Cruise Critic is onboard Norwegian Bliss' inaugural sailing, repositioning from Southampton to New York City, from which it will begin its round-the-U.S. journey to Seattle. We're checking out what the 4,000-passenger ship has to offer, from dining to entertainment and cabins to the pool deck -- and everything in between.
Norwegian Bliss will be the first new ship to homeport from the West Coast when it starts sailing Alaska cruises out of Seattle later this month. Among its marquis attractions are a two-level Go-Kart race track, space-themed laser tag arena, 20,000-square-foot Observation Lounge that takes up the entire forward section of the ship on Deck 15 and a new Texas barbeque joint with live country music.
Read on for our list of hits and misses.
A common complaint on the Breakaway-class ships (Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway), as on many newer cruise ships these days, is how crowded they feel. As most cruise lines design their newest ships with more cabins and more revenue-producing venues (be it bars, restaurants, to-do eateries, etc.), Norwegian Cruise Line is taking a different tack. Slightly larger than Norwegian Escape (by about 13 feet), the ship nevertheless has 80 fewer cabins. The extra space has been given over to expanding several of the lounges onboard, most notably the Observation Lounge.
The result is that the ship feels airy. Sure, there are tiny spaces onboard (the inside cabins, the Bake Shop) but mostly Bliss just feels roomy; an afternoon spent exploring the public venues turned up half a dozen spots with lots of comfy sofas and armchairs. One exception is The Cavern Club which does have a cave-like feel to it with low ceilings and not nearly enough space on days The Beatles tribute band is playing. The venue does have outdoor seating on The Waterfront, but we're not sure why you'd want to be outside when all the action is indoors.
It's rare for a cruise line to dedicate such a large amount of real estate to a non-revenue producing amenity, but Norwegian Cruise Line not only put up the space but hit it out of the ballpark with the 20,000-square-foot Observation Lounge on Norwegian Bliss. Offering 180-degree views, it is the perfect place to read a book, play a quiet game of cards, and even take a nap. In fact, it's a dedicated "quiet zone," which is noted on the Freestyle Daily every day. (Don't expect super quiet, there's always the buzz of people taking or playing board games.)
Everything about the space says sophistication, from the floor-to-ceiling, perfectly squared windows, to the cream and blue marbled carpet, tan leather or black velvety armchairs and upholstered lounge chairs, and dark gray or opalescent sectional couches. (As with outdoor loungers, get there early to grab the best seats; we expect to see chair hogging become a problem here.)
In the morning, you can get a quiet breakfast of pastries, fruit, cereal, yogurts and oatmeal at numerous food stations. At lunch there's a wonderful DIY salad bar, along with small sandwiches (ham salad, salami and caprese), mini-empanadas, deli slice, pre-made salads, and a soup of the day.
Throughout the day, there's always complimentary coffee, tea, juices or lemonade/ice-tea and water, and there's a large circular bar at the front of the space for anything else.
While we have issues with the storage space in the main cabin area (see Misses below), the bathrooms in even the basic cabins are spacious and smartly designed. We particularly like the amount of shelf space for all our toiletries, make-up and other sundries. There's more than enough for two women traveling together! We also love the glass-walled showers (no clingy curtains!!) and the fact that there is an air vent right above the shower stall so it's never -- and we do mean never -- foggy or muggy in the bathroom when you step out of the shower.
It's unfortunate that the weather hasn't been nice enough this cruise to really make use of the pool deck, because it is so inviting. With two small-to-medium-sized pools, the kid's splash zone -- close enough to watch and smile but not too close so as to get wet -- and plenty of unfilled space so that it never feels crowded, it's a comfortable place to sun yourself and relax. Its one weakness is a dearth of loungers. There are about 50 in the sun and another 50 in the shade with the bulk of them one deck up, so only a handful of the 4,000-plus people on board will ever have a shot at lounging poolside.
Call us impressed, but we haven't had a meal we didn't like onboard Norwegian Bliss yet. In three days, we've eaten in the buffet, two different main dining rooms (the menu is the same at all three MDRs), at The Local Bar & Grill (Bliss' version of O'Sheehans for those that have been on other Norwegian Cruise Line ships), and Los Lobos. We understand that this is an inaugural cruise and the crew are aiming to impress, but great service can't save a bad recipe and so far we haven't encountered a single bad meal -- nor have we heard one complaint in any of the venues we've dined in yet. As with all Norwegian Cruise ships, we're impressed by the variety of cuisine onboard, though we're sad they've done away with the free Asian venue you'll find on other NCL ships. For a line that's already notorious for nickel and diming, the eliminating of a free restaurant is noticeable.
Glassed Off Smoking Casino
Anyone who's ever been to a casino (on land or ship) where smoking is permitted knows the smell permeates every corner, no matter whether there is a non-smoking section or not. This has been a particularly bad problem on the more cramped Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway, where the smell of cigarette smoke doesn't just linger in the casino but travels up and down to all levels of 678 Ocean Place.
On Norwegian Bliss, the cruise line flipped the script, making a smaller smoking section and walling it off behind glass walls. The rest of the casino (and surrounding areas) is now blissfully (pun intended) devoid of stale smoke scents; the only time we've gotten a whiff of the stuff was when we happened to pass when someone was going in or coming out.
Hit and Miss
Go-Karts and Laser Tag
Norwegian Bliss' marquis attractions are the two-level Go-Kart track and space-themed Laser Tag arena. Both are fantastically fun (our traveling party was evenly divided on which we preferred best) and worth the money the cruise line is charging for them. (It's $5 for two five-minute sessions of laser tag, and $7 for eight times around the Go-Kart track.) But we object to the charge nevertheless. As major attractions, they should be included in the cost of the cruise -- even if just for the first time on each. We understand it's partly a capacity control method, but if that's the case it should only kick in on cruises that are at 100 percent capacity or higher.
Standard Cabin Storage
While the physical size of standard cabins isn't any larger than on other ships, the design makes the rooms feel more spacious and less cluttered. But that seems to have come with a loss of actual storage space. In our standard balcony cabin, we have a two-section closet, one side with shelf space, the other for hanging items. There's also a shelf above where extra pillows are stored (Inside cabins have only one section, just for hanging, with the single shelf at the top). Our balcony room has two large and deep drawers underneath the platform sofa, but one already contains extra bedding (we're assuming for if someone wants to turn the couch into a bed) with limited room to put some stuff. There's a desk-like space opposite the couch, but no drawer beneath it to throw papers into, and a narrow ledge along the mirror. The only remaining space are two cabinets beneath the desk area, next to the mini-fridge with medium-sized shelves (Inside cabins do not have these cabinets.) Finding places to put everything could prove to be a challenge for two people, each with a full-sized suitcase. With a third person, we think it would be nearly impossible.
No More Supper Club Vibe
One of the main attractions of dining at the larger Manhattan Room main dining venue on any Breakaway- or Breakaway Plus-class ship, has always been the dance floor at the front of the restaurant. Here you might be treated to a short performance from the Burn the Floor dance crew, or be able to come back a little later in the night for live music and dancing. That is gone on Norwegian Bliss. Where there used to be a dance floor, there are now just more tables and there's nothing much separating Manhattan from Savor and Taste than slightly nicer décor.
--by Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor