‘I’ve seen Jimmy Buffett in concert over 10 times,” bellowed Bill, a well-fed lawyer from Michigan wearing an oversized Hawaiian shirt.
Fueled by a number of mojitos, he was introducing a rambling story to his equally well-oiled, garishly dressed friends gathered at a bar on the Norwegian Escape – my home for the next seven days.
Add to that Margaritaville scenario the following figures: 5,000 mostly American passengers, 1,700 crew members, 72,000 dozen eggs, 450,000 bottles of wine, 500 pounds of chocolate, more than 20 full-service restaurants, 11 fully stocked bars, four destinations (Jamaica, Grand Caymans, Mexico and Bahamas) – and nine Israeli journalists. As Tony Roberts pondered in Annie Hall, “Can you imagine the mathematical possibilities?” What could have been purgatory in a Love Boat on steroids instead proved to be a remarkable week on what could rival Disneyland as the happiest place on Earth.
The number of vacationers choosing to spend their time on cruises has risen dramatically over the last 30 years – from 3.8 million in 1990 to nearly 26 million last year. Norwegian Cruise Lines, established in 1966 by the late Israel-American tycoon Ted Arison, has become a major player in the market with 16 full-service cruise ships sailing around the world (the 17th, the Bliss, will be launched in June).
Sailing out of Miami weekly, the 20-floor Norwegian Escape was christened in 2015 as NCL’s crown jewel with many “firsts” and “largests” – the largest ropes course at sea, a three-story multiplex with 99 elements; the largest aqua park at sea, with four multi-story water slides, the largest spa at sea, the Mandara Thermal Suite, including the first -4º to 0º Snow Room and the first-ever floating Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant (do we detect a theme here?) and Tobacco Road, Miami’s oldest bar and music club.
GETTING TO Miami has never been more convenient. Inaugurated in November, El Al offers three weekly nonstop Tel Aviv-Miami flights on a Boeing 777 aircraft with 279 seats, including six first-class and 35 business class. The 13-plus-hour trip provides a relaxing and convenient conduit for Caribbean cruise lovers, and prompted a marketing collaboration between the airline and Norwegian Cruise Lines aimed at attracting more Israelis to take the one-two plane/cruise plunge (the cost of the round-trip flight through the summer begins at $1099).
The plane’s business class isn’t as extravagant as other airlines, which feature separate pods facing different directions, but the comfortable seats contort to a plethora of relaxing positions, including a flat bed that contributed to a good six or seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The airline food was quite good, and the attentive staff put to rest the stereotype of surly El Al flight attendants.
The personal TV screens offered a selection of 14 movies (including recent releases like The Battle of the Sexes and the excellent Three Billboards in Epping, Missouri) and six TV series – again, not the wide choice of other international airlines but ample, given the remaining waking time.
After arriving refreshed and spending a fun day at South Beach in Miami, we were hosted for a Friday night Shabbat dinner by Harry Sommers, the executive vice president of International Business Development for NCL.
Sommers, whose father was born in Israel, emphasized the attributes of the Norwegian Escape and the potential to expand its Israeli clientele.
“When I took over my position at NCL in 2015, I was surprised to discover that Israel ranked as the sixth strongest market for cruises. I thought it was a typo, but it was true,” said Sommers, adding that he expected that the new El Al Tel Aviv-Miami route would contribute to boosting the number of Israelis joining NCL cruises in 2018 by 20%.
According to Sommer, one of NCL’s innovations that sets it apart from other cruise lines is its freestyle dining concept that enables passengers to eat whenever they want.
“Instead of set meal times in a dining room at 6 pm and 8 pm, you can eat whenever you want, whether it be in one of our full-service restaurants or our fully stocked buffet dining rooms,” he said.
And for deciding on a cruise versus a standard vacation, Sommer said that there’s really no choice. “You only have to pack once and stay in once room and you get to see four countries!” With that pep talk in our dreams, we awoke the next morning to begin our adventure.
DAY 1 Nothing can prepare you for the initial sight of the sheer size of the Norwegian Escape – it’s an apartment block of a vessel that blocks out the sky.
The intake and registration of 5,000 passengers in a couple of hours is not an easy task, but the lines flowed relatively smoothly, with some passengers reporting an average time span of an hour until they were in the pool or at the bar. Passengers’ luggage is left with porters outside on the dock and shows up outside their staterooms within a couple hours.
Before we embark, there is a ship-wide safety drill and we are sent to various meeting points via our passenger cards, which are handed out upon registration.
These cards are the passengers’ lifeblood – doubling up as room entry keys and unlimited food and drink verification. Many passengers wear them like amulets, clipped on necklaces around their neck.
