Norwegian Escape Cruise Review
This is the story of the best cruise we've ever taken... and that's saying a lot, since this was our 34th cruise! The Norwegian Escape is an amazing ship with a lot of great features, including the best cruise ship spa we've ever experienced... but what really made our cruise special was staying in a special VIP section of the ship known as "The Haven" and having an unusual type of cabin known as a Haven Spa Suite:
Before I get in to the full story of our vacation on the Norwegian Escape,
let's start with a little introduction
so that you know who this is coming from...
I'm Jim Zimmerlin (everyone calls me Jim Zim) and I always cruise with my wife, Kellyn. (Pronunciation tip: it rhymes with Helen.) We're from Grover Beach, California... a little beach town on the California coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. We've been cruising since 1996... and have now taken 34 cruises on 22 different cruise ships. While we've cruised with Carnival more than any of the lines, we've also done a few cruises with Royal Caribbean and Princess, and three with Norwegian cruise lines. All together, we've spent 226 days at sea on cruise ships... but the best 7 were on the Norwegian Escape!
Our Cabin, Haven Spa Suite 16118
For me to convey what was so special about this cruise, I have to start with the very unusual cabin we stayed in. The Norwegian Escape has over 2100 cabins, but only about a dozen are like the one we had. Their term for this type of cabin is a "Haven Spa Suite". Each of those three words has a special meaning in this context. Haven... because this cabin is part of the exclusive V.I.P. section of the ship known as "The Haven". The Haven is a hidden luxurious enclave within the ship that only about 350 passengers have access to... out of the general ship population of almost 4900 passengers. Spa... because passengers staying in this type of cabin have full access to the thermal suite within the ship's spa... which is one of the most luxurious at sea. And suite... because it is a larger, more luxurious cabin than the vast majority of the cabins onboard the ship.
Focusing on the spa aspect for a moment... notice that this cabin has a large whirlpool tub located right next to the bed:
This is unusual! Typically, if there's going to be a large tub inside a cruise ship cabin, it would be inside the bathroom, not inside the bedroom. By putting the tub in the bedroom, and making it large enough for two people to share, I think Norwegian Cruise Line is targeting this cabin at romantic couples who would want to take a bath together, not individually behind a closed bathroom door.
Most "king sized" beds on cruise ships are actually two single beds that have been pushed together, and which can be pulled apart for situations where the two people in the cabin are not a romantic couple. The fact that these Haven Spa Suites have a real king-sized bed which can not be split in to two single beds also seems to bolster my theory that these cabins have been designed for a romantic couple.
One additional thing that seems to support this theory is the shower arrangement. Most cruise ship showers are painfully small. On our two Princess cruises, the showers were so small that I could not wash my hair without bumping an elbow in to the shower wall. But these Haven Spa Suites have extremely large showers... and I think the idea behind that is that the romantic couple they designed this cabin for might just want to shower together at times.
It's normal on a cruise ship to have a stateroom steward who is in charge of cleaning and making up the room twice each day... and it's certainly true for these Haven Spa Suites. But in addition to the stateroom steward, there is also a concierge who can make arrangements for you, and a butler who delivers things to you.
So, for example, the stateroom steward makes your bed in the morning, cleans up your bathroom, and vacuums the carpet. The concierge can make dinner reservations for you or get you tickets to a show. The butler will make sure there are fresh flowers and a bottle of champagne for you at the beginning of the cruise, and bring you nice little treats each day.
This beautiful flower arrangement was waiting for us in the cabin when we arrived on the first day. It remained beautiful all week long. The butler stopped by to introduce himself on that first day, and I explained to him that Kellyn had a restricted gluten-free and dairy-free diet... so he would need to be careful about what kinds of food items he delivered during the week. I suggested that any kind of fruit or chocolate would be a hit with Kellyn, and that my tastes for treats ran more towards cookies. For the entire rest of the week, our cabin had a constant supply of fruit, chocolate, and cookies!
Regarding the Concierge...
You might be thinking that there's no need for a concierge since it's easy to use the interactive features of the cabin TV to make your own reservations. But what you don't realize is how handy it is to have the concierge available to you if you decide to change a reservation! For example, we made some reservations for a show we wanted to see, but then later got an invitation to a private cocktail party that conflicted with our show reservations. While it's easy to make a reservation on the stateroom TV, I don't think there's any way to cancel or change a reservation on the interactive TV system. That's where the concierge really comes in handy... he fixed it all up for us in a few seconds!
Speaking of the TV in the cabin...
There's a very nice flat-panel television mounted on the wall opposite the bed, and a special perk for us as guests of The Haven was access at no-additional charge to over 100 movies on-demand. One night when we were feeling lazy and didn't want to leave the cabin, we had "movie night" and enjoyed the Robert Deniro / Anne Hathway movie "The Intern".
It's a tradition on most cruise ships for the stateroom steward to create a "towel animal" in the evening when he does the final cabin cleanup of the day. Our steward was quite skilled at this! Here's my favorite creature that he created during the week:
It's important to give your cabin steward some clues about when you want him to clean your room and when you don't want to be disturbed. We've done a lot of cruising with Carnival over the years, and the way they foster the coordination of the passenger's schedule and the steward's need to have access to the room is by use of a "Snoozin'/Cruisin'" sign that you can hang in the hallway on your door handle. Put the snoozin' sign out and you will not be disturbed. Put the cruisin' sign out to indicate that you will be out of the cabin for a while and that it's a good time for him to come in and do his thing.
That's how Carnival does it. It works fine most of the time, but sometimes a gust of wind will blow through the hallway when a neighbor opens their door... and the sign will blow off and fall to the floor. Then your steward doesn't know what you are trying to tell him! Or, even worse, sometimes a 10-year-old prankster will walk down the hall and see a snoozin' sign and flip it around to cruisin'. This can create problems. So, NCL has a much better system: two little switches inside the cabin, that trigger either a small red light or a small green light in the hallway. This indicates whether you want him to come in and clean things up, or you want him to give you some privacy for a while. And no ten-year-old prankster can mess with that system!
Also, notice the little slot underneath those switches, which has a pink card inserted in to it. This is an energy conservation system. The idea is that when you're actually inside your cabin, you will store your keycard in that slot. When you leave, you'll take your keycard out of the slot and keep it with you. A few minutes after the card is removed from the slot, all the electricity to the room is shut off, except for the air conditioning. When you come back to the room and insert your card back in the slot, all power and lighting to the room is restored.
The only problem with this system is that if you're charging the battery on your cell phone or digital camera or other electronic device, you really don't want the electricity to shut off a few minutes after you leave the room. So, an easy workaround is to just insert any kind of spare card you may have in to that little slot... permanently. Just leave it there for the duration of the cruise.
It's really easy on a cruise ship to get confused about which way leads to the front of the ship and which way leads to the back. NCL has a simple little system for helping you keep from getting turned around and confused when you're in the hallway leading to your cabin. The carpet has schools of fish stitched in to it, and if you walk in the direction that the fish are heading, you'll be walking towards the front of the ship.
It's too bad that they only use this system in the hallways outside of the cabins. They should really use this system on all the carpets throughout the ship. It took me several days to really get comfortable with the ship's layout, since it was very different from other ships I had been on. The first few days, I was frequently confused in the ship's public areas about which direction was forward and which was aft. I could have really used those fish to help me out, but they only use that trick in the hallways leading to the cabins.
I hope the still photos I've shared with you so far have given you a good idea of what the inside of a Haven Spa Suite looks like. But still photos can only show so much, and a video can show a LOT more! So, I put together a little video that gives you a really good look inside our Haven Spa Suite. Click on the triangle in the center of the picture to start the video playing, and be sure to have your sound turned on so you can hear the narration...
In the video, I mentioned that there were a few nice little improvements that had been made regarding the Haven Spa Suites on Norwegian Escape versus the ones on Norwegian Getaway. One of the most important was relocating the Haven Spa Suites so that they are closer to both the spa and The Haven. On Norwegian Getaway, the Haven Spa Suites are on deck 14 but the spa itself is on deck 15. So, you have to walk up a set of stairs to get from your Haven Spa Suite to the actual spa. And The Haven courtyard is one more deck above that!
They came up with a much better arrangement for the Norwegian Escape. The Haven Spa Suites are on the same level as the spa, so it's a pretty short and easy walk to get from your Haven Spa Suite to the actual spa... and The Haven courtyard is just one level above that.
The Thermal Suite Within The Spa
One of the best perks of staying in a Haven Spa Suite is that it gives you full access to the thermal suite within the ship's spa, at no additional charge. The Norwegian Escape has pretty much the finest spa of any cruise ship at sea, so this perk is a huge one!
