This is probably my 30th plus cruise at least (I have lost count) and my BF's first. We are ages 40 and 42. I have not traveled on NCL for a very long time and the "Freestyle" atmosphere appealed to me as well as the cruise itinerary and length of the cruise. The benefit of living near a port city is that you can book last minute without having to worry about airfare. This is exactly what we did for our cruise on the NCL Sky, booking just a few short days before the cruise departure. Although the weather is unpredictable, it was also nice knowing that a hurricane was probably not going to ruin our trip in the short time frame we had before we left for paradise.
We decided to pay the ridiculous Port of Miami parking fee of $20 per day for the convenience of being there and not having to wait for a shuttle. I researched some other parking options in advance but decided to pay about $25 more total for that convenience.
We left our home at 11am and arrived at the port around noon and were onboard by about 12:45pm. The embarkation procedure was fine, just a bit of waiting on lines for security and then check-in but everything was very organized and more pleasant than past embarkations I have experienced at Port Everglades (Ft. Lauderdale) and I thought the area where it was conducted was more attractive and comfortable then Ft. Lauderdale as well (even though we live about 20 minutes closer to FLL).
Cabins, Ambiance & Food:
Cabins were not ready until 2:00pm and the doors to access them were closed so you couldn't go to your room immediately. The glass of bubbly or OJ as you boarded was a nice touch. We went immediately to the buffet lunch which was good: hamburgers, hotdogs, salads, soup, hot items, carving station, wok station, pasta station (called action stations), desserts, etc. Since the weather was so nice we sat outside in the back near the Great Outdoor Cafe (there is a buffet that is similar to the one inside and the lines are usually shorter there - however the selection is a bit better inside - no action stations are available outside). The only negative of the outside dining is that you must beware of the birds. They will attack any food left unattended so don't put down your plate and go back to get a drink or it will be gone in 60 seconds (or less)! And those birds must have followed us around because at each port there they were - even at Great Stirrup Cay while we were anchored. We had the breakfast buffet and lunch buffets every day and sat outside in the same area so my BF learned quickly to arm our table with ice cubes to prepare for his bird attacks. It is illegal to feed the birds, by the way, so the ice was a good way to shoo them away without any devastating effects. The area is very nice out there as well with a portion of it covered and a portion exposed closer to the side railing overlooking the water. Another dining option is Longboard Sports Bar (just off the other side of the back patio area) and they serve popcorn, pretzels, wings, fish-n-chips, chicken fingers, hamburgers, etc. Service there was not great the one time we went but the food was good and did not cost extra. Nice large windows for views there as well. You can also bring your food from the buffet over and sit there as it is less crowded than the inside buffet area and is also inside and air conditioned. The dining rooms (or at least one) were also available for breakfast and lunch (I think breakfast was only available however for those who had a balcony stateroom or suite). The breakfast buffet was the same every day but you could always get an omelet made to order and there was plenty to choose from: scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, fresh waffles, fruit, oatmeal, cold cereals, fruit, etc.
After we finished our lunch at 2pm we proceeded to our cabin. I booked a Category M Inside guarantee and ended up being upgraded to the Category II Superior Inside stateroom. We were in the very front of the ship right across from the suites. Our cabin was very comfortable. Beware that some of the lower category inside cabins do not include a sitting area (loveseat) and are quite a bit smaller when every inch matters. I thought the size of the cabin we ended up with was good compared to other inside cabins on other ships (namely RCL - ugh). The only complaint was the shower was very small (kind of hard to shave your legs and I am only 5' 2" and 110 lbs.) Storage was ample (there are 3 "small shelves" on each side of the mirror above the sink for toiletry items. There is a 3-4 drawer shelving unit in the closet and room to hang things up as well. There are also 2 open shelves in the nightstands on each side of the bed and also some shelving near the desk where the TV is. Suitcases fit under the bed fine. There was also a mini-fridge so you can have them empty out the bar items if you want to chill anything. Our room attendant brought whatever we asked for. It is a good idea to bring sticky notes and you can always leave him a note if you need something and he is not around or you can call the stateroom service number. Note: service charge is $12 per person per day and is automatically added to your bill at the end of the cruise. This goes to the waiters, room stewards, etc. You can tip above that if you feel the service was above average. Also, tips are automatically added to your bar purchases so don't tip again on top of that when purchasing a beverage.
Our suitcases were delivered shortly after we got to our room so we unpacked and then tried to catch the food tasting they had at the 3 specialty restaurants, however were disappointed to find no tastings at all. It was supposed to be from 11:30am-3pm as listed in the "Freestyle Daily" newsletter but there was none available when we showed up at 2:40pm and we were told it was a misprint.
