This was my 10th cruise and I have in the past cruised with Windstar, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and NCL. This was actually my 3rd with NCL but my first NCL "Free-Style" cruise. It was also only my 2nd cruise with a duration of less than 5 days. Generally this particular cruise was a very good vacation experience and I would certainly recommend it for any first time cruisers as a very good introduction to what cruising is typically supposed to be like. Before I go into detail for the benefit of those who might not wish to read the entire review, I will begin with a summary statement. Having been on a number of cruises before including 2 previous with NCL I was able to set very realistic expectations for the ship, the level of service, the food, ports, entertainment, etc. This particular ship and itinerary handily met my expectations and I cannot recall even the most minor detail to complain about. With that being said, with the exception of some of the "Free-Style" elements I am convinced I would have had an equal experience on the Carnival or Royal Caribbean ships that left the port of Miami on the exact same day with roughly the same itinerary. Since we were traveling in from Colorado we made sure to arrive in Miami for the Cruise the day before as it is very difficult with flight time and time zone change to make a cruise the same day as your flight and one little delay can cause you to miss your ship. Of course booking air through the cruise line would solve this problem, but the price usually seems to be hundreds of dollars more per person for this minor convenience of booking your air as a package with your cruise. We managed to stay very inexpensively at really nice 4-star hotel with a 23rd floor view of the port of Miami. It was inexpensive as we booked through Hotwire, which saved us literally about $250 off the hotels published per night rate. The day we arrived was Thanksgiving Day and we had dinner at nice Cuban restaurant at open air shopping complex a few blocks from the hotel. Purchasing airport transfer from the Cruise line is unnecessary if you have 4 or less in your party as there is a flat rate of about $25 for a Taxi from Miami International to the port of Miami.
The day of the cruise we checked out of our hotel at noon and took a taxi to the ship. Embarkation was very easy. It probably took a total of 15 minutes or less before we were on board and handed a glass of champagne. Always a nice touch and the only free drink your will see on that ship but that is the same way with just about all the major cruise lines. We did not expect our cabins to be ready until 2:00 PM but we went to look anyway. They were almost ready and our cabin steward introduced himself and told us when they would be ready and that we could leave things in the cabin if we wanted. For such a short trip we opted not to spend the extra $400 on a cabin with a balcony. We opted for ocean view instead since we knew that it was short trip and we would not have a lot of opportunity to hang out on the balcony. Those being said, if you plan on going on a cruise any longer than 3 days particularly a 5-7 day cruise, always get a balcony cabin if the ship has them. I have nearly always had them on cruises and would never forgo one on a longer cruise. Once you have had one, you will never want to cruise without one. We then turned the kids loose and went to explore the ship ourselves a little and ended up at the outdoor portion of the casual eatery and had a very nice lunch. Prior to departure we had the obligatory lifeboat drill and then the ship left port. Always my favorite part as I go on cruises because I want the experience of being on a ship as much as anything else.
That evening we put on resort casual clothes and went to one of the ships two main dining rooms. Since it was "free-style" we could dine whenever we liked and not have to share a table with strangers like on some other lines. The dining room was very crowded and we had a 15-20 minute wait for a table, but they gave us a pager so we did not have to stand around and we did not even notice the wait. We ate dinner in each of the two dining rooms on the ship one the first night and the other the 2nd night and the 3rd we opted for the "Great Outdoor Cafe" because we wanted to eat outside. As far as the dining rooms, I could not tell any difference between the two and really did not expect to be able to. I think each served the same menu but that made no difference to me. The service was just ever so slightly below what I expected. I suspect this is attributable to the fact that in "Free-Style" dining, you don't get the same waiter and assistants each night and so they don't get to know you and put in the extra effort for the tip they expect at the end of the trip. NCL charges each passenger $10 per day and that goes towards paying the staff money they otherwise would have gotten in direct tips. Still, the ever so slightly lower level of service than expected is no trade against the big plus of being able to dine when you like and with whom you like.
