Cruising aboard the Norwegian Encore

It was a two-day cruise from Germany to England, not a regular cruise route, just a quick getaway for the press to get a taste of what the Norwegian Encore has to offer.

Norwegian Cruise Line ship (photo credit: NCL)
Norwegian Cruise Line ship
(photo credit: NCL)
Although I grew up in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River and loved to watch the ships going by, I never went aboard a ship, so when I got the opportunity to sail on the inaugural voyage of the Norwegian Encore – the newest of the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet – I jumped at the chance.
It was a two-day cruise from Germany to England, not a regular cruise route, just a quick getaway for the press to get a taste of what the Norwegian Encore has to offer.
The Norwegian Encore is the last of the breakaway-plus class cruise ships, and cost nearly $1 billion to build. This huge, gleaming ship painted in bright colors can carry up to 4,000 passengers. It will be based out of New York and Miami and will host cruises to the Caribbean islands and Bermuda.
Since it was making its maiden voyage, its sailing was an event at the Bremerhaven Port in Germany from which it departed. As I got into my mini-suite double room with a balcony overlooking the sea, I looked out and saw the locals onshore snapping photos and waving goodbye as the ship sailed.
Except for the ocean view, my mini-suite and the entire rest of the ship could have been a five-star resort, a dazzling one, with entertainment, 29 dining options and dozens of other attractions. It was far more understated and elegant than I had imagined in terms of decor. The centerpiece is a large chandelier in the atrium, which constantly changes color and hangs over the glass staircase leading from decks six to nine.
“It’s a multi-generational resort,” said Nick Wilkinson, the regional vice president of business development for NCL, who likes to joke, “I’m Israeli,” since he visits so much, although he is clearly British. “You can choose the bits that suit you,” he added.
There was so much going on onboard that it was a lot to take in. At first I was tempted to just sit on the balcony of my room and watch the waves, but I ventured out to head for lunch at the Garden Cafe, the main complimentary dining option that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was expecting something like a cafeteria but instead found a buffet with just about every option you can imagine: pasta, salads and fresh fruit, sandwiches, all kinds of desserts and even an Indian food bar.
My dinner reservations were for Onda by Scarpetta, the new restaurant that serves high-end, authentic Italian cuisine and is a branch of Scarpetta, which has locations all over the world. My salmon with vegetables was flavorful and light, one of tastiest restaurant meals I have had in years. I also sampled the restaurant’s signature dish, tomato and basil spaghetti, which made me want to ask for the recipe. It was impossible to pass up the desserts, although choosing among them was difficult. I opted for the butterscotch budino with salted caramel and a chocolate biscotti on the side, which was as good as it sounds.
I WAS in a party with both an Orthodox Jew and a vegan, and the staff was able to accommodate them and help them both find food they could enjoy. I learned that kosher meals are available to all travelers who request them, but depending on your observance level, it could be possible to order off the menu in any of the restaurants on board.
That’s not surprising given the fact that Harry Sommer, who was named CEO of NCL last month, has an Israeli parent and chatted with Israeli reporters in American-accented Hebrew.
The next day, we were treated to a tasting menu with specialties from several of the restaurants on board, which included Q, with smoked Texas barbecue; Los Lobos with Mexican cuisine; and sushi from Food Republic, which features dishes from Asia, Central Europe and the Mediterranean. I also checked out the American Diner at the top of the ship, which seems to have been modeled on Jack Rabbit Slims, the joint where John Travolta takes Uma Thurman dining and dancing in Pulp Fiction. It may have been far from the US, but it couldn’t have looked more American. Another nice touch was the Starbucks, where Pumpkin Spice latte- and frappuccino-junkies can get their fixes.
On the last night, we had dinner at The Manhattan Room, one of the complimentary restaurants, which features classic dishes, beautifully prepared.
One of the attractions of the Norwegian Encore is The Haven, a super luxury option within the luxury cruise. It features two-bedroom suites with a private lounge, bar and pool, as well a concierge and many other amenities. I also toured the spa, which offers all kinds of pampering treatments, including a snow room that is supposed to do wonders for your skin. The best part of it all may have been the heated, gently sloping chairs facing the sea, next to the pool. The fitness center also offers all kinds of classes including high-intensity RYDE cycling class, Pilates, ocean-view yoga and guided meditation classes, as well as many exercise machines, all facing the sea.
Had I had more time, I would have spent a lot of it at the spa. But the adventurous travelers can choose activities that will definitely live up the ship’s slogan: “Thrill. Chill. Encore.” The thrills include the largest race track at sea, which is 1,100 feet long, located on top of the ship. It allows you to zoom around the curves of the course suspended 13 feet over the side of the ship. Just typing this makes me nervous, but those I saw driving this track had a blast. That was also true of those who tried the laser tag in a 10,000 square-foot arena that is a model of the lost city of Atlantis. It’s good that there is a Starbucks on board so the adrenaline junkies can stay caffeinated.
There is also a huge aqua park, with water slides several stories high, as well as a more tame pool for children and doing laps.
The kids’ club features all kinds of games and activities and there is a roomful of video and arcade games.
I FELT I had to do at least one activity that was more thrilling than chilling, so I headed for the Virtual Reality section of the Galaxy Pavilion. Most of the VR options had to do with fast driving, battling saber-wielding adversaries or escaping dinosaurs, so I settled for the hang-gliding experience, where I only had to close my eyes about half the time.
In the evenings, I enjoyed a different kind of excitement, seeing two of the shows that are performed nightly. I was surprised that a cruise would offer a show as edgy as Kinky Boots, which won six Tony Awards, and has music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. It’s an exuberant, crowd-pleasing show that tells the story of Charlie Price, a straitlaced shoe manufacturer who forms an unlikely partnership with Lola, a cabaret drag queen, to produce a line of high-heeled boots that fit men, which saves the business.
I also got to see a performance by the Choir of Man at the Jungle, a British-themed pub. The group dances and performs high-energy rock tunes. The audience got to its feet and joined in.
There was also music at many bars and lounges aboard the ship, including the Cavern Club, where a look-alike band performed Beatles tunes, as well as other bars with dancing and live performers.
Trivia games are a staple of cruise entertainment, so I gave the Speed Trivia a try. It was actually very challenging and I’d like think that I would have done better than fifth place if I hadn’t had a margarita.
Another option for those who are feeling lucky is the casino, with poker, blackjack, roulette and many colorful one-armed bandits.
One aspect of the cruise that is worth noting is sustainability. Sommer said in a press conference that the ship has no plastic straws or containers: soap, shampoo, etc. come through a wall dispenser. He said that NCL was undertaking long-term planning to reduce fuel use and further fine-tune the fleet’s environmental friendliness.
Although much of this trip may sound like a great vacation at a luxury resort, I was always aware that we were aboard a ship. The public areas are built so that you can look out at the ocean from almost anywhere, and that adds a magic that can’t really be put into words.
On my next voyage, I’ll be sure to pencil in a little downtime for just watching the sea and the clouds.
The writer was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line.