Review of Jan-12-09 - Jan-16-09 NCL Sky
This was my wife's and my first cruise; also we were pre-celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. I chose Sky because of the price, and because of the short duration 'to try out cruising'. I chose NCL based on one of my employee's recommendations.
Before the cruise:
Three days before the departure, I got a call at work - would I like to purchase the Owners Suite (Class AA) instead of my Aft Balcony (BA) for $100 per person? Let me think about that.....
Delta Airlines lost both my checked bags somewhere between the counter and the plane in Indy. We checked in over an hour early for the first flight of the day, but it still happened. The new terminal (2 months old) might have contributed. When they didn't show in Miami, we checked and there was no record in Atlanta either. We left with our carry-on in a cab not knowing if we would ever see our luggage - glad we had one change of clothes, but no CPAP, no Rx's, no toiletries... Not stress-free at this point...
Yes, embarkation was simple and fairly fast - a little too fast as we missed that there was a VIP area, and instead went to the (empty) Suites line and settled our on-board payment arrangements and then proceeded up to the key-card reception area. There they told us, 'please wait over there, you are our special guests and we have your cards downstairs and someone will bring them up to you. I don't know why you were sent up here.' So being a VIP got us a 15 minute wait while 200 people went past us onto the boat... Our fault for not slowing down, but signs should be available in the terminal. I don't know what else we missed out on. We went aboard and a steward carried my wife's backpack to the deck 6 Atrium area and then we were on our own. As I wanted to ensure they knew our bags were delayed I went to reception to inform them. It became quite the ordeal as instead of just acknowledging that the luggage was going to join us at some point, we went through an entire claim form process and the hostess needed me to write addresses etc on a scrap of paper so she could fill in the forms. Then we had to wait 20 minutes of more for copies to be made... I was about to just leave my claim checks and get going, but finally we were released. My wife did not know we were going to Cagney's for lunch (suite perk) so she went into the Palace to get a drink of water, and planned to eat as well while I waited at reception. I got her and we went to Cagney's and started our 'vacation'.
Onboard Day One:
Lunch at Cagney's was fantastic. Shrimp cocktail and crab cakes followed by superb entrees (I had the tuna burger) and desert. All perfect. Also learned one ploy - would you like Evian or Pellegrino? The right answer is 'water' and we did that for the rest of the cruise - and after a couple of days that preference was remembered and we were not asked, at least in Cagney's, any more. We missed the call for rooms available (can't hear the announcements when in dining or cabins - a real problem since you are in dining rooms and cabins most of the time - at least for us!) but I assumed it was time and we proceeded forward to the Pegasus Suite, 8201. Fantastic. Huge room, lots of space. The balcony deck on the 8th is about 5 feet deeper than the two Owner's suites above us on the 9th, due to the contour of the bow. I think it has more square footage on the balcony deck than our original cabin had, including deck and room. It had two loungers, a small table, a dining table with four chairs, and of course, the hot tub, already filled with warm water and operating... On the Sky there are no watertight bulkhead doors to fight, just a very heavy, auto latching sliding glass door. Kept it closed most of the time as the wind would whistle back through the entry door and I didn't want to disturb anyone. But even underway the deck was not too windy, ever. We had the pre-ordered Anniversary decorations, cake, two bottles of champagne on ice, and two sets of fresh flowers all waiting for us. (Suites come with flowers and champagne, and we could not cancel my order for the same, so we had extra...) A list is on the bar and you can select three bottles of complementary liquor or wine. Likewise, there are sodas and bottled water on the bar, and these are replenished daily. There is still a mini-bar and you need to look at the price list to verify if it is a mini-bar item, or the complementary suite items. For example, you get as many hors d'oeuvres delivered to your room in the evening as you want, but if you take the miniature can of Pringles from the mini bar, you get charged $3-$4...
There is also a Swiss coffee maker, with assorted pods, and it makes excellent coffee, espresso, or tea with no clean-up. We made good use of this in the mornings before breakfast.
We decided to head up on deck around sail-away time, but first, a dip in the hot tub, a phone call home, and a quick drink. Just as the ship began to pull away from the pier, our lost luggage appeared at the cabin door. NOW I was on vacation! We walked the pool deck to the aft; this became our several time daily walk, and checked out the un-crowded pools and decks.
