If you follow our family’s travel adventures you’ll notice that although I live in Miami, cruise capital of the world, I’ve rarely been on a cruise. My wife Angela and I are more of the road tripping, high adrenaline traveler types so when we recently got invited to sail on the new Norwegian Getaway to the Eastern Caribbean my initial reaction wasn’t automatically “hooray, I can’t wait to go!” Unbelievable as it may sound I was feeling conflicted because I’m not only severely busy with work on Hispanicize 2015 but I’m also not used to doing a relaxing-style vacation of any kind.
Boy, was I wrong to even think twice about taking the incredible cruise that we just came back from on the Getaway, the newest member of the Norwegian Cruiseline Fleet and one of the best ships anywhere!
Our seven day itinerary took us from Miami to the islands of St. Maarten, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands and Nassau, Bahamas. September and October are considered low season in Miami’s cruise industry so this is not only the best time of the year to take a cruise value-wise but it’s also a time period when you don’t have to worry about big crowds aboard ships or on offshore excursions.
Due to schools being in session we only took our two-year-old Naomi with us and left our three older kids behind with family babysitters. (Ironically, Norwegian set us up with a balcony cabin that would have been roomy enough for up to five of us, a fact that only kept us wishing more of the children would have been able to tag along).
Because we were part of a special group of journalists Norwegian invited to the cruise we got a terrific insider’s view to many of the top things you can do on the Getaway. I would have had to sail for two weeks to try to mention everything we could have done aboard this floating city but here 10 things I most loved about our cruise.
NUMBER 10 – HOSPITALITY AND CLEANLINESS
On the Getaway the ratio of crew to travelers may have technically been nearly 1 to 3 but we got so much attention, warmth and genuine, across the board excellent service that the ratio felt closer to 1 to 1. Having been on only one other notable, top tier cruise – our great Alaskan cruise of 2011 – I can say that Norwegian splurges on excellent service and that made our trip so much more enjoyable.
A big part of why we did the cruise was because my wife’s birthday coincided with the cruise and, sure enough, when we got into our cabin Angela was greeted by a beautiful arrangement of sweets, champagne and balloon.
Norwegian also excelled on the front lines of cleanliness. I was very impressed by how often I found crew members constantly cleaning, wiping, scrubbing, sweeping and generally disinfecting every single strand of cloth, steel and plastic that in anyway touched the public. Hand sanitizing stations abounded throughout the entire ship and if that’s not enough we often ran into crew members who randomly offered to spray our hands with hand sanitizer.
NUMBER 9 – SVEDKA ICE BAR
You can’t say you’ve cruised aboard Norwegian without visiting one of their signature SVEDKA Ice Bars. When they says it’s an “ice bar,” they’re not just talking about the temperature of the drinks. They’re literally talking about the 17º F that you encounter when you walk into the ice blue themed bar. Fortunately Norwegian knows people don’t bring winter clothing to Caribbean destinations so they hand out special winter outfits to you so you can go in, get your drink and rush back out. Just the fact we were in 17º F in the middle of the Caribbean made this one of my trip’s highlights.
NUMBER 8 – VISITING THE CAPTAIN’S BRIDGE
My 9th trip highlight was touring the Captain’s Bridge. Before September 11 it was apparently common for the cruising public to walk in to for a visit of the captain’s bridge. Unfortunately that’s no longer the case but because Angela and I went as journalists guests of Norwegian that gave us the rare chance to visit the impressive command center of the Getaway. The best way to describe it? Star Trek. Yes, Star Trek. The main area where the captain, first officers and bridge staff work looks straight like the set of the U.S.S. Enterprise, down to the two elevated “captain-style” chairs hovering behind the men and women who monitor sophisticated radars, fuel, weather and other digital gauges.
By the numbers our ship sailed with 3,718 passengers and 1,626 crew for a grand total of 5,344. According to First Officer Santiago Filevich of Uruguay the Getaway travels at an average of 22 miles an hour and at her peak speed of 26 MPH uses as much as one gallon of fuel PER second. Filevich was quick to remind me why this shouldn’t be surprising: “The Getaway is not just a ship. It’s a traveling city of 5,000 or more people who need food, air conditioning, lights, etc…”
Even with all the space age technology money can buy he says the bridge has at least three crew members on duty at all times. At least one crew member is always observing the oceans with binoculars and Filevich says that’s vital because there is always the potential for danger such as other vessels getting closer than a mile to the ship (anything less than half a mile makes the captain very uncomfortable) and bad weather. Said the First Officer: “If we really needed to it would only take a few minutes for us to turn the ship around completely in the opposite direction.”
NUMBER 7 – THE OCEAN BREEZE
Taking in the ocean breeze in the balcony of our room may not qualify as a feature of the Getaway but it was definitely something I enjoyed doing because in Miami you can’t get the ocean breeze without fending off mosquitoes. As simple as it may sound, feeling the ocean wind in the wide open blue waters of the Caribbean was a huge blessing for me. I spent hours listening to U2’s new album “Songs of Innocence”, reading, working and just contemplating life on the balcony of our cabin.
