Bowling and Bliss

An inaugural view of the new Norwegian Pearl

By: Mark Tapio Kines

The Saturday sky over Miami was gray and drizzly. So, the outdoor christening ceremony for Norwegian Pearl, the new addition to the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet, was moved indoors to the ship’s art nouveau-themed Stardust Theater. As a result of the hastily assembled Plan B, the Dec. 16 ceremony started 15 minutes late, but the crowd of well-wishers took it all in stride. Even NCL president and CEO Colin Veitch shrugged off the delay.

“Since this is a freestyle-cruising ship, there’s no fixed time for a christening ceremony,” he joked.

Veitch’s devil-may-care comments set the tone for the evening, which included a taped spoof of Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” music video performed by Veitch and a company of crew members. (The ’80’s hit is the Pearl’s theme song.)

The ship’s godmother, Rosie O’Donnell, was an especially fitting choice for the light-hearted ceremony. The evening before the christening, NCL had donated the Pearl for a charity cruise which raised over $600,000 for O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation. A grateful O’Donnell returned the favor by presiding over the christening.

“I’ve been practicing in the casino,” she quipped, referring to the lever she was about to pull to launch the champagne bottle into the ship’s hull. Unfortunately the lever didn’t quite work the first time, so O’Donnell comically yanked it a few more times before the bottle finally crashed into the hull to cheers and applause.

The two-night inaugural sailing that followed wasn’t long enough for an in-depth exploration of the Pearl, but it was certainly enough time to experience some highlights.

One of the ship’s unique selling points is a four-lane bowling alley, heralded as the first in the cruising industry. It was booked solid during the cruise and will doubtlessly remain so in the future. It’s that cool.

The two pairs of lanes also flank the ship’s Bliss Ultra Lounge, modeled after trendy nightclubs in Hollywood, South Beach and Las Vegas. Dark, moody and a little bit naughty (queen-size beds provide some of the seating) it is easily the Pearl’s most happening hot spot. In fact, the enthusiastic reception surprised even NCL, whose official parties in more traditional onboard lounges were sedate affairs compared to the jam-packed Bliss.

“I hope it will be as busy when we’re selling drinks,” quipped Andy Stuart, executive vice president of marketing.

Some of the other innovations aboard the Pearl include a completely revamped Garden Cafe. Gone is the standard cruise ship buffet, replaced by “action stations” where chefs prepare everything fresh to order.

The Pearl also boasts top-of-the-ship Deluxe Owner’s Suites and a rock-climbing wall, both firsts for the NCL fleet. I only saw one brave soul willing to try out the latter, but everybody was clamoring to get a glimpse of those eye-poppingly extravagant suites.

Two stage shows by Jean Ann Ryan Productions were presented in the Stardust Theater. The first, “Tubez,” was promoted as an evening of “extreme sports,” but aside from a couple of nifty ramp tricks from two hot-shot bicyclists (who later told me that this is the first bike stunt show on a cruise ship), it was the usual parade of scantily clad dancers. The audience was a bit underwhelmed by the show, although a balletic duet between a male acrobat and a particularly nimble female contortionist brought the house down.

The second show, “Sea Legs,” a Las Vegas-type showgirl revue, fared better. Both will be running throughout the next three years, along with Second City comedy and improvisation acts and a third show called “Garden of the Geisha.”

By the end of the inaugural festivities, it was hard to find anyone who wasn’t thrilled with the Pearl. It’s a gorgeous ship, filled with color and character, and the service is top-notch. Apparently it was meant to be a sister ship to Norwegian Jewel, but during a voyage on the Jewel, Tan Sri KT Lim, chairman of NCL parent company Star Cruises, saw some opportunities for changes and improvements. NCL plans to launch Norwegian Gem in October 2007 as a sister ship to the Pearl. Spying chairman Lim among the throngs at Bliss, I could almost see him thinking, “maybe we should add more lounges like this to the Gem ... and another bowling alley.”