I've been on nearly every Norwegian Cruise Line ship afloat; here are my 1st impressions of the new Norwegian Prima
Editor’s note: TPG’s Gene Sloan accepted a free trip from Norwegian Cruise Line to attend this week's unveiling of Norwegian Prima. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the line.
It really is elevated. And elegant. So much so that I'm sort of in shock.
Norwegian Cruise Line has been promising to take things up a notch with its new ship, Norwegian Prima — to "elevate" the experience as compared to earlier Norwegian vessels, as its executives have been saying. But in typical journalist fashion, I've been skeptical.
After five days on board Norwegian Prima in advance of its first sailing with paying passengers, I am skeptical no more.
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The 3,100-passenger ship is loaded with stylish, upscale bars and restaurants. Its cabins are sleek and modern. Its suite complex is next-level.
It has an array of onboard entertainment and amusements that is as impressive as ever, too.
In short, it's like nothing you've seen before in the Norwegian fleet. And I say this as someone who has sailed on every one of the 18 ships operated by Norwegian except two (Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Spirit).
That isn't to say Norwegian Prima is perfect. There are a few things about its design that leave me scratching my head — things that maybe the line can change before it moves ahead with the rollout of five sister ships that already are on order.
But mostly they are quibbles. The bottom line is that Norwegian Prima takes Norwegian cruising to new heights. If you're a fan of the line, this is the new ship you can't wait to book.
Here are my first impressions of Norwegian Prima after getting a sneak peek at it this week in advance of its first official sailing on Saturday.
Norwegian Prima has an elegant look
From the moment you step on board Norwegian Prima, you notice the difference from past Norwegian ships. It's an elegant vessel of the sort you find in the fleets of Norwegian's higher-end sister brands Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — albeit on a bigger scale.
The entryway to the ship deposits you at the three-story-high Penrose Atrium, which may be the most beautiful atrium of any big ship at sea. It has a curvy, sculptural feel, as if the entire space were an art piece.
Studio Dado, the design firm behind the Penrose Atrium, studied great piazzas around the world, such as St. Mark's Square in Venice, to come up with its layout and look. The design includes offset entrances from other parts of the ship on each level that — like the narrow streets of Venice opening up into that grand gathering spot — give you the sense of stumbling onto something wonderful when you arrive.
The elegant feel of the Penrose Atrium carries over to the many restaurants, bars and entertainment venues that spread out from its three levels (decks 6, 7 and 8). You'll find the equally sculptural Onda by Scarpetta, a high-end Italian eatery, right off its top level, and a string of stylish restaurants with new-for-Norwegian themes not far from its midlevel.
The eateries include Nama, a new sushi restaurant for Norwegian with a high design that is as sophisticated as the sushi it serves.
Also created by Studio Dado, Nama boasts a cream-and-orange color palette and suspended light fixtures subtly inspired by masago (fish eggs) and a reception desk that hints at the marbling pattern found on fish. Among the small touches in the seating area are raised, Japanese-style platforms where diners can tuck their shoes underneath before being seated on floor cushions.
Among other nearby outlets with elevated design is Cagney's Steakhouse. The venue pays homage to 20th-century architecture icon Frank Lloyd Wright with patterned concrete walls and other bold modern architectural elements.
Also striking is Norwegian Prima's version of Le Bistro, Norwegian's signature French eatery. It's built around three massive crystal chandeliers costing nearly $100,000 that hang down all the way to the floor — a showstopper of a design element. Gold-leaf wallpaper lines its booth seating. The overall feel is upscale Parisian apartment.
Notably, the public areas that include these restaurants feel more spacious than many of the other 17 ships in the Norwegian fleet. And, indeed they are. Norwegian Prima was built with a higher ratio of space to passengers, which itself is an upscale touch.
The ship has a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than many Norwegian ships, as well.
Both measures are often used as shorthand for the luxury level and service level of a ship.
This more upscale feel is a sharp turn for Norwegian — but perhaps it should come as no surprise. Norwegian Prima is the first Norwegian vessel designed from the keel up since cruise industry veteran Frank Del Rio became CEO of parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. Del Rio, who built the upscale Oceania brand from nothing into a major player in the industry in the 2000s, is particularly known for his high-end leanings when designing ships.
This big ship feels intimate
The public areas of Norwegian Prima may feel spacious. But the ship itself isn't ridiculously giant in the way that many recent megaships from big-ship lines have been — and it doesn't carry the same sort of massive number of passengers.
Going against the always-go-bigger trend of recent cruise ship building, Norwegian has made Norwegian Prima about 14% smaller than its last new ship, Norwegian Encore.
Related: The ultimate guide to Norwegian Cruise Line
It's designed to carry just 3,100 passengers at double occupancy. That's 22% fewer people than Norwegian Encore.
