As the river cruise bug has hit Janet, we’ve become more selective with our ocean cruising. Mostly we book cruises that appeal to our clients, like the cruise we just completed aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Encore. It was a 7-night Caribbean itinerary…a return engagement for us on the NCL Encore. Our prior cruise aboard the Encore was during her inaugural sailings back in 2019 when we spent three days on the ship, never left the pier, and shared the ship with a fraction of the total guest capacity Encore normally carries. It was an event to allow travel advisors and the travel press to see all the (then brand new) Encore has to offer. Our most recent cruise allowed us to experience the Encore as she was meant to be experienced…at sea and with a full complement of guests on board.
We’ve sailed with NCL several times and this cruise mostly reinforced what we like about NCL, along with some things we don’t care for. Rather than repeat what I’ve previously written about, this post will focus on what was different for us…the Haven.
NCL is known throughout the cruising industry for innovation, and the Haven is one of those innovations. It is NCL’s ship within a ship concept. You pay more for the Haven experience, but in return you get the best of two worlds…small ship cruising with all the dining, lounge, and entertainment offerings of a modern megaship. That's what the marketing pitch says...we wanted to see for ourselves if the Haven experience delivered on that promise, and if it was worth the additional cost.
Guests booked into NCL’s Haven suites have two dedicated lounges, their own bar, pool, sundeck, and a dedicated open seating restaurant. Whereas the Encore has a maximum capacity of about 4,000 guests, the Haven’s capacity is limited to under 300 guests in 50 suites. Most Haven suites, around 30, are located within an exclusive, keycard-controlled enclave. There are an additional 20 or so Haven suites outside of the Haven enclave but with the same service, amenities, and access to exclusive Haven areas. We booked a Haven suite outside of the enclave…an aft facing stateroom. We chose it because we prefer aft facing staterooms, and because it offered a balcony larger than most of the Haven suites that are located within the enclave. With the Haven facilities located at the front of the ship, and our cabin at the back, it meant a long walk along the length of the ship anytime we wanted to leave our cabin. The views and the balcony were worth the extra steps.
When NCL debuted their Haven concept I was critical of the disproportionate amount of space devoted to Haven guests…at the expense of space in public areas for everyone else on the ship. Having stayed in a Haven suite now, I understand the attraction and I can say without reservation that it delivers on the marketing promise. Whether it is worth the additional cost is up to you as a cruiser.
Only guests booked into a Haven suite are allowed into the Haven areas…family and friends who may be traveling with you but not staying in Haven suites aren’t allowed. That can be awkward if you are traveling in a group, but I appreciated the exclusivity. It eliminated most of what I don’t like about large ship cruising these days, and NCL in particular…crowds. We never had to wait at a bar with guests stacked three deep to order a drink, or struggle to find a lounge chair by the pool. And the open seating concept of the Haven’s restaurant meant we could enjoy a relaxing meal on our terms, without having to wait for a table to open up.
The Haven is not adults only. It offers suites accommodating up to six guests, though you have to leave the Haven to get to areas dedicated to kids and for any of Encore’s kids programs and activities. During holiday sailings like Thanksgiving and Christmas the Haven is booked to capacity, which means lots of kids. For our cruise there were about 180 guests booked into Haven suites, and the pool was about the only area we encountered kids in the Haven.
Other mass market cruise lines have tried to emulate NCL’s ship within a ship experience, but none have managed to offer the exclusivity of NCL’s Haven. Along with the exclusive areas, guests booking Haven suites enjoy the services of a shared butler and a concierge. The butler is responsible for Haven guests’ needs within their suite. In our case the butler brought us confections and snacks in the afternoon, and if we wanted to enjoy room service or a drink without having to make our way through the ship to the Haven lounge, all we had to do was call and he delivered within about 15 minutes. The concierge is responsible for meeting Haven guests’ needs once they leave their suite and is helpful in making arrangements for dinners, to see the show in the main theater, and shore excursions.
