Cruise line: Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL)
Ship: Norwegian Sun
Dates: 19th November to 3rd December 2016
Ports of call: Valparaiso – Puerto Montt – Puerto Chacabuco – Chilean Fjords – Strait of Magellan – Punta Arenas – Glacier cruise through Beagle Channel – Ushuaia – Cape Horn – Stanley (Falkland Islands) – Puerto Madryn – Montevideo – Buenos Aires
As cruise newbies we were not entirely sure what to expect and had a few pre-conceived and most likely stereotypical ideas about the concept of cruising.
We’ve put our initial cruise experience together into a set of Q & A’s which may dispel a few cruise myths and assist anyone considering booking a cruise. These questions and answers are based on our one and only experience of an ocean cruise on the Norwegian Sun…
The sun was shining and we felt a rush of excitement as we were about to embark on our first cruise, a new type of travel experience for us.
Upon arrival at the cruise terminal in Valparaiso we handed over our case and then did an initial registration where our names were checked on a list. Shortly afterwards we were taken by shuttle bus to the ship which we boarded at around midday. The full registration was done on-board the ship where we had to hand in our passports and were given a plastic card each. This card was used as the entrance to our stateroom (all cabins are given the rather grand name ‘stateroom’), our ID for leaving and re-entering the ship and was also used as the ships ‘credit card’ i.e. for anything extra we purchased during the cruise.
When we booked the cruise we were given a choice of ‘offers’ from which we chose the ‘Ultimate Beverage Package’ i.e. free alcoholic drinks during the cruise! Yay! (Although more on this later…). After being on a budget throughout our travels of 2016 we must admit that it was good to head straight to the bar and have a glass of wine without having to think about the cost!
We spent our first afternoon enjoying the complementary lunch and ultimate beverages and exploring the ship… as best we could… Laura had developed a back issue but more on that later too…
Onto the Q and A’s…
What was the age range on board the ship?
Of around 1900 people the majority of passengers were in their 60’s and 70’s with a handful of children and teens; a small number of couples in their 20’s and 30’s, and a few more in their 40’s and 50’s and some in their 80’s.
Many of the passengers we spoke with have done multiple cruises in the past. Some even seem to think this is the only way of seeing the world! We spoke to one couple, not much older than us who said that they wouldn’t have seen all the wonderful places if it wasn’t for cruising! We wondered if they have ever thought of getting a flight somewhere and hiring a car or taking a bus or train?
Was there much to do during the ‘at sea’ days?
There was a huge amount of activities throughout each and every day. For example: swimming pools, golf (putting), basketball, table tennis, jogging track, large fitness centre and gym, spa centre offering a wide range of treatments, several different dance classes (salsa, tango, etc), fitness classes, painting classes, trivia quizzes, seminars, language classes, make up classes and a casino.
The activities ran simultaneously with perhaps three or four different classes or activities at the same time. Each evening there was different entertainment in different locations around the ship. For example if you don’t like 70’s music in one place, you could attend say a latin music show in another place. And from time to time, movies were shown in the ship’s theatre.
During one of our ‘at sea’ days we participated in a two hour painting class. Even though the teaching was… average… we both enjoyed this immensely. Neither of us have picked up a paintbrush since our school days i.e. over 30 years ago but this sparked a little creativity in both of us inspiring us to do some more painting when we get home.
Continuing with the art theme, another day we attended our first ever art auction! We were surprised to find that art dealing is a big thing on cruise ships! While we didn’t buy a painting (at around $2-3,000 each this certainly didn’t feature in our 2016 travel budget) we enjoyed looking at the paintings, drinking the free champagne and hoping to win one of several free raffle prizes… (unfortunately we didn’t win anything…)
We were lucky to spot both whales and dolphins in the South Atlantic ocean! One day we saw around 5 or 6 whales (which you may be able to make out a couple of them if you look closely at the video above).
Another day we just happened to look out at the ocean and Chris spotted about half a dozen dolphins swimming alongside the ship. We both watched as they all leaped out of the water simultaneously! How wonderful…
Indeed, one evening as we gazed out at the ocean we contemplated where all of the vast amount of water of the Earth came from… and why is it salty? Where did the salt come from? Scientists and Wikipedia probably have the answers but sometimes it is nice to ponder…
Was it like ‘Butlins-on-Sea’?
Nope… the entertainment was professional and tasteful. We saw some excellent shows with singing, music and dancing which were comparable with London’s West End shows. One highlight was an outstanding performance by Adam Westcott, a British flamenco guitar performer.
Another highlight was a resident string band called Amber Strings from Poland…. they took us on a mini journey with a truly brilliant and spellbinding performance of the mesmerising Bolero (yep Torvill & Dean winning gold in Sarajevo 1984)… other pieces included: Game of Thrones; Bach; The Godfather; the song ‘Summertime’; Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Little Swans and some Mozart.
