Notes on a Cruise

Norwegian Cruise Lines, Norwegian Sky, June 18-21, Miami to Bahamas

Sunrise and Cruise Ship

I was resistant to the concept of a luxury cruise at first; my family’s nautical upbringing had conditioned in me a kind of disdain for the idea of experiencing the sea from the comfort of a floating hotel with amenities. Then I realized that I was being silly, and at a good price, a comfortable floating hotel with amenities makes for a great vacation. Plus, I had read David Foster Wallace’s Shipping Out [PDF], and far from repelling me from the idea, I was fascinated with the travel subculture oriented around the cruise industry — a fascination further fed by conversations in IRC and browsing CruiseCritic Boards.

So we booked a 3-night cruise on NCL’s Norwegian Sky (through Cruise.com) to the Bahamas in late June as a wedding anniversary gift to ourselves (over a weekend, of course, to minimize days of leave from work). Cruise cost was a bit over $200 per person for an oceanview cabin. The itinerary went thus:

Day 1: Fly to Miami, depart from Port
Day 2: Nassau, Bahamas
Day 3: Great Stirrup Cay
Day 4: Return to Port, hang out in Miami for a day, then fly back to DC.

Airport to Port
To start, I made the amateur mistake of booking our flight through the cruise line, resulting in an itinerary with a needless ATL transfer for a higher price than if we had booked it ourselves. Even after I had canceled the cruise line’s booking, paid a cancellation penalty, and booked a direct trip independently, the total cost was still cheaper than the cruise line’s itinerary. The catch: longer wait times in Miami between port and plane on departure and arrival — which was fine with us; we would fill the gap with something to do.

We left DCA in the dark of early morning and had a peaceful morning flight on AA with lovely views of DC and the Florida coast — no problems or delays. On landing early at MIA, we passed the interval at Top of the Port Restaurant, breakfasting on eggs benedict and bagels with lox while watching planes take off and land. Then, a taxi to the Port of Miami — 20 minute ride, flat rate of $24 — with lovely views of the city skyline.

Miami Skyline Norwegian Sky at Port of Miami

Embarkation
At Port, before entering the NCL terminal we were greeted with the option to check bags through to our room. Knowing we wouldn’t have access to our room for a few hours after boarding I opted to keep the bags with us — which turned out to be a mistake, since we didn’t really need anything in those bags for the next few hours, and we would be stuck dragging them around for a time.

NCL Check-in Hall

On entry, we had to pause at a table to fill out a disclaimer form affirming we had no serious communicable diseases, then go through a security checkpoint (which also had me wishing we’d checked our bags through), and finally arrive at the check-in desk, where we were given our cruise keycards. Still being an hour early, there was little else to do but sit around under the white canopy of the terminal, watching others arrive and check in.

I was quite amused that the boarding announcement was done with pep rally-ish music and a sportscaster-like welcome voiceover. En route to the ship all passengers were required to pass through a photo studio setup, standing before a background of simulated fireworks to be photographed before continuing across the gangway to the ship itself — one of many photo ops that would occur on the cruise. Once on board, the queues continued, this time for a spray of hand sanitizer by a crewmember, and a quick digital photo for the cruise card.

Norwegian Sky at Port of Miami "Welcome Aboard" Tableau

On Board the Sky
From there, we entered into the ship’s promenade deck and cabaret, where various ship’s restaurants and shops had set up a kind of bazaar showcasing their products and services. The bar area had been converted into a bag check, at which we thankfully deposited the suitcases we had not checked through to our cabin earlier. Breezing past the rest of the tables, we walked around the perimeter jogging track a bit to watch a small thunderstorm pass over Miami, and meant to check out the lounge at the upper front of the ship, but it was closed for a wedding party.

About an hour after boarding, cabins were announced open. We fetched our bags from the bar, dropped them in the room, and joined the mandatory “muster drill” for a safety briefing back on the promenade deck. Upstairs we met up with Tom and Cheryl, very active members on Cruise Critic, who were nice enough to show us around their luxurious balcony suite at the stern of the ship. We talked at length about cruise culture, Florida life and other things.

Bye Bye Ship Sun Shining Through Clouds Over Miami

Then it was back up to the pool deck for a barbeque buffet lunch, and we found a table in the Garden Cafe, right by the window, just in time to watch our ship leave port and head out to sea.

