"...Bright sun, warm still air, the brilliant blue green of the Caribbean under the lapis lazuli dome of the sky..." (quote from "Shipping Out," by David Foster Wallace)
Although this cruise was to the Bahamas, David Wallace penned it accurately - lapis lazuli is a brilliant blue gemstone also known as "the stone of heaven," because its color so closely represents the azure blue sky. Except for the occasional passing thundershower, this entire cruise was under the brilliant azure blue skies that dominate the Bahamas & Caribbean regions. Ahh...nothing like pure blue sky to contribute to that overall wonderful cruise experience!
Not exactly youngsters, but we certainly do enjoy cruising...I am 69, my wife is 61. This was my 18th cruise overall and my wife's 4th. I have cruised 14 times on Carnival, 3 on Royal Caribbean; however this was our first cruise ever on NCL. We actually have a much longer cruise booked on NCL in 2013, but having never sailed on them, we really wanted to get a first-hand look at this "Freestyle" thing. With that in mind, we booked this quick 4-night cruise out of Miami only a few days before sailing.
Travel To Port of Embarkation
We live in southwestern Florida, so normally we drive over to the port as we did on this occasion. Leaving home around 7am or so, we arrived at the terminal around 10:30-ish. After getting directions to NCL's parking garage, we quickly found a parking spot and wheeled our luggage over to the porters area and dropped off our suitcases there.
Smooth entry through security and into the terminal where we were quickly checked in and easily found some seats. We started up a conversation with a couple sitting next to us, discovered it was only her second cruise (her first was more than 10 years ago) and it was her husband's first one. In the 20-30 minutes that we waited, we shared a lot of "cruise lore" with them. We had been given a little card showing that we were in boarding group #4. It wasn't long before boarding began, and our group was soon called, and we boarded the ship right around 11:45 or so. All during our waiting time there were announcements being made that cabins would not be ready until 2pm. Those announcements were made on board as well, however around 1pm it was announced that all cabins were now ready for occupancy. So far so good, NCL!
We had booked under an "inside cabin" guarantee, but were pleasantly surprised to discover we had been assigned to an "ocean view" cabin on deck 8. Even though the official designation is a "porthole view," our window was quite large and rectangular not round. Not much to say about the cabin except it was adequate in all respects, although we did note a distinct lack of storage area for clothes. There was a large area for hanging clothes, but only minimal drawer or shelf storage. We ended up using the open shelves under the nightstand to store some of our clothing. We only saw our room steward on brief occasions, but our room was kept clean and always made up in a timely manner. We were in 8215, forward on the starboard side. Perhaps the only negative thing to say - and this is hardly a deal-breaker - it was a bit of a walk to the aft portion of the ship to get to the buffet and aft dining areas. Otherwise, a great location, very quiet at night, and we were quite comfortable.
The 2002-passenger Norwegian Sky saw its initial service out of the Port of Miami in 1999, sailing to the Bahamas. From 2004-2007 it cruised the Hawaiian Islands as the Pride of Aloha. After receiving an extensive upgrade and refurbishment, its original name was restored and it once again began sailing out of Miami. Today it is one of the newest ships to sail 3 & 4 night cruises to the Bahamas.
One of our favorite features of this ship was the Promenade Deck 6, which encompasses the entire ship. It is roomy and bright as you stroll along under the lifeboats and plenty of room for walkers and strollers as well as joggers. A yellow dividing line with arrows and markings helps keep the joggers separated from others. Great views from this deck all around (except for a very small area near the bow where there are crew cabins located, this area is like walking through a short tunnel. ) We enjoyed many after-dinner moonlight strolls along this deck as well as a lot of ocean-gazing. Too bad there are no deck chairs or lounges on this deck, however, being under the lifeboats it is understandable that the area must be kept free of obstacles.
Another area we really enjoyed - and very popular overall is the Great Outdoors Cafe and the Outrigger Lounge, located on Deck 11 aft. The area overlooks the stern of the ship and is covered by a spacious white canvas-looking material, although I suspect it is made of something much more durable. It provided protection from the sun as well as shelter from the infrequent rain shower. There is also a full-service bar in this area, and we found ourselves there at each sailaway. This is a great spot to be for the Miami sailaway as watching the sun setting behind the Miami skyline is both delightful and picturesque. We found ourselves spending a lot of time here, and often we would just sit and enjoy the atmosphere. The view - both sides and the stern can't be beat. At times there was a small wait for a table but nothing serious.
