I'll preface this by saying that this was a highly anticipated cruise for me and my wife, and our friends whom we had met 9 short months earlier when we sailed on the Gem for our honeymoon, so there is a possibility that my (our) expectations were somewhat elevated.
This was our 16th cruise overall, and our 14th with NCL - we love cruising with NCL, and our impression of the cruise line has only improved since we started cruising just 6 short years ago. And I won't go as far as to say that this last cruise has me wanting to break things off with NCL altogether, but the idea of trying other cruise lines has become significantly more appealing. I will be as thorough as I possibly can.
The Breakaway is undeniably a gorgeous new ship, an impressive-looking mega-liner, decorated by one of the most prolific pop artists of our time, sailing with promises of big-name entertainment, state-of-the-art amenities, and high-class specialty dining. Arriving at the pier was almost magical, as we got our first glimpse of the ship and immediately stopped for a photo. And so it began.
Embarking in NYC is an experience, and not for the faint of heart. When you get to the pier in Miami, for instance, you have a porter immediately approach you to help you with your bags. When you get to the pier in Manhattan, you can expect that a porter with a cart full of bags will shove his way through your party, possibly rolling his cart over a few of your toes without so much as an abrupt "excuse me". To get luggage tags, in case you didn't print them at home, you must stand in line, which may be hard to find given the level of crowding at the pier (it's New York, crowds are nearly inevitable).
Once you stand in line to get a luggage tag, you hand off your luggage and proceed into the terminal building. And you get to stand in line again. The Breakaway can accommodate more than 4000 passengers, and you will be sharing the terminal building with them. To be fair, embarkation lines are generally long, but these lines are extra-special, and they come jam-packed with New York City's friendliest, both among passengers and staff. It is great practice for what's to come, though, and hey, once you get through the line, you're officially on vacation.
We stayed in a balcony cabin, as we have done on just about every other cruise, and as we will do on every cruise that we ever take in the future. We managed to find an elevator (spacious, plentiful, and well-decorated) with relatively little effort to take us up to our deck, and from there it was a short walk through well-lit and gorgeously, tastefully decorated hallways to our room. The room was very well-decorated as well, and the space was used efficiently with plenty of space to walk around, stretch out, and breathe. I noted, and appreciated, the return to a more conventional room layout (unlike the Epic, the designers of which for some reason felt the need to separate the toilet, shower, and sink), and this room was bigger than most of the other balcony cabins we've inhabited. Then I stepped out on the balcony and quickly realized why: this was the smallest balcony that I had ever encountered. It was big enough for two sitting chairs, if you turned them sideways, and unlike most other balconies, the view directly below was the shuffleboard court on Deck 7.
Still, the room was nice. The bed was comfortable, or as comfortable as two twin beds pushed together can be, and there was plenty of space below the bed for luggage, which left the closet entirely available for clothing. The bathroom was spacious, as was the shower, which is a great step up from some other shipboard showers, where larger guests are able to just lather up the walls and spin in place to get clean. The shower pressure was lacking, but my friend came up with a solution: you can remove the shower head from the assembly and hang it on the clothesline that extends across the ceiling. This makes for a much more enjoyable shower experience.
All power in the room is controlled by a card receptacle at the entrance; you must put a card in there to keep the lights (and electric outlets) on. It does not have to be your room key, it can be any card, so if you don't care about conserving energy and want to keep your tech charging while you're away, you can feel free to stick your empty department store gift card in the slot for the duration of your cruise. Do Not Disturb and Make Up Room switches next to the door illuminate lights above your door in the hallway so that your housekeeper can easily tell whether or not they should dare to enter your chambers.
From the 800-seat theater, to the atrium with the two-deck-tall movie screen, to the vast array of bars and lounges throughout the ship, the public areas on this vessel are spacious, well-designed and decorated, and state-of-the-art. And they, too, come with their share of problems. The seats in the theater are narrow and you're acutely aware of the presence of the pivot bar in the back of the cushion. Sitting in those seats for too long - or, for the duration of one show - will leave you sore and possibly in need of a massage, which I suppose could be great marketing for the shipboard spa. The arm rests are also narrow, so unless you're comfortable literally rubbing elbows with the person next to you, be prepared to squeeze. The neon ceiling lights are a nice touch, but if the color combination is too high-contrast, it will definitely bother your eyes.
