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Cruise Ship Review
Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Sea

by Mike Blanche & Dave Beers

Norwegian Sea 7 Day Texaribbean Cruise
February 1999

Norwegian Sea

Two of us who frequent The SeaLetter and the UK Travel Forum (GO UKTF) on Compuserve were passengers on the February 21, 1999 sailing of the Norwegian Sea. This is the cruise Norwegian Cruise Line is calling the Texaribbean Cruise. This will be a joint review, which is something different...we hope! The Norwegian Sea is now based in Houston, TX, replacing the trouble-plagued Norwegian Star.

The Houston Cruise Terminal

It is possible to drive to the terminal. If you are coming from Houston, take I-10 east to exit 781. Go south on Beltway 8. You will have to pay a $2 toll to cross the bridge there. Go east on highway 225 to highway 146. Go south on 146, watching for Barbours Cut Blvd. It is, I believe, the first exit. Note the fine truck stop on the northeast corner. Go east to the signs for the Houston CruiseShip Terminal. Turn left, do a u-turn, and continue to follow the signs.

By the way, if you're coming from the north down I-45, you can get on Beltway 8 on the north side of Houston, take it around to the east and south and avoid a lot of traffic.

After you drop off your luggage at the terminal building, you can park for the week in a secured parking lot. The cost is currently $49, payable as you enter. The parking is open, not covered.

The most remarkable aspect of the terminal is its location in an active container ship yard. If work is going on, the truck traffic can be quite heavy.

The terminal is approximately 40 miles from Bush Intercontinental Airport and 30 miles from Hobby Airport. The taxi fare is more than $50 from either one.

Embarkation

Hot tip! Do NOT arrive at 1 p.m. and expect to board the ship immediately. We are told that at that time, the line stretched around the building. At almost 2, when we arrived, there was almost no line at all.

First, you must check in. Hot tip #2! Have ALL your paperwork filled out before you go up to the counter. That will speed up your check-in (and that of the people behind you) immensely. At check-in, you will receive your boarding pass, which you will use during the cruise to re-board the ship at ports of call. We had our first upset here when we discovered that in spite of the "Main Seating" on our tickets, we were instead assigned to 2nd seating. The problem was solved with a quick visit to the Maitre d' after boarding.

After check-in, you will go through the metal detector, have your hand luggage x-rayed, be photographed, and board the ship. It's quite a long walk out to the gangway.

Upon boarding, we were directed to our cabin. We found the door open, as usual. What we did not find was the key to the cabin. Apparently the previous occupants had not left the keys in the receptacle provided. A quick call to the purser's desk and a walk down there solved the problem in less than 5 minutes.

As usual, a buffet lunch was available as soon as we boarded. One of the easiest ways to reach the buffet cafe is to follow the hall on the port side, off the lobby, to the Seven Seas Dining Room, then take the elevators just to the left of the doors. These are not heavily used.

Another little annoyance was the slowness of the delivery of luggage to cabins. Only one of ours had appeared when I went down to the elevator area and picked out my own bags. I wasn't the only one who did so, and some of the passengers were less than gracious about it.

The Ship

The Norwegian Sea, formerly the Seaward, is a very good-looking vessel of 42,000 tons. It was built in 1988. Passenger count is about 1500, double occupancy. Passenger cabins are on decks 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8. Decks 3 and 4 aren't really bad choices, as the cabins there are pretty quiet. Cabins on deck 4 are convenient to the lobby and dining rooms. Outside cabins on deck 2 have portholes, rather than windows. Decks 6, 7, and 8 are almost entirely passenger cabins. Avoid being too close to the stern on any deck, due to the noise from vibration from the screws. Especially avoid the stern on deck 8, which would put you right next to Boomer's Disco. The name says it all.

Outside cabins on deck 6 look out on the Promenade deck, used for walking and jogging. Most outside cabins on decks 7 and 8 have partially or fully obscured views, due to the lifeboats.

On deck 4 you will find the main lobby with a not-too-impressive atrium. There, too, are the Purser's Desk and the Shore Excursion Desk. Just forward of the lobby are the Beauty Shops, ship's offices, and models of the Norwegian Sea and Norwegian Wind. Immediately off the lobby on the starboard side is the entry to the Four Seasons Dining Room. This is probably the quieter of the two. Off the lobby to the port side is the hallway leading to the entry to the Seven Seas Dining Room.

Deck 5 is completely public spaces. Working from the bow, we have first of all the Cabaret Lounge, where each evening's show takes place. Then we have the shops (gift, drug, etc.). Running along the port side is a convenient hallway, part of which contains the photo gallery. Then we come to the atrium. On the starboard side is Oscar's Pub.

Continuing back on deck five, we find the Monte Carlo Casino. Just aft of that on the starboard is the Butterfly Room, a reading/card room. On the port side is the video arcade. Then we come to the Stardust Lounge, which is every bit as large as the Cabaret Lounge but is used mostly for dancing and public meetings and parties.

Promenade DeckDeck 6 is entirely passenger cabins but is surrounded by the promenade, which is used as a jogging/walking deck. Four and one quarter laps make a mile.

Deck 7 is entirely passenger cabins.

Deck 8 is entirely passenger cabins, except for Boomer's Disco at the very stern.

Deck 9 is the pool deck where we find--yes, you guessed it--the pools. There are two pools, one smaller one and one larger one. Both are filled with seawater, when they are filled at all. The larger is usually emptied when rough seas threaten. Between the two are the hot tubs (two). Forward of the pools is Lickety Splits, where free ice cream is served from 1-3 p.m. daily. Lido DeckAft of the pools is All Around the Town, a bar with a great wooden bar and stools. Behind all this is the Big Apple Café, which is the buffet restaurant.

Deck 10, the Sun Deck, provides great views combined with the only wooden rails on the ship. On the forward part is Coconut Willy's, which is a small bar, and the fitness center. Forward from that is a golf practice cage. Although it is possible to walk completely around the Sun Deck, jogging is not allowed there. At the rear of the Sun Deck is an indoor verandah overlooking the buffet restaurant. On the starboard side of that verandah is the entry to Gatsby's, a cigar/wine bar, and on the port side is the entry to Le Bistro, the alternative dining room in the evenings.

The decor is muted, and the entire ship is understated. Most of it is in excellent repair, and painting activities went on continuously on the deck. Most of the deck rails were not teak, but some sort of artificial stuff.

A note on the ship's propulsion: the Sea has bow thrusters, which are common. It also has two constant-speed variable-pitch screws and two independent rudders. By adjusting the pitch on the screws and the angles of the rudders, the ship can be moved almost as if it had stern thrusters. However, those screws working against each other can set up strong vibrations in the stern area. It really rattled the crockery in the Seven Seas Dining Room!

 

Cabins

Mike's Comments:

What can I say? One of our biggest disappointments with this cruise was the size of our cabin. From what I saw, it was pretty typical and it was the smallest cabin we have ever had. While the bed arrangement may have been complicated by the fact that it was a triple (which we didn't need), we have never been so crowded in our lives. It wasn't much more than 100 square feet, about 7 feet by 16 feet, give or take. The two twin beds, when made up into a queen bed, left little room beside it to walk, and certainly no room for sitting when the beds were joined. No semblance of a real chair in the room. No place to sit and read. Enough closet space for your hanging clothes, but not enough space for our large suitcase anywhere. No safe. No locking drawer. And the top drawer was almost impossible to open. When it did open, it was clearly broken and tended to fall out on the floor.

The shower was so small, I don't know how a really large person could use it. The sink area was just fine, and had lots of storage underneath. There was a built-in hair dryer. It could not be called, actually, a "blow dryer" -- as one wag put it, it was more of a "breathe dryer." It did warm up after it ran a while. If you bring your own dryer, it must be plugged in below the mirror above what might be called the "vanity," if one isn't too scrupulous with his use of words. Shavers can be plugged in above the mirror in the bathroom.

One oddity was the bedding arrangement. Although the two twin beds can be made into a queen, covered by one sheet, the covers come only in twin size, so you have to sleep under your own cover. And the cover was some sort of comforter in a sheet-like material. In other words, no actual top sheet. Very strange, although probably very convenient for the ship's laundry. I could not determine if the top covers were changed during the week. I hope they get washed each weekend!

Dave's Comments:

Standard OutsideWe had an outside standard cabin on Deck 3. It, too, was the smallest we had ever had. As for larger people using those tiny showers, well, I am larger than I ought to be, and on more than one occasion I bumped the shower control and went from warm to very hot water in an instant. Oddly, our top drawer also would pull all the way out and dump its contents on the floor. We had three people in our cabin, and this was REAL snug. Functional is all that can be said for this cabin.

The Cruise

This cruise departs from Houston, TX, on Sunday afternoon. Monday is a day at sea. Tuesday is a port call in Cancún, Mexico, leaving late at night. Wednesday is a day in port in Cozumel, Mexico, leaving at 5 p.m. Thursday is a day in port in Roatan, Honduras, an island off the coast of Honduras. Friday and Saturday are days at sea, and you return to Houston Sunday morning.

