I've been writing this review in my head since the moment I stepped on to Norwegian Breakaway on Feb. 2, and, over the last week, I've realized there's no way I can make this review sound like I wasn't paid off by NCL. (I wasn't, I swear.)
I know there are some cruisers who like to hear about every minute detail as they plan their trips, and others who just prefer the bottom line. So for the latter, here it is: This was unequivocally the most incredible, gorgeous, amazing, impressive ship I've ever been on. I could unspool a list of adjectives a mile long and still feel like I didn't do it justice. My only fear is that I'm now so spoiled that no ship will ever be able to match up to the splendor that is the Norwegian Breakaway.
For the former … here's plenty of detail, coming at you!
Just for a little background, I'm 33, married, no kids, total cruise junkie. This was cruise #11 for us, #6 on Norwegian. To get an idea of what I'm comparing this cruise to, our previous cruises were on Caribbean Princess, Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas, Carnival Conquest (2x), Carnival Miracle, Norwegian Gem (2x), Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Spirit.
NCL is definitely our cruise line of choice. I know some people feel that they're "nickeled and dimed" on NCL, but I see it differently: I regard it as having more options. Yes, there are more restaurants with surcharges, but you don't HAVE to go there. You can have a perfectly delicious meal every night in one of the 2-3 included main dining rooms. Yes, you can pay to have pizza delivered to you wherever you are on the ship … but you can also go get it for free in the buffet. You can pay to attend dinner theater … or you can attend the free shows. You can have just a good of a time by not shelling out an extra penny or you can spend a small fortune. It's up to you.
I'm a firm believer that a day on a ship is always better than a day on land, and when I hear people crabbing about little things before we even get on board (as we did this cruise), I really want to just advise them to stay home and crab there instead. ;) Lighten up, people, it's vacation!
What kind of idiots book a cruise out of the area hosting the Super Bowl and don't realize it until about two months before? Yeah, that was us. Oops. We live in Michigan and like to leave out of NYC because (a) we can drive, because I hate flying and (b) the port is so well organized. We usually stay in Secaucus, NJ, leave our car at the hotel for the week and pay for a car to take us from NJ to NYC. Well, with the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands, that plan was clearly not going to work, so we stayed in Mount Laurel, NJ, about two hours away, and had the car take us from there. Despite all of our worries, we hit zero traffic and got to the port very early. Even with the Norwegian Getaway docked alongside of us and rented out by Bud Light as the "Bud Light Hotel" for the Super Bowl — which necessitated a few tweaks in the usual embarkation process — everything seemed to run very smoothly. We were on board and happily eating lunch at the Garden Café by 11:30 a.m.
The appearance of this ship is beyond comparison. Anyone who's cruised Carnival, NCL, RCCL, etc. is accustomed to the in-your-face style of a lot of cruise ship decor. Sometimes it's fun and whimsical; sometimes it's obnoxious. Breakaway is different. It is, in a word, lovely. Very understated, simple modernity. It's elegant without being stuffy. In general, there's lots of metal, dark wood, clean lines. The main halls and stairs are blue, with seascapes and mirrors on the walls in between decks. The furnishings are comfortable and modern-looking.
And, of course, there was plenty of Peter Max, not only on the hull of the ship — which was adorned with his signature Statue of Liberty head, planets, birds, musical notes, etc. — but also throughout the ship. I love Peter Max, so this was just the cherry on the sundae for me.
The layout was extremely efficient on Breakaway. Things were so artfully arranged that there was only one time (when the muster drill let out and everyone went bonkers and rushed into the hallways and elevator lobbies) that I truly felt like I was on a ship with 5,000 other people. The rest of the time, passenger traffic moved well, and there were many times, especially in the mornings, when I felt like I was alone on the ship. If people could just remember that stairways are two-way deals, that would help. ;)
We had a spa balcony, 14122 (forward), which had, again, a very understated, calming feel and motif. The room was laid out very efficiently. I'd read a lot of complaints about the size of the balconies, but we found ours sufficient. Does it fit two chairs and a table? Does it face the great outdoors? OK, great, works for me.
The bathroom felt like the largest we'd ever had. Lots of shelf space and a shower you could actually turn around in without smashing your face into the wall.
