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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

 

NORWEGIAN SKY
December 1-8, 2002
Southern Caribbean

by Jim MacQueen

The headline on this review ought to be "value cruise line takes the lead"! Many people, including veteran cruisers, tend to discount Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) because like K-Mart, NCL often offers lots of "blue light specials". What they overlook, I think, is that there is often great value in good deals. Certainly our cruise on the Norwegian Sky "exotic Caribbean" itinerary December 1-8 2002 was a great example of a good deal. And in my opinion, NCL continues improve itself and raise the bar for other "value" cruise lines such as Carnival and RCCL. The plain fact is that this cruise was much better than our recent cruises on both Celebrity and Costa, two lines which try to position themselves as a step up from NCL.

A few words about us. I am in my mid-50s and a professional event planner. While not truly a travel agent, there are major travel components in many of my events, and we get around. My wife is on the management team for a group of world and US champion motorcycle racers, and we also get to see some of the world through their eyes. We are extremely experienced "foodies" due to our travel, and have been in some of the finest restaurants in the US (think Trotters, French Laundry, Inn at Little Washington, etc.) so food is a most important component of the trip for us. We'll eat ANYTHING, but it had better be good.  We started cruising in the early 80s, and this was our seventh cruise in the last two years, having recently been on the Carnival Sensation, RCCL Voyager, Costa Atlantica, Celebrity Century, and the NCL ships Majesty, Sun and Sky. On this particular cruise, we also took with us our 24-year-old son, who was getting his first true vacation in seven years and first cruise since and adventure on the Big Red Boat about 10 years ago.

We booked this trip almost a full year ago while on the NCL Sun. It was our first experience with onboard booking, and it worked out well. The booking was credited to my travel agent account and commission was paid (I split with my agent because of our arrangement). The price dropped a little during the summer, and NCL gave us the credit without asking. We are Latitudes members and we received all the perks with no problem, including a lightning fast embarkation check-in, the usual Latitudes cocktail party, our commemorative pins, and drink discounts in the Windjammer Lounge. We chose this version of the exotic itinerary (San Juan, Barbados, St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Kitts and St. Thomas) because we had been to Tortola, Antigua and Martinique on our NCL Majesty cruise. In retrospect, we were SO glad, because there was not a disappointing port call on this entire trip.

The Sky does alternate itineraries each week from San Juan. We flew in a day early, as is our custom, staying at the Wyndham Hotel in Old San Juan. This turned out to be a great choice, as, to our surprise, the Sky was docked directly across the street on the closest wharf to the hotel… on Sunday morning, we simply checked out and dragged our stuff across the street where the dockside checkers took the bags we did not carry on. As I mentioned, check-in was very quick and we onboard before noon even though the formal embarkation is not supposed to start until 1:00pm. All our checked luggage was delivered to our stateroom by 3:30pm, so the whole process could not have been smoother.

About San Juan. We took a cab from the airport. There is a "cab starter" at the airport who writes out a trip order for you. This guarantees you will not pay more than $18.00 for the trip downtown. With tip (10 bags, after all!), we did it for $25.00, and since we didn't need a cab from the hotel, this was a really good value. The Wyndham runs $350 a night, but we got our room for $165. After my wife and son won $50 in the casino, we were REAL happy with the deal. We did our usual exploration of the Old City, stopping by Butterfly People to buy another of their wonderful displays. I would have liked to try one of the local upscale cuisine restaurants, but the kids were tired so we ate in the hotel. Frankly, It's just average, with a big emphasis on the seafood buffet Saturday night and on the breakfast buffet every morning.

Back on board, our stateroom proved to be much smaller than expected. When we were on the Sun, we learned that the Sky is her sister ship and the layout is, indeed, very similar. However, we had been told the Sun had been revised to better suit Freestyle Cruising, and this sure proved to be true, starting with the cabins. We had an outside with balcony on Deck 9, and with the total floor space of both inside and outside added together, it was not as large as our master bedroom at home. I would say it was easily the smallest cabin of ANY we have ever had on a cruise, and it really was a tad too small for three adults. We were pretty much always in each other's way, and there simply was not enough storage… much of our clothing stayed in a couple of the suitcases, under the bed. The cabin was arranged with a "queen" size bed for my wife and me, and a foldout sofa bed for son Chip. One nice touch was a curtain that could be drawn completely across the cabin to separate the beds, giving the heir to the family nickel a touch of privacy. Luckily, we were on the starboard side, which proved to be the more scenic side in all but one port. The balcony got a lot of use, although my wife and I are not finicky about these porches, and often actually prefer inside cabins.

