Norwegian Escape Cruise Review by SeaMaverick
- Sail Date: May 2019
- Destination: Bermuda
- Cabin Type: Balcony Stateroom
In this review I will try to remain as objective as possible and give tips where I can. Understand that my rating of 3-stars is not a negative assessment of the Escape or her crew. It is merely a neutral rating, meaning I rate the Escape as average especially when I compare the ship against other cruises and other lines on which I have sailed. I have set this review up with headers to make it easier for you to skip those things that are not of interest to you.
SHIP BACKGROUND: Make no mistake, the NCL Escape is a really BIG ship. As of 2019 it is the 14th largest cruise ship in the world! The Escape is similar to the Breakaway and her sister ships in physical layout, but had additional cabins added to make her a “Breakaway-Plus” class ship. Whereas the Breakaway accommodates 3,963 passengers (and a crew of 1,657) the Escape accommodates 4,266 passengers (and a crew of 1,733). This does not include third or fourth passenger occupants (often children) in a cabin. On our voyage, for example, the total passenger headcount was 4,829. A ship of this size is NOT for everyone, regardless of the itinerary; bigger is not always better. So my first tip is to do your homework before booking any ship and select the one that is right for you.
OUR BACKGROUND: This review is for the Escape’s cruise of May 5-12, 2019. To understand our perspective, on this voyage there was my wife (50+) and myself (60+). It was our ninth cruise overall, third time on Norwegian, and our fourth time to Bermuda. One of our sons (27) joined us for this trip. It was his third cruise overall, second time on NCL and first time to Bermuda.
NYC CRUISE TERMINALS: There are three cruise terminals serving the NYC market: Manhattan (serves Norwegian, Carnival and Holland America), Brooklyn (serves Princess and Cunard) and Bayonne, NJ (serves Celebrity and Royal Caribbean). Unless you live in NYC, the Manhattan terminal is probably the most difficult and most costly to access. Parking is available at the pier for $40/day but it is limited. If the parking garage is full there are other garages in the area, but these can come at an even heftier price.
If you are coming from nearby points in NY, NJ, PA, or CT my recommendation is to price out other options than parking at the pier. Oftentimes the convenience of not having to drive into Manhattan is worth the extra cost. For comparison purposes, we used YELP! to get 12 quotes from Hunterdon County, NJ to NYC. The totals we found (for fare + tips + tolls) ranged from $183 to $319 each way, with most in the $225 range, so be sure to shop around.
As a tip, if you are driving yourself to the piers, leave sufficient time to find a parking garage. It may be easier for you to park first and wheel your luggage to a porter, rather than using the curb side luggage drop off and then going in search of parking. Also, if you do not have EZPass, expect high tolls on all of the tunnels, bridges and turnpike approaches so have sufficient “toll money” available.
EMBARKATION: Embarkation was slow, painfully slow, the slowest we have ever experienced on any cruise. We arrived at the NY Cruise Ship Terminal at 11:30 AM. We did not step foot aboard the ship until 1:10 PM. Almost all of that time was spent standing in queue to check in, after having quickly gone through security. Considering passengers are supposed to complete their preboarding on-line, I do not know what took so long. What I noticed was that many of the guests who were taking 10 – 15 – 20 minutes or longer with a boarding agent were non-US citizens (judging from the color of their passports) and probably had additional paperwork to fill out. There really needs to be a separate line to assist these individuals.
Once onboard the muster drill at 3:30 is definitely a congested event. This is amplified at the conclusion of the drill when everyone heads for an elevator at the same time. (And as noted in other reviews, this ship does not have any elevators midships, so everyone is crowded fore and aft.) My tip is that if you are capable of walking at least 4 flights of stairs, take the stairs to Deck 8, go outside, and enjoy the views while the lines thin out. It will easily save you a half-hour wait for an elevator.
On this cruise, just prior to the muster drill the Captain announced that our departure was being delayed from 4:00 PM until 6:30 PM due to some heavy weather that had passed through and was currently in the ocean. This was fine; I am sure he did not want a repeat of the incident from a few months ago when this same ship encountered unexpected 125 mph winds offshore. But I suspect there was more to it than just weather since, at 5 PM, I could see the forklifts on the dock were still loading massive amounts of luggage onboard. Nice try. Norwegian, but there was no way that was all getting onboard had we left at 4 PM as scheduled.
