Some First-Timers Go Cruising:
In preparation for going on my very first cruise, I did a lot of online research. And one of the things I found was that there didn’t seem to be many people answering the little oddball questions that I had. I was lucky enough to have friends who are pretty serious cruisers who were going to be on the same cruise as my husband and I, and so I picked their brains with my numerous questions. (If you would also like to benefit from Jake’s extensive knowledge, check him out on Cruise Critic at ev98, where he has posted several reviews on the cruises he has taken in the past!)
But we don’t all have serious cruiser friends that we can bother for five months straight before stepping foot on the ship, and so this review is written (hopefully) with the intent that first-time cruisers might have some of their concerns assuaged and their questions answered.
We decided to take a bit of a shorter cruise for our first time out, partially to manage our costs, and partially because my husband, Jon, wasn’t entirely certain he was going to enjoy the experience. We ended up booking a 5-day cruise on the Norwegian Sky, from February 13-18, 2019. This particular cruise makes port in Key West (Florida), Freeport (Bahamas), Great Stirrup Cay (Bahamas), and Nassau (Bahamas).
The cruise route - Florida and the Bahamas.
This was, entirely by chance, the second cruise for this ship after it’s early February drydock. I, obviously, have not been on this ship before, and am therefore unqualified to make statements on what exactly was improved, but there’ll be some pictures here you can check out. I will note that the deck plans on the NCL app had not been updated at the time of departure, and still listed restaurants like ‘Il Adalgio’ instead of the new ‘La Cucina,’ which was a bit confusing at times.
We booked an inside room (paid for an IF guaranteed room, which means we were promised a room at least at that tier but did not get to choose a specific room, and ended up with ID level room 0331), with the $50 per port shore excursion through the ‘Free at Sea’ promotion. The Norwegian Sky has the drink package already included for all passengers, at least for that particular sailing.
The Norwegian Sky, docked at Key West on Feb 14, 2019.
Getting Ready to Leave, or, How Much Longer Until I Get a Margarita in My Hand?:
We made the decision to fly out of our local airport a day early, which was absolutely necessary in our situation. Living in Canada sometimes means very poor weather in the winter, and air traffic does suffer as a result. We luckily got out of Toronto on time with only a bit of turbulence, but the flights a couple of hours after ours started seeing big delays with the snow and freezing rain that started coming in. If you live in a place that sees bad weather in the winter, I highly recommend that you give yourself a buffer day to get to the cruise terminal, because you can’t predict the weather if you book a cruise three or ten months in advance. Leaving early gives you a day to play with; if our flight had been cancelled, we would still have had the chance to get to Miami without missing our ship’s departure time.
Took this photo while sitting in the airport and praying that our flight wasn't cancelled, too.
There are arrangements you can make with the cruise line to pick you up from the airport and bring you to the ship, but I believe that only works if you are coming directly from the airport and not a hotel. Since we stayed in a hotel overnight, the four of us split an Uber. We managed to fit four people, each with one carry-on suitcase and a backpack, into a sedan, which was a bit of a tight fit, but about $10USD cheaper than springing for the SUV.
The Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) terminal in Miami is certainly nothing fancy, but it’s pretty incredible to drive up and spot your ship looming over the nearby buildings. The Sky is one of the smaller ships in NCL’s fleet, holding about 2200 people on our particular cruise, but it’s still a big vessel. Don’t worry, you won’t run out of places to hang out on a 5-day trip.
Checking in is simple enough. Make sure you have your passport easily accessible when you approach the building, as they asked to see you actually had it in hand as you came in through the front doors. Put your carry-on luggage through the x-ray machine, sign a document that declares you are not currently harbouring any contagions (they are very serious about colds and the flu), and get in line to check in. Here, they’ll scan your passport and take your photo, which gets attached to your swipe card, so that when you disembark and reboard the ship, they can confirm it’s you at a glance. Make sure you can physically handle all your luggage at this point - you will be wrangling it up some escalators, but you can absolutely check your bags and have staff bring them onto the ship to be left at your stateroom later, if you don’t want the hassle or you don’t have the mobility to do so.
You might think you’re ready to board the ship now (I definitely was ready), but you’ll head up an escalator and find yourself in a big waiting room with loads of other people. We arrived at the terminal around 11am and joined the waiting room at 11:25, but they didn’t start calling the first people to board the ship until 11:45. Be prepared to wait awhile here - there are a couple vending machines with snacks and drinks, and some ship photographers taking pictures in front of a backdrop of the Sky, but it feels a bit like waiting in a bus terminal. Use that time to snag those last few minutes of free wifi while you can.
Not really the most thrilling place to hang out, but thankfully we weren't here for very long.
Jon and I ended up in boarding group 3, which was called at noon. Ride another escalator and walk down a long hall to get to the boarding point, where the ship’s DJ is playing upbeat tunes and staff members welcome you onto the ship!
