Norwegian Cruise Line is the proverbial underdog of the cruise world: not quite up among the Carnival/Royal Caribbean power elite, but scrappy and determined and lots of fun. You just can’t help but root for them.
NCL is actually the oldest major U.S.-based cruise line, having got its start in 1966. In the late ’90s, after years as practically a budget cruise line, it began a series of moves that eventually gave its profile a big boost. Today, the line has a fleet of young megaships and offers an always-casual onboard experience that’s heavy on dining and entertainment, with a dash of hipsterish innovations like glow-in-the-dark bowling alleys, outdoor nightclubs, solo cabins with adjustable mood lighting, and extra-huge water slides that appeal to adults as much as kids. You’ll find more young couples and young families aboard NCL than aboard many other mainstream lines, in part because of their generally low fares, in part because the ships and the cruises seem to have been designed for a younger clientele.
Once it started building its modern fleet around the turn of the millennium, NCL became known for two main things: it’s casual “Freestyle cruising” idea and its amazing number of dining options — both of which set trends for the cruise industry. “Freestyle cruising” basically means an onboard vibe that’s less structured and more casual: Instead of fixed formal and informal nights, NCL went with casual dress all the way. Instead of making you sit with the same dining companions at the same table every night, guests can eat when they want, with whoever they want, and wherever they want among the dozen or more different restaurants available on most of the NCL ships — grand main dining rooms, fancy continental specialty restaurants, fun Mexican and Italian restaurants, Indian buffets, South American–style steakhouses, and a variety of Asian options, including sushi, Chinese, and Japanese teppanyaki. To avoid having guests scurrying around the ships at busy mealtimes looking for a seat, computerized screens in various public areas tell you how busy each restaurant is and how long the wait will be if it’s filled up.
Entertainment-wise, NCL shines. Its newest ship, Norwegian Epic, is one of the best entertainment ships at sea, with four large-scale shows presented regularly on board — including a full production by the Blue Man Group that’s easily one of the very best shows at sea today. NCL’s other ships feature production shows that are way above average, with inspired themes, music, and choreography. Many also offer sketch and improv comedy shows from the famed Second City Comedy Troupe, whose alumni include Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey.
Fleetwide, NCL’s ships offer all the usual cruise activities, and more. You can take improv comedy workshops, dance lessons, bartending and cooking classes, or various other enrichment lectures; play Wii games on a two-story screen; participate in a talent show; participate in a wine tasting or beer tasting session; play basketball; work out at the gym; go broke or win big in the casino; or get a massage or makeover at the spa. Kids get a full program of activities divided into several age group; large and creative kids’ and teen centers; family activities like pizza parties and scavenger hunts; and, on Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Jewel, special programming created in partnership with Nickelodeon, including poolside games, the messy Slime Time Live! game show, dancing and singing with Dora the Explorer, and breakfasts with SpongeBob SquarePants.
Accommodations tend to be about average for the industry, with standard cabins a bit smaller than those aboard some other competing lines. Decor is generally a mix of stylish and fun elements — say, nice wood paneling with bright, island-colored carpets and fabrics. On most of the ships, folks with some money to spend can opt for “The Haven by Norwegian,” a separate first-class section sequestered away toward the top of many of NCL’s ships, offering spacious accommodations and a private courtyard, private sundeck, a concierge lounge, and (on some ships) exclusive restaurants, bars, and fitness centers, all reserved for Haven guests only.
Norwegian Cruise Line recently announced two new Breakaway ships, due out in 2013 and 2014. These new vesssels will feature a suite complex called “The Haven by Norwegian,” which will be like a ship within a ship, with some of the biggest and best suites at sea, plus a private restaurant, a cocktail bar and a concierge desk.
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