The Norwegian Sea is a stable, comfortable ship. Good thing, because we had some fairly serious seas. I awoke at 5 a.m. Monday morning, hearing the nearby bow slapping the occasional big wave, crockery falling in the stewards' pantry next to us, and other items falling in cabins around us. I got up, took a sea-sickness pill, and went back to bed. Many of the passengers were a little queasy during most of the day, but by Tuesday morning we were down to no more than gentle waves.

We also had 8-10 foot seas on Saturday during the return trip. The ship handled these very well, and no passengers showed any signs of sickness. In swells exactly like these, the Westerdam on the Cruise Bash II cruise had wallowed like a pig.

Departure was due at 5 p.m., but we heard that there were still passengers at the airports at that time. We left over an hour late, but I'm sure the late passengers appreciated it.

Ports of Call

Cancún is an "iffy" port. "If" you take this cruise just to visit Cancún, you may be disappointed, because "if" the seas are running more than 2 feet or so, the ship can't enter the harbor. Why? The harbor is quite shallow and leaves the Norwegian Sea with about 10 feet of water under her keel. Fortunately, we had no problem with the weather entering the harbor at Cancun. A near-miss with the big casino boat was a whole different matter. The captain of the Sea was standing on the bridge wing during the whole incident, and he didn't look happy!

The Sea anchors a lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng way out from the shore in Cancún, so to get to shore, you have to ride in on the local tenders. You will get your first chance to buy handicrafts while aboard this sumptuous barge. HOT TIP!!! A little sales resistance will get the prices of these things very low, often 1/3 of the original asking price.

The tenders deposit you at the dock at Fat Tuesday's. If there is anything worth seeing, Dave will have to tell you, because all we did was enjoy a nice walk about a mile down the avenue and back. Cancún is, after all, as real a Mexican town as Main Street in Disneyland is a real American town.

Dave's comments: We took a taxi for a tour around Cancún. This did not impress us, and we were glad to return to the ship. We went to some Mayan ruins, stopped by a beach for a few minutes, then went to a shopping mall with a rain forest theme. That was a quick $50 down the tubes. My highlight was buying a 1-liter graduated cylinder full of margarita at Fat Tuesdays. Cheers! The tender ride back to the ship, which takes 30 minutes not including loading and unloading, was very noisy.

The ship leaves Cancún late at night, since Cozumel is nearby.

Cozumel is famous for its snorkeling, and that's what we did. We went on the Dzul Ha excursion. If you go on a snorkeling trip arranged by the ship, you will need to pick up your equipment on the ship the day before the excursion. That is, you will need to do that if you don't have your own. We do, since we both fall in the "easily misled without our glasses" category. For Christmas, we bought ourselves masks with prescription lenses, snorkels with self-clearing water valves and no one else's spit, flippers we can be sure will always fit, and flotation vests with the proper straps (and, again, no one else's spit on the fill valve). In other words, this time we saw zillions of fish instead of a lot of colorful blurs.

On this snorkel excursion, you will be put in a taxi for a thrilling 8-minute ride to the beach. The beach is a little rocky, but the water is crystal clear, allowing for over 100 feet of vision. The guide was an employee of NCL, and he did make the experience more interesting. You can ask for a taxi whenever you're ready to go back to the ship.

We did run into a few tiny jellyfish, about the size of the end of your thumb. I got stung twice, but the sting was more an annoyance than a major problem. In fact, later that day, it was almost impossible to find where I had been stung.

The port at Cozumel was full, by the way, with the Norwegian Sea, the Norwegian Dream, either the Crown or Regal Princess (I didn't get close enough to determine which), the Celebrity Century, Carnival's Sensation, and Carnival's Ecstasy. We departed Cozumel a little late, but to a beautiful sunset!

Roatan, Honduras, is the port call that makes this cruise, in my opinion. It is a small island (about 40 miles long by 4 miles wide) off the coast of Honduras. It is clear as you arrive that you have found the second world, at least, and maybe the third one. The island is not heavily developed, and the inhabitants, except for the wealthy ones moving in, are quite poor. It's no worse than Jamaica, however.

Again, we opted for a snorkel excursion on Roatan. The one we chose was at the Tabayana Beach Resort, about a half hour ride in any one of a variety of buses. The Resort is beautiful, and many on the ship merely went there for the beach, which is white sand. Unlike the Cozumel beach, there are changing rooms, rest rooms, etc. Also, a lunch is provided. The swimming area at the resort is fairly shallow, about waist deep, until you reach the reef, which is maybe 200 feet out. It rises up almost to the surface, and you will need to be guided through a passage to the outside. Once there, however, the water clears up and you can see fantastic corals, fish by the millions, and the "wall" -- the dropoff into the depths, so deep you can't see the bottom.

