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Old November 12th, 2015, 11:18 PM
eroller eroller is offline
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Arrow How does NORWEGIAN ESCAPE stack up?

NORWEGIAN ESCAPE
October 29, 2015
10-Days Southampton to Miami
Maiden Atlantic Crossing

Link to 450 ship photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/erolle...57660292505739
Link to menus and Freestyle Dailies:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/erolle...57660620430340


What is it like to sail on Norwegian Cruise Line's newest and largest vessel on her maiden Atlantic crossing? Read on to find out! The short version is I totally enjoyed myself and felt that Norwegian delivered an excellent product with ESCAPE, both in software and hardware. There are some exceptions which I will explain in detail. Having sailed on many inaugurals and maiden voyages, I felt this one was exceptionally smooth. In fact the ship seemed to be running like a well oiled machine with pretty much all construction complete, at least from my perspective. This is unlike the QUANTUM OF THE SEAS crossing last year which was incomplete with new things being added everyday, and finish work completed during the crossing. I think the fact that ESCAPE is essentially a sister ship to two existing Breakaway Class vessels helped with how smooth things ran, but I can't discount the fact that ESCAPE has probably the best onboard management team of any NCL vessel. Well deserved accolades go to Sean Wurmhoeringer the Hotel Director and his assistant Rashida (Rashi) whom are two of the best to be found at sea on any cruise line. Visible, approachable, and efficient they are always a pleasure to deal with. I didn't interact with Sean on this cruise because I knew he would be extra busy on this maiden crossing. I did interact with Rashi and as always she is a delight. I call her the "miracle worker" and she never fails to impress.

Getting to the ship was simple with a Delta flight into Heathrow. I enjoyed Delta One (Business Class) which makes the flight so much more comfortable and enjoyable. We opted for a scheduled National Express coach from Heathrow down to Southampton. I liked that free wifi is offered on the coach. We spent one night at the Grand Harbour Hotel in Southampton and dined that evening at the White Star Tavern, a tradition of mine when embarking on transatlantic crossings. The hotel was comfortable and clean and the location was excellent. I would not hesitate to stay there again.

Embarkation day was somewhat rainy and foggy, and this type of weather would continue for a good portion of the transatlantic crossing. There would be patches of sunshine during the first six days, but they were rare. It was never bitter cold, but windy and rainy enough to keep people off the outer decks and even have them roped off on occasion. The final three to four days were almost like a Caribbean cruise. Warm, sunny, and even hot. It was welcomed after many days of being cooped up inside. The weather confirmed one notion I had already made about this class of ship. They are warm weather ships for certain, and best suited in warm climates where the upper decks and Waterfront promenade can be used to their full advantage. There is no glass covered pool (except for the Haven) and no large indoor sporting space like Seaplex on Royal Caribbean's Quantum Class ships. Those ships are much more suited for all-weather cruising. Back to embarkation it was from the Ocean Terminal and extremely efficient. Usually I'm departing on QM2 from the Ocean Terminal so it felt kind of strange embarking on a different ship and different cruise line. I have to say NCL's embarkation for this brand new ship beats the Cunard method any day. We arrived around 11:30am and there was literally no waiting or massive lines. We checked-in and were able to board the ship directly after. Cabins were not ready until a little later, around 1pm.

Since this was a 10-day crossing with no ports, my focus is going to be on the ship, entertainment, food, and service. Although there were no ports we did change course to sail closer to the coast of Spain for a medical evacuation. That was the only thing unusual about the crossing, except for some rocky seas but this of course is to be expected on a Winter Atlantic crossing. Those expecting Caribbean style weather were in for a surprise. ESCAPE was no QM2 in regards to her handling in rough seas, but overall she did pretty well. The movement was definitely more severe in the forward section of the ship, and some days the pools were emptied but surprisingly the Spa Pool was kept in use. The Spa Pool was far from relaxing on those rough days as basically you were holding on for your life! It was fun though and good for some laughs.

