I am grateful for (just shy of Category 5) Hurricane Joaquin providing me with the full spectrum of experience of cruising on the open ocean. Without those wonderful 155mph winds, I never would have experienced Sea States ranging the full spectrum 0 thru 8 on a scale of 9, with 9 labeled as "Phenomenal."
The previous week's cruise to Bermuda had crossed the hurricane's path in each direction to and from the Island. Joaquin was content to sit and spin, beating the hell out of The Bahamas. But, she wouldn't sit there much longer. Captain Hakan Svedung chose not to cross in front of the storm a third time, delaying departure from the NYC port by 10 hours to allow the storm to pass. Joaquin did pass on its way to the North-East, but not by very much distance.
We set a direct course for Bermuda, taking the shortest route at full steam to make up the lost time. Shortly after leaving port we encountered Sea States 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and then 7 with average (and I stress the word average) wave heights of 22 feet. I was sleeping at 2am when the thrusters pushed us gently out of port and onto our South-East heading. Several hours later I woke to a horrific rocking. I was a bit dizzy from being tossed around the bed like a rag doll until 9 am. Monday morning the rogue waves started to pound us. The 22 foot waves occasional combined into a single 44 foot wave, as I judged it viewing the bridge cam. They appeared suddenly like mountains, masked by the other waves around them. The bow of the 1069 foot Breakaway rose to climb the wave then seconds later went into free-fall, obeying the law of gravity which states that all objects fall to Earth at the same rate, no matter how massive they are.
Every time a rogue wave hit, the ship dropped out from under me, setting off an unfortunate series of events. I imagined a little alarm bell ringing as a lightning bolt bounced around inside my head. Less than 60 seconds later I was making my way to the head to expunge yet more of my stomach contents. This happened every time a large wave hit and they hit about once an hour. Time and time again I found myself racing for the head from 9 am Monday until 4 am Tuesday. I was popping Dramamine's like candy, chewing on ginger candy... I longed for death.
At 4 am Tuesday with the seas showing no signs of letting up, a calm came over me. Suddenly and miraculously I no longer felt the waves. The pendulum I hung from the ceiling to judge the chaos outside was spinning around in circles but I no longer felt the movement. I had earned my "Sea Legs" just in time for a half-day diversion back to the continental United States. We traveled East 160 nautical miles where a couple was air lifted out by the Coast Guard. There was a pregnant woman complaining of abdominal pains. I toyed with the idea of asking if my insurance company would pay for me to hitch a ride on the chopper back to land. After a precision rescue mission we returned on course for Bermuda arriving half a day behind schedule.
The Cruise Experience
After nearly 24 hours locked inside my cabin, I dusted myself off and made my way upstairs to the buffet to replace the contents of my stomach. Here is where NCL excels. I was pampered and served like a king on vacation. Each table was covered with white linen and decorated with hefty flatware. My promotional package includes an all you can drink plan - if it were fluid, I could drink it for free. It was a shame that my head and stomach were in no mood for alcoholic beverages. My cabin steward was just so nice, filling my ice bucket every day to the brim, turning down my covers, and making towel animals for my entertainment.
What started to distract from my pleasant cruise experience was a lack of an Internet connection, priced at $180 for the week. Thankfully, I held out the week and returned home to find a mere 59 emails, only 1 email being of any importance and not very urgent. I digress. The television channels were a choice of BBC World News, CNBC, MSNBC, and FOX. They would squeak out an occasional news story until McCarthy abruptly dropped out of the race for Speaker of the House. After then, most news coverage was reduced to a 10 second video loop for the remainder of the week.
In today's information age, you would think NCL would throw in The Weather Channel, CNN, and perhaps HBO? Nadda. So, no television to speak of, no Internet, no email, no text'ing, and no cell phone calls unless you wanted to spend another few hundred (thousands?) of dollars. Drinking was out - I was too dizzy. I really didn't wish to participate in the various rounds of Bingo and Trivia contests. I had also signed up for an inside cabin so just hanging out and looking out the window was impossible. I found a spot to watch the waves go by at the outside buffet area until everyone else saw me sitting there day after day and crowed me out of "my spot." Where is Sheldon when you need him?
The food was good, not excellent. It was certainly better than my routine home cooking staples, but the Chicken Parmigiana consisted of a thawed breaded piece of meat, a single slice of processed cheese with no sauce, and pasta with canned tomato sauce. This prompted me to try the available steak house for an extra $30 bucks, which was amazing. Many grumble over wait times for dinner, yet most people demand to be seated exactly at 7:45pm. Should just half of them dine an hour earlier there would be far less crowds. Most restaurants open at 5:30pm and are empty for nearly all that time.