My favorite part of the spa's thermal suite is the indoor Jacuzzi and the large warm therapy pool next to it. That therapy pool is heated to roughly the same temperature as a Jacuzzi, and is just the most fantastic place to relax and unwind. Kellyn and I spent about an hour here each and every day of our cruise. Here's what it looks like during the day:
In the evenings, they turn the lights down and switch over to a blue lighting scheme:
The therapy pool and Jacuzzi are surrounded by dozens and dozens of comfortable lounge chairs where you can dry off and relax. During the day, there's a fantastic view through the large picture windows that go all the way around the thermal suite...
There are also quite a few heated tile loungers next to those large picture windows. You might not think that sitting on a lounger made of tile would be comfortable, but they're contoured to the shape of the human body and those tiles are heated from below so you get this wonderful warmth that radiates in to your back and legs. I find that these tile loungers feel stiff for about the first minute I sit in them, and then there's something about the heat radiating up through the tiles that helps all your muscles relax and your body just kind of melts to fit the contour of the lounger.
There are some other cool features of the thermal suite that I did not get pictures of. There's a sauna, a steam room, a dry heat room, a salt room, a snow room, a locker room, and several showers. It's a really relaxing place to spend some time!
Party Cruise or Relaxing Cruise
After years of trying out a variety of cruise ships, I've come to realize that I prefer the big ones more than the small ones. There are a LOT of advantages to the big mega-ships... such as having more entertainment and dining options than you'll ever get on a small ship. But the downside of large-ship cruising is big crowds and lots of noise. For example, trying to find an available lounger in the sun can be a very frustrating experience on a large cruise ship. And the public sun decks on large cruise ships are great if you're looking for a party atmosphere, but not exactly relaxing and pampering.
This next picture gives you a very good look at the crowd around the Norwegian Escape's main pool... but to really get the full effect, you have to imagine some very loud music playing at the same time!
Spending time in that kind of atmosphere can be fun and exciting, but it's not exactly a relaxing experience! If relaxing and pampering are more important to you, staying in a suite within The Haven is the way to go.
Cruising in a suite within The Haven is unlike any "normal" cruise experience I've ever had. It truly is a V.I.P cruising experience worthy of celebrities, but at a more reasonable price than cruising with one of the luxury cruise lines. And unlike cruising on a yacht or a small luxury cruise ship, you still get all those large-ship benefits such as the huge variety of entertainment and dining options.
With this next set of pictures, I'm going to give you a look inside The Haven. Be sure to keep in mind that only about 350 of the ship's 4800+ passengers have access to these areas you're about to see. If a relaxing un-crowded cruise experience is worth paying extra for, The Haven is for you. The Haven has its own restaurant, bar, lounge, swimming pool, three Jacuzzis, a waterfall, a sauna, a massage room, and plenty of available loungers that feature much thicker, more comfortable padding than you'll find throughout the rest of the ship.
Let's start our tour with a look at The Haven courtyard:
The Haven Courtyard
Within the courtyard you'll find the swimming pool, two Jacuzzis, several daybeds, about a dozen loungers on the lower level and a LOT more on the upper level, some tables and chairs, and four wicker loungers that sit in about an inch or two of water. I never really understood those wicker loungers sitting in the shallow water until I sat in one on a hot day. The water surrounding those loungers keeps that area a little cooler than it would be if the water hadn't been there. It's a nice cool spot to read a book or to listen to some music on your MP3 player on a warm sunny day.
In the next picture, you can see that The Haven courtyard has a glass dome overhead. This dome can be slid partially open on a warm sunny day, but only about half way. At night, or if it's a little cool outside, the dome closes over the courtyard and you feel like you're in a big glass atrium or sunroom.
It's interesting that the folks who designed the Norwegian Escape decided to cover The Haven courtyard with a sliding glass dome. It's the same thing they did with the Norwegian Breakaway, but chose not to do with the Norwegian Getaway. The explanation at the time the Getaway and Breakaway were new was that the Breakaway would be based in New York and therefore would need the sliding dome over the courtyard to protect against cool and rainy weather that can sometimes happen with cruises originating year-round from New York. Heck, there are several months when it wouldn't be unusual for the Norwegian Breakaway to get some SNOW in New York! So, the sliding dome makes sense on the New York based Norwegian Breakaway, for sure.
When the Norwegian Getaway was introduced, cruising year round from Miami, they said there really wasn't a need for a dome to protect the courtyard. Let the sun shine in! So I was surprised that they decided to go back to having a dome over the courtyard on the Norwegian Escape, which is based in Miami just like the Getaway is. Having sailed on both the Getaway and the Escape, I have to say that I think I prefer having the dome overhead... it cuts down on wind that enters the courtyard when the ship is in motion. It also makes the courtyard more usable at night. My only complaint is that I think they have the air conditioning set a little too cool within the courtyard. I would have preferred a slightly warmer temperature in there. It's especially noticeable when you walk under the air conditioning vents on the second level. You can feel a lot of cold air coming out.
In all the photos and videos I found of The Haven Courtyard on the Internet prior to our cruise, I never saw one of the special "fireplace" lighting effect they add to the waterfall on some nights. You can kind of see it at the bottom of the waterfall in this next photo...
A still photo doesn't do it justice, though!
To really see the beauty of the effect, you have to watch this short little video...
A daybed on the lower level of The Haven courtyard.
There are some larger ones upstairs on the sun deck.
This is an eye-level view of the lower level of the courtyard.
This is pretty much the same view, as seen from the upper level looking down.
This is the view looking in the opposite direction.
Behind that large curved glass wall is a grand staircase leading to The Haven restaurant.
One nice improvement on the Norwegian Escape versus the Breakaway and Getaway is that there's an elevator that can take you from the lower level of The Haven to the upper levels. Any Haven guest with mobility issues would appreciate this, for sure.
There are several different types of staterooms available within The Haven, at a wide variety of price points. The least expensive are The Haven Spa Suites, which is the type we chose. They are located one floor below the courtyard. Directly adjacent to the courtyard are some one and two bedroom suites that are fairly close in price to The Haven Spa Suites. And then as you go up in price, you get in to some much larger and more amazing Haven suites, such as the ones at the very front of the ship with an amazing view forward. Some sleep as many as six people in three rooms.
There's an odd quirk regarding the various types of cabins available in The Haven! Only the Haven Spa Suites come with access to the thermal suite within the spa at no additional charge. Remember that those Haven Spa Suites are the LEAST expensive Haven suites! So, it's kind of odd that the more expensive Haven suites do NOT get the perk of having free spa access, when the least expensive Haven suites do. If I was staying in one of the super expensive Haven suites, such as the Owner's Suite... I think that might piss me off!
Perhaps that's one reason that The Haven courtyard has its own private sauna, as well as its own private massage room. In this next picture, if you look to the left of the Jacuzzi you will see the entrance to The Haven's sauna.
Of course, there's a lot more to The Haven than just the lower level of the courtyard. In this next photo, you can see some of the very comfortable loungers that are located up on the second level of the courtyard, just beneath the sliding dome. This is a great place to hang out if you want a lot of light coming in through the dome, but you don't want to actually go outside. For example, if you want to read a book during a sea day... when it may be windy outside.
From the upper level of The Haven courtyard, there's a doorway that leads outside to The Haven sun deck. As long as it's not a windy day, this is usually a great place to hang out and get some sun. The first row of loungers are single-wide loungers. If you look carefully at the second row of loungers, you'll see they are double-wide... perfect for two people who want to sit together.
There's also a Jacuzzi out on The Haven sun deck... and it's got an AMAZING view!
I shot this photo when the ship was docked in Tortola.
All these still photos have given you a pretty good look within The Haven, but a short video is going to give you a better sense of how it all flows. Also, this video will give you a very dramatic look at how the quiet, relaxed atmosphere within The Haven is completely different than what you'll find on the other side of the Haven's walls! Make sure your speakers are turned on, and then enjoy a very dramatic demonstration of The Haven versus "steerage"... in this next video!
Another nice thing about The Haven is that it has its own restaurant, simply known as The Haven restaurant. We ate just about all of our breakfasts there, as well as a few lunches and dinners. It's pretty much the best restaurant on the ship, and you may even see the Captain and some of his officers dining there! More about The Haven restaurant, later, when we discuss food and dining.
One final thing about staying in The Haven...