On Deck 11 forward is the Outrigger Lounge - a beautifully designed lounge with a bar and dance floor, and many comfortable chairs and couches, all with a wonderful view forward, as this lounge is actually above the Bridge deck. We never saw any functions here during the cruise; however I'm sure it could be used for a lot of different things. It was also a great place to sit and read, or just ocean-gaze. I don't think we ever saw more than half a dozen people in there at any one time.
As this was our first Norwegian cruise, we wanted to sample the entire range of cuisine offered on board. Therefore we came up with this plan - the first night we would dine at Cagney's, the on-board Steakhouse Restaurant; On night two we opted for the French Restaurant Le Bistro; on night 3 it was Il Adagio Italian; and finally on our last night we would try dinner in the main dining room.
I purchased the "Signature Trio" online before we left home which included reservations and fees for all three specialty restaurants. By booking online, between my wife and I we saved $16 over what we would have paid had we booked on board. We thought that since we wanted to try each of the specialty restaurants, why not save a few bucks and book them ahead of time. The only thing I will say about booking ahead - during the cruise the specialty restaurants were never crowded and it would have been fairly easy to get a table on any given night. So it's a bit of a toss-up as to how you want to do it, but we did opt for the pre-payment arrangement.
First let me say nice things about the fact that one of the main dining rooms, Crossings, located on Deck 5 Aft, was open for lunch on embarkation day. We hoped this trend would continue, but alas as we had no sea days on this cruise, only port stops, Crossings was never opened again during the lunch time period, only for breakfast and dinner. During the last few years when most cruise lines stopped offering an MDR lunch while in port, it was nice to see Crossings open when we boarded the ship. Although we only met some friends there and did not have lunch, it was still a nice option that it was available.
Garden Cafe Buffet & the Great Outdoors Cafe - absolute bright spots for dining, both for breakfast and lunch. There are two serving lines inside and two outside.
We found the Garden Cafe to have a wide array of choices for lunch. Many fresh salad ingredients, hamburgers and hotdogs of course, deli & Panini sandwiches, a wok station, and a variety of hot dishes, meat, chicken, vegetables, many different types of bread and rolls, and a variety of meats and cheeses for sandwiches, and of course a dazzling array of dessert offerings. Quite honestly I don't understand some of the negative comments I've read on previous reviews about this buffet area, as it had something for everyone and the dishes were always fresh and appetizing. Another plus for this area is the seating...there are many tables available along the floor to ceiling windows, which provided a great view while having lunch. If it was too crowded, you could always walk next door to Il Adaggio which was never crowded and their tables lined the windows on the opposite side of the ship. One thing we particularly liked was that Il Adagio was always open for lunch with pizza and pasta offerings. We sampled the pizza several times as well as the freshly prepared pasta with sauce. Sumptious and flavorful! Additional seating was also available outdoors aft at the Garden Cafe Outdoors as well.
Breakfast was equally delightful with the usual steam-table offerings, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, toast, etc. Lots of fruits, cheeses, pastries, various vegetables, and of course a variety of different cereals. There was also a fried egg/omelet station during breakfast time, and Il Adagio was also open at breakfast time for cooked-to-order omelets and waffles. My wife is more of the mid-morning fruit and/or pastry person, I on the other hand am usually up before sunrise, downing 2 or three cups of coffee before the breakfast line was open. I ate in the Crossings dining room one morning for breakfast. Typical breakfast dining room experience, no surprises. One morning in particular I was in the Garden Cafe with coffee in hand just as they opened up the fried egg/omelet station and I was able to get freshly fried eggs nicely cooked, some fresh bacon and toast, a most enjoyable breakfast. One thing I really liked (hello cruise managers - it's the "little" things that count!) - Rather than getting pre-toasted bread that was always either cold or stale, there was a commercial-grade toaster machine at the buffet and all you had to do was tell the attendant you wanted toast and she would just pop it into the machine. A nice industrial model, and after about 30 seconds your toast popped out onto a plate. Excellent!
A note about the ship's coffee. It seems to be a standing joke about how bad the "ship coffee" is no matter which cruise line it is. NCL is no exception, it's equally as bad as all the others. An avid coffee drinker (having learned how when I was in the Marines) I have to have my java in the mornings. Although the coffee pretty much tastes like a cup of yuck, I still downed my three cups of a morning. A cruise director once described ship coffee as tasting like "old diesel fuel that has been strained through a Yak scrotum." I would say he's not far off the mark. I did opt for a cup one morning from the Coffee Bar on Deck 7 aft, and it was a bit better, but not in my opinion enough of a difference to pay $2.50 for a cup for it.
