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Bliss Alaska thoughts - July 30-Aug 6


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Posted (edited)

Just wanted to jot down some random thoughts in case it helps anyone going later in August or September. This was our first Norwegian cruise; we've mainly cruised with Holland America and Disney, plus a few on RCI, Princess and Celebrity. We've been to Alaska many times, on multiple cruise lines (but mostly HAL). We took Norwegian largely just to check out the company and because we needed a quick break. The price was right, and we've been to Alaska many times so I didn't spend a lot of time trying to get the optimal itinerary.

 

Prior to taking Norwegian, I had vague expectations that it would be similar to Royal Caribbean, which to me means fair-to-OK complimentary food, very good upcharge food, lots of reasonably OK entertainment, and good service. What we experienced was good-to-very good complimentary food, mostly excellent upcharge food, very good to excellent entertainment, and excellent service. Really, the overall cruise experience was remarkably great. The downside is that the itinerary is really, IMO, not great at all, especially compared to HAL and Princess.

 

We live just across the lake from Seattle, and our older son lives downtown, walking distance from the port, so my wife and younger son (college age) took a Lyft to the terminal and met older son who walked over. Embarkation seemed like it had a lot of stages, each checking one specific thing, but it moved quickly and we never had to wait around. We had two adjoining (not connecting) balcony rooms (BB) on deck 11.

 

Upon embarkation, they directed us to our muster station to check in, which was a good idea, I thought. It got people arriving spread around the ship quickly, which reduced bottlenecks. Rooms weren't ready yet, so we went to Savor to have lunch. Lunch was generally good. Entrees were hot and tasty. Melting cheese on top of the cheese steak rather than mixed in with the steak wasn't super successful, but it tasted fine. Fries had been held too long, but heck, we ate them. 

 

Once our rooms were ready, we headed up and found some generally well designed staterooms. The complete absence of drawers was a little odd, but we found shelves and whatnot and got everything stowed. There are way too few power outlets, and they're all in one place at the desk. Norwegian warned me that I would need an extension cord for my CPAP and indeed I did. For our room layout, it wasn't a big deal because the bed was between the desk and the bathroom, so it was easy to route the cord such that I wouldn't trip on it heading to the bathroom in the night. If we'd been in our kids' room, it would have been really annoying because the desk was between the bed and the bathroom. They built this ship in 2017! How hard is it to know that people have powered devices that need to be near the bed? Both HAL and Disney have plugs near the bed. Or at least all of Disney's and all of HAL's newer ships. I found this honestly inexplicable.

 

The bathroom seems very thoughtfully designed to me. The shower was big enough for comfort (I'm a big guy, 6'2" and 290 lbs), which I was a little worried about, and the rest of the room had space so you could maneuver. Good number of hooks, which seems obvious, but so few hotels and cruise ships seem to get it right.

 

The room attendant said he's not allowed to open the verandah dividers for "safety" reasons. I find this odd, given that they built the ship with them installed, and Disney and HAL will open them. Was there some kind of safety event that changed NCL's opinion on dividers? Do we think that Disney and HAL have worse safety cultures than NCL? Don't know, but we saw multiple ships docked with dividers opened here and there, so it's not a change across the industry. 

 

I won't go day by day. We found the house band, Siglo, to be excellent. The Beatles tribute band on our sailing was The Beatles Experience, from Argentina, and they were amazingly good. The Spanish accent was occasionally jarring, but their musicianship is outstanding. Sadly, we missed many of their performances because our dinner reservations conflicted. And why did they conflict? Because NCL doesn't tell you before the cruise when the shows will be, but if you want to get a reservation at the better upcharge restaurants, you need to get them before the cruise. I picked what seemed like a "normal" dining time, but found that it was right in between the early and late shows for a lot of entertainment. I find this really annoying. Once we saw the show schedule, I tried to move some of our reservations, but there were no better times available. So we just gave up and missed a ton of stuff. We did get to see Six and Jersey Boys. I was looking forward to Six but didn't think Jersey Boys would be to our taste, but we were wrong, it's great. Really, the entertainment was the best except for Disney, which is saying something.

 

We ate upcharge meals in Food Republic (twice), Ocean Blue, Los Lobos, La Cucina, Cagney's and Le Bistro. All of it was very good except my cioppino in La Cucina, which was meh, and everything I had at Ocean Blue, which was all excellent. My wife did not enjoy her cioppino in Ocean Blue, which was not the same dish at the one at La Cucina. Apparently cioppino is the achilles heel of NCL! 🙂 We only ate twice in the MDR, and thought the food seemed good to very good, which was a pleasant surprise.

 

Breakfast and lunch we had mostly in the buffet, and we thought it was good. Nice layout, rarely seemed to have long lines or bottlenecks, and trying the various Indian dishes in the Taste of India section was fun. I eventually learned that one station would always have wildly overcooked bangers, but a station on the other side had perfectly cooked bangers. I don't know whether they were trying to appeal to two different tastes, or whether the cook on the one side didn't know that bangers are supposed to be gray, not dark brown.

 

We didn't do the slides, but the tube slide looks cool and the body slide looks insane. They weren't running on a lot of days because of cold, maintenance, wind, or something else. Our sons did the go-karts and found them to be fun.

 

As mentioned earlier, the itinerary was the worst part of this cruise. In Alaska, you really want some time in port to see Alaska, but all the port calls were short - much shorter than HAL or Princess (or Disney, or RCI). The Ketchikan port call was just a snafu of epic proportions. Ward Cove is not, IMO, ready for passengers. Where to begin? The area looks like a dump. The drive to and from the visitor center is filled with potholes (both our driver into town and back apologized). There are not enough shuttle buses, and because they need to get everyone back with inadequate buses, they tell you to get to the shuttle stop by 11 am for a 12:45 departure. The shuttle stop is at berth 4, which is another 15 minute walk from the main downtown area. There's no cab stand at the visitor's center. Heck, there's no real visitor's center at the visitor's center. There's a big warehouse filled with souvenirs, a fairly nice independent candy shop, and that's about it.

 

I get the idea that Norwegian has with Ward Cove - create a cruise visitor's center that they own and control, where they can manage their own excursions, have their own souvenir operation, etc. For a port that's kind of a dump, this makes tons of sense, which is why all the cruise lines are building private cruise centers all over the caribbean and mexico. But Ketchikan is not a dump - the best part of it is the very nice downtown area, but Ward Cove is 20 minutes away. Moreover, there's nothing to do in or near Ward Cove that you could walk to, other than a little souvenir shopping in the one building. 

 

What adds insult to injury is that the day we were in Ketchikan, berth 2 (downtown) was empty. I'm not sure there is a downtown berth available for every date a Norwegian ship is in Ketchikan, but on this specific day, they could have used berth 2 but chose not to. Yes, I'm sure it costs money to dock downtown, but what's better guest experience worth? They really should stop using Ward Cove except when there is no other berth available, and/or they need to spend what it takes to get more buses. Just as an aside, I thought it was hilarious that they were using mainly Gray Line buses, as Gray Line of Alaska is owned by Carnival (via the Hal/Princess group).

 

We went into Ketchikan, and had an early lunch at our favorite place (the Alaska Fish House), then headed back to the shuttle stop. We arrived at the shuttle stop at 10:45, and found a chaotic mass of people being sort of vaguely managed by NCL folks. We waited 45 minutes before we got on a bus, and there were still at least a few hundred people at the stop when we left. I get that they don't have enough buses, but to tell everyone to get there an hour and 45 minutes before all aboard (and 2 hours and 15 minutes before scheduled departure), so that they can slowly get them onto buses over the next 2 hours is... just... I can't even. If buses are at a premium, make people schedule a return slot. The earliest people to reserve can get a 12:20 slot. When that fills, they offer a 12:00 slot, then an 11:40 slot, and so forth. That way, at least the people who can plan can stay downtown a reasonable amount of time. The one thing I know is that the way they're handling it now is terrible. Having a good chunk of your guests spend the last few hours they have in Alaska in a long line waiting for a bus is not good.

 

I'll also mention that I find the Victoria port call to be a frustrating thing. I know all the cruises out of Seattle have essentially the same call, and they only have it because of the PVSA. Victoria is a great town that is totally worth a long port call, but you have barely enough time to maybe see Butchart at night. We, in fact, did Butchart at night on this cruise. It's kind of neat to see it at night, but it's really better in the daytime.