We contemplated how string instruments probably havent changed in hundreds of years… back in the 19th century the upper class would have sat in their drawing rooms after dinner and listened to much the same music…
And finally Green Dolphin, an Argentinian jazz quartet but with electric guitar, bass and drums: we listened to them several times playing their versions of: Sunny; Message in a Bottle; Hey Jude; Billie Jean, Superstition, some latin tracks and many more…
Whilst there was bingo available this wasn’t a big entertainment feature!
Were solo travellers catered for?
Yes… there was a daily ‘Meet’ session for solo travellers to get to know each other. Also when you enter one of the two main ‘sit down’ restaurants you are usually asked if you would like a table to yourself or if you would like to share with other guests. Sometimes we did this as it was a great way of getting to know other passengers. We had some interesting conversations with travellers from around the world… well, mainly from the US, UK and Canada which seemed to be the predominant nationalities.
What was the food like?
In short, the food was superb! Several dining options were available throughout each day. The food at the buffet was of excellent quality however we dined each time in one of the ‘sit down’ restaurants for breakfast and dinner. Rather than jostling with the masses in their feeding frenzy it was more enjoyable to sit down with an excellent menu and with waiting staff bringing you wine as you choose your food. The quality of the food and service in these restaurants was absolutely first class.
Do you have to go through an immigration process each time you enter a port?
No… thankfully! When we first arrived on board the ship as part of the check-in process we had to hand our passports over. These were kept by the ship staff until around Day 11, the day after we visited the Falklands. Initially as we sailed through Chile and at each of the three Chilean ports we had to carry a completed immigration affidavit and a photo ID such as a driving licence.
On Day 11 we were able to collect our passports which, to our surprise had already been stamped with the Chile exit stamp, the Argentina arrival stamp and the Falklands visitor stamp! This was all done ‘behind the scenes’ and saved us having to queue up each time. Hurrah! All is in order ready for our next (overland) border crossing into Brazil in a day or so!
In ports where the ship isn’t able to dock and has to anchor off-shore we had to travel ashore by tender boat. These are much smaller and ferry people between the ship and the port throughout the day. For those who wanted to disembark early they were able to queue for a ticket. The ticket tender process usually lasted for about an hour. After that you could just wander down and get the next boat. The tender boat operation can be time-consuming and does cut down your time in the port.
What did you do when you went ashore?
The ship offered a wide range of shore excursions which were expensive. We did participate in one called ‘Puerto Chacabuco and Surroundings’ as this was a quiet port with nothing much to see. We paid $69 each for 2.5 hours which, while expensive, did give us the opportunity to see a glimpse of Patagonia and visit the Rio Simpson reserve.
When we docked at a town or city (such as Port Stanley and Montevideo) we walked around ourselves rather than paying $69 each for a guided city walk.
Sometimes people hire a car for the day to explore the surrounding areas. We checked and for example hiring a car with Avis to explore the area of Puerto Montt would be $59 which is again more cost effective than booking a cruise excursion.
As soon as you exit the ship there were usually a few taxi drivers offering to take you on a tour. They generally start their prices high but you can usually negotiate these down. And you can have the tour tailored to what you are interested in. Often passengers ‘team up’ with others so you can split the cost between 4 of you. And pay the taxi driver at the end of the tour to ensure you are brought back to the ship on time!
Is there wifi on board the ship?
Yes but it was slow and outrageously expensive. You can pay for a package or you can use wifi at a cost of $0.95 per minute. You can also use the telephone to call anywhere in the world directly from your cabin. This is also expensive at $4.99 per minute. The wifi costs were outlined in our ‘anticipating the cruise‘ post.
There was no mobile reception while at sea either so we were literally ‘off line’ for the best part of two weeks.
Is an inside cabin recommended?
We were pleased with our lowest cost inside stateroom (aka cabin)! We had a large bed, a sofa (which can be used as a sofa bed), a desk, fridge and mini bar and considerable storage space. We were able to store our case and back packs under the bed and there was more than enough wardrobe space and drawers and cupboard space for our (small amount of) belongings.
One of the advantages of a windowless cabin is having a pitch black room once the lights are out. It was also very quiet. We never heard any noise from the corridor or from either of the adjacent rooms. One morning we didn’t wake up until 9:30 as it was so quiet and with no light coming in you feel like you are in a box with no idea what’s going on outside! (We had to put the TV on to view the ship’s web cam to see what the weather was like…)
For future cruises when we are not on such a tight budget we may consider a window or even balcony cabin. Although as we didn’t spend much time inside the cabin it wasn’t a big deal. It depends on your priorities! Rather than paying an additional £400 for a balcony cabin many people prefer to put this towards say shore excursions or massages or something else… (more travelling in our case…)
What if you fall ill on board the ship?
Unfortunately we can give a first hand account of this… for the first time in her life on the second day of the cruise Laura’s niggling lower back pain had worsened to the extent she could hardly stand let alone walk! Her back was so stiff and painful that it felt that it had turned into a slab of concrete! Despite taking Ibuprofen things got worse and worse throughout the day so we decided to visit the ships doctor.
