Arrived to the Pier 66 cruise terminal via taxi at around 11:15. After a very speedy and friendly boarding process, I was on the ship before noon. Customer service at the check in counter was very welcoming. Why must all cruise ships slow down the boarding process by having everyone pose for a photo BEFORE boarding? Not sure, but it's one of this cruiser's frequent complaints.
I was told rooms would not be available until after 1:30 so had a glass of wine and some hummus poolside. Seattle weather was incredibly cooperative: sunny and warm. My room became available at 1:15. All in all, I could not ask for a better embarkation. My suggestion to all is