Need a break from all the gloom and doom? Exhausted after the elections? A quick Bahamas getaway - at a spectacular price - can be yours on NORWEGIAN SKY.
NCL returns to its roots with the arrival of NORWEGIAN SKY into the 3 & 4 day Miami cruise market. Way back in 1966 the company inaugurated service from the fledgling Port of Miami with its little SUNWARD. Today, its primary Bahamas competitors are RCI's MAJESTY OF THE SEAS, and CARNIVAL IMAGINATION. In this service, NCL offers the newest ship with the highest percentage of balcony cabins and the most multiple dining venues. NORWEGIAN SKY has an interesting history. She was originally ordered for Costa to become their COSTA OLYMPIA. A dispute led to the unfinished ship being sold to NCL, who launched her as NORWEGIAN SKY. Then, when NCL began its NCL America brand for Hawaiian service, she was transferred and renamed PRIDE OF ALOHA. That service has been less-than-successful, as only one of the original three ships remains. This year the PRIDE was renamed the SKY and relocated to Miami to begin its new 3 & 4 day itineraries.
Note: November 10-14 sailing. As I live in the south Florida area, getting to the SKY was a breeze. Parking at the Port of Miami is $20 per day, and credit cards are accepted. Check-in was very smooth, having arrived at 2pm after the majority of the crowds had already boarded. Upon arrival, you are greeted with a glass of champagne or juice, but otherwise left to your own devices when it comes to finding your cabin.
In addition to the unheard-of price, NCL was offering a multiple-category upgrade, so I booked a guarantee. Basically the guarantee translated into moving 3 cabin categories to an identical cabin on the same deck, but into what could be perceived as a more desirable location. Cabin 4005 offered a very large porthole, and was awash in Hawaiian colors, which are equally at home on a Bahamas sailing. While small compared to, say, a Carnival stateroom, the cabin was more than adequate for 2, although drawer space is at a premium. The new NCL bedding was very inviting-looking and proved to be quite comfortable.
As for the SKY itself? NCL renovated the ship prior to the commencement of its new Bahamas service; primarily this consisted of adding the Sky Club Casino (Casinos not being allowed in the Hawaiian service). Otherwise, the ship was a study in Aloha-inspired fabrics and furnishings.
I had read many mixed reviews about NORWEGIAN SKY here at Cruise Critic. But since I understand people have very different opinions about the same product, and the price was basically cheaper than a night out a home, I didn't place too much importance in them. However, after cruising aboard the SKY, I can possibly understand the root of some of the reviewer's issues.
I've sailed on 23 ships and visited dozens of others in my former life as a travel agent and cruise line employee. I've found positives in all of them, even the smallest, most modest vessels. So that attitude tends to color some of my impressions. Physically, the NORWEGIAN SKY is an impressive vessel, with all the bells and whistles you'd expect. What readily became apparent, at least in my case, was the attitude of SOME of the crew...I found, for the most part, the bar staff throughout the vessel to be disinterested and slow. I understand when people are busy, but an acknowledgement or a "hello" would be nice. But when it occurs on multiple occasions at a virtually empty bar, something isn't quite right. And when personal conversations or general malaise take the place of filling a simple order like a canned Coke, one has to wonder. Tipping above and beyond the automatic 15% gratuity didn't seem to improve matters any. I understand the grueling nature of the work, the endless circuit of short cruises and the toll they must take, but I must admit I haven't detected that, to such a degree, on other cruise lines. I found this, to an extent, in the main dining room and at the buffet restaurant. This is the downside of "Freestyle Cruising"…and of automatic gratuities or service charges added to your bill: the service incentive doesn't exist to a large degree. This also hinders the real need for cruise lines, NCL especially, to capitalize on their ability to generate onboard revenue
Speaking of food…I found the food onboard to be on-par with most of the mainstream cruise lines. Some lines do certain items better, some do worse. For example, NCL's pizza was abhorrent compared to Carnival's. NCL's French fries, however, were spectacular. The soft-serve ice-cream machine was a big hit during the trip, at all hours…in fact it caught on fire one afternoon, causing much excitement and scurrying of uniformed officers. The buffet restaurant offered a selection of items that were heavily Indonesian and Indian, as well as hamburgers and hotdogs (these were quite good although the bread was frequently stale). One item which stood out, and symbolizes the NCL service attitude: on two occasions the tea and juice machines stayed empty for hours at a time, during peak dining hours, while staff and members of the F&B team stood by, oblivious. This also happened with ice, which is more understandable.