Although everything, including the bathroom and shower, was small, it was also functional and we had no major complaints. There was water, ice, California "champagne", fruit and an orchid in the cabin when we arrived. We didn't drink the water or champagne, and thus did not pay for them. There was a refrigerator that we never used (I think my son may have stored some clothing in it!) and the best TV system we have had on a cruise. You may ask who watches TV on a cruise? OK. We do. We like to keep up with the news and sports, and watch a movie in the afternoon. The Sky had the widest variety of channels and movie offerings we have seen. It also had that great bridge cam which allowed you to see if it was day or night, how the weather was, and what the ship was doing while entering and leaving ports. Our room stewardess was probably the least attentive I've ever had--I don't even know her name--but all that means is that our room was cleaned and made up when it was supposed to be… just no little extras. That's good enough for us.

Now to the most important part of the review: The food! Not everyone is going to agree with my evaluation, because frankly, a lot of people judge cruise ship food on the steaks, prime rib and lobster. I personally like a more creative approach, with more sauces and innovative presentations. I think NCL as a line, and the NCL Sky in particular, have really taken the lead in food, and this is especially true if you limit the comparison to the "value" cruise lines. NCL food in general is much better than Carnival, RCCL or even vaunted Celebrity. Having said that, I also think the food on the Sky is better than the food on either the Majesty or the Sun! The exception, to some extent, is the buffet, but I don't like buffets anyway and try to avoid them at all costs. The younger MacQueen dragged us there one night because he didn't think the dining room menus looked attractive, but that particular version of leg of lamb and a million salads certainly kept us from trying that a second time. As we ate in the Horizon Restaurant on the Sun, we went back to LeBistro on the Sky, and I thought it was much improved over the Majesty version. That being said, I still believe that steaks and hamburgers can NEVER be at their best on a cruise ship.

We split breakfasts between the dining room and the buffet depending on our excursion schedule for the day. If you want eggs, go to the dining room and get them to order. If you like cold items, you are actually better off in the buffet lines where you can get what you want, and as much of it as you want. To those who have written they don't like NCL coffee, well, you just don't know good strong coffee! For lunches, we followed our usual practice of finding a nice place in port to taste the local flavor… I know that doesn't sit well with people who still think of cruises as "all-inclusive" vacations, but I just don't see how you can say you've been somewhere if you haven't tried THEIR food. We did have one lunch onboard… a poolside barbeque of skillet steaks and wursts that actually was quite good.

Both the Seven Seas and Four Seasons dining rooms proved to be excellent, both when compared to other cruise lines and even to very good land restaurants. The NCL Executive Chef is inventive with menu planning and recipes, while the NCL Sky Executive Chef oversees an excellent galley. In my opinion, presentation is one of the line's strong suits. There is a much wider range of appetizers, soups and salads than on other lines, and NCL particularly outdoes Celebrity in this area. With age, the line has really got their Freestyle dining system down pat. We never had to wait longer than 3-4 minutes for a table, and then only the first night when we wanted to sit with another party and it took them a minute to find a group to share our table. Generally, we told the maitre d' that we were flexible and would either sit by ourselves or with others. Of the five nights in these dining rooms, we sat by ourselves twice and with others three times, and we enjoyed meeting the new people. Although there is really not much difference, we preferred the Four Season to the Seven Seas from a décor standpoint, and there was a pronounced difference in the waiting time with the midship dining always underused by the passengers.

My advice to anyone traveling on NCL is to do a little mealtime planning. Each morning, the menus for all the dining rooms are posted in the Deck 5 atrium near the service desk. If you are really concerned about your food options, go there and see what is on the menu in the "free" dining rooms. If you don't see something you want, review the "service charge" rooms and make a reservation. Our experience was that the "paid" rooms did NOT fill up on this cruise and that you could make a same day reservation pretty easily. I don't know if that was true every night, but I observed empty tables every night I bothered to look. Also, be flexible. Don't lock in on certain times, certain tables, and certain dining rooms if you can help it. With Freestyle, you CAN do those things if you want, but it will increase your chances of having to wait. Frankly, Freestyle as a concept suits our family and we much prefer it. As time has gone on, I think the system has really caught on with a majority of cruisers, or at least, with a majority of NCL passengers, and there is much less complaining than there was when the change was first made.

I could go on and on about the food, getting into individual dishes tried and evaluated. But what's the point? You might not like food the way I like it, and I guarantee what I like won't appeal to those who judge cruise food on the meat, potatoes, buffets and pizza.

So, on we go to the trip and the ports. First day out was the one and only sea day. Saving of deck chairs was about normal, but we got what we wanted poolside and in the sun. The Sky pools are very nice (don't miss the secret little splash pool with the waterfall and 'cuz forward on Deck 12!), salt water, not overcrowded on this trip, and the bar service was adequate. The wait staff was not as pushy, but on the other hand, not always there when you wanted a beer. For that reason, a bucket of Coronas makes good sense from a financial and logistical standpoint. The evening was the optional formal night and lobster dinner. I would say the majority of people dressed, with probably a third or more of us in formal wear. We did it because we wanted a family portrait. A piece of advice is that this a good night to avoid the Seven Seas and go to the Four Seasons, as an early lobster night on a cruise seems to cause everyone to want to eat at the same time. As for the lobster, it actually was the best I've had on a cruise ship! Another note: If you are a Latitudes member, you are entitled to a 10% discount off all drinks in the Windjammer Lounge… since this is the "Martini Bar" and the drinks are bigger and more expensive, this is a significant benefit.

I'll cover the ports in no particular order. On Barbados, you are docked at a port that doubles as both the freight and passenger terminal. It actually proves very interesting to watch them work container shipping with some of the biggest machines I've ever seen on wheels. I thought Barbados was a beautiful island and the Bejans were some of the friendliest islanders we've met. Instead of taking a ship's tour, we simply got off, found a taxi, and asked him to take us on a 4-hour drive around the island high spots. We got a great guy who charged the three of us just $70 ($80 with tip) which left us about $40 to the good over a similar ship excursion. After he brought us back to Bridgetown, we had him drop us off at a local restaurant (keep in mind these guys get a commission from restaurants and businesses, so don't exactly COUNT on their advice!). It was adequate, had a great view, but the food was pretty ordinary… it's an English island and all the food tends to be "English" for better or worse. Downtown Bridgetown is one of the larger island cities, with some pretty big local stores among the usual tourist emporiums. We shopped for local rum, but saved our money for St. Thomas.

Dominica is to whale and dolphin watching in the Caribbean what Alaska is on the west coast. We pre-booked all three of our NCL-sponsored excursions on the Internet, which saved us a lot of time and trouble on Sunday in San Juan and guaranteed we got what we wanted. As it turned out, we wouldn't have had to take the whale-watching excursion to see a whale! As the ship sailed in to Roseau, we nearly sailed right over a momma sperm whale and her calf. What a spectacular surprise. However, the excursion also proved to be well worthwhile. They guarantee around a 95% success rate in finding whales and dolphins, and certainly did not disappoint. First, we found several major pods of dolphins that loved bow riding and wake surfing our boat. After 45 minutes of playing with them, we went out a little further using the boat's underwater sounding gear for guidance, and quickly found three more sperm whales, two of which treated us to those spectacular tail waving deep dives. I won't go on about getting seasick… it had been 20 years since the last time! I just should have stayed on the bottom deck. Nevertheless, by the time we returned to the dock, I was sound again and we found a nice a Caribbean buffet at a local restaurant for lunch. I should point out that if you go to the Dominica web sites, you may get the impression you can self-book the whale watching tour yourself for less money. Only if you jump ship! On the days the cruise ships are in port, they book all the spots on the boat, and you can only go if you book through the cruise line. The tour ALWAYS sells out, so book as early as you can if you want to see these magnificent creatures.

Let's see… if this is Wednesday, this must be St. Lucia. That means the catamaran sail to the volcano, into the harbor guarded by the Pitons. Ah, the photo ops. The wife, son and I brought back nearly 750 photos, all but a hundred of which are digital. You'll see some from time to time if you keep visiting the Cruise Critic site. This catamaran sail is a pretty complete tour of the best parts of St. Lucia, which is a beautiful island but which is also bogged down in some degree of native poverty. Sailing down the west side of the island from Castries (where you dock) to Soufriere, you see endless rain forests and sheer cliffs interrupted by attractive inlets and beaches. The southern port, which handles some of the sailing cruise ships, offers relatively easy access to the "drive-in volcano" and Diamond Falls, the mineral baths, and the Botanical Gardens where the French Empress Josephine is said to have bathed. On the way back, the all-day excursion offers some swimming and snorkeling time as well as a couple of additional visits to marinas and resorts. The trip includes lunch, but precludes any meaningful time in the town of Castries where the Sky is docked. The local beer, Pitons, sampled on the sailboat, was excellent.

