Checking out a new ship the size of Norwegian Bliss – it's 20-decks-high, 333-metres-long and accommodates 4004 passengers – is best done over a leisurely week's cruise but two days of high-speed reconnaissance still reveals plenty of impressive highlights. This pre-christening cruise sails from Los Angeles down the Mexican coast and back and before it's even set sail I've ticked off a few essential Bliss experiences.
First stop is test-driving the go-karts on the biggest track at sea. Whizzing around the twisting, two-deck circuit at speeds of up to 48 km/h is addictively competitive – the sound effects are all in your head (or helmet) so racing around the top deck won't scare off the local wildlife when the ship cruises in Alaska.
Two massive waterslides in the Aqua Park are major drawcards for thrill-seekers – one loops the loop over the side of the ship, the other is built for tandem racing. I admit to observing rather than participating and when I later hear that some people get stuck in the Ocean Loops I'm quite happy that I forgot to bring a swimsuit. The Kids Aqua Park has less scary slides, splash pools and tipping buckets.
An "abandoned space station" sits on the top deck, the setting for energetic games of laser tag – it costs $US5 for 10 minutes of fierce galactic warfare. I pass on a night-time session on day two of our whistle-stop tour in favour of lingering longer over dinner but am reliably informed it is lots of fun.
I fit in a quick visit to my vast spa suite on deck 15 before muster drill. It's light and airy, elegantly fitted out and features a corner spa bath and spacious balcony. I didn't realise until doing an inspection of Mandara Spa the following evening this suite comes with complimentary access to the spa's thermal suite – which is just as well, because having seen the fabulous spa I probably wouldn't have come out again.
After a fast-paced stroll around the promenade deck, where several restaurants have outdoor seating, there's time to race back up to deck 17 for a pre-pre-dinner drink at the adults-only Spice H20. The bar is doing great business, the two hot tubs are full of merry guests and sun-lovers are stretched out on loungers.
Pre-dinner drinks for our group of international travel agents and journos are held in the magnificent Observation Lounge, which has 180-degree views from floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Artist Wyland, whose larger-than-life mural of humpback whales and other Alaskan marine life adorns the hull of Norwegian Bliss, gives a brief informal speech about working on one of his biggest-ever canvases – "supercool and awesome" – and then, a little later than scheduled, the ship slips out of Los Angeles' massive San Pedro port. We have dinner in one of the ship's new venues, Q Texas Smokehouse. It is not for the faint-hearted or vegetarians; the menu offers enormous servings of ribs, brisket, chicken and sausages and very little in the way of greenery. The smoking process has been cleverly achieved by using an electric barbecue and woodchips – a real outdoor-style smoker would, of course, break all safety rules.
Midway through dinner Camilla Rae and her country-rock band burst onto the stage; they play until late and on regular cruises Q becomes one of many live music and dance venues around the ship. We head off to watch Jersey Boys, a highly polished version of the award-winning Broadway show about the lives and music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Valli and original bandmate Bob Gaudio made a special appearance at Bliss' christening).
Post-show, we dash off to The Cavern Club for a hit of Beatles nostalgia, delivered by a dynamic tribute band. At this point, I head for bed to prepare for the next day's hectic schedule; the party people go in search of late-night action at The Social Comedy and Night Club.
Breakfast on day two is at Savor, one of two complimentary restaurants opposite each other on deck 6; I'm impressed to see that tea is served in a china teapot and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce is provided on request. Most restaurants, bars and the theatre are on decks 6, 7 and 8, which is collectively known as 678 Ocean Place. The elegant Manhattan Dining Room on deck 7 is also complimentary, as is the Garden Cafe buffet on deck 16.
I tag along with a videographer to check out as much as possible of 678 Ocean Place over the morning. The design, decor and artworks throughout are stylish – every venue has its own distinct character and the ambience is more contemporary hotel than megaship. Cellars Wine Bar and adjoining Cucina restaurant look particularly tempting; Cecilia Gadea, the cellarmaster, is extremely knowledgeable about her wares.
The Haven, spread over three decks at the top of the ship, is home to occupants of 80 top-level suites who have exclusive access to all its ultra-luxe facilities. These include a private restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining; the two-deck Observation Lounge; and a courtyard with retractable roof, pool, four whirlpools and a sauna.
Back in the less rarefied Local Bar & Grill we have a quick game of mini-tenpin bowling then head up to deck 17 for a very late lunch at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville at Sea. (Those lifts get a constant work-out.) There is a cover charge and beers and margaritas are extra – be prepared for humungous helpings of burgers, nachos and quesadilla.
With stomachs fully lined we meet NCL's president and CEO, Andy Stuart, at the A-List Bar for a "Hydrate on 8" bar crawl. The first cocktail we sample, Gunners, is a gin-based concoction named after Stuart's favourite football team, London's Arsenal. It's a feisty little number. We have three more bars to visit – the Sugarcane Mojito Bar, Maltings Whiskey Bar and the District Brewhouse – you can guess from their names what drinks they specialise in.
A little lie-down is required before we tour the Mandara Spa. This lavish, beautifully designed sanctuary has 24 treatment rooms and a thermal suite with its own pool, whirlpool and a series of hot and cold "experiences". These include a snow room, salt room (the latest spa trend), heated stone loungers, sauna and steam room. It's tempting to take another much longer lie-down but we have another show to catch, the Cuba-themed Havana!
As there's the possibility of snagging a table at Le Bistro, three of us sneak out of the show before it really gets going but we've seen Jersey Boys and two shows in two days is one too many for me. And dinner at Le Bistro is sublime. Traditional French dishes are served in the classically chic dining room (don't miss the French onion soup) and on regular cruises Veuve Clicquot is available by the glass or bottle.
By the time we disembark back in LA, my phone (and brain) is crammed with snapshots and notes. There's much more to see and do but this express cruise has been an eye-opener. I can't wait to see what NCL does with its next Breakaway-Plus ship.
Air Canada flies daily from Brisbane and Sydney and three times a week from Melbourne to Vancouver, with connecting flights to Seattle. Phone your local travel agent, see https://www.aircanada.com/
Norwegian Bliss is sailing seven-day Alaska cruises round-trip from Seattle until September 2018, then repositions to LA for four cruises to the Mexican Riviera. Between October 2018 and May 2019 it will sail in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Florida, returning to Seattle for the 2019 Alaska season. Phone 1300 255 200, see www.ncl.com
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line
Five things to know about NCL
NCL operates 16 ships in various classes. The fourth Breakaway-Plus ship, Norwegian Encore, is due in 2019; the oldest in the fleet is 1998's Norwegian Spirit and the biggest is 2015's 4266-passenger Norwegian Escape. NCL's parent company NCL Holdings also operates Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas.
CRUISING DOWN UNDER
Norwegian Jewel cruised out of Sydney for the first time in the 2017-18 season and is undergoing a significant refurb in Singapore before it returns in November for 2018-19. Jewel was built in 2005 and is one of four in the Jewel Class.
THE HAVEN BY NORWEGIAN
The exclusive "ship within a ship", where passengers have a private pool, lounge, restaurant, butler service and more, is available on Bliss, Breakaway, Epic, Escape, Gem, Getaway, Jade, Jewel and Pearl.
Studio cabins are specifically designed for single travellers. Guests have access to the private Studio Lounge, where complimentary coffee, espresso and snacks are available during the day. Studios are on Bliss, Breakaway, Epic, Escape, Getaway and Pride of America.
ON THE HORIZON
NCL has four new vessels on order, to be delivered in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025, with an option for two more. The "Project Leonardo" ships will be smaller at 140,000 gross tons and accommodating about 3300 passengers.