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It's awful to say, but when you write about ships for a living it takes a lot to get you really excited. Another new megaship? YAWN. Biggest passenger ship ever? Ho hum, saw that last week. Real Hollywood celebrities as bartenders? Onboard ski mountains with chairlifts and snow machines? BO-RING. Doesn't every ship have those?

After a while, you're more than ready to trade the thrill of the new for practicality and plain old quality.

This is not to say that Norwegian Jewel, the newest in a long line of new megaships from Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) falls cleanly on one or another side of the hokum equation. Like most things in life, it treads the middle path -- but it sure does have its moments.

Jewel is the third sister ship in a series that began with 2001's Norwegian Star, the vessel on which NCL introduced its mondo-dining program (ten different restaurants, all following its Freestyle "eat when you like" policy) and its Garden Villas, the largest suites in the cruise industry. Norwegian Dawn followed in 2002 with Latin-themed decor and entertainment to match its year-round New York-Miami-Bahamas itineraries, plus an incredible spa with indoor lap pool, jet-massage pool, and sunny windowed lounge areas.

An earlier pseudo-sister vessel, the 1,966-passenger Norwegian Spirit, began life in 1999 as the SuperStar Leo of Star Cruises, NCL's Asian parent company. Smaller than Star, Dawn, and Jewel but with similar amenities, she came to NCL in 2004 to take over Norwegian Sun's Alaska itineraries after a shipyard accident put NCL's intended first Hawaii ship (now named Pride of America) a full year behind schedule. To take her place, Sun was quickly transformed into Pride of Aloha and rushed into Hawaii service in July 2004.

Got all that?

Innovation on the Half-Shell: Jewel's Top Selling Points

Overall, these ships get straight A's for innovation.

Want fun? The new improv- and sketch-comedy shows by members of the famed Second City Comedy Troupe (who perform on Jewel and Dawn) are absolutely the funniest comedy I've seen on any ship, ever, anywhere, period. At different points in the cruise, the comedians also lead workshops for passengers on the art and philosophy of improvisation, plus another workshop just for kids. Production shows in the striking three-deck theater also live up to NCL's rep for having some of the freshest entertainment in the biz, employing aerialists, contortionists, and provocative choreography to liven up what would otherwise be fairly standard musical revues. They almost scream "SEX!!!," but what's wrong with a little directness now and then?

Want dining choice? Each of NCL's new megaships has between 8 and 10 different restaurants, offering experiences from ultra-casual to pseudo-formal. On Jewel, choices include two main restaurants (one decorated in Imperial Russian style, the other in a strikingly modern Pop Art style) plus a steakhouse, a French restaurant, a Thai/Japanese/Chinese complex with sushi bar and teppanyaki room, a casual joint for burgers and fish-and-chips, a family-style Italian restaurant, a Mexican/tapas restaurant, and a casual indoor/outdoor buffet.

But what else has Jewel got going for it, you ask? What's it got that's special?

Four main things, and a few runners up:

1. Technology: Bear with me here. I'm not talking about any kind of amazing advances in essentially useless and superfluous whiz-bang, but about gizmos that actually make your life easier. At issue is NCL's Freestyle dining concept, where passengers can dine at any of the ship's many restaurants anytime during multi-hour windows. Great idea -- however, despite the fact that each ship has the ability to seat everyone at the same time, it inevitably happens that everybody shows up to a few particular restaurants, leaving people with the option of either waiting till tables open up or of going to one of the other venues.

The solution aboard Jewel (as well as Norwegian Spirit and Pride of America) comes in the form of large computerized "billboard" screens placed outside restaurants and in various public areas. Each displays a listing of every restaurant on board, its status (open/closed), the type of food it serves, how busy it is at that particular moment, how close it is to filling up, and how long a wait there will be if it is filled up. The displays also include photos of the place and a description of their menus, to let you know what to expect. For those who don't like to plan too far ahead, it's a great boon: You can head out for the evening and just decide where to dine on the fly. Maitre d's at every restaurant can take reservations at any of the other restaurants too, so if one looks like it's filling up you won't have to sprint to catch that last table -- just amble to the nearest restaurant and have them call ahead for you.

The system will eventually be rolled out across the NCL fleet. Additionally, in-cabin viewing of the screen info will be available through a new interactive TV system that's currently in the works.

2. Privacy: Will I sound silly if I tout a karaoke club as one of the best things aboard a ship? Will I sound like some kind of post-collegiate, just-started-his-first-job-and-still-enjoys-getting-drunk-and-making-a-fool-of-himself kind of, uh, guy? Well, so what if I do? Karaoke clubs are nothing new aboard ships, but Jewel is the first in my knowledge to include three private karaoke rooms off to the side of the main Fyzz Nightclub, allowing cliques of passengers to cocoon themselves away, drop their inhibitions, and sing along with Mitch.

The three rooms, with monochromatic color schemes of blue, red, and green, come with their own karaoke systems and a clutch of 70s-style mod furnishings. Outside, Fyzz itself is also ever-so-mod, with a bright pink-red-and-purple color scheme, bucket seats, and champagne-bubbles-in-outer-space carpeting. Larger public karaoke sessions are also offered here, for the real exhibitionists among you.

3. Luxury: As noted above, NCL introduced its first Garden Villas -- the cruise industry's largest suites -- aboard 2001's Norwegian Star. Covering an almost incomprehensible 5,350 to 5,750 square feet, they featured private gardens, multiple bedrooms, separate living rooms, extravagant baths, full kitchens, and private butler service. Amazing what money will buy -- and I mean lots of money: The suites go for a cool $20,000 a week.

