Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cruising from NY to the Bahamas on the Norwegian Jewel

I spent months trying to figure out what a good "we are turning 30" trip would be this year; I priced airfare to Nashville, Hawaii, and Miami; I planned and replanned road trips.  We eventually settled on the idea of a cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) leaving from New York and stopping in Orlando, Great Stirrup Cay, and Nassau, going with NCL because they were the only line going from New York in March.  Neither of us had cruised before and I spent loads of time researching my trip on Cruise Critic, which had tons of user reviews and advice.  The best advice?  Bring Dramamine (I also bought Sea Bands, but we had nice weather), lots of sunscreen, surge protectors/extension cords, and avoid the buffet for lunch on sail away day.  Avoid the art auctions (unless you just want some complimentary champagne), don't bother with the Internet service (which is very slow - it can take ten minutes to send an e-mail), and if you're planning on gambling at the slot machines, check on Slot Play for half price vouchers (but don't plan on gambling if you don't want to smell like eighteen ashtrays because there is no ventilation in the casino area).

The Pier & Check-in
Getting to the pier is very easy. My brother was kind enough to drop us off, but it is just as feasible to park at the pier (just expensive) or take the train down and get a cab over (much less expensive). We arrived super-early (around 9:30am) in an attempt to beat Saint Patrick's Day parade traffic for my brother, who had to get to the other side of Manhattan near the end of the parade route. Boarding started around 11:30am and we were in the third group on board.

The Room

We stayed in room 11062 on the Jewel, which is a mid-ship mini-suite with balcony. The room was actually bigger than I expected and our steward, Alfi, was very nice and on top of things (we loved the towel animals every night). There were only two American outlets (one European) in the room (both at the desk), so we brought a surge protector and two extension cords, which absolutely came in handy.

The problem with the room
On the second to last day of the cruise, Mr. D. went to get something out of the closet and found his clothes were wet and everything smelled like mold.

 NCL responded very quickly (someone was up at our room before I even got back from the service desk) and washed all of his clothes that were wet and/or stained from the carpet in the room. They asked us if we wanted to move our room, but only for that night (and without any of our things), so we declined. The following day, they sprinkled odor-stopping stuff on the carpet (remember that stuff the janitor in grade school would sprinkle over vomit and then it would smell like vomit and deodorizer?) and put the dryer on it...and it was awful - loud and smelly to the point where we had to leave the room.

The Food
The food on board was alright. We found the portions in to be oddly smaller than expected (eight rings of calamari in Tsars? 3 spears of asparagus constitute a side of vegetables at Cagney's?), though I suppose you could always request more. I initially avoided the buffet at all costs, but once we ventured up to the buffet, it really was not bad. They had an awesome salad bar, daily hot features, grill food (burgers, hot dogs, etc), rotating Indian and Asian dishes, dessert, and ice cream stations. It could get pretty busy during peak times and we sometimes had to walk into some of the other rooms for seating, but never had trouble getting a table. We did dine at several specialty restaurants (Moderno, Cagney's, Le Bistro, and Chin-Chin), all of which were good.

Pictured: Left - Le Bistro escargot, filet, creme brule, French onion soup, and chocolate dessert.
Right - Cagney's appetizers (shrimp cocktail and crab cakes), filet, and creme brule
Activities on Board
Every morning, we got a flier listing the on board activities for the day. We loved the alcohol tasting classes; for $15 you are able to sample several half-size drinks while hearing about the alcohol going into the cocktails and being afforded the opportunity to play a few party games. The mojito tasting and (several) martini tastings we attended were a highlight of the trip.  It's a great way to meet some other passengers and try a few new drinks for a very reasonable price.

Some other activities included demonstrations (towel animals, ice carving, fruit sculpting), trivia, late night games and parties.  You'll never get to all of the activities you mean to, but there's always something going on.

You'll also want to check out the evening entertainment on board.  We saw a hilarious comedian/magician (Jean-Pierre), shows with singing and dancing, and a Cirque inspired show - all of which were very fun.  The game shows just seemed to be passenger money drains and, really, the casino is a much more fun money drainer.

Pro tip #1: Figure out which side of the ship you are on and pay attention to the sunrise/sunset times.  You should absolutely plan on waking up early to watch the sun rise one morning (Even this face appreciated the sunrise), but it helps if your room is facing the right way.

