Cruise review: NCL Sky to Florida and Bahamas, February 2019

Two cruises in less than sixty days? Not entirely unusual for us, but this experience on the Norwegian Sky was a departure from usual in numerous, positive ways.

After being subjected to constant tales of delightful experiences aboard a NCL ship, our good friends Jon and Steph expressed interest in taking a break from winter weather. (I highly suggest you also read Steph’s first-timer review over on CruiseCritic, as well as peruse her copious collection of dailies and dining menus.)

We eventually settled on a 5-day February 2019 voyage that met both timing and budget requirements, and surrounded it by two days in Miami – one day before and one after the cruise.

Sky also offered a unique opportunity to compare our recent experiences with the newfangled, race-track-equipped Bliss. The Sky is one of Norwegian’s oldest ships in service – possibly the oldest depending on how you calculate Spirit’s age. Fortunately for us, our sailing was the second to happen after a dry dock from January 22 to February 7, which meant that a good portion of the ship would be newly refurbished and ready for us to enjoy.

The age and smaller size of the ship did not diminish our enjoyment, and we had a number of “Vacation Hero” experiences where staff and crew went above and beyond to make things stress-free and provide excellent service. It’s a tough decision as to whether this takes the title for “best cruise” for me, since other NCL cruises we’ve taken have their unique high points. If you’re debating Sky, though, assume that any review prior to February 2019 is prior to refurbishment, and give this ship a fair chance. My only regret is that we didn’t have a longer cruise.

Planning and pre-cruise

Neither snow nor rain can stop this plane

We flew out of Toronto Pearson on Tuesday, February 12, and I’d spent the previous 48 hours in a state of utter stress and panic. The “special weather statement” issued that weekend turned into a snow and freezing rain watch, which rapidly became a warning advising against non-essential travel on Tuesday. I kept cycling through radar maps, hour-by-hour forecasts, and was constantly refreshing the American Airlines travel notices page to see if we could change to an earlier flight.

But we made it to the airport safely, and our plane came and left without delay. Given that 34% of flights leaving Pearson that day were cancelled, I’d say that some luck was involved, and we didn’t have to use Backup Plans B through D (where D might have involved driving for 22 hours straight to Miami.) Significant credit goes to my wife Kayla, who had to use her best social work tricks to prevent me from completely melting down. I really didn’t want to miss the cruise.

It’s been several years since I’ve flown on American Airlines, but apparently Miami is a major hub for them and they are now offering direct YYZ -> MIA flights several times a day. Our flight attendant was friendly, and I enjoyed a Fat Tire Belgian White as well as an extremely tasty chicken sandwich featuring pickled onions.

One oddity with this flight is that when we got closer to Miami, there was a several minute, uninterruptible announcement made about the American Airlines credit card offer (“now with 60,000 bonus miles!”) After that noticeably extended speech, flight attendants walked through the cabin loudly offering sign-up forms (“there are only six left!”) WestJet and AC, in comparison, still push credit cards but are much more casual and brief about the matter. This just seemed excessive.

Hotel, foodstuffs and a large Wal-Mart

After landing in Miami, we took a Lyft XL. I had some $1 credits to use on rides, and Lyft hasn’t yet expanded outside of Toronto in Canada. We spent 20 minutes getting to the Doral Inn and Suites Miami Airport West. The hotel was selected due to decent ratings, and they offered a 2-bedroom suite suitable for 4 adults. It was spacious, had a full kitchen and two bathrooms, and breakfast was included in the room rate.

The hotel was a reasonable choice. I don’t have any complaints, but I still think I’d prefer staying in the Marriott complex (for the included airport shuttle, and bars/restaurants directly inside two of the hotels) if we didn’t need the space and privacy for four. It’s also in the opposite direction from PortMiami, so you have to account for the slightly increased transportation time and cost.

The hotel was also right under a flight path. While it didn’t bother me, I think the Marriott buildings deal with this better by having fairly intense soundproofing on the windows. At Doral Inn and Suites, you could get complimentary earplugs from the front desk – a nice gesture, but definitely a warning to light sleepers.

Dinner was at a place just across the street called Chevy’s Fresh Mex, which is apparently a chain but didn’t feel super-corporate. We sat out on the patio and enjoyed margaritas, beer and guacamole before our main course of fajitas and quesadillas. Of course, you should know that this assessment comes from a Canadian without regular access to quality Mexican food, but I don’t think we did badly with this choice. We were pleasantly full after the fact. It was also nice to be able to sit out on a patio after the weather back home.

Our next stop was Wal-Mart to secure some final pre-cruise provisions, which was about a 15-minute walk according to Google. However, the chewed-up sidewalks and off-center crosswalks made walking along NW 12th Street enough of a challenge, even for us able-bodied individuals. It still wasn’t enough of a hike that I’d go as far as to suggest an Uber/Lyft/taxi, but despite the short distance represented on Google Maps, it wasn’t as convenient on the ground.

This particular Wal-Mart Supercenter absolutely lived up to its name. It was full of shoppers on a Tuesday night, and you could barely see from one end of the store to the other, possibly due to the curvature of Earth. A news article I found pins it at 233,258 square feet and possibly the largest Wal-Mart globally in terms of sales. As a point of comparison, Sands Expo Hall G (where I’ve attended AWS’ re:Invent conference) sits at 380K square feet, but the Walton building was more impressive due to the sheer quantity of products.

