SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Katie Pesznecker and her husband Joe Niva took a Caribbean cruise on the brand-new Norwegian Prima last month. This is her report.
Having recently been on my first cruise, I can now say, I get it. I get why people become cruisers. I understand the lure of the at-sea hedonism, the indulgence and the gluttony, the carefree vibe of port-hopping – cruising is something else. We sort of stumbled into our cruise experience when my husband was offered a booking through his Caesar’s Rewards Program. We figured, why not? Enough friends had recently raved about their own sunny sails at sea.
We sailed out of Port Canaveral aboard the Norwegian Prima, a gleaming brand-new vessel that had its inaugural sail last September. If other cruise lines are known for being budget-conscious or family-friendly, Norwegian is known for cool luxury, laid-back vibes and a higher-end experience. Right up our alley!
My experience aboard the Prima straight-up smashed many of my long-held cruising assumptions. For example, I pictured a packed ship where finding a quiet corner would prove impossible. Untrue! Yes, if you wanted a crowded nightclub, a busy comedy lounge, or a clubby sundeck with a DJ and boozy drinks, the Prima had it.
The ship also featured plentiful spaces with thoughtfully curated vibes that appealed to a more mature, laid-back crowd. I loved the Ocean Boulevard on deck 8, with small infinity pools, cushy double lounges surrounded by shallow pools of water, and just about every type of ocean-facing deck furniture you could imagine, decorated with delightfully colorful cushions and pillows.
Aft on Deck 8 was the Soleil Bar, an al fresco space that was usually less busy than other bars aboard, with some bar and table seating, and more of the bright-hued deck chairs and loungers. Some of my favorite on-board moments involved nothing more than relaxing in this space with a book, watching the sun set, sipping a glass of champagne, or one of the ship’s signature “red bubbles” cocktails, a concoction blending a berry puree with vodka and Prosecco.
We discovered another gem on the forward end of deck 17 in the Observation Lounge. With floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable seating, day-long available coffee and tea, and a bar, this was a gorgeous spot specifically designed for relaxing and solitude. The fact that they purposefully don’t schedule live acts or music in the Observation Lounge keeps it chill. We visited the first night when Joe’s Caesar’s Rewards contacts hosted a welcome reception and we returned often.
All told, the Prima featured 11 bars that were all included in our comped beverage package (thank you Caesar’s!). These watering holes included the more refined Whiskey Bar on the ship’s interior atrium, and The Local Bar & Grill, which had a sports bar vibe and even played live sports on its big screens, offering a thread of connection to the real world. The Local was the spot that stayed open the latest for both food and dining.
Another preconceived notion I had about cruising was the rigidity of dining – reservations for every meal and assigned seating. Norwegian has flipped the script on this traditional approach with what it calls “freestyle” cruising. Basically, you don’t need reservations to eat anywhere – not at the all-inclusive buffets, nor at the more stylized specialty restaurants. Meal hours were expansive enough to accommodate everyone, from early risers to late-lunchers to midnight-snackers.
Our ship had seemingly endless dining options. Complimentary options included a comprehensive buffet, a couple of sit-down restaurants, and – our favorite – the Indulge Food Hall. With an urban, night-market vibe, this special space aft on deck 6 had seven food counters ranging from Indian to barbecue to tapas. Ordering from touchscreen tablets at tables and counters and swift service meant within minutes, friendly staff were delivering small plates of tasty treats.
Prima also offered an additional eight “a la cart” specialty restaurants that served dinner and have a more relaxed dress code than traditional cruise ships. For example, hats and flip-flips weren’t allowed, but shorts were fine. Popular options included the steakhouse, the sushi restaurant, and an Italian place.
While you could make reservations if you wanted, it wasn’t required, because as part of its “freestyle” dining approach, only a fraction of restaurant seating is held for reservations. Our cruise package included two dinners at the a la carte restaurants. We tried the French Le Bistro, where I enjoyed Dover sole with a lemon burre blanc. The glamorous space is tastefully arranged, with elaborate crystal chandeliers coming up out of the floors, white linens, and attentive service. Later in the cruise, we tried the Mexican restaurant, where we enjoyed guacamole made table-side, and enchiladas with mole sauce.
