BACKGROUND: I sailed on this ship three years ago when she was the Pride of Aloha. I enjoyed that cruise and was pleased when I heard that she was returning to Miami as the Norwegian Sky.
The 5 day/4 night itinerary to the Bahamas was changed the day before departure due to Tropical Storm Hanna. NCL contacted me via telephone to advise of the change in routing, which would now consist of a day at sea, then visits to Cozumel and Key West. I was already expecting some sort of change as Hanna had been lurking around the Bahamas for days and I knew the various cruise lines were altering their itineraries.
We arrived at the Port of Miami about three hours before departure. Parking was no trouble. We had to check in some of our bags that we otherwise intended to carry on, and the stevedores left something to be desired. They offered virtually no assistance other than the expectation of getting a tip. In this scenario, you're sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place, as you want your bags to get loaded onto the ship, and if it takes a dollar or two per bag to do it, so be it. Note: the stevedores work for the Port, not the cruise lines.
Check-in was a breeze, and as we had a suite, we were escorted to our cabin.
DINING: This is my third NCL cruise and I'm familiar with the Freestyle "style". There are several specialty restaurants on board that require reservations and carry a surcharge. It is generally accepted that the food and service in these restaurants is top-notch. There are also two main restaurants, a buffet restaurant, a casual bar & grill, and room service. As with almost any cruise ship, there are bars and lounges scattered throughout the ship.
We made reservations for Cagney's and Le Bistro and found both to be outstanding. From appetizers to dessert, the food, quality, and presentation were great. With drinks, expect dinner for two to run between $50 and $60.
Our breakfast usually consisted of room service, which was perfectly adequate. On the last full day we took advantage of the buffet at the top of the ship, where in addition to copious amounts of food, freshly prepared waffles and made to order omelets were available. We sat in Il Adagio, located next door to the Garden Cafe buffet, to enjoy our meal. The omelet was very, very good, as was the waffles. The coffee was piping hot and when finished, the dirty plates/cups/etc. were quickly cleared by the ever present staff.
Passengers in suites were invited to enjoy lunch at Cagney's, and we did take advantage of this during our day at sea. There is no charge for the lunch, which was as tasty as our dinner, but with appropriate lunch sized portions.
We also tried the Garden Cafe buffet for lunch on two occasions, and found the food to be good. Yes, this is a buffet, so don't expect the food to blow you away, but I found it to be good, and possibly a step or two above the buffet offerings I experienced when I sailed this ship as the Pride of Aloha.
We did not dine in the main restaurants, Crossing and Palace, on this cruise so I can't rate them. We did walk by on several occasions and they always appeared filled to capacity during dinner hours.
PUBLIC ROOMS: Norwegian Sky is still very much in a "Hawaii state-of-mind". With that said, I liked the decor and did not find it entirely out of place for a Bahamas/Caribbean itinerary. I actually think it's a shame that the Hawaiian operation had to be scaled back, as it is evident that a great deal of time and thought went into refitting the interiors for the Hawaiian islands. Vibrant colors abound, with Hawaiian prints, artwork, etc., located everywhere. It may not suit everyone's tastes, but I like it.
The Kumu Cultural Center is gone and has been replaced with the Sky Club Casino. Red is the predominant color here, befitting a gambling venue. The casino was spacious and equipped with what appeared to be brand new machines. Wait staff are everywhere and never failed to offer me a drink whenever I sat down.
Shopping, an internet cafe, and a coffee bar are also available. The gift shops had a large selection of merchandise, some of which was marked down on various days of the cruise. Flyers delivered to your cabin tell you what is marked down from one day to the next.
The Outrigger Lounge located at the front of Deck 11 is the most picturesque in my opinion, spacious and offering great views. The Plantation Club, located aft on Deck 12, is cozy, subdued, and also a personal favorite. As with other parts of the ship, this lounge also features some interesting Hawaiian themed artwork and photographs. Take a look.
Each restaurant has a different decor, and all were attractive in their own way.
CABIN: We had an Owner's Suite cabin, so admittedly I'm going to be happy about the amount of space and cabin features as compared to a standard cabin. With that said, the cabin was immaculate and everything was in good order. The cabin featured a living room, separate bedroom, walk-in closet, large marble bath with tub and large shower, as well as a half bath, two flat screen televisions, bar, and huge balcony with jacuzzi. The cabin also includes some complimentary amenities. To be succinct, it was perfect. Enough said.