CABIN: Our cabin was a forward balcony, 10730. It was sufficiently large for 3 adults, as the couch was made into a 3rd bed for my son to use. There are no drawers in this stateroom, but ample storage on the shelves in the closet assuming you stow your empty luggage under the bed. Our steward, Reggie, did a great job of keeping the room clean. He recognized that there were 3 of us in the room so brought in an extra chair for the balcony and, at my request, also brought in a dozen extra hangers for the closet.
The bathroom in these cabins is large by cruise ship standards with plenty of space to store toiletries. The shower stall is enclosed with a curved Plexiglas door rather than a shower curtain, which is nice. It is also well lit.
PASSENGERS: For our cruise the average age of the passengers was probably 30-something. There were a lot of young couples pushing toddlers in strollers and more school-age children than I would have expected. (I guess pulling your child out of school for a week in May is no longer as big of a deal as it used to be.) There were very few teenage/college age kids on this cruise, since most schools were still in session. I suspect that once school is out for the summer this ratio will change dramatically and the Escape will take on the air of a being either a summer camp or a party ship. So buyer beware when booking your cruise dates, especially if you are looking for a quiet voyage, and consider Bermuda in the months of April/May and September/October.
CREW: The crew was remarkable; friendly and hard working. Practically everyone we encountered or passed in the hallway smiled, said hello, and offered us a “good day” greeting. And for the few who did not, my take on it is not that they were being rude or unfriendly but that either they were preoccupied with some other task at hand or were not as well versed in English to respond appropriately. As a passenger, my advice to anyone is to remember that a cruise is only as much fun as you make it. So just smile and say “Hi” to everyone you meet. After all, you are on vacation – so act like it. You will be surprised at how pleasant everyone can be to you in return.
One weak note, in our opinion the Cruise Director Jacky was AWOL for the most part. We never saw him anywhere other than in the main theatre, and even there he never had much of a presence. I can remember cruise directors by name from 10 years ago who were engaging, humorous, and generally fun. I will not remember Jacky in even a few weeks.
FREESTYLE CRUISING: In general, we are huge fans of Freestyle cruising. Not having set dining times, set seating, or a formal night (and therefore not having to pack a suit and tie to play dress up) is perfect for us. I believe some people have taken the notion too far, however, and are “too free” with their wardrobe choices. NCL is not doing anything to turn people away from the MDRs who are not appropriately dressed in “resort casual”. For example, we had a passenger sitting near us in the Manhattan room wearing a Patriots football jersey, cut off shorts, and a Boston baseball cap (backwards). Not appropriate. It was not uncommon to see t-shirts instead of collared polo shirts and flip-flops instead of topsiders. These are fine for the Garden Café, but a little too casual for one of the MDRs. And there was even one woman sitting at the table next to us smoking an eCigarette – something that is not supposed to be permitted. Come on Norwegian – police yourself better before you ruin a good thing. As it is, NCL has changed a lot in the last few years and not in a good way; it now feels more like a Carnival ship.
DINING: The food aboard the Escape was good, but not “OMG – WOW” good. There was no lobster night in any of the MDRs, and prime rib was not on the menu until the last evening. Nor were there any of the traditional “cold fruit soups” on any of the menus. I found it interesting that the repeating classic fare – that is, the menu items that are available every night – did not include the customary salmon dish. Instead, the repeating seafood entrée was breaded flounder. I think this is an indication of NCL cutting back on expenses and going with a cheaper selection of meals.
Food is always a matter of personal taste, and for us we often found the meals were lacking “something”. That may have been a soup that was missing seasoning, an appetizer that should have included a sauce to moisten it up, or a dessert that needed more zing. Again, none of the food was bad, but none of it stood out on this cruise as being superior. Perhaps the best item on the entire ship was the honey crème brûlée on the first night; that was indeed delicious. On the other end of the scale, the worst food item was probably what NCL tried to pass off as pizza. The crust was so thin and hard that the pizza tasted more like tomato sauce and cheese on a cracker. I am sorry, but if you are serving the NY/NJ market you better have a darn good pizza on your ship’s menu. And please, serving French Fries in the MDR on a plate that calls for mashed potatoes or a baked potato is just being cheap.
It was nice to see NCL does have nighttime snacks available in the Garden Café from 9:30-11:30 each night. This is something that was missing on the Breakaway during its inaugural season. Aside from that, breakfast and lunch in the Garden Café did not vary their daily choices by very much. The food was fine, but not outrageously spectacular.
The most noticeable issue we had with the whole dining experience was its inconsistency. A sit-down lunch in Taste/Savor took about 1 ½ hours. Dinner in the Manhattan room took about 2 hours. Much of this time was spent idly waiting to be served. One person would seat you, 10 minutes later another person would take your order, and 20 minutes later a third person would begin to serve you. Often that third person mixed up the orders at the table (no big deal), but on more than one occasion they started to serve us a meal meant for another table.
We would always order 4 items from the dinner menu: an appetizer, a soup, a salad and an entrée. We expected these to be served in sequence but again, on more than one occasion, we were served the appetizer, soup and salad all at the same time. That is poor service. Of course, an Assistant Maître-D’ would always come around and ask how things were. We did not complain about the minor slips, it was not worth it. But they do build up in your mind after a while and lower your overall impression of the service. NCL probably should spend a little more time working on training their dining room staff.
The running joke we had throughout the cruise was that no one on the ship knew how to fill the simplest order – that of after-meal tea and coffee. This was not limited to dinner only, or to just the Manhattan room. It occurred at breakfast, lunch and dinner in all of the complimentary restaurants. My wife and I always order a pot of tea, each, with a small pitcher of milk, each, and our son ordered coffee. For seven days we received every possible permutation of that order except the correct thing. We usually were served only 1 pot of tea for the two of us, sometimes with one cup, sometimes with two cups (for a table of 3), sometimes with 1 milk for the entire table, sometimes with no milk, sometimes with 1 teabag, sometimes with 3 teabags (already in the pot!). The worst was one night when we were served 1 pot of tea and 1 cup for my wife and me to share. We could not get a waiter’s attention, so my son rinsed out his coffee cup at the table with a glass of drinking water and we reused that. Again, this is poor service.
As a few additional, random thoughts on dining, the food portions in O’Sheehan’s seemed to be more generous than in the MDRs. And the Garden Café offers both hard ice cream and soft self-serve cones. That is nice.
RECREATION: Recreational activities are pretty standard for NCL. There are 2 shuffle board courts, a bocci court, a basketball court, the ropes course, water slides, pools, a kiddie-zone and a miniature golf course. Caution – the two zip lines from the rope course go over the mini golf course and, if the rail is wet from rain, drip lubricant in the wind. My guess is that it is an environmentally friendly substance and not petroleum based, as it did wash out of my white polo shirt after much scrubbing. But we all were instantly covered in dozens of spots. Judging from the amount of dried black spots on the railing on Deck 8 and on the lifeboat davits on the starboard side as well, NCL is well-aware of the problem but has done nothing to warn its guests.
ENTERTAINMENT: Entertainment was hit or miss. The highlight of the cruise is the show Choir of Man. It is a lively hour of entertainment set in a British Pub atmosphere. There is singing, dancing, and audience involvement. And the best part is that the “pub” opens about 15 minutes before the show starts, during which the entire audience in the theatre is invited onstage for a free beer and to mingle with the cast.
The low point of the cruise entertainment is the show After Midnight. This is a plotless hour of song and dance that is supposed to be a tribute to the jazz music of Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club in Harlem during the 1920s-1930s. The cast was talented, no question about it, but we are talking music that is nearly 100 years old. It was quite boring. Some of the audience loved it; we did not. In fact, this is the first time I have seen a show at sea that I would have walked out on it had we been in an aisle seat. Yes, it was that bad.
The other shows in the theatre included a welcome show on the first night that was a forgettable sample of the acts for the week to come, a comic-magician who was entertaining, and a comedian who was not funny (we skipped the theatre show having seen him perform in one of the clubs the night before and not having laughed once for his entire set).
Some of the best entertainment on the ship is to simply pop into Headliners for a few minutes to sit and listen to the piano duo referred to as Howl at the Moon.
PUBLIC AREAS: During the muster drill and around the pool deck on sea days the ship definitely felt congested. Also, any time there was an activity in the Atrium getting through that area could sometimes be a challenge. Other than that, the public areas on the ship merely felt crowded, especially during peak periods – such as dinner time or when a show was getting out. There are plenty of public places to go to escape the swarms of passengers; you just have to find them. Our favorite spot was the stern on Deck 8 or walking around the Waterfront.
