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Cruise Ship Review
Thomas A. Gauldin

This summer, we decided that it would be fun to take the whole family on a cruise. With our son and his fiancee now out of college and with full-time jobs, and with our own time being short, we decided that we'd try one of the brief cruises out of Miami. After reading the brochures, we decided that we'd try the NCL "Leeward," which departs from Miami on Friday afternoons and returns on Monday morning. Naturally, the ship also offers a 4-day cruise as well. Our 3-day cruise had stopovers in Key West and on the NCL private island, with the longer cruise adding a stop in Nassau.

In making our plans, we mentioned our pending cruise to a couple who had been our neighbors many years ago. The couple is now in their late 80's and she is anticipating her 90th birthday in the coming month! While there is no denying the toll of age, they are still both independently mobile. Since I am hard of hearing and my wife has difficulty walking due to MS, only our son, his fiancee and our daughter were fully functional. None of us requested handicapped facilities, however.

The Leeward is less than a year old and is of medium size. There are TWO main dining rooms with each having two seatings. The dining rooms are of equal size, but the one on the 8th deck has an unobstructed view from the windows, while the one on the 5th deck looks out onto the sides of the lifeboats. It appears that the upper dining room is for cabins on the higher levels of the ship. Since the 7th deck is the highest with cabins, and houses the larger suites, it could appear that the upper dining room is the preferred one, although the menus are the same.

The ship departed and arrived precisely as scheduled. This was in contrast to our cruise on the Westerdam, which missed every departure and arrival time by as much as two hours! The physical condition of the Leeward was about what you would expect of a new ship. It was clean, well painted and had excellent embarkation/debarkation facilities and elevators. One little problem that will be corrected with time is the condition of its brightwork. The brasswork for railings throughout the ship was laquered when it was new. While this prevents tarnishing initially, it also insures tarnishing later on . . . until the coating is removed or worn away. Now, about 10 months after launching, the railings throughout the ship look terrible, with scratches, discoloration and areas of differing color. The faces of the treads on the stairs are chrome and suffer the same problems. I suspect that this will actually improve with age, however, as the staff finally removes the laquer coating and begins polishing the bare metal.

The inside cabins are typical in size to the other cruise ships we've been on, although the outside cabins appear to be a bit larger. This cruise had my son and his fiancee in an inside standard cabin, with my wife and me sharing another inside standard cabin with our daughter. The difference in the two cabins was pronounced.

While my son and his fiancee's cabin had virtually no seating area, our own cabin was very comfortable, due to the larger size and a couch that unfolded for our daughter's bed. As I recall, adding the third person to the cabin was only about $100 plus port charges and in exchange, the comfort and size of the cabin was pronounced. The baths in the cabins were identical and were very functional.

The quality of the food was very good and the meals were well presented and served promptly. There was a busboy as well as a waiter, (compared to Holland America Line only having a waiter) and the wine steward promptly came to the table each night to take drink orders. The dining room staff was generally from the Caribbean, interspersed with Chinese. There was a buffet served daily as well, but there were problems with it. The tables were usually covered with dishes from previous dinners, on two occasions there was no ice for drinks and the two serving persons were very cold and aloof. I suspect that this will be corrected quickly, since many of our fellow travelers shared our opinion of the buffet service. The midnight buffet was a disappointment as well, with few dishes.


Entertainment was very good, with a surprisingly large cast of singers, dancers and musicians for a ship of this size. The seating was comfortable and not crowded at all. One little thing that gave us all a chuckle was the "Captain's Reception" the second night out. When the Captain introduced his staff, he had to resort to a cue card to remember their names. Outside of the disappointment in the buffet, our overall impression was that the Leeward was a "happy" ship. Passengers were almost always smiling, the ship's crew was congenial and helpful and the entire experience was pleasant.

Knowing that I would write this review, I discussed the itinerary, facilities and ship with the others so that I could report it from each perspective.

The elderly couple:

The hardest part was the airline scheduling. Since there were some budget considerations, we didn't want to add another day to the cruise. The only air connection we could make from our town left at 6:00 am, which meant we had to arise at 4:30 am to be ready for the plane. This was terribly early for us, but the excitement of taking our first cruise made the day go fast.

