We're familiar with NCL's Freestyle cruising and we enjoy it. The "do what you want, when you want" style works for us, so I am still somewhat surprised when I hear complaints from people on Cruise Critic about NCL's up charge for their specialty restaurants and other non-traditional elements that define the line. If you are set on set dining times and the more traditional and formal atmosphere that other lines offer, than NCL should probably not be your first choice.
For people who live in South Florida, these long-weekend Bahamas cruises are essentially a no-brainer, i.e. no flying to deal with, just drive to the port, park your car, and go. It's an easy getaway and the cost, on all three cruise lines who serve this market, is reasonable. This particular cruise was brought about as a birthday celebration for a friend and there was to be 12 of us on-board as a small group.
Day 1, Miami - Getting to the Port of Miami was easy, traffic was light, and finding parking in the garage near the Sky was not difficult. We checked a couple of bags outside and then cleared security and checked in. We arrived at the port at about 1:30pm for a 5pm departure, and we were in our cabin no later than 2:15pm. When we were checking in, the agent told us that our cabin was ready so we could go directly to it if we wanted to.
There seemed to be a very large contingent of "young" cruisers on board, who were decidedly in a party mood. Unbeknown to us, the Sky was booked for "Groove Cruise 2010" and approximately 800 men and women were onboard to party with various popular deejays. If you've ever seen the MTV show, "Jersey Shore", you'll have an idea of what the group was like. The less clothing the better for this group, replete with alcohol and other controlled and uncontrolled substances.
To be fair, the group was not overly intrusive, they pretty much stuck to their own, but occasional interaction was unavoidable. The volume of their parties and other behaviors, especially in the late evening each night, was intolerable.
Once onboard, passengers are directed through the Dazzles Lounge, which is temporarily set up as a kind of "catch-all" area to allow passengers to make reservations for the specialty restaurants, book excursions, casino chips, camera purchases, spa treatment, etc. This setup actually was very functional since it had all the things in one place. We made our meal reservations right there and didn't have to worry about it again.
After unpacking we went up to the buffet for some lunch and then met up with our group near the pool for the almost obligatory piña colada. The buffet was absolutely fine, with a good selection of all types of foods. We stuck with burgers and barbecue-type fare at the outdoor buffet. One of the drink dispensers was not working correctly, so when I pressed the button for iced-tea, I got water instead, but I just went to the other machine and got what I wanted. No biggie.
NCL seems to have done away with meal trays at the buffet and that is fine with me. You get your plate and flatware if you need it, but roll-ups of flatware were at every table, and then you fill up your plate, grab a drink, and go. Honestly, I think the meal trays invite people to pile on more food than they actually will eat, so it makes sense to just fill up one plate, and then go back again if you want more food. The Sky's buffet area is set up in a long line without action stations, which is a bit old school, but most people seemed not to know about the outside buffet, so we got our food quickly.
The muster drill took place at around 4:30pm and it was over within 15 minutes. You don't even need to bring life preservers anymore, just your body and your cabin number.
We stayed on our balcony for the departure from Miami, and watched the Norwegian Dawn, the Carnival Imagination, and Royal Caribbean's Majesty of The Seas depart from Governor's Cut (the name for the channel into the port) ahead of us. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed our departure from the port and our view of Miami as we sailed out into the Atlantic.
We met with our group in the Outrigger Lounge, which is all the way forward and still very much Hawaiian styled from the ship's days as the Pride of Aloha. It is one of my favorite spaces on the ship because of its views, and its generally quiet and relaxing atmosphere. After a few drinks and conversation, we went our separate ways for dinner. We walked onto the deck outside of Outrigger briefly, and it was VERY windy, but to me that just makes the cruise so great so feel the sea air against you, smell the ocean, and see other ships in the distance.
Dinner in the French themed restaurant, Le Bistro, was a treat. It is located lower in the ship, about two decks above the water line, and it is completely beautiful. Lighting is subdued; the staff is omnipresent and excellent with their presentation. The French inspired menu had most anything to offer even a picky eater. I thoroughly enjoyed a bottle of wine with foie gras stuffed chicken breast, asparagus, and a mushroom bisque soup served in a sourdough bread bowl. For dessert, it was French pressed coffee and a chocolate fondue served with a selection of fruits in a carved out pineapple. Outstanding! We found the restaurant to be quite underutilized, which our waitress explained was because the Groove Cruise group is primarily only eating from the buffet's, hence the ease at which we booked our table, and also tables for different restaurants for the rest of the cruise.
