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  1. Deck 18 Features: Encore Speedway: Before leaving on our cruise, this is the top thing everyone asked us about when they learned which ship we were on. "Isn't that the one with the go-karts on top?" (Never mind that the Bliss also has go-karts...). Originally I thought we weren't going to end up doing the go-karts. From the added expense ($15 per person) to the fact that early reports had the go-karts selling out immediately, and the fact that we had to deal with Vibe passes and restaurant reservations when we boarded, I thought there was no way. So we didn't sign up and everyone assumed that it wasn't something that was going to happen for us. I think it was after we got back on the ship in Tortola (aka Day 4 of 7) that I decided to look and see if there were any slots open for the 4 of us to go to the speedway. My hopes weren't high - I can't tell you how many times I read "go-karts were fully booked by sailaway on Day 1!), and with only 2 sea days left on the itinerary surely everyone was going to be trying to fit the go-karts in. Miraculously, there was availability for 6 people at 2:00 on our last sea day (there are 8 total go-karts in operation at any one time, I believe) so we all signed up for that slot. If I recall correctly, there were some on the evening before as well but each couple had specialty dining reserved for that point. There were also several slots available for smaller parties. So while I would advise that if the go-karts are a mission critical attraction for your group, I would definitely book ahead of time, if you want to try to squeeze it in later you may be able to score some open slots! Make sure that you wear closed-toe shoes for the go-karts, or you'll be turned away. It's also good practice to make sure you leave behind anything that may come loose while driving. I brought sunglasses and they allowed me to have those, but my helmet actually fit so tightly that I couldn't get the sunglasses on my face! When you get to the speedway, the first thing they will have you do is step on a scale (mentioned in my last post regarding the water slides) that basically just has green for "within the weight limits of this attraction" and red for "outside the weight limits of this attraction". I believe the upper weight limit is 265 lbs. I don't know if there is a lower weight limit/height requirement, but I do know that at certain times of day, the speedway operates with double karts so an adult can drive a child, which probably allows for smaller children to ride but not drive. I will note that I weigh less than 200 lbs, but my hips were a tight fit in the karts. Additionally, you ride very low to the ground - people with mobility issues with knees or something along those lines may have difficulty getting in and out of the karts. You will wear a helmet with shield, and they pass out what I'll refer to as "head socks" to put over your hair/face to keep the helmets clean. You return these at the end, and they must wash them because ours smelled fresh and clean when I put it on. Much preferable to putting your head in a sweaty helmet. Prior to driving, you will have to watch a safety video and get briefed on the basics. There wasn't anything too egregious - the right pedal is for acceleration, the left pedal is for braking. Slower karts keep to the right, passing occurs on the left. Don't bump the other karts or the walls (on purpose!). There are different flags for whether it's okay to pass another kart, whether you need to use caution, whether you need to stop, and when you're on your final lap. It was basically common sense, but they'll go over it with you a couple of times. One thing I wished they'd explained - they don't line all 8 karts up and start you at once. Instead, the 8 of you will file out of the pit station single-file and your speed is throttled back to a crawl during this point. Once everyone's out on the track, they'll let the karts go full-speed and your placing is tracked by your lap time, not your finish position. Once your kart completes 8 laps, your speed will again be throttled back for you to come back to the pit. The kart itself handled well, and you can get some decent speed but nothing too crazy. It was fun, but I was pretty much by myself for most of the time so had no idea how fast/slow I was in comparison to the rest of the group. My best lap time was something like 51 seconds so not setting any records for speed there, but I mainly just wanted to see how fast I could take corners without braking so my turns were pretty wide and probably wasted time. You get a decent amount of time on course - I thought it was going to be over in 3 minutes but I'd say we were closer to 10. We all felt it was worth the money to do at least once. I would allow up to 45 minutes for the go-karts from start to finish, though it'll probably take closer to 30. There's also a viewing platform one set of steps up from the entrance on Deck 19. This area has laser guns that spectators can pick up and shoot at the racing karts, and if they hit the kart the driver will get a speed boost that they can use anywhere on course to get an extra burst. It's a fun way of involving more people in the speedway at any given time, though when we visited a few of the guns appeared to be out of order. Overall, the go-karts were fun and if you're able to, I would recommend making time for it at least once during your cruise. We did ours on a sea day, but to be honest with you you really can't see over the safety walls so I was more or less oblivious to where I was the entire time I was on course. That said, it was more fun than I was expecting it to be. This post was longer than I wanted it to be, so I will save laser tag for my next post.
  2. Yes, I remember reading some older reviews of the Breakaway/Getaway and seeing the space being used as you described. It's especially a shame on this ship, that has so little top deck space that is free to use. We'll get to the laser tag soon but this was another area that, for all the prime real estate on, I never saw anyone actually USING it. I'm sure people were playing laser tag, but for the amount of time it sat empty it made the decision to put it there instead of Spice especially painful. Thanks so much for your kind words! I forgot to shout out @TheDougOut because his inaugural report provided so much valuable intel on the ship when we were all hungry for information! It was actually the whole Vibe saga that convinced me I should write all of this out in the first place. Once we made sure L & P were in the correct place and getting their passes, I told T "everyone on Cruise Critic is going to the Social because that's where the first few lives said they were being sold". Not sure if they are continuing to sell them at Q, but I wanted people to be aware that the location may change and that if they really want passes, getting to port early is paramount especially if you don't get priority boarding. Personally, the "dash for Vibe" has never really been my idea of how I want to start my vacation, but this wasn't for me and is hopefully a one-time thing. Not sure which itinerary you're going on for Joy/Encore, but from what I know about both I'd probably pick Encore if I had the choice. While the top deck situation is annoying, at least she follows the blueprint of the other Breakaway/Breakaway Plus ships so you have some reasonable idea of what to expect. With the Joy - even despite the retrofitting when they pulled her from China, she's just so DIFFERENT and probably in ways I wouldn't expect. That said, maybe that's exactly the reason to book the Joy - to experience something a little different. I know I draw heavy comparisons in this review to the Escape - it's hard not to, since we sailed her last year and the ships are so similar. Also I feel like the Escape has a lot of fans, so using her as a reference helps put the differences in context for a lot of people. I'm sailing the Getaway next January and so will probably be making heavy comparisons to her younger sister yet again. Thank you again for your wonderful compliments! Photos are not my forte - don't get me wrong, I took some but they're not great quality and can't compete with some of the others that already exist of the Encore on this site. What I hoped to offer for this ship is what countless people did on Cruise Critic for me for the Escape - capture all of the little tips and tricks that can only come from someone who has been on her. This ship is so new that the information about her is so scarce compared to the Escape, so I wanted to bring back what I learned so that other people can plan their trips on her accordingly - or book a different ship, as the case may be. I'm glad that it's been useful (and enjoyable!) for you to read, and hope it serves the same purpose for others as well.
