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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

[Day 1] - Christmas on NCL Encore

Ho, ho, ho! The Shinglebells are back!! Hello and welcome to my trip report for the Shinglebells' 12th Annual* Christmas Cruise aboard Norwegian Encore! (*annual excluding 2020, obviously)

Norwegian Encore

In case you're new to my trip reports or just need a little refresher, meet the Shinglebells:

Me/Victoria - I'm 30 and live in Los Angeles. I'm an architect, and I love a good DIY (check out my new YouTube channel, designSHING, if home decor is your thing)! I've also been sticking a camera in everyone's face to document and meticulously share our family vacations for well over a decade.

Sister/Rachel - She's 28 and lives in Austin, Texas. She recently earned her Master of Finance from UT Austin and recently began a new job as an Associate at a global investment firm! Rachel is the planner for our cruise vacations. She reads cruise blogs, reviews, and Cruise Critic. She also wrote a trip report for her September cruise on Freedom of the Seas.

Mom/Sharon a.k.a. Judy is sexy and 60! Her birthday was in December, so this cruise doubled as a 60th birthday celebration. Judy is actually the most-cruised Shinglebell, so we charge our souvenirs to her card so we can get the best discounts.

Dad/Boyd a.k.a. Stove is 67 and living his best life with my mom in South Carolina. When he's not consulting, you can probably find him either on the golf course or on the lake. And if you ever see us out and about, he's most likely leading the pack.

Even more exciting - this year, we were joined by the Shingleboyfriends -

Aaron (my boyfriend) is also an architecture professional in Los Angeles. His first cruise was on the Disney Wonder in 2019, and his second cruise was on the Disney Wonder in 2021, so this was his first cruise on a line other than Disney and a ship other than the Wonder.

Landon (Rachel's boyfriend) spends his cruises working because he's a lawyer. His first cruise was also on the Disney Wonder. This was his first cruise other than Disney, his first 7-day cruise, as well as his first time getting off a cruise ship at a port of call - so many firsts!

Now let's move on to the story of how we chose this cruise...

Back in Summer 2019, Stove and Judy cruised Alaska with Stove's siblings. It had been nearly two decades since they had cruised Alaska (it was our second cruise, on the Radiance of the Seas), and they had such a great time that they wanted to go again with their two favorite daughters. So in February 2020, we booked a 7-day Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Bliss for May 2020..... I think you know where this is going.

The cruising industry shut down, and the May 2020 cruise was canceled. When this happened, Norwegian offered us the option - either get a full refund, or instead of a refund receive a 125% future cruise credit. Being avid cruisers who would definitely one day return to cruising, it seemed like a no-brainer. We'll take the 125% future cruise credit.

Well, turns out, that future cruise credit had an expiration date... for the extra 25% at least. In order to get the 125% cruise credit, you needed to sail by December 31, 2021. (Otherwise, you only get a 100% cruise credit... potentially maybe could receive a refund.... I don't know, we didn't pursue that.) We were planning to cruise again for Christmas 2021, so this narrowed down our search to NCL sailings.

We ultimately decided on a 7-Day Norwegian Encore roundtrip sailing from Miami to Great Stirrup Cay, St. Thomas, Tortola, and Dominican Republic.

We booked during one of the many GET MORE FREE sales. The website has a countdown ticker, but rest assured that the countdown will reset almost immediately after the current sale ends. I receive a postcard in the mail every other week from NCL telling me to GET MORE FREE! Do not feel rushed into booking - this sale is ongoing.

It's also important to read the small print to see what FREE really means.

FREE Open Bar.... but you must pre-pay gratuities for the length of your cruise. (You may opt out.)

FREE Specialty Dining.... 2 specialty dining credits for our sailing. Must book reservations in advance if you want the more popular options like Cagney's.

FREE Excursions.... was actually a $50 excursion credit for one person in the stateroom.

FREE WiFi.... was 120 free minutes that required a $3.95 activation fee to use. Also, be sure to type in to make sure that you don't waste all 120 minutes in your first session.

Another cool promo that they were running was earn 2 additional rewards points per night. So for our 7-night cruise, we earned 21 latitudes points. This meant that Aaron and Landon jumped over the Bronze Tier, straight to Silver, and Rachel and Judy earned Gold.