The Cabin - Our room was at the very back of the ship with a balcony. NCL's cabins are not known for being generously sized, but ours was completely adequate with enough drawer and closet space for the three nights we would be onboard. There were signs of wear-and-tear in the furnishings such as scuffs and scratches on some pieces of furniture, and an older but completely serviceable television. The Sky is 11 years old, so I think things like these are unavoidable and not even worth griping about. The mattresses on the beds were firm, which is fine if you like a firm mattress, but if you don't then be sure to ask your room steward/ess for an egg crate cover. The towels, bedding, pillows, and robes were all a.o.k.
The bathroom is small but not especially so. There is room to store toiletries and other articles, and the walls of the bathroom, including the shower, are curved which may make it seem a bit larger than is it. My roommate equated taking a shower in there to having an MRI, but I didn't think it was that bad. Water pressure was fine, despite some occasional ups and downs in the water temperature while showering.
There is a small, stocked refrigerator in the cabin and you will be charged for any items you chose to take.
The balcony was reasonably sized with more than enough room for the two chairs and small table that we had on it. Note that the cabins aft on the ship appear to have balconies that are just a bit larger than the cabins with balconies on the sides of the ship.
We saw our room steward every day and our room was always kept tidy and neat. Towel animals were left on the beds twice, which is a bit unusual for NCL, so we enjoyed that and actually purchased a $9 DVD about how to make them at home. Yes, this was probably an impulse purchase and the DVD never may see its way out of the plastic wrap. Regardless, our room was cleaned shortly after we left in the morning for breakfast, and always cleaned and set up for the evening later in the day. The ice bucket was also refilled twice daily.
The Ship - I must not have too many complaints about this ship since I've been on it three times. From what I could tell, many of the Hawaiian elements and dEcor that existed when she was Pride of Aloha are still present. I like them, they work for the ship, and it gives her some character. NCL should keep them as far as I'm concerned. Other areas of the ship have clearly gone through an upgrade or overhaul, as new carpeting and seating seemed to be in many places.
The atrium is one of my favorite locations on the ship, including its four glass elevators that rise to the top deck. Multi-colored kites used to decorate the atrium and they are gone, but I hope only temporarily as the space looks a bit empty without it.
As usual, from my experiences, the crew could always be observed cleaning, varnishing, polishing, painting, etc. The Sky is nothing at all like the dump that some of the reviews on here would have you believe.
Day 2, Nassau - We were up by 8:30am and went upstairs to a very empty breakfast buffet. Not generally known is that the Il Adagio restaurant located next to the buffet is also available for breakfast, and they serve made to order omelets and waffles. De-lish!
It was a bit overcast after our arrival, but we went into town for about two hours to do some duty free shopping and then we came back onboard. By the time we were back, roughly 1pm, more people were waking up but the pool decks and restaurants were all still very quiet. We had some burgers and then caught several hours decked out in the sun.
For reasons that escape me, I bought bingo tickets and lost miserably. The games are played daily in the large theater at the front of the ship, which incidentally looks like it was recently refurbished. After losing there, we went to The Plantation Club, which is a smaller yet lovingly appointed bar at the back of the ship across from Cagney's. As with Outrigger, The Plantation Club definitely shows off the ships Hawaiian history in this room, with old photographs and advertisements from Hawaii's days as the pineapple kingdom.
Our entire group had booked into Cagney's ($25 upcharge) per person but certainly well worth it in my opinion. With the upcharge, it's not just the enhanced food that you get. You also get a quieter and attractive place to dine, a more comprehensive menu, and the freedom to book into the restaurant when you want and then you dine until you are finished. The food at Cagney's is definitely geared towards steaks and various meats, but there were other choices. Everything delivered to the table was top-notch, fantastic in appearance, and delicious in taste. Not one complaint here.
Some more gambling tonight but alas, no winnings. Sleep tonight wasn't great, but I managed to sleep at least until 4am when the parties were breaking up and the party-goers filled the hallways with their noise.
