|The Norwegian Bliss docks in Victoria B.C.|
The first ever cruise line to homeport in Seattle 18 years ago is now sailing the biggest ship to call in the Northwest. The popular week-long Seattle/ Alaska round trips, with port calls in British Columbia, has transformed the city into the largest cruise port on the West Coast. Norwegian Cruise Lines christened the Norwegian Bliss last week with travel writers, travel agents and clients aboard for a three-day preview cruise between Seattle and Victoria, B.C.
|Seattle's Pier 66: The Bliss' summer homeport|
The Port of Seattle expects more than one million cruise passengers to pass through the city this year on 218 vessels, pumping more than $500 million into the local economy. Like many in Seattle, I have mixed feelings about this. While I don't like seeing my favorite downtown restaurants and the Pike Place Market crowded to capacity every weekend, I do appreciate that many businesses couldn't sustain the winter months without tourism. And who wouldn't want to visit this beautiful city? Just look at the view above of Pier 66, the Bell Street Cruise Terminal on the Seattle waterfront. This is where the Bliss will homeport this summer, bringing in more than 4,000 passengers and 1,800 crew members per week from now through September when it repositions for the Caribbean.
So...what's it like to be on a mega-ship with 20 decks, 2,043 staterooms and more than 4,000 passengers? I can't tell you because there were only around 1,500 people and few children on our preview sailing, not counting many more on board just for the day of the christening on May 30. Once the day-trippers left, we easily found seating around the pools, in the observation lounge, and along the "waterfront," a open-air deck lined with comfortable couches and restaurants with outdoor tables.
|The "waterfront" deck|
Bars, restaurants, nightclubs and a go-kart track on the top deck felt more crowded, even with fewer people on board, indicating passengers on regular sailings will be wise to reserve ahead for restaurants and popular activities.
My husband and I tried to experience as much as we could in three nights. Here's an overview of some of our favorite finds:
Favorite public space: The huge wrap-around Observation Lounge on Deck 15 near the front of the ship. With floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable chairs, tables and couches, a full-service bar and a tasty and healthy complimentary breakfast buffet, the lounge was designed to maximize views of Alaska's mountain scenery. I loved this space for a quiet morning coffee and the New York Times downloaded onto my iPad. Kudos to Norwegian for limiting the noise level by banning music, lectures etc. and reserving such a large space for reading and relaxing. The downside is that the room's capacity is just 487, and even at half-full, it could feel like a much different experience.
|Observation Lounge bar|
Favorite bars: I treasured my afternoon lattes from the Observation Lounge bar, and liked the Northwest touches in the Maltings Whiskey bar, with cocktails on tap designed by Seattle mixologist and chef Kathy Casey. I'm not a bourbon drinker, but I could have overindulged on her blackberry bourbon smash.
Other favorites were the District Brewhouse with 24 beers on tap including a Red Hook IPA and a Seattle Dry Cider, and the Sugarcane Mojito bar, mostly because of the bartender, below, Clarense Bennet from Honduras. Another advantage of being on an uncrowded ship was the relaxed crew. We met and talked with people from Philippines as many other parts of the world. Crew members work 7-day shifts for the most part while onboard, and were anxious to learn about inexpensive places to shop in Seattle near Pier 66 for whenever they can disembark for a few hours.
Favorite dining spots: Norwegian is known for its casual, "free-style" dining, meaning no formal dress code or assigned dining. Included in the cost of the cruise are meals in the Garden Cafe, a large buffet with tables positioned along the windows and outside; three main dining rooms and the Local Bar and Grill, open 24/7. There's a fee for dining in other restaurants, including a steak house, Italian restaurant, Japanese restaurant and Texas smokehouse (always filled on our cruise), which might make purchasing a dining package worthwhile. I'll leave the details on that to the experts. Here's a link to a good overview on EatSleepCruise.com. We tried two of the fee restaurants, La Cucina and Cagney's Steakhouse, both with outdoor seating. Both were good, but noisy. I preferred the Manhattan main dining room (nice views of the sunset and mountains from the aft deck), both for ambience and food. We also found the Garden Cafe buffet relaxing for a light meal with lots of fresh and healthy choices.
|A lighted staircase and chandelier change colors|
Favorite staterooms: The best values seem to be the balcony suites with couches and spacious bathrooms. Priciest is the Haven, a luxury "ship within a ship," within a ship on Decks 17, 18 and 19? Here there are penthouses, private family villas and connecting suites; a private restaurant; observation lounge; bar; pool; sauna; spa; and concierge desk. Oceanview and inside rooms cost less, of course, but considering that upgrades sometimes include a few free amenities (more dining options, free Wi-Fi, drinks etc.), passengers should look at all the options before booking. I was impressed by the studios designed and priced for solo travelers. There are 82 compact rooms furnished with full-sized beds and separate sinks and showers.
Favorite activities: Entertainment in an 800-seat theater includes an excellent performance of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Two heated pools, several hot tubs, an inner tube slide and a high-speed double loop waterside provide plenty of water fun for adults and kids, but I predict the longest lines will be at the two-level race track on the top deck. Up to 10 drivers (no age limit but minimum and maximum height limits) race around the track in electric cars ($7 a ride). Kids shorter than four feet can go with a parent in a two-seater. Also on the top deck is an open-air laser tag course.
Costs: Don't be fooled by ads touting seemingly cheap prices for cruises aboard the Bliss. Inside rooms on its Alaska Highlights cruise start at $1,049 per person for the last seven-day sailing in September, but go as high as $1,500 in July and August. Balcony rooms range from $1,600 in September to $2,300 in July. Staterooms in the Haven go from $3,500 in September to $7,500 in late June. Add to these prices a daily service fee of $14.50 per person, extra charges for alcoholic drinks, laser tag, go-karts, fee restaurants and drinks plus an 18 percent gratuity on all bar purchase and services in the spa and salon.
If you really want a bargain on the Bliss, consider the six-night Pacific Coastal Cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles Sept. 30-Oct. 5, as the ship repositions for the winter. Prices range from $599 for an inside room to $2,399 in the Haven.