We were really impressed that we didn't have to get our luggage in Miami, but instead NCL picked it up and took it right to our rooms on the ship. It didn't arrive until about 6:00 pm, but by then we were already settled into our room. At our age, we sometimes forget things or don't aways understand fully what folks want, but the NCL folks at the check-in gate did all the paperwork for us and even had a young fellow guide us to our room. When we left the ship at the end of the cruise, another young man walked with us and helped us to find our luggage and to get it to the airport bus. Taking such a short cruise has both its benefits and problems. On one hand, the cost of transportation to Miami would have been the same for a 3-day, 4-day or longer cruise. Since the cruise was so short, airfare was a large percent of the cost. Being so short also left us tired the day after we arrived and we spent hours napping when we should have been seeing more of Key West. On the other hand, we weren't so tired out by the overall experience that we were overwhelmed when we finally returned home.

The 20 year old daughter:

I was disappointed at first that I had to sleep on a sofa bed, but since I was only in the cabin at night, it turned out to be no problem at all. I felt that the bath needed more places to keep my makeup and clothes, since when the curtain was drawn at night, I had only the desk and the very tiny vanity in "my" area. I loved the entertainment and great food in the dining room, but my favorite place was the casino, where Dad taught me how to play draw poker. Nobody asked me for an ID, so I was able to order fancy drinks and charge them to Dad. I absolutely loved snorkeling on the island and think it was my favorite part of the cruise.

The 22 year old son and his 22 year old fiancee:

We're getting married in November, so the cruise was a great way to see if we'd like a long cruise for the honeymoon or if we'd rather just fly to Mexico. Our cabin was really small, but we were usually exploring the ship or were ashore most of the time, so it didn't matter that much. Whenever we wanted to get together with the folks, we'd go to their cabin, which had a couch. We rented mopeds in Key West and spent most of the morning exploring the island. It was a good opportunity to go off by ourselves. In the afternoon, we went to the beach for a while, but settled down back on the ship long before it departed.

The entertainment after dinner was great and we loved the casino. NCL's private island was a dream. The snorkeling gear cost $25 per person, which was a lot of money for the short time we actually were in the water. The rest of the time, we were eating and sleeping on the beach, or taking a walk to the lighthouse. There was always plenty to do, see or explore on the entire cruise. NCL's private island is only about a mile from Royal Carribbean's, so we could sit on the beach and watch both the Leeward and an RCL ship floating at anchor.

The 50 year old parents:

My wife has MS and I am deaf. The bath in our cabin was especially nice for the wife, since there was virtually no "step" for my wife to climb over to get into the bath or shower. There were plenty of handrails/handholds throughout the cabin, bath and ship for my wife, so she seldom needed to use her scooter aboard the ship. We parked the scooter in the hallway, (as we've done on all cruises) where it was instantly available and took up no room in the cabin.

The Leeward has fire doors and sea doors with fairly tall thresholds. The Amigo scooter COULD make it over these with ease. Since the Amigo has smaller wheels than many other scooters, accessibility to the entire ship is assured to all wheelchairs and scooters. The ship also has a hydraulic ramp at its dock-high doors that gives scooters complete access to docks and tenders without assistance. This is the nicest accessibility that we've encountered aboard cruise ships to date.

When we used the tender to the private island, there was some need for assistance. The tender NCL uses for its island is similar to a WW2 landing craft. You board it amidship and proceed either up or down stairs to decks. Here, NCL's staff carried my wife's scooter to the lower deck for her, while I helped her to board the tender. Arrival on shore was wonderful, since the craft merely grounded itself on the beach and dropped its entire front, as a ramp, onto the beach. Once ashore, the hard sand/gravel back from the beach worked well with the little Amigo scooter. Interestingly, NCL already had about a half dozen free beach-type wheelchairs ashore for use by the elderly and handicapped.

There were no accomodatons for the hard of hearing, but since my wife can hear just fine, that presented no problem. The staff was uniformly considerate to move in close and to speak clearly when addressing me, which made me feel good.

The overall opinion of our group was that NCL has a good quality operation and that the Leeward is a very comfortable ship to be on.

Tom Gauldin of Raleigh, NC is an avid cruiser and frequent visitor and contributor to the Newsgroup rec.travel.cruises. Tom wrote a great article entitled Cruising with Limited Mobility published in our March 1996 edition and has contributed to our Cruise Humor department as well. Tom can be reached at: scoundrl@mindspring.com

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