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Explorer of the Seas 12/2/00
Majesty of the Seas 12/10/01
NCL Norway 2/10/03
Radiance of the Seas 12/14/03
Empress of the Seas 5/9/04
NCL Majesty 2/19/05
NCL Spirit 11/18/05 1 night
NCL Jewel 1/15/06
NCL Spirit 2/2/07
Regal Empress 1/30/09
Carnival Destiny 12/9/10
Celebrity Summit 5/15/2011
Carnival Dream 11/26/2011
Carnival Valor 2/2/2014
For our group, a great value for the money. Overall, I give this trip high marks in meeting and often exceeding our expectations. The ship is rocky, but tolerable in the Atlantic, smooth in the Caribbean. The lifeboat drill, ship’s activities, tender service, and debarkation were handled reasonably well. The process of clearing immigration in Key West was uncomfortable and the docking location there was inconvenient, but overall the services were excellent. Staff was genuinely and uniformly friendly, food was well-prepared, especially in the specialty restaurants, and cabins were kept clean. No unexpected plumbing issues occurred. NCL constantly had revenue-generating activities underway, but I did not feel that this compromised our enjoyment of the cruise.
Our group consisted of myself and my fiancée, Kathy, both age 42, and my parents, in their late 60’s-early 70’s. We drove together to Charleston from Charlotte. My parents had 903, one of the two owners’ suites, while Kathy and I had 7001, one of the two interior superior staterooms on the promenade deck.
I am going to review this trip based on my experiences and that of my group. I don’t think we are a typical group, but hopefully we are not too unusual, and that the experiences will be useful to others.
The passengers were a nice mix: very few young children or teens, a few young people (one couple was married aboard,) quite a few 30/40 somethings, and a whole lot of seniors.
February 5th, 2005 was a beautiful day to begin a cruise. The drive to Charleston was three and a half hours, plus stops. We left around 8 am and were in line to enter the port by 11:45 am. No, that is not too early to be there if the ship is on time; lots of people got there even earlier than we did. We drove down Market street until we realized we had missed our turn, turned around in the Harris Teeter parking lot, and were right at the entrance to the port, although headed in the wrong direction. The police motioned us to the back of the line. Fine, we waited at the back, but were dismayed to see many cars coming from side streets, trying to break into the line. We thought there should be more police to send everyone to the back of the line as we were.
After entering the port, security checks your cruise documents and ID – have them ready; mine were in the trunk and I had to get them right then. Next, you pay $84 in cash to park. Finally, they motion you toward the area to drop off luggage. No, we had one problem because our luggage was not tagged. I never received tags from my online agency, and my parents upgraded at the last minute and therefore did not have the correct tags. There is an area set up for this purpose, but it is confusing. The police officer there was not helpful in answering questions and we waited a few minutes in confusion with other passengers until a NCL rep came with some blank tags for us. We tagged our bags and proceeded to the “circus tent” where we dropped our bags. Continuing on, we drove into a nearby warehouse and parked the car inside. A shuttle bus was waiting to carry us to the ship.
Dropped off just a few steps from check-in, we proceeded through security. There was no line at the x-ray but there was a line beyond that to check in. After clearing security, we entered the check-in line. The main line had a fair number of people in it. There was a separate line with almost no wait for Latitudes members, and my parents headed for that one and we tagged along since we did not want to be separated. At check-in, they take a picture and issue your key card. If you will be using a credit or debit card for your ship account, they take that as well and you are all set. After a couple of pictures and a two-story walk up the gangway ramp, we were onboard!
After a quick look at the rooms, the first order of business was lunch. The buffet was quite good, but the place was a zoo because no one knew the ropes yet. Future trips to the buffet were a breeze, and we found a stairway from there down to the front of the ship on deck 9, which proved to be my parents’ favorite hideaway.
The lifeboat drill was held at 3:30, and was not excessively long. We got to at least stand on the promenade deck facing Charleston, where there was much to see while we waited to learn about how to use safety equipment.
Some Cruise Critic members had set up a meeting with some ship’s officers at 4:15, but we were unable to attend with all we were doing at the time. Therefore, we never got to meet any of the nice people here on the board because we had no clue what they looked like or what their room numbers or full names were.
