We sailed on the NCL Breakaway for the May 26 – June 2 cruise to Bermuda. This was our treat to ourselves for having our oldest of three children graduate college a week earlier. My wife and I had a balcony stateroom while my sister-in-law, who was along with us on her first cruise, had a solo cabin. Overall, it was a FABULOUS week, with calm seas both ways, abundant sunshine, not a drop of rain, and great service. We even had the added excitement of witnessing a medical evacuation from the bow of the ship by Coast Guard helicopter while at sea on the 2nd day. (And that is why one should always purchase travel insurance!)
My wife and I have taken enough cruises now to know that no ship can be everything for everyone. Even the Breakaway, which is huge, new, clean and gorgeous, has its share of quirks. Some of these I, personally, found to be disappointing. But they certainly are not enough to merit rating the ship anything less than 5 stars. By far and away, Norwegian’s “Free Style” cruising is the best fit for our preferred style of vacation: relaxed, casual, unstructured and informal.
Before reviewing the ship I feel it is necessary to make a statement for the reader of this, or any of these other Cruise Critic reviews, to keep in mind. One must be mindful of the fact that NCL is a publicly traded company whose intent is to be profitable. When viewed through the lens of their business model, NCL increases their revenue in four main ways: 1) increasing the up front price in order to cover their fixed costs, 2) increasing the number of passengers each ship can carry, 3) increasing the number of venues or services which require those passengers to pay an additional fee, and 4) increasing the amount of these fees. Given the limited confines of a ship, the trade offs for these increases often manifest themselves in the form of smaller cabins, less public space and fewer complimentary activities. This is not unique for NCL, but is true of the cruise industry as a whole. The trick is to find the balancing point where a company can maximize profits without turning off its customers.
In the case of the Breakaway, NCL has come close to achieving balance between the needs of the business of the desires of the customers. Granted, NCL wants its passengers to spend money while on the ship, to purchase drinks, to go to the specialty restaurants, and to buy on-board packages. That’s fine. It is a big ship, and even guests like myself who want to do little more than walk around in the fresh air, look at the ocean, enjoy the meals offered by the Main Dining Room and take in a nightly show can find a thousand ways to have fun. Passengers on Norwegian are truly free to do as much, or as little, as they want.
EMBARKATION: The New York piers are normally a madhouse, but Norwegian seems to have found a way to move things along quickly once you leave your luggage with one of the curbside porters. Please note, in an effort to reduce costs NCL no longer mails your luggage tags prior to the cruise. Instead, you are instructed to print your own. I strongly recommend that you take the extra precaution of reinforcing your tags with clear packing tape before folding and affixing them to your luggage to prevent them from being accidentally ripped off during handling. The extra ounce of prevention could help save you from asking about your luggage at Guest Services, as we saw numerous people doing.
We arrived at Pier 88 about 11:30 and in less than a half-hour had moved through security, checked-in, had our sail away photos taken, and were up the gangplank and onto the ship. It was a little disappointing that NCL was not using crew or cast members to greet the guests as they came aboard, as we have seen done on other ships, but it was nice that our cabins were already available by noon if we wanted to drop off our carry-on luggage. As a tip, the first person you meet on the ship will probably try to direct you up to the Garden Café for the buffet lunch. But note that both Taste and Savor, two of the Main Dining Rooms, are also open for a more refined, sit down lunch.
CABINS: By the time we finished lunch in Taste and went to our cabin, not only had our luggage arrived but our steward (Jairo) had already brought it into our room for us and set it on the bed. That was a nice touch. As noted in other reviews, the standard balcony cabins on the Breakaway are on the small side and the balconies themselves are smaller than on other ships we have sailed. (The balcony is the width of the room, but only about 3 ½ feet deep.) There is ample room in the cabin for a couple, however, with numerous shelves in the closet and several under the TV, to stow all of your clothing. There are no drawers, unless you count the two under the sofa, but they contained the bedding and pillows for the two extra berths which could be set up in this cabin. The bathroom has sufficient counter space and is roomy enough in which to more around without banging elbows or knees, though the shower is a little tight for two to share.
