Cabin Fever Cruise 2004
(This cruise was taken when the Pride of Aloha was the NCL Sky)
I'd like to start this review off with a short story of how I found this particular cruise. Maybe it'll help some future cruisers think through the process of booking. For those of you not interested in my lengthy ramblings, feel free to skip to the next line and save yourself twenty minutes of suffering.
I was feeling like the thief who didn't get caught. The exhilaration of getting in and getting out undetected. And the subsequent irresistible feeling that I want to do it again. With the same result - leave the premises with a treasure trove of riches and revel in my good fortune. That's what sailing on the Sky the week of January 18th to 25th felt like. Maybe it wasn't robbery, but it still was a thrill! Here's how it all came about.....
I was browsing the net one cool fall Sunday afternoon. The football game was about to start. The Redskins were pathetic this year, so the better of two alternatives was to check my email. Something popped up on my email cruise specials "radar screen." Could it be? A 7 day cruise for UNDER $300! Did it include port charges? There must be some catch. It must be some second rate cruiseline. It must be some old smelly, smoking, worn out garbage scowl with bunk beds, bed bugs and leaky toilets.
But wait. Says here it's the Norwegian Sky. We've been on that ship. It was our first Freestyle cruise and we had a ball! And that includes port charges and tax! AhhhhHA!... There is a catch. We have to fly to San Juan in January. The rates must be astronomical, or you must have to switch planes three times to get there. I'm not going to switch planes in Chicago or St. Louis in the winter. Or JFK. The last time out of there, Barb had a COMPLETE nervous breakdown on the prop plane coming home (this is not an exaggeration). But hey, the Skins game was usually over by half time, so I thought I'd do a little research.
An inside GTY for $299. Well, we'd stayed in an inside the last time on the Sky. In fact in 18 cruises, it's the only inside we had ever had. It would be a long way from the penthouse on our last cruise on the Radiance OTS, but the price was just too tempting to ignore. But last time we had the highest category inside- an II. Who knows where we would end up? I knew the lower categories were smaller, but I also knew we wouldn't get a bunk bed. (Hey, what's romantic about bunk beds!?) I could live with a small inside.
The ship itself was nearly new when we sailed her last. Had she deteriorated to the point that NCL now had to give cruises away her to fill her up? Hmmmmm...says here the ship is almost full. And balconies and suites are almost sold out. At a lot higher prices. Let's check the reviews. I waded through a half dozen or so. I found the usual "everything was great," and "everything sucked" reviews. But most were positive. I emailed a few people and posted some notes on the internet boards. Most responses were positive. I decided it was time to look for airfare.
I love the matrix on Orbitz.com. It's great for researching the airfare of most major airlines that fly to the same destination. (But I'm boycotting them right now for a big snafu from our cruise a year ago. For reasons why, read my NCL Dawn review). I typed in one of the available dates and voila! Round trip, non-stop from Dulles International to Jose Marin in San Juan arriving Saturday at 2:30 PM the day before. $281 per person. That's almost $100 less than we paid last time and we had to fly to JFK and back! We'd get back the following Sunday at around 8 PM. That's kinda late, and we normally like a day to decompress before getting back to the real world, but this wasn't shaping up too bad.
We always like to get into the port city a day ahead, too. Travel in this day and age can be iffy, but especially in winter. So the next step was to look at a hotel. Last time we stayed at the Wyndham Old San Juan. We like to get in the middle of the action instead of at the airport and this would have been our preferred location. But as most of your experienced travelers to San Juan know, there is no such thing as a cheap, GOOD hotel in old San Juan. We were prepared to spend up to $200 for a nice hotel room as long as it was in the old part of the city. Just cab fares alone would cost a lot if we stayed somewhere else. Besides, we love old San Juan, and we HAD to go to the Parrot Club and some of our other favorites spots. The ability to walk to them was worth a few extra bucks.
A search on the usual search engines didn't yield anything we were interested in. The Wyndham was booked solid. El Convento was, too. Seems all the hotels were near capacity. We found out why. The San Sebastian Festival was that weekend. Some people compare it to Mardi Gras without the "Show your Tits" mentality. To me it was a big friendly outdoor party and street festival. All the bars and restaurants on San Sebastian Street remained open nearly all night. During the day San Sebastian Street was filled with artists, food vendors, musicians, and lots and lots of people. It turned out to be a great festival!
We didn't know too much about the other hotels in the area and didn't want to stay at the airport, Isla Morada or 50 miles away in Condado. Then we'd have to spend a lot of time and money in cabs or rent a car and drive it to OSJ. Have you ever tried to find a parking spot in Old San Juan? And with the festival that weekend, it would be a tough time for a cab driver. Then we heard about a small hotel on Frommer's website - the Gallery Inn. It was at the top of San Juan Hill and overlooked the ocean on Calle Norzagaray Street. That would also mean that the hotel would back right up to Calle San Sebastian, the epicenter of the Festival. Kewl! It had rooms for under $200. I found their website, www.thegalleryinn.com and checked it out. I sent them and email to check on the availability of a room fronting the ocean on Calle Norzagaray. We wanted to at least get a LITTLE sleep before the cruise! They had rooms. With the steep hotel tax it came to around $222. That was almost as much as a whole week's cruise for one of us! But this wasn't unexpected, so I started to do the math. I guess it's my estimator training.