My Fellow Passengers
My fellow passengers were shockingly rude. Examples. Entering a completely empty elevator, the two people walking just ahead of me pushed the button for their floor then quickly pressed the close-door button, closing the doors right in front of me. I pushed my way in by blocking the closing doors with my body. It's difficult enough to find an elevator during busy times, partially from people like these two who were apparently unable to wait the extra 5 seconds for the doors to stay open to let others on.
Another shocking behavior was a woman who was mocking the young Filipino girl. She stood at the Forward entrance of the buffet with a bottle of hand sanitizer spraying everyone's hands as they entered. Each and every time, hundreds of times each day, each spritz of her trigger was accompanied by her singing, "Washy washy - good morning" in the morning and "Washy washy - good afternoon" in the afternoon. She sang with a smile, no matter how many times she saw me, no matter how many times she's said it before, she sang "Washy washy - good morning" to me every time I entered. I overheard a woman mocking her, telling her children, "It's time for washy washy time." WHY would anyone mock such a lovely gesture? I can only speculate they were expecting a more traditional New Yawk greeting, "Hey! Your hands are dirty. Let me get that for ya!"
Many brought suitcases of bottled water on the cruise with them onto the Breakaway. NCL tries to discourage the practice by greatly inflating the price of bottled water, but they do allow passengers to lug their own water supply on board if you are ignorant enough to do so. The ship's water supply is filtered, purified, chlorinated, quarantined, and tested for bacteria at multiple stages. It is the best tasting, most pure water supply on Planet Earth. It felt good on my skin when I showered. It felt smooth and silky on my tongue as I drank. If I had one complaint, the chlorination taste could be easily resolved by filling a glass of water and leaving it sit for a while. Yet, many choose to drink bottled water simply because it has a label on it, yet posed more of a health risk than the ship's tap water.
I found an ample supply of lounge chairs. Passengers complain they could not find a lounger but I saw no evidence of this. Perhaps, if you are demanding a chair in the Sun by the pool, closest to the bar, first not second row from the pool... yea, you might not get that particular spot on any particular day. But chairs were everywhere on all the sun decks. If there was space, additional stacks of chairs were available, lightweight enough for the average person to sling into an empty spot. Once the sunny chairs are taken, two rows of shady chairs went around the outside of the ship. Never, not once did I not see an empty lounge chair.
The Daily Itinerary
There are some annoying things which NCL does. Make a reservation at a restaurant and it is cast in stone. No, you cannot cancel it. No, you cannot change it. And, if you do not show up for your time slot they will charge you for a meal you did not eat. No refunds. I can understand why. Without the hostile "no refunds" policy, passengers would book the specialty restaurants each day of the week and the seats would go empty while people were locked out. It was NCL policy to be unbending. Book a show, excursion, or a meal and they will not offer refunds or changes.
Yet, they'll change their own minds if it suits them. I booked an all-day excursion of Bermuda to travel by private van with a small group of people. What they put me on was a bus load of people (not the van I asked for). The organizer shoved me into a tiny jump seat rather than a regular spot because I was traveling alone. My feet kept falling painfully asleep after being stuck in this small bus for over five hours. Fun. No refunds!
Other annoyances from NCL include signing for each and every drink of soda or alcohol, filling out a slip, totaling it, signing it, for each and every drink. There was Pepsi but no Coke, which stinks more of corporate influence than popularity. Arriving in Bermuda everyone is greeted by ice cold Coke in vending machines. They know what people really want. Even room service, which was once included for free is now a horrific $8 additional fee for each and every order. Briefly, very briefly NCL staff blocked passengers from bringing food to their rooms as well. That did NOT last long. They backed down, rather than suffer the bad press. At one time, there was a pizza service which prided themselves on bringing you a whole pizza to you for free to any part of the ship. Gone, replaced by room service for an additional fee. In fact, the only free food delivery is the continental breakfast items, while adding something as simple as a cooked egg will incur additional fees.
I had no place to eat breakfast in my Solo Studio cabin. I went for the hype, a new way to cruise without the Singles' Supplement. Cruise ships are notorious for pushing single travelers off their ships by charging per-person, double-occupancy prices. Some lines, like Royal Caribbean, are rumored to charge more than double for single travelers. NCL introduced the concept of the Solo Cabin - smaller than an inside cabin, if you can imagine. It is the size of a small bedroom, sans the dresser which is replaced with a shower stall and the head. The cabin lacked a table, chair, and mini-bar but gave travelers a common lounge area to have snacks and mingle. I thought I would not miss a balcony but lament not having a quiet place to watch the ocean go by, other than an open table at the outdoor buffet.
NCL is a leader in the "Solo" (not necessarily single) traveler experience. Solo passengers encompass a wide diversity of people including unmarried, widowed, or those who have a partner who wasn't interested in the trip. Every evening we gathered in the Solo Lounge to organize our dinners and activities as a group, subgroup, or individual. Our cruise director was in charge of the Solo's - our ombudsman, leader, issue eradicator, and all around nice guy by the name of Antuan.
