Cruising is back! And we are so glad it is!
We had a few cruises that we had already booked from before the pandemic, but we decided on a whim to cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore to Alaska in October — a late season trip. We opted for a suite in The Haven as we had previously sailed on MSC Cruises’ MSC Meraviglia and experienced its MSC Yacht Club accommodations in December of 2019 and wanted to compare the two.
We had always wondered if the ship-within-a-ship concept was really worth the extra money. While on Meraviglia we had heard several people say that they liked the MSC Yacht Club better as it was cheaper and offered a better product. So, we decided to treat ourselves and do our own comparison.
First off, we were very impressed with how easy the reservation system was with Norwegian. With Covid-19 testing being required two days before and just before boarding, we continued to be impressed with how smoothly the process was. It was easy and fast and we were set to board in the first group, as that is a perk of booking a Haven room.
Once onboard, we were directed to the Horizon Lounge observation section that is two stories high and reserved only for The Haven guests. We were not there long before we headed to our stateroom. Once there, we just had to sit back in awe of the spaciousness of it. We had booked a 2-Bedroom Family Villa, and it did not disappoint.
It was beautifully appointed, and we had plenty of places to spread out and store our things. Not only were there two bedrooms but also two full bathrooms, which always come in handy when the need arises for both of us to use the facilities at the same time. Our master bath came with a tub and huge picture window looking out at the ocean below. The shower also had its own floor-to-ceiling window, also looking out at the water.
The only down side were the bed linens. They were so stiff and very uncomfortable. This did somewhat spoil our dream suite.
Still, overall we became instantly spoiled!
Each Haven suite comes with a butler to make sure your experience is one filled with convenience and ease. Rey was a gem, and he made us feel special indeed. He was there to make dinner reservations, bring us whatever we would like from room service and just brighten our day with a smile. He brought us endless snacks every afternoon in case we were hungry at all, and while we never were due to the vast food choices, we of course never turned down these delicious treats such as cookies, breads, canapes, chocolate covered strawberries, etc. All equally yummy!
Speaking of food, while we enjoyed the meals available for The Haven guests in our own restaurant, we were a bit surprised to see that the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus never changed, and there was not even a daily specialty choice offered at all. We found this to be a bit boring actually. In all fairness, I have to say that steak and lobster were offered every night, but I would have enjoyed just a bit more variety.
We ate at two specialty restaurants: Onda by Scarpetta, the Italian option, and Cagney’s Steakhouse. Both were equally good. We tried out a couple of other dining venues, the first being the American Diner, which was a 50s-style eatery. This was a free meal offered to Haven guests if you ate there the first day. Oddly, while mostly everything on the menu was comped, we had to pay for the milk shakes. We felt like if they were going to offer this as a free option, it should include everything.
We decided to pay ahead for the premium beverage package, so we could enjoy any libations we wanted, and while we enjoyed a cocktail or glass of wine with this option, bottled waters were not included nor were cans of soda. We could get a pitcher of tap water in our room, but bottled water was an extra cost as were cans of soda. We felt that since we could freely choose almost any grade of liquor, it was odd to be charged more for mere water. We can only surmise that this was an attempt to lessen the amount of recycling with the waste of water bottles and soda cans, but this still seemed quite strange to us. No one seemed to be able to offer us a sensible explanation for this policy either.
We hit a bit of rough seas the first day and a half, but the ship was extremely well constructed and we never heard any creaking or groaning which can be a part of sailing on other ships of this size. The Meyer Werft shipbuilders in Papenburg, Germany are known for amazing quality when it comes to ship construction, and they came through with flying colors with Encore.
With the ship itself humming along as it sailed, the crew kept things running very smoothly inside. The crew was very polished and ready for voyages, eager to help and quite friendly. This was the case throughout the entire ship no matter which department or venue you visited. And with this being a Covid-protocol sailing, the ship was only at 60% capacity, so it never felt even close to busy — a really nice feeling.
We did not venture out too often from our retreat on the upper decks, but when we did, we were impressed that the casino was almost completely free of smoke, with its own glassed-in smoking section keeping the smell mostly at bay. However, The Humidor Cigar Lounge at the center of the ship was not so odor-free. Just the mere opening of the door to this lounge released enough smoke to pollute the entire corridor, as well as all of the areas leading out from it. It was a staggering wall of obnoxious air that hit you smack in the face. A space somewhere closer to the back and maybe with just a door to the outside would make a world of difference here.
We did not participate in too many onboard activities as we so enjoyed just relaxing in our stateroom and The Haven’s observation lounge. We were, however, pleasantly surprised to find that Norwegian still prints out its daily schedule of activities, hours of restaurants and bars, etc. Maybe because of the availability of these schedules, the cruise director rarely made unnecessary announcements all day long updating us on the activities throughout the ship. This made for a much more peaceful environment. For those who are comfortable using their smartphones, a mobile app was available with the same information.
A must onboard was seeing the musical production from The Choir of Man, performed on the last night of the cruise. It was well done and a lot of fun. There was a reserved section of the show lounge for The Haven guests, which was much closer to the stage than the last-row seating reserved for Yacht Club guests on MSC.
Now to further compare the MSC Yacht Club to The Haven, MSC includes all liquors as part of the suite package where it is extra on Norwegian. This does add a substantial cost to the higher suite price. We found it very nice to walk into the front lounge in the Yacht Club and just ask for whatever cocktail we would like without pulling out our cruise card to either pay (as for a bottled water) or to show we paid for the beverage package on Norwegian.
The pool on MSC is an outside pool, while the Haven pool is bigger and under a magrodome capable of sliding open in better weather, which Alaska was not. So, this covering stayed closed the whole cruise but would be great in warm weather settings.
Our Norwegian stateroom cost was a bit more than on MSC, but we chose a bigger room, so this was to be expected. The two-bedroom suite we had was the best stateroom we have ever had on a ship, and we have been on almost 100 cruises. Of course, this was due to our choice, but we realized how special this room was when we looked to maybe book it again in 2022, only to find the price was substantially higher than what we had paid during these lighter sailings. So, we will just enjoy our memories of this cruise for now.
The staff on both lines were equally good with everyone truly caring about the passengers. This caring was obvious despite the fact that none of the crew on Encore were allowed to debark the ship at any time in port or even at the beginning or end of a cruise due to coronavirus restrictions. They were essentially on the ship, either at their post or in their crew quarters, 24/7 for our voyage and for as many months as their contracts ran. They were all still very happy to have passengers back sailing and were so friendly to us all.
All in all, there were pluses and minuses to both ship-within-a-ship experiences, but I think the itineraries are what would cause us to choose one over the other. We now understand just how special the exclusive concept is having enjoyed it twice. As money would allow, we would definitely do this again!