When Nick Wilkinson came to Tel Aviv in September to promote Norwegian Cruise Line’s new cruises from Haifa, he predicted that about 20% of the passengers would be Israeli.
In fact, Wilkinson announced onboard the Norwegian Epic on November 15 (when the ship embarked from Israel for the first time), about 900 passengers – one third of the total – were Israeli citizens.
Many of the thousands of non-Israeli passengers arrived in the country earlier, to tour before the cruise.
Wilkinson, NCL’s regional VP for Israel, the Middle East and Africa, noted that Israel was already one of the cruise line’s top-10 markets despite the country’s small size.
Only about 1% of Israelis have already taken a cruise, according to NCL research, but 30% would like to.
Many Israelis were attracted by the ultra-low prices for the inaugural cruise – starting from less than $500 (NIS 1,715) per person for the 11-day trip – about the cost for one person to spend a weekend at a luxury hotel in Eilat.
But as Wilkinson noted, on a cruise ship, the scenery changes every day. The Epic docked in Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and Italy on its way to its final stop in Civitavecchia, near Rome.
The Epic also offers far more food and entertainment options than most hotels, with two main dining rooms, two buffets, a 24-hour pub, a Chinese restaurant and specialty restaurants that include a sushi bar, the upscale French Bistro and a Brazilian steakhouse. Many dining options are included in the fare, and some are available for an additional charge.
Passengers can, if they wish, eat like hobbits, with a complimentary light breakfast delivered to the cabin and “second breakfast” at the buffet or in a restaurant.
With a “Free at Sea” offer or a beverage package, passengers can drink unlimited wine, beer and cocktails (otherwise up to $15 per drink) in any of the 14 bars and lounges. In the Skyy Vodka Ice Bar, passengers don colorful ponchos and gloves to drink from ice glasses while sitting on an ice throne in the 17-degree Fahrenheit (-8°Celsius) chill. (It’s uncomfortable, but oh-so-Instagrammable.)
There’s even a Starbucks on board.
NCL offers pre-packaged kosher meals on all its ships for those who request them 30 days in advance. On this cruise, however, passengers had another option: Golden Tours reserved a kitchen and dining room for 45 passengers, kashered the kitchen, and brought kosher groceries and wine – including foie gras for the last-night feast.
Aviva Hexter, a Jerusalem Post subscriber from Rehovot, noted that the food was “more than excellent.”
“It’s like going to a wedding every day,” she said. “You don’t have to think at all. Every detail is taken care of. I feel like a princess.”
THE GOLDEN Tours group also turned one of the ship’s meeting rooms into a synagogue, complete with a Torah scroll. A Hebrew-speaking guide took the group to places of Jewish interest during shore excursions.
The Epic offers a wide range of entertainment, including a sexy ballroom dance show called Burn the Floor, the jukebox musical Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert, a Beatles cover band, dueling pianos, movies (including Jaws, ironically), karaoke, dance lessons, magicians, a juggler and the world’s fastest violinist.
There are also pools, hot tubs, water slides, a climbing wall, arcades, a bowling alley, library, mini-golf, a well-equipped gym, spa, running track, basketball court, ping-pong, shuffleboard, shops and a casino.
World Cup matches were playing on the screen
World Cup soccer matches were shown on many screens around the ship (and in the cabins), and the restaurants offered turkey dinners for Thanksgiving.
According to NCL research, 47% of Israelis travel with a spouse or partner and 30% travel with their families. Cruising with kids can be a bargain, since the third and fourth guests staying in the same cabin pay a lower rate and, on some excursions, can cruise for free.
Parents (or grandparents) who want more privacy can reserve connected cabins for the kids or splurge on a two-bedroom villa or owner’s suite (with an ocean-view whirlpool tub) in The Haven – the ship’s VIP area.
Guests traveling on their own can book studio cabins that come with access to a private lounge that offers cocktail receptions for solo travelers.
Parents can entertain children up to two years old in the Guppies Room or drop off older kids (three-12) at the Splash Academy. Teens have their own private Entourage Lounge at the top of the ship, equipped with video games, foosball and a dance floor.
The Epic didn’t have any Hebrew-speakers on duty in the Splash Academy on this trip, but parents are supplied with pagers in case a child has a meltdown. “We understand ‘Eema’ [Mommy],” said one crew member.
According to NCL, Israelis often plan their holidays 12 to 18 months in advance and are already booking Haifa sailings for 2023 and 2024. In addition to the Epic, the Norwegian Getaway will be sailing from Haifa starting in 2024, and the Breakaway starting in 2025. NCL’s newest ship, the Viva (sister to the Prima), will be coming to Israel in 2025, with an itinerary that includes Egypt and Istanbul.
The writer was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Lines.