In this Review
a) A little history
b) This cruise vs comparable cruises & ship vs ship
c) NCL Sky – first look
d) Overall experience
e) Nickel and Dime-ing on NCL
a) A little history
I start out with a little history on my own.
Some 11 years ago I cruised NCL the last time with a horrid experience on a horrific ship. Back then I swore to myself “never NCL” again. I held up to that promise until this last weekend.
Over the years, I really never paid much attention to NCL and I was never attracted to this Freestyle stuff.
I sailed other lines and eventually got stuck with RCI. Mostly happy these past few years NCL was never really on the horizon.
Though a change of business gave me the opportunity – back in April 09 - to tour the Norwegian Pearl and along the way I ‘graduated’ from NCL U with a Freestyle Certification (don’t ask, it is business related). Throughout this experience I became more and more aware and interested in NCL. Considering that I have some requirements which ‘forces’ me to sail on different lines I reluctantly booked the Pearl for Dec 09 and the Jade for Sept 2010.
Over the past few years we have cruised on the July 4th weekend which has become a tradition for us. Mostly we sailed the Majesty of the Seas on that weekend but last year we pulled the Monarch of the Seas into that tradition.
I was still a little nervous about the Pearl booking for Dec. It is – after all – a New Year’s eve cruise and prices tend to be higher plus final payment day is already in September (December holiday sailings tend to have that requirement). Since I still needed a short cruise on a different line (other than RCI) combined with the worries about the booked NCL cruises we decided to break with tradition and sail the NCL Sky.
And this is how I returned to NCL – after a self-imposed 11 year exile.
b) This cruise vs comparable cruise & ship vs ship
This cruise was your typical short, 3-Night Bahamas cruise on July 4th. I have sailed comparable short cruises on the Majesty of the Seas, Sovereign of the Seas and Monarch of the Seas including on July 4th.
All 4 ships (Sky, Majesty OTS, Monarch OTS, former Sovereign OTS) are comparable in size and close to age (3 of them build in the same decade and with the Majesty OTS having received a major overhaul just about 3 years ago).
Our idea was to change as little as possible from our regular cruising habits and my review is from a consumer point of view. I do not sail on TA Rates nor Net Rates. I pay full fare.
c) NCL Sky – first look
Upon arrival at the port we had a good look at the Majesty OTS and the NCL Sky next to each other. Some nervousness and excitement began to creep up which I hadn’t felt in a while. If you go on the same cruise line over and over it becomes a more repetitive procedure knowing all the ins and outs of that particular line. You still look forward to cruising yet the ‘thrill’ is somewhat diminished.
Embarkation was a breeze with friendly stuff all over directing a couple lost cruisers (us) rather quickly to the correct check-in line.
First nod to NCL: balconies have also their own check-in counter.
While the Sky was still ‘empty’ (we embarked approx at 11:30am) we decided to quickly grab a lunch and then tour the ship. Boy, did we look like lost puppies.
We finally ended up in one of the restaurants (“The Palace”) for a sit down lunch. We could have gone upstairs to the buffet area but we decided to stay right there (before we get even more lost). The positive thing was: we met our waiter and being quite fond of him we created our own “traditional dinner” in the middle of Freestyle 2.0 and had dinner with him every night in “The Crossing”. After our lunch which was OK, not bad but nothing to rave about, I created my own ship inspection before we were able to have a look at our cabin.
I certainly was prepared for a blinding effect (color) having looked at some of the pictures of the Sky but what I saw surprised me. It is not the classy, retro look of the Vision Class or Sovereign Class but it was certainly neither horrific nor color blinding. Sure, decorating wise it was different but nothing unacceptable or crazy. To be honest, after an hour or so I didn't even think of RCI's interior anymore.
What surprised me the most was the fact in what great condition the Sky was and how easy to navigate she was. Sure we got lost a couple times but it was mostly due to the fact that we were not in ‘our environment’. The only venue which seemed tight was the Stardust Theater. It looked a little to small considering that under Freestyle you have only one show seating. The rear seats on the balcony of the Stardust Theater have extremely obstructed view. But as we have learned later – everybody was able to get a seat. We arrived at the shows mostly with 5 minutes or less to spare and never had a problem finding a seat with a good view.
Overall we were very happy with the layout of the Sky. I never seen or experienced any back up or stuffed up areas – except the Quest show which had – when it began – standing room only left (Outrigger Lounge). But that is nothing new.
The Sky has very little wear and tear. As a matter of fact I was overly critical and I was looking for ‘problems’ and obvious wear. I just couldn’t find any. I was very happy and ready to cruise.
Our cabin was 0265
- a stern balcony. Normally I do not book right under public venues but knowing the Sky only from pictures I was worried about constant ‘peeking’ from the balconies above. So I tried to reduce the ‘peeking odds’ and booked as high as possible. This decision of course came with a little noise factor which was expected and didn’t bother us but it could be a problem for those who are noise sensitive. Having thoroughly inspected the Sky I realized that the balconies below do not have that ‘peek in factor’ as I expected. So the next time I will be booking into Deck 9 or Deck 8.