Here are a few of the quirks that others have mentioned. First, the cabins are designed to be energy efficient. That means that when you leave them, all of the electricity turns off. Upon entering the cabin there is a small device on the wall into which one must insert and leave either their keycard or any similarly shaped plastic card (we used a McDonald’s card) in order to turn the electric on. It really isn’t a big deal during the day in a balcony cabin as there is sufficient light in the room. It does become an issue at night, however, as the lights in the cabin will not turn on unless you leave a card inserted and the room is quite dark otherwise. Also, since the bathroom has no window, inserting a card into this device is critical. Leaving a card in the slot is also essential if you intend to charge any electronic devices while you are not in the cabin.
Second, the room safe in the closet is about half the size we have found on other ships. It was large enough to accommodate our wallet, purse, passports and jewelry – but not much more. On other ships I would sometimes lock my SLR camera in the safe. On the Breakaway, it would not even fit.
Third, the problem we had with the balconies was not that they were small, but that they are NOT private. And I do not mean that in the sense, as on all cruise ships, that if you lean forward you can look into the balcony to your left or right. Because of the design of the Waterfront on deck 8 of the Breakaway, and the lifeboat stations on deck 7, the balconies are all recessed inward from the exterior hull of the ship. This means that people strolling on decks 7 and 8 can look up at all of the balconies, and for some of the lower cabins can even look into the balconies. It is not a major deal, but if one likes to sit out on their balcony in their bathrobe, or less, this is not the ship on which to do it.
Since my SIL was along with us, I had a chance to check out her Solo cabin and the Lounge. The Solo cabin was certainly large enough for one person, offering all of the amenities of an inside cabin but in a smaller scale. The lounge area for solo travels was roomy, with plenty of space to hang out or meet other travelers. I would certainly think this space is a big plus for passengers traveling alone, or as an individual who is part of a larger group and not looking to share a cabin.
DINING ROOMS: The Breakaway has enough fee-based restaurants that a person can dine at a different venue every night of the cruise. But there really is no need to do so, unless you want to, as the three complimentary Main Dining Rooms offer a great choice of tasty meals. Other than the port days, in which we ate breakfast and lunch at the buffet in the Garden Café, we had all of our meals in one of the MDRs. Breakfast took about an hour, while Lunch took about 1 ½ hours, in an unhurried atmosphere in both Taste and Savor. All of our dinners were in the Manhattan Room, and usually took about 2+ hours. To some that might feel like the service was slow, but we were never in any rush and enjoyed the slower pace.
The two best features of the Manhattan Room are the live band and the dance floor. The Manhattan Room band provides live music during dinner, which helps to set the ambiance of the room. We enjoyed just sitting and listening to them between courses. And the dance floor, though never used by more than a handful of couples at any one time, gave a great opportunity for people watching. Also, on three nights when the Burn the Floor show is not performing in the theater, the cast members present a 30 minute show in the Manhattan Room during dinner. We absolutely loved these performances.
Although the Manhattan Room does fill up, and the waiting line to get in could exceed an hour, if you arrive when the MDR opens at 5:30, as we did each night, there was never a wait and we had no problem requesting a table adjacent to the dance floor, right near the band.
FOOD: Many would argue that the food onboard the Breakaway is typical cruise ship fare. The ship does serve the same fleet menu that is used on other NCL ships. But as my wife and I would reply, we did not have to go to the grocery store to buy it, we did not have to prepare it, we did not have to cook it, and we did not have to clean up after it. So it was WONDERFUL. And indeed, the variety and quality of the meals in the MDR was ample enough that we were never disappointed. Starting with the Surf-n-Turf the first night, during which I requested and received a second full lobster tail to accompany my steak, and proceeding through such nightly dinners as prime rib (perfectly prepared), salmon, mahi-mahi, shrimp risotto and New Orleans Style Shrimp, there was not a single starter, entree or dessert that missed the mark in regards to temperature or tastiness. All of the soups, and all of the salads, were equally enjoyable.
Breakfast and lunch, served in Taste and Savor, is not as varied as the dinner menu, but the food was hot and abundant. I would recommend the Salmon Eggs Benedict as a breakfast item, and the Vietnamese Spring Rolls as a lunch starter. Both were outrageously good.
It was a disappointment that the Garden Café was not open for a late night snack at midnight, as it closes at 11:30. But O’Sheehans is open 24 hours and is the spot to go for a pot of tea and a hot dog any time of the day, even in the early AM.