Seats in the Headliners Comedy Club are hard wooden chairs, which is acceptable if you're there to see a brief show, but far less acceptable if you're there for an art auction (they're held there) or for Howl At The Moon (dueling pianos - excellent show, which we unfortunately did not attend this cruise). Seating elsewhere was fine. Seats in the Garden Cafe buffet are plenty comfortable, if you can find one.
The casino is a nice area with modern machines and your full suite of table games, and your full complement of casino tournaments. The layout is somewhat disjointed, with a whole second section of the casino hidden from the view of the main section around the central stairwell. And, for the non-smokers, the aroma of various tobacco products is constantly wafting in the air.
The Bliss lounge on this ship is more of a night club than a lounge, great for young club-goers, but not so great for people who have outgrown their tolerance for pounding bass and shoulder-to-shoulder dancing. Its entrance is in the casino, which is convenient if you want to play some video poker between dance sets.
The Waterfront promenade on Deck 8 is worth mentioning. It's a walking area that runs almost the entire perimeter of the ship, with bars and seating, and small areas of reinforced glass floors upon which fearless guests can stand and look straight down into the water. Some of the specialty restaurants have seating on the Waterfront, which can be a nice touch to enhance your fine dining experience. The Waterfront also has two standing binoculars on either side of the ship, for those who want to see faraway lands up close, or who want a better view of adjacent ships while in port.
The art gallery is a nice-ish corridor, but falls far short of the art gallery on the Epic, with limited space that art enthusiasts get to share with people on their way to dinner, or the Atrium, or the bathroom. Art auctions are held in Headliners Comedy Club, which is one of the least auction-conducive spaces I've ever encountered.
Pools and Hot Tubs:
There are two pools on the Breakaway, neither of which we visited, because they were constantly full and surrounded by occupied lounge chairs. The kids' pool seemed like it would be an enjoyable experience for kids, as it also featured a variety of water-spouting SpongeBob Square Pants characters.
The well-hidden (we didn't find it until the last day) adults-only Spice H2O at the aft of the ship is a nice, relatively secluded area with its own bar and a nearby restaurant, and it has two hot tubs, but unlike the Epic, it does not have a pool. Instead, it has a large dance floor and a separate area of waterfalls cascading into shallow-water seating areas.
For a fee, guests can gain access to the Vibe Beach Club, which is nestled away behind a keycard-access sliding door on Deck 16 Forward. For $79 per person, you can have a guaranteed lounge chair complete with private restrooms, a private bar, two private hot (warm) tubs, no private pool, and occasional passing of fresh fruit skewers. For $299, you can reserve one of 5 private two-person cabanas in the Vibe for the week, and you will get a $100 credit, which they claim is for "Vibe purchases only". It's not, really, it's just a $100 onboard credit, so I believe that telling people that the credit is for "Vibe purchases only" is a deceptive practice aimed at enticing people to spend money on food and booze. Regardless, the Vibe is a nice, exclusive area, and availability is limited, so if you pay for access, you are at least guaranteed a lounge chair.
The unfortunate common theme of all the public areas on the ship is that they're crowded. To a point, you can expect that from a ship of 4000+ passengers, but we've sailed on the larger Epic (4100-passenger capacity at double occupancy) three times and we never really experienced crowding the way we did on the Breakaway. The buffet, as I mentioned above, was always crowded, and our first meal there started only after we circled the entire room 3 times looking for a table. Whenever there was something going on in the Atrium, all the seats were occupied, a crowd of people stood around them, and the same was the case one deck higher around O'Sheehans. This may not have been a problem if you were involved in whatever was going on in the atrium, but posed a bit of a problem for people trying to navigate through the crowd to get elsewhere on the ship. Space is somewhat overutilized on the Breakaway, which leaves relatively narrow passageways for passers-by.
