Norwegian Breakaway Review
I visited Breakaway, at Southampton, in April 2013 and stayed on-board overnight. This brand new ship had come straight from the shipyard, via Rotterdam. She was berthed at Southampton’s ‘City Cruise Terminal’ for two days, before she crossed the pond to her home port of New York City. Of course I did not have time to fully experience the 20+ dining options and all of the entertainment on offer. Therefore this review concentrates on the design of the ship itself.
It’s just not possible to properly review ‘Breakaway’, without looking at what came before her in the NCL fleet. (However If you are in a hurry, skip straight to the ‘Project Breakaway’ sub-title).
The Norwegian cruise Line
Before June 2010 the ‘Norwegian Cruise line’ (NCL) had a fleet of ten ships in the 75,338 – 93,558 gross tonne range, generally carrying around 2,400 passengers each.
NCL are famous for their ‘freestyle’ innovation which all of their fleet are now specifically designed for. In short there are multiple restaurants and no allocated dining times, so passengers are free to dine when they like, where they like and sit with whom they like (between core hours). The pre-2010 fleet have up to twelve dining options with about half of these carrying a surcharge. The dress code is casual.
NCL entered the mega-ship league with ‘Norwegian Epic’ in June 2010. According to NCL, ‘Epic’ was the most ‘innovative’ ship afloat, costing $1.1 billion. She was originally meant to be one of two 155,873 gross tonne, 4,200 passenger ships, code-named F3’s (an abbreviation for ‘third generation freestyle’). However the second F3 was cancelled after financial issues and disagreements with the STX shipyard, Chantiers de l’Atlantique, France.
Norwegian Epic is NCL’s biggest ship. She has 21 dining options and multiple entertainment venues, often hosting ‘branded’ shows from Las Vegas or Broadway, such as the ‘Blue Man Group’. Epic was also the second biggest class of cruise ship in the world when she entered service (based on gross tonnage).
At times NCL are so brave with their new ideas, that they find themselves balance on the knife-edge between innovation and risk. Epic’s external appearance is certainly unique, with her top-heavy (ugly?) forward superstructure, housing the private ‘Villa Suits’ complex (re-branded ‘The Haven’). The ‘New Wave’ cabins are very stylish indeed. However the décor could not disguise that fact that they were narrower than most cabins on many other modern ships. They also have a very controversial split toilet and shower layout, on opposites sides of the cabin door, with semi-transparent glass doors. This cabin design was panned by many critics and freaked-out modest passengers who expected more privacy for their money.
NCL are also on record as saying that Epic was a little too big*. A reliable source also told me that her lack of Azipod propulsion (unusual for such a big ship) makes her quite difficult to manoeuvre at times.
NCL underwent a change of CEO and not surprisingly returned to their favourite shipyard Meyer Werft, in Germany, for project Breakaway. (Meyer Werft had constructed most of NCL’s pre-Epic fleet.) Two ships were initially ordered: Norwegian Breakaway (sailing April 2013), and Norwegian Getaway, (sailing April 2014). Each are 144,017 gross ton vessels, so are a little smaller than Epic, carrying 4,000 passengers, in their lower berths.
(Two bigger versions of the ‘Breakaway’ design, code-named ‘Breakaway Plus’, will be delivered in 2015 and 2017. They will be around 163,000 gt and both have an extra deck of passenger facilities. They will be the third biggest cruise ships in the world.*Oddly they will be bigger than Epic, despite NCL saying she was too big.)
Breakaway has 14 passenger decks numbered from 5-18. Deck’s 6, 7 and the rear half of deck 8 accommodate most of the public spaces. The ship only has two stair towers/elevator banks, which is not ideal for such a big, long ship. However there are some stairs between decks 6, 7, and 8 amidships, at ‘678 Ocean Place’ which is a mini-atrium with giant LED Chandelier. The elevators are large and efficient.