The Sabrett Hot Dog carts on the ship offer a nice touch of New York. They only operate for a few hours each afternoon, however, so one must plan accordingly. The cart on Deck 8 is open 12-3 and the cart in Spice H2O is open 3-5. Check the times in your daily planner. For our opinion, it was a nice treat to bite into one of these dogs, with the works, while standing by the railing watching the ocean slide past.
BARS and LOUNGES: We are not the type of cruiser who frequents any of the ship’s bars, so I cannot comment on them other to say that from what I saw, they always seemed to have a good crowd. We did go to the Ice Bar one night, more so for the experience than for the drinks. It costs $20 per person, which includes 2 drinks. The room itself is a small deep freezer, kept at 17F, and sparsely decorated with some ice sculptures and blue lights. Although it was fun, and chilling, this is one aspect of the Breakaway that definitely could use a makeover. The actual appearance looks nothing like the artist concept images used to promote this room.
SHOWS – Several reviews have commented that the theatre is small, with no balcony seating. This is true. Part of the reason, once again, is NCL’s business model. Remember – NCL is free style dining. There are no set seating times or restaurants. So, unlike a ship that splits its passengers into two seatings and needs to have a theatre that is large enough to accommodate half of the passengers in one show while the other half is at dinner, and then vice versa, the Breakaway needs to have more flexibility. That means a smaller theatre. The downside is that in order to manage potential crowd control, yet still allow every guest the opportunity to see each show, reservations are required even for the complimentary shows. And, each guest is only permitted to make one reservation per show per voyage. That is disappointing. But there is a silver lining. Ten minutes before each show starts the standby guests can enter the theatre if there are seats remaining. And, or so it appears, NCL seems to have built in a little leeway to accommodate these standby patrons even when a show is shown as “sold out”.
The shows on the Breakaway are definitely worth seeing at least once, and more than once if it fits your schedule. Burn the Floor is a high energy, 60-minute performance by an ensemble of six dance couples. Although Jenna and Meaghan are perhaps the standout performers of the group, all of the couples are fabulous. We caught the Burn the Floor performance on three separate nights in the theater, plus the three 30-minute performances in the Manhattan Room. None of the shows disappointed.
Rock of Ages is a raunchy, raucous musical that helps glorify the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll era of the 80’s. We loved it! We caught the performance on two separate nights in the theater and would have gone the third, but were at Jungle Fantasy that night. Be warned, Rock of Ages is not for children, or for easily offended, prudish adults for that matter. The daily newsletter, the Freestyle Daily, even advises guests that …”Adult themes, coarse language and sexually suggestive scenes are used throughout the show and therefore is not recommended for children”. My recommendation for anyone who is not familiar with Rock of Ages but who is contemplating seeing it on the cruise is to rent the DVD of the movie and watch it before they sail. That will give you the basic premise of the show. Then realize, however, that the movie is a PG-13 version of the stage show. The movie has toned down the sexuality considerably. The show on the ship runs about 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy is wild and phenomenal. The standard seating is, with a few exceptions, as good as the premiere seating. The show is a non-stop, 90 minute tour-de-force of juggling, acrobatics, and strangeness that is so captivating that one often forgets that they are eating during the performance. The food is a fixed menu consisting of a salad, a surf-and-turf plate (shrimp and tenderloin) with baked potato and vegetable, and a sampler dessert platter. Our tenderloin was like butter, and the entire meal was delicious. The portions are a little small, so a person might need to have either a light dinner before or after the show, but on a ship like the Breakaway that’s no problem at all. We actually did the Manhattan room at 5:30, prior to the 9:00 Jungle Fantasy show, to have a soup, salad and dessert.
Michael Finney, the comic magician on our voyage, was hysterical. Finney’s self-deprecating humor had most of the audience howling in laughter. Yes, there were some who did not “get it” or appreciate it, but you cannot please everyone. This was definitely a family crowd pleaser, with sufficient innuendo for the adults as well.
