We had booked the inaugural Transatlantic cruise of the Breakaway in August having learned of its impending sailing last winter when we cruised the Gem from NY to Bahamas. Based upon marketing both on the Gem as well as the intense advertising in the NYC area, we were looking forward to this cruise with great expectations.
There was already a minor hint that all would not be up to standard when instead of the usual NCL welcome mailing with luggage tags, we were instructed simply to print our own. This meant laminating the tags for fear that printer-paper tags could rip and become detached. And it meant carrying a portable stapler to attach the tags. We were concerned what other cost-cutting measures we would find.
We flew New York to London and spent a few strenuous days walking London and on the morning of the April 30 sailing, took the train to Southampton.
While the lounge in the Southampton terminal was crowded, boarding was relatively quick and efficient.
Boarding the ship, we had a slight feeling of disappointment that we saw no real indication of "maiden voyage" festivities. Nonetheless, the staterooms were ready immediately so we put down the carry ons in our Spa Balcony deck 14 forward cabin and began to explore.
First stop was the Mandara spa since we both like to spend time in the spa, partake of numerous treatments and fall prey to the Elimis product pitches. I will say at this point that when we booked, the NCL web site clearly stated that Spa Balcony and Spa Suite cabins were entitled to complimentary thermals.
The spa manager informed us that the thermal access was only for spa suite passengers, not spa balcony, and wanted to charge us $146 per person for the week's access. Standing beside us was a gentleman who has, I believe, Gold status with NCL. He had been told the same information and had just returned from clarifying the situation with customer service. He also reported that his interaction with customer service was not totally satisfactory, but I'll not repeat hearsay evidence. Both the other gentleman and my wife and I were then told by the spa manager that she would give us access. No apology for the confusion. No owning of the problem. Just "a concession." In fact, my overall impression of this cruise is that NCL never owned a single mistake.
I'll begin with the Thermals and spa. The Spa sold day passes as well as week passes to thermals. They sold out after day 1. The spa (like the rest of the ship, which I'll detail below) was crowded and the facilities were just not adequate for the 2800 or so passengers reportedly on-board. I shudder to think what will happen with the full 4000 passenger capacity.
We made little use of the Thermals because of this crowding, the periodic malfunction of the whirlpool and the great difficulty in securing one of the few heated stone lounge chairs.
The Salt Room malfunctioned twice while we were present and the very attentive assistant spa manager Sam cleaned the salt outlet once. Sam was terrific, responsive, and always helpful.
Spa treatments and all personnel were great.
Our spa balcony cabin was decorated in subdued colors as advertised. The bed was comfortable and while a little short on storage space, storage was adequate. I do not care for the design of placing the closet beside the bed so I think layout could definitely have been improved.
Our cabin attendant was great. Only two towel animals, though, and call us corny-- but we like towel animals. We also noticed that cabin makeup didn't begin until late morning or even early afternoon. We heard numerous comments from other passengers about that.
We needed to make a few trips to customer service desk for various questions. Service could have been better and we found English lacking in several of the representatives. That made changing an entertainment booking quite cumbersome.
A good lead to entertainment. The theater didn't seem much larger than other NCL smaller ships. I think the fact that reservations were required even for free shows indicates that NCL expects crowding. There was ample entertainment in theater (Burn the Floor was pretty amazing). We missed Rock of Ages which was fine since we also missed most of the 80's. Cirque Dreams was a phenomenal show and the Spiegel tent is a terrific venue that puts the audience directly with the entertainers.
NCL's great marketing hype is Freestyle-- meaning eat when you want at many venues. And the Breakaway was hyped for its numerous restaurants. But the food was all the same. The three main dining rooms had virtually the same menus with perhaps a dish or two variation and a daily "destination specialty." Service was spotty. Sometimes fast; sometimes agonizingly slow. This again could be newness and I forgive those glitches.
But the food seemed neither as plentiful or as good as last winter's Gem cruise. I had a definite feeling that significant cost-cutting was evident as was the push to the extra-cost restaurants to break away from the monotony of three restaurants, two cafes and a buffet all serving the same food.
Our only extra-cost meal was at Cagney's. I ordered the 8 oz filet but was served the 5 oz. The waiter said "maybe I can get the chef to give you another steak after you finish that." But we both rarely eat red meat so supernatural forces no doubt caused that ordering error knowing that 5 oz was enough red meat. The steaks, by the way, were done properly to medium-rare and very tasty.
The rib eye at the Manhattan Room (I succumbed to my blood lust) didn't fare as well. It looked and tasted exactly like low-end chain by-the-side-of-the-highway "steak houses." A real utility cut of meat.
The Garden Cafe had the usual buffet fare. Not every dish was labeled, however, And what was really disconcerting and smacked of cost-cutting was that not every table had salt and pepper shakers. So you got to know your fellow passengers begging for the use of the salt and pepper if you sat an unlucky table.
Throughout all of this, we felt let down that all of the "special events" were planned for the NYC launch and that an attitude prevailed of "we're getting the ship across the pond so we might as well make a little revenue and shake out some bugs with you 2800 beta-testers." It's nothing that was said. It's what was unsaid.
Venues-- Fat Cats-- Wow! What a blues singer! Atrium-- far too small. And playing the same NYC tourism video over and over (particularly agonizing for me as a video professional because it was shot so poorly). No movies. In cabin movies were $10 and as one would expect (no fault of NCL) the satellite reception was sketchy. Ice Bar-- a really cool idea. But with a $20 cover including a choice of 2 very bizarre drinks, we passed. Gelato- supposedly open 12-5 but we never found it open. And extra charge. Carlo's Bake Shop-- only had a cannoli and it wasn't cream filled in the middle. That's NY Italian? Fagettaboutit.
A Transatlantic crossing is going to be chilly. Only two days were somewhat suitable on deck. But for an inaugural voyage, why not some outdoor heaters to make the outdoor eating and bar venues more accessible. Other lines do that.
NCL also hypes the "Waterfront" of al fresco dining. But we counted the seats and tables outdoors. Each of these specialty restaurants On The Waterfront had no more than 10 seats outdoors.
Kevin Sheehan was on board and gave a presentation. Many of us were hoping it would be an opportunity for feedback and dialog. Instead, we had a 35-minute investor relations presentation. More advertising hype and self-homage from the self-described savior of the company. Only 3 questions were taken at the end, none of which dealt with passenger concerns and feedback (both positive and negative).
We left feeling that NCL had really missed the opportunity to turn us into loyal passengers. Again, other than the spa, nothing was really wrong. But we just felt that something was missing and the experience was far less than the prior year on the Gem. I suppose that moves us on the typical survey scale from "Would Not Consider Any Other Line" to "Would Consider NCL Among Other Choices". We can say with some degree of certainty that our next cruise will be with a different line.
Disembarkation from the Gem was pure chaos. The NYC arrival was the exact opposite. In fact, it was so smooth that it was ahead of schedule and we were off the ship and through customs even before our 8:45AM scheduled disembarkation.
In summary, we enjoyed our vacation. It could have been more enjoyable and NCL just doesn't seem to live up to its advertising hype. The little amenities weren't there. The service was spotty. The ship was gorgeous but it was a skin-deep beauty. The ship was very crowded and this was with only 2800 passengers. Breakaway is slightly broken. How much of this comes from the ship and how much from corporate is another matter. Bottom line-- we had a lot of fun and relaxation. The total experience could have been better.