Christmas on the Norwegian Sky

Christmas Cruise Aboard the MS Norwegian Sky
December 22-29, 2001
by Rich

Looking back on this cruise, we realize we omitted many important details, such as the itinerary. From what we can gather, we sailed to the Eastern Caribbean with stops in the Bahamas (NCL’s private island), St. Thomas, and we believe, San Juan, where we barely got off the ship due to a heavy military presence (we’ve been here a couple of other times) but Rich purchased some Cuban cigars, which he enjoyed in Churchill’s, the cigar lounge onboard the Sky.

The theme of this cruise seemed to be The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. There were some truly wonderful things and some truly awful things. Nothing was average.

We cruised on the Norwegian Sky to Alaska with the parents just 7 months before (May 2001). Our experience was better in Alaska. We believe that there are several reasons for this:

  • Cruising the Caribbean draws a different clientele
  • NCL has made cut backs since Sept. 11
  • It was a Christmas cruise with a full ship and lots of families

We enjoyed our cruise, as always, but it did seem a bit schizophrenic with such a contrast between the good and the bad. So, instead of writing a typical trip report, we have created our lists of the 10 best things and the 10 worst things on this cruise.

10 Best Things

Sheraton Biscayne Bay

On Friday night, our arrival day, we stayed at the Sheraton Biscayne Bay hotel in downtown Miami, right on Biscayne Bay. We got a large room on the 14th floor with a beautiful view of the bay. On Saturday morning, we had a leisurely breakfast in the hotel cafe and then took a walk along the water outside. It was a beautiful morning and a beautiful location.

Lounges

The lounges on the Sky are terrific. Certainly the best we have experienced at sea. We especially enjoyed Windjammer/Churchill’s with wonderful piano entertainment from Daniel Oliver, and the beautiful Observation Lounge with music from a Romanian couple (he played the piano, she sang). We made a habit of having pre-dinner cocktails in the Observation Lounge and enjoying after-dinner entertainment in Windjammer/Churchill’s.

Outdoor Cafe

The Norwegian Sky is reminiscent of the Century, the first ship we sailed together, with its aft seating area high on the ship. The added benefit with the Sky is that there are 2 outdoor buffet lines serving food and a bar for drinks. This was a great place for breakfast and lunch or just sitting at the aft of the ship and watching the scenery.

Sunshine

Now that we live in Oregon, we rely on our vacations to provide us with the sunshine that we lack during the winter months. This cruise did not fail us. We had sunshine and warm weather all but one day of our vacation. And, the cloudy, drizzly day was Thursday, our last day at sea, so it didn’t bother us much.

Magens Bay, St. Thomas

At 9:00AM on Christmas day, the Norwegian Sky docked in St. Thomas. We had been to St. Thomas twice before. The first time, on the Century, we took a taxi to Magens Bay, a beautiful, long beach. The weather was not good that day and Kathy was sick, so our experience was not the best. On the Westerdam, with the parents, we took the excursion to Trunk Bay on St. John and had a wonderful time. This time, we decided to take NCL’s excursion to Magens Bay to see if we would enjoy it more this time. We were not disappointed. The weather was great, the beach was long, and the water was relatively warm (certainly warmer than the ocean water here in Oregon).

Room Service

The Sky’s room service was excellent. We had several breakfasts in our cabin and one lunch. Our orders were always delivered promptly and the food was always good.

Wrap-around Promenade Deck

One of our favorite things to do on a ship is to walk around the entire ship on the promenade deck. Not all ships have one, but, thankfully, the Sky does. Some of the best moments on the ship were the 2 of us walking around the promenade deck hand-in-hand, watching the ship sail through the ocean.

Smooth Sailing

We were quite surprised by how smooth the sailing was on this cruise. This is definitely the smoothest cruise we’ve experienced. We did not have any rough patches at all, unlike some rough seas we’ve experienced on our other cruises.

Alternative Restaurants

NCL ships focus a lot of attention on their alternative restaurants. They have 2 main restaurants where you eat a typical cruise ship meal. Then they have 3 alternative restaurants that serve better food in a nicer environment: Le Bistro (French), Horizons (Italian), and Ciao Chow (Asian). There is a $10 per person additional charge for these alternatives. We ate at Le Bistro and Horizons. Le Bistro was the best dining experience we’ve had on a ship. The food and service were terrific. Horizons was also fun. The ambiance of the room is terrific.

