Norwegian Cruise Line
The Line in a Nutshell
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) may be the most mainstream of the mainstream lines these days -- and we mean that in a good way. At a time when every cruise line seems to be pushing the quote/unquote "luxury" elements of their onboard programs, NCL hews to the upper center, with always-casual dining (and lots of it), cheerful and creative decor, and hip innovations like onboard bowling alleys, outdoor nightclubs, gourmet beer bars, and inside cabins with adjustable mood lighting. Its newest vessels are the most fun megaships at sea, and it's the go-to line for inter-island Hawaii cruises. Nutshell? NCL's the kind of cruise line you want to sit down and have a beer with. Sails to: Caribbean, The Bahamas, Panama Canal, Alaska, Mexican Riviera, Bermuda, Hawaii, Canada/New England, Pacific Coast (plus South America, Europe).
Back in the mid- to late '90s, NCL operated a mixed-bag fleet of older ships whose onboard vibe was only a couple of steps above budget. Fast-forward a dozen years and presto-chango: NCL is now one of the top players in the industry, with innovative itineraries, a fleet of new megaships, a casual onboard atmosphere, top-drawer entertainment, and a staggering number of dining choices. The line was the first to dump the old system of formal/informal/casual nights, going totally casual and starting a trend across the industry. The new program also did away with fixed dining times and seating assignments, leaving passengers free to choose when and where they want to dine among a variety of venues. Traditional tipping also went away, replaced by a system where gratuities are added directly to passenger accounts. Busy, busy, busy they've been, and it shows.
In general, NCL passengers are younger and more active than those aboard lines such as HAL, Celebrity, and Princess. Typical NCL passengers are couples ages 25 to 60, and include a fair number of honeymooners and families with kids during summers and holidays. Kids under age 2 travel at a substantially reduced fare. The atmosphere aboard all NCL vessels is informal and well suited to casual types, party-makers, and both first-time and experienced cruisers.
Talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Though Norwegian was one of the pioneers of North American cruising (begun in 1966 as an alliance between Norwegian ship owner Knut Kloster and Israeli marketing genius Ted Arison, who later started Carnival), it spent many years relegated to the industry's back seat behind biggies Carnival and Royal Caribbean. In 1997, though, it began a sequence of moves that transformed it into a true leader and innovator.
First it went casual, knocking the whole industry on its ear and prompting many other lines to revamp their dining policies and dress codes. Then it took over the Hawaii market by launching the first U.S.-flagged cruise ships in decades (a legal requirement for operating ships entirely within U.S. waters). After that, it went modern: As part of an ongoing upgrade, the line has sold off all of its older vessels, with the last of them, 1992's Norwegian Majesty, going to Cyprus-based Louis Cruises in November 2009. That leaves NCL with an extremely up-to-date fleet whose oldest vessel, Norwegian Sky, only dates to 1999. The most modern of all is the 150,000-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic, which is scheduled to debut just as this book goes to press -- a bit of bad timing that prevented us from being able to include a full review here. As such, most details in this section refer to the rest of NCL's fleet, unless noted otherwise.
All the restaurants on all NCL ships follow an open-seating policy each and every evening, allowing you to dine whenever you like within the 5:30 to 10pm window, sit with whomever you want (rather than having a table pre-assigned), and dress however you like: Management says anything goes except jeans, shorts, and tank tops, but we've seen those in the restaurants, too. This flexible setup really works for families, groups, and anyone else who doesn't want to be tied down to fixed mealtimes and tables, and who hates the idea of having to chat up the same bunch of dinner companions all week. If you end up sitting with people you do like, you can always make plans to dine with them again.
The night of the captain's cocktail party is officially an "optional formal" night, meaning you can wear a suit, tie, or fancy dress if you like, but no one will complain if you don't. That said, we've been surprised on recent cruises at just how many people do dress up.
Traditional -- The main dining rooms, like the rest of the ships' eating venues, operate with open seating and casual dress codes, so the only really "traditional" thing about them is their size and a touch of old ocean-liner elegance. For cuisine, you can usually count on such choices as beef Wellington, broiled lobster tail, chicken Parmesan, fettuccine Alfredo, grilled swordfish with lemon-caper sauce, salmon or poached sea bass, or perhaps a Jamaican jerk pork roast, Wiener schnitzel, or roast prime rib. And lobster fans take note: Your favorite crustacean is available in the main restaurant on multiple days and in one or another of the specialty restaurants every night of the cruise.
