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Cruising with NCL (Norwegian Cruise Liners)
In February of this year (2009), I had the pleasure of being to invited to accompany my Stepfather on a cruise of South America with a company called "NCL", or "Norwegian Cruise Liners". It wasn't going to be the kind of cruise involving bikinis and cocktails though, this was more of a maritime adventure, and was to fulfil a lifelong ambition my Step Father had to sail around Cape Horn. As my Mother was awaiting a much needed knee replacement it was a totally unsuitable cruise for her to go on, (especially with all the tours that frequently involve travelling to shore on the of the ship's lifeboats, and therefore the slightly more awkward embarking and disembarking procedures), so I was the lucky relative who got to go on the adventure with my Step Father (James) instead, plus he paid for the entire trip for me.
Now this article is not going to be about the trip itself, (I intend to cover that in a separate article), this article is to review our experiences, both good and bad, of travelling with NCL in order that other people considering this company have an idea of what to expect.
The type of cruise we were on is called "Freestyle", which essentially means things were a lot less formal than many other cruise liners, therefore smart but casual clothes in the restaurants were acceptable, and there was just one restaurant that insisted on a "no jeans" policy. Freestyle crusing also means "eat when and where you like", so basically it is all very relaxed
The ship we were travelling on was called the "Norwegian Sun", and was a fairly large and very comfortable ship with an excellent ratio of crew to passengers.
James and I Day One
There were a number of excellent restaurants to choose from serving various types of foods which were all excellent quality. Hygiene was of extreme importance and alcohol hand sprays were at the entrance to every restaurant to prevent germs being taken into the food areas by either guests or staff. Seating was never a problem and the service was swift and efficient with highly courteous and friendly staff.
Although there were a number of restaurants, (about eleven), about half of these had a "cover" charge over and above the fact the cruise was all inclusive as far as eating went. For example, if we ate in the "East Meets West" steak restaurant we had to pay an additional $20 per person for our meal, even though the cruise includes food. Some restaurants the cover charge was only $15, and about four of the restaurants had no cover charges, but two of those restaurants served the same menu as one another, and the Garden Cafe was self service.
The wine was very expensive on board, and with the execption of one wine we found that was only available in the "Healthy Eating" restaurant for $27 per bottle, all the other restaurant's wines started at about $34. Considering passengers were not allowed to bring their own alcohol on board, or bring it back from shore excursions, (if you did it was confiscated until the end of the cruise and then returned to you upon disembarkation), this made drinking socially very expensive, especially if you wanted, (as a couple), to have two or three bottles a day, either with meals, or relaxing in the afternoons. In no time at all you had quickly spent $100 without even noticing.
The room we were in was what is known as a "Stateroom". Designed to sleep two, and with an option of a double bed or twin beds, (needless to say we had twin beds). The room was very lovely, and the staff who change the towels, make the beds etc were lovely and very polite. Each evening the beds had been turned down ready to be slept in, and there was always a chocolate mint on the pillow.
The shower was a real power shower, and water was always piping hot and the bathroom was kept scrupulously clean.
There were tea and coffee making facilities in the cabin, as well as a television and a mini bar.
The heating / air conditioning was fully adjustable within the cabin, so we were not forced to put up with any temperatures that were uncomfortable based on them being "chosen" for us.
The cabin was rather on the small side compared to other cruise ships James had been on previously.
Well the main positive was that it was available on board and was wireless so I could use my laptop computer inside our cabin or in a number of public areas.
The ship did offer some quite large discounts if you bought further minutes once your initial purchase of minutes at full price were used up.
Certain days "free minutes" were offered if you spent more than ten (paid) minutes online between certain times.
Internet minutes were incredibly expensive, and the best deal per minute was if you opted to buy the maximum package of 240 minutes which was a whopping $100. If you paid by the minute only, it was 75 cents which was exorbitant.
Internet speeds were very slow, which is understandable being on a ship as the link is via satellite, but naturally this meant you got far less use out of your very expensive 240 minutes than if speeds were at a normal rate. I ended up spending about $150 over the two weeks, and I had to avoid surfing the internet at all in the end, and write my emails in Microsoft Word offline, then copy and paste them into an email immediately after I connected to the Internet to save precious time.
If you did get dressed up for the evening you could guarantee there would a photographer available somewhere on the ship to capture a picture of you enjoying your cruise and looking radiant and happy.
The quality of the photos taken was excellent.
Certain days you could have your photo taken with the Captain "Rune Myre", who was everything you expect of a Captain, tall, handsome and smart, (dreamy in fact).