  3. Deck 17 Features: The Haven: Deck 17 begins the Haven complex, including the Horizon Lounge and Haven Pool. I am not really going to go over this area since I didn't have access to it, but know that it starts here and its amenities extend all the way up to Deck 19. Jogging Track: Much like the gym onboard, the jogging track is not on most people's agenda for vacation but it's good to know it's there. That said, because of the crowded lounger situation on Decks 16 and 17, you will often find the jogging track partially obscured during the day by loungers. This probably goes without saying, but if jogging is mission-critical to your plans, you're going to have to wake up early and go before they start putting out chairs for the day. Otherwise, between the chairs and the people trying to get to them, you're basically guaranteed to have a frustrating workout. Ocean Loops Slide: This water slide is one of the higher-speed ones where you stand up at the top, the floor drops out from under you, and you go hurtling through the slide, round and round, until you are unceremoniously dumped in the water at the end. T went on this slide a couple of times on the Escape and was looking forward to trying it out on the Encore, but it was not to be - the Ocean Loops slide was closed literally for our entire cruise. I'm not exactly sure why and never asked, but I did hear reports of people getting stuck in the loops. That doesn't mean stuck as in can't fit through the rest - for the water slides and go-karts, prepare to have to step on a scale to ensure you meet the weight requirements for the attraction (the scale doesn't have numbers, just essentially green for "fine to ride" and red for "not gonna work"). The supposed issue with this slide is that because of the design of many women's bathing suits, the fabric on their backs comes into contact with the slide, creates friction, slows them down, and leaves them unable to complete the loops and finish the slide. I'm told this isn't so much an issue for men because of where the fabric on their suits occurs on the body, and that this allegedly doesn't have much contact with the slide. Please note this explanation came from another poster on this board, and not anyone affiliated with NCL, so who knows if it has anything to do with why the slide was closed. Just prepare for the possibility that you're going to have to sit this one out. Aqua Racer Slide: The entrance for this slide is technically higher up but we're going to talk about it here. This was the only slide open for our cruise that wasn't the slide in the kids' water park, so we did it a couple of times. Contrary to the Ocean Loops slide discussed above, everyone goes down this slide in an inner tube, feet first. You will be asked to remove anything (sunglasses, hats, loose jewelry, etc) that could possibly come off in the slide. The attendant at the top of the slide will not let the next person go down until it's confirmed that the last person has cleared the slide, which is great from a safety perspective. One thing we found different from our last cruise is that instead of having to get your inner tube at the bottom of the staircase, the attendant at the top of the slide hands it to you as you're about to go and then the attendant at the bottom of the slide grabs it from you as you leave, and then sends it up a cool conveyor belt machine. I prefer this system - I can get a bit weird about heights, and that staircase to the top of the slide is pretty high above the deck and can get windy. Add navigating an inner tube up those steps and I get a bit nervous. The slide itself is fun, with colored lights and a clear section out above the water, but it's a pretty short one and you'll likely end up waiting in line for longer than you actually ride it. It is a really good, non-scary slide for kids in my opinion, so if your child is bored with the kids' water park slide you may want to check out the Aqua Racer. I will note that the name is a bit of a misnomer - only one person goes down at the time, so you're not racing anyone. Le Bistro: Le Bistro is located on the aft section of Deck 17, in a place where many people probably forgot about it or had a difficult time finding it. Le Bistro is the French specialty restaurant staple of the NCL brand, and though we didn't eat here this time T and I had a great dinner last NYE at Le Bistro before going up to the party at Spice H2O on the Escape. The escargot for an appetizer and profiteroles for dessert are non-negotiable as far as I'm concerned - I think I had a good scallop dish for an entree and I can't remember for the life of me what T had. This time, L and P had booked a dinner there and though I don't know what they had, they reported having a good meal. Please note that Le Bistro, like Ocean Blue, does require long pants on men for dinner. Normally, if you have a reservation booked for one of these restaurants they will leave a message on your cabin phone reminding you of this, but unfortunately poor P got turned away and asked to change before they could be sat for their meal. Keep this in mind if you book this restaurant. I think I like this location for Le Bistro more than on Deck 6, because it means that ocean views are now an option for this restaurant (although no outside seating, since it's not located on the Waterfront). It looked lovely inside as well. I think the biggest challenge to this location for Le Bistro is finding it - I briefly confused it for the Haven restaurant before I remembered Le Bistro had to move, and its location on aft 17 is just easy to miss if you aren't looking for it. Do yourself a favor if you book here and familiarize yourself with its location early so you don't stress yourself out running to get dinner. American Diner: Located across from Le Bistro on Deck 17 aft is American Diner, an open-air specialty restaurant with a retro 50s decor scheme serving American comfort classics. You can review the menu, but for me it's too close to what's offered at the Local for me to spend a specialty dining credit there, though I'm sure the food quality is better. For those of you who have been on a ship with a Margaritaville, this is essentially a repurposing of the same space (though unfortunately, not to the effect that I think NCL was hoping for). Although my understanding is that Haven passengers are offered lunch here for free on embarkation day, every time I passed this area there may have been one or two tables seated there, and otherwise it was a ghost town. In my personal opinion, NCL would be better off making this an open-air buffet or pool grill and offering it complimentary, as it does on some of the smaller ships. Whenever they make this a $15-per-head specialty restaurant, it seems to flop spectacularly and makes the area a waste of space. If you're excited about American Diner, you should certainly go for it! I've heard great things about the food, and one benefit to it not being crowded is that it should be easy to get seated and you should have the attention of your wait staff. I just feel that making it included in the cruise fare is just a better use of this space. Galaxy Pavilion: Rounding out Deck 17 at the very aft of the ship is the Galaxy Pavilion, a VR wonderland of amusement. Please note that food and drinks are not permitted in the Galaxy Pavilion, and they've provided a convenient table to place all spent drinks before going inside. The Galaxy Pavilion uses VR technology for an immersive ride experience, including racing cars, roller coasters, zombie apocalypses, and even walking a virtual plank suspended above a cityscape. I will say it's rather fun to go inside and just watch other people play the games. The games do cost money to play, and I think you can buy a time-limited pass where you can play as many games as you want for, say, an hour. I thought it was a cool idea and I understand why they charge, but I just didn't want to play badly enough to justify the additional charge. Allegedly there is also an escape room located in the Galaxy Pavilion that you have to make reservations in order to play - and a real escape room at that, not "do puzzles to be let out of the Supper Club" that was Escape the Big Top on the Escape. Up to 6 people can go at a time, so if you reserve for less than that you may be combined with another group to solve the puzzle. That said, the room is not very well-marked so I didn't find it. Instructions for how to reserve the escape room and its hours of operation are located in the Freestyle Daily. On Deck 18, we'll talk about the highlights of this particular ship - the Encore Speedway and laser tag, of course. Then we'll tackle the Vibe experience on Deck 19, before circling around to a brief report on the individual ports on this itinerary. I can also touch briefly on debarkation since I covered embarkation so thoroughly (spoiler alert: it was pretty uneventful) and then give my final thoughts on the entire trip.
