Since we live near the Niagara Falls border crossing we flew out of Buffalo airport. Did the pre-night stay/parking combo at the Hilton Garden Inn, literally across street from airport. Always a consistently good stay.
Our flight out of BUF was uneventful accept for a slight delay due to some system lights that needed fixed onboard.
Flew into LGA a day early, and stayed at Hilton Times Square on 42nd. Remembering it was a Saturday, the metered rate was $43 before tip, might be more during week. Amazing location and great views as the hotel starts on the 21st floor. From our room we had a view of both 42nd st and on, and the cruise port. Had pizza at John 's Pizza, near the hotel, it was really good.
Starting Friday we received 2 calls from NCL regarding a delay in boarding, by 2 hrs, due to medical emergency. There was a pax airlifted off the ship with appendicitis. Hope they received the care they needed and are on their way to recovery. The minor delay was no biggy to us as it was a gorgeous day out and the intrepid museum is right next door. Dropped our luggage off at noon, and I have to say the porter was so very nice. He informed us of the delay and what we could do to pass time. I tipped him $5 and gave him our bags.
The porter sent us through the terminal to take the elevator down and an NCL agent, who was obviously on repeat, was talking loudly to us like we were children. "HAVE YOU CHECKED IN?". I informed her no and before I could say we were just coming into use the elevator she said "YOU NEED TO GO TO 90 GET A COLOUR AND WAIT!!". After I explained, she was nicer and gave us $2 off coupons for Intrepid and said back by 3:30 as everything is delayed. Of course there were some crusty people screaming at an agent while we left. Seriously, yelling is going to solve what, other then having people around you think you're a nutter? Yes, we all dislike waiting, but I'm sure the person who got airlifted off would prefer not to have been ill. Checked out intrepid and the submarine, that was enjoyable, price $22 each w/ $2 coupon.
Upon our return at 3:00 there was a massive line up in the terminal snaking through all the queues and right outside to dock 90s terminal. Thank goodness we didn't wait around. We went to the staging/overflow in 90 and we're handed orange paper and told to have a seat. No problem as I had no plans to stand on that crazy line. About an hour later they announced we could head over to the next terminal. We get to Gem's terminal and the entire queue is full. But, never stopped moving. Once we got through this part it happened, benefits of being a latitudes member. There were 2 lines, one for Latitudes and one for non-lats. The agent viewed our print outs and sent us down the Lat line which took us right to a checking agent. The non-lats had to snake around another queue. Thanks NCL.
Benefits of the late checkin was the rooms were ready so went right to the room and waited for the muster drill which was around 5:30.
Fellow passengers: Visibly an older crowd majority. Very few families. This made for many quieter venues in the evenings. One of my biggest peeves about people is rudeness and there was no lack of that here. But, to be fair, unfortunately that's the way the world is going. It's minor things, but someone's walking my way and I stand aside for them, please acknowledge my actions, even a glance and smile. I open a door, please acknowledge. Seriously people, a little common courtesy is not difficult, it shows character. Even with a full ship, many events in the evening were empty. The busiest places on the ship were the atrium, the pool, deck on sea days and of course the buffet at peak times. I should add the library and games room were the fullest i've ever seen.
Ship:. Some areas showing age, with minor scuffs and marks, but for a floating hotel that see action non stop, it's in decent shape. There is room for improvements on some of your the simple scuffs, marks and scratches. It's interesting how for a full ship there was still a lot of breathing room with many loungers avail on the upper decks.
Room: 9th floor family balcony, even though there was just the two of us, but that was our room assignment for our balcony guarantee. Starboard side just at the back elevator / stairwell entrance. So very convenient to the main dining room and the pool deck / buffet. As well as only two/three flights up from the shopping, casino, stardust theatre, restaurant alley, etc. The cabin was in good shape with no complaints about cleaning. I so like to reward over the top service, nothing crazy, but a simple act that would be a wow moment, but the room steward was just good. He earned his share of the daily gratuity but had a few oversights. Spotty consistency on filling ice, giving us the 'Dailies', and the little chocolates. One more minor complaint is the balcony glass (not the balc door's glass) was really covered with salt, and surprisingly the majority was on the side facing in. I used a towel to clean it and it was amazing what came off. This must not be part of their routine, but what a difference this would make to the overall appearance of the room. But, if those are the only 'negative' comments I have, woohoo!! Also, the flat panel tv's, although small, have improved in services avail since our last NCL cruise. Through the TV you can access your Sail and Sign account, as well as order wine and beer. The channels avail, on top of the umpteen NCL info channels include BBC, MSNBC, E Channel, Nickelodeon (this channel is obviously gesred for children but in addition to traditionally younger programming they also play Malcom In The Middle, That 70s Show, The Chris Rock Show), ESPN, TV favourites (examples include: Big Bang Theory, Law and Order, Newsroom, Whitney, and Mike and Molly), Movie Classics (examples include: Forest Gump, Angela's Ashes, Time to Kill, Mission Impossible III, Transformers II). Oh yes, and the ever intelligent fox news.
