I’m not exactly a veteran cruiser, but I have cruised on a few of the major cruise lines over the past 10 years. And in the past two years I’ve cruised twice, both times on the one I’ve come to like the best — Norwegian Cruise Line. Why do I “cruise like a Norwegian”, as their motto puts it? Its a matter of attitude.
Norwegian isn’t the biggest line, or the most luxurious. And these days it isn’t even particularly Norwegian: it’s based in the U.S., part-owned by a Malaysian company, and a lot of the crew are from the Philippines or some other part of the world.
I think what I like is its hang-loose, forward-looking ethos. Norwegian has been a cruise industry trend-setter, leading the way with things like private islands, bowling alleys, ice bars and tiny, affordable “studio” cabins for solo cruisers. But its biggest innovation is its trademark “freestyle cruising”, which gives passengers the ability to do pretty much what they want, when they want.
Some people find life aboard a cruise ship a little stiff, bound by schedules and rules. Norwegian decided to do away with a lot of the rules. And the place they started was in the dining rooms.
On most lines you sign up for a specific dinner time — either the early seating or the late one. Then you’re assigned to a table with some other people, and you’d better like them, because you’ll be sitting with them every night. There are some tables for two, but they’re a hot item and can be difficult to get.
This kind of dining can be uncomfortable for people who just want to spend some time together. And it’s especially so for solo cruisers like me.
The first time I ventured to cruise by myself was a 16-night cruise to the Antarctic on a Princess ship. I didn’t feel ready to sit at a big table full of strangers, so I chose “anytime” dining. But my one or two attempts at eating in their dining room were uncomfortable; I found myself stuck in a back corner, feeling like an intruder. So I spent the cruise eating dinner in the Lido deck buffet: it was less formal, and the big picture windows gave a better view of the incredible scenes going by. One night I watched penguins, seals and whales playing beside the ship while I ate my appetizer.
Then I decided to cruise like a Norwegian (Copenhagen to St. Petersburg and back, on the Norwegian Sun), I decided to give the dining room another try. The difference was like night and day: I was greeted with a smile, and assigned a table for two with no problem. As well, they asked if was open to sharing a table. Sometimes I said yes, and was seated with another solo cruiser. Sometimes I said no. I ate in the dining room almost every night, and enjoyed it.
I was back on NCL for my recent Mediterranean cruise, this time on the Jade, and the experience was even better. I decided to share a table on a regular basis, but this time, instead of being seated with other singles, I ended up sharing with a number of couples. It was enjoyable, and I met some very interesting people, including a couple of fellow Torontonians. We got along great, and teamed up for some excursions in Greece.
Both times, the food in the main dining rooms was uniformly good, though not spectacular, and the waiters were for the most part friendly and chatty. And for those who think you have to dress for dinner (actually untrue on most cruise ships these days), there’s no dress policy on Norwegian ships. The one “dress-up” night on the Mediterranean cruise went by almost unnoticed.
The freestyle attitude carries over to other parts of the ship. The Norwegian Sun was the first ship I’d seen with entertainment aimed at people under 70 — they even had a well-done Beatles show. There was no one singing show tunes from the 1940s. On its newest ships, NCL is becoming even more adventurous, with the Blue Man group, Second City comedy and a dance troupe performing right in the dining room.
I also find the ships attractive, although that’s a matter of personal taste. They don’t have the classic style of a Disney cruise ship, but they do have a style of their own. NCL ships sport giant pop art graphics on their bows, as in the picture at the top of this post: you either like them or you don’t. I’m getting used to them — at the very least, they make it easy to identify your ship from a long way off.
Inside, the ships I’ve been on have been attractively done, though it was a bit odd to cruise the Mediterranean in a ship full of tropical flowers and Hawaiian art (the Norwegian Jade was originally the Pride of Hawaii).
Norwegian Cruise Line also has some of the most luxurious top-tier cabins, right up to 5,000-square-foot Garden and Courtyard Villas. Personally, I’m at the other end of the price scale — I’d rather pay less for an inside cabin and cruise more often. But I’d say my cabins have been comparable to those on the other lines, although on earlier sponsored trips I had higher-class cabins.
It’s not all blue skies, of course. Norwegian has a particularly strict policy on bringing liquor on board, with a hefty corkage fee. The service, while mostly good, can be uneven. And on my recent cruise, I arrived to find my cabin had a foldaway bed stuck on the wall that made it impossible to get to my bed until I rearranged the furniture. (That’s it at the left in this picture, with the bed moved to the right.)
On the good side, there was also a personal welcome waiting for me, with a commemorative pin and an invitation to a cocktail party for return passengers — some had been on dozens of Norwegian cruises.
Overall, I’ll still cruise like a Norwegian, and I’d be interested to experience one of NCL’s new generation of 4,000-passenger megaships, like the Epic, the Breakaway or the Getaway, due to launch next month. I’d also like to try one of the innovative studio cabins.
Happily, Norwegian Cruise Line is also one of the more affordably priced lines, and it’s no slouch when it comes to sending out a constant stream of offers and reminders. So I imagine there’ll be a lot more chances to cruise like a Norwegian.
Norwegian fun facts
- Norwegian has 13 ships that visit more than 100 ports of call, including places like Alesund, Norway, Funchal, Portugal, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa, Mexico, Corner Brook, Newfoundland, and Quebec City.
- It has the youngest fleet in the industry, with most ships built since 2000.
- Norwegian is the only cruise line with a ship based in Hawaii so it can cruise the islands with no sea days.
- Norwegian specializes in “homeland” cruising from ports such as New York, Seattle, New Orleans, Boston and Tampa that passengers can reach by car.
- The new studio cabins for solo cruisers are only 100 square feet, but have futuristic coloured lighting systems and include access to The Living Room, a special solo cruiser lounge.
- The new Norwegian Breakaway sails from New York and incorporates local touches, including Carlo’s Bakery of Cake Boss fame, three Broadway shows and hull graphics by artist Peter Max.