Norwegian Bliss Review: Alaska Gets Best In Class
Alaska is about to get hotter with the arrival of Norwegian Cruise Line's latest Breakaway-Plus class ship, Norwegian Bliss.
The ship, "designed for Alaska," introduces go-karts, laser tag, and freestyle cruising to an already crowded Alaskan cruise market. So can it make a splash?
Knowing the ship was Alaska-bound - and Alaska being my #1 bucket list destination - I jumped at the chance to tour the vessel. And while the route from Bremerhaven, Germany, to Southampton is not exactly lined with glaciers and dramatic landscapes, I pictured myself sailing out of Seattle to work out whether this ship would suit the magnificent Alaskan coastline.
Introducing Norwegian Bliss
Following in the footsteps of Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Bliss has a lot to live up to. The ship cherry-picks the best features of those two ships, but then makes a name for itself with the addition of a spectacular observation lounge that sits atop of the bridge, affording views to rival the captain's.
At 167,800 gross tons, she's firmly classed as a large cruise ship, with 2,043 cabins housing up to 4,004 passengers, eager to see the sights of Alaska sailing from Seattle in the summer or eager to chase the Caribbean sun from Miami in the winter.
A boat load of fun
There's a shed load of things to do on this ship: go karting; battle in laser tag; splash in the water park; race on the water slides; relax in the pools; head to the gym; treat yourself in the Mandara Spa; send the kids to the children's clubs; geek out in the games arcade; flirt with Lady Luck in the casino; or relax and take in the surrounding sea views.
The fabulous hull artwork is courtesy of Robert Wyland, an American artist with a passion for marine life and conservation. The result is stunning and is my all-time favourite Norwegian hull artwork to date. Just picture that set against the rugged Alaskan coastline.
Lovers of Wyland's work will be pleased to discover the series of painting tutorials on a dedicated TV channel - I'm the most inartistic person you could meet but he makes it looks so effortless and even I wanted to pick up a brush and have a go. I so hope Norwegian looks into hosting Wyland for a handful of cruises where he can host hands-on masterclasses. I'd pay for that.
What are the best bits of Bliss?
Being the third in class, there's plenty of crossover with Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Joy. If you've sailed on either of those, Norwegian Bliss will instantly feel familiar, albeit with a few twists and enhancements. I'd strongly encourage you to read my Norwegian Escape review as that was my first experience of a Breakway-Plus ship and covers the now-standard features.
As far as the standout features that help to differentiate Norwegian Bliss, I'd say there are four key pillars.
Karting on a cruise ship? It has to be one of the more bonkers ideas but it really does work and it really is incredibly popular. Pre-bookable sessions fill up fast so you need and for good reason to - this really is as much fun as it looks!
The experience is lifted straight off Norwegian Joy, so much so that even the information screens have Chinese subtitles. The two-storey track itself is a little bit bigger than on Norwegian Bliss' sister ship, and better facilitates overtaking.
Despite many warnings as you queue up that this isn't a contact sport, some racers see red mist and go for aggressive contact. Supervisors are usually quick to slow down all cars and warn riders if this happens, spoiling the experience for everyone. A member of the Norwegian team told me that while people think it's all about overtaking as many people as possible, the real aim is to get the fastest time on the board, often achieved by streamlining corners and putting your foot down on the straights.
Another limitation is that overtaking without contact isn't easy, and so with up to 10 people on the track at a time, getting stuck behind a slow driver is to be expected. The electric cars can achieve speeds of up to 43mph (70km/h) but every time I took to the track it felt a lot slower than that. Batteries are monitored and topped up as an when needed during the changing of drivers.
The setup on the ship means there's more cars than riders to enable continuous operation, and it can handle up to 50 people an hour. Go during dinner time and you'll find fewer people queuing to ride, which means it should feel like a faster experience.
There's no age restriction on the karts, just a height restriction of 1.2 metres. The smallest riders can ride with their parents or guardians in special two-seater karts, although these need to be pre-booked separately at the track. These run alongside regular cars, or if demand dictates, in a heat solely of two-rider cars. The supervisor also told me that they can block-book events for larger groups of friends and family, should they wish to have the track to themselves, such as during a Birthday celebration.
The real test of the race track will be how it fares in the Alaskan climate. As safety is key, racing only goes ahead when the track conditions are dry. I was told anything more than a light drizzle would stop play, and Alaska isn't exactly known for its beach weather...
Be aware that karting is chargeable experience that will set you back $7 (≈ £6) a go. If you are on a budget, I'd recommend booking an evening slot where there might be less competition clogging up the track. The fewer people on the track means you can put your foot down and go for it.