Although the ‘Project Breakaway’ ships are a completely new design, internally Breakaway replicates many of the ideas pioneered on-board Epic. However there are some major differences: 1) Breakaway is 12,000 gt smaller than Epic and will generally carry a few hundred passengers less. 2) The much criticized ‘new wave’ cabins have been replaced with conventional designs. 3) Externally the ship is much more attractive than Epic with ‘The Haven’ complex being better integrated within the superstructure of the ship 4) Breakaway has ‘The waterfront’ feature (more about this later). 5) Breakaway has Azipod propulsion for improved manoeuvrability.
NCL had restricted her passenger capacity to around 3,000, for her inaugural events and the Transatlantic crossing. However the queue was long and still took about an hour for me to get on-board. However this says more about the ‘City Cruise Terminal’ than the ship. (In contrast I went from kerb to cabin in under 15 minutes, when boarding Oasis at Fort Lauderdale).
Breakawsay will home-port in New York, so Breakaway has NY themed decor and hull-art. Her Hull-Art was done by American pop artist, Peter Max.
It’s interesting how NCL’s internal décor has changed over time. A few years back their ‘Dawn’ and ‘Jewel’ class ship were rather colourful and very glitzy on the inside. However just like McDonald’s, they have now dropped the prime colours and embraced a more classy ‘Cappuccino lounge’ style. Internally Breakaway has lots of tasteful brown wood (effect) and beige décor, often creating an understated look. In fact, some public spaces on-board Breakaway could easily be on-board a Celebrity or Cunard ship.
Like Epic, Breakaway’s entertainment decks have an open-plan design, with some of the bars and dining rooms seamlessly blending into each other, often without walls between them.
The Atrium is a modest affair (double height) with large video screen and some seating. This is the location for guest services, shore excursions, a café (a subsidiary of ‘Carlo’s Bake Shop’ on the Waterfront) and a bar. You can get free coffee from the café, but you pay for the cup-cakes. There is also a small library, card room, internet café.
The small library and card room has a historical retrospective of the ‘Rockettes’ on display. These are the legendary NY dance troop who are the ships Godmothers. The display includes some costumes, photographs and earrings. Unfortunately, it all looks like a bit of an after-though, with the costumes being displayed in lockable bookcases! (That must reduce the book stock on display.)
O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill (named after NCL’s CEO Kevin Sheehan) offers 24 hour food. It is located on the deck above the atrium, allowing guests to look down through the big cut-out. O’Sheehan’s has an ‘Irish Pub’ theme to it, with some bar games including noisy air-hockey and a bowling alley. (Mind you, I’ve never seen any other Irish Pub that has a bowling alley in it, before.) Unfortunately much of the food served is of the ‘fast food’ variety.
Personally I do not require ‘fast food’ on a cruise (what’s the rush?) However many passengers loved it. Once again the Atrium and O’Sheehan’s has a very similar design to Epic’s spaces, but not quite so large in scale.
The ‘Bliss Ultra Lounge’ is quite a different design to the versions on-board Epic and the Jewel class ships. Bliss’s entrance features video screens showing roaring flames. In this case, Bliss is not really a lounge at all, but a minimalist night-club.
Bliss is quite small given the size of the ship. In terms of décor it was just a big windowless, empty black box, with loads on LED lights. It has exposed air-con and pipe-work overhead, a bar with some bar stools and a limited number of comfortable chairs at one end. It looks very ‘trendy’, but is clearly designed for standing, dancing and drinking, and certainly not relaxing.
Now the guests on my ship-visit were definitely a ‘party crowd’. During the evening, they queued out of the door of ‘Bliss’, in an attempt to gain access to a venue that was constantly full to capacity.
The Main Dining Rooms
The Manhattan dining room (deck 7) is one of the inclusive dining options and the largest dining room on-board. It has a very attractive Art Deco design, with a large floor to ceiling windows and a large wooden dance floor, with a stage for a band. It is a double height room and is located at the very stern of the ship. Like Epic’s room of the same name, Cagney’s (steak house) and Moderno (the Brazilian-style restaurant) are located above the Manhattan and overlook the dance floor through windows.
The Manhattan room is arguably one the most attractive dining rooms at sea. I had excellent surf and turf (Lobster and Steak) and some attentive service. The Jazz band played Sinatra and generated a very pleasant atmosphere. The kitchen is directly below the dining room and the waiters use escalators to bring the food up.