Anyway here is how it was starting to shape up for our winter relief "budget" cruise:
Cruise- $274 X 2 = $548 (My agent discounted the fare by 5%) Airfare- $281 X 2 = $562 Hotel - $222 Cab Fare - Average $15 per trip X 5 = $75 (We planned to spend disembarkation day in OSJ, too, so I figured SJU to OSJ, OSJ to Sky, Sky to SJU, SJU to OSJ, OSJ to SJU) Tipping - $10 X 7 X 2 = $140 Miscellaneous - $800 (I always figure $100 per day for shopping, excursions, food and beverages on shore, extra tips, etc.) Onboard Account - $500 (Of course this was assuming we didn't go overboard on drinks, alternative restaurants, souveniers, etc.) Airport Parking - $8 X 8 days = $81
So all of a sudden, this $299 had turned into......$2,923!!
OK, so maybe it wasn't all that cheap. But I still felt like I was stealing something. And considering the fact that just the cabin on our last cruise on the Radiance was almost the same amount, at least it looked manageable.
Yes, it's possible to do it for even less. Fly in the same day. Drink only smuggled booze. Don't take any trips on the islands. Don't shop or buy any souvenirs. But get REAL. I'm on vacation for crying out loud!
I wanna do and see and enjoy as much as I can!!
I'm thinking that NCL knew this when they dangled that tantalizing chuck of fresh meat in front of a "Cruisivore" like me. Naturally, I ate it up, biting off each bit at a time and savoring every last morsel. I can honestly say that I would never have booked this cruise if I had not been on the Sky previously. I would have been scared off by the price alone. I'm a firm believer in, "If it's too good to be true, it usually is." But if there is such a thing as a "Bargain" cruise, then this might have been it! We had a glorious time on a beautiful ship with good food, a friendly crew, great new and old friends, near perfect weather, interesting ports, and the price including airfare, pre-cruise hotel and ALL expenses was under $1500 per person. Put in perspective and with the riches I came home with, I still consider that a bargain.
So now I'm booked. All that's left is to go and have fun. And we did in BIG way. Was everything perfect? No. But the little things that weren't just right were not cruise wreckers and most were not really unexpected.
As usual, I'll start my review with some basic info, demographics, a disclaimer and the THREE QUESTIONS:
Ship: Norwegian Sky Itinerary: Exotic Southern Caribbean. San Juan, St. Thomas/St. John, Antigua, Martinique, St. Maarten, Tortola BVI, Day at Sea. Travelers: Jerry and Barb Hoehn and some "Friends of MrTractor" or FOMT as we are affectionately know on the chat boards. Travel Date: January 18th to the 25th, 2004 Ages: Mid to late 40s (OK, so maybe one of our group has slipped into the 50s) Cruises: 17 total (I think)- CCL, RCI, Premier, HAL, NCL, Celebrity, Windjammer, and Princess. Stateroom: 0317. Category II Superior Inside. Starboard Amidship. Agent: Cruiseshopping.com (Free Plug).
As in the past, I'll start my review with a quick summary and some tips that might help you get more out of your week at sea. Then I'll go into detail for those of you brave enough to continue reading my ramblings.
*************IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT************* This review is just one man's opinion with some input from his wife. I am reviewing MY experience on the Norwegian Sky during this one week. YMMV (Your mileage may vary). I go into every cruise expecting it to be the cruise of a lifetime. I try not to get my expectations up too high, but sometimes this isn't possible. The short version of MY cruise review is that we a great time and nearly every aspect met or exceeded my expectations. Your expectations and your experience will undoubtedly be very different. I spend the time to write these reviews with one purpose in mind. To help the next guy have a great cruise, too. ******************************************************* What I Liked About This Sky Cruise - Cabin - for an inside it was more than adequate. Cleanliness - the ship was well maintained. Price - see above The Passenger Mix - not an overwhelming number of kids or the elderly. We were talking to one couple that was on a Carnival ship and they said it was chock full of people pulling oxygen tanks. That was surprising. Room Steward- hardly saw him, but he did a nice job. Wine Stewards- we missed having someone to handle this on the other lines. The Windjammer Lounge- great place for a martini and the music was fun. We even danced right there on the carpet! Disco- it was always happening after 9 PM either with live music, fun and games, karaoke or a DJ. Way to keep the party going, CD staff! Security - I felt like they had the program down pretty well. I suppose nothing is foolproof, but I thought they took every reasonable step to insure our safety. Pools and Hot Tubs- plenty of pool space and never crowded. The hot tubs were a little crowded from time to time, but that made for a lot of camaraderie! Alternative Restaurants (Especially Horizons) - some people resent having to pay an extra fee for something that used to be free. But I didn't feel the dining room experience was diluted to encourage the use of alternatives. I just felt like the alternatives were just that much more special if you wanted to upgrade your evening's meal. Entertainment- All around the best at sea from the dancers, magicians, comedians, musicians, singers, lounge acts and game shows. Bar Service- they stayed in the background until you needed them and fixed a great drink 24 Hour Pizza- it was nice to know there was always someplace you could get a bite after a long night of revelry Freestyle- it's all about the freedom of choice. I know that presents some challenges for some people who don't mix easily, but for us, the trade off is more than worth it Ports- I would have liked to have one more sea day, but other than Martinique, I wouldn't have wanted to miss a single one of them. They were all interesting and different in their own way. And because the islands weren't that far from each other, it didn't seem like the ship was racing from one to the other. Casino - yes, I