All photos can be found here.
Getting There (Friday, 5thApril)
Picked up by Becky at 09:00 and off to Manchester Airport. Roadworks between Flouch and Dunford turn-off, and heavy traffic at Mottram but had plenty of time, so no sweat.
Flight EI205 to Dublin was supposed to depart at 13:25 but didn’t get off until 14:15. Sat around watching the monitor keep slipping back by 10 minutes, 20 minutes… Apparently, they were blaming it on fog in Brussels or something. Got a bit concerned about whether or not it would leave us enough time to do US preclearance, as the thought of 2 hours to get through immigration at JFK was not pleasant. But it all went surprisingly smoothly and fast. Dublin is one of the few airports that offer preclearance (which was an unexpected surprise as we weren’t aware of it until Becky told us a few days beforehand). Preclearance is not even an option for US flights from Dublin: the path to the gate forces you to go through the process, but queueing time was only about 10 minutes; the CBP agent was very friendly, and it just needed passport check, photo taken, and fingerprints off both hands, so we made flight EI109 with time to spare.
Aer Lingus is hardly the most luxurious of airlines, but it was bearable (even though the food was merely adequate), and we arrived at JFK on time. Having done preclearance, we were effectively domestics, so all that was necessary was to pick up the luggage and leave. Well, not quite… We had a pickup arranged to take us to the hotel (Grand Hyatt on E42nd Street), but details given by Logitravel were rather vague: “in/at John F Kennedy“… It took a while to find our driver because he assumed we would exit via International Arrivals, not domestic… He was OK, but rather young, and reminded me muchly of Dougal from Father Ted, in both looks and intelligence (e.g. “Baseball is like cricket. Do you know cricket in England?“) I didn’t enlighten him on either point.
The Grand Hyatt looks impressive externally, but dated and neglected inside (probably because, as we later found out, the building is scheduled for demolition and rebuilding). Check-in was easy enough, but cold and robotic staff member, with no offer to take our bags to the room (I thought New Yorkers were supposed to be tip-hungry?). The room itself was adequate, but dingy and in need of severe renovation. Still, only 2 nights to survive…
New York (Saturday, 6th April)
Our one full day in New York, so we were determined to make the most of it – on foot! Started with a look round Grand Central Station at 8am, as it’s just a few yards west on E42nd . On to Times Square, which seems rather a nebulous concept, as it’s not exactly a square in the Trafalgar sense! Then went looking for the Top Of The Rock, which proved rather difficult to find with no internet capabilities. There does seem to be a lack of “attraction” signs in Manhattan, and we scoured the area around the Rockefeller Center for quite a while before we came across the TotR entrance. It cost $80 for the two of us (including taxes and a $2 discount for the OAP), followed by the inevitable security searches (two) and finally a lift to take us to the top. It was rather misty to start with, so not perfect viewing, but the sun soon arrived and we had excellent views from 850′. The most surprising thing was encountering a noisy horde of about 200 kids from Bury Grammar of all places! How school trips have changed…
Maybe spent only an hour there before setting off for Central Park, walking north along 6th Avenue. The sun was there in a clear blue sky, but little reaches the ground because of the skyscrapers. Until you get to Central Park, of course. Only did a smallish walk around the southern end, with a bit of sunbathing on the rocks, as it was now a long time since breakfast and food was needed.
Walked way down 9th Avenue to find the Pure Thai Cookhouse at no. 766. It’s small and quite easy to miss (even when stood outside the door…), and was busy. Food was OK (Wok Roasted Chili With Shrimp), but portions surprisingly small for NY!
After lunch, Mel wanted to pay a visit to Macy’s, so we had to find that. I had it in my head where it was, but had a brainfart and aimed for W38th rather than W34th … A strange place: very crowded, but it seemed to be mainly tourists taking photos! And rather expensive, of course.
