Norwegian Escape Review
I visited Norwegian Escape, at Southampton, in October 2015 and stayed on-board over night. This brand new ship had come straight from the Meyer Werft shipyard, Germany, via Hamburg. She was berthed at Southampton’s ‘Ocean Terminal’ before she crossed the pond to her home port of Miami.
Escape is the first of NCL’s ‘Breakaway Plus’ class of ship and their biggest ship yet.
Even if I was on-board for a week, it is impossible to fully experience all of the dining, bars and entertainment options of this enormous ship. In fact if I detailed every public room I could write a novel. Therefore my review concentrates on the design of the ship itself.
Below is an overview concentrating on the main rooms and the main design differences from the previous ‘Breakaway’ class of ship.
The Norwegian cruise Line
NCL are famous for their ‘freestyle’ innovation which all of their fleet are now specifically designed for. In short there are multiple restaurants and no allocated dining times, so passengers are free to dine when they like, where they like and sit with whom they like (between core hours). The dress code is smart-casual in all dining rooms.
The pre-2010 NCL’s fleet had up to twelve dining options with around half of these carrying a surcharge.
NCL’s ‘Epic’, the ‘Breakaway’ and ‘Breakaway Plus’ class of ships have more dining options, bars and entertainment offerings than ever before.
In the summer of 2015, NCL moved from a fixed surcharge fee to All-a-carte pricing, for many of these speciality dining rooms. I guess that if you don’t eat much, you will spend less than before, but if you do like to eat, you will probably be out of pocket. (I bet the Al-la-carte gets dropped).
What’s New with Escape
Predecessors, Breakaway (2013) and Getaway (2014) are each 144,017 gross ton vessels, carrying 4,000 passengers (lower berths).
The ‘Breakaway Plus’ class, including Escape and the yet unnamed ship (2017) are around 163,000 gt and both have an extra deck, plus a two level ‘Haven’ (the private ship within a ship complex). They will be the third biggest cruise ships class in the world, behind Royal Caribbean’s ‘Oasis’ and ‘Quantum’ class ships . They will carry 4,200 passengers (lower berths), but often a lot more when the 3rd and 4th berths are sold.
The first thing that you notice when arriving at the cruise terminal apart from Getaway’s size and extra-height, is her colourful Hull Art, by Guy Harvey, “the world’s finest marine wildlife artist and champion of ocean conservation”. Not surprisingly it has a sea-life theme. I wonder how on earth they maintain this intricate paint work once the ship is in service?
Once on-board, the ships décor, design and feel is pretty similar to the ‘Breakaway’ class ships, with lots of classy dark wood effects and understated carpets. However there has been some internal re-arrangement of public spaces and some of the bars and restaurants have been re-branded.
As a Brit the new brands are all totally unknown to me.
The new bars are: Skyline Bar, Sugarcane Mojito Bar, The District Brew House, Tabacco Road, Prime Meridian and the 5 O’clock Somewhere. The new restaurants are: Bayamo, Jimmy Buffetts Margaritaville, Pincho Tapa Bar and Food Republic. These are all in addition to many familiar names featured on other NCL ships.
Escape has 16 passenger decks numbered from 5-20. Deck’s 6, 7 and the rear half of deck 8 accommodate most of the public spaces. The ship only has two stair towers/elevator banks, one forward and one aft, which is not ideal for such a long ship. However there are some stairs between decks 6, 7, and 8 amidships, at ‘678 Ocean Place’ (hence the name). This is a sort of mini-atrium with giant LED Chandelier. The elevators are large and generally efficient, assuming that everybody does not try to use them at the same time.
The extra deck of cabins of course mainly benefits the cruise line, although there are a few extra public rooms. I also believe the Waterfront (external promenade) feature is a little longer.
The Ice Bar doers that feature on Escape which is a pity – it’s good fun for half an hour, if you have never experienced it. However within the very extensive (and often expensive) Spa, located on part of two decks, is a new feature, the ‘Snow Room’.
According to NCL “the Snow Room ranges from a minus 6 to 0 degrees Celsius and sends out a flurry of powdery snow throughout the day, offering guests a multitude of health benefits…”. I appreciate that I am not qualified to comment, but I can’t think of any benefits of sitting in a room of snow. I assume many people cruise to avoid the snow.
I wonder if the electricity bill was too big to have an Ice Bar and Snow Room?
As with other NCL ships, there are various interactive touch-screens around the ship, in the public areas. These can provide deck plans and information about dining and entertainment.
