We just enjoyed a fabulous week aboard NCL’s newest ship, the Encore. For background, this was my 14th cruise overall and fourth with NCL, having previously sailed on the Pearl, Gem and Escape. I am 54 years old and sailed with my wife, who celebrated a birthday aboard the ship, and our 16-year-old daughter. We had a balcony stateroom on Deck 13.
My initial thoughts upon boarding were, “Wow, this ship is massive.” It reminded me of the Escape on steroids. In some ways, the design was similar in terms of the public areas on Decks 5, 6, 7 and 8. Some things were different as the Kids’ clubs were down on Deck 5. The Encore also has a Go Kart track and Laser Tag, which was not on the Escape (it had a Ropes Course and Spice H2O, an area that has drawn a lot of conversation on Cruise Critic and other boards).
The lack of space around the pool is a valid complaint. Chairs are literally on top of one another, and on sea days, it was a sea of humanity. Thankfully, we purchased Vibe passes. It gave my wife and I a piece of mind, even if meant paying $209 and having to get on the ship early to procure one of the 300 available passes. I’m not sure when this area sold out, but my guess is you had to be among the first three or four groups. We spent $179 to have Priority Access, which allowed us to board the ship with the Platinum, Platinum Plus and Ambassador guests. It gave us a chance to get to the Q Restaurant in time to purchase the passes.
Vibe, by the way, is a separate area on Decks 19 and 20 for anyone 18 and older. My only beef with the area is the lack of a small pool. NCL could have designed one on Deck 20 to go along with the two hot tubs on Deck 19, the bar area (Deck 19), two showers (Deck 19) and mister (Deck 20). Bar service was great and we never dealt with the mass of humanity in the pool area.
Embarkation was as quick as I remember for a cruise. Once security opened at 10 a.m., we had our cards and were in the lounge area within 10 minutes. They don’t even take your photo anymore. They glean the image from your passport.
For those who don’t want to fight the crowds, you can eat lunch at Taste or Savor on embarkation day. Food, on a smaller scale, can be found in the Observation Lounge on Deck 15. By the way, the Observation Lounge is the most underrated section of the ship. A great place to relax, have a drink and get awesome panoramic views. You can get a continental breakfast here each day as well.
We ate dinner in all three main dining rooms (Taste, Savor and Manhattan), which offer the same menus. Each night, there are different offerings, along with everyday staples such as Caesar Salad or NY Strip steak. We also paid for three nights in one of the specialty restaurants. We chose Onda by Scarpetta (Italian), Ocean Blue (seafood) and the Food Republic (Asian). We originally booked LeBistro (French), but got an email from NCL three days prior to departure that they had to cancel the reservation due to the restaurant being booked the entire week. NCL gave each of us $50 in onboard credit. I called NCL well before our scheduled departure to make restaurant reservations. You can also book once you get on board in Teriyaki restaurant on embarkation day.
All three specialty restaurants were terrific, as was the service. Each of our waiters went into detail what the SDP included. There are some items that have additional upcharges such as lobster and tiger shrimp and crab cakes. It’s too bad NCL no longer has a lobster night, but we understand that times have changed and so have the costs for such luxury food items. It doesn’t make or break our cruising experience.
The Garden Café also is quite spacious and a great spot for breakfast. There are plenty of egg/omelet stations. We also enjoyed breakfast in Taste/Savor, where I could get a bagel and lox. We did not use room service, which was available with our Priority Access.
Before we departed, I heard plenty of complaints regarding the service and crew. What cruise were they taking? Virtually every crew member we encountered was friendly and courteous. We never saw the cruise director, Roberto, but I hardly care about such things. I care more about great service in the restaurants and bars, and at customer-service desks. I always live by the motto: Treat those how you would like to be treated. Put yourself in their shoes. They are tireless workers serving 4000 people. We always make it a point to say please and thank you and ask how their day is going. Little touches go a long way.
Then there are the people who moan and groan about NCL “nickel-and-diming” its guests. Are there a lot of extra fees for things like go karts and laser tag? Yes. But do your research. Not once was I forced to take part in these activities. To me, there are plenty of other free things to do on the ship. Do research on the ship before you leave. Budget for “extras.” The go karts are worth $15. You get eight minutes and it’s a lot of fun. My wife and daughter actually went back again for a second session. They had no problem making a reservation. They also enjoyed the laser tag. I thought the Escape Room was a waste of time and money. But you live and learn.
