Nordic Empress off CocoCay, Bahamas
When Royal Caribbean International set out to build the Nordic Empress, it took into account that the travel industry was experiencing a dramatic surge in mini-vacations and that much of this growth was in the short cruise market.
One reason for this trend is that younger, more affluent people are living and working at a faster pace than ever before and taking frequent but shorter holidays to recharge. Moreover, demanding jobs have made it more difficult for many to take extended vacations. And because large numbers of women are working, spouses are finding it harder to coordinate time off. First-time cruisers also are opting for shorter sailings, but because they are not sure about the experience, many buy a pre- or post-cruise hotel package along with the cruises, figuring that if they don't like the cruise experience they will at least enjoy the land stay.
The seven-year-old, $170 million Nordic Empress is a study in elegance and innovation that gains plaudits from every level of cruiser. Liberal use of marble and granite, tasteful decor and soft colors convey a feeling of luxury that strikes you the moment you step on board and enter the imaginative 40-foot-wide centerpiece Centrum (atrium). It towers nine decks, is topped by a skylight and is magnificently accented with tropical greenery, a cascading waterfall, glass elevators, sweeping staircases and shimmering crystal and brass.
To background melodies from a string quartet (that also plays at dinner in the dining room), stewards waiting at the Centrum when we boarded recently for a four-day Bahamas sailing from Miami, politely ushered us to our standard outside cabin, which like the others, measures a compact but comfortable 139 square feet and had a large picture window. Inside units are slightly smaller. Among the 803 units are 69 amenities-laden suites with private balconies. A number of cabins can accomodate three or four passengers, and others are reserved for the handicapped. Decor in each is fresh and bright, there is plenty of storage space, and all have twin beds that can be converted to queen-size. Cabin TV programming includes satellite feeds, recent movies, and replays of ship's activities.
The midsize ship, which normally carries some 1,600 passengers, is relatively easy to get around, despite its impressive size. The Centrum is the ship's focal point, and the main centers of activity are concentrated on Main and Showtime Decks (numbers 5 and 6).
After putting our things away, we went to lunch at the casual Windjammer Cafe, which serves an extensive breakfast and lunch buffet and afternoon snacks. It's a delightful inside/outside area that was deliberately located forward on Sun Deck (10) so that those having breakfast there can watch the vessel enter its morning ports.
From here it is a step to the open-deck which, in addition to its two pools and four whirlpools, has sizeable space that becomes a nighttime lounge and entertainment center that features a calypso band and a host of fun and games. (A midnight Caribbean market buffet replete with activities and dancing is one big draw here.)
Themed midnight buffets on the other nights include an eye-popping Gala that most everyone comes to ooh and ahh and photograph, before circling back to devour it. The artistically arranged array of delicacies are laid out in the elegant two-deck (4 and 5) Carmen Dining Room. It's a glittering room set at the stern of Main and "A" Decks (4 and 5) and wrapped in a semicircle of glass. Quality food service and ethnically-themed meals, which include ShipShape Menu foods, are a satisfying reflection of the line's years-old, highly regarded reputation.
If you're on an exercise regimen and worried about picking up extra calories, the ShipShape Center aft on Sun Deck comes with the latest equipment, a roomy picture-windowed aerobics area facing the sea, and trim instructors. A jogging/walking track circles exterior Showtime Deck.
While in port, most passengers take advantage of a wealth of shore excursions that include sightseeing and watersports, among others. For those choosing to remain on board, a few activities are programmed, but the main action is in the evenings, just before and after the early and late dinner seatings.
The captain's Welcome Aboard party, when everyone dresses to the hilt and gets a chance to be photographed with him, is a classy event that includes complimentary drinks, canapes, and dancing in the two-deck Strike Up The Band (show) Lounge. It's the social highlight of the voyage. This plush setting is also the venue for showtime, when 12 hoofers in Broadway-style shows and excellent variety talents are featured. Bingo is another room filler.
Other busy dance floors are in the spacious, greenery-filled High Society lounge, Royal Caribbean's trademark circular, glass-enclosed Viking Crown Lounge, which you'll find tucked away into the base of the funnel on Sun Deck. During daylight the latter is a perfect spot to wind down and contemplate, perhaps, the sea. A metamorphosis comes late at night as throbbing disco beats take over. If you just want to relax and listen to easy music, try the popular Carousel Pub.
For gamers, a tri-level casino boasts some 200 jangling slots, along with craps, blackjack, poker, and roulette tables. Minimum bets are usually five dollars. Rather spend it than chance it? Browse the cluster of pricey, but mostly not, items, some of which are sold at sale prices.
Parents who bring their children (and many do) have the option of keeping them busy in supervised programs based on various age levels. The playroom even has a setup where little ones can slide down into a pile of balloons.
St. Thomas Harbor
Because of increased demands for additional short itineraries, Nordic Empress last December was re-based to San Juan from its longtime Miami/Bahamas runs. The new itinerary features a four-day sailing from the Puerton Rican capital, departing late Mondays and making consecutive day-long calls at Frederikstad, St. Croix, Virgin Islands; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. The three-day Friday night sailing omits Frederickstad.
El Morro Castle, San Juan
In June the ship will be relocated again, this time to Port Canaveral, where she will operate until September on a Bahamas itinerary that departs the Florida port late Monday for a four-day voyage that includes one day at sea and calls at Nassau and Coco Cay (the line's lush private island) for a day-long beach party. The three-night schedule omits the sea day.
Royal Caribbean is among the three largest cruise lines and offers an imposing number of itineraries to Europe, Asia and Alaska, as well as in the Caribbean.
Bernie is an editor and photographer whose pictures graphically illustrate the stories they jointly cover. His work also appears in a variety of other publications.
Originally from Chicago, Jeannie & Bernie now call North Miami Beach home.
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