You could call Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship an aspirational ship.
Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of parent company Norwegian Cruise Holdings, says the Norwegian Escape is at the top of its class — mainstream ships, a category it shares with Carnival and Royal Caribbean.
And Andy Stuart, president of Norwegian Cruise Line, told reporters during the ship’s inaugural cruise out of PortMiami this month “the ship has a very premium feel, the venues are very upscale” — a category that would put it in competition with premium lines Princess, Celebrity and Holland America.
“Mainstream,” “premium,” and “luxury” are inexact travel industry terms — no one certifies a ship or a cruise line as meeting the standards of a particular category. But there’s no doubt Norwegian is aspiring to a better rep for this ship, the 14th and newest in its fleet.
The ship, built by the Meyer Werft shipyard in Germany, is a new class called Breakaway-Plus — similar to the Norwegian Breakaway (and the Norwegian Getaway, which also sails out of PortMiami), but about 10 percent bigger with an additional deck. The 4,248-passenger, 19-deck ship is 1.069 feet long and 136 feet wide and has a volume of 164,600 gross tons, making it the largest ship in Norwegian’s fleet. Its home port is Miami, from where it is now sailing seven-day Caribbean cruises year-round.
164,600 Escape’s gross tonnage, a measure of volume, making it Norwegian’s largest ship
Like other new cruise ships in the mainstream category, its top bristles with recreational amenities — in this case a ropes course, zip lines and water slides that thrill. Like other Norwegian ships, Escape embraces freestyle dining — 25 to 28 options (depending on how you count them), none with pre-assigned tables or set dining times.
And like the last few Norwegian ships, its theme echoes its home port. Escape is populated and/or influenced by South Florida dining and drinking spaces including a Tobacco Road bar, a mojito bar, the first Margaritaville at sea, Pubbelly and Wynwood Brewing Co.
The ship was ordered under former president and CEO Kevin Sheehan. Del Rio replaced Sheehan in January, when construction was already too far along for Del Rio — who doesn’t lack for opinions about a ship’s decor — to make any structural changes. “We changed some fabrics, some color, some artwork,” Del Rio said. “I can’t help myself.”
But he has more changes in mind, including walling off part of the casino so half can be smoke-free, while smoking will be allowed in the other half. “Within two days of taking delivery, we had the architects on board” examining how the work could be done, he said. The changes will take at least six months.
Del Rio is former president and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, which includes Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Norwegian acquired Prestige in late 2014. With all three lines under one corporate roof, Del Rio has ordered up some synergy. Norwegian, for example, will adopt some of the cuisine of Oceania, which promotes itself as a foodie line. And Oceania’s entertainment offerings, he said, will be influenced by Norwegian’s diverse lineup.
Here are some highlights of the new ship, based on a two-day preview cruise for travel agents, media, VIPs and frequent cruisers.
The ship has 2,175 staterooms, ranging from the 99-square-foot Studios (82) for solo travelers to the Deluxe Owner’s Suites (4) at 1,345 square feet. Slightly more than half of the staterooms are standard balcony cabins of 207-239 square feet.
Some of the extra space from the additional deck went to enlarge The Haven, an upscale enclave on Decks 17 and 18. It has more suites (95) than the Breakaway ships and a towering atrium with retractable roof over the pool. Like The Haven on other Norwegian ships, the area has a restaurant, cocktail bar, pool and deck area, as well as concierge service exclusively for its guests.
Escape also has more studio staterooms than the Breakaway ships. The studios, which Norwegian pioneered in 2010 on the Norwegian Epic, are small inside cabins for solo travelers and have exclusive access to the Studio Lounge. There is no singles supplement.
Escape continues the line’s freestyle dining with eight complimentary dining venues (including room service), 15 “alternative” venues that cost extra (including room-service pizza for $5), and three complimentary venues limited to guests in The Haven or The Studios. Margaritaville is one of the free venues, but Del Rio said Norwegian might start charging if it gets too crowded.