The NCL wine lists appeal to standard mid-American tastes, and prices aren't offensively high.
A light choice (prepared with recipes from NCL partner Cooking Light magazine) and a vegetarian entree are available at all lunches and dinners. Children's menus feature the popular standards (burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries, spaghetti and meatballs, ice-cream sundaes, and so on), plus unexpected dishes like vegetable crudités and cheese dip.
Specialty -- In addition to one or two main dining rooms, all the NCL ships have at least six alternative specialty restaurants serving food that's on a par with all but the very best of the competition. Each ship has a French/Continental restaurant called Le Bistro plus choices such as Pan-Asian, Italian, Japanese, Pacific Rim, and Tex-Mex tapas. The food in Le Bistro is better than that in the main dining rooms, and includes items such as Caesar salad made right at your table and a marvelously decadent chocolate fondue served with fresh fruit (both by request only). Tables are sometimes available for walk-ins, but make your reservations as early as possible to be on the safe side.
Most of the specialty restaurants carry a cover charge, which ranges from $10 to $20 per person. Even with a reservations system, it inevitably happens that you'll sometimes have to wait for a table, but NCL is working on that, too. At this writing, nearly every ship in the fleet is outfitted with large computerized billboard screens placed outside restaurants and in various public areas on board. Each displays a listing of every restaurant on board (with photos and a description of the cuisine), along with the restaurant's status (open/closed), how busy it is at that moment, how close it is to filling up, and how long a wait there will be if it is filled up. 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 available fleetwide through an interactive TV system. To get a taste of what each restaurant serves, take a walk around on embarkation day, when each one offers food samples.
One or two alternative restaurants are open for lunch as well as dinner on every sea day.
Casual -- In addition to the numerous sit-down venues highlighted above (all of them casual in their own way), all NCL ships also have a buffet restaurant with indoor/outdoor seating, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In addition to the usual meats, salads, pastas, and desserts, NCL buffets often include stations serving stir-fry dishes and all-vegetarian Indian spreads. See the ship reviews for more details.
Snacks & Extras -- Snacking opportunities include pizza and ice cream throughout the day at the buffet restaurant, a coffee bar serving specialty java and other beverages, and 24-hour room service for pizza, sandwiches, and other munchies. Food is also available 24 hours a day from at least one restaurant on each ship. One night a week (on all but the Hawaii ship), you can also drool over the popular Chocoholic Extravaganza buffet, serving everything from tortes to brownies.
Fleetwide, cabin service, room service, bar service, and dining service tend to be speedy and efficient.
In Hawaii, Pride of America has an all-American service staff -- it's the only ship of this size that does, anywhere. On the plus side, staffmembers are almost uniformly friendly and helpful, and there are no English-as-a-second-language problems to deal with. On the downside, some can be just a touch too casual. What are you gonna do? American 20-somethings aren't generally known for their formality and refinement.
Fleetwide, tipping is done automatically, with a $12-per-day service charge added to each passenger's onboard account ($5 for kids 3-12). Though officially nonrefundable, the charge can be adjusted if you've experienced serious problems that the customer-service staff was unable to remedy.
NCL ships provide laundry and dry-cleaning service. Norwegian Dawn, Jewel, Pearl, Jade, and Gem all have self-service launderettes and ironing facilities for guests, and all ships have ironing boards and irons available from housekeeping upon request.
Passengers booked in balcony cabins, minisuites, and suites can access the services of a dedicated concierge hot line to make restaurant reservations, and so on.
NCL has all the usual cruise activities, plus some unusual ones to spice things up, including workshops on improv comedy, organic cooking, and bartending. You can also take cha-cha lessons; play bingo, shuffleboard, or basketball; attend an art auction or spa or beauty demonstration; and, on some cruises, sit in on enrichment lectures about classic ocean liners, nutrition, personal investing, or other topics. There are snorkeling demonstrations in the pool, makeovers, talent shows, wine tastings (for $15 per person), and trivia contests, plus your classic cruise ship "silly poolside games." In Hawaii, Pride of America has many activities themed on Hawaiian arts and culture, while Norwegian Pearl, Gem, and Epic have onboard bowling alleys.
Internet cafes allow e-mail and Internet access fleetwide. For those wanting flexibility in their Web surfing, a Wi-Fi wireless system lets you log on from various places on board using your own or a rented laptop and an NCL network card. You can also use your cellphone through an onboard relay system. In Hawaii, Pride of America sails close enough to shore that signals get picked up by regular land towers.