When describing features of ESCAPE I will be making some comparisons and references to fleet-mates GETAWAY and EPIC. The ESCAPE is essentially a larger version of GETAWAY (and BREAKAWAY) and an evolution of EPIC incorporating many of the same features. Starting from the top is The Haven, which is the exclusive key-card access suite area. While I didn't reside in the Haven for this cruise I was invited to a couple VIP parties up there and also a party in a Deluxe Owner's Suite. Overall the Haven seemed to be an improvement over the GETAWAY, with a larger courtyard, larger lounge area, nicer restaurant with more windows, and an outdoor dining area. Also added are a glass elevator surrounded by a half-moon staircase. It all works well and this really seems to be a nice enclave from the rest of the ship. I still give the edge to the Haven on EPIC though. I just prefer the layout overall and the pool is actually a real pool, not an oversized jacuzzi.

A couple top-deck features new to ESCAPE are four overhanging jacuzzi's forward on Deck 19. One is reserved for the Haven, one is reserved for Vibe (the private sun deck), and the two on the port side are open to everyone. This is NCL's answer to not providing another pool which I think is sorely needed. I think the jacuzzi's will help eliminate some of the crowding in the pools, but probably not by much when the ship is full. This crossing was not full. We had about 3100 passengers while normal capacity is 4270 based on double occupancy, and more when all the 3rd, 4th, and 5th berths are filled. My impression was that 3100 passengers seemed just right. Venues were full and lively but not overcrowded. There were some waits for dining experiences and some venues sold out, but nothing extreme. Honestly I can't imagine the ship completely full with something like 4500 passengers and lots of kids. It will really change the dynamic of the ship and honestly I have my doubts about how well the ship will absorb all those passengers. Time will tell on that one. The previously mentioned Vibe is also up on Deck 19 forward. It's a private sun deck that you pay extra for. I obtained a Vibe pass on my GETAWAY Caribbean cruise and it was worth every penny. A great escape from the really busy and cluttered decks of this class of ship. Vibe was not finished for this crossing so everyone that purchased a pass was refunded but they were still invited to use the facility. It includes a misting station, bar, restrooms, luxury loungers, cabanas, and an overhanging jacuzzi. In addition to the the added jacuzzi's, NCL made some other improvements to the upper sun decks to create more space and provide a more open feeling. It's still more cluttered than other ships but a vast improvement over the GETAWAY. One of the two pool bars was moved from Deck 17 up to Deck 18 and stacked over the original bar on Deck 17. This works well and opens up a lot of deck space on the starboard side of Deck 16. Like the Breakaway Class and EPIC there are water slides, with two drop slides that were unfortunately closed on the crossing, a yellow standard slide which was actually much more fun than it looked, and the main blue slide which was the highest. It could be used with or without an inflatable tube and was also a ton of fun, especially going backwards! There is a clear opening on the slide over the side of the ship and also light features throughout. An expanded Ropes Course is just aft of the slides, and it's now three levels instead of two. I love this feature and it now includes three zip-lines, one over the side of the ship, and two "walk the planks", which are essentially 8-foot planks over either side of the ship complete with a photo opportunity. I enjoyed the ropes course a few times during the crossing and each time I became more and more brave with the plank and zip-lines. Absent from ESCAPE is a rock-climbing wall. Instead this is general outdoor seating by Margaritaville at Sea. Rounding out the outer decks is Spice H20 all the way aft. While the Breakaway Class offers a water feature in Spice H20 the ESCAPE ramps it up a notch with the Grotto. It's a great recreation of a grotto complete with cascading waterfalls inside. A great way to cool off on a hot day. Two additional hot tubs are included in Spice H20. Unchanged from the Breakaway Class are the two main pools which are a good size for a ship, the aqua park for kids which is a lot of fun although I miss Sponge Bob from the GETAWAY, and two large hot tubs surrounding the main pool. One cool feature of the hot tubs is a automated shade screen over them that can be retracted on a starry night.

