My wife and I are in our 50s with several cruises in our background. Cruising has become our vacation of choice, although we still like Vegas, DC, New York and Chicago. Fine dining and restaurant reviews are a hobby. Other cruise lines with which we have experience include Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Premier in the old days. I have moved away from using travel agents and now do almost all my own booking. I am a very experienced traveler, having traveled as part of work for 20 years, and pretty much know the ins and outs of self-booking. This particular Norwegian Cruise Lines trip was chosen for this time period because it covered my wife's birthday.
TRAVEL TO MIAMI, CRUISE CHECK-IN
I personally feel NCL is a little better on air arrangements, meeting flights and cruise check-in than other lines. Certainly, they are MUCH BETTER than Carnival! Our flight from Cleveland was well-timed for mid-morning, not unGodly early. Our seats were assigned through the regular boarding and reconfirmation process - not bulk seats in the back of the craft. We were met at the gate instead of baggage claim, and given pretty good instructions on what to do including the tip to rent a baggage cart instead of using a porter. With 7 checked bags plus carryon, that saved us at least 5 bucks.
The transfer bus driver actually gave us a little tour of Miami on the way to Dodge Island. When we arrived at the terminal, it was straight off the bus, 5 minutes at the check-in desk to check IDs and correct paperwork (no lines - and this was true for all cabin categories) and onto the ship. In fact, the only holdup was the mandatory pause for the "boarding picture". I think the cruise lines need to learn that people resent being held up to participate in something they have no intention of buying. There should be two lines. One for those who think they MIGHT want such a picture, and one for the rest of us. Although there was no one to escort us to our suite, it was easy to find on Deck 9 portside. We found fresh flowers, Champagne, and fruit waiting for us. We had plenty of time to explore the ship as our luggage arrived a couple of pieces at a time. And of course, we started right out eating with the welcome aboard buffet, which actually was about the only disappointing meal of the trip.
STATEROOMSOf course, we were spoiled. NCL ships do have much smaller cabins, on average, than other lines, but we were in a suite. The S1 suites on the Norwegian Majesty are really just extra large cabins. There is a king bed with a curtain at the foot which can be pulled to make "2" rooms. There is a sofa bed, coffee table and two chairs. The Norwegian Majesty does not have verandahs, but the suites have floor to ceiling windows that bow out, and you can put the chairs in this bubble for the feeling of an enclosed porch. There is a walk-in closet with lots of hangers, but drawer space is very limited because they use some for the safe and another area for a refrigerator (not an honor bar) that we never used. Should have kept our "cool" clothes in there, I guess. The other luxury my wife appreciated was a bathtub in the comparatively large bathroom.
A lot of our soft clothes simply stayed in the bags the whole trip and we got them out as we needed them. We kept some bags under the bed, and the ones we used most often on the floor of the closet. It worked out just fine. The tradeoff was the service. Our cabin steward was excellent, always smiling and waving, and getting the job done without bothering our routine. In Norwegian Majesty suites, you receive afternoon hors d'oeuvres at 4pm and a little dessert plate with the turndown service. You also have a concierge who looks after your special needs, and in our case, Lisa Jensen did an excellent job. She booked my wife's birthday dinner, and cleared up a little billing question for me, just to note two services outside the ordinary which she performed.
Over the course of the trip, we had the chance to see inside several other cabins. Yes, they are small. But they are well planned in my opinion, and two people would be comfortable in them. I would not take anywhere near as much baggage if I knew I would be in one of these cabins, however. We did encounter some passengers who felt cramped in their cabins. Of course, on any cruise, you always meet people who have unreasonable expectations about cabin size, food and service on a ship. However, because the average age of the passengers on this particular trip was older, there seemed to be less complaining. I think there were a large number of repeat cruisers on the trip who knew what to expect. The ship was booked at about 100 passengers under capacity, and at the Latitudes cocktail party for repeaters, there were about 500 guests.
THE FOOD AND "FREESTYLE" CRUISINGI have found that expectations are everything in being satisfied with the cruise experience. If you only like grilled food such as steaks and lamb chops, and you want them done a certain way, that's hard to perfect in a ship galley. On the other hand, roasts and creative dishes lend themselves to the "hotel cooking" approach, and even on the bargain cruise lines, I have always found the food is better than in most hotels.
Certainly NCL is very good. I would rate the quality and preparation as equal to or better than Carnival, although the presentation is simply not as good. In general, dishes tend to be presented with the food "compartmentalized" as you would do at home, rather than "dressed" as you would expect in today's top restaurants. So, although the NCL recipes are better, I would rate the overall food experience as equal to Carnival.
