August 2014 - Norwegian Sun to Alaska - Gulf of Alaska
We are seasoned cruisers (40+) and we had our doubts about sailing with NCL because we had two very bad experiences in Hawaii. Previous reviews were mixed for a variety of reasons, but we were pleasantly surprised. Our cruise was back-to-back (2 weeks). So here is the good and the bad.
EMBARKATION: Vancouver is a challenge, but not due to the cruise line. Passengers from two different cruises (5000+ passengers) were herded into an area to go through customs. This is true for everyone, even though we cleared customs at the airport. We were in line for more than an hour before we made the NCL embarkation room. Checking in with NCL was a breeze. We were on the ship in 5 minutes. Travel tip: take the city train directly from YVR to the waterfront. The train terminal is about 2 blocks from the ship terminal and costs only $7.00 from the airport and only $2.75 returning. Beats the $40.00 taxi ride and if you are mobile and have roller bags it is worth it. The trip takes about 20-30 minutes. The ship is very clean and well appointed. It's not a "mega-ship", but there are 2000 passengers and most common rooms seemed to accommodate everyone without seeming crowded. You can find activities or quiet spots as needed and the atrium area was a nice spot for a glass of wine or specialty coffee and dessert.
STATEROOM: Since we had booked only a week before sailing, we were at the mercy of whatever room was available. The first week we were "upgraded." We had paid for a guarantee obstructed view outside cabin. They gave us an "unobstructed view" cabin on deck 4, but it was tiny, without much walk around room and I had to be careful getting out of bed, since there was a bunk on my side that could have been used for a third person. However, the second week they moved us to the category we paid for and the cabin was about 40 square foot larger. There were 2 dressers and a regular sofa and no bunks. Plenty of walk around room and enough closet storage. Much better! Bathrooms in both cabins were as expected, small and functional, but very clean. The “obstructed” part means the cabin is on a promenade deck (deck 6 forward) which goes past the cabin. There is a second open window beyond, so you can see light and scenery, but you must keep the curtains drawn when you want privacy.
RESTAURANTS/FOOD: The food was good, but not spectacular. We heard complaints that it wasn't as gourmet or varied as expected, but we liked everything we ordered. However, we did have dinner in Le Bistro (Extra fee =$20 pp), and the filet was the best ever! La Cucina (Italian) was okay, but not worth the extra fee. ($15 pp) We tried sushi at Ginza (pay as you choose) and really loved it. The buffet was adequate, but the lay-out makes it difficult to maneuver during peak times. We found tables in the Sports Bar (adjacent to the buffet), which many people did not discover until later. You can also get bags of popcorn in the Sports Bar in the afternoon, another unknown tidbit.
ACTIVITIES: There were plenty of trivia sessions, craft and dance lessons, and, of course, the ubiquitous art auctions. Evenings brought live entertainment, game shows and several dance venues. The library was sufficient, but you could only check out books at specific times. The “share book” cabinet was always open. Movies were shown in the afternoon in the disco and several were available on your stateroom TV. The Sun has a Splash Academy for children, a fairly large area on deck 7 and although we didn’t have small children, we did see some evidence of the counselors making sure the little ones enjoyed their time. The casino is fairly large and well equipped and Bingo was held often throughout the cruise. It's just my opinion, but Bingo is pretty expensive for the payout ratio.
ENTERTAINMENT: The production shows, (Held in the Stardust Theater - pic below) while pleasant, were less than polished. It seemed like a High School or Glee Club performance and sometimes the choreography was forced or weird. There were two different comedians (week 1 and week 2); both were funny and entertaining. One night brought a performer named “El Gaucho” who used bolos, but also played piano and guitar. He was very talented; the juggler, not so much. If you cruise for the entertainment, you might be disappointed. However, the lounges and disco had decent live music, ranging from classical chamber music to easy listening and contemporary dance music.
The cruise was very casual and formal nights were billed as "Dress Up or Not" and most people did not. One of the main dining rooms (Seven Seas) was considered the more formal when it came to dress codes. That one barred shorts, muscle shirts, etc. but jeans or any long pants were fine. Ties were not necessary, nor were jackets. We were invited to an "Officer's Dinner" one night, which was lovely. They had five tables scattered throughout the dining room, which accommodated three couples and the officer who hosted. Our host was the Hotel Director, a long time officer, who was very charming and informative. We found that this cruise had the friendliest and most accommodating staff ever! Senior officers were very visible and accessible, wait staff was first rate and the cruise director’s staff were everywhere and always upbeat.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: - We generally don't take shore excursions anymore, but, in Skagway we opted to take the White Pass Train steam engine to Frasier Meadow ($159 pp and highly recommended). The weather was amazing and we loved reliving a past experience. We also took a "Duck" boat ( $42 pp -a large amphibious vehicle) in Ketchikan and a small van ($35 pp)to the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. Expect for the “duck” tour, we booked directly from the vendors in each port. Shore excursions in Alaska can be pricey and on-board excursions can cost 10-40% more. We stopped at a new port, Icy Strait, which is basically an abandoned cannery that they have re-purposed into a cruise stop. They have the longest and steepest zip-line there. While we didn’t take it, all comments were positive and everyone enjoyed the spectacular ride and views. We chose to walk into town (Hoonah) and talk to the locals. Saw eagle’s nests and totem carving and talked to the carvers at length. They are working on a large project for the Glacier Bay Tribal Center. Beautiful stuff!
All in all, for a last minute, unplanned cruise, it was terrific. Yes, we had been to the ports several times, but it was still Alaska and still beautiful. The weather was a gift, since it usually rains on Alaska cruises. For these two weeks the weather was sunny and warm everywhere but Whittier, but since it was the end/beginning stop of the first week, it didn't matter.We didn't get off the ship and for about 6 hours we had the ship to ourselves and the other back-to-back cruisers. We began this cruise with low expectations, but we ended it with a vow to return. As with all vacations, I'm sure people can find things to complain about. However, when we did have an issue or suggestion, the staff went overboard ( no pun intended) to make it right. Customer service has turned around with NCL and we were extremely impressed. We will sail with NCL again.