Having sailed on P&O’s Britannia and RCI’s Anthem of the Seas earlier in the year, the opportunity to spend an overnight on NCL’s new ship Norwegian Escape was too good to miss.
Arriving at Southampton Ocean terminal at 10.15 meant that parking was easy and I was allocated check in group 3. As the ship was not yet ready the embarkation process was broken down into two parts, check in and then after another period of waiting, security and boarding. I boarded at about 11.45 and set off to explore the ship whilst waiting for the cabins to become available.
I normally try to avoid the main buffet for the first lunch as they often become very crowded and finding seats can be a challenge, so I headed for Margaritaville at Sea which is located at the aft end of deck 17. This is the first Margartiaville at Sea so as a confirmed Jimmy Buffet fan I was delighted to see that it is on Norwegian Escape and that it is a no extra cost dining venue. The menu followed the Margaritaville theme very well. The nacho sharing plate was amazing and the Cheeseburger in Paradise was very well cooked and presented, all washed down with Jimmy’s Landshark lager. The portions are large, the service is friendly and it soon proved to be very popular for lunch.
This dining venue is ideally located for warm weather cruising but, it was rather chilly on a breezy late October day in Southampton. This has to be one of the best value “no extra charge” alternative dining venues that I have experienced on any ship and it makes Johnny Rockets on Anthem of the Seas look like a very poor, expensive, self-service alternative.
The cabin was available at 13.00 so after a very enjoyable lunch it was time to unpack a few things for the 1 night mini cruise to Brighton and back in my standard balcony cabin on deck 10. The cabin is quite compact and with rather dark wood that is used for the cabinets and wardrobes it appeared a little claustrophobic after the much brighter cabins on Anthem. The cabin was smaller than the equivalent Anthem cabin and about the same size as the Britannia balcony cabin, but there was less storage space, not that that was a problem for my 1 night stay.
The shower room was also rather more compact than Anthem but felt very similar to Britannia. Most of the storage was on open shelves but there was a very useful cupboard under the wash basin. The balcony was smaller than Anthem but bigger than Britannia but the 2 chairs were simple fixed ones so there was no issue about trying to recline them!
There was a small coffee machine used to heat water for tea but there is no coffee provided which is strange as there was no milk, only coffee creamer. For a good cup of coffee I had to head to the Atrium café on deck 6 where they serve Lavazza expresso and all the derivatives ($2.80 extra charge for a medium Americano).
Looking around the ship there are some really lovely areas but the one bug bear is that there are only two lift wells and they are located quite a long way from the front of the ship. There are 16 guest lifts so there are more than Britannia (14) but not as many as Anthem (20). As Escape also has the largest passenger capacity this did mean that there were times when you had to let a number of lifts pass as they arrived full which means that you can have quite a wait at peak times.
I was very pleasantly surprised with most of the public rooms and especially the different dining options available. A number of the bars and restaurants that are located on deck 8 have outside seating along what is called the “waterside”, in effect a wide open deck area with a good proportion of it given over to bar and restaurant seating along both sides of the ship. Another wonderful idea for a ship that is to spend most of its time in the Caribbean.
With only one night and three meals available on this sampler cruise I could not experience many of the different dining options but I did have an opportunity to visit them all during the afternoon and sample one of the extra cost restaurants for diner. I believe that NCL have taken a lead on their competitors in most of the dining areas and the variety, quality and value offered. The no extra charge options include the Garden Café (The main buffet restaurant open most of the day), the Taste and Savor Restaurants (one of which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner), the Manhattan Room (dinner only), Margaritaville at Sea (from 12 to late) and O’Sheehan’s grill (open all day). When I visited the Manhattan room during dinner service there was a really good band playing whilst you dined.
For me the Garden Café is a disappointment. For a new ship like Escape it is a rather traditional straight line cafeteria style self-service restaurant that is spread out over about a quarter of deck 16. Anthem of the Seas has cracked buffets with its large free flow service area which offers a much better choice and it was also much easier to finding a seat. One point of note is that NCL did not seem to be as diligent in the use of hand sanitizers as RCI and P&O and I saw a good number of people enter the buffet and other restaurants without using the hand basins or the sanitizers.
The extra charge restaurants include the wonderful French themed Le Bistro which includes some seating in the atrium, reminiscent of street side dining in Paris. La Cucina is the Italian restaurant and Cagney’s Steakhouse is self-explanatory. There are also the Teppanyaki restaurant, the Pincho Tapas bar, Bayamo, and of course the Supper Club dinner show but for me one of the most interesting alternatives was Food Republic which is located in a light and airy conservatory and offers a fascinating selection of Asian and stir fry dishes.
For dinner I booked into Moderno, the Brazilian churascaria and I was not disappointed. A wonderful experience with excellent steaks and other meats at a reasonable supplement of £30 for 2. This was better quality food and service than experienced in alternative dining on either Britannia or Anthem and is a little over half the price of some of their alternative dining options on the other ships.
With the exception of the buffet, I feel that Norwegian provide the best combination and quality of dining as well as good value in the additional charge restaurants, especially when you consider that great alternatives like Margaritaville and O’Sheehan’s do not carry any extra charge for food and the average charge for the restaurants is $19.95 per person (for the steak restaurant) compared with $50 on RCI ships
Drinks prices are, like those on RCI creeping up somewhat and when you add service and VAT (Escape was in British waters) a standard glass of wine and a Corona beer in O’Sheehan’s came in at nearly $23 (around £15.50!) and two small draft beers in the District Brew House were $17.00 (nearly £11.50). I did not have an opportunity to examine the drinks packages on Norwegian Escape but my experience of the RCI packages was not that positive given their price and what was not included in them. I feel that P&O still offer the most competitive bar and wine prices of these three companies.
A couple of bars that I did manage to visit included the very attractively furnished Cellars wine bar and the Jimmy Buffet themed 5 o’Clock Somewhere bar, both of which have some seating along the waterfront, I need to try these in the Caribbean rather than the English Channel in October!
The central atrium provides a very spectacular heart to the ship and a number of bars, dining areas, shops and the casino radiate from the three floors that are connected by spectacular glass stairs. The enormous feature chandelier is very spectacular, especially at night as the colours are continuously changing.
Norwegian Escape has a large central swimming area and features some quite exciting looking water slides, but October in Southampton was not the time for me to sample them! I could not find any covered swimming pool but, as this ship is scheduled to live in the sunshine of the Caribbean it probably does not need one. The amount of open deck space did not look as generous as either Britannia or Anthem and with more passengers on board it might be a challenge finding a sun bed on a sea day in the Caribbean.
With time so short I was not able to sample many of the bars or public rooms but based on this short visit I was very impressed with the range of bars, dining and public areas, I feel that these are probably the best of the three ships.
Britannia, Anthem and Escape all have something different to offer in what I feel is now the 3-4 star cruise experience. Standards of service and the nice little touches that we became used to a number of years ago have been eroded over time on all of these companies, but all three provide a solid cruise experience. Establishing which one is best depends on your priorities. I feel that Anthem has the most wows (e.g. North Star), the best accommodation, great pool areas and buffet dining, Escape has the best public rooms, standard and alternative dining and great water slides and Britannia offers a more traditional feel (a bit like a 4 star chain hotel) with good open decks, a more British feel and more reasonable drinks prices. All provide a wide range of entertainment and facilities for children. All of these large ships suffer from lift congestion and are likely to have very busy pool decks as more passengers are accommodated on additional decks whilst the amount of open deck space is reduced by other features. Royal Caribbean win hands down when it comes to getting passengers on and off their ships with the minimum of fuss and queues.
I am looking forward to a more in depth opportunity to sample some of the Norwegian features when I have a 12 days on Norwegian Epic in January.