Oddly enough, NCL never wanted to offer these suites in the first place. "They weren't something we designed," said NCL president and CEO Colin Veitch at an onboard press conference. "We inherited them from the Asian market, where they were intended for high-rollers in the casino." Norwegian Star was originally ordered for Star Cruises before being retargeted to NCL pre-launch. "Honestly, we didn't think they would sell," said Veitch. "To our surprise, though, we've been able to fill them on almost every cruise."

Such success led NCL to experiment further with the villa concept on Jewel. Positioned on the same top-of-the-ship deck as the Garden Villa, ten smaller Courtyard Villas offer spacious suite accommodations coupled with access to a villa-guests-only courtyard, a private sundeck, and a staffed concierge lounge. The courtyard is a stunner, with a small private swimming pool, hot tub, and several plush, shaded sunbeds. Suites (which due to safety regulations open to a hallway around the courtyard rather than right into it) are also knockouts. Each offers a separate bedroom and living/dining room; a huge, gorgeously appointed bathroom with oceanview whirlpool tub and shower; large private balcony; and floor space that ranges from 440 to 572 square feet. The larger Courtyard Penthouses also offer a separate children's room with fold-out couch bed and second bath. Prices hover in the $4,400 to $5,400 range for weeklong European cruises in summer 2006.

4. Drinkery: Those who follow such things know that the state of beer aboard most cruise ships is generally so-so, limited to domestic mass-market brews, a few popular imports and import look-alikes (Heineken, Corona, Becks), and usually a small handful of quality brews, like Guinness, Bass, Grolsch, Newcastle, or Paulaner Weissbrau.

Jewel's got 'em all beat.

With this ship, NCL has introduced something almost unheard of at sea: a well-stocked, fully functional, kick-ass beer bar that gives most landsmen's pubs a run for their money. Dubbed Maltings (for reasons we'll get to in a minute), it's a stylish room, with comfortable leather chairs, multiple flat-screen TVs tuned to sporting events, and a giant faux still for ambience. On each table are two menus: one for beer and another for whiskey. The beer menu features some out-and-out fantastic brews, such as Coopers Stout, Sam Adams Cream Stout, Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, Pete's Wicked Honey Wheat, and, on draft, Murphy's Stout, Dos Equis, Bass, Stella Artois, and others. All told, there are 46 brews from which to choose, plus a small selection of meads and two non-alcoholic beers. Based on the results my thoroughly unscientific poll of the cruise industry's suds in 2004 (the results of which are viewable here), this list puts Maltings in the #1 position industry-wide for beer selection, beating out the former champ, Cunard's QM2, by about ten brands.

The whiskey menu has a selection of 23 single-malt Scotches (including a number from the Orkney Islands, the Isle of Skye, and the Isle of Mull), seven blended Scotches, nine Irish Whiskeys, seven Canadian whiskeys, and 17 American bourbons including the great George Dickel No. 12 -- a personal favorite.

Maltings is one of three bars clustered aft on deck 6, each separate in theme but connected by a long, serpentine bar. Next door, Shakers Martini & Cocktail Bar is done up in a James Bond theme, with a statue of the man himself (unidentifiable as any particular Bond, for anyone keeping score) perched on the bar end and a wide video screen showing silhouetted Bond girls in perpetual dance during bar hours. According to CEO Veitch, what you see is actually the second version produced specifically for the bar. "The first was alsp silhouettes," he says, "but there are silhouettes and then there are silhouettes. The first wasn't something you could show on a ship. The new one is much more . . . tasteful."

A champagne and wine bar known as Magnum's rounds out the bar-central trifecta.

And the Runners-Up Are . . .

Aside from its big-hit wonders, Jewel has a number of more quietly impressive offerings. Up on deck 12 aft, opposite the buffet restaurant, Mama's Italian Kitchen is a new Italian venue serving pasta, pizza, and other Italian dishes in a casual atmosphere, with tables for two and four mixed in among larger family-style tables with bench seating. Toward midship, the large pool deck is decorated in NCL's now-signature small-c carnivalesque style, with carousel-style awnings above the hot tubs, a waterfall-fed pool, lampposts in the shape of palm trees, and a large waterslide that's fun for all ages. ("That's absolutely the easiest and cheapest way to keep kids entertained morning and night," says Veitch. "Adults too.") Up on deck 15 a small "Freestyle" sundeck hidden away behind frosted glass partitions adds yet another meaning to NCL's favorite word. Use your imagination.

At the forward end of the pool deck, the fitness center is large and extremely well-appointed, with dozens of fitness machines and a large aerobics/spinning room. Further forward, the Bora Bora Health Spa is a bit of a disappointment after the stunner on sister-ship Norwegian Dawn. Here, almost institutional-looking corridors connect the treatment rooms, while pre- and post-treatment relaxation rooms seem dull despite ocean views, tiled lounges, and water-jet pools. More potted plants, maybe?

Final grade on Norwegian Jewel? Call it a four-and-a-half-star gem (on a scale of five) and give NCL extra points for being the plucky, colorful comic relief still holding out against the big guns at Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

Norwegian Jewel is scheduled to sail 11-night Canada/New England cruises round-trip from New York until late October, visiting Boston, Bar Harbor, Halifax, Quebec City, Sydney, and St. John, with cruising time in the Bay of Fundy, Cabot Strait, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the Saguenay River. In early November she'll sail south to Miami for a season of 7-night eastern and western Caribbean itineraries, visiting San Juan (Puerto Rico), Antigua, St. Thomas, and Great Stirrup Cay (NCL's private island) on her eastern sailings and Great Stirrup Cay, Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, and Roatan (Honduras) on her western route. In spring she'll deploy to Europe for a summer of Mediterranean, Egypt, and Greek Isles cruises.

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