Former travel agent Christine Callinan’s review of Norwegian Escape offers a great insight into what it is like to cruise on a luxury cruise for the first time.
Many of you may know that I love cruising, and I am a big fan of Norwegian Cruise Line’s luxury ships and free-style atmosphere. You can read my review of Norwegian Encore here, however, I think it is important to get different perspectives on cruise holidays. When my travel pal Christine told me she had booked a cruise for her own holiday, I was delighted when she agreed to write a review of Norwegian Escape as someone who is new to cruise.
Christine outlines her reasons for choosing Norwegian, the booking process, her thoughts on the food and facilities on board, and her fabulous port stops. As a former travel agent, Christine also shares her top tips for getting cabin upgrades, airport transfers and what to do in port stops.
Having never cruised before, I went through each cruise line with a fine tooth comb to find the best value and the best option for travelling with a teenager. My daughter was almost 17 at the time of our trip and her desire was to see as many countries as possible on one cruise. We chose a 10 day Greek Isles and Italy cruise on Norwegian Escape, one of Norwegian cruise line’s newer ships.
Norwegian Escape is a vast ship, but by no means the biggest in the world – at full capacity she can hold 4266 passengers and a further 1733 crew. When we travelled the ship was approximately 60% full due to covid restrictions for US travellers. The test for re-entry to the US was removed the week before we sailed, but not in time for the ship to fill up.
We left Dublin for Rome on the Aer Lingus 6.20am flight, and booked a check-in slot at Civitacecchia port for 12.30 – 13.00pm. On arrival at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport we were picked up by a private chauffeur and brought straight to the ship.
The cost of the transfer was €110 for the three of us plus suitcases. There is also a standard taxi charge of €120, which is still much cheaper than the rate the cruise line charges for a shared bus ride of €75 per person. We used ZIP transfers but there are loads of companies online all offering the same service.
The check-in process was seamless. Before leaving home we printed off our baggage labels for the cruise and placed them on our bags so that they could be brought directly to our cabin. Once we cleared embarkation we were free to start our holiday!
Reasons for choosing Norwegian Cruise Line
One of the main reasons we chose NCL was because of their all inclusive offering. We booked the ‘Free at Sea’ package which included all meals, 2 speciality dining options, $50 discount off sightseeing tours (which we didn’t use once), and an all-inclusive bar.
The drinks package included all alcoholic drinks up to the value of $15 per drink. We enjoyed cocktails, beers, spirits, and wine by the glass. We booked a soda package for my daughter which was $89, but she really didn’t need it, as there was ample water and juices available throughout the ship.
How to get an upgrade with Norwegian Cruise Line
Depending on the category of state room you book, NCL will offer you a chance to bid on an upgraded room. We had booked a balcony suite, and when offered we put in a bid for a club balcony suite.
The only difference is a much larger bathroom – double sinks and a huge rain shower. You also get one free laundry service and a bottle of sparkling wine on arrival, and a few treats are also left in the room throughout your stay, chocolate strawberries, cookies etc.
We put in a minimum bid of $70pp (only the first two people pay per cabin), and thought no more about it. Three days before we were due to sail, we received an email to say the bid was successful! I’m sure the only reason we won our bid was that the ship was not at full capacity. You can make bids right up to the Haven level, and you will only be billed if successful, so it is definitely worth a try!
Our Club Balcony Suite for three people consisted of a very large king size bed and a single bed, as well as a large bathroom with double sinks and large rain shower, a dressing table area with stool and a mini bar.
There was a balcony with two seats and an outside table too. TOP TIP: We were on the 15th deck on the starboard side – this gave us great views when arriving and departing from ports. We docked on the starboard (right) side in most posts.
The second we stepped onboard our experience began. We had to wait an hour or so for our cabin to be cleaned and checked, but during that time we were free to roam the ship or enjoy a meal, which is exactly what we did, as we had been on the go since 3am. The choice of restaurants and bars is vast…
Dining on Norwegian Escape:
O’Sheehan’s bar and grill is open 24 hours a day and is included on all packages, it is ideal for casual dining and drinks. This is an Irish themed bar (that is a very loose description), but is excellent for snacks and lunch, if more formal dining is not required.
The Garden Cafe is the buffet restaurant located on deck 16, and is open until 11pm for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and everything in between.
There are three main dining rooms: Savour, Taste, and the Manhattan Room. All restaurants serve the same menu and these menus are changed daily. I found Savour and Taste very similar, but the Manhattan Room offered live music while we ate.
Norwegian’s freestyle dining means that there is no specific dining times and you will be seated at your own table – you can eat whenever you want – no old fashioned dining times or captains table! The food quality at all of these restaurants was excellent.
