather than a day by day review, I will mention other events that we enjoyed onboard the ship. We did the art auction on three days, Bingo on two days and walked through the Casino multiple times. Somehow money was transferred from my pocked into the slot machines as we walked through. I must enjoy it because I donate money to slots on almost every cruise. I do seem to just barely remember my frustration when everyone else’s machines are dinging and flashing and mine are always so quite.

Ports. The itinerary for the Texaribbian Cruise includes 4 ports, a difficult feat for the Western Caribbean from Galveston. The port stops are short, generally a half day but that seems enough for new cruise ports like Roatan and Belize. Our first stop was Cozumel. We were there for most of a day. Kayron and I have visited Cozumel multiple times so we elected to stay on the ship. The mostly empty vessel was enjoyable. There are 2 bay window areas on each deck and each has 3 chairs and plants. This makes a nice air-conditioned area to read. That is how we spent the day in Cozumel.

Next day, we visited Roatan, Honduras. Ships have not been visiting this area long enough for the Hondurans to improve their taxi system or their roads. It is primitive but that holds some charm for first time visitors. Tabyana Beach is very nice and it is the best tour. We had enjoyed the beach on our first NCL Cruise and had done the dolphin encounter, so we again elected to stay onboard. Those who did the beach enjoyed it. Snorkeling and Diving in Roatan are great! We had a power outage onboard the ship just before we were to sail. The ship becomes very dark when there is no electricity. The captain spoke to us immediately and said that the engineers were working on the problem and would have it fixed soon. About every 15 minutes, either he or the cruise director would bring us an update. It took about an hour before power was restored. The emergency power did come on so about 1/3 of the hall lights worked and a few on deck. We went to the pool area to get some fresh air and visited with others who had the same idea. The dining crew came out and immediately began cooking steaks and chops on an outdoor charcoal grill. The steaks were great! Couple those steaks with the free Rum Punch and I was impressed. I really believe NCL made the most of a bad situation. I applaud them for their thoughtfulness.

We had never visited Belize before this cruise. Of course Ambergris Key is the touristy spot where most land travelers go. I saw no shore excursions with a flight to the key. Belize City is a rather poor town with very small city streets and hasn’t much to see. We did a tour of the city and then traveled by bus to Altun Ha, one of several Mayan ruins on the island. Compared with other ruins that we have visited, not much of Altun Ha is excavated but it is very interesting. It is definitely worth the drive. We never saw turquoise, iridescent water, typical of the Caribbean, however I believe that the prettier water and the white sand beaches do exist on Ambergris Key.

Our final destination was Cancun. I don't remember seen Cancun specifically listed on any other cruise itinerary before. Generally there is a note that Calica will be the port or that there will be tendering into Playa del Carmen and then a bus to Cancun. On the day we were to visit Cancun, the captain announced that the waves were 5 feet and the anchorage was in only 6 feet of water and that we would not be stopping. We waved as we sailed by. I had heard that the anchorage location was close to the Flamingo Mall area and I believe that they need nearly perfect conditions to anchor there. Should they consider another anchoring site?

Of course, we arrived Houston in the middle of the night. I only remember awaking and deciding that the water/wind had subsided because the cruise seemed so much smoother. Guess we were tied up at the dock.

Disembarkation day arrived and it was almost as simple as embarkation. We were given a colored tag and were directed through immigration by that color. There was a long line but we went quickly through. We went to the Four Seasons for our final breakfast. After eating, we sat in the bay window area and read until our color was called. I should mention that Freestyle means that you can depart the ship whenever you want. This is called Express Debarkation and the folks wanting to carry off all of their luggage were instructed to do so after the immigration line. We had lots of luggage and knew we needed the ship porters to take it to the pier. We had chosen to do conventional debarkation so we had placed our luggage outside our cabin before we went to bed. When they called our color, we took our carry-ons, left the ship and easily found our luggage. Really pretty simple!

We certainly enjoyed the Norwegian Sea and our cruise. We are really fans of Freestyle Cruising. We have had some clients who complained about this new dining style and others who bitterly hate it but that’s not how we feel. I would definitely sail this cruise again and I am looking forward to sailing another NCL Freestyle cruise in the future.

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