In an instant, I was a child again, running around shooting the baddies. I haven't played laser tag for years and this was super
In a distant future, the world has descended into chaos. And amongst the wreckage of crashed space ships and preserved aliens, you need to save yourselves by targetting your opponents. It's every man and woman for themselves.
The rules and features of the weapon are somewhat complicated and it's difficult to make out your opponents in daylight, as tiny red and blue lights on the laser guns denote which team you're on. So I spent a good chunk of my time shooting my own team members. Maybe that's why we lost (oops).
I ducked, dived, and walked speedily (no running permitted) around the course. By the end of it my heart-rate was through the roof. Forget the Fitness Centre - head to laser tag instead for a high intensity fitness workout.
Laser tag is another hugely popular pre-bookable event so you need to secure tickets for sessions at the purpose-built arena to play. The best time for laser tag is when it gets dark - the complex becomes more eerie and it's easier to identify opponents. Book dinner for after the event, not before.
As with karting, this is a weather-dependant activity as rain can make the floor of the open-air venue slippery.
Be aware that laser tag is chargeable experience that will set you back $5 (≈ £4) a go. If you are on a budget, I'd recommend booking an evening slot for the best bang for your buck.
The Observation lounge wraps around the very front of the ship spanning 325 square metres, and this space is simply incredible. But it's the very front that gives the best views to rival those of the captain. It's easy to see how this space will fill up on an Alaskan cruise, particularly as the ship nears glaciers.
The Garden Café sits on a mezzanine level that eats into the two-deck tall glazing, so if you can't find seating in the lounge you might have more luck in the buffet upstairs.
Seating is limited where the best views are, and the few seats that there are will be hotly contested.
But still, it's an elegant venue and one of my favourite spaces on the ship. With all the talk of the ship being built specifically for the Alaskan cruise market, it's this space that really demonstrates that philosophy perfectly.
Starbucks coffee has been served on Norwegian Cruise Line vessels for a while now, but this is the first purpose-built café they've installed on a ship. And it's just as good as any land-based equivalent (the massive complex in Shanghai excepted). It looks like a Starbucks, it smells like a Starbucks, and importantly, the drinks and cakes are spot on too.
It's fitting that the first Starbucks store on a Norwegian ship happens to be on the vessel that's home-porting in Seattle where the coffee mega-chain was founded in 1971. Coffee and Starbucks addicts like myself should factor in time before or after an Alaskan cruise to head to Pike Place Market to see where it all began.
The branch onboard Norwegian Bliss was pretty quiet first thing in the morning and last thing at night. At lunch the queue nearly stretched out the door.
There are 19 dining venues onboard, with half a dozen of them complimentary. The rest are à la carte, where items on menu are individually priced.
I like the flexibility of freestyle dining where there's no fixed dining times and no pre-assigned seating, but you can't always rock up to a restaurant and find a space. On this mini cruise, reservations for the second night sold out by early morning demonstrating the need to pre-book for the hottest restaurants. The morale here is if there's something you really want to try, pre-book it as soon as you can to avoid missing out.
- Savour and Taste main dining rooms - these have slightly different décors and sit opposite each other. Both offer varied menus with something for everyone.
- The Manhattan Room - the most elegant of the main dining rooms, serving a range of modern and classic dishes.
- The Haven Restaurant (for Haven guests only) - this offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a private venue inside The Haven ship-within-a-ship complex.
- Garden Café buffet - expect the usual set up with plenty of choice across a range of cuisines. Head to the front of the ship for the best seats that overlook the Observation Lounge.
- The Local- this serves up pub food such as Chicken Pot Pie and Fish and Chips.
À la carte venues
Speciality venues that line The Waterfront have indoor and outdoor seating available, so you can watch the ever-changing scenery from outside should you wish.
- Q Texas Smokehouse -A new concept for Norwegian and it really is spectacular, with Texan portions of delicious smoked meats served with Southern hospitality. Read my review of Q Texas Smokehouse.
- Cagney's Steakhouse - NCL's signature American-style steakhouse should not be missed.
- Teppanyaki - a Japanese hibachi restaurant where the show is just as good as the food. Expect impressive moves from skilful chefs as they cook in front of you.
- La Cucina - an Italian restaurant specialising in Tuscan cuisine.
- Le Bistro - the signature French restaurant.
- Los Lobos - a Mexican restaurant serving up generous portions.
- Ocean Blue - a seafood restaurant that may well come into its own in the Alaskan and Caribbean waters (the menu didn't look too exciting on my trip).
