A Cruise for the Homeless
While in the midst of moving from Colorado to Tennessee,
we found ourselves in need of a break, and somewhere to live for a week – we were temporarily homeless! A cruise seemed like just the thing we needed, something of reasonable cost leaving from a Florida port within a week or two.
Norwegian Breakaway out of Miami was the only option that clicked all the boxes. It was an inside cabin, which we had never tried before, but it did include the “Unlimited Beverage Package”. Even Better!
Norwegian Breakaway vs Epic
We had previously cruised on Norwegian a little over two years ago and were left with a poor impression of Norwegian Epic. The service, accommodations, and food were all sub-par in our opinion. Read the post about our experience on Norwegian Epic here.
Breakaway is a newer ship (built in 2015 & refurbished in 2018) than Epic (built in 2010 & refurbished in 2015) and slightly smaller, 3963 guests vs 4100 on Epic. We anticipated some improvements had been made.
Starting with check-in, we dealt with the typically long lines. There was an NCL employee at the head of the line watching for the next agent to be available and direct the next guest to the agent. At least that was what it appeared he was supposed to be doing. In reality, he seemed oblivious to the process, leaving the agents to yell and wave their hands to get the guests’ attention to move forward. And, other guests to yell at the guest to move on up to the next available agent.
What? No Guinness!
Once onboard, we knew from past experience the buffet would be very busy, so we headed to the Irish Pub, O’Sheehan’s, for lunch and a drink. There was a very limited menu and the full selection of beers was not available. No Guinness in an Irish Pub? I settled for a can of Heineken and Debbie, a Pepsi. To be fair, Guinness was available after that first day. I had a Reuben sandwich and Deb had her go-to Fish & Chips. The sandwich was soggy and the fish was doughy and greasy.
Cruise Norwegian App
Norwegian, like most cruise lines, now has a free downloadable app to keep track of what is going on around the ship. Download Cruise Norwegian from the Apple App Store or Google Play to book shore excursions, make dinner reservations, and keep track of your onboard account for free. For a fee, you can also text or call other guests. So, you no longer have to carry a folded up copy of the daily schedule in your back pocket. Just pull it up on your phone. On the downside, you do not get a vacation disconnect from the digital world.
The Life Boat Drill
Of course, mid-afternoon on this first day is the mandatory Life Boat Drill. All services cease for this and all guests are required to report to their assigned muster stations which are located in the various bars, restaurants, and theaters located about the ship. Guests’ key-cards are scanned to assure 100% participation. Here, the crew futilely tries to get the guests to stop talking and playing with their cell phones to pay attention to the safety instructions and demonstration of how to put on a life vest. I would guess maybe 25% are actually listening.
The Manhattan Room
For dinner, we chose to continue avoiding the madness of the buffet and try out the main dining room, The Manhattan Room. I had the New York Strip which seemed more like sirloin, overcooked, and served with french fries. Kind of like having a steak at McDonald’s. Just didn’ t seem right. Deb had salmon served on a bed of couscous, both overcooked and dry. However, the dessert, Salted Caramel Chocolate Tart was excellent! We learned later that the buffet had Prime Rib the first night. That likely would have been better.
The service at the bars was very slow. Like we had experienced before on Epic, there are not enough bartenders and they are too busy scurrying about for the ingredients to the various frozen boat drinks. It is hard to catch their eye as they are paying attention to the drinks, not the customers. We found the best to be Alex and Reginald at the Atrium Bar – attentive, cheerful, and entertaining.
There also is an obvious lack of table service. Bussers picking up empty glasses and cleaning tables worked hard at avoiding eye contact. They wouldn’t want anyone asking for a drink.
Our “Ultimate Beverage Package” included in the cost of the cruise was good for unlimited drinks up to $15 dollars per drink. This was quite generous and included a good selection of beers, wines, cocktails, frozen drinks, and many premium liquors. The drink menus were conveniently broken into sections of the included drinks and the super-premium drinks which were an extra charge.
Free at Sea
Norwegian currently has a promotion “Free at Sea” which includes your choice of up to five free perks depending on the class of cabin you book. Our inside cabin included only one perk. We chose the drink package which is the most popular. Other available perks are Shore Excursions, Specialty Dining, Wifi, 3rd & 4th Guest Free, and some even offer Free or Reduced Airfare!
To say the drink package or any of the perks are free is bit misleading. When you choose it at the time of booking you are charged an additional 20% gratuity for the package. But, at $15 per drink, it is nothing to save that amount and more in one day. There is also a gratuity for the Specialty Dining package, Also, there are lower fares available which do not include any of the perks.
