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Cruise Line Review

Norwegian Cruise Line - Cruise Line Review provided by Cruise Critic

About

Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) is notable for revolutionizing the cruise experience via its "Freestyle Cruising" philosophy. Meant to eschew traditional cruise line stuffiness -- in dress codes, dining options and even entertainment offerings -- NCL has inspired other lines to copy its more successful "freestyle" concepts. NCL has also carved itself a niche in the homeland cruising specialty, featuring departures from a number of continental U.S. homeports that include New York, Seattle, Charleston, Houston, New Orleans, Boston, and Philadelphia, among others.

Aiming to operate the cruise industry's youngest fleet, the line is focused at present on selling off pre-Freestyle designed ships. As such, NCL recently announced that three -- Pride of Aloha, Norwegian Majesty and Norwegian Dream -- will be departing the fleet in the next two years. Though the line actually reversed its plans in one instance: Pride of Aloha, which finished its Hawaii slate of itineraries, will be transferred to Miami. There, under the ship's original name -- Norwegian Sky -- the vessel will sail three and four night Bahamas cruises from Miami.

With its newest ships, NCL is testing a number of land-based amenities, like luxury villas, martini and champagne bars, interconnecting cabins, onboard bowling alleys, and electronic restaurant reservation systems. Another distinction is NCL's revolutionary (for mass-market cruising) disembarkation policy, so relaxed that it is more resort-like than cruise-like. In addition, it is the only cruise line to offer year-round Hawaiian itineraries. At present, the one time NCL America fleet of three ships has been significantly downsized; only Pride of America remains in Hawaii.

Starting with one ship in 1966, NCL was first established by Oslo-based Klosters Rederi A/S, one of Norway's oldest and most respected shipping firms. Its first ship (M/S Sunward) repositioned from Europe to the then-obscure Port of Miami for Caribbean cruising. Adding four more vessels by 1971 and the former S/S France (renamed the Norway) in 1979, NCL was on its way to becoming an industry leader and one of the largest cruise companies in the world.

Malaysia-based Star Cruises acquired NCL in 2000. As a result of the investment by Star Cruises, the largest Asian-based cruise line, NCL underwent an unprecedented growth spurt that resulted in the introduction of ships specifically designed to carry out its Freestyle innovations. To date, the line has launched eight brand new ships since 2001.

In 2007, NCL entered into another chapter when Apollo Management agreed to become a 50 percent owner of the cruise line, sharing leadership with Star Cruises. The cost for half the company? A mere $1 billion. Since then, NCL has massively committed to Freestyle 2.0, a new initiative to upgrade services and programs on existing ships -- including spending $50 million alone on dining enhancements.

The line is also selling off older vessels, and plans to launch an entirely new design of ships, called F3, in 2010.

The Fleet

NCL operates under two brands: Norwegian Cruise Line and NCL America. As ships that pre-dated Star Cruises' ownership are being pruned from the fleet, the line is focusing efforts on its designed-for-Freestyle models. These include Norwegian Sun, Norwegian Star, and Norwegian Dawn, which all launched in 2001 - 2002.

They also include even more design-forward vessels such as Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Gem ,and Norwegian Pearl, which have debuted more recently.

The NCL America offshoot is now down to just one ship as Pride of Hawaii, now Norwegian Jade, has been redeployed to Europe. Pride of Aloha has also received a new assignment; that ship will re-launch in July 2008 with a new name -- Norwegian Sky -- and a new itinerary (Miami-based three and four night Bahamas cruises). Pride of America continues to sail year-round, Hawaii-based itineraries.

Orient Lines, which at one time was a two-ship cruise line operated under NCL's banner, ceased operations in April 2008 when Marco Polo, its last remaining vessel, was sold to U.K.-based Transocean Cruises.

Onboard Atmosphere

Norwegian Cruise Line offers a hybrid cruising experience, mixing traditional with innovative features, amenities, and ambience. Decor is a mix of glitz and traditional. The dress code is flexible and casual, (not quite as elegant as country club casual). It's not unusual to see T-shirt clad passengers dining among the tuxedoed.

All the ships have multiple restaurants, bars, and lounges. NCL is serious about entertainment and offers exuberant musical productions (including off-Broadway shows), comedy from Second City, live bands, lounge singers, piano bars and D.J.'s in the discos. The casinos are a good size and offer the expected games. The requisite libraries, game rooms, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, art auctions, perfume seminars, gaming lessons and port talks are available every day. Steiner-run Mandara Spas offer luxe treatments at luxe prices, with recent additions of teeth whitening and acupuncture sessions. All have fitness centers.

Well-trained counselors staff the children's programs; age-appropriate activities range from parties and video arcades to kid-friendly learning sessions. There are teen centers, discos, and kids' pools too. The newer ships in the NCL fleet are particularly kid-friendly, and although standard cabins run substantially smaller -- at an average of 160 square ft. -- than those on other new vessels, NCL does boast a large number of adjoining staterooms and family-centric suites.

All ships have multiple dining venues ranging from French bistros to steakhouses and sushi bars. Room service is available around the clock. Specialty dining generally comes with $10 to $25 cover charge and/or a la carte menus ranging from $8 to $25. All specialty dining rooms require reservations. Another don't miss is NCL's signature Chocoholic's Buffet, held once per cruise on each ship. It's a magnificent sight to behold.

As a result of the line's above-mentioned Freestyle 2.0 initiative, ships, by summer 2008, will have received a number of new enhancements. Among them? A Lobster Galore dining promotion that promises to serve lobster at least one night in every dining venue onboard every cruise, customized in-cabin mini bars, an expanded Kids Crew program, and the introduction of NCL "U" -- an enrichment option that specializes in digital photography, destination education, wine and spirits, and humor.

With the launch of NCL's new, as-yet-unnamed F3 duo, both of which will launch in 2010, NCL will unveil an entirely new ship design that, according to company president Colin Veitch, will be a "natural, logical progression of freestyle with more flexibility and more deconstruction of traditional cruise features."

Fellow Passengers

The crowd is diverse -- primarily American -- ranging in age from young families to old folks, and a good many with special needs. NCL has cultivated a broad appeal, which means its ships are oriented to both families and couples, and appropriate for gay and lesbian travelers too.

NCL is also carving out a major niche for itself in the U.K. -- and is offering some home port options there. As well, it targets passengers from other English speaking countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Itineraries

NCL is the leader in round-trip seven-day cruises from U.S. and Canadian ports with its homeland cruising program. Ships sail seasonally from Boston, Charleston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, Seattle, and Vancouver, and year-round from New York. NCL America homeports in Honolulu, currently offering seven-day cruises on Pride of America.

In addition to Hawaii, Alaska, and the Caribbean, NCL sails to Mexico and South America. Beginning in 2008, NCL has seriously ramped up its presence in Europe and will offer, in addition to year-round service via Norwegian Jade, a variety of itineraries in regions such as the Baltic, eastern and western Mediterranean, and the British Isles.

Norwegian Sky, the former Pride of Aloha, will begin three- and four-night Bahamas cruises out of Miami in July 2008.

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