Stateroom
Our stateroom was #5001, a G-Category Oceanview, consisting of a large porthole, a small loveseat, and two joined double beds. We were situated far forward on the “Atlantic Deck,” near the Atrium and one of the main dining rooms. Like most cabins on the Sky, ours was fairly small (not more than 150 square feet), but we had cabinets and underbed storage. Bathroom was tiny but manageable, with a small round shower stall and an exhaust vent that echoed with the hum of far-off turbines.

NCL Sky Oceanview "G" Stateroom 5001 Bathroom

A small TV sat on the shelf above the work desk with various cable channels (none of which we watched) plus some video loops of shipboard and emergency info, but the best channel for me carried live CCTV video from a camera at the front of of the ship, with a view ahead of the bow. Of course, we had a porthole, but if we had gotten an interior cabin the front-view channel would have been on all the time. As it was, we spent much of our at-sea room time glued to the porthole, watching the waves roll past by day, and distant lightning storms by night.

NCL Sky Oceanview "G" Stateroom 5001 Room TV with Forward View

On entry into the room we were greeted with a covered plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries and a bottle of fizzy wine, each tagged with a little card: “Sometimes it’s better to receive.” Unsure as to whether consuming the strawberries or wine would result in an exorbitant room charge, we left them alone for housekeeping to take away. They were never taken away, but fortunately the strawberries never stunk up the room since the lid kept the smell in.

Suspicious Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

Ship
Hard to believe the Sky is one of the smaller ships in NCL’s fleet. 848 feet long at 77,000 tons with capacity for 2,002 passengers, the ship takes about ten minutes to walk from bow to stern at a leisurely pace. Such a walk can go through mazes of corridors and stairs, a giant atrium with glass elevators, a jogging track circling the Promenade Deck, multiple restaurants and lounges, and the requisite cruise ship casino and show stage. Staircases fore and aft ascend through all decks, and hallway carpets are patterned with fish swimming towards the bow so one can orient oneself with a look at the floor. Personally I was prepared for tacky bright colors and tacky architecture, but decor-wise the ship was quite inoffensive in its practicality.

Norwegian Sky at Prince George Wharf

NCL Sky Pool Deck NCL Sky Atrium

Sun chairs abound all up and down the pool and sports deck, with quiet areas toward the bow to get away from occasional drunk revelers and screaming children. The pools themselves are a modest affair, however, with only two small saltwater swimming pools, one deep and one shallow, with four hot tubs between them; and this was just fine since this was a short cruise with an island port each day, so access to open water was readily available via excursions. We managed to swim a bit in the deeper pool but it was a short dip as it was rather crowded.

We didn’t spend much time in the bars, casino, or show stage, but we did check out the shops, and wandered around the sports deck a bit to watch passengers play basketball and shuffleboard. We also spent a lot of time sunning ourselves on beach chairs in the forward quiet area, or enjoying the Garden Cafe’s aft deck view. One spot on the ship I thought I would see more of but didn’t was the “Outrigger Lounge” and adjacent forward viewing deck, but as it was reserved for a private party on the first day we forgot about checking it out again till we were headed back to Florida. It was nice, though.

Relaxing on Pool Deck Forward Viewing Deck

The ship has a library, which I thought might be a nice place to pass time, but it turned out to be a rather small, windowless interior room with a few chairs and a selection of aged hardcovers.

Crew
Crew areas were clearly marked no-access on passenger decks, and whole lower decks were crew-only. The ship positively vibrated with a fascinating hum of behind-the-scenes activity, and I was fairly impressed with the level of service and courtesy afforded to us. None of the incessant, hovering micromanagement that David Foster Wallace had wryly observed on his cruise, just friendly faces at places where you need them, from food service to shore excursion advice to a spray of hand sanitizer on the boarding gangway.

Great Stirrup Cay Welcoming Committee

One source of warm fuzzies to me was the number of Filipino crew members on board. The Philippines is very much a nation of migrant workers, many of whom work in maritime industries, and cruise lines are no exception. From conversations with various staff members I gleaned that Filipinos on board probably accounted for about half the crew. Friendly people all around.

