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Copyright © 1995-2001 
Linda Coffman

 

Norwegian Sun
Based on the cruise of December 8-15, 2001

DAYLIGHT DREAMS, NIGHTIME SUN
By Jim MacQueen


At the moment, it is impossible to separate the new Norwegian Sun from the itinerary it has been assigned. Of course, cruise lines often change the assignments given ships, but at the moment of writing, the Sun sets a course that is a divers and snorkelers dream cruise. Setting sail every Saturday from Miami, the latest Norwegian visitor to the western Caribbean visits Georgetown, Grand Cayman; Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras; Belize City in Belize with diving calls to San Pedro; and returns via Cozumel, Mexico. Undoubtedly, these are four of the finest diving sites in the world, and are certainly four of the best in the Americas.

The result is almost surreal. Water bugs have a dream world in the daylight, and the Sun at night. And what a wonderful Sun it is.

The Norwegian Sun is the first ship designed from start to finish to facilitate NCL's trend setting "Freestyle Cruising". Freestyle is a radical break from the traditions of ocean liners and the first 25 years of the cruising industry, which achieved organization of services by regimenting the passengers. In the traditional system, all passengers were assigned either a first (early), or second (late) seating for meals, at a specific table in the dining room. This had its plusses and minuses for both passengers and staff. The stewards could predict with accuracy when cabins were vacated for cleaning, and the dining room wait staff could learn the preferences of the diners, and arrange efficient service because the likes and dislikes, as well as the number of meals at each sitting, could be anticipated. The passengers got to know certain tablemates very well over the course of the trip, and also developed relationships with the dining room waiters, busboys and other servers. Many passengers were comfortable having their days regulated by the dining hours, and the assignment to first or second seating often evolved from passenger input as early risers ate in the early hours while night people preferred second seating.

On the other hand, not every vacationer likes being bossed around. NCL discovered that many people on vacation preferred to make their own schedules, choosing to eat where and when they wanted, attend shows at hours which suited them, and spend more time on shore at ports of call than was sometimes permitted by the early dining schedule. NCL President Colin Veitch noticed that land-based resorts did not operate on early/late timetables, and even before Asian based Star Cruises acquired NCL, Veitch had spearheaded an effort to convert all Norwegian vessels to the Freestyle system. Since then, several other cruise lines, most notably Princess and Carnival, have followed suit to a greater or lesser extent.

On the Norwegian Sun, the differences between traditional cruising and Freestyle are most notable in four different areas. First, of course, is the meal service. Passengers do not have assigned meal times. They choose to eat when they want, and the Sun makes this easier by providing no less than nine different restaurants from which to choose. Five of these serve meals that are included in the cruise price, just as always. Two others (one French, one Italian) are very upscale and add a surcharge that really is just the tips for the service staff. The last two are both Asian (one traditional Japanese sushi and teppanyaki, the other California/Asian fusion cuisine) and operate with á la Carte pricing including live whole lobster offerings.  These alternative dining spots fill up quickly, proving the popularity of Freestyle service, and thus reservations are usually required. But the system does not suit everyone. On our trip, the first night out everyone seemed want to eat at the same time in the Seven Seas dining room, creating long lines. At the same time, a passenger could simply walk into the Four Seasons dining room, and the "East Meets West Pacific Rim" fusion restaurant was never busy during our week on board.

Our personal method of achieving satisfaction, not to mention dining nirvana, on the Sun was to scout out the menus posted outside the dining rooms during the day. If the main dining rooms had selections we knew we would enjoy, we ate there when we wanted. If not, we called one of the alternative rooms and made a reservation. Both the French and Italian restaurants tend to fill up early, and we recommend reserving one day ahead… I always dodge the main dining rooms on "Caribbean" and "Southwest" theme nights. Also, there is no accounting for taste. My wife and I found the fusion cuisine to be way over the top, and this comes from people experienced in most of America's best restaurants. On the other hand, we thought the Italian restaurant was wonderful, and have had very good experience with the Le Bistros on other NCL ships. We scouted out the buffets nearly every night, and personally thought they were a little thin on choices, but they remain a very solid option for families with lots of little kids or for people who simply don't want to change out of their shorts after daytime activities.

The second very noticeable effect of Freestyle is on attire. While NCL encourages at least one "formal" night per trip, there is really nothing traditional about it. There is a Captain's reception (by the way, current Sun Master Trygve Vorren is a very gracious host, and combined with NCL veteran Denny Anderson to create a warm atmosphere on the ship) to kick off the evening, but the biggest mistake NCL makes with Freestyle Dining is in not reserving one of the two main dining rooms for those dressed formally while directing those less dressed to the other room. Certainly on the first night out, this would have cut the line to the Seven Seas dramatically, and frankly, NCL should make more effort to preserve the formal atmosphere for those who want it. Under the Freestyle system, it is still possible for traditionalists to reserve a chosen table and service staff for the whole cruise if they prefer.