When we booked our cruise, NCL was offering a deal where guests booking a suite within The Haven would get the Unlimited Beverage Package, Unlimited Dining Package, pre-paid gratuities, and a $300 onboard credit. It worked out really well for us, since that meant that we really didn't rack up any additional charges once we got onboard the ship. Basically, everything was pre-paid... and all the drinks were free, as were all the meals in the specialty restaurants. I wasn't sure if I was going to like having the Unlimited Beverage Package... as Kellyn and I are not big drinkers. Sometimes drinking gives me a headache, and I really didn't want the Unlimited Beverage Package to turn in to the Unlimited Headache Package! But it worked out fine, as we just kept the drinking quite moderate during the week. A bonus for me was that they use Pepsi products rather than Coke products on the Norwegian Escape... and Diet Pepsi is my non-alcoholic drink of choice, so that worked out quite well.
As Seen On TV
There's a Saturday morning TV show on the CW network which is shot on Norwegian Cruise Line ships. It's called Dream Quest with Evette Rios. I watch the show just because they show some cool stuff on Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Getaway, and Norwegian Breakaway. A couple of the episodes have featured Julie Valeriote... who is, from what I can tell, NCL's top Cruise Director. The reason I think NCL considers her their best CD is that she has been selected to be the inaugural season Cruise Director for each of NCL's newest ships over the last several years. Quite an honor for a Cruise Director.
One evening during our cruise, they threw a cocktail party in The Haven Courtyard, and all the ship's top officers (including the Captain) were there. It was a great opportunity to chat and ask questions of the officers... and I was delighted to finally meet the Norwegian Escape's charming Cruise Director in person:
Cruise Director Julie Valeriote
If you grew up watching episodes of the TV show "The Love Boat" like I did, I'm sure you find the irony in the fact that the Norwegian Escape's Cruise Director is named Julie!
Julie is excellent at what she does as Cruise Director. She has a nice on-stage personality, and a fantastic speaking voice that comes across beautifully well when she makes announcements over the ship's public address system. Julie's a real pro who sets the bar very high... right up there with some of the best Cruise Directors I've ever sailed with.
Speaking of celebrities...
One afternoon on The Haven sun deck, I was very surprised to see someone else I recognized from TV...
and home improvement contractor
Mike was relaxing and enjoying a beautiful day out on the sun deck, so I didn't want to intrude by going over and saying hello. But the next day, I walked in to an elevator, and there he was again. I couldn't resist letting him know that I recognized him, and he was very friendly and charming about it. I also saw him several times later in the week in The Haven lounge. It totally makes sense that if a guy with his level of success and celebrity wanted to take a cruise, he would do so in The Haven!
Around The Ship
Let's take a look at some other interesting places around the ship...
This gigantic chandelier is a focal point of the area on decks 6, 7, & 8 where many of the ship's entertainment and dining venues are located. The lights on the chandelier change color over time, so it may be red, pink, green, blue, grey, or some color in between... depending on when you happen to walk by.
During a 7-day cruise on the Norwegian Escape,
I think almost everybody stops at one point or another to pose for a photo in front of the big chandelier.
Your chandelier photo will turn out best if you force your camera's flash on.
There's a huge video screen in the ship's atrium area. A lot of musical entertainment, game shows, and trivia quizzes happen here. The problem is that there's not a whole lot of seating in this area. It's perfect for small events that aren't going to draw much of a crowd, like this Sinatra tribute:
However, it's odd that NCL also uses this small space for some big events that might benefit from being held in a much larger venue. For example, if you've been on a cruise before, you may have seen a game show called "The Newlywed / Not So Newlywed" game. Although I've seen it many times on many cruise ships, I still get a kick out of being in the audience for this... because it can be so funny if hosted properly. On Carnival, they do this show in their main theater in front of an audience of probably much greater than 500 people. But on the Norwegian Escape it's done in this little atrium area with very limited seating. Good luck getting a seat!
Another very interesting Carnival/NCL comparison can be made regarding stand-up comedy. Both lines offer some great stand-up comics, but the way the whole thing is presented is totally different on the two. Carnival offers more comedy shows, and more different comedians during the week. They also have much more comfortable seating in their comedy clubs! You also don't need any reservations to attend a comedy show on Carnival. Just show up early before all the seats are taken. I think it's an un-necessary hassle that NCL uses a reservations system for attending their comedy shows.
Comedian Frank Townsend
On the plus side for NCL, they use an actual comedian as the "host" of the show. He starts things off with about a 15-minute routine of his own, and then he introduces the main comedian who does a longer set. On Carnival, the "host" of the comedy club is just some junior member of the entertainment staff who makes a few announcements (such as "keep the table talk to a minimum" during the show) and then he quickly brings the real comedian up on the stage.
NCL and Carnival also have very different philosophies regarding big theater productions. The big production shows in Carnival's main theater typically finish up after about 45 minutes. Their thinking is that passengers have a lot to do in the evenings, and don't want to get locked in to a hugely long show. We went to two of the big shows on the Norwegian Escape and could see the beauty of Carnival's thinking on this matter. I was checking my watch as both shows dragged on and on and I started to get bored with them. "After Midnight" ran about an hour and a quarter, and "Million Dollar Quartet" just kept going and going for 90 minutes. After seeing those two shows and feeling that both had gone on for WAY too long, Kellyn and I agreed that we wanted to cancel our reservations to the Brat Pack show later in the week.
There's an interesting little bar next to the Norwegian Escape's casino. It's called the Skyline Bar, and the name comes from the fact that there are huge video screens on the wall that display (among other things) city scenes from famous places around the world.
Within the Skyline Bar, there's a small stage where a real band sometimes plays during the evenings. When the real band isn't there, they have this really cool thing they do on the video screen behind the stage. The have videos of a four-piece band performing, and they break the big video screen in to four smaller screens, with one screen devoted to each member of the band. If I had been smart, I would have caught a minute or two of it on video so you could see the full effect. Unfortunately, I only got around to snapping a still photo of it. So, you'll just have to imagine each of these four performers doing their thing all in sync with each other to create one really nice video performance...
In my pre-cruise research, I read that Norwegian Cruise Line had gone to considerable expense to install an advanced exhaust scrubber system to reduce air pollution from the ship's engines. Once we were aboard and the ship set sail, it was easy to see that something was very different about the exhaust coming from this ship compared to other cruise ships I had sailed on. On many of the Carnival cruises I've been on, the thick black exhaust coming out of the smokestacks has left a giant cloud of exhaust trailing behind the ship. It's been ugly enough to prevent me from snapping photos on several occasions... and it's always made me a little embarrassed to be travelling on a vessel that emitted such horrible exhaust in some otherwise very beautiful parts of the world.
The amount of visible smoke coming out of the Norwegian Escape's smokestack seemed noticeably less to me... and it also seemed to be a white color, where the exhaust from other ships has been gray or black. Bravo, NCL, on doing the right thing.
If you're travelling with children, or if there's still some child-like fun left within you, you're going to love the water slides on the Norwegian Escape. Carnival used to be the clear leader in cruise ship waterslides, but NCL surpassed them with Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway... and the Norwegian Escape has raised the bar even further. Royal Caribbean is only just now starting to add waterslides to their newest ships, and Disney has some interesting water rides on some of their ships... but Norwegian Cruise Line has definitely become the leader in this area. Not only does the Norwegian Escape offer the most thrilling waterslides, but they also have the best assortment of waterslides to match people of all ages. So, all members of the family, from oldest to youngest, will find a waterslide that's perfect for them on this ship.
Let's start with the scariest, and then work our way down to the more gentle...
The king of the thrill rides on Norwegian Escape is called the free-fall waterslide. There are actually two free-fall slides located right next to each other. They're called the free fall slides because the ride starts out with exactly that: a free-fall! You stand in the tube, the glass doors close around you, and then the ride begins when the floor below you opens up right under your feet, plunging you in to a free-fall that will scare the heck out of you. Really! This is definitely the scariest thing you will do during your vacation.
This next photo shows you that this is actually a fairly short ride. It starts up at the top of that white platform. Once the floor drops out from under you, it feels like you are falling straight down... but as you can see from the photo it's actually sloped a bit. Before you know it, it flattens out and then there is actually a very brief uphill section. At this point in the ride, you're so scared and disoriented from the way the whole thing started with a free fall that I don't even think you realize you're now going uphill. All you know is that there's water splashing around everywhere around you, and you wonder why the heck you did this to yourself! Before you know it, though, it's all over. The ride literally lasts just a few seconds. Really! The end of the ride is that horizontal section just behind where all the sun bathers are in this picture:
Believe me, you'll be glad that this ride ends so quickly! When you're inside the tube, doing that free fall, and then there's water splashing all around you as you go up and over the hump, you'll just be thinking about surviving it and getting to open air. It's terrifying, in a fun way! I couldn't bring myself to do it a second time, but the fact that I did it at all was better than a lot of people. A lot of people never muster the courage to climb to the top of the tower, and some that do chicken out the second they get inside that tube!