Towel Animal

I must reserve special mention for Orlando of the shore excursions desk. When our excursion tickets hit us with an unexpected schedule change that conflicted with my morning scuba reservations, he was on the ball at all times, calling the errant excursion provider in Nassau to get us back on our original schedule, and staying in communication with us through stateroom phone and even my cellphone to keep us updated so I could tell whether or not to cancel my scheduled dive trip before the refund threshold. We got our original schedule back, and I didn’t need to cancel the morning dive. That level of service was enough to erase my outrage at the threat of disruption.

Nassau
First port of call was Nassau, The Bahamas. Saturday, 8AM on the dot, the ship docked at Prince George’s Wharf, while we breakfasted in the Garden Cafe, viewing over bacon and eggs the townscape of buildings and houses both colorful and ramshackle, contrasting with the unabashedly pink opulence of The Atlantis Resort across the channel.

Prince George Wharf, Nassau

I had booked a dive trip for the morning (just me; Amy preferred to explore town rather than go scuba but was kind enough to let me indulge for a morning) but I had booked it independently of the cruise and needed to take a taxi to the dive center. Down the ship’s forward stairs, out the gangway, up the pier and through the still-closed tourist-trap mini-mall of souvenir stands, I approached the taxi desk and asked for a lift to Bahama Divers. Dispatcher told me to wait. I waited around the mostly empty welcome center for ten minutes, asked about the taxi again, and was told that if I wanted a taxi by myself I’d have to pay more.

Coming from a third world country I recognize a bribe when presented with the opportunity to pay one, and as I was running late for the dive appointment, I ponied up $20 for a ride on a van to a dive shop just ten minutes away.

(Details on the dive in a separate dive log entry. There were sharks.)

Fortunately after the dive, Bahama Divers gave me a ride back, and I got to the ship just in time to meet Amy for lunch, then head back down to the pier for our afternoon shore excursion:

Athol Island Snorkeling
On the pier, passengers from our ship and other cruise ships had gathered for a short walk down the wharf to a large catamaran, equipped with bench seating for a multitude, a wet bar serving “Bahama Mamas,” large barrels full of rental snorkeling gear in various sizes, and a talky tour guide whose English had somehow taken on a strong Midwestern US accent.

Athol Island Snorkeling

It was a 45 minute ride to Athol Island, a slender, uninhabited, mound of sand and grass sticking out of the Atlantic near Nassau. The actual snorkeling venue, called Coral Gardens, was a few hundred feet off the shore, a shallow reef of patchy coral and sand about 10-15 feet deep, lightly scattered with small reef fish. The water was delightfully warm, though I chafed at the required precautionary life vests all snorkelers had to wear. (I kinda got yelled at for jumping in without a vest. Probably for the best.) We stayed out for about two hours, and found a bag of someone else’s leftover fish food, so we even got to feed a few fish before getting back on the boat.

On the trip back, the guide pointed out various celebrities’ mansions, from Oprah to Tiger Woods to Michael Jackson to Elvis.

Great Stirrup Cay
Second cruise day was spent on Great Stirrup Cay, NCL’s private island. Formerly an island headquarters for Belcher Oil Company in the 70s, Great Stirrup Cay has been thoroughly converted into a simple island playground, with beaches, artificial reefs, nature trails, beach chairs, and a towering inflatable water slide. There’s no pier, so access to the island is by tender, a boat that shuttles passengers between ship and island through the day.

Great Stirrup Cay Beach All Snorkelers Must Wear a Vest

We woke and tendered to the island earlier than most of the hungover guests, arriving to plenty of free beach chairs in choice shady spots. A good part of the island was fenced off for what appeared to be massive improvement works, but we pretty much spent the entire day in the water anyway, snorkeling to little natural and artificial reefs in the netted area around the beach, and feeding fish with leftover bread smuggled from the previous night’s dinner.

Squirrelfish Coral

Food was available on the island with a BBQ lunch buffet of hotdogs, hamburgers, fresh fruits, and other summery fare, plus coolers of iced tea and water. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to eat hotdogs and rice (Pinoy style, as I told the Filipino crew attending the food) while we watched a large lizard crawl along a nearby path. Afterward it was back in the water for more snorkeling and fish feeding.

We got marvelously sunburnt.

Food
One reason we chose NCL was for “Freestyle” dining: unscheduled, unassigned eating options from a choice of multiple onboard restaurants. Two main dining rooms — Palace and Crossings — provide regular a ala carte dining for “free” (that is, included in the cruise fare), while other specialty restaurants serve premiere cuisine for an extra cover charge. The Garden Cafe on the Pool Deck also had a “free” buffet at mealtimes.

Garden Cafe Buffet Sampling Garden Cafe Buffet Sampling

We stuck to regular dining options for the whole cruise, and did not regret it at all. Breakfast buffet in the Garden Cafe had the requisite eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, and mushrooms. Some of it was a bit greasy but tolerable. As for the “regular” fare in the Palace main dining room, the food served was mostly above average in taste and presentation, and the ambience was much enhanced by the view of the sea out the windows. A list of our a la carte dinner orders:

  • Day 1: grilled mahi-mahi, lamb proven├žal
  • Day 2: lobster tail and grouper, beef wellington
  • Day 3: pecan-encrusted snapper, cheese tortellini

I went on a bit of a seafood bender this trip with all the fish. Pretty much my only real complaint was that the lobster tail was a bit tough from overcooking, but otherwise the food was excellent, on par with what one would expect from a land-based specialty gourmet restaurant rather than, say, a greasy spoon diner or an Olive Garden.

Water
This is something I was wondering about before we boarded; and the answer is yes, the water on the ship is safe to drink straight from the tap. I brought a plastic bottle on board and refilled it from the bathroom sink for excursions, and the water was just fine for all hydratory needs, if a bit chlorine-y after long periods in the bottle. Amy got some stomach trouble about a week after the trip, so your mileage may vary.

Internet Speed Test, NCL Norwegian Sky

Internet

Satellite via wifi internet on board was about as slow as dialup and cost a bundle of money. I thought I’d be able to upload photos during meals but I only ever managed to upload one image — a screenshot of a speed test — and that took a whole lunch.

Disembarkation
The last night on board, passengers had the option of leaving their bags out in the hall with color-coded tags indicating desired time of disembarkation, so their bags would meet them at a carousel after immigration. Optionally, those who wished to walk off with their bags could do so earlier. We got the bag tags for the latest exit so we could catch more sleep.

Back in Miami

The ship returned to the Port of Miami in the dark of early Monday morning, while I stared out the porthole of our stateroom, watching the heavy cranes and stacked containers slide past. Docking was well before waking time. We rose late, had a relaxed breakfast in the rather hectically crowded Garden Cafe, and spent the rest of the morning packing. There were a few delays with disembarking passengers before us, however, so we did spend a bit of time sitting around the atrium and browsing the photo gallery after vacating our stateroom, and after leaving the ship we faced a rather long line at immigration, but we were in no rush.

Vizcaya
Having all day before our flight to DC, we decided to check out Vizcaya for the day. First we taxi’d to the airport to drop off our bags at the left luggage counter, then took another taxi down to Vizcaya, getting our Haitian taxi driver’s cellphone number so he could pick us up afterward.

IMG_2576.JPG IMG_2558.JPG

A wealthy industrialist’s winter estate, Vizcaya’s many rooms were built after various architectural themes through history, and populated with art from the corresponding eras. Outside, various gardens provided vistas and promenades, and an expansive view of Bay Biscayne backdropped a breakwater in the shape of an old stone barge. It was a hot day out, but pleasant, with many quince├▒eras roaming the grounds with their photographers and entourages.

Home
We stayed till 4PM, then called for our taxi driver to take us to the airport, where we had a late lunch of sandwiches and conch fritters at Top of the Port, and took some photos of the Miami Airport chapel before flying home to DC.

Miami Airport Chapel

Quite a pleasant vacation for just four days, and this first cruise left me with a nice impression of NCL and cruising in general.

Miami Through Porthole

Postscript: Carbon

Of course, riding a massive combustible-fuel-propelled luxury vessel releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it can trap heat and affect climate. To offset this effect I purchased carbon offsets from CarbonFund. Compensating for the impact of a 4 day cruise (plus the round trip DC-Miami flight) cost about $18, an amount that would go to programs like atmospheric methane removal and wind farms.

Sun Shining Through Clouds Over Miami Cumulonimbus Anvil