After just four days aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, Norwegian Viva, we became converts. Sailing from the Italian port of Trieste to Civitavecchia, we stepped aboard expecting to find the ship's superlatives got in the way of the experience. It would be too big, we reasoned. Too crowded. Too new and un-traditional.
To be sure, Norwegian Viva can be definitely all of those things sometimes. The ship is, after all, 142,500 gross tons, and can carry 3,219 passengers at double occupancy. But the ship -- a direct sister to 2022's Norwegian Prima -- is also a fresh, modern take on the big-ship, mainstream cruise experience that offers considerable amount of surprise and delight -- even for this experienced cruiser. Things like the high-tech mini-golf setup, where the ball has a digital sensor that counts how many times you do -- or, don't -- hit it. Or the clever and immersive Escape Rooms that stumped and challenged our small media group for nearly an hour, rivaling those designed on land.
Even the staterooms brought in ample surprise, thanks to a cleverly-articulated shower door that moves out of the way as you open it, and balconies adorned with upscale chairs that were a pleasure to relax in during moments of rest.
When Norwegian Cruise Line introduced its "Freestyle" concept in the early 2000's, one of the first things it leaned heavily on was the concept of having multiple dining venues -- both paid and included in the fare -- as a way to disperse passengers and offer a better dining experience. The line has tweaked that concept substantially over the past few decades, with the latest iteration present aboard Norwegian Viva.
The first thing experienced cruisers are likely to notice about Norwegian Viva is that its traditional topside buffet -- the Surfside Cafe on Deck 17 aft -- is woefully under-sized for a ship with this many passengers. Sure, helpful crewmembers point out that seating in specialty restaurant Food Republic is available, but simply put there's just very little seating indoors or out.
This seems like a problem -- a big one -- until you realize that Surfside is just one of many casual dining venues onboard that are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Passengers can also head down to The Local Bar and Grill on Deck 8, where casual fare like Reuben sandwiches, hamburgers and hot dogs -- plus a host of other flavorful delights -- is available nearly 24 hours a day.
Ditto for the Indulge Food Hall all the way aft on Deck 8. It's tablet-driven ordering system is snappy and convenient, and the menu focuses on everything from barbecue grill specialties to Asian street food and Indian dishes. It offers plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and allows you to get a quick meal and a drink without needing to queue up in some buffet line.
Once you realize that Norwegian is actually -- gasp! -- doing away with the singular buffet concept, the better the experience gets. You just don't have to put yourself through what is usually a stressful, crowded experience -- but nor do you have to devote the kind of time needed for a typical sit-down in the Main Dining Room, either.
Let's talk about the main dining room for a second, too because Hudson's -- Norwegian Viva's main dining room experience all the way aft on Deck 7 -- is one of the prettiest at sea. Wrapping round the stern of the ship, floor-to-ceiling windows offer 180-degree panoramic views. Aside from some comically-sized menus (they're so large we joked they should be an SNL-skit prop), the food and service here wowed us -- particularly on a ship where you could argue that the extra-fee restaurants probably offer a higher end experience.
And to be sure, we enjoyed our time at Le Bistro, Food Republic and Onda by Scarpetta, too. Don't get us wrong: those are well worth the price of admission. But we didn't feel Norwegian was skimping on its free offerings at any point during our short preview cruise.
While standard cabins are comfortable and extremely well-designed (drawers! Ample closet space! Showers with glass doors!), it should come as no surprise that Norwegian Viva's coolest accommodations are found in two categories the line itself helped pioneer.
The Studio Staterooms -- designed for solo travellers -- are small and compact but endlessly cool. These rooms were first introduced by Norwegian Cruise Line aboard Norwegian Epic in 2010, and are situated in their own keycard-access-only corridors on Decks 12 and 13. They also include access to a private lounge that offers snacks and beverages, along with the chance to socialize with fellow solo travelers.
We had the chance to peek into an unoccupied Studio stateroom on Norwegian Viva and found it cozy and perfectly laid-out with modern décor and smart design -- including a great full-size bathroom.
At the other end of the spectrum, The Haven is Norwegian's luxury ship-within-a-ship concept. While we didn't have the opportunity to see any suites here, they are among the largest in the fleet, and provide access to an exclusive lounge; a massive, aft-facing sun deck; and their own private restaurant and bar.
Passengers sailing aboard Norwegian Viva can even access The Haven with their own private bank of elevators located aft of the midships stair and elevator towers that are accessible to all guests. It's one more little way Norwegian elevates (literally) the experience for its highest-paying passengers.
For a ship that comes replete with an elaborate mini-golf course, a massive go-kart track, and a number of waterslides spilling off its sides, an interesting takeaway from Norwegian Viva is that it may not be a great choice for families with younger kids.