Either side of the main passenger corridor (deck 6) there is the other two more main restaurants called ‘Taste’ and ‘Savor’. These are two almost identical dining areas which form the other inclusive dining options. These are both more sedate and intimate than the Manhattan, although they are bigger than they first look, by the clever use of dividing glass panels. Taste, Savor and the Manhattan all share the same kitchen and menus.
The Garden Café is the ships self-service buffet and is located at the rear of deck 15 (unlike Epic’s which is located at the front of the ship, which is pretty rare design feature ). Breakaway’s is very extensive, light and airy. The range of food was very good. An interesting feature is that some sinks are located at the entrance, so you can wash your hand in the traditional manner.
‘The great outdoors’ (the buffet’s lido-dining area) unfortunately has views of the busy ‘Aqua-park’, and not relaxing ones of the sea. (Relaxation can be elusive on these mega-ships)
I was very impressed with a ‘Wine Station’ machine. You just swiped your sea-pass, your account gets charged, select your chosen selection, from 8 bottles, and wine was automatically delivered to your glass. Another noteworthy point is that NCL probably provide the best choice of Heinz sauce at sea. There are bottles everywhere in the Café
The Garden Café struggles with the crowds, at peak times. However she probably handles them better than many big ships buffets do.
The Bistro, the French style NCL favourite (with surcharge), is located at the bottom of the hree-story ‘678 Ocean Place’ atrium, not on the waterfront. It does not have any windows, but never the less it and looks a very attractive and intimate dining room. There are some tables outside, on a cobbled street French café style. On other NCL ships it has provided me with one of the best dining experiences on-board.
Interestingly ALL of the crew on-board Breakaway were experienced crew, transferred from the other ships in the NCL fleet. There were no rookies.
‘The waterfront’ (deck 8) is a very attractive concept which re-invents the promenade deck. It’s a very simple idea, in which NCL have located most of the alternative dining options and some bars overlooking a wide teak-effect promenade deck. Walking along it, reminds me of my childhood visiting seaside piers. (The lifeboats have their own promenade deck, some decks below)
The Waterfront wraps around about 70% of the aft of the ship. However NCL claim that it is still a quarter of a mile long. The various restaurants can also be accessed from an atrium inside the ship, called e ‘678’ Ocean Place’ atrium . The Waterfront restaurants have large windows offering sea views and direct access to the promenade deck, all have lido-dining seating on the promenade. There is also an ice-cream shop, ‘Carlo’s Bake Shop’ shop and some other retail outlets overlooking the prommenade.
The Waterfront also has a fun feature: there are some glass panels set into the teak deck, both sides, aft, where you can view the sea and wake below.
Now all of the dining venues on the Waterfront carry a surcharge ($20-35 pp). A cynic might say that NCL have finally found a way of charging passengers for a seat with a sea view and fresh air! Never the less, it is a very appealing facility. By comparison Epic is a very ‘internal’ ship with few public rooms offering good sea views or actual fresh air.
In Southampton’s cool climate, I was not able to see ‘the waterfront’ fully utilised. However I do have a couple of concerns about it. Firstly, the amount of external seating and standing room at the bars, is quite limited. As the ship can carry 4,000 passengers, it is bound to get very crowded in a warm climate. Your odds of actually being able to drink or dine in the fresh air, must surely be quite low. It is also worth noting that the space between the rail and chairs/tables is only two people wide at some points.
Secondly, I am also concerned how much noise will filter up to the balcony cabins directly above. Fat Cats (the Jazz and Blues club) also has an entrance on The Waterfront. I wonder if music will leak through the door, onto the promenade deck and to the cabins above? (If so, that might teach you not to go to bed early!)
NCL claim that thay have dome wind-tunnel tests and wind will not be a problem on the waterfront. However if the wind is blowing, of course it will be an issue. Even a ship moving at 20 knots generates a fair breeze. However I accept that I may be over-concerned about ‘The Waterfront’. Future reviws will provide a useful insight.
In contrast, Royal Caribbean’s ‘Royal Promenade’ is a completely internal ‘street’ lined with bars and dining options. Wind and rain will never be an issue. It is also very wide. However it offers zero connection with the sea.