The Garden Cafe (buffet) is very similar to GETAWAY with a couple exceptions. There are enomatic wine dispensers which were not yet working on the crossing, and a full bar at the forward entrance with high-top seating around it. The bar also serves smoothies and fresh juice at an extra charge. An alternative to the Garden Cafe is Margaritaville at Sea. This takes the place of the Flamingo Bar & Grill on GETAWAY. I was actually disappointed in Margaritaville and much preferred the Flamingo which had much more interesting offerings. The burgers at Margaritaville were no better than the buffet and the wait on sunny days is long and IMO not worth it. Margaritaville is currently free even though it's sit down with waiter service. Interestingly enough I still received a check there although all the food items were zeroed out. I'm guessing NCL is testing charging for this venue and it wouldn't surprise me if it becomes a la carte in the near future. Personally I would never pay for it unless the quality dramatically improves. Guy's Burgers on Carnival are still the best cruise ship burgers I've ever had, and there is currently no chance of Margaritaville beating them out.

The Mandara Spa is located forward on Deck 16 and again there are some major improvements over the Breakaway Class. Courtney is currently the Spa Manager and she is one of my favorites on any cruise line. The biggest improvement is size. The Fitness Center is in the same location but it's enlarged with the glass partitions removed that created a hallway on the Breakaway Class. The Thermal Suite area is also improved as it now extends further over the Bridge and also around to the port side of ship. The thermal pool is the same size, but there are a lot more loungers for relaxing around it. The loungers closest to the forward facing windows are the heated tile type. The Thermal Suite facilities are co-ed and include a steam room (unfortunately not working on the crossing), two types of saunas facing the sea, the salt room, and the much anticipated snow room. I loved the snow room and felt it was a great way to bring down your body temperature after sitting in the saunas. I used it daily. One deck below are the treatment rooms and a very nice and large relaxation room.
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Old November 12th, 2015, 11:19 PM
eroller eroller is offline
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-continued-

Cabins are pretty much identical to the Breakaway Class with a couple exceptions. The balconies are deeper, and this was possible because of an extra five feet of width on NORWEGIAN ESCAPE. The foot bar in the shower which assisted ladies when shaving their legs is gone (not sure why), and the indicators which advise the cabin steward when the cabin is vacant, needs servicing, or do not disturb have been moved from the top of the cabin entry door to the cabin number signage outside the door. A wonderful new addition is a USB port incorporated into each bedside lamp. Great for charging iPhones! Those are the only differences I could detect. I really like the cabins on this class of ship. They are comfortable, a good size, adequate storage, and a large bathroom. Our bed was near the closet with the couch by the balcony door. This makes for a nice sitting area but it's a challenge to get in and out of the closet as the bed is so close. I included pictures of the new room service menus in the pictures link, as well as the mini-bar set up with pricing. There is a single cup coffee maker included but the coffee packs never made it for this crossing. Good thing I don't drink coffee! I toured the Studio Complex and included pictures. The cabins and corridors are the same as the GETAWAY, but the lounge is now single level in the middle of the three decks of cabins. Missing from the Studio Lounge is the bar so I guess NCL decided it was under utilized. Having seen the Studio Lounges on all three classes of ships now, I would say EPIC's is the best, followed by the Breakaway Class then ESCAPE.

Our cabin steward Barry was excellent as was pretty much every crew member I encountered. Everyone seemed very motivated, polite, and extremely friendly with very few exceptions. One area that seemed to struggle was bar service. The bartenders worked hard but demand just outpaced their abilities, so sometimes it could be a somewhat long wait for a drink depending on the bar. I kept thinking how it would be with 4500 passengers instead of just the 3100 we had. I think partially to blame is the Ultimate Beverage Package which almost every passenger seemed to have. Since drinks were included people probably ordered more drinks then they would have otherwise, and this kept the bartenders extremely busy. Hopefully NCL will address this since I think the UBP will only grow in popularity, and place more and more pressure on the bar staff. Drink prices on NCL seem to creep up rather frequently without notice, and a standard Barcardi & Coke is now $8.85 including gratuity.

Thankfully there are a lot of bars and lounges on ESCAPE to spread out the crowds. A brand new venue is the District Brew House. It's in a fantastic location surrounded by glass where sporting events can be played and a piano player on other nights. I'm not a beer drinker but apparently the selection was much more limited than it should have been on this crossing. Replacing the Grammy Experience on GETAWAY is the 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar on ESCAPE. It includes a bar and stage with singer along with an outdoor bar on the Waterfront, but somehow I just didn't find it very inviting. I only walked through it and never really spent any time there. Next door is Tobacco Road which replaces the Sunset Bar on GETAWAY. They are essentially the same but I didn't enjoy Tobacco Road as much because the outdoor bar is a major smoking area and all the smoke is sucked inside every time the door opens. It's a great looking bar though and probably the most intimate spot on the ship. New to NCL and ESCAPE is the Cellars Wine Bar. It's a very nice space with both an indoor bar and outdoor bar on the Waterfront. It replaces the Ice Bar on GETAWAY. Two new boutique shops are Carolina Herrera and Lacoste and these replace the Sugarcane Mojito Bar that was on GETAWAY. Personally I prefer the bar over the shops. ESCAPE still has the Sugarcane Bar but it's moved to the other side by the Bayamo Restaurant and no longer has music or the outside Waterfront bar.

The final bar change on ESCAPE is the Skyline Bar. This replaces the Bliss Ultra Lounge nightclub on the GETAWAY. The Skyline Bar is open to the casino so essentially it's a casino bar and pretty much looks like one. Somehow it missed the mark for me and I think it could be so much more. Unfortunately with Bliss gone there is no indoor nightclub on the ship. To me this is a major omission on a mass-market ship that will be sailing year round Caribbean cruises from Miami. Spice H20 is the designated nightclub, but the weather has to be good to use it and that is not always the case even in the Caribbean. At the beginning of the crossing there was simply no nightclub style venue or music offered and pretty much everything shut down at midnight. After some comments to Julie the Cruise Director she experimented with turning the atrium into the nightclub one night, and the Manhattan Dining Room another. Epic fails. Finally the Skyline Bar became the nightclub until the weather improved enough for Spice H20 to be used. The Skyline worked ok as a nightclub, but it really wasn't designed as a nightclub venue. I do hope Norwegian evaluates the need for a nightclub on such a mega ship and perhaps retrofits the Skyline to its full potential. For me personally this was the only major design flaw of the ship, and for those who enjoy staying up late dancing and partying another ship might be a better choice.

Entertainment was awesome onboard ESCAPE and I enjoyed all the shows. My two favorites were After Midnight and For the Record. After Midnight recreates the music and dancing of Harlem in the 30's. I loved the fact it broke so many stereotypical cruise ship show molds. First it was an almost all black cast which was refreshing and of course quite appropriate for the musical. Second the performers were all shapes, sizes, and age groups. Again refreshing. Lastly the F-bomb was dropped during the show which I found amusing, especially after a few gasps! I don't think I've ever heard it before on typical watered down cruise ship show but it wouldn't be the last time. It was dropped again a few times in For the Record, another favorite. This show is actually a dinner show in the Supper Club where an extra charge is involved. I felt it was worth every penny and then some. As a product of the 80's graduating high school in the mid-80's this show really hit home. It's essentially a montage of all the John Hughes coming of age films, complete with your favorite music from those movies. I attended the show with a friend that had not seen any of his movies and wasn't familiar with the music, but she still loved it! The last major show was Million Dollar Quartet which I enjoyed, but it wasn't a favorite. The production value and performers were excellent, but the music just wasn't my thing.

Norwegian made one final change on the ESCAPE which I think was smart. The kids facilities known as Splash Academy and Guppies Nursery have been moved down to Deck 5, the lowest passenger deck. They are out of the way of everything else and although I didn't use them they seemed very comprehensive. There were not many children on this crossing or on crossings in general, and this is one reason they are probably my favorite type of cruise. Unchanged is the location of the teen lounge known as Entourage and the adjacent very large video arcade. They are both located up on deck 17 but still obscure enough they don't seem to bother or interfere with anything else.