My wife and I loved the Freestyle Dining experience. I know this is very controversial and does not appeal at all to those who like the traditional ship experience. But I've got to be blunt and say that being placed with other people was always the least attractive part of cruising to us, and that having a choice of dining rooms and times simply suits the way we like to travel. On this cruise, we ate twice in the Seven Seas Dining Room, three times in the Four Seasons Dining Room, twice in the Royal Observatory, and once in Le Bistro. We also did one buffet evening. All these rooms are very different in atmosphere and service, although the food in the two main rooms is always the same - a theme night of some sort. The Royal Observatory is an Italian pasta room, while Le Bistro is a limited menu "gourmet" room with a $10 per person cover charge. Frankly, of all the dining options, this last was the biggest disappointment and not worth either the money or the trouble.
The Seven Seas is the largest room and in the stern of the ship. It became our least favorite because there is tremendous engine vibration here, and when the room is full, it is also the noisiest room on the ship. On the two nights here, we had one table for 2 by ourselves, and we agreed to be placed at a larger table the other time. We are very flexible this way, and that's one reason why Freestyle is OK for us. The Four Seasons was our favorite room. It is midships, so there is less movement and no vibration. The menu in the Four Seasons and Seven Seas is always the same theme each night. The color scheme in the Seven Seas is more pastels (green or yellow) while the Four Seasons tends to be darker and more elegant. On our nights here, we had two tables for two and one table with others.
The Royal Observatory, which is forward on Deck 9 just outside our room, is the hardest to get into in the Freestyle system because it is small and tends to be the first choice on the theme nights no one likes - Caribbean or Southwestern. Most of the people we encountered loved Freestyle, as we did. Those who did not were either traditionalists, or were not flexible enough. For instance, one couple was incensed that they had to wait to get into the room in which they wanted to eat, although it was clear the real problem was that everyone else on the ship wanted to eat at that time too! We NEVER had that problem...we simply went a little later at around 7 or 7:30, and we made reservations in the Royal Observatory the nights we wanted to eat there.
As far as the Freestyle effect on service, I did not see any of the negatives others have reported. The crew was in wonderful spirits on this trip. There was only one section of the Seven Seas dining room where I felt the staff was a little sloppy. Otherwise, the dining room wait staff was fine. I do not miss the waiters and busboys learning my likes and dislikes, frankly because I change them all the time! I did see that moving around from place to place made the service seem inconsistent, because after all, different crews move at different paces. Expectations, once again. I don't believe the NCL policy of billing tips to room bills and then pooling them for the staff made any difference in the attitude of the staff, level of service, or the overall esprit d'corps of the crew. Many of them seemed to have been on the ship a long time, and seemed to have adjusted very nicely to the new way receiving their compensation. Overall, a happy bunch!
THE SHIP HERSELFThere was a time when the Norwegian Majesty would have been a large cruise ship, but these days, at only 38,000 tons, she is at the "small" end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, I felt she had a great "ride" even on a couple of relatively rough nights, and she is not as sensitive to side wind rocking as some of the taller, more square ships. Equipped with both bow and stern side thrusters, she seems very maneuverable, and thus was able to dock in every single one of the ports we visited. Great. I hate tenders!
Her layout is also very good. She has three central stair/elevator "towers", each of which runs all the way from topside Deck 10 to Deck 2, where the gangway was most often placed. She has an outside hallway down both sides of most decks, the exceptions being Deck 5 and 6 where most of the public rooms are located. This arrangement makes her the easiest ship to learn and get around on of any I have ever cruised. She has a complete promenade on Deck 7 which runs all the way around the outside of the ship. This is used for walking and jogging, and of course, it is wonderful to be able to walk all the way around a ship out of doors. There are fore and aft showrooms. The aft showroom, used for the largest productions, is not very good because the ceiling is too low and there are too many sightline problems. This limits the types of shows which can be done, so the typical NCL Broadway productions don't happen on the Norwegian Majesty. There are a large number of bars and smaller public rooms, and the overall decor is restrained and very elegant, in my opinion. This ship is finished with lots of wood and natural hues, and is very well done from an interior design point of view...real first class cognac and cigar club styling without all the smoke. Very nice, very comfortable, and one never feels crowded on this ship because there is always a bar or room which is not crowded.
I might add that the Martini Bar offers very large drinks. They are a little more expensive than those at the other bars, but they are so much bigger that you are really getting 3-4 drinks for the price of 2. I found it the best value on the ship. If you drink beer, order the draft beers. They are bigger and $1 cheaper than bottles! But you need to check out each bar because each has different brands on tap.
