Image: Norwegian Pearl
Joerg Sarbach  /  AP file
The Norwegian Pearl is seen at anchor in the port of the Meyer shipyard in Papenburg, northern Germany.
By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 1/8/2007 12:36:00 PM ET 2007-01-08T17:36:00

“Spoiled for life,” is how one passenger described his recent cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). It’s a common refrain among travelers who appreciate NCL's brand of “Freestyle Cruising,” an approach that the cruise line now sums up in the tagline, “You’re free to … Whatever.” To get the word out, NCL has launched a hilarious TV ad spot that lampoons the minute-by-minute, dressed-to-kill regimentation that once characterized life aboard ship. In the ad, a phalanx of passengers, seemingly clones, marches to dinner, to sunbathing, to shuffleboard — the whole works — all in step and all the while checking their watches. The ad features NCL's newest ship, the Norwegian Pearl.

Irresistible Pearl
Surprisingly, despite its innovative spirit, NCL is still trying to shake its old reputation as a stodgy cruise line with older ships. In fact, the line has one of the youngest fleets in the industry; in 2010, it will be the youngest fleet by far. The 93,500-ton Norwegian Pearl is the ninth new vessel in six years for NCL. Like her sister ships Norwegian Star, Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Jewel and Pride of Hawaii, the Pearl accommodates 2,400 guests and features 10 restaurants, 13 bars, lively public rooms, family-friendly cabinsand a new stateroom category, Courtyard and Garden Villas, which are the biggest, most luxurious suite complexes at sea. The Pearl also features some great innovations, including a four-lane, 10-pin bowling alley and the cruise line's first rock-climbing wall.

The heart of the ship is the Crystal Atrium, whose ceiling is aglow with colorful lighted-glass icicles. A stunning blue sculpture by Dale Chihuly, one of the world’s greatest glass artists, dominates the area. The ship’s lobby is located here, as are several of the ship’s specialty restaurants. There’s also a huge TV screen, which shows nonstop videos, Sunday football games and shipboard festivities. You can grab a cup of coffee at the Java Café, sit back in a comfy chair and people-watch, or you can listen to one of the live bands that play throughout the cruise.

During the day, the most popular place on board is the Tahitian Pool area, which has two pools, four whirlpools, a waterfall and a bright-yellow water slide for kids. I liked the many options for sun and shade, and the ship’s rattan loungers and double sun beds are terrific, though to use the latter you’d better get there early as they are extremely popular.

Staterooms
The ship offers 32 stateroom categories, from standard inside staterooms and balcony suites to interconnecting cabins and luxurious villas that come with butler and concierge service. With its vibrant Caribbean hues, my 340-square-foot mini-suite was cheerful and welcoming. Most suites have a queen-size bed, a separate living area with a dining table, and concierge service. A standard ocean-view stateroom with a balcony encompasses about 200 square feet; regular ocean-view rooms and inside cabinsrange between 140 and 160 square feet. All cabinshave glossy cherry wood walls and furniture, a flat-panel TV, a coffee maker, a mini-bar, a safe and a duvet, and most have a bathroom with separate toilet and shower/tub areas.

Families or groups traveling together can choose from some 280 interconnecting cabins in a range of categories from standard inside rooms to suites. Cabins of different grades can be also linked to create two- to five-bedroom areas. On select voyages throughout the year, NCL offers a family-plan discount on certain arrangements of adjoining cabins.

If you’re craving more exclusivity, check out the two deluxe top-of-the-ship “Owner's Suites” and 10 Courtyard Villas, which come with their own butler and concierge. The villas ring a private, Balinese-style courtyard, which has rattan sun beds and hammocks, a plunge pool, a hot tub, a private sun deck, and gym. Each villa has two bedrooms and a living area and goes for around $5,200 per adult.

Want the biggest and best suite afloat? For $26,000 a week, you can stay in one of the two 4,400-square-foot Garden Villa Suites. For that hefty sum you get three bedrooms, three baths, your own private roof terrace, a private living room, a private garden, and your own private hot tuband steam room. Think you can’t afford it? Think again. The biggest customers are couples who rent one Garden Villa Suite and then divide the cost among them, making it a more affordable option. In fact, the suites are sold out on most voyages.