The food in the main dining room was good but also just slightly below my expectations when compared to Carnival and Royal Caribbean. As a general tip for first time cruisers your expectation for food on a large main stream cruise ship should be that it be "pretty good" . Just keep in mind that a large ship with 2000 passengers is putting out the equivalent of 10,000 meals per day and it is amazing that they are able to maintain such quality and offer such variety. Of course the Norwegian Sky has premium dining venues that require reservations and charge an additional $25 per person for presumably better food, atmosphere and service. I did not try these on Norwegian Sky. I have tried them on other lines in the past but I since I had 4 people in my party was not inclined to spend $100 extra on dinner when formal 5 course dinners were being served in the main dining rooms every night at no extra charge. Had this been a 7-day cruise I expect I would have tried one of the premium dining rooms but not on a 3-day trip. All the food comes from the same kitchen. To be fair, I had read a number of reviews prior to my trip that said these premium-dining venues were fantastic on Norwegian Sky.
Let's leave the food and the ship for a moment and talk about the ports on this cruise. Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay. This was my 4th or 5th trip to Nassau and probably my best since I had learned what to do from previous trips. As far as Nassau is concerned, have a plan before you get off the ship. NCL like all the other lines offers a variety of shore excursions you can book through the cruise line. If you want to go snorkeling book through the cruise line to be safe to make sure you get a reputable tour company. If you want to go to the pirate museum, just go. It is only 2 blocks from the cruise pier. Do your homework and decide what you want to do in advance and then don't let the locals talk you into anything else. You will be thronged by cab drivers and tour operators, most of who just want to dump you at Atlantis on Paradise Island. We opted to just go to a plain old public beach and had a cab driver take us for $4 per person to Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island which was really nice, a lot of fun and had everything you needed or wanted except for food I guess, but that is what the cruise ship is for. Great Stirrup Cay was great. The snorkeling was worthwhile as reef was not bad. I good variety of the types of fish that you expect to see in the Caribbean. There are a limited number of lounge chairs so get to the beach early. I read that tip in another passenger review, and agree that if you are on one of the first three tenders you can have your pick of what ever spot you want on the beach. The weather was not very good the day we were there, but nothing you can do about that is just the way it can be in the Bahamas any given day of the year. So it was a little cooler than what I would have liked and it was cloudy and kind of windy. I must admit that the weather hampered my enjoyment of the island that day, but that is hardly NCL's problem and just the way it goes.
As mentioned before we had dinner in the casual dining venue the last night so we could eat outside. The food was very good. We also ate here for every breakfast and lunch and found it to be very nice with good quality well prepared food with great variety. A like to go to the main dining rooms for a lot of meals on longer cruises but for a 3 day, especially if you have kids along, you might want to just eat every meal in the casual dining venue. The next day showcased another aspect of NCL's "free-style" cruising, which I really liked. Most cruise lines require you to pack your suitcases and set them outside your cabin by midnight on the last night so your luggage can be taken off the ship for you. This sort of gives you a feeling that the trip is already over after dinner on the last night and it is a hassle to have to stop your vacation and pack when the trip is not even over. NCL allows you, if you are able to do so without assistance to carry your own luggage off the ship. They also let you leave the ship as early as 8 AM and as late as 10:00 AM when you get back to port so you can have a nice breakfast and not have to rush to get off the ship. If you have never cruised before you will not know the difference, but if you have had to do it the other way I think you would understand why this "free-style" method of disembarkation is a really nice touch.
Here are some general comments on the cruise and ship, service and amenities. Physical Appearance and Cleanliness: The ship was spotless and perfectly maintained. There is always on-going maintenance but nothing to interfere with passenger enjoyment. It was well appointed and decorated and while it did not look brand new, it was not the least bit run down. NCL is obviously serious about maintaining their ships and having all the public areas in clean well-kept condition. Outdoor Areas: Outdoor pools, sports and recreation areas were exactly what I expected and I had no complaints.
Entertainment: I did not avail myself of any entertainment opportunities. When I cruise sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I have no reason to expect that the entertainment on the ship was anything but typical of what you find on most large mainstream cruise ships. Stuff for kids: It looked like their kids programs were well organized and there was plenty to do. We had 13 and 16 year old with us and they were never bored and seemed to have lots to do on-board. Room Service: Exceeded expectations. Room service orders were filled efficiently and more quickly than I have experienced on other lines. Cabins and Cabin Service: No problem at all, exactly what I expected. Cabin sizes I read in other reviews of this ship were supposed to be smaller than on some other lines, but they seemed exactly the same to what I was already used to.
In summary a good choice for first time cruisers. NCL does a great job and there seemed to be a lot of people on board having a really good time. It offered everything that I have come to expect from large mainstream cruise ships, but other than the “free-style” features I mentioned, nothing really set it apart from Carnival and RCCL. Those were the options for this particular trip and I would have been just as satisfied with any of the three.