Food and Restaurants:
Food was our primary complaint when we started sailing with NCL back in 2007, and since then that complaint has completely disappeared. The quality and variety of the food in the main dining rooms and buffets has dramatically improved over the years, and the Breakaway takes that to another level. The menus on most of the NCL cruises we've taken were relatively identical, so when we went to one of the main dining rooms for our first dinner of the cruise, we were pleasantly surprised. The cherries jubilee is a must-try dessert, if you have a chance. And service in the main dining rooms was excellent (we ate at two of them - Savor and the Manhattan Room), though it appeared at times that the wait staff were stretched too thin across too many tables. If you want a more elegant dining experience, the Manhattan Room offers live music and the opportunity to dance, with the occasional appearance of the cast of Burn the Floor (more on this later). Be advised, however, that the Manhattan Room does require that men wear long pants, so going there in your wet bathing suit is not an option.
For breakfast, you can brave the buffet, which has an abundant selection of breakfast foods. Seating, however, is not abundant, so if you're not willing to walk around looking for a place to plant yourself, then I recommend going to O'Sheehans on Deck 7, where the menu is mostly the same as the buffet but you don't have to stand in lines or navigate through crowds to get it.
The Breakaway has the standard suite of specialty restaurants found on most NCL ships, at least from the Jewel class onward. Teppanyaki is a great hibachi experience for a price that's almost impossible to find on land. Cagney's is a decent enough steakhouse. Moderno Churrascaria is a must for meat-lovers, also at prices far below anything similar on land. And Ocean Blue, while pricey at $49 per person, is absolutely delicious. I won't go into too much detail here; feel free to look these restaurants up if you want a better idea of what they serve. All I will say here is that if you're willing to part with some money for dining, the specialty restaurants are well worth it. Our only complaint was that, unlike on other ships, these restaurants (with the exception of Moderno) at least attempted to limit our order to one appetizer, one main course, and one dessert. However, when we made a request to order more, all of them except for Ocean Blue were more than accommodating.
We sailed the Bahamas & Florida run, which was familiar to us, and we knew that we were signing up for three sea days and three port days. The lack of a fourth port day is somewhat disappointing, but given the size of the ship, it's somewhat understandable. Previous Bahamas & Florida runs included a stop at Freeport, but I believe the Breakaway is simply too large to dock there.
That said, this was the fourth time out of eight Bahamas cruises with NCL that we did not stop at Great Stirrup Cay. This time, we missed GSC because of wind. So instead of a relaxing day on a pristine beach, we ended up with a fourth sea day on a 7-day cruise. We learned later that the Breakaway had missed GSC on the previous two sailings as well. I understand that there are safety concerns with tendering guests from the ship to the island. I completely get that weather and wind have a lot more impact on a tender boat than on a massive floating hotel. However, I do believe that given these concerns, and given the frequency with which Great Stirrup Cay is stricken from the itinerary, NCL needs to come up with a better contingency plan. Perhaps an extra day in Port Canaveral. Or a stop in Miami. Or Key West. Or, well, ANYWHERE. Having only two port days on a 7-day cruise is unacceptable.
I'll include more on the two ports that we DID make it to later in this review.
In a word, spectacular. Rock Of Ages is a great show, though most people would consider it to be inappropriate for the young kids that occupied the front row, wide-eyed, watching the risque dancing and hearing the equally risque dialogue that likely led to some interesting and uncomfortable conversations with parents afterwards. Burn the Floor is phenomenal. Cirque Dreams and Dinner is an excellent show as well, though the dinner element is mediocre at best. Nevertheless, it's well worth the price tag. The Second City comedy troupe has a variety of shows for all ages, and is also worth a watch. We didn't catch Howl At The Moon this time, but if it's anything like it was on the Epic, and you've never seen a dueling piano show, all I can say, emphatically, is DO IT. The comedy magician wasn't bad, from what we could tell at the welcome aboard variety show, but his performance didn't inspire us to go see his full show.
My only complaint about the entertainment is that it all needs to be booked in advance unless you're willing to risk standby seating, which may mean standing at the back of the theater. You can book shows from your stateroom TV, or, better yet, you can book most of your entertainment well in advance from the NCL website, which is the course of action that I recommend. Also, if you see a show once, you will not be allowed to reserve it again. So pick your Second City show wisely.
