In the competitive 3 and 4 day Bahamas cruise market from Florida, each cruise line offers it's own special style of cruising. Some are more family oriented, some attract a younger crowd, and NCL touts its 'Freestyle Cruising'. As a veteran of many Bahamas cruises during the last 25+ years on various lines, I feel comfortable reviewing the Oct 16-19 Bahamas cruise on NCL's Sky. On each cruise I look at specific areas: the ship itself, entertainment, and food and beverage services. Additionally I try to evaluate things good or bad that seem to stand out about a particular cruise.
The Sky is 10 years old and is well-kept and clean. The dEcor and names of some areas reflect to some extent its days in the Hawaii market. Overall there does not seem to be any consistent or overpowering Hawaiian, Caribbean or any other theme. The cabins have been reported as on the small side, and there is also a lack of storage and closet space. For a short cruise to the Bahamas our inside room was perfectly adequate, and the ventilating system was far superior to that on other lines. The size and layout of the ship mean few large open interior areas. Two notable exceptions. The Palace and Crossing dining rooms are bright, and large windows to the outside are a welcome change to smaller windows and heavy drapes on some cruise ships. The Stardust Theater offered good views from most areas and did not seem overly crowded. Dazzles and Captain Cook's bar were more centered in the ship, and did not offer the views like in the Plantation or Longboard bars. Outdoors, the pool deck had 2 pools and 4 hot tubs-only the hot tubs seemed to be full. This deck was also the venue for special events like cookouts and special parties. And the Great Outdoor bar, complete with electronic seagull sounds, was a favorite for many.
It was an unexpected and pleasant surprise to find the variety of entertainment and number of activities available on the Sky. The Cruise Director was full of energy. Movies were available in a selected area as well as on cabin televisions. The obligatory shops such as duty free liquor, jewelry, etc were all present. The casino was not large, and there were waiting times for some table games. Many of the main shows were one time only. So you need to plan your dining times early before the show, or late after the show. It's a one time deal. For late nite partiers there were special events each evening. At the end of the extensive list of daily activities in the Freestyle Daily, there was always a disclaimer: 'We know this looks like a schedule, but remember you're free to whatever'.
Before going further, let me say I do appreciate the magnitude and scale of food service on a cruise ship. Continually feeding 2000 guests and 900 employees is a tremendous feat. However if this is your area of expertise, you should do it well. And consistently well. Some of my observations echo previous posts about food service on the Sky, some have not. With that said, here we go!
A key drawing point of free style dining is being able to eat what you want, when you want, where you want. It is true that at most any hour you can find something to eat and drink somewhere on the Sky. Pizza and Pasta were available in the afternoons in Il Idagio, soft serve ice cream by the pool, sandwiches at the Great Outdoor bar. Daily beer, martini and drink specials are well publicized and well used. And a limited room service is available.
For main mealtimes your real options are choosing between buffet and main dining room service. To me, as well as several other cruisers, this is where NCL Sky falls short. Both the Garden Cafe and Great Outdoor buffets are poorly laid out. Traffic flow patterns in both areas seemed severely congested during peak meal times. The quality, consistency, and presentation of the food left something to be desired. Of greater concern were the serving utensils on the buffet lines. The tongs and spoons were so long that the only place for them was on top of the bread, fruit, food, etc. So people reached into the food for the serving pieces, got their food and then utensils were placed back into the food. It made sense that hand sanitizers were available at the entry to food service areas. I hope everyone used it.
Dining room service demands special discussion. We choose to avoid masses of people at buffets and instead prefer meals in dining rooms. On embarkation day we wanted to have lunch in the Palace dining room. Before we were admitted we were urged by 4 different employees to try the upstairs buffet. Reasons included more selection, Kosher menu in dining room, etc. We finally were able to be seated. Since there were few guests in the dining room the meal service went well. A minor glitch with full salt and pepper shakers that didn't work.
Dinner in the Crossings dining room that evening was an eye opener. We were seated next to a larger table of diners. We had been through waits for most everything, and were starting our main course. Then the larger party near us complained about how long they had been waiting for service without even being acknowledged. I honestly thought they had completed their meal and were just chatting for a long time after dinner. It seemed to us that table service was very disorganized. And of course the salt and pepper shakers didn't work. The food itself was pretty good but lacked consistency. For example, we had matching appetizers of dilled smoked salmon with tossed greens. One plate had the sauce/dressing on the salmon as the menu advertised, the other didn't. After we finally completed our meal, we ordered dessert. When it was brought to us, neither was what we had ordered. We didn't see our server so we left.
Similar inconsistencies occurred at other meals as well. On Saturday night we both had the Lobster/Grouper dish. The first dishes we had were very good. Especially considering how hard it is to hold fish at serving temperature without drying it out. The asparagus was tender crisp. As we finished our waiter asked if we would like another. We said yes, expecting to see exactly the same dish prepared exactly the same. This time the dish came out with some sort of white sauce poured over the lobster and fish, and the asparagus looked like it had been prepared the day before. And no, the salt and pepper shakers didn't work.
At lunch the next day a Mitre D' stopped by out table and asked how things were going. We again had the non functioning salt/pepper shakers so we asked for salt and pepper shakers. When different ones came I asked to have some of each poured on my napkin. The Maitre D' tried but nothing came out. We discussed it and she acknowledged that this was an ongoing problem from putting the china shakers near the cold butter dishes. Gosh, I thought if they knew about the problem all along and what caused it they would do something about it. We also discussed being urged away from the Palace on embarkation day. She said they wondered why there wasn't the expected number of diners that day. Hmmmm.
Kudos to the food service in Longboard bar-great pub food like chicken wings and fish and chips. These servers go out of their way to make sure you're well taken care of. Though tipping is included in a daily service charge, I felt happy to leave a little extra for them.
Breakfast in Il Adagio is a great place for waffles or omelets. No lines and a great place to start the day. Thanks for the tip Wisebear.
Our last morning at Il Adagio we had an extended chat with another Maitre D’ about food service on the Sky. She had been on other NCL ships as well and acknowledged some of the issues discussed above. In reality, some things like layout of the buffet areas probably can’t be changed. Things like consistency of food preparation and table service can be changed. And issues with food handling/illness prevention at buffet areas definitely need change.
NCL has a very slick embarkation/disembarkation system. Literally we were on the ship less than half an hour after we arrived, and it took even less time to leave and clear customs. Additionally, there was usually only a short wait time for elevators on the ship.
You can see my attention to detail in the food service area more than the ship itself or activities offered on the Sky. You will not go hungry on NCL's Sky or on any ship. Every guest onboard has to eat, and it’s one thing that everyone will remember good, fair or bad. It's also something everyone will ask you about at home. The issues I addressed are certainly not deal breakers. A cruise is a total experience. After a cruise I ask myself if I had a good time? Did I meet some nice people? Did I get a lot of bang for the buck? My answer is "Yes". This cruise on NCL Sky was overall a good experience, and I would recommend it for most. But with a little more effort and polish in the food service area the trip on NCL Sky could move from good to great.
Special thanks to all the great people we spent time with during the cruise, and thanks to those who confirmed our observations.
Now for a little special hint: Sports deck forward hot tub after the sun goes down.