Gentlemen, you're fairly safe in Roatan; there is next to no shopping there, yet.

Dave's Island Tour comments: we rented a taxi at the pier, for $20 each, which took us on a general tour around the island with stops at a private iguana ranch, a private bird preserve, and an hour at Paradise Island beach. The driver didn't speak English, so he got a local boy to go along with us to be the translator. We didn't know this, and I was a little concerned when the kid just hopped in the taxi with us. He later told me that he has a work permit to do this. He was a fine young boy, but they should tell you what their intentions are in the beginning. The iguana stop was interesting, especially for my son. Dozens of iguanas, some very large, wander around the owner's patio and are very tame. You can pet them, feed them, or grab their tails.

The bird preserve stop was a waste: nothing but some caged jungle birds, a monkey, and some little dogs that ran around snapping at us. This was also in a man's back yard. Very strange. Paradise Island was a very nice beach and resort. The taxi driver had another errand to do, and he left us there for close to 2 hours. No extra charge.

Overall, I liked Roatan. As Mike said, it is very poor and the potholes are everywhere. The people are nice though. By the way, if you take towels from the ship you have to sign for them. Failure to return them incurs a $25 per towel fee. This is really outrageous.

Dining

As mentioned earlier, there are two main dining rooms aboard the Sea: the Four Seasons just off the lobby, and the Seven Seas all the way aft.

We found the dinners to be good, not great, or even memorable. The one time we had caviar, it was a tiny dab on a deviled egg. The lobster seemed to be real Maine lobster, not the usual smaller Florida variety, but only 1/2 of the tail, split length-wise. The selections were varied, but neither the presentation nor the preparation seemed to be inspired. Both our waiters were from Jamaica and got along fine in English. Our wine stewardess, from Peru, noted our preferences, took good care of us, and seemed to enjoy entertaining Dave Beer's son Jacob.

The desserts seemed especially weak. However, the kitchen did resist the temptation to try to serve Tex-Mex food. That's wise -- it usually tastes like something someone from New Hampshire tasted once in Kansas City, described to a friend in Norway, who transcribed the recipe into Tagalog.

There were two formal nights, and no semi-formal ones. Tuxes were rare, but there were a few. Dave wore one. I was jealous. There are also several "theme" nights, such as '50's night, island night, country night, etc. Pack the poodle skirt, the white T-shirt, the black Levis, white socks, saddle oxfords, all that stuff.

The buffet dining room was a real annoyance at times. The layout practically forces you to stay in line, and the line can be very slow. However, the line was never long. In fact, lines were rare on this ship. The buffet has coffee, tea, and juices available all the time. The coffee is real, not a reconstituted syrup.

The ship has an alternative dining room, Le Bistro, on deck 10 aft. It is open from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., no reservations needed or taken. We dined there on the evening we were in Cancún. Many passengers were ashore and the dining rooms were far from full, so we thought that would be a good night. We ordered the Texaribbean cheese fondue as an entree, and the chocolate fondue as a dessert. The cheese fondue was not Les Armures (Geneva, Switzerland) quality, but it was good, if a little short in quantity. It is spicy, as its name implies. The chocolate fondue was not fully heated or melted, but it tasted good, anyway! A gratuity of $5 per person is suggested in Le Bistro, and you can sign it to your room. The service is great, the view is beautiful (if you get in before dark), and the food is a break from the main dining rooms.

The Blanches never made it to a midnight buffet, not even the chocolate extravaganza, so I can't address that issue.

Dave says: I agree with Mike's comments about the dining room and the Big Apple (see below). I had two steaks in the dining room, and both were a tad tough. The prime rib was good. Fish entrées were the best, but that isn't saying much. Soups were okay, but lacked any deep flavors. As for dessert, stick with the ice cream, although they ran out of chocolate. Also, we could not get chocolate milk at breakfast. They would serve us hot cocoa that had been iced down. This was not the case for lunch or dinner. No one could explain it.

Lunch and breakfast in the dining room was actually pretty decent. Watch out for the coffee cups. The handles are too small and they force you to grab the cup, which can be hot. Be aware that the Seven Seas is right over the propellers, and the room will vibrate rather dramatically at times. This seemed to happen while the ship was turning or changing speeds. The shaking and noise was really something. Every table setting rattled around for close to a minute each time.

I found the Big Apple to be very disappointing. The food was on par with a high school cafeteria....or worse. The pizza was the best thing they made. Tex-Mex offerings from the buffet tasted like they were straight out of an Old El Paso box, which was kind of sad for a "Texaribbean" theme. Also, each table has a bottle of "Texaribbean Hot Sauce." I like hot stuff, and this sauce filled the bill. It is habañero pepper-based.