made my contribution to the casino, but the dealers were generally friendly and patient and it seemed like you could always find a seat at a table when you wanted to. Room Service- we used the cards the first couple of mornings, but then we just called. We had our order within minutes each time. Photographers - very professional and not at all pushy or intrusive. We had a great group shot taken with the Captain, and since this was his LAST WEEK before retirement, he stood with us as proud as a peacock. Good Luck, Old Salt! Food- not spectacular, but a varied menu and the food was nicely seasoned and presented reasonably well. Not a bad meal all week. Embarkation- Quick and painless Disembarkation- the best in the business for mass market lines HANDS DOWN! No Tendering - we docked at every port on this itinerary. No pushing and shoving or VIP's getting off ahead of you
What I Didn't Like About This Sky Cruise- Drink Prices- And they wonder why people smuggle Formal Night- still a mish mash of dress codes on that night. They could tidy this whole concept up a lot or do away with it all together Cruise in Review Video- None Offered Dining Room Service- Especially slow for Breakfast Sightlines in Stardust - Especially the Balcony they were very poor Phone System- no voice mail, so it made it hard to meet someone for a drink before dinner unless you went to their room and left a note
Summary- Rating on a scale of 1-10 - 9
I really thought about rating this cruise higher - 9.5. But in fairness to our past cruise experiences on other lines that do some things better, Barb and I settled on a nice tidy 9. But in terms of meeting our expectations going in, this cruise was a 10. We knew that with Freestyle, you give up the friendly personal dining room service, but you get the flexibility that we enjoy. We knew we would have a basic inside cabin without a butler, concierge, balcony or even a window. But we actually find that we get out and do more on the ship and meet more people when we don't have a fancy room. I think I would have been content to stay out on the aft balcony of the Radiance and just get room service all week. But we would have missed the fun! We didn't miss much this week, mainly because we didn't have any reason to hang around the room. From now on our "non-budget" cruises will probably just be a standard aft balcony or maybe a mini-suite. We don't want to miss the parties!!!
This was a very port intensive itinerary. We much prefer having the first day as a sea day. It gives us a chance to get settled, find fun people and get familiar with the ship. And after all, the SHIP is the most important destination on any cruise! But none of that detracted from our overall experience. Since we had sailed this ship before, we knew we what we were getting and didn't need to spend a day exploring. The ship was showing a little wear in a few areas, but the Sky and her crew did not disappoint the second time around.
When deciding if I had a good experience on a cruise, I ask my wife and myself a few simple questions:
Did I get my money's worth? In a word, "Yes." See above.
Would I go on this ship again? Absolutely. It may be called the Pride of Aloha, but I wouldn't be surprised if we ended up on her in an island tour of the 50th state!
Did we enjoy ourselves? This was a slam dunk. A wise man once said,
"Quitcherbitchin, It's a cruise for cryin' out loud!"
Me! But the truth is that I hardly had a moment that raised an eyebrow about something I didn't think was right or fair or inappropriate. I'll make a few suggestions later, but I won't spend any time nit picking. There was just too much fun going on to even bother.
And now a few tips that might help you enjoy your cruise a little more.
Freestyle - One of the cruise lines had a slogan that was something like, "It's different out here." Well if you are coming from a traditional cruise experience, you'll find a lot of things different out here on the NCL ships. Go in with the idea that you will have a great deal of freedom, but it won't be as easy to connect with crew members. Not impossible, but it takes a little more effort. Freestyle is more about the other passengers than it is about the crew.
Connect with others on the internet even before you get on the ship. If you aren't computer savvy, don't worry. PEOPLE are generally different on a cruise. Friendlier and less guarded. Just mingle and don't be afraid to talk to people. You'll find someone to go on excursions with, have dinner with and maybe make some great friends. If you want to. If a table for two with your sweetie and a week sitting on your balcony or on the forward decks away from the crowds is what you want, you can have that, too.
Think of the service in the dining room as more like going to a restaurant in your own town. You'll have a different waiter, generally, each night. Some will be better than others. If you find one you like at your favorite restaurant at home, the next time you go there, you might ask for them by name. Do the same here. Dine with them every night if you'd like.
One of the things that is most confusing to passengers, me included, is the dress code. Particularly just exactly what is formal night supposed to mean. I've started more than one thread on the chat boards about NCL's "Formal Optional" night. The last time we were on the Sky, there was one dining room, The Four Seasons, that was the "designated formal dining room." In the Freestyle Daily newsletter, passengers were asked to use one of the other dining rooms if they chose to dress "resort casual."
On this Sky cruise, there was no such announcement in the Daily and no indication that the Four Seasons was the designated formal dining room. It seems that the staff has decided it's just easier to have a totally open dining experience. This isn't my way of looking at it, but just as a way of helping you prepare for your cruise, I would characterize the dress code as this: Men can wear a long pair of pants and a shirt with a collar if you want to - on any night in any dining room. If you want to eat in your shorts, just go to the Garden Cafe or the Great Outdoor restaurant.
