Tuesday, November 26, 2019

C is for: Cruising Aboard the Norwegian Encore

I have a confession to make.

Before this year, I had never been on a cruise.

I know this fact may come as a surprise to some of you, but my mom is claustrophobic so we never went on one as kids. As I transitioned to adulthood and started traveling more, I always preferred to "choose my own adventure," so to speak... plotting my own path wherever my adventures took me.

However, much like an all-inclusive resort, there is something to be said for not having to worry about all the planning and guesswork. I think there's definitely an argument for both on your travel bucket list, and Norwegian Cruise Lines is doing its best to turn me into a cruise fan.

Last month, I had the opportunity to check out NCL's newest vessel, The Encore, and let me say it was a sight to see! If you like the idea of high class dining, endless activities and entertainment, while stopping at tropical ports along the way... then you should definitely check it out!


The State Rooms:
The accommodations range from interior rooms all the way up to gigantic and lavish suites on the Haven Deck. Our quarters fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, with a comfortably sized room, complete with a little balcony for enjoying the fresh ocean breezes. I was extremely impressed with the size of the bathroom... bigger than you'll find in most NYC hotel rooms (or apartments for that matter.) That said, you don't spend too much time in the rooms (unless you're on the Haven Deck with a private pool... at which point, you would have to drag me kicking and screaming out of my room.) We had a queen-sized bed, but you can also request separate, single beds if you are traveling with a friend, as I was back in April on the Norwegian Joy





The food:
Being that this is a food blog first, I must address the restaurant situation on board the Encore, because it is truly impressive! I think part of my hesitation for going on a cruise previously was concern over the food quality or predetermined times for eating. Any of those trepidations were erased from the moment I had my first bite of food on board The Norwegian Joy in April and reinforced aboard The Encore. The ship boasts 20 options in all, including 9 that are considered specialty eateries, as well as the full-service Starbucks and dessert shops. We had the chance to visit three of the specialty restaurants for dinner, as well as a sampling of several of them at a specially curated lunch, so I'll do my best to give you the highlights! 



The specialty restaurants employ a la carte pricing, or you can book the "Free at Sea" promotion and select free specialty dining as one of your options. All of Norwegian's cruises are also considered "freestyle cruising," which means you can pretty much dine whenever and wherever you want (though reservations are recommended for the more popular restaurants... four of them highlighted below.)


Onda: Brand new (and currently exclusive) to the Norwegian Encore is Onda, by Scarpetta. Onda means "wave" in Italian, and this is an experience not to be missed. The Scarpetta brand has several locations across the U.S., has been nominated for a James Beard award and received a 3-star rating from the New York Times.



We ordered a little of everything from ricotta-stuffed pizza, octopus, short ribs with farro, and of course, several of their signature pastas. I ordered the bolognese pappardelle, while Justin got the short rib ravioli. We quickly devoured both and agreed this was our favorite meal of the trip by far. If you like dessert, definitely save room for the tiramisu and chocolate cake. Onda also features waterfront dining.


Food Republic: Food Republic is like a mini trip around the world with a view of the water as you dine. The restaurant is a collaboration with the Pubbelly Restaurant Group out of Miami, which is helmed by 5-time James Beard Award nominee Jose Mendin, so it comes as no surprise this is one of the more popular NCL restaurants. The tapas offerings at Food Republic span cuisines from Japan, China, and even Peru. You can also find Food Republic on the Norwegian Joy, the Bliss and the Escape. 



Q Texas Smokehouse: I would classify myself as somewhat of a BBQ aficionado (I even judged a recent brisket competition back in NYC), so I was both excited and skeptical about a Texas Barbecue restaurant aboard a cruise ship. But again, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of food available at Q. The atmosphere is very Southern down-home rustic, with large wooden tables, antique looking knick knacks adorning the booths and a stage for music. It's also offered on the Joy and Bliss and is the company's first BBQ concept restaurant.




If you want a good sampling of all of the different smoked meats, go for the Pitmaster Platter, which comes with brisket, spare ribs, chicken and jalapeño cornbread. However, all of the meats are also available as single portions. Make sure to save room for starters and sides, as this menu had several standouts in that department. We quickly devoured the deviled eggs topped with maple bacon, the wavy cheese fries, charcuterie platter and fried okra. The restaurant also features live music and dancing available to all cruise goers each night until midnight. (And make sure you try the smoked peach margarita!)


Other dining options:
Cagney's is one of the Hallmarks of Norwegian Cruise Lines, and you will find a version of it on each ship of the company's fleet. Ocean Blue is the ship's premiere seafood spot if you are more of a Pescatarian or just a seafood lover in general. This ship also features Teppanyaki, Mexican, French and plenty of dessert stands.


If you do not opt for the specialty dining package, you still have plenty of options, including the Garden Cafe, where we ate most of our breakfasts and lunches. There are also several bars and lounges to help you unwind at night, including a whiskey bar, wine bar, and mojito bar! For your caffeine fix, there are several Starbucks coffee stands on board.


Pulse Fitness Center & Mandara Spa
With all that food, you might want to consider checking out the sea-facing fitness center or detox in the spa. The gym is completely stocked with all of the state of the art equipment you could possibly need. And if classes are more your thing, they offer daily spin sessions, as well as mini-bootcamps. The spa has a full menu of services... including a Thermal Suite which features both a snow room and a salt room, which is great for detoxification. 









The Activities:
As with The Joy, I was sort of blown away by the sheer number of activities on board. Among some of the offerings: a laser tag course, pool deck with two waterslides, a casino and a virtual reality game pavilion. The Encore also offers plenty of shopping, including high-end retailers like Cartier and Bulgari, all offered duty-free once the ship is out to sea. 




But, by far, the certainly the star here is the racetrack. The Encore (along with the Joy and Bliss) offer go-kart racing while at sea. The best part is the speedway is located on the top deck, so you get a view of the ocean while you're zooming around the track, trying to outrace your friends and family. While the track pumps in racing sounds like revving engines and screeching tires, the cars are fully electric and can reach speeds of up to 30 mph!




Check out the little video I put together aboard the Norwegian Joy to capture some of the atmosphere from the track!



Entertainment: 
The Encore also features nighttime entertainment options including Kinky Boots, Choir of Man (by far the crowd favorite, bringing everyone to their feet), as well as other nightly music and comedy shows. The quality was about what I would expect on a cruise... nothing compared to Broadway back home in NYC, but still a fun way to spend the evening and let your delicious dinner digest. (And the more I thought about it... I was actually very impressed with the performers' ability to keep composure and time with the periodic rocking from the waves!)



Ports of Call & Shore Excursions: Because ours was just an inaugural preview sail, we only stopped at Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian's private island in the Bahamas. This was essentially a version of the ship transported to land, with dining options, activities (think zip-lining, swimming with stingrays and snorkeling), as well as private villas available to relax and enjoy the beach and ocean. We opted for the latter and made several trips to the Moët Chandon bar, where we sipped on champagne and tropical cocktails. I was tempted to stay forever. 






The Norwegian Encore is available for itineraries to the Eastern Caribbean, moving up to New York in the spring for summer trips to Bermuda. Have you ever been on a cruise? If so, where?

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