After dining in the Crossings Restaurant the first night, I decided to try the Cagney's, the extra-tariff ($20) steakhouse. It was like being on an entirely different vessel, more in line with a premium cruise line like Oceania. The service was quick, precise, and friendly. The menu items all looked spectacular as they made their way around the restaurant to various tables. Several items like the lobster, however, are "extra" extra-tariff!
On the fourth evening of the cruise, a friend invited me to Il Adagio, the Italian eatery ($10 surcharge). Here the service was quite rushed…the food was of "Olive Garden" quality, but probably still worth the extra fee. The French-press coffee was outstanding, but my spoon disappeared, never to be replaced. The tiramisu was exceptional.
The Casino was initially fickle, but rewarded my efforts by basically paying for my trip, which improved my outlook considerably.
As for the ports: Nassau is Nassau, what can I say! Been there, done that on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, due to the remnants of a hurricane, we were unable to tender at Great Stirrup Cay, NCL's Private Island. The Captain handled the announcement regarding the cancellation quite well; basically he told the passengers that not calling at GSC was his decision, based on the safety of the ship, passengers and crew, and that contacting NCL's Miami headquarters or complaining at the Reception Desk wouldn't help matters any. While there were some grumblers, I think he managed to silence all but the unhappiest passengers. I personally enjoyed the extra time at sea. I didn't get off the ship in Freeport, instead enjoyed the busy port scene, which featured MONARCH OF THE SEAS in drydock, Imperial Majesty's classic REGAL EMPRESS, the arrival under tow of ISLAND ADVENTURE, the bankrupt SeaEscape ship, and Discovery Cruise Line's DISCOVERY SUN. Also in port was the BAHAMAS CELEBRATION, a northern European car ferry soon to make its South Florida debut in cruise service.
I think NCL, as a company, has done some spectacular and daring things which should be acknowledged. They have gone through many changes of management and ownership, and out of these transformations the Freestyle concept was born. It is a combination of bowing to passenger's demands and expectations for a more casual environment, and is possibly also a cost-cutting exercise for the company. At the same time, it takes away some of the personal touch that makes a cruise so special. This kind of thing is spreading throughout the industry, but I found it most apparent on NCL. The myriad of choices is not without merit. Their bold hulls of the NCL ships (which I initially hated) seemed to fascinate the passengers on other ships, which gives the company a nice identity which they have possibly been lacking. There were many activities onboard which were geared to a younger clientele, such as the White Hot party, which clearly takes its cues from the South Beach scene. All of these things make NCL a company poised for greatness, although they are in my opinion a clear third behind Carnival and Royal Caribbean.
Cruising, more than anything, is a people business. And in trying to be all things to all people, and embrace a multitude of trends, I think NCL falls short on this most basic fact. A simple smile or heartfelt service is remembered long after the latest trends have passed. I got the impression that many of the staff onboard weren't happy or focused on their jobs. I did, however, run across some very personable staff, such as Annemona, the airbrushed tattoo artist (yes, I know, a 45-year-old man with a temporary tattoo!) who should be NCL management; such was her positive and heartfelt attitude.
In short (as this has been a lengthy review) if you want a fun cruise, whether it's your first or your fiftieth, give NCL and the NORWEGIAN SKY a try. The price can't be beat…definitely the best value I've EVER seen on a cruise. So in the context of value, I can't really complain! If you're willing to overlook some service gaffes you should enjoy yourself. If NCL can tweak their onboard product a little, and really get their crews motivated, NORWEGIAN SKY will be a formidable competitor in the short cruise market from South Florida.