The booking process itself was more complicated than necessary. My dad got on the NCL website and picked out three balcony staterooms on the 8th deck port side. He booked his room. I got on and booked one of the other rooms.... but then when Rachel was attempting to book, she couldn't book the other remaining room on port side. We knew it was available because it was showing available on our end and on external booking sites like Travelocity, but she wasn't able to book it. Instead, she booked a room on the 8th deck starboard side.

We weren't mad about our room locations, but we also weren't attached to them. So when the upgrade offers became available, we decided to bid. Rachel made a break-even bid spreadsheet, and we figured it was as good of a time as any to try our luck at The Haven. We bid on the Spa Suite (our preference because it included unlimited access to the thermal suites), and all of the other Haven suites that allowed us to start our bid at $400. Rachel figured we should not bid on club or spa balcony staterooms because it may hurt our chances at getting Haven.

Well, we didn't get Haven. In hindsight, it was probably unlikely that we would get the upgrade since we had three separate staterooms. From seeing who got the Haven upgrade on our Facebook group, it looked like people who had 3 or 4 people in a stateroom had a better chance of getting the upgrade.

At this point, I decided that I was not happy with the 8th floor balcony and was determined to get an upgrade, so I suggested we bid the minimum $15 per person on club. We were all upgraded to to club rooms on deck 13 port side..... and our staterooms were closer together than those balconies we had originally booked on deck 8.

Other pre-cruise planning included Rachel booking our dining reservations. In addition to the two free specialty dining credits, we decided to purchase the 3-credit specialty dining package. We also booked a shore excursion through NCL to take advantage of the $50 excursion credit.

From her research, Rachel recommended booking Marriott Biscayne Bay for our pre and post-cruise stay. I'm a Marriott Bonvoy cardholder, and I was able to book our post-cruise room with a Free Night Award (35,000 points - Sunday night), but the pre-cruise rate was 40,000 points (above the 35,000 point threshold for the Free Night Award), so that was a better deal to book with cash.

Let's quickly talk Covid protocols because that is the world we live in now. NCL is currently requiring all guests to be fully vaccinated to set sail. Since children under 12 had only recently been approved to get the Covid vaccine, this meant that the demographic of NCL sailings at the time were almost all guests over the age of 12. With NCL, unlike other cruise lines, since all passengers were required to be fully vaccinated regardless of age, they were not requiring masks to be worn indoors. That is, until Omicron started spiking and they revised the mask policy just a few days prior to sailing....

There were people who had booked NCL for the no mask requirement who were voicing their dissatisfaction on the Internet. In my opinion, the weirdest part is that passengers would be required to wear their masks in the thermal suites (because it's indoors).... so people are swimming in the pool and sweating in the sauna with a mask on? Hahahaha.... guess it's a good thing we didn't win the bid for the Spa Suite!

On the bright side, I have many cute cruise masks to wear. I'll be adding more cruise masks to my Society6 shop as I post this review!

Now enough with this pre-cruise planning. Let's get to Miami!

We all flew to Miami on Saturday, December 18 - the day before the cruise departed. On Saturday morning, Aaron and I were waiting to board our flight at LAX when I got a text from Rachel. There was bad weather around Texas, and their flight on Southwest was delayed.... then canceled. They were rescheduled on a flight later that evening. I took a look at the flights out of Houston the next morning and figured worst case scenario, if they weren't able to fly out that night, they could get the 7 AM flight the next morning and still make it in time for sailaway.

Aaron and I arrived in Miami just half an hour or so after my parents, so we were able to share an Uber to the Marriott. Rachel and Landon were just now boarding the plane of their evening flight which at this point had been delayed two or three times. Rachel had made a reservation for us to eat at Catch Grill & Bar at Marriott Biscayne Bay. She changed it to four, but the restaurant was empty and there wasn't really a need for a reservation. The food was on-par with hotel food. Stove and I ordered fish tacos, and we were each presented with two tiny tacos... I had to choke back a laugh when it was placed on the table.

After dinner, Stove and Judy went to bed. Aaron and I were sharing a room with Rachel and Landon, so we had to try to not completely pass out so that we could let them in the room when they finally got to the hotel at 2AM. Rachel did peek out the window when she got in, and we saw the Oasis of the Seas pulling into port.