  4. Deck 16 (continued): Mandara Spa and Thermal Suite: As I've been teasing for 2 pages now, we were upgraded to a spa balcony about 50 days out from our sailing date and so got a chance to sample the Thermal Suite on the Encore. We were particularly excited about getting this upgrade knowing the top deck situation on the Encore, so having access to dedicated loungers, pool, and hot tub in addition to the steam room, sauna, and others was an extra special treat. The spa is located on the starboard side of the aft staircase, across from the fitness center. There are often spa representatives posted in that staircase, offering consultations or advertising treatments or some such. They weren't super pushy if you didn't acknowledge or look at them. The door opens up to the spa lobby, which is where you would check in for any treatments or massages you may have scheduled. To the left as you go in are the barber shop and salon, where hair/nail/shaving services are performed. To the right of the counter is the entrance to the treatment rooms and the hallway to the Thermal Suite. There is a sensor at this door, so you either have to have a spa keycard or spa pass to unlock it. There are men and womens locker rooms with showers and rest rooms before you reach the door to the thermal suite. Right as you walk in, there are fresh towels as well as a place to put used towels when you're done. We were also able to carry towels out with us, in case we needed extras for our room. To the left as you walk in is a small refreshment station with cups for regular and cucumber-infused water, hot water for tea as well as a selection of different tea bags, and fresh oranges. Once you get past the towels, to your right is the therapy pool and hot tub. We got in the hot tub once on the first day - but once we tried the therapy pool, we ditched the hot tub because frankly it's boring. The therapy pool is full of warm, chlorinated water (not saltwater like the main pools are). Along the two sides running parallel to the sides of the ship, there are metal grab bars positioned in front of jets. The jets are controlled by a button that only activates the jet for that particular person, and you can use the bars to maneuver yourself in front of the jets to give yourself a nice back massage. The jets are on a timer, so eventually they'll stop but you can just hit the button to go again. Along the back of the therapy pool, there is a grated metal bench where you can sit, and this too has its own jets and functions a lot like a hot tub. Along the front is an enclosed area that we called "the wave pool" - it has walls around 3 sides and is like a more dynamic hot tub, with really powerful jets. When the ship really gets moving, the water can go from your knees to your neck in the course of a few seconds. Finally, in the very center of the therapy pool is a water feature powered by another button that shoots a very strong stream of water directly down. Ladies, be careful with this one - if you're wearing a strapless bathing suit this one has the potential to take your top off! There are various padded loungers throughout the suite, and along the outside edge directly in front of the windows are the heated tile loungers. These filled up quickly - there was usually one available, but whether or not you could get two next to each other was a toss-up. That said, if you're not trying to take a heated nap I like the padded loungers better for reading, as they are more adjustable. The aft views out of the back of the ship are wonderful. There are also a few rooms that give the "thermal suite" its name. There is both a sauna and sanarium - my understanding of these is that they both use heat, but the sauna is a drier heat whereas the sanarium has a touch of humidity. The steam room, of course, is full of aromatherapy steam - be careful choosing your seat, as some of the steam vents come from the ground which can make certain areas too hot to sit. The salt room is filled with Himalayan salt crystals and a UV light - we were rather skeptical of the benefits of this particular room, and the sales pitches the spa representatives give during the tour seemed to vary each time they passed. Finally, there is a snow room which gets down between 10 to 20 degrees, which feels like a nice relief if you're super-heated from the steam room and sauna. We enjoyed the spa, but will probably not spring for the passes again. We used the therapy pool the most, but honestly mostly used the sauna to dry our swimsuits before getting on loungers. My personal feeling is that they sell too many spa passes - it can be difficult to get a lounger and it also got quite loud in the therapy pool/hot tub area. It made this less than relaxing - not only on sea days, when it would be understandably crowded, but after sailaway on port days too. I truthfully felt it was difficult, even on this itinerary with 4 sea days (counting most of the day it took to get to San Juan), to feel like we got our money's worth - we felt compelled to go for a couple hours each day and we did enjoy it, but I would've been miffed if we'd paid the full retail price for spa passes. The spa was a lovely place to read, but so was my balcony and that was quieter. The other clientele of the spa were also older - there's nothing wrong with that, but I guess I just felt like we stuck out like sore thumbs. Nobody made comments to us, but I did feel like there were a couple of older ladies shooting me looks since both of my bathing suits have a considerable amount of cleavage involved. Overall, I am glad we experienced the spa - especially on this ship, since it gave us a nice pool to use. However, given the experience L & P reported having in Vibe, I think we would've spent more time and enjoyed ourselves more there. Pulse Fitness Center: Our cabin was located directly below the gym, and I'm proud to say that we actually went - once. We were too busy going to the spa instead! The gym is very well-equipped, with ellipticals, weight machines, rowing machines, free weights, TRX, and other gym equipment. They also have treadmills that face out towards the water, which is quite an odd feeling when you're at sea and in motion! The cardio equipment is equipped with TVs that play the same channels that are in your stateroom TV, which I thought was cool even though I watched it on mute while listening to my Spotify playlist. There is also a spin studio that offers classes around 9 AM - but those cost extra money (something ridiculous like $20), as well as various other classes like HIIT and yoga. There are also some complimentary stretching sessions, but let's be real - I didn't come on this cruise to work out. If you do, rest assured that this gym has enough that you'll be able to get a decent workout in. Now that Deck 16 is all wrapped up, we'll move up to Deck 17 to cover American Diner, Le Bistro, and the Galaxy Pavilion before moving to the fun stuff on Deck 18 - water slides, go-karts, and laser-tag, oh my!
  5. Deck 16 (continued): The Pool Deck: As many people predicted based on the deck plans prior to the Encore completing construction, Deck 16 is probably the weakest feature of this particular ship. The Breakaway/Breakaway Plus ships already have a reputation for having too small a pool area for the 4000+ passengers they are capable of holding, but areas such as Spice H2O, the sports courts, and other top-deck activities included in the cruise fare give passengers a way to enjoy these decks without necessarily crowding the pool deck. Unfortunately, on the Encore, most of the top deck space is taken up by for-fee areas: the Haven sundeck, Vibe, the go-kart track, and the laser tag. More about these coming up - they are located on Deck 18. However, they do have an effect on Deck 16 - it means that this is the majority of the top deck space included in everyone's cruise fare. There are three main water features located on Deck 16 - the "adults only" pool, which is located in the forward section of the pool area, the "kids pool" (adults are permitted here) in the aft section, and the kids' water park which is located directly to the right of the kids pool if facing aft. Curiously, there were a few times where the kids' pool was closed while the adult pool remained open - our sailing was quite rocky the first day or so, and I imagine this was because younger children may not be able to deal with the waters but it wasn't so bad that they had to close the adult pool. There also appeared to be life guards and children's life vests near the kids' pool. The deck chair situation was not as dire as we initially feared - if you got out to the deck before 9:30, you'd be able to find loungers in that main pool deck area. If you were okay with having a walk to the pool or sitting in the shade, there were even more options and there were just about always chairs open that weren't in the direct sun (this sometimes meant heading up to Deck 17, near where the ping-pong tables are, or Deck 18 outside the entrance to Vibe). That said, because of the reduced free deck space, the chairs are positioned very close together so you may have a stranger sitting within inches of you on either side. I can't spend very long in the sun without religious application of sunscreen, so this honestly didn't really affect me very much and I rarely spend much time on a lounger in the sun, but if that is your thing there is a way to accomplish it on this ship. If it is your primary reason for cruising, you are honestly better off picking another ship that doesn't corral everyone into a relatively small area. With regards to the Waves and Surf pool bars, we found service here to be pretty good for a pool bar. If there's a lot of activity up there, prepare for a wait (especially if you're getting a drink with multiple components). They are using the paper straws here, so if you hate those either go without or prepare to bring your own. I brought my own plastic straws specifically for use in my beloved Mango Meltdowns, because otherwise my paper straw would basically melt about halfway through the drink. The bar also has a Frose (frozen rose) machine, but L reported it wasn't very good so buyer beware. These technically aren't on Deck 16, but I will mention them here anyway - there are only 4 public access hot tubs onboard the entire ship from my count, with two on each side located about midship on Deck 17. If I recall correctly on the Escape, there were a number of hot tubs on the pool deck itself in addition to those 4, as well as 2 on Spice H2O and another 1 or 2 up on Deck 18 outside of the entrance to Vibe. As a result, we found the hot tubs to almost always be occupied, and usually with children. Personally, I think hot tubs aren't for kids but I get why it happens and this ship has no adults-only hot tubs that aren't located in the spa or Vibe so it is what it is. It's a shame because one of my favorite memories on the Escape is lounging in one of the aft starboard hot tubs on Deck 18 outside of Vibe while in port in Nassau, but on the Encore this same hot tub was behind the pay wall in Vibe. The tone of my posts up until now has been pretty positive, because Decks 6 - 15 are among my favorite parts of the Encore. Unfortunately, 16 - 18 are, in my opinion, where the ship's biggest weaknesses lie. I will try to remain as even-handed as possible but the top deck spaces are not conducive to large numbers of people spending time on them. We made do, but I did sometimes feel like I had to "stay inside" because it was so crowded on the upper decks that it wasn't enjoyable. Next up in the report is one area that people have been eagerly awaiting (the thermal suite!) and another that probably no one cares about (the fitness center!) to close out Deck 16 before we move up to Le Bistro, American Diner, and the Galaxy Pavilion on Deck 17.