Pool Area

The pool area on the Sky is designed perfectly. There are 2 salt water pools separated by 4 hot tubs that are on a raised platform and covered. There are plenty of lounge chairs by the pool, as well as some padded chairs along the sheltered sides of the ship, facing the sea. There is a long bar on one end of the pool area and a stage on the other. We spent a lot of time by the pool, soaking up the sun, listening to the Jamaican band, reading, and enjoying the hot tubs (something we had not done on other cruises).

10 Worst Things

No Balcony Cabin

OK, this one isn’t NCL’s fault. This cruise was a last-minute, inexpensive Christmas vacation, and we could only get an outside cabin. But, after having a balcony cabin on our last 2 cruises, we noticed how much we missed having a balcony. On a busy, noisy ship, you need a quiet place to get away and relax. Sitting inside a small cabin gets old fast. Sitting on a balcony is relaxing and enjoyable. Now we know it is hard for us to cruise without a balcony.

Cabin Service

Our cabin steward on this cruise was the absolute worst we’ve had. He was always trying to get out of doing his job, lying when he had to. He skipped turndown service the first night, didn’t bring our mattress pad until the 2nd day, didn’t replace dirty towels, etc. For the first time, we reduced our tips because he certainly didn’t deserve the full amount.

Bar Service

Bar service on the Sky was annoying. Instead of letting you request when you wanted service, the servers would constantly roam the ship asking everyone if they wanted a drink. So, every 5 minutes, no matter what you were doing, you were interrupted by a server trying to sell you a drink (and earn their automatic 15% tip). Very annoying.

Bed

Having sailed on the Sky already, we knew that the beds were hard as a rock. So, again, we asked for a mattress pad. The pad did a little to cushion the rock-hard bed, but not a lot. We both woke up every morning with a back ache. Thankfully, we had access to the hot tubs that soothed our aches.

Security Measures at St. Thomas

Since Sept. 11 the security measures everywhere are tighter. We expected this. However, one stupid new “security” measure has been instituted in St. Thomas for cruise ships. If a cruise ship has had a stop at a non-US destination (in our case, Nassau, Bahamas), the immigration folks at St. Thomas might have the ship go through “security” after docking and before letting passengers off. Before this, only non-US citizens had to go through immigration, but now it applies to everyone. The “security” measure starts off with everyone on the ship (2100 passengers in our case) lining up outside the theatre. When you finally reach the theatre (at least a half-hour wait), you tell your cabin number to a ship employee who checks you off the list. Then you proceed to the front of the theatre where a single immigration official (wearing a white uniform and packing a pistol) waves you by without even looking at your passport. You then proceed to the other side of the theatre where you get a brown card that no one ever looks at again. So this great “security” measure adds up to a big, frustrating waste of valuable vacation time — and this was on Christmas morning! Unbelievable!

Freestyle Dining

Freestyle dining is supposed to work like this: anywhere between 5:30PM and 10:00PM, you can go to one of the two main restaurants, be seated at a table for just your group, and have a nice 4-course meal. This worked pretty well for us on the Sky in May, but not this time. Generally, it is recommended that to avoid a wait, you should avoid eating during the “rush” hour, 7-8PM. On this cruise, maybe because it was a busy Christmas cruise, the rush hour tended to be from 6:30-9PM. If you came to a restaurant during this time, you had to wait 15-30 minutes for a table. We had to do this a couple of times. We got around it when we could. We ate 2 dinners in alternative restaurants where we made reservations for 8PM, and 2 other times we ate at 5:30PM as soon as the restaurants opened.

Three of the five nights we ate in the main restaurants, the service was not good. They rushed us through dinner, forgetting to bring the right silverware, forgetting the wine we ordered, etc. And the food was not as good as on our Alaska cruise. Christmas dinner, for example, consisted of turkey slices, mushy stuffing, brussel sprouts (yuck!), and corn on the cob left over from the outdoor barbecue the day before.

400 Kids

Because of all the shutdown days that Applied Materials has forced upon us, we realized that if we wanted a vacation we had to take advantage of the Christmas week that we had to take off. We found a terrific price on this cruise, and we used our United miles for the flight, so we took it. However, cruising during Christmas week means a lot of families and a lot of kids — 400 on this cruise! The Sky was full and it showed — all of the facilities and services were strained.