After that we got acquainted with the ship before the lifeboat drill at 4:30pm. The ship is very attractive I thought. I wasn't sure what to expect with the photos I saw as it looked a little overkill on the Hawaiian theme (since it used to cruise in/around Hawaii as the Pride of Aloha), but it was surprisingly attractive and very well kept. There were plenty of rooms for gathering, shows, drinks, entertainment, etc. And it never felt overly crowded (except sometimes at the buffet and prime time dinner-time outside the 2 main dining rooms). I was disappointed that no reservations were able to be made for a party of 2 in the MD's. Only in the 3 specialty restaurants could you make reservations for a small party. The MD's will give you a beeper while you wait and you can also get 15% off any bar purchase while you wait by showing the beeper. We did enjoy not having to get dressed up (especially on a short cruise as this one was). Shorts were ok in one of the MD's (the first night was anything goes though since some people probably hadn't gotten their luggage before they ate). The other MD was a bit dressier: slacks for men, no tank tops, and capris or skirts ok for women. Jeans were probably ok in either (but we didn't bring any and I forgot to notice). They have a "dress up or not" night and it is completely up to you.
After the quick lifeboat drill we put our life vests away and headed to the pool area for the sail away barbeque (yes, more food). They had chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill and then coleslaw/potato salad/pickles and condiments.
We didn't attend any of the shows except for the comedy night. The comedian was entertaining enough but I was looking forward to a different comedian that people had raved about on prior sailings (Tim K.) but he was no longer on the ship. Same with the Cruise Director - we didn't have the popular Matt Baker but our CD, Paul, was fine - no complaints.
We dined in the Palace MD the first night - service was so-so overall - food was hit and miss, but you never go hungry. We made sure to order a few of each course so that we had a larger selection in case we didn't like something. One night we did Crossings MD (when the BF wore slacks) and it was the same as the Palace however located in the back of the ship. Otherwise, no difference at all aside from the dress code. On our final night we splurged and paid the $10pp for Il Adiago Italian restaurant. I thought it was good - not great - but a nice change from the MD scene and they took a reservation. You can order as much as whatever you like on that menu as well. The other two specialty restaurants (Le Bistro and Cagney's) have charges of $15 and $25 per person and for some earmarked menu items, and additional charge above and beyond the surcharge.
There was always music somewhere whether out by the pool, in the disco or out at the deck parties. We didn't gamble in the casino but it seemed the regular tables and slot machines you find on any ship.
There is as much or as little to do as you want. The schedules always have entertainment options, art auctions, bingo, etc. We pretty much just wanted to relax so didn't spend too much time trying to go from event to event on a schedule (except for the comedian one night).
We wanted to do a snorkeling excursion but were unsure of the weather forecast so we waited until we arrived at Grand Bahama Island and booked a 12:30pm excursion at the last minute. It worked out well for us because we could sleep later than leaving for the 9am trip and see that the weather looked good before paying. We did the Sea Safari Snorkle by Boat and we loved it. Saw great tropical fish at a reef where they anchored, friendly boat staff and the boat also had a water slide and rock climbing wall for after snorkeling fun. We did have to wait a while for the bus back to leave Port Lucaya and head back to the ship but I wasn't worried since I knew that we booked the excursion from NCL they would not leave us there and sail away before we returned. If you book an excursion privately there is no guarantee they will hold the ship for you if you are late.
We decided to just walk around off the ship and take in the local sights (straw market, shopping, a few government/historical sites). You can take a water taxi over to Paradise Island for $3 per person and hit the beach there or try to sneak into Atlantis but we were happy just hanging back at the ship's pool and had lunch on the boat for no extra charge.
Great Stirrup Cay:
This is NCL's private island. The great weather we had really made the destination nice. It is the usual private island, clear water (a little rocky in some places - water shoes are good to have) with the beach barbeque and small straw market. When you get off the tender if you walk to the right instead of to the left, the beach area is much less crowded. There were plenty of chairs and the water was much less congested so we hung out on that side. Unfortunately we did not make it to the lunch buffet before they closed it when we tried to eat at 2:30pm, so after swimming in the island waters we went back to the ship. We did have to wait a little while for the tender over to the island. Apparently the one that arrived to take us had a problem and we had to wait for the next one.
No problem at all - we could leave whenever we wanted between 7:30am and 10am and no luggage tags were needed if walking off with luggage. This was nice because we waited to pack that morning - who wants to ruin your last night packing and having to put it out side of your cabin! We got right off at 10am and in 5 minutes were on our way back to the $20 per day parking garage to retrieve our vehicle. Color-coded luggage tags and disembarkation times are given to those guests checking luggage or with flights to catch.
All in all I thought it was a great cruise and would travel again with NCL. BF very much enjoyed his first cruise and we look forward to the next one!