I caught my first glimpse of the Bliss as I swooped down from the highway into San Pedro, where the city of Los Angeles’ cruise terminal is located. In that moment I knew that the 13,000 kilometres I had flown to board this vessel had been totally worth it. A smooth check-in later, I was trudging up the gangway and into the belly of the leviathan.
It wasn’t long before a nice drink was nursing me as I shot the breeze on the deck. We would lift anchor only by evening; for now I was content to gaze at the giant container ships docked in the port and the jacaranda trees that had doused the surrounding hills in purple flames. I could have passed off as a seasoned cruise traveller. Only, I wasn’t. In fact, this was my first cruise ever.
That would set anyone’s heart throbbing with excitement. When the ship happens to be the brand-new Norwegian Bliss, you know you did something really nice in a past life to deserve this.
The Bliss was built in Papenburg, at Meyer Werft GmbH & Co. KG, a major German shipyard which was founded in 1795, started off with building small wooden boats, and has now become one of the leading builders of luxury passenger vessels in the world. Not only is the Bliss a singular aesthetic achievement, oozing perfection in every part, it is an engineering marvel too. The stats are stunning: Gross register tonnage: 168,028. Overall length: 1,094 feet. Max beam: 136 feet. Guest capacity: 4,200. Ship crew: 2,100. Given the figures, it’s remarkable how little time it took to put the Bliss together. Construction started on October 28, 2016. The float out was on February 17 this year, when the vessel was towed away from the yard’s building to get her funnel. The ship was delivered to Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) on April 21, with NCL CEO Andy Stuart signing the documents, after which NCL took possession of the ship. A series of inaugural cruises, which would transport the Bliss to its summer homeport of Seattle, started later on in the day. On May 14, the Norwegian Bliss passed through the Expanded Panama Canal, becoming the largest cruise ship to ever do so. A little over a week later, I was standing in my surprisingly spacious cabin with private balcony, and soaking in every detail like a sponge.
First cruises are like that. It’s an exciting new world, and you notice everything. Like all the smartly tucked-away cubbies that offer unbelievable amounts of storage inside the cabin. Like the way the toilet flushes, a source of constant fascination. Like how the ship’s carpet has fish woven into the pattern, all pointing you in the direction of the evacuation route in the extremely unlikely case of an emergency. Even the pre-toot off emergency drill, which only induced yawns from old cruising hands, had me all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
At some point, the ship pulled up its anchor and slid away quietly from the port. Honestly, it was hard to tell: the movement was so graceful, it was barely discernible. NCL’s cruising reputation rests on three differentiators: the food, of which there is a huge variety to choose from; the onboard entertainment, of a standard not often seen on a cruise ship; and the quality of its offshore excursions. The last was the only bit I couldn’t sample since this was a short high-seas cruise, sailing along the scenic Mexican coast—where we ran into some friendly dolphins—and returning back to LA. But, frankly, there was enough of the other two on the ship to keep me occupied throughout the duration of the cruise.
The F&B outlets were too numerous to count, let alone sample in their entirety on so short a journey. I mean, there was even a Starbucks (which I stayed far away from). I guess the idea is to have something for each of those 4,000 guests. A few outlets stood out for me. Q, a Texas smokehouse, is something of a coup, since open-flame grilling is tricky on a ship, making smokehouses a rarity at sea.
I found myself gravitating towards the Garden Café. With its lavish, buffet-style offerings, the complimentary, indoor restaurant serves three meals a day, with its floor-to-ceiling windows providing all the feasting your eyes could need. I think their seafood buffet, which they set out on the last day, will be remembered for many years to come. They even had an entire section devoted to Indian food and, with a little tweaking, I’m sure they can make it taste just like the food back home.
Other outlets, in no particular order, include a brew house with 24 beers on tap, an impressive wine cellar and the Observation Lounge at the front of the ship where the main dish really is the view. A few vegetarian options wouldn’t hurt though.
That brings us to the entertainment, the highlight of which are two musicals. One is Jersey Boys, a Tony Award-winning musical that just retired from Broadway. The other is Havana!, inspired by Cuba in the 1950s. It would be unfair to choose one show over the other. Both were energetic, floor-thumping performances that brought the house down.
Despite all the enticements, at some point you will want to sleep. Depending on what you shelled out, you could be in an entirely comfortable studio room with only an LCD screen beaming views of the scenery, a room with porthole windows, one with a private balcony, or something in the private-access Haven, a super-exclusive world-within-a-world of lavish suites, and its own facilities and restaurants.
As if all this weren’t enough, there’s a casino to either keep you amused or turn you into a millionaire overnight. The upper deck has water slides, a laser tag game facility, a really long go-karting track and a massive spa. And you can’t miss the hull art, designed by marine artist Wyland, best known for his ‘Whaling Wall’ murals, which saw him painting life-sized whales on 100 buildings around the world. On the inaugural cruise, Wyland taught a masterclass, revealing a thing or two about his craft.
Two blissful nights later, I bid a teary farewell to my first cruise. Back on land, over the next few days, I gushed to every stranger who would care to listen—“Oh, you know, I just got off a cruise ship”— evoking the same mixture of awe and envy every time. That’s what I call being twice blissed.
NCL Bliss, one of the largest cruise ships ever built, is currently homeported in Seattle and cruising to Alaska all summer. The 7D Alaska Highlights cruise starts at $899 per person (ncl. com). Guests can expect to witness massive ice chunks calving into the sea, take the reins of a dogsled in Juneau, go for a catamaran ride in Ketchikan, and take a ride on the White Pass and Yukon route narrow-gauge railroad in Skagway. Alaska has some amazing wildlife and that cool Observation Lounge will certainly come in handy to view it. For the 2018 winter/ spring season, the Bliss will offer Mexican Riviera cruises, ex-Los Angeles, and Caribbean cruises, ex-Miami. For the 2019-2020 winter season, the Bliss will sail out of New York City, replacing her sister the Escape which moves back to Miami. The Bliss will offer 7D cruises to the Bahamas and Florida, as well as longer cruises to the Caribbean.
There are more F&B outlets on the ship than you can get a handle on. While there are many standout restaurants the one that has everyone chattering is Q, a Texas-style barbecue eatery. The reason: barbecues are trickiest at the best of times on board ships, where open flames are not permitted, but NCL seems to have cracked it. The brisket, ribs, chicken and sausages are smoked over a variety of woods and you can savour them to the accompaniment of some live entertainment.
Food and liquid salvation apart, there’s Aqua Racer, a swirling, four-deck-high tube ride and another called Ocean Loops that spins around the ship’s side. If games of laser tag aren’t exciting enough, there’s a two-deck-high go-karting track that is sure to set the adrenaline pumping. If you like things a little quiet, there’s the Mandara Spa. Best of all is the high-octane entertainment, which doesn’t get any better than on NCL cruise vessels. There are two musicals running on board: Jersey Boys, the Tony Award-winning musical about the 1960s rock ‘n’ roll group The Four Seasons, which just went off- Broadway, and Havana!, a musical about 1950s Cuba. There’s even duty-free shopping on what is essentially a self-sufficient floating world.