My mother, my husband and I booked an Owner’s Suite (9001) for a four-day cruise to the Bahamas aboard the NCL Sky in early February as a mid-winter “thaw” break from the frigid temps at home. Because the cruise would be a short one, we were able to book a top-rated room for about the same price we pay for seven days on a larger ship and we had ample time to arrive early and return late, still within our one-week vacation from work.
We flew to MIA Saturday morning aboard American Airlines. American accorded us Pre-Flight Screening status and we checked our bags (which we never do) just to add to the relaxation factor and negate the need to be among the first to board the flight in order to find overhead space. We had sufficient time to have brunch at Tigin Irish Pub in DFW Terminal D where the food was tasty, not any more overpriced than other airport fare and, again, it added to the early relaxation factor.
The flight to Miami was packed with frozen bodies trying to escape the cold. Nonetheless, our three seats were adjoining (we had booked many months in advance) and all was well. We arrived on time and were greeted by a blast of heat as we stepped onto the jetbridge. YAY! Warmth!
After taking the tram to baggage claim, we stepped outside where a line of taxis awaited. The ride to South Beach took about 45 minutes (at 5:00PM on a Friday afternoon), the weather was beautiful and we were so happy to see the sun. For a fee of $32 we were deposited in front of our hotel, The Fritz (formerly Casanova), at the foot of Ocean Drive @ 5th Street.
Palm trees, ocean breeze, 83 degree temp, sunshine, music… what else could we ask for? I had done a lot of research on this forum as well as across the web to find a reasonably priced, well-situated TWO-BEDROOM / TWO BATH suite on South Beach and that’s exactly what the Fritz provided. The suite was larger than my first apartment and the master suite opened to a balcony overlooking Ocean Drive and the beautiful Atlantic Ocean: a perfect spot from which to view the non-stop parade of beautiful people.
Clean, well-appointed with a full size fridge, microwave, coffee maker in the kitchen and flat-screen TVs in each room, we were set to go. After stowing the luggage and making a grocery list, we headed up one block to Walgreen’s where we were able to buy a small container of coffee, diet cokes, bagels, snacks, milk, sunscreen, etc. The room had some coffee, sweetener and creamer, but it appeared to be very old. So, we were now set to vacation.
After a walk on the beach, we wandered up Ocean Drive and stopped at Johnny Rockets for a burger and, honestly, for a great spot to sit and people watch. It was Saturday night and all of the SoBe beautiful people were out in all of their glory! Wow. The parade of folks walking past our table was endless and highly interesting… better than the circus. And, the burgers were delicious.
One word of caution: ALL of the sidewalk restaurants we visited over the next few days add an 18% gratuity without telling you. It is itemized on the check, but I rarely read anything except the total amount before slapping down an Amex card. Consequently, I inadvertently added another 20% to the total amount when signing the final check. C’est la vie and happy day for the servers.
We returned to the room and had to call the front desk to send someone up to turn on the televisions as none would come on when we tried. A minor inconvenience.
The party sounds coming from the street lasted into the wee hours and interrupted our sleep more than once, but nothing serious. We were, after all, right on top of Ocean Drive with Collins immediately behind us. Sunday morning, we were awakened at 6:00 AM by someone clapping and woohoo-ing loudly from across the street. After several minutes of this, I got up to investigate. It turns out we had selected the weekend of the South Beach Marathon as our vacation date. Over the next few hours, thousands of runners made their way under our balcony as the crowd grew to cheer them on. Not my idea of a fun time, but we were still happy to be in SoBe in the warmth.
After a breakfast of bagels and coffee, my mother and I headed up the street to the point designated as the Big Bus Tours ticket and passenger pickup point. We had purchased tickets several weeks before on the internet so that we could spend the day sight-seeing in SoBe and Miami. A brief rain shower sent us scurrying to the west side of the street and the cover of patio restaurant umbrellas as we moved up the street. The runners had long since finished and the street had been reopened to traffic. With no Big Buses in sight, we ventured into the Art Deco Museum to enquire. Pamela and Connie greeted us warmly and apologized on behalf of Big Bus for not telling us when we purchased the tickets for this specific day that buses would not run due to the marathon earlier that morning. Bummer. A quick email to the Big Bus HQ resulted in a refund posted to my Amex within 24 hours. But, what to do on our only full day in Miami?
Well, we decided to walk, shop and people watch as the shower had passed and the weather was gorgeous. We stopped for brunch at Paparazzi Ristorante, again for an excellent people-watching experience, and found the food good but overpriced – even with the “special” which had been aggressively advertised at the sidewalk. Actually, the food was well-priced. It was the $5 coffee, $4 toast and aforementioned buried 18% gratuity that pushed a brunch for three (advertised at $5.95/person) to $70.