A hearty-looking family of five from upstate New York, with three sons ranging from eight to 16 wearing already damp swimming trunks from the impressive water slides, is gathered next to me at our designated drill spot.
“This is our third time on a Norwegian cruise,” says the mother, as she holds her two younger sons apart as they try to strangle each other. “There’s so much for the kids to do.”
An orientation session is presented by Anne Valyn Salvanera, a.k.a. Apple, the ship’s group service coordinator and our designated handler for the duration of the cruise. Direction signs on the ship are plentiful and informative, but during the first couple of days many passenger walk around tentatively, somewhat overwhelmed as they try to find their way around the massive labyrinth.
That’s because there’s so much on the fully air-conditioned ship – the massive open pool area with the gigantic slides looming overhead, the state-of-the-art fitness center, the before-mentioned Mandara Thermal Suite, the plush theaters featuring Las Vegas-level stage shows and musicals, the expansive casino that has willing patrons day and night, a full-length out-door basketball court, a wide selection of duty-free shops, and of course, all those restaurants and bars.
Along with learning the lay of the land, so to speak, it also becomes quickly apparent that food and drink are the engines that power this ship. Upon the realization that there are mojitos, mixed drinks, beer and wine available anywhere at any time, it becomes second nature to walk down a corridor, stop at the nearest watering hole and order something. It helps that everyone else on board is doing the same thing.
FOR THOSE who think that cruises are still all about Playboy-shag carpet 70s chic, there is certainly that aspect going on. But the key to full cruise enjoyment is to embrace it, with irony or without. Within the first 24 hours, “Sweet Caroline,” the durable Neil Diamond classic that’s evolved into the anthem of the Boston Red Sox, was played at three different venues by three different performers, thus quickly turning into the Israeli delegation theme song. Whenever there was a lull in conversation or activity, someone would croon “Sweet Caroline” and there would be gusty response in an Israeli accent of “Dum-Dum-Dum… so good, so good, so good.”
By the time we make it our staterooms a short while after the ship departed Miami, our suitcases are waiting for us. The stateroom is as big as many Tel Aviv hotel rooms and features a double bed, fully equipped bathroom and shower, couch, TV, coffee machine and best of all, a small balcony with a lounge chair, table and stunning view of the vast sea in front of you.
Even though we are in the rooms basically to sleep, one of the highlights of the week is waking up, making a cup of coffee and sitting on patio in a state of serenity.
Not everyone on board is so lucky. At lower prices, some rooms only have windows looking out on the sea, while other rooms in the interior of the ship lose their windows as well and are not recommended for the claustrophobic. There are also suites available for families as well as smaller rooms for singles.
For those prone to seasickness, the Escape is so big that you barely notice any movement. And when there is motion, it’s generally a gentle, rocking one that if anything, lulls you to sleep at night. But there are hours to go before that eventuality.
A “sail away” party on the top floor of the ship at the outdoor Spice H20 bar, where we would continually return later in the week for an ’80s dance party, a techno rave and other nightly gatherings, get the cruise off to a liquid start.
Emmanuel, a young waiter from Honduras, is delighted to be serving Israelis.
“I want to visit the Holy Land. I heard of this beautiful beach there called Tel Aviv,” he says. In the meantime, he says he is enjoying working for his third year on the ship in a cycle of eight months at sea and two months off, common for the drink and housekeeping staff.
The first day also marks the first visit to the Garden Café, which by the sound of it, is an unassuming quaint eating spot. In reality, it’s the largest buffet/ dining room I’ve ever seen – with every type of food, from breakfast items, dinner entrees, sandwiches and desserts available all the time. It becomes the delegation favorite and “let’s go to the Garden” is another catchphrase for the week.
DAY 2 A day at sea on the way to Falmouth, Jamaica. If that sounds boring, then you haven’t been on the Norwegian Escape.
Waiting in a short line to enter Savor, one of the two sit-down, free restaurants with identical breakfast menus if you prefer a more intimate setting than the Garden, Indiana resident Melissa Green says that she’s a repeat cruise passenger and doesn’t vacation any other way.
“I only go on Norwegian cruises,” she says. “I love having the freedom of eating times and places and the staff is really professional and always helpful.”
Indeed, with over 65 countries represented among its members, the Escape’s staff is attentive, friendly and dressed immaculately in pressed suits. They go through extensive training in their fields and are taught specific ways to do things, whether it be pouring drinks or making beds.
Today marks the first visit to the Vibe, an “exclusive” section of the ship tucked away behind a sliding door on Deck 17 that’s accessed with our omnipotent room cards. Only 200 passengers are entitled to Vibe access at an extra charge of $200 for the week. Inside, there’s a private bar, spacious lounge chair area and Jacuzzi.
