Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Breakaway Review
The largest cruise ship ever to homeport in New York, Norwegian Breakaway puts NCL’s “Freestyle” concept to the test.
First setting sail in 2013, Norwegian Breakaway is the second largest ship in the Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) fleet. In addition to being a sister to Norwegian Getaway, which arrived in 2014, Breakaway has that new car smell, and boasts a number of innovative features. As NCL’s first ship to launch following the rocky birth of the one-of-a-kind Norwegian Epic, designers devoted a lot of attention to making Breakaway fit the Freestyle concept—and in many ways they’ve succeeded.
Breakaway homeports in New York City, a boon for Manhattan-area cruisers who can take the subway to within a few blocks of the pier for embarkation. Curiously, the ship also carries a Big Apple theme, as though Tri-State residents need to be reminded of what they left behind while on vacation. It’s kind of like if the mouse house were to build a theme park called Floridaland and plant it next to the Magic Kingdom (oh wait, they already tried that in California). But Breakaway’s New York clichés, drawn in the broadest strokes possible, are inoffensive—after a couple days they’re almost invisible. We should mention that Norwegian Gateway, homeported in Miami year-round, is essentially an identical twin to Breakaway, save for a design that apes Florida.
Breakaway offers 7-night cruises to Bermuda in summer months, and to the Bahamas in winter. As crisp winds ruffled our jackets and the Manhattan skyline sailed by, we waved goodbye to the Statue of Liberty and eagerly anticipated sunnier shores.
About Our Cruise
Check-in and embarkation went smoothly, with no unusual delays. Although Breakaway’s hull artwork by Peter Max showcases a gaudy pop interpretation of Manhattan icons, the ship’s interior is less pedestrian, almost sophisticated. While the lobby atrium is an underwhelming two-deck affair dominated by a massive video screen, other parts of the ship impressed us, such as the glitzy casino, the main dining room with its grand supper club ambiance, and Spice H2O, a outdoor dance floor and sun deck.
Our cabin, a Balcony unit, was very comfortable, handsomely attired in a blue and brown color scheme. Though our quarters weren’t oversized, they were certainly adequate for a couple. Special kudos are due to NCL for the excellent shower arrangement—again, not big, but a real improvement over what we’ve dealt with on most mainstream ships. The slender balcony, however, was the smallest we’ve ever encountered.
Breakaway has more dining venues than any other ship in the NCL fleet—indeed, more than almost any ship at sea. Most of these restaurants and snack stands involve surcharges. Food quality ranged considerably, with the buffet venue presenting decent food in a clamorous setting and the main dining room offering serviceable if unexceptional food. Ocean Blue, a restaurant with a menu designed by Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, provided an excellent meal that carried a $49 dining fee. We wouldn’t call Breakaway a cruise for foodies, but for those willing to pony up there were satisfying meals to be had.
In keeping with the more-is-better theme, the roster of activities is impressive. On the top deck there’s a waterpark with five slides, a ropes course that tested our vertigo, and a rock climbing wall. (Tip for parents: Pack your kids’ bathing suits in the carry-on so they can enjoy the waterpark before sailaway.) The evening entertainment featured a couple terrific shows including Broadway’s “Rock of Ages,” and we really enjoyed Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club. Improv by Second City was a hoot. There’s even a fireworks show at sea.
Things we didn’t like included the prevalence of smoking, particularly in the casino (NCL is one of only two mainstream cruise lines that still allows smoking on guest balconies). There’s no lounge for enjoying the forward panorama above the bridge, as is common on most cruise ships, and lounge chairs along the promenade deck were at a minimum. We didn’t care for the video monitors spread throughout the public areas of ship, all set to display NCL marketing materials to promote Breakaway’s bars and surcharge dining—this seemed really excessive.
A few words about NCL’s Freestyle cruising concept. There are no set dining times on Breakaway, and at prime time dinner in the main dining rooms can require a wait. Fortunately, on our cruise we never waited more than 10 minutes to be seated. Norwegian has the loosest approach to the traditional Formal Night of all the major cruise lines. The designated dress-up evenings are barely acknowledged in ship literature or signage, so the majority of passengers dress like any other night, which is pretty casual. For three of the restaurants shoes and long pants are “requested,” otherwise (almost) anything goes. This policy isn’t a problem for us, but cruisers shouldn’t pack their fanciest duds for a Breakaway cruise and expect that other passengers will be in synch—most won’t be.
