Sam Ballard boards Norwegian Cruise Line’s new ship Norwegian Bliss in its Pacific Northwest homeport and is blown away by both
Walking through Seattle’s Pike Place Market, wandering in and out of old curio shops and dodging the seafood vendors hurling fish at one another, it’s easy to fall in love with the city. With a downtown that’s small enough to be walkable and an atmosphere that’s warm and friendly, it’s no wonder that Norwegian Cruise Line picked Seattle to be the home for its latest ship, Norwegian Bliss.
During three days in the city we are given the full tour. We learn about famous residents, including Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, both of whom left their mark on the city – the former quite literally in the form of MoPOP, the city’s museum of pop culture, which was designed to look like one of his smashed electric guitars. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of Hendrix memorabilia and a huge tower of guitars, as well as archival pieces from Star Trek and Star Wars.
The museum stands next to Seattle’s soaring Space Needle, the city’s most famous landmark. The 184m tall observation tower was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and includes a revolving restaurant. The entire Space Needle is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation – which includes replacing wire and steel on the observation deck and adding a glass floor to the restaurant. Everything, barring the restaurant, has remained open throughout the work, although on our visit it did feel like a bit of a building site.
Another popular tourist attraction in the region, and an absolute must for anyone with even the remotest interest in planes, is the massive Boeing factory in Everett, about 40km north of Seattle. The building, which is the largest in the world by volume, is where the company builds its wide-bodied 747, 767, 777 and 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
We’re walked through one of the factory’s main passageways (which is so long that you can’t even see the end of it) and are taken up to one of a series of viewing platforms where we look out at aircraft in different stages of construction. It’s an incredible thing to behold: as far as the eye can see there are aircraft bearing the famous insignias of British Airways, Emirates and American Airlines being worked on by the factory’s 30,000 experts. There’s even a single Dreamliner for Air Tanzania, looking resplendent after a paint-job that included a rather regal looking handpainted giraffe. It’s a plane spotter’s dream.
Seattle sits within sprawling Washington in the Pacific Northwest – arguably the most diverse state in America. There are glaciers in the Canadian-bordered north, deserts in the east, rainforests in the west and vineyards to the south. This makes for a big outdoors culture and the state boasts National Parks, volcanoes and mountains, the latter of which dominate the skyline. It is also the gateway to Alaska for the cruise guests who board in Seattle. Making a stay in the city an ideal pre or post-cruise experience.
The decision by Norwegian Cruise Line to position Norwegian Bliss in Seattle was seen by many as a surprising move. It’s not something that often happens. More often than not, new ships are launched in spring/early summer and complete a season in the Mediterranean before heading over to the Caribbean. To put new tonnage in Alaska is to highlight just what a cruise there has to offer: the chance to see incredible glaciers, learn more about goldrush history and spot the Alaska Big Five: bear, moose, Dall sheep, caribou and wolves. There’s a reason why it’s called America’s Last Frontier.
For its Alaska season, which will last until late September, Norwegian Bliss will be operating seven-day Seattle round-trip cruises calling at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria. With any Alaskan cruise the itinerary is always going to be king. However, what’s curious about this season is that the ship isn’t going to sit out of the limelight.
It seems that Norwegian has massively upped its game on Norwegian Bliss
First, the numbers. Norwegian Bliss has a maximum capacity of just over 4,000 guests and boasts more than 20 places to eat on board, including the all new Los Lobos, an upmarket Mexican, and Q, a Texas smokehouse, which serves up barbecued food to the sound of live country music.
There are classic Norwegian restaurants, such as Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at Sea – which serves up the biggest plate of nachos I’ve seen in my life – La Cucina, a classy Italian affair and the ever-popular Cagney’s Steakhouse.
There’s also a fine selection of bars on board – with The District Brew House showcasing the best that local craft breweries have to offer.
The bar boasts 22 craft beers and ciders on tap – including a Big Ballard’s IPA from Seattle brewery Redhook. There are also bars which each specialise in mojitos (Sugarcane Mojito Bar), wine (Cellars) and whisky (Maltings) respectively.
This being Norwegian Cruise Line, the new ship is not short of entertainment. There is the intimate Cavern Club – a replica of the Liverpool original – where a Beatles cover band play the Fab Four’s hits every night. On our cruise the band played two sets each evening, splitting them between early and late material. This partnership with the Cavern Club is a brilliant idea – given The Beatles’ enduring popularity with Americans and Brits alike.
The ship’s main theatre includes an almost full-length production of Jersey Boys, which is like being in the West End, as well as Havana, a Cuban dance show created especially for Norwegian.
Out on deck, Bliss boasts the biggest race track at sea, which proves to be a lot of fun, despite my initial reservations (priced at $9.95). Laser tag ($5) is the other part of Bliss’ blockbuster entertainment options that will keep the kids (and the young at heart) entertained on those days at sea. Although they will both probably be more popular during the ship’s Caribbean season.
Norwegian’s Aqua Park includes two slides – the sedate Aqua Racer and the heart-stopping Ocean Loops, which involves standing on a platform which is whipped away after a short countdown – sending you hurtling down a slide and then steeply up in a big circle – if you’ve built up enough speed. If not, you slide back down and have to be rescued by one of the slide’s attendants.
Norwegian says that Bliss has been built for Alaskan cruises. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the 1,800 square metre Observation Lounge up on deck 15. The huge space – with 180-degree views – is perfect for a scenic sail through the Inside Passage. The lounge is incredibly well designed, with sophisticated furniture and a classy colour palette. You could say it’s more Oceania than traditional Norwegian Cruise Line – and it’s one of the best examples I have seen of the influence that
Frank del Rio has had on the company since the deal with his ultra-luxury lines Regent Seven Seas and Oceania.
It seems that Norwegian has massively upped its game on Norwegian Bliss. This is a ship that is going to spend its time between Alaska and the Caribbean – a difficult balancing act. However, under the company’s current stewardship, it is getting it exactly right.