Those of you like us who want to go formal, there is one night for that. "Attire: Formal Optional" is the way it's shown on the front page of the Daily. Call me old fashioned, but after 5 Freestyle cruises, I still don't get it. Why can't there be just one formal dining room? Even if it's only in one part of it for a specific period of time? Those of you accustomed to formal nights on Princess, HAL, Celebrity or even Carnival might be a little taken aback. Don't be surprised if you look over at the table next to you and see people dressed like they just came back from the "Jolly Roger Party Boat" excursion. They probably did! Oh, well. This isn't the first time this has happened and unless NCL decides to give passengers a clearer idea of what "formal optional" is, or maybe just reinstitute the original designated formal dining area, this will probably be the norm. Down off my soapbox now. I'm OK. Blood pressure returning to normal. Walt and the EMT staff - stand down.
Just a few thoughts about what has worked for us with Freestyle. With Freestyle you should try to look at what YOU want to do when YOU want to do it. In the morning or the night before, check at the Freestyle Daily newsletter and see what is going on that you want to see or do. Then shape YOUR day around YOUR schedule. If you don't want to miss the Billy Joel Tribute in the Windjammer at 8 PM, then go to dinner early. If Crackpot Jackpot Bingo until 6:30 PM is your thing, then go to dinner late. That's what Freestyle is all about. Once you get the hang of it, it's the greatest.
And NOBODY can touch Freestyle disembarkation. That alone is enough to bring me back to NCL again and again. No lining up at the crack of dawn, a leisurely breakfast and then step off the ship when you're ready. Why is this so hard for others to figure out?
Alternative Restaurants - Here is an important tip for "steerage urchins" like myself. Unless you are in a suite, you can only make a reservation for an alternative a day in advance. The first night or two, there didn't seem to be much problem getting in. But as the week went on and people wanted to try something different, it got harder and harder. So if you think you'd like to try an alternative on Friday night, for example, call the restaurant reservation desk when they open up on Thursday morning. You can always cancel, but if you wait until Friday morning, often suite passengers and others will have them booked. Hope this helps you get the table you want!
Drinks - As with most lines these days, bringing alcohol onboard is prohibited. Security reasons. HA! I won't discuss smuggling here; I'll just say there may have been some of that going on. But if you order a drink, be specific about the size drink what you want. Our friends John and Cynthia like large rum and cokes. In order to avoid getting a souvenir glass every time, they ordered them, "in a tall glass but not souvenir." I saw many souvenir glasses left on the pool deck each day ordered by people who just wanted a large drink. And every one of them cost an extra $2 plus 15% gratuity. If you want to carry a glass around with you all the time, consider getting the "Icicle" glass. It's large and they will refill it for a standard drink price. Ask bar service for details.
Embarkation in San Juan- This ship is docked at the Pan Am pier. It's about a 10 minute cab ride from downtown or most hotels. So don't figure on staying downtown and dragging your bags to the boat. Also, embarkation is later than most domestic cruises. You can get there around 11 AM or so and stand in line for a while, drop your bags and go back to town if you like. Or you can stay on the ship until she sails.
Or you can do what we did. We went there about 2 PM after having a beer at the end of Calle De Christo and shopping in Old San Juan. We checked our bags at the pier, walked right up to the counter for check in and stepped on the ship whenever we were done in the duty free store. We lost a couple hours of "ship time," but we had a nice day in OSJ and the easiest embarkation since the concierge escorted us on the Norwegian Sun. Your choice.
OK. Drum roll please.......................
And now ladies and gentlemen, the full "MrTractor" review of his trip on the Norwegian Sky.........
(Cue the snappy music from the duo of Rick and Vince, one of Mr. Tractor's favorites)...........
(MrTractor bursts from behind the curtain at the Stardust Show Lounge. A white hot spotlight follows him onstage as he enters. This time he's wearing his white tuxedo jacket with silver and white paisley bow tie and cummerbund).
(Rick and Vince finish with a flourish and MrTractor salutes them like Jay Leno acknowledges the Tonite Show Band)
Good evening fellow cruisers and thanks for listening! Tonight I'm inviting every one of you to embark upon a voyage on the first ship ever built with Freestyle cruising in mind. Join the FOMT, new and old, on a voyage where the weather is always perfect. Where there is no rain, only "liquid sunshine." To a place where no one can be grumpy or whiny (for long). Sad faces become happy. And otherwise sane and normal people become cross dressers. Come with me and my fellow adventurers to a place where.......
Doctors don't mind making house calls as long as there's beer!
So turn on some rumba music, get yourself a large rum and coke (tall but not in a souvenir glass), some Wadadli beer or a Painkiller of Guavaberry Colada. Just relax and try to get through this incredibly long but hopefully informative review.