All in all we found the Garden Cafe to be a great experience for lunch and breakfast. I like the way that NCL does breakfast. They have both buffet lines open, but as they close down the main one to prepare for lunch, they keep the smaller one open out on the Great Outdoor Cafe deck, so late risers could have breakfast until noon each day. Plus the lunch buffet always had something available even after 3pm which is typically a hard time to find something open on most cruise ships. Of course there was always 24-hour pizza and room service.
We noted that there was a Sail-A-Way BBQ on the Pool Deck on Embarkation Day, as well as a Paella & Taco Bar set up on the Pool Deck on Day 3 of the cruise. Equally as appetizing was the outdoor Garden Cafe area which always had sandwich wraps, fries, hot dogs etc. available. These offerings were usually after 3:30pm or so, much to the delight of people returning to the ship looking for a bite to eat.
Dinner Night 1 - Cagneys
Me - Shrimp Cocktail, Oysters Rockefeller appetizers, The Wedge salad, and the 10 oz. Prime Rib Au Jus with Creamed Horseradish for the main course. My wife - Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with Avocado and Lobster Remoulade appetizer, and Salmon Oscar with Crab Gratin & Chive Butter for the main course.
It didn't take long for things to go south however. After ordering we sat for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, about 30 minutes actually. The waiter was quite busy with other tables so we just sat patiently and waited. When a couple was seated next to us about 20 minutes after we had ordered, and I watched them immediately being served their appetizers, I decided that I needed to bring to someone's attention the fact that we had not yet been served. No sooner did I snag the Maitre'd, then our waiter showed up with the appetizers, profoundly apologizing for taking so long, mumbling about the Oysters Rockefeller having to be cooked in the oven or something. Well, I have to say, they were indeed still hot from the oven.
The appetizers were good, and my wife loved her very generously-proportioned Salmon offering. My Prime Rib, on the other hand, had to be the toughest, gristliest, gnarliest piece of beef that I had ever encountered. (I had asked for an end cut.) There was tough stringy gristle throughout the meat and it was so tough I could barely cut through it with a steak knife. Near the end of the meal, the Maitre'd came over and asked how our meal was. At this point, not wanting to bring any more stress into the situation, I just said everything was fine. The Maitre'd did however, apologize for the misunderstanding at the beginning or our meal, and provided each of us with a complimentary glass of wine. Okay, I decided, no harm, no foul. But you know, when you're paying a $20 surcharge for your meal, which is over and above your cruise fare, you should be served food that is a cut above, not some gangly piece of stringy beef, but the rest of the meal was quite fine. Being served a bad main course dish puts you in a bit of a quandary....I'm sure they would have given me another serving had I asked, but by that time we were almost finished with our meal and I didn't want to prolong things any longer.
Dinner Night 2 - Le Bistro
Me - Steamed Mussels (Moules Poulette Au Pernod) & Seared Scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques Provencal) appetizers, and Bouillabaisse (Soupe De Poissons Mediteerranee) for the main course. My wife - Seared Scallops appetizer and Grilled Beef Tenderloin (Filet De Boeuf Grille) for the main course.
Everything was - well....satisfactory, that's about all I can say. The Bouillabaisse was watery and lacking in flavor. It contained a few shrimp and some pieces of whitefish and not much else. It was a far cry from the flavorful fish stew that I had culinarily anticipated. My wife's Beef Tenderloin was so-so.
Dinner Night 3 - Il Adagio
Me - Classic Caesar Salad for the appetizer and Pork Saltimbocca for the main course. My wife ordered the Tomato & Fresh Mozarella appetizer and Risotto for the main course. Again, the quality of the meal was a bit disappointing. My Saltimbocca seemed to resemble a dish I had seen on the lunch buffet and it actually angered me a bit to think I was in a specialty restaurant paying a fee for dinner yet being served a dish from the regular buffet. I cannot say if this was the case, however it was my perception, and the meal was satisfactory but would not win any awards. My wife said her Risotto was just fine.
So, after three nights and three meals in three different specialty restaurants, I must say that I am simply not impressed with NCL's specialty restaurants on this ship. We really are not hard-to-please people, but I feel like when you pay an extra charge for a specialty restaurant, the food needs to be 4 or 5-star quality. Sorry, but this was just not the case in Cagney's, Le Bistro, or Il Adagio. Perhaps these same restaurants do a better job on other ships, but we'll leave that question for the future.
Dinner Night 4 - Crossings
We had to choose between either the Palaces or the Crossings main dining rooms, and discovered they have just slightly different menus for dinner. The menus are posted outside of the main entrance so we had a chance to look them over before we made our decision. Because of a couple of things on the menu that appealed to us we opted for Crossings. Besides, it is at the very aft of the ship with windows on three sides and truly has the best views of the ocean while you're having a meal.