PROMENADE/WATERFRONT: Here in lies another quirkiness of the Breakaway. The Waterfront is beautiful and enjoyable to stroll, offering a view of both the ocean and the open air restaurants. But it does not wrap completely around the ship. In fact, it only goes maybe half way around either side and wraps around the stern. For walkers, that means having to cut through the ship on Deck 8 if you want to walk in a complete loop. The traditional promenade deck, where the lifeboats hang, is even less extensive – terminating at a bulkhead both fore and aft. Any expansive vistas of the ocean from this deck are blocked by the new-style gravity lifeboats which hang in front of you, rather than overhead as on so many other vessels. In essence, even something as simple as having a promenade deck that wraps completely around the ship for walkers was sacrificed by Norwegian in order to add more fee-based space. This was very disappointing. Yes, you can still walk to your heart’s content, but you cannot do it anywhere on the ship as a continuous oval without either cutting through the ship, or doubling back and walking in a large U.
POOL/SPORTS COMPLEX: Although we were rarely on these decks during the day, there seemed to be ample space. The pools were usually full, and because of the dates of this cruise there were not many kids onboard. I can see these decks being much more crowded on cruises when school is out. The slides had a lot of activity and the ropes course was interesting to watch. We did not “walk the plank”, but did partake in the zip line. It was a fun experience to try and I do recommend it to everyone. Miniature golf was also nice and usually quite empty.
One major flaw with these decks is that the jogging track is in the absolute worst possible spot. It goes down a narrow lane between the rock wall and the Uptown Grill. In the early morning hours this space is probably empty, but as the morning progresses and people start to head to the buffets, this area gets crowded. That leads to people walking here with food and drink at the same time joggers are trying to run. It is an accident waiting to happen. We even saw one of the ship’s officers nearly get run down as he stepped onto the track without looking for oncoming “traffic”.
PUBLIC AREAS –There is sufficient public space for a person to wander around and poke into the ship’s various nooks. Because of the way the Breakaway is laid out though, with everything on decks 6-7-8, there is no grand atrium or foyer. Yes, there is a beautiful LED chandelier, with sweeping glass steps for these three decks. But that is the extent of the grandeur. There is no multi-deck, open atrium with soaring space and glass elevators. This was a trade off that was needed to maximize the amount of usable space, in order to have more cabins and more fee based restaurants. It was fine, but a disappointment compared to all others ships we have sailed on so far. It also means that elevators are only located fore and aft, not mid-ships, making them more crowded in the busiest times of the day. My advice is for anything two decks or less, take the stairs. It will be faster, and healthier, for you.
Spice H2O, in the stern of the ship, is another quirk of the ship in my opinion. There is limited access to this section of the ship, through a single, central hallway. By day, this section of the ship was usually crowded. By night, this was the party zone and equally crowded, not to mention noisy. Although many might like Spice H2O and how it is set apart from the rest of the deck as an “18 and over zone”, in my opinion it simply adds to the feel that the ship is being compartmentalized based on the intended use and target audience for that space, without having a smooth, easy flow in and out of some areas. It is nothing to lower my score, but it was disappointing compared to what I was expecting.
Another disappointment was that the forward-most passenger access deck on the ship is split, with the port (left) half being public and the starboard (right) half being private. The Haven and Vibe, charging either a higher rate than a standard cabin or a fee to use, respectively, essentially took the view forward/starboard and made it private. This sense of exclusivity, of a ship-within-a-ship, is probably nice for the people who are willing to pay for it. But it takes away one of the prime locations in which most passengers like to congregate, especially when leaving or coming into a port. It also reduces the amount of public lounge space available to the guests by turning this side of the ship into fee-based private cabanas. From NCL’s perspective it is undoubtedly a great idea and a money maker. From my perspective, it was a disappointing waste of prime real estate I would otherwise have liked to be able to stroll.
SHOPS: By and large, the shops were nice. They were what one would typically expect to find on a cruise ship, including a duty free shop, a jewelry store, a photo shop and a gift shop. On our cruise many items in the gift shop had been sold out on the previous inaugural sailings and not yet replenished. Sales clerks apologized that such items as sweatshirts and shot glasses were all sold out and the truck with new items had not arrived in time for this cruise. Even the duty free shop apologized that they were sold out of Gosling rum from the prior cruise. One nice thing the Breakaway does, however, is to organize the photo shop into “towers” with binders. The location of your binder is indicated on your key card. Throughout the cruise, as photographers take your picture, if you provide them with your cabin number they will key it in directly to their camera and your pictures will then be placed in your binder for you to review. In this manner they are all in one place, rather than spread all over the large display boards most ships use.
STAFF: Sean W. is the hotel manager for the Breakaway. He did such a fabulous job with the staff on the NCL Star last year that the Star garnered some of the highest customer satisfaction scores in the fleet. We were so satisfied with the housekeeping staff on our previous cruise to Bermuda last year that we knew having him onboard the Breakaway would be a definite plus. And we were correct; all of the staff was pleasant, courteous, polite and friendly. It was a pleasure to talk with many of the staff about their jobs, their homes and their families.
If only the same thing could have been said about some of the other passengers. I do not know what it is that brings out such a sense of entitlement in guests, but the rudeness of some of them towards the staff is embarrassing to watch. As my kids would say, they need to chillax!
Other stand out staff members on the Breakaway include Julie, the Cruise Director, who was everywhere. She was always upbeat, smiling and energetic. Kudos also go to the band leader of the Manhattan Room band. He was personable and great at maintaining the warm, casual atmosphere on the MDR.
MISCELLANEOUS: By way of a few miscellaneous notes, the fireworks start about 11:15, right after Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and last for about 10 minutes. The best place to see them is port side (left) aft. Another tip to help you navigate the ship to find you cabin, or the gangway, is to check the floor. Here’s the hint, the fish are swimming in the direction the ship is moving. Additionally, the mirrors on the staircases and in the elevators will help you establish your location fore or aft, as they are square in the bow and round in the stern. Or just use one of the many interactive screens throughout the ship. The touch sensitive screens can help you book a show, make a reservation, or find your way around. They are a great technological addition to the ship.
BERMUDA: On many cruises the ship is the destination, and any ports of call are just the frosting on top. Bermuda, however, is a jewel in its own right. Although this review is of the Breakaway and not Bermuda, here are a few quick tips. The transportation pass has gone up in price since last year, from $28 to $35 for a three day pass. It is still worth it, however, if you plan to take three or more buses or water shuttles per day. Transportation on the island is easy to figure out and was very accommodating to having so many tourists on the island, from both the Breakaway and the Celebrity Summit, at once. We noticed several times when they put on extra ferries during peak periods to handle the crowds so there was rarely much waiting.
The country itself has wonderful people, many of whom are friendly, courteous and British-proper. Strike up a conversation with any of them and you will see what I mean.
It is worth the trip over to St. George while in port, to visit some of the sites, the shops, the churches and to see the reenactment of the dunking of the nag.
Horseshoe Bay Beach is one of the top ten beaches in the world, but if you are not into the crowds and can do without the lifeguards, umbrellas and beer, then I recommend going about a mile to the east, starting with Warwick Long Bay Beach and Jobson Cove, and working your way back to the west towards Horseshoe Bay. Many of these beaches here are more secluded, empty, and drop dead beautiful.
DISEMBARKATION: What can I say about this other than “welcome back to NYC”? After a week of being spoiled and pampered by Sean’s staff on the Breakaway, it is always a sobering experience to be back in the Big Apple. Self walk off was fast. We docked by about 7:30 and by 8:30 we had all of our luggage in tow and were heading off the ship into the cruise ship terminal. That’s where we went from the friendly confines of the ship into the chaos of US Customs. The people who work there were constantly yelling to direct people, move them along, get them into a cattle stall, and shoot them out onto the streets of NYC. Granted it was relatively quick, but politeness is not something these folks will ever need to worry about. Also, note that passengers can no longer stay on the pier side of the street. That is reserved for buses only. The terminal agents will force you to cross 12th Avenue and wait for pickup on the opposite side. Here we waited in the noise, commotion, and turmoil that is New York. While waiting for our ride to arrive I even saw a NYPD officer flip the bird to a driver who was not following his orders fast enough. Amazing.
OVERALL: As I said at the beginning, it was a FABULOUS vacation. The Breakaway, despite some quirks, is a beautiful ship with a great, hard working staff and phenomenal entertainers. It is certain to create enjoyable memories for all of its passengers for many years to come. I highly recommend giving it a try, and give it 5-stars.