The sea days went by much faster than I had thought. Sunday, I was up early while still dark and watched a marvelous dawn break out at sea. Even at 6 am there are coffee, danish, and a few early-risers up on deck.
Sunday, we watched the Super Bowl in my parents’ room. For a while, there was a straight feed of the game, including audio, but no commentators or commercials. I liked it but Dad was happy when the ship picked up the regular Fox broadcast. The Big Game was on in a couple of lounges, with special drinks for each team, etc.
We generally used our time at sea taking long, leisurely meals in the dining room, sunning on one of the decks, playing Scrabble, gambling, or just staring out the window as the multitude of buildings on the Florida coast crept by, or massive Atlantic waves exploded into eruptions of sea foam. I would watch for flying fish, and saw several, though some of my family thought I was seeing things!
Le Bistro had a cooking demonstration Sunday afternoon. Since we planned to eat there the next evening, and because Kathy loves cooking shows, we went to see it. The chefs prepared a salmon appetizer, a filet entrée, and crepe suzettes for dessert. We were all provided with a hard copy of each recipe. The chef described each step of preparation and the final result was passed around for all to see (but unfortunately, no samples were given.)
Monday morning I awoke, went out a few steps to the promenade, and was greeted by a beautiful mountainous landscape that I assumed was Cuba. According to the planned course we were not due to pass the western tip of Cuba until noon. In hindsight, I think we were passing it at that time, because later in the morning all land drifted out of sight.
Kathy and I wanted to get an early start and see the beach, while my parents wanted to go later and just kick around town. Their suite came with the excellent services of Natasha, the concierge, who extended her services to family members traveling with suite guests. Therefore, Kathy and I got the VIP treatment several times. We met Natasha at the appointed time, and were escorted to the front of the line for the first tender. Sweet!
We walked around a bit and then found a coffee shop to plan our day in. It was a bit cool and cloudy, but we eventually decided to head for the seven mile beach. We found a taxi van, with probably about 12 passengers, and a fee of $4 a head one way. We went to the Holiday Inn beach, a misnomer because the hotel is no longer affiliated with that company.
The beach is nice, with a bar and a clean changing room. Beach chair rental was $10 each including a bottle of water, but we opted to sit on our towels for free. We watch another cruise ship come in and anchor. I counted a total of four including two identical Royal Caribbean vessels.
We decided not to swim due to the lack of sun, but the water was fine for strolling in, and the beach was stunning. We could see for miles down the beach, and the ships looked deceptively close. I knew it would be a long hike (I do not recommend doing this unless you are an experienced hiker), but we needed to burn calories, so we walked back. When we reached the end of the seven-mile beach, we ran into some cruisers headed the other way. They said we had about two miles more to go, and needed to go out to the road to continue. We found the most delightful glass-blowing shop, only the second day it was open after hurricane Ivan. We bought a glass snail to commemorate the wonderful escargot served on the Majesty.
We continued on into town until we came to an Internet café, where we took a half-hour ($3) to check mail and write friends. We bought some Tortuga rum cakes and headed back to the ship.
On deck, a fabulous charcoal barbeque was underway. I was so hungry, but they were not serving it until 2. I got an appetizer from the main buffet and waited for the food – spare ribs were my favorite. Also on the grill: chicken, bratwurst, salmon, and corn on the cob! I ate way too much.
I love Mexico, and Cozumel definitely has a lot of that, but there were some drawbacks. First, the main waterfront streets were being renovated. It will be beautiful soon, but not it is spray paint, jackhammers, and septic smells at times. Still, we found many nice places to shop. Be prepared to haggle or you will pay too much. Kathy got a nice jacket bargained down from $25 to $15. Be prepared to walk away to get the best price; they may well run after you with a counter offer.
We were considering an island tour, but were dismayed to learn that all shore excursions are only available through the ships. At least that is the story from tour operators near the pier. Walk a few blocks away and you can bargain for a tour. We decided to stay in town and shop. It was a perfect day, and we lounged around, drank beer, listened to music, and watched the waterfront. That’s paradise!