It would definitely be easy to over-indulge with all these dining options, but never fear: Prima had a gorgeous gym, offered a daily roster of fitness and yoga classes, and for a fee, a luxurious spa included soaking pools, a steam room and sauna.
Getting off the boat at port was also a sure-fire way to get activity and variety. Our seven-day route had us spend a full day at sea before waking up in Cozumel, Mexico; then the next day, Grand Cayman; then on to Ocho Rios, Jamaica; and finally, after a second full at-sea day, we spent the final full day in the Bahamas before returning to Florida.
We signed up for two excursions. The first, in Cozumel, involved joining about 30 of our fellow cruisers on an open-top bus tour of the city, led by our guide, Mafer. She was warm and informative as she led us through town square, and to a historic church. Then it was on to a relaxing sojourn at a beach club, then a tequila tasting.
Next stop: Grand Cayman! We booked an excursion here too, but had a little time before it started. We found a beach bar and rum punch and watched giant tarpon swim around in the waters below.
Our Grand Cayman tour was led by a laid-back local named Brennan. On our tour, we sampled locally made rum and rum cake, and visited Seven Fathoms Distillery, where rum is aged in barrels anchored 42 feet down on the ocean floor. This trip included a stop in “Hell,” a place named for black rock formations that create an eerie, toothy landscape. There’s also a post office there, and my husband got a kick out of sending postcards “from Hell” to people back home.
Finally, as a bonus, we stopped at Seven Mile Beach on the way home to dip our toes in the impossibly blue ocean.
Excursions were a great way to spend a day off-ship, maximize our onshore experience without troubling over logistics, and interact with locals. Timed right, you can still build in time to wander ashore and get to know the area a little.
But sometimes the best day ashore is doing nothing at all. Our final stop on our cruise was Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, a small island owned by cruise companies. It felt like one big beach party. While you could sign up for zip-lining, kayaking, or swimming with piglets, we enjoyed jerk chicken sandwiches and plates of fruit and blended, icy drinks, soaking up the sun with new friends made during our week aboard Prima. And of course, we had to swim in those gorgeous Bahamian-blue waters.
It’s amazing in hindsight that we spent an entire week on the ship and there was still so much we never saw or experienced. We enjoyed the pools and hot tubs, but never made it to go-carts, mini golf, or the virtual reality arcade – all co-located in an activity area on the upper deck, an ideal hub for families.
I did try playing Bingo one day – the grand prizes were $5,000 and a free cruise. Onboard, we also shopped at boutiques that rotated inventory regularly for variety. We caught some musical acts in the atrium, and did damage at the casino, where I participated in and placed second in a slots tournament. Apparently some free play credits await us in Las Vegas now!
Just some general thoughts on the experience: our stateroom, a balcony suite, was much larger than I expected, and extremely comfortable. We took less-drowsy Dramamine every morning preventatively, but overall the sailing was very smooth. The ship was incredibly easy to navigate: touchscreens throughout the common areas offered interactive maps and schedules, and while you could purchase WiFi at sea, you always were able to access the Norwegian app, which was loaded with information.
Also for the analogue folks, Prima delivered a daily newsletter to staterooms complete with activity schedules, restaurant and bar hours, maps and information on ports, and more. And I can’t say enough about the staff. From our room attendant who learned and used our first names in greeting from day 1, to the friendly bartenders, to the kind hosts who greeting you each time you came aboard again with cold wet hand towels and refreshing glasses of juice, they were top-tier.
Are cruises for everyone? Nope. But if you think you’d never do one and wouldn’t enjoy it, I challenge you to think again. Cruising is a great way to vacation in a social situation, try new activities and food, see new countries, and soak up sunshine. Our experience demonstrated that cruises are like any travel, really: it’s what you make of it. Whether you’re craving a peaceful experience, or an on-water party, the world’s your oyster aboard a cruise ship like Prima.
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