Pro tip #2: If there is a Spongebob movie playing (NCL has an agreement with Nickelodeon), there will not be other goofy, young at heart thirty year olds there...just a few confused eight year olds.  Go to the bar instead.

Pro tip #3: During sail away, you can get some really nice views of the Statue of Liberty (and get to go under the Verrazano Bridge), so hang out on the top deck.

Port of Call: Orlando
Norwegian offers loads of prearranged excursions.  Lots of the message boards recommend renting a car for substantial savings, but here's the thing: if you are on a Norwegian excursion and get stuck in traffic, the boat will wait for you.  If your rental car breaks down? Not so much.

We both love Disney and there was no question that we would be spending the day there. There's not a lot of time; figure on a 1.5 hour bus ride to and from the transportation center plus the time to queue and take transportation to your park of choice. Plus you're paying for a full price Disney ticket when you're really only getting approximately 6 hours in the park. A great value? Not so much. Appropriate for a first time Disney trip? Don't even think about it. We got about 7 rides in (aka the only time Mr. D. has managed to get through the Magic Kingdom with only one visit to the Haunted Mansion), gawked at the new Fantasyland work, and shoved Dole Pineapple Whip in our faces. If you want to do Disney the right way, plan a trip to Disney. If you want a fun revisit to a favorite park, spend the day there on your cruise.

Port of Call: Great Stirrup Cay
Great Stirrup Cay is the private island owned by NCL and it was our least favorite part of the cruise (next to the mold in our room). While NCL has obviously been doing a lot of work on the island, it's simply not enough. The beach is seriously comprised of rock, bottle caps, cigarettes, and a little bit of sand. Clam shells and cabanas are your only options for shade (no chair shades), which are available for rental. In order to find them, you have to walk and walk and walk, way past where you think the NCL beach ends. Then, there is no signage - nothing telling you how much rental is and no real indication to anyone that you have rented a particular clam shell. One of the two men watching the clam shells spoke no English (to the point where someone asked: "Do you have to pay for these?" "No." [then runs to get the other guy]) and there was no organization for the cabanas; one couple who did not want to pay for a clam shell was told to go use the cabana since no one was taking money there. After spending $30 for the privilege of sitting in the clam shell, I found there was no drink service on this remote, far away beach. I think my expectations were fairly reigned in throughout the cruise, but I do expect that after collecting $30 to sit on an area of the beach far away from any bar or restroom, NCL should have, at the very least, sent at least one person over for drinks.

So, Great Stirrup Cay will get you a good spot to take photos of the boat and a BBQ lunch buffet, but it left me with a very unfavorable impression of NCL; they could have done much better here (Seriously! I wanted to give them money for alcohol and tip their employees to bring it to me...how do you screw this up?).
Port of Call: Nassau, Bahamas
We booked an excursion to Atlantis for our day in Nassau in which we were supposed to get a tour and a beach day (there is another option to visit the water park that we did not opt for).  Ok, you don't need the "tour," which is an escort from the bus to the beach.  The "tour" also means you'll have to hang around for most of the morning for that specific "tour group" to head over to the resort.

Atlantis makes up for Great Stirrup Cay 100%. The beaches are beautiful (though by the time our "tour" got us there, shades were all taken), we were handed towels and bags, and there was no problem scaring up a drink. Or two.

The resort itself is huge, so expect to do a bit of walking and do check out the several aquariums there.

We headed back to the ship a little early so we could do some shopping downtown (read: buy rum). Here's another reason you'll want to get to Atlantis ASAP - more time to shop!

Would I go again?
Cruising was a lot of fun. It was a relief to disconnect from twitter and my work e-mail for a week and spend time relaxing with good food, good drinks, and good company. I loved sitting out on our balcony - watching the sun come up, watching the waves, and even spotting a dolphin coming into port in Florida. The staff members we spoke to were generally very nice and many of them have very interesting stories about cruise ship life if you're willing to chat with them. I would not go out of my way to cruise with Norwegian again due to the poor private island experience combined with the not-so-great way of dealing with our moldy, leaking closet, but I also would not pass up a really good deal. Leaving from New York was just so easy and it was nice to go somewhere warm without getting on a plane.

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