A call to the concierge, Monica, secured our reservations for dinner in le Bistro. Also, we asked about getting seats at the Stardust for the evening show. We were told that we have reserved seats all the time at the shows. Dinner was excellent, along with the traditional NCL singing of 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart' by the service team. The service was excellent. Only 'downside' was that we ordered deserts and then were served an anniversary cake (the second now, though this one was very excellent) as well as our ordered deserts.
We went to the Stardust and were seated right off the stage on the balcony. The show was great, and short (also great). Service is spotty, so for most it is BYOD.
We wandered afterwards to the various bars and venues - found the largest crowd at Outrigger, although not crowded by any stretch. This was our first discovery. Maybe it was our schedule (we are somewhat early birds, up by 6am or so and usually in bed by 11pm (1am on this cruise every night) but we found no lines, no crowds, and many time were the only couple in an area. For example we wandered around the deck 12 upper pool area and maybe saw a dozen people. This is at 8pm or 9pm... Same true for all the spaces we went. I know the cruise was at capacity, but you would never know it. We did pass a lot of people waiting for elevators, but we always used the stairs. You would see a few people lounging in each area, but no crowds. There was some really bad karaoke going on at Outrigger, so we headed to the Pegasus for the night.
Day Two, Grand Bahama Island:
I awake early, 4am-5am, and as soon as day began to break I could see the lights of West End. We slowly cruised into port, arriving about 7am or so, you could hear some of the thrusters but it was not to disruptive if you were sleeping. (Although my wife will tell you I was, waking her to look out as we pulled into port...)
We had arranged through the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism website, Bahamas.com, to experience the People-to-People program. This is a program sponsored by the government, which introduces people, couples, and families, to similar groups on the islands. The hosts are volunteers and are not paid, but may receive perks like dinners or meetings when they have completed several visits. In our case, we were joined with Deborah and Dwayne, who are our age, have the same number of children, and are active in their church and community. It was truly a match. We drove in their car around Freeport, West End, Lucaya, Ginn, the Airport, and other places. We shopped with them, saw where their children went to school, and visited the community where John Travolta's home is. From there we stopped and talked with some local fishermen (conch men?) who were cleaning huge tubs of conch. We learned how to open and clean them, and how to tell the lady conch from the male. They were also very friendly, and not bothered by our questions and photos. Wherever we went our hosts saw someone that knew them, it was truly great being shown around by them. We ate lunch at the beach in Ginn, cracked conch for all. We discovered that Deborah, our host, was a columnist in the local paper and she drove first to the office to get us a copy (they were out) and then to their home to give us their own copy. In addition she showed us the book she published in the local Christian bookstore and signed the copy that we purchased. We had a great day (about 6 hours) and got back to the port (where Dwayne works) just in time for leisurely boarding. The gate guard, who knew Dwayne, pretended to give him a hard time, (for the cameras) and then allowed our hosts to approach the ship for some photos with us. I think they had a great time, as we did. I highly recommend this program - especially for those that enjoy immersing themselves in the local culture. Those that say Freeport is not a good port excursion are missing out.
We boarded and went to the honeymooners and anniversary party, in the Plantation Club. That was a great way to meet a few of the folks onboard (there were about 20 people total) and we kept running into several of them throughout the remainder of the cruise. At this point we began maneuvering out of the port, and I think the motion got to my wife and she did not recover until later in the evening. We went to the Captain's party at the other end of the ship, and then to il Adagio. The restaurant was very warm, and then on top of the already queasy conditions, my wife had to go out on the deck for air. I asked for our dinners to go, and before we made it to our cabin, the waiter delivers both entrees and desert and drinks. We had dinner on the balcony, with cool breezes. Others also complained about il Adagio being very warm and loud, and apparently it is because of a pizza oven that they have going. Need to get some fresh air in there.