The pool and sun decks are very nicely arranged as well. There is a forward observation lounge which is usually full of people eating from the buffet line. There is a forward bar and a midships bar. There is a grill and pizzeria aft.
There are two pools and two hot tubs, and one of each is reserved for adults (although there weren't more than 2-3 dozen kids on this trip). Although the sun deck runs all the way around the ship as does Deck 7, it is not used (officially, at least) as an exercise deck. There were plenty of deck chairs whenever we wanted two of them, and plenty of tables on the pool deck whenever we wanted to eat outside. From the outside activity standpoint, this was one of the most pleasant cruises we have ever taken because we never felt we had to run up and place towels on chairs, and never had trouble finding tables to sit at. Both pools were very nice and kept clean and fresh. They had both open in all ports, even on the day we left Miami. The hot tubs, on the other hand, always seemed to be full of people. They could use a couple more.
We do not make much use of the exercise rooms or spa facilities on cruise ships, but we visited both and thought they were nicely equipped. The worst feature of the ship is the casino - one of the tightest I have ever seen. Everyone complained about how poorly the slot machines paid off, and indeed, by the second or third day, hardly anyone even tried to use them.
Truth to tell, my wife and I are early risers. We usually are up at 5:30 or 6 AM, get our early coffee, and are on deck to watch the pilots maneuver the ship into dock. For that reason, we are not likely to see many of the shows unless they especially appeal to us. We took in the bon voyage show the first night, and it was pretty good - a salute to Broadway shows. However, shipmates who saw other shows told us that this first one was the highlight of the trip, and that all the others were less entertaining. I don't know - I was usually in bed by 9 PM or still at dinner. As I mentioned, the aft showroom is a problem on the Norwegian Majesty, and limits what they can do.
We found that the bands and individual musicians on board were very entertaining and talented. We also heard that the show put on by the crew was the next best of the trip. As you can probably tell, I am not particularly enamored of cruise directors (I more or less equate them to the talking heads on TV news shows) so how good, bad or indifferent they are matters little. I really don't rely on the cruise staff to provide my good times for me. It seemed to me the staff was competent, friendly, and kept things going for those who need that kind of inspiration.
OUR PORTS OF CALLWhile this was a repositioning cruise, Norwegian Majesty will continue to call at a number of the same ports we visited. The main differences will be that she will start and stop from San Juan, and apparently will omit the stop in St. Croix - no great loss in my humble opinion. In the spring, it appears she will return to her familiar Boston to Bermuda run.
Our first two days were at sea...a very nice way to get down a tan base before hitting the beaches.
Our first stop was Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We were torn between taking a cab over to Cane Garden Beach with lunch at Rhymer's, or taking the excursion trip to Virgin Gorda. In the end, we did the latter and were very glad. Swimming at The Baths was one of the trip highlights. The Baths is that wonderful beach with the huge house-size rocks that form pools and eddies. The water was warm, the beach sand is soft, and the bottom pretty good for wading. My wife is the snorkeler...I am NOT a water baby! But I enjoyed this beach, and even got my face in the water to see some pretty fish. We did not take the longer walk to Devils Beach. One recommendation I would make is to get a pair of "swim shoes". Some of the bottom is made up of more large rocks which can be slippery and/or sharp. My wife wounded herself on a bottom rock, and this caused her some minor walking discomfort throughout the trip.
Our second port was Antigua. I have now been to Antigua and do not need to go back. I'm afraid this particular island has one of the lowest overall living standards I have ever seen, exacerbated by the tremendously rich yachters who call at Nelson's Dockyard. We took the Historic Antigua tour which included Shirley Heights, the British forts, Nelson's Dockyard and town tours. St. Johns, the main town, is a DUMP. If we had to do it again, we would get off the tour at Nelson's Dockyard and eat lunch at the Admirals Inn or one of the other hotels which are located there. Then you can take a private cab back to the cruise terminal. But I did get great pictures from the heights, and photos of some of the biggest sailing yachts I've ever seen. Learned the difference between Caribbean sheep and goats from the taxi driver - goats have tails up and sheep have tails down - otherwise, who can tell?
Things got truly exotic with our arrival at Martinique. This is a French island - in fact, it is actually a French Department, the equivalent of a state. We took a trip to St. Pierre which was destroyed in 1902 by the eruption of the Mt. Pelee volcano - 30,000 people were killed. We visited a rum distillery which is family owned and operated very much like a small California boutique winery. We saw many coastal fishing villages - wish they had stopped for picture opportunities - and the botanical garden and rain forest. Really a very nice trip, and probably the best way to see this particular island if you have only one day. The traffic is terrible and the roads narrow and winding - they are in good shape, but require some local knowledge. The advantage of the trip is they make sure you see the highlights and get it done with timing that guarantees you won't miss the ship. We also had an excellent lunch on shore at a downtown Fort de France bistro and grill. Had my best local lobster there.