Here's a short video that shows the terrifying beginning of the ride, and which goes on to show a couple of people who decided that they had made the wrong decision by climbing up that tower in the first place!
Regarding that little girl in the last segment of the video, who couldn't
bring herself to go through with it:
I ran in to her a few days later and told her that I had been up there shooting video when she got overwhelmed with fear from stepping inside the tube. I asked her if she ever was able to go through with it after that. She was quite proud of the fact that she did eventually conquer her fear... and that not only did she finally go through with it, she did it a total of three times! Bravo to her for that!
The most popular waterslide on the Norwegian Escape is also something brand new to NCL. No other Norwegian cruise ship has this slide yet. It's called the Aqua Racer, and from the outside it just looks like a big blue tube:
I know it doesn't look like anything special from the outside, but from the inside it's really quite interesting! There are all sorts of lights and colors inside the tube that give a very fun effect as you go down the slide. Also, there's a totally clear section of tube that startled me just a bit because if you're not expecting it, there's an appearance just for a second that there's a break in the tube ahead of you and that you're going to go flying out the break!
The Aqua Racer slide is somewhat similar to the "Aqua Duck" slide on some of the Disney cruise ships. You grab an inner tube at the bottom of the stairs, and carry it up to the top with you. I didn't get a picture of it, but in addition to the single-rider inner tubes, there's a double-rider tube available, too... for those that want to go down the slide with a friend or family member.
The neat thing about sitting on an inner tube as you go down a water slide is that you don't scrape your skin against anything. It's a VERY gentle ride, and it's a huge hit! The people on the Norwegian Escape seemed to really love it. Carnival doesn't have any waterslides of this caliber yet, but there will be one on their newest ship, which will make her debut later this year.
There's a yellow water slide that's very gentle and perfect for the under-13 crowd. It's very similar to the slides you'll find on Carnival's older ships.
The thing about the yellow slide is that it's actually too gentle and doesn't have a steep enough angle to create much speed. That's great if you're looking for a "starter" slide for a kid that wants a very tame ride... but older kids, and even some of the younger kids, have trouble getting going on this slide at all. I actually caught it on this next video. In the video, you'll see two different kids use the slide. It looks like a fun ride for one of them, but the other was basically sticking to the slide the whole way and had to work real hard just to get a ride out of it at all. Take a look at the video, and you'll see what I mean:
As if three different types of waterslides on one ship were not enough, there's actually a fourth. You can barely see it in this next picture, because the beginning is hidden by some blue netting, the next segment is obscured by some glass, and another section is behind that yellow tower. It's the red slide in the children's water park, and it's designed for the very youngest cruisers. Consider it baby's first waterslide!
That picture actually brings up one of the very strangest choices that the designer's of the Norwegian Escape made! There are two swimming pools on deck 16, and one is designated as "adults only". So, by default, the other, seen in the picture above, must be the kids pool, right? It's located right next to the children's water park, too... so it must be the kids pool, right? OK, so if that's the kid's pool, how come they made it so deep?!? It's five feet deep throughout the entire pool. There is no shallow end, and no deep end. The whole thing is five feet deep, the whole way across. Now imagine you're a five year old kid, or even a ten year old kid. Can you imagine swimming in a pool that never gets any more shallow than five feet? That's a DEEP pool for a kid! I joke about it, because it's such a strange design choice... but seriously, some kid is gonna drown in this thing some day. Parents: DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS SWIM IN THIS POOL UNLESS YOU ARE WATCHING THEM CAREFULLY!
Luckily, it wasn't all stupid decisions when it came to the design of this area. Look at the nice shallow baby play area, complete with waterfall, that they built right next to that five foot deep children's pool:
If I was cruising with a one or two year old child, this is where you would find us on a sunny sea day!
Crowding On The Sundeck
I've read a lot of reviews from people who have sailed on the Norwegian Escape, and one thing that people complain a lot about is the crowding around the swimming pools. Considering that the Norwegian Escape is one of the largest cruise ships in the world and that she carries over 4800 passengers (a typical Carnival ship only carries about 3000) you would think that the folks that designed this ship might have wanted to put in more than just two swimming pools. We were on Royal Caribbean's Independence Of The Seas last year, and that's a much smaller ship than the Norwegian Escape, and it had three pools. Same with the Carnival Miracle we sailed on a few months ago... a much smaller ship, but 3 different swimming pools. So, that's probably something NCL should look at for their next generation of ships.
With all that said, however, there ARE some places you can go onboard Norwegian Escape to find an available lounger in the sun. In all the reviews I've read and all the videos I've watched about the Norwegian Escape, I don't recall ever seeing anything about the sun decks up on decks 19 and 20. Everybody wants a lounger by the pool on deck 16 or in the Spice H2O area at the back of the ship, but the chair hogs get those early in the day. The public sun decks on decks 19 and 20 are where you should go once you figure out that there isn't a single available lounger in the obvious areas!
A picture is worth a thousand words, so I walked around the ship one morning at about 8:30 AM and shot some pictures in order to show you how bad the chair hogging is on this ship, but also to show you where to go to avoid the chair hogs.
Main Pool Area - deck 16, mid-ship:
Every lounger is either occupied, or chair-hogged
Spice H2O - deck 17, aft:
Every lounger is either occupied, or chair-hogged
Public sun deck - deck 19, forward:
Lots and lots of loungers available!
Just on the other side of that mirrored glass is the second level of The Haven courtyard
The public sun deck on deck 19 forward also has a nice bar:
You might notice that sign to the left of the bar that says "Vibe Beach Club"... and you might be tempted to think that the empty bar and loungers I'm showing you here are part of the Vibe Beach Club area, which is only available to a small number of guests who are willing to pay an extra fee for it. What I'm showing you here is NOT the Vibe Beach Club. The sign in that photo marks the entrance to the Vibe Beach Club, which is hidden behind that wall where the sign is. The area I'm showing you here is a public area available to all Norwegian Escape passengers.
In addition to the nice un-crowded bar and the many available loungers on deck 19, there's also a water misting feature to cool you down when the day heats up:
This next picture was shot later in the day around mid-afternoon towards the end of the cruise, and shows that by that point people had finally discovered the sun deck on deck 19. But even still, there were a few available loungers visible in the distance. I wanted to share this picture because it shows one of the two Jacuzzis that are on the public sun deck on deck 19, and also because of that big thundershower off in the distance!
I was really impressed with the ships officers who maneuvered the ship ever so slightly off its planned course in order to avoid that one thundershower cell on an otherwise nice day. After we passed just to the right of this thundershower, I looked on the TV in my cabin to see the map that shows the ship's course. You could very clearly see that the ship had purposely maneuvered slightly to the right to avoid the weather, and then gently veered back to the left to get back on the planned course.
Public sun deck - deck 20, forward:
If the public sun deck on deck 19 fills up, just head up one more flight of stairs and you'll find more loungers on deck 20. As you can see, almost none of them were occupied or chair hogged at 8:30 AM when 100% of the ones on deck 16 and Spice H20 were.
Earlier I mentioned the Vibe Beach Club. If being able to find an available lounger at any time of the day is a big deal for you, Vibe Beach Club might be something you should look in to. The reason they call it a club is that you have to buy in to it. They only sell as many passes to the Vibe Beach Club as they have loungers in the club. So, in other words, every single person that buys a pass to the Vibe Beach Club could all show up at the same time... and there would be a lounger for each and every one of them. The only way to get access to this area is to buy a pass for the entire cruise... and they sell out extremely quickly! Unbelievably quickly... like 30-60 minutes after boarding begins on embarkation day.
The Vibe Beach Club is very similar to The Haven sun deck. Both are un-crowded, feature nicer loungers with thick, comfortable cushions, have a Jacuzzi... and in fact, they're right next to each other... although Haven people don't have access to Vibe, and vice versa. Here's a photo, taken right around the same time (8:30 AM) as those photos from Spice H2O and the pool deck where all of the loungers had already been chair hogged.
Vibe Beach Club - deck 19, forward:
Food & Dining
One of the really great ideas that NCL had in designing the Norwegian Escape was to tie in with Jimmy Buffett and create the first Margaritaville at sea. As far as I'm concerned, this was the most brilliant cruise ship idea since Carnival got together with Guy Fieri to offer a gourmet burger at no additional charge on their ships.
There's quite a bit to choose from on the menu at Margaritaville,
but the one item that you've really got to try sometime during the week is the Volcano Nachos:
It's a whole lot of food, and for some strange reason they do not offer a "small"...
so I'd suggest you only order this if you're starving, or if 2 or 3 other people are going to help you eat it!
If you're a Jimmy Buffett fan,
you're probably familiar with his song "Cheeseburger In Paradise".
Here's what a Cheeseburger In Paradise looks like at Margaritaville:
I enjoyed the Cheeseburger In Paradise at Margaritaville...
but if you're looking for the best cheeseburger on the Norwegian Escape,
you'll actually find that at The Haven restaurant:
Cheeseburger & fries at The Haven restaurant
Our favorite dinner restaurant was Cagney's steakhouse.
We actually ate there twice!
Porterhouse steak with truffle mashed potatoes and French bread at Cagney's
Another dinner restaurant that we both enjoyed was Moderno, the Brazilian steakhouse. It was dark inside Moderno and difficult to get good pictures, so I am going to use two pictures provided by NCL to help you visualize what a Brazilian steakhouse is all about. It's not like a normal steakhouse where you place an order for one specific entree, they prepare it in the kitchen, and bring it out to you on a plate. At a Brazilian steakhouse, they grill all sorts of different meats and bring them all out to your table where they carve slices off for you. Different meats are brought out, one after another, and you can have as much or as little as you'd like.
If you're a meat lover, and show up to Moderno hungry... you're going to have a good night! The meats are nicely prepared and seasoned, and there are some nice side dishes served along with them. They don't have any Brazilian steakhouses in the area I live, so it was a real treat to eat at the one on the Norwegian Escape!
The very first Brazilian steakhouse I ever ate at was on the Norwegian Getaway in 2014... and I totally loved it. I'm delighted to say that the one on Norwegian Escape is even better! The logistics of getting all that meat out to the tables was handled much better on Norwegian Escape. On Norwegian Getaway, they were slow to come around with the different varieties of meat. But they totally had it worked out during our visit to Moderno on Norwegian Escape.
My Moderno dinner started with:
Lobster bisque soup and Brazilian cheese bread at Moderno
Here's a look at how things went once some of the meats arrived:
Sirloin slices with garlic mashed potatoes and Brazilian cheese bread at Moderno
They even have outdoor seating available on the waterfront.
If you're going to eat outside, try to time your dinner reservations so you'll be there during the sunset!
Sometimes the bars onboard Norwegian Escape can be quite crowded, and it can take a little patience while waiting for the bar staff to assist you. Throughout the week, we noticed one bar that was consistently un-crowded. It was the Prime Meridian Bar, located on deck 8 between Moderno & Cagney's. If you're looking for cocktails but the crowds at the other bars scare you off, the Prime Meridian Bar is where you should go.
The reason it was consistently un-crowded was all about the location: when you're walking down the public areas of deck 8 and you get past all the shops, you reach the aft elevator area and a long corridor with signs indicating that you're about to enter Cagney's and Moderno. Assuming that you don't actually have reservations at Cagney's or Moderno, you wouldn't think to walk down that corridor. But if you did walk down it, you'd find the least crowded bar onboard... just between the actual entrances to the two restaurants. Kellyn really enjoyed a specialty drink called the Caipirinha that they serve there, whose primary ingredient is a Brazilian specialty rum.
So far, I've focused on my kind of food: a good steak at Cagney's, the Brazilian steakhouse experience at Moderno, a cheeseburger at The Haven restaurant, and a gigantic plate of nachos at Margaritaville. Pretty basic stuff! Sushi is definitely NOT my kind of food... but one night I wanted to do something nice for Kellyn, so I took her to the Food Republic... an Asian Fusion restaurant on Norwegian Escape. She had the California Roll:
Food Republic is a unique venue on Norwegian Escape, where you order from a tablet computer.
There's one at each table:
The waitresses at Food Republic are great about showing you how the ordering system works, and walking you through the whole process. I'm not sure what the advantage is to using a system like that instead of just ordering via the waitress... but it was an interesting experience.
When we cruise on Carnival, we eat just about every meal -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- in their buffet restaurant. On Norwegian Escape, though, we liked the various onboard restaurants so much that we didn't even eat one meal at the buffet during the entire cruise. The only time we had anything at the buffet was if we didn't like the dessert offerings at whatever restaurant we ate at. When that happened, we had dessert at the buffet... where they have a really nice ice cream and frozen yogurt selection.
The fact that NCL had gone to the trouble to install an actual ice cream freezer in their buffet really made us happy! What a concept... a way to keep the ice cream frozen... just like you'd find at a real ice cream parlor on land. It seems like such an obvious idea. But if it's so obvious... why didn't Royal Caribbean ever think of it? We've done a couple of cruises with Royal Caribbean... and we really like the food they serve in their buffet... but they do this thing in their buffet with ice cream that is so stupid! They bring out a big five-gallon tub of ice cream (like you see inside the freezer in that previous picture) but they don't have a freezer in their buffet line. The ice cream is just sitting out on the counter. If you get there the minute the restaurant opens for the night... that's fine. The ice cream is still frozen, at that point. But the longer it sits out, the more it melts... and pretty soon it's just one big melted tub of ice cream. That's such a dumb way to serve it! They need to take a lesson from NCL on this one!
Speaking of the buffet onboard the Norwegian Escape... here's something fun we spotted there one night, when we were making an ice cream run...
Now, let's talk about what's normally my favorite meal of the day: breakfast! I like to start the day off with a delicious hot breakfast. On a cruise ship, that's sometimes difficult. You can get breakfast on a cruise ship... you can even get a hot breakfast on a cruise ship... but getting a delicious hot breakfast can be a little tricky! For my money, Carnival is best at it. Royal Caribbean is horrible at it, and Princess is somewhere in the middle.
I heard that O'Sheehans served a pretty nice breakfast, so we tried that one morning. I liked that when I ordered hot chocolate, they didn't just bring one small cup of it. They brought a cup, plus a gigantic pot of hot chocolate to refill it from. My ham & cheese omelet wasn't bad... but those potatoes they called hash browns bore no resemblance to any type of hash browns I had ever had at a restaurant on land. The toast was stone cold, and the butter served along with it was chilled... which is a VERY bad combination when it comes to trying to butter your toast! And what was with the tomato? Is that a breakfast food?
Ham & Cheese Omelet, with hash browns, at O'Sheehans
I had better luck with the breakfasts in The Haven restaurant. Their omelet wasn't anything special, but it was fine. They offered the same strange "hash browns" as O'Sheehans... but thankfully, they also offered a different type of breakfast potato they called "home style", which was a bit better. It was still strange... mixed in with gigantic chunks of onions and bell peppers that were about 400% bigger than the chunk size they should have been. But what I really liked was that they had some pretty good croissants... and if you asked, they would heat them up for you so that they were served warm.
The indoor section of The Haven restaurant makes me a little uncomfortable, because it just looks too fancy for a casual meal. The dress code is totally casual... everyone that eats there is totally dressed down in their most casual clothes... but it just feels weird to me to be dressed so casually inside such a fancy-looking place.
I much preferred dining in the outdoor section of The Haven restaurant, which I just always called the patio. During the entire week onboard the ship, I only ate inside The Haven restaurant one time, and that fancy ambience just didn't suit my casual style at all. All the other times I ate there, I asked them to seat us on the patio. As you can see in the next picture, it's got a heck of a view!
Because The Haven restaurant is pretty much the best restaurant on the ship, you'll sometimes see some of the ship's officers eating there. One morning, the Captain came in (with three of his officers) and sat down at the table right next to us!
I enjoyed eating breakfast on The Haven restaurant's patio, but lunch and dinner came with one big problem. As you can see in the next photo, the patio of The Haven restaurant looks out over the ship's main pool area. At lunch and dinner time, they had some really loud and really obnoxious music playing in that area, and it pretty well ruined the atmosphere on the patio.
There's one other noteworthy item regarding food and restaurants... and that's La Cucina, the Norwegian Escape's Italian restaurant. Kellyn and I ate dinner there one night, and we sat in the outdoor seating known as The Waterfront. It was a beautiful early-evening, right at sunset.
Things started pretty well. They brought us some nice, warm French bread... warm enough to actually melt the butter they served it with. That's a good start. Kellyn's meal was quite delicious, too. She ordered the Grilled Sea Bass:
But I have some kind of horrible losing streak going when it comes to Italian restaurants on cruise ships. Actually, there was ONE that I loved... the Italian restaurant on Royal Caribbean's Allure Of The Seas. Their lasagna was so good, and the waiter could tell I was totally loving it... that he ended up bringing me a second serving at no additional charge. That was a good cruise memory.
On Carnival, it's always been a different story for me. I keep going back to their Italian restaurant, but never enjoying the food. I always tell myself that it was my fault... I simply ordered the wrong thing on the menu, and next time I'll try something different. And every next time, the same thing happens! Finally, I just decided that Carnival and I have very different ideas about what an Italian restaurant should be. So, I don't ever go to theirs anymore.
I was hoping for better on Norwegian Escape! But, unfortunately, I set a lifetime record at La Cucina... a record low! Simply THE WORST lasagna I have ever had. The menu said it was beef lasagna, and it sure was. It fact, it was more beef than lasagna. Like about four times as much beef as you would ever want in a batch of lasagna... and about half as much cheese as you would want! Definitely not recommended by this lasagna lover!
Before I move on to the next subject, I just want to make sure you don't misunderstand: I had a lot of good meals on Norwegian Escape, and Kellyn and I both agreed that overall, the food was better than on a lot of the cruises we've been on. So, please don't get the wrong impression just because I called out a couple of areas where improvements could be made!
Sailaway from Miami
We've sailed out of the port of Miami many times, and I always enjoy it. It's one of the most beautiful sailaways you'll ever experience... especially when you get to the part with the view of world-famous South Beach...
A few minutes after that last picture, when our ship made a turn to the left, there was a pretty cool view of a Carnival ship heading out to sea and some big clouds lit up nicely by the late-afternoon sun...
So, I certainly had good luck with the photos that day... but I wish I could say the same about the embarkation process we went through at the pier! As a Haven guest, the process of checking in and boarding is supposed to be pretty quick and painless. It certainly was in 2014 when we were Haven guests boarding the Norwegian Getaway. But for some reason, the folks doing The Haven check-in on this particular day were a little off their game. Even though it wasn't particularly busy when we came through, and we know that boarding had already begun before we arrived, they just left us sitting for the longest time in the check-in lounge. It was literally 60 minutes from the time we got out of our cab until we were finally walking aboard the ship. It shouldn't take that long, and as far as I know, it doesn't normally... at least not for Haven guests! But for some reason, that day it didn't go as smoothly as it should have.
After two sea days, our first port of call was St Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We've been there many times before, and I've always enjoyed it. For this visit, we decided to visit a famous tourist spot in St Thomas that we've never managed to get to until now: Coral World Ocean Park, and the adjacent beach known as Coki Beach.
What really got me interested in Coral World park was seeing it on Dream Quest... that Saturday morning TV show that's shot onboard NCL ships. They visited Coral World park in one episode, and it looked interesting to me.
The iconic centerpiece of Coral World park is the undersea observatory, which is the white structure at the end of the pier in this next photo.
The above-the-waterline portion of the observatory isn't what it's all about... but things get very interesting once you start walking down the red circular staircase and you reach the levels of the structure that are under the waterline. It's kind of like visiting an aquarium on land, only you're not looking in to tanks made to look like ocean environments... you're really looking in to an actual ocean environment!
The many windows in the undersea observatory give you the opportunity to stop and watch the surrounding marine life for as long as you'd like. It was very cool, and I especially liked that it was real, not an aquarium made to simulate an ocean environment.
There's more to Coral World than just the undersea observatory, of course. Here's a map that shows you what they have:
I liked the opportunity to get up close to a variety of interesting creatures.
Here are a few of my new friends from Coral World:
Another thing I really liked about the shore excursion to Coral World was that it was really two shore excursions in one. Not only did we have the opportunity to spend ample time viewing the attractions at Coral World park, but there was also plenty of time to swim and snorkel at Coki Beach, which is located right next door. You get to choose how much time you spend at Coral World, and when you've had enough... you just walk over to the beach and rent a lounger and relax.
It's a nice beach, with plenty of shade available under the various trees. It's always important to find a shady spot in these kinds of situations, because even with sun block applied, it's easy to get a sunburn during a beach day like this. You definitely don't want to get a sunburn at the beginning of your cruise!
There was some good snorkeling in the area to the left of the photo, by the rocks. Plenty of fish... but do watch out for the strong tidal currents. You do not want a wave to push you in to one of those rocks. I brought my own snorkel gear, but there is also gear to rent at a little shack at the entrance to the beach. I tried a new snorkeling trick here that I read about on the Internet, and it worked well. I read a suggestion to bring some milk bone brand dog biscuits with you when you snorkel. (Get the smallest possible dog biscuit size, not the huge ones for big dogs.) Take a hand full of the dog biscuits in to the water with you, and let the water soften them up as you snorkel out to where the fish are. After a few minutes of soaking in the water, you'll be able to use your hands to break up the dog biscuits in to little bits of fish food... and in no time you'll be the most popular guy under the water, at least as far as the fish are concerned!
There are places behind the trees where you can get food and drinks, although we opted to hold off until we got back to the ship and could eat and drink for free. I thought that this shore excursion was just the right length, giving us plenty of time to explore Coral World, plus several hours at the beach.
Back at the ship, we had a nice lunch and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. Once the sun started to set that evening, things got especially beautiful in St Thomas!
We took a walk around the ship to shoot some sunset photos and to see how our fellow passengers were enjoying the evening. I found this happy group of people in a Jacuzzi at Spice H2O, enjoying an amazing view of St Thomas and the sunset:
As the sun set in the west, the two other cruise ships that were in port that day made their departure. Our ship had been the first to arrive in port that day, and it was the last to leave that night. There was no rush to get back out to sea, as our next destination was Tortola... which was literally just about an hour or two away by sea.
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Tortola was a new one for us. In all of our previous cruises, we had never visited Tortola before. In fact, the port facilities at Tortola are brand new... and there's still a lot of construction going on to various shops and restaurants that are being built adjacent to the pier.
In picking a shore excursion, we knew we wanted to spend a day at the beach... but there were a lot of choices. We ended up choosing one that involved a boat ride over to a neighboring island, Jost Van Dyke. What attracted us to this particular shore excursion was that the boat that takes you over to Jost Van Dyke has an unusual stairway built on to it... which makes it very easy to get on and off the boat from the beach. You can see how easy it is to get on and off the boat in this video provided by Norwegian Cruise Line. At :42 seconds in to the video, you'll see how easy it is to get on to the beach from the boat.
The shore excursion to Jost Van Dyke was almost exactly like what NCL captured in their video. We even had the same Captain! I laughed when I met her as we boarded her boat, and told her that I had seen her in the video on YouTube. The name of her boat is the Rebel Yell.
The Rebel Yell met us in Tortola, just at the end of the cruise ship pier. It was super convenient to just walk off the ship, down the pier, and then right on to the Rebel Yell for a nice ride over to Jost Van Dyke. As we left the cruise ship pier in Tortola and sailed right past the Norwegian Escape, I shot some video that gives you a pretty good look at the exterior of the Norwegian Escape:
Be sure to wear a (waterproof) watch to Jost Van Dyke. The Rebel Yell drops you off right on the beach, and then they tell you to go have fun for the afternoon and meet them back at that same spot on the beach at a certain time. The Rebel Yell actually leaves at that point, goes to get more people, and comes back later. I think they actually made two trips back and forth ferrying people to the beach before taking us back later that day. There are lots of similar-looking small boats picking up beach people throughout the day, so it's important to remember the name of the boat you're looking for (Rebel Yell) and the time they told you to meet them.
Our time on Just Van Dyke was very much like what we had seen in the YouTube video provided by NCL. The trick is to find a good spot on the beach to spend the day. Some of the bars and restaurants on the beach offer free loungers to their customers, but all those were in the full sun with no shade. We opted to walk further down the beach until we found some loungers that were for rent under the shade of some big palm trees. I had no intention of getting a sun burn during my vacation, and if I had to spend $20 for two loungers in the shade, that was fine by me!
I brought my snorkel gear with me, but that was a bust. There really wasn't anything to see under the water at this beach. Also, on this day in January, the water was just a little cooler than I would have preferred. It was definitely warm enough for swimming... it just wasn't incredibly warm like it would have been if we had visited the area in September.
At lunch time, I walked over to the Soggy Dollar Bar and ordered a burger. It wasn't bad, the fries were EXCELLENT, and the service was quite friendly.
While it wasn't the amazingly-warm beach experience that I had dreamed about, we did have a nice day on the beach at Jost Van Dyke... and if we ever make it back this way during the hot weather of hurricane season in late summer and early fall, it would definitely be worth another visit.
Nassau, the Bahamas
Kellyn and I have been to Nassau many times before. We totally love the water park at the Atlantis resort, but you really need to have the whole day available to make the high cost of admission worth it. The Norwegian Escape makes a pretty quick visit to Nassau, so we decided to just spend the day on the ship.
