La Quinta, California: We have been home a few days now. Laundry has been completed. Larder has been restocked. We are back to our normal routine. Norwegian Cruise Lines has sent us an evaluation email, and I have completed the process. Here is my review of the 2 December 2022, 15-night, Panama Canal Cruise on the Norwegian Bliss.
EMBARKATION: Lenny dropped us off on the pier, and we rolled our bags (we each had one carry-on bag and one "personal item" bag), directly into the terminal and lined up. I had completed our check-in online prior, so it was just a double-check of our passport numbers, photo IDs, and vaccination cards. (NOTE: passengers are not required to be vaccinated against Coronavirus to sail.) I can't say "no one was wearing a mask" because a few people were. Very few, and it was big-o-pile of humanity in the terminal, coming from who-knows-where on who-knows what type of plane, train, bus, or automobile. We were given our cruise cards. This a credit-card-style card that serves as your room key, ID, and, as payment for anything you would purchase onboard. After checking-in, we took the elevator directly to our room and unpacked.
CABIN: Our cabin was #14162, a Club Balcony Suite, on Deck 14. (Not 100% sure how they can get away with calling a regular ship cabin a "suite" though.) This particular room was positioned mid-ship, very near the lobby to the elevators and stairs, and was situated so the bed was in the center of the room, and the "living area" was next to the balcony. The balcony was fairly roomy, with two chairs and a side table. Access to the balcony was via a slider. (The slider was absolutely sound-proof as well... which turned out to be a good thing as our next-door-neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Loud, loved to talk on their deck. Totally oblivious that people could hear their booming words. We know more about the Louds, than we do about some of our own family members. It was especially fun when Mrs. Loud would call her sister, in Texas, to talk about her grandchild who had a cold - ON SPEAKER PHONE! We never saw their faces, nor met them in the hallway. The child has recovered, by the way.)
The bathroom had plenty of room, with a large shower (good water pressure, plenty of hot water), and two sinks. Plenty of towels. Only shampoo and shower gel provided in the shower; only liquid hand soap at the sink. No bar soap, so bring your own if this is your preference. Two deep drawers in the bathroom, and a shelf above the sinks. Two deep drawers in the vanity cabinet. There is a retractable clothes line in the shower. Only one of those "shaver" plugs in the bathroom - the blow-dryer is housed on a basket under the desk.
There was not a drawer in, or near, the closet. Shelves only. Plenty of hangers, though the type that pop-off a permanent metal ring. Just annoying, that's all. The bed was quite comfortable, with reading lamps and USB ports on either side of the bed. The sofa was, in fact, a sofa bed, so very deep. I (5'1") couldn't sit on the sofa without several pillows behind my back. There were two large drawers under the sofa, but one held bedding for the sofa bed... so only one drawer was usable. The desk was roomy (three USA plug-ins and one European plug-in) and a cubed-stool was provided for seating, and the stool had a removable wooden cover to convert the stool to a small coffee table. The room had a mini-fridge, but only had room for standing bottles (like wine bottles). No shelves, no where for us to chill the appetizers they left in our room. Bummer. The first 8-or-so stations on the television were dedicated to the ship: real-time map of where we were, Bridge cam off the front of the ship, shopping, entertainment calendars, excursion information etc. We had MSNBC, BBC, a few other news stations (and that one claiming to be a news station), and two stations devoted to sport. CONS: If the air conditioner was down on the coolest setting (no idea of the actual temperature as the control only went up and down, with no temperature markers), so much condensation would appear in the closet (the unit was above the closet), water would dribble down the outside of the closet wall, and appear on the closet ceiling! The inside of the closet was quite musty-smelling when we checked-in, so we kept it open as much as possible to air-out, but how much can anything air-out in 80% humidity? By the end of the cruise, my scarves were so smelly, I couldn't even wear them around my neck! The in-room safe was too small to hold even the smallest laptop.