 

Disembarkation was quite efficient and really better than anybody else except for HAL, who are the kings of embarkation and disembarkation in our experience.

 

So bottom line, we had a generally great trip, with some hiccups. I found the way NCL handled Ketchikan to be perversely fascinating, in a "what not to do" kind of way, but strangely not that frustrating, since we've been to Ketchikan so many times. I would recommend the Bliss to anyone who wants a beautiful, lively ship with plenty to do, great entertainment, great service and generally great food, but I will not recommend NCL to friends going to Alaska, as it just doesn't seem like they get it.

Edited by Donny-Joe
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Posted (edited)

Totally agree with everything you said. 
We were on Bliss in May. Also, many times to Alaska.

Third time on the Bliss. First time back post Covid.

 

Ward Cove is a disaster. We heard of many unhappy passengers who came down to find they had missed the cut off for outgoing buses. It was never announced or put in the daily. (First cruise of Alaska season)

I guess NCL got a good deal for this superfund site.

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Edited by phissy
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Posted (edited)

Thanks for your review.  Glad you enjoyed the Bliss as she's one of our favorite ships.  Did you make it to the Observation Lounge?  We spent a lot of time there.

 

Re drawers in the balcony stateroom, there are two large drawers that pull out from underneath the sofa.   I wish there was a plug receptacles close to the bed for CPAP machines but am happy there are USB chargers underneath the switch in the lights on either side of the bed.

 

The change to using Ward Cove was a disappointment to us but we've been to Ketchikan several times in the past.  This time we took the NCL shuttle to town and then walked to Creek Street and stopped at some shops on the way back to the shuttle.  The May 21st Bliss cruise was only at about 60% capacity so we didn't have any trouble with the shuttle arrangement. 

 

Some of the other NCL ships have much better Alaska itineraries but our cruising friends had never been on the Bliss so Bliss it was.  The Victoria stop is a joke which is a shame because we love Victoria.  NCL does have other Alaska cruises that actually spend some quality time in Victoria.  For us the Bliss cruise was more about finally being back on a wonderful ship and enjoying the gorgeous scenery.  We did whale watching in Juneau and had an easy day in Icy Strait Point.   Weather was beautiful so after checking out the cannery/shop building we walked into Hoonah and took the NCL shuttle back.  We watched whales right off the dock in ISP and just off shore while on our walk.

Edited by kjquilts
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53 minutes ago, phissy said:

Totally agree with everything you said. 
We were on Bliss in May. Also, many times to Alaska.

Third time on the Bliss. First time back post Covid.

 

Ward Cove is a disaster. We heard of many unhappy passengers who came down to find they had missed the cut off for outgoing buses. It was never announced or put in the daily. (First cruise of Alaska season)

I guess NCL got a good deal for this superfund site.

 

8D83A684-792C-4079-868E-4C38499039C1.jpeg

 

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Wow, those pictures are amazing, in a horrifying way - it looked a little better for us, but I still didn't think it was appropriate to send guests through. Since you visited, they've built a bit of "rock wall" out of concrete and they seem to be trying to create a kind of "Alaskan wilderness" look inside, plus they had the candy shop going and the empty space was filled with souvenir racks (mostly clothing). It still looked terrible. There were a lot of unhappy people in the bus line heading back and in the souvenir shop as we headed to the ship.

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18 minutes ago, kjquilts said:

Thanks for your review.  Glad you enjoyed the Bliss as she's one of our favorite ships.  Did you make it to the Observation Lounge?  We spent a lot of time there.

Yes, spent a lot of time in the Observation Lounge. Very appealing, and really big. We like HAL's observation lounges, but they fill up so easily. 

 

18 minutes ago, kjquilts said:

Re drawers in the balcony stateroom, there are two large drawers that pull out from underneath the sofa.   I wish there was a plug receptacles close to the bed for CPAP machines but am happy there are USB chargers underneath the switch in the lights on either side of the bed.

We found those about halfway through the cruise. We were looking for blankets, so we could sit on the verandah on the glacier day. Another nice HAL thing - they put throw blankets in an obvious cubby near the door to the verandah so you can grab one to wrap up with.

