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While writing about luxury travel, it's easy to have an upturned nose. The word luxury is used very widely, and the way we each perceive luxury varies from person to person. Some of us like white gloved butlers, others prefer a more relaxed take on luxury. For some, luxury means exclusive boutique private resorts such as The Brando and Mukul, which reported on in past issues.
For many, Las Vegas is a luxury destination, and if you have children, you probably have done Disney and Universal Studios. Both offer luxury ways to experience theme parks. Many of us like different styles of luxury. It simply depends on the situation.
Each year over 20 million people take a cruise, and having covered the inaugural of Crystal Esprit with just 62 guests earlier this month, I wanted to offer you a first-hand view on whether or not it's possible to have a luxury experience on a 4,000 person mega-ship.
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Is It Possible To Have A Luxury Experience Aboard a Mega Cruise Ship?
Lying on a cushioned faux wicker daybed with about a dozen other guests spread across about three dozen couches and loungers, shaded by beige umbrellas and strung white canopies, all with stunning views of the passing Caribbean Sea, it's hard to imagine on the 16 decks below are nearly 4,000 passengers.
While luxury lines such as Seabourn, Crystal, Regent and Silversea have used smaller ships and featured white glove service with a singular focus on the luxury segment,
Norwegian Cruise Line
, a premium line is doing it in a different way. With ships getting bigger and more diverse (some Royal Caribbean vessels feature ice skating rinks, surfing machines and bumper cars), in 2005 NCL launched a ship within a ship concept on the Jewel. But, it wasn't until the Breakaway debuted in 2013 that the area was branded as The Haven. It is an enclave within some of the biggest ships on the ocean, and the closest comparison I can think of is it is what the Tower Suites or Fairway Villas are to the rest of the Wynn or the Sky Suites are to the Aria.
In addition to having your suite (there are two exceptions - read the section on Accommodations below) in a key-card access protected area at the top of the ship (Decks 15 and 16 Forward), there is your own private bar, dining room and lounge area. The best food on the ship is in The Haven dining room where no reservations are needed, although there are a couple notable restaurant options that are worthwhile as well as an endless spectrum of eating options from gelato to hot dog stands to Cagney's, which would rate highly on land as a steakhouse.
Nicole Mazza, Executive Vice President of The Affluent Traveler
, a group of luxury travel agencies, who has sailed on all of NCL's ships says, one of the best features onboard is what's billed as The Waterfront on Deck 8. In space that would normally be a promenade, Cagney's, Moderno, featuring Brazilian-style churrasco, and Italian specialty restaurant La Cucina, each have outdoor seating. "What I loved is to be able to dine outdoors on a beautiful evening, and then afterward go back to The Haven and have a bottle of champagne in the hot tub," she says.
|The private restaurant exclusively for residents of The Haven features floor to ceiling windows for ocean views. Its food, decor and service equal any five-star land-based resort.
In The Haven, there is a wading pool with daybeds in the water under a retractable roof, two hot tubs, two massage rooms and a sauna, plus the aforementioned exclusive sundeck, which is partitioned into three smaller areas. There is also a private entrance to the Mandara Spa and an extensive fitness center with numerous treadmills and plentiful free weights, including dumbbells and barbells.
Cruise Source, an industry
newsletter puts it this way, "
You also get access to an incredible array of entertainment options, production shows, nightclubs, activities and a fantastic youth and children's program that you
simply can't find on the pure luxury ships
. As a Haven resident, you'll also get preferred, reserved seating at shows, priority embark and debark and host of other privileges that ratchet up the experience. Finally, when you compare to a pure luxury cruise, you're likely to find a generally younger and livelier clientele."
Some of the reasons I can see for staying in The Haven on the Breakaway or other NCL ships is the overall mix of activities is great for families. There is an extensive Kid's Club, but the entire ship is a virtual playground for everyone. There is a diversity of activities starting with an impressive adult and kids multi-story water park atop the ship with some crazy slides. There is a sports complex with full court basketball, rock climbing, a ropes course, a video game room that I saw frequented by adults, a good size casino, wine tastings, play along game shows, a comedy club, a jazz and blues club, shows worth seeing, such as Rock of Ages, a Mandara spa, very good lounge singers, a bowling alley and almost any type of game you can imagine. If you have a group with a wide age range, there is something to please ages 0 to 100. Yes, there is even bingo and shuffleboard.