It did become a bit annoying that whenever you set foot on shore there always seemed to be a person dressed up as a furry animal, dolphin etc, waiting to throw their arm around you whilst the overkeen photographer jumped out and took your photo before you were ushered on whilst the poor victim behind you was then similarly accosted.
Eating meals, walking down ships corridors and in public areas also resulted in frequently being asked if you wanted your picture taken.
All the photos (no matter how awful) were put on large display boards in the corridor where the photographers were based. This meant everyone got to see you looking a complete mess in the photos that had been taken on a windy shore with your hair all over your face or when you had not bothered to put make up on for the evening meal etc.
If you did decide to buy one of your photos they were again extremely expensive at $22 each, and this was doubly annoying when you realise that probably about 80% of the photos are not purchased by the passengers and are destroyed at the end of the cruise. Surely they would be better off selling them at $6 each on the basis they would sell so many more that they would probably make more money with less wastage. The old rule of retail, "Reduce your margin and increase your turnover".
The Shore Excursions.
The excursions offered were varied and there were lots of activities if you wanted to try them, e.g. horse riding, kayaking, river rafting, off road vehicle tours etc. Alternatively there were sightseeing trips, coach tours, boat trips, trips to see wildlife such as penguin colonies, cormorant colonies, wild sea lions etc. There was even one trip that allowed you to set foot on Antarctica.
These too were very expensive, and they started at about $150 per person, going right up to $2500 per person for the trip that allowed you to set foot on Antarctica, (although this did partially involve a short helicopter ride to the location). Actually I was shocked that one family of four, two parents and two children actually did do the Antarctica trip, which must have cost them $10,000.!!!! Ughhh. Even the horseback riding trips were well over $150, and on principle I refused to spend so much on a couple of hours riding. In the end I think we did about five of the more sensibly priced trips and even this was not cheap when you added it all up.
There were various talks and lectures that could be visited free of charge on board the ship, but none of the topics really appealed to me although James went to a couple of them.
In the evenings there was always live music in at least three of the bars or restaurants, and some of it was very good quality entertainment.
Several times during the cruise they would hold a couple of hours of karaoke in the nightclub called "Dazzles", and outside of these hours there would be either a live group, or disco music playing.
There were also other fun and free activities such as the "Murder Mystery Dinner", where groups of eight form teams and eat dinner whilst enacting a set murder plot. Only the murderer knows who they are, but the other guests have to ask set questions and try to determine who the murderer is, and why they killed Captain "Imadead". The murderer is the only one who can lie, and all the other suspects must tell the truth. This was great fun, especially as my 74 year old Step Father got cast as my twin Sister who had been in love with the dead Captain, hilarious. This was a fun way to get to know other passengers on the ship and we made a couple of excellent on board friends out of this dinner evening.
Some of the lecturers (according to James), were not the most interesting people to listen to, which was not to say the topic wasn't, they just failed to put it across in an interesting way.
At least one of the singers on board (who was usually accompanied by a man playing a double bass), was truly awful and incredibly annoying to listen to. To add insult to injury she was reading most of her words from a sheet, which made her little more than an average karaoke singer. We actually used to avoid the bar they appeared in the most frequently (The Windjammers Bar), until we knew they had finished singing for the night.
These were all in all excellent, and included a Body Spa, swimming pools, an ice-cream bar, a gymnasium, a basketball court, a jogging track, an art gallery, a golf driving net, a casino, shops, a kids corner, a chapel, a library, a boardroom, hot tubs and a superb observation lounge at the back of the ship.
Not many really, apart from the fact that the Spa treatments did cost extra and the shops were fairly pricey.
James and I.
The staff were all lovely, and it would be hard to fault any of them. They were gracious, had lovely sense of humours, treated the passengers like royalty and were incredibly attentive.
So Would I Do This Again?
Well I would certainly go on a cruise again as I thoroughly enjoyed it, however, I don't think I would personally travel with NCL again as I couldn't quite get over the feeling I had been "mugged", and that they saw their passengers as a licence to print money. Don't get me wrong, I am certainly not tight with money, but I don't like the feeling of being ripped off any more than the next person does, and whilst I loved the staff, the accommodation and the food, I did feel they knew they had you cornered as far as the need for Internet access and alcohol were concerned.
I also didn't like the way they had signs up where you got back on the ship saying how clever their staff were at finding alcohol if you tried to smuggle it on board, and how it would be confiscated until the end of the cruise if you did bring any on board. This made you feel like school pupils being caught with an illicit packet of cigarettes or something, and I am sure when they xrayed all the handbags and scanned the passengers each time they returned to the ship, it was only to check they had no alcohol, as opposed to being a safety precaution against weapons or bombs etc.