My wife and I sailed on the week-long December 8 NCL Encore Eastern Caribbean cruise, roundtrip from Miami, with visits to San Juan, St. Thomas, and Tortola. This was only the third regular sailing of the Encore, so everything on the ship looked brand new. We've done many cruises before, several on NCL, and Encore was the largest ship we've ever been on. I'm not writing a full review, but I wanted to share some notes and impressions from the cruise.
I also want to thank BirdTravels for their extremely helpful and detailed review of the first Encore sailing (https://boards.cruisecritic.com/topic/2712544-birdtravels-on-the-inaugural-voyage-of-the-encore-to-the-eastern-caribbean).
We arrived at the terminal at around 11:20am. Our eDocs said to check in at Terminal C, but it was actually Terminal B (same thing happened to BirdTravels). Check in was fairly quick. After check in, we had to wait about 20 minutes in the boarding lounge (which was full) for our group number to be called. Initially the group numbers were called consecutively, but then they started skipping numbers. Unlike most cruises, the photographers weren't really making an effort to get people to stop for photos on the way into the boarding lounge, and it seemed most people didn't.
Note that you can't bring your own bottled water onboard, and while you can bring wine, they'll charge $15 per bottle no matter where you plan to drink it.
After we boarded, we first went to check on a Cagney's reservation that had been requested but not confirmed (they had the reservation). Staterooms weren't ready yet, so we went to the Taste MDR for lunch and then walked around the ship. By 2:00pm they still hadn't announced that the rooms were ready, so we decided to stop by our room anyway and it was ready (if they ever announced that rooms were ready, we didn't hear it). We had two pieces of luggage -- the first was delivered around 3:10pm, the second a short time later.
The mandatory mustering was at 3:30pm. No life jackets required -- they don't even provide them in the room. They scanned cruise cards so there was no roll call.
We were in an aft-facing balcony room, 15280. The room was very nice, but narrow, with the bed next to the balcony and only about 18 inches of space between the foot of the bed and the wall. There were no drawers anywhere except two under the large sofa (both full of bedding), but lots of shelves, mostly small. The closet had a good amount of hanging space and lots of hangers (which rattled a lot when the ship was moving). There was a small mini-safe, too small for an iPad unless you leaned it against the back wall. There was no desk chair, just an ottoman that doubles as a coffee table. There's a large "Smart TV" that provides access to a limited number of TV channels as well as access to ship information and your onboard account.
The bathroom was nice, large for a cruise ship, with a glass shower enclosure with a handheld showerhead (no tub), and lots of storage. The balcony was a good size, with two reclining chairs and a small table, and private. The first morning of the cruise we found shattered glass all over the balcony; someone must have dropped a glass from above, but the only open space above us was the Laser Tag area 3 decks up and Speedway above that, so we don't know where the glass came from.
The bed was comfortable, and the AC worked well. I slept on the side of the bed next to the balcony, and if I had to get up in the middle of the night, it was a bit challenging to get around the bed, especially in the dark. The sound insulation between staterooms was not too good, and one of our neighbors liked to sing, even at night (we had to ask him to stop).
When the ship was moving, there was a lot of rocking/vibration, noticeable everywhere but especially in our room. When we were trying to sleep, my wife and I joked that it felt like there was another couple in bed with us going at it enthusiastically, but that's what it actually felt like. It seemed to improve for the last half of the cruise, so I'm guessing there might have been an issue with the stabilizers (the seas weren't particularly rough).
FOOD AND DRINK
There are many dining options on the Encore, but most of the interesting restaurants are specialty restaurants that charge extra. We had Specialty Dining Package for 3 meals (a free perk) which we used at Los Lobos, Cagney's, and the Food Republic. Except for one of the items we had at Food Republic (cod skewers), all the meals were very good, though service at Los Lobos was a bit slow. Food Republic provides tablets at each table that you use to browse the food and drink offerings and order food (can't order drinks via the tablet) -- the offerings were a bit different from those on the paper menu shown in BirdTravels' review. I made online reservations for Los Lobos and Food Republic a few weeks before the cruise, but Cagney's reservations were no longer available by then; my NCL cruise consultant requested a reservation for us, but as I mentioned earlier it wasn't confirmed so we had to check on it after boarding.
We had other dinners and a couple of lunches in the MDR's, once in the larger Manhattan, and the rest in the smaller Taste and Savor (all 3 have the same menu). Taste and Savor are pretty much indistinguishable from one another. On the at-sea days, we grabbed a light lunch in the Observation Lounge before heading out to the pool, which was quick. We had breakfast delivered to our stateroom each morning except the last and ate on the balcony (except once when it was too sunny out there). Breakfast was delivered 10-15 minutes earlier than requested a few times, but on time the other days; oddly they only brought one napkin each morning. The food outside of the specialty restaurants was mostly pretty good. We grabbed some afternoon snacks one day in the Garden Cafe buffet, but didn't eat any meals there; we did walk through it a couple of times, and they had a good variety of offerings.
We also had the Premium Beverage Package (another free perk), which includes alcoholic beverages up to $15. This covered all the liquor that we like to drink, but there was a limited selection of wines by the glass that were under $15. Unlike the more expensive Premium Plus package, our package didn't include bottled water, but we bought a water package of 12 half-liter bottles for about $15 (plus tax and service charge). Note that taxes on alcoholic beverages are not included in the Premium package, so there is a small charge for each drink.