  6. Deck 16 Features: Garden Cafe: On the Encore, the Garden Cafe is located forward on Deck 16. It has seating that wraps around the entire area, as well as two sections of outside seating just outside the buffet area. At the very front of the ship, there are windows that look down into the Observation Lounge below on Deck 15. There are so many sections of the buffet that I can't begin to describe them all, but trust that there is something here for everyone. Like any buffet, there are some dishes that are hits and some that are misses - the good news is that it's all complimentary, so skip what you don't like and go back up to try something else. A couple of highlights from the buffet: If you like Indian food, you're in for a treat. The Taste of India section of the buffet operates just about the entirety of the day, and we loved trying different dishes here everyday. There were some days where my entire lunch would come from this area. They always have naan, a selection of chutneys, and basmati rice. They then usually have a small bite every day (sometimes samosas, a vegetable pakora, or something along those lines), and a rotating selection of tandoori specialties and different curries. The four of us love Indian food, but aren't super familiar with all of the dishes so being able to try them in this setting was great because now we know what we want to order when we get home! I loved getting either an Eggs Benedict or a Florentine Benedict every morning - do try to time this so that they are fresh when you get them, otherwise the egg may cook from being under the warmer and you may lose your runny yolk. Generally if the tray is almost full, you're golden but if you're picking one of the last ones, it may be more well done. There is almost always a wide variety of desserts, and they are very well-portioned so that you can have just enough of a sweet to cap off your meal (or you can try multiple desserts!). We actually went back to the buffet after Teppanyaki for dessert, since the desserts in this restaurant were a bit lackluster. And then a couple of things we didn't care for: I would avoid getting the scrambled eggs that are pre-prepared - they are just about always either under or over-cooked in my experience. It takes longer, but go to the omelet station and ask them to prepare scrambled eggs for you there if you need to have them. This way you ensure that you get scrambled eggs cooked to order. There was a noodle soup station that the rest of my party was super excited for (I'm not big on soup so I didn't have any). They reported that the broth itself is bland, and required a lot of seasoning with soy sauce, hoisin, or sriracha (all of which are available - I found them at the front of the ship at the last station on the port side). I imagine this is because a buffet is trying to cook to suit everyone's tastes, so one person's flavorful broth is another person's "too spicy" or "too salty". For me personally, the buffet on a sea day for breakfast is too crowded and I avoid it. However, it's great for grabbing a quick meal before getting off for an early port excursion if you get there early enough. Lunch can be reasonable on sea days since the main dining rooms are open, but note that the MDRs are closed for lunch on port days so the buffet will be correspondingly more crowded. Dinner tends to be the least crowded meal since people have the options of going to all 3 main dining rooms or specialty restaurants, but the buffet does run specials some nights (I think Day 2 or 3 was steak and shrimp night which I am sure was popular). My biggest complaint about the buffet is that the popular stations (carving station, burgers, etc.) have quite a long line that often ends up blocking access to other stations, but they do try to set these up in multiple places throughout the buffet so I think that's just a consequence of having popular items! I think there's enough variety in the buffet for me to find stuff to eat without waiting in line, so I skipped those things but just note that you may have to be a bit patient! The buffet for the Encore is very similar to the other NCL ships, but one notable exception (which holds for other restaurants onboard but is most critical for the buffet) is that the hand sanitizer stations are embedded into the wall, rather than mounted on a stand in front of the buffet where it's harder to avoid. I found this to have the effect of needing to go find the hand sanitizer, rather than having to walk around it to avoid it. There was also a curious scenario where at one entrance to the buffet, I found 4 or 5 handwashing sinks, and on the other side there was only 1. I prefer to wash my hands when entering the buffet (and then I use a pocket sanitizer again at the table before touching my food again), and I thought it was weird that the sinks were so unevenly distributed. I also felt that the Escape's staff was more on top of the washy-washy reminders. There were people stationed in front of the buffet, but they were fairly soft-spoken about washy-washy and I almost never heard the song. I witnessed countless people walk right in without either sanitizing or washing, and I get that staff can't detain people for not washing their hands but it really is a risk to everyone else's health. Not really sure that signing about washing your hands would've stopped these people, but it was a difference T and I noted from our last cruise.
  7. Glad I could help! Myself and L both got the $9.95/person messenger plan so that we could coordinate between the two couples - we could've gotten the guys on there, too but there weren't too many times where T and I were apart. If we were, I wrote a note for him in the room about where I would be and when I would be back. If you've got kids, grandparents, etc. all roaming around the ship it's definitely worth it for everyone to have for the peace of mind! Hi there! The package that comes with the Free at Sea perks (Premium Beverage Package, formerly known as the Ultimate Beverage Package) includes all alcoholic drinks up to $15, which from my memory covers everything served at District.
  8. Quick Note: FYI to everyone that the Medical Center on this ship is located on Deck 13 near the forward elevators. No one usually reads up on this because (hopefully!) you never have to use it, but I was trying to kill time before meeting up with my group one night and decided to go look for it. Deck 15 Feature - Observation Lounge The Encore is only the third NCL ship with an Observation Lounge, so I was most curious about this feature of the ship because I've never experienced anything like it before. I've read that on an Alaskan cruise, the observation lounge is really valuable because it's a great place to view the glaciers as the ship passes through (and on an Alaskan cruise, it's all about the scenery!). I imagine it would also be a great addition to a Panama Canal cruise as well. I wasn't sure how much I'd be there on a Caribbean cruise though - after all, part of the appeal is the sun, and the observation lounge is inside. The observation lounge is full of cozy sofas, chairs, and chaise lounges perfect for meeting up with people and having a nice chat. I observed some people there playing cards, reading books, enjoying piano music that often takes place with WT Greer in the evenings there, or posting up at the bar all the way forward. I believe there are also bar servers (at least in the forward area of the lounge), as well as a limited buffet at the front and around the edges of the lounge. This buffet is great for if you want a light snack, but find the buffet overwhelming. They also serve a continental breakfast similar to what is available complimentary from room service. It's entirely possible to spend hours in the Observation Lounge without ever leaving, even for restroom breaks because it has those as well. The lounge is well-appointed, even down to the knick-knacks on the wall shelves and TV screens showing the navigation channel so you can see where the ship is on the map as you observe the surroundings. I cannot emphasize how big this lounge is - it is located right below the Garden Cafe, and I venture to guess it probably occupies the same amount of space. I never encountered any difficulty finding space to sit here. It became our go-to spot to meet up with L and P for drinks before going to dinner, whether we were going together to the Manhattan Room or to our separate specialty dining reservations. It's large enough that even if the group at the bar is rowdy or there's music playing, if you're willing to walk a bit you can find a quiet area to read. The observation lounge is probably my favorite use of space on the entire ship. A note about the bar - the bartenders here are phenomenal, some of my favorites on the ship. The Observation Lounge quickly won over some regulars who would post up there, but the bartenders were quite efficient at getting drinks out while making those at the bar smile. Susan especially gave great service, and I'd recommend trying to seek her out. She's not from the showmanship school of bartending like some of the others on the ship, but she was quick and always delivered drinks with a smile. The bar may have had a couple of spritzer drinks that were special to the Observation Lounge, like my personal favorite Botanical Spritzer made with Ketel One Grapefruit & Rose, club soda, and a grapefruit wedge garnish. Otherwise, it is serving the same Topmast Libations and beer/wine found at the other bars on the ship (though if you ask nicely and they have the ingredients, I'm sure they'll fill requests too!). Check out the port-side entrance to the Observation Lounge - there's a very detailed model of the Encore that is very fun to check out. It includes small touches as the day beds and cabanas up on the Vibe deck, and the wheelchair lift that gets people up to the speedway viewing platform on Deck 18. Definitely don't miss it! One note - the Observation Lounge is just about all the way forward, and high up on Deck 15. If the waves are rolling, movement is going to be more pronounced here than it is on the lower decks. On Day 2, the ship's movement was very prominently felt and P & L were stuck in their cabin for part of the day. Unfortunately I had to warn them off the Observation Lounge that day - they were much better off in their mid-ship cabin down on 12. That said, you can see the horizon in the Observation Lounge which I know is helpful for some people's motion sickness (as opposed to being down on the lower decks and not being able to see out). Next we'll hit Deck 16, which will cover both the fitness center and spa, the pool decks, and buffet. We visited these often due to our advantageous location near the stairs on Deck 15!
  9. We had the regular 250 free minutes that came with the Free at Sea perks, and while I wouldn't use it for any kind of video streaming the speed was decent and we had more than enough time for our needs (brief check-ins at home, check-in to our flight home from Miami). T had the unlimited Wifi package on the Escape, he didn't report any issues but I didn't use it whatsoever. I think even with the unlimited package, you can only have one device logged in at a time so if you and your husband can be logged in at different times, you could probably just pay for one package and switch off. If your kids just need to be able to message, you can pay $9.95 per person and be able to call/message anyone on the ship through the ship Wifi. If they need actual internet, you'll probably need to think about at least springing for a social media package for your kids to share. I am probably not the best authority on this, as I have the ability to fully unplug when I travel and usually take the opportunity.