The theme buffets, held by the pool at night, were nothing special. It was Big Apple quality food, and nothing more.

Entertainment

The performance troupe is pretty good, considering. The first night's show included a number of sets from Broadway shows, and not the usual ones, either. I especially liked the set from "Cabaret." The Joel Gray character did his job well. The performances are limited by the low ceiling in the show lounge. Visibility from the back of the room also suffers. In other words, arrive early.

The performance of the musical "Grease" was really enjoyable. I wish more ships would present a whole play, maybe even with all the dialogue. This one had a minimum of dialogue, lots of music, and did the 2-hour musical in a little over one hour. I volunteered to give the cute little dancer with the mammary envy a good home, but Dottie put the nix on that. The "Sealegs Express" was not up to the level of the other two shows.

A magician from Corsicana, TX (home of the mail-order fruitcake), gave an enjoyable and impressive performance. He does a great Tim Conway impression...all the time!

One of the best parties of the week was the '50's and '60's sock hop. As I said, wear the costume and enjoy it.

Dave attended the show by Jane L. Powell, so he will have to review that . . .
Dave's notes: Jane L. Powell has a blues singing act. She also does requests from the audience. She was great. The audience gave her a standing ovation. A very impressive vocal range, along with a lot of personality.

Shipboard Activities

With three sea days, activities aboard are important. All the usual are present here, except for horse racing. There's the casino, bingo, crafts, trivia, board games, art auctions, eating, drinking, swimming, pool games, deck parties, etc.

What there was not was movies in a theater (none on board), and no movies worth watching on the in-cabin TV's. CNN came in great all week, most of the port talks were of such poor quality that they couldn't be understood, ESPN provided sports, and there was the usual "all ship" channel, which is a video camera from the bridge focused on the bow of the ship.

I must confess we spent most of the sea days lazing in the sun or the cabin, reading, watching for flying fish, etc. Very relaxing. Dave spent a lot of time hanging around the pool. He liked the popcorn machine that was always running at the pool bar and found the beverages to be of excellent quality.

The kid's program is run out of the Porthole, which is a small and apparently underfunded area. It is about the size of 3 standard cabins. The three women that work there are wonderful, but they are really challenged to make this work. We had enough children on this cruise that they had to take some of the age groups out and set up shop on the floor in an elevator lobby. This is really an unsatisfactory situation.

Debarkation

The usual debarkation lecture, in person or on the cabin TV, informs you of the basic procedure. Have your suitcases packed and in the hall by 2 a.m. Sunday. Don't pack your travel clothes or suitcase keys. Get colored tags in the lobby to indicate when you should be allowed to get off, according to your travel arrangements. Pretty simple.

It all seemed to work pretty well, in spite of the passengers who "upgraded" their departure status. Everyone was off by 10:30 a.m. Since we were driving home, we were some of the last to debark. We spent our time watching the container ships being loaded/unloaded and the reprovisioning of the Sea. Quite interesting, really. The debarkation is slowed by the tiny area for luggage in the terminal building. There are indications that the building will be expanded soon.

Dave and family boarded a bus for the airport. This went very smooth until they arrived at the airport. The Delta terminal has virtually no sidewalk space, and they dumped three bus loads of passengers on the curb along with their baggage. It was a mass of humanity that took about 30 minutes to clear up.

Overall

While I wouldn't call this a great cruise, it was a good one. We met some new friends, we saw some new places, and we escaped a week in which there was snow even in Atlanta. How can that all be bad? I would give this cruise a "thumbs up," providing you can get it for a bargain price, as we did.

Dave's closing remarks: It was a fun cruise. Nothing was really outstanding, but nothing was really bad either. The price is what attracted me to this cruise. It was very inexpensive, which is something I had to remind myself of every now and then. I was relaxed, refreshed, and satisfied. A smoother airport operation, better food quality and presentation, and a redesign of the Big Apple are things that NCL needs to look in to.

Dave BeersDave Beers is the head administrator for the SeaLetter Cruise Forum and lives in Alabama with his wife, Vanessa, and young son Jacob. Dave served in both the Marines and the Navy, and spent a great deal of time in several far east and Mediterranean countries. He took his first "civilian" cruise in 1992 and cruising has been a primary interest for him ever since. He has written numerous reviews and articles about cruising. Dave and his family are also veteran SeaLetter Cruise Bashers.

In his professional life, Dave works for the federal government as a supervisor with the Tennessee Valley Authority. He may be reached for questions or comment at: david@sealetter.com.


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