You can’t reserve the Vibe in advance, only upon signing in on the first day, and some passengers relate how it causes frayed nerves, jostling and raised voices among those attempting to obtain the coveted spots. It’s easy to see why, as the Vibe is a calming oasis among the nonstop activity outside the sliding doors.
Here is where you tend to see familiar faces on a daily basis and establish relationships – sitting in the Jacuzzi with Cyndie, a chatty physical education teacher from New York on the cruise with her husband and seven other couples, and John, a French teacher from Maine, enjoying the week with his partner Dale.
Despite the occasional loudmouth like the Jimmy Buffett fan Bill, most passengers are easygoing, friendly and engaging – happy drunks rather than belligerent. A pleasant surprise is that with all the alcohol flowing, the general atmosphere on board is child-friendly and G-rated.
Of course, no under-18s are allowed in the casino, where a few of us wind up after a stellar dinner at Cagney’s Steakhouse, one of the nine specialty restaurants on board that require reservations and an extra fee.
With the standard slots, roulette, poker, craps and blackjack tables, the football field-sized casino is one of the more popular destinations on the ship. With tables starting at $6, it’s possible to spend a few nights there without losing your hat, and it provides another venue to meet other passengers like Dina, a mature woman from New Orleans who is solo on the cruise after her daughter became ill the day before it left Miami.
“I don’t mind, it’s still fun,” she says, “even when I lose money.”
A more holistic, but no less expensive form of therapy, is the spa. At a cost of $60 a pop, or $200 for the week (but included on our room card), it rivals the Vibe as the most tranquil location on the ship. With warmed, curved reclining beds, wet and dry saunas, the aforementioned Snow room and a salt room, as well as a huge Jacuzzi, it is a location we return to on a daily basis to open our pores and let the alcohol out.
The spa also offers a range of massages, hair, nail, waxing and facial treatments with reservations and extra cost, but the basic package is blissful enough.
A couple of observations from the first full day – even though we’re in a contained city of nearly 7,000 people, many of whom are inebriated, the living quarters are entirely quiet. The way the ship is designed segregates the rooms from the common areas, so that a huge party could be going on and one can sleep in total peace.
Likewise, even though there are people everywhere, there’s never a feeling of mass humanity, aside from the multitudes poolside or in the Garden Café. There are plenty of sparsely populated sites on deck with lounge chairs and Jacuzzis nearby, aside from the premium spots like the Vibe or the spa.
And if you really want some solitude, all you need to do is retreat to your private balcony with a glass of wine and a good book.
DAY 3 Just when you’re beginning to think that after 36 hours at sea you may never see land again, jah mon, it’s Jamaica.
Getting 5,000 passengers off the ship and back on again eight hours later is a marvel of precision efficiency, with staggered exits, pre-signups for land excursions and supreme organization.
Among the choices, with costs ranging from $69 to $159, are approximately one-hour drives on buses to Dolphin Cove and Dunn’s River Falls, river tubing safari, Bobsled Jamaica, horseback riding, or instead of spending the extra money, simply staying in the quaint village or even staying on board and enjoying the virtually empty ship.
While touristy and crowded, both Dunn’s River Falls and Dolphin Cove are worthwhile destinations, especially if you have children on hand. Even a slight mixup of not being told to wear a bathing suit and water shoes to climb the giant waterfall doesn’t douse the spirits, although some jaded Israelis think it was just an attempt by our bus guide to make some towel and water shoes sales at his buddy’s kiosk.
Arriving back at the ship near sunset, there is time for a quick drink then straight to the theater for the musical The Brat Pack. An extravaganza combining the iconic teen movies of the ’80s like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, the show is a 90-minute burst of kitschy energy, with the Los Angeles-based young troupe For the Record and a crack live band doing their best to make Simple Minds and other British new wave relics hip again.
A late-night dinner of Dover sole at the French specialty restaurant Le Bistro provides a belt-loosening peak to the day. Like each night, upon returning to the stateroom, there 9s a pamphlet on the bed with the next day’s activities on board and on land neatly typed out.
DAY 4 Today’s guest port is the Grand Cayman islands, with one quest for the group – soak in the Caribbean sun and swim in its vividly green water. Taxis are waiting to take tourists to the nearby Seven Mile Beach at $4 per head. The beach and water are sublime, as is a leisurely five-kilometer walk back to ship along the coastline.
Mingling at a lounge before another standout dinner, I unexpectedly walk into Brian and Susan, friends from Jerusalem. They have booked the cruise on the advice of their daughter who sailed last year and expressed total satisfaction at their choice. We make a date to meet for breakfast the following morning. You never know who you’re going to run into.