- Food Republic - serving fusion food from around the world, with iPad ordering. Read my review of Food Republic on Norwegian Escape here.
- Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at Sea - as the name suggests!
- Starbucks - this is the first dedicated store on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, and it looks just as good as any land-based outlet.
- Coco's - a chocolate lover's paradise, with cakes, pralines, crepes, and coffee available throughout the day.
- Dolce Gelato - serving up an American take on Italian gelato, with a variety of slow churned, dense ice cream on offer.
- Room service - a variety of options (some complimentary, some priced à la carte) are available 24/7. Bear in mind a convenience charge of $7.95 (≈ £6) may apply.
Settling the bill
Be aware that on most items available at the à la carte venues, there's a 20% gratuity and speciality service charge to pay on top of the cost of your meal.
Bars and lounges
Fancy a drink? Liquid refreshment is never far away with 14 bars and lounges on Norwegian Bliss.
It's 5 o'clock somewhere
Each bar or lounge has a different ambience and its worth seeking them all out to find your favourite. Choose amonst the Atrium Bar; the Maltings Whiskey Bar; Skyline Bar; Spice H20; Sugarcane Mojito Bar; The A-List Bar; The Cellars Wine Bar; the grungy District Brew House; The Local pub; The Observation Lounge; or the Vibe Beach Club. For Beatles-themed entertainment, check out The Cavern Club. Smokers should make a beeline for Humidor Cigar Lounge, while The Haven guests can make full use of the Horizon Lounge that sits inside The Haven complex with views to rival The Observation Lounge below.
The Observation Lounge is home to the bar with the best views on the ship. The outdoor bars at Spice H20 and Vibe Beach Club were popular in the hot sunshine. My favourite was the A-List Bar, named after Andy Stuart, President and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, which is ideally situated for a pre-dinner drink.
There's plenty to get up to on this ship, and in between exciting ports of call, you'll struggle to cram it all in.
- The Race Track is the headline feature onboard and rightly so. It's unique to Norwegian Cruise Line and is incredibly fun.
- Laser tag in a purpose-built open-air complex at the top of the ship comes in a very close second.
- The Aqua Park has a selection of water slides and there's a play area for kids too.
- The expansive Bliss Casino has slot machines and table games to suit all tastes and abilities.
- Head to Mandara Spa for a variety of spa treatments. There's also a thermal suite equipped with sweltering steam rooms and a chilly Snow Room (yes, with real snow). I was told that alternating between the snow and steam rooms around half a dozen times is a great way to cleanse your pores. The Salt Room is less intense than both those options and mimics natural salt caves found in Eastern Europe.
- The spa is also equipped with a Barber Shop for male grooming services and a Hair Salon. Should you feel energetic, the Fitness Centre is equipped with state of the art facilities and hosts various classes and workshops.
Just for the kids
- Guppies Nursery is for the youngest sailors and is bright, colourful, and equipped with a range of toys and games.
- Splash Academy is the versatile space for children with plenty of options such as creative play, sports, themed activities, and parties. Rooms can be partitioned off to create zones or opened up to create a massive shared entertainment space.
- Teens get Entourage, a place to hang out with a variety of movies, art, music, video games, and dance parties on offer.
Unlike other mainstream cruise lines that are busy adding pricey high-end branded boutiques to satisfy only their wealthier travellers, Norwegian has opted to stick with the model of offering a handful of shops, stocking a wide range of products to suit all budgets.
You'll find beauty products from the likes of Chanel, Dior, Lancôme, Estēe Lauder, Clinique, and L'Oreal in The Beauty Shop, and fashion brands like Michael Kors, Fossil, Ferrari, Swarovski, and Invicta at The Tides. The Time Zone is where you'll find watches from Hublot, Tag Heuer, Longines, Tissot, Mont Blanc, and Movado. At the cheaper end of the scale you'll find The Margaritaville Store full of beach-inspired apparel, gifts, and souvenirs. Tradewinds is home to plenty of Norwegian Bliss and NCL merchandise, while Sandbar and The Market Place is where you'll find tax- and duty-free products.
Broadway-style shows are a highlight of any cruise. Sadly, due to a dinner that overran, I disappointingly missed the flagship production show, Jersey Boys, on Norwegian Bliss. The word from those that managed to see it was that it was incredible, if a little too long.
I did sit through ¡Havana!, an original show from Norwegian. During a press conference the show was hyped by the cruise line's CEO, but I don't think it lived up to expectations. While the costumes were glitzy (and skimpy in some scenes), the story of a 1950s Cuban mobster trying to take over a club felt drawn out and the music wasn't particularly catchy. A surprising number of people walked out mid-way through the show. Occasional profanities and scantily-clad gyrating men and women might put some families off seeing this show.