The result is that you don't feel like you're sailing with the tourist hordes quite as much as you do on some of the other recent big ships to debut.
This is all relative, of course. Three thousand people on a ship is still a lot of people. But consider that rival Royal Caribbean's newest vessel, Wonder of the Seas, is designed to sail with 5,734 passengers at double occupancy. It can hold 6,988 passengers with every pull-out sofa and pull-down bunk filled. Wonder of the Seas measures 235,600 tons — 62% larger than Norwegian Prima.
By that measure, Norwegian Prima is downright small and uncrowded for a big ship with a lot to offer (see more on that below).
If you love big ships with a lot going on, but you're squeamish about the idea of sharing it with 6,000 or 7,000 people, Norwegian Prima could be the perfect ship for you.
Prima is packed with activities
Perhaps the greatest design triumph of Norwegian Prima isn't the elevated style of its public spaces. It's that the ship's designers were able to pack so much on the vessel.
Despite its smaller footprint, Norwegian Prima has more food outlets, not fewer, than the last few Norwegian ships. It also has just as robust an array of onboard entertainment, including a real Broadway show (the Tony Award-nominated "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical") in a stunner of a theater that converts late at night into a dance club. In what is a technological marvel to watch, the entire lower deck of seating in the theater slides away to create a giant dance floor.
Norwegian Prima's top deck also still is loaded with family fun zones, including the largest go-kart track at sea (yes, this is a thing, ever since Norwegian began adding them to ships in 2017).
Despite being 14% smaller than Norwegian Encore, Norwegian Prima has a go-kart track that is 22% larger than the one on that ship. It spreads over parts of three decks — one more than on earlier ships.
Related: Why I loved Norwegian Prima's ridiculously big go-kart track
In addition, the top of Norwegian Prima has a new-for-the-line open-air games zone called The Stadium with a pickleball court, foosball tables, pingpong, bar-style hand shuffleboard tables and other amusements.
There's also a new electronic darts venue called The Bull's Eye where you rent a space to play with your friend, a souped-up miniature golf course, a bowl-style waterslide, a kiddie splash zone and two giant dry-slide drop attractions where you plunge from the top of the ship to the promenade deck below.
In other words, while the interior of the ship has taken an elegant turn, for sure, this isn't a vessel that's just for couples on an upscale getaway. It's still very much a family-focused ship, as Norwegian ships have long been.
My only quibble with all the aforementioned deck-top attractions is that it may be too much. Norwegian has packed so much onto the top of Norwegian Prima that, given its smaller size, I suspect it'll feel a little cramped once the vessel starts sailing with a full complement of passengers. This is in contrast to the spaciousness of the public areas in the interior of the ship.
One factor contributing to what was a "Woah, there's maybe way too much jammed up here" feeling upon first seeing the top deck of Norwegian Prima is that, as has increasingly been the case with Norwegian ships in recent years, large chunks of it are closed off to regular passengers. A not-insignificant part of the top of the vessel is devoted to outdoor lounge areas that are exclusively for use by passengers staying in the ship's Haven suite area. Another portion of the top deck is devoted to the private Vibe Beach Club lounge area. The latter area only is accessible to passengers who pay extra.
Related: How to get the most from Norwegian's Latitudes Rewards loyalty program
One noticeable issue created by the large number of things put up top on the ship is that it's confusing to get around while up there. The deck-top space is broken up into too many sections, without a lot of ways to walk between them. To get from the main pool to the entryway to the go-kart track, for instance, you have to walk through the top-of-the-ship Surfside Cafe buffet. There is no side way around the buffet to reach it.
This, in turn, requires you to run the gauntlet of Norwegian staff at the buffet entrance wanting you to wash your hands every time you want to move between the pool area and the go-kart area. They think you're there for dining.
Unfortunately, I suspect this will create some traffic jams in the buffet once the ship is fully up and running.
The suite complex is the best of any big ship
Speaking of the Haven suite area on Norwegian Prima, there's really nothing like it.
Norwegian has been at the forefront of the trend of big-ship operators putting exclusive "ship within a ship" suite complexes on their vessels, and the line has taken the concept to the next level with Norwegian Prima.
Instead of just covering a couple of decks at the front of the ship, the Haven on Norwegian Prima — designed by the celebrated Italian design firm Lissoni — now fills eight floors of the back end of the ship. The added floors mean it has more suites (107), as well as more expansive interior public lounge, bar and restaurant areas than previous Haven complexes. The new location also allows for a more elaborate and comfortable outdoor lounge and pool area.
This is another part of the "elevation" of Norwegian Prima. For a greater percentage of passengers on this ship than any other big-ship vessel at sea, Norwegian Prima can offer a truly upscale experience in a private, hidden-away complex.