Freestyle feeding
With each new ship, NCL refines the “Freestyle Cruising” concept that has become its signature amenity. Passengers enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they please. “Resort casual” is the norm for dress, and formal night is optional.

Dining choices include the ship’s two main dining rooms, Summer Palace and Indigo, which offer traditional and contemporary menus, respectively. The newly configured Garden Café is no longer your typical buffet spread; it now offers a range of “action stations,” where dishes are freshly prepared or assembled while you watch, along with an outdoor seating area. There is also La Cucina for Italian fare, Mambos Latin for tapas, and the Blue Lagoon for comfort food. For a cover charge of $10 to $20 per person, you can dine at the following premium venues: Le Bistro (gourmet French cuisine), Lotus Garden (sushi, teppanyaki and Pacific fusion) and Cagney’s Steakhouse (steak and seafood). Still hungry? There’s an on-deck grill, a coffee shop, an ice cream bar and 24-hour room service.

I enjoyed an elegant dinner one night in Le Bistro, where I had the company of two art masterpieces — a Renoir and a Van Gogh — on loan from the private art collection of NCL’s chairman Tan Sri K. T. Lim. Another night I enjoyed a family-style meal at La Cucina, along with a glass of Chianti.

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To keep the dining venues running smoothly, seat availability and wait times for each restaurant are displayed on flat-panel monitors all around the ship. If you have your heart set on eating at Le Bistro and there’s a 30-minute wait, the maitre d’ will give you a pager that works anywhere on the ship. You can also reserve space at any restaurant through the maitre d’.

Entertainment
The three-deck-high Stardust Theater is the place to go for the ship’s traditional entertainment and the new, avant-garde “Tubez” production featuring skateboarders and stunt bikers doing flips amongst dancers who look like the Pussycat Dolls. In addition, there are evening parties with changing themes. One night was a “Forty and Fabulous” party to celebrate NCL’s own 40th birthday.

Bar Central is a hub of activity with three separate but interconnected bars. Hang around long enough and pretty much everyone on the ship will have made a pit stop here. A few steps away is the ship’s smoke-filled casino. If you prefer a bar with a view, head up to Deck 13 and the Spinnaker Lounge, which offers karaoke, or to the more intimate Star Bar.

The liveliest place on board is the Bliss Ultra Lounge. During the day, Bliss is a sports bar with several flat-screen TVs and arcade games. If you have $5 to spare, you can also indulge in some wholesome bowling. In the evening, Bliss is transformed into a hip club with a dance floor and nonstop music spun by the ship’s DJ. Patrons can also recline on large beds, admire the ultraviolet artwork, hang out at the bar and try “mood-lit” bowling. (While NCL markets the bowling alley as an industry first, it is in fact not the first time bowling has been offered on board a cruise ship. According to author and cruise industry historian Allan E. Jordan, the first bowling alley was built for the France in 1912.)

Younger entertainment can be found at the Aqua Kids Club (for younger kids) and at the New York-inspired, subway-themed Metro Center (for teens). Passengers can also take advantage of NCL's new shipwide Wi-Fi capability or the broadband hookup in the cabins, the fastest at sea.

The Body Waves Fitness Center is open 24 hours a day for those who are so inclined. The facility has all the latest weight machines, cardiovascular equipment and free weights, plus a separate room for fitness classes. Aerobics and stretch classes are free; Pilates, yoga and Spinning classes cost $10 apiece. There is also a jogging track and sports deck that accommodates basketball, volleyball and tennis, and a 30-foot-high rock-climbing wall. There are also two driving nets for golf, a shuffleboard court and pingpong tables.

The South Pacific Spa, operated by Mandara Spas, is the perfect place to unwind and get pampered. The best part of the spa is the relaxation rooms, which have great sea views, a hydrotherapy pool, tropical-style showers, a plunge pool, aromatic steam rooms, a sauna and heated chaise lounges.

If all the above isn’t enough for you, there are also special onboard events planned throughout the week, including fine art auctions, lectures and the height of decadence: a late-night chocolate buffet feast.

The Pearl will spend the winter sailing five- and nine-day Western and Southern Caribbean itineraries from Miami. In the spring, the ship will begin seven-day trips to Alaska from Seattle. Hitch a ride and the world’s your oyster.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006."E-mail Anitaor visit her Web site anitavacation.com.

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