The third most obvious change brought about by Freestyle is also the most controversial. This is the tipping procedure. All NCL ships now automatically add the "suggested" gratuities rate directly to your shipboard account. If you either think the staff deserves more or less than the standard amounts, you must go to the purser to make the changes or have the tips removed from your account. Needless to say, this makes it harder and more personal for the cheapskates to stiff the staff, but it also makes tipping less personal when the service is good. And many passengers claim that this form of tipping, coupled with the fact that most no longer see the same waiter and busboy every night, allows the staff to coast and provide nothing more than average service. My personal experience on the Sun says this is not the case. The service we received was at least as good, if not better, than on previous cruises, and certainly no worse than the service I received the following week on a different cruise ship.

Here's a little trick you might find useful in choosing future cabins. We have found on our last 2-3 cruises that cabins located near or among the suites, regardless of cabin category, receive topnotch service. This was certainly the case for us on the Sun, where our cabin was one of the smaller ones sometimes used as connecting bedrooms for the suites at the very stern of the vessel. As a result, the stewardess assigned to us was the very same stewardess dealing with several of the highest priced rooms on the ship, and we received some of the best cabin service we have ever had.

Although there are also effects of Freestyle on other services provided by the staff, and on shipboard and shore activities, the final most noticeable change on the Norwegian Sun came when it was time to go home. And my, was it a pleasant change from traditional disembarkation. Usually, you are required to vacate your cabin very early on the day the ship reaches port, wait in a public lounge or theatre until customs clears the ship, and then sent off in groups (usually organized by colored baggage tags) to collect your luggage and clear customs individually. But on the Norwegian Sun, more staff and a sophisticated computer system means that passengers who do not have early flights are free to remain on board, either in their cabins or on deck, and depart any time after their color group has been called. This system allows the ship to know who has left and who is still onboard, but it allows those with early flights to be assured of getting off first, while those flying later can hang around the ship (much more pleasant than hanging around an airport lounge).

What does NCL mean when it says the Norwegian Sun is the first ship "designed specifically for Freestyle cruising"? First, it means that NCL experimented with the system on other ships, including the Sun's sister ship, the Sky, and corrected several problems that surfaced on those ships. That's not to say they got it 100% right, either. But at 78,309 GRT, the Sun is slightly larger than the Sky, mostly expressed in being two feet wider at the beam resulting in slightly larger cabins. People who have been on both say there is clearly more storage room in Sun cabins, and we certainly found there was plenty for the two of us even though I was carrying baggage for another cruise the following week. Secondly, there are two more dining options on the Sun than on the Sky, basically achieved by turning the Sky's wine bar into a Spanish Tapas restaurant on the Sun, and by dividing the Sky's Ciao Chow into the two Asian restaurants.

On the other hand, both the Sky and Sun have a couple of major traffic flow problems, the worst of which affects the aft cabins. The problem starts with the fact that there are only two true elevator/stair stacks on the ships. This is then compounded by the fact that on the restaurant deck 5, you cannot get from the back to the front of the ship, and on Decks 6 and 7 you have to walk through bars or the casino to go from aft to bow. Finally, and worst of all, if you live in the back of the Sun, you must either go through the buffet restaurant or the sports bar and Asian restaurants on the Pool Deck to get from your cabin to the swimming pools and sun decks if you use the rear stair stack. And who wants to walk all the way through the ship on a cabin deck to use the forward elevators or stairs?

All in all, the Norwegian Sun is a beautiful new ship whose crew has come together quite nicely in her first 90 days at sea. We found none of the mechanical or service glitches reported by cruisers during her early voyages. Expectations are everything on a cruise ship, and we found our only real complaint was something that no one could be expected to do anything about. Our aft veranda cabin got a light dusting of ash from the stacks (and once from the Great Outdoors Café barbecue) on several days, but I would think all experienced cruisers would know if you put yourself behind the stacks, you might see some smoke. Our cabin stewardess was aware of the problem and took extra care to keep cleaning the balcony.

Perhaps the best innovation on the ship is the Tapas Bar and Restaurant on Deck 12 aft. This particular restaurant features a wide assortment of Spanish tapas, which are bite-sized appetizers. They are included in the price of the cruise just like meals in the main restaurants or the buffet, and they are an excellent alternative on nights when you are not as hungry. In addition to the regular selection of cocktails and beers, this bar also features some of the best sangria afloat. A pretty good flamenco guitar player holds forth as well.

Which brings us to the Norwegian Cruise Lines Dive-In Program. The flamenco guitarist's roommate happened to be our favorite Dive-In instructor. NCL has, without question, the best diving and snorkeling excursions of any cruise line. This is mainly and largely because NCL does not hire outside providers for its diving excursions, but instead carries its own staff of certified divers to conduct the programs and serve as tour guides throughout each trip. The advantages of this should be obvious: The instructors answer to NCL, and they cover the same ground every week so they are totally familiar with the dive and snorkeling sites. They are in a much better position to negotiate and interface with the natives who supply the tenders and dive boats as well as those contracted to provide food and other services on shore.

