Norwegian Cruise Line's tag beckons you to "Cruise Like a Norwegian."
I got an introduction to this "Freestyle Cruising" (another slogan from the line) experience during a nine-day voyage out of New York City in Norwegian Gem. Oh my, it was awesome to get away from the Northeast to the sunshine of the Caribbean in the middle of winter.
So, what exactly does it mean to cruise like a Norwegian?
Here is what I learned.
It's all about the comfort and flexibility. NCL is not hung up on rules, schedules and formalities inherent in the decades-old traditional industry cruise vacation.
In The Loop's sailing, for example, took place January 12 to 21 to the Caribbean and carried passengers with an average age of 49. But on a recent previous sailing on Gem, that number was 64, said the ship's hotel director, Jenny Lim.
Each cruise is different, from the average age to passengers' food tastes, meal times and entertainment.
Older passengers might call it a night a lot earlier than younger crowds, so Lim and her staff might tweak the daily entertainment program in an effort to accommodate the largest number of people. Main show times, trivia, theme parties, etc., may be adjusted as NCL crew discover the rhythm of the group onboard (Gem carries up to 2,300 or so passengers) during the first couple days. Feedback is crucial to make the freestyle philosophy work for NCL.
Most of the cruisers on Gem come from New York or the immediate surrounding area.
Lim says she loves having her ship full of New Yorkers.
"They tell you exactly what they like and also what they dislike," she says. "We don't have to prod them and find ways to get information from them."
Norwegian Gem offers two main dining rooms, and you simply show up any time they are open and get an available table. We found this a convenient way to go. We have often struggled with whether we should choose early dining or the late dining option on our past cruises.
Strict schedules create a conundrum for us. Maybe we just get back from a day ashore and want to clean up, unwind, hit the swimming pool or take a nap to recuperate before dinner. Or perhaps we have already indulged a bit on on a shore excursion but have the early seating and are not yet ready for a big meal.
However, a late seating sometimes can stretch your meal to 10 p.m. or later before you leave the restaurant. That is tough when you want to have time for nighttime activities before heading off to bed because you might have to rise early for the next port day. "Anytime Dining" solves these problems. You simply saunter to the restaurant of your choice when you are ready to eat. This can lead to a bit of a wait time if everyone happens to end up on your schedule, but we waited no more than five minutes for a table.
You also have the option to skip the man dining room and treat yourself to a meal at one of the for-fee specialty restaurants. (options include Asian, Italian, French, sushi a la carte, steakhouse and churrascaria). Or go for the included buffet or pub grub at O'Sheenan's Bar & Grill. O'Sheehan's was packed two different nights on our nine-day sailing because people wanted the sports bar experience while viewing the NCAA football title game and the NFL conference title games on the two-deck high big screen that the bar overlooks. How typically American. The onboard buzz was cool both nights for these big events.
The line simply asks that men not wear tank tops to the restaurants for dinner. I'm onboard with that one. I have zero fashion sense, but I know that no one wants to see that, dudes.
You get the idea. Cruising like a Norwegian, or freestyle cruising, means you and your fellow passengers all get together aiming to have a great, relaxing vacation that works for you -- whatever that entails -- with no rules or judgments.
Does it work? We think it does pretty well. You have to know what is involved in an NCL cruise. If you come onboard expecting a formal, luxury, traditional, service-intensive experience, you will be disappointed. One thing I like with traditional cruising with set dining is how you build a rapport with wait staff and your tablemates. (Many veteran cruisers love this.) This does not happen with "Anytime Dining."
Norwegian Cruise Line knows what it is, and it works hard to please the cruiser looking for a fun, energetic vacation. We experienced a great amount of energy, with variety shows, late-night adult games, dance parties, poolside competitions, rousing dockside receptions to welcome you back after a day in port and more. The cruisers on our voyage seemed to really be having a great time, from the first-time cruisers to some who have been on Norwegian Gem up to a half-dozen times or more.