The next stop is St. Kitts. Personally, I though this was one of the nicest islands I've visited. For one thing, although formed by three different volcanoes, the terrain has been gentled and the island is still ideal for sugar cane farming. We took a driving and hiking tour operated by Greg, which included exposure to St. Kitts native life, a visit to the Batik factory (a beautifully restored old plantation property next to the rainforest National Park) and a 2-hour hike through the rainforest. On our return to Basseterre, we followed Greg's suggestion (his father owns a hotel, but it's out of town so he sent us to a local establishment) and found a really nice upstairs restaurant where I had the best seafood meal of the trip. St. Kitts is the home of Carib Beer… don't pass it up! It's the island version of Corona, lime wedges and all.

Finally, St. Thomas. I am NOT a big fan of St. Thomas, perhaps because I've been there four times in the last 18 months, but I am a photography enthusiast and had something in particular in mind from the duty free shops. I had to try three of them, but acquired a $125 battery pack for $90, tax and duty free, so it was worth the work. The wife acquired her token jewelry (ring and tennis bracelet this time… the OTHER reason I fear St. Thomas!) and I believe young Brian Colin did his Christmas shopping. Oh, and all of this before 10am at the Havensight Mall. Which left us plenty of time to sample a different St. Thomas beach. We've been to the others, so we went to Coki Beach this time. The local dive shop in Havensight offers discount tickets to Coral World, and while you don't NEED to go to Coral World to sample Coki Beach, this aquatic them park has the best facilities. We had a very nice day here, watching the people using the "snuba" gear, swimming and snorkeling, and finding a great little beach shack cookery which did up a truly excellent lunch. I always thought I liked Megan's Bay best of the island beaches, but I think I've been converted to Coki, which is less crowded and has better snorkeling.

All good things must end, and so after wandering around in the sea between St. Thomas and San Juan (it's only 90 miles… they could get there in 4-5 hours if they wanted) it was time to return home. Got to see them hook up the refueling barge, and that was a first despite all the cruises I've been on before. 

Just a few comments about the Sky. She has just come out of dry dock after her summer in Alaska, and has been beautifully refitted. She has new carpets and paint where needed, some new furniture, and is generally in tip-top condition. NCL made a good decision when it made changes to the Sun to make it better suited for Freestyle… the Sun has more restaurant choices and less "multi-use" spaces (for instance, the Sky has a space in the sports bar that also serves as the disco AND one of the alternative restaurants, depending on time of day). One other criticism of both ships is that they have only two elevator/stair stacks, and it is a looooong way between them. The crew was extremely friendly and the service generally top-notch. I have found that the pooling of tips for Freestyle has done nothing to diminish the level of service, and I have never received better service on Carnival, RCCL or Celebrity. The only line with better service, in my opinion, is Costa.

To close, we booked our own air as we always do for these trips. While you may have a better chance of having everything work out time wise through the cruise line, nobody can understand your flying needs better than yourself. That being said, this was my most unpleasant experience with self-booked travel through an Internet provider. Despite the fact we booked these flights 9 months before the trip, we were apparently the last people assigned to seats, and on one leg, all three of us were in different rows. I can't complain about the price, and with my Platinum card, Continental gave us access to the President's Clubs in all three airports, but I just couldn't get past this seat assignment issue when we were so far out in front on our booking and I reconfirmed the flights twice in the week before the trip. One thing I would say for those of you planning your own flights… you probably can count on getting off the ship in San Juan by 9am and getting to the airport between 9:30 and 10am. I switched my original 11am flight to a noon flight, and wished I hadn't. All in all, and excellent vacation with the little negatives hardly worth mentioning, and all our really important expectations met or exceeded. I hope this helps future NCL passengers. If you need any other tips, feel free to ask!

Jim, Kathy and Chip MacQueen
Tallmadge, Ohio 
Socerjim@aol.com

Photo Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line


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