ENTERTAINMENT: We didn't attend any shows, but we did catch some of the comedian's act. Tim was HILARIOUS.. a genuine "laugh out loud" experience.
Lives bands occasionally played on deck at the pool area, as well as in the Outrigger Lounge. Live piano players were also featured in several of the other lounges. Talented people, all of them.
SPA & FITNESS: We didn't use the spa, but the prices seemed reasonable, or at least comparable to the charges on other cruise lines. Prices were marked down a bit on days when the ship was in port. The gym was well equipped, everything was in good working order, and the treadmills and exercise bikes featured attached flat screen tv monitors. There was also a glass-front refrigerator stocked with moist, chilled towels. This was a very nice feature.
FELLOW PASSENGERS: Everything from seasoned cruisers to families with little kids. NCL is a mass market operator and appeals to many different groups. On the whole, my fellow passengers were very pleasant to sail with. However, and this is where I'm going to be a little less than complimentary, I was embarrassed by the behavior of some of the people on board.
I had an unpleasant elevator ride with a woman who somehow found the cruise line at fault for the weather forcing the itinerary change, and for having to clear Immigration when the ship docked in Key West. I explained to her that since Key West was our first U.S. point of entry, we had to be cleared by Immigration, but she insisted that I was wrong and that we could have cleared the following day in Miami. I guess I should take into consideration the fact that she was arguing with me while she held onto a 3/4 empty bottle of wine.
Some other bad behavior was evident at the buffets, and also during boarding or disembarking the ship, i.e. cutting in line, shoving, pushing, etc. Also, aside from the above, the way some of my fellow American travelers spoke to the staff did nothing to assuage our reputation as being classless and ill-mannered. Rarely did I hear any of the individuals in question say "please" or "thank you". These same "disgruntled" individuals, who went on and on about how they prefer to sail on Carnival, would try to access the dining rooms in shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, etc. and then put up a big stink when they were turned away.
Finally, the moaning about the lack of "traditional" cruise features, i.e. towel animals or dining room entertainment (singing waiters, swinging their napkins) tells me that these individuals didn't read any of their cruise documents about Freestyle. I do not miss the wet t-shirt, belly-flop, and similar antics that one can find on traditional cruise ships.
DRESS CODE: Casual, i.e. jeans and collared Izod-type shirts are permitted everywhere. Some people got very dressed up in the evening, and this was nice to see.
GRATUITY: A $10 "service-charge" is automatically added per-person/per-day to the onboard accounts. This eliminates the traditional scramble on the last night to come up with cash to put into envelopes for your cabin steward, waiter, etc. If something goes horribly wrong with the service provided by these individuals, take it up with the front desk to have the charge adjusted. Eliminating the charge all-together to "get even" with the cruise line for the itinerary change or for having to clear immigration, is just plain wrong. If someone goes above and beyond for you, individual cash tips are permitted.
DISEMBARKATION: As I've experienced with Freestyle before, departure could not be easier. We took our time getting packed, ate breakfast, and carried our luggage off at around 9am. We were through Customs and in the parking garage in less than ten minutes.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: If you've sailed NCL and have experienced Freestyle before, you'll likely not be disappointed. If you're used to the traditional cruise experience, do your homework and adjust your expectations, or book with another line. There's no point in booking a cruise on a ship that you know ahead of time is not going to meet your needs.
The Norwegian Sky is only 9-years old and is in good shape. During the entire week, I witnessed staff replacing light bulbs, replacing worn carpet, painting, polishing, vacuuming, etc. I did not experience any of the air-conditioning problems that seemed to plague the ship when it was first relocated to Miami a few months ago, and the only time I detected the sewage odor was in the aft stairwell when we were still docked in Miami on the first day of the trip. We enjoyed this cruise enough to put a deposit on a future NCL cruise and we're looking forward to it.
I asked several staff members if they knew what NCL's plans were for the Sky and was told that the Bahamas itinerary is currently only being sold through next spring, upon which time the ship is rumored to go into dry dock for an overhaul. One rumor I heard has NCL adding two more decks to the ship, which will include the addition of more suites and other public areas. Time will tell.