We entered the fully equipped medical room and were looked after extremely well by the ships nurse and doctor. After a series of tests Laura was diagnosed with ‘muscle spasm of the back’. So it had locked up in some kind of horrible spasm… (but thankfully nothing more serious…)
The consultation, three injections, two courses of tablets and charges such as $1 per small plaster (to cover the three injection sites) cost $388.65. Hopefully this will be covered by our travel insurance…
Fortunately it was an ‘at sea’ day so we didn’t miss any port visits. And fortunately with the tablets, careful activity and a daily session in the hot tub things improved and within a week Laura’s back was almost back to normal although standing in queues for any length of time was still uncomfortable.
Do you get seasick on a cruise?
Err… yes! During day 2 (which unfortunately coincided with Laura’s back issue) we both suffered from seasickness as we travelled south in the Pacific adjacent to Chile and in ‘moderate’ wave conditions! Apparently even highly experienced ship captains can suddenly have attacks of random seasickness!
We tried taking seasickness tablets but these seemed ineffective. In preparation for the forthcoming Cape Horn crossing we purchased wrist bands which press on a pressure point in your wrist. While our Cape Horn crossing was relatively calm we experienced some choppy weather as we crossed the South Atlantic from the Falklands towards Argentina. The waves were higher than those on Day 2 but we can confirm that the wrist bands seemed to work and we both felt fine! (Or maybe we had become used to the continuous motion by now…)
Ours was a relatively small cruise ship so you may be less likely to suffer from seasickness on a larger ship?
What additional expenses did you incur?
Other than the speciality restaurants all of the delicious food was included in the overall cruise price. We had the ‘ultimate drinks package’ as our chosen ‘offer’ however we didn’t realise when we booked it that this also meant we had to pay an 18% service charge! This was based on the daily value of the drinks package being $79 each. So we had to fork out an extra $398.16 between us! We calculated that this is only worth having if you are going to consume at least three or four alcoholic drinks per person each day…
And the medical centre was an added and unexpected cost.
We also found that there is a general ‘cruise rip off culture’ when you arrive at a port… the locals unsurprisingly want to cash in so you have to be savvy to this. For example: coffee shops may impose an additional wifi charge and taxi drivers inflate their fares.
When we disembarked for the final time in Buenos Aires, the taxi drivers eagerly awaited the long stream of cruise passengers. They were charging $25 for a two mile ride! Now it was our turn to be smug… we walked across the road and within 5 minutes had an Uber pick us up for $7…
Is there a laundry service available?
Yes… the cost per item was expensive at something like $7.95 to wash a pair of jeans and $1.95 for each pair of socks. However every four days or so a leaflet was left in our cabin with a ‘laundry bundle’ offer where we could stuff our clothes into one laundry bag and have the entire lot washed and dried for $19.95. Again, this is expensive in relation to our usual laundry costs which average at around $5 per bundle but not as expensive as the outrageous cost of $22 we paid for one laundry load at the Hotel Historias Lodge in Monteverde, Costa Rica!
Summary of the Norwegian Sun cruise
We particularly liked Norwegian’s relaxed style of cruising. Their motto is based on ‘Freedom and Flexibility’ and other than obvious safety regulations there were no hard and fast rules. We were able to take drinks back to our cabin; we could obtain a drink in one bar and wander to a different bar or restaurant with it; we could use the hot tubs and pools at practically any time of the day or evening; we could wear what we wanted; food was available between 5:30 am and 11:30 pm (and 24 hour room service) and there was never anyone telling us we couldn’t do something or go somewhere.
One morning we were looking for a quiet spot to prepare some draft blog posts and we just sat in one of the speciality restaurants (which were only used in the evening) along with a couple of other passengers. One of the crew appeared and we thought he was going to throw us out but instead he asked if we would like him to bring us a drink!
The entire crew of the Norwegian Sun were amazing. At all times, all staff including the doctor and nurse, our room steward, the serving staff, the bar staff, the reception staff and the tender operation staff were incredibly polite and keen to assist and ‘go the extra mile’ where possible. They must receive excellent customer service training or a good incentive! Each time we passed a member of the crew for example in the corridor they always greeted us with a hello and a smile. This was much to the credit of Norwegian cruise company.
Cruising is a fairly easy and dare we say it lazy way of catching a glimpse of some land destinations and is a brilliant way of experiencing sea locations such as the Chilean fjords and the breathtaking ‘Avenue of Glaciers’ something you have to do by boat.
Overall we had a wonderful cruise experience.
So… would you consider a future cruise?
Yes… but we would choose any future cruises with care. There are many places in the world which we feel warrant considerably more time to really explore than the limited time ashore you seem to have during a cruise.
A Caribbean cruise for example… Rather than spending say 5 or 6 hours on each island we would probably prefer to spend a few days and have the opportunity to experience the evenings and really explore each island rather than catching a glimpse for a short time. Although this isn’t to say we wouldn’t like to do both types of Caribbean option if we can!
However, we are already planning a future cruise to Alaska where part of the trip involves sailing through Alaska and glaciers. We feel cruising would be the ideal way of exploring this part of the world!
But generally, as the majority of passengers are 20 years older than us, and cruising is ‘easy travelling’ we will probably focus on more active and adventurous travel for the next few years…