Day Three, Nassau:
We once again arrived at daybreak and pulled into port at Nassau. There was Royal Caribbean Monarch of the Seas and Celebrity Century ships already there. It was just like the commercials watching those ships' passengers scramble, seemingly in unison, while the Sky folks did - whatever.... We were sitting in an un-crowded Cagney's having breakfast (Eggs Benedict, I believe) and the folks on one of the boats all gathered together, in matching jackets, and proceeded as a group down the pier. When we re-boarded for a quick lunch (can't pass that up) we noticed the decks on the Century were packed - our waitress said it was time for them to eat, so they all have to be there en masse... Fun... We ventured to the straw market, I was largely unimpressed. There were quite a few drunk men carving, but did not see any 'deals'. I did get offered 4 counterfeit Cubans for $20... We ended up doing most of our shopping at the market at the pier; Festival Place. That seemed to be as good a deal and was cleaner and more organized. No high pressure either. I couldn't eat a bite, but they did have fresh conch salad for $8 at the lunch hour, along with other local fare. We sprung for the horse carriage tour. We got 'up sold' to the deluxe tour - instead of 25 minutes more like 35-45 minutes. Only $40. After an exciting, if harrowing, ride by Travis, we got back to the pier, in 25 minutes... Oh well, I guess our horse was just faster... Dinner tonight at Cagney's (had to at least once). Not appreciably different in terms of service from lunch or breakfast, except that Oscar was more present. Still a fine meal, although the Lobster tail on the surf-and-turf was a little dry and chewy - a trait of spiny lobster, I'm afraid. By the way the cover at Cagney's this cruise was $25, but that seems to vary through the fleet. Add on the $10 up charge for the lobster. We finished up the evening going to the comedy show. This time (we did not call ahead) there were no tables in the reserved area. Several people were standing in the doorway, but we just went ahead and found seats down front. The show was great again.
Day Four, Grand Stirrup Cay, not:
The anchoring woke me at about 6am, and I watched as they made preparations for tendering. After about 40 minutes we moved back and raised anchor and I knew what that meant. Sure enough, an announcement from the captain himself told us that tendering was going to be too dangerous, with 8 ft swells. We would have a sea day. Later on Matt came on and told us to look for a new Freestyle daily in a few hours. I was looking forward to some hiking on the island, but the idea of a sea day was nice too, as I really wanted to explore more areas I had not. We did discover the gift store and made a few purchases; including a buy two get one free on t-shirts. Not too bad. We went to the Newlywed and not-so Newlywed game. It was quite funny, but still fairly tame. Only the Quest was advertised as risquE and we passed on that. Again we got seats right down front for this.
I went to the casino to use the buy $20 get $30 deal, and was up a little, down a little... I was not bothered by smoke at the table, so it was OK.
We called Monica and left a message we wanted to option for 'express VIP disembarkation' or something like that which let us leave between 8:15-9:15. We met up with several others in Capt Cooks, and they had been waiting for 30 minutes. I decided to call Monica, and she said she would be right there. I think she waits until she is called. In fact, we only saw her twice at other times, but she was always reachable by phone. We were led around the short line and off the gangway. The VIP ended there... About 45 minutes through immigration and customs and then pick up our bags and to the cab. New rule at TSA, you can't check in for a flight prior to 5 hours so we had to wait like Sherpa's until then. That kept us from taking a cab back downtown for an hour or two to sightsee.
Overall impressions were that NCL Sky and freestyle in particular is indeed for us. The scary reviews of the Fall are a thing of the past. I was most impressed with the sense of 'open space' and lack of crowds. My wife's sensitive nose did pick up some sewage smell in the aft staircase, but only one time. If you are offered an up sell for 50% of the going rate (less what you have booked) than consider passing, but for $200 - it is a no-brainer. I had already decided we would do the Cruise Rewards program, $250 down on a future cruise and get $100 cash kick-back right there. Unless we had serious concerns, we would get this. We did just that. Tipping: We chose to give the steward, Edgar $20 the first day and $20 the last. We also handed $150 to Lucky, our Butler, and $50 to Monica. We also filled out S.T.Y.L.E. comment cards for several of them and others we had met. They really appreciate, and are appreciated by NCL, by using these cards.
I re-read these notes and notice that I pointed out a few minor concerns - but don't get the wrong impression. This was, without reservation, the best time I have had on a vacation. The ship is great, the crew is fantastic, and I would go back in a heartbeat. However, I think we are up to the 7 day on the Pearl though, after this. Sometime we'll even bring the kids...