 

Which reminds me of another thing - cruise ships have had low success rate getting close enough to see the Dawes glacier for a while, yet many of them (including NCL) put it on the itinerary, and I'm sure lots of people think they're going to see a glacier. The cruise lines really need to find another glacier to visit, or just give up and add a port call or something. Hubbard is a major haul, yet some cruise lines manage to do it.

 

18 minutes ago, kjquilts said:

The change to using Ward Cove was a disappointment to us but we've been to Ketchikan several times in the past.  This time we took the NCL shuttle to town and then walked to Creek Street and stopped at some shops on the way back to the shuttle.  The May 21st Bliss cruise was only at about 60% capacity so we didn't have any trouble with the shuttle arrangement. 

 

Some of the other NCL ships have much better Alaska itineraries but our cruising friends had never been on the Bliss so Bliss it was.  The Victoria stop is a joke which is a shame because we love Victoria.  NCL does have other Alaska cruises that actually spend some quality time in Victoria.  For us the Bliss cruise was more about finally being back on a wonderful ship and enjoying the gorgeous scenery.  We did whale watching in Juneau and had an easy day in Icy Strait Point.   Weather was beautiful so after checking out the cannery/shop building we walked into Hoonah and took the NCL shuttle back.  We watched whales right off the dock in ISP and just off shore while on our walk.

Can't agree more - we were able to enjoy the cruise and not stress about the itinerary stuff because we didn't feel like we were on our big "bucket list" Alaska trip. But what about the guests who are on their one Alaska trip? I feel a little sorry for them. 

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Posted (edited)

I just sailed the Bliss July 23rd sailing.   I can understand why one would say the itinerary was bad.  Let me share how I view it (which is different):

 

-  I specifically chose the Bliss because it hit both Sitka and Icy Strait ports, and spent a fair amount of time at them both.  That was my first time to Sitka, and my DW's first time to Icy Strait.  The short time in Ketchikan and Juneau was not that bad, because we had already been there.

 

-  We knew what we were signing up for when we booked a Seattle sailing.  This is not a Vancouver one-way.  Of course times are going to be shorter.

 

-  I worked around the early return shuttle bus departure by arranging with a tour guide who would agree to drop us off at Ward Cove.  It worked out--we barely had time even to shop in the warehouse before it was all aboard time.

 

-   The short time in Victoria stunk.  The other Seattle sailings are not much better, though.  Gosh the weather was good there.

 

-   I felt like the Observation Lounge was your rainy-day Sky Deck.  I didn't really like it in good weather.  I actually booked my specialty restaurants (via Free At Sea) so that we could sit outside during the scenic sailing.   I didn't like the Bliss' lack of public aft-viewing areas, except when they opened up Deck 8 on one occasion.    (edit:  come to think of it, Deck 8 wasn't even aft.  That was fore deck).

Edited by tetleytea
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Posted (edited)

I was on the July 16th sailing and agree with your review. The ship, food, entertainment was great.

This was my first visit to Alaska and the time in ports were awful, they were short and I felt rushed. Maybe because it’s a 7 day cruise and the distance between ports?

Partly my fault as I didn’t research it enough I always sail NCL,  that said I would like to go back but I will research other lines, maybe  9 day cruise where I get more time in ports. Ketchikan was the worst as far as time and how you actually got to the town

Edited by njkate
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8 hours ago, anirudhrege said:

Thanks for your thoughts. Could you tell what the show timings were?

Most of the shows were around 7-ish and 9:30-ish. If you set your dinner time at around 6:30-7, that would probably give you the most flexibility to see the later show times.

 

We almost always get fixed late dining on other ships, so we're used to dinner about 8:15-8:30 or thereabouts, and that is the worst possible time on NCL; it can conflict with both the early and late shows, unless you want to either show up late for dinner or rush through dinner. I suspect that we're outliers on NCL, since there were very few people eating dinner that late. Live and learn! 🙂

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6 hours ago, njkate said:

I was on the July 16th sailing and agree with your review. The ship, food, entertainment was great.

This was my first visit to Alaska and the time in ports were awful, they were short and I felt rushed. Maybe because it’s a 7 day cruise and the distance between ports?