A note here about the hostesses (carnival barkers) at the sidewalk cafes: they are very good at their jobs – getting patrons to sit down and place orders. Some are fairly aggressive, stepping in front of you as you walk down the sidewalk and pressing a menu into your hand as they tell you (most with a heavy Russian or Eastern European accent) why theirs is the best place to eat. A quick, “just ate” response will stop them mid-sentence and they will move out of the way to allow you to pass. I am so thankful this is not my job as I do not handle rejection well.
I spent a few minutes on the internet to book a tour for our return to Miami Friday morning since we didn’t get to tour Sunday as planned. Tours By Locals did not disappoint… more on that later.
Dinner Sunday night was at A Fish Called Avalon. A step up from the sidewalk café, white table cloths, and an Austrian-accented server greeted us and presented an absolutely delicious meal without the blaring Super Bowl hype occurring at the other eateries on the street. It was at Avalon that the waiter informed me of the embedded 18% gratuity so that I would not “over-tip” him. This resulted in his being over-tipped anyway for his honesty. The tab here was upwards of $200 for the three of us but well worth it in terms of versatility (I’m a vegetarian eating at a fish house), delicious food, wonderful atmosphere, extraordinary service, incredible desserts and shelter from the Super Bowl crowd. They advertise “the best key lime pie in Miami” and we agreed it couldn’t get much better than that.
Monday morning arrived soon enough (Sunday night was somewhat quieter than the previous night in terms of late revelry) and we went back to the beach for another stroll, some breakfast and then hailed a cab to the port. TIME TO SET SAIL!
Because it had taken longer than expected to get to SoBe Saturday afternoon and we had told the NCL “Suite Life Consultant” who had reached out to us earlier in the week that we would arrive at the ship around noon, we hailed a cab about 10:50 and left SoBe. Traffic was light and we arrived for check-in at roughly 11:10.
Our bags were whisked away at curbside and we were ushered in to the Suite Lounge where our papers and passports were checked, and we were offered food and drink. Within just a few minutes, an escort arrived who took us past the waiting lines, up an elevator and onto the ship (we were the first passengers aboard!) where we met our concierge, John D’Souza, in the Plantation Room, for a briefing.
This was an interesting meeting as John had served as our concierge aboard the Jewel last May and we had not given him a high rating. In fact, we lambasted him. So, we were interested to learn from him that this was his first day aboard the Sky, that he had just returned from vacation and that he would be learning the ship over the next few days.
John escorted us into Cagney’s for lunch (we weren’t really hungry yet, but were happy to wait in Cagney’s with iced tea, dessert and a wonderful view) while our suite was prepared. At about noon the announcement was made that the rooms were ready and so we went to the bow of the ship to find our suite.
The Capella Suite was spacious with a private bedroom and full bath, a murphy bed in the living area with a half bath, a wet bar (where three complimentary bottles of liquor awaited us), fresh flowers, a fridge stocked with sodas and water (which were constantly restocked, gratis), and a balcony with two lounge chairs, two side chairs and a hot tub. I admit we didn’t have an opportunity to use the hot tub as our days were full and our nights were spent sleeping in the VERY comfortable beds.
The lifeboat drill occurred at about 4:30 and was probably the least fun part of the trip (I know it’s not meant to be fun, but had been at least well organized and pleasant on other cruises). As passengers made their way to the meeting point, we were gathered into rows and tightly “stacked” into an alcove where there was NO breeze and no view of anything other than three walls and the ship’s deck. The motion of the Sky reacting to the wakes of other cruise ships passing on their way out to sea, along with the lack of breeze and sight of the horizon, quickly turned this group green-gilled as the crew tried to hold our attention while demonstrating how to wear a life vest. I recalled the old TV commercial jingle, “Aren’t you glad you use Dial… Don’t you wish everyone did?” as we were packed like woozy sardines for the mandatory drill. Yuck.
We quickly retreated to our cabin for refreshments (a fresh fruit basket and hors oeuvres) as we prepared to sail away from Miami. We got up-close views of the Pearl as she made her way out, along with a few other cruise lines’ ships.
Because we had dinner reservations for the next three nights at the specialty restaurants (we took advantage of the $119/person advance sale from NCL) we opted to hit the buffet on this, our only “available” night. Nothing to write home about, but I was happy to find some Indian fare and enjoyed watching the other people in the Garden Café.
There are no “early” shows aboard the Sky, only after dinner shows (9-ish) and, so, we didn’t attend any although we had reserved seating at all because of our suite. Sorry we’re such early birds!
When asked by our Concierge, John, whether he could do anything for us, I asked whether he could arrange a private tour of the bridge. I’ve seen this done on both the Dawn and the Jewel for Owners Suite passengers and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. John said he would do his best but reminded me this was his first week on the ship.