As usual, I didn't take any notes during the cruise, so some of the events may be a little jumbled. All I had time for was doing fun things and meeting nice people. And no grading on spelling or grammar. I am writing this as I decompress from a whopper of a vacation and struggling to use what brain cells I have left. Besides, while I'm on the ship, I'm too busy enjoying myself to write anything down. No flames or nasty email. This is just one man's opinion. Remember, your mileage may vary. (YMMV)
Getting there - United Airlines Nonstop both ways. However, going down was very different than the way back. Mainly because on the way there, we flew in a "Coach Plus" plane. It was more like the American Airlines new coach seats. Lots more leg room and fewer seats total. On the way back, besides the fact that our plane was delayed for mechanical reasons in St. Thomas (that gives you a secure feeling, doesn't it?) and then flew into a snow storm, we were packed in like sardines. And of course at 6'4" I'm crammed into the middle seat with Barb at the window. That's because a guy who weighs around 300 lbs. is in the isle seat. Things weren't too bad at first. But when he falls asleep and relaxes, he begins to expand. Soon he's into half my seat. Stewardesses and passengers heading to the lavatory bump him in the aisle waking him occasionally. This might have been a bad thing, but it was the only thing preventing him from going into full fledged apnea and snoring like a chain saw. This makes for a long ride home. When he is fully rested and awakes, he wants to talk. He did. I listened. When he starts talking about "we" this and "we" that, I finally figured it out. I guess the altitude and the loss of brain cells during the week must have slowed my thinking. As we landed and everyone leaped to their feet as if they could get off, I saw her. HE WAS ON THE PLANE WITH HIS WIFE AND SHE WAS BIGGER THAN HE WAS. SO SINCE THEY COULDN'T SIT TOGETHER, THEY HAD TO SIT NEXT TO AND TORTURE TWO SEPARATE PASSENGER GROUPS. Thank goodness for armrests or he would have been in my lap. Whew! I knew we should have gotten bumped. They would have flown us back first class in those nice big wide seats!!
Pre Cruise - Don't be afraid to stay in San Juan. I felt safer there than I do in most other U. S. cities. The Parrot Club is our favorite, but Dragonfly, Concierto and Barrachina's (Home of the original Pina Colada) are all good places to dine.
We stayed at the Gallery Inn on Norzagaray Street. What a fascinating and warm experience this was. Do yourself a favor and consider staying there. It's everything they say it is and more. The hotel is so unique because the entire hotel is a work of art. Indeed it is the life's work of a wonderful artist and is filled with her own works as well as the works of other fine artists. But besides that, the hotel is warm, friendly, alive with animals and is just like having a home away from home in San Juan.
The owner, Jan DeEsposo's artistic abilities were only exceeded by her charm and hospitality. I strongly urge you to consider staying there.
I have posted a number of pictures from our stay there on www.webshots.com. Try this link: http://community.webshots.com/user/bronzegoddess100 or go to www.webshots.com and search for the member "bronzegoddess100." One of the photo galleries is of our stay at the Gallery Inn in Old San Juan.
They also have a website where you can learn more about this exceptional hotel. http://www.thegalleryinn.com/.
Thanks, Jan, for your friendship and hospitality. I truly did feel like it was my home away from home. See you next time!!!
Embarkation - Because the time for embarkation lasts 10 hours, roughly 11Am to 9 PM, there just isn't the press of humanity trying to get on the ship like in Dante Fascell or Port Everglades. We decided not to rush to the ship, but enjoy a nice lunch in Old San Juan. We picked up our bags at the Gallery Inn where they were happy to store them for us and headed for the port around 2. There wasn't a soul in line in front of us. We spent a leisurely 20 minutes tasting some of the free liqueur and rum in the lobby and shopping at the duty free store. From the time we stepped up to the counter to the time we were on the ship could not have been more that 10 minutes and that was with being stopped every 20 steps to show someone else our boarding pass and cruise card. This seemed a little excessive and more for show than to actually accomplish anything. But hey, it was like having priority embarkation without paying suite prices!
Cabin- The cabin was adequate for the two of us. But we actually were in a quad cabin. One pullout loveseat and a pull down bunk. I can only imagine what it would be like with four in that room. It had the usual amenities like a TV, phone, fridge, safe, and vanity. It lacked a small table, though, so when we called for room service we had to put the tray on the vanity, chair or the bed. The bath was small, but well laid out and the water temperature was easy to regulate. A few more comments: Small things in the room were starting to show some wear and tear. Things like door hinges, upholstery a little frayed, scrapes and scratches on the doors and furniture. No big deal. And maybe I was comparing it to my last time on the Sky when she was new or recent cruises on newer ships. I think they would do well to go through each cabin with an eye for some of these little things when they pull her in for refurbishment in March. Also, as has been mentioned before, there is not a lot of drawer space. Plenty of hanging space, so bring a shoe hanger for some extra room or use your suitcase under the bed for a little more storage. My wife who only uses Lancome products at home LOVES the lotion on NCL. I caught her smuggling a few bottles OFF the ship. That's a switch! Ha!
The ship- The Norwegian Sky is not "Disney World at Sea" like a megaship. It's not a classic Grand Dame like the SS Rembrandt or the SS Norway. What it is, is a comfortable and well laid out ship, with great entertainment, sunny decks, nice pools and comfortable lounges. It has everything I want when I go to sea. I'm sure we'd enjoy a planetarium, a rock climbing wall, an ice skating rink and a revolving disco. But those are not really the things we go to the Caribbean for. We go for sunny ports, sandy beaches, warm water, good friends, good food, comfortable clean cabins, stimulating activities and entertainment, an accommodating crew and a deck chair in the sun. The Sky provided all this and more.
Dining - Dining Room service was adequate if not overwhelming. It did seem like the larger the group, the longer it would take you to get served. Except at breakfast when it was slow pretty much all the time. I'll offer this tip: If you absolutely have to be done in less than an hour, dine at the buffet. But if you want to be done in less than 90 minutes, let your waiter know and you'll be pleased to know that they will try to accommodate you. They really are a hardworking crew and aim to please. I'll talk about the food later.
