By David G. Molyneaux, editor, The Travel Mavens
As moderate winds gently stirred the ocean off the east coast of Florida and a steel band played jaunty Caribbean tunes, at least a thousand passengers lounged on deck in chaise chairs, swimming pools or hot tubs, savoring the warmth of the afternoon sun.
I went bowling.
Yes, bowling, the indoor game that requires a level surface and enough precision to knock over 10 pins with a spinning ball that sports holes for three fingers. Bowling, normally a land-based game, has gone to sea, half a dozen decks below the sunshine on two NCL ships, the Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Gem.
With new ships debuting every few months, each cruise line is looking for a gimmick to seduce passengers. We've seen soaring rock-climbing walls, giant water slides and goofy miniature golf courses.
To its newest 2,400-passenger ships cruising this winter to the Bahamas and Caribbean -- the Norwegian Gem out of New York City and Norwegian Pearl based in Miami -- Norwegian Cruise Lines has added a four-lane bowling alley.
Bowling in the Bliss Lounge
Flashy, computerized Brunswick machinery, the same kind used in land-based bowling alleys, runs the four lanes, a pair of which are set on each side of the Bliss Ultra Lounge & Nightclub. This Bliss is not peace and quiet, but a moody, electric environment accoutered in Asian decor -- golden dragons, red velvet curtains and arrangements of plush sofas, chaises and daybeds.
In the daytime, Bliss is a sports bar with overhead flat-screen televisions showing athletic events around the world. In the evening, Bliss changes into a hip, high-energy nightclub, with the mammoth plasma screens tuned to music videos.
Bowling balls keep rolling, day and night. Deep into the evening, the dance floor fills to a disco beat. Thump goes the music. Clink go the glasses at the bar. Crash go the pins in the alleys. Clunk goes a gutter ball.
You've got to hear it to believe it.
Appealing to a younger, more active crowd
Bowling may seem a rather off-the-wall activity at sea, but anything off-kilter or out of the ordinary fits the image enthusiastically cultivated by Norwegian, even climbing a 30-foot rock wall, left.
What was once a frayed, near-bankrupt company in the late 1990s now offers one of the newest fleets of cruise ships, with eight ships inaugurated since 1999. The newest are designed to appeal to a younger, free-spirited vacationer, a new generation of customers who once thought cruising was dull and appealed mostly to older travelers.
The Norwegian concept is an edgy style of vacationing that is free of structure and schedules, especially at meal time, which can be just about anytime you want.
The Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Gem, like their sister ships, have 10 restaurants, three of which have a cover charge of $20 per person -- a steak house, a bistro and an Asian restaurant with sushi and teppanyaki. The rest are included in the cruise price. At most times of the day and night, passengers can find a full meal in at least one of the restaurants, or they can order room service in their cabins.
At night, the ships become a busy city neighborhood of restaurants and bars on several decks. Passengers barhop and examine menus outside each restaurant door.
All restaurants are listed on plasma screens in public areas. The screens indicate which restaurants are full, moderately busy or nearly empty and show estimated waiting time and the sizes of tables available. For busy restaurants, passengers put their names on a wait list and are issued a pager that works anywhere on the ships, including the various bars, lounges and the bowling alley.
Dining in the Great Outdoors
For breakfast and lunch, my favorite eating spot on the Pearl and Gem, as on her Norwegian sisters, is not at one of the fancier restaurants, but outdoors, at the simpler Great Outdoors cafe on the top deck at the aft end of the ship.
Great Outdoors is one of two adjacent informal cafes. They serve food buffet-style, not at cafeteria-like steam tables but at stations with attractive serving dishes on hot plates built into tabletops.
This improvement over typical ship steam tables results in an atmosphere more like a sophisticated party. I give extra marks to Norwegian for providing a breakfast toaster where passengers can burn their own bread rather than make do with limp pieces of warm bread often served on buffet lines.
Alas, cigarette smoking is allowed on the starboard (right) side of the outdoor cafe. I believe smoking should be forbidden on cruise ships, and certainly in all dining areas, even outside. Eventually, authorities will ban smoking on cruise ships as a fire and health hazard.
Most of the cabins on the Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Gem have spacious bathrooms with toilet, washstand and shower separated by sliding doors for privacy.
The Pearl and Gem also have some of the more luxurious -- and expensive -- high-end suites among mass-marketed ships.
Top-deck accommodations include two 4,390-square-foot Garden Villas, with three bedrooms, each with a private bathroom. These villas are equipped with a private garden, a hot tub and steam room, a butler and a limousine from the pier to the airport after the cruise. Price: $30,000 a week.
Other top suites include 10 villas that share a sundeck and private pool, and two owner's suites.
A moment of quiet in the pool deck hot tub
The Norwegian Pearl, which cruises to Alaska out of Seattle in the summer, is in Miami in winter.
The newest ship, the Norwegian Gem, cruises out of New York City in winter, doing 7-night voyages to Florida and the Bahamas, and longer cruises to the Southern Caribbean. In summer, the Gem is in the Mediterranean Sea, cruising out of the port of Barcelona, Spain
For the best rates, contact a travel agent who specializes in cruises or check out the ship at ncl (click on ships, then scroll down to Norwegian Gem or Norwegian Pearl.)
Most cruises include one or more days at sea, so you will have spare time to focus on your bowling.
The ship charges $5 per game for bowling, including a rental pair of bowling shoes. As I concentrated on my best bowling form off the coast of Florida, the seas stayed calm, the ball ran true and the only adversity was my own clumsiness -- right in league with many other passengers in the Bliss of the Norwegian Pearl.