There were a lot of neat technological touches in the room. In lieu of the wheel you turned to request service, indicate "do not disturb," etc. on the Gem, the Breakaway has actual tiny lights over the door that you switch on from within your room. Red = do not disturb, green = make up the room. Also, the activation of electricity in the room required your room key, so a white light went on above the door when the room was occupied.
So many pretty public spaces, and all with their own flair! A well-organized cluster of shops; the dark wood, leather and plaid-upholstered chairs of Malting's Beer & Whiskey Bar; the pink, yellow and white theme in Shaker's Martini Bar; the wooden chairs and framed portraits of comedians in Headliners; the purple-hued lighting and exposed brick of Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Bar; the warm hues and images of Italy in La Cucina … every room just felt so distinct. I loved it.
My husband, an avid cigar smoker, was relieved that there was a cigar bar, a feature that's been eliminated on some ships and relegated to a hole in the wall on others. I'm always perplexed about why cigar smokers are restricted to this one room, when cigarette smokers have far more options (including the casino). But whatever, he was just happy it existed, and even had a little area outside, directly adjacent, where cigar smoking was permitted.
Once place we didn't check out was the Ice Bar, where everything's supposedly made of ice and the room is chilled to 17 degrees. There was a surcharge ($20, I think?), which included a couple of drinks. Though I was curious, since I don't like vodka and I had plenty of ice to last me a lifetime in Michigan this winter, thank you very much, I decided it wasn't worth the cost.
If you've never been in the Exotic Thermal Suite on an NCL ship … GO. This is always the highlight of our trip, as we're big fans of just kicking back and reading and relaxing, especially in low-traffic areas. NCL sells passes to this area on each ship, and the number is limited, so you usually have to snag them the first day. It is worth the price. Trust me here. Especially on Breakaway, where the suite was twice the size as other ships. There are rows of plush lounge chairs, heated tile chairs, steam rooms, saunas, a hot tub and a thalassotherapy pool. On Breakaway, there was even a sanarium — a sauna with higher humidity — and a salt bath. The cost would have been $199 per person for the trip, but with the spa balcony, admission was included. Did I mention IT'S WORTH IT?
I had a reflexology treatment during the cruise, and it was great. Very relaxing, and they didn't try to sell me a bunch of junk. Fun bonus: Being in a spa balcony, they opened up a "secret door" post-treatment that spit me right back out into my hallway. Fun stuff.
I also loved being in close proximity to the gym, adjacent to the spa. There's a nice assortment of treadmills, ellipticals and bikes, plus a separate room across the hallway with weight machines and free weights. There were various classes available, though they seemed pricey compared to Carnival's and I didn't partake this time. I'm a morning gym rat, and I've learned that if you don't just open the door yourself at 6 a.m., you may be waiting all day. So I (and other morning gym rats) did just that, and the workers didn't really protest. Morning gym rats tend to be a punctual sort, and ship gyms … not so much. By 8 a.m., the place was full, so I liked to get it all out of the way at 6 a.m. ;)
There were two main adult pools, plus multiple watersides that looked fun but I never got around to trying. There also was a Spongebob Squarepants-themed children's pool. Several hot tubs were staggered throughout the ship, including two in Spice H20, an adults-only section on Deck 16 aft that hosted various parties and, as it was equipped with a giant screen, sometimes showed movies. I liked going out there in the morning, when they'd have "Sunrise Earth"-like feeds of waterfalls and sunrises and such on the screen.
I was excited to try the ropes course on board, but it turns out I'm a total wuss. I had fully planned to "walk the plank" — a balance beam that extends out over the side of the ship — but I found myself a little too nervous, even though you're tethered in. I did wander around (precariously) on the obstacles for a bit and did the zipline, which was a rush! The sports staffers were nice and patient and helped us nervous nellies navigate the bridges and beams. After that, I was ready to try the rock climbing wall, something I've been vowing to do on every ship that has one, but never have. It was really fun — and a good workout!
I've loved the food on NCL in the past, and this was no exception. I think NCL has the best buffet of any cruise line, hands down. They have a fantastic salad bar and tons of ethnic and American choices, from pizza and burgers to stir fry and Indian cuisine to fresh carving stations and ice cream … you name it.
