This was my fourth cruise, all with NCL. I sailed on the Bliss in 2019, the Joy last year, and the Encore this time. The layout of all three was very similar and familiar to me, so finding my way around was no problem. Embarkation was a much smoother process this year than last year, probably due to the reduced COVID protocols. The ship was very crowded as expected, and some bars took some time to get served a drink. I had a studio room, which was very clean and well-appointed for a small room. I had no issues with room service despite NCL's reduction in this area.
The public areas of the ship were very clean and very well-kept. The observation lounge is one of the most underrated aspects of the large NCL ships. It's a great place to unwind after a long day and to have a drink or two in a quiet atmosphere. I wish the lounge had a Starbucks like the lounge on the Joy did, however. I also wish the ship had a Spice H20 area like the Bliss and Joy have.
Dining and food was overall very good. I ate in the main dining room twice and had an excellent meal both times. The buffet on NCL ships always has an excellent variety of food whenever you want, and this time was no exception. I had two specialty dinners on this trip - Q and Cagney's. To be blunt, the meal at Q was a massive disappointment. The meats were dry and overcooked, which required an over-saucing to offset the dried out meat. Service also took exceptionally long for a place that was not crowded. The cookie skillet dessert from there, however, was excellent. But it's easy to say the meal at Q overall was the biggest disappointment the entire trip. The Barbecue Mixed Grill in the main dining room was better than Q, and that only added to the disappointment, especially for a specialty restaurant. On the other hand, the dinner at Cagney's was not only the best on board this time, but one of the best dinners I've had in a long time overall. The shrimp was good, the lobster bisque was really good, the steak (the 16 oz. ribeye) was one of the best I've ever had, and the 7-layer chocolate cake for dessert was to die for. I will never miss a dinner at Cagney's on any future NCL trip. The Local is a favorite, but I had better experiences and service on the Bliss and Joy there.
The studios on NCL ships are very clean and very well-designed for such a small space. They are an excellent value for anyone traveling on their own or prefers to room alone. The studio lounge is a great way to meet people and have a quick drink or snack. There are only about 80 on the ship, so they sell out real fast.
Great Stirrup Cay is a wonderful private island. It's quiet, simple, and very clean. That said, the tendering process was an absolute fiasco. It was a very convoluted process, and many people took way too long to get to the island, if they hadn't given up prior to doing so. Given how often the island is bypassed due to bad weather, you could consider us lucky we got there. I strongly recommend NCL invest in a pier to eliminate the tendering process as well as reducing the number of times this wonderful island is skipped if there's any indication of poor weather.
We had to port at Amber Cove instead of Puerto Plata due to high winds, so it took a little longer to get to our planned resort (about 30-35 minutes). The resort (Sunscape Puerto Plata) was well-kept, and the pool was excellent.
I had been to St. Thomas before this. I went ziplining in 2019, so I went snorkeling instead, but it was a very disappointing excursion due to a lack of fish and a very pushy staff member regarding tipping and service. The port is the typical cruise port with loads of shops and store fronts.