One aspect of this cruise that was very new to us was the Norwegian "Freestyle" dining. They make a very good point in their brochure information as well as the on-board info about how relaxed the atmosphere is for dinner time in the main dining rooms. Unlike Carnival or Royal Caribbean which we have sailed on, NCL has no set dining times at all in the MDRs. Essentially you pick the location where you wish to dine, and simply show up when you want to. Now to me, that's exactly how "freestyle dining" should be. They even have a statement to the effect that "Shorts ARE permitted in the MDR at dinnertime." Awesome, we thought, hopefully other cruise lines will adopt this as well. Never figured out why some folks hold out for that more "formal" look in dining rooms, but clearly the industry has changed over the years. I can still remember donning my tux for two formal nights on earlier cruises, but even though some cruise lines still offer a sort of pseudo-formal night, the dress code is now much more relaxed throughout the industry. NCL is clearly a front-runner in this department.
We presented ourselves to the Crossings staff and informed them we would be happy to eat wherever they wanted to seat us. This seemed to delight them to no end. My wife and I are very gregarious and outgoing people, we love meeting new cruise friends and conversation over dinner. There were two other couples right behind us who opted in with us, so all six of us were seated at a round table near the windows with a spectacular view as we enjoyed our dining experience. Conversation flowed freely and soon we were all laughing and sharing cruising and life experiences, truly a delightful meal adventure for all of us. Greatly contributing to this gala atmosphere was our table waiter who had a great attitude, who often joked with us, served us expertly and generally provided a well-done and professional serving experience. Maybe it's that freestyle thing, huh?
And a funny thing...after three nights in specialty restaurants, guess where we had the best dinner meal? Right there in Crossings! I opted for a Spring Roll appetizer, Field Greens Salad; My wife ordered Onion Soup - then we both ordered the Pan Seared Trout for our main course. The Spring Roll was surprisingly hot and tasty, obviously just freshly cooked. The Field Greens were great, a good variety of vegetables and I had opted for Bleu Cheese dressing. My wife wasn't too impressed with the Onion Soup, it seemed watery with a few lumps of bread and a dollop of some kind of cheese - almost like pseudo-onion soup, but not the real thing. (We had noted that the Palaces menu offered "Classic Onion Soup," but here in Crossings it was simply "Onion Soup." Given my aforementioned experience with the Saltimbocca, I suspect the soup is exactly the same in both dining rooms.) The EntrEe however was delicious...the Pan Seared Trout was served filleted with side servings of a baked tomato and some rice. Except for the less than optimum onion soup, the rest of the meal was quite satisfying, and I must say we really like the Freestyle Dining Option.
Staff and Service
It is very obvious that the Freestyle Culture of Norwegian Cruise Lines permeates the crew and staff. Everyone was friendly, always plenty of smiles and always eager to please. No one on the staff ever seemed "up-tight" about anything. Our interactions with the crew and staff were always pleasant ones and there were many of them stationed at designated spots around the ship to answer questions or provide assistance in other ways. An interesting note that there was always a staff member at each entrance to all of the dining areas with a spray bottle of what I assumed to some kind of hand sanitizer. They do offer to give everyone a little squirt, but they don't push the issue, merely offer the service. I supposed in these days of the occasional virus issue rearing its head, at least they are doing what they can. I guess all in all it was nice to have a real person doing it as opposed to the little self-service stands, although there were some of these around the ship as well.
We usually don't opt for many of the activities aboard, preferring instead to pursue quieter and more relaxing events and areas. For me, I'm always looking for that quiet place to read. I did explore the Library once - it is quite small and only has enough chairs for 4 or 5 people. My main issue was the Muzak - or whatever they are calling the piped in overhead music these days - was so loud in the Library that I found it too distracting to try and read there.
The Freestyle Daily newspaper contained a host of things to do if you wanted to be more engaged in different kinds of activities. There were always plenty of goings-on around the ship, and you can be as involved - or not - as you want to be.