Sunday morning, we got up bright and early... and I mean BRIGHT! The sun beaming in the bay view window gets hot! Something we didn't realize until that morning was that despite booking the room for four adults, there were only three bath towels. I'm very glad that I brought along the illuminated travel mirror that Rachel got me for my birthday (because I always complain about bad lighting in my stateroom reviews) because there was only one mirror in the room, and it was in the bathroom.

Here's our bay view from the 16th floor. Stove also got a bay view, and though he has lifetime Platinum Elite Marriott Bonvoy status, he was on the 8th floor. But myself, a measly Silver, got 16th floor.


The sun is really not in the best spot to be able to get a great view of the cruise ships. However, you can see there were a lot of ships in port that morning. The NCL Encore is second from the left, docked behind Oasis of the Seas.


We took Ubers to the cruise terminal. After dropping off our bags with the porter, we were directed to the line for Covid testing.

Now let me back up to the pre-cruise online check-in process. There were several things that were annoying about online check-in, and one was that you selected a port arrival time, but then you needed to book a Covid Test through CVS Minute Clinic that aligned with the port arrival time - why wasn't the testing time automatically determined by the port arrival time or vice versa? I'm assuming it's because the testing signup was via CVS and not via NCL.

We had been emailed a QR code for the Covid test prior to the cruise, directly from the CVS Minute Clinic (not from NCL). If you had a QR code, there was a very short line to get tested. Guests without a QR code were directed to wait in a different, longer line. We were all able to find our QR codes and enter the shorter line. I'm guessing that most of the guests in the no-QR code line actually had a QR code somewhere in their inbox but didn't know to look for it from CVS.

Inside, we were directed to stay together as a group and go to get Covid tested. We all self-performed the nasal swab test one at a time.


Then, we were directed to sit and wait for a text message from CVS telling us that our results were ready. However, this CMU-walled area had no cell service. So we were all stuck waiting there wondering if we had results yet. I think it was Aaron who managed to get a text, and we assumed that if his results were ready, we were probably all set to go.


And we were! We were given a pink wristband and directed outside to proceed to check-in.

This is when things got really weird.

Remember when I said online check-in sucked in more ways than one? Unfortunately, my phone number or email verification never went through, but it didn't tell me that was the issue. I just couldn't get a green check mark and 100% check-in complete but had no idea why. It wasn't until less than 72 hours prior departure that I realized what the issue was, and at that point there was no one at NCL who could modify my check-in to show 100% complete (assuming due to maritime law). This meant that Aaron and I didn't have a sailaway pass. There was a port worker with a list of passengers, and she needed to find our names on the passenger list.... but she wasn't familiar with the English alphabet. We started with my name, but she did not understand that "SH" comes before "SI." We decided instead to try for Aaron's name. It was challenging to resist the temptation to take the paper away from her and find our names ourselves, but we remained patient and were able to help her find Aaron's name on the list, which apparently was all we needed. Now inside!

Going through security, Landon was pulled aside for additional baggage search.... turns out that Rachel had put some magnetic hooks in his bag, and that was what was tripping up the metal detectors.

We all split up by stateroom to check in. Aaron and I checked in with no issue. Walking out, we passed Rachel and Landon, and Rachel stopped me. They had handed her a room card with my name on it. She had to correct them that she was not Victoria, and they printed her another pass in her name. My parents also had weirdness checking in - they were asked, "Is Rachel not going on the cruise?" Huh? For some reason, Rachel was listed as a third guest in my parents' stateroom. WHAT??


Check-in issues resolved, we waited in the terminal until our group was called to board.


Everyone scanned their pass to board successfully.... until me. Access denied. I was directed to a table that was set up near boarding to print new cards. I was told that it was so common for people's room cards to not work that they had the printer setup right there.

I think perhaps my working card was the one that was given to Rachel.





We were HANGRY, so immediately after boarding the ship and checking into our Muster station, we headed to The Local for lunch.


The Local Bar & Grill is located on Deck 7 Forward. It includes high-top seating which overlooks the Atrium below. They have entertainment in the Atrium, so it can get pretty loud in The Local depending on what is happening downstairs.


The Local serves complimentary food 24 hours, so we already knew that we would be visiting often. Room service is for-charge on NCL, so this is the best option for dining any time other than the typical breakfast/lunch/dinner hours.


I ordered the Reuben. It's alright... edible, nothing spectacular.