Meetings at sea are also becoming more popular, and the mega-ships are good venues for company incentives. WiFi is as good or better than I've had at 5-star resorts and can be purchased in reasonably priced packages. Depending how far in advance you book, it is sometimes offered for free.
The Haven provides a nice offering for top management and rewarding top performers.
If you haven't cruised before or you cruised many years ago and weren't impressed, the diversity of activities and dining that these huge ships provide, makes The Haven is a good way to test it out. If you find the main areas too crowded, etc., you can retreat into your private area and pretend everyone else just went away.
Another benefit if you have a large group with you could be the ability to sail out of a homeport close to where you live. In terms of getting a quick start to your vacation, NCL has departures form Boston, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Port Canaveral, Quebec, San Diego, San Juan, Seattle, Seward, Tampa and Vancouver in North America. There are sailings as well from Auckland, Hong Kong, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Rio, Santiago, Barcelona, Copenhagen, London, Rome, Venice and more. In other words, chances are there is some port of departure that will be in easy reach for your entire traveling party.
|There is a variety of entertainment from Las Vegas and Broadway style shows to a dedicated Comedy Club, plus Blues and Jazz Club
Design is contemporary residential and during my cruise, none of the areas in The Haven ever seemed very crowded although it was near capacity. Make sure you get a dummy key card to put in the power slot in your room, as everything turns off immediately after you take your card out. The restaurant and service staff is mainly Asian and bring the genuine warmth and friendly hospitality the area is known for. Several times I saw little kids running up to butlers and servers to give them a hug. On a daily basis there are all sorts of goodies from chocolate strawberries to hors d'oeuvres delivered to your room. At night, you'll find different towel animals greeting you on your bed when you return to the cabin.
|A towel zoo welcoming you back to your cabin is typical of the small touches that make cruising such a popular family vacation.
If you are seeking an intimate Relais & Chateau experience or require the pomp and circumstances of Sandy Lane, this is probably not for you. However, if you like cruising or think you might, and want a luxury experience with all the activities the current wave of mega-ships have, this is something you should take a look at, particularly if you have a family or business group. There is also something nice about visiting several destinations without worrying about packing and unpacking.
If you stay in The Haven, it's important to note that you can only invite those not staying in The Haven to your suite. In other words, you cannot bring guests into the private lounges, pool areas and decks that are reserved only for those staying in The Haven.
If you are worried about service on such a large ship, Mazza says, in The Haven "service rivals five star hotels. There's about four people to every guest."
Fast Facts: NCL Breakaway, The Haven
There are seven cabin types on The Haven aboard the Breakaway. Mazza says, she likes the
Two-bedroom Family Villas with Balcony of which there are 20 and she shares with her husband getting a separate cabin for their children. Each is
543 sq. ft. with a 48 sq. ft. balcony and sleeps up to six guests and includes a master bedroom and a separate children's bedroom, two bathrooms and a living room and dining area complete with a sofa bed, writing desk and bar. Mazza says, the space is well laid out giving it a large feel, and the butler and concierge service provide a high level of service.
|Bathtub with a view from the Two-Bedroom Family Villas with Balcony
The top suites are the two
Deluxe Owner's Suite at with Large Balcony at 932 sq. ft., one master bedroom with a king-size bed, living room and dining area and bathroom with an oversized tub, two vanity sinks and luxury shower. The Deluxe Owner's Suites can be joined to the Owner's Suites to accommodate up to eight guests. The balcony is 204 sq. ft.
There are two Owner's Suites with Large Balcony at
572 sq. ft. each, including private bedroom with a king-size bed, living room with dining area, full bath with separate shower and tub, large balcony and walk-in closet. The balcony is 95 sq. ft.
Courtyard Penthouse Suites, of which there are 18, come in at 328 sq. ft. and feature a king-size bed with pillow top mattress, living and dining area, single sofa bed and writing desk. There are also 16 spa suites, roughly the same size.
There are two more categories of suites in The Haven that aren't actually located in The Haven. Mazza and reviewers on Cruise Critic all rave about the Aft-facing Penthouse Suites with their oversize balconies located on decks 9 through 14. There is 655 sq. ft. of interior space featuring a king-size bed with pillow top mattress, living and dining area, double sofa bed and writing desk. The bathroom comes with double sinks, curved oval bathtub and separate shower. The balcony is 257 sq. ft. However, the big downside is that you are on a different deck and almost a ship's length away from The Haven. Mazza says her preference is to stay in the suites within The Haven, and I would agree with that take.