(Our friends found themselves unexpectedly redirected into a VIP experience at check-in, and were escorted into a totally separate room with complimentary snacks and drinks. Again, check out ev98 for his review on the awesome perks they got with the VIP experience!)
So You're on a Ship... Now What?:
We found ourselves at a bit of a loss, once on the ship and past the pounding dance music. The Sky is designed in such a way that you often have to pass through a restaurant or an event space to travel the length of the ship, as there aren’t necessarily hallways that bypass those areas. After having been pointed through the whole cruise terminal by staff members, it seemed strange not to have someone directing us once on the ship, at least to inform us of where we could go next. We wandered through the Photo Shop, past the Sugarcane Mojito Bar, where they were collecting carry-on baggage that passengers didn’t want to lug around with them for the afternoon before staterooms were available, and then through the Bliss Ultra Lounge to get to the Atrium.
Surprisingly, the Atrium was nearly empty, and I was able to walk right up to a staff member at the Shore Excursions desk to confirm that the two excursions I had booked online in advance were on my account, and to book a clamshell for Great Stirrup Cay. They have forms to fill out at the desk, but also leave one in your stateroom on the first day, so you can peruse it and hand it in at your leisure. We also booked a reservation for two at La Cucina for the following evening, for a Valentine’s dinner. Since we made this our first priority, we were able to snag a 6pm timeslot with no issues. Excursions and meal reservations do fill up, so it’s a good idea to handle this early on during your cruise, especially if you’re cruising over a holiday (Valentine’s, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc).
The staircase in the Atrium, newly refurbished after the Sky's February drydock. This was taken around noon on boarding day; hardly anyone was around.
We snagged a paper map from next to the Guest Services desk to help us navigate the ship, which was extraordinarily helpful (especially because I hadn’t yet figured out how to work the NCL app). They didn’t have many maps available, and I didn’t see them get replenished throughout the cruise once they were gone, but I imagine you’d be able to ask at Guest Services and they’d be able to provide you with one.
At this point, there are staff members positioned at the ends of hallways that lead to the staterooms. The rooms aren’t ready yet, and won’t be until 1:30 or 2pm, and they don’t want you wandering in those areas until everything is prepared. Keep in mind that the ship has only pulled into port that morning, and they work full-tilt in the space between 9am (when the previous passengers are meant to be out of their rooms), to 2pm, when you will enter a stateroom that has been cleaned and stocked with fresh beddings and towels.
But it’s lunchtime, so where can you eat? The Sky hosts two main dining rooms (you might see them referred to as MDRs online), three premium restaurants, and two buffet areas. The premium restaurants (on this ship, they are La Cucina, Le Bistro, and Cagney’s Steakhouse) do cost extra - you pay a la carte off the menu, and there is a 20% built-in gratuity. Not everything is open when you first arrive on the ship, but the NCL app does provide a list of which restaurants are open and when, for your first lunch on the ship.
The main dining rooms (Crossings and The Palace, both on deck 5) are beautifully decorated spaces and have a level of service equal to that in the premium restaurants. We tried The Palace for our first meal on the ship, and were taken immediately to a table by the window. The view at the Miami cruise terminal is certainly a bit industrial, but the room itself feels like an upscale restaurant, complete with white piano by the door, and massive chandelier in the middle of the room. In my jean shorts and t-shirt, trailing my carry-on along with me, I definitely didn’t feel like I belonged in the space. But kudos to the staff, they still treat you like you’re dressed to the nines; they will place your napkin across your lap and hand you your menu directly in the main dining rooms, every time.
The lunch menu at The Palace on boarding day. The fried chicken was fine, but certainly nowhere near the best meal I had on the ship.
By the time we finished lunch and met up again with our friends, the announcement was made that the staterooms were ready. The first time we opened our stateroom door, it felt like a bit of a shock. We knew we were getting an inside room (the cheapest level of room, definitely a good option if you’re trying to keep your expenses down), but it seemed so small at first glance! I encourage you to not get hung up on this feeling. Honestly, by the time I had unpacked my clothing into the little drawers in the closet, and put our toiletries into the bathroom, and stored our luggage under the bed, it didn’t seem that small at all. It certainly had its tight areas (I banged my shin getting around the end corner of the bed at least twice), but everything has been thought out and every inch of space has been put to its best use.
Definitely a bit tight, but we adjusted quickly. This is inside room 0331.
With our luggage stowed, we roamed the ship to learn the lay of the land. Our first day was unfortunately a bit rainy, and so while people gathered on the pool deck and got their first drinks, everyone stayed mostly under the protection of the promenade. The Sky pushed off from port around 5pm, and we stood at the front of deck 12 and watched as we left Miami behind us, speculating on how much the homes and condos that line the waterfront near South Beach might actually cost.
Leaving Miami on a rainy day. The ship ahead of us is a Disney cruise; they were having quite the party on deck when they passed by us in the harbour.
The Food. The Drink. I Wish My Stomach Could Handle Eight Meals a Day:
Friends, I hope you came hungry. There is so much to eat on this ship, at every hour of the day. I had to actively think about things I wanted to try, and make a point to scope them out. Even though I knew there was a place to get ice cream on the ship, it took me until day 4 to finally go and get some ice cream (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry all available). My advice: check the daily sheet you get in your stateroom to see what’s open and when, and swing past the buffet and the main dining rooms to check what they have that day. The daily sometimes also lists special events, like Mexican Night at the Garden Cafe. And then prioritize. Despite whatever you might wish, your stomach is not as big as you think it is.
We generally ate our breakfasts on deck 11, at the Great Outdoor Cafe buffet. There’s a good range of food available every day, including bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, biscuits and sausage gravy, pancakes/waffles/French toast (on a rotating basis, it seems like), bread and bagels, granola and all the toppings, pastries, and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, oranges, pears, melon). There is a fresh egg station where you can order eggs made as you please, although it often has a bit of a line-up. The eggs come pre-portioned in threes, so it’s a really generous serving.
Lunches at the buffets are constantly changing from day to day. Some days seem themed; one day had a few Indian-style dishes available, in addition to things like roast beef. Dessert and fruit is available as well (I ate something called ‘Chocolate Decadence,’ an amazing brownie with a marshmallow topping, with a pretty piece of white chocolate stuck on top of it all). There are soups and sandwiches by the door nearest the pool; Jon tried the chicken salad sandwich, and deemed it quite good. It’s worth swinging past the buffet on a regular basis (when you’re going to the pool or the elevators) to see what’s out and what looks tasty.
There was a huge cake in the Garden Cafe buffet for Valentine's Day.
The buffets have drink stations that cover nearly everything you could want. There’s coffee, decaf, hot water for tea and hot chocolate (in pouches by the tea), several kinds of juice, and water. Ask at one of the bars if you want soda. I made a hot chocolate one night, and swung past the bar for a shot of Baileys to put in it. The bartender just held out the bottle and poured directly into my mug until I said stop.
La Cucina is open throughout the afternoon to serve complimentary pizza from noon until 5pm or so, when they shut down to get ready for the evening dinner service. The pepperoni pizza was really delicious, and was the perfect thing when sitting next to the pool all day. They do put up signs to let you know that it’s available, but I still had someone ask me where on earth I’d found the pizza. (Definitely ask people where they’ve found food or drink if it looks delicious. Pretty much everyone will be glad to tell you where it’s from and if they like it).
My husband rudely stole a slice of my pizza before I could document it for posterity.
The two main dining rooms, The Palace and Crossings, serve the same menu. However, that menu does change on a daily basis. There are a few mains that they serve every day, and a rotating list of entrees that will only come up once during your cruise. If you spot something in the daily featured entrees that you really like the sound of, get it. You won’t see it again. The soups, salads and appetizers often change as well; although you’ll likely always be able to get the Caesar salad, the Waldorf salad or asian spareribs will only be around for one day. (Get the spareribs. Get three orders of them. You won’t regret it). You are also free to order as much as you want. If you can’t choose between the soup and the salad, get both!
There is a wine list that I think costs extra, at least for the bottles, particularly because there are some really nice ones on this list that range in price from about $30-$100USD, but I can’t say that I tried them. They do have a number of ‘house’ wines, including several whites and reds, that are available at no extra charge. I personally like moscatos, and their house moscato (Crane Lake) was quite nice.
I found that the portions were well-sized, and the entrees are sized to assume you are also having an appetizer or dessert. They are heavy on the meat, and much lighter on the vegetables than I would prefer to eat, so someone keeping an eye on their diet might want to take this into account. You can certainly ask for substitutions on some things; I asked for asparagus with my steak instead of french fries one evening, and it was absolutely not a problem. You might even be able to ask for a double portion of veggies, if that makes you feel better for all the alcohol you’ve been drinking.
Lots of meat, not much starch or veggies.
When you’re done your meal, just get up and go! The hostess takes your room number when you arrive, and that’s really all you need to do. It feels a bit weird the first couple times you do it, but you’ll get used to dining and dashing in no time. At the premium restaurants, you will be brought a check to sign before you go. There will be a 20% gratuity already added to your bill.
We did a couple of late nights at The Local, a ‘sports bar’ on deck 11. It’s the only place on the ship that is showing sports games on television, if you’re into that sort of thing. But they do have a really nice smoked barbecue sauce chicken wing that’s worth having if you’re craving something bad for you at 11pm, and some drinks that aren’t available elsewhere on the ship, like a variety of beers and ciders.
The Great Outdoor Cafe has a late night snack buffet, if you’re looking for fries, nachos, or something else in case you somehow didn’t eat enough earlier in the day. It runs a little later than the main buffet (the Garden Cafe), so don’t fret if everything is closed up there! They usually put up a little sign to direct you back towards the GOC.