I did think the $9.95 cost to text and phone people on board was well worth it. I kept in touch with my family throughout the cruise as well as our friends who came along. Download the App and follow the instructions once you get onboard. The internet also worked very well. I paid $178 for unlimited use for the entire cruise. Was able to post items to Facebook, check email and get news/sports updates with ease. My daughter was able to log in to her school network to do some homework.
For smokers, there are only a couple places to puff cigarettes, which has created a lot of negative buzz. I don’t have an issue with this because a majority of people don’t smoke. Even the casino near my home has divided up the area for smokers and non-smokers, leaving more room and machines for the non-smokers. When I go to Vegas, I can’t smoke cigars at most blackjack tables. You live with it. The Encore has a very nice cigar lounge where cigarettes are verboten. I also had excellent bar service from nearby Maltings while I enjoyed my stogies. The room could be a little bigger (seats about 16), but I never had an issue finding an available leather chair.
We are also people who don’t go to a lot of the after-dinner parties, so I can’t comment on things like the Glow Party or other nighttime parties. We did see several shows, including Choir of Man, Kinky Boots and the comedians. Both shows were terrific – we thought Choir of Man was slightly better. Those boys can sing. The two comedians were entertaining; Bob Zany was better than Warren. Bob interacted well with the audience. We saw both their family and adult (18 and over) shows.
You do have to book your comedy shows either in The Social, NCL app or using your stateroom TV. Easier to just go to The Social on embarkation day. We got every show we wanted. I admit, having to book all of the’ shows can be a bit hectic. We have always just showed up and walked into comedy shows. But again, with this many passengers, you’ll have to have some way to keep track of the numbers.
Because NCL decided to add its private island in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay, to our itinerary about a month prior to departure, our port time in Tortola was cut by 4 hours. That was disappointing, but we found GSC to be a nice island. We did a wave runner excursion that I would recommend. We also booked a Premier Cabana, which accommodated eight people. We shared it with another family of 4 that came along with us. It is $404 with a 10 percent discount for being a Latitudes member (I was Silver for this cruise). San Juan, to me, was a complete waste of time. First of all, we were there from 5 to 11:30 p.m. All you can really do is explore bars and restaurants in Old Town. We also stayed on the boat in St. Thomas (we had been there many times), except for an hour of shopping. The boat was a ghost town and we were able to do the water slides and enjoy the pool sans the crowds. We signed up for the Jost Van Dyke excursion but because I was one of later reservations, it was canceled because the company only could accommodate a small amount of people due to our short stay in Tortola. So I went into town and bought some Cuban cigars at Little Denmark, and my wife and daughter got a spa treatment.
I had no issues with our balcony stateroom (13896). Everything in the bathroom worked just fine and the bed was comfortable. The balcony itself was small, but not worth complaining about.
I did trivia a couple of times and I must say the questions were hard. I do wish NCL would have some more specific trivia categories like sports, geography, etc. We did not do any of the pay activities such as bingo or Deal or No Deal. Just don’t see the value in them. I also didn’t spend any time in the casino. My wife lost $150. There are plenty of tables and slot machines, plus an enclosed area for cigarette smokers (no cigars).
As for the water slides, there are two up on the pool deck and if you want to avoid the lines, use them on a port day. The Ocean Loop is phenomenal, but some people got stuck, presumably for not using the proper technique. I didn’t have an issue. It was super-fast and fun. The Aqua Racer is an inner-tube water slide that is slow. Great for young kids. To use the Ocean Loop, you have to be at least 120 pounds and remove all items such as watches, jewelry and Fit-Bits. Check the Daily or App to find out when these slides are in operation.
Finally, the ship did have some movement. I really felt it on Friday. I think it was because the captain was going full speed to make it to GSC on time from Tortola. I never got sick, but there were a few jolts. Otherwise, the movement was minimal. If you do have trouble with sea sickness, take along the appropriate medication.
So, would I sail the Encore again? Yes. She is a great ship with a great crew. But our next cruise is likely to be the Mediterranean on the Getaway or Dawn in 2021.
Feel free to send me questions or comments. Happy to answer them.