Weather: Left NYC on a beautiful sunny day at 0c (32f) and the next day it was already 12c. Next day it was 18c and the humidity was noticeably higher (slept with balcony door open). San Juan was 23c, but felt a lot hotter with humidity. St. Maarten was 24c before humidity. St Thomas 28c before humidty. Samana, 23 before humidity. The weather on all four days was fantastic, slight rain in San Juan, but we were on our way back to ship anyways.
Food: No complaints at all. Everything was good to fantastic. Service in main dining room was noticeably affected by how busy it was, but that's understandable. Since they wait staff are in charge of all drink orders, these orders will affect the length of your meal. However they never complained, even though this could get annoying if people would place their drink orders after the order was already taken and delivered. If you ever question if the crew deserve the daily auto-gratuity, just go to main dining and observe how much these folks do (not to mention you'll see their smiling faces the next day in the buffet). They work hard for every penny of it.
How anyone can say horrible things about the food is beyond me, the choices are vast, the fruits, the vegetables, the breads are super fresh. We did room service for breakfast and it was always delivered on time with the pre-call. Nothing better then fresh croissants/pastries, juice, coffee and fresh fruit for breakfast. The buffet is busy at times, but no major bottle necking of passengers that many speak of. Always seats available as you get further back. One day there was NO cutlery in any of the table condiment stands except way way way at the back, which was a big oversight. Some favourites from dinner in the main dining room were the beef empinada appetizer, striploin, porkloin, thai chicken and shrimp, the vegetable lasagna, as well as the always available cheese plate on the dessert menu. The curries on the buffet were always so vibrant with spices without being spicy-hot. The roasted meats on the dinner buffet, whether the beef, pork, ham or chicken, we're all juicy and flavourful. One of my favourite afternoon snacks was the excellent salsa fresca and nacho chips from the back outside portion of the buffet. I can't forget to mention the amazing chewy pecan sticky buns at breakfast buffet. We tried blue lagoon one afternoon and the chicken wings are really good. Menu items that were sadly missed, although they might have been on the night we ate at buffet, are beef Wellington, risotto, and creme brulé. The officer in charge of the dining room was stopoing by tables and I asked about a recipe for one of the sauces, he said no problem and had it printed and delivered to my stateroom.
Casino: I did the pay $25, get $50 coupon from the Internet, worked no problem, from www.slotplaycoupons.com. After playing down my $50 I took the advice of a fellow cruiser and played without my players card. Maybe coincidence, but I did quite decent. I always play the pennies (which is ironic as some $0.01 machines cost a min $0.50 to play). I was up and down but mostly up with some decent wins. Including a $450 win on these obnoxiously loud and flashy dragon something games. Mind you I plunked about $100 into it. The man beside me put his money in and on the first round hit max bet by mistake, $5.00, but it triggered the bonus round and he won $350ish and cashed out and walked away. He was telling me he was down quite a bit and this was good timing as he could cut his losses and walk away. I was happy for him. We talked to another couple who plunked $20 into a $5 slot and got $700 on the second hit. But overall, aside from my big win, I'd say the machines aren't that tight and I was able to get some smaller, but still decent wins. Drink service is spotty.
Drinks: yes, they are making money off us, but they have a business to run and prices aren't outrageous. They have specials, like the beer bucket where you buy 5 beers and get the 6th free. The bucket no longer has a deposit on it and they give you an NCL bottle opener. Or an excellent offer are the wine packages. 4 bottles of wine for $88/$98/$108 (good/better/best). So, we did the 4 "better" package and for our $24.50 a bottle we got bottles that are in the high $30s range if bought individually (even as high as a $39 bottle). They give you tickets to hold onto and then you hand them to your restaurant server to redeem. Also, on the advice of another CC contributor, I wasn't adding any extra to the tip line for drinks but gave them the $1 in cash ($2-3 for buckets). If you run low on ones, get them from the casino. I did this by playing a slot to an amount that would give me ones from the ticket redemption machine.
Entertainment:. We didn't attend all the shows, but did attend the ventriloquist show which was slow at times, but overall was quite funny. Also, Second City, even the repeated skits never get old. Plus they had some new material. For "one showing only" shows you need to be at least a half hr early if you want a decent seat. For Second City it was packed. Secomd City did a family show on Superbowl evening at 7pm in Spinnaker and wasnt rediculously packed thanks to the SB overlap. It was a fun show. The piano player, Laurie Ann, who plays in Magnum is quite the character, both funny and a great singer. Also, Centerfold is really good also. It's amazing the repertoire they can perform. At one point I asked the server if they take requests and he said no problem and gave me a pc of paper and pen. I gave him a couple dollars as that offer was very kind. He gave the lady my request, Sade, and they did it right away. Brillaint! Now, 'The Man from Mars' WOW, WOW, WOW....this was excellent. It was vibrant and funny with such great performers. They do comedy, magic, and soaring acrobatic feats. Soooooo much more Circque-esque then that one performed in the past when they were still using that production company.