DAY 5 Another day, another country – this time in the Yucatan Peninsula Mexican resort town of Costa Maya.
The village itself looks inviting, but we journey an hour or so to explore the Chacchoben Mayan ruins.
Other options include a salsa cooking class on the beach or a visit to the Mayan Kingdom Water Park.
Although impressive, the five hours devoted to Chacchoben might have been better spent roaming the shops and nooks of Costa Maya, but in any case, by 5:30 p.m. we are back at our home base sipping on a mojito.
In general, these day excursions give you a taste of the country you’re moored at and enable you to get off the ship for a few hours, but anyone wanting a vacation that spends time in foreign countries might feel like they got the appetizer without a main course.
For dinner, we are hosted by the ship’s chiseled Swedish captain Niklas Persson – whose handshake you could put your trust in. Even the usually cynical Israelis, especially the women, enthusiastically line up to have their photo taken with him.
An ’80s dance party on the deck of the Spice H20 caps off the night in appropriately air-guitar fashion.
DAY 6 A day at sea, marked by a two-hour morning “behind the scenes” tour, available for $79. Entering the bowels of the ship and seeing how the inner workings – in the massive laundry room, the main galley and the recycling center – is fascinating.
That evening features another superb musical extravaganza, After Midnight, focusing on the 1920s clubs of Harlem. I sit next to a couple from a small town in Alaska, who besides loving Israel and US President Donald Trump, are less than satisfied with the cruise.
“It’s impossible to find a seat by the pool and even though there are signs saying you can’t save seats, people do it and the staff does nothing about it,” the wife says. “And all the shows say they’re sold out, even when they’re not. The only reason we got into this was because we met the stage manager by chance in the elevator.”
Still, she and her husband are on their feet and cheering the cast at the end of the show.
Anecdotal interviews with a couple dozen passengers hint at occasionally cumbersome efforts to grab a lounge chair by the pool or reservations to one of the restaurants – problems endemic to accommodating 5,000 guests. But the vast majority only accentuate the positive.
I end up the evening with a late-night beer at the casual and cozy Tobacco Road, where Orly, a seasoned rock/blues guitarist, serenades the enthusiastic clientele with his tasty licks.
DAY 7 Before the final land excursion to Nassau, the Bahamas, we are led into a quick tour of the ship’s exclusive area, the Haven. Featuring 95 spacious room, its own restaurant, pool and spa facilities and assigned staff for each room, the Haven is a decadent ship-within-aship that provides the ultimate in privacy and luxury.
That’s why we are hustled out after a couple of minutes.
The Bahamas stop proves to be a bust, as a cloudburst and chilly temperatures greet us on shore. After a quick walk around the town, we head back to the ship, realizing it is the last day and there is still so much that hasn’t been experienced.
With many passengers still on shore, the water slides are accessible, at least the slow, circular one for people my age; a visit to the basketball court resulted in some half-court fun between Israeli adults and American teens (the Americans have the stamina, but the Israelis have the moves); and of course, we make time for one last visit to the Garden, and its decadent chocolate-chocolate chip cookies.
That evening, sitting outside the Teppanyaki Japanese restaurant – where the chefs cook at your table while juggling eggs, drumming with their knives and leading the diners in chants – Macy, a mother of two from Minnesota, likens the ship experience to shopping at Costco, the retail warehouse giant.
“But we still love it and we’ll come back,” she says.
Instead of a big gala party on the last night, it’s pretty sedate, as most passengers are apparently already getting organized and packing for the next morning. However, back at Tobacco Road, Orly is jamming with some of the cast members of The Brat Pack and After Midnight. The relaxed feeling and good cheer among performers and passengers is the perfect way to spend the last few waking hours of the week that nobody wants to end.
The next morning, back in Miami, passengers are escorted off throughout the morning in staggered fashion, marked by farewells, embraces with staff members, and vows to immediately begin that diet.
What might have been a week stuck in a huge floating hotel with no escape turns into an unforgettable experience. As our Neil Diamond-inspired mantra reminds us, it is “so good, so good, so good.” The writer was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Lines and El Al.
For reservations and more information, go to https://www.ncl.com/ il/en/
PRICE LIST Per person plus tax and tips (seasonal prices may vary) Interior room: $863 Room with window: $1,063 Room with balcony: $1,163 Room in Haven: $3,163 Israeli in rooms with balconies can choose two of four packages: • Unlimited drinks • Dinners in specialty restaurants • $50 discounts on land excursions • Free unlimited WiFi on board (Haven guests receive all four packages) The first child in parents’ room sails for free.