We acquired the bare necessities of life (beer, ice cream, sunscreen and toothpaste), then made the walk back to Doral Inn and Suites where we sat, watched Food Network and relished the fact that we were no longer in blowing snow and ice rain conditions. I enjoyed “The Champagne of Beers” which retails for about $1 for a tall can.

Day 1 – Miami and embarkation

Proceeding to pier

Flight traffic became apparent around 6am and then continued every few minutes after that, but that wasn’t the noisiest thing in the morning. A train whistling at every intersection behind the property contributed the most to the urban symphony. As a result, I was up probably earlier than usual, but not truly inconvenienced.

Breakfast was served until 9:30, and we made it over to the main building about half an hour before that. As we stepped outside it was overcast, windy and lightly raining – still a significant improvement over the conditions at home.

Food options included cereal, oatmeal, bananas, bagels, toast, ham and cheese. There was also tea and coffee available. I’d have preferred a potato and another meat option, but the available choices kept me satiated until lunchtime on the ship.

We got into a Lyft at 10:15am, arriving at PortMiami around 10:50. There was a fair bit of traffic around the port area, and our driver either deliberately or accidentally avoided the tunnel. By 10:54 we were at the check-in line. This room is a familiar sight by now, and wasn’t completely crammed, but a bit busier than around the same time in December. I counted 34 people ahead of us in line, and only the right side of check-in desks were open for business.

Unexpected upgrade

As Kayla and I stood at the check-in desk, our travelling companions had just finished the process and been waved through to the next level. But when the agent went to go retrieve our keycards, there was a plastic piece in an envelope that indicated “Keys at VIP Desk.” She walked us over to a side room closer to the terminal entrance. I knew from previous cruises that this was typically the check-in and lounge area for guests in Haven suites.

Sure enough, our room keys were with the agent in the VIP area, and had the purple shell design that is typically used for suite guests on ships without a Haven area. We were invited to have some canapes and drinks and sit down, until we could be escorted onto the ship when it was ready. While most of the seating was already taken, we moved into an overflow room across the hall, and tried to figure out exactly what was happening here. Both of us were utterly confused; I hadn’t bid on a cabin upgrade and we had definitely booked an IF-class inside room.

Once we secured our tasty appetizers and citrus water, I went back into the main terminal area to find our friends, who were without cell coverage and had been standing just behind the check-in desks waiting for us to show up. Relaying to them what had just happened, we arranged to meet up in the Atrium area once everyone was on the ship to try to reconstruct our original plans.

In the meantime, Kayla perused the Welcome Aboard paperwork, which had only been partially updated for the post-dry dock venue renaming:

Straight to the action

At 11:37am, we met concierge Armando, who collected us (and the rest of the VIPs who actually belonged there) and took us to the far left side of the check-in area. After a few rides in the elevator we ended up in a long hallway that I’ve never seen before, but looked like it was parallel to the ship. From there we proceeded onboard and were in Pinnacle Lounge on deck 12, with drinks in hand, by 12 noon. My text messages indicate that group 3 was called by 11:55am.

(Blue messages are me; gray are Steph, who was trying to get the last vestiges of wi-fi in the waiting area. I certainly did feel like a fraud.)

Armando advised us that he would personally assist with a variety of activities, including priority embarkation/disembarkation, restaurant reservations and to answer questions or address any concerns that we had throughout the cruise. We were also told that we could have complimentary breakfast and lunch at Cagney’s every day, and that we would be taken there shortly for our first meal of the cruise.

I put in my order for a shrimp cocktail and New York strip steak (along with another Bellini) and then excused myself to go down to the atrium and locate Jon and Steph. We could have invited them for lunch with us, but it would have cost $25/person, and I didn’t feel like starting out the cruise with a half-Benjamin dent in our onboard account.

As I descended the stairs and tried to make it over to the agreed-upon meeting place, I noticed that the ship smelled fantastic. It was a combination of fresh paint, “new car” and general cleanliness without being too chemically overwhelming. Prior to the dry dock, there were a number of reviews that indicated bad smells in the hallways or public areas; I can attest that we never noticed anything like that on our vacation.

I did get turned around since you can’t cross the ship on Deck 5 from the aft side. On the fifth floor, you end up at the entrance to Crossings (one of the main dining rooms) and can only access a bank of elevators and washrooms. Returning to Deck 6, you can just barely see the outline on the wall where they’d replaced the old-style digit with the new NCL “6”.

From this deck, you have to go through the photo gallery, pass the Sugarcane Mojito Bar, and then transit Bliss Ultra Lounge to get to the atrium area that spans decks 5-7.

I quickly caught our companions up on our lunch upgrade, suggested they find something to eat, and agreed to meet after the cabin availability announcement to plan the rest of the day. Steph and I also went to the Shore Excursions desk and filled out the form to secure clamshell tickets for Great Stirrup Cay. We were told that the ticket itself would be delivered to our room, and that it would act as a tender boat ticket as well.