Food time was approaching again, so we trudged back to check out the Sea Fire Grill on E48th off Lexington as Mel was suffering from lobster deprivation. But the prices seemed a bit out of our league, so the walking continued to find St Patrick’s Cathedral on E50th . Which took a bit of doing, as even though Google Maps knew about the cathedral, it insisted on taking us to St Bartholomew’s…
Still hungry, so decided to try and find somewhere in Times Square and then experience it at night. But by this time, we’d walked about 14 miles and were a tad weary, so we baled out at the Hong Kong Station on W47th . And very good it was, too. Not cheap, but better than the Sea Fire Grill prices. I allowed myself a bottle of Tsingtao to celebrate.
And so to bed. Knackered.
We had a pickup arranged to take us to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal at 10:00 so an early breakfast was called for. As I was munching on a plain croissant, I wondered why it had a chocolate chip in it: further inspection showed it was a tooth… one of mine… It had just snapped off, but fortunately it was LR4 so didn’t show as long as I didn’t expose it with my lower lip. Annoying, but no big deal.
Check-out was swift and we sat around waiting for the pickup to arrive. As at JFK, we had no idea exactly where we would be picked up, just “in/at Grand Hyatt New York“. We were dropped off outside the hotel on E42nd when we arrived, so I assumed that would be where we would meet and I hung around there. 10:15 arrived and still nothing, so I tried phoning them but couldn’t hear what their automated service was saying because of the noise on the street or in the foyer. I thought I’d better ask the Customer Service woman where pickups were usually made, and she pointed me to an entrance upstairs which we didn’t know existed… There were a few cars there but not ours, so back to Customer Services to ask her to call the company. Lo and behold, the driver was outside on E42nd apparently…
Just a 15 minute drive to the terminal, enlivened by a constant one-way conversation with the ex-Russian driver, and we were dumped on the pavement outside NCL’s pier, within sight of the enormous Norwegian Escape waiting for us.
Embarkation (Sunday, 7th April)
It was chaos. An array of trolleys being loaded with cabin baggage and crowds of people wandering hither and thither. We just handed ours over and hoped for the best before moving inside the terminal building.
I say “building”, but it was more like a huge cattle shed with people being herded like cattle. All very confusing, but we just sort of followed the flow, were made to bin our two bottles of water by some crochety woman, and ended up in one of several queues waiting to check in. And we waited. And waited. Apparently, there was some sort of “computer malfunction” that prevented any check-ins, and we were stood there for 2 hours – tired, hungry, and thirsty. Much worse for many others, though, especially those who could not walk or stand well, and those with young kids.
When they’d eventually turned their computer off and on again, check in was fast enough. Although we did get an agent who was training a new recruit and who was delighted to see us: “At last, someone from the UK. I can show you about the ESTA.” We were given a plastic card each and told it was our cabin key and ID for the cruise so better not lose it. And then a short walk to finally get onboard.
Day 1 (Sunday, 7th April)
After 4 hours of stress and in desperate need of a vape, I wanted to get outside so asked the first two crew I saw where I could go. Turned out they were a couple of young lads from England, which was unexpected.
The cabins were still not ready, so we had to find where we could eat. Our cabin was on the 8th deck (8714), but we had to get up to the Garden Cafe on the 16th for the complimentary buffet. Being starving, we stupidly grabbed some food first before finding somewhere to sit, so spent 15 minutes wandering around until we got seats. Not a mistake we made again!
It wasn’t too long before we could get into 8714, where our luggage was waiting outside. The cabin was very good, apart from having two single beds instead of the expected double. And the balcony was a nice feature, with two sun loungers, two chairs, and a table.
The rooms are smoke-free, of course, but did that include e-cigs? I had no idea so just vaped at will, inside and on the balcony. It was a slightly surreal view from the balcony, being on the Hudson River, in a huge ship (4700 passengers and 1500 crew – 60% of whom turned out to be Filipino!), and loomed over by all the skyscrapers of Manhattan. I thought I could see the tail of a plane in the terminal, but decided that was just too absurd.
The ship started moving around the scheduled 15:00, and we made our way southward along the Hudson River. It was then that I saw that there really was a plane in the terminal – they have a Concorde! An amazing sight. On we went, past the Statue Of Liberty, and out into the Atlantic.