We only attended the entertainment show one night - it was "Get On Your Feet - The Music of Gloria Estefan." Advertised as the "electrifying" Elvy Rose & the Bomba Band, it was a tribute to the Gloria Estefan legacy, lots of her popular latin songs with the occasional comedic flair thrown in as well. As on-board Broadway-type shows go, it was pretty much what you would expect. For those more interested in the on-board entertainment there was also the Newlywed Show - which we wanted to go see, but it conflicted with the Gloria Estefan extravaganza, so we had to make a choice. Although we didn't attend any other shows, there was Dancing With The Sky Stars, The Perfect Couple Game Show, The Magic and Comedy of Chip Romero, Norwegian's White Hot Party, the Norwegian Sky Crew Talent Show, a Farewell Variety Show as well as a late-night Adult Comedy Show with Richie Minirvini. One thing we really wanted to attend was the Adult Quest Game Show. I had attended one of these on another cruise line and it was a hoot. Sorry for us, it didn't even start until 11:30pm on the last night of the cruise. With an early morning debarkation facing us the following day, we decided we would catch the Quest game on another cruise. Sigh...we are just not "late night" people...at least not anymore! In any case there was an ample menu of entertainment choices from which to choose throughout the cruise.
Port & Shore Excursions
Okay, we are not "port" people. Although there are some great places that we love to visit (Aruba, Curacao, St. Maarten, Cozumel, to name a few), we didn't find the ports on this cruise to be all that exciting. For us, the ship is the cruise and the "object of cruising is to be at sea," at least according to Arthur Frommer, and with whom we heartily agree. Our decided purpose for this cruise was to simply check out NCL, so the port thing wasn't such a big deal with us.
First time for both of us in Freeport, and we only visited the cruise shopping compound at the dock area. Nothing surprising, your ordinary straw markets, T-shirts, touristy stuff and the like. A couple of bars, but mainly we just walked around and snapped a few photos. One really cool thing to see was the Carnival Dream which was in dry dock there, and we got to see the ship from a view that most passengers never see. Apparently Carnival and other cruise lines have a lot of their dry dock refurbishments done here. We've both been to Nassau before, done the Atlantis thing and we weren't even going to get off the ship at all, but I did finally debark and walked around snapping some photos. At Great Stirrup Cay we didn't get off the ship but it seemed like most of the other passengers did. At midday the ship seemed largely deserted, which was a great time to enjoy the amenities without the crowds.
Disembarkation could not have gone any smoother for us. We opted for the self-assist walk off, as we had packed so as to take advantage of this procedure. Although the earliest time of walk-off was advertised as 7:45, we noticed that people were out on Deck 6 leaving the ship with their luggage at around 7:15. So we quickly gathered up our luggage (already packed and ready to go) and we walked off the ship, across the parking lot to the garage and were in our car and heading out of the Port area well before 8am. For us it was just a quick and easy departure.
Overall we would rate our first NCL experience as very good. Nothing we saw or experienced would deter us from doing another NCL cruise, actually quite the opposite. The Freestyle atmosphere is very evident and there is a specifically noticeable relaxed attitude among crew and staff that we have to attribute to the company directed Freestyle concept of cruising. This was another great cruise for us, although in summary, I must note the less than sterling offerings in the specialty restaurants. When we cruise again on NCL we are going to be very cautious about opting for any specialty restaurants, because on the Sky, they were clearly not up to par - at least in my estimation. When I dine at a specialty restaurant I want a 5-Star meal and the Sky's specialty restaurants simply didn't deliver in that department. But the other dining options were primo.
That having been said, this was still a great cruise. We love the architecture of the Sky, very easy to learn your way around, and we never felt crowded at any time. What lines we did encounter were short and temporary. Plenty of places to unwind, friendly and helpful staff abound, and except for those minor bumps in the road regarding the specialty restaurants, we would still rate this cruise as top-notch. And yes, we are certainly looking forward to that 11-night cruise next year, and heck, we might even manage to book another one in the interim.
As you might have noted from our background info at the beginning of this review, we are very much not "youngsters," so the Great Stirrup and Half Moon Cays, the Labadees, etc. of the world. which are all essentially huge beach stops are simply not that appealing to us. These days we stay out of the sun much more than we are in it. That having been said however, we thoroughly enjoy the simple fact of "being at sea," and as far as I am concerned just put me on board, take the ship out to the harbor, spin around in circles and I am a happy camper. I like reading, sitting or just gazing at the sea. I love meeting new cruise friends and striking up conversations with people. I enjoy conversations over drinks or dinner. And I like my martinis at happy hour as well as the ice-cold beer from the pool bar. But mainly, we just love to cruise. So good-on-ya if you like all those port stops, nothing wrong with that. For us however, put me on board, point me to the nearest bar and its Bon Voyage, baby! Oh, I almost forgot...I always find out where the early morning coffee is available, 'cause I gotta' have my dose of "ship coffee" in the mornings!!
Email me if I can provide any further info or insights:
luv2batc@hotmail dot com