No Surprise -- NCL's F3 Nightlife Most Innovative at Sea

June 18, 2008
Passengers will find evenings and daytimes posh, cool, spicy and, brrr, frigid, onboard F3, Norwegian Cruise Line's newest and most innovative ship ever. Last night in Las Vegas, executives from NCL revealed plans to revolutionize the concept of cruise ship nightlife much in the way, some years ago, the same team boldly transformed tired and traditional dining styles into the colorful and flexible Freestyle program, now an industry standard.

The strategy is so bold that the traditional cruise ship theater, the type of venue that hosts standard production shows found industry wide, will not exist on these F3 ships.

The line's two F3 ships -- as yet unnamed -- are due to debut in 2010; the 150,000-ton, 4,200 passenger vessels will be the largest ever for the NCL fleet. Colin Veitch, NCL's president, told us last night that the F3 series "will be fantastic ships that will change the face of cruising. They'll be like no other ship at sea."

The evening's event, poolside at Las Vegas' Caesars Palace, was just the second "reveal" NCL has had about these much-anticipated ships. In April, cruise line executives offered details about the cabin design and, indeed, with wavy walls and open bathroom areas, they're originals. So too is this lineup of nightclubs. The sophistication and elusive trendiness of these hot spots is more evocative of places like Spain's Ibiza, France's Riviera and Miami's South Beach than traditional cruise ship venues.

The offerings blend the use of the outdoors -- night and day -- with more contemporary twists, from ice-covered walls to meal service. Here are some of the details:

At the POSH Beach Club, a private area with pool, waterfall, Balinese-style beds for lounging and private cabanas, the mood changes throughout the day. During the early morning hours, it becomes POSH Vive, and yoga classes and body-and-soul treatments are held. In what NCL calls its POSH Rehab mode, the morning is dedicated to waking up gradually with drinks, such as Bloody Mary's, mimosas and Salty Dogs, and chill out tunes on hand to spur, er, revitalization. Afternoons resemble the private pool clubs that are making such a splash here in Las Vegas. The music's ratcheted up, spiked snow cones are served, and it's serious sunning time. And under the stars? Pure POSH becomes an exclusive nightclub; passengers can dance, order drinks via bottle service (i.e. by purchasing a bottle of a spirit rather than drink-by-drink -- quite the fashion in trendier venues around the world).

Something of an indoor incarnation of the POSH Beach Club is Halo, which NCL's Veitch described as "the uber bar -- heavenly and very exclusive." The lounge, which will serve as the VIP quarters for high-end passengers in Garden and Courtyard villas -- but which will also be open for a fee to all other comers -- will feature video montages, as well as private gaming tables with baccarat and blackjack.

Spice H20, while not as self-consciously exclusive as its Halo and POSH Beach Club brethren, is a combination of pool deck, dining venue and outdoor theater. In the mornings it's got a "sunny spice" feel, a place just to relax on sunbeds. Afternoons, in "Aqua Spice," in which the poolside derring do is turned up a notch, Asian-inspired food and drinks (Asian margaritas anyone?) will be served. For sunsets -- the back of any ship is great for sunsets -- the space will feature live entertainment with dancers and Spanish guitar music setting the tone. Later, in its evening incarnation known as "All Spice," the pool floor will rise and passengers will party atop the covered pool in the company of acrobatic dancers and aerial performers.

And finally, taking a cue from one of Scandinavia's more kitschy on-land bar concepts, NCL's F3 vessels will each have their own "Ice Bar." The first ever at sea (Celebrity is among the lines that have tried an Ice Bar-like decor, but this is the real thing), it's actually a frozen vault with a temperature hovering at 17 degrees Fahrenheit and will be located amidst the ships' Bar Central complexes. If you've sampled Ice Bars ashore, you'll get the gig: passengers don fur coats and big mittens to enter, then sip frozen vodka inside. Ice bars are more of a curiosity than anything else; this isn't a place to hang out for an evening (a typical stay is not much longer than a half hour).

Beyond what's obviously unique, and as with Freestyle dining these concepts are more land-based in tradition than at sea, there are a few points to make:

These plans show an interesting and frankly rather unusual commitment to using space onboard for multiple functions rather than dedicating theaters and venues that are active for just a couple of hours a day. As well, the emphasis on enticing passengers to remain outdoors night and day is one that surprisingly hasn't ever been fully pressed by cruise lines (with perhaps the exception of Princess Cruises' "Movies Under the Stars") on a regular basis.

In an era in which the cruise industry perhaps has bent over backwards a bit too far to accommodate families and ignored the adult-only contingent (this includes parents who travel with children and who want a fun night out, as well as singles and couples) in the process, these new nightlife options markedly exclude kiddies. NCL executives did say last night that plans for its children's programs would be equally unique and would be revealed at a later date.

So far, no line has successfully managed to charge extra for entertainment onboard, whether it's admission into nightclubs or paying for shows (NCL tried some years ago and backed off after passengers rebuffed the effort). Minimized in the presentation last night was the line's also-innovative plan to charge for admission to all venues (with the exception of Spice H20, with is open to all adult comers without a fee and which genuinely seems to be the larger, more entertainment-laden evening venue). Specifics were not disclosed. But before all and sundry hop on the hysterical "cruising's all about nickel and diming" bandwagon, the entrance fees are just as much about crowd control as profit motive. In most cases these spaces are not big enough to accommodate all. Princess Cruises, for one, found that its adult-only Sanctuary lounging area was overwhelmed with demand until it began charging fees.

Oddly, beyond these innovative new concepts, NCL was not prepared to discuss other offerings for evening entertainment beyond the fact that the Bliss Ultra Lounge, a popular creation with bowling alley that's found on Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Gem, will return and that the Bar Central pub concept, which is found on most of NCL's newer designs, will also be a communal hub. An NCL spokeswoman declined to reveal other plans.

After last night's announcements, as high performing travel agents and a handful of cruise trade and online journalists mingled, some praised the daring new concepts and others wondered how they'd work -- and if NCL has gone a little too far with some of these radical-for-sea venues for a markedly younger demographic.

Remembering back to the fuss and bother over the initial introduction of NCL's Freestyle Dining concept, when most raised eyebrows and said it would never work (now you find variations of the concept on almost every big ship line), it's perhaps understandable that passengers onboard the first series of F3 cruises may feel a bit like laboratory rats. No question, the cruise line will likely need to tweak some of its offerings, simplifying some and changing others.

We'll look forward to the experience as it unfolds and will, as always, keep you posted. But for now, we want to know: Which of NCL's innovative offerings most appeals? Vote in our poll!

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief