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Passengers loosen their ties

CRUISE VIEWS

No assigned seating, no formal dining, no regimented mealtimes. Casual cruising is catching on.

November 23, 2003|Harry Basch | Special to The Times

Three years ago, Norwegian Cruise Line introduced "freestyle cruising," a concept to bring resort-style casualness to a ship trip, offering passengers more dining choices. The move at first brought derision and doubts from people more accustomed to a formal shipboard dining experience. But within a year, other lines were launching their own version.

Princess Cruises came up with "personal choice cruising," which allowed passengers to choose traditional dining times and seatings or an unregimented style. Carnival launched "total choice dining" and relaxed its two-seating dining hours to stagger attendance.

Freestyle cruising, in essence, mimics the experience a guest would have at a land resort. There are no assigned seatings or dining times, and passengers can choose from several restaurants (though some carry a surcharge) with eclectic menus. They are open 5 p.m. to midnight, and the last diners are seated at 10 p.m. Passengers may dine where and with whom they wish. Tips are calculated at $10 per person, per day, which includes dining and stateroom staff, and are added to the passengers' shipboard account. At the bar, drinks carry a 15% service charge, added at the time of purchase.

Shipboard dress code is minimal, resort-style casual. There are no formal nights, although passengers can dress up.

How is freestyle cruising working? A recent cruise on the Norwegian Sun gave me an opportunity to check. The biggest change I saw was in the dining options.

At peak hours, there was an occasional line at one of the dining rooms, so some passengers chose another restaurant or dining room. Anecdotal evidence suggests many new cruise patrons are happy with it, although some veteran patrons still prefer the same table, time and waiter, which they can arrange with the maitre d', if they wish.

The newer, larger ships of Norwegian Cruise Line, which were designed with freestyle cruising in mind, have more restaurants than the line's older ships. The Norwegian Sun, which was launched in 2001, has six alternatives to the two main restaurants.

Le Bistro ($12.50 surcharge per person) has a French Mediterranean menu, which includes escargots, mushroom soup served in a sourdough bread loaf, Caesar salad, chicken breast stuffed with tiger prawn mousse, sea bass and filet mignon.

Il Adagio ($10 surcharge) serves traditional Italian dishes, including a risotto trio and a combination of short and long pastas.

Asian dishes are featured in East Meets West ($10 surcharge), with dim sum, teriyaki duck salad, filets of sea bass from a rock salt-encrusted whole fish and Moroccan spiced five-rib rack of lamb.

Ginza's sushi bar is priced by the item, $2 to $13, and has a room where passengers' choices are prepared on the grill before them. Combinations of seafood and beef are $10 to $12.

Pacific Heights (no surcharge) promotes healthy eating with a menu of salads and soups, home-style meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, vegetable pizza and lasagna.

For before-dinner snacks, Las Ramblas serves tapas and sangria.

The Garden and Outdoor cafe (no surcharge and open 24 hours) has buffet selections of salads, pastas and hot dishes, and there is 24-hour room service.

NCL's fleet of nine ships cruises Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, New England, the Panama Canal and South America. Brochure rates can run $100 per person per day for an inside stateroom to $375 for the owner's suite. Early booking discounts can be as much as 50% on some cruises. For information: (800) 327-7030, www.ncl.com.

Harry Basch travels as a guest of the cruise lines.

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