Our Inside Cabin
As I mentioned, this was the first time we had booked an inside stateroom. This particular cabin was designed for four guests but was very tight for just us two. We couldn’t imagine four trying to fit. The two upper berths were folded up on the wall but still protruded about a foot into the room on each side of the bed. We could not stand beside the bed with the folded berths right there in the way. Granted, if the lower berths had been made up as two singles, there would have been room between the beds. Just thankful it did not have the curved wall as on Epic.
There was no place to sit other than the bed. At least the bathroom had adequate room for one person. It was not the odd split room set up we had experienced on Epic.
Red Light, Green Light
One thing we did really like was the switches on the wall in the cabin which allowed guests to indicate “Do Not Disturb” or “Please Make Up Room”. This lit a small red or green light above the cabin door to alert the steward. This is a much better system than the old-fashion doorknob hanger of the past.
And Where is That Steward?
We never did meet our cabin steward, which is unusual. On all our past cruises, the stewards have made a point of introducing themselves. Also, we noticed they left their supply carts and laundry, etc. in the hallways for much of the day with no apparent activity going on in the adjacent cabins.
The second day of the cruise we were at sea. Again we decided to forego the buffet for breakfast and try the complimentary breakfast served in the Brazilian Steakhouse, Moderno. This turned out to just be a smaller version of the buffet. Not bad, just not hot.
We spent the day exploring the Norwegian Breakaway. In addition to the Manhattan Room, there are two other complimentary dining rooms, Savor and Taste. These are smaller and serve the same menu as Manhattan. Note that Manhattan has a dress code, the others are more relaxed. The other complimentary restaurants are O’Sheehan’s Irish Pub, Garden Cafe Buffet, and Shanghai’s Noodle Bar which requires reservations but is still complimentary.
The specialty restaurants for an extra charge are Cagney’s Steakhouse, La Cucina Italian, Le Bistro French, Moderno Churrascaria, Ocean Blue and Raw Bar Seafood, Teppanyaki Japanese, and Wasabi Sushi. There is also a Bake Shop, Ice Cream, and Gelato Bar. More extra charge specialty options than complimentary, welcome to Norwegian Free Style Cruising
Jimmy Buffett has a Margaritaville at Sea on Norwegian Breakaway. This is a specialty restaurant as well. We never could figure out the hours for this. We walked by multiple times but it was never open. The schedule showed mornings for breakfast and mid-afternoon were the only hours for Margaritaville. Odd that a venue that could be very popular was so limited.
There are 21 bars onboard, all with varying hours so it was possible to get a drink anytime from 6 AM to 1 or 2 AM. The quality of drinks and level of service varies widely from bar to bar and bartender to bartender.
We tried the buffet for lunch. There is a decent variety of options from American to Oriental to Middle Eastern. Most selections are bland, boring, and not hot. The best seemed to be the kid’s corner selections. Chicken strips and fish sticks which all seemed to be hand cut and breaded and were actually hot! Another note about the buffet, we observed the servers many times just dumping fresh food on top of the old in the serving containers. Sometimes mixing it together, sometimes not.
We noticed the signs for Seafood Night on the buffet and decided that might be a better choice than the uninteresting selections on the dining room menu for the night. We expected a selection of fried seafood and not much else. What we got was shrimp several different ways, baked and fried fish, and other surprises, some of them even hot!
But, this was the night we discovered the best thing on the buffet, the crepe station! Banana and Nutella crepes, peaches and cream crepes, blueberry, strawberry, and other delights. All made fresh and hot to order. Odd that this is only at dinner. I would think it should be a breakfast option as well. We hit this every night after dinner for the rest of the cruise.
The theme of the buffet changed each night. Starting with Prime Rib the first night, then Seafood Night and on thru American, Caribbean, Asian, Mexican, and Italian. Each night maintained the same level of barely warm and boring with a few exceptions. Fortunately, there were always the crepes to finish it off.
We tried to go to the Manhattan Room one night. This was when we learned about the dress code as we were turned away. We could have gone to Savor or Taste, but we just went back to the buffet with the rest of the riffraff.
Ports of Call
We hit ports for the next four days. Roatan, Honduras; Harvest Caye, Belize; Costa Maya and Cozumel, MX. We have been to Cozumel and Roatan previously. This was our first stop at Harvest Caye and Costa Maya. However, this post is about Norwegian Breakaway, not really about the ports so I won’t go into any detail here.