Back at Cagney’s, I ordered Bellini #3 and my steak was inbound. Kayla had the pan-seared scallops and shrimp, and we judged both dishes to be tasty.

Cabin 8151

After coordinating our next moves, around 1:30 we went to our respective cabins to drop off our luggage, planning to meet up afterward and sort out our next moves before muster drill. Kayla and I were in an aft cabin on the port side of the ship. Unlike the Bliss sailing, where we had to take a guarantee inside room, 8151 on Sky was our specific election. It wasn’t really much of a choice – it was the last remaining IF-class stateroom available when we booked, from both travel agent and NCL inventory. (Jon and Steph also paid for an IF, and got a guarantee assignment that turned into an IC-class midship cabin on a higher deck.)

At 121 square feet, the cabin was definitely smaller than those of comparable grade on both Bliss (135 ft^2) and Infinity (170 ft^2), with the most noticeable reduction in space being at the foot of the bed. The bathroom size was fine, bigger than Infinity and about the same as Bliss. We’d packed lightly and you could still put suitcases under the bed, but a family of four would definitely want to go to a larger I1-class cabin at 147 square feet.

I also poked at the television momentarily. There didn’t appear to be an interactive menu system, so you had to use the NCL app on your phone to check your bill or make reservations.

We returned to the Atrium area on deck 5 by 1:45pm. Kayla made a dinner reservation at La Cucina for us, while I spoke to Guest Services and got in touch with Marina, the Group Services Coordinator on the ship to try and sort out the CruiseCritic Meet and Greet event for this sailing. More on that later.

Very Important Potables

Our first onboard event with Jon and Steph involved returning to our cabin to engage in an adult activity – not of the “pineapple” variety, but rather to drink a bottle of Chandon that had been chilling there in an ice bucket, compliments of Hotel Director Jean-Michel. We compared interior space and art between the two cabins (same square footage, but the left and right artworks were reversed), and then when the booze was finished, everyone meandered up to Topsiders Bar on the pool deck.

In terms of bar service, Sky operates differently than other NCL ships. Because everyone of age has “unlimited open bar” in their fare, there is no need to present your ship card for drinks, but bartenders may still ask for it if they think you’re under 21. It’s only if you’re going for a premium drink that you’d need to show plastic. This did help in terms of speed of service, since bartenders weren’t spending time taking cards and punching in drinks into the point-of-sale system.

Topsiders does a roaring business with pre-mixed frozen drinks, but had a fairly well-stocked bar including a good selection of non-rail liquors. I never had an issue getting something custom throughout the trip, and didn’t wait very long for any drinks. I selected a Mango Meltdown, and we grabbed a table at the very end of the Garden Cafe seating to enjoy our beverages.

Soon enough, it was time to head down for muster drill. We headed back to our respective cabins and I put on longer pants, since it had cooled down a fair bit and I wasn’t sure how long we’d be out on the deck. (I’d purchased a t-shirt especially for the occasion, so it was important that it stay visible.) Before heading out on deck, I was advised that I would not be able to take my drink outside – fair enough. The crew did have garbage bags available at each exit to make this fairly painless.

Muster and sail-away

In a departure from our other NCL cruises, mustering on Sky occurs on the exterior portion of Deck 6, rather than inside in the larger venues like the theatre. I can confirm that you don’t have to bring lifejackets, but the position of each muster station is such that you’re underneath the lifeboats with a number of your fellow passengers. Those that get there first have to stand closer to the wall, and there are about 4 or 5 rows of people per station area. Comparing to our previous cruises, it was less comfortable than sitting in the theatre, but much more comfortable than standing in the crowd at Maltings on Bliss.

Arriving at 4:02pm, we were at the back of the crowd, and the drill started promptly at 4:15. It was very difficult to hear anything over the loudspeakers, and the crew member assigned to our station used a very garbled bullhorn to communicate with the group. They played the appropriate noisy blasts over the ship’s PA station, made the usual speeches about lifejackets, then dismissed everyone. There was 6 minutes of actual instruction – no waiting for tardy participants and no unnecessary repetition of commands. It just ended on time, with our group back up at Topsiders, complete with fresh drinks by 4:33pm.

Sail-away began right around 5pm, as expected, and we made our way to the front of the ship on Deck 12. The Disney Magic was in front of us since it had sailed at 4pm. Discussion with another guest ensued about Fisher Island to our starboard side, which requires ferry access and features waterway-facing condos listed between $5.95 million and $22.5 million.

Crossings and karaoke

No crowd was evident at Crossings (one of the main dining rooms) when we arrived at 6pm. We were seated right away and the level of service from Mary-Grace and Amelia was excellent. Of note, the restrooms immediately outside the restaurant – at least the men’s – only have one actual toilet. If you notice a line outside Crossings, but not for the actual restaurant, assume it is due to insufficient bathroom capacity. An additional positive about the Sky refurb: the toilets seemed to have functioning manual flush mechanisms in addition to the automatic sensors.

Our dinner was an hour and 45 minutes, but we were in no hurry and realistically could have been done in just over an hour. We then proceeded to Spinnaker Lounge at the bow of the ship, where Kayla sang the figurative pants off everybody. Antonio, the bar server, alternated between bringing me glasses of rum and coke (with excellent pacing) and threatening to put my name on the karaoke list. The evening was a blast.