For cruisers who want the sort of luxury experience that normally only is found on small luxury ships but also access to all the amenities that big ships have to offer, this is now the premier offering at sea.
The outdoor lounge area at the Haven includes a stunning infinity pool that appears to flow right off the back of the vessel. Its lounge chairs are plush and upscale. It offers private cabanas.
Inside the complex, there's a private restaurant so you never have to eat in the same room with non-Haven passengers.
I didn't get to spend the night in the Haven this week or experience its amenities firsthand, so I don't know if its bigger size results in any service issues. Will there be more queues for the Haven's private concierge desk than on other Norwegian ships with smaller Haven complexes, for instance? But with roughly 214 guests staying in the complex at any given time, assuming two passengers per suite, it's still an intimate venue.
If you think of it as a luxury ship plopped down on top of a big mass-market ship, it's still smaller and more intimate than most. For comparison, Seabourn Venture, the new ship that just debuted from luxury line Seabourn, is built for 264 passengers.
An unusual new bar promotes 'zero waste'
The Metropolitan bar is billed as the first sustainable bar at sea, and it offers a fabulously odd mix of handmade drinks that incorporate leftover food items on the ship, such as day-old croissants and banana peels.
I tried three of these cutting-edge cocktails during my strange night out at Norwegian Prima's new Metropolitan Bar, and I can attest the drinks taste better than you might first imagine.
Cabins are sleek and modern
It's not just the public areas of Norwegian Prima that are more stylish — its cabins are, too.
Also designed by Studio Dado, they have a clean-lined, minimalist look of the sort you find at sophisticated contemporary hotels on land. The colors are muted with warm light browns and creams punctured with cool blue accents — a sharp departure from the bold color palettes found on many earlier Norwegian cruise ships. Furniture features luxurious stone and light-wood finishes, and texture plays a big role.
In standard balcony cabins, the wall behind the bed is lined with a striking art piece featuring nature and butterflies — a focal point.
Standard balcony cabins also have spacious and modern bathrooms. You won't feel cramped in them the way you do in entry-level rooms on some big ships. I was impressed.
But as lovely as they are, the basic rooms on Norwegian Prima do draw one quibble from me: their lack of adequate storage space.
In their effort to make the rooms as minimalist and spacious feeling as possible, the designers seem to have overlooked the real need for lots of hanging space and drawers in cabins on a ship that will likely be operating seven-day sailings for much of its life.
In my basic balcony cabin, there was just a relatively small area of built-in closet space. It's enough for me this week, as I'm traveling solo. But it would be tight if my wife were here with me, and we both had suitcases full of clothes for a week.
The ship has an innovative food hall
Indulge Food Hall is one of the only food halls at sea, and it's fabulous — if a little tight, spacewise. (In a perfect world, Norwegian would make it even bigger on the next ships in this series). It offers a wide range of quick-serve food venues offering everything from Mexican to Indian cuisine.
You can mix and match what you want from any of the venues and order them to your table with a few taps on the tablet that you'll find at every table.
Which dishes are the best? Read about my attempt to test every dish at its 11 venues in four days to find out.
The promenade deck is one of the best at sea
A notable element of Norwegian Prima (and the sister Prima-class ships that will follow) is that it has an unusually wide wraparound promenade that is filled with resort-like outdoor lounge areas.
Dubbed "Ocean Boulevard" and located on Deck 8 — much closer to the waterline of the ship than the lounge areas at the vessel's top, which are located on decks 17 and 18 — it offers unusually luxurious lounge chairs in some places (think: extra-thick cushions), sunbeds and swinging seats.
On both sides of Ocean Boulevard, there are infinity pools as well as shallow dipping pools.
There's also alfresco seating for several of the ship's restaurants including Los Lobos, Onda by Scarpetta, The Local and Indulge Food Hall.
Norwegian has had promenades on earlier ships that have offered outdoor restaurant seating and additional features. The line has been a pioneer among big-ship lines in taking promenades to a new level by making them wider and adding venues to draw passengers out onto them. But nothing Norwegian has done yet compares to this.
Not only is the Ocean Boulevard on Norwegian Prima roomier than ever, but it'll absorb a lot of passengers on sea days who otherwise would be packing the top decks of the ship. From a practical point of view, that's a big deal.
Norwegian Cruise Line isn’t meant to be a high-end brand, but its new Norwegian Prima offers a lot of high-end touches. From the massive Haven suite complex at its back to its stunning, sculptural central atrium and the striking designs of many of its eateries, the ship is home to an array of venues and experiences that truly are elevated as compared to what you know from previous Norwegian vessels.
TPG's Gene Sloan has been reporting live from Norwegian Prima as it sails from Reykjavik to Amsterdam on a non-revenue preview voyage for media and travel agents. You can find all of his dispatches on his author’s page.
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