I went bowling.
Yes, bowling, the indoor game that requires a level surface and enough precision to knock over 10 pins with a spinning ball that sports holes for three fingers. Bowling, normally a land-based game, has gone to sea, half a dozen decks below the sunshine on the new Norwegian Pearl.
With new ships debuting every few months, each cruise line is looking for a gimmick to seduce passengers. We've seen soaring rock-climbing walls, giant water slides and goofy miniature golf courses.
For voyages to Alaska in summer and to the Caribbean in winter, Norwegian Cruise Lines has placed a 30- foot-high rock-climbing wall, the line's first, on the 2,400- passenger Norwegian Pearl. But the ship's most impressive innovation is the four-lane bowling alley.
Flashy, computerized Brunswick machinery, the same kind used in land-based bowling alleys, runs the four lanes, a pair of which are set on each side of the Bliss Ultra Lounge & Nightclub. This Bliss is not peace and quiet, but a moody, electric environment accoutered in Asian decor -- golden dragons, red velvet curtains and plush sofas, chaises and daybeds.
In the daytime, Bliss is a sports bar with overhead flat-screen televisions showing athletic events around the world. In the evening, Bliss changes into a hip, high-energy nightclub, with the mammoth plasma screens tuned to music videos.
Bowling balls keep rolling, day and night. Deep into the evening, the dance floor fills to a disco beat. Thump goes the music. Clink go the glasses at the bar. Crash go the pins in the alleys. Clunk goes a gutter ball.
You've got to hear it to believe it.
Appealing to a younger, more active crowd
Bowling may seem a rather off-the-wall activity at sea, but anything off-kilter or out of the ordinary fits the image enthusiastically cultivated by Norwegian Cruise Lines. A frayed, near-bankrupt company in the late 1990s now offers one of the newest fleets of cruise ships, with eight ships inaugurated since 1999. The newest are designed to appeal to a younger, free-spirited vacationer, a new generation of customers who once thought cruising was dull and appealed mostly to older travelers.
The Norwegian Pearl, like her sister ships, has 10 restaurants, three of which have a cover charge of $20 per person -- a steak house, a bistro and an Asian restaurant with sushi and teppanyaki. The rest are included in the cruise price. At most times of the day and night, passengers can find a full meal in at least one of the restaurants, or they can order room service in their cabins.
At night, the ship becomes a busy city neighborhood of restaurants and bars on several decks. Passengers barhop and examine menus outside each restaurant door. All restaurants are listed on plasma screens in public areas. The screens indicate which restaurants are full, moderately busy or nearly empty and show estimated waiting time and the sizes of tables available. For busy restaurants, passengers put their names on a wait list and are issued a pager that works anywhere on the ship, including the various bars, lounges and the bowling alley.
Dining in the Great Outdoors
For breakfast and lunch, my favorite eating spot on the Pearl, as on her Norwegian Cruise Lines sisters, is not at one of the fancier restaurants, but outdoors, at the simpler Great Outdoors cafe on the top deck at the aft end of the ship.
Great Outdoors is one of two adjacent informal cafes. They serve food buffet-style, not at cafeterialike steam tables but at stations with attractive serving dishes on hot plates built into tabletops.
This improvement over typical ship steam tables results in an atmosphere more like a sophisticated party. I give extra marks to Norwegian for providing a breakfast toaster where passengers can burn their own bread rather than make do with limp pieces of warm bread often served on buffet lines.
Alas, cigarette smoking is allowed on the starboard (right) side of the outdoor cafe. I believe smoking should be forbidden on cruise ships, and certainly in all dining areas, even outside. Eventually, authorities will ban smoking on cruise ships as a fire and health hazard.
Most of the cabins on the Norwegian Pearl have spacious bathrooms with toilet, washstand and shower separated by sliding doors for privacy.
The Pearl also has some of the more luxurious -- and expensive -- high-end suites among mass-marketed ships.
Top-deck accommodations include two 4,390-square-foot Garden Villas, with three bedrooms, each with a private bathroom. These villas are equipped with a private garden, a hot tub and steam room, a butler and a limousine from the pier to the airport after the cruise. Price: $26,000 a week.
Other top suites include 10 villas that share a sundeck and private pool, and two owner's suites. Suites on a seven-day cruise this summer start at $2,800 per person for two people, but if you are looking at summer 2008 you can save as much as $1,000 by booking 8-12 months ahead
Innovative schedule: a cruise with 2 weekends
The Pearl, cruising out of Seattle this summer, will sail back to Miami in October, offering nine-night cruises that start Friday night and end Sunday, so a week's vacation can include two weekends -- a nice long getaway without giving up another day from the typical workweek. In between the nine-night cruises, the Pearl will do five-night cruises Sunday to Friday. For best rates, contact a travel agent who specializes in cruises or check out the ship at www.ncl.com where you click on ships, then scroll down to Norwegian Pearl.
Most cruises include one or more days at sea, so you will have spare time to focus on your bowling.
The ship charges $5 per game for bowling, including a rental pair of bowling shoes. As I concentrated on my best bowling form, the seas stayed calm, the ball ran true and the only adversity was my own clumsiness -- right in league with many other passengers in the Bliss of the Norwegian Pearl.
Photos by David Molyneaux
David Molyneaux is editor of www.TravelMavens.net