Taking a cruise is not something I pictured myself doing with my dad. Especially on a ship the size of Norwegian Cruise Lines, Escape! Why? Well, among other things, he’s an Ornithologist. In layman’s terms, he’s into birds…REALLY into birds. Now, one might say, ‘Well, sure, I can imagine a birder going on a cruise…I mean there are birds out there aren’t there?” And to that I’d say, “Well, yes. But a birder wouldn’t go on a cruise ship so large that it housed restaurants, casinos, bars, theaters, bowling alleys, and 6,000 people. No, birders don’t cruise. Birders go on, what’s known in birding circles as pelagic trips. Basically, these are trips on small boats that are crammed with fellow Birkenstock wearing, binocular laden, granola bar packing, passengers with one goal in mind…to find that rare sea bird! A very different experience than that of a cruise aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Escape, where fellow passengers are donning sun visors and sparkly lanyards and there is a glaring lack of binoculars. And, though they both seem to share an affinity for fanny packs, cruisers certainly aren’t carrying around granola bars. Not when there’s a 24 hour buffet (O.K. I am exaggerating, I’m pretty sure the buffet did close at some point)! However, it was a happy surprise when, at 81 years of age, my dad agreed to go on an NCL cruise to the caribbean with us. And yes, he did bring his binocs…you never know when a bird might happen by.
The ship left from Miami, Florida in November. My husband, my son and I, had just spent ten days at Disney-world. And, just prior to that, we had crossed the Atlantic from Barcelona, Spain to Port Canaveral, Florida, on another of Norwegians ships, the Epic. We were anxious to see how the two ships compared. We weren’t thrilled with the lay out of the Epic, but, we had heard good things about the Escape. What was foremost on my mind was whether or not my dad would enjoy the adventure of cruising at all. I was worried that after flying in from Arizona at our request, he’d be disappointed. Luckily, he wasn’t!
Now, I will say that until we did the trans-Atlantic in October, we had only been on mid-sized ships. So these two cruises were our first on board such large ships. And now, we can say that we definitely prefer the smaller ships (for example NCL’s Jade, and Disney’s Magic). They hold far fewer passengers…a mere 2,700 to the 4,266 (not including staff!) of the larger boats. Obviously, this is a matter of personal taste, and we did manage to enjoy ourselves despite the aspects we dis-liked about the larger ships. And of course, having my dad and sister along on the journey made for a great time! After all, often times vacations aren’t as much about what you’re doing as who you’re doing them with.
That being said, much to my dad’s chagrin, we did not see many birds while out at sea…I’m talking like maybe five? However, we did do a bird watching trip as our excursion choice while docked in Nassau. My sister had set it up with a birding friend of my dads. A local woman by the name of Carolyn Wardle, the proprietor of Bahamas Outdoors Limited was our guide. For those of you who are interested in birds, or would like to try something other than the typical cruise port activities, I’d highly recommend it. I do not consider myself a birder. But, my husband and friends disagree…I suppose, it’s all relative. Perhaps having been raised on a wildlife area by two Ornithologists, and being dragged out from the age of two weeks on birding trips (can you guess what my first word was? I’ll give you a hint. It’s a four letter word.)…well, just perhaps I do have some birding tendencies…but I swear, it’s not my fault! That ever elusive group of “they” say that traits often skip a generation. That may explain why my eleven year old son was actually happy to go birding with Gramps! And I have to say, it was a lot of fun watching them bond over birds. My son, binocs secured properly around his neck, would walk ahead (and turn to scold me if I got too loud -hey I’m a people person, and yes I like to talk!). He’d scan the trees for signs of life and puff out his chest with pride when he spotted something. My dad would clear his throat before exclaiming, “Good job!” Then, we’d make sure it was properly identified and the process would start over again. Carolyn took us to a mix of places, from a friends backyard feeder to a neighborhood in which we hunted er searched for (and found!) White Pigeons, to a bay where she pulled out her scope and showed us an abundance of birds. In addition to the birds, we got to learn a bit about the island. She really knows her stuff and was great with our son! For more information you can visit Carolyn’s website at http://www.bahamasoutdoors.com.
Our other ports of call were St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands) and Tortola (British Virgin Islands). In St. Thomas, we chose an excursion that was set up through NCL (we normally use Trip Advisor and hire local guides, or figure things out on our own). We were taken on a small boat over to the Island of St. John. And, wow! 60% of St. John’s land area is comprised of a pristine national park. Although the island was Stunning (capital S) the snorkeling was not as great as in Hawaii. We have been absolutely spoiled as we have been lucky enough to travel often to Kauai, where we have a time share…but that’s a different story. If you’re interested in that magical corner of the world, please see my article on snorkeling in Kauai or our Hawaiian Islands Pride of America Cruise on NCL. Of course, living in Seattle found us somewhat close to the Hawaiian Islands…about as close as you can get without actually living there. But now that we are in Portugal…well, we won’t be getting there as often. But I digress. Back to the Caribbean! St. John’s is definitely worth a visit, and there may be great snorkeling there, it just wasn’t our experience. However, the beach was beyond beautiful! We did the excursion to Trunk Bay. It included 90 minutes to swim and/or hang out on the beach. Now, we’re not your typical ‘beach’ folk. As in, we don’t like to just lie on a beach all day. For one thing, I’m a redhead and redheads and lots of sun don’t mix well. However, for this beach I would make an exception. I could lie there all day. Trunk Bay is a rather unfortunate name actually. It should be called something more akin to Dreams Do Come True Bay, or For Proof That Magic Exists Visit Me Bay. Cue the deep sigh of ‘now it’s just a memory and I wish I was there right now’. They advertise Trunk Bay as a good spot for first timers, kids and older adults. However, keep in mind that the best snorkeling at Trunk Bay is around the small cay that lies 30 yards off the beach. That’s actually a decent swim if you’re in your 80’s like my dad. My son, was extremely concerned for his grandpas safety. And watching him keep an eye on his gramps was sweet and something I won’t soon forget. For more information on this wondrous piece of heaven, you can go to St John’s Beach Guide for Trunk Bay.