In general, service was excellent. This was a polished crew that aimed to please, but in a number of areas we felt they were stretched thin. One afternoon, on the aft stairwell between decks 13 and 14, we saw a sandwich roll and some of its fillings dropped on the staircase. We didn’t think much of it when we spotted it shortly after 3 p.m.; we were not impressed to see it still sitting there after 11 p.m. when we were headed to bed. A couple aspects we particularly appreciated: Any of the officers could be reached by phone, in the event issues needed to be escalated. And we loved being greeted with cold towels and water when returning to ship; on the last port day we were offered iced treats and there was line dancing on the dock.
Of Crowds and Corridors
Although NCL downsized Breakaway slightly from its last ship, the gargantuan Norwegian Epic, it’s still quite a large vessel. At 146,600 tons, Breakaway debuted as the world’s eighth largest cruise ship (though that status will soon be eclipsed by other new ships). The security team told us there were 3891 passengers on our cruise, just slightly less than the ship’s 4028 capacity, at double occupancy.
On our sailing we did not observe any major lines for the waterslides, ropes course, and climbing wall. But on sunny sea days it was all but impossible to find two lounge chairs together after about 9 a.m. NCL’s answer for this is Vibe Beach Club, an 18-and-up retreat where one could escape the sun deck gridlock—at $79 per person for a week-long pass. Indoor areas of the ship also could be quite crowded, especially, the buffet and casino, and on the last night of the cruise the shopping area was jammed with people. The same security folks told us that, in summer months and during school holidays, Breakaway sailed with a lot more people, mostly kids. NCL doesn’t state the maximum capacity of the ship with all beds occupied, but it is likely to be at least several hundred additional passengers more than 4028 (Epic can carry more than 1000 passengers beyond double occupancy).
It’s not unusual for today’s cruise ships to feel crowded, especially for cruise lines that particularly cater to families, as NCL does. But even though our sailing was not full, the ship felt cramped. The hallway outside our cabin was narrower than usual—a problem during the morning and evening when cleaning gear took up more than half the hallway’s width. The Waterfront, a deck that would be called the promenade on most other ships, was the one exterior area that rarely seemed busy, except that there were few chairs for taking in the sea breeze (most of the ones we found were dedicated to revenue-generating restaurants, bars and snack stands). The jogging track—just one-eighth of a mile in length—passes through one of the busiest areas of the ship.
The main theater, with just 800 seats, is large enough for only one-fifth of the passengers, which has necessitated issuing tickets for shows. The tickets are free, and we didn’t have a problem securing one but, with only three performances per cruise, at least a third of the passengers will not get to see “Rock of Ages,” Breakaway’s marquee show. By comparison, the showroom on the 2400-passenger Norwegian Jade seats 1042, almost half that ship’s capacity. However, seats were easy to come by for the Cirque Jungle Fantasy show, perhaps in part because this show required a surcharge.
While, for the most part, we found traffic moved well on our cruise, there’s not a lot of wiggle room when not everything goes according to plan, such as the weather. One rainy afternoon when guests diverted away from the pools and sun decks, venues were pushed to the limit—restaurants, bars and entertainment offerings suddenly became packed, and the staff struggled to keep up with demand.
Our cruise aboard Norwegian Breakaway was enjoyable. We liked our cabin (except for the dinky balcony) and most of our meals were good or better. The entertainment offerings were solid, and the nightlife jumped. Fairly unique within the industry, Breakaway has cabins for singles, reducing the cost for solo sailors.
But, from pools to lounges to corridors, we found Breakaway to be cramped, and short on places where we could stretch out and enjoy the seagoing ambiance. Downsized common areas may be a wave of the future in the cruise industry, but it’s not one we applaud—we were thankful we weren’t aboard during a school break. And though our cruise fare wasn’t high, once on board there were ample opportunities to bump up the bill.
Still, for anyone who likes a contemporary cruise experience or a high-energy ship, Norwegian Breakaway is designed to please a wide spectrum of guests. It’s a particularly good bet for families, and Tri-State area residents will appreciate the year-round access to tropical scenery Breakaway provides.
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