We absconded back to the cabin at 11:30pm to a pile of mail. I had high hopes to make it back up to The Local for a plate of chicken wings, but the late hour at which I’d return seemed like it might make for a harsh wake-up for our tour departure the next day.

It was back in the room that I started to notice some omissions from the stateroom upgrades. Examining the bottom of the bathroom door, rust spots were apparent, and the caulk around the bottom of the shower had definitely not been replaced. The more permanent fixtures felt much more “marine-grade” than any ship Epic’s age or newer. I honestly don’t think this should detract at all from your experience, unless you’ve got one of those immaculate, modern designer kitchens that are rendered for in-flight magazines.

Day 2 – Key West, Florida

Limes and peppers

As I woke up the next morning shortly after 8am, I reflected that it was probably a good idea that I had not conducted a late-night session at The Local featuring chicken wings. The sleep itself, though, was great, and our 9:40 meet-up gave us enough time to try our Cagney’s breakfast perk.

In addition to a well-planned breakfast menu, there was also a small buffet with meats, cheeses and fruits available in the back that we were invited to enjoy. I ordered the waffles, and was asked if I would also like bacon to accompany them. I accepted with delight.

We assembled outside the ship for an appropriate time and began the tour. True to description, there was much walking, but also stops to sample hot sauces at Peppers of Key West (a Pepper Palace analog, for those of you who may have seen that chain before) and key lime baked goods at Kermit’s.
Kayla especially liked the lime-flavoured saltwater taffy.

Make sure to bring cash for the vending machine at Peppers, or get some water in town before starting the tour. After tasting two dozen hot sauces, it turns out the machine is popular and runs out of bottled water; I had to cut the heat with a Dr. Pepper.

For what we paid and considering the $50US/port NCL tour credit, I’d consider it a reasonable value, especially considering the hot sauce tasting and slice of pie each. Key West quickly moved to the top of the list of “ports I’d like to visit again.” If you’re planning a similar trip, know that you can definitely walk around and find something interesting to do on your own – a guided excursion is not strictly necessary, and it’s quite easy to make your way around.

Relaxation mode on

After some further meandering around town, we returned to the ship for a buffet lunch around 1:40pm, then went up and forward to the “Splashes Children’s Pool” area. It was difficult to secure four deck chairs in the same area, so I wandered around a bit, visited Champs Bar and dipped my feet in the wading area until one of our neighbours vacated their lounger. We read and lazed throughout the afternoon.

I did note that despite being on the top passenger deck (“Sports Deck 12”), there was definitely another level at the front of the ship. All the stair entrances were blocked off, and it looked like it might have just been used for chair storage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this became a premium deck area (like Vibe/Posh) in future.

Returning to our cabin to prep for a specialty dinner, we received a call from Armando. While we didn’t need his assistance with any dinner-related concerns, I actually had an interesting request for him to resolve. The voicemail light on our phone had been blinking since our initial return from Key West, and there was seemingly no way to check messages.

The telephone hardware on Sky had definitely not been the beneficiary of any ship refurbishment action. Unlike Epic and *away, there was no large LCD or obvious voicemail marking. Pressing one of the non-digit buttons blared a sub-MIDI-quality “Fur Elise” in what I can only guess was supposed to be a “hold music” feature.

Both the printed instructions by the phone and in the Big Binder of Cruise Information, as well as conversations with two other Guest Services staff that day were insufficient at addressing the voicemail problem. Armando, though, called me back in less than two minutes with the correct answer: dial *99. I was certainly impressed.

Although I don’t think I’d pay for a concierge-level suite in future just to find out how to check messages, I can definitely see why some cruisers would be attracted to this distinct level of personal service. It’s like having a personal “fixer”, and I imagine more demanding passengers would find this a necessary benefit. Having a single point of contact definitely relieves some stress.

Valentine’s Day dinner at La Cucina

Our reservation was for 6:15 at La Cucina, which is located on Pool Deck 11 in between the Entourage teen club and Topsiders Bar. The deck plans are a bit misleading; by day the restaurant is empty, serving as a throughfare to the pool with a pizza bar on one side. As soon as reservations open around 5:30, the staff begins to discourage passengers from walking through and directing them through the buffet instead.

Despite this odd configuration and proximity to the pool, the ambiance and noise level was still good – definitely better than Le Bistro on Epic where the cacaphony of sound from the Atrium drowned out dinner conversations.

Having eaten at various La Cucina restaurants on previous NCL cruises, I’d say we are fairly well-versed with the experience. This one landed right about in the middle: service and pacing definitely was better than February 2018 on Getaway, but the quality of the food seemed to be a downgrade from our experience on Epic in December 2017. The Osso Bucco we ordered was definitely on the fattier side. I’m sure this is somewhat “luck of the draw”, but I can’t keep recommending it as an entree option if it’s that variable.

We wrapped up around 8pm with a total room charge of $68.33, and ascended one deck to the Pinnacle Lounge and Sushi Bar, where I discovered the delights of a Havana Old Fashioned (dark rum instead of rye/bourbon.) Ling Yi was our friendly and prompt server, and the newly refurbished venue was an excellent setting for post-dinner drinks.

