Our travel decision-making has shifted now that we are three instead of two, cruising in particular. We like this kind of holiday for its ease, and now will take either a nice big ship with lots of on board entertainment OR the smaller ship with not much to do but an amazing itinerary. For our first venture as a trio, we chose the former, spending a week in the Caribbean courtesy of the NCL Casino. The Escape is the newest and largest of the Norwegian ships, having only completed a few runs prior to us boarding. We took a gamble on this inexperience in hopes of a reward similar to that we saw during a similar cruise on the Breakaway 2 years ago. That ship was fresh off the dock, and bursting with staff support from the best of the fleet. The hand-selected crew, specialty mixologists, and lots of quality control made that cruise exceptional. This unfortunately was not the case on the Escape.
Quick disclaimer- We have been on many a cruise as both passengers and crew, and so some of the smaller things that matter to us may not matter to anyone else. Additionally, our travel pace and the opportunities that we were able to indulge in have definitely changed due to the addition of a very motivated toddler.
Checking in was a disaster. Despite an expedited casino line, our attendant disappeared to print our ship cards and did not return for 20 mins. Tired and frustrated, we headed straight to the cabin once we made it on the ship. Apparently most passengers did not appreciate the funky new decor of the staterooms on the Breakaway, so NCL reverted back to the same old maroon decor of yesteryear. Our balcony mini-suite was spacious enough for the three of us, with some creative arranging to accommodate a pack and play, stroller, and various baby accouterments.
The new addition that sealed the deal for us was the daycare option for children under 2. There was very little information about this anywhere- neither the NCL website, phone reps, or Cruise Critic could tell us the cost, hours, or booking policy for this, which would eventually dictate all other entertainment and dining options for us.
Therefore, the second stop once we got onboard was the Guppies Nursery to learn more. The time slots were set for each day, generally 1.5-2.5 hours, with a fee of $20 per slot. They allow you to book 2 consecutive slots (which we did a few evenings), and the max capacity is 10 children so if you have a specific request, you should reserve early. The 4:30-6:30 and 6:30-8:50 allowed us to indulge in a meal and a show, though we ended up feeding him early these days before dropping him off as they only allow you to provide pre-packaged food items as snack.
The back room had pack-and-plays and blankets, and since everyone else’s children seemed to party late into the night, ours had the “bedroom” to himself. The ratio was quite good, with 5 staff on the floor with the children and they were extremely accommodating, asking lots of questions and doing their best to adhere to our guidelines.
At each drop-off, they labeled everything we gave them and kept in a bin or fridge as necessary. Once you hand over your child, you receive a pager with phone capabilities in the event that they need to contact you. Though the rules state that they must call you after 10 minutes of crying and must call you for any number diaper changes higher than #1, the girls confided that they do their best to take care of these situations as they want you to enjoy your time. Upon pickup, they provide you with a rundown of what occurred during that time, including activities, diaper changes, and food/drinks consumed.
The rest of the ship seemed relatively similar to the others in its class, with ample outside space courtesy of The Waterfront, Aquapark, minigolf, and ropes course on the upper decks, and adults-only Spice H2O area for adults at the back. All of the evening game shows and crowd-participation events happen in the Atrium, supported by O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill from above.
Some of the new Food and Beverage options had us excited, such as the District Brew House, Jose Garces’ Bayamo Restaurant, and a Mondavi Wine Bar. We booked the specialty dining package with 3 dinners included, starting with Bayamo, then to Cagney’s and last to Moderno Churrascuria.
In general, the specialty dining did not feel as special as it has in the past, and many restaurant staff did not understand how the dining package worked. There is a $15 upcharge for Bayamo, making the cost approximately $55 pp before drinks. This is still cheap relative to what you would pay on land, but starts to feel a bit cheeky when you could probably eat a la carte there for cheaper, go to the other specialties for $30, or just eat in the very passable main dining rooms. Regardless, we ate a lot to compensate for this mental barrier, and our waitress here was lovely and took time to shoot the breeze with us.
In Cagney’s, the waitress told us that there were guidelines on what we could eat under the dining package ( a strict one app, one salad, one main), which differed with what we had been told at Bayamo and prior to our trip. We brought this up with the Manager after our dinner, which he confirmed was not the case and rebooked us later that week. During that dinner, the hostess did not have our reservation (which the Manager had supposedly made), our waitress literally ran from table to table due to a lack of support staff in her section, and the dinner took over 2 hours. Since we had already been “those people”, we brought it up again to the Manager, which he basically blamed on the company but comped our drinks to make up for it.
Moderno was more self-serve, starting with a buffet of vegetables and antipasti, and rounded out with A LOT of meat. Their servers were very prompt, and the food was tasty.
They recommend pre-booking onboard entertainment, but this is often not necessary for the main stage shows. There are two shows on the schedule for each night, the first at 7:00pm and the second at 9:00. After Midnight and Million Dollar Quartet are the complimentary Broadway-style shows, which were perfectly fine…. it may be unfair to compare, but the Breakaway’s Rock of Ages and Cirque Dreams were really spectacular. There were also “For the Record- The Brat Pack” and “Wine Lovers Musical” for an extra charge, but neither seemed worth it. The partner contract with Second City Improv and Nickelodeon were recently lost, so the comedy options were truly unfunny and the family shows non-existent. This is important to note, as other families mentioned that they booked when Nickelodeon was a partner and were told they could not cancel based on this.
Another family party foul- the kids splash zone is restricted for children still in diapers…. this is what the sign says anyway. Lots of families chose to ignore this rule, so we turned a blind eye as well- doublebagged in swim diaper and wetsuit, I’m pretty sure that the baby was excreting less into that water than the drunken adults were.
The ports we visited were your average Caribbean run- St Thomas, Tortola, Nassau. We stayed relatively close to the ship, with a consistent beach-town-nap schedule. Magen’s Bay Beach in St Thomas is a quick cab ride away, and allowed all of us to splash around for most of the morning. We hadn’t been back to this “Top 10 Beaches of the World” contender since we worked on ships, and we realized it was even more fabulous when you don’t see it every week.
Cane Garden Bay Beach in Tortola was also beautiful, but has less shaded areas so pack your sunscreen and cover-up. It felt weird not going to Virgin Gorda, but hauling the baby up rope ladders and through rock tunnels seemed slightly daunting. And Nassau is Nassau- pretty much Atlantis, Senor Frogs, Dolphins or shopping. We chose none of the above, opting instead for a tasting flight at the Pirate Republic Brewing Company. A quick lap around town and a quick dance party with the hair braiding ladies by the port and we we done.
Disembarkation was even worse than embarkation. The slow-moving line of “carry-your own bags” folks snaked all the way through the casino, and when we finally arrived in the terminal, the customs officers stopped all progression to leave us stranded for another 30 minutes. Thankfully, the elderly gentleman in an electric wheelchair behind us scooped up the baby, sat him on his lap, and let him push the buttons for the duration- They both got quite a ride.
So the moral is: this cruise felt a lot different that they have in the past. We still had a great time, and we will always jump on any opportunity to travel, but it is funny how the little things add up sometimes to feel like more than they are by themselves. We even flirted with the idea of switching companies for our next cruise….. and then booked another NCL for this month. The upcoming trip is the reverse mentality to this one- amazing itinerary, iffy ship. We are so excited to visit the ports, I’m pretty sure the ship details will not matter very much!