  10. Cabin Report: Spa Balcony #15256 Originally, T and I booked a mid-ship balcony on Deck 10 back in June - I actually originally selected Deck 9, until I realized the cabin was directly above the Cavern Club and decided to move up a deck to provide some cushion from the noise. But of course, we can't resist the Upgrade Advantage email when it comes, so we decided to place bids on a spa minisuite, a spa balcony, and a regular minisuite. We were upgraded to a minisuite on the Escape and loved the bathroom. At about 50 days out, we got the email that our bid for $200 per person for a spa balcony was accepted, and we were moved to 15256, which is located directly below the fitness center on Deck 16 and two decks below the speedway. I will confess to being a bit nervous about the possibility of people dropping weights on the ground waking us up or noise from the speedway being disruptive, but were excited to take advantage of the spa. Spa passes for a 7-day cruise are $279 per person, so bidding for the room not only got us passes at a $160 discount, but also brought us in closer proximity to the spa. I've heard that the spa passes sell online before the cruise at $249 per person, but I was never able to find them. It may have been possible to call and get them (which is what I had to do with dining and show reservations as well), but since we were already getting them with our room at this point, I didn't bother. Even at the lower pre-sailing prices, we were saving $100 on the passes. This room was also located directly at the portside door to cabins at the aft stairs/elevator banks. While it was possible to hear the faint "ding" of the elevators at times, this room was remarkably quiet and incredibly convenient. Our room ended up often becoming the meeting place since it was so easily accessible from the stairs. We simply had to walk down the hallway of staterooms on the port side of Deck 15 to the forward stairs door to get to the Observation Lounge, and just go up the aft stairs to Deck 16 to go to the fitness center or Mandara Spa. We quite liked the decor in the stateroom, which had a navy blue theme and modern minimalist accents. The key difference between a spa balcony and regular balcony cabin, besides spa proximity, is that you get extra pillows and a decorative bed runner (is that a thing?) on the bed. The extra decorative pillows are usually placed on the couch by the room steward at turndown service and are honestly fairly useless. We were also provided NCL robes in the closet to wear down to the spa - nothing fancy but they do have nice deep pockets on them to carry your phone and room key to the spa with you. The bathroom is the same size as the standard balcony and uses the same personal care products. This was my first time in the "standard" shower, as my first cruise was in a suite with my parents and the second we had the large minisuite shower. To my surprise, I felt the size was more than fine and didn't feel cramped, even when trying to shave my legs. Also, while the double sink in the minisuite is nice, we really didn't miss it in this bathroom. T and I have resolved from this point forward that we will likely only book midship balconies and stop bidding for upgrades - the room category is plenty fine for our needs and priorities. The only exception I would possibly make is that I'd love to get an aft-facing balcony one day. There was plenty of storage space in the bathroom for whatever we needed to keep there for the week. I can't really think of anything else specific regarding the bathroom, but if anyone has questions I'll try to answer them to the best of my recollection. This particular room had the bed by the balcony and the sofa by the closet - I am not sure which arrangement I prefer, but it may be couch by the closet as the closet is easier to access and it's easier to throw your stuff down from your excursion without walking around the bed. The safe is quite small, but was large enough for all of our valuables and my iPad Mini. There are plenty of shelves and hangers in the closet, and even more storage under the TV and along the vanity mirror. You can easily slide suitcases under the bed after unpacking for more space. I would highly advise you bring something along to tie the hangers you're not using together - otherwise, if the ship was even moving a bit, the empty hangers clack together and it got quite annoying. My mother brings duct tape along for this purpose, but I used a scarf I brought along and it worked just as well. Space was at a premium in my airline carry-on sized bag, and I didn't want to have to pack anything that didn't have more than one purpose. Under the desk/vanity is a hairdryer - but beware, if you're a heavy blowdryer user, L informed me it was pretty weak. I don't style my hair beyond throwing some shine spray in it before brushing after a shower, so this didn't affect me but if your hairdryer is important to you, you may want to pack yours from home. There are also 2 American and one European outlet here. We had a small one-cup coffee maker that we never used. Along the vanity mirror is a small lip that I used to store my phone charger, sunscreen, and maybe a couple other small items. You can remove the tabletop off of the small stool to sit on - we never used it as an endtable. We don't get many leftovers on a cruise so didn't ask our steward to clean out the minibar. One thing we had that I don't remember from previous cruises is a small notepad and pen, which we used to leave notes for our steward and each other - this was a nice touch because I ALWAYS forget to bring these things. The smart TV seems to be an upgraded model from what was on the Escape, and I found it much easier to navigate and use. You can use it to book activities, make dining reservations, check your onboard account, and of course watch TV. We usually download movies to watch on an iPad so we didn't watch TV too much except to possibly check the navigation channel in the morning. The bed itself was quite comfortable, but I found the pillows to really be lacking. It felt like as soon as I put my head on one, it collapsed. Looking back, we should've either asked for additional pillows or put the big decorative ones under the other pillows for some additional support. It didn't make a huge difference for me, but T snores if he doesn't have his head propped up above his neck and it was driving me crazy. Each bed (or side of the bed) has its own reading light, and the room light controls are located both by the front door as well as on the back wall by the balcony so that whoever is on the outside of the bed can turn them off without getting up. Each light also has a USB port in it, which we used to charge our various devices. I don't recall any shelf above the bed for storage, but it may have been there and I didn't notice it. Our balcony wasn't huge, but it did have two reclining chairs and a small table on it and the balcony was wide enough to place the two chairs side-by-side parallel to the balcony door to watch an iPad positioned on the table (which I highly recommend - it's the reason we book balcony cabins!). It did have a bit more of an overhang above it than balconies on lower decks - I think this is because the gym is located directly above, as opposed to more cabins. We had absolutely no sound issues from either the gym or the speedway - the go-karts are electric and run limited hours, but we never even heard them at all. There was some music that could be heard from the pool deck, but nothing disruptive. Our room steward, Melissa, was fantastic - the type who would learn your name and say hi if she saw you in the hallway, but otherwise came and left without us even being aware. The room always looked impeccable when she was done with it. One morning, we went to breakfast and the spa early and really just wanted to come back to the room and watch a movie, but the Make Up Room light was still on so we knew Melissa hadn't yet had the chance to come by. We opted to watch the movie on the balcony so we wouldn't get in her way - when she came in, she knocked on the door just to let us know that she would be cleaning (and that we could come in and get anything we needed without worrying about getting in her way), and let us know when she left as well. We loved Melissa and tipped her extra at the end of the cruise. I do want to note that we did not receive towel animals, but we didn't ask for any either since ultimately it's just not that important to us. Most of you already know that there is a card slot over the light switches right at the door to the cabin, and you have to insert a key card (or similarly sized card) in to power the outlets in the room. In our room on the Encore, we were provided a dummy card to put in this slot, whereas on the Escape I used a Marriott hotel key card from our pre-cruise hotel stay. Please do try to remember to remove this (or at least pull it up out of the slot) before leaving your room so as not to waste electricity, unless you absolutely need it to charge something while you're away. Overall, we loved our cabin but I think going forward, we'll probably just book a regular balcony. My review of the spa will be coming up shortly, we enjoyed ourselves but I'm not sure we'd book it again unless we were on another ship lacking a Spice H2O or similar area.