[Before we left the UK, I invested in a USA SIM card from this outfit . It wouldn’t work well for my Xiaomi phone as it didn’t cover any of the bands above 2G, but worked perfectly in Mel’s iPhone, giving fast Vodaphone LTE, and I could easily tether from mine. What was surprising was that we still had a decent signal out at sea for much of the rest of the day from our (starboard) cabin!]
Day 2 (Monday, 8th April)
A full day at sea, spent exploring the ship, Mel on the casino slots, and generally dossing around. The TV in the cabin gave only a handful of normal channels, being mostly devoted to information about the ship and NCL. Most of our watching was the live view from the bridge on Channel 22, and the detail-packed tracker on Channel 21.
Jhoel, our cabin attendant (a Filipino), was very good. While he was cleaning the room, he joined the two beds together properly without our asking (he would have seen our attempt). It also seems to be NCL policy for the cabin attendants to perform double-towel origami every day, so we always had some new creation on the bed to come home to: elephant, swan, rabbit, dog, dinosaur… culminating in a chimp hanging from the mirror above the desk.
Day 3 (Tuesday, 9th April)
Today was our first port of call, Port Canaveral in Florida. I was fortunate enough to see a turtle on our way in (plus a dolphin/porpoise), as we docked in the sun, opposite the Disney Cruise Terminal around lunchtime. Excursions were available, but nothing we fancied. The nearest attraction was the Kennedy Space Center, but that held no appeal; and nor did a transport-only trip to Orlando, which would have given only 3 hours there.
A pleasant surprise was to return to the cabin after Jhoel had done his stuff and find a complimentary bottle of champagne (OK, sparkling wine…) there. The casino was completely closed all the time we were docked, so I assume that gambling is verboten except out at sea.
Day 4 (Wednesday, 10th April)
An overnight journey brought us to Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas around 10:00. This is a private island, owned by NCL. The waters are too shallow for the ship to get close, so it dropped anchor and were were ferried to the island in a series of tenders, just a 10-minute trip.
We were not alone, though. Another smaller NCL ship (Norwegian Sun) had arrived before us, and so the island was already quite busy by the time we landed. We did manage to find a couple of sunbeds, next to a couple from the Sun. They were financial analysts from Miami (it couldn’t get any more exciting than that), she of Romanian origin with a rather grating laugh. They’d been there since 8am, having been told to get on the island quickly since it would later be invaded by hordes from our ship. But they were pleasant enough; they had an unlimited drinks package on their cruise, which meant we could be treated to lagers and pina coladas while lounging in the (rather fierce) sun. And lounge we did – for about 4 hours, until we thought we’d better get back to the ship and grab some free food.
Day 5 (Thursday, 11th April)
Having left Great Stirrup Cay around 18:00, we continued overnight to awake docked in Prince George Wharf, Nassau, just as the sun was coming up behind the Atlantis on Paradise Island – a beautiful way to start the day.
We had booked an excursion for today before we left home, a tour of Nassau by boat and minibus (although it turned out to be vice versa) at a cost of £138.56 for the two of us. The temperature was rapidly rising to 32C as we left the ship and made our way to the Zone A assembly point. After yesterday’s roasting (and a rather red and swollen right foot because I’d omitted to put any sun cream on either foot), I was keen to keep out of the sun as much as possible, though that proved difficult throughout the day.
We were eventually led on a 5-minute walk around the harbour to the Yellow Tower to await our minibuses, followed by a drive over the Sir Sidney Poitier Bridge onto Paradise Island and left by the Atlantis for half an hour. Atlantis is a very prominent landmark, expensive shops and ultra expensive hotel by the marina, but it does seem a very ugly building to me, both in style and colour, and so rather an eyesore out of keeping with the general feel of Nassau.
Most of our time was taken up with a stroll around the marina, looking at all the ridiculously expensive yachts moored there – including Skyfall, which had motored past our ship earlier. No genuine association with James Bond as far as I can find (although Nassau did feature in Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, Never Say Never Again, and Casino Royale), and on sale recently, according to Google, at a bargain $31,500,000. I suppose it’s all a bit like Monte Carlo – but for people with MONEY.
