Year Started: 1966
Ships in Fleet: 13
Summary: With the recent introduction of new ships the third biggest cruise company in the world. Free-style cruising, elaborate dining options and surprisingly good entertainment.
A few people in cruising deserve special recognition, and the original founder of NCL, Knut Kloster, is certainly one of them. Another is Ted Arison, the founder of Carnival Corp and father to present day Carnival CEO, Micky Arison. The Norwegian, Kloster, and the Israeli, Arison, started selling Miami to Nassau cruises together under the name "Norwegian Caribbean Line." And so was humbly born not only what became two huge companies, but also an entire industry. It all began with a tiny 830-ton steamer, the Sunward, originally built for ferry service in Europe. Of course, there was a "disagreement" and Arison left only to eventually start competitor Carnival Cruise Lines, but Kloster kept the original company going, soon changing the name to Norwegian Cruise Line, adding more ships, making waves and sometimes enduring rough seas.
Some of the landmark achievements in the history of NCL include buying the SS France in 1979, once the fastest ocean liner ever built (by the French Government), and re-naming it the SS Norway, then the largest cruise ship in the world. NCL pioneered the first combined low cost air fares with cruises which helped transform cruising from a Florida novelty into a national industry. It was the first cruise line to develop new ports in the Caribbean, like Ocho Rios in Jamaica, and their own "private island" in the Bahamas.
Despite a common notion of NCL being something of a "budget" cruise line, Knut Kloster also once owned the now famously retired Royal Viking Line and operated it for several years (the final Royal Viking build is now sailing for Holland America as the Prinsendam). Many of the concepts, and indeed many of the people who worked for Royal Viking, including Knut's son and namesake, are today vitally involved in running the various luxury cruise lines in the world. Knut's son, (Knut Kloster Jr.) created the idea behind "The World of ResidenSea," the world's first passenger-owned all-condo ship.
In the year 2000, after a fierce battle for public shares in which all the major cruise lines were players, NCL was acquired by a surprise victor, Star Cruises of Malaysia. Star sold a one-half interest in NCL to U.S. investment company Apollo Management in August 2007 and gave them majority control of the board of directors.
In the last six years Norwegian Cruise Line replaced its older ships with purpose-built new ones specifically for their trademarked "Freestyle" service, introduced in 2001. It now operates a modern fleet that sails to New England, Canada, Europe, Alaska, Hawaii, Bermuda, and the Caribbean, where it all began, and enjoys a reputation as a strong number three behind the massive Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean International, surviving because of its ability to adapt and innovate.
The revolutionary "Freestyle Cruising" concept eliminated mandatory dining times and dress codes, correctly identifying these cruise traditions as counter-intuitive to the vacation concept. NCL's Freestyle service, now in operation on all of their ships, offers anytime dining with no pre-assigned tables in a huge selection of onboard restaurants. Passengers can still opt for meals included in the cruise fare in a main dining room, or they can choose from several onboard alternative restaurants offering a variety of cuisine, most of them carrying a service charge.
In response to the 9/11 attack, when many U.S. travelers simply stopped flying, NCL introduced "Homeland Cruising", and was the first in decades to deploy a ship sailing out of New York City for warmer climates all year-round since then "Homeland Cruising" has become an inductry institution with all three major cruise lines offering ships in homeports throughout the country.
NCL introduced a subsidiary company NCL-America after Congress gave the line exclusive rights to operate inter-island Hawaii cruising without having to call at a foreign port. In order to do this, the line agreed to sail under the U.S. flag, hire American crewmembers and to be subject to American taxation and environmental regulations.
The first NCLA ship, Pride of Aloha, began weekly sailings from Honolulu on July 4, 2004. Pride of America joined her in 2005 and Pride of Hawaii joined in June, 2006. Unfortunately, sailing three American-flagged cruise ships was not profitable due to the payroll requirements for U.S. union crew. In 2007 Pride of Aloha was returned to Star Cruises and Pride of Hawaii was re-flagged to the regular NCL fleet as Norwegian Jade, sailing in Europe and the Caribbean. The only remaining NCL-America U.S.-flagged ship sailing fulltime in Hawaii is Pride of America.
The Norwegian Cruise Line Experience Today:
The average age of NCL ships has become much younger in the last few years as they phased out the older ships (mostly sending them to obscure Asian ports to sail for Star Cruises) and introduced newer models to the fleet.
Norwegian Sun, (2001), was the first purpose-built vessel as a "Free-style" ship. Norwegian Star, Norwegian Dawn, and Norwegian Jewel were follow-up Free-style cruise ships. NCL also nabbed an additional "Freestyle"-designed ship; parent company Star Cruises has traded in its SuperStar Leo in exchange for Norwegian Sea (which left NCL's fleet in fall 2005) and renamed it Norwegian Spirit.
The next steps in Freestyle came with Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Gem which were launched in February and October, 2007. Both are 93,502-tons and feature modifications in both technical and passenger areas. The new "Bar Central" connects three venues - a martini bar, champagne and wine bar and beer and whiskey pub. The new ships have 10 restaurants, a passenger capacity of 2,376 and are capable of 24-25 knot speeds. And Norwegian Pearl has something which is a first at sea - an actual bowling alley. Norwegian Jade (formerly Pride of Hawaii) is the same design, but no bowling alley.
