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  Cruise Vacations - Campbell Cruises and Tours

Ship Reviews - Cruise Tours
Frommer's Cruise Spotlight: Norwegian Cruise Line

Author: Matt Hannafin

The Frommer's Cruise Spotlight showcases a different cruise line each month, from ultra-luxe to ultra-adventurous and everything in between, along with special deals just for Frommer's readers. This month, we'll take a look at Norwegian Cruise Line, currently among the most innovative of the mainstream lines, making its mark with an always-casual onboard atmosphere, an almost ridiculous number of dining options, and a plan to launch the first fleet of American-flagged ships in decades.

October 17, 2003 -- This is an exciting time for NCL, which was one of the pioneers of the North American cruise market but spent most of the '80s and '90s as a near-budget line operating in the shadows of Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Times change, and in the late '90s the line began a major expansion program that saw the launch of four new ships in about three years, with more on the way. At the same time, the line rolled out its "Freestyle Cruising" concept -- all casual, all the time, from breakfast through open-seating dinner all the way into the night. Now offered fleetwide, freestyle means all restaurants on the ships operate with a casual dress code and have open seating between about 5:30 and 10pm every evening. It's a program that appeals to people who don't like the regimentation and formality of traditional cruise dining.

Overall, NCL attracts a diverse clientele, and passengers in general are younger, more price-conscious, and more active than those aboard lines such as HAL, Celebrity, and Princess. Typical NCL passengers are couples aged 25 to 60, and include a fair number of honeymooners and families with kids during summers and holidays. Children's centers on the new vessels are among the best at sea, group babysitting is offered every night, and kids under two sail free.

As part of its corporate makeover, NCL has put a lot of energy into its dining program. In addition to one or two main dining rooms, each ship has at least two smaller reservations-only alternative specialty restaurants (one Italian and one French/Continental), and the line's newest ships offering even more, from pan-Asian to Japanese, Pacific Rim, and Spanish. Sister-ships Norwegian Star and Norwegian Dawn have -- get this -- ten different eateries onboard, from fancy steakhouses and teppanyaki restaurants to casual Tex-Mex and burger joints. In addition, all NCL vessels offer daily midnight buffets, ice-cream bars, and the popular Chocoholic Extravaganza midnight buffet.

Adult activities are one of NCL's strongest points, featuring fewer of the ho-hum napkin-folding classes that once defined ship life and more computer- and health/nutrition-oriented workshops. You can take cha-cha lessons or language classes; use the 24-hour gym; attend an art auction or spa or beauty demonstration; sit in on enrichment lectures about classic ocean liners, nutrition or personal investing; play bingo, shuffleboard, or basketball; or listen to the live poolside calypso band. There are galley and bridge tours, snorkeling demonstrations in the pool, makeovers, talent shows, wine tastings, and trivia contests, plus silly poolside competitions to keep you laughing all afternoon. The fun continues into the evening with some of the best entertainment offered by any mainstream line. Recent production shows have a fresh feel, incorporating hip-hop, Indian "Bollywood" themes, lots of Latin music, and even the occasional hint of storyline. They're without doubt among the best at sea today.

For kids, the Kids Crew program offers sports competitions, dances, face painting, treasure hunts, magic shows, arts and crafts, cooking classes, T-shirt painting, and even a Circus at Sea, programmed for four age groups.

Fleet-wise, the 2,000-passenger Norwegian Sky, 1,960-passenger Norwegian Sun, and 2,244-passenger Norwegian Dawn and Star represent the new, higher-quality NCL, while the line's four other midsize vintage-1980s vessels, carrying about 1,500 passengers each, stand for its more budget-conscious, catch-as-catch-can past. The company is currently building its first new U.S.-flagged ship, Pride of America, which is scheduled to begin inter-island Hawaii cruises on July 4, 2004, and two as yet unnamed new ships are on deck for 2005 and 2006.

And then there are the real classic ships. The ss Norway, originally built in 1962 as the great liner France, had a major boiler-room accident in May that cost the lives of several crewmen, so she's now laid up in Europe awaiting a final decision on her future. Meanwhile, NCL warmed the hearts of classic-ship lovers in April with its purchase of the legendary liner United States, built in 1952 to be the fastest, safest ship at sea -- on her maiden voyage, she averaged 35.5 knots and broke the transatlantic record with a time of 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes, a record that has never been broken. The vessel was laid up in 1969 and has spent its recent years at a Philadelphia pier, gutted of her interior furnishings but otherwise in good condition. According to NCL, initial plans call for her to be rebuilt entirely from the inside out at some as-yet unannounced future date, creating an interior that's in tune with modern tastes.

Itineraries and Rates

Like most of the other mainstream lines, NCL concentrates a lot of its efforts on the Caribbean, riding the "alternative homeports" and "homeland cruising" waves by positioning Caribbean-bound ships all up and down the U.S. east and gulf coasts. For 2004, departures are scheduled from Charleston, Houston, New Orleans, Miami, San Juan, and, significantly, New York, from which the new Norwegian Dawn sails year-round. Going into its first winter here, NCL has offered a "Winter Weather Guarantee" that offers various discounts if snow or ice delay Dawn's departure by more than twelve hours, from a $100 onboard credit to a full cruise credit if you wish to delay your vacation.

Though its new U.S.-flagged NCL America sub-brand, NCL is also focusing big-time on the Hawaii market, which it should dominate for the foreseeable future. Rounding out the fleet schedule are cruises to Alaska, Bermuda, Canada/New England, Europe, the Panama Canal, and South America.

NCL's prices tend to be among the most affordable in the industry, with many weeklong Caribbean sailings going for less (and sometimes a lot less) than $500.


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