The bar we visited most often was the A-List, between Los Lobos and Cagney's. We also tried Mixx (between Taste and Savor) a couple of times, and the Observation Lounge once when WT Greer was playing there. We tried the Maltings whiskey bar once briefly, but people kept on going through the outside door coming from or going to the cigar bar outside; every time the door opened there would be a huge wind gust in the bar (and you could smell the cigar smoke).
We saw a few shows onboard: Choir of Man, Kinky Boots, and the Beatles tribute band Yesterday when they played in the Encore theater. Choir of Man was awesome, the best show we've ever seen on a cruise by far. Kinky Boots, which we saw the next night, was very good too, but not quite as good; I think we would have enjoyed it more if we had seen it first. The band Yesterday was very good, except their "young Beatles" wigs didn't quite work on men their age. Both Choir or Man and Kinky Boots required reservations, which we made online before the cruise (they sold out while we were on board), but there was a standby line for people without reservations. The Yesterday performance didn't require reservations, and that band also performed several nights at the Cavern Club.
We wanted to see one or more of the comedy shows, but when I tried to make reservations shortly before the cruise, the only available times conflicted with other plans we had made, and all of those shows sold out before the end of the first day. I don't know if there was a standby line, but the Social Comedy and Nightclub where the shows were held is a pretty small venue. I was a bit disappointed that you had to make reservations for most of the shows, and couldn't be at all spontaneous.
The only musicians we heard at various times onboard were the Temperature Band, duo Phil & Keysha, and pianist/vocalist WT Greer. They were all pretty good (most of the time). There were other musicians onboard but we never ran across them.
INTERNET AND WIFI
One the free perks we received was the 120-minute internet package, but I paid for an upgrade to Premium Unlimited Internet package, because that was the only one that supported the use of a VPN client (I always use a VPN client on a public WiFi network). The WiFi was pretty slow, which is typical for cruise ships, and I had limited success getting a VPN connection (I use NordVPN from my iPhone and iPad).
NCL has a new mobile app (which apparently replaces the old iConcierge app), which allows you to make reservations and purchase packages both before and during the cruise, and gives you access to information about onboard activities and lets you manage your internet connection while on board. Even if you don't purchase the internet package, you can use the app to connect to the ship's WiFi and do anything except access the internet (although they were providing access to Cruise Critic even without the package).
The internet package is supposed to only work on one device at a time, and if you try to connect from a second device, you'll be asked if you want to disconnect from the first device before you can connect the second (I was switching between an iPad and iPhone). I accidentally discovered a "loophole": when you connect the second device, if the first device is powered off, you'll still get the prompt to disconnect it, but when you turn that first device on again, both devices will have access to the internet. That's how it worked for me -- your mileage may vary.
There were 3 ports of call: San Juan (5pm - midnight), St. Thomas (8am - 6pm), and Tortola (8am - 5pm). The San Juan stop was on the second full day of the cruise, and the others were the next two days. We didn't book any shore excursions.
In San Juan, we had dinner at the Punto de Vista Rooftop Restaurant. We shared empanadas and each had Mofongo, which was great but way more food than we could eat. Unfortunately the outside rooftop seating area was closed due to intermittent rain. The restaurant doesn't take reservations -- we went as soon as we got off the ship and were seated right away, but by the time we left there was a long waiting list. After dinner, we walked around Old San Juan for a little while before returning to the ship. Even though the shops were located in old historic buildings, most of them were selling the typical cruise port touristy merchandise.
In St. Thomas we went to Magens Bay, which we always do when we stop here, but it was mobbed and more crowded than we've ever seen it before. Next time we'll have to try another beach.
In Tortola, we went to Brewers Bay, which is one of the options if you want to snorkel from the beach, and less crowded than the more popular Cane Garden Bay. Brewers was uncrowded but not empty. The beach bar (Nicole’s) had limited food selections, drinks, and rental chairs ($5 per lounger); the loungers were stacked on the beach and many people seemed unaware that you had to pay for them and were just taking them (and no one seemed to care). The beach was very rocky, but not in the water. The snorkeling is on the left side of the beach (facing the water). The water was a bit murky until you got about 100 feet or so from the beach; there was lots of coral (all bleached), and although the fish were a bit sparse, there were lots of them, some pretty large. We had hot dogs and fries for lunch, which were pretty good, and rum punches, which were not as good but strong. No credit cards accepted, so bring cash.
There were 4 at-sea days, including the day we stopped at San Juan at 5pm. We spent some time on the upper pool deck (17) on the first 3 days. The lounges are packed together so tightly there's literally no space between them, and there aren't many lounges in the sun. We always went around lunch time and were able to find a couple of lounges, but it was just too crowded (and very noisy depending on where you ended up). A lot of deck space is used up by the water slides, Laser Tag, Speedway, etc. If we do another cruise on Encore or a similar ship, we might spring for Vibe Beach passes.
We chose the Self Assist disembarkation option, which gets you off the ship first but you have to carry all your stuff off with you. Everyone could choose whichever disembarkation group they wanted -- the groups weren't assigned as they usually are.
The Self Assist group was scheduled to disembark at 7:30am, but they started letting us off at 7:10. It was a breeze. Customs didn't ask about purchases and there no forms to fill out. We were through Customs and outside by 7:20. We live in south FL so we took an Uber home.
We enjoyed the cruise overall, and would definitely consider sailing on Encore again (but a different itinerary). The only things we were unhappy with were the crowded pool decks and the fact that you had to make reservations for entertainment. We took advantage of the CruiseNext promotion they were offering onboard, so we're already looking forward to our next cruise!