Partly my fault as I didn’t research it enough I always sail NCL,  that said I would like to go back but I will research other lines, maybe  9 day cruise where I get more time in ports. Ketchikan was the worst as far as time and how you actually got to the town

FWIW, we think the very best itineraries for Alaska are HAL and Princess, which makes sense. They've been doing Alaska the longest, and they own a ton of land-based infrastructure in Alaska (the Gray Line buses, the Skagway train, the Westmark hotels, etc.) They have long port calls, they tend to go to great lengths to get you to a big glacier (via Glacier Bay, or Hubbard Glacier, or a side-excursion in a small boat into Tracy Arm), they have very long relationships with the independent tour companies and they get first dibs on tours run by one of their own sub-entities. And they have good food and service. 

 

The downside is the ships are much more, I guess, "subdued" is the word. NCL's whole vibe is lively and youthful, while HAL (and Princess to a lesser extent) have a quieter, more "classic ocean liner" feel, which is either stodgy or relaxing depending on your preferences. I tend to think that in Alaska, the main goal is to see Alaska, so I'd always recommend those two. One of the big Princess ships would probably be the closest to the Bliss, but it's still going to be different.

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 We were on the Bliss back in late April and it visited Glacier Bay which is a much butter itinerary than Hubbard or Tracy Arm. 

  I agree that the Ketchikan stop isn't ideal. Unfortunately the downtown docks are at capacity and it would have been a huge cost to expand that out. I know it wasn't full when you were there, but most days it it. Ward Cove is also used at times by Royal Caribbean and a cpl other lines (one of them part of the NCL family). I feel in a few years it will be a much nicer stop, they're starting to offer excursions directly from the dock for people that want outdoor adventures.

  I also agree that the short port time along with the short shuttle times make visiting town not that great, hopefully in time NCL will work out the bugs, I know driver staffing is a huge issue right now which probably makes things worse.

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

By the way, for anyone else reading this thread for Alaska advice, I would always recommend embarking in Vancouver. Going from Seattle means they have to do that short stop in Ketchikan so they can get to Victoria the next day. But that short evening stop in Victoria is really not worth losing all the time in Ketchikan. The Vancouver itineraries all have much more time in Ketchikan, and often they're the only ship there in the afternoon (because all the other ships had to leave to head for Victoria). We're willing to do it because it's so easy and we've been to Alaska many times, but all our early Alaska cruises were out of Vancouver and it made a big difference.

 

And actually, if you love NCL but want a better Ketchikan experience, NCL from Vancouver might be just the ticket. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have any loop cruises from Vancouver, so that means flying back from Anchorage or doing a back-to-back 14-day combo that visits mostly the same places. And the ship is older and smaller.

 

Actually, I just looked at the Jewel itinerary out of Vancouver, and it looks excellent. It has the big three port calls - Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, all for nice long visits, plus Glacier Bay AND Hubbard. Because it's a one-way, you still have to fly home from Alaska.

Edited by Donny-Joe
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14 minutes ago, Donny-Joe said:

FWIW, we think the very best itineraries for Alaska are HAL and Princess, which makes sense. They've been doing Alaska the longest, and they own a ton of land-based infrastructure in Alaska (the Gray Line buses, the Skagway train, the Westmark hotels, etc.) They have long port calls, they tend to go to great lengths to get you to a big glacier (via Glacier Bay, or Hubbard Glacier, or a side-excursion in a small boat into Tracy Arm), they have very long relationships with the independent tour companies and they get first dibs on tours run by one of their own sub-entities. And they have good food and service. 

 

The downside is the ships are much more, I guess, "subdued" is the word. NCL's whole vibe is lively and youthful, while HAL (and Princess to a lesser extent) have a quieter, more "classic ocean liner" feel, which is either stodgy or relaxing depending on your preferences. I tend to think that in Alaska, the main goal is to see Alaska, so I'd always recommend those two. One of the big Princess ships would probably be the closest to the Bliss, but it's still going to be different.

I have friends on HAL now and friends who did Alaska back in May on Princess I’ll have to ask them.

Stodgy is one of my concerns on a Princess cruise I booked for British Isles next summer, the price compared to NCL was a no brainer but still have concerns

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