Ports:. San Juan, we did CVS twice. It has great prices, for example a 2 litre (half gallon??) pop, Coke or Pepsi products, $1.03. We did the walk up to the old fort. Pricing to enter the fort is really cheap, $3 for adults or $5 if you want to do both forts. Neat piece of history. Not really much on exhibits, but definitely amazing structure to walk around and great picture opportunities. Then walked back down to ship, and stopped for some local beers and margaritas on the way. From leaving ship at 3, and completing all mentioned we were back on ship by 6:30.
Ports: St Maartin, we did some research and chose Karakter Beach Club on Simpsons Bay. Even though it appears right next door to the bay the ship is in when looking at a map, it's about a half hr drive. Cab was $8 per person. Getting taxi back was no problem, they'll call for you. Okay, Karakter is awesome. They have loungers and low beach chairs with a table and umbrella for each pair of loungers/chairs. We got there at 10:30 and then it filled right up after that, mind you it has limited seating to begin with. That being said, the beach to the left and right is wide open, so if you don't want crowds this is the place. It runs parallel with the Marigot runway. Was able to get some good take off and landing picks, including an Air France a340. I've always found St Maartin to have the best prices on booze. Now, $90 return with tip, group of 5, for the cab is kinda steep and when i got droppef off downtown on the way back the water at the port beach of Great Bay looked comparable. I didnt see any oil slicks that people talk about.
Ports: St Thomas, we did Megan's Bay. $8 fare per person each way and $4/person park fee. The taxis from the boat are all the way at the other end of the shopping village. They use the open sided converted trucks with the multi row bench seating, great for picture taking from. MB was the busiest i've ever seen it (3 ships, 2 at Havensite and 1 at the other port). But there is still plenty of room as long as you are willing to walk left down the beach. Lounger rentals are $7 and a $5 deposit. There are drink servers roaming the beach and prices are decent and service is good--a Bushwacker is a great drink.
Ports: For Samana we did the Cayo Levantado beach excursion. Once again i'm at a loss about the negative reviews about this stop. It's beautiful, lots of loungers, lots of waterfront to enjoy as well as lots of trees. It's attached to a the Bahia Principe resort, so the grounds are quite decent. There is a little shopping area (they will all ask you to check out their wares but are polite about it) and two restroom areas. The fresh Pina Coladas (in a pineapple) and the Cocoloco (coconut water, creme de coconut,and coconit rum in a coconut) are amazing and only $5 each. A giant local beer, Presidente, is only $5 Only negative comment I have is the loungers could be replaced, they were originally white but have seen better days. Funniest thing I heard here was a passenger on the the tender say 'they said they were taking us to the beach and now we have to walk to it?'. Yep, you'll have to walk those 20 yards. Now the caveat to this excursion is it was reduced to $14.99 (I prepaid the $49.99 per person and the cruiseline automatically did all the adjustments as an onboard credit on the first day of the cruise ). Would I pay $49.99 for this excursion? Yes, as I know it's comparable to what I've paid to do a beach excursion in Belize and Roatan, etc. Is it worth it for $49.99, no, but as said, it's the cruise market rate. Would the island be empty at $49.99? OH YA it would!! While leaving Samana, the Captain announced whales on the starboard side, and I went to the balcony and at first I just seen dolphins and got a few pics and then I saw the water from the blow hole shoot up from the ocean and a little bit of the tale. There be whales!!!
Ship services: Don't worry about packing wrinkled clothes as on the first or second sea day they have half price pressing service. So for 2 pairs of pants and 4 or 5 shirts it was only $9 and change.
Tips: pre-pay your gratuity and shore excursions and at the end of your trip your onboard acct, even with many beer buckets and wine and gift shop purchases is not as daunting. And in our case with the excursion being reduced in price the obc credit grew by another $60.
Debarkation: The process wasn't as bad as experienced in the past. From our room I seen the walk-off with luggage passengers, which started at 7:45am, starting their cars at 8am. We chose tags that allowed us off at 9:15. Dont book a flight before noon unless you choose the first colour tags Cruise terminal to JFK was flat rate of $57.50 before tip.
Overall, a great time. I like to rate my experience on the amount paid for what I received. And because I received 9 excellent days in a balcony for less then $100 / day (all taxes in) I rate this cruise 8 / 10.