There’s also room service, but you do have to pay a charge for the delivery (not the food, if it comes from the main dining room). But considering we were in an inside room and there would have been nowhere to really sit and eat, it was always worth it to scope out the restaurants instead.
I ate. So. Much. We started actively planning to eat early dinners at 5:30pm so we could have second dinner at 8, and then a snack again at 11. I didn’t even try everything I wanted to try, which just means I have to book another cruise, right?
The Excursions, or, Getting Off the Ship and Escaping My Seasickness:
The ship stopped in four ports, and we made the decision before even starting the cruise that we would only get off in three of them. You can book excursions well in advance of your cruise on the NCL website, to ensure you get what you want, but you can also book at the shore excursions desk in the Atrium during the cruise if you’ve had a change of heart along the way. An important thing to remember: NCL books these excursions with third parties in each port, and do not directly run them.
Key West, Florida: A Slice of Key West Walking Tour
This was advertised as: Walk through the oldest district in Key West, admiring the many historical landmarks and hearing stories about the town’s sometimes notorious past. As you stroll the leafy streets of Old Town, the guide will point out highlights and regale you with stories about Key West’s intriguing past. You might see Fort Zachary Taylor, a National Historic Landmark that played an important role in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and the Harry Truman Little White House, where the president wintered. [abbreviated for length]
Our tour started promptly, just off the ship, with our tour guide Rebecca (you can find her on Facebook as “Key West Rebecca’). She gave us a brief history of Key West, and walked us through the nearby neighbourhoods, including a stop at Truman’s Little White House, and along the Historic Seaport Harbor Walk, where we saw lots of pelicans. She gave us some interesting information about individual buildings along the way, such as Curry’s Mansion.
Plenty of pelicans along the Harbor Walk in Key West. Keep an eye out in the water; you might spot a manatee or some fish!
The one thing that was not advertised and that I was not super keen on was that we stopped for an extended period of time at Pepper’s of Key West, a hot sauce store. Everyone sat on stools around a counter, and tasted about 10-12 different sauces. As someone who doesn’t mind spicy food but isn’t a fan of hot sauce, this was not the experience I was looking for. We probably spent 30-45 minutes at Pepper’s, which I feel could have been better spent walking further through Key West, perhaps to the southernmost point of the continental USA. Besides that, water was not provided during the experience, but could be purchased from a vending machine in the corner of the store for $2. I, unfortunately, had forgotten my cash on the ship and was ill-prepared for eating spicy food. Obviously, this is an arrangement that the tour guide has made with the store in order to bring people in with the hopes that they will buy their product. I don’t mind it, but I wish it had been made apparent that this would make up a large portion of the tour.
We also stopped at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, where there were lots of samples to taste, but we also could get a free slice of key lime pie, or chocolate-dipped key lime pie on a stick (both valued at $4.50) when we mentioned we were with Rebecca’s tour group. This stop only lasted for about 15 minutes, which was the perfect amount of time, and was something I had wanted to check out anyway.
Kermit himself stood out front to welcome people, accompanied by his very well-behaved dog.
The tour ended at the corner of Front and Duval Streets, which is close to the ship (Rebecca would walk back anyone who wanted an escort), but also leaves you in a prime spot to do some exploring of your own. We wandered the area for a while, checking out Mallory Square and peering into the gardens at the Audubon House before heading back to the ship for a late lunch. In all, the tour lasted for about 3 hours.
I would say that we went to maybe half the places that the excursion summary suggests we might have seen. We certainly could have walked further than we did (I would have loved to get to the Southernmost Point in the Continental US), if not for spending so much time in the two stores.
Fun Fact! When cockfighting became illegal in Key West in the 1970s, everyone just let their chickens out into the streets. Paired with the fact that Key West is a bird sanctuary, thousands of chickens roam free and wild everywhere you look. My friend keenly spotted some chicks in the bushes during our tour, so keep on the lookout! They’re kind of like pigeons, in the sense that they hang out everywhere and are generally unafraid of people.
They're so fluffy, I'm gonna die!!
Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas: Luxury Day Sail
This was advertised as: Sail along the southern coast of Grand Bahama, enjoying spectacular tropical views and perhaps stopping along a coral reef to swim and snorkel. Before long, you will be skirting past Taino Beach, a palm-dotted stretch of sand lined with exclusive resorts. If the weather and conditions are agreeable, the captain will anchor at one of the many ideal spots for swimming and snorkeling. Marine life thrives in the Bahamas’ crystal-clear waters. You might spot four-eyed butterfly fish, blue parrotfish and yellowtail snapper. Sea turtles are also abundant and the sight of a loggerhead gracefully swimming by is unforgettable. Later you will enjoy a sumptuous buffet. Although the menu varies, it usually includes traditional Bahamian dishes, garden-fresh salads and seasonal fruits. Seafood is always a favorite so you should expect to find a local grilled fish such as snapper on the menu. After dining, feel free to relax on the deck and watch the world go by as you return to the pier. [abbreviated for length]
The excursion starts with a 25 minute bus ride to the Flamingo Bay Hotel, where we met our captain Kandel (Kendall? They told us it sounded like Candle), and his deck hand, Neil. We had about 20 people on our tour, and everyone fit comfortably on the sailboat, with 8 in the seats in the back, and everyone else seated under the sail at the front. We took our shoes off on the dock, and stowed them in a plastic bin that Neil stashed in the boat, and climbed aboard. You’ll definitely want to be comfortable near water, and be okay with some climbing about to navigate the boat. One of the women on the tour did slip and fall when heading downstairs into the below-deck cabin, since the stairs are so steep, but Kandel immediately rushed over to check on her, and she was a bit sore but okay.