Leaving Atlantis was delayed because a Russian couple from our minibus had gone AWOL. After waiting 10 minutes and a search inside Atlantis, the driver could wait no longer, so off we went. And, amazingly, the couple were spotted looking lost on our way out!
Back over the bridge (actually two bridges with one-way traffic) we went to another stop at Fort Fincastle, atop Bennet’s Hill, the highest point on New Providence Island. The fort was erected in 1793, and is rather ruinous now and surrounded my tourist-trap stalls. It did offer a good view of our ship, though. We were the naughty ones this time: we arrived at 12:09 and the driver told us to be back at the bus in 20 minutes; somehow I decided that 9+20 = 34… Hmm…
Afer that, it was a tour of downtown Nassau, and going round in circles until the driver was told that our boat was ready for the next leg from Woodes Rodgers Walk. Now we were taken back under the bridge, out past Paradise Island and the many homes-from-home of the rich (Mr Starbuck has a residence there, apparently). Just before the turning point, we were given bread to feed the fish, which appeared in multitudes for a feeding frenzy. Then all the way back, sipping the free rum punches in the sun, and going right alongside our ship for some decent photo/video opportunities.
Back onboard, we had a look at our account on the TV, and were surprised to find that we’d been given two $4 refunds! No idea what that was about as we’d not spent anything apart from Mel buying a gold bracelet for $17! (We’d taken loads of dollars, but the ship does not deal with cash purchases apart from in the casino, any purchases being added to your account which can be settled in cash or card at the end.)
By 18:00, the ship was on its way again, two full days at sea before reaching Manhattan again. I spent two or three hours on the balcony, making the most of the clear sky after sunset to see the increasing number of stars visible as the night grew darker. Not that I could name them, apart from the Plough and possibly a couple of planets that kept moving higher, but enjoyable to be in an environment free from light-pollution for a while.
Day 6 (Friday, 12th April)
After the calm of Nassau, we seemed to hit a storm overnight. The ship was rocking a bit and all sorts of bumping noises heard while we were trying to sleep. In the morning, the evidence was there to see: all the balcony furniture had been bouncing around in a mini lake, and the balcony rail was rather salt-encrusted.
The course back to Manhattan took us further out into the Atlantic, with grey skies and choppy waters. It was a night to break open the sparkling wine at last.
After finishing the wine and feeling relaxed, the daily newletter was delivered, now containing disembarkation instructions. With a head full of bubbles, it seemed rather confusing reading! We have to choose one of ten different colour tags for our cabin luggage, depending on what time we want to disembark and whether or not we will carry our own luggage; ambigous details about customs declarations; getting the mini-bar inventoried and locked; where and when to settle the account; and being out of our cabin by 08:30 but not going anywhere near the disembarkation points on deck 7. Sod it – I got dressed again, went down to where the tags were now available, and grabbed an assortment of colours…
Day 7 (Saturday, 13th April)
The final day at sea, onward past Bermuda. We did get a spell of sun in the morning, thankfully, so were able to make use of the loungers for the final time.
We decided to go for the pink tags, meaning we would get off the ship at 09:10, plenty of time before our pickup at 12:00, so I surreptitiously replaced the extra tags I’d purloined last night. I asked Jhoel to do the mini-bar necessities so that I could go settle the account, but he just said “Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it.” So I didn’t. We had used one bottle of water ($5.50), so expected that to be on our bill, but when I went to pay, there was just the $9 (Mel’s bracelet $17 minus the mysterious $8 discount), so Jhoel had kindly overlooked it.
At night, the bracelet seller reappeared for the first time since Tuesday, and, of course, Mel had to buy more… which meant another trip to queue up and settle the account… At 22:00, we dumped our pink-tagged bags outside the cabin, and all was done.
