An alternative reality going down the west coast of North America is gloriously easy to get used to, finds Greg Fleming

The day we flew into Vancouver the talk was all about the royal visit. William and Kate were in town and the city was abuzz with anticipation.

As it transpired, we were in for a little royal treatment of our own on our cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Jewel.

Our taste of the high life started at the hotel when a stretch-limo arrived in the forecourt - we looked around to see who the VIP was, just as the driver announced our names.

Once at the port we were whisked past the winding embarkation queues by an NCL rep and were on board - with a welcome drink in our hands - in less than 20 minutes.

Advertisement

When we were emailed our booking info and learned that our stateroom would be in The Haven I had thought little of it - I expected the usual small but comfortable stateroom familiar to most cruise ship passengers. After all, with the myriad entertainment and activity options on board the Jewel, we weren't planning on spending a lot of time in there.

But it began to dawn on me that this would be a very different kind of cruise holiday as our elevator climbed 14 floors to the top deck and we were ushered through the private access doors of The Haven.

My partner thought it was a joke when our butler Putu stepped out and introduced himself. But as we were shown around our expansive two-bedroom family villa, complete with coffee machine, huge bathroom - shower and hot tub with windows looking out to sea, his- and-hers basins, Bulgari bath products - and a kids' room for our 12-year-old daughter with en suite and TV - (un)reality dawned: for the next five days cruising the Pacific-North-west Coast we'd be living the high life.

Our itinerary took us from one great city - and Vancouver is definitely that - to Los Angeles (with stops along the way Victoria, British Columbia, and Astoria, Oregon).

Fresh fruit and more champagne was set out on the table and Putu assured us that if there was anything else we required we should call him.

He went on to explain that Haven guests also have their own courtyard, pool, steam room and restaurant (the Moderno for breakfast and lunch) in addition to a personal concierge to arrange all shore excursions, restaurant bookings and general day-to-day details.

Oh, and if I needed my shoes shined - just sing out. Looking down at my scuffed-but-comfy boots, I realised that they could use a buff. But looking up at Putu, I just nodded, dazed by this peek into a life of excess - the whole concept made me a little uncomfortable. Putu sensed my hesitation. "I am here for you," he said. "Really anything you need, you must ring me," he added with a winning Balinese smile.
I promised I would.

After unpacking and making coffees (cruise ships are notoriously bad when it comes to coffee, so our room's pod machine was a life-saver) we set off to explore the ship.

The first people we ran into were six Maori teens, whose wonder and excitement at their new surroundings was palpable (I think they'd just been at the dessert buffet), but they were gone from the lift before we had a chance to ask the reason for their trip.

Built in 2005 and refurbished in 2014, the Jewel (ranked the No.1 ship in the NCL fleet on the influential Cruise Critic site) is a medium-sized vessel (2400 passenger capacity), boasting a magnificently themed main dining room, the Tsar's Palace, and an equally stunning theatre. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of other ships - no rock-climbing, dodgem cars or ice-skating rinks - and some interiors are a little dated - but all is smart and clean and the service is excellent.

NCL's much-vaunted point-of-difference is a focus on "freestyle cruising".

That means you're in charge of your cruise - so, no fixed dining times, relaxed attire, lots of dining options and specialty restaurants, easy disembarkation and a host of lounges, bars and other activity options.

Great, but just be aware you will still have to book for dinner at the specialty restaurants (there are five) - the best of them being Cagney's Steakhouse, where beef is the main star but there are also salmon and pork options, and Le Bistro, for saucy French food. We didn't get to the Brazilian steakhouse but heard it was good.

The smart option is to purchase an Ultimate Dining Package - which, for a set fee, lets you eat at any three specialty restaurants - (beverage packages are also available - but beware they won't work with any drink over $US15).

If you don't have one of these you can pay a nominal fee to eat at any of the specialty restaurants but you will also have to pay a la carte prices on many dishes (this is where Norwegian differs from other lines) although a la carte dining is a growing trend). This can make dinner quite pricey and remember, this is on top of what you have paid for your cruise.

Of course in the main dining room, the buffet-style Garden Cafe and seven other dining venues on board offer complimentary dining from dawn to dusk - so no-one's going hungry.

Greg Fleming takes a break at Astoria's 14th St Cafe.
Greg Fleming takes a break at Astoria's 14th St Cafe.

Of the complimentary restaurants, we preferred Azura on deck 6 - a more contemporary-looking room than the 19th-century Russian-themed Tsar's Palace - although the menu is the same.

The Garden Cafe was good for breakfasts - egg dishes made to order, plenty of fresh fruit and tasty Bircher muesli - but it does get busy.

My favourite meal, however, was a Jamaican chicken barbecue served out by the pool.

Take a plate and line up.