The next day, we took the exact opposite option by renting a car to tour St. Maartin/St. Martin, the half French, half Dutch island. We docked at the brand new cruise ship terminal, one of the first ships to use the dock. The terminal itself is not finished, which creates some minor inconveniences in getting around. We had booked our rental car in advance from the US by computer. We had to take a cab to the airport to pick it up, which was about a half-hour away. Traffic, again, is really bad although the roads are all right. The rental car company paid the taxi cost one way, and we paid the other, which was more than fair. It only cost $25 to rent the car! We drove to the French side and did our shopping in Marigot, the main French town. It was actually the best shopping of the trip, superior to St. Thomas in every way. Better stores, better prices, duty free if you can keep the total under $800. We had lunch at Jean Dupont's, a French restaurant on the marina - great food, great view. The only real downside was that we couldn't be absolutely sure how long it would take us to get back to the ship, so we cut our touring too short - we left way too much time and got back too early without seeing more of the island. This is the chance you take when you go off on your own instead of doing the tours.
After Antigua, the worst stop on the trip was St. Croix, but that was probably our own fault. Instead of taking the tour to Buck Island for some good snorkeling, we decided to shop and use one of the local beaches. We also toured a local rum factory and the great botanical garden, which was about the only highlight. The local beach was just one block from the ship, but it wasn't very good either for swimming or snorkeling. And there was a strong wind blowing from our backs which kept picking up sand and blasting us - reminds me of the description of sand storms in Frank Herbert's science fiction classic "Dune" which can "flay the skin and flesh off your bones!" St. Croix may be the largest of the US Virgin Islands, but it seems to me it has the least to offer tourists - the shopping is poor, and you actually have to go off-island to find the real attractions.
You would think the only reason to go to St. Thomas is the duty free shopping, but we actually found our 2nd best beach here, at Magan's Bay. This is truly one of the best salt water beaches I've ever seen, deep in a well-protected inlet with gentle waves, white sand, a shallow wading bottom out 50-100 yards, and picture perfect. There's everything you want - rental chairs and floats, a restaurant, public changing rooms and showers, and cabs coming and going all the time.
Despite the fact that the Norwegian Majesty had to dock in the Sub Base instead of downtown Charlotte Amalie, we were able to get in a split day between the beach and our last duty-free shopping. One of the true wastes of time on this trip was that we had to leave both St. Croix and St. Thomas at 5:30 PM. Of course, the trip between St. Croix and St. Thomas is only 40 miles, and the trip between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico only 400 miles, so we spent most of both nights drifting around the Caribbean. It would have been nice to stay in port at least until 9pm so we would have had an on-shore dinner option. That's the restaurant hound in me talking!
As they say, all good things must come to an end, and so we arrived in San Juan just as the police were escorting Al Gore into town, and just as some thug pumped 3-4 bullets into someone on the pier across the bay. Lights, sirens everywhere, and we even heard the shots while standing on deck! As a further complication, they were having one of those spectacular building implosions downtown at 10 AM and had half the streets blocked off.
We had a late flight, and thus we could book a rain forest tour. This allowed us to be the first off the ship. The biggest problem was that the baggage forklift ran out of gas before all the luggage could be taken off the ship for the doggies to sniff, so we had to wait an extra 40 minutes in the lounge - no biggie. We got our bags quickly, customs barely even spoke to us, and all the airlines had check-in stations right at the dock, which I had never seen before. That is so slick because it lets you get rid of your bags and do some hands free sightseeing. Then the long flight home, back to Cleveland, Ohio, and blowing snow and -10° chill factors. Hard to believe we had been swimming in 84° water the day before.
THE BOTTOM LINEMy wife said this was the best vacation we ever had. I think I agree. There is no question I would find it hard to go back to Carnival, which I now think is a step down from NCL. I was surprised at this as everything I have read led me to believe the opposite might be true. I certainly would have no trouble booking another trip with NCL, and I would love to sail on the Norwegian Majesty again. So many cruises, so little time. Obviously, this trip was a tremendous value, taking into account what we paid for what we got. Since we got the cruise itself for a bargain rate, we had a lot of extra money in our budget for shore excursions, on-board expenses, and shopping. That made it at least a "business class" trip instead of "coach".
Some photos courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.
Jim MacQueen may be reached at: Socerjim@aol.com.
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