From the moment some cruise-selling travel agents boarded the new 4,004-passenger, 20-deck Norwegian Bliss this past spring, they felt almost instantly that Norwegian Cruise Line had broadened its audience with this new product, purpose-built for Alaska cruising.
Yes, some brand spaces were familiar, some eateries the “tried and true” favorites on other Norwegian ships. That said, this 168,028-grt ship seemed to have a more spacious feel and it had several stand-out new features – from the wrap-around Observation Lounge to the two-level race track and the Broadway show Jersey Boys.
The Haven, Norwegian’s largest ship-within-a-ship exclusive enclave at sea, is stunning, say agents who’ve sailed. They also noted that service on this ship seemed elevated, the 2,100 crew members attentive.
“This ship is as much a game changer for Norwegian as the Oasis of the Seas was for Royal Caribbean or previously the Solstice for Celebrity,” believes Amber Blecker, manager of sales and product strategies at Smart Cruiser, a travel agency in Delray Beach, FL.
From another agent's perspective? "I think Norwegian Bliss is elevating the onboard experience and changing the way people look at mass market cruising," says Janet Fidalgo, owner, Janet Fidalgo Agency LLC, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network in Ware, MA.
Bonnie Lee, a Travel Leaders agency owner, Albertville, MN, believes "the Bliss definitely elevates NCL. It's the perfect cruise for any level of cruise client because of the integration of peace and tranquility, right in the middle of the action, where the two worlds only meet if the guest desires it."
Many travel industry officials, agents and media who previewed the ship in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle, where it was christened, have similar views.
Matthew Eichhorst, president of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, was among top-level industry experts who joined Andy Stuart, Norwegian’s president and CEO, onboard Norwegian Bliss for a “Presidents Panel” discussion this past spring. After seeing the vessel, Eichhorst put it this way: “There are 27 new ocean, river and specialty ships scheduled to debut this year, but the Norwegian Bliss is something truly spectacular.”
Here’s a look at the top "game changing" features cited by agents we interviewed.
Space, Glorious Space
“Norwegian Bliss was an amazing experience from the moment we walked onboard,“ says Michael Consoli, a million-dollar-plus-a-month producer for Cruise Planners, Roswell, GA. “The ship is bright and has beautiful wide-open spaces that never make it seem crowded.”
Fidalgo also liked the ship’s innovative design and ambiance, noting "the interior is modern with eye pleasing colors and calm lighting."
In addition, Blecker noticed that “there were no longer traffic choke points in the revenue areas such as the retail arcade or casino.”
Prolific choices and the ability to spread people out are pluses when the ship has a capacity of thousands of guests. During this reporter’s May cruise, a friend and I experienced that first hand.
One evening, we wandered out to enjoy a pre-dinner glass of wine. Several lounges were filled to capacity, but on this ship, we knew another venue would be just steps away. And it was. We found an intimate bar and settled into comfortable chairs.
A Room With a View
In a new concept for Norwegian Bliss, the line created a forward Observation Lounge unlike others we’ve seen on many other ships. Massive at 20,000 square feet, it provides the same view as what the captain has on the bridge.
Fidalgo said the ship has a "variety of venues, including the Observation Lounge, with expansive ocean views that are perfect for Alaska cruises." With an upscale, comfortable feel, this lounge on Deck 15 doesn't just face forward, though. It also wraps around both sides of the vessel.
Dozens of individual seating areas create lots of smaller, more intimate spaces within the lounge. We liked that the lounge could thus accommodate 487 guests, yet it never seemed crowded.
On our cruise, we noticed a couple cozied up in a double lounger, adult friends snacking on salad at another seating area, and many small groups of four to five guests just conversing, having a cocktail and admiring the exterior views.
A large circular bar and an adjacent "bites" area are forward. Complimentary bites might include pastries, soup, salad, snacks and light fare. At the same time, each of the two side rectangular “wings” had a bit smaller station for the bites. Again, that helps spread out the people seeking something morning, noon or night.
“Hands-down this was my favorite spot – taking the concept of a forward-facing lounge to new heights,” emphasized Consoli. He loved the “floor-to-ceiling windows all the way around, which allow sweeping views." He says that's particularly important given that the ship is now sailing in Alaska, where clients can gaze outside to see glaciers and whales.
Tidbit? Those floor-to-ceiling windows span 3,500 square feet. In addition, interactive screens help identify different outside views -- whether in Alaska or the Caribbean.