If bars are your thing you've got 14 choices, from a casual Irish-themed pub, O'Sheehan's Bar & Grill - open 24 hours, try the chicken pies - to sports bars and martini bars. There's also all the usual cruise ship stuff: a spa, art gallery, library, card room, shopping precinct, nightclub, multiple pools - and a good slide for the kids - hot tubs and sundecks. Indoor action includes a casino (one of the few places smoking is allowed), video arcade, and a well-appointed fitness centre, which is where I ran into a school teacher from Bay of Islands College.

Turns out those kids we saw in the lift earlier were part of his 40-strong party on their way to a Maori culture show in Disneyland. Later they were asked to perform in the 1000-seat theatre and got a standing ovation. We were to run into them often during our cruise - sometimes singing, often eating and generally having the time of their lives.

Up on the 14th deck we were too - and soon settled into an enviable routine - breakfast served around the Haven's private pool, hit the gym, back to Moderno for lunch and then lounge in the courtyard and catch up with our fellow five-star cruisers, till it was time to get ready for dinner.

One grandfather from the Midwest - on his 10th NCL cruise - always travels Haven class.

"It just makes sense," he told me. "We can travel with the whole family; the teenagers can have their own space. We meet for dinner, everyone's happy and for what you get it's reasonably priced, there's no waiting in the buffet line, you get the best seats at the shows and you don't have to go near the service desk."

Our first day-stop was Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada, located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

To be honest, we would have never thought of going here - or to our next stop, Astoria, unless a cruise ship had dumped us at the doorstep - but both were highlights of our time away.

Victoria's the second oldest city in BC and one of the prettiest - last year Vancouver Island was voted one of the best islands in the world by Conde Nast Traveler.

From the port it's an easy walk to the main township. On the way, you pass Victoria Fisherman's Wharf. This was a rough-neck port up until the early-90s. These days it's home to food stores, eco-adventure retailers and a number of floating homes, also seals - which are pretty tourist-savvy and swim up to the wharf to be fed.

It's another short walk to the British Columbia parliament buildings. It seemed we were following William and Kate around as they had been through the day before - the outline of the red carpet still visible on the manicured lawns. The grounds are beautiful and tours of the imposing building are free. It is a working parliament so you'll have to go through metal detectors, but this is Canada, so even the security personnel are pleasant.

The next day dawned with an immigration queue. We were now in the USA, and US border patrol had helicoptered aboard the Jewel at 6am. This meant we didn't have to repeat the process when we got to LA.

Thankfully the process didn't take long (tip: even if you have an e-passport, print out your ESTA visa). The early morning wait was made more bearable thanks to the crew offering Danishes and fresh juice as we stood in line.

By 9.30am, we were cleared to go and explore Astoria - which has christened itself "the little town that could". A town of just 10,000 on the Columbia River, just a few kilometres from the Pacific Ocean. Its history as a fishing and timber town now matched by its growing reputation as a cultural haven - "an old place that is newly hip" - goes the brochure.

Here's what you get in Astoria: plenty of small-town charm, diners, old theatres, hip restaurants, vinyl record stores and tattoo parlours.

Hipsters rub shoulders with retirees - and if you like op-shops, Astoria has lots of them. After a fire in the early 1920s much of the town had been rebuilt and is now classified as a historical district - and the architecture is stunning - whether it's a hotel or the perfectly restored Liberty Theatre.

You get the sense that nothing much happens here when the cruise ships aren't in port, but this friendly little town offers a glimpse of how America used to be and - in little-known places like this - still is: open, welcoming to all and well-meaning.

For the next two days, the Jewel was at sea enroute to LA. We'd arranged for our butler (still feels weird to say that) to bring up some DVDs for our daughter, but once she had discovered there was a Kids Club on board, her priorities changed. Indeed the ship's dedicated Sapphire Kid's Pool, obstacle courses at Splashdown Kids' Club, purpose-built teenage Club Underground and complimentary youth programmes make this ideal for multigenerational travel. She spent the next two nights there making international friends (most wanted to know if she lived next to a Hobbit). We'd pick her up at 9pm but the club was open each night and fully booked to 1.30am.

When we packed our bags and readied for LAX the next morning, I realised I still hadn't had my boots shined. Perhaps I'm not cut out for the high-life after all.

STATEROOMS

In addition to The Haven, The Norwegian Jewel offers a range of stateroom options, from comfortable and cost-effective inside and ocean-view cabins, through to spacious balcony suites.

The Haven
• 24-hour butler service.
• Complimentary limo from pier to airport.
• Access to a private courtyard, with pool and hot tub.
• Spacious, beautifully appointed cabins with large bathrooms, Bulgari products.

CHECKLIST

A five-night cruise in a Haven two-bedroom suite costs about $4100.
Norwegian Jewel will be based year-round in the Asia Pacific region kick-starting with an initial schedule of 15 sailings through to March 2018.

Details
For full itineraries, go to ncl.com/content/jewel-australia