Tendering

On the last full day of our cruise, the ship anchored off NCL’s private island in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay. The water here is too shallow to dock, so they have to use tender boats to get people to and from the island. At 10AM, the cruise director announced that anyone wanting to get over to the island early should go to the Observation Lounge and get a tender ticket. He also said that after an hour and a half, there would no longer be a need for tender tickets and you could just jump on a tender without a ticket. So, we decided to wait until tickets were no longer needed. After waiting 2 hours, we headed to the Observation Lounge and were told that we still needed tender tickets. We told the NCL employees about the announcement, but they played dumb, acting like they never heard of such a thing. However, we were supported by other passengers who heard the same announcement. After arguing with the NCL dopes for awhile, we decided that it was too much of a hassle to get to the island. Instead, we ate lunch at the lovely outdoor cafe and enjoyed the sparsely populated pool area.

Miami

Miami is an interesting city. It has a beautiful location on the water and it has wonderful weather. But, it also has the worst crime rate in the country and some of the ugliest neighborhoods. And, of course, these said neighborhoods are located between the Miami airport and the Miami seaport. We got several unwelcome tours of these neighborhoods as we traveled back and forth between the airport and the seaport.

Miami airport was particularly scary. There is a big sign as you enter Miami airport that reads “Getting Better Every Day.” After seeing Miami airport for ourselves, we interpreted this sign as really saying “Not as Retched as It Used to Be, But Still Pretty Awful.”

Security at the airport was pretty laughable. As we stood in line waiting to go through security, they had an officer there who asked passengers to put their laptop computers (or other like items) into a plastic cat litter pan for scanning. How do we know that they were cat litter pans? The labels are still on them!

The taxi rides were a mixed bag. The 10:30PM taxi ride from the airport to the Sheraton Biscayne Bay on Friday night was actually pretty good. However, the taxi ride from the hotel to the seaport on Saturday was bad. The taxi driver tried to cheat us by not turning on the meter. Fortunately, we caught this in time and made him turn it on. Traffic between the hotel and the seaport was awful and the seaport was a zoo. When we arrived somewhere near the ship, the cab driver dumped us out and made us get our own bags out of the trunk. This latter experience convinced us to purchase NCL’s bus transfer from the ship to the airport on disembarkation day. This was a wise choice. Everything went smoothly on the way back.

United Airlines

We had a lot of miles accumulated on United, so we used these to get our tickets to/from Miami. The flights to Miami went well. We first flew from Portland to Denver. Both airports were easy to handle, even with tightened security. The flights home were bad. Our first flight was from Miami to Chicago. In Miami, Rich was pulled aside to be searched by security. They didn’t let Kathy go with him. This was after the “shoe bomber,” so Rich’s shoes were searched too. While this was going on, United discovered that they only had 2 flight attendants instead of the required 3. So, everyone who had gotten on the plane had to come off until they could find another flight attendant. It turns out the 3rd flight attendant had forgotten the flight time. Duh! Rich had to sit in security this whole time and was told that if he left, he would have to go through the whole security process again.

As an aside, these security people are morons. On the way home, we read an article that said that the FAA is dropping the new rule that requires security personnel to have a high school diploma, because, if they did enforce this new rule, 30% of the current security staff at airports would not qualify. That gives you a secure feeling doesn’t it?

Anyway, back to our flight. United finally found a flight attendant and started to board the plane again. Rich went on first (from the security area) while Kathy waited in line. As she was about to hand her boarding pass to the attendant, a couple of men (from Chicago) pushed her aside and said, “We were already onboard, lady.” We were finally reunited on the gangway to the plane and proceeded to board. The Chicago men were getting seated in first class and when Kathy tried to pass one of them in the aisle, he purposely shoved her several times. We were furious. So we approached the first flight attendant we saw and reported the situation. His response was, “Oh my, he shouldn’t have done that.” When we tried to pursue the matter further, like identifying the culprit to the flight attendant, he ignored us completely. He was busy trying to make up for the flight attendant screw-up. Appalling. We decided not to raise a ruckus. We just wanted to get home.

We finally made it to Chicago and got on the plane to Portland. The movies are free now, but they couldn’t get our movie working. Unfortunately, they spent an hour trying to get it to work, ignoring the fact that they should have been serving food and drinks to the passengers. We were starving by the time they finally served us. Fortunately, we were in row 3, so we got served faster than most. We were very happy to land at Portland airport.

After experiencing the lousy service, stupid flight attendants, miserable treatment, and cramped seats, we can explain why United is going out of business.

About Rich Eckardt

Byzantine Catholic Convert. Knight of Columbus. Celebrant of the Divine Office.