COSTS: Our $1600 per person package included 15 nights, all the alcoholic drinks we would want (but did not include sodas nor bottled water), several nights dining in the specialty restaurants onboard, 300 minutes (each) wifi, 3 shore excursions each (we only used two), and $150 in onboard credit. I added-on a $250 priority boarding/disembarking package as we needed to get off the ship ASAP in Miami to catch our flight to Los Angeles. This upgrade also then allowed us priority disembarking/embarking at every port, canapes/cookies delivered occasionally to our cabin, and breakfast delivered daily. What they did not not mention (oh, probably if I had read deep-enough down into the fine print), there was a $4.95 service fee for our free breakfast... that the server does not get... so DT tipped him every morning. Another "little add-on" was the $18 per person/per day service charge that is added to every passenger every day. This added up to $540. This fee goes to tip all the staff (waiters, cooks, cleaners, cabin stewards, laundry, well... everyone, except all the Europeans in white uniforms up in the bridge). DT - the $5 King - tipped after every meal or cocktail. He was very popular. On the last day of the cruise, we tipped our cabin steward, and our favorite bartenders. Though the cruise includes "free" drinks, passengers were charged $297 each for tax on the proposed value of the drinks, and $474 each in port taxes, and we spent a small fortune on bottled water. I will have to do the math on the drinks package, it could be less expensive to pay-as-you go? In the end, we paid ~$200 per person, per day. Not bad, not good, and you really can't put a price on sailing through the Panama Canal. (Does not include, taxis, Ubers, meals in port, nor cash tips. DT bought a Panama hat, but we bought nothing for grandchildren.) We used air miles for our Miami-LAX flight. CONS: While the cruise was a decent value, the wifi was a joke. So awful we couldn't even use our included 300 minutes (each) because it was either too slow, or it claimed you were online and you were burning minutes, but you were not really online. We talked to a man who actually needed to work while onboard, and he had upgraded to a fancy high-speed package and he said it was junk as well. A crew member told us NCL is slowly upgrading all the ships to StarLink. Can't happen fast enough. I was able to get online in ports using my international hot spot, and had international text, voice, and data in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and Columbia via my phone calling plan. But, let's just say my perfect WORDLE streak died on this trip. Waaaaah.
FOOD: Probably B+. The food in the specialty restaurants was hit or miss. I was delivered cold lasagna in the Italian restaurant, but they set it straight right away. The guacamole in the Mexican restaurant was not great. The steak in Cagney's was one of the best ever. The French restaurant did not fail with anything but the French Onion Soup. Luncheon in the dining rooms were always good, with 8+ choices for appetizers and entrees, plus daily regulars such as burgers, tuna melts, club sandwiches, wedge, Caesar, etc., and many desserts to enjoy. Dinner in the dining rooms was always a treat as well. Three dining rooms, with the same menu in each dining room - with a different menu each of the 15 evenings. Always a vegetarian option, and a few vegan - but they could/would make you anything. Every night there was a pasta dish, a beef dish, chicken, fish. Tons of great appetizers and salads, and every soup we tried in the main dining rooms were superb. We did not try very many desserts (sometimes at lunch or with a cup of tea in the afternoon), but they were all delicious, and mercifully, small. The buffet was not so great. It's a buffet on a cruise ship. Cuisines from all around the world, but really nothing to write home about, especially if your home is in Mexico. That section of the buffet was particularly awful, but we live in SoCal and are spoiled. The fruit selection was apples, rock hard pears, oranges, sliced not-ripe honeydew, sliced not-ripe cantaloupe, sliced not-ripe watermelon, sliced fresh pineapple. We rarely saw a berry, nor a banana. Seriously? No bananas in the banana belt? During the day, the Observation Lounge set out 4-6 small buffet areas with desserts (small slices of cakes, pastries, etc.), sliced meats and cheeses, breads, finger sandwiches, canapes, and assorted tidbits, with tea and coffee. This never disappointed - a good variety. There was also a bar/pub, The Local, above the atrium that is open 24/7. Burgers, fish and chips, wings, etc., during the day, dinner special each evening, and a few breakfast options before noon. We only had breakfast here once, and it was an omelet... and it was just an omelet. This place was very popular as passengers could sit on a bar stool over-looking the atrium. All the fun-stuff happened in the atrium... which leads me to...
ENTERTAINMENT & ACTIVITIES: Activities were constantly happening on the ship, but not too much to interest us. The atrium featured all sorts of "game show" competitions, trivia, karaoke, and contests to embarrass your spouse. Funny stuff though. I was cracking up watching a guy put a saltine square cracker on his forehead and wiggle his face to get the cracker to travel down his face and into his mouth. (YOU try it!) He had 99 seconds to accomplish this feat and a new cracker was promptly replaced on his forehead if the cracker fell to the ground. Dang, if the guy didn't do it, on his third try, with one second to go! There were cupcake decorating demonstrations, a new dance step taught daily, and other various happenings. In the evening, a band played and people danced. With so many bars on the ship, there was usually a shift with this band playing here one night, then moving to a different bar the next, etc. Country-Western, jazz, piano, swing, easy-listening, dancing music. So many other activities that we did not join: BINGO, a casino open anytime the ship was not in a port, all types of card games/lessons, and art auctions (big thing on cruise ships). A lot of activities to get you to spend money! There were lectures (many on the Panama Canal on this cruise), a self-led stitcher/knitter group daily, daily AA meetings, LBGTQIA gatherings, and private cocktail parties for long-time NCL cruisers (not us). The gym offered spin classes, yoga, stretch, etc., daily. There was always music - band or DJ - at the pool, and a party each evening poolside. Movies were also screened poolside. Every game of the World Cup was broadcast live in your cabin, or on a zillion televisions placed in bars, the Observation Lounge, and on the giant big screen television above the pool. So many NFL and NBA games as well. (People brought their team jerseys to wear on Sundays!) We never tried the water slide, nor the go-karts, nor Laser Tag (all with an added fee, and it wasn't the added fee - we are just not the target audience). Really, I can't even remember all the things there were to do. If you were bored, you probably are just boring - or you don't needlepoint. The professional entertainers, beside the bands, included comedy acts, an Irish Guy (limericks/humorist?), the musical SIX (which we didn't catch as it only played the first few nights, then disappeared), the musical Jersey Boys (extremely good), and a Beatle cover band which are so awful we left after a few songs. (I met a guy who told me the Beatle cover band were so good, he was crying. What?) A usual night for us included cocktails, dinner, catch a comedian, catch a show, or listen to some music, and go to bed. We were in bed by ten most evenings.