This program coupled with this itinerary is what makes the Norwegian Sun cruise different and special. As noted earlier, the ports of call on this trip are four of the finest diving and snorkeling spots you can visit, and when you add in the experience and ability of the Dive-In instructors on the Sun, you get a group of excursions that are truly unique. I am not personally much of a swimmer, but my wife is a water baby. She was in heaven while I merely enjoyed myself, but I think it is obvious that if someone who is not enthralled by the diving experience has a good time on these excursions, they are well planned and executed. NCL always gets high marks from passengers for these programs, but I think they must reach their zenith on the Sun.

Now here are some brief comments about the ports. Georgetown and Cozumel are both very entertaining mixtures of shopping and water sports. Generally, when on a cruise, we try to sample the local cuisine when in port, and we found a very nice restaurant called Smugglers Cove in Georgetown (excellent conch fritters!). In Cozumel, having done the Hard Rock and Carlos and Charlie's on previous trips, we opted for some very strong margaritas at Palmeras on this trip. Luckily, the Sun docks at the downtown terminal, and we were able to stagger back to the ship. It's amazing when you visit a port several times that you continue to find new places to shop and eat, and indeed we discovered some new streets and bazaars in Cozumel which are a bit off the main street.

After several cruises, we also tried one of the Atlantis submarines this time. We found this to be an excellent and well-run excursion, and I think even certified divers would find this another satisfying approach to exploring life under the sea. The company has a large investment in these battery-powered boats, which have operated in safely in Cozumel and other ports for 13 years, and they are worth the relatively high excursion price. For non-divers like my wife and me, they are the only true way to achieve a 150-foot dive. The extremely clear waters surrounding the reefs off Chankanaab Park allow great viewing of the colorful fish, even through thick porthole glass, and you get great pictures as long as you turn off your flash. Because the Atlantis sub can go relatively deep, you sometimes find fish you might not otherwise see. Since I am not as comfortable in the water as is my wife, for me this was one of the highlights of the trip and made a third visit to Cozumel in the last 18 months fresh and interesting. Roatan, on the other hand, has to be one of the poorest places on Earth.  Most of the roads are dirt and many of the homes do not have electricity. With no obvious agriculture, the economy seems to depend wholly on tourism. The recent hurricanes had washed out some of the roads, but the local taxi and bus drivers continue to use them. I do not believe that using independent locals for tours, transport or guides is any more risky in Roatan than other island ports, but I would advise sticking with the excursions provided by NCL. I believe, and others have reported, that most of the native school children are permitted to skip class whenever cruise ships are in port. This is because the island is so poor that the residents need every possible opportunity to try to earn a dollar, and this includes the kids. I am pretty sure that one dollar represents a week's living wage for many of these people, and that they exist from one cruise ship to the next. By far the best way to see the island and have a pleasant day on shore is to take one of the island sightseeing tours or an excursion to Tabyana Beach, a resort that is without question the most beautiful the island has to offer. Tabyana also offers the best swimming and snorkeling on an unspoiled living coral reef system. It provides super fish watching in relatively shallow and safe waters.

The other new stop for us on this cruise was Belize. If you are interested in archeology and the Mayan civilization, you will probably opt for the tours to Belize City and the various Mayan sites within a 2-hour drive. There is also a cave tubing excursion, which gets excellent reviews from those who take it. We opted instead for the famous shark and ray alley snorkeling tour and a visit to the island town of San Pedro. Although the water is a bit deeper, the ray encounter is similar to Sting Ray City off Grand Cayman. The biggest difference is that the dive boats anchor near the barrier reef for some additional excellent snorkeling tours under the direct guidance of NCL's Dive-In instructors. San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, is a wonderfully laid back Caribbean tourist town. The beaches are lined with small hotel resorts and timeshares, completely different in feel from the more prosperous and built-up resort islands, yet offering the amenities necessary to attract the North American market. The streets are dirt, the natives and the shopkeepers friendly. English and an English Creole are the main languages of this former British colony, so it is a very comfortable place to be.

In the final analysis, those travelers with water in their veins probably can't do better than a cruise which takes a first class resort hotel along with them on the trip. Those doing their daydreaming about diving and water sports should take a very long look at this itinerary, and while those for whom every port of call sounds the shopping bell will not be totally disappointed, there are better trips for them than this. The Norwegian Sun is very new, very beautiful, and very well crewed at this point, and will probably only get better as the staff becomes even more experienced and well-trained. Because two ports of call are off the beaten track, it may not be the best choice as a first cruise experience unless you are married to the water. But if you, like me, are often looking to visit places you've not seen before, the Norwegian Sun exotic western Caribbean is a great choice.

Photo Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line


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