Norwegian Sun's open dining appeals to independent types

Travel Weekly cruise editor Rebecca Tobin took up her knife and fork for a sailing aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sun. Her report follows:

eet Greg and Diane Poivre, Norwegian Cruise Line's new breed of cruise client. They don't really want to do formal nights, aren't requesting a late seating, won't dine in the same restaurant every night and don't want to dine with strangers.

"Sometimes we just like to have dinner [with] just the two of us," Greg explained, adding they don't want to be "on" every night. "We might not even talk to each other."

Welcome to the world of Freestyle Cruising, the concept of open seating, which -- until NCL adopted it about two years ago -- primarily was a property of smaller luxury lines.

The 2,002-passenger Norwegian Sun, which entered service last year, was the first NCL ship built with Freestyle Cruising in mind.

In addition to two traditional restaurants on the main deck, restaurant-style dining occupies a large portion of the ship. Guests can choose to dine in one of the ship's nine venues any time between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

So, now that NCL has been promoting Freestyle Cruising for more than two years, how's it working out?

The response I received from guests on the Norwegian Sun was this: We wouldn't have it any other way.

"The main thing is you don't feel rushed to make a seating," said Keith Colling, a guest who was vacationing with family and friends.

Norwegian Sun passengers can grab a drink at Champ's bar, which overlooks the ship's pool. Diane Poivre agreed that she preferred the flexible times and casual dress code. "And there's a lot to choose from," she said. Il Adagio, the Italian restaurant, was her favorite. "It's a lot quieter than the regular dining hall," she added.

Andrew Stuart, NCL's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said although cruise lines had talked about flexible seating, most were dubious that it could be done -- or that U.S. vacationers would embrace it.

The line got a lot of help from parent company Star Cruises, which has operated with open seating since its inception.

On the Sun, the concept seemed to be working smoothly. Cruise director Paul Baya said the main dining room always is crowded on the first day, but as guests become more familiar with the ship, they become more familiar with the Freestyle concept.

The alternative restaurants never lack for guests. Particularly popular were Il Adagio and Le Bistro, as well as the a la carte teppenyaki tables at Ginza, where chefs prepare Japanese fare tableside.

And although reservations are suggested, the restaurants were never overcrowded. On most nights, guests could walk into any restaurant without a reservation -- although Le Bistro was solidly booked the last night of the cruise.

The only problem might well be the signage -- or lack thereof. The restaurants are mostly grouped together on the top deck, where guests out for a stroll wouldn't notice them.

In particular, the Asian fusion restaurant, East Meets West, is hidden behind two other restaurants, so you have to search for it.

Stuart said Freestyle Cruising's introduction -- on the Norwegian Sky in May 2000 -- was "tough. We learned as we went," he said.

NCL still is learning which types of restaurants work best and how best to promote the dining options to both travel agents and guests, Stuart said.

For example, the line's French restaurant, Le Bistro, was such a hit on the Sky that it's now on every NCL ship.

On the other hand, Las Ramblas, the tapas bar on the Sun, is less popular. The line is looking at ways to beef up the entertainment there and attract more guests.

Nonetheless, Stuart said, after the introduction of Freestyle Cruising, passenger feedback improved in most areas. The exception is in dining room wait-staff comments, which Stuart said was on par with the old ratings but not improved. Indeed, some guests might miss the close interaction between them and "their server."

So who is best suited for Freestyle Cruising? This type of evening dining would appeal to independent types; i.e. those clients who feel hampered by the cruise timetable.

But NCL is including in its program all types of cruisers, including families with kids too hyperactive to sit through a two-hour dinner, new cruisers and experienced voyagers who want to try something different.

The Sun's vibe is casual, even on the sailing's one 'formal' night. The literature that accompanies cruise documents tells guests they can dress however they like, as long as it's at least resort casual in the restaurants.

And in keeping with what the NCL calls "personal freedom," the passengers seem to keep a little more to themselves.

Because all guests are free to make their own plans, some of the camaraderie of cruising together was missing -- there was no pre-dinner gathering at the bar, for example.

That's not to say the ship or its passengers was stuffy. The casino action was hot, and the theme nights -- the sock hop and '70s parties in particular -- were well-attended. And the subdued Windjammer martini bar and the Observation Lounge often were full.

Obviously, Stuart said, Freestyle Cruising is not a concept that appeals to everyone.

"First and foremost, we're saying to travel agents, 'We recognize this isn't for everybody,' " he said. "We don't want you to force this on every person who walks through your shop."

But, he added, "There are definitely customers ... who want this."

About 90% of agents recognize Freestyle Cruising and relate it to flexible dining times, Stuart said.

"We're now moving on to [promoting] the multiple dining options," he said. "There are ships in the fleet with nine and 10 restaurants. ... we're working hard on that communication."

Aboard the Sun: A variety of venues

East Meets West
Cuisine: Pacific Rim/Asian fusion
Cover charge (per person): $10

Four Seasons
Cuisine: traditional dining
Cover charge: none

Garden Cafe
Cuisine: casual buffet
Cover charge: none

Ginza
Cuisine: Japanese
Cover charge: a la carte

Il Adagio
Cuisine: Italian
Cover charge: $10

Las Ramblas
Cuisine: tapas
Cover charge: a la carte

Le Bistro
Cuisine: French
Cover charge: $10

Pacific Heights
Cuisine: health-conscious/spa cuisine
Cover charge: none

Seven Seas
Cuisine: traditional dining
Cover charge: none

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