Rachel had these adorable koozies printed to celebrate Judy's 60th birthday -



After lunch, we headed to our staterooms. My key, the one they reprinted for me to board the ship, did not open the room. Luckily, Aaron's worked.

This is the Club Balcony (which we bid at $15pp upgrade) -


We were surprised to find champagne in our staterooms. There was an additional bottle in the refrigerator. We were trying to figure out why we received champagne, when Rachel called and Landon told her to tell us that he bought champagne for everyone. I thanked him because that's a very nice gesture. BUT IT WAS A JOKE! It turns out that we received the champagne as part of the NCL loyalty program.


Also in the room is a coffee maker. I was originally annoyed that this thing was taking up valuable counter space, but I did end up using it a few times in the evenings for a caffeine jolt before dinner.


The Club Balcony is just slightly larger than a standard balcony stateroom. And "Club" comes with no additional benefits.... there isn't a concierge lounge or anything.... simply a slightly larger cabin on a slightly higher floor. That may be why NCL seemingly had trouble selling these at full price.



You'll notice that one of the nightstands is pushed out to the side, rather than in the bed cubby. I imagine they designed these without enough clearance for the stateroom attendants to change the sheets on the bed with the nightstands in place, so the stateroom attendant made it easier for himself by relocating the nightstands.


Like I mentioned earlier, Aaron and I were the only ones to have the room configuration with the bed by the balcony. The benefit of this configuration is that there is more clearance to access the closet.



Other than being just slightly larger, the biggest advantage to Club Balcony over Balcony is the double vanity in the bathroom. The Club Balcony bathroom was very sizeable compared to a standard cruise ship stateroom.


The few drawers in this stateroom were located in the bathroom.....


Check out that shower! It had a side jet spray which was too much water for me, but Rachel reported that she really liked it.


Club Balcony may have luxurious side jet action in the showers, but as far as toiletries, it offers generic wall-mounted 2-in-1 "Conditioning Shampoo."


Our stateroom slept 3, and this sofa could be converted into a twin bed -


After I got some shots of the room, Aaron started napping, and I started unpacking.


We had plenty of hangers. They're the type that are attached to the metal ring that stays on the rod.... not my favorite because it's not quite so easy to pull things in and out -



What this stateroom was lacking was drawers. There were shelves in the closet, but some things like swimsuits, underwear, and socks just work better in drawers. Judy later pointed out to me that there were two drawers under the sofa, but those were very large and also not the best for clothing storage. I kept some things in packing cubes to simulate a "drawer," but in general it felt like a bad use of space -


But I'm creative. I took advantage of the paper/book storage area for headbands and sunscreen -


I thought it was going to be a much gloomier day in Miami (I packed my raincoat and planned to wear it today), but we really lucked out -


We were behind Oasis of the Seas -



I think the balcony dividers can be opened. We did not do that.



Ahhh.... here comes the clouds -


It was around now that Stove showed up to my stateroom because I had texted him earlier that I would need to talk to him... but that was about a surprise that would come later in the day.

In the meantime, Stove presented his own surprise. He thought it would be nice to rent a cabana at Half Moon Cay. I was surprised - we had never talked about cabana rentals before. Also, I wasn't sure if he would be able to get one at this point. But we said we would enjoy that, so Stove headed to the excursion desk in pursuit of a cabana.

He came back just ten or so minutes later with an excursion card in his had. They told him he got the last one. How lucky! In hindsight, I wonder if we really had the last cabana available, or if that's a marketing strategy they use. "There's only one left - better buy!" Who knows? But we were excited!

All unpacked, we headed down to the Waterfront on Deck 8 for some sail-away drinks.


Aaron, refreshed from his power nap - 



We stopped at Sugarcane Mojito Bar. Well, the actual Sugarcane Mojito Bar is inside. Outside on the waterfront is the "environmental" version. It has a smaller menu...


The bartender explained how they make the drink of the day out here using.... reclaimed(?) ingredients. Like juice from pineapples used from decor. Something like that.... throughout the cruise, we referred to this as "The Trash Bar." I will note that the Watermelon Twist was very good. Probably the best Trash Bar drink that I tried that week.