Tuesday morning we awoke to find ourselves anchored off the NCL private island, “Great Stirrup Cay” which is beautiful, to say the least. We had priority tender tickets (cut the queue whenever you’re ready to go) so we had breakfast in the room, packed some comfort items and off we went for the day. We were escorted by John down the back stairs and directly to the head of the tender boarding queue. The trip ashore was quick and thrilling as the sea was quite choppy.
We were met ashore by a guide who drove us to our reserved cabana where we were afforded shelter from the sun as needed, comfy lounge chairs, a refrigerator full of bottled water, and a dining table and chairs for the mountain of food which would be delivered later.
The previous evening, we had been presented with a menu of items which could be provided at the cabana. It included a shrimp offering, other seafood, or an assortment of “snack” foods including prosciutto, humus, cheeses, breads, artichoke hearts, etc. Each selection was listed as “serves two.” Since I’m a vegetarian and we had dinner reservations for that night, we opted to go for two orders of the snack foods thinking that would be a light option. There was, of course, a barbeque which would be open to all passengers, just up the beach.
OMG. Soon after we had settled in to the sunny porch of the cabana, a John Deere tractor arrived pulling a wagon filled with food! One snack offering would have easily fed six people and we had ordered two! We ate our fill and began hailing other people off the beach to come eat. Most passengers had opted to stay at the front of the island and probably didn’t even know this other section existed so our population for the day was very light. But, we did our best to give away as much as we could so as not to waste it. It was delicious, by the way, just way too much for the three of us. This proved to be an excellent means of meeting others, I must say.
We spent the afternoon sunning, walking and eating. The beach was nearly empty and very peaceful which is exactly what we wanted. What a wonderful day!
When it was time to head back, we walked through the “main” area where the barbeque buffet had been organized and where probably 98% of the passengers had spent the day. At its peak, we may have had ten people on “our” beach although there were hundreds of lounge chairs set up.
As we neared the boarding area for the tender, we were given a cool, wet cloth to assist with de-sanding. What a treat!
We took a 4:00 tender back to the ship to get cleaned up and ready for dinner. Again, we had no problems with boarding, seating or travel even though the sea was a bit rough.
Dinner Tuesday night was in Il Adagio. The service was not stellar, but adequate. The food was tasty and well presented. Definitely worth the price but nothing to write home about.
We slept very soundly this second night.
Wednesday morning we awoke to the sounds of Nassau. We got dressed and went up to Cagney’s for breakfast. The French Toast was absolutely wonderful. My comrades had eggs and bacon prepared exactly to their liking. Then we were off to Sea and See.
We disembarked at the pier and wandered around, walking off the breakfast, while we waited for our tour group to assemble. When called, we followed our guide a point where our first tour boat collected us and took us eastward into Nassau Harbor. The guide was very funny as he pointed out the different home sites of the rich and famous, expounded on the going rate for condos on Paradise Island and other interesting tales. He left no room for boredom if one could be bored surrounded with such beauty.
We soon arrived at the SeaWorld Explorer which is not a glass-bottomed boat but, rather, a boat which has a second deck five feet below the water line with glass windows, ample seating and air conditioning! The guide was well informed about the various sea life as the boat maneuvered around the reef. This was the perfect way to experience undersea life without a snorkel or tank (which my mother would never do).
After the tour, our transport boat returned and took us back to the pier near our starting point where an air conditioned luxury coach awaited. This one hour city tour of Nassau was also very interesting and, afterward, we were dropped the pier. We opted to go shopping before returning to the ship.
The Nassau Straw Market is not the place for the faint of heart.
First, EVERY booth in the crowded, covered area has exactly the same merchandise as every other booth. The merchants are extremely aggressive, can be insulting if you turn down their offerings, and do not admit to having correct change – they want you to take more merchandise in lieu of change. If, however, you try to cancel the sale, they miraculously find change.
Secondly, there is NO air circulating beyond the boots at the doorways. See, also, point number one. There is no reason to venture further into the building as every merchant has exactly the same wares.
We bought souvenir shirts, caps, etc., from the stores on Bay Street – all of which had the same goods as the straw market plus more upscale offerings. My advice is to not even set foot in the Straw Market. It left me with a sadness for the apparent desperation of the merchants which, even though this may be reality, did not add anything positive to my happy vacation experience.
At the suggestion of our concierge, John D’Souza, we had a late lunch at Athena Café, a Greek restaurant occupying the second floor above a jewelry shop on Bay Street. We finished the time ashore with a few more shops (Rolex, Diamonds International) then headed back to the ship.