A man we met told us of a K-Mart type store near the pier. We did not find it, but if we knew it existed, I’m sure we would have. He said the prices there were way below the “duty free” prices at the tourist places. I guess the locals have one price scale and the tourists have another one.
This stop was frankly a disappointment. Not all was within NCL’s control, however. Getting off the ship is contingent upon clearing Immigration. I don’t know for sure what caused us to wait in the hall for a half hour, but I saw the late arrival of one Immigration official, and the line started moving just thereafter. Natasha sent us a letter to be with the deck 9 guests who are first to get off the ship after those who purchased tours (which were several hundred people, at least.) They go in descending deck order.
We had docked at the Navy pier, which means you have to take the land-based version of a tender into town. The ride into town was entertaining, since we had vivacious tour bus driver. However, he also informed us that a cold front had just passed. The wind kicked up and it rained a little, and got downright chilly. I knew then our warm-weather holiday had come to an abrupt end.
Three cruise ships, with several thousand people, were in Key West, and the streets and bars were packed. It reminded me of New Orleans, and not what I had expected. We walked around Duval street, listened to some music in a bar, and walked some more. With the weather as it was, I think we missed a lot of what Key West has to offer.
The ride back to the ship requires a stop at a security checkpoint because you are entering a Navy base. I don’t think the guys who searched us were Navy guys, and I did not see anything on the base; it appeared deserted. Also, we were on a tram with no stops, direct to the ship. Just another delay that I hope could be avoided.
Ride ‘em cowboy! The Atlantic kicked up some rocking and rolling. By Friday morning, deck 7 and deck 11 were closed. The pools were sloshing water around like a blender; they were soon drained. The Jacuzzis remained usable. The captain said the seas were 8 feet at one point, but it looked a lot bigger. We hugged the shore on the way back, as we did on the southward leg, from Miami up to Jupiter inlet. Normal course is way off shore in the Gulf Stream. One plus is that cell phones work when you are in sight of land, and we made some calls home from my cell phone during the day.
There were open places aft on decks 10 and 11, near the burger bar and behind the funnel, which was not closed. The wind was blocked and the southward exposure meant opportunity for sun on this bright, clear day. I was one of the few people who found this; most of the hearty sun-seeking souls clustered around the empty pool in bathing suits, huddled in towels.
We arrived into Charleston later than expected, apparently due to winds and tides. Arising at 6:45, it appeared we were still at sea. At 7:30 we were still navigating the harbor. We got breakfast from the buffet. It was a zoo like the first lunch, probably because everyone was there at once. We just carried the food to the suite and ate at the table in there.
Once docked, we waited for debarkation instructions. There is an “Express Debarkation” option available, and these were the first called in descending deck order. The catch is, you have to carry all your luggage off. We wanted no part of that, and left the luggage in the hall the night before. Natasha gave us all red VIP luggage tags so we could be the first off the ship for “regular” debarkation, which follows the conclusion of the express debarkation by a half hour or so.
Once called, we went a short distance from House of Lords to the gangway, located on deck 5, swiped out for the last time, and headed on to baggage claim. Here, there was one big flaw in design: the bags are lined up so you have to go forward, find the bag, then retrace your steps with the bag to the porter. This caused an endless series of collisions between people who were searching for bags and those who were fetching them back to the starting point. They should have the porters, and the exit, positioned on the other side of the rows or bags.
Once all the bags are on the cart, we proceeded through customs and on to the shuttle bus. The porter did all the loading and unloading. The shuttle dropped us off a short distance from the car, maybe 100 yards or so. Porters were available for that final leg if needed, but we did not use one. Leaving the warehouse was painless, and we were quickly on I 26 heading home.
I found the public areas to be clean and well-kept. Some wear was evident but I never saw anything that looked less than as clean as it could be, except for the salt on the exterior windows. I wished they were kept a bit clearer.
One favorite spot was the big windows on deck 5. If you can get a spot on a couch near them, you can watch the waves, read a book, or just talk.