The Speciality Dining that was included in our ‘Free at Sea’ package allowed us to swap the main dining rooms for something a bit more special on two nights of our choice. There are 11 different options to choose from, ranging from Teppanyaki to Tapas.
As we were travelling with a third person, we had to pay a supplement for her to eat with us. We chose the Teppanyaki and Cagney’s steakhouse – both were wonderful fun experiences and the food was excellent.
Top Tip: I am glad I listened to the advice to book our speciality dining options as soon as we came aboard, as they book up very quickly, especially on days that you are at sea.
Entertainment on Norwegian Escape
There is a vast array of entertainment on board – something to suit everyone. During the day the main Atrium can feel a little like Butlins, with game shows like Deal or no Deal and Mr and MRS going on. Most days we were off exploring beautiful places but on the days at sea, these shows attracted a crowd – some people put a lot of work into winning a t-shirt!
At night there are live shows, a comedy club and a casino. The live shows can book up very quickly so I advise booking them as early as possible too. Not everyone was a first time cruiser and were more prepared than I was. We only managed to see one show and it was fine.
There is an adults-only area called Spice H20 where adults can chill out during the day, and there are themed parties at night time. There is also a waterfront area – that is the quiet zone which is perfect for reading and relaxing.
If travelling alone there is a meeting room for solo travellers to meet up and make new friends. While having a drink on the walkway one evening we sat beside three ladies who had all met in the solo lounge – one English, one Australian and one American. You would never have guessed that they did not know each other before the cruise, all had one goal in life and that was to enjoy themselves.
Pool deck and activities on Norwegian Escape
The top deck is where the main outdoor action is, and where kids can be entertained. There are also a couple of water slides, as well as a drop slide that my daughter was traumatised on – not literally though… Firstly, they weigh you but that’s not the worst bit, the bottom then falls and you come straight down, definitely not for the faint hearted – we left it to the teenager!
The water slide with rubber tubes was much more appealing! There is also large rope course but note you have to have long shorts to be allowed on it. There are also kids clubs on board, but best check with your cruise agent for suitability of ages.
A crazy golf course that is being remodelled at the moment, giant chess and ping pong tables complete the fun zone. There is also a teen zone onboard for kids up to 17 so they can meet up. It was only on our last day did that ours show any interest in this – at this stage I think she was just sick of the parents!
Port stops on Norwegian Escape Greek Isles and Italy cruise
Now to the fabulous places we got to visit! Our first night was a full night at sea, arriving the next afternoon in Santorini Greece.
This is a tender port which means you are taken off by water taxis. TOP TIP: This has to be booked in advance, and the earlier you book the lower the number of the tender – so book this as early as possible to ensure a speedy embarkation.
I did find if you booked an excursion through NCL you got an early tender, or if you just tell them you have a tour booked and they are waiting for you! Well it worked for us to get on Tender 2, but I can’t guarantee it will work every time….
We had no tour booked and decided to play it by ear. On arrival into Fira Port you can either walk up 600 steps to the top of the cliff, take a donkey (not a good option), or travel by cable car. We chose the cable car which was only €6 per person each way and well worth the cost.
Do not be tempted to take a water bus to Oia. It is €20 per person and you still have to climb steps, only in a different location. Escorted tours can range from €100 per person upwards or you can go it alone. We chose to take a taxi €35 each way to Oia – we had to get the iconic Santorini photos!
It was aabout a 20 minute taxi drive and the taxi rank in Fira is just off the main road leading into the town centre. We had a wonderful afternoon there, taking photos and enjoying a leisurely lunch. For such an iconic place. we found the food was very reasonable, with a huge greek salad costing just €12.
Our next stop was Mykonos, which was definitely one of my favourites. We were able to dock right next to the port so no tenders were required. There are free shuttles to take you to Mykonos town, but we chose to take a water taxi for €2 per person which dropped us right in the centre of town.
There is so much to see and do in Mykonos. Some people went straight to the beach, but we went exploring the town. We visited the windmills and marvelled at the Venice of Greece. We enjoyed nice drinks and watched the world go by, it was heaven!
Everywhere we turned there was a photo opportunity, but after a spot of shopping we headed back to the ship to enjoy the sunset on board.
After an overnight sail we arrived in Athens. We didn’t book an excursion here either. I had read that the hop on hop off buses meet the cruise liners, and true to their word they were there. We chose the simple option of heading straight to the Acropolis, and we had view of the Parthenon temple on approach.
Unfortunately everyone had the same idea and it was absolutely packed. It was 38C in the shade, so after seeing the length of the queue we departed for the Acropolis museum. We purchased tickets online, and went straight to the top of the queue. There are lots of fascinating artefacts to see in the museum, as well as a gift shop and restaurant – and the air conditioning was welcomed by all of us!
After a couple of hours we went back to the ship. Our next stop was supposed to be Corfu but the itinerary was changed a couple of days before we departed, to allow more time in Mykonos and Malta. I think was a good option as we got full days in both these destinations rather than a few hours.
Our next stop was Valletta in Malta. We arrived into Valletta at 5.40am as the dawn broke and it was a real treat. We set our alarm so as not to miss the arrival, and wow it was worth the early start. We sat on our balcony and enjoyed getting closer and closer to this this ancient city. We docked right in the centre of the city and disembarked after breakfast.
There was lots of taxi drivers vying for business, but we just walked on by and took the elevator from the port into the heart of the city – all for €1 each way. There is plenty of shopping and sightseeing to do in Valletta and tons of photo opportunities.
We did a tour on the sightseeing train that can be picked up in the main square – it cost €6.00 per person. It gave us a fantastic feel for the city and we didn’t have to hike up and down the hills.
We also took the hop on hop off the bus to Mdina – an ancient walled city about 45 minutes from Valletta. This is a beautiful city and so full of history. It is also a ‘Silent City’, where no cars are allowed into its labyrinth of mazy streets.
Messina, Sicily was our next stop and once again we decided to disembark and ramble on our own. The ship docked right in the town so there was no need to book taxis or take trains anywhere. We hit the main street and went shopping. All the usual high street brands are in Messina, along with top designer shops and Italian souvenirs. There are also a few ornate buildings that warrant a photo or two, but nothing outstanding.
A lot of people booked the Mt Etna tour, but it is a long drive there and back so take that into account if you are considering it. We decided to return to the ship early and take advantage of a quieter pool deck.
The following day we had a full day at sea. These are the best days to book shows, spa treatments, and speciality dining, as you aren’t rushed to get back from excursions. Unfortunately everyone else thinks the same, so early booking is a must. On the at sea days the pool area can be extremely busy with lots of pool games, and lots of very loud people.
There was an ice sculpture demonstration by the pool in the afternoon that looked interesting, but I can honestly say I preferred to chill on our balcony than at the pool deck on sea days. TOP TIP: When choosing a cruise, take note of how many port stops there are. I believe pool decks on most cruise ships are very busy on sea days so you will want to have as few sea days as possible.
Our next stop was Livorno. This port is used for visits to Pisa, Florence and the Cinque Tierre. As we hadn’t ever been to any of the above, we decided to go to Pisa. We took a bus to the town centre and bought bus tickets to the train station from a tobacco shop.
TOP TIP Remember to validate your tickets or you could end up with a costly fine. Trains to Pisa and Florence run practically every half hour and are incredibly cheap. We paid €2.80 per person each way to Pisa. On arrival in Pisa you can either walk or take a local bus to the Leaning Tower, but buy your ticket from the tobacco shop in the train station, and the bus is right outside. We saw lots of inspectors fining tourists for not validating their ticket here.
We had a lovely walk around Pisa and stayed for lunch, but there really isn’t much to do in Pisa apart from the Leaning Tower. Livorno is also a lovely town to shop in so we spent a little time there too. The cruise bus was waiting for us on return – they operate every 15 minutes all day and it was well worth the €6 charge to get to and from the ship.
Our last stop was Naples and once again we docked right in the city centre. The dock is right beside all the ferries heading south to Capri, Sorrento and on to the Amalfi coast. There are lots of tours to Pompei and Vesuvius also on offer from the NCL excursion desk.
As we had been to all of these places before, we chose to walk to Naples main street and just have a browse around. Naples is a lovely old city with plenty to see and do. Having been there before though, if the stop had been longer I definitely would have taken the ferry to Capri. You can read about my previous trip to this area here:
Our final overnight sail took us back to Civitavecchia and eventually Rome. We took the shuttle bus from the ship to the Port entrance where we queued for a further shuttle (€3 per person), to take us to the train station. Trains run regularly all day to Rome and we purchased our ticket from a vending machine for €12.60 for all three of us for just over an hour’s journey.
The train leaves you in Termini Station and taxis are plentiful to take you to anywhere in Rome. Taxis are very reasonable and journeys rarely cost us more than €10 – just make sure they are regulated / metered taxis – a taxi rank is the safest option. We had a further 4 days of sightseeing and eating pizza in Rome but that’s another day’s story…
I hope you enjoyed my review of Norwegian Escape and it will help you plan a cruise holiday soon.