But, that being said, the stop at Cozumel is relevant to the ship. The previous times we have been to Cozumel were on Carnival and Royal Caribbean. It turns out Norwegian Breakaway stops at a different port in Downtown Cozumel known as Punta Langosta. Carnival ports at Puerta Maya which looks to be over a mile away. Puerta Maya is much newer with more shopping, eating, and drinking options than the older Punta Langosta which opens out into a downtown shopping mall and crowded city streets, While the area is clean, it is much older. The experience is just not as pleasant as Puerta Maya.
I will give Norwegian Breakaway props for guest activities. There seemed to always be something to do. In the Atrium, there was a solo guitarist, Randon, playing at various hours throughout the day and evening. At other times there was a band, 876 Konnect, playing a variety of music. In between the music, there was always a Trivia Challenge or some sort of audience participation game; Deal or No Deal, Newlywed or Not so Newlywed Game, Dance Challenge, Who Wants to be a Bazillionaire?, Dance Classes, and more! There was even a daily movie.
A note about the seating in the Atrium, there is not enough of it and the chairs are not comfortable. If you sit all the way back, you cannot bend your knees. Kind of like a child sitting in a big people’s chair. We could not find any truly comfortable seating at the bars either. The theater was the worst. We have had better in coach on airlines. I know I am not a small person but…
Out at the pool, there was either a DJ or the band at different times of the day. And while we are at the pool… it is small and very crowded. The pool area is sadly inadequate for a ship of this size with nearly 4000 guests.
We overheard a young boy, about 12 years old, telling his mother how bad the pool was. “There is no room for kids to play. Why do the adults have to take up the whole pool? There needs to be more pools. Why did they design it that way? If I designed this ship, I would have more pools!” This kid was spot on with his assessment of the situation.
The AquaPark features 5 waterslides including FreeFall, touted to be the fastest waterslide at sea, and a kiddie water play area.
Up on the sports deck, there is a basketball court, jogging track, climbing wall, miniature golf, and a ropes course which features The Plank extending eight feet out over the side of the ship.
The shows in the theater are excellent. Complimentary shows are “Burn the Floor” an energetic ballroom dancing review with a Broadway and West Side Story twist and a hilarious hard-rocking production of “Rock of Ages.” These are complimentary but do require reservations.
We did not try the two extra-charge Dinner Theater options, though both looked like they would be fun. “Velvet” is a Boogie Wonderland disco extravaganza inspired by the legends of Studio 54. “Wine Lovers – The Musical” is a comedy featuring a wine tasting with the audience.
On Norwegian Epic, the Rock & Roll club was “The Cavern” featuring a Beatles cover band. On Norwegian Breakaway, this is transformed into “Syd Norman’s Pour House“. The walls are lined with photographs of rock royalty. Apparently, Syd was a legendary music producer (fictional) from the heyday of classic rock. He discovered, promoted, or produced every rock star of the era. Quite a guy! The band, Guilty Pleasures, with two male and two female powerhouse singers, fills the breaks between the classic songs with stories of Syd and the rock stars. This is much more than just a band playing covers. It is an entire show produced by the creative minds behind “Rock of Ages”.
A small sample of some of the pictures in Syd Norman’s Pour House:
On Tuesday night, Guilty Pleasures takes a break and, at least on this cruise, the act was Switch, an eighties cover band out of Orlando. These guys are fantastic. Very accomplished with dead-on covers of the eighties hits. I think they may have been performing these hits since the tunes were new and fresh.
The comedy club on Norwegian Breakaway is Headliners, featuring alternating nights of stand-up comedy and dueling pianos. Howl at the Moon is a rollicking dueling piano and singalong piano bar. Three pianists switch out throughout the evening with at least two on at any given time. This provides for a continuous show with no downtime. They also switch off to drums and guitar for particular tunes. The performers take requests, the larger the tip (bribe) the more likely they will play your request. If they don’t know it, they will fake it. Don’t expect an accurate version of your request. These performers are going for the laughs. The shows early in the evening are PG with a definite switch to R rated, more adult fare after 11 PM. This also applies to the stand-up comedians’ sets.
In Conclusion… Another Chance
So, while our experience on Norwegian Breakaway was much better than Epic, it still left us wanting something better. Although Breakaway had been refurbished about a year earlier, it was already showing signs of wear.
While this is not a complete listing of what Norwegian Breakaway has to offer, it is an accurate review of our experience. The biggest downfall was in the quality of the food, service, and the size of the interior cabin.
One final observation, on two separate occasions, we saw and heard what appeared to be a supervisor chastise a crew member in full view of guests. Not very professional behavior.
We are going to give Norwegian one more chance to impress. Since we are still homeless, waiting for the purchase of our new home in Tennessee to close, we are taking Norwegian Gem, cruising out of Boston to Bermuda in mid-July. Stay tuned for our review of that adventure.