The main dining rooms also are consistently good, with a wide range of choices. On Breakaway, there's the larger, more elaborate dining room, The Manhattan Room, and then two smaller dining rooms, Taste and Savor, which have a slightly different menu than Manhattan Room each night. That was always fun: to pass by in the morning and check out the menus at the different restaurants to see which ones sounded best for that evening.
There also is a slew of other options. We went to Moderno Chiarrascurria, the Brazilian steakhouse, on the first night. The servers pass by with different meats, and you place a card green side up or red side up to alert them on whether they should stop at your table or not. They would shave off meat right onto your plate, including chicken, pork, beef, lamb and sausage. I'm not much of a meat person, but I was in heaven because there was an enormous salad bar. Besides traditional assemble-your-own staples like dressing, lettuce, croutons, tomatoes, etc., there was a huge assortment of cheeses and pre-made salads: mushroom salads and ceviche and asparagus with relish and bean salads and … It was paradise for a salad pig like me!
We also went to Cagney's Steakhouse, where I had awesome lamb chops, mac and cheese and a tasty brownie for dessert, and La Cucina, where I pretty much ate myself sick on bread with various infused olive oils, chicken parmigiana, pizza and tiramisu.
In the atrium was Carlo's Bake Shop, an a la carte specialty coffee bar and pastry place that had the most amazing chocolate cannoli I'd ever had, plus really good Americano that was worth the up charge. You could also buy bread, cookies, cupcakes, miniature cheesecakes and tiramisu, and also purchase made-to-order full-sized cakes.
O'Sheehan's is the free anytime restaurant that took the place of Blue Lagoon from other NCL ships. It had an Irish pub vibe and rolled in not only dining, but two bowling lanes (tucked away — I don't think some people even knew they were there), air hockey, etc., plus a bar-rimmed overlook to the main atrium a deck below, from which you could watch movies on the big screen.
Other food options, which we didn't try, included Ocean Blue, an upscale seafood restaurant (which sounded delicious, but I just couldn't get myself to fork over the $49/person surcharge); Le Bistro, the French restaurant; and Teppanyaki, where Japanese food meets performance art. (We've been on Le Bistro and Teppanyaki on other NCL ships and enjoyed them both.) There were also several smaller a la carte places: the Raw Bar (smaller seafood dishes), Shanghai (noodle bar), Wasabi (sushi bar) and Dolce Gelato (outdoor gelato).
One of the cool things about Breakaway was that many of the specialty restaurants had outdoor seating available via "The Waterfront," an area that wrapped around Deck 8 on both sides. Le Bistro also had seating in a smaller atrium that had the feel of a city street but was done, in my opinion, much more efficiently than the promenade concept on RCCL's Explorer of the Seas.
You could also order pizza around the clock and have it delivered anywhere on the ship for a $5 fee. Room service was free, as usual — except for a $3.95 fee between midnight and 5 a.m., which was something that I'd never seen before but which probably makes sense.
We purchased the eight-bottle Viva Vino wine package that got us 20% off the usual bottle prices. It was a limited list, but we were able to find some very good selections — our favorite being the North & South red blend under Norwegian's own label. Upon ordering the package at the beginning of the cruise, we were given tickets with the names of the wines, and the servers would go get them for us when we wanted one in a bar, restaurant, etc. If we didn't finish it, we could take it to our room, carry it with us elsewhere on the ship or leave it at that restaurant/bar, where it would be tagged for later retrieval. It was a very efficient system, and we were very pleased with it.
I have to admit that I have a very short attention span, so I'm not a big "show" person.
We didn't do the Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, a dinner show offered in a special room, the Spiegel Tent, that resembled a circus tent. Heard it was very neat, though. We went to "Rock of Ages," NCL's version of the Broadway musical, in the Breakaway Theater. It's set in the 80s and has some rough language and some … slinky costumes, so it's not for children or the easily offended. ;) Of which apparently there were many, as we saw many … older folks … fleeing the theater mid-show, grumbling about the questionable content. Again … lighten up! We didn't go to "Burn the Floor." a ballroom dancing show, but we heard that was quite good, too.