Special Note: If you are looking for really big suites, Norwegian Gem and Pearl each have two Garden Villas (pictured below) in their versions of The Haven. Each is an impressive 4
,252 sq. ft., featuring a private garden with open-air dining, whirlpool, steam room and a private sun and relaxation area. The villas offer large living and dining rooms, three bedrooms, each with a private bathroom and whirlpool and steam room located in the villa's private garden. The Jewel offers two 4,891 sq. ft. versions, while Jade's two Garden Villas clock in at 4,719 sq. ft. Mazza says the private sundecks for the Garden Villas are about the same size as The Haven Sundeck on the Breakaway and if you want to have a party, capacity in the suites is up to 150.
NCL has a three-tiered offering
of free restaurants, specialty restaurants that have a surcharge and a la carte where you pay as you go. On Breakaway there are nine complimentary restaurants, including three main dining rooms, a noodle bar and a sports pub. There is a wide variety of specialty restaurants, including the steakhouse Cagney's, which is a very credible execution and if you like steak you could be happy there on a nightly basis. Moderno does a nice take on churrasco, Le Bistro won't scare Daniel Boulud, but is worthy of at least one evening.
|No More Early or Late Seating: The Raw Bar is an example of how dining on the large ships of today offers a Las Vegas variety of dining options to suit any tastes.
The private dining room in The Haven is a rung above, both in food, decor and service, and is complimentary. There are floor to ceiling windows looking out to the sea, and decor is equal to any top restaurant in New York with comfortable seats and tables spread far enough apart.
At dinner there are seven appetizers and seven main courses, a soup of the day and four desserts. There are vegetarian options. Menu is continental with some variations such as a Crispy Shrimp Cake with water chestnuts and wasabi cream. Entrees included Grilled Filet of Beef, Sonoma Duck Breast, Boneless Beef Short Rib, Wild Mushroom Ravioli.
At lunch there are five appetizers, a selection of burgers and sandwiches, five entrees and four desserts plus a selection of ice creams and sorbets. The Warm House Smoked Salmon with citrus herb cream and toasted brioche was good enough I ate it regularly. If you are concerned about having decent food on a massive cruise ship, between The Haven and Cagney's you should be quite happy. There is a sushi bar of which the menu is somewhat limited, and was fine, except for the Spicy Tuna Roll which was like drinking a shot of vinegar. There's also outdoor seating which is nice.
For dining there are so many different payment options, I suggest contacting a good travel agent who can sort them out. The same goes with drinks packages. Mazza says on a recent cruise she was with a group with over 20 were dining every night together, and by planning in advance they were able to be accommodated every night in a different specialty restaurant. She also lauds The Haven concierges who she says, "make things happen."
There's a 5-story high water slide and a smaller version for juniors. There's full court basketball, a ropes course and rock climbing, a full fitness center with free weights, machines, ellipticals and treadmills. There are multiple pools. If you are fitness oriented and were worried about being able to get your workout in, Breakaway should be able to take care of whatever challenges you like. There's a kid's club and teen's club, bowling, extensive video games and air hockey.
|Adventure on the High Seas_ The Ropes Course provides a fun family challenge.
Cruise lines have worked hard over the past decade to expand past the Catskills at Sea stereotype. Breakaway has a dedicated Comedy Club and Jazz and Blues Club. There is also Circ Dreams Jungle Fantasy and Rock of Ages. Concepts change from time to time. There previously was a show by Blue Man Group. There are also lounge acts, singers, pianists, Scotch tastings, wine tastings, play along game shows and of course bingo. There is a litany of bars, including several outdoor bars with comfortable loungers, pool bars, a martini bar and a SVEDKA Ice Bar. There's also an outdoor movie theatre. If you like Vegas, you'll be happy on the Breakaway, including its extensive casino.
Rock of Ages is representative of the higher level of contemporary adult entertainment you can now get at sea.
If you are thinking about a full takeover of The Haven, it can be done. Prices vary widely by ship and sailing.
2015 Travel + Leisure - World's Best Top Large Cruise Ship Cruise Line
2013 Travel Weekly Readers' Choice Award - Best Rookie Cruise Ship, Norwegian Breakaway
2013 Travel + Leisure - World's Best Top Mega Ship Cruise Line
2013 Cruise Critic - Best New Ship, Norwegian Breakaway
2013 Yahoo Travel - Best Cruise Ship For Families - Norwegian Breakaway
2013 Family Circle - 2013 Best Family Cruise Ships - Norwegian Breakaway
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