Boys, Jersey Boys
We’ve all “been there, done that” when a cruise line tries to put on a show that they think is going to be fabulous and it’s good, but just not quite Broadway quality. Yes, cruise ship entertainment has improved sizably, but everyone in the audience for Jersey Boys during our one night’s visit to the show was on their feet cheering at the end.
Portraying Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, the quartet of main actors/singers playing the major roles rocked our socks off, so to speak. The audience loved their renditions of "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," and "Oh, What a Night."
On Broadway, this show -- following the blue-collar kids working their way from the streets of Newark to the heights of stardom -- won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical. (The photo below is courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.)
During our media preview sailing from Miami, a friend who accompanied me noted she'd recently seen Jersey Boys at a South Florida performing arts center. She pronounced that the Norwegian version of the show topped what she'd seen ashore in the quality of the singers and the professionalism of the staging and presentation.
Simply put, don't miss this show. If you sail, be sure to go.
What's also nifty, though, is that Norwegian Bliss also has other new entertainment options, including “Havana,” which some agents liked just as well. Havana has a Latin flair that's a celebration of the Cuban city in its 1950's heyday.
Also, "Happy Hour Prohibition The Musical" is another option -- where cruisers are "taken back in time to January 16, 1919," the dawn of the Prohibition era. If clients would enjoy such throw-back hits from that era as "Let's Misbehave," "Happy Feet" and "Makin' Whoopee," then it's a good entertainment option.
Another new space of interest is the Cavern Club, where it's fun to see a cover band playing the Beatles hits. It also has both indoor and outdoor bars.
"Who doesn’t love the Beatles," asks Fidalgo. "The live cover band at the Cavern Club will make everyone want to sing and dance."
In fact, this ship's Race Track is more than 1,000 feet; that's 30 percent longer than the one on Norwegian Joy. Both single rider and double rider karts are available, plus 10 riders can race at the same time.
Among the go carts available for guests to ride? Alex Vega, Miami-based celebrity car guru from Discovery Channel’s reality television show, “The Auto Firm with Alex Vega”, delivered two fully customized electric go-karts on May 8, prior to the ship’s Panama Canal transit en route to Alaska. One is metallic royal blue and the other cherry red. Both are outfitted with leather seats.
Fidalgo liked both the Go Karts and the addition of Laser Tag on Norwegian Bliss; these are new kinds of activity choices at sea that should help attract Millennials and others eager for active adventures.
Largest Haven at Sea
Consoli’s take? "The Haven's ship within a ship concept will appeal to my luxury clients who like the exclusivity of a private retreat with their own dining room, pool, sun deck, and lounge…and the services of a concierge and personal butler."
Lee calls The Haven on Norwegian Bliss "the best of both worlds." She cites its quiet aura, exclusivity, luxury and cuisine: "It is a place away from it all to relax and enjoy comfort and quiet."
"But, beyond the Haven, just steps away is the waterslide that slips you over the edge of the ship, laser tag, race car/track driving, entertainment and excitement at every turn," Lee adds, noting that's "perfect for the family that wants everyone to be happy."
Twenty-four Courtyard Penthouses, for example, are inside The Haven enclave; it spans three decks (17, 18 and 19). Each 620-square-foot Courtyard Penthouse accommodates up to three guests and has a king-size bed, dining and sitting areas and a private balcony.
The Haven's Courtyard Penthouse Suite is shown in the photo above, courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.
In total, the ship has 2,043 guest staterooms and suites, some inside and others outside The Haven. Agents have a plethora of booking options: everything from Spa Suites, connecting suites, Penthouses, mini-suites and Courtyard Penthouses to Studios (for solo travelers).
Norwegian Bliss also has 1,088 balcony cabins and 374 inside cabins. All accommodations have USB plugs, so guests can stay connected wherever they stay.
Currently, Norwegian Bliss is operating seven-day voyages to Alaska from Seattle with port calls in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, B.C. That will be followed by select voyages to the Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles.
Then the ship will reposition to Miami for a fall/winter season of eastern Caribbean voyages. In 2019, Norwegian Bliss will head for New York City, where it will sail seven-day voyages to the Bahamas and Florida, as well as the southern and western Caribbean.
In the past, some agents say they wouldn't necessarily have recommended Norwegian for a higher end luxury or premium guest or those seeking a more intimate aura onboard unless the client had what Blecker defines as "a Haven budget."
But with the ship's greater range of accommodations, and its design -- to spread people out effectively, plus the features mentioned above, some are saying things have changed.
"I would now happily recommend Norwegian Bliss," emphasizes Blecker. "I am shocked, but pleased, to be able to say that, and look forward to the opportunities she presents to our agents and company."