Despite the diversity of our group of random solo passengers, Antuan spoke to each of us as individuals. Any problems, issues, concerns? One woman's television had no power for 3 days. Guest Services was ignoring the problem, most likely confusing the issue with a network outage. Antuan put it right. Someone reported hearing wind chimes over the Public Address speakers. I confirmed hearing something which sounded like wind chimes. Antuan started an investigation as to the source of the chimes, which turned out to be the sound of the eight elevator chimes during peak traffic. One young lady was spotted waiting on a long line at the omelet station at the buffet. Once again, our cruise director resolved the problem by getting the chef's attention to make a "special omelet" for her, a la Antuan, shaving a full minute off her wait time on line - asking if there was anything else he could do for her. Another passenger complained about the heavy entrance door by his cabin which made a loud slam when it shut. This was the only issue which Antuan could not resolve, lowering his head, raising his eyes, replying, "I do not lighten doors."
He made our reservations for the shows, often getting us reserved seating and little perks whenever possible. He made dinner reservations for the group so it was unlikely any of us would need to dine alone, unless we really wanted to. Each night he would print personalized letters for each us, delivered to our cabin in the morning recanting the day's activity plans, show times and meeting places. Even when we all went our separate ways after arriving in Bermuda, we returned to the lounge for Antuan's daily meeting just to socialize and chat. It was like being on a cruise within a cruise.
The Bermuda Excursion
Because of the Coast Guard rescue operation, we arrived 12:30pm instead of 8am in Bermuda. Many excursions were cancelled. I gave up on my plans to take a bus to the Fantasy Caves on the other side of the Island, opting to find some WiFi to answer emails instead. Kings Wharf is wired for Wifi. That's a fact. But, there were few places to stop and setup a tablet and keyboard to do some heavy surfing. The trick is to purchase something at a restaurant or shop to obtain a security code for their network. An alternative was to hop onto the public network and pay the $5 bucks. But, with thousands of passengers all turning on their electronic devices simultaneously, the network was hopelessly deadlocked. I decided to buy a couple of rum cakes and head back to ship.
I was wearing a long sleeve shirt - a vented fishing shirt which was supposed to keep me cool. It failed. Sweat poured off the top of my head as if I were a water fountain, carrying a 20lb backpack full of computer accessories yet failing to find the Information Superhighway aka the Internet. Sweat stung my eyes as I made my way back to the air-conditioning and peeled off my soaking wet clothes after reaching my cabin.
The following day was even more humid and raining. I blew off taking a bus to the caves in favor of staying within reach of a shower. Others braved the humidity and explored the Island, returning soaking wet, either from sea water or rain water. Friday was my scheduled excursion, a private van tour of Bermuda so I could take a few vacation photos. I failed to read my ticket more carefully and didn't realize until Friday morning on the pier that my van tour was replaced with a bus tour packed with tourists. The organizer crammed me into a jump seat which made my legs fall painfully asleep for most of the trip. Yet, the weather was beautiful, I collected my snapshots of the gorgeous Island, and had the opportunity to walk on the pink sand of Bermuda.
Arriving back in New York, we chose our disembarkation time and attached colored tags to our luggage indicating our predicted time to leave. Luggage was collected the night before and collated to correspond roughly with the flow of people walking down the ramp. Many restaurants extended their hours to provide one last breakfast as people packed up and left before 10:30am. I chose to wake at 5am, packed by 6:30am to watch the ship pull gently up to the pier. My scheduled time to walk off unassisted was 7:30am, yet I chose to make my way back downstairs to deck 7 to see how far I could get to the ramp. I was 10th in line to disembark at 6:30am, the gotcha being that I stood in line for the full hour waiting for Customs to accept us.
The woman directly in front of me held up the entire line of people, stopping at the top of the escalator. She didn't know how to negotiate the wheeled luggage on the escalator, putting on her best helpless face which received no sympathy from the Customs Agent who explained how this worked, "Take five steps and pull!" The idea of the walk-off's was for those who did not need assistance with their luggage, a concept which was apparently lost on her. Yet, Customs was not entirely unsympathetic. They provided someone at the bottom of the escalator to grab luggage at the bottom to prevent a painful pile-up of people and suitcases being chewed on by large, metal teeth. They directed us to keep clear of the landing and they would tackle any stray suitcases which got away.
Right across the street was a taxi stand. As one of the first walk-off's, I grabbed a cab to Penn Station and transferred to a quiet train car back to Long island early Sunday morning. The rolling and pitching of the ship will probably be with me for weeks as I re-learn my daily home schedule. Read Less