Snazzy restaurants, go-kart track, ‘Kinky Boots’ highlight big city life aboard new Norwegian Encore

Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas — My first mission on the 3,998-passenger Norwegian Encore, now cruising weekly into the Bahamas and Caribbean out of Miami, was to secure a seat to “Kinky Boots,” the Tony-award winning musical that is a must-see on this new ship. But a woman at the box office on Deck 7 said that all tickets to the show already had been reserved.

“I just came aboard,” I said.

“You can reserve up to six months ahead,” she said. “Seats will be available tonight. Don’t worry.” Theater reservations (all seats are unassigned) must be claimed 10 minutes before the performance begins.

“The show is free,” she said, “so lots of people just don’t show up, or they are running late. For the 10 o’clock show, you will want to be in the stand-by line by 9:40 pm.” Which I was, joining about 100 other happy passengers in a last-minute rush to more than 100 empty seats.

The outstanding show is about a drag queen named Lola and an English shoe factory saved by its transformation into a maker of non-conventional footwear. Before you go, you might want to slip into some long, sparkling boots. Red is best.

My wife and I cruise often, but it had been a year since we sailed on a big, big ship, and getting acclimated during our recent voyage on Norwegian Encore took some patience, and a few calming beverages.

Vacationing in a big city buzz

Life in big cities and on big ships can be busy, frenetic, and noisy, but that’s expected by people who choose to reside and/or vacation in such stylish with-it worlds.

Passengers book a cruise on ships such as Norwegian Encore because there’s exciting stuff to do, sophisticated dining choices, high quality entertainment, and charges of energy that accompany bunches of people moving about, laughing, having some drinks, hurrying to dinner — or standing in line hoping to get into a sold out show.

Sounds a lot like New York or Las Vegas, which is what Norwegian has in mind when designing its new cruise ships.

Norwegian Encore, Great Stirrup Cay, with passenger on private island’s new zipline (photo by David G. Molyneaux)

In its fourth and final vessel in the Breakaway-Plus class of behemoths, Norwegian has produced a fine Encore.

Size seldom is a negative issue, and you won’t get bored with a few same-old, same-old restaurants; there are more 20 places to dine. With an expansive fleet of big ships now finishing a decade of voyages out of South Florida, cruise companies have learned how to move masses of people, especially getting on and off the ships. Most of the organizational “paperwork” now is accomplished by cell phone apps and Internet; even at the busiest moments on the pier, lines usually move relatively quickly.

If you are new to big ships, however, you will discover that the old cruise style of laid-back lethargy — sauntering aboard, then figuring out within a day or two whether you want to do anything beyond life in a deck chair — mostly has passed. (If that’s what you want, choose a smaller ship.)

Many passengers now decide months ahead about reservations for shows, dinners at specialty restaurants, shore excursions at port stops. Making reservations for accoutrements on Norwegian Encore is a good idea.

Some free stuff, lots with an extra fee

The other surprise awaiting some vacationers is the potential size of their credit card bill for extra onboard expenses.

Like on all other cruise lines, Norwegian ships provide daily meals at several dining rooms — and in the substantial buffet area — for no extra charge, as they are included in the basic rate for your cruise. On Norwegian Encore you may keep your wallet in your pocket for shows such as “Kinky Boots” and the highly acclaimed sing-along, “Choir of Man.” You may listen to music, swim, and sit in the sun for free. You pay your bar bills, gambling costs, tips to crew ($14.99 per person per day), and you’re good to go home.

Writer David Molyneaux races in go-kart on top deck of Norwegian Encore (photo by Fran Golden)

Most cruisers, however, choose a fully equipped big ship such as Norwegian Encore for its extras, which can add up to a substantial sum if bought a la carte. Norwegian executives say that most passengers don’t pay the a la carte rates listed on restaurant menus because either they purchase food packages or such packages are included in the cruise rate for many cabins (Norwegian offers a choice of free extras; dining and beverage packages are the most popular choices).

One passenger on Norwegian Encore in November 2019 said that the hive of restaurants and bars — inside and out on Deck 8 — seemed like a good place for a night on the town. Fancy restaurants include the Italian-style Onda by Scarpetta, which has branches in London, New York, Las Vegas, and Miami Beach. It’s a la carte bill at sea, with a glass of wine, could easily reach $80 a person.

Or you might walk up a few decks and grab a pizza for free.

Exclusivity on the beach carries a big ticket

On Norwegian’s free day at its private Bahamas island, Great Stirrup Cay, you may choose the free beach buffet, hangout on the sand, and swim. Or, if you want some privacy and exclusivity, the cruise line would be pleased to rent you one of the dazzling new Silver Cove beach villas, starting at $349 per person for one day of luxury, a price that equals a week’s cruise on some ships.

Activities aboard the Encore abound. An amazing array of multi-sensory virtual reality choices includes hand gliding (with wind), an underwater dive, and a Jeep drive through Jurassic Park, each at $8 a ride. A package to do an endless amount of all three is $399 for a week.

Outdoor laser tag is $9.95. I joined a game of nine against nine. My team of marines lost to whatever-their-name-was. I died, but not until the last minute during my questionable charge at the enemy, snuffing out three of them and inflicting some of the 20 wounds that the electronic scoreboard attributed to bursts from my laser weapon. Not bad for about 20 minutes work.

My favorite activity was a go-kart race, at up to 30 miles per hour on the longest (1,100 feet), twistiest racetrack at sea. It covers portions of two top decks. In eight great minutes (cost $15), I did seven laps, leading until two cars slipped by me on the outside on the tightest curve. The big board said I did 50.2 seconds per lap, finishing third. Best advice I got was to focus on finishing all curves, so you don’t scrape the wall, which I did not. I am ready for another race.

Norwegian Encore (photo by David G. Molyneaux)

Norwegian Encore will sail on seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruises out of Miami through April 12, 2020, before repositioning to New York. It will cruise to Alaska starting in May 2021.

Cover photo: Norwegian Encore, newest big cruise ship of Norwegian Cruise Line, sails out of Miami for the winter of 2020, moving to New York in April. Eduardo Arranz-Bravo, of Barcelona, created the artwork on the hull (Photo by David G. Molyneaux)

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