Disembarkation (Sunday, 14th April)
Awoke already docked in Manhattan, as the sun was coming up. And what a great sight it was: low mist over the Hudson River, and skyscrapers backlit by the rising sun.
Had an early breakfast, bearing in mind that we were supposed to be out of the room by 08:30. The TV now said 09:00, but that seemed a bit to close to our pink-tag departure at 09:10, so we decided to go down to the casino slots on Deck 7 so that I could have a vape there. Not a good move… Other tags were, of course, in the process of disembarking, and we got in a right old tangle with them and roped-off walkways, so had to beat a hasty retreat back to Deck 8, and sit on the stairs to await our call.
The call came about 09:15, and we joined the queue for the fore exit. And what a queue! It took us on a long, sinuous route towards midship, passing through sections we’d never seen before, winding its way through the huge Manhattan restaurant then doubling back to the fore. It took an hour to actually get to the exit!
And then, of course, we were heading for the customs cattle-shed again to pick up our bags and do the formalities. No computer issue this time, but the US CBP just didn’t have enough staff on duty to cope with the influx. We were held for about 15 minutes at the top of an escalator to allow the crowds below to get processed and free up some room – an escalator down which they would allow only one person at a time!
We found our bags easily enough, and then joined one of two queues for the CBP checks. The other queue was slightly shorter, but I thought they would even out, so we stayed put. Then an agent told us to move into the shorter queue; and another agent told us to move back; and the two agents started having a barney… Is “shambolic” an appropriate word? There had been some sort of medical emergency further down, but it was not affecting either queue at that point.
The CBP checks were not particularly rigorous, just a quick check of our passports and no security scans at all. So we finally emerged on to 12th Avenue two hours after starting disembarkation.
Getting Back (Sunday, 14th April)
We had a pickup arranged for 12:00, but, as usual, no indication of where we were supposed to meet, this time just a “You will be picked up in/at New York“. Very helpful… We checked out the bus/taxi pick-up area, but that didn’t look promising, so plonked ourselves in the sun on 12th Avenue opposite W48th Street. I asked one of the terminal workers where our pick-up was likely to be, and he said on W48th Street, so we left the sun and had a nose around there. It didn’t look promising, being mainly coaches and little room for anything else to park (except a Uber driver who offered to take us to JFK for $75…), so we had to call the pick-up people. Thankfully, it was easy enough to hear their voices, and they said the pick-up was on its way to W49th Street, so we trudged off there.
It looked promising, cars coming and going, but we just waited until we saw someone with my name on a card. A black stretch limo pulled up, and Mel jokingly said it must be ours. Ha ha. We waited, and then noticed the driver was writing something on a card… It bloody well was our pick-up! OMG… I couldn’t help laughing! How ridiculous! So we had a luxurious 45-minute ride to JFK in the back of a stretch limo. Not that it was particularly comfortable, in all honesty – either it had a suspension problem or New York roads are rather bumpy… It was an experience – in all likelihood, not to be repeated…
We arrived at JFK Terminal 5 around 12:45, and saw that Aer Lingus check-in would open at 14:00, but we joined the few people already queueing. Fortunately, they started check-in at 13:30, so we were soon done and airside. Not before I’d set off the alarm at the security scan, though. I’d emptied all my pockets apart from a comb and a tissue, so god knows why that triggered the alarm. I had to have three goes before they would allow me through. I was supposed to stand with my arms up, but I had to make the stroppy agent understand that I couldn’t raise my left arm because of the shoulder dislocation I had on New Year’s Eve! I did see the scan image when I finally got through, and it was showing a large yellow patch on my left shoulder… Why?! Some sort of “heat map”? It’ll be interesting to see what my ultrasound scan shows on my next visit to the Northern General Hospital!
JFK is not a bad airport. Obviously nowhere near comparable to the magnificent Changi, but very open, wide spaces. The rest of the journey back was just routine: took off on time for the six hour flight to Dublin, not long to wait for the 30-minute flight to Manchester, and arrived back in England about 07:40. Having left behind the 32C of Nassau, we were now in the (what felt like) 32F of Manchester.