What happens when you rediscover your fear of heights while standing on a six-inch-wide beam jutting 180 feet over the open ocean?
You walk the six or so paces to the end and smile, wind-whipped and terrified, for the camera. And then, of course, you boast about walking “The Plank” on Norwegian Cruise Line‘s latest ship to anyone who will listen.
To be sure, the Miami-based cruise operator designed Norwegian Breakaway with thrills — and bragging rights — in mind.
The first of a new class from Norwegian, Breakaway was created to honor its home port of New York City, just as sister ship Getaway will pay homage to Miami when it starts sailing there after launching next January.
Although the pace of new ships entering the marketplace has slowed across the industry, cruise lines are stocking their vessels full of whiz-bang, would-you-look-at-that features. Disney Dream introduced the first “water coaster” at sea in 2011, and next month Princess Cruises will unveil its glass-bottom SeaWalk, which extends 28 feet out from the side of the ship high above the water, on Royal Princess.
Royal Caribbean International recently announced that its ship debuting in November of 2014, Quantum of the Seas, will include a simulated skydiving experience and a Ferris wheel-like capsule that carries passengers hundreds of feet in the air.
Norwegian Breakaway earns its gee-whiz bonus points with The Plank and waterslides that start with a freefall — but also with its sheer abundance of onboard options. A Miami Herald reporter sailed with about 3,500 passengers during an inaugural two-night cruise for media, travel agents and VIPs.
With room for 4,028 passengers at double occupancy, the New York-based ship is smaller than the 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, which launched in 2010. But it has more dining options, more slides, nine miniature golf holes, a ropes course, fireworks, and three shows with Broadway cred.
It also features a more sleek, traditional design than Epic, which got no love for its boxy look and awkward split bathrooms.
While the bathrooms are more standard, they are also raised, so passengers need to pay close attention to the “watch your step” sign or risk tripping into the main cabin area. The mini suite was spacious, with ample closet space, a very comfortable bed, foldout couch and long trough-like sink in the bathroom. The shower was roomy, though it took a few tries to figure out the multi-jet system. All rooms have an energy-efficient, key card-based system for lighting.
Based on early chatter, the ship’s small balconies are getting the kind of negative attention that Epic earned from the split bathrooms. Even attached to a mini suite, the balcony was miniscule, fitting only two chairs and a tiny table.
Basic balcony staterooms start at about 207 square feet, including the balcony. A spokeswoman for Norwegian said she could not break out the balcony size alone, but a rough measurement of the mini suite balcony showed that it was less than 30 square feet. On Carnival Breeze, a standard oceanview room is 185 square feet with a 35-square-foot balcony.
The smallest balcony option on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis or Allure of the Seas, overlooking the boardwalk, is 182 square feet with a 47-square-foot balcony.
Kevin Sheehan, the cruise line’s president and CEO, said the company considered how much time passengers were likely to spend on balconies instead of other parts of the ship and decided it was more important to put more space in the cabins. While Sheehan has said the addition of Breakaway positions the line to be a leader in the premium category — a set that includes Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line — the size of standard cabins and uneven food quality are two elements that fit in more with the mainstream class.
The ship offers a wide variety of cabins, from 59 studios for solo cruisers to the 42 suites that are part of the upscale, private Haven complex at the top of the ship. The Haven includes its own restaurant and bar as well as a pool courtyard with a retractable roof for not-so-sunny days.
Gail Carpenter, a Cruise Planners — American Express Travel agent in Tampa, said she will market the ship’s features as an authentic New York experience featuring high-quality entertainment at an affordable price.
“The cabins are small, but so is New York,” she said. “I’m going to sell it as ‘Come be a New Yorker.’ ”
Carpenter said she will also focus on the summer destination: Bermuda, which typically doesn’t get shiny new ships.
Fellow Cruise Planners agent Lourdes Henesy, of Englewood, highlighted the European-style circus dinner show. “Where in New York will you find a dinner show for $30?” she asked. “It was absolutely fantastic.”
Opinions are mixed on the exterior, but there’s no mistaking Breakaway’s connection to New York City: The Peter Max-designed hull bears pop art versions of the city’s skyline and Statue of Liberty. Inside, the two-story atrium screen shows scenes from Manhattan, and the roaming Sabrett hot dog stands are meant to evoke the city’s street food. (Sheehan, a New Yorker, said he even schooled ship workers on how to assemble a proper New York hot dog.)
The company’s next ship, Norwegian Getaway, will sail year-round from Miami after it is delivered in January. While many of the new features on Breakaway will be included on the sister ship, it will have its own location-specific touches.
Breakaway also embraces the elements in a major way, adding outdoor seating to four restaurants and the blues club in a new area called The Waterfront. That concept makes more sense for Getaway, based in the sub-tropics, than a ship that will sail from Manhattan in winter months. Even in early May, the chilly weather made spending significant amounts of time outdoors uncomfortable (and made for a bracing experience on the waterslides).
Sheehan says he expects passengers to spend the cold portions of a cruise getting acquainted with the ship’s inside areas, centered around the lively decks 6-8. Most of the restaurants, shops, bars and entertainment can be found in that area, called 678 Ocean Place, or on decks 15 and 16. One warning: many of the automatic doors have a sensor that needs to be triggered with your hand — it’s not enough just to walk up to the door. On the first day of a sailing, expect to see a lot of people waving their arms as if they’re swatting at flies while trying to activate the doors.
While Breakaway boasts an impressive number of restaurants — including the new Ocean Blue by Geoffrey Zakarian and a Raw Bar from the celebrity chef — the food was generally disappointing during the inaugural two-night cruise.
