This was my third time sailing on Norwegian Cruise Line, previously on the S/S Norway back in the 80's and again more recently on the Pride of America around Hawaii. We chose to sail on the Sky because of the overnight in Havana, Cuba. It also stopped at NCL's own private island, Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas.
Because our boarding pass indicated the time to arrive at the pier as 10:00 am - 10:30 am, the earliest time I chose, we arrived at 10:30. However, they didn't start boarding (we were in group 2) until 1:30 pm due to the delay caused by a "Hip Hop" charter. So, it was grueling watching how slowly the previous passengers shuffled off and having to endure the drama. One woman was screaming hysterically on her cell phone and another was escorted off in handcuffs by the police. Apparently, the crew had a tough time getting people out of their cabins because everyday they wouldn't even wake up until noon due to all night partying. Needless to say, once on board, they were trying to shuttle everyone to the Garden Cafe, their indoor/outdoor buffet on deck 11. But while I had done this traditionally on past cruises and learned about the benefit of lunch in the main dining room, we skirted around the crew to get to Crossings, one of the two MDRs on this ship. It was empty and peaceful to say the least and the included booze on this cruise helped us forget the long wait to embark. Our cabins were ready even before we were done.
Since I've never stayed in an aft balcony cabin before, we chose stateroom 8079, aft on deck 8. Upon entering, it was a blazing inferno with the sun beating down on the balcony all day, even with the shades drawn. After a couple days with the A/C struggling to compete with the heat, I called guest services to see if they could fix it. I never found out the resolution from the mechanic sent (airflow seemed the same), but the champagne and chocolates delivered to the room was probably an indication they couldn't do anything about it. However, we realized that closing the curtain between the bed and the sofa made a huge difference, thus reducing the room size to contain the cold air, especially at night. The cabin itself was small, which NCL is notorious for, so we were prepared, but I was surprised by the absence of enough shelves or small desks for storage. It was just about adequate for several days, but not for a week long cruise. I liked the tropical colors (fuschia, aqua blue, etc.) and French Monet-esque art work, nice touch. The bathroom, however, was a little worse for wear, with some mold in some seams and huge caulk filled grooves around the edges. The sink bulged out but without any cabinets for storage which was odd. The overhead CFL lighting wasn't very flattering. Shower was okay: round with a curtain with moderate pressure and consistent hot water. The major drawback was the location directly over the Stardust lounge. I didn't have to see the "Broadway" style shows as I heard all of them when trying to take a nap each day in the afternoon. There was also so much vibration the first night that I could barely sleep a few hours. I guess we were going at a higher speed to make up for our late departure as it was much better on our way to the Bahamas and back to Miami.
I wasn't expecting much, but we stuck to the Crossings for breakfast and lunches and the Palace for a couple of dinners, and the food was pretty good, with just a couple misses. The French onion soup, which was always on the menu was hearty and flavorful and one of the best I've ever had. The escargot, not so much, being too sweet being set in cornmeal instead of breadcrumbs. Other standouts were the Southern fried chicken and shrimp pasta for lunch. I was surprised to see the lunch menu repeated from the first day to the last day (staying on board instead of going to Great Stirrup Cay). We tried the Garden Cafe for one breakfast, but the place is so cramped and we were so lucky getting a table. There is only one side of the ship and aft with a buffet, but it was so hot and humid outside. The food was mediocre at best. Lunch was somewhat better, but only because we sat in the Longboard Bar and retrieved food from the Great Outdoor Cafe. Otherwise, getting eggs to order for breakfast and 2 courses for lunch in Crossings was the ticket, except for the last day when we sat at a table with a team of Chinese servers where I got watered down warm orange juice and weak coffee. I get it...get off! (the common theme for disembarkation). We ate one night in one of the specialty restaurants, Le Bistro. Since we didn't book in advance, we could only get a table when it opened at 5:30pm. Being still anchored and facing the sun all afternoon, this place was an inferno too and it sucked being dressed up and sweating profusely. The food wasn't anything better than the MDR. Even though I asked if the French onion soup was different than the MDR's one and told that it wasn't, it was basically the same thing in a more ornate bowl that incurred a charge. And having to pay for each menu item a la carte was disappointing compared to set fees on other cruises. However, my filet mignon was pretty good, cooked perfectly with a nice sauce.
The waitstaff, with the exception of a few bad apples during breakfast and lunch in Crossings, was attentive and friendly in the Palace. The ambience at the Palace was just what I like, dark, cozy, and really cold, which was a relief compared to other areas on the ship. And even though alcohol was included, it never seemed like a long wait to get drinks or be attended to while dining. Our cabin was also maintained twice a day while we were out even though we barely saw our cabin steward, who was very nice to greet us when we did catch him.
The Outrigger Lounge was my favorite for hanging out before or after dinner for drinks and the Plantation Club was fun and tropical. Cagney's Steakhouse across the way from the latter on the Sports deck look interesting but we didn't get a chance to eat there. This being an older and smaller ship, the layout was a little odd being that you couldn't just get from one end to the other on some decks, as there were so many dead ends. But there were plenty of available elevators all over. Avoid the atrium ones that can be kind of tight. And forget about trying to get to the Atrium bar if you have to go through the smoky casino. Dazzles Nightclub didn't really dazzle, just stuck there as a place to traverse rather than to hang out and dance. It was dark, damp and depressing during the day than anything else.
The older female comedian was a total letdown, unless you think it funny her asking the audience questions for the first twenty minutes. We thought trying her again for the late night "adults only" show at 11:15 pm would be better, but the Q&A again and hearing about the tired gynecological exam experience isn't particularly humorous to me, especially as a guy. I don't care and it wasn't even funny. I didn't attend any of the shows with singers and dancers, as I already heard the cliched old songs while napping in my cabin.
Shore Excursions: Cuba
- Ultimate Highlights of Havana - Old & New: Our tour guide was articulate and provided a lot of information on the history of Cuba, the different parts of the city, and so forth. The main stops were at a cemetery, a cigar shop, and a park with a view of the city and some old missiles. On the bus, I was more interested seeing the side streets of Havana filled with people and interesting shops for food, ice cream, etc. that passed by then these stops. It was just on okay tour.
- Mediterraneo Havana - A Farm to Table Experience: This tour was very cool as it takes you to a working farm just outside of Havana. You get to see and learn about all the produce grown and the livestock raised and the fresh cheeses and cured meats produced. This was culminated with a fantastic lunch including grilled piglet, avocados, rice & beans, cheeses, and salamis. A band showed up as you can see in the video that was really into showing us the beauty of this country. This tour is highly recommended and really benefits a local farm and the proceeds don't go to the military government.
Overall, this was a pretty enjoyable short cruise and being able to see Cuba was a once in a lifetime experience.