  11. Deck 8 Features (continued again!): Smoking Lounge: Somewhere on Deck 8 along the Waterfront, there is an enclosed smoking lounge for those who smoke cigarettes. I don't think it is right next to the Humidor and it's not at the door at Sugarcane, but I can't for the life of me recall where it is and the deck plans are not helping me. But suffice it to say that it's somewhere along the Waterfront and fairly easily accessible. This is the Encore's answer to the elimination of the smoking area (and, let's face it, the entire area) of Spice H2O. Unfortunately, the door to Deck 8 interior immediately in front of the smoking lounge often has a cigarette smoke odor. I also saw a few instances where the people using the lounge propped open one of the doors, so the smell leaked out to the Waterfront here. I can see both sides of the issue - I am not a smoker and no one close to me is a regular smoker, so I don't want to have to deal with the smoke but it's kind of unfair that there are no outdoor areas for people to smoke and instead they have to crowd into little ventilated boxes in either the casino or on Deck 8. We didn't experience any smoking on the balconies but I did hear reports from people on the first few sailings that their neighbors were using their balconies to smoke on, which may be an unintended consequence of the absence of those areas on this ship. The Cavern Club: Modeled after the famous Liverpool club that gave rise to such iconic acts as the Beatles, this is a cool area that is in the same area as the Five O'Clock Somewhere Bar for those of you who have also sailed on the Escape. For those of you who didn't, the entrance is right beside Maltings and across from the Cellars wine bar. The Cavern Club also has a bar section along the Waterfront. This area has a stage, and you can often catch the cover band the Yesterday Beatles playing in here (check your dailies for what era they'll be playing!). Sgt. Pepper's Night was very fun, as the guys were wearing the costumes and everything. If you're a Beatles fan like me, they're definitely worth checking out. The guys are a bit *ahem* older than the Fab 4 were in their heyday, but I have to give them an A+ on their creative use of wigs. Don't expect to be fooled that you've been transported back to 1965, but it's a fun show. Make sure to get there early - there is limited seating and these shows fill up quickly! There are no reservations available for the Cavern Club so it's all first-come, first-served. I can't remember anything particularly distinguished on the bar menu there - I just ordered a Bahama Mama or something along those lines. Karaoke is also hosted in the Cavern Club, but whatever karaoke system they're using here quite frankly sucks. I love karaoke, and my go-to song is Mr. Brightside by the Killers because it's in my register, easy to sing, I know all the words and people love it. They did not have it. Okay, that's fine - I'll pick a Beatles song because those are easy too and after all, we're in the Cavern Club. NO BEATLES SONGS. No Rolling Stones either. What the actual heck? There were 2 Tom Petty songs - I went with Don't Do Me Like That, but the version of the song was weird and doesn't give you much of a lead-in to start singing. I did have fun though, and the crowd was encouraging. Another man said they didn't have My Way by Frank Sinatra, which is a karaoke classic that I definitely remember being available on the Escape. The karaoke system has you sign up and pick your song via tablet, so if you search by artist/title and can't find the song, you're out of luck. I think there could've been much better participation here if there were a wider variety of song choice, but as it was we only went once and pretty much left after my song was over. The Cellars Wine Bar: I didn't visit this area, and almost never saw anyone in here. I think part of the reason why the Cellars isn't more popular is the dearth of wine options available on the UBP (regular, non-upgraded alcoholic beverage package that most of us receive as a Free at Sea offer). I am not a huge wino, but I definitely would've explored this space more if I could have actually sampled more than one of each varietal. This bar offers wine tasting events throughout the cruise, pairing wines with chocolates, cheeses, and macaroons depending on which you choose - but these are associated with an extra cost. To be fair, other bars do this too - the mojito flight at Sugarcane is not covered by the UBP (or the premium upgrade package, for that matter, though both packages give you a discount) and the whiskey flights at Maltings are also extra cost. That said, I witnessed a couple doing the whiskey flights at Maltings and the bartender spent a significant amount of time talking them through the various whiskeys they were tasting - and if that's the experience you get with all of these, then I do think it's fair to compensate for the time spent on education. It's just not for me - if I want to pay to taste things, I will do it at a bar back home where I am already paying for the drinks. Overall, this seems like a nice area but if you really want to take advantage of the variety of wines offered by the Cellars, prepare to either upgrade your beverage package, pay the difference between the $15 included in your base package (or a la carte if you don't have a package), or limit yourself to the varieties offered in the beverage package to drink wine in the quiet little bar. Onda by Scarpetta: Let's talk about Onda! This is probably the dining venue surrounded with the most hype when it was announced, especially as it was replacing the stalwart La Cucina as the Italian specialty dining restaurant on the Encore. If you're not familiar with Scarpetta, it is an Italian restaurant based in NYC known for its extremely fresh, hand-made pasta. There is a location in Philadelphia in swanky Rittenhouse Square, and T & I celebrated Valentine's Day there a few years back with what I will remember as one of the best meals I've had in my entire life - no joke. So I was more curious than most to see if Onda would live up to my expectations. I have never eaten at La Cucina, but my parents have - they compare it to Olive Garden Italian. This may be overly harsh, but both T and I come from families with strong Italian roots and grew up with recipes brought over from the old country, so in most cases the Italian dishes we are served fall short of what we can get at home (with a few notable exceptions). This was the only SDP reservation that the 4 of us made together, and we made it for the last night of our cruise. We did have an especially weird encounter at the hostess stand, where the hostess proceeded to inform us that each of us had a 7-day specialty dining package (as opposed to the 3-day that comes with the Free at Sea promotion we booked under). Why was this confusing? a) None of us had paid for a 7-meal package, and our two cabins were under separate bookings and we never had NCL link us as a group reservation. b) By that point, each couple had eaten 2 specialty dining meals at 4 separate restaurants, and none of those hostesses had informed us that we actually had a 7-meal package. c) She was telling us this on the last night of the cruise - when even if we did have 4 more specialty dining meals to use, there were no more nights left to book dinners for! We didn't argue with her and proceeded to sit down to our meal, knowing even if we did accidentally get awarded 7 meals it was too late to do anything about it anyway. I have a feeling she was misreading something on our cards. The only other theory I have is that NCL "gifted" us with this as compensation for our aborted St. Thomas excursion (again discussion of this for another post), but it was never mentioned to us when they called us to notify us about our refund and it seems more likely that it was a mistake on the hostess's part. Onda also has Waterfront seating, but I did notice when we walked outside on the first night that there are only tables for 2 set out here, as opposed to the other restaurants that had tables for 4. I am not sure if they are willing to combine tables to accommodate, but take note of this. We ate inside, as the 7 specialty dining meal encounter limited the time I wanted to spend at the hostess stand. Onda has 3 specialty cocktails, but I did not try any of them as two of them were bourbon or scotch-based and the other was a version of a Negroni, which I had earlier in the trip and had absolutely hated. I got a glass of Prosecco instead, which was kind of cool because instead of being given a hard copy wine list, I got to search my selections on an iPad provided to me by the sommelier. The Onda menu has sections for appetizers, pizza, pasta, entrees, and desserts. We were told that as part of our specialty dining package, we could pick up to 2 appetizers (pizza counts as an appetizer), either a pasta or an entree, and a dessert. Now, technically there is nothing in the terms and conditions of the specialty dining package that says that the restaurants are allowed to limit your selections, but this was honestly plenty of food for all of us. I had the yellowtail crudo and a pizza with prosciutto and sausage, we also had a margherita pizza and I can't remember the other appetizers but we did a lot of sharing. I had the mezzelune ravioli for my entree and it was divine. I also tried L's spaghetti and basil, which is Scarpetta's signature dish. It may sound boring, but they knock it out of the park with the simplicity of the dish. I haven't had better spaghetti anywhere. T had some sort of pasta dish involving lobster, and I can't remember what P had (probably because he was sitting across the table from me, with two pizzas in between us). For dessert, I had the butterscotch budino which was good but very rich. I would probably opt for the tiramisu next time. Overall, Onda was my favorite meal onboard and I would venture that it definitely lives up to the hype. Others have reported that they had the best steak on the ship here - it's entirely possible, but my entire party opted for pasta. The service was also excellent, and we loved the design and decor of the space. Note that the hostess stand for Onda is tucked away behind the Cellars towards the aft side of the ship - I remember La Cucina's entrance on the Escape being easier to find. The District Brewhouse: If you're not familiar with District, it is the place to go on the ship for craft beer, with numerous beers available on tap and even more in bottles and cans. We particularly like it because the ship carries one of our hometown brewery's beers on tap, and another in bottle as well as a selection from another favorite of ours. District also offers two Cocktails on Tap - Cool as a Cucumber (one of everyone's favorites in our party) and the Peach Berry Sparkle (which feels very odd to order in this bar's biker motif). There are also additional cocktails available here, as well as snacks available from neighboring Food Republic (these are not complementary and you will be charged if you order them). For whatever reason, in this ship they decorated the District with motorcycle