Cruise...Like a Norwegian
In the category of corporate slogans that I just don't get, you'll find the pitch from Norwegian Cruise Lines among the front runners. For years I've just assumed there was a hidden meaning to this catch phrase which only makes sense to those that have actually cruised like a Norwegian. After all, whenever I equate Norwegians and boats I tend to think of Erik the Red, not Captain Stubbing from The Love Boat. Not exactly an effective marketing campaign if you ask me, but then again nobody ever does. After years of befuddlement, however, MJ and I were finally able to unlock this mystery with a pre-Christmas cruise aboard the Norwegian Sky.
The truth is, the slogan actually makes perfect sense to me, but that's only because I'm a geek who knows the history of Norwegian Cruise Lines. Most agree that NCL pioneered the mega-ship in the 1980's with the S.S. Norway - may she rest in peace - and in turn launched cruising into the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today. So to cruise like a Norwegian means to sail with an original, but unless the team from Madison Avenue was specifically trying to corner the market on nerds with too much useless information, my guess is the phrase actually has a double meaning. One that implies Norwegian is different from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and the rest of the floating malls which crowd the high seas.
|One of my favorite places in the world...The front of a cruise ship at castoff.|
The Norwegian Sky sails from Miami on three and four night itineraries to The Bahamas. This was both good and bad because Miami happens to be my favorite cruise port in Florida to sail from for reasons I'll explain shortly, but is also the worst in terms of the logistics of getting there. Not only must one navigate the insane South Florida traffic on I-95, but the chaos continues once you arrive to this, the busiest cruise terminal in the world. In addition, the staff at the check-in counters usually have the same passion for customer service as United Airlines ticket agents - read: none - and the team on the Norwegian desk was certainly no exception. Of course, once we stepped onboard the Sky all of that stress was soon forgotten.
|We were one of four ships departing from Miami that day.|
If there's one thing the cruise lines understand it's how to capitalize on the euphoria of a newly boarded guest. As we made our way toward the Sky's atrium we passed booths hocking soda packages, spa treatments, specialty restaurants, and art auctions, all of which will naturally require you to dig deeper into your wallet. I had made it through this onslaught of up-charges unscathed until we came across the table for the Ultimate Bar Package.
The moment I dread more than any other on a cruise is opening my bill on the last day to discover how much damage we did at the bar. It's not like MJ and I become the cast of The Hangover when we step onboard, but after a week of signing bar tabs without so much as a glance at the total, things start to add up quickly. Norwegian's Ultimate Bar Package was the perfect solution to this problem. The package runs $49 per person/per day and includes pretty much anything you'd want in the way of wells, wine, and even specialty drinks, so long as their cost is under the $10 mark. Anything over $10, as well as coffee drinks, is considered premium and supposedly can't be ordered under the package. When we received our bill, however, there was not a single iced coffee or Maker's Manhattan to be found which made my wallet very happy. The Ultimate Bar Package is currently a pilot program and hasn't been rolled out to all ships, but the idea of limiting my bar exposure is something that made me a fan of NCL before we even set sail.
Now that all of our drinks were basically free - prepaid is the same as free, right? - MJ and I grabbed our favorite beverages and headed up to the outer decks for the best part of every cruise...the castoff. With the downtown Miami skyline as a backdrop, the Sky made her way down Government Cut, past Star and Fischer Island, and finally head out to sea but not before giving us an incredible view of South Beach. For me, this is the part of every cruise I look forward to most, and is also why Miami is my favorite port in Florida.
After watching the sunset over a shrinking Miami as dolphins chased behind the ship, we decided it was time to find out what it meant to cruise like a Norwegian. The first stop was our stateroom, which we found to be pretty standard fare when compared to other cruise lines. A space barely big enough for our luggage let alone two people, the room featured two twin beds mashed together to create one queen, a TV which was never turned on, and a small couch which doubled as a luggage rack during the trip. The bathroom was about the size of a luxury port-o-let, and the balcony held two small chairs and a table, which would come in handy for morning room service and "free" mimosas.
The biggest adjustment we had to make with our first sailing on NCL came with the company's trademark Freestyle Cruising. The concept allows guests to choose when and where they want to eat, as opposed to the normal practice of being assigned a set dining time. There are video screens scattered throughout the ship which listed all of the dining rooms, and expected wait times for each. Being accustomed to the traditional way of cruising, where I sit at the same table, at the same time, with the same server who by the third night places a Cuba Libre at my seat before arrival, Freestyle Cruising moved my cheese a little farther than I would have liked. So instead, we opted to try each of the Sky's three specialty restaurants over the main dining room.
Over the years, I've come to love specialty restaurants on cruise ships because they usually offer a more intimate setting and far superior food to the main dining rooms. Out of the three restaurants on the Sky, I'd say all of this held true for 1 1/2 of them. We tried the Italian restaurant on our first night - Il Adagio - where the view and food were good, but certainly nothing worth dedicating coveted space in my memory bank. Next up was Cagney's Steakhouse, who's menu looked amazing but in the end was a complete bust. I came in with expectations that this experience would equal that of Chops Grille on Royal Caribbean and I wound up leaving sorely disappointed. Seriously, the Gorton's Fisherman pumps out a better crab cake than this place. We found a bit of redemption on our last night at Le Bistro, where a bowl of lobster bisque and Coq au Vin washed away the memories of the lousy experience at Cagney's.
Aside from the approach to dining, there wasn't much about cruising like a Norwegian which felt unique. We wasted money in the casino, "invested" in new Guess purses at the duty free shop, and took in a lame comedy show in a failed attempt to stay up past midnight. The only exception, however, was the ship's decor, which had a distinct Hawaiian theme that seemed a little out of place in the Bahamas. MJ, being the master pre-trip researcher that she is, later informed me this was due to the Sky's prior life as the Pride of Aloha, where she sailed itineraries to Hawaii from Los Angeles. Seems to me they could have invested a few dollars transforming the ship to a Caribbean theme so guys like me wouldn't be so confused.
|Are we in Nassau or Honolulu?|
This is where I am supposed to tell you about the shore excursions or the afternoon we spent by the incredible pool at Atlantis, but that's not going to happen. The reason? We never got off the ship. The idea behind our cruise on the Sky was three days of complete rest and relaxation. That meant skipping the hassle of getting off the ship, then finding a taxi or tendering to shore, only to have to do it all over again a few hours later when it was time to get back onboard. No, these three days were spent on the confines of our balcony, or on a lounger on the empty pool deck while the rest of the ship went ashore.
|This was my view for our day in Nassau.|
If there was one thing that I learned on this cruise it's that sailing in the wintertime isn't as fun as the summer. It felt strange sitting on the balcony in jeans and a sweater, and then still needing the bathrobe from the room to help stay warm. While I'm no fan of the sun or heat, without it this cruise didn't quite feel the same. There was one advantage: not having to lather up with sunscreen.
|Farewell Nassau...Until next time.|
So what does it mean to cruise like a Norwegian? I'm still not really sure. The Freestyle Cruising approach to dining is unique, but for the most part this felt like every other cruise we've experienced. In addition, the service on the Sky was lacking compared to other cruise lines, and the specialty restaurants were definitely missing the special. As with every other cruise, however, it was still hard to beat the value in terms of cost, especially when all we wanted was to sit and read for three days. So while I don't really feel the need to cruise like a Norwegian again anytime soon, I'm sure I could be swayed to give it another try.
But only if they keep the Ultimate Bar Package.
Enjoy Your Stay