Tandem racing and free-fall waterslides or floating in a glass tube that feels like sky diving? Craft beers and tasty bites in a warehouse-style sing-along keg room or a clubby pub bar? Oodles of outdoor dining choices or drinks mixed and served by robots?
In the heavyweight bout for the world’s best new big cruise ship of 2015, the winner will be in the eye of the beholder, because each of two competitive cruise lines has taken a different tack to show who owns the hippest ship — Miami’s 4,248-passenger Norwegian Escape or New York’s 4,180-passenger Anthem of the Seas.
No other competitor in the category of contemporary, mass-marketed cruise ships belongs in the ring with these two behemoths, though Carnival’s Vista and Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas are bulking up in European shipyards, months away from entering the fray among 2016’s new ships.
Norwegian invented the concept of anytime dining and The Haven boutique hotel, which works as a small high-end ship within a big ship. Royal Caribbean, which brought rock climbing and the FlowRider to sea, keeps churning out whiz-bang excitement. David Molyneaux
What you see on Norwegian Escape and Anthem of the Seas is proof that Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are the top innovators for shipboard eating, drinking, shopping, playing, and entertainment. Norwegian invented the concept of anytime dining and The Haven boutique hotel, which works as a small high-end ship within a big ship. Royal Caribbean, which brought rock climbing and the FlowRider to sea, keeps churning out whiz-bang excitement.
FOOD AND DRINK
Both ships eschew big main dining rooms, offering instead more than a dozen choices of sit-down places to eat, though Royal Caribbean had to back off on its plan for all passengers to make a different choice at dinner each night. Fully 25 percent of Anthem passengers say, “Give us an assigned table, time and waiter.” So, if Anthem seems a bit less millennial-style than was contemplated when Anthem and its sister, Quantum of the Seas, were billed as the first truly smart ships, don’t blame the ship, which may be more hip than some of its passengers.
You won’t go hungry on Anthem or Escape, even if you eat only in restaurants where the food is included in the basic cruise rate. But if you don’t spend some extra money, you will miss out on half the reasons for cruising on these two ships. For instance:
Like eating outdoors? On Escape, designed to cruise where the weather is warm, passengers may drink and dine at outdoor tables overlooking the water at for-a-fee restaurants including Cagney’s Steakhouse, Moderno Churrascaria and the Italian La Cucina. Also outdoors, under a roof, is the first Jimmy Buffett-themed Margaritaville at Sea, which was so popular on early cruises that the free restaurant now charges, a la carte. The signature Cheeseburger in Paradise is $6.99, as is a chicken quesadilla.
Norwegian Escape is more of an outdoorsy ship, with waterfront bars and restaurants, a huge ropes course, and four major water slides.
Like small plates and sharing tastes with others at your table? New to Norwegian are Escape’s casual Pincho Tapas Bar, one of two eateries in partnership with Iron Chef Jose Garces (his other is a Latin-inspired seafood restaurant, Bayamo), and Food Republic, an emporium of international cuisine created with hip Miami restauranteurs, the Pubbelly Boys. Here, you can watch the chefs whip up such dishes as Maja tacos, Yaki soba noodles, and whipped Burrata dumplings.
Anthem, designed to cruise out of New York year round, is more of an indoors ship (with lots of windows), at least at meal time. One fee-based standout is Wonderland Imaginative Cuisine, with menu items such as Tempura Caviar, Liquid Lobster, Buffalo Chicken Eggs, and vanishing noodles. It is, Anthem promises, an experience like Alice venturing down the rabbit hole. For lunch, try the bistro fare of Cafe @ Two70 (no extra fee).
Craft beer bars are top hangouts on both ships. Michael’s Genuine, on Anthem, is a comfy gastrobpub that was created by Miami’s James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz. Try Michael’s Genuine Home Brew and some polenta fries. Escape’s District Brew House was designed in partnership with Miami’s Wynwood Brewing Co. The menu lists 24 beers on tap, hand-crafted cocktails and snacks from Food Republic. Live music stirs up nightly sing-alongs.
Only Anthem (and sister Quantum, now in China) serve drinks from two robot bartenders, B1-O or N1-C, who staff the Bionic Bar. Order your drink on a tablet and watch the techy production; the drink is delivered in a plastic cup via a conveyor belt.
Anthem’s Boleros, as on other Royal Caribbean ships, is mood-lit for dancing and drinking with a Latin flair. Music Hall is Anthem’s two-deck live music venue with a big floor for dancing to live bands doing tributes to Bon Jovi, Journey, et al.
Anthem of the Seas, designed to cruise out of New York year round, is more of an indoors ship — with lots of windows — at least at meal time.
Anthem’s huge aft room called Two70 can be transformed from floor-to-ceiling sea views into digital shows, using 18 projectors on surfaces 100 feet wide and 20 feet tall. The avant-garde Spectra’s Cabaret is a spectacle of singers, dancers, and aerialists who interact with the digital screens and robotics. The main theater production, We Will Rock You, is an award-winning show from London, featuring songs of the legendary rock group Queen include tunes such as Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Bohemian Rhapsody.
On Escape, passengers can see two high-production musicals that have played on Broadway. Alternating in the 900-seat theater are After Midnight, with music from the golden age of Harlem’s Cotton Club, and Million Dollar Quartet, depicting a one-time Memphis jam session including young rock and roll stars Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. A third high-energy show plays in Escape’s Supper Club. For The Record: The Brat Pack relives the John Hughes films of the 1980s.
Escape is more of an outdoorsy ship, with a huge ropes course, two platforms called the Plank that extend eight feet over the vessel’s edge, and family-friendly Aqua Park, where four major water slides rival anything at sea or on land.
Anthem’s top decks have two FlowRiders for surfing (with viewing stands), as well as an exhilarating simulated sky diving program — RipCord by IFLY — and the North Star, which is a gentle ride in a big, glass capsule that holds 12 and is lifted 300 feet above sea level.
Much of what set apart Anthem’s activities are indoors at SeaPlex, an amazing space designed with a rink that can be used to smash into fellow passengers on bumper cars, play basketball and volleyball, or roller-skate to tunes played by a DJ in a floating booth. The rink also has a tall ladder to reach a flying trapeze during circus lessons for passengers.
How to choose between these ships? My advice: Save up your pennies and do them both. My guess is that if you like one, you also will enjoy the other. A week seems hardly enough to try everything on either ship. And both handle crowds well (Extra credit to Royal Caribbean for its electronic system that gets passengers onboard Anthem faster than I ever have seen on any other ship).
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.