Teenagers, surely, will relish every second aboard Norwegian Viva -- though their favorite diversions are likely to come with a cost. The Speedway, Galaxy Pavilion and Escape Rooms all scream teenage fun, along with organized activities like trivia, evening movies and sports outings.
Little ones, however, are a bit left out. The Kids Club areas on Deck 15 are some of the most uninspiring we've seen in a while; basically just a room with some toys, bean-bag chairs and movies and video games. It can't hold a candle to offerings onboard Carnival, Royal Caribbean or Disney Cruise Line.
Indeed, the atmosphere aboard Norwegian Viva is one of adult fun and casual sophistication.
That's not to say kids won't enjoy themselves on Norwegian Viva; our inaugural revenue sailing has been jam-packed with kids of all ages. But we'd be hard-pressed to recommend this ship to those with kids under 10 years of age; other lines simply do a better job of catering to those families.
Regardless of what cabin category you find yourself in aboard Norwegian Viva, you're going to need to loosen the purse strings to really enjoy your time aboard. It's not a bad thing -- but it is something cruisers need to be mindful of in terms of expectations once onboard.
Beyond the usual extra-cost items like drinks and specialty dining reservations -- both of which can be purchased as inclusive packages pre-cruise -- some of Norwegian Viva's coolest features are fee-based. Mini golf will run you $10 per person; darts $20. The Speedway go-kart track incurs extra fees, as do the high-tech games and escape rooms in The Galaxy Pavilion. Room service hits passengers with $4.95 for breakfast delivery, and $9.95 for all times outside that -- plus a 20 percent auto-gratuity. Starbucks Coffee on Deck 7 isn't included on any beverage package, and beverage packages don't include bottled water -- that comes as a separate, somewhat confusing -- package.
In short, as long as you're prepared to shell out a little more for the full onboard experience, Norwegian Viva will not disappoint.
On our sailing, Norwegian Viva tied up near Norwegian Breakaway -- a ship that, on its debut in ten years ago, seemed cutting-edge and revolutionary thanks to its uncommon layout and unusual (for the time) top-deck attractions.
In the intervening decade, cruisers have accepted Norwegian Breakaway's style of shipboard fun -- just as cruisers will come to accept some of the quirks of Norwegian Viva's layout and design as the years go on.
Indeed, after just four days onboard, we found we didn't miss the traditional cavernous upper-deck buffet. We much preferred the more quiet, easygoing Indulge Food Hall on Deck 8 with its funky indoor seating and scenic outdoor deck areas for our breakfasts and lunches, and found ourselves resistant to visiting the traditional buffet, doing so only a few times.
Norwegian Viva's promenade deck, too, is a winner -- further expanding a concept that was introduced aboard Norwegian Breakaway. Ten years ago, the idea of dining al fresco on the promenade deck was unthinkable on most ships; now, Norwegian Viva takes that concept to the next level, introducing infinity pools, casual water features, ice cream stations, and soothing areas for relaxation to the mix, along with a return to the wraparound promenade deck so prized by many traditional cruisers.
Norwegian Viva is not perfect, to be sure. Directional signage and flow could be improved upon, and the Casino on Deck 6 is bafflingly laid out. Syd Norman's Pour House could be three times enlarged and still be packed to the rafters. Experienced cruisers used to how ships have "always been" laid out may have trouble finding their way around -- initially.
But when you embrace what Norwegian Viva has to offer -- differences and all -- it becomes a cruise experience that offers plenty of welcomed innovations and creature comforts; a big, mainstream ship that starts feeling, well, smaller and more intimate than meets the eye.
Norwegian Viva offers a comfortable way to cruise to warm-weather destinations -- one that's definitely worth trying out.
All meals in the ship's complimentary dining venues
Basic self-serve beverages like coffee, tea and water, and some juices
Most entertainment onboard
Use of most pools and hot tubs
All dry slides and waterslides
Select in-room, on-demand movies
Most kids club services
Meals in specialty restaurants
Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, unless a package is purchased
Wi-Fi Internet Access
Select on-demand, in-room movies
Games in the Galaxy Pavilion
Activities like Darts, Mini Golf and the Escape Room
Exclusive sun deck areas like Vibe Beach Club
Hydrotherapy Pool / Thermal Suite
The Viva Speedway Racetrack
Evening Kids Club activities, unless noted
Aboard Norwegian Viva, fellow passengers tend to be past Norwegian Cruise Line guests or those drawn to it by the ship's port-intensive Caribbean and Mediterranean itineraries. While passengers are predominantly American in the Caribbean, Mediterranean sailings offer a compelling mix of European, Asian and North American passengers from all walks of life.
Passengers are also attracted by Norwegian's casual, cruise-as-you-are attitude. They like the relaxed dress code that eschews suit-and-tie for smart, casual attire in the evenings.