Aboard Norwegian Escape’s maiden voyage

By Shayne Benowitz for Miami.com

 

Norwegian Escape arrived last week and is now embarking on seven-night Caribbean cruises from PortMiami

 

There’s nothing I find particularly appealing about cruise vacations, but then again there’s nothing categorically repelling about them either. So when the opportunity presented itself to embark on the two-night maiden voyage of the Norwegian Escape (embarking on seven-night Caribbean cruises from $599) from PortMiami, I said, sure, and I brought my best friend Krista along for the ride.

I’ve been on a handful of cruises through the years and actually, most of them have been quite memorable. My very first at age 15 was nothing but enchanting. It was all snorkeling, swimming pools and sunshine, and really, I didn’t need much more at that age to have a good time, still don’t. Then there was the Carnival cruise after college graduation with two girlfriends where we smuggled Bacardi onboard inside a mouthwash bottle and gleefully ran amuck all over the ship. There was the Alaskan cruise with my family last fall aboard Celebrity where, yes, 3/5 of us (not me!) ended up in the infirmary with the flu, but where, nevertheless, we saw the Hubbard Glacier, ate steaming buckets of Alaskan king crab legs in the Tongass Rainforest and flew across the last frontier in all manners of helicopters and small prop planes. Mostly, we came home with a boatload of inside jokes and I came home with a fascination about the interior life of the ship’s resident comedian-magician.

The thing about cruising is, it’s inherently uncool. And in spite of the industry’s full court press, wooing Millenials and insisting that they are, in fact, cool, a cruise is not the vacation where you’re going to get off the beaten path and immerse yourself in a new culture or stumble into that buzzy new cocktail bar you read about in The New Yorker. There are limitations that come with pre-arranged tours and half days in port, as well as in supplying a week’s worth of meals to 4,248 people before it sets sail. However, pleasant surprises and valiant attempts at authenticity can be discovered throughout Escape. The beauty is, as soon as you discard any notion of coolness from your ego, you’re free to have unadulterated fun in the novel, yet slightly bizarre parallel universe that exists aboard cruise ships.

 

“You know I gotta say, Dale!”

 

To inaugurate Escape, none other than Miami’s native son, Pitbull, served as “Godfather” with a pre-sail concert. This was our first opportunity to shed any pretense and embrace the next 48-hours for what it was going to be, a wildly silly good time.

 

Pitbull performing dockside at the Norwegian Escape christening ceremony.

We gathered dockside before the gargantuan 164,600 gross ton Escape, the largest in Norwegian Cruise Line’s fleet, climbing 20 decks high and over 1,000-feet long, flanked by rows of glistening stateroom balconies and a whimsical marine mural by Guy Harvey. Pitbull burst onto the stage opening his half hour concert with “Don’t Stop the Party!” Doing his due diligence as Godfather of this Miami-inspired ship, he repeatedly invoked the city’s sexiness through his words (“This is the sexiest ship on the planet for the sexiest city in the world!”), his high-energy performance (complete with hip-swiveling salsa moves and the cocksure crow of, “Dale!”) and, of course, his scantily clad backup dancers (dressed in oversized red coats that they promptly discarded to reveal black and white leotards and lots of booty).

 

Broadway Caliber Entertainment

“I think it will be worth it for the entertainment alone,” I told Krista over the phone, persuading her to join me.

The Escape stages two Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals, Million Dollar Quartet and After Midnight, as well as Los Angeles-based theater company For the Record’s production of The Brat Pack in a dinner theater setting.

And I was right about the entertainment. The Brat Pack, a musical mash-up of cult classic movies that defined the ‘80s—everything from Pretty in Pink to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science—was both hilarious and moving, performed by a wildly talented cast of singers, actors and musicians. After Midnight, a dance-based musical revue set during the Harlem Renaissance stars Broadway veteran Brenda Braxton and a host of other talented performers who soft shoed and belted out everything from the sassy “Women Be Wise” to the heartfelt “Stormy Weather” and the swingy Duke Ellington-arranged “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” With performers draped in dazzling Tony-nominated costumes by Isabel Toledo, the show was a visual and aural treat from number to number.

 

The cast of Million Dollar Quartet.

We also caught the late showing of Million Dollar Quartet the following evening, which I saw in rehearsals at the Norwegian Creative Studios in Tampa back in September. I may or may not have intentionally seated us in the front row knowing that the 21-year-old actor playing Elvis would plant a kiss on a female audience member during his finale of “Hound Dog.” The show positively rocks and the young performers playing Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis are all heartthrobs.

 

Ropes Course, Waterslides & Other Diversions

Perhaps I should mention now that this inaugural two-night “cruise to nowhere” had no ports of call and an open bar, so we spent our time at sea getting to know the ship’s bells and whistles. Escape boasts an impressive ropes course looming large, three stories above Deck 17. Both Krista and I forgot to pack our sneakers, so we were unable to give it a whirl ourselves, but we heard from a friend that it was quite the vertiginous thrill peering out to sea 20 stories high while strapped in by nothing more than a harness.

Undeterred by our ropes course disqualification, sipping mimosas and piña coladas throughout the day, we instead whooped it up on the ship’s tangle of waterslides (you’ve gotta try going backwards on a tandem float), played a rather uncompetitive game of HORSE on the top deck basketball court, sunned at Spice H20 Lounge, cooled off in the grotto (yes, there’s a grotto on board and yes, it faintly conjures the Playboy Mansion) and soaked in a hot tub before sunset.

 

An aerial view of the Escape’s top decks complete with swimming pools, waterslides and a ropes course.

At one point in the day, I turned to Krista and said, “Okay, I get it. I see how people can become obsessed with cruise ships. Like, ‘Have you seen the waterslides on so-and-so ship?’ ‘No, but did you know xyz ship has a wave pool?’ ‘No way!’ And then you just keep going on cruises.”

After frolicking in the grotto and returning to our lounge chairs at Spice H20 with a fresh round of drinks, Krista turned to me and said, “Shayne, this cruise to nowhere has inspired me. We should book a cruise with Lisa [our other best friend] for our next vacation.”

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Yes!”

I’m still not sure if she was joking or not.

 

Cruise Ship Food

I’ve got some hard truths to deliver you about cruise ship food. If you’re a foodie of any stripe or simply live in a city that has good restaurants, you’re not going to have the best meal of your life aboard a cruise ship. The best way to describe cruise ship food is to compare it to airplane food in business class or on an international flight. It’s not bad, I thought to myself, digging into the short rib and prawn surf ‘n turf combo atop a bed of couscous at the Supper Club, even good if you’re hungry, but it’s not a meal to write home about.

There are definitely some exceptions to this rule aboard Escape and they largely come in the upgraded restaurants (i.e., mo’ money) helmed by Michelin star chef Jose Garces and Miami’s own Pubbelly Group. We sampled their fare at lunchtime while also sampling wine at the legitimately classy Mondavi Wine Bar and beers by Wynwood Brewery at the District Brewhouse, easily the most convivial, chill spot on the ship to throw back a cold one on overstuffed, vintage-y looking leather sofas with old school board games and panoramic vistas of the sea.

To Escape’s credit, their buffet even seemed pretty legit. We missed out on a lunch buffet overflowing with crab legs that other passengers were happily heaping high on their trays, but we did manage to make the most of the solid breakfast buffet and a decent salad bar the day before.

On the less enticing end of Escape’s dining offerings, instead of the Midnight Pizza Buffet of my dreams, an Irish pub named O’Sheehans (do you think that’s some weird word play on “ocean?”) serves as the ship’s 24-hour dining mecca. Over the course of the two-night cruise, we popped into O’Sheehans for late night nachos swimming in room temp cheese sauce and a just okay burger on a dry, slightly stale bun. On the second night, we ordered dessert that we determined was the “fakest tasting” cheesecake and weirdest looking, yet surprisingly palatable, apple pie of all time. This was only after being aced out of a humble request for a table for dessert at various other dining establishments on the ship. And that’s the thing about “freestyle” cruising with Norwegian (their branding hallmark allowing passengers to set their own schedules), while there are lots of options, if you don’t make a reservation, you’ll either simply be turned down or end up waiting in line for a table. After being coolly informed by more than one hostess that their restaurant was fully committed, I said to Krista, “This is like the Meatpacking District! Come on, let’s just go to O’Sheehans.”

 

Nightlife

 

Sparkle Square.

Most of the nightlife aboard Escape revolves around a three-story plaza midships that we dubbed the Sparkle Square for its over-the-top, South Beach-worthy crystal chandelier dripping from the ceiling. It’s here that we stumbled upon Tobacco Road. The shuttered Miami dive bar, beloved for being the oldest watering hole in the city, has been given a second life aboard the Norwegian Escape and an incongruously classy upgrade. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a Miami native and have no real nostalgia surrounding the original Tobacco Road, but this incarnation was a hell of a lot more pleasant with a dimly lit, chocolate color palette and cushy leather lounge chairs.

 

Tobacco Road at Sea.

It’s from this plush perch, that you can kick back with a Kir Royale and watch the world go by in the make believe village at sea surrounding Sparkle Square. Women totter by in heels dressed for a night on the town, a group of travel agents yuck it up in matching neon green t-shirts on their way to the casino, people stand in line hoping for a table at Pubbelly at Sea, the ship’s comedian makes his way to the District Brewhouse with the woman who was heckling him during his entire show, who, as it turns out, is wheelchair bound. Okay, wait a second. What is going on here? We spot an actor from The Brat Pack who looks totally different out of costume chatting with a group of friends and wonder if maybe the cast of Million Dollar Quartet is out tonight, so that maybe we could hang out with Elvis and Johnny Cash. We’re getting all philosophical and caught up in the social constructs of this fleeting dream world entirely of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ invention.

When that gets dull, we drain the last drop from our Champagne flutes and head to the open air Spice H20 Lounge (yes, by day it’s for sunning, but by night it’s for dancing!). The bar is crowded and a DJ works his magic before a big screen playing the song’s corresponding music video. And even in this alternate universe at sea, weird guys still try to buy us drinks (it’s an open bar, dude!) and attempt pitiful pickup lines on the dance floor, and Krista and I still run away giggling.

 

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