We sailed out of the little harbour space, out into the ocean, which was quite calm and lent itself to a smooth ride. Neil handed out mimosas to start, and had a variety of mixed drinks and some Bahamian beer available to those who wanted it, and bottles of water. They played Bahamian music over the speakers, which kept things feeling upbeat and a little silly. Neil was a whole experience to himself; he showed us little dances to some of his favourite songs, and is quick with a light-hearted joke.
These sailboats hold about 20 people per tour.
Kandel was glad to answer any questions we had about the boat and about the Bahamas, and got us safely to a place where he dropped anchor and provided us with gear to go snorkeling and paddleboarding. Everyone was equipped with a life jacket before heading overboard, which was definitely a good thing. I’m a halfway decent swimmer, and I found the current to be quite strong. I was swept further away from the boat much faster than I had expected to be. They do toss out a life ring behind the boat, so you can grab on and relax for a minute without floating away.
I’ve never snorkeled before, and Kandel strapped me into the headgear and told me what to do, but I’m not sure that was the best ‘first time’ experience I could have had. I struggled with breathing through my mouth and not my nose (no one told me that reflexively trying to breathe through my nose with the goggles on would feel like suffocating), and once I got a little saltwater in my eyes (and my contacts), I was toast. I swapped out the snorkeling gear for a stand-up paddleboard, which was a much better experience. I definitely can’t stand up on the thing, but I cruised around while kneeling quite comfortably. Jon stuck with the snorkeling, having some experience from when he was a kid, and spotted plenty of neat fish in the clear water. Kandel tossed some bits of food overboard to draw the fish closer to the boat, and it meant that they came close enough to the surface that I could see them even without the goggles. Neil, of course, showed off by getting onto a paddleboard while fully dressed in a polo shirt and khaki shorts, did a headstand on the board, and then took a phone call while standing at least 30 feet away from the boat. And he barely got a drop of water on him.
Neil, taking a phone call on a paddleboard. We stopped in an area with two other boats, well within sight of land.
When we all climbed back on board, Neil handed out bento boxes for lunch, one box for each pair of people, with sandwiches, rolls, salad, and chips. Unluckily for me, I have a history of getting queasy on boats, and my stomach had finally decided to be angry, which meant I had no appetite for eating at all. I had half a roll (quite dense, but tasty) and some plain tortilla chips, although Jon downed a sandwich and some salad happily.
Plenty of food for lunch! The bento box and the bread basket were a portion for 2 people to share.
The excursion wrapped up with Neil walking us over to the Bahamas Adventures Freeport beach, which is just across the road. The luxury day sail is a Bahamas Adventures experience, and so they take this opportunity to give you 20 minutes to check out their beach and maybe also buy a souvenir from one of the many stalls. The women running these stalls will call out to you as you pass by to reach the washrooms, and it felt like some of them were definitely ‘negging’ me into checking out their wares (“The bus isn’t even here yet, honey”). However, there was a spot in the shade to wait for the bus to arrive and take us back to the ship.
Jetskis/waverunners at the Bahamas Adventure beach area on Taino Beach.
This was a really fun excursion, where they had obviously put a lot of thought and effort into all the different pieces. I would absolutely recommend trying it at least once, although I’m not sure I would personally do this excursion for a second time.
Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas - Clamshell
This one is a bit weird, because a clamshell isn’t really an excursion. Great Stirrup Cay is NCL’s private island, that can only be reached by tender (a.k.a.: a little ferry to take you from the ship to the island, when the ship doesn’t have a place to dock directly). Excursions (and clamshells and umbrellas) can be booked in advance on the ship, or while already on the island. There are lots of options: snorkeling, jet skis, standup paddleboarding, parasailing, and even swimming with the pigs. We chose the laziest option of them all: the clamshell.
A staff member will ask if you want your photo taken next to this rock when you first get on the island. Pro tip: wait until you're leaving for the day, and take your own pictures when no one is hovering nearby.
It’s basically a sunshade so that you don’t get sunburn and heatstroke in under an hour. The clamshells are collapsed around two lounge chairs, and when you provide proof of rental to a lifeguard or an NCL staff member, they will assemble your chosen sunshade. They cost $30 to rent for the day, and they are worth it. Jon and I walked around the island for about half an hour, and I returned to the beach noticeably pinker than when I had left, despite my liberal application of sunscreen.