SHIP IN GENERAL: Considering that ship’s hull art is by marine artist Guy Harvey, I would have expected that the exterior marine life theme would have been carried forward to the interior motif. It has not, and that is a big disappointment. Staircase landings are all adorned with mirrors rather than art. (Why no Guy Harvey murals, NCL? You commissioned him to do the outside of the ship, why not the inside, too?) In fact, the mini golf theme is urban ghetto. I kid you not. The putt-putt course is made to look like the roof top of tenement apartments, complete with graffiti style lettering proclaiming itself as ‘Roof Top Golf’. It was totally out of place on this ship.
The grotto on Deck 17 in the Spice H2O area is nice, and adults only. So it is another place to get away from the children onboard if so desired.
Enrichment activities are numerous throughout the voyage, but typical of what you would find on any cruise line. I cannot complain though; as a result of the raffle for attending the seminar on wrist watches I won a $900 (MSRP) watch that I gave to my son. Sweet.
One of the disappointments with the Escape is the gift shop. My wife and I collect shot glasses from all of our cruises. On this ship there was virtually no NCL branded merchandise at all. No shot glasses, no mugs, no Christmas ornaments, no pewter refrigerator magnets, nothing. When I inquired about this I was told, “Well, we used to have it, but nothing has been sent for a while.” Someone in the NCL marketing department definitely has dropped the ball.
Likewise, we were never given our Latitude Rewards Member ship pins by our steward, as has been the case on previous cruises. I did obtain one each for the three of us, but only after I went down to the Service Desk and asked for them.
BERMUDA: We have been to this Island nation multiple times now and look forward to going back again many more times. Prices have gone up, but the residents are still friendly and helpful. By way of a few price points, gasoline was $2.19/liter (i.e., $8.29/gallon). Rum Cakes at Dockyard are $18 apiece for the small size. The National Museum of Bermuda is $15/pp admission. Gibbs Hill Lighthouse is still the best buy on the island at $2.50/pp admission to climb up to the top. And the 75-minute jet ski tour (of which my son raved) is $145 for a single. Transportation costs are another matter that needs closer discussion, so let me do that separately.
BERMUDA TRANSPORTATION: Transportation fares in Bermuda have steadily risen over the past few years, to the point where it takes a little bit of math to figure what is the best value based on one’s personal plans. The island is divided into 14 zones and has two basic fares: one for a trip of 3 zones or less and one for anything greater than that (called a 14-zone fare). As a rule of thumb figure anything you do (Dockyard to Hamilton, St. Georges to Hamilton, Dockyard to the south shore beaches, etc.) is going to be a 14-zone fare.
A one-way fare is $5 cash. Tokens are offered at a reduced fare of $4.50. Day passes are offered for 1-Day ($19), 2-Day ($31.50) and 3-Day ($44). Figure that unless you plan to get on a different bus/ferry more than 4 times on any given day, the tokens are your best bet. Tokens or passes can be purchased in Dockyard right on the pier at the shack made from a reconditioned cargo container or at the visitor information building. They cannot be purchased in advance over the internet or on the ship.
Please note that the most economical fare is to purchase a book of 15-stamps for $37.50. These can be shared within your group. Unfortunately, the Bermuda Transportation Department is no dummy – these books cannot be purchased at Dockyard, nor can they be purchased in advance. If you want to use them to save a few dollars you will need to first pay for a token to take a ferry from Dockyard to Hamilton and then buy your book of stamps there to use for the rest of your stay. For most people, this extra effort is not worth the savings.
Norwegian offers a complimentary ferry service to St. George and back. This is the most economical way to go especially if you plan your day to do St. George in the morning and then stay around Dockyard in the afternoon to visit the shops, the National Museum of Bermuda, or perhaps take a water sport excursion.
There are also private mini buses that leave right from the pier in Dockyard and follow the #7 bus route to Horseshoe Bay Beach. These shuttles are like taxis and charge a flat rate of $14/pp round trip. This is $5 more than the public buses, but the added convenience of being taken “down the hill” to the beach might appeal to some people.