The Aqua-park has five water slides, two are called free-fall’ two are called ‘whip’ type. Their is a sports court (basketball)a rock /rappelling wall and ropes all of which looked like great fun, for the energetic. For the less energetic there is miniature golf as well. The children’s aqua park and adults pool area are not dissimilar to many other big ships. It is bound to get very busy on a sunny day, In fact I do wonder if the sky-deck facillities are extensive enough for so many passengers. In contrast, the Haven complex has it own pool and piece of private deck for sunbathing.
Spice H2O: Is an outdoor public area, with a large video screen, bar, dance floor and performance space at the very stern of the ship. There is no pool, but a small decorative water fall. It is a much smaller space than Epic’s, of the same name. It also does not benefit from the tiered seating that Epic’s version does. In fact Breakaway’s does not have much seating at all. Never the less, this will be a very popular space for music and dancing on warm evenings.
The Casino is one of the biggest at sea and has an open plan design, where smoking is allowed. passengers will often find themselves passing through this area to navigate from aft to forward or vice versa. Contrary to what NCL say, the air-con does not remove all of the odour.
The Breakaway Theatre has 800 raked seats, but no balcony. It is not as big as you might expect for such a large ship (traditionally theatres on-board ships would accommodate half the passengers at one performance). However there are of course alternative entertainment venues: Headliners, Fat Cats and the Spiegel Tent. Ideally you need to book your entertainment in advance, to ensure that you are not disappointed.
Burn the Floor: I saw the show in London a year ago. It was very high energy, featured various Ballroom dance styles and was SPECTACULAR. Breakaway’s ‘Latin’ version was a completely different show. It did feature some excellent dancing, some good singing and live piano, bass and drums (the drummer was particularly good). However the other instruments (guitar, brass, strings etc.) were taped which I found disappointing. The show was good, but certainly not exceptional.
There are various interactive touch-screens around the ship, in the public areas. These can provide deck plans, information about dining and entertainment. You can also swipe your sea-pass card and book any of the shows via them. I tried this and it took me multiple attempts, which involved me forcefully stabbing the on-screen buttons with my finger, to make them work. This was far from ideal for a brand new piece of equipment. (They have probably been broken by now). I wonder what the Norovirus risk is significant from touch-screens?
The Spiegel Tent (forward deck 6): Is an entertainment venue designed to resemble a big-top style circus tent. For a surcharge you get a meal and a circus style show. However Breakaway’s ‘Tent’ is much more ornate than Epic’s, mainly due to the furniture which has a ‘jungle’ themed appearance. There is no upstairs balcony. I was told that the circular stage in the middle could be hydraulically raised (unconfirmed). On-board ‘Epic’ the show was excellent, in part due to its intimacy, but the food mediocre. I did not get to see the Breakaway version of the show.
The Ice Bar is great fun and is very similar to Epic’s, but contains ice sculptures with a NY theme, such as the Empire State Building.
Breakaway has some 25 different grades of staterooms. In short these range from Suites (including the luxurious owners suite, family villa, and courtyard penthouse all in ‘The Haven’ complex) to Ocean-view, Balcony (including Spa-Balcony rooms) and Inside (including the 59 single occupancy Studio Rooms).
Similar to the design of Epic and Celebrity Solstice class ships, the lifeboats do not dramatically obscure the sea views of any of the cabins.
The corridors are quite understated in décor, although very annoying piped-Muzak is played, around the clock. I noticed that it was still playing a 1.30am, for example. Silence is a rare commodity on a mass-market ship.
My accommodation was in 11186 (deck 11) in a mid-ships mini-suite, of 207 sq ft (internally). On opening the door (which open outwards), I was amazed at how long the cabin was. However it was not very wide. Many of Epic’s ‘new wave’ cabins were narrow and this one was possibly not much wider. The gap between the double bed and the wall was a bit of a bottle neck, as was the gap between the bed-settee (for the 3rd/4th guest) and the dressing table. I was also surprised how small the balcony was (32 sq ft, 8ft x 4ft). It was just big enough for two upright chairs and a tiny table. In fact if you were tall your knees might even touch the glass railing. (There was a drainage gully by the glass railing and if you moved the chairs a few inches, a chair leg or two often fell into the gully).