In Tortola, we didn’t have a plan…well, given my dad was along, we knew whatever plan we had should include some birding! We wandered off the ship and found a taxi driver/guide. They all stood in groups at the end of the walkway leading from the ship, exclaiming in loud voices and a flurry of arm gestures the various reasons why you should pick them for your guide through Tortola. I did ask around for a driver that knew spots where we could see birds, but it became quite apparent as we stopped at turnouts along the road crowded with other people from our ship, that the driver took us to the same spots that all the others took their captives…I mean riders. That being said, if we hadn’t hired a taxi, we wouldn’t have seen so much of the island. We’ve known people who like to just wander around whatever town/city the ship is docked in…but remember, towns with large enough terminals to allow ships of this size, aren’t going to necessarily be the nicest part of the place your visiting. They can be industrial feeling and are crowded with locals pitching you there services and/or wares and with people getting on and off the ship. We figure, if you’ve gone all that way, you might as well see as much of it as you can or do something special that is perhaps unique to that place. On our trips, we’ve found it very reasonable to hire a private car and guide to take us out and about. For foodies, walking food tours of a place are a great way to both see an area and try the local favorites! And often times, setting things up on your own is much less expensive than opting for a cruise operated excursion. And, so easy with the Internet! I tend to use TripAdvisor, but Cruise Critic can be a good resource as well.
Before I sign off, I’d like to give you my two cents on the ship itself. Of course you can go to NCL’s Escape Page to find all the details about the size, restaurants, entertainment, etc. However, I’d like to mention a few things from our experience. If you enjoy going out at night be sure to stop by Howlin’ at the Moon’, the dueling piano bar. We really enjoyed it! They play requests so there can be some diverse music (uh, no I really didn’t need to sit through those commercial jingles), but you’ll be sure to hear the favorite standards like Billy Joel…”Sing us a song, your the piano man, sing us a song tonight”…and Journey…”Don’t Stop Believin’”! Also, on the top of our list are the comedians. Some are better than others, but we found that generally they were all pretty funny. We also enjoyed the beer pub on board as well. It’s called The District Brew House, and has more than 50 different bottled beers and 24 draft beers on tap. And, on our cruise there was a piano man in the evenings. Food wise, my husband and I agree that the food included in the cruise was just mediocre. And, really, you can get by just eating at the free restaurants and buffet. However, if you want your experience to be the best possible and if you don’t mind paying a little extra (yes, it’s a drag, as you’ve already paid for the cruise) it is our advice to go to the specialty restaurants. Cagney’s Steakhouse has fabulous steaks and a nice refreshing chopped salad…and the desserts are fabulous! The Food Republic was also a favorite, though they seemed to be working through a few kinks with their ordering system (individual iPads were on the tables and acted as menu, ordering and paying device).
As for the activities, we really love participating in trivia. We’ll even set our alarm to make it to the morning trivia! Unfortunately, on the Escape (as well as the Epic) we found that, unlike the smaller ships that have designated areas for trivia, they hold it in the atrium. This was a major bummer, as there is way too much commotion in the atrium for events like trivia and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire -though watching the “atrium sleepers” was a hoot. How people can sleep with all that noise going on around them is a mystery to me, but there never failed to be at least one person snoring away amidst the chaos. Another issue was a serious lack of seating. There was never enough. Often times, we had to retreat to the next floor up and participate from the Irish pub, but it was more difficult to hear from up there. To add insult to injury, they even showed the movies in the atrium! On other cruises, we were fortunate to have the movies shown in a designated movie theater, complete with popcorn! We weren’t the only ones who were unhappy with this set up. Apparently, a lot of people complain about this…but we are still foggy as to the reason they do it that way. Regardless, we enjoyed our trip and even though pop fell asleep during a few shows, he had a good time too.
On the plus side of activities offered on board NCL’s Escape, was the multi-level Sports Complex. The ropes course was fabulous! You actually get to walk The Plank, a board that extends 8 feet over the side of the ship! Egads, it was scary. But definitely a fun experience! I will say, our son, found it the very opposite of fun. In retrospect, we should have started him off on the lower course, which is only a few feet off the ground. Learn from our mistake, if you have kids in tow, start low!
On a final note, we spent a lot of time (unfortunately, it was fairly fruitless) looking for birds from the open air deck. They call it The Waterfront. It’s a quarter-mile oceanfront promenade, and though we had a balcony room, The Waterfront offered a nice place to retreat from the crowds and was large enough for us to all hang out together. It gave us the opportunity to spend quality time, chatting about life in general and memories of days long past as above us the sky filled with stars…and that was the best part of our cruise. Family. Because when it comes down to it, it won’t be that we could’t hear all the trivia questions, or that someone cut in front of us at the buffet, that we’ll remember…it’ll be the image of my pop, head bent in sleep, as the theater around him erupted in laughter and he jolted awake, his eyes wide, his glasses askew. It’ll be the sound of the waves mixing with my dads voice as he told my husband embarrassing stories of my childhood (think ‘Annie’ gone wrong). It’ll be the image of my son taking his grandpa’s hand, urging him toward the arcade. It’ll be birds in the trees and shuffleboard in the wind. It’ll be the setting of the sun we watched together from the bow of a gigantic white ship.