This could wind up being as much a review of myself as a cruiser, as of the Norwegian Sky as a cruise ship.
I'd been on the fence for some time about going on a cruise. This uncertainty and indecision could be attributed to a few personal factors:
a) I'm a cheap bastard who hates to spend money unnecessarily. I had a hard time with the idea of paying double-occupancy for a stateroom while traveling alone, and I had no desire to pay $200 to swim with the dolphins at Atlantis.
b) I'm a jaded and cynical individual who doesn't ordinarily allow himself to be taken in by sales pitches and "Hallmark"-style romanticism. I can take my own pictures and keep my own memories, thanks.
c) I hear and believe more stories of bad cruise experiences (i.e., Costa Concordia, Carnival, etc.) than good cruises.
I was taking off the week after Thanksgiving and needed to plan a getwaway. I'd though about Hawaii, or perhaps San Francisco to see family, and possibly even India. I finally decided to take a cruise after talking with a few people at my office who are avid cruisers. The most appealing part (for at least one of them) was having no phone or internet service, and being almost completely out-of-reach. Just what the doctor ordered or an overworked, overstressed automotive professional.
I had been doing a lot of research on Carnival cruises, but only on their own website. In my heart I really didn't want to go on Carnival, but it would likely have been the cheapest and most popular option, and I'd heard more about Carnival (both bad and good) than about other lines. (And as the saying goes,' The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.")
I got a little broader range of reviews from travel websites, but it was still confusing and time-consuming to pore through the various user reviews of different lines, ships, and destinations. I decided I needed a more "independent" source of reviews, and that's when I found CruiseCritic.com. After reading their extensive articles on cruises for first-timers, I decided Norwegian was the way to go.
I finally found a special rate for the week after Thanksgiving on the Sky, going from Miami to the Bahamas, and booked it online for a bit over $500 (including taxes, fees, and trip insurance). I decided to book through them rather than directly through NCL's website because the trip insurance was about half the cost, and would probably have terms more favorable to the passenger rather than to the cruise line.
My cruise was to depart Miami on Monday the 26th. I flew down to Miami on the previous Saturday, so I could tour the area myself and spend a few days exploring, and I'm glad I did. I almost didn't want to go on the cruise as I was already having a good time just driving up and down the highway. But of course I couldn't get out of it, and so on Monday I dropped off my rental car, and went to the Norwegian reception center inside Miami airport. I opted for their bus service which, for $20 (charged to my stateroom account), would carry me from there to the cruise port. I went early thinking I could get on board and perhaps eat (for free), so I hadn't bothered to eat breakfast or even an early lunch.
I'd read that I couldn't bring my own alcohol (except for wine) aboard, but I decided to try to bring on some bottled water and pop. I packed these in a separate backpack, and when I was told that I could check more than one bag, I decided to check this one along with my suitcase. They seemed to have no problem with this, as both bags arrived at my stateroom several hours later after many other passengers had already received their luggage. (Maybe they had searched it and that caused a delay; I could not be sure.)
Eventually after checking in and getting my keycard, and going through security, and having my photo taken in front of a backdrop photo of the Sky (ostensibly for security purposes but actually to try to sell me a photo later), I found my stateroom 8055 on Deck 8 Port Aft. I was pleasantly surprised by the space and openness of the stateroom. I had expected little more than a glorified closet, but I found a full-size bed and a fold-out sofa. A family of four could have been accommodated; but this was all for me.
It was also quite clean and well-arranged. I thought the bathroom would not have soap and shampoo, but they were available in dispensers. However, the ones in the round shower were not labeled, so I didn't know which was which. The toilet functioned powerfully. A complimentary bottle of wine and a plate of cookies had been left for me, with my name attached. Someone came by later and brought a complimentary plate of chocolate-covered strawberries. I'd realized then I'd forgotten to tell them I was diabetic. I decided to go ahead and have the cookies and strawberries as by then I wasn't sure when or where to eat.
I went to the afternoon presentation in the theatre; it was hosted by the Cruise Consultant and while it gave some good information, it spoke more about the overall fleet and the activities rather than the Sky itself.
I expected a bit more from the mandatory muster drill. There was no demonstration of the life vest, nor of any other safety procedures or potential situations. Granted, much of this is already covered in the safety video which is playing as you first enter the cabin. But as they kept us there crowded together for more than half-an-hour, there should have been more communication. Not that I felt unsafe, or even less prepared, just a bit annoyed.
The departure from port was later than I expected, and I guess they don't do that whole waving from the railing, throwing bouquets, and yelling "Bon Voyage!" thing that I'd always seen in old movies or in Bugs Bunny cartoons. (Or on "The Love Boat", for that matter.) Maybe I was being a bit anxious and didn't know better that this wasn't like an airplane. Two other ships passed by before ours shoved off. (One was a Carnival ship; I recommended to the fellow standing next to me that we flip them off or "moon" them.) I was amazed that we actually TURNED AROUND IN THE PORT and then headed out to sea, as evening descended fell over a moonlit Miami. Still haven't eaten today.
