Though NCL has called on Freeport as recently as last year -- November 2006 with Norwegian Dawn to be exact -- Carnival and Royal Caribbean are the only lines currently visiting regularly. Nassau is a cornerstone for numerous short cruises, most hailing from South Florida ports, on lines ranging from Disney to Imperial Majesty.
Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island, has for years taken a backseat to the more trafficked Nassau on New Providence Island -- and by and large, the isles of the Bahamas have not been front and center on itineraries for cruising's more glamorous new ships. But NCL's announcement shows the tide beginning to turn.
The emergence of Northeast homeports, such as New York and Norfolk, is one instigator. Thanks to departures from New York, for example, cruisers can now visit the Bahamas on longer cruises (rather than the three- and four-night party trips that more typically sail there from South Florida) -- and on newer ships. On U.S. coastal routes, the Bahamas also offer easy fulfillment of the Jones Act, which requires a call on at least one foreign port per cruise for ships planning to cruise to and from American ports.
The growth of the cruise industry in the Bahamas also parallels the islands' own efforts at expansion and improvement. The development of the 34-acre Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island helped the Bahamas' Nassau maintain its position as one of the largest and most well-trafficked cruise ship ports. In Freeport, the development of the Lucaya area (not to be confused with the cruise port that's also called Lucaya) -- anchored by Sheraton and Westin resorts and featuring shops, restaurants, a casino and fabulous stretches of white sand beaches -- is providing a boost.
And indeed, part of NCL's reason for returning to Grand Bahama Island is development. Beyond the aforementioned, there's also a new cruise facility, and fresh onshore options like visiting dolphins at UNEXSO, exploring nature trails by Jeep and taking an air boat tour through the mangroves.
Norwegian Gem will sail seven-day Bahamas and Florida itineraries roundtrip from New York in December 2007, and February, March, April and December 2008, with stops in both Freeport and Nassau as well as Port Canaveral and NCL's private island, Great Stirrup Cay. In 2009, the ship will sail the same itinerary from January through April.
Aside from Norwegian Gem, two additional NCL ships will serve the Bahamas. Norwegian Jewel will make the first stop in Grand Bahama's Freeport during a three-day Bahamas Getaway cruise on November 15, 2007, sailing roundtrip from Miami (it also calls at Nassau). And Norwegian Jade (currently sailing in Hawaii as Pride of Hawaii) is scheduled to sail three seven-day Bahamas and Florida sailings roundtrip from New York on December 14, 21 and 28, 2008 with stops in Freeport, Nassau, Great Stirrup Cay and Port Canaveral.
In a sense, NCL's increased presence in the Bahamas brings to mind an historic footnote: The line was one of the first major cruise lines to call on the Bahamas in the first place, according to a statement from the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. And another? NCL was the industry pioneer in acquiring a uninhabited Bahamian island -- and opening Great Stirrup Cay, the first-ever private island.
--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor