Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

Cruising on the Norwegian Viva Is Your Ticket to Freedom and Flexibility at Sea

by Eben Diskin Mar 4, 2024

I took my first cruise in 2022 with low expectations and a mindset influenced by all the negative stigmas I’d heard about cruising. By the end of that voyage, I finally understood the allure of an all-inclusive oceanborne vacation, and I’ve tried ever since to correct my non-cruising friends’ misconceptions. It’s easy to sing the praises of endless food and drinks, tanning on a pool deck, and seeing some cool islands, but my argument always fell apart when they inevitably retorted: “But there’s no freedom. You’re confined to a giant floating hotel, and on a strict timetable for exploring the ports, right?”

No, you can’t pull a Robinson Crusoe, hire a dingy, explore the ocean on your own, and set up camp on an uninhabited island. You will spend a lot of time on the ship, and when you dock in ports, you’ll have limited time to explore them. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have freedom or flexibility on your voyage. If you know how to maximize your time, both on board and on shore, you’ll realize just how much independence you have, and how many opportunities there are for creative fun.

I never truly realized this until earlier this year when I took a seven-night voyage with Norwegian Cruise Line from San Juan to six Caribbean islands — one island per day — aboard the Norwegian Viva. Head throbbing with a hangover from my night out in Old San Juan, the rhythmic salsa percussion still ringing in my ears, I readied to board and wondered if my friends were right. This voyage was longer than my last one. Maybe I would get bored. Maybe I would feel restricted.

If I had known what awaited me on the Viva, it would have made the hangover much more bearable. As it turned out, traditional cruising tropes and expectations didn’t quite apply to the Norwegian Viva. Norwegian’s newest ship is a floating roulette wheel of activities that quite literally never stops spinning. If that sounds a little stressful, well, it is. But in the best way possible.

A roulette wheel of activities on board the Norwegian Viva

I heard a statistic recently that claimed that 50 percent of cruise passengers don’t leave the ship when it docks in ports, instead choosing to enjoy the amenities on board. Whether or not that’s accurate, I have no idea, but one thing is certainly true: a lot more people stayed on the Viva on shore days than I expected. The reason why is immediately clear when you explore the ship. There’s so much to do there’s simply not enough hours in a day – or in a week – to do it all.

Indeed, a friend of mine had grand ambitions to try every single ship activity in a 24-hour span — and failed miserably. Kind of like showing up to a Golden Corral with a big smile and huge appetite, only to tap out after four plates thanks to the buffet’s sheer enormity.

Adrenaline seekers have the Viva Speedway, a three-level racetrack that wraps around the ship. It’s no Rainbow Road, but it’s tough to top the views from this Mario Kart-esque experience as you race your friends while looking out over the ocean horizon. Unlike Mario Kart, though, slamming into other drivers will earn you no speed boosts, and might even get you kicked off the track (I learned the hard way). To deepen the illusion that you’re at an amusement park, there’s also The Rush, a twisting dry slide plunging several stories down from the top deck, and The Drop, the first-ever free-fall dry slide at sea.

If a few days have passed and you haven’t gotten into an argument with your friends or significant other yet, don’t worry – it’s time to voluntarily lock yourself in a room and pay for the privilege of escaping. The Viva has two escape rooms onboard, which somehow manage to test the limits of your friendships, as well as make those friendships even stronger. It’s also a great way to meet other passengers. For even more group bonding, check out Galaxy Pavilion, a virtual reality arcade that’s perfect for a rainy sea day. While everyone else is hunkering down in their rooms or vegging out at the buffet, you could be blasting away zombies in a haunted amusement park that feels too real for comfort.

At night, there’s the traditional nightclub and theater performances, but nothing brings people together (or potentially drives them apart) like karaoke. Put in your request, wait eagerly to hear your name called, then serenade your friends and total strangers by butchering their favorite classics. Axel, a German friend I made onboard, sang a truly memorable rendition of The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way,” and while his “I Vaaaaant it Zaaaaht Vayyyy” cover won’t be going platinum anytime soon, it’s one of my fondest memories from the trip.

Shore excursions beyond the Norwegian Viva

Before I took a cruise, my perception of shore excursions was pretty narrow. In my head, they were mostly city walking tours and bus trips with a guide’s voice crackling inconsistently over a microphone. On Norwegian cruises, the decision paralysis is real when it comes to shore excursions. I found myself making the impossible choice between taking jungle canopy zipline tours and a cooking class in Antigua, between visiting an organic local farm and taking a luxury catamaran cruise in St. Lucia, and between kayaking through a mangrove lagoon and having a cycleboat party in St. Thomas.

Horseback riding on St. Maarten was definitely the highlight. You’ll ride the winding trails around the coastline, with views of the neighboring islands of St. Barts and Saba, and finish by taking your horse for a ride through the water. Don’t worry if you have no horseback-riding experience, as the horses know their way around the coastline with very little help. My horse, Xena – yes, like the warrior princess – was perfectly well-behaved, until snacktime hit, which seemed to happen every 10 minutes. Her appetite was much like a cruise passenger whose room happens to be right around the corner from the buffet.

Dining on the Norwegian Viva

As in life, the most important thing on the Viva is food. When you first board, you’ll be tasked with one of the most difficult decisions of your voyage (and perhaps of your entire year): where to eat. There are eight specialty restaurants onboard, each of which requires a reservation to ensure you actually get a seat. These restaurants range from Japanese hibachi to classic steakhouse and boujee French bistro, each with its own distinct aesthetic and food that’s worth the extra surcharge. If you don’t want to, you never have to eat at the same venue twice. Spend one night feasting on escargot and lobster thermidor in dignified fashion at Le Bistro, and the next listening to a Japanese chef at Hasuki sing a rice-themed remix of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” while flinging his cleaver in the air.

Foregoing specialty dining doesn’t mean you’ll be strapping on the feed bag at the buffet every night, either. There are plenty of eateries that don’t require a reservation of extra charge, such as the pub-like The Local Bar & Grill (open late night for those post-nightclub cravings) and Indulge, an around-the-world style food hall with different stations for various international cuisines, with ordering done entirely by tablet. For fans of the traditional, there’s Hudson’s, an upscale dining room (minus the dress code), with floor-to-ceiling windows for epic panoramic views. If it sounds stuffy, don’t worry – I showed up in a swimsuit and sleeveless shirt, sweaty after a day of shore excursions, and the waiter never broke his poker face.

Maximizing the choose-your-own-adventure cruise experience

Those who value maximum flexibility, who can’t wait to emancipate themselves from anything resembling a plan or schedule, will be relieved to learn that port days can look however you want them to. You have more options than just signing up for a shore excursion or staying on the ship. The spirit of off-the-beaten-path adventure is very much alive on a cruise — you just need to take a little initiative to make it happen.

As a screw-the-itinerary guy myself, I wanted to see what it’s like to cross the Rubicon and divorce myself from the ship entirely. No planned excursions. No guided tours. Just escaping the ship’s protective bubble and allowing, even welcoming, the unexpected. When we docked in Barbados, a few friends and I approached the first taxi driver we saw.

“We’d like to go to Bathsheba Beach and anywhere else you’d recommend. We need to be back by 5 PM.”

Luckily, we had approached the right man. Marson Craigwell, the 73-year-old veteran cab driver, knew the island like his own backyard. For just $150, he agreed to drive us around all day, to Bathsheba Beach and a few other must-see destinations that he absolutely insisted on.

“We’ll be back by 5, right?” my friend Meg asked, worried about missing the ship’s departure. Our fate, after all, was now in the hands of Marson Craigwell, who just laughed.

“You’ll be back by 5, but not a minute earlier!” he said, wagging his finger. “So much to see!”

He drove us first to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve where we saw green monkeys climbing up trees and swinging from vines Donkey Kong-style. Then he brought us to the Flower Forest Botanical Garden, where we had lunch, and lastly to Bathsheba Beach, defined by the massive boulders strewn about the shore. A retired ballroom dancing champion and not-so-retired womanizer, Marson regaled us with his sexcapades and anecdotes of local lore as he drove us around the island.

Bathsheba Beach in Barbados

Photo: Richard Semik/Shutterstock

“You think he’s full of it?” my friend Sean whispered to me as we approached the Flower Forest, suspecting our 73-year-old driver was embellishing his personal conquests.

“Ah, Wanda!” Marson greeted the woman at the Flower Forest gift shop. “Friends, you will not find a more beautiful woman in all of Barbados. Eyes like this, beautiful blue eyes, they make you go blind.”

He pretended to shield his eyes from the sun, and she blushed despite herself.

“No,” I told Sean, “I don’t think he’s full of it.”

Barbados Flower Forest Botanical Garden

Photo: photosounds/Shutterstock

What really struck me, though, wasn’t this 73-year-old-man’s insatiable flirtatiousness – it was that he knew every single person’s name, everywhere we went on the island, from the gate agents at the cruise port to the groundskeepers at the botanic garden. Spending just a few hours with Marson, I felt like I knew them all too.

True to his word, we arrived back at the ship at 4:57 PM – three minutes to spare until we were those people, left behind by the cruise ship on Barbados, forced to bunk with Marson for who knows how long. Meg, who had been frantically checking her watch for the past 30 minutes, threw angry glares at me as we ran up the gangway.

“Wasn’t that fun?” I said, in complete seriousness, once we had safely boarded.

Like the woman in the Flower Forest gift shop, she couldn’t pretend to be annoyed for long. For all of us, it had been one of the most fun days of the trip, and the best part was that that experience wasn’t limited to Barbados. Every island you visit on a cruise is full of Marson Craigwells, each with their own stories, helpful tips, and colorful personalities – you just have to find them.

Whether you’re feasting on a seemingly endless buffet of onboard activities, making an impossible choice between dozens of tempting shore excursions, or choosing your own adventure with the Marson Craigwells of the world, Norwegian gives you the independence you need to turn anyone into a cruise convert.

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