A race track and a virtual reality pavilion? Bernadette Chua sails Norwegian Encore, and discovers a gamer's paradise.
We are sipping drinks in the Observation Lounge on deck 15. It's six in the evening and there is a convivial atmosphere in the air. Of course! It's cocktail hour.
The waiters are serving smoked salmon and crème frache vol-au-vents and glasses of champagne are multiplying in front of the guests at the ornate circular bar.
It sounds, and feels, like a luxury cruise. Yet two decks above us, people are racing go-karts around the Encore Speedway while others are fighting off life-like monsters and escaping dinosaurs in virtual-reality games in the Galaxy Pavilion. Few ships manage this melding of styles, tastes and ages.
Welcome to Norwegian Encore. The new sweetheart of the Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) fleet will be the last ship in its Breakaway Plus class. And boy, has the line delivered. Encore is the grown-up, sophisticated sister to earlier NCL ships.
Modern pieces of art feature throughout the ship and even the chandeliers and light fixtures are exquisite. The 30,000 crystals in the atrium's wave-like lighting centrepiece stunningly reflect different colours when caught in the light.
The ship is big - she can accommodate nearly 4000 guests - and she offers a strong selection of 29 restaurants and bars. The most notable new addition is Onda by Scarpetta, an Italian-style eatery which could rival a Roman ristorante. Onda marries the best of fine produce with curated vino. It's a shared-plate experience, for greater intimacy when dining with friends. When we stop in for dinner, we enjoy the tuna crudo, a rich mushroom ragout with creamy polenta, and a melt-in-the-mouth short rib. One of our hand-pulled pasta dishes is served with a simple passata and fresh basil, the other features deliciously sweet spot prawns.
NCL's repertoire of dining options includes complimentary restaurants Taste and Savor, my favourite places for breakfast. The chef makes a delightful shakshuka - a Turkish dish of baked eggs with tomatoes - and I can't disclose the embarrassing number of hash browns I consumed on my three-day cruise.
Amongst the specialty dining, the popular Teppanyaki makes an appearance, as well as the French Le Bistro and Cagney's Steakhouse. These are great options for guests wanting a little extra outside of the inclusive Manhattan Room or the buffet at the Garden Café.
The accommodation on Encore varies, but the crunch line is it caters for both large families and solo travellers. NCL is a bit of a pioneer when it comes to those holidaying alone - the cabins dedicated to solos have a larger-than-normal single bed and include access to the Studio Lounge. This private lounge area hosts mixers and cocktail parties for solo travellers, and will seat them together at dinner whenever possible.
The ocean-facing cabins are ideal for families with children - the interconnecting cabins give mum and dad a reprieve. The large balcony staterooms have ample storage - plenty of hidden drawers, a large closet and lots of shelves - a comfortable king-size bed, a small seating area and USB ports (so if you've forgotten your phone charger, don't fret).
The top end of town is The Haven, NCL's ship-within-a-ship concept. All Haven cabins are luxurious and spacious, and range from Spa Suites, which are outside The Haven but guests are welcome to access the area's exclusive amenities, to Deluxe Owner's Suites which have large balconies and a separate lounge/dining area.
The Haven's private pool area is covered by a retractable roof, and there's a stunning sundeck and a restaurant and bar. For breakfast, the private dining room serves smoked salmon frittata as well as the decadent fruits de mer brioche - who said lobster and scallops was too much for breakfast?
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For its last hurrah in the Breakaway Plus class, NCL has gone above and beyond to give guests something everyone can enjoy; this ship deserves an encore.
The Haven is the place to escape from the madness, frivolity and activities. In contrast, the top deck sees the return of one of the most fun rides I have ever been on at sea - the go-kart track. The heart-pumping Encore Speedway is a longer racetrack than the one on sister vessel Bliss, and hangs spectacularly four metres over the side of the ship. Behind the racetrack is the laser tag course, built for teamwork and thrills, while the all-new Galaxy Pavilion has some amazing virtual-reality rides and games.
You'll find the kids' clubs on deck five. Catering for children aged as young as one year old, the kids' areas are large and designed with lots of open space. Books and watercolours fill the Splash Academy and the teenager area Entourage has video games and handball courts to keep the big kids entertained. For parents with babies, there's the Guppies room, a quiet space for bubs to play with toys and join in some of the hosted activities.
Cruise: In 2020 Norwegian Encore will depart from Miami for tours of the Caribbean islands, Mexico and Belize, and from New York for various itineraries: Bermuda; the Bahamas; Canada and New England; and Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. Cruises range from three to 12 nights and prices start at $885 per person for a three-night Bermuda-New York cruise.