Clamshells on Great Stirrup Cay.
We parked ourselves at one of the further areas on the island, which kept us away from the worst of the noise and bustle, but did mean we had to walk a little further for food. We noticed that, even in the busier areas, there were still plenty of loungers available. The Sky is half the size of some of NCL’s largest ships, and we were the only ship in port that day, so I imagine that some days are significantly busier.
There was a bar and a bathroom right along the path near our chosen lagoon area, and for a few hours, there was even a server circulating our area taking orders. I hadn’t given much thought about how the island is run, but we recognized the server as someone who we’d met a couple nights earlier in the Spinnaker Lounge. Many staff members come off the ship to run the bars and buffet service, as well as some salon services; you can pay for a massage outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air.
The bars on the island are only open from about 10am to 3pm, so you may get on the island before drinks are ready to be served. One girl in our area was very vocally put out that she couldn’t get a drink at 9:30 in the morning, but remember, staff from the ship are hustling over on the same tenders that you are, and getting everything prepped to start at 10. The half hour wait for a mojito probably won’t kill you.
Things get pretty quiet after 3pm, once the bars close down and people start heading back to the ship (the Norwegian Sky in the distance, here).
Unless you really love baking yourself under the hot sun, the clamshell was a great idea. You can also rent an umbrella (also $30), or there were also a few loungers tucked amongst the trees, where you can take advantage of natural shade for free. Since we had the $50 per port for excursions, it was an obvious choice to rent some shade. (Note: since we only spent $30 in this port, we were only ‘refunded’ $30, and did not get a full $50 for this port). Our view was great; we spent the day looking out over the water, could see the Sky in the distance, and watched as parasailers went flying around under colourful parachutes by the ship. The sand was soft and strangely not hot (the sand in Ontario always scorches your feet for some reason, and this was a nice change), and if you watch carefully, you might even spot a hermit crab.
The cabanas were listed online at about $570 for a small cabana (6 people), but we noticed that they were renting for only $315 when already on the island. It’s worth it to see if there are any cabanas free when you get to GSC, to save yourself a couple hundred dollars. They come with complimentary snacks straight to your cabana, as well as four yellow floating mats, and an overhead fan to keep that breeze moving. Plus, they’re raised up over the beach so that you would get an unobstructed view out to the water, which seems like it’d be pretty amazing. They do have a pretty serious slope down to the pathway, so they may not be very accessible for someone with mobility issues.
Don't worry, you'll find a place to sit.
We packed up our things around 3:30, and took a leisurely walk back to the tenders. It only takes about five minutes for the tender to go from land to ship, but it does take a while for everyone to get onboard and then off again. If you can, snag a seat on the bottom level, where you can at least sit in the shade while waiting for everyone to board. They also run streams of water down the ramp as you board the tender, so you can either rinse your feet as you walk on, flip-flops and all, or take a second to shuck your shoes and rinse all the sand out from between your toesies before tracking it all back onto the ship. (There was staff vacuuming the hallways where we entered the Sky again, likely to prevent sand from getting tracked all throughout the ship).
This might’ve been my favourite day. It’s so chill, and all the drinks and food are just an extension of the ship, so you can hit up Abaco Taco for free (beef, chicken and fish tacos all available, apply toppings as you desire. The beef were my favourite, but I was puzzled by the lack of shredded cheese. Be prepared to wait for 10-15 minutes here to get your food), or meander through the buffet for something good to eat.
The Onboard Experience, or, Keeping 2200 People Happy in an Enclosed Area:
No matter where you go on the Sky, there is someone waiting to help with whatever you might need.
Every room steward we passed in the hallway always stepped aside to make room, smiled, and said hello. The steward assigned to our room quickly approached us when he realized that we belonged to him, and asked for our names (Santillan kept our room in excellent shape). The bar staff was quick, generous with their pours, and glad to make non-alcoholic drinks for my pregnant friend. Antonio in the Spinnaker Lounge swung past with some bar mix (peanuts, crackers, etc) in a little glass pourer even before he took our drink orders, and remembered us when we encountered him again a couple days later on the beach on GSC. The woman who stood at the entrance of the Garden Cafe with a spray bottle of hand sanitizer, greeting everyone with, “Good morning! Washy washy, happy happy!” was so wholesomely wonderful, and helped keep us all from ingesting each other’s germs from the buffet serving spoons.
The Spinnaker Lounge. Try out your karaoke skills here at night! There's a great lookout area just outside these windows.
I cannot rave enough about Ivan, the assistant maitre’d in the Crossings dining room, who came past our table two or three times the first evening we dined there to make sure we were satisfied with everything, and then remembered us the following night and apologized for the fact that we had been seated in the corner by a high-traffic staff door the night before. He greeted us warmly and thanked us for dining at Crossings each of the three times we were there. The morning of disembarkation, I spotted him working at the Great Outdoor Cafe in his crisp whites, where he rescued a woman who was being dive-bombed by seagulls while trying to eat her breakfast by waving them away like they were errant schoolchildren. Seriously, Ivan was great.