Things just kept getting better as we moved outside to the Great Outdoor Cafe, where we spent the remainder of the night enjoying the weather, wind, the easily-accessible bar and Valentine’s Day cake available in the inner buffet. That, to me, is the apex of the cruising experience – being entirely satiated, with a pleasant buzz and a warm breeze passing by.

Day 3 – Freeport (Grand Bahama Island)

I’m late! I’m late! For a very important meeting time.

I’d set an alarm for 7am for an 8:20 Day Sail excursion time, which was quickly silenced in favour of sleeping for another hour. I also do not deny that this may have been related to multiple Havana Old Fashioned drink orders last evening. Kayla is a connoisseur of sleep, so she also did not object to this plan. We only left the cabin to grab some breakfast fruits from the Garden Café around 8am, and were disappointed that bananas were unavailable. I settled on a green apple to calm my turbulent stomach.

In the morning doziness, we’d made it down almost to the gangway on Deck 3 Forward, normally closed to passengers but opened specially for shore passage. It turns out I’d forgotten my sunglasses in the cabin, and had to lumber my way back up five flights and then across the length of the ship to our cabin, then back with the offending item. The distance and flights of stairs, even on a smaller ship like Sky, are not inconsequential.

I only made it back to the gangway by 8:25 and we found Jon and Steph by 8:30. They were able to convince the tour guide that we were coming soon, so we didn’t get left behind – I wouldn’t recommend being late if you can avoid it though, even for a few more minutes of precious sleep.

We loaded onto a double-decker bus and spent about a 20-minute ride to the docks, passing by a variety of oil storage facilities, a pharmaceutical plant and a power generation station. Freeport is quite industrial, so our choice to book an NCL-provided excursion in this port definitely seemed like a wise decision.

Once on the boat, drinks (beer, mimosas, water and some sickly-sweet concoction with blue curacao) began to flow as we moved out into the ocean. Captain Kendal (“like Candle”) and Neil maneuvered the sails into position once clear of the bay, and brought out the snorkeling gear and paddle boards for those who asked. I did go out to snorkel for about five minutes, and constantly struggled to operate my mask and breathing tube properly. I doggy-paddled back to the ladder at the back of the boat while Kayla and Steph managed to get a good handle on paddleboarding.

Near the end of our allotted time, our guides brought out the promised lunch, which consisted of a chicken breast on bagel with lettuce and tomato, pasta salad with olives, conch salad, chips and guacamole. Everything I tasted was good, but the conch salad might throw some folks off. A lot of the lunch components were served in a bento box-like tray and intended for sharing by two people, so this might not work well for single participants.

We really enjoyed Neil and Kendal’s antics throughout the excursion, especially being introduced to “Turn it Around (The Plumber Song)” as a critical part of island culture. It was a bit of an expensive excursion, but I think in Freeport it’s either that or stay on the ship.

After our sailing and snorkeling adventure concluded, we were directed to walk down the road a few minutes to the Bahamas Adventures compound. This was presumably to meet up with our bus back to the port and use the restrooms, but the seating area was directly beside a straw market, so there was definitely a mercenary component to the return trip.

The vendors were selling the same sort of Bahamian merchandise (t-shirts, bags, hats, and other trinkets) that you see around the ports. While not as aggressive as the Jamaican salespeople outside Dunn’s River Falls, I got to wondering if the tours booked through the more upscale cruise lines would avoid this experience, or whether it’s just part and parcel of visiting the Caribbean countries.

Salt water is salty

Amongst our group, there was a distinct desire to get back to our cabins and shower the sodium chloride off. It turns out that the ocean is not like the Great Lakes and makes for an itchy, skin-drying experience that is uncomfortable to sit around in. We also snuck in a brief nap before going to the next event, which was the Meet and Greet/Meet and Mingle.

I’d started the CruiseCritic roll call thread for this sailing and offered to organize the Meet and Greet. We had 13 participants accept – lower than other sailings, but I chalked this up to the smaller ship. There is a bit of back-and-forth required to get this organized with NCL’s corporate office and the Group Service Coordinator onboard, especially since they try to get a significant number of officers to attend. With the sail date fast approaching, and no additional details, I advised the thread that we’d do an informal meetup at 4pm on the Freeport day instead.

We did get confirmation on the official event on the day before sailing, but it was scheduled for a time when our party was on the Key West walking tour. I was able to get in touch with Marina in Group Services shortly after embarkation, who was absolutely lovely and accommodating. She was able to reschedule the event to the afternoon of Day 3, at the same time as when I’d planned the informal meeting. She also sent letters to cabins (for those participants who had provided room numbers) advising of a venue change, and arranged signs outside the Spinnaker Lounge to redirect anyone who hadn’t gotten the update.

I’m sure anyone who has done event planning before knows how this went: nobody showed up except for Kayla, Jon, Steph and myself. I was really disappointed, especially since Marina had gone to significant lengths to reschedule, corral officers, and arrange for refreshments.

