Contrasting cruises big and small:Intimate SeaDream, energetic Norwegian Getaway

04/19/2014 12:00 AM

09/17/2014 3:56 PM

Two recent Caribbean voyages could not have been more different.

One week, cruising aboard a 112-passenger SeaDream yacht was like being a private guest at an intimate, fashionable house party. Energetic, highly trained crew were at beck and call as we floated from small ports to anchorages off such islands as St. Barts and Isle des Saintes. One afternoon, a bartender, spurned in his attempts to pour me a drink to accompany my reading, offered instead to remove a smudge from my glasses. From his pocket he pulled a small bottle, spritzing and wiping with glee.

During a second week at sea, Norwegian Getaway, which carries some 4,000 passengers on cruises out of Miami, was abuzz from mornings until deep into the evenings, as vacationers streamed in and out of restaurants, lounges and entertainment venues. The ship has an indoors/outdoors South Florida frenetic feel. In a week, I did not finish tastings from all the restaurant menus aboard, and I (conveniently) forgot to walk the ropes course that includes a plank that juts eight feet off the side of the ship, 180 feet above the water.

Would you be happy with cruises on two such different ships? I certainly was. Each provided the kind of vacation it advertised, and each exceeded my expectations.

SeaDream, known for its outstanding food preparations and nearly one-to-one ratio of passengers and crew, exudes a calm and quiet that would not appeal to everyone. Group entertainment is minimal. The small blackjack table at night draws only a handful of passengers, sometimes less, near the small sing-along piano bar.

During the day, at anchor, you may lounge by the pool or choose from among the ship’s sea toys — wave runners, kayaks, sailboats and the like, housed in a retractable marina at the aft end. A crew member often leads somewhat strenuous mountain bike tours on land, sometimes before breakfast.

Most activity aboard is personal or relational. In decades of cruising, I’ve never met — nor shared meals with — as many passengers as I did on SeaDream. You always could find a dining spot for two, but many of the outdoor tables at breakfast and lunch seat four, leading to conversations and making new friends. Dinner parties are a highlight, easily formed at various tables, inside and out, in the nooks and crannies of the ship. Dress is casual, but mostly from designer shops.

Norwegian Getaway, on the other hand, is everything that a big, boisterous ship should be, full of dining choices — steaks, noodles, churrascaria, sushi, teppanyaki, fish and raw bar, Italian, French, Latin, Irish — and ways to be entertained, from water slides to live music, Broadway shows, and the outstanding magicians in the Illusionarium, a Getaway innovation.

Norwegian Getaway is a people-watching ship. You grab a coffee or mojito to observe passengers parading by, especially on the outdoor promenade, where restaurants and bars offer plenty of tables on both sides of the ship, and inside at Wasabi, the sushi bar on Deck 8, at the top of the spiral stairs. My partner Fran Golden and I spent a good part of an evening slowly eating sushi (a la carte, $2.25 to $4.25), watching the crowd at Ocean Blue and the adjacent raw bar, as well as the throngs that moved back and forth in the happy flow of the night.

There is a big price difference between SeaDream and Norwegian. SeaDream lists rates on European cruises that can exceed $1,000 a day per person, though on travel agent websites I found one-week cruises in the Caribbean next fall and winter at $3,000 to $3,500 per person, which is about $500 a day on SeaDream I or SeaDream II. All cabins are outside.

On Norwegian, you can find rates for an inside cabin at less than $600 per person for the week.

Keep in mind that SeaDream is nearly all-inclusive in price, while activities and eating on Getaway often are a la carte.

SeaDream pours the cocktails and wines, serves all the meals and includes the cost of gratuities for the crew, as well as other accoutrements, from the mountain bikes and wave runners to the champagne and caviar on a quiet beach day. The only charges at journey’s end would be gift shop items, spa treatments, shore excursions, and use of the Internet, which at $99 a cabin for unlimited minutes for the week was a bargain price, hardly a revenue source for the cruise line.

Norwegian Getaway was designed to offer passengers a plethora of choices. Many are included in the basic rate. You could cruise for a week without expenses beyond gratuities for crew and your bar bill.

Some Getaway passengers told me that they had no intention of spending extra money on alternative restaurants, but my guess is that a large portion of Getaway vacationers come aboard expecting to part with some serious folding money in pursuit of dining — Ocean Blue charges $49 per person for dinner, $9.99 for a lobster roll at lunch — and entertainment such as the Illusionarium dinner theater ($29.99 for floor seats, $24.99 for banquettes).

My partner and I bought a three-night dinner package, discounted online before the cruise at $119. We reserved dinners at Le Bistro ($20 per person, loved the escargot, swimming in garlic butter), La Cucina ($15 per person for fine Italian fare), and Cagney’s ($30 per person yielded a nice rib eye steak, but waiters were over-extended in the crowded restaurant). At La Cucina, we ate outside, a treat to dine under the stars in February in the warm Caribbean.

Norwegian is working to upgrade its food presentations throughout the ship. One of my best meals on Getaway was at the Tropicana restaurant, themed as a 1940s supper club. It was a delightful place for dinner. I ordered a pork chop (loin, center cut) with tasty greens, while a fine combo played Latin music, including a mean mambo that drew dancers to the center floor. There’s no extra charge to eat at Tropicana.

The flavor was Latin, the atmosphere a true getaway.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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