Deck Areas- The Sky has some great outdoor areas. Pool deck has the usual noisy pool games. LOTS of saving going on. On our one and only sea day, we strolled out onto the pool deck at 10 AM to find every single chair reserved. It was 10% people and 90% towels. And at 10 AM, it was too late for breakfast. And don't tell me people just slipped in for a quick lunch. We found a nice spot not to far from Champs and camped there, but we had to "steal" a small table for our drinks from between a couple of chairs that were guarded by only a couple towels and a paperback for hours. If someone could figure a way to eliminate chair saving, they could revolutionize the industry.
The deck on the fantail was home to some great barbeque for lunch and has a wonderful view. All the way forward on deck 13 was a nice quiet spot for sunning and relaxing and even had it's own hot tub and pool with waterfall. It did seem that there were quite a few families with kids using this area, but they were well behaved. That tub is perfect for a late night dip with a cocktail if you are interested!
They had the usual basketball court, golf driving nets and shuffleboard and the upper deck was used by some for walking. But the promenade deck was the favorite of walkers and joggers because it went all the way around the ship so you could count your laps. Not sure how many there were to a mile, though, since my form of exercise was usually in the cabin with the lights off. He, he, he.....
Aesthetics- The ship was well appointed and very modern. The colors, the furnishings and the architecture seemed to fit. It wasn't gaudy or garish and each public room was interesting and tasteful if not ornate. I'll be interested to see what they do with some of the lounges once the Sky becomes the Pride of Aloha. Some of the artist's renderings look fantastic!
Entertainment- Like on our past NCL cruises, the entertainment was some of the best you'll see anywhere. I've been to Vegas, London and Broadway. And maybe it wasn't Siegfried and Roy, or Phantom of the Opera, but the Jean Ann Ryan troupe, the magician/comedian, Jane Powell and Rick and Vince are as good as any performers in their respective venues as you will see. The comedian was good, although we had seen his shtick before on the Grandeur OTS. We missed the big band concert and the ballroom dancing music in the Observation Lounge, but I heard some mixed reviews - some great and some not. But overall, we enjoyed the entertainment immensely and once again our expectations were met or exceeded.
CD and Staff - A couple we have cruised with before, John and Cynthia, aren't big fans of the CD Linda. But while I never had a chance to talk with her personally, I have to disagree with their negative review. She didn't seem to have the warm fuzzy charm of Paul Baya or display the musical talent of some others, but she seemed pretty professional. When we saw her at the Liar's Club show, she displayed a great sense of comedic timing that honestly was quite unexpected. She seemed to handle her on stage, on TV and administrative duties quite well. And she left her assistants, who were a ball of fun and energy, to do the meet and mingle part of the job. I think this was just her style and I was tickled by the young men and ladies that kept the party going in Dazzles and the various fun and games that week. Just don't ask me to crossdress again. Bama, Tom "Vera" Botka and MrT have paid their dues. It's now time for someone else to step up and "take one for the team."
Remember FOMT Handbook RULE # 37: NO FOOLS, NO FUN!
Food- I would say that over all I was very pleased with the food. It was, and I realize this is very subjective, superior in overall quality to the food we just experienced on RCI's Radiance. The menu's were more varied, the food had better flavor and the presentation was equal to that of RCI. That being said, the lobster tails were the langostino type and not Maine quality. The only dish I had to send back was the Pasta Trio in Horizons. It was just not what I had expected. But of the folks that went with us on the Radiance, we agreed the first night that the meal we had that night was better than anything we had all week on the RCI cruise.
As far as alternatives, I personally prefer Horizons. Not necessarily for the food although the food is very good. After 17 cruises, it is our favorite restaurant at sea. It has elevated booths for 4 or 5 and tables for two in front of large picture windows. It's a long narrow room that seems so much quieter and more intimate than a large open room. No foot traffic trudging by you. Quiet, comfortable, softly lit. Service is friendly and attentive and the food is above average to excellent. The veal chops, fillet, Caesar salad made table side and desserts were scrumptious. But it's the atmosphere alone that puts this place above nearly every other eatery at sea. Again, YMMV.
Le Bistro is an NCL signature restaurant and the food there is also excellent. The menu never varies and is consistently good. The soups, appetizers, Caesar and chocolate fondue were great. Although Barb missed the little flaming fondue pot. This time it just came in a metal casserole bowl. Not nearly as fun!
Chow Caio's food presentation and service was good, but the atmosphere in the converted pizza parlor detracted somewhat from the experience. It was a fun night together with the gang for "Chinese New Year," though! I even learned how to say that in Chinese. But don't ask me say it now that I'm home. I'll probably be saying, "Your mother is a polar bear" or something. Maybe one or two more weeks with Helen and I'll be able to order a couple of beers in Mandarin. Survival skills are important while traveling. WhooHooooo!!
Our List of "Favorites" - Restaurant- Four Seasons, Included; Horizons, Alternative Martini Bar- Windjammer Quiet Spot- Forward Deck 13 Noisy Spot - Windjammer Excursion- Charles, Our Taxi tour driver in Antigua. Place to Shake a Tail Feather- Dazzles Disco Hot Tub - Pool Deck Outdoor Bar - Pool Bar Best Place for a Beer- Pool Bar Best Piano Bar - Observation Lounge Place to Meet for Cocktails and Hors de' oeuvres - Windjammer Cocktail Waiter(ess)- Greg at Pool Bar
Phone System-For a modern ship, it seemed to me that the phone system was a little out of date. No voice mail. For a freestyle ship, this is an important component, because there is no "touchstone" like dinner at the same time and table. The only way to find people was to run into them or leave a note at their door. I wonder if when the ship goes into dry dock for refurbishment if this system will be upgraded.
Wine Service- It was nice to have wine stewards. Our recent cruises outside of NCL - Princess and Royal Caribbean - had done away with that position. I can only assume this was done as a cost cutting move. So you had either your waiter, who was busy trying to serve you dinner, or his assistant, who likely knew nothing about wine, taking care of this duty. For what you pay for a decent bottle of wine, it seemed only reasonable to get someone who was knowledgeable performing this task. It was no problem getting an unfinished bottle of wine stored for you. Unlike some past NCL cruises, they seemed to have the program down pretty well. When I told the sommelier about a re-corked bottle, it appeared in just a few minutes - even when I had opened it on the other end of the ship. Also, there was a "Buy 5 Bottles and get the 6th bottle free" program. No problem. Barb had her one bottle for the week and I had the rest! HA! Although, I'll say in my defense that when MrTractor starts drinking wine, he gets pretty generous with it. It made for a lot of conversation and good spirits!
Bar Staff- I didn't feel pushed or overwhelmed by bar servers anywhere on the ship. They were attentive, but not overly so. Unlike the Royal Caribbean ships, they don't have someone in the dining rooms going around with after dinner shots. Even though I didn't really miss this, I think they could have sold us a few! SHOTS FIRED! The bar staff at the pool bar was pretty fun and kept up with Stan's beer helmets and our frothy rum drinks. Drink prices are high. Higher than most of the places we can afford to go to, but not higher than most other ships at sea. I'm guessing that about half of all onboard revenue is made at the bars. My bar bill reflected that. OuCh!!!
Disembarkation- As usual, NCL is THE BEST at this. We chose the time we wanted by luggage tag and got off the ship after a nice leisurely breakfast. Short lines for Customs and Immigration. There was a short line for a cab with some cutting in line here, but we didn't care. We had a long wait at the airport anyway. Hats off to NCL for both Embarkation and Disembarkation - AGAIN!
Ports- I'm not going to spend a lot of time with a travel log of each port. I'll just mention a few tips and ideas that you might find helpful.
San Juan- Get a free guide at the visitor's center. Take the free trolley's to El Morro Fort, follow the walking tour down the harbor side of old town. Stop for outdoor sunning, drinking and eating where it ends at Calle de Christo. Turn east on Calle Fortaleza and stop at the Parrot Club (on your left with a yellow awning) for a Parrot Passion drink. If you have time for dinner, try the tuna. Yum! For a unique pre-cruise stay, try The Gallery Inn on Calle Norzagaray. www.thegalleryinn.com. In a word - GREAT! (See above).
St. Thomas/St. John - Catch a cab to Red Hook and get the ferry to St. John. The closest thing to paradise on American soil this side of Hawaii. The surf was kinda rough, but Trunk bay was still nice. Get a group together and rent a car and stop at Cinnamon, Trunk and several other beaches on the island. I was a little disappointed we couldn't recreate our last tour of St. John on this trip. (Bama and IslandFan, I guess we'll always have St. John). But there are plenty of cabs and vans to take you to whatever beach you want to visit. In St. Thomas go to Mountain Top for a Banana Daquiri and check out Gladys's Restaurant in town for a Mango Colada. If you're lucky, Gladys will give you her Tina Turner Floor show.
Antigua - Get a small group together and rent a cab for the day. We paid $100 and our driver, Charles took Bob, Marilyn, Barb and me all over the island, to Nelson's boatyard, and to some breathtaking heights for panoramic picture taking. We ended up at Pineapple Bay beach for a couple hours. There is an all inclusive there also that seemed to satisfy our friends John and Cynthia and Stan and Helen. Maybe next time we'll do that now that we've seen most of the island.
Martinique - I don't get a warm fuzzy from this port, but it isn't as bad as some people make it out to be. It rained, so we didn't take the ferry over to the resorts. I heard that there are bikini vendors there that give what you might say is an "Ooo, La, La" presentation of their wares. But the beaches and hotels are nice there. Maybe next time. Don't get to far out of the tourist district here. It can be pretty rough. And they are not the most tourist friendly people in the world.
St. Maarten - Stop by the Rum Jumbie liqueur tasting stand as you get off the ship. Yum. The only place in the world you can get it. Catch a tour at the tourist center for half the price of the ship's tour. You'll get in most of the standard sights. Orient Bay for gawking and a guavaberry colada. Shopping on the French side and a tour of most of the island. Dawn Beach is nice and is not nude. Downtown beach is full of beach bars and you can take the ferry right over to the docks when you are ready. Cheaper and more fun than a cab. I heard good things about the Divi Resort, too, and I hear they have a website.
Tortola - Again, step off the ship and get on a tour bus for a look around the island. $20 per person. Half the ship's tour price. Then spend the afternoon on a nice beach. Cane Garden is popular with plenty of watering holes. Rent a beach chair and camp for the afternoon. Plenty of cabs and the people are accommodating if not overly friendly. Don't just get off the ship and wander into town thinking you are going to find great shops and restaurants. That part of the island is just not all that wonderful.
Final Thoughts - I am happy that the Sky will find a new life in Hawaii, but it will make me kind of sad that I won't be able to go on her again in the Caribbean. Between the Sky, the Sun and the Dawn, I can say that the Sky is the least "fancy." But I prefer it by far over the Sea which was not designed with Freestyle in mind and many other ships on other lines. With each successive generation of the "Freestyle" ships, each one seems to get better. But the Sky still has the power to please in a big way. Looks like the Sun may become our new preferred ship in the Caribbean by default. I'd like to see the Sun start an alternating eastern/western itinerary. Then maybe I could join Stan and Helen for another one of their famous back to backers!
I would like to mention one particular incident that happened on the ship while we were still in our port of embarkation. The Sky had a show by Juan Carlos. Naturally, he was accompanied by his famous "Rumba Girls." He is an exceptionally talented and entertaining Spanish guitarist and the "Rumba Girls" come along for fluff and sizzle. As interesting as the choreographic stylings of the Rumba Girls are, I would happily go to see Juan Carlos alone.
It was at this performance that we first noticed our new friend Bob. Seems he unwittingly volunteered to perform a poignant rendition of a traditional folk dance, the "Bumgooloo," which when loosely translated from the original Carib Indian vernacular comes out something like
"Shake Your Booty While Wearing a Ridiculous Belt That Makes You Look Like You Have Maracas Sticking Out Of Your Butt."
I was aware of what was about to transpire, since I was one of his victims on our previous Sky cruise. And Barb thought I enjoyed my encounter with the Rumba Girls just a little too much the first time.
First the Rumba Girls demonstrated how this was done. Man they sure made it look easy! Then the crowd sat in stunned amusement as the Rumba Girls harnessed the unsuspecting participants. Juan Carlos challenged the four gentlemen to give it their best shot. The music played and the men jiggled. The Rumba Girls flashed their toothy smiles as their showgirl feathers fluttered under the warm colored spotlights of the Stardust Lounge. Suddenly the music stopped. Juan Carlos' eyes focused on one particular participant. The crowd shuddered. Some of the elderly even recoiled in horror. A mother had been shielding his eyes of a small boy from the spectacle that was unfolding. He lurched from her grasp and gazed upon this gruesome sight. One look at Bob and he shouted,
"LOOK, MOMMIE, THAT MAN'S BUTT IS ON SIDEWAYS!"
Seems Bob had gone all out in attempting to duplicate the Rumba Girls technique. (Knowing what I now know about Bob, this was impossible).
Things were looking grim.
Bob had experienced a
He was in serious trouble.
Someone shouted," IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?!"
The theatre fell silent.
Until one voice rose above the stillness.......
"Uh.... Wait.... I'M A DOCTOR!"
It was Bob!
Instinctively, he sprung into action. It was obvious that he had performed this procedure before. He quickly called one of the Rumba Girls over to assist. Momentarily confused by the position of the maracas, Bob calmly guided her in carefully removing the belt.
"That's it. Grab the latch. Now pull it open. That's right. That's it. That's the one. Who's your Daddy. HO YEAHHHH......"
"But, Sir, that's not the Maraca Belt!"
"Never contradict the Doctor in the middle of a procedure!"
"Oh, never mind."
Dr. Bob skillfully unlatched the belt and handed it to the Rumba Girl. She wasn't sure what had just happened, but the concerned passengers breathed a collective sigh of relief. The ship's medical staff could stand down. A cruise crisis averted!
And that's the story of how Dr. Bob.......
SAVED HIS OWN A$$!!!
See? I told you it wasn't the first time he had performed that procedure. In fact I recall it came in handy a couple more times on this trip alone!
Bob was now one of those people on a cruise that you just seemed to notice. Later that night at the deck party, we introduced ourselves and invited him and Marilyn to join our sailaway at Champs. Along with John and Cynthia, Stan and Helen, Bob and Vicki, and Walt and Patty they became hardcore FOMT during this cruise and fast friends with Barb and me. It just goes to show you that if you go to have fun, you'll find other fun people, too. Welcome to FOMT, Bob and Marilyn. Your membership packet is in the mail.
Top Ten Reasons to Sail the Norwegian Sky- As has become our tradition, here are the top ten reasons we enjoyed our Sky cruise.
10) The blue brick streets of old San Juan 9) Tour of Antigua with our native driver Charles. 8) Late leisurely embarkation and disembarkation 7) Getting our picture taken by some nude guy at Orient Beach 6) Kareoke with the BiCoastals 5) Having the Blackened Tuna at the Parrot Club and walking home in the moonlight to The Gallery Inn in San Juan 4) The beaches of the Exotic Caribbean 3) Horizon's Restaurant 2) New and Old Friends of MrTractor and the Bronze Goddess
And the Number One Reason why we enjoyed our Sky Cruise....
1) GETTING OUT OF THE MISERABLE ICE AND SNOW WITH MY BEAUTIFUL, SEXY, PATIENT, LOVING, CLASSY, INTELLIGENT, WITTY, CHARMING AND ALL AROUND WONDERFUL WIFE!
Did I mention sexy and beautiful. Oh, yeah, I guess I did. This was real climate relief. And if I can find another ship anywhere near this price range next January or February, I'll be ready to head south for more adventure and high jinx on the high seas. And temperatures above freezing!
Thanks again to all the fun people who made this a wonderful cruise!
Jerry "MrTractor" Hoehn Locust Grove, VA