The Atrium is very wide, but a modest double height and is dominated by a giant hi-definition video screen and some seating. This instantly set the scene for a ‘modern’ and ‘lively’ ship.
This atrium is the location for guest services, shore excursions, a café and a bar. There is also a small library, card room, internet café nearby.
O’Sheehan’s Bar Grill (named after NCL’s ex-CEO Kevin Sheehan) has an Irish pub theme, and offers 24 hour food. It is located on the deck above the atrium, allowing guests to look down through the big cut-out. The food served is of the ‘fast food’ variety: fries, chicken burgers etc. However the menu is a little more comprehensive than it was originally. There are various arcade games on offer and a bowling alley.
The ‘Bliss Ultra Lounge’ (night-club) is not included on-board Escape. Dancing now takes place at Spice/H20 the outdoor area at the rear of the uppermost deck, weather permitting. (It does not work in Southampton’s winter climate!)
There are very few places where you can just sit and relax on this ship, without feeling the pressure to spend some money. The atrium seating areas is the nearest thing to a ‘lounge’ on-board, but even then waiters from the nearby café will home in on you. Unfortunately there is still no forward observation lounge, like the ‘Spinnaker’ as featured on most earlier NCL ship.
The Main Dining Rooms
Epic and Breakaway’s main dining room, the Manhattan (at the stern of deck 7) was re-branded on Getaway as the ‘Tropicana’. However on Escape it is back to being called the ‘Manhattan’ again. This makes a lot of sense as all variations of this room on each ship have Art Deco style décor.
Like the others, the ‘Manhattan’ is arguably one of the most attractive rooms at sea on-board any ship. It is of the inclusive dining options and the largest dining room on-board. It has large floor to ceiling windows and a large wooden dance floor, with a stage for a band. The centre part of this impressive rom is double height. Cagney’s and Moderno Churrascaria (surcharge dining) are located above the Manhattan and overlook the dance floor through windows.
Occasionally extra tables are put on the Manhattan’s dance floor, which unfortunately spoils the whole concept.
Either side of the main passenger corridor (deck 6) there is the other two more ‘main’ restaurants called ‘Taste’ and ‘Savor’. These are two almost identical dining areas which form two other inclusive dining options. These are both more sedate and much more intimate than the Manhattan. Taste, Savor and the Manhattan all share the same kitchen and menus.
On Escape ‘Taste’ has a new feature, a ‘private’ dining room which is accessed form a staircase within, taking you down to deck five. This can be booked for private dining-parties.
The Garden Café is the ships self-service buffet and it has been moved up a deck, to be located at the rear of deck 16. It is very spacious, light and airy. It had a very good selection of food and a large amount of seating. However the Garden Café can still struggle with the crowds at peak times, yet it manages better than most.
Le Bistro is the French style NCL favourite (with surcharge). It is located at the bottom of the three-story ‘678 Ocean Place’ atrium. However most of the other surcharge dining options are located on the Waterfront, with sea views. Le Bistro does not have any windows, but never the less it and looks a very attractive and is an intimate dining room. There are some tables outside the restaurant, on an internal cobbled street, French café style. I did not use it on-board Escape, but on other NCL ships, it has provided me with one of the best dining experiences on-board.
The ‘Skyline Bar’ (aft deck 7) displays city-scapes on large video screens. P&O’s Ventura has a similar concept in a bar although, ambient light from windows eroded the images. the ‘Skyline’ does not suffer from this problem so the images are more vibrant.
‘The waterfront’ (deck 8) is a very attractive concept which re-invents the promenade deck. It’s a very simple idea, in which NCL have located most of the ‘speciality’ dining options and some bars, overlooking a wide teak promenade deck. Walking along it, reminds me of my childhood visiting seaside piers. (The lifeboats have their own promenade deck, some decks below).
Below is a short video of Breakaway’s ‘Waterfront’, which is very similar to Escape’s.
The Waterfront wraps around about 75% of the aft of the ship. NCL claim that it is over a quarter of a mile long. The various restaurants located on the waterfront have large windows offering sea views and lido dining on the promenade deck. There are also some retail outlets overlooking the prom with internal and external doors to access them.
These restaurants/retail can also be accessed from inside the ship, via the ‘678’ Ocean Place’ atrium.
All of the dining venues on the Waterfront carry a surcharge. A cynic might say that NCL have finally found a way of charging passengers extra to eat and drink in the fresh air. Never the less, it is a very appealing facility.