A great view off the back of the ship from the Crossings Dining Room.
Jon was worried that he might not like the cruising experience, mostly because we tend to vacation in a very busy way. The last one we took was two week road trip where we covered 5000+ km and stayed in a new hotel every night. I planned that trip for months to make sure we’d always have someplace to eat and sleep. But being on the Sky, we were never concerned about how we might get somewhere, or what we would eat, or really anything at all. There is always someone ready to assist you with whatever you might want next, and how’s that for decadence?
There were only two instances in which ‘the experience’ fell apart for me. One was dealing with the Mandara Spa. They had thoughtfully left a card at our stateroom for $50 towards a spa service on a port day. “Sounds great!”, said I, and I trouped up to the spa to see what I could book with my $50. Turns out, not everything is eligible. The thing I really wanted/needed was a manicure, because I had done a rather shoddy job of painting my own nails on Sunday night, and by Wednesday, they were already a chipped mess. Depending on the manicure, they run for $45-$50, and I thought this could make a nice treat. Unfortunately, I was informed that the certificate only can be put towards a facial/body treatment/massage, the cheapest of which was about $120.
I instead booked a simple repolish for $19 in their earliest available timeslot, which was about 5 hours later at 7:15pm. No biggie, it’ll still be a nice treat, even if I can’t use the certificate. The receptionist wrote up a little appointment card for me, and circled a note at the bottom that indicated I should arrive 15 minutes early to enjoy complimentary drinks in their waiting area.
Don’t bother. It was the same hot water dispenser and tea bags that you can find in any of the buffets. I arrived at 7pm and waited until 7:40 before the only esthetician who was working was finally available. My husband and friends had agreed to meet up on the opposite end of the ship for dinner at 7:30 (presuming that a repolish might only take 30-40 minutes, and that I could meet up with them when done). Without the ability to text them what was happening, they all sat eating bread in Crossings until I practically sprinted myself down to them around 8:30. We had planned to see a show in the Stardust Lounge that evening, but ended up missing it in favour of eating dinner instead.
(That said, she did a lovely job on my nails, and I only got my first chip in the polish about 5 days afterward. They took my room key at the front desk and handed it back to me when I left, so I didn’t have to rummage through my bag to find it, and they tucked my receipt into my purse as well, all helpful when trying to maintain freshly painted nails. I just wish things had been more prompt, or that anyone had acknowledged that they were running behind schedule. Also, be forewarned that you will be charged a 20% built-in tip.)
The complimentary drinks in the Mandara Salon and Spa.
The other spot that the service felt weak was our final night dining in The Palace, where our waiter either was having a hard time hearing us or understanding us. Kayla had to take off mid-dinner for the final round of a slot machine competition, and we asked our waiter a couple of times to hold our entrees until she came back. He nodded, agreed, and promptly came back to our table to serve us our meals. It wasn’t worth the hassle to complain about it, especially because she was back a few minutes later (sans any winnings, unfortunately), but after three straight nights of great experiences at Crossings, it seemed wildly off-trend for the dining room.
And not a service issue, but a design one: the seating in the Stardust Lounge is absolutely not what you want in a theatre. There are some solid, built-in seats, but the majority are these round swivel chairs that can be moved. However, they are packed in tightly and leave no space whatsoever to maneuver around them. Once you were seated and someone sat down next to you, there was no way to get past them to the aisle. We saw more than one person climb over empty chairs to get to where their party was seated. Not a great design, but seems to be an issue only on this ship (pictures of other NCL ships appear to have proper theatre seating throughout).
But you can play bingo, if you want.
Overall, a great experience, with just a couple of weak points that I think only stand out because all the other service we received was so good in comparison.
Bored? I Highly Doubt That You're Bored:
Considering that the Sky is one of Norwegian's smaller ships, there is plenty to do. Check out the daily listing of events that is delivered to your stateroom every day. There will always be someone playing live music, or putting on a show, or having a sale.
Art sale in the Bliss Ultra Lounge.
Live music by the pool - Caribbean-inspired covers of pop songs.
Have a drink and some sushi in the Pinnacle Lounge.
The age range of people on the ship was quite varied, from retired seniors, to families with small children, to couples, to groups of friends. We found that there didn’t seem to be a lot of kids on this cruise (or they were all hidden away in the kids-only area), perhaps because there aren’t the activities that are generally geared towards children, like waterslides and go karts. Not a bad thing, unless you plan to bring your kids with you, in which case, I recommend taking a close look at what entertainment is available to them. Cruises on the Sky tend to be quite short, so at least you don't have to be concerned about filling 7 full days for young children.
Certainly no complaints about how other people acted. We chatted with some other cruisers, and didn't see anyone being rude or wildly drunk. I imagine some people might be concerned that there will be a lot of excessive drinking, since the Sky includes drinks with the cost of sailing, but I was glad to see that was not the case.
The Stateroom (Why is it Called a Stateroom, Anyway?):
Like I said before, my first impression of our inside stateroom was that it was small. And it is! Space is a precious commodity on a cruise ship, after all. But we spent so little time in our stateroom that it hardly made a difference. I imagine it would feel immensely tighter if we also had a child with us, but for a couple, it’s really not bad at all.
Location of our stateroom. I think it was under the Garden Cafe buffet, but we honestly heard very little noise from the next floor up.
There was a USB plug built into the reading lamp on each side of the bed, and a small end table to set a phone on, so there was no concern about charging our stuff. The hair dryer that was provided did a serviceable job drying my (fairly long) hair in a reasonable amount of time.
The shower did not always run a consistent temperature, and we found that it was worth showering in water that was a little cooler than we preferred to avoid being scorched when the temperature changed without warning.
Don’t forget to turn on the television! I only realized on our last full day that I hadn’t yet discovered what was available there, and ended up watching part of the ‘Not So Newlywed’ game that had been going on in the Bliss Lounge the night before. (The host, our cruise director Jasper, was wildly funny). There is also information about the day’s port, general safety information, and movie channels that stream based on genre, such as comedy, action, and family.
Check under the bed and in the closet. There were two pool towels set out for us, but we also found a couple of spare ones under the bed. Do some digging to see what you have available to you!
Who doesn't love a good towel animal?
Some General Tips and Advice and the Stuff that Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else:
If you agree to be part of a Cruise Critic meet-up, please try your best to attend! Although the meet-up for this cruise was a little wonky (NCL tried to plan it for 1pm on the first port day, which was also Valentine’s Day, and had to be rescheduled last minute), only four of us showed for the meet-up. Since the estimated number of guests was around 12, the events coordinator on the ship (Marina) arranged for an appropriate amount of food and drink. While we made a valiant effort, we definitely did not eat the vast majority of what had been put out for us. Besides that, we had about 9 ship officers come and talk to us, and we only had so many questions between us to ask! They also give out a list of contact numbers for the ship officers, in case you have any issues later on during the cruise that they can assist you with.
Look at all this great stuff they put out for us! After I took this photo, they also brought sandwiches and lemon loaf slices.
If you’re sensitive to light while sleeping, an inside cabin might be the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had. My husband is notorious for not sleeping well as soon as the first ray of sunlight makes its way into the room, but the inside cabin provides a good sleeping experience, no matter what time of day! The only thing I noticed was that the light coming through the peephole seemed oddly bright in the morning (probably because the room is so dark, and even a bit of light seems like a lot in comparison). Jon, ever the handyman, proposed to bring some electrical tape to cover up the peephole next time.
Eat the oranges in the buffet. Especially if you live somewhere that isn’t close to where oranges are grown. They seriously taste better when they don’t have to travel as far. They’re juicier and fruitier than any oranges I can get at home.
If you don’t own a Kindle/e-reader and don’t want to fill your luggage with books, find out if your local library has access to a service like Overdrive. I can use my library card to log into Overdrive’s app, Libby, and download ebooks or audiobooks that will work offline for 14-21 days, depending on your chosen format. I downloaded a couple of books on my phone, and brought a couple more physical books along, and burned through them all.
Orange pekoe tea is a Canadian thing. It’s not actually a flavour of tea, but a grading of the leaf. Don’t ask me why we call all of our basic black teas ‘orange pekoe,’ we just do. I made the mistake of asking for orange pekoe tea at La Cucina, and the waiter brought me orange herbal tea. Just tell the waiter that you want some tea, and they will bring the tea chest out for you to select whichever flavour you want. The yellow Lipton bag that does not seem to have an actual name is the closest thing to an orange pekoe you’ll find. If you’re particularly fussy about your tea, maybe try bringing your own individually-packaged bags onto the ship? You could stick them in your bag and use the hot water at the buffet to have something more to your liking.
That Pinterest 'life hack' that you see all the time, about bringing a shoe organizer to hang over the back of the bathroom door? Do it. It's brilliant. We brought one with clear plastic pockets so we could easily see what was in each one, and it kept things off the bathroom counter. Sounds silly, but 100% would recommend.
The General Overview:
We decided on the second day that we were definitely going to be taking another cruise, and soon. For people who live in places with endless winter (December-April feels like an eternity, sometimes), taking a week to escape to the warmth is the perfect thing. We had a fabulous time on this cruise, which was the perfect balance between keeping busy and doing absolutely nothing. We ate very well, and were pleased with the level of service we received from nearly all the crew members. If you're not entirely certain that cruising will be for you, try a 4- or 5-day cruise. It will be just enough for you to try a variety of amenities on board, but won't be overly long if you decide it's not your thing.
I took a lot of photos of menus, food, and kept all the dailies from this cruise, and I hope to make another post shortly that goes into depth on these items. Keep a eye out!