EXCURSIONS: As I said, we are not excursion people. We hate following a guide (carrying a big flag) through city streets, hate getting on and off buses, hate getting dragged into a shop so the guide can get a kick-back. Most every guided cruise tour we have taken has been miserable. That said, we did ride the bus up to Antigua in Guatemala, as that was the best-fasted-cheapest-safest way to get there, and they dumped us off and fetched us four hours later. Perfect. We were on our own in all three Mexican ports, and in Panama City with no problems. The tour we took in Cartagena was so bad, I complained to NCL and am sure (haaahaahaaa) to receive a full refund. There are so many local tour companies such as Viator, where you can hire a private guide in any city in the world, or just hire a car/driver for the day at the dock (agree on price first). Just remember, the ship will not wait for you if you do not return by departure time, unless you are on a ship-organized excursion.
NOTES: I did not take a poll, but I'd say 50% of the passengers were American, 20% were Canadian, 20% were European (mostly British or Scandinavian) and the rest were from who knows where? I heard so many languages and we met so many people from all over the world - including a couple from the UK donning NFL jerseys in a lounge to watch their favorite team! Most people were on this cruise as the Panama Canal was a bucket-list item, but many said this was not their first trip through the canal. You all know I love children, but a two week cruise with toddlers/small children with very limited port days would be a nightmare to me. I'd say there were maybe 30-40 kids onboard? There are kids-clubs on the ship with professional child-care staff, beginning at age 3 months to teenage, and a super-fantastic water play-area specifically for kids.
COVID: The staff asked for our vaccination cards prior to embarking, but were not required to test. Unvaccinated people are allowed to board, and do not require a test either. I feel this was a very bad move, but no one asked me, and I am not a physician. They should have tested us all - the crew are tested weekly. 3500+ passengers (the ship was not full), 2000+staff? Even if 10 people had COVID, that could quickly sky-rocket in this floating Petrie dish. I wrote on embarkation day that 30% of the passengers were wearing masks at embarkation, but Day 2, maybe 5% were wearing masks. Even in the super-crowded elevator cars. And you know what? Old people cough. A lot. When we started to hear rumors of COVID cases, people STILL were not wearing masks, and I feel the ship should have informed the passengers there were cases onboard and please wear masks in public areas/lifts. Such a simple thing, but no... but I did notice more and more staff wearing masks. Every time guests entered the buffet, or Observation Lounge (and in a few other places on board where you used tongs to choose your food) there were attendants making sure you washed your hands in the provided sinks. Washy-Washy-Happy-Happy was the cry. Made me smile every time.
After re-reading this review, it seems we are not the cruise ship type, as we don't take advantage of all the activities they offer... but I do not want to gamble, buy art, or play BINGO. Still, we love cruising, and were busy all day, even if hours were spent with our binoculars watching whales and dolphins - or just the view of the beautiful sea. We were together. All-in-all, I would definitely sail Norwegian again, but think it best to wait until COVID goes away. 2032? It was no fun to wear a mask for 15 days in steamy tropical climes. The Bliss is a gorgeous ship! We were lucky with the weather and only had chilly weather the first days at sea, and only a few rough sea days. Highlights were seeing the Ali, Pat, Ouest, and Lowe in Puerto Vallarta, the Acapulco cliff divers, a volcano exploding in Guatemala, visiting two World Heritage sites (Antiqua and Old Town Panama City), and of course, transiting the famed Panama Canal. A trip of a life time. So many great memories. So happy I took the time to write it all down and snap photos. With all my pedometer steps v eating dessert a few times, I came home ONE POUND heavier.
In a few days, I will try to post about what/how I packed for a 15 day trip in a carry-on and a small duffle! Though this is my 4th or 5th long (non-RV) trip to travel so lightly, I still learned a lot. #1? Sure is easier to pack for a RV trip! Especially if your RV has a washer/dryer!
Until my next update, I remain, your La Quinta correspondent.