Most of Escape’s restaurants are on other ships as well, but some are exclusively on Escape, most of them with South Florida tie-ins. They include Margaritaville and the 5 O’clock Somewhere Bar in a partnership with Jimmy Buffett; Food Republic, serving small plates by Pubbelly Restaurant Group of Miami Beach; the District Brew House, a craft beer hall in partnership with Wynwood Brewing Co.; and Tobacco Road, Miami’s oldest bar (the ship has the neon sign, photos and memorabilia from the original). The ship also has two venues by Jose Garces, whose Philadelphia-based company has more than a dozen restaurants across the country serving Latin-influenced fare. On Escape, they are Bayamo, a fine-dining restaurant with a Cuban influence, and Pincho Tapas Bar.
The culinary guys at Oceania will teach the people at Norwegian a thing or two
Frank Del Rio, president, Norwegian Cruise Holdings
The “heart of the ship,” Stuart said, is 678 Ocean Place — the public spaces on Decks 6, 7, and 8 where most of the restaurants and bars are situated. Deck 8 has the Waterfront, a wraparound veranda overlooking the ocean, where restaurants and bars have inside/outside dining, a concept that started on Norwegian Breakaway. “It’s crazy to get on a ship and not sit on the water,” Stuart said. “That’s the reason people cruise; it’s the romance of the sea.”
Norwegian has introduced a new practice on the Escape: A la carte pricing has replaced a flat cover charge at some of the alternative restaurants. Restaurants that charge by the item are Bayamo, Cagney’s, Pincho, La Cucina, Food Republic, and Le Bistro. For example, at Bayamo and Cagney’s, appetizers are about $3-$8, main courses $16-$25 and desserts $5, while main dishes at Le Bistro will start at $11.99 and at $12.99 at La Cucina.
Four more Norwegian ships will change to a la carte pricing at select restaurants in early 2016.
During the preview cruise, food at Bayamo was excellent and at Food Republic, very good. But meals at the Supper Club dinner show and O’Sheehan’s — a bar and grill on most Norwegian ships — disappointed.
“We’re focusing a lot of attention on dining,” Stuart said. “There’s a lot of learning from the team at Oceania. There’s a new menu in every venue.”
Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners and a guest on Escape’s inaugural cruise, said “You can definitely see the infusions of Oceania and Regent in the food.”
Norwegian prides itself on its diversity of free entertainment. Norwegian’s most recent ships have had Blue Man Group, Cirque Dreams, the ballroom dancing show Burn the Floor, a branch of Liverpool’s Cavern Club and the Illusionarium — a dinner show featuring magicians.
Escape, however, relies on musical theater from different eras for its major shows. It has two Tony-winning Broadway musicals — Million Dollar Quartet, set in 1956, and After Midnight, with music and dance from the 1920s and ’30s. The entertainment space exclusive to Escape, much as the Illusionarium is exclusive to Getaway, is the Supper Club, with For The Record: The Brat Pack, a celebration of music from John Hughes’ coming-of-age films of the 1980s.
Escape’s Godfather is Pitbull, who performed at the ship’s christening, but traditionally godparents have no duties after the ceremony
Some of the stiffest competition among mainstream cruise ships in the last few years has been over water parks and other recreational amenities. Escape’s Aqua Club has two pools, four hot tubs, a kids’ play area and four water slides, including one for tandem racing and one that features a free fall. The Sports Complex has a three-story ropes course — bigger than the one on Breakaway ships and with more thrills, two planks to walk and five zip line tracks. There are also bocce ball and basketball courts.
The ship’s other amenities include a fitness center, spa with a Snow Room, casino with a VIP room, The Cellars Wine Bar by the Michael Mondavi family and a hull painted by marine wildlife artist Guy Harvey. H2O, an adults-only sunning area and club, has a waterfall grotto and hot tubs. The kids’ clubs, with the Entourage area for teens and Splash Academy for adolescents and preteens, have expanded to include the Guppies Nursery with childcare for children 6 months to 3 years old.
Elements missing from Escape: the Ice Bar, which is on several other Norwegian ships, and Nickelodeon characters and activities (including the dubious thrill of being slimed), discontinued after the contract between Norwegian and Nickelodeon expired.
Three more Breakaway-Plus ships are on order — an unnamed ship due to launch in spring 2017 that will be based in China; the Norwegian Bliss, to debut in spring 2018 and be based in North America; and another unnamed ship to be completed in 2019.