The new public bus schedule for 2019 has buses leaving Hamilton for Dockyard, and Dockyard for Hamilton, every 30 minutes. The posted schedule is for the starting point, which is not so helpful if you are standing at a beach stop somewhere along the route. There are no scheduled times for any of these other stops. The entire end-to-end trip is listed as taking 62 minutes, but it can be longer or shorter depending on how many times the bus stops to load or unload passengers. Therefore, even if you know when a bus should be passing a certain point, unless you get to the bus stop early it is likely you will miss the bus and will have to wait 30 minutes for the next one.
The posted time for the #7 buses to start their run from Clock Tower Mall at Dockyard heading to Hamilton is at 10 minutes before the hour and 20 minutes after the hour. As a tip to help you remember when to catch the bus on your return ride, this is approximately the same time that a bus heading the opposite way from Hamilton to Dockyard will pass Horseshoe Bay Beach.
DISEMBARKATION: A lot has been written in recent reviews about how chaotic disembarkation from the Escape has been in NYC. Although we did not find it to be chaotic, we did find it to be long. Here is our experience. Shortly after departing Bermuda on Friday, one of the ship’s TV channels started airing information about the disembarkation procedure for Sunday morning. Passengers were instructed to pick up color-coded tags by the Customer Service Desk. These included the tags for your luggage if you wanted to set them outside your cabin on Saturday night as well as tags if you wanted to do self-assisted walk off. For self-assist the first block of time was Green (7:45-8:00 AM) followed by Orange (8:00 -8:30 AM) and Brown (8:30 – 9:00 AM). There are then 7 additional colors/times for guests who leave their luggage outside their cabins the night before, with embarkation starting at 9:00 AM and the last group leaving at 10:10 AM. There was no other announcement about these tags. My tip is to get to the desk early on Friday afternoon if you have a specific window in mind that you want to exit.
By the time we stopped by the desk after dinner on Friday the only self-assist tags that were left were green. This was fine for us as we wanted to be in the first group to leave anyway, but keep this in mind if you are looking for a later time. The tags go first come, first served.
The ship docked in NYC around 6:00 AM on Sunday. We ate a quick breakfast in the Garden Café at 6, did a final check of our cabin, grabbed our luggage and went down to Deck 6 forward at 6:45 AM. At that time the line to exit the ship through the door nearest the theatre already stretched through O’Sheehan’s back to the chandelier midships. (The length of this line will make more sense to you once you are actually onboard.) A 2nd line also formed on Deck 6 aft from the exit near Taste/Savor back towards the chandelier from the opposite direction. As you may have read in other reviews, there are no midship elevators, a major design flaw on this class of ships, so these are your only options.
We stood in line until 7:45; 1 full hour. I can only imagine how long the two lines were by that time or what confusion existed if you were trying to get on one. For this reason, my recommendation is – if you are doing self-assist then get in line as early as possible and be prepared to wait.
There was no announcement on the PA that disembarkation had begun. It just suddenly started to move at 7:45 on the dot. We exited the ship fairly quickly at that point, but then needed to walk the entire length of the pier from the bow to the stern, outside in the rain, only to meet up with the other embarkation line that was exiting nearest the stern. These two lines merged and funneled into the cruise terminal. My tip is to get on the embarkation line in the rear of the ship to start with.
Once inside the terminal we took our luggage down an escalator, through the warehouse where all of the other luggage was arranged for those passengers getting off at a later time, and through the winding queue to the Custom’s officials. Custom forms are no longer required unless you have over $800 in purchases to declare. We were out of the building and on the curb, in the rain, at 8:05. So, figure it took us 20 minutes to go from ship to curb once we actually started moving. Those behind us obviously took longer.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: In summary, as I stated at the beginning, a vacation cruise aboard the NCL Escape is a wonderful experience. The crew is great and there is more than enough to keep anyone busy day and night for the full the week. Bermuda is a gorgeous port of call and having three days/two nights in port gives you a lot of time to explore. The NCL Escape itself, however, is not for everyone because of its size and volume of passengers. The overall dining and entertainment experience is about average for any of the mainstream cruise lines; not the best, certainly not the worst. I would not hold back recommending it but would simply add the caveat to do your homework before booking and go in with your eyes wide open. Thank you.
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Port & Shore Excursion Reviews
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