paraphenalia which was a bit much for me. I like the industrial look of District on the Escape and didn't understand why they needed to commit to bikes so thoroughly on the Encore. That's a minor detail though and not really material. There's also a photo booth in the back corner, where for $5 you and your friends can pile in for some shots and post a copy on the "wall of fame". We loved District on the Escape, but we didn't spend as much time here on the Encore. It may have been that there were so many other great venues that we just spread ourselves around a bit more, but I think part of it had to do with Jon Milligan (or some approximation of that name). Jon Milligan is the entertainer most nights, and while he is a good singer we just weren't into him so much. I always felt that the songs he was playing at that time of night were more likely to put me to sleep than to get me singing along. He also talks a lot, which I feel stops the momentum. At one point, he lost a bunch of people because he was changing over from his "freestyle" set to do covers of Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift songs. I am a Millennial, but I thought that was a weird change of pace and not a good fit for most of District's clientele as well as the atmosphere of the bar. You may feel differently than I do, but I think other entertainers do a better job of engaging people in that location. Food Republic: This was our 3rd specialty dining choice, but T and I actually ate here on Night 1. Since we were on the Escape last year and ate here a la carte, Food Republic has been added to the SDP selections, and 1 meal will get you the choice of 4 dishes. Food Republic does international cuisine, with food influences from Japan, China, Korea, Peru, Mexico, and more. We love sharing and small plates, so this was a no brainer for us and some of our favorite dishes on the ship. I particularly recommend the pork belly bao buns, the crispy salmon roll, and the Vietnamese pho. A warning to those of you who are less spice-tolerant - a good number of the dishes in Food Republic are at least a little bit spicy. You may want to chat with a waiter before ordering to see if you will get your meal's worth here. For us, this is a feature, not a bug, so we greatly enjoyed ourselves. I will let you know that 4 dishes each is PLENTY of food! Your 4 dishes includes a dessert, but we didn't order any because the desserts didn't sound as appetizing as getting another savory item. In Food Republic, you order dishes on an iPad-like device at your table and the food comes out as soon as it is prepared, so our waiter recommended ordering 4 dishes, then ordering 4 more. He was very helpful with suggestions and quite attentive even though we didn't order dishes through him. Note that currently the way Food Republic handles the specialty dining credit is that at the end of your meal, the waiter comes over to your iPad and basically keys in a discount code that knocks you down to zero. Also important - if you have a beverage package, you will have to order your drinks through your waiter and not the iPad so as to avoid being charged for them. The waitstaff are around so often that this really isn't a problem. Since FR was added to specialty dining, we noticed a lot more people dining there as opposed to on the Escape where it was basically empty. Another change is that previously, FR did not take reservations - we noticed that they were taking them on the Encore, we made one, and we were asked at the hostess stand whether or not we had a reservation, so keep this in mind if you're basing your Food Republic experience off of another ship. Food Republic does not have Waterfront dining, but does have windows overlooking the ocean on Deck 8 so don't worry if you're looking for views. My final note about Food Republic - aside from possibly American Diner, it is one of the only specialty dining options available for lunch! Check your Freestyle Daily to be sure, but I believe it's open for lunch on sea days only. Thanks for bearing with me through all of Deck 8 - I think I can safely say we spent the most time in this area of the ship so I had a lot I wanted to share. Next up, we will skip all the way up to Deck 15 to discuss the Observation Lounge. We loved this addition and spent a considerable amount of time here. T and I also had a spa balcony right near the aft stairs on Deck 15, so I will share our thoughts about our cabin as well.
  12. Deck 8 Features (continued): Tradewinds Shops: I didn't, and don't ever, do any shopping here but this is pretty much par for the course on any other NCL ships - there's a shop for watches, jewelry, handbags, fashion items, NCL and Encore merchandise, beauty products, liquor, cigarettes, etc. The Sandbar shop also has essentials for a huge markup - over-the-counter medications, shampoo, toothpaste, etc. Personally, everything here is more expensive than I want to pay for, but the opportunity certainly exists if you're seeking it. Photo Gallery: This is where you can view the pictures taken of you throughout the week and decide whether you want to purchase them or not. This includes any pictures taken by a photographer where they then asked for your cabin number. A pretty cool change from the older ships is that you can view the pictures via a number of computer stations that are set up, and you can order prints from the computer. I can't remember if you scan your key card or enter your stateroom number, but that is how you can view the pictures assigned to your cabin. We did not end up purchasing any of the pictures - one of the nice things about traveling with another couple is that you have someone trustworthy to hand your phone in order to take advantage of photo opportunities. None of the ship photographer shots were so much better than the phone pictures to warrant paying for them, but they weren't bad. I do wish we had taken more advantage of the various photographers stationed in 678 Ocean Place throughout the cruise - we only did one on the second-to-last night, and I would've preferred to get multiple days/outfits to choose from. You can also get a number of photo gifts that are pretty cool. This should not be confused with the Perspectives Photo Studio on Deck 6 - at Perspectives, that is where you schedule private photo sessions. This location is only for purchasing photos already taken or purchasing camera equipment. Ocean Blue: We did not eat here but our travel companions did and reported back a pleasant dining experience, though it was short on details! P had the fried Fisherman's Platter and really liked it - I've had the grilled version at Cagney's and will advise you to pick a different selection, as it's rather bland. I can't remember for the life of me what L said she had. I will note that Ocean Blue and Cagney's actually have a fairly similar menu, at least did as of our sailing - you can get steaks and certain cuts of fish at both restaurants, so if you wanted to hit up both you may want to choose one and free yourself up for another dining selection. Also note that Ocean Blue is one of two restaurants that require men to wear long pants - usually they will leave you a message the night before your reservation at your stateroom to remind you of this dress code. This is another restaurant with Waterfront seating available. Sugarcane Mojito Bar: This is hands-down one of the best bars on the ship, and one of our favorite places to spend time. Sugarcane is home to T's favorite drink on the ship, the Coco Mojito (not to be confused with the Pineapple-Coconut, though this is also very good), and one of my favorites, the Raspberry-Guava Mojito complete with a piece of candied sugarcane. The bartenders here are among the best, including NCL royalty Bong and Clarence (aka the Chocolate Cowboy), as well as a few other entertaining characters. One of my favorite parts of the Encore is how much better this area is used than it was on the Escape. On the Escape, Sugarcane shares space with both Bayamo (analogue to Ocean Blue) as well as the Pincho Tapas Bar, and the resulting bar is little more than a small square with limited seating. On the Encore, Sugarcane is a vibrant space with an expansive bar, lots of table-and-chairs seating, and a small dance floor space with a stage for performers. One of our favorite entertainment acts on this ship, Phil and Keysha, would play Latin hits here and some couples would break out their salsa moves. Temperature Band also played here a couple times and really got everyone dancing. Just note that these acts really get people moving, and the space can fill up quickly so if you see them in your Freestyle Daily and want to check them out, make sure to get there early. Sugarcane also has real estate on the Waterfront and is probably great, but we didn't spend much time there. L and P went the first sea day, only to be told that they could not make any specialty mojitos out there, just the regular one. We didn't go back to see if that held for the entire week, but if that's the case simply walk inside to get your drink and take it back out to the Waterfront to enjoy it. The Floridita is also a great drink, if not an authentic mojito. Overall, make sure you do not miss out on Sugarcane because it's one of the best spaces onboard. Maltings Whiskey Bar: Sugarcane was definitely T's favorite bar onboard, and surprisingly Malting's ended up being mine. I say "surprisingly" because I don't like whiskey, scotch, or bourbon - but don't let that stop you from trying some drinks here, because some of my favorite drinks here contained just those spirits. Also, I say "some of my favorite drinks" because I had about 4. Maltings is right down the hall from Sugarcane, so I'd often split from T to go down here and get my drink before rejoining T at Sugarcane to check out whatever music was playing over there. I haven't mentioned this until now, but Encore has several bars serving "Cocktails on Tap", which is exactly what it sounds like. I love this concept, because they're great cocktails and the bartenders can put them together quickly and efficiently. Both of them at Maltings - the Blackberry Bourbon Smash and the Rum and Rye Sour - were among my favorite drinks on the ship. I also enjoyed the Honey Lemonade (Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey and lemonade) and the Grass Clippings (a fun drink with I believe a tequila base, that features cilantro leaves on top as the "clippings"). It is probably no surprise that we enjoyed this bar, as Tobacco Road on the Escape was our favorite hang on that ship. The decor at Maltings is very much evocative of a whiskey bar, with dark wood and masculine-looking chairs. Humidor Cigar Lounge: Maltings also shares space with the entrance to the Humidor cigar lounge, which is a smoking room where only cigar-smoking is permitted. This does mean that there is a bit of a smokey odor to Maltings, so keep that in mind if you're sensitive. We didn't use this area at all even though T does enjoy a cigar on occasion. We covered a lot of ground on Deck 8, but there's still a lot more to talk about so I will continue with the rest of Deck 8 a bit later.