Shopping was pretty good onboard. There were a lot of items on “clearance” right from the beginning of the cruise. Mom bought a couple of wind breakers, we bought magnets and other souvenirs, and Kathy bought me a nice hat and t-shirt set.
My parents’ suite included quite a few extras: two bay windows, walk-in closet, queen bed, full dresser, dinette area, couch and coffee table, and extra chairs for sitting in the window. It appeared to be about five times as big as our room. The TV was almost always tuned to Fox News, my dad’s favorite channel. A nice stereo set was in the bedroom. The two-room setup was convenient for them, as Dad napped more often and Mom likes to stay up and read, so he got the bed and she used the fold-out bed inside the couch.
One issue with that two-room setup was that the single bathroom is adjacent to the bed, so someone in the living room has to wander through the bedroom to get to it, possibly disturbing the person sleeping in there. Mom solved this issue by walking across the hall to the public restroom at the entrance to the Royal Observatory. The bathroom had a full tub, marble-ish appearance throughout.
Our superior inside room was very comfortable. I thought the bathroom was roomy enough, and had good water pressure and plenty hot. The shower area had a curtain and a removable hand-held shower head. There was plenty of storage for suitcases under the bed. A key card activated the safe. Note: if I locked it, Kathy could not unlock it, and vice-versa. I am not sure if this is normal.
Overall, I rate the food very good, and the wait staff excellent. This was not gourmet, but was very tastefully prepared and pleasantly presented.
The only dining room open for breakfast and lunch, this is a larger, and more vibrant (due to proximity to the propellers) location. We preferred the ambience of Four Seasons but the food and service was identical. Menus were the same as was posted earlier on another website, so I won’t cover them here, except to say they were delicious.
This room was cozy and convenient to our forward cabins. We enjoyed the atmosphere. Each night, we ate dinner here except for once in Seven Seas and when we ate at the alternative restaurants.
The appeal here is a higher level of service and cuisine. The wait staff was more polished, the dishes were individually prepared, rather than being mass-produced. We split the bottle of honeymoon-package wine four ways; I selected it off the list to match the filet we all were planning to have. I think we all enjoyed it, especially Kathy, who loves gourmet cooking appreciates fine dining.
Our last evening’s dinner was here. I was a little skeptical because the menu selection was far more limited than in the dining room. We were pleasantly surprised; as with Le Bistro, the dishes are individually prepared and the flavor was outstanding. A chef in one corner of the room works and the food is served immediately. Little is brought in from the deck 5 kitchens. I know because I asked for cappuccino (which was not on the ment) and was told yes, but there would be a delay while the waitress went down to deck 5 where the cappuccino maker was. Busy as she was, I couldn’t ask her to do that, so I just changed my order to coffee.
The piano player in the room gave an elegance and appeal that is unmatched in the main dining rooms. For a quiet, romantic dinner, this or Le Bistro are the places to go. There is no extra charge to eat here.
Note, though, that I ate only a few buffet meals, so I mainly had the table service in the dining rooms. A few buffets were memorable and had some special themes. One was an Indian vegetarian selection, with authentic curries and other similar dishes. Another was a potato bar, with fried skins, cheese, chives, sour cream, bacon, you name it. I saw an ice cream buffet too, where you could make your own sundae from chocolate or strawberry ice cream. I’m sure there was much more that I did not see. All that I tried was quite good.
Upon embarkation, one of the first things we did after eating lunch was go to the casino. No games were open, of course, but people were there taking squares on a super bowl pool, explaining things, and selling “triple play” chips. This is the best deal for the serious table game player. You pay $10 and get three $5 chips. You can’t cash them in, you have to play, but you can certainly cash in your winnings. It really does help the odds, and I used these chips from each person in our party (I am the only blackjack player among us.) None of us had any luck with the slots, but we are not serious slot players like I am with blackjack.
At the tables, I won at first, then got on a losing streak, and finally won back to a point where I ended the cruise up just a little. All in all, I can’t complain. At one point, I was playing one of those red triple play trips and the pit boss was watching. She finally remarked at one point that the chip had been in play nine hands, and I had won seven and had two pushes. That was my best streak the whole cruise.