I was not able to see ‘the waterfront’ fully utilised due to the British winter weather. However I do have a couple of concerns about it: Firstly, the amount of external restaurant seating and standing room at the bars, is quite limited. As the ship can carry 4,000+ passengers, the waterfront it is bound to get very crowded in a warm climate. It is also worth noting that the space between the rail and chairs/tables is only two people wide at some points. Taking a walk along the waterfront, when it is busy, may well prove very difficult. Secondly, I have always been concerned how much noise will filter up to the balcony cabins directly above.
NCL claim that wind-tunnel tests prove that wind will not be a problem on the waterfront. However if the wind is blowing hard enough, of course it will be. If a ship is proceeding at 20 knots a certain amount of wind is be created anyway.
In contrast to the Waterfront, Royal Caribbean’s ‘Royal Promenade’ or ‘Royal Esplanade’ are completely internal spaces lined with bars and dining options, offering no fresh air or natural light. Their advantage is that wind and rain will never be an issue. However they offer zero connection with the sea, unlike the Waterfront.
Personally I think passenger should be experiencing the sea, as a part of any cruise experience.
Escape has got taller, but the space on the upper deck remains the same.
The upper/outside decks are dominated by the kids Aqua-park, waterslides, an ariel ropes course, a basketball court and miniature golf – with Spice H2O (more to follow) occupying the aft of the ship.
The pool in the middle of the sun deck looks surprisingly small given the ships passenger capacity. There is no alternative pool for adults on deck or inside the ship.
The aqua-park and sun-deck will obviously get very busy in a warm climate and surely it can’t be a big enough space even if only 25% (1,000) of the passengers all tried to use it at once . In contrast, the Haven complex has it own pool and piece of private deck for sunbathing.
Spice H2O: Is an outdoor public area, with a large video screen, bar, dance floor and performance space at the very stern of the ship (but no pool). This will prove very popular in warm climates, for sun-bathing during the day and an open-air night club or music venue during the night. Once again I expect it will get very crowded at times.
The Casino is the biggest at sea and has a very unusual open plan design. You will often find yourself passing through this area to navigate from aft to forward or vice versa.
The Getaway Theatre has 900 raked seats, but no balcony. It is not as big as you might expect for such a large ship. Traditionally theatres on-board ships could often accommodate half the passengers at one performance. However there are of course alternative entertainment venues such as Headliners, the 5’oclock Somewhere Bar and the Supper Club (more about that later). Ideally you need to book your entertainment in advance, to ensure that you are not disappointed. Having to book is course is not very ‘Freestyle’, is it?
Breakaway’s Spiegel Tent, was a room which resembled a big-top circus tent. Getaway had a similar space called the ‘illusionarium’. This has been replaced on Escape with ‘The Supper Club’, a similar and relatively intimate cabaret venue.
For a surcharge you get a set meal and the show. There are ‘premium’ seats near the circular stage and ‘standard’ ones, which are not so close. There are two price bands respectively, however the view from some standard seats is not always very good.
‘Headliners’ still features the duelling-pianos show ‘Howl at the Moon’ which always generates a great atmosphere.
Million Dollar Quartet
Million Dollar quartet is one of the main shows on-board Escape. It is a Broadway production showcasing an extraordinary twist of fate that brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley together for one of the greatest jam sessions of all time.
The set, acting and musicianship were all very professional. I normally love live music, but this is not an era of music that I particularly enjoy. Most of us are more familiar with Elvis’s much later work, for example. I did not know many of the songs, therefore I did not really enjoy the show. It does seem to be aimed at rather a niche market for a mass-market ship.
Getaway has some 25 different grades of staterooms ranging from four ‘owners suites’, Ocean-view, Balcony, Inside and single occupancy Studio Rooms.
NCL have expanded the ‘Haven’ – their “ship within a ship” concept. This has been done by adding a second deck (17 & 18) of luxury accommodation, to the Haven. The space, accessible by keycard, will have an outdoor terrace with its private restaurant as well as the same kind of private courtyard area with retractable roof, pool, two whirlpools, sauna, spa treatment rooms and sundeck.
The number of suites within the Haven more than doubles, from 42 on Getaway to 95 on Escape. These include four 1,300-square-foot deluxe owner’s suites (that’s nearly 100 feet larger than the one found on Getaway), four 572-square-foot owner’s suites, 25 two-bedroom family villas that sleep up to six, and 22 penthouses. Another 26 Haven-style penthouses are located in other areas of the ship, facing forward and aft, as well as 14 Haven spa suites that are close to the ship’s fitness center and Thermal Suite.
