February 3rd 2020, I stepped off the Mariner of the Seas in Port Canaveral Florida. Just like every other cruise I disembarked, I started counting down the days until the next one. Only this time, the next one never arrived. Cancellation after cancellation came through, as the world was changing ever so quickly. As each cancellation occurred, anger and depression kept building up. As the months went by, I started to distance myself from the cruise life. I could no longer live with the excitement build up of a sailing, only to have it cancelled. I often wondered if it ever would truly be back.
August 15th 2021, I stepped aboard the Norwegian Gem in Miami Florida. Over 550 days since I last set foot on a cruise ship. It still didn’t feel real. I remember texting my wife that first day onboard and saying that I was just waiting to wake up from this dream. She responded with, “Baby its real!”. All those emotions of the last eighteen months were suddenly replaced. I felt like I was home. I felt alive. The cruise life comeback was underway.
With so much time passing, and so many new policies and regulations, I have so much to share with you all. What has changed? What was the same? Was the experience enjoyable? As I touch on each section, please keep in mind that everything I’m speaking to, is specifically relating to NCL’s North America sailings. Cruise line and regional regulations can vary greatly. Let’s jump right in to all the details!
Boarding & Covid Testing
Three weeks out from sailing you are able to finish online check in, including selecting an arrival time slot, and completing the health questionnaire. Arrival slots ranged from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, in 30 minute increments. My arrival time was between 9:30 and 10:00 am. Keep in mind this arrival time is for the cruise itself, so showing up 15-20 minutes earlier for your testing, is acceptable. This is exactly what I did. I arrived around 9:15 am and proceeded to the testing area (to the right of the NCL terminal if you are facing it from the road). Testing took around 20 minutes, and I was stressing out the entire time! I could only imagine the devastation if I wasn’t able to board. I actually refused to even get too excited until I had cleared the testing.
Obviously since I’m writing this blog post, I made it onboard. From Uber to ship, including testing, took about 45 minutes. Now keep in mind, there were no guests debarking this day, so the ship was ready for us immediately. In addition we were only sailing at about 60% capacity, which equated to about 1,400 passengers.
Since this sailing was 100% vaccinated, and everyone was tested prior to boarding, passengers were not required to wear masks while onboard. Staff were required to wear them at all times. All of the ports however, required masks to be worn when not able to social distance.
Once I tested negative, and made my way onto the ship, the excitement level sky rocketed. I was reminded why I sailed so much in the past. That feeling of getting onboard, knowing that you have nothing to do but have fun, relax, and be pampered all week, is unparalleled.
One of the biggest changes onboard is the muster drill procedures. Each guest is required to visit their muster station at some point between boarding and sail away. A crew member is stationed at each one. They scan you in and go over the key points of the muster drill. This takes all of five minutes. Then at the true muster time, prior to sail away, you simply listen to the captain over the public address system and stay wherever you are. It is a much improved process in my opinion.
While most entertainment onboard was on par with a pre-pandemic cruise, there were a couple differences. Sea day pool games were pretty much nonexistent, and the frequency of deck parties were greatly reduced. The sail away party and glow party were the only two deck parties all week. This did not hinder my experience much, as there was still a lot to do.
There were nightly theater shows and comedians, though I didn’t go to any all week. I usually have a problem staying awake during after dinner shows if I’ve been drinking all day. I spent most of my time, post dinner and pre night club, in the casino. I only had some decent luck one night out of the seven. I stuck to my budget, and had a couple hours of entertainment each night, so I chalk it up as a win.
On a majority of the nights, I found my way to the night club (Bliss) around midnight. Aside from Cozumel night, the club would stay happening until 2 or 3 am. Apparently folks did a little too much day drinking in Cozumel. I had wondered how this scene would be compared to pre-pandemic, but I’m happy to say it was quite normal.
There really aren’t any changes to the dining experience, including the buffet. It is still self-serve, and they continue to require hand sanitizing as you enter. In the sit down dining venues, there is one small change. You have the option of a physical menu or bringing it up on your mobile device via a QR code. I opted for the physical menu in most cases.
Each morning I visited the buffet for breakfast. There are plenty of options as always, though my breakfast choices over the course of the week didn’t waiver. Eggs benedict, bacon, chocolate croissant, and pineapple are what you would find on my plate. After finding a table in the Great Outdoors, I would take in the daily views while enjoying my breakfast.
On sea days and a couple port days where I had no plans, I would usually find myself in O’Sheehan’s for lunch. I believe their menu has changed slightly, but there was still a sufficient amount of choices. You would normally find smoked BBQ wings, pretzel bites, and carrot cake in front of me. In Belize City and Cozumel I ate lunch while I was ashore.
When it came to night time dining, I was completely spoiled. I fortunately had the opportunity to eat in specialty restaurants every night, and I have zero complaints in this area. Specialty dining is one area that NCL does very very well. I got to try every single specialty venue onboard and even got to double up on a couple of my favorites. My two Teppenyaki visits were definitely the highlights of the week dining wise. As with any cruise, going hungry was not an option!
This sailing was a Western Caribbean itinerary, with scheduled stops in Roatan, Harvest Caye, Costa Maya, and Cozumel. Due to Hurricane Grace, our stop at Costa Maya was replaced with Belize City. I loved this itinerary for my return to cruising because it meant I didn’t have to plan much excursion wise. I originally had an excursion booked in Roatan for a day resort through NCL, but it was cancelled a couple days before sailing. That meant going into the sailing, Cozumel would be my only port with an excursion. I really didn’t do much in Roatan or Belize city, other than get off the ship to take photos. In Harvest Caye I lounged by the pool for a few hours and had a couple drinks. Again, taking it pretty easy.
So as you can see, I saved all my excitement for Cozumel. I spent the day on the Cozumel Bar Hop. I’ve hopped previously, and knew I would be in for a good time. The Hop did not disappoint. I had some great drinks, delicious food, and made some new friends. There was a decent amount of damage on the island from Grace, but cleanup efforts were already underway, just a day and a half after she came through. For those of you who aren’t really familiar with the Cozumel Bar Hop, you can check out a previous blog post I did on it, here. I’m already looking forward to hopping again when I return to Cozumel in November.
Odds & Ends
I purchased a thermal suite pass for the sailing. It was $139 for the week, and seemed like it was priced very well. I usually spent one to two hours in the thermal suite each day. Either catching up on some sleep or burning off that morning hangover, the therapy pool and heated stone loungers did the trick!
I utilized my one free bag of laundry (Latitudes perk) mid week. I handed it off to my room steward around 10:00 am and it was returned the same day around 6:00 pm. It is a nice perk, especially when you pack in a carry on for seven days.
Three hurricanes affected my sailing, including Henri during my travels home. I had a super late flight back home on Sunday night (8:30pm). At first I thought this was going to be an inconvenience being so late, but it turned out to be a blessing, as all the earlier flights in the day to Hartford were cancelled. I made it home on schedule somehow!
I am so ecstatic to be writing a cruise review once again, and so glad the wait to get back to sea is over. I have about 9 weeks until my next sailing, and cannot wait to do it all over again. The next sailing will be my first time on Celebrity Cruise Line, so be on the look out for my take as I sail on the Constellation to the Western Caribbean. Cruising is back!
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