Other entertainment on the ship includes Happy Hour Prohibition - The Musical, a Beatles cover band at the The Cavern Club, a Social Comedy and Night Club, and themed parties. Caliente took place on the pool deck and ran well beyond 1am.
Picking a cabin
Beware if you've booked a cabin anywhere near the pool deck - I could clearly hear the music and feel the bass in the floor and walls three decks down. On a two-night trip, it's fine. If I was travelling with my son, I'd have been just as cranky as he would be.
The standard array of cabin categories are available on Norwegian Bliss, although they generally feel more compact than similar grades on ships by other cruise lines. If cabin space is important to you, consider booking one or two categories above what you normally book elsewhere (i.e. book an outside or balcony instead of an inside, or book a suite instead of a balcony cabin).
- Studio cabins - these are incredibly compact but well-designed to maximise storage space. Virtual windows (TV screens streaming live webcam footage) now replace the windows onto the corridor, which is an excellent change.
- Inside cabins - these are small by nature and the lack of natural light often makes them the cheapest grade of cabin on ships, but the modern décor and design helps make the cabin feel a little more spacious.
- Outside cabins - as above, with the addition of a small window. The best such cabins line the front of the ship, and feature cushions to sit and gaze out the front of the ship.
- Balcony cabins - a step up from outside cabins with the addition of a private balcony. Expect a tight squeeze with more than two people sharing the cabin. The Spa Balcony is pretty much the same thing, with a closer proximity to the spa, plus complimentary access to the Thermal Suite during regular Spa hours.
- Mini suites - This is the grade I had for my sailing and couldn't see much of a difference between that and a balcony cabin except for a larger bathroom with a fancier shower. Space is still very much at a premium, even in a mini suite. The Spa Mini Suite variant again includes complimentary access to the Thermal Suite. Read my review on a mini suite on Norwegian Bliss.
- The Haven suites - An extensive range of plush suites with much more room - and an equally sizeable price tag. But you get what you pay for, and that includes access to the ship-within-a-ship complex comprising of a pool, private sun-deck, observation lounge, bar, and restaurant. Luxury amenities, 24-hour butler service, and a concierge service all help to make the experience feel as fabulous as can be.
Norwegian Bliss represents the very best of Norwegian Cruise Line right now. As the third ship in the class, it's difficult to introduce much in the way of new features, so Norwegian has cherry-picked the very best of what they already have and blended it with some enhancements here and there.
The ship was dubbed as "being built for Alaska" and apart from the stunning Observation Lounge, I struggle to see how. The weather-dependant facilities onboard - go karting, laser tags, water slides, etc. - are much better suited to the hot and sunny climate of the Caribbean.
Personally, I don't see Norwegian Bliss sticking around for long in Alaska, but time will tell. The mere fact that a brand new ship is home-porting in Seattle and is sailing to Alaska at least raises awareness of the region and helps to fuel the North American economy, which in itself has got to be a great thing.
The ship is well-suited to a wide variety of people looking to tour Alaska in the summer and the Caribbean in the winter. Families in particular will find a good range of choice, with plenty to keep the kids happy. Solo travellers are well accommodated as are couples. And if you seek high-end luxury with yacht-like facilities, The Haven is ideal for you.
Overall, Norwegian Bliss is a great ship and I'm sure plenty of people will have a fantastic time onboard the best in class. I'm especially jealous of anyone who has booked to sail Alaska in The Haven on this ship - want to trade places?
What did everyone else make of it?
The great thing about our cruise blogger community is there's so much diversity, with everyone interested in different features and facilities of the ship.
Marcus at Sparkx has put together a great review on what you can get up to on the ship. He's also put together this 17-minute tour of the ship:
Sarah at Extraordinary Chaos took us on a tour of her mini suite on Norwegian Bliss.
Honest Cruising's Ben and David put together this slick video showcasing the best the ship has to offer:
Cruise Sisters Juliet and Janice put together a list of their top 10 things to do on the ship (in German).
Meanwhile, self-confessed maritime geek Andrew went on a walkabout of the ship, condensing his ship tour into a bite-size video:
What do you think of Norwegian Bliss? Is she best suited to Alaska or the Caribbean? Let me know in the comments below.
Disclosure: Norwegian Cruise Line kindly supplied an all-inclusive mini cruise from Bremerhaven to Southampton, while I paid for travel to and from the ports. All opinions are my own.