Candyce H. Stape
Washington - The goal aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Escape: Not to end up at a buffet dinner or watching the comedy juggler twirl knives, hats and balls.
Not that we had anything against buffets or jugglers, they just were not as interesting as the 20-plus places to dine or the Broadway-style musicals, the chanteuse at the Supper Club, the Four Seasons tribute band or the adult comedy shows.
For our annual August cruise together, my cousins Wayne and Mary Jane and my husband David and I chose the Escape, which launched last November. They live in Morris Plains, New Jersey; we live in DC, and a cruise delivers time together (and apart) without either couple doing the work of hosting for a week or more - plus, we explore interesting ports.
Since we sailed the Mediterranean aboard RCI's Anthem of the Seas last year, this year we sought beaches and another relatively new ship. On our eight-day voyage from Miami, the Escape docked in St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Tortola and Nassau.
But could we do this without busting our budget? In January, Norwegian replaced many of its $20-to-$25 (about R300 to R350) fixed cover charges at specialty restaurants with a la carte pricing, increasing the bill for a three-course meal to the $45-per-person range, above what was included in in the cruise fare. Would the food be worth the additional money? Would the scheduling effort make every meal feel like a food fight?
Our primary challenge, it turned out, was coordinating our dinner plans and our desired shows. After all, 4 248 passengers were attempting the same trick. On the second day of our eight-day Caribbean voyage, after retreating to our respective cabins to amend our plans via the interactive television, both Wayne and I ran into the hall, screaming, “I can't take it anymore.”
Now, our family may be a bit short on patience; however, the on-screen guide moved at a pace reminiscent of dial-up Internet, lacked menus and prices for a la carte restaurants, and didn't provide a voyage-long schedule of performances requiring reservations. (Norwegian stopped giving these complete lists to guests about 18 months ago because, a spokesman said, guests weren't using the entire list.)
After 30 minutes of attempting to change our reservations for “After Midnight,” a Broadway-style musical about Harlem's Cotton Club, I gave up. When I buttonholed the assistant box office manager later, he revealed that the online system can't process cancellations. (The hotel manager said the ship would fix this problem for future voyages.)
Those glitches aside, the Norwegian Escape surprised us positively. Unlike some other mass-market cruise vessels, it featured enough interesting dining venues to mitigate lines and varied enough entertainment to please millennials as well as aging baby boomers.
With some trepidation on our first night, we sat down at Savor, one of the main dining rooms that, along with Taste and the Manhattan Room, serve identical menus that change daily and require no extra fee. (Based on our experience on prior NCL voyages, we expected the ship to be comfortable, but the included food mediocre.) Savor and Taste, divided into small areas and accented with sculptural vases and art, looked like city restaurants. In contrast to main dining menus on some other cruise lines, Norwegian's offered more than a dozen options. Most were good, especially the roasted butternut squash salad, the steak and the eggplant. We breathed sighs of relief. It wasn't going to be a hardship after all to eat the “free” dining-room fare.
With its Art Deco touches, two-story atrium, orchestra and dance floor, the Manhattan Room conjured a swanky 1930s supper club. Couples swirled to What A Wonderful World, Fly Me To The Moon and other classics. We loved it.
Our experience at the specialty restaurants varied. Le Bistro's lobster was soggy; La Cucina's pasta only passable; and Cagney's Steakhouse delivered tasty steaks even if the service went beyond leisurely to slow.
Our favourite dining place: Bayamo, Iron Chef Jose Garces's Latin-inspired specialty restaurant. (Among his other eateries is Rural Society, an Argentine-style steakhouse, in the District.) We chose outdoor seating on the Waterfront, the Deck 8 promenade, enjoying ocean breezes and sunset views while savouring chilled lobster salad, sea bass ceviche, black cod with squid-ink glaze and Wagyu sirloin with salsa. Our dinner for two, without wine, totalled $80 plus an 18-percent gratuity. But we paid only the tip because, upon booking our voyage, we had chosen specialty dining at four restaurants as part of Norwegian's “Free at Sea” promotion.
Such packages, hotel director Jovo Sekulovic said, will continue, although details for the new one weren't available. “We provide the value upfront so that guests don't have to wait until the last minute to get a deal on a cruise, when airfares are more expensive.”
Why the change from fixed fees to item pricing at specialty restaurants? “With the a la carte menus, guests have more choice,” said food and beverage director Anil Kumar Chinthapattla. “With a cover charge, guests were limited to one appetiser, one entree and one dessert. Now guests can choose two to three appetizers for a first course as well as the entree and dessert.”
Other food firsts on the Escape include Margaritaville at Sea, the Jimmy Buffett-themed cheeseburger-in-paradise eatery serving nine kinds of margaritas; the District Brew House, with 24 beers on tap, plus 50 bottled beers; as well as the Supper Club, a dinner-and-show venue.
On our sailing, Tony-nominated Brenda Braxton, backed by a quartet, owned the Supper Club stage. She expertly intermingled Broadway tunes, ballads and standards with biographical anecdotes. The show was well worth the $35-per-person fee.
Two additional shows, for no extra fee, also placed well above our expectations for cruise-ship entertainment. In After Midnight, an adaptation of the award-winning Broadway musical about Harlem's Cotton Club, the performers belted out big-band and jazz songs and swung into exuberant tap and soft-shoe routines, among other dance styles.
After fleeing For the Record: The Brat Pack, a confused musical of '80s teen angst, we wandered into Howl At The Moon - two lively pianists taking turns playing audience requests and ad libbing - and returned several more times during the voyage. The duelling pianists fielded the varied requests with style, easily handling rock classics, Disney songs, country tunes and pop chart-toppers.
We never had to watch the comedy juggler unless we wanted to.
If you go...
Where to stay
Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Escape
Sets sail from Miami, offering primarily seven-night Eastern Caribbean voyages to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands; Tortola, British Virgin Islands; and Nassau, Bahamas, as well as some seven-night Western Caribbean voyages to Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras; Harvest Caye, Belize; Costa Maya, Mexico; and Cozumel, Mexico in summer 2017.