Having such a small balcony was quite odd, considering how long this grade of cabin was. Two or more extra feet could have easily taken from my cabin footage and added to the balcony.
The majority of Breakaway’s balcony cabins are only 27-35 sq ft. Even the top grades of stateroom generally had moderate sized balconies, when compared to other ships serving the mass-market. This is a major design error by NCL.
Personally I would not call my stateroom grade a ‘Mini-Suite’: I’d call it a “Deluxe Balcony”, but I suppose a “Mini-Suite” will sell better.
On a positive note, the cabin was attractive, comfortable, with relaxing décor. There were US and European power sockets, but no UK variety. The bathroom was one of the biggest I’ve ever had and much bigger than those in the lower grades of cabin. The sink was a double-sized ‘trough’ with two mixer-taps at each end; ideal for couples who want to simultaneously clean their teeth. The shower was a large glass cubicle with big shower head and additional body -jets. Unfortunately there were shampoo and shower gel dispenser inside the shower cubicle, just to remind you that this was a mass-market ship.
Surprisingly the cabin had a coffee maker, which is rare on American ships destined to operate in US waters.
I though the wardrobe space was quite minimal, especially for a woman like my wife who enjoys dressing up. However it was probably adequate for Caribbean attire on a Freestyle ship. The wardrobe was also pretty close to the left side of the bed, which only provided enough space for one person to stand in front of it.
The safe, in the wardrobe, was a little small for my liking as I like to occasionally fit my SLR camera in along with wallet and passport etc. I was impressed that it had an internal light, but it automatically went out too quickly.
There was additional storage inside the rectangular dressing-table stool and under the bed settee, but of course you would never remember to take the items out when you disembarked. There was a ‘Hollywood mirror’ which eliminated your face: ideal for applying make-up, but not ideal for reminding you of your own mortality.
The cabin door had little red and green indicator lights above it, in the corridor. Two switches inside the cabin allowed you to request “make up my room” or “do not disturb”. Gone are the cardboard door hangers.
Breakaway really does ‘Breakaway’ from the mundane and makes ‘regular’ ships look boring. She’s going to be a big ‘hit’. The only direct competition comes from Royal Caribbean’s newer ships. It’s not just hype, Breakaway’s design really does take NCL’s ‘freestyle’ concept to the next level.
Breakaway is built for ‘fun’. It will suit those wanting a casual, but ‘busy’ cruise experience, packed with multiple dining and multiple entertainment options. Families are well catered for. She will not suit those looking for tradition, relaxation and tranquillity. NCL’s dining flexibility is second to none, compared to the other mass-market cruise ships, although the food and service can be inconsistent at times.
There obviously was not too much wrong with Epic’s design, because Breakaway is firmly based on it. Many passengers will welcome the conventional cabin designs, although most of the balconies are too small.
It is worth remembering when you are comparing fares of the rival cruise lines, that NCL are market-leaders in the ‘additional on-board surcharge’. Although the many surcharges are optional, they are very tempting. However you are paying for ‘choice’.
It’s important to note that these big ships are designed on the premise that not everybody on-board (some 4,000+ in Breakaway’s case) will want to do the same thing, in the same place, at the same time. This premise largely works, but when it doesn’t, expect queues and congestion. Breakaway is a ‘busy’ ship. I do wonder how the ‘Aqua-Park’ might cope on a hot sunny day at sea, and ‘The Waterfront’ and ‘H2O’ on a warm evening.
So which ship is best, Epic or Breakaway? Breakaway wins for me purely because ‘The Waterfront’ makes Breakaway a much less ‘inward’ focused ship than Epic and many other mega-ships. After all cruising should be about connecting with the sea, at least occasionally.
NCL or Royal Caribbean? That’s for you to choose!
(Special Thanks to Flagship Consulting)
Full slide show:
Norwegian Escape Review: See Here
Norwegian Jade Review: See Here
Norwegian Getaway Review: See Here
Norwegian Epic Review: See Here