The Caribbean is one of the world's best-loved cruise destinations and it's easy to understand why. Credit: Shutterstock

Experience Norwegian Escape’s tranquil round-trip cruise through the Eastern Caribbean

Author: Anthony Nichols

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World of Cruising joined Norwegian Escape on its second voyage around the Eastern Caribbean since the pandemic began. Here’s a first-hand perspective of what it’s like to be onboard.

Norwegian Escape has departed for a seven-night round-trip Eastern Caribbean cruise from Florida’s Port Canaveral carrying 1,900 guests including myself.

The November sun dips below a narrow band of darkening cloud, its slanting rays seeming to set the sea ablaze. The only sound is the chinking of the ice in my drink. It’s a wonderful, memorable, and at the same time instantly familiar scene. Yes, this is what cruising used to feel like.

A swaggering state-of-the-art floating theme park, brimming with diverse dining, entertainment and leisure options, the ship is making only her second voyage since emerging from pandemic purdah.

Before we were allowed on board, Norwegian Cruise Line required every single one of us to take a Covid antigen test, regardless of our vaccination status. Embarkation times were deliberately staggered to facilitate a smooth flow but many people simply disregarded their time windows, with predictable results: the queue moved at a snail’s pace and embarkation took around an hour-and-a-half, from kerbside to cabin. But no matter.

The payoff comes now, in the form of the most open and delightfully unstructured cruise experience I have encountered on any of my five post-pandemic voyages to date. Passengers are not required to wear masks at any time onboard. We’re even allowed to serve ourselves at the main buffet. All venues are open, and available to all guests.

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Rules are different aboard European-based ships, and may change again by the time you read this. But on our cruise we’re fortunate to be sailing under US Covid protocols at a time when they are relatively relaxed – and after two years of cancellations and restrictions, this feels like shrugging off a damp overcoat and pulling on a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts.

Not that it’s totally business-as-usual. Each island we visit has its own stipulations for cruise passengers, and in St Thomas, Tortola and at Nassau in the Bahamas, we are required to wear masks on shore excursions and in public premises such as bars, restaurants and shops.

On board the ship, every crew member – from cabin stewards to the captain – must also wear a mask (while nonetheless delivering a level of service that can only be classed as outstanding). Like everyone else I speak to, I feel perfectly safe and at ease during my time on board.

- READ MORE: Norwegian Cruise Line reveals new ship Norwegian Viva -

In fact, as we sail south from one dream island to the next, the old routine of lazy indulgence settles over us like a comfort blanket, and Norwegian Escape – huge and welcoming – begins to feel like a charmed universe of our very own.

My favourite onboard hangout soon becomes Vibe Beach Club, located on the upper level of deck 19. Here, for a modest entry fee of $29 per day, you gain access to what feels like a completely different ship.

We’re talking plush, padded loungers, a dedicated bar where they serve the best strawberry daiquiris at sea, and even a private hot tub, cantilevered out over the side of the ship.

Nassau is the vibrant hub of the Bahamas. Credit: Shutterstock

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Attendants circulate all the while with complimentary iced water and cold towels, not to mention a selection of seriously indulgent fruit skewers. It’s a private slice of paradise, dotted with idly waving parasols.

Although the ship is an absolutely perfect fit for multi-generational families, there are surprisingly few children on board. And it’s delightfully relaxed in other ways, too. No one seems to mind what you wear, even at night, the one exception being Le Bistro, where men are asked to dine in long trousers, rather than shorts. Well, how hard can that be?

An elegant establishment serving classic French cuisine (think foie gras, fruits de mer and coq au vin), Le Bistro is one of 11 speciality eateries. We judge it outstanding, and the same goes for Cagney’s Steakhouse.

Another night, at La Cucina, we enjoy the memorable experience of dining out on the open promenade, savouring fabulous Italian fare with a side order of pale Caribbean moonlight.

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But for us, the culinary pinnacle is Moderno Churrascaria. A Brazilian-style steakhouse located on deck 8, this serves up a tableside conga line of filet mignon, skirt steak, sirloin, succulent lamb and pork cuts, landing on our plates like an artillery barrage that only ceases when we beg for it to stop.

And the prelude to all this? A salad bar that contains no fewer than 42 separate dishes. Not that you need to pay extra to dine like a king aboard Norwegian Escape.

Among the mainstream venues, I must give an honourable mention to the split-level, retro-style Manhattan Room on deck 7, which offers dinner with a floor show each evening (we love the Motown revue, with an extremely talented troupe performing hits by the Supremes, the Temptations and the Miracles as we tuck into tender prime rib, followed by chocolate lava cake).

It's sunshine all the way on a Caribbean cruise. Credit: Norwegian Cruise Line

The ship’s staterooms reach similarly high standards, and our balcony cabin on deck 11 could easily accommodate three people (though splitting the beds into twins makes access to the sliding wardrobe a little tricky). Rather than the old-fashioned card insert, our cabin door opens with a tap key.

Similarly, there is no fussing about with cards when you step on and off the ship for excursions ashore. A new facial recognition system takes care of all that, while sensibly eliminating another source of physical contact.

Away from the tranquillity of our room – and the blissful environs of Vibe Beach Club – life on board is lively. The pools, hot tubs and food venues are buzzing at all hours of the day and night, especially the casual eateries such as the Atrium-level O’Sheehans and the upper deck American Diner.

- READ MORE: How to choose the best cabins for your needs -

With so few kids on board, only the Aqua Park splash zone feels strangely subdued. But let’s not forget this is a Caribbean cruise, and in this wonderful part of the world no ship will ever be the main attraction.

Just being back on those islands is the stuff of dreams, and to stroll once more on the dazzling, honey-blond arc of sand at Magens Bay in St Thomas is worth the entire cruise fare. As is a few hours’ languid hammock-and-daiquiri time at the stunning Cane Garden Bay on Tortola.

That said, we loved every minute of our time on this huge, feature-packed ship. For a full seven days, Norwegian Escape was a safe, indulgent cocoon of luxury, where the scenery changed with each new day. It was a hugely enjoyable experience – on every level.

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