Originally published Nov. 25, 2019; updated 2019
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.
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, the Food Republic featuring menu items from Pubbelly and the District Brewhouse, which offers beer from 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.
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 seven complimentary dining venues, 16 “alternative” venues that cost extra (including room-service, which has a $7.95 convenience charge), and three complimentary venues limited to guests in The Haven or The Studios.
Most alternative venues are open for dinner only.
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 (Margaritaville has since been added to some of Norwegian’s other ships); 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. (Editor’s note: Food Republic no longer offers items from Pubbelly. NCL’s partnership with Garces has also ended and the Bayamo menu has been completely redone, while the Pincho Tapas menu is mostly the same as Garces prepared it.)
Norwegian has introduced a new practice on the Escape: A la carte pricing has replaced a flat cover charge at most of the alternative restaurants. Restaurants that charge by the item are Bayamo, Cagney’s, Pincho, La Cucina, Food Republic, and Le Bistro. Restaurants with a flat cover charge are Margaritaville ($14.95), Teppanyaki ($29.95) and Moderno Churrascaria ($29.95).
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.”
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
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, has relied on musical theater from different eras for its major shows and still features its first production, After Midnight, with music and dance from the 1920s and ’30s. A new addition, “The Choir of Man,” in the main theater, is something like a concert of rock, folk and other styles set in a British pub. “Wine Lovers the Musical” is a lunch show that combines musical comedy and wine tasting. Another addition is the “Escape the Big Top” escape-room game, an interactive, family-friendly mystery adventure about a circus event that goes awry. Star Cabaret is in the Supper Club, Levity Entertainment Group is in Headliners Comedy Club, and Howl at the Moon offers dueling pianos.
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 zipline 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.
Maiden voyage: Nov. 9, 2015
Builder: Meyer Werft, Papenburg, Germany
Staterooms: 2,175; capacity 5,205 passengers
Length: 1,069 feet
Beam: 136 feet
Other Breakaway-Plus class ships: Norwegian Joy, which was designed for the China market and launched in 2017, then in April 2019, got a $50 million makeover and moved to Alaska; Norwegian Bliss, which debuted in 2018 and is also sailing Alaska cruises; and Norwegian Encore, which will make its inaugural cruise in November (Southampton to New York), then move to PortMiami for Caribbean cruises.
Itineraries: Norwegian Escape is sailing out of New York until November 2019, when it will relocate to PortMiami and sail the Caribbean into mid-April 2020. The ship will spend six months cruising in Europe, then move to Port Canaveral and sail the Caribbean and Bahamas. In April 2021, Norwegian Escape will return to Europe.