We made the best of it, had some great conversations with the officers and tried to eat as many of the delicious tuna sandwiches on the catering tray as possible. I’d try and get involved in this type of event again, but would keep the following things in mind:

  • Try to get confirmation on a date and time from the cruise line as soon as possible. I left things a bit late because I was trying to shore up the largest number of participants, and was trying to be conscious of the dry dock schedule.
  • Get email addresses and cabin numbers from everyone. Let them know that plans can change last minute and you’re not going to knock their cabin doors down, but that you’d like to be able to inform people if there is a venue or time change.
  • Consider not booking a shore excursion on the first day. With longer cruises, it’s more typical to have the Meet and Greet in the morning or early afternoon on the first sea day – but on a voyage with only ports, you may have to be more flexible.
  • You may have to spend some time (and WiFi minutes) making changes. In our case, we didn’t have confirmation until Day 2 on venue. Next time I’d consider buying a WiFi package to update the forum thread and send reminder emails, which may have improved the turnout if anyone else was still connected.

Captain’s cocktail reception

I’ve neglected to mention the sheer avalanche of mail we received throughout the cruise – every afternoon and evening there were several different papers in our stateroom, many of which seemed to be related to our inclusion on the VIP list. One of the invitations was to a cocktail reception hosted by Captain Stefan Nording, held in Spinnaker. We figured we’d go and then meet Jon and Steph for dinner.

This, however, was not your typical Freestyle event. When we exited the elevator, there was a group of distinctly Platinum Plus guests and those who had paid for suites. You could tell, because at least several of them had evening dresses and suits, while I was outfitted in a tech conference t-shirt (which I’d gotten for free) and shorts. I was considering racing back to the cabin and at least changing into a shirt with a collar, but Kayla and I were quickly escorted in to take photos and shake hands with the full complement of officers. We were then offered drinks, canapes and chatted with the casino hosts for a bit about ship life and their jobs onboard.

Suffice it to say, the aftermath of this event was a full-page photo of Kayla and I standing next to Hotel Director Jean-Michel. This will never make it to the Internet. He is in full officer regalia, and I… well, look like my usual unkempt self.

What a day

My notes from the rest of the evening are rather thin – it had been an early day full of events, and on top of it, we returned to the cabin to find some strawberries and a bottle of wine compliments of Marina:

We took the wine to dinner at Crossings and shared it with Jon and Steph. We had a lengthy (our choice) sit-down meal, enjoying the service of Dayesh our waiter and the wonderful oversight of Ivan the maitre’d. The night wrapped up with a trip back up to the Great Outdoors Cafe, where I availed myself of a scotch and soda from the nearby bar. Our evening wrapped up around 11pm in preparation for our trip to Great Stirrup Cay tomorrow.

Day 4 – Great Stirrup Cay

Clamshell continued

With beautiful weather and seas, tenders over to GSC started right around 8am. We did breakfast as a group in the Great Outdoors Cafe, the highlight of which was sausage gravy atop other, less delicious items.

Kayla and I tried to flex our mysteriously-granted VIP privileges to try and get our group on a tender at a time of our choosing. We called Armando at 8:45, who told us to meet him at the Palace dining room in five minutes. He immediately escorted us two levels down a crew staircase, which exited in front of the security checkpoint where people were exiting the ship. After a brief negotiation with another crew member, he then extended a line control ribbon in front of a bunch of waiting passengers, waved us through to security, and we were on to the tender boat.

I was a bit conflicted about this – the same experience is part of the perks you get when booking a suite or Haven cabin, and apparently concierge access is included when you tier up to Platinum or beyond in the Latitudes program. The whole unexpected nature of our upgrade made butting in front of twenty-something other guests a little bit disconcerting. I appeased myself with the fact that there were only four of us who cut the line, and the tender boat wasn’t packed to the brim when departing.

The ride over was maybe only ten minutes, and we walked over to the lagoon area at the far side of the island to secure clamshells in a good location. The island hasn’t expanded further west than the lagoon, despite there being significant room – chain-link fences still section off a good portion of the property. The lighthouse structure (which will clearly be used to offer zip-lining like at Harvest Caye), has not undergone significant construction progress since our last visit in December 2017.

Steph also pointed out that a Royal Caribbean ship was in the area, and it looked like they were also offloading guests at an island but were parked at a real dock rather than tendering. CocoCay apparently is right beside GSC, which might make for an interesting dynamic. The CocoCay footprint appears smaller, despite their intensified 2019 marketing – it will be interesting to see if NCL moves to build a pier and additional attractions in the next year or two.

After maybe half an hour, Antonio (our bar server from the first evening) popped up. He was doing duty on the island that day and helped us out with a couple drinks at our seats throughout the morning. I took the opportunity to sit back, relax and read some fiction; my usual library is generally online, technical and does not involve secret agents and skulduggery.

Unfortunately my breakfast of sausage gravy and corned beef hash had withered away, so I wandered over to Abaco Taco at the eastern side of the island around opening time (~11:30am) without the rest of the group, and waited perhaps 10 minutes to collect my food and a Corona. Securing a couple tacos of each type (fish, beef and chicken), I returned to the clamshells around noon. Everyone else decided they would indeed like tacos, so I accompanied them for a second round.

The wait this time was about fifteen minutes, and there were definitely some impatient, rude and overtly racist folks in line around us. Organization certainly could have been much better (NCL should move the taco toppings to a dual-sided line, away of the area where you pick up the tacos themselves) and hunger brings out the ugliest in people.

The group also stopped at the BBQ buffet on the way back, where I declined any more food as two rounds of tacos were satisfactory. I was also not thrilled by the number of flies swarming the main buffet area; despite some clear attempts at pest control, it didn’t appear to be successful. After reading quite a few CDC Vessel Sanitation Program reports, I have to wonder what will happen when an acute gastrointestinal outbreak occurs, and it originates from one of these private islands.

Don’t crowd the stairs!

We took a tender back from GSC around 4pm – the bars all shut down at 3:30 and it looked like most activities also wrapped up around then too. We’ve never pushed it to the last tender at 4:30, but if you’re already tired late in the day, standing in line for a tender and then waiting for the staff to cram people in close to the maximum occupancy, it’s already enough.

The worst part of tendering is the offloading process. I just sat down on a bench and refused to go up to the top of the boat until the staircase was clear. I’ve seen too many people lose their footing while standing in between levels, and did not want to have the opportunity to visit the medical centre.

Back on the Sky, we showered and then went to the $10 sale. I was hoping to pick up an NCL logo shirt, since I understand that there’s some additional Latitudes discount on corporate logo-wear, but all of the available options had very port-specific branding (Bahamas or Cuba-oriented) or overwhelmingly trite phrases. Oh well – perhaps next cruise there might be something more along the line of the “Feel Free to Talk Ship With Me” option.

I returned to the Spinnaker Lounge, and had a small amount of difficulty ordering Jameson Caskmates with ice (it wasn’t clear that it was included in the zero-rated drinks.) Eventually I got the drink – and a decent sunset.

Slight dinner delay

We scheduled dinner for 7pm, thinking that would be sufficient to make Matt Johnson’s performance in the Stardust Theatre for 9pm. Upon our arrival at Crossings, we were told it would be a 20 minute wait for our party of four, and were given a buzzer. The hostess indicated that we could go as far as the Sugarcane Mojito bar before losing signal, so we did that and secured some additional beverages.

I wasn’t sure whether it was a side effect of the electrical work done during the dry dock, but the overhead lights in Sugarcane were flickering. It looked like a frequency mismatch (50Hz vs 60Hz) or the same kind of effect you get when a fluorescent tube is on its way out. Either way, this affected all the lights in that area, and I hope there’s some electrical work done to resolve it.

(We saw many beige-suited electricians working throughout the trip, including one who repaired a bedside lamp in our cabin, so I don’t doubt that this issue will be addressed quickly – especially in such a good looking venue.)

The twenty minute window went by without any activity from the handheld signaling device, so we returned to the lobby area outside the dining room. It was still fairly busy, but eventually decided at 7:40 to ask at the desk if we would soon be seated. They claimed that we had already been paged, that they’d almost given our table away, and a scramble occurred to seat us quickly. Either the buzzer’s range is not good enough to reach Sugarcane (again, perhaps after the refurb) or you should just stay close to the dining room and send one or two people to get drinks.

My drink order in Crossings was a Sam Adams Boston Lager, which looked as expected on the front but the back label was indecipherable; it appeared to be written in Hebrew. I found a forum thread from 2013 with someone claiming they’d seen something similar on the Gem out of New York, but I have no idea where they’d import such a bottle from, given the recent routes and dry dock.

I ordered the Shrimp and Mushroom Alfredo from the Classic Entrees section of the menu, but the sauce was not quite as rich and creamy as the version on Bliss. The service for our meal, despite the initial seating delay, was prompt and we were able to make it to the Stardust Lounge about ten minutes before the show.

Cruise ship magic

The performance at 9pm was Matt Johnson’s Urban Deception. The illusions themselves were decent, but they were interspersed with motivational “Never Give Up”-type segments, and a good portion of the performance was a video showing his water-tank escape from “Britain’s Got Talent” rather than live tricks. This is probably all personal style, and might be related to the limitations of what gear you can reasonably bring on a cruise and what can be slotted into a time-constrained set. I imagine he’d be fascinating to talk to in a smaller setting, given his extensive travels.

One real negative about Sky is the configuration of seating in the theatre. The upper balcony level on Deck 7 filled up quickly, and the back seats were haphazardly crammed together – you had to squeeze past people and over rows of chairs. I guess I’d recommend getting there early and trying to get a closer seat or something on the top level. If I were to sail Sky again, I’d consider just avoiding the theatre altogether and look for activities in some of the other venues.

We continued our nightly routine of sitting out in the Great Outdoors Cafe, but this time made it over to The Local for chicken wings and a nightcap. Everything was great – our server initially seemed a bit confused at the late night food order, but it came out as expected and promptly. Retiring to our cabin around 1am, we settled in with our towel animal for the last full day.

Day 5 – Nassau, Bahamas

Pool deck day

While we were able to dock in Nassau on this trip (unlike Bliss in December), we’d decided fairly early on that none of the shore excursions or shore offerings really appealed to us. With our successful day at Great Stirrup Cay satisfying the beach experience requirement, I encouraged staying onboard to get the most out of our cruise fare.

Kayla and I once again made it to breakfast at Cagney’s, where I had the steak and eggs as well as some of the side buffet selections of fish, cheese and fruit. I think the steak I had was perhaps the best-tasting meat of the voyage; the petite filet was cooked just to my liking at a medium-rare.

We met Jon and Steph by the pool deck in the early afternoon. Loungers right by the main pool area were in good supply, no doubt due to the port stop. We were able to all sit together and get into some reading, with brief interludes to duck into the water.

One of the most convenient and tasty things was the afternoon pizza service at La Cucina. They also had a flatbread/foccacia option (this varied from day to day), but the thin-crust pizza was definitely my favourite. The chicken, onion and jalapeno option accompanied the “pepperoni” and “cheese” choices, and was a good option indeed.

Bar traffic really picked up around 3pm, and due to the number of people presumably back from shore/ready to punish their livers in the afternoon, you had to be a bit more aggressive about maintaining your place in line and moving to the front. All the bartenders and servers handled the rush very well.

Evening foodstuffs

We decided on an early dinner, but our usual choice of Crossings didn’t open until 6pm. Palace, the main dining room closer to the atrium, opened at 5:30. We were seated there right away, but our general level of service was not quite as good. Drinks took a bit longer to arrive, and Kayla had to leave part way through to attend the final round of a slot tournament. We’d asked for our meals to be held until she was back, but they were delivered on the usual schedule.

Nothing worth making a fuss about, because it’s hard to tell what the key breakdown was here. My working theory is that without assigned dining times on NCL, an earlier dinner at the start of service might be logistically bumpier than something later in the evening. It’s probably not related to which of the main dining rooms you pick.

The latter portion of the evening involved a return trip to The Local, where I enjoyed a Reuben sandwich and a few bottles of Angry Orchard cider. It did take a few minutes for the bar server to confirm that my choice of fermented apple juice of choice was available, but it did exist – and was exactly what I wanted to wrap up the evening and another great cruise.

Kayla was able to combine some toppings from the buffet with a basket of fries for a delicious (albeit substantial) snack.

Post-cruise wrap-up

Line-cutting

Disembarkation morning is definitely the worst part of any cruise for me; I often don’t sleep well the night before and then there is a flurry of activity before I’d prefer to be up. After grabbing a quick breakfast in the buffet (and watching Ivan chase away seagulls from people’s plates, which was impressive), we once again leveraged our favour with Armando and met him in the Sugarcane Mojito Bar area to get a preferred walk-off experience.

He walked our group to the exit just outside the photo gallery, where we then had to somewhat awkwardly inject ourselves into the middle of two large lines that were merging onto the passenger boarding bridge. It probably did save us fifteen or twenty minutes of winding lines, but we still did have to run the gauntlet of port union escalator and customs in the Miami terminal.

Once outside, we were able to get into an Uber and proceed onto our next destination in South Beach by 8:50am, which I considered pretty good timing for having breakfast. The South Beach portion of the trip isn’t especially related here, but the fare was only around $13US from PortMiami on Dodge Island, and requires an interesting circuit of the freeways to get on the correct bridge.

Must-haves are really nice-to-haves

I was very pleasantly surprised with Sky, especially having recently sailed on the newest Bliss behemoth and its “goes-to-eleven” activities. It’s almost unfair to compare the two ships in terms of feature set, but NCL has done a great job of bringing some of the nicer touches from the megaships to a vessel half the size and twenty years older.

The consistency with venues and amenities across the fleet, rather than being boring, is actually reassuring. We were lucky that the dry dock efforts were timed well with our selected dates, and the public areas weren’t made into a complete assault on the senses (unlike some competitors).

I’ve said in previous reviews that there are some definite must-haves for me in terms of future cruises (Waterfront, different destinations, longer cruise) and this vacation on Sky basically didn’t meet any of them. That didn’t turn out to be a bad thing, though! The Great Outdoor Cafe was a decent destination in the evening for sea air and drinks, the Spinnaker Lounge had plenty of seating, and acquiring a chair for an afternoon read was entirely possible on the pool deck.

Key West is a unique port, and one that I would like to explore. It’s quite unlike Grand Cayman or Nassau, where I’d need a much more compelling experience to bother tendering or forgo the comforts of the ship. So really, all that leaves is the length of time as the true detractor for me. A five-day cruise – especially with no sea days – is both too short and feels quite busy.

Final thoughts

I think we would sail Sky again given the right circumstances, but it won’t be in the next couple of years. Its Cuba routes aren’t a huge draw for us (Canadians don’t have as many travel restrictions, so it’s less of a novelty to go there on vacation) and Sky currently tops out at 5 day sailings. I’d recommend it as a good way to get started with cruising. For those with a more strictly metered set of vacation days, you could still fly in the day before and be back home in less than a week.

I’d also like to thank whoever at NCL was responsible for our VIP upgrade, since I’m still not certain what we did to warrant the premium service. It was entirely unexpected and acted as the “icing on top” for our vacation. We don’t expect the same treatment in future, but certainly wouldn’t turn it down if it happened again!

Our remaining CruiseNext certificate from Epic has already been applied toward a 9-day Baltic Sea cruise aboard the Norwegian Escape, but that’s still over a year away. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for a way to get back on the Waterfront…

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