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
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
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.