Day 3, Great Stirrup Cay - The view out of our balcony did not look promising on Sunday morning. The sky was dark, the balcony was wet with rain, and we were surrounded with whitecaps on the surf. Sure enough, the Captain came over the PA system to announce that all tender service was being suspended, albeit temporarily, while the crew assessed the storm front that was moving past and where it was going to go. While waiting up on deck to decide our course of action, we were very lucky to have seen a school of eight dolphins, swimming up to the ship and playing in the water. The school caught the eyes and cameras of nearly everyone who saw them, and their presence entertained us for about 30 minutes before the Captain came back on to advise that the tender service had restarted.
The lines for the tenders left something to be desired. You go down to deck 3 and wait for the tender to be attached to the ship, but there was no staff monitoring the passengers, so everyone just snaked up the hallway, then up the staircases in an effort to form some sort of line. Once onboard the tender, the ride was about 15 minutes long, still in choppy seas.
The island was hopping with music from the deejays and their fans. For the rest of us, plenty of beach chairs and surf space was available, and the beach barbecue was in full swing. We had wanted to walk to the far side of the island, past the old lighthouse, but it was roped off. An NCL employee on the island told us that there is construction taking place in that direction, so the path was closed for the time being. Bummer.
The rain continued to pick up while we were walking along another side of the island, which leads to a view of Royal Caribbean's island next door. By the time we found our next lagoon, it was really raining hard so we turned around and headed back to catch a tender to the ship. The trip was rough but not scary, but some people sitting forward did get splashed when the tender would bop up and then down in the waves.
Dinner that evening was in Il Adagio, which has a very different atmosphere at night when compared to the day when they serve the omelets and waffles. In the evening, the lights are turned down, the tables are set up, and it all becomes very relaxing. Dinner for us consisted of chicken marinara, steak with a tomato sauce on the side, spaghetti, gnocchi, and mushrooms. The appetizers consisted of a beef carpaccio and a cold antipasti. All in all very good, despite a small piece of plastic that found its way into one of the appetizers. No idea where it came from, but the hostess was extremely apologetic and waived one of the upcharges as a goodwill gesture. No fault, no foul.. we were happy with the meal and thought her offer most gracious.
After dinner we hit the shops for a bit of duty free and souvenir shopping. Prices often drop on the last night of the cruise, and I believed this night was no exception. We didn't go crazy, but the items we bought did fill our suitcases to capacity.
Alas just a few hours to enjoy the balcony for one more time, as well as the view of the wake of the ship. The noise from the deejay party a few decks down was in full swing, and by midnight was definitely cutting into any hope I had of getting sleep. I should point out that we heard the vibration and some of the sound from the music each night, but it grew more intense as the weekend went on. I went to the front desk at 1am to complain and I was offered apologies for the noise, and some earplugs for the sound, but there was nothing else they could do. The party was scheduled to go until 4am.
I don't begrudge the group's presence on board, as virtually any group can book space on a cruise ship. I do, however, wish NCL had done a better job of setting parameters to minimize the impact that the group would have on the other passengers.
Day 4, Miami - We awoke (yes, we managed a few hours after 4am) and saw a very grey, rainy and windy day in Miami. Fortunately neither of us had work that day, so we weren't in a rush to get off the ship, but we did want to get things going. Coffee had been delivered to our room, as it had on every day, by the gracious room service team. Some alcohol that we had purchased in Nassau was being held for us in the lobby, so we picked that up around 8am, and then disembarked not very long after.
Getting off of the ship and through customs was efficient as always. From our cabin and into our car took maybe 15-20 minutes.
Wrap up - Cruise number four with NCL is now under my belt. The really only negative aspect of our trip was the large party group on board, as they most definitely interfered with our ability to sleep on each of the three nights we were in our cabin. Their behavior in the hallways and in some other public areas left a lot to be desired, i.e. "not for family viewing", but despite this, the trip was not a bust. I have a standing deposit on a future NCL cruise, and I just need to decide within the next four years the where and when of it.
I'll close by reminding those reading that NCL is different from the other mainstream lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival. If you like the atmosphere you experience on their ships, a lot, then NCL may not be up your alley. If you can roll with the flexibility and a bit slower pace of service, then NCL may be worth your while. Their ships are every bit as good and offer not only the same amenities, but also some very unique ones. Freestyle to me ultimately comes down to the level of service that can ebb and flow depending on how many people want to do the same things at the same time. If 400 people show up for dinner at one time at the same restaurant, that could slow things down a bit. Conversely, you may show up at a restaurant and be one of only a few people waiting. If you go into the NCL cruise and set your expectations accordingly, you probably won't be disappointed.