Gyms fleetwide are open 24 hours and have free stretching, step, aerobics, and other traditional classes. Spinning, kickboxing, Pilates, yoga, and other trendy choices cost an extra $10. All ships have golf driving cages where guests can practice at their leisure. In port, NCL's Dive-In program provides at least one snorkeling and one scuba excursion at almost every Caribbean port, escorted by the ship's certified instructors. In Hawaii and Bermuda, the line offers a comprehensive program of golf excursions to some of the islands' best courses, including Puakea, Poipu Bay, Princeville, and Kaua'i Lagoons (Kauai); Mauna Lani Resort, Hapuna, and Big Island Country Club (Hawaii); Makena, Wailea, and the Dunes at Maui Lani (Maui); Ko'olau Golf Club (Oahu); and the Ocean View, Belmont Hills, Mid Ocean, Port Royal, Tucker's Point, St. George's, and Riddell's Bay courses (Bermuda). Pride of America, the line's full-time Hawaii ship, also has an onboard pro shop.
NCL has some of the best entertainment of all the mainstream lines, including, aboard many of its ships, sketch comedy shows by members of the famed Second City comedy troupe, which launched the careers of such legends as Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner. Production shows are way above average, too, with talented performers and good choreography, costumes, and set design. A show called Tubez, offered aboard Pearl in 2007, was one of the few truly contemporary shows we've ever seen at sea, with a mix of older and recent pop hits, hip-hop-inflected choreography and ballet, a rapper as the lead male vocalist, and bizarro elements like BMX bicycle acrobatics. Bollywood- and South Beach-inspired shows in recent years have also been standouts. Ditto for most of the other performers, including the musicians and comedians who play the ships' lounge circuit. On Pride of America's Hawaii itineraries, 1 night a week is devoted to Polynesian music and dance, while another features an extra-cost production of the interactive off-Broadway hit Tony n' Tina's Wedding. The new Norwegian Epic features performances by the Blue Man Group, as well as an interactive, 2-hour dinner theater show staged by Cirque du Soleil.
For closet entertainers, the line puts on an American Idol kind of talent program called Star Seeker, which gives adults and kids the chance to prove themselves onstage. Videos of the performances serve as audition tapes for NCL's shore-side entertainment department, which sometimes hires the winners for one-time performances aboard a future (free) NCL cruise.
Big gamblers should avoid Pride of America, as Hawaiian law prohibits all gambling onboard.
NCL's Kids Crew program has year-round supervised activities for children ages 2 to 17, divided into four age groups: Junior Sailors, ages 2 to 5; First Mates, ages 6 to 9; Navigators, ages 10 to 12; and teens, ages 13 to 17. Activities include sports competitions, dances, face painting, treasure hunts, magic shows, arts and crafts, cooking classes, T-shirt painting, and the Officer Snook Water Pollution Program, which uses games, crafts, storytelling, and other activities to educate young people about the effects of marine pollution and ways to prevent it. Family events such as pizza-making parties and scavenger hunts are also on the schedule, and kids get their own daily program detailing the day's events.
All the most recent NCL ships have huge kids' facilities that include a separate teen center and a wading pool, as well as a large, well-stocked playroom. Those on Dawn, Star, and Spirit are especially wonderful, with a huge combo climbing maze and ball bin indoors, and an outdoor kids' pool and hot tub area themed on dinosaurs (Dawn), rockets (Star), and pirates (Spirit). Jewel, Gem, Jade, and Pride of America have a much smaller kids' pool. On sea days, youth programs are held from 9am to noon, 2 to 5pm, and then 7 to 10pm; on port days, the complimentary hours are from 7 to 10pm. Port program times can also be adjusted to accommodate parents on shore excursions.
Once per cruise, the ships have a Mom and Dad's Night Out, when kids dine with counselors. Otherwise, group babysitting for kids ages 2 to 12 is provided nightly between 10pm and 1am (and 9am5pm on port days) for $5 per child per hour, plus $3 an hour for each additional sibling. Counselors do not do diapers; parents are given beepers so that they can be alerted when it's time for the dirty work. Private babysitting is not available.
Unlimited soda packages are $4 per day for kids ages 12 and under. For anyone ages 13 or older, the same deal costs $6.25 per day.