Part 1 of an Observer News feature story
The fish swim forward. On the carpet, that is.
On a ship this large, with 4,000 people and nearly 1,600 crew members, having patterns of little schools of fish swimming embroidered into the carpet in the companionways helps find your way around — they were always swimming toward the bow, or the pointy-end. It made finding your way around easier, for the first day or so, at least. After that, the ship became home.
I want to go back. Right now I want to go back to the ship upon which we sailed into Caribbean sunrises only a short while ago. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every cruise I’ve taken, but there was something special about cruising on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Getaway. I really liked my ship, and yes, after a short time aboard, it became “my ship,” just as it was for the other thousands of people who called it home for an all-too-short week.
Within hours or days, you find the places you like, you begin meeting the people you enjoy, and suddenly it’s yours. All yours. Or ours, as was the case with my wife Michelle and me.
I’ve spent most of my life traveling, and, to me, cruises are the best possible way to vacation, both in terms of value and experience, the latter assuming it’s done right. Once the docklines are untied and the thrusters kick in to move the ship away from the dock, everything in the “real world” is left behind — and suddenly you are on vacation. Those bills on the table, any deadlines you may have had, are a fading memory.
And despite enjoying all of my past cruises, I quickly discovered that no one has the concept of being on vacation down to a fine art like Norwegian does. Aside from the (very) mandatory muster drill before the ship departs, there is absolutely nothing expected of you.
Even the dining room, a long-held tradition by other cruise lines, and, to be honest, a largely enjoyable one, is not something pushed upon Norwegian passengers. That may appear troublesome to traditionalists, but I found it freeing. While three formal, traditional dining rooms were available on Getaway, there are no set tables, no assigned waiters (although you can request both). You can go if you’d like, or not if you’d prefer.
With 27 restaurants aboard the ship, most of them included in the price of passage, along with a few outstanding restaurants available for a nominal, additional set fee, there was no shortage of options for dining.
The message was this: This is your vacation. Enjoy it without schedules or expectations. Take part if you wish, as Michelle and I did on a voluntary formal night, dressing up to enjoy an excellent dinner in one of the three beautifully appointed dining rooms (with accommodations for dancing afterward) but don’t feel compelled. There is complimentary 24-hour room service that will deliver even a pizza directly to your stateroom, should you prefer to relax in private indulgence.
And speaking of tradition, cruise ships are a continual topic of discussion among those interested in maritime history and tradition. Many such adherents consider cruise ships ugly and Norwegian certainly stands out with their ships, all decorated with enormous bow art, much of which comes from artists of note and fame, the most famous of which is American artist Peter Max; his work depicting New York is on the Norwegian Breakaway.
The artwork, while perhaps not traditional, does indicate something else apparent at Norwegian: a strict attention to the care of not only the passengers but also to the ship itself. Caring for that artwork, taking the pounding of the seas on a continual basis, is an enormous responsibility.
Moreover, I have never been on a ship as well kept as Getaway: The decks were cleaned — and continuously so. The varnish gleamed and empty cups were picked up religiously. Nor have I ever been aboard a ship that left notes for those in balcony cabins to ensure that doors were closed and locked, as the entire ship would be washed down in port. That attention to detail, both large and small, is telling — and it’s telling a good story.
And as for the traditionalists, I have to take exception in terms of ship design. Getaway, a fairly new ship and one of the largest to sail out of the port of Miami, is an example of design genius. It is a floating city of nearly 5,600 people that sails into the Atlantic Ocean, regardless of weather or conditions. Yet somehow, the designers of the ship managed to create spaces for everyone. It is the only ship upon which I have sailed in which there were always places to sit in the various lounges and quiet nooks and crannies without an intensive search or having to lurk, waiting for an open chair.
Certainly the design is not as traditional as others, there is no wraparound Promenade Deck, for instance (there is a promenade, called the Waterfront, with sitting areas, restaurants and lounges interspersed along the lengths, but to walk around the entirety of the ship requires changing decks to access the incredible view from the stern), space is maximized so you never feel crowded, you never feel as though you are cargo jammed into a 1,068-foot space. The ship is a masterpiece of design in allowing people private space while giving the passengers ample places to congregate and have fun.
And the attention paid to the ship is extended even more to the passengers by the crew. I never had the pleasure of meeting Sean Wurmhoeringer, the hotel director and the person responsible for a significant number of the crew and for the comfort and pleasure of all of the passengers, but I do know this: He runs a very tight ship. Although having to wait in line for anything was a rarity, what was even more rare was having to get up at all — invariably, no matter where on the ship, a crewmember was there to ask if they could get you anything. With 4,000 people aboard, that is an amazing feat of service that no ship I’ve seen has yet matched — and to be sure, every cruise line provides excellent service. Norwegian just somehow manages to take it a step further.
Even the commander of the ship, Captain Rune Myre, engaged with the passengers far more than I’ve experienced — and I’ve never met a cruise ship captain who was anything less than utterly impressive. Captain Myre, however, posed for photos with passengers, and the traditional Captain’s Dinner, a formal and exclusive event that often includes loyal, repeat customers and passengers celebrating very special events, was done democratically — the captain’s guests were chosen by lottery, thus giving anyone interested an equal shot at a highly memorable event. Tours of the bridge and the inner workings of the ship were available not just to VIPs but to anyone willing to pay the relatively modest price of admission.
The daily entertainment lineup, virtually all of it offered at no additional charge, was almost overwhelming, and it reflected the diverse nature of the passengers aboard. In great numbers aboard were young couples and young families, there were many multigenerational families sharing tables over dinner, and there were retirees and the elderly, all sharing an adventure in common yet one of their own making.
There was a sexy men’s legs contest on Deck 15 while SpongeBob SquarePants was hugging children and posing for photos on Deck 7. There were bacon cheeseburgers and fish-and-chips (part of complimentary dining) in the Irish pub on Deck 16. There was a group gathered on Deck 8 outside of the hermetically sealed Humidor cigar lounge to learn how to de-toxify their bodies. And on that note, in the two other designated smoking areas on the ship (even balconies are nonsmoking), strangers on their way to becoming friends chatted about quitting between puffs, particularly with those who were “vaping,” using the relatively new electronic cigarettes (which were also restricted to the smoking areas to avoid alarming passengers).
There was duty-free shopping and there were art auctions and Broadway-quality shows. There were concerts, and there were people feeling their blood pressure go down simply enjoying the couches and chairs available for reading or partaking in the increasingly rare act of just relaxing. There were sodas and piña coladas, and there was a city afloat on the ocean, traveling to the islands and back, and there was laughter and fireworks off the stern of the ship to the cheers of a crowd.
And nothing was expected of anyone. It was, by all measures, the ultimate vacation. It was a place where we followed the fish forward to our cabin, our home, opened the balcony door to hear the ocean pass by and sank into our bed, softer and more comfortable than those found at even the best hotels, not worrying about a single thing.
Please join us next week aboard the Norwegian Getaway as we check out the islands, discover the indescribable pleasure of damp, ice-cold, mint-infused washcloths and even hear from flight attendants, yes flight attendants, on some pretty extreme and gruesome measures people take to sneak smokes on airplanes, along with how it is possible to wrap up in a parka and shiver in the Caribbean. But most of all join us next week for a really good time, brought about in a way that living in Florida can make not only possible but also downright easy.