At the seafood-heavy Ocean Blue, which already raised its fee from $35-$49 a person, a crispy calamari dish was decent but not extraordinary; a black sea bass entree was good, but the real standout was the marinated tomatoes. The dessert menu, however, offered (and delivered) tantalizing sweets, including apple strudel with cardamom, aged cheddar cheese, whiskey sauce and a tangy quark gelato.
Breakfast in the buffet restaurant, Garden Cafe, was mediocre; a sit-down version at Savor, one of the complimentary dining rooms, was only slightly better. Also free, O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar serves standard pub fare and the elegant Manhattan Room did nothing to raise the culinary bar.
Of the 28 dining options, 11 are complimentary; the others, including French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Brazilian fare, are priced a la carte or range from $15 to $49.
Also new on Breakaway are Dolce Gelato, which opens up onto the Waterfront, and the neighboring Carlo’s Bake Shop from Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro. The closet-sized bakery, offering cupcakes, made-to-order cakes, cannoli and other goodies, drew long lines even during a preview cruise. Both dessert spaces charge an extra fee; the cruise line has not announced whether they will return on the Getaway.
Like other ships from Norwegian Cruise Line, which pioneered the concept of “Freestyle Cruising,” Breakaway has multiple specialty bars and venues, including an ice bar, whiskey bar, cigar lounge and cocktail bar.
While the food itself earned few raves, service on the inaugural cruise was for the most part fantastic: attentive, efficient and cheerful.
And some service didn’t even require a human. Norwegian Cruise Line rolled out new touchscreen systems throughout the ship that show availability for restaurants, entertainment and shore excursions — and allow passengers to make reservations right there.
Befitting a New York ship, the biggest entertainment draws all have ties to the Great White Way. Ballroom dance show Burn the Floor and Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy both had Broadway runs. On the ship, Burn the Floor appears for six performances over three nights in the main theater, with dancers giving previews on three other nights in the Manhattan Room. Cirque Dreams & Dinner Jungle Fantasty, with acrobats, aerialists and other performers, takes the form of a dinner show in a Spiegel Tent for 12 performances, priced at $29-$39 per person until late July. As of July 21, all seats will cost $39.99. (Getaway will feature a different venue with a magician.)
And the ’80s homage Rock of Ages, which is still on Broadway, is performed six times over three nights during a cruise. While the adult language and sexual innuendo might be too edgy for some passengers, the show’s quality rivals touring productions and earned huge applause (and some singing along) during a preview cruise. The intimacy of a 750-seat venue works well for the musical.
Burn the Floor, with a Latin dance flair, will also be on Getaway, and Legally Blonde: The Musical will replace Rock of Ages on the Miami-based ship.
On Breakaway, other some familiar entertainment options remain, including The Headliners Comedy Club with Second City performers (the venue also hosts the dueling piano show Howl at the Moon); Bliss Ultra Lounge and the popular Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club.
A modest fireworks display (with pyrotechnics shot straight off the boat) will take place once during every cruise in the Spice H20 area. As on some other Norwegian ships, there is a bowling alley, but the two lanes are small and cost $5 a person.
Young kids will find Nickelodeon-themed shows and activities and a pool area just for them. A two-story youth center is broken into sections for children ages 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12, while the Entourage Teen Lounge has its own club-like space. (For teens who tire of video games and the photo booth, there’s also a telescope for gazing.)
Kids should also find plenty to like about the outdoor recreation area. The stars of the Aqua Park are a pair of slides that send riders into a freefall when the floor drops out from under their feet. Another pair of fast-moving, twist-filled slides are also fun, while a more gentle option gives reticent parents an easy way down. Water on the slides was heated during a cold day, but if you forget to pick up a towel on your way, it’s a long and chilly walk to fetch one.
One of the main pools is oddly situated under the slide tubes; another is in a more open area of deck 15.
The basketball court and climbing wall that appear on other Norwegian ships are back, but overshadowed (in every way) by the nail-biter of a ropes course. There’s a heavy-duty harness that keeps users attached, but it’s still dizzying to walk along unsteady boards, thick ropes and surfaces smaller than a shoe. Speaking of shoes: best to wear sneakers.
To conquer The Plank, one must traverse at least part of the ropes course — it’s possible to map out the shortest possible route, but what would the fun be in that? Stepping on a small pad near the end of the beam tells a camera you’re ready for your close-up. (The feature wasn’t working on the inaugural cruise, so this daredevil has no proof of her bravery.)
Finishing the course is a 100-foot zipline, another first for the line, though not for the industry.
The course was a winner for Phillip LaRue, 27, of Brooklyn. An employee of American Express Travel, he’s a frequent cruiser who has sailed on Norwegian Epic.
“They really took the best things about Epic and kept improving upon it,” he said. “You can’t beat the ropes course.
For those who want to see the course up close without actually traversing it, a miniature golf course is right underneath. A jogging track is also close to the activity, but a little too close. Gawkers frequently get in the way of runners.
For those who want to avoid obstacles while working out, the gym is divided into a cardio section on one side of a hallway and another area with weights, a group fitness room and spinning area. Classes include fight training with a simulator and a leg-intensive class designed by the Rockettes, who are the godmothers of the ship.
An old-fashioned barber shop and a beauty salon flank the spa, which boasts a salt room and 22 treatment areas.
For Harry Kroll, a Broward-based cruise specialist who spent two days on the ship with his wife, the ship offered plenty to praise — including the ease of finding everything.
“We’ve been on ships that we’ve been on a week and haven’t seen everything,” he said on the final night. “I feel like we’ve seen the ship. And it was easy.”
Kroll was a fan of Epic, aside from the bathroom design. He appeared to have little to complain about after exploring the new ship.
“I think they hit it out of the park,” he said. “This is a home run ship.”
(c)2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.