Two things caught my eye in Nassau, and both were Carnival-related. The first was the Carnival Fantasy, which was docked at the next pier when we arrived. I thought it was very ironic to be docked next to the Carnival Fantasy... as it's the oldest ship still sailing in the Carnival fleet... and here we were sailing on the Norwegian Escape, the newest cruise ship in the world. The irony of that, and memories of all the cruises we've done on Carnival, just jumped out at me that day.
The other thing I found interesting that day in Nassau was when a second Carnival ship pulled in along side of us. It was the Carnival Sensation... also a very old ship in the Carnival fleet. What's interesting about the Carnival Sensation is a modification they made to her years ago, in order to create some balcony cabins on a ship that only had a handful of them originally. They literally welded on balconies to the exterior of the ship, and then cut doors in to the hull. It's weird and genius all at the same time!
The Carnival Fantasy and Carnival Sensation are sister ships that were originally of identical design. If you compare the two pictures above, you can see how they modified the Carnival Sensation to add those balconies at the rear.
Part of the fun of taking a cruise is seeing (and photographing) all those beautiful sunrises and sunsets! I decided to relax and take the pressure off this cruise and not even try to get any sunrise photos. But the sunsets were so good, I think I more than made up for it!
Sunset in St Thomas
Kellyn's Favorite Game
On land, Kellyn and I haven't stepped foot inside an arcade in years. Maybe 20 years! But on vacation, on a cruise ship, we're in fun mode... so the playful kids inside of us come out a little bit. My fun activity of choice is going down a waterslide... but for Kellyn, it's playing Air Hockey.
On some of the cruise ships we've sailed on lately, we've noticed the arcades have had an interesting new variation on Air Hockey... called PacMan Smash. We were delighted to see that they had this on the Norwegian Escape, too.
Here's a little video of the two of us playing PacMan Smash in the arcade one night...
Notice that she soundly defeats me! In fact, she's got an unbeaten record going... I haven't won a game against her in years. She seems to enjoy it, so that's OK with me!
I'm one of those guys that needs to have full time access to the Internet, even when I'm on vacation. So, I've become a connoisseur of cruise ship Internet technology over the years, and have come to appreciate it when cruise lines go to the expense of installing the advanced equipment necessary to provide fast and reliable Internet access at sea. It definitely can be done! Royal Caribbean has got a system that uses the low-earth orbit O3B satellite network... and that's the gold standard by which all other cruise ship Internet connections must be judged. That O3B network works amazingly well, with excellent consistency and reliability.
When we sailed on Norwegian Getaway in 2014, the Internet service was very flaky and inconsistent. There were times, in certain ports, where the ship made a wireless connection to a land-based fiber optic system that provided blazing fast speeds. But when the ship went out to sea, the service got horrible. There was one time on the Norwegian Getaway where the Internet service was so awful that I decided to make a video showing me taking measurements of the quality of the connection, using SpeedTest.net The video turned unintentionally hilarious when the Internet connection was actually so horrible that I couldn't even connect to SpeedTest.net to do the test!
After those bad experiences with the Internet service on Norwegian Getaway in 2014, I was hoping that things would be better on the Norwegian Escape! And during the first few days of the cruise, they certainly were. Ping times averaged around 560 ms, which is about right for a satellite-based Internet connection. The only way to do much better than that on a ping test at sea is to use the O3B satellite network, which gets faster ping times due to their satellites orbiting lower in the sky. Download speeds during the first few days typically measured right around 35 Mbps, but sometimes measured above 70 Mbps... very fast for an Internet connection at sea. Upload speeds were horrible, though... usually well below 1 Mbps.
I have a nephew that works for an Internet Technology company and he warned me not to put too much faith in to SpeedTest measurements. He says that Internet Service providers long ago learned how to game the system. He says that when a network detects a request to connect to SpeedTest.net, that connection is automatically given the highest priority and receives the fastest possible connection that is available... in effect being placed "at the front of the line" with no other traffic interfering and slowing things down. When you make a connection to any regular server... such as checking your email, or visiting a regular web site... your connection must compete with all the other traffic on the network. Depending on how many other people are trying to use the service at the same time, and what kinds of demands they're putting on the system, it can really slow things down in a way that can't be measured in a SpeedTest. So, that's where a real test of a ship's Internet connection comes down to actually just using the system and seeing how it responds and feels.
In my extensive use of the Internet onboard Norwegian Escape, it really did work fairly well for the first few days. I was surprised and impressed. Also, it became totally amazing when the ship got to St Thomas and made a wireless connection to a land-based tower with a fiber optic network. At that point, ping times dropped down to about 100 ms, download speeds were around 40 Mbps, and upload speeds got blazing-fast at nearly 50 Mbps! Especially when uploading a photo or video, the service worked incredibly well at that point... even better than the connection I get at home. But once we left St Thomas, things went downhill... hitting a low point at about day 5 of our cruise. At that point, the Speedtests showed download speeds of only around 3 or 4 Mbps... and in my actual use seemed much worse than that. In fact, at one point I just turned my computer off and went to do something else because the Internet connection was working so horribly.
When we got to Nassau on day 7 of the cruise, we had the best connection of the entire week. Again, the ship obviously connected to a land-based tower with a fiber connection... because ping times dropped down to around 80 ms and both upload and download speeds came in at around 70 Mbps. This was the perfect opportunity for me to upload some of my videos to my YouTube channel!
The next day, when the ship docked in Miami, it once again must have made a connection to a Fiber network... because the ping times were below 80 ms again and the upload and download speeds got quite snappy once more.
The bottom line is that the Internet Service was much better on Norwegian Escape than it was for us in 2014 on Norwegian Getaway. The pricing was horrible, though... at over double the cost of what an unlimited Internet connection would cost on one of the newer Carnival ships with service that worked almost as well. If you have stuff to upload... wait until you get to St Thomas or Nassau and take advantage of the ship's excellent connection there!
Our Flight From LAX
The story of this particular vacation would not be complete if I didn't mention the amazing experience we had flying out of Los Angeles international airport. First off, in a simple stroke of good luck, I found a flight that was scheduled at the perfect time for us... and it just happened to be on one of United Airline's brand new top-of-the-line 787 Dreamliners. I think airplanes are cool... and to be able to fly on the latest, greatest model with all the most current innovations... that was just a fantastic stroke of luck. But there's more...
We travel with United on most of our airline flights, so I had finally gotten to the point where I had a decent chunk of frequent flyer miles in my account. It was time to put those to good use! Using the majority of my frequent flyer miles and also chipping in a couple of hundred bucks, I was able to get us an upgrade in to First Class. After lots and lots of flying, this was my very first time flying in First Class... and it was totally worth it! If you ever get the opportunity to fly on a 787 Dreamliner in first class, you've GOT to do it.
We had gigantic seats that could be folded down flat to form a bed. We had a fantastic entertainment system with on-demand movies at no additional charge. Lunch was included. I had a couple of rum & Cokes... and they were free, too. The windows on a 787 Dreamliner are amazing... they're much bigger than on a regular plane. We had incredible views of Catalina Island, San Diego, and the Salton Sea as we flew out of Southern California. It really was a flight I will never forget!
If you're researching the idea of taking a cruise on the Norwegian Escape,
here are a few documents you might want to download:
Norwegian Escape Deck Plans
Freestyle Daily newsletters - All 7 days
First Day information
Shore Excursion information
Need A Travel Agent?
Booking a cruise can be confusing, especially if you haven't been on many cruises before. There are lots of first-time cruiser mistakes that a travel agent can keep you from making.
If you're interested in booking a cruise with any cruise line... please feel free to use the services of my travel agent, Caitlin Gallagher. She's extremely pleasant to deal with, easy to talk to since she lives in the United States and speaks without any kind of an accent, and quite experienced and knowledgeable about different types of cruising. Caitlin is the owner of Ambren Travel. Visit her web site, check out the Ambren Travel Facebook page, or contact her using the information below.
Our Future Cruises
2015 was an amazing year for us, as far as cruising goes, and we're certainly off to a good start in 2016. We spent a total of 47 days at sea in 2015, shattering our previous personal record of 39 that we set in 2014. We won't be spending anywhere near that many days at sea this year, as we're going to try a different strategy than we used last year.
Last year we made an effort to take longer cruises, figuring that it was a better vacation overall to spend 14 days in a standard balcony cabin on a somewhat older ship than it would be to spend 7 days in some fancy cabin on a brand new cruise ship. This year, we're trying the exact opposite strategy... and doing shorter cruises on three brand new cruise ships.
We loved the Norwegian Escape, and you're probably wondering how we're going to top that! Honestly, I'm not sure we can.
In the second quarter of 2016, we'll be cruising with Royal Caribbean on their newest ship: Anthem Of The Seas. That's the one you may have read about with the robotic bartender, the bumper cars, and the skydiving simulator. After a great cruise last year on one of Royal Caribbean's older ships, I'm really curious to see how the next generation of RCCL ships strikes me. The reviews on CruiseCritic have been pretty bad, so I'm keeping my expectations low.
Later in the year, we're going to try a brand new cruise line. I don't just mean that it's a cruise line we haven't sailed on before... I mean it's a cruise line that didn't exist before! I'm talking about Viking Ocean Cruises. Viking has been the leader in river cruising, especially in Europe... and a few months ago they began a whole new chapter in their story with the christening of their very first ocean cruise ship, the Viking Star.
Photo of the christening of the Viking Star provided by Viking Ocean Cruises
Reviews on CruiseCritic have been EXTREMELY positive, and Viking is turning the industry upside down with a very different approach to cruising than most cruise lines take.
For example, every cabin has a balcony. There are no interior staterooms at all. There also are no children onboard. They're not allowed! Want to bring a bottle of rum onboard with you? You don't have to smuggle it... just bring it along, they have no problem with that... and they don't charge you any kind of corkage fee for anything you might bring. Want to use the thermal suite in the spa? No problem! Every passenger has access to it, at no additional charge. And everyone says that the ship feels very un-crowded... since it's about the size of one of Carnival's Fantasy-class ships, but carries about half as many passengers!
Speaking of Carnival... you may be wondering when we'll be sailing on the brand new Carnival ship, the Carnival Vista. That won't be until 2017. Those Havana suites at the back of the ship, with hammocks on the balconies, look pretty cool! Check out the Havana area on the Carnival Vista if you haven't already. It's their first test of a Haven-style area that only certain passengers will have access to, complete with a swimming pool and upgraded patio furniture. I can't wait to try it!
A Great Series Of Books About Cruise Ships
After you've been on at least one cruise, there's a book that you really should read! It will give you a whole new perspective. It's a book that was written by a guy that worked on several Carnival ships... and he shares some funny stories about life on a cruise ship. To give you an idea of what kind of book this is... the story starts as he is staying in a hotel room in Miami, the night before his very first day working on a cruise ship. Even though it's the day before his first day onboard, he's basically "on the job", so Carnival is paying for the room. To save the company money, they don't give him a private room... he shares it with someone else. So, he checks in to the room, and the first thing he does is to take a nice long shower. And when he's finally done with his shower, he discovers that his roommate has shown up... and is in the middle of having sex with a woman right there in their shared hotel room! Does that give you an idea of the kind of book this is? Well, that's just the beginning... and things get even more interesting once he starts working on the ships!
If you've ever wondered what life is like for those people that work on cruise ships... what kind of hours they work... how much they're paid... and what they do when they're not working... this is the book for you. The overall plot of the story is that the author, Brian Bruns, meets a girl named Bianca in Las Vegas and quickly falls head over heels in love with her. It turns out that she's on vacation from her job as a waitress on the Carnival Conquest. Soon enough, the vacation is over and Bianca heads back to the ship... and Brian must make a decision about whether this was just a quick fling, or something more. He decides it was something more, and takes a job with Carnival in order to be with Bianca. Ship life is tough, and creates one roadblock after another between Brian and the girl he loves.
It's a huge love story that literally follows them all around the world. If you just want to hear Brian's best inside stories about life on a cruise ship, you don't even need to read all four books... just get the first one. But if you find yourself loving all the dirty details of life on a cruise ship, and want more... or if you get hooked on the love story and you want to find out whether ship life breaks up Brian and Bianca or whether there's a classic happy ending at the end... buy all four.
|Volume 1||Volume 2||Volume 3||Volume 4|
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Packing List & To-Do List
Here's my official packing list.
Perhaps this will help you think of things to pack for your cruise.
On a few of the unusual items, I'll provide a link to the exact version I recommend at Amazon.com
Airline boarding pass
Cruise boarding pass
If driving, printed directions to the hotel & cruise terminal
Wallet (I actually forgot this on one cruise!)
Waterproof beach shoes
Underwear & socks (incredibly, I actually forgot to bring socks on one cruise)
One dressy outfit
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Travel-size Kleenex for the airplane
Lawry's seasoning salt
Laptop computer or tablet computer, including charger
Digital SLR Camera
Camera tripod, or selfie-stick
Wireless indoor/outdoor thermometer
6-outlet power strip
A Sewing Kit for making emergency repairs to damaged clothing
Cell phone & charger
Waterproof wrist watch
My pre-cruise to-do list:
Stop newspaper and mail delivery
Book shore excursions
Send an email to family members with my travel plans & itinerary
Turn off water to the house to prevent the chance of a pipe break
Turn down (or turn off) the water heater to save energy
Make sure garden sprinklers are on
Make sure house is locked and alarm system is active
On the last day at work:
Update voice mail message to indicate my return date
Update out-of-office email message, and turn it on
Make sure my temporary replacement has an updated desk guide
Put a sign at my desk indicating my return date
What Camera Do I Use?
Whenever I post these cruise reviews, I always get questions about what camera I used to take the photos. I actually bring two cameras with me on a cruise, plus my cell phone, and on this particular cruise I also brought along a very unusual stabilized video camera. More about that in a minute. Let's start with my main camera.
Most of the pictures you've seen here were shot with my Canon EOS-70D digital SLR camera. I bring several different lenses with me on a cruise, too.
Canon EOS 70D
The 70D is probably too much camera for most people... so if you're in the market for a very high quality digital SLR camera, the one I actually recommend for most people is the Canon Digital Rebel T5i. If you get one, make sure you get the T5i with the 135mm lens, not the cheap version with the 55mm lens.
I also like to have a Canon EF-S 10-18mm lens with me when I'm on a cruise ship. This is a wide angle lens, which is extremely useful when trying to shoot in small spaces (for example, shooting a photo of a bathroom in a cruise ship cabin) or when shooting something very large... like a cruise ship, when you're standing on the pier next to it.
One important technique that I use with my Canon DSLR, since I'm looking to getting the highest quality photos possible, is to shoot in RAW format rather than JPG. This preserves the photos with the highest possible quality, and gives me the greatest ability to tweak them after shooting them. However, it does require a lot of extra work. Any photos which I want to share (via email, Facebook, or on this web site, for example) have to be converted from RAW to JPG. This takes some time and effort, but it's worth it to me in order to get the best end results. Just about all the photos you see on this page have been tweaked to some extent to give them the best finished look. For most photos, I do some sharpening and color correction. On some photos, I have to do even more tweaking than that to get them to look just right.
I also bring along a tripod with me, to allow me to shoot long-exposure shots in low-light situations. It's also handy to have for shooting "selfies". I've got a tripod that is just the right size to fit inside my big suitcase but which is heavy duty enough to be stable. It also has a fluid head, which is something that's very important to look for in a tripod if you intend to use it when shooting video. Perhaps you saw the video I shot which shows off the inside of our Haven Spa Suite. All the smooth camera motion you see in that video is because of the tripod with the fluid head.
On our Caribbean cruises, I do a lot of snorkeling. I shoot underwater photos and videos with a fairly inexpensive waterproof camera... the Olympus TG-830. However, that's a slightly older model now... and if you're in the market for one, you should get the new version which is the Olympus TG-850.
Olympus TG-850 waterproof camera
Finally, there's an interesting new stabilized video camera on the market called the DJI Osmo. It has a gimbal built in to it, which smoothes out all the shakiness you typically see in videos shot with a hand held camera. In the professional video world, they use a Steadicam to create smooth handheld video shots. The DJI Osmo is a way to get somewhat similar results without spending a lot of money.
DJI Osmo, stabilized handheld video camera
DJI is famous for making the most popular quadcopter drones on the market today... such as the DJI Phantom and the DJI Inspire. DJI developed their gimbal as a way to smooth out the video when a drone is bouncing all around in the sky. Someone at DJI got the bright idea that if they skipped the drone but kept the gimbal and the camera, and mounted it on to a hand grip, they would have a great device for taking smooth looking videos while walking around. That's how the DJI Osmo was born. It sounded like a cool idea to me, so I bought one of the first ones on the market and I use it for video shots where smooth camera motion is important. For example, in this video where I walk through the pool area of the Norwegian Escape and then through The Haven to compare the two vastly different atmospheres, I used the Osmo to provide smooth camera motion while walking with the camera in my hand.
The Cruise Ships We've Been On
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