But the pinnacle of freestyle cruising, known internally as "F3" is the Norwegian Epic launched in June 2010. Epic is the largest ship in the NCL fleet at 150,000-tons for 4100 passenger berths. There is only one Norwegian Epic, which came in at an astounding cost of $1.2 Billion. While she is the sixth largest ship in the world, she is certainly one of the most expensive ships ever only outpaced by the Oasis and Allure ships of Royal Caribbean.
With regular entertainment including Blue Man Group, Second City and Legends at Seas (from Las Vegas), plus 21 different dining venues, Norwegian Epic is certainly one of the the most diverse ships ever built. Most shows are shown several times on each cruise and all restaurants serve special dinners every night - making sure everyone is able to have the cruise of their choice. But somewhat counter-intuitive to the goal of Freestyle cruising is the fact that most of the showrooms and restuarants are so limited in size that you really need to plan ahead and book as many reservations as you can online well before your cruise or you just might miss something.
NCL specializes in unique entertainment. The Second City comedy troupes are regularly featured across the fleet. While the main dining rooms are unlikely to serve you anything to make you swoon with delight, there's a wide variety of alternative dining on all the ships in as many diverse dining venues on each vessel. These restaurants almost all offer very good cuisine and service well worth the additional service charge, ranging from about $10 to $35 per person. And if all else fails, there's a "Chocoholic Buffet" on every cruise to pacify your sweet tooth.
Fitness and sports programs vary by ship. Europe, Hawaii, Bermuda and Caribbean cruises offer golf instruction on special Tee-Up golf cruises, The Dive-In Snorkeling program is a popular feature of Caribbean, Bermuda, and Hawaii cruises. There are courts for paddleball, volleyball or basketball, golf nets, and jogging tracks.
Especially in its Caribbean itineraries, NCL attracts many first-time cruisers seeking a low- to mid-price cruise vacation. Dress code is flexible, which is to say a couple of large steps down from country club casual. Don't be shocked to glimpse T-shirts among the tuxedos in the dining room. Expect many first-time cruisers and honeymooners; during summer vacations and school vacations, families with children; Europe- and New England/Canada-bound cruises attract mostly couples over 55. Lots of different countries are typically represented - all of them English-speaking including Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.Kid's Excursions
Except on Europe sailings NCL offers "Kid Crew" -- age-appropriate activities ranging from parties and video arcades to learning sessions -- to Junior Sailors, ages 2-5; First Mates aged 6-8; Navigators, aged 9-12 and Teens aged 13-17. Staff members won't change diapers, but you'll be given a beeper so the staff can let you know that your Junior Sailor has committed an indiscretion. There are cribs for younger passengers. NCL insists that visitors to its casinos be at least 21. There is no casino on Pride of America.
The line has recently forged a new alliance with Nickelodeon Television toput their characters onboard all NCL ships to interact with the kids. Several ships have "Breakfast with Nickelodeon" as a regular feature, but the characters may appear out and about on the ships at any time.
In-cabin private babysitting is no longer offered, but group babysitting for ages two to 12 is available from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. each evening and on port days from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a fee.
Latitudes, the past passenger program, is comprised of four levels depending on number of cruises you have taken Bronze,(1-4), Silver, (5-9), Gold (10-14), and Platinum (15+). We rate it among the best loyalty programs considering how quickly you move up the ladder and what you get. You can see a full synopsis here.
Additionally Silver Members receive an invitation to an exclusive gathering on board and treats delivered to their stateroom twice during the cruise; Gold Members receive VIP service, which includes priority boarding, an in-stateroom welcome basket upon embarkation; priority restaurant reservations; priority tender tickets; priority disembarkation and an invitation to the Captain's VIP cocktail party. Platinum members receive all of the above and enjoy the added benefit of a complimentary dinner in NCL's signature restaurant, Le Bistro. For more information call 800-343-0098.
Latittudes members will occasionally receive upgrade coupons by mail. Book the category you want, and either you will either be upgraded (if available) or you will pay only the cost of the category below the one you are assigned.
The only thing missing from Lattitudes is that Norwegian Epic does not offer a complimentary cocktail party to Lattitudes members. Limited space is the reason they provide.
NCL's tours run the gamut from bus rides to private helicopter tours. "Dive-in Snorkeling" and the Sports Afloat programs help scuba and snorkel enthusiasts prepare for their destination dives while still onboard the ship. Shore excursions are outlined on the NCL web site.Tipping
NCL automatically adds a fixed service charge of $10 to the shipboard accounts of passengers over 13 to make service personnel feel appreciated; children between three and 12 are charged $5. Those under three get off scot-free.
While further tipping is not compulsory, NCL recommends a 15 percent gratuity for bar service and urges the beneficiaries of concierge or butler services to come up with a little something extra. All else is at the passenger's discretion.