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Taking the Wind Out of Formal Sailings

September 03, 2000|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Shirley Slater and Harry Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month

Younger cruisers are causing the cruise industry to change its ways. Old cruise habits--assigned mealtimes and tables, dress codes, sedentary shipboard and shore activities--are falling by the wayside.

Alternative dining options with more casual dress codes are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Some ships--notably Windstar, Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Seabourn's Sea Goddess and small expedition vessels--promise male passengers they'll never have to don a tie. And Silversea Cruises has eliminated shipboard photographers, saying its sophisticated passengers didn't like to be constantly asked to pose for photos.

The newest and boldest in the ranks of the revolution is Norwegian Cruise Line, established in 1966 and recently acquired by Asia-based Star Cruises. This formerly traditional line has undergone a major transformation. NCL's new president, Colin Veitch, for the last eight years an executive at Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises, has come in with an idea called "freestyle cruising."

"No good land resort tells you when to eat, where to sit and what to wear," he said aboard the Norwegian Sky during its maiden call in Los Angeles in April. "None of them send you over to dine at a large table full of strangers. . . . We want to address the weaknesses in the traditional cruise product, but it does require a new type of building and staffing."

So Veitch and his team have decreed there will be no assigned meal seatings, only a shadow of a dress code, pooled tipping unless the passenger arranges otherwise, and disembarkation at the passenger's convenience.

The new system was introduced aboard the Norwegian Sky and the Majesty this summer. The four other NCL ships will get in step with the program over the next eight months, says public relations manager Jorge Martinez.

In all NCL ships, the restaurants and dining rooms will be open from 5:30 p.m. until midnight. Passengers can arrive when they wish and sit wherever they please. With the last dinner orders taken at 10:30 p.m., passengers will have time to dawdle over pre-dinner cocktails and linger over dessert.

Dining tables will be reduced from eight seats to two, four or six. Waiters will get a greater or lesser share of the pooled tips, depending on a service rating form filled out by passengers.

For people who like to dress up, one evening a week will be designated formal, with lounges and restaurants set aside only for the formally clad. Casually dressed passengers will be directed to alternative restaurants.

One of NCL's most revolutionary changes is in the disembarkation procedure. Virtually all cruise lines disembark passengers in groups, depending on flight schedules. NCL will allow passengers to stay in their cabins on the last morning of the cruise and leave at their convenience.

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