The balcony room itself was about the size of an E1 on RCI and the balcony had plenty of room. There are two things I really liked:
- the balcony floor was a patterned soft rubber and a drainage underneath. We had some rain before sail-away and in Nassau but never standing water (shoot – I hope I took a picture of it)
- the stern balconies have sliders (in contrast to the regular doors on the side balconies). This slider was actually moving with ease (in comparison to the 20 ton sliders on RCI where you need 3 people at times to move the darn doors). They also had automatic locks in open and closed position which easily could be opened from the inside and the outside.
How easy was it? I was able to hold a tray with coffee, cups and plates in one hand and unlock and open the sliding glass door in one motion with literally two fingers of the other hand.
The room had a some weird color matching. Nothing horrendous but weird nevertheless. Now since this is also posted on the NCL board I do have a question. The balcony BA has on the website - I think - a pinkish color code. Our Key Cards were in a dark pink and the room has a slight pinkish tone. Is that an ongoing theme? If so, I am very happy. Since I have a horrendous 'pink allergy' and it didn't bother me I have nothing to worry about in the future.
d) Overall experience
Now we are coming to the meat of things. I don’t know how to describe it but the experience was STUNNING! The cruise director (Matt Baker) was probably one of the best I have ever seen. Funny and hilarious without being obnoxious and with high energy he pulled off a program on a 3-Nighter which I have not seen on RCI in years. The signature party of Freestyle (Hot White Party) - which was combined into a July 4th celebration - was top notch. The ship was in some areas nicely decorated for July 4th.
The pool deck was packed with dancing and celebrating people of all ages, the snow in July was a nice touch and this whole experience was nothing like I have seen on RCI’s comparable cruises and ships. Sure the 70s party on the Royal Promenade can not be beat but that is not what I am comparing.
We attended the “Welcome Aboard party” and the comedy show while skipping the production show. I am just not a fan of cruise ship production shows.
And CD Matt: thank you for the Quest. On RCI the Quest has lost its touch on our last 4 or 5 cruises. From being watered down to being staged (Ken Rush) this Quest was in its purest form. Thanks for that.
The staff on the Sky was absolutely terrific. From the cruise director to the casino staff to the coffee bar to the dinning room staff and the bar staff - always smiling, always helpful and always available. It was an absolute terrific experience. The cruise consultant on board (comparable to the Loyalty Ambassador) was actually knowledgeable, pleasant and very forth coming.
The food was wayyyy above average. The dinners were – I hate to say it – great. While I had no bad meal on RCI in the last few years the food quality definitely declined. But to be honest: on a 3 Nighter I never had food as we had on the Sky. It was extremely well cooked – to order. Please do not ask me about the menu or menu items. I am used to the handful of entrees with RCI. The NCL Sky had at least 10 different entrees - every single night. It was hard to pick from that selection. All our dinners were in “The Crossing” which is a free restaurant.
We had lunch in the dinning room (embarkation day), buffet and Great Stirr Up Cay. Lunch was not bad in all three venues.
Breakfast we tried 3 times: on day 1 in the dining room, day 2 the buffet and on disembarkation day the buffet as well (Garden Café).
Ohhhhhhh, those eggs benedict in the dinning room. Terrific. Hello RCI!?!
On the two buffet mornings we had omelet once and scrambled eggs the second time. The omelets were very good, and with the scrambled eggs I did not care much for the texture but were definitely eatable.
Food was available 24 hours - without surcharge.
Which brings us to.....
e) Nickel and Dime-ing on NCL
This does not exist on NCL. Either it is a myth, simply not being informed or an outright lie. As I said before: I was overly critical and we did not change our behavior or the way we cruise. Based on info (mostly from a certain group whose initials begin with an ‘R” and end with a “C”
) I was fully expecting ‘lots of surcharges’. Not so. We ate as good but mostly better than on RCI for free (even late night).
Some drinks were slightly more expensive others were less. They had a lot of drink specials. Early on - with the alcohol content - I would have given the nod to RCI but they quickly eased up on the alcohol – oh yes, they did.
And then something strange happened: for years I liked to spend time in the casino on RCI. Of course I left many $ there. But besides a friendly chat here and there RCI was just happy that I made sure that all their employees can get paid - by me.
My first cruise on NCL and the pit boss came over, out of the blue, and bought everybody on the table a drink. Geez, they actually appreciate us losing money on NCL.
The final result: Our onboard bill was surprisingly lower.
So if anybody ever tells you again: NCL is nickel and diming – that is simply not true.
I am not sure what to say but this cruise - from ship through staff to cruise experience does not rival RCI in the 3 and 4 Night market. It actually makes RCI a victim. NCL has done right to re-enter this market. Knowing the south Florida area very well I would reckon that NCL will become the leader in the short cruise market down here in a very short time. I have a suggestion to the NCL marketing department though: fight this nickel and dime-ing reputation. This reputation is all what's holding you back. The first question upon my return was: so how did you like NCL and its extra fees? My response was: 'what extra fees?'.
We did not change our habits one bit. We drank as much and gamble as much yet our onboard bill was much lower than on any comparable cruise before.
In Miami, the Majesty of the Seas was right behind us. At that time, still a little nervous, I wondered if I made the right decision.
In Nassau, the Monarch was docked with us. I had absolutely no feelings one way or another.
In Great Stirrup Cay, the Monarch was anchored less than a mile from us. My thoughts at that time: good riddance. I was happy were I was.
I had only one regret: Why did I wait 11 years?