We checked out the dueling pianos in Headliners, which was OK, and one of The Second City performances, which was hands-down the funniest Second City show I've ever seen on a ship (it all hinges on how well the crowd plays along with the improv). The best entertainment, though, was the Slam Allen Blues Band in Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Lounge. Slam was so incredible that I would have paid good money to see him in a regular venue onshore!
There were movies shown on the big screen in the atrium and on the outdoor screen in Spice H20, which was pretty neat. There were the obligatory art auctions (which I usually enjoy, too) and various dance parties, and on one night, fireworks!
Because of the size of the ship, most entertainment required tickets, most of which were free but which helped to distribute the crowds. I thought it worked very well. I booked most of our tickets on iConcierge, the iPhone app for Breakaway and Epic. Which leads me to …
iConcierge was pretty cool. You could download it for free on your phone prior to boarding the ship, then connect to it using Breakaway's wi-fi. I had been warned that it was $7.95 to use it during the cruise, but it turned out that was only if you wanted to activate a feature that allowed you to message and call other passengers on the ship. I couldn't care less about that, so I just used it to book entertainment tickets and make specialty restaurant reservations. One small complaint: There was a feature that was supposed to allow you to review all of the activities on the different days, but it never seemed to sync with what was actually going on, so you had to double check everything in the written Freestyle Daily.
I had read countless reviews on Breakaway before departure in which people bemoaned the service. These people must have encountered a completely different staff than we did. This was, by far, the best service we've ever had on an NCL ship.
Service is one area in which we've found NCL lacking a bit in the past, especially in the main dining rooms. We've generally written it up to the fact that since you don't dine at the same table with the same server every night like on many other cruise lines, there's not a whole lot of incentive for the servers to bend over backwards for you. But it was different on Breakaway. Without fail, the servers, stewards, crew members etc. were friendly, welcoming, accommodating and helpful.
Our stateroom steward, Aron, was an energetic, funny guy who always greeted us by name all the way down the hallway. We loved him. And what's awesome is that even the other stewards on our deck who had nothing to gain from being pleasant to us were always going out of their way to greet us and smile and chat with us. It was such a nice feeling to walk down the hall every morning and say hi to all of the friendly stewards.
If there's one critique, it would be that I wish I'd felt more of a connection with the cruise director and his staff. Dan seemed very nice on announcements and when you'd see him around the ship, but without nightly shows or a morning show on TV, like some ships have, I didn't feel any connection to him. There have been some cruises where I felt like the cruise director was a major part of the appeal.
I'm not going to be of much help here, because I definitely booked this cruise for the ship, not the itinerary. I've already been to the Bahamas and I don't even bother getting off at Port Canaveral. I'm just happy when I can see a palm tree and get some sun. Great Stirrup Cay, the private island, was under construction last time we visited in 2011, and it's definitely changed a lot. There seems to be a lot of options for water sports, etc., but it felt kind of … fake, like a summer camp. We took the tender over — it was very organized — just to sit in the sun for a bit and walk in the water, but then we headed back. We're ship dwellers, for the most part. ;) In Nassau, we walked to Graycliff, a hidden gem not far from the pier. It's a resort with a sprawling, gorgeous garden, a chocolate factory, a cigar factory, pools and more, but you would never know from the street. It's very nondescript. My husband wanted to check out the cigar factory, and it was very neat. They have seven employees who sit in a room and roll all of their cigars. They were very friendly and let us watch them for a bit. The gardens were quite impressive and made for a lot of beautiful pictures.
Easy, breezy — love the Port of Manhattan! We were docked before 8 and we were off the ship by 9:30. The porters are fast and no-nonsense in NYC, and customs moves quickly. Love it.
SO, TO WRAP IT UP …
NCL already had me, but now they -really- have me. I am an over-the-moon NCL cheerleader after this wonderful voyage. If Breakaway is the direction NCL is going … I can't wait to see what's next!
Please feel free to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I took hundreds of pictures, too, and I'm happy to share!
Just remember: (1) You're on vacation (2) you're on vacation and (3) please, for the love of god, maintain two-way traffic on the stairs! ;)