Sweet Sailing Shipping out: Norwegian Cruise Line's new, downsized Leeward has amenities that match, and sometimes surpass, those on larger vessels.


Heard of those bountiful midnight buffets aboard cruise ships, the ones that really put the pounds on you? Well, one of the newest liners on Miami's block has one that's absolutely sinful.

It's all chocolate.

Tables and tables full of the yummy stuff. Cakes, candies and mousses. Cookies, ice cream and toppings. Pails of syrup, even a carved white-chocolate centerpiece.

It's no place for a dieter. But Norwegian Cruise Line's new Leeward certainly is a nice place for a cruise passenger. As the line's much-ballyhooed advertising slogan says, "It's different out here."

The chocoholic buffet is just one way in which the Leeward differs from its competitors in the three- and four-day cruise trade.

First of all, at 25,000 tons and 950 passengers, the ship is considerably smaller than Carnival's 2,200-passenger Ecstasy, Royal Caribbean's 1,800-passenger Nordic Empress and Majesty's 1,100-passenger Royal Majesty, all of which run three- and four-day cruises out of Miami.

But that's not necessarily a drawback. Less can be more.

On a weekend cruise, the Leeward didn't seem small to me, even with a near-capacity load of passengers. I had no sense of feeling crowded; indeed, the only line I saw was at that midnight chocoholic buffet.

Like ships twice its size, the Leeward boasts a two-story showroom, a fitness center and spa, even a lounge that wraps around its funnel. But it also has some amenities many of its bigger brethren don't possess -- an intimate, alternative restaurant open all evening, English high tea served by white-gloved waiters, a sports bar with 16 television sets that carry weekend and Monday night football games. Not that you want to spend all your time on a cruise watching televised sports. There's a sample of the real thing, if you're so inclined: a basketball half-court on the top deck, a jogging track, snorkeling when the Leeward docks at NCL's private island for a daylong beach party. For those whose concept of sport revolves around roulette wheels, blackjack tables and slot machines, Leeward's flapper-themed casino offers another innovation: one-armed bandits with a sense of humor.

Score three cherries on the Reelin' In machine and you may hear the mooing of a cow and a cowboy ditty. Hit the jackpot and you get a treat: an 8-foot-long model of a supercharged Duesenberg convertible car, complete with chauffeur and flapper passenger, comes to life atop the bank of machines. Its headlights flash on, its wheels spin and the flapper raises a champagne glass to salute the winner. A similar bit, featuring a woman in a bathtub, is activated at another set of machines when a player hits a jackpot.

It's a gas, as they would say in the '20s -- even though the robotic flappers don't get to do their bit very often, jackpots being not the most common of events.

Like nearly all cruise ships, Leeward has two dining rooms, each with two seatings, and I liked their relatively small size -- 270 and 367 seats. I think they provide a less impersonal dining experience than one gets in the cavernous halls of the mega-cruise ships.

Better still, the Leeward offers an alternative for those who want even cozier dining, or simply a change from their assigned seating times. Le Bistro seats 80 on a first-come, first-served basis, and it's open from 6 to 11 p.m.

Another dining option is English high tea, served by white-gloved waiters on the four-day cruises only. Special teas, petite sandwiches and pastries are offered.

My cabin was in the superior B category, but the average C and D category staterooms run about 162 square feet, larger than those on some much bigger ships. Paneled with warm woods, the rooms were quite comfortable. You won't find huge ship-wide lounges on the Leeward, but there is no lack of watering holes.

The Sports Bar and Grill, like similar ones aboard other NCL ships, proved to be a popular hangout. When sports fans aren't watching the tube, they can get a quick lesson in sports history from exhibits in the room. On view in several display cases are such relics of the past as a football cloth helmet, tiny baseball gloves from the 1930s, wooden-shafted golf clubs and prehistoric tennis balls. Makes you wonder how the players of yesteryear performed so well with such primitive equipment.

The sports bar, however, isn't just for sports junkies. It's also the site of the breakfast and lunch buffets, whose partakers can spread out onto tables on the adjacent deck if they've had their fill of televised sports. Another busy bar is Coconut Willy's, which serves a rather small pool area. Here the ship's smaller size is a disadvantage. The pool is just adequate, but the pool deck is cramped and the slide for kids is a dinky thing.

Music accompanies the cocktail set in Gatsby's and the Tradewinds Lounge, inspires deck dancing at Coconut Willy's and fires up the late-nighters in the Observatory Lounge, which becomes a disco after dinner.

But the best is heard in the Stardust Lounge, the showroom, where nightly shows are staged. Broadway's "Pirates of Penzance" wowed guests with its tuneful music and wonderful costuming. On another night, the "Sealegs" musical revue scored with its inventive choreography.

Can a ship this size survive in a cruise world dominated by larger vessels?

Yes, says Adam Aron, NCL's president and chief executive officer. "This ship has sold very well. We're going to have no difficulty filling it."

Though larger ships obviously have more space, more facilities and more economies of size, one advantage Mr. Aron sees in the Leeward's size is that it becomes more attractive to charter. Since its Oct. 20 debut, the ship, which has several meeting rooms, has already had one charter sailing (on which former President Bush was a guest).

NCL recently upgraded its beach facilities at Great Stirrup Cay, installing several hundred beach umbrellas and chaises and making improvements to recreational facilities. Passengers can stay ashore as little or as long as they want; drinks and lunch are available there.

Tip: Buy your drinks ashore at the bar, not from the strolling waiters. The latter have premixed drinks in souvenir plastic cups for which you pay $2 extra; chances are you won't want the souvenir.

But that's a quibble. Overall, the Leeward scores good marks. Indeed, this may be one of the few occasions when downsizing is a good thing.

If you go

Cruises: The Leeward makes three- and four-day cruises. The weekend three-day trips leave on Fridays and have alternating itineraries -- one week the ship calls at Key West and Great Stirrup Cay, NCL's private island in the Bahamas; the next week at Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay. Four-day cruises call at Key West, Cancun and Cozumel in winter, at Cozumel and Key West in summer.

Fares:Not including airfare to Florida, the cruise costs $408- $1,268 for three-day trips; $538-$1,528 for four-day cruises.

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