NUMBER 6 – WATER SLIDES
The Getaway has five multistory water slides for adults and teens that I can best describe as a mix of fast with terrifyingly furious. Being the adventure guy that I am I went straight for the terrifyingly furious part and hopped into a tube called The Free Fall. If you’ve ridden the Tower of Terror free fall at Disney Studios, that’s what this thing feel like. The Free Fall consists of two side-by-side slides where guests will stand up and have the floor drop from underneath, propelling them into a thrilling loop and a super fast, splashing finish. The four other slides are less terrifying but don’t be fooled by the fact children are allowed to ride them. Some of the water tubes go much faster than you would think, and that’s a great thing, isn’t it?
Over in Nickelodeon Kids Aqua Park Naomi ran around a kiddie water park that featured water spouts, a small pool with slide and statutes of Sponge Bob Square Pants, Squidward and Patrick.
NUMBER 5 – GREAT FOOD AND RESTAURANTS
The Getaway has way more restaurants than out of shape people like me should want brag about: 28 restaurants. Of the five restaurants with complimentary food, our group seemed divided about which one was our favorite, the Latin-food style The Flamingo or the more generalist The Garden Café, my personal favorite. I could have eaten exclusively at The Garden Café every morning, noon and night but, of course, I didn’t because cruising is all about trying different cuisine.
Our ship offered a wide range of cuisine that ranged from Japanese to Italian and French. Much to my surprise, my favorite restaurant aboard the Getaway was the Brazilian-style steakhouse Moderno Churrascaria. The reason I say I was “surprised” was because Angela and I generally think Brazilian steakhouses are severely overrated and because our original plan was to eat at another restaurant that closed earlier than we were aware of. Not only was Moderno outstanding but I think it is easily the best Brazilian-style steakhouse we’ve ever eaten at.
A close second in culinary excellence was Cagney’s, which is right next to Moderno Churrascaria and is the ship’s signature steakhouse. The ship’s premier seafood restaurant, Ocean Blue, was also very good but it felt tight for family dining with kids so make sure you make reservations. We ate a delicious lobster risotto meal there that was so filling I couldn’t try dessert.
Of course, if you just feel like hibernating in your room, as we did extensively, there’s always complimentary food via room service. For room service I found myself ordering Froot Loops for breakfast and BLTs for extra hour meals. Cheese lovers that they are my wife and daughter favored pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches.
NUMBER 4 – ST. MAARTEN
The first island destination on our itinerary was St. Maarten, as it’s known on the Dutch side of the island of 75,000 inhabitants or St. Martin, as it’s known on the French side. Given its remote location and the fact it has mountainous beaches, I would rate this my second favorite destination of the trip. Our half day trip included a beach excursion to the French side of the island and featured a tour guide’s overview of the island that revealed several cool nuggets about St. Maarten including that the island has two completely separate governments, languages, currencies, school systems, airports and even international phone area codes! In fact, an international call WITHIN St. Maarten (Norwegian seems to favor that name) costs more than a call from the island to the United States.
While in St. Maarten Angela and I discovered that the best way we like to lounge on a hot sandy beach is to lay down on the shoreline where the water meets the sand. Naomi used that time to dump sand on us and it caused us to gather tons of sands inside our clothes but it was definitely enjoyable. It only took me 44 years to discover that this technique is a terrific way to get a suntan and stay cool at the same time.
NUMBER 3 – THE ILLUSIONARIUM AND OTHER SHOWS
Most quality cruise ships offer shows to entertain guests. Aboard the Getaway we took in three very good shows, including a very tightly orchestrated Latin music and dance production called “Burn the Floor” and “Legally Blonde” but my absolute favorite of ALL TIME was the magic dinner show we saw at the Illusionarium. When I say that this show is worthy of being called an all time great show this is heady stuff because it means I think it’s the peer to the Las Vegas, world class performance of Siegfried & Roy that I saw more than 10 year ago. Yes, the Illusionarium is THAT good and that’s without the benefit of adorning the stage with sexy lions!
I won’t spoil it for you but the premise of the magic show is that five legendary magicians are competing to see who will succeed another great magician as the head illusionist of the Illusionarium. The story behind the performances is told in a funny way and each of the five magicians are simply outstanding though the Mentalist one is, well, truly otherworldly awesome. The food is also great but the performances are so enchanting you forget you’re eating!
NUMBER 2 – FAMILY TIME AND NEW FRIENDS
One of the nicest parts about our cruise had to do with spending quality time with my wife and two year old. Angela and I are constantly on the go with work, family and life in general and it was really nice to finally travel without the phone constantly ringing, Facebook alerts and everything else that encompasses our social media world. We also enjoyed the memories we built with Naomi who for seven straight days became our center of attention. Despite forcing us to leave the “Legally Blonde” musical early and one other restaurant, our little girl did incredibly well. (She was completely entranced by the “Burn the Floor” musical!)