We spotted two rainbows while we were in Miami. You can vaguely make it out in this photo -


The Pineapple Surplus is a popular Trash Bar drink, but I think it's a little too sweet. But if you like the sugary stuff, this is a good one to try. And if you don't.... well, they were going to throw that away, anyway.


Suddenly, we looked over and realized that we were moving!


We crossed to the starboard side of the ship to see Oasis -



The NCL terminal in Miami looks pretty nice -









The Waterfront bar on the starboard side of the Encore is The Cavern Club. This is where the Margaritaville bar is located on the Escape. I think that the tropical vibes are better suited to the Waterfront environment, but maybe they opted to go with the pub because this ship was built to sail Alaska, and whiskey feels more appropriate than a pina colada when sailing among the glaciers. Or maybe they just ended their contract with Jimmy Buffett...












After sailing away, I got Stove's key to his stateroom. That's what we had been plotting earlier. I brought supplies to decorate their stateroom for Judy's birthday. Stove, Judy, and Rachel (missing Landon? he's working) headed to get a bite from The Local, and Aaron and I "went to Guest Relations to fix my key that didn't open the door." A.k.a. we went to Judy and Stove's room to decorate.

My plan had originally been to get my key fixed after we decorated their stateroom, but the line at Guest Relations was so long that we decided to deal with that later. We used the Guest Relations line as the excuse for how long we were gone.

We met back up with Rachel, Judy, and Stove at The Local before heading to The Cellars Wine Bar. 


The Cellar has a touchscreen wine list set up to browse wines that you can order by the glass.


This is where we learned that Stove and Judy could get very fancy wine and champagne by the glass with their Premium Drink Package.


We went back to the room to get changed for dinner when Judy discovered her surprise decorations!

I bought the banners from Party City and we strung them across the room, using magnetic hooks to attach them to the ceiling.

We had a late 9PM (or was it 9:30?!) reservation at Onda by Scarpetta which is the Italian Specialty Dining onboard (other NCL ships have La Cucina for Italian dining). It's tucked away behind The Cellars wine bar and a little tough to find if you aren't paying attention.

By the time we arrived, it was pretty dead empty. There were only two or three other tables with guests.... it's never an exciting feeling knowing that you're the last table of the night and the entire dining staff is waiting around on you to hurry the heck up and eat so they can pack up and go to bed. However, that was a position we found ourselves in on more than evening of the cruise. I'd like to note that it wasn't our preference to dine so late, but those were the only reservations available.

I actually took detailed notes at this dinner. It was the only dinner I took detailed notes at. Which is a shame because I never regret looking back and reading my notes - these were a gem.

The Yellowtail Crudo - Aaron thought it tasted frozen. I had enough wine to find it enjoyable.


The Octopus was very good.


The next few items I have reviews for but no photos. I'm not sure if it's because I didn't take photos, or because they didn't make it from Lightroom to Flickr. But since I've already taken months to publish this review, I'm going to let the lack of photos slide because our drunk reviews speak for themselves.

Apparently Judy convinced Rachel to change pastas with her. Rachel said that the seafood pasta was disgusting, but Stove lapped it up. He then went to go to the restroom and never returned. He could not find Onda behind The Cellar, so after lapping the deck a few times, he just went back to the room.

Landon got pizza which he said was a little too truffle oily.

I had steak which I thought was good.

Now to dessert. Aaron rated the Tiramisu "5 stars. That's all."


And the cheesecake was not cheesecake by any means. It was just a basic cake. The consistency was incorrect for cheesecake.


After dinner, we decided to walk around the ship and see what was happening. As we exited the elevator on the 18th floor, Aaron noticed a teenager walking into the Haven in front of him. So he caught the door, and he and Rachel headed in to explore.

Now, we were not Haven guests and were not supposed to be in the Haven, but I figure there's no harm in taking a peek at what the suite life has to offer. Hey, it's just advertisement for the Haven, really. We steered clear of their lounge and just did a walk-through.

Here is the Haven outdoor deck at Deck 18 forward. The cushions for the lounge seating had been taken in for the evening. They have a hot tub which is cool -



The more impressive part is the Haven Courtyard. It has an interior Solarium pool with splash-area lounge seating. This would be great for Alaskan cruises, but when I'm cruising warm-weather itineraries, I prefer open air pool areas to Solariums.



We even had the audacity to document our break and enter... throw us in cruise jail!

Alright, that's enough mischief for one day!

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