  13. Thanks for your detailed explanation! Finance was by far my most difficult class, so I'm not surprised I failed to grasp that. 😂 That does make sense when broken down that way. I won't get anywhere near the CruiseNext desk unless I know I want to book something because I hate a hard sales pitch and have a hard time with the word "no", but having a neutral third party explain it was helpful. That said, we're booked on the Getaway for next January but unsure of whether or not I'll buy certificates. I'd really like to get back to Europe for a land vacation, and this last time around I also looked at Royal Caribbean and MSC before booking the Getaway, so I'm not sure I want to lock into NCL for sure. EDIT: Actually a far better plan is to send T to the CruiseNext desk. His mind is much more adept at calculating the best deal, he asks harder questions, and isn't afraid to say no. He tutored me through the aforementioned Finance class, though my analytical skills or lack thereof are more reflective of my number confusion than his teaching.
  14. Good news is that we had spa passes so a fairly thorough report about the spa on this ship is coming soon! With regards to the lounge shows, there were some pretty incredible performers on this ship that I haven't really gotten into yet (but will some more once we get to other areas of the ship). I'd say the live music available rated similar to what we experienced on the Escape, except for the fact that I didn't like the guy playing in District on this ship much (he reminded me too much of Ed Sheeran and I felt he did too much talking and not enough singing).
  15. Guys, I forgot to mention that on Deck 7 there is a Lifeboat Deck that runs up and down both sides of Deck 7 and is open to the public as long as they're not doing drills or cleaning. I didn't get to check this out until our last night, but it's pretty cool. If you've sailed a ship like the Escape, you know that her lifeboats hang over the edge of the ship - and this actually makes her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Kind of a shame, because that limits her itineraries and probably means that the Pacific is unlikely to see the Escape any time soon. Since then, all of the Breakaway Plus class ships have been designed so that the lifeboats now hang inboard - in other words, the lifeboats hang so that their outer edge is flush with the rest of the ship, adding no additional width clearance. I found it really incredible to walk next to the 30 or so lifeboats and admire just how HUGE they are. Each holds a little over 300 people, and it's kind of awe-inspiring to think of how much has changed since the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic over a century ago. There's also instructions for the crew on how to deploy the lifeboats, a small red crew boat which I'm not sure what it's used for, and also these very powerful lights over the side of Deck 7 that I suppose could be used for searching for anyone who may have gone overboard. I guess for some, dwelling on those situations may put a damper on their vacation but for me personally, it illustrates how much training and preparation the crew receives for emergency situations and makes me appreciate how seamlessly everything manages to go in order to make cruise vacations possible. Deck 8 Features: Cagney's: So I am going to start with two of the places on Deck 8 that I didn't visit, Cagney's and Los Lobos. If you've sailed literally any other NCL ship, you're familiar with Cagney's and if not, Cagney's is a specialty restaurant that serves as the classic steakhouse option onboard. If you've been on another Breakaway/Breakaway Plus class ship, Cagney's is in its familiar location at Deck 8 aft, port side, with the Waterfront along one side and windows looking down into the Manhattan Room. It also has windows that look back at the stern of the ship. It shares a lobby area with Los Lobos that includes the A-List Bar (more on those in a minute). If you're going to eat at Cagney's, try to take advantage and get a table on the Waterfront. This is an outdoor section that opens up to a walkway that runs almost around the entirety of Deck 8, and is like other restaurant outdoor seating you may have experienced but at sea! I keep forgetting to try to take advantage of this (the only time I've eaten on the Waterfront was at Pinchos on the Escape), so I am reminding you to ask the hostess to see if you can be seated on the Waterfront. You won't be disappointed! As far as good goes, Cagney's is good but it's not my favorite. I'm not big on steak, and the beef served in the main dining rooms while I sailed was excellent. My parents on the other hand love Cagney's so it's all about how much you like steakhouses on land. I chose to use my specialty dining credits on other restaurants that interested me more, but Cagney's is a mainstay of the NCL brand so if you choose to peruse one of the Encore's other dining options, it's sure to be waiting for you on the next ship. Los Lobos: Regrettably, I did not eat at Los Lobos either so cannot comment on it other than it is essentially a mirror image of Cagney's (windows to Manhattan Room and Waterfront included), but with lively Mexican decor. I have heard several comment about how good the tableside guacamole is, so I'd have to recommend getting it! This is another specialty restaurant, as you may have guessed, with a Mexican theme. I would've loved to try Los Lobos, but again we used our remaining specialty dining credits on two other restaurants on Deck 8 that I'll talk about shortly. The fortunate thing about the Encore is that it has so many dining options, there's something here for literally every taste! The unfortunate thing is that because there are so many dining options, it's really not practical to try them all - for our cruise, there are more specialty restaurants than nights in our sailing. A-List Bar: On previous iterations of this class of ship, the bar between Cagney's and Los Lobos/Moderno was known as Prime Meridian. For the Encore, and the Bliss as well I believe, this is now known as the A-List Bar, in honor of departing NCL CEO Andy Stuart. We only had one drink at this bar, but the bartenders here were really fun and I wish I could remember their names. As one group at the bar left, the bartender (who had clearly been having a good time with them) sang "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, GOODBYE!" at the top of his lungs. If I recall correctly, this bar actually has some of its own specialty drinks on its menu as opposed to the Observation Lounge, Skyline Bar, or Atrium Bar that have a more generic menu. Do keep in mind though - this bar closes rather early, so if you're looking for a drink around 10 PM, you'll probably have to head to another venue. I think that's because this bar mainly serves Cagney's and Los Lobos, and that's about the time those restaurants close their dinner service. That said, there's plenty of other bar options available on Deck 8 so you will have no problem finding some other choices. The Bake Shop/Dolce Gelato: I didn't take advantage of this amenity on this sailing, but the Bake Shop sells cupcakes and macarons and Dolce Gelato has - you guessed it, hand-scooped gelato. Both of these treats come at an additional cost. I did have gelato on the Escape and it was good - but honestly, with hand-scooped ice cream available at the Garden Cafe and gelato being served with some of the main dining room desserts, I just didn't feel like spending the extra money this time around. I also think that having these two shops, in addition to Coco's on Deck 6, is a bit overkill but if you've got a sweet tooth, don't let me stop you. The Waterfront: I talked about the Waterfront briefly when talking about Cagney's and Los Lobos, but I want to make sure I don't gloss over how great this area of the ship is. I think there was more lounge-area type seating out here on the Encore than I remember previously on the Escape, which I think may be a response to the decreased space on the pool deck. That said, this area was never crowded while I was there, and it's a great place to read a book and take in the sea, or chat with friends over a drink. In addition, several of the restaurants have outdoor seating here and you should definitely try to take advantage if it's available while you dine. Finally, I can't recommend enough going back to the aft of the ship and looking out over the ship's wake. It is so incredibly soothing and awesome to do, and you should make it part of your Encore bucket list to do so.
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