Along the cruise journey we also made strong new friendships with fellow journalists and their friends and spouses: Jennifer, Will, Cristina, Gus, Lauren-May, Brittany and Katherine. All of them were a joy to travel with and we especially appreciated how attentive and equally loving they were with Naomi, our group’s unofficial mascot. Our Norwegian public relations host Christina Baez was simply unbelievable in her attention to detail, planning and knowledge of travel. She was the glue that kept our group together.
NUMBER 1 – CORAL WORLD
The coolest highlight of our cruise actually took place on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, a mountainous island of 53,000 that is home to Coral World, the most popular attraction of the three U.S. Virgin Islands.
Founded in 1977 and nestled right next door to the adorably small Coki Beach, Coral World is an underwater observatory and marine park that is worth a full day visit with or without your kids. Admission is $19 for adults and $10 for children.
Although it’s named after “coral”, the marine park’s biggest appeal is that it offers up close and personal activities to touch, feed or even swim with various sea creatures, sometimes right on the park’s own ocean. Among the many family and environmentally friendly activities are a Sea Lion Encounter (you can swim with them or just meet and play with one), the Shark Encounter (you feed baby sharks), the Turtle Encounter (you can pet and swim with rescued sea turtles), Snuba diving (where you snorkel with a floating line of oxygen), the Underwater Observatory, and my ultimate favorite, the Sea Trek (more about that in a moment). Coral World is so cleverly laid out that even in the limited amount of time we had to practically race through it, we were able to get a taste of all but a few activities.
Naomi was too young to do some of the swimming-related activities so we took advantage of the Meet and Play Sea Lion Encounter. No other person was scheduled for this activity when we were there so for more than 40 minutes we had the rapt attention of a friendly 200-pound sea lion named Omar who kissed our hands, let us pet him, feed him, snap pictures with him and even sang for us.
I thought the Sea Lion Encounter would easily be the highlight of our visit until Angela persuaded me to do the Sea Trek. Sea Trek is a guided 25-minute walking tour of the ocean floor that you take wearing a special, 70 pound helmet that gives you oxygen, doesn’t get your face wet and doesn’t require diving certification. (The helmet weights about 15 pounds underwater). The 20-feet deep ocean floor walk takes place right in front of Coral World’s Underwater Observatory so even your family can see you underwater.
Even though this all sounded really cool, I was a bit scared to try the Sea Trek because more than 20 years ago in the Honduran island of Roatan I almost drowned during an ill-planned, one day SCUBA diving crash course. The main problem was that no matter how hard I tried my left ear would not properly decompress leading to excruciating pain in as few as 15 feet of depth. To make matters worse that day I had to be rescued by our dive instructor when one of my fins got stuck on a coral reef and my mask started taking in water.
That’s the mental baggage I quietly carried with me when I took the plunge on Sea Trek. By the grace of God, despite initial excruciating pain in my left ear when I first started the walking tour, I overcame the ache on my left ear and completed the entire walking tour which included up close view of schools of various fishes, coral reefs, star fishes and other undersea animals that I can’t properly identify because I’m still a rookie.
When I got out of the water, I felt so liberated from my 20-year fear that I now hope to become SCUBA certified. For that I’m eternally grateful to Coral World and Norwegian!
The last hour before our tour bus returned to the ship, Angela, Naomi and I walked a few yards away from Coral World to the nearby Coki Beach. Coki Beach is a delightful, compact beach surrounded by mountains. As we did in St. Maarten, we also did in Coki Beach: we hung out on the shoreline and Angela once again let Naomi dump wet sand on her.
Funny enough, the thing Angela and I will probably most remember about Coki Beach was discovering what the fruity and refreshing Bushwacker drink is. Suffice to say, I don’t really like alcoholic drinks but this one is definitely the exception – especially as they mix it on Coki Beach!
ONE WEEK DOESN’T EVEN REMOTELY COVER ALL THE GETAWAY OFFERS
Our week aboard the Getaway felt much shorter than it was because there were so many things to see and do onboard that you would need a much longer trip to take it all in. We simply ran out of time for all the activities, shows and restaurants we didn’t get to see. Tops on the list of things we wished we had seen was the Walk the Plank experience, a special (and safe) eight foot extension over the top deck of the ship’s side.
I can go on and on about the 80s dance show, the nighttime fireworks displays and more but, as I said earlier, there is no way to truly relax on a cruise if you cram everything into one week. This is a big reason why Norwegian Cruise Lines developed what’s called Freestyle Cruising, a form of cruising that offers guests the freedom and flexibility to create their ideal vacation experience, with no fixed dining times, relaxed attire, several distinct dining options, relaxed disembarkation and more lounges, bars, theatres and other entertainment and activity options. Now that Norwegian has us truly hooked with Freestyle Cruising, I’m very hopeful we’ll be planning another trip back to the Getaway or one of its other sister ships.
DISCLAIMER: Norwegian Cruise Line provided my wife, daughter Naomi and I with passes to cover this ship’s voyage but the opinions expressed in this story are solely mine.