Escape also has an expanded ‘Studio’ area, which consists of rooms for solo travellers, from the 59 on Getaway to 82 cabins on-board Escape. These are located over two decks 11 and 12. The Studio, which is also accessible only by keycard, will have its own private lounge (deck 11), as Breakaway, Getaway and Epic have.
Families will continue to have options across the categories, with 40 mini-suites located near Splash Academy, 172 family balconies near the children’s facilities, 48 oceanview staterooms that can accommodate up to five and an unspecified number of inside staterooms with additional Pullman beds.
Similar to the design of Epic and Celebrity Solstice class ships, the lifeboats do not dramatically obscure the sea views of any of the cabins.
My accommodation was in 14822 (deck 14) a mid-ships mini-suite, of 207 sq ft. This cabin and many other grades are long and narrow. These cabins have alternating configurations: one will have the double bed by the balcony doors and the bed/sofa nearer the front door.. The balcony was not exactly spacious, but perfectly adequate, in fact bigger than I recall on-board Getaway. Maybe I was just lucky with my grade?
My cabin was very attractive, functional with some very stylish décor. There were US and European power sockets, but no UK variety. The bedside lamps had USB sockets so you could charge your phone, but I believe that this turned off when you removed your sea-pass from the wall holder.
The bathroom was quite spacious and much bigger than those in the lower grades of cabin. The sink was a double-sized ‘trough’ with two mixer-taps at each end; ideal for couples who want to simultaneously clean their teeth. The shower was a large glass cubicle with big shower head and additional body-jets. There were shampoo and shower gel dispenser inside the shower cubicle, just to remind you that this was a mass-market ship.
The cabin had a coffee maker, always popular with Brits, rarer on American ships destined to operate in US waters.
The wardrobe had sliding doors which I always find annoying. I though the wardrobe space was quite minimal, especially for a woman like my wife who enjoys dressing up. However it was probably adequate for Caribbean attire on a Freestyle ship.
The safe was in the wardrobe. I was impressed that it had an internal light when you opened the door, but it automatically went out too quickly. However the safe was a little small if you like to put things like cameras in it.
Outside the cabin door and red and green indicator lights. Two switches inside the cabin allowed you to request “make up my room” or “do not disturb”. Gone are the cardboard door hangers.
For the record: lifeboat-drill is done without Life Jacket being required to be taken or worn. It is now though that passengers tripping over trailing life-jacket straps as they proceed to a drill, or return, is a significant risk.
Escape is an amazing mass-market floating ‘resort’, but she will not be to everybody’s tastes.
I did not find this first ‘Breakaway Plus’ ship significantly different in feel to the ‘Breakaway’ class.
She will suit those wanting a casual, but ‘high energy’ (noisy) cruise experience, packed with multiple dining and multiple entertainment options. Families are well catered for. She will not suit those looking for tradition, relaxation, tranquillity and who are adverse to walking miles to get anywhere!
No other cruise line can compete with NCL’s dining flexibility and choice, although NCL’s food and service can be inconsistent at times.
Royal Caribbean have now largely copied NCL’s ‘Freestyle’ concept with their ‘Dynamic Dining’ system on-board their ‘Quantum’ class ships. Although NCL have had more experience at making it work.
Although RCI’s ‘Quantum’ class ships have some better gimmicks (sorry – facilities) such as the North Star observation pod, the Rip-Cord free-fall simulator and the Bumper cars, personally I feel NCL’s Breakaway/& Plus design works better – particularly because of the attractive Waterfront feature which offer a connection with the sea, which most other big mass-market ship are missing.
It is worth remembering when you are comparing fares of the rival cruise lines, that NCL are experts in the additional on-board surcharge. Although the many surcharges are optional, they are also very tempting. However you are paying for the increased ‘choice’ I suppose.
It is important to note that these big ships are designed on the premise that not everybody on-board will want to do the same thing, in the same place, at the same time. This premise largely works, but when it doesn’t, expect queues and congestion.
Escape is definitely a very ‘busy’ ship. I do wonder how well the ‘Aqua-Park’, ‘The Waterfront’ and ‘Spice H2O’ will cope with the crowds on a sunny day or on a warm evening.
(Special Thanks to Flagship Consulting)
Norwegian Jade Review: See Here
Norwegian Getaway Review: See Here
Norwegian Epic Review: See Here