Special mention has to be made of the internet. I'm hoping it was just initial teething problems with the new ship and crossing, but it was probably the worst shipboard internet I've experienced since ships started offering it. Very, very slow speeds and too many instances where you simply could not connect. For those that purchased unlimited internet it was not as big of a deal since you're always connected, but for those on limited plans like myself it was extremely frustrating. Sometimes it would take 15-20 minutes just to connect. Needless to say the Internet Manager was kept very busy and I did request a couple credits which they honored, but it was very inconvenient. This is an area where NCL is really falling short. Competitors like Carnival and Royal Caribbean are installing faster networks with more affordable and varied pricing plans. I would like to see NCL do the same. The internet is no longer a convenience but a necessity for many people, even on vacation. Offering relatively fast, reliable, and affordable internet service is a must! Along the same lines the Norwegian iConcierge App also had its teething problems. Sometimes it would work and other times only limited services would be available. Every now and then all services would be working like a charm but those instances would be few and far between. This can all be forgiven on a brand new ship just entering service, and I'm sure iConcierge will be working like a charm in no time. The internet service I'm not so sure about. It doesn't seem to be a priority for NCL.

Ok the part everyone has been waiting for ... the food! In a nutshell excellent. This goes for the both the free and pay venues. There are three main dining rooms. Taste, Savor, and the Manhattan. I dined in each multiple times and always enjoyed the cuisine and service. The Manhattan was my favorite as it felt like a super club with an amazing jazz quartet. Sometimes there would even be guest singers from the shows. It made dinner lively and entertaining and enhanced the entire experience. The Garden Cafe continues to be one of the better buffets with a pretty good variety of food and favorites like the pretzel bread and hand scooped ice cream (and soft serve) with toppings. That is becoming more and more rare on cruise ships these days. If only they would offer something like Royal Caribbean's famous roast beef sandwich it would be perfect! The pay venues I experienced were Le Bistro, Cagney's, and Food Republic. Le Bistro was my favorite dinner experience on the ship. It was flawless in both service and cuisine. I had the Dover Sole and it was absolutely delicious. Cagney's served a steak to perfection but the service was a little off the night we went. Nothing major but not flawless like Le Bistro. Lastly there is Food Republic. This is a partnership between NCL and The Pubbelly Group of Miami. The concept and execution are fantastic. The dishes are innovative with lots of ingredients and flavors that you might not normally associate with each other. The result is exceptional and I enjoyed every dish I had there. I did miss a couple dining spots that I enjoyed on GETAWAY which are absent ESCAPE. One is Shanghai's Noodle Bar just off the casino, and the other is the Wasabi Sushi Bar. Sushi is still offered on ESCAPE at Food Republic, but the sushi bar was so easy and convenient on GETAWAY.

Arrival into Miami was on a glorious sunny day, unfortunately marred by a dismal disembarkation process. The problem seemed to be lack of communication. The terminal area was full of people trying to clear CBP formalities but the cruise director continued to call more colors to disembark. This created long lines on the ship forward and aft that were not moving as disembarkation was stalled due to full terminals. Instead of calling more colors, Julie should have requested passengers to relax in the lounges while the terminals cleared out a bit. This would have been much more pleasant than standing in a line for 45 minutes that didn't move. Simple communication! It's a shame when the last experience you have on a ship is not a good one. There has to be a better way. In general I really like NCL's disembarkation method of picking your own color tag based on the time you want to disembark, but it only works if there is good two-way communication between the ship and terminal.

In closing I think Norwegian has another winner on their hands with ESCAPE. Service and cuisine seem to be elevated and the entertainment and onboard amenities offered are excellent. My only concerns are how the ship will handle a full load of passengers, the poor internet speeds, and the lack of an indoor nightclub. All in all not too shabby and a fine job done by Norwegian! Please enjoy the many pictures and if you have any questions please post them. I'll do my best to answer.
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Old December 12th, 2015, 05:50 PM
Travelbuggs Travelbuggs is offline
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Thanks, eroller, for this very detailed and well balanced review. We are looking forward to a family cruise on this ship in January. Disappointing that Margaritaville is now a la carte ( a mere two weeks or so after being launched ) after being advertised for a year or more as complimentary. $6.95 for a burger and more if you want fries. For families with a few kids, it can turn into a very expensive lunch.
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