Crew, Staff, and Service:
The cruise director staff, and basically the entire entertainment department, were phenomenal. The cruise director Sinan is only on there temporarily, but if you have the opportunity to sail with him, you are truly lucky. We had him once before, and I can honestly say that he's the best cruise director I've ever had (sorry, Julie). Never have I encountered a warmer, more engaged and engaging cruise director. Whoever hired him could not possibly have made a better decision.
Housekeeping was also excellent.
Everywhere else, service occurred as impersonal, as if you were less of a guest and more of a number, or a dollar sign. And then it became intolerable.
This was a birthday cruise for me and my friend, and an anniversary cruise for me and my wife. On other cruises where we celebrated something, Guest Services immediately and with congratulations presented us with vouchers redeemable for a free cake and bottle of wine. This time, the Guest Services first asked if we wanted to buy something to celebrate our birthdays, and then said that we can come back another day to receive a card for a cake.
After we stood in the 30-minute-long line at Guest Services to apply some cash to our onboard bill, the representative at the front of the line pointed to the Onboard Credit line and said that we had to go over there and that he couldn't help us.
When I misplaced some photos that I had purchased from the photo gallery, I went to Guest Services, who told me to go to the photo gallery. There, I was told that they "didn't lose the photos for me" and that there was nothing they could do. Fortunately I found the photos, but I find that response to be unacceptable from a customer service perspective. Also, on the topic of photos, we purchased another photo of which we needed two copies, and the gentleman at the photo gallery said that he would reprint two new ones, since the one in our photo folder was smudged and lightly creased, and that they would be waiting for us, in folio frames, the following morning. The following morning, they were NOT in the folio frames, and when I arrived at home and went to put the photos in the frames myself, I noticed that one of the photos was the same smudged, creased original, with the words "PRINT NEW COPIES" clearly indented across our torsos. This matter is still unresolved.
The art auction staff, though employed by Park West Gallery and not NCL, were a fairly pushy bunch who seemed more interested in selling master works for top dollar than in fulfilling their claim of "pointing people who want to collect art in the right direction". The art auctions are generally fun, but that greatly depends on the auction staff, and on this cruise, the experience was less enjoyable than other times.
My overall impression of the staff and crew of the Breakaway, with notable exceptions, is that they couldn't care less.
And that brings us to the final, and least enjoyable, part of the cruise: Disembarkation.
Without a doubt, disembarkation is the least enjoyable part of any cruise, because it means that your cruise is over. But that's a constant, so I'll take it out of the equation, and just look at the disembarkation experience itself. In this case, I would refer to the experience as an absolute train wreck. As Gold Latitudes members on the brink of Platinum, we were given priority luggage tags, which were supposed to be called for disembarkation at 8:30. Having sailed on 15 other occasions, we were familiar with this process, and I had booked transportation to pick us up at 9 am, well in advance of the cruise. At 10:00, having accrued $75 of waiting charges and left devoid of any patience, we were finally off the ship, through customs (more lines), and out in the streets of NYC, where we got into an altercation with a gentleman who felt that the most appropriate place to stand and wait for his transportation was in the street, where he stood blocking our car's access to parking and to us. A passer-by put it succinctly, though at the time it was like really long nails across a really long chalkboard: "It's New York."
To be fair, the blame for the disaster that was disembarkation does not fall entirely on NCL. The Manhattan Cruise Terminal dumps passengers (in this case, 4000+ of them) directly into Manhattan, where they have to compete for space with each other, myriad taxis, limousines, cyclists, other vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and everything else that NYC has to offer. It's not like the Port of Miami, for instance, where each ship has its own dedicated area where people can spread out and get to their destinations with relative ease.
However, the fact that it took over 2 hours to NOT clear out the throngs of Express Walk-Off passengers (those who opted to walk off the ship with their luggage instead of tagging it and picking it up in the terminal) borders on insanity, and calls into question the Express Walk-Off program and the entire disembarkation procedure. Suggestion: if you're opting for Express Walk-Off, and you're not in line by 8:00, you get to wait until all luggage tags have been called. Something needs to be done to make disembarkation smoother and more efficient, and the current state of it is anything but.
In short, this was the first cruise after which I was actually glad to be home. This was the least enjoyable NCL cruise I've ever taken. And yes, I will sail with NCL again. But it will be quite some time before I consider the Breakaway again, and even more time before I consider sailing out of NYC.