They do not use the automatic shufflers all the time. When they get busy, more tables are open and they do not have enough shufflers to go around. So, it is possible to get a shoe game.
I’m afraid I have little to report here because my group usually retired after dinner. I hate to admit we did not make it to a single show, but still had so much fun I did not feel like I missed a thing.
I did see the pool band a few times, and found it enjoyable. Friday night’s dinner in the Pasta Café was made memorable by the piano player there. Kathy watched a rerun of the not-so-newlywed game and enjoyed it.
For outside cabins, I recommend the starboard side. On the southern leg, you’ll see the Florida coast (not usually seen on the reverse trip, but it was this time due to rough seas.) Starboard will have the view of Key West as you enter port. It is also the side that will be facing Charleston when you are there. I enjoyed the promenade deck because it was easy to go out on deck from there.
Our inside suite did not have many luxuries, but we were very comfortable. We had the standard Andes mint chocolates on our pillow each night, and clean towels each day, plus fresh ice daily. We had purchased the Honeymoon Package, which included a number of nice features.
By far, the most valuable amenity with the suites is the concierge. My parents loved all the attention, and that was lavished upon them. Natasha was very refined and detailed. She commanded a lot of respect on the ship, even to the point of having her own room in the crew quarters. Though they don’t admit to taking reservations at most times, Natasha put us on the “wait list” for our chosen time, and we were immediately seated no matter how long the line was (20 minutes at one point.)
Some sort of goody was delivered to the suite each afternoon (canapés, chocolate-dipped strawberries, etc.) Our honeymoon package included this once; my parents got it each day. They were also not charged for a night in Le Bistro, got unlimited free cans of soda and bottles of sparkling water, and a river of free booze (see below.)
Yes, I smuggled, way too much, it turned out. I don’t think they really even looked for it in the checked luggage – I had one suitcase packed with a case of 18 bottles of 1-liter diet coke, two gallon jugs of water, four cans tomato juice, and a few other things. I thought for sure they would question it, but it arrived at my door along with everything else. All bags were locked with zip-ties. I carried onboard a couple 375 ml plastic bottles on my person, had another in checked luggage, and also two bottles of boxed wine. Of this, a good portion returned home unopened because of all the free booze NCL gave my parents – three 1.14 liter bottles of anything they wanted (they got scotch.) We could only drink two of them and they took the third home.
I bought some duty-free liquor in Cozumel and brought it onboard in a distinctive box. Security paid it no attention, but there was a man at the liquor desk who politely asked to retain it. The steward put it in our room on Friday. I am sure if I had tried to conceal it, there would be no difficulty in doing so.
I bought a six-pack of beer in Key West, and put it in my backpack. The security at the gate to the Navy base inspects all packages but couldn’t care less about the beer when they saw it. There was no liquor desk on the gangway that night.
Although I brought on my own water, I ended up using it only for onshore hikes. I have a backpack with a bladder and a drinking tube so we can drink constantly and keep hydrated while walking. On the ship, the tap water was great. The only “brown” reported was Saturday morning, and I think we were docked and taking on water.
Passengers seemed to heavily use the hand sanitizers in front of each restaurant and buffet line. Staff often prompted us to use them. Sanitizers were also on the gangway and in addition, staff would have spray bottles and squirt sanitizer into your hands as you entered the ship. They are taking no chances and there were no health problems that I know of on our voyage.
I noticed no toilet problems or smells on the ship. There was one pre-planned outage we were informed of, between 1 and 5 AM. I did not need the bathrooms during that time and they worked fine in the morning.
The Atlantic in winter is a rough place, and this ship can get rocky. I doubt we had more than a taste of how bad it can get. Thursday we glided across glassy water near Key West, a few hours later, after a cold front, we bounced around in the Atlantic like a drunken chicken. The staff distributed the little bags (the kind you see in the airplane seat pockets) all over the ship for those in need. Kathy felt ill at one point but turned out all she needed was a good meal and time for the medicine to kick in. The reception desk distributes sea-sickness medicine (sea-calm) to those in need, one chewable tablet every twelve hours; “do not take if you have asthma or glaucoma”, I was warned.