We hadn’t cruised in a long time. I’m thinking this might have something to do with the last two cruises we took: the one to Bermuda where everyone got seasick and Valentina ate a hot dog from her vomit and I had my one and only chemical pregnancy (different from a miscarriage). Or, the *(&^%$ cruise where Eva, age two, got some kind of bug and was in the cabin on borderline IV fluids, gray and motionless. Good times.
We have also had a few good ones to remember which continuously evokes the romantic feeling of that big ship, the all-inclusive, no brainer type of travel. So, since I changed venues for my big 50th, we decided to venture again. Al and I looked at each other and took a big breath, and said ok, let’s give it a shot.
I put my trust and my money in the hands of Melissa Zagans at NCL, and she did not disappoint. We took a Western Caribbean cruise with ports: Miami, Roatan, Belize, Cozumel and Costa Maya. A few caveats I will report later, but all in all, I was completely impressed.
The Norwegian Escape is a mega ship, but that’s what made it so great. It was literally a floating hotel. It was one of the widest, quietest vessels I had been on in my life, and I have to say, I have a tendency for sea legs, but not while I was on board. Sometimes I didn’t even feel the motion at all. (It wasn’t until I got home I had pretty bad rocking for a good three days...ugh).
The food was excellent. The Garden Café was by far; the best cruise buffet I have ever experienced. The selections were always fresh, and incredibly endless, all day, every day. It was creative, non repetitive and the kids just ate and ate. I had my first turkey and ricotta sandwich…wow!! No gaps either from breakfast to lunch to dinner, snacks. They get an A+ here.
Al and I treated ourselves to a HAVEN suite for my big b-day, with a connecting cabin for the little ones and a family cabin for the older kids. Both of the kids’ cabins seemed tiny, until we discovered the top bunk in the ceiling, which was fun for the kids, and added to the sleeping space. Our suite was nothing I had ever experienced on the high seas…spacious and hotel like…large bathroom, the most comfortable bed, ever… (I’m not the only one who thinks so…https://blissbedcollection.com/) the HAVEN amenities were also out of the park with a separate restaurant, pool, sundeck, bar and lounge all reminiscent of a 5-star hotel. Well worth the extra bucks for fun and comfort.
The casino was a ding-ding winner as far as beauty and space, although my wallet didn’t seem to think so, but my luck is nobody’s problem but mine. Lol But, it was so big and roomy you didn’t feel like you were on a ship. Gone I guess are the days of the six slot machines and three tables. Plenty here to sustain your gambling habit.
The kids enjoyed the pools, although, and this is very typical of any ship because of space constraints, they were crowded, but they had two super slides, one of which goes over the water, and the sports deck on the top of the ship was awesome. There was tight-roping, zip lining, mini golf, basketball and other stuff to keep everyone occupied on days at sea. FYI the zip lining and tight-roping is only good if you can channel your inner Evil Kenevil or Arthur Fonzarelli…some moralistic support from Kris Angel might be good, too.
Now, as for the caveats, which, as I found out, seems to be congruent with many luxury liners these days. These did not really put a damper on a great a great vacation, but equivalent to that fly that keeps landing on your food at a barbecue. It’s stuff to be aware of before booking. Always read the fine print.
1. DINING: NCL offers Free Style Cruising, which means free style dining as well, which I love. Gone are the stuffy cruising days of two seating dinners, same waiters, be on time and get dressed, formal evenings. We kind of just said, let’s shoot for whatever time, and even as a group of eleven, we showed up at a restaurant and we ate!
NOW… NCL as well as some other lines offer restaurants above and beyond your cruise price, which are yummy, (Al and I dined away from the kids one night ... guilt!) but, there are more of them than “complementary dining”.
You can certainly add on the ULTIMATE DINING PACKAGE which will cost you more, but allow you much more variety: Japanese, Italian, Brazilian (Churrascaria) and even Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville (which is completely a la carte). There was a decadent bakery, Gelateria and even Starbucks, but of course, all out of pocket.
Complementary dining was all good and we rotated for seven nights. As a basic diner, you could eat in the specialty restaurants but for 15-25.00 per person additional. That would have been a few nights in the casino for one night at dinner for us. If you are traveling as a couple or a smaller family, the upcharges may be ok and worth it.
2.SERVICE CHARGES: Tipping was included…or so I thought…hmmm...but each passenger gets charged approx. 14.00 (yes, per person) per day for service charges, which even when I approached guest services were nebulous. I found out from a friend who sailed on another line recently, she was charged the same. The upside to this is, I did not tip anybody else when I left. So, the good with the bad, I guess.
3. BELIZE: NCL cultivated an island off mainland Belize. There is not even a glimmer of the mainland unless you took an optional tour, but we were fine with the relaxation of the beach and pool. I thought I would have the same privileges as Disney’s Castaway Cay, where everything was on my room charge, and I would be able to eat and drink to my tropical delight. The island was beautifully landscaped, a huge, deliciously inviting pool and the beach was pristine, adequate chairs, (not a lot of shade…lots of searching for umbrellas if you got off the ship too late), gorgeous surroundings. But, surprise, surprise…nothing was included...not even my room charge, and my poor AMEX felt left out and orphaned because they didn’t accept her anywhere. :( Food, drink …all extra. We hung out for a while and got back on the ship, along with most of the passengers in search of food and sustenance they had already paid for.
NCL did a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-ly job of keeping the kids and me entertained. What a jolly, well organized entertainment staff!!! My girls fell in love with Tyler Gray and Jackie Tang who were the most enthusiastic, effervescent hosts I had ever had the honor of playing Bingo with! There was always some fun show or game going on somewhere on the ship that appealed to everyone! And, as my husband can attest to, superlative karaoke!
Cruising, in general, is one of the best bangs for your buck (usually) for family travel. It keeps everyone in one spot, while simultaneously allowing for some frolicking, freedom and fun for parents and kids. Your kids can pretty much roam free but can’t get very far.
Hip Mom Hint: Read ALL the fine print and be an educated traveler.