Some NCL crew members were on the pier offering cold lemonade and ice water to returning passengers. Unfortunately, they were set up about five feet from the entry ramp where all drinks must be disposed of prior to boarding. Perhaps another 30 feet or so down the pier would have been ideal.
We were back on board in time to clean up and rest on the balcony (and sample the delicious canapés which had been delivered to our suite earlier in the afternoon) with gorgeous views of the harbor before heading off to dinner at LeBistro.
As the sun set, we could see lights off in the distance and moving toward us. As they got closer, we were able to see that this was another ship, larger than the Sky. I pulled out my camera and zoomed in on the ship. “I know that hull art!” was all I could say as the NCL Getaway came into view! She was on her first voyage from New York to the Bahamas and then into Miami, her new home port. We have a cruise booked on her a year from now and can hardly wait. It was so nice to see her out sailing!
LeBistro, however, was a tad disappointing. The food was good but the service was incredibly slow and we couldn’t determine a cause. There were plenty of servers and the maître d’ was amazing. Our server, Ferdinand, remained pleasant at all times but food for his passengers was arriving at a much slower pace than the other servers’ food. A three-course dinner took almost as many hours.
We stopped on the way back to the suite to drop off an order form for two Cruise Deposits. They were going for $250 with an automatic $100 credit to the onboard spending account and are good for four years from date of purchase.
Waiting in our suite was an invitation from the Concierge for a private tour of the bridge Thursday afternoon “at 4:00 Sharp.” The excursion we had purchased for the following day was to fish the salt flats. Now, when we purchased the excursion on line a few months back, the start time was listed as 08:15 and the duration was for five hours. The excursion tickets in our suite, however, showed the start time had been moved to 13:30 and the five hours would have taken us to 18:30 which would have interfered with both our dinner arrangements for Cagney’s as well as the tour of the bridge.
A phone call to the concierge explaining that we did not want to miss the tour and that the time had been changed from when our excursion was originally booked, resulted in his being able to cancel the excursion at no cost to us. The day is saved!
Thursday arrived as we tied off in Freeport. There was an amazing little market just off the ship and taxis were available to drive us approximately 30 minutes into Freeport for shopping. We opted to shop at these local shops and forego the one hour back and forth.
The merchants here were incredibly easy going and so much more polite than the Straw Market vendors in Nassau. Consequently, we spent both a lot more time shopping and a great deal more money.
We returned to the suite to get cleaned up and dressed to meet the Captain. We were at our appointed meeting spot at 15:55 but… no Concierge. As we waited for John to appear, other passengers began congregating in the area and it soon became apparent that our private tour had become a meet and greet for several suites.
Oh, John, you were moving up our “atta boy” list so quickly and now, this!
John finally materialized at 16:15 and, after brief apologies, led us to the bridge. As the Captain opened the door to the bridge, John said rather sheepishly, “There are eleven in the group, Captain!” The look on the Captain’s face told us that he, too, thought this was a private tour for one suite and not a meet and greet. Graciously, the Captain took us all in, gave us a lovely tour, answered all of our rooky questions and posed for pictures.
Since we had some time to kill before dinner, we went to the ship’s store to spend the $200 which had been credited to our account. Then, off to dinner.
Cagney’s was a nice way to wrap up our short cruise. The food was good, the service was excellent. The staff all knew us by this point in the trip and were incredibly accommodating.
After dinner, we made the rounds locating and showing our appreciation to those who had made our short little “thawing” cruise so much fun.
Friday morning found us already docked in Miami as the sun came up. Since we had packed the night before, we needed only to get dressed and get off the ship. Again, we were in the priority group and were first off the ship. This meant we cleared Customs with no wait which was a very good thing because our tour guide from Tours by Locals had telephoned an hour earlier saying he was at the port and would pick us up as soon as we were ready.
We were delighted to meet Steven Bridges who took us for a customized tour of Fort Lauderdale as we had requested historical information on the area. Steven gave us the history of the first settlers, how the area came to be named, and showed us around the area which had been the first settlement, ferry, bridge, trading post, hotel… all the way through to the point where Al Capone’s men bootlegged whiskey to the weary travelers. Such a wonderful tour guide, we hope to meet him again in 2015 around our Getaway cruise.
All in all, it was a glorious trip. I got to spend time with my mother and my husband, was able to forget about work, knew my two furry children (Rottweilers) were safe at home and being well looked after, got to see some absolutely beautiful places, spent less than I had budgeted, and didn’t gain an ounce of weight.
Life is good.
American Airlines in Miami decided that someone more important needed one of the seats we had been assigned and, thus, moved my mother to another row. Bummer. So, I took a nap. I heard the pilot announce that we were preparing to land in Dallas where the temperature was 31 degrees and it was sleeting. Again. Darn.