Haven pampering begins even before you board the ship…it starts as soon as you arrive at the cruise terminal with a check-in area exclusive to Haven guests. It means avoiding the crowds eager to start their cruise. A Haven representative met us pier side and escorted us directly onto the ship and to our stateroom. That’s less of a draw these days as most cruise lines have figured out how to expedite embarkation for all guests, but it was still nice to have an expediter walk through the process and onto the ship. And while non-Haven guests had to wait until 3PM to get to their staterooms, we were able to go to our suite and into the Haven enclave as soon as we boarded. While the majority of Encore’s guests waited in crowded public areas and had to fend for themselves in the buffet for lunch, we enjoyed a leisurely drink and an ala carte lunch in a nearly empty corner of the ship.
The VIP treatment continued in a similar manner throughout our cruise. Haven guests were the first ashore at each port call, escorted by a member of the Haven staff to a dedicated express elevator and then past the lines of passengers waiting to disembark. Just as we were the first to board the ship, we were also first off the ship at the end of the cruise, as was our luggage. NCL allows just two hours to completely empty the ship of passengers between sailings, which means long lines and short tempers. It’s bad enough on other cruise lines where three to four hours are allowed for disembarkation…it is far more challenging with the larger NCL ships. It was a pleasant change to skip all of that chaos.
For ports requiring tenders, Haven guests enjoy priority access and are first to board the tenders. At the end of our excursions, we again skipped the line of guests waiting to board and went straight to the Haven staff member waiting to escort us onboard. He directed us to an elevator reserved for our use, and directly up to the Haven lounge.
When it comes to enjoying the benefits of mega-ship cruising, Haven guests have to endure the same crowds as the rest of the guests anytime they venture beyond the exclusive confines of the Haven. Most often it involves dining. NCL ships offer only a few complimentary dining options. And though the Haven restaurant is complimentary, and a step up from the usual main dining room fare, the menu doesn’t change from one night to the next. If you enjoy variety, you’ll want to brave the crowds and dine in the specialty restaurants, which come with a substantial upcharge. We purchased a dining package which was the most economical way to enjoy Encore’s specialty dining venues. I don’t think the culinary offerings aboard Encore are worth the pay as you go upcharge…it puts the cost of dining out on par with higher end land restaurants. The discount you get with a dining package makes it a more affordable option. The variety and quality of the food in NCL’s specialty restaurants, though not gourmet, is elevated from what you get in the main dining room.
The specialty restaurants are popular and it can be challenging to book a table. For Haven and non-Haven guests alike, advanced planning is a must. NCL allows cruisers to make reservations in their specialty restaurants in advance of sailing…waiting until you board to make dinner reservations means settling for uncomfortably early or late seating. Priority dinner reservations is another perk Haven guests enjoy. If you procrastinate, once you board the Haven concierge will do their best to make reservations for you at your preferred time and restaurants.
I would be remiss if I did not share the few disappointments we encountered on this cruise…there weren’t many. As I’ve noted in past reviews of NCL cruises, their ships are designed to funnel guests into large public spaces, usually around the shops where there is always some special sale being hawked. That makes the public areas crowded and noisy. Staying in a Haven suite allowed us to avoid the worst of the crowds unless we chose to venture out.
Another disappointment was with the entertainment offerings. Normally a draw for large ship cruising, I found the entertainment during our cruise to be underwhelming. There was a decent Latin band that performed nightly in the Mojito bar, and a Beatles tribute show with performers channeling the early days of Beatle-mania. The fact that they were nearly as old as me and wore wigs that I expected to come flying off everytime they shook their heads in that unique early Beatle way just added to the fun. We particularly enjoyed the feature show in the main theater, The Choir of Men. But mostly we found the entertainment offerings limited and at best, mediocre. We sat through the lounge singer’s act in Encore’s spacious observation lounge only once, cringing at his pitchiness. There are two comedy performers featured in Encore’s equivalent of a Comedy Club lounge. And though we skipped their performances, I heard from other guests that each performance was a repeat of the last. If you see it once, there is no point seeing it again.
There isn’t much more to say about this cruise. The Haven experience lives up to the marketing promise, if you can afford it. It is particularly enjoyable if you like cruising but don’t like the cruise industry's trend of building ships that are the equivalent of small cities at sea. The big ships with all the bells and whistles have their appeal, particularly for families and for first-time cruisers. For us, not so much anymore. NCL’s Haven offered a welcome compromise, but I don't see us returning to mass market ocean cruising as often as we have in the past. When we do, it will likely be on a ship that offer's something similar to the NCL Haven ship within a ship experience.