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The latest ship to join the fleet sailing the Southern Hemisphere’s 2017 summer season is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jewel. Sally Macmillan checked out sister-ship Norwegian Epic on a Mediterranean cruise to find the Norwegian difference.

You can’t miss Norwegian Epic when it’s in port. For a start, it’s one of the world’s 10 biggest ships and, like all Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) vessels, its hull sports a bright murals. In Epic’s case, the free-form waves were designed to mirror the interiors, particularly the curvy cabins which were quite a departure from the norm when the ship launched six years ago.

I joined the 4,100-passenger Epic in Marseille for a seven-night cruise around the Med and was amazed to find no embarkation queues; in Barcelona and Civitavecchia (Rome), the main embarkation points for this regular itinerary, it was a little more hectic.

At the guest-services desk, I was given a map of the ship and a guided tour of its 19 decks – it is so huge it would take way more than a week on board to fully experience all its dining rooms, bars, shows and high-octane activities.

The 2,376-passenger Norwegian Jewel, coming to Australia in November 2017, is a tiddler in comparison – but many of Epic’s standout features are also found on Jewel.

Starting at the top, sections of Epic’s decks 16, 17, 18 and 19 comprise The Haven, a private enclave known as a ship within a ship. Sixty suites have exclusive access to The Haven’s pool, sun deck, restaurant, lounge, bar and gym, while having the run of all the rest of the ship’s facilities.

The Haven’s balcony suites range from the vast Owner’s Suite, which accommodates up to four people, to two-bedroom Family Villas (for up to six people) and Courtyard Penthouses (for two people).

Perks for Haven guests include butler and concierge services, priority (escorted) embarkation and disembarkation, limo transfers from airport to port and “white tablecloth” in-suite dining.

Although I didn’t stay in The Haven, I was lucky enough to have access to its facilities during my cruise and was seriously impressed. The service is as good as you’ll find on five-star ships and the breakfasts, lunch and dinner I sampled in the restaurant were first-rate.

Norwegian Jewel also has The Haven, with 16 suites. One difference is that Jewel has three-bedroom Garden Villas, which can sleep up to eight.

Price-wise, when you factor in the inclusions for The Haven guests – free unlimited drinks, specialty dining, shore excursions and Wi-Fi, plus reduced rates for the third and fourth passengers in a group, it represents good value. For example, fares in Haven suites on a five-night Tasmanian cruise from Sydney on Norwegian Jewel in November 2017 start from $2,437 per person (eight guests sharing a Family Villa).

Heading down to deck 15 on Epic, you’ll find another “exclusive” zone, the adults-only Spice H20, plus climbing walls, the 60 metre Epic Plunge water slide, Aqua Park and kids’ pool, and a couple of huge indoor and outdoor bar and dining areas, The Great Outdoors Bar & Grill and Garden Café.

The Garden Café offers an array of serve-yourself and cooked-to-order dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The choice, quality and freshness of the food was very good indeed. And although the area was invariably busy, there were no long queues at the food stations. The for-fee La Cucina Italian restaurant is tucked away at the front, a deck below the Garden Café. Jewel also has both these dining venues, and when she cruises down under, local produce such as beef, lamb, seafood, wines and craft beers will be served on board.

NCL prides itself on being a pioneer of “freestyle” dining. Essentially, that means there is no assigned seating; you decide when and where to dine each night. However, it is advisable to book in advance if you want to eat at a specific time, particularly if you want to catch a show.

You can make online reservations for specialty restaurants 90 days before embarkation, or 48 hours beforehand when you’re on board, or try your luck and just turn up on the night. If there’s a queue, you’ll be wait-listed and paged when your table is ready. Alternatively, you can check the interactive screens that are dotted all over the ship. They give information about restaurant opening times and how full they are at any given time.

The freestyle dining approach certainly works when there are 20 different eateries to choose from (or 16 in the case of Jewel). Passengers are dispersed around the ship so it never feels too crowded anywhere. However, it was interesting to hear from a senior crew member that some passengers only ever go to the Garden Café, their cabin and the gangway – they don’t know what they’re missing! On Epic, seven restaurants are included in the cruise fare. As well as the Garden Café and Great Outdoors, there are two main dining rooms (Taste and The Manhattan Room – the latter is only open for dinner); O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill (next to the ten-pin bowling alley, open 24 hours a day); Shanghai’s Asian Restaurant; and the Noodle Bar Chinese Restaurant.

Specialty restaurants I experienced on Epic were Cagney’s Steakhouse, Le Bistro and Cirque Dreams & Dinner. Of these, Cagney’s and Le Bistro are also on Jewel, along with La Cucina, Teppanyaki and Moderno Churrascaria.

It would be hard to say which had the most outstanding cuisine, Le Bistro or Cagney’s. At both venues, classic French, steak and seafood dishes were beautifully presented and served. I could have been eating Vegemite sandwiches at Cirque Dreams because the Cirque du Soleil-type act was so engrossing. The Speigel Tent venue is small so every heart-stopping acrobatic move by the amazingly talented troupe was unmissable.

Entertainment is a big deal on NCL ships. The most elaborate (and longest) production show on my Epic cruise was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Smaller shows such as comedy, magic and impressionists are hosted in the Headliners club and numerous live-music and dance-party events are staged in different venues around the ship every night.

Burn The Floor is another spectacular, performed in the Epic Theater and in The Manhattan Room one evening. The brainchild of talented Australian producer Harley Medcalf, it’s a high-energy combo of storytelling, eclectic dance and music, and sexy costumes. It will be presented on board Jewel during its Australian season.

All up, Norwegian Jewel will be a great addition to the local cruising scene. If you prefer traditional, assigned dining times, formal nights and a strict dress code, it may not be for you. But, if you enjoy a relaxed, lively atmosphere, plenty of options for casual or high-end dining and entertainment, and don’t want to pack the tux and LBD, it’s a goer.