The guy next to me, whom I've by now been striking up a conversation with, mentions that he and his g/f have already eaten in the main dining room and that lobster was on the menu. So I decided to hold out and try it. I believe it was in Palace. I threw on a nicer shirt and headed down, only to find a short wait line. However they asked if I was willing to share a table (I'm traveling solo), and when I agreed they were able to seat me immediately. They sat me first at a large round table, after which two or three more small parties joined. I found this was a great way to meet new people and share conversation. The food and service were delightful, especially for being "included". The main course was tail of lobster, already removed from the shell, which was a plus for me as I was afraid I'd have to break out the tools and make a huge mess. (I'm not a pig, but I'm also not that well-versed on upscale dining manners.)
Most of the time I ate breakfast and dinner in the Great Outdoor Cafe on Deck 11 Aft, behind the larger Garden Cafe main buffet (which I never dined in). I liked the outdoor experience, and I found that while smaller, the selection and quality were more than acceptable. I especially enjoyed the salami and smoked salmon. I skipped the usual burgers, fries, pizza, sausage, etc. I found that there was just enough variety to fill my plate, but not so much as to overwhelm me. I didn't even go back for seconds as I usually found myself satisfied. I also liked that they were open for late meals so I could have a very late dinner and not feel hungry or have to call room service.
The movement of the ship felt like not much more than an airplane with mild turbulence. Much of the time when inside the ship, I had no idea it was even moving. I had brought some natural motion sickness pills based on ginger, but after a couple nights I forgot about them. In fact strangely, when I was back in Miami walking through the airport several hours later, and for a couple more days after getting home, I felt a weird unbalance. I guess I should have stayed on the ship.
I did not book any of the sanctioned shore excursions. I did not see the value-added in them, and I found I was able to create my own memorable adventures, even without the "safety net" of holding the cruise ship. Indeed, I very tried very hard to stay away from the hard-sell of the cruise director's staff for things like shopping, excursions, photos, etc. One of the few things I did get was a DVD being sold by the juggler, Barry John, who put on a terrific show on the third night.
Each evening in additional to the standard cleaning and rearrangement of the room, the attendant would make up an animal from one or two the the available towels in the room. Sometimes they would even use my sunglasses if I'd left them in the cabin. I found this a delightful surprise each evening. I liked one of them so much I decided not to use the towel, so they made another smaller one to accompany it. I only wish I'd met, or at least gotten the name of, the person who did these, so I could thank them personally. Otherwise, around the ship, when I met waiters, I tried to get acquainted with them a bit, and I found they would recognize me and call me by name when they spotted me. I see that as a mark of good customer service, even if they're mainly vying for tips.
My favorite activity by far was karaoke, which usually happened in the Outrigger Lounge (Deck 11 Fwd). I suppose I could do karaoke almost anywhere on land, even at home, but there was something about doing it on a ship in front of a room full of perfect strangers that somehow appealed to me. The young woman running the karaoke activity was a magnificent singer herself, and she took our needling about her Canadian heritage with good humor. The system uses two Android-based tablets placed next to the stage with a special app to allow users to search by title or artist by entering search terms and/or swiping through the pages of search results. I found it difficult to use at first, but later someone came up with the helpful idea of using a straw as a stylus. I also found the microphone pickup a bit hard to get used to, as my voice tended to go in and out. But I've often found this with other systems as well. As you sing, you can look out past the crowd in the room and outside the panoramic windows, and out to the sea. I made a lot of friends and received a lot of compliments, even though I'm not quite as good as others who sang. People even came up to me in other areas of the ship and complimented me.
On the 4th day we were supposed to go to the NCL's private island Great Stirrup Cay, but the wind and waves were too rough that morning for the tender boats to conduct their duties. The Captain came onto the PA, explained the circumstances, and announced his decision to cancel the excursion, pull up anchor, and make a slow return to Miami. While I was disappointed because I'd hoped to do more beach and water activity this day, I fully understood and appreciated his decision.
The Cruise Director came on and explained that a whole new schedule of activities would be posted shortly for the day at sea. In the mid-morning there was an impromptu informal Q&A session with the Captain and senior officers, which I found very informative and enlightening. It was a very frank and open discussion between the officers, who told more about their individual backgrounds, and the participants in the audience, who were encouraged to ask questions. The Captain went into more detail about why the excursion was cancelled, and the risk involved had they attempted to proceed. Many in the audience praised NCL for their excellent service, and were very interested in the technical & engineering aspects of the ship. The officers were very happy to oblige with detailed answers. In the end I came away more impressed with the NCL line, and more convinced that I would want to sail with them again in the near future.
Debarkation the next day was a bit delayed, for no good reason. I had signed up for the Miami Big Bus tour as I had the whole day to kill in Miami before my flight home. Booking through the Shore Excursion desk for $49 included transportation from the port to the Central Station, all-day luggage storage, all-day hop-on & hop-off on their City Loop and Beach Loop, and transport from Central Station to the airport in the afternoon. To catch the bus, I was told to be in the theatre by 8:15am, which I somehow managed to do, but we still didn't disembark for almost an hour afterward.
In all, however, I had a delightful time on my first cruise, and as I had told the Captain personally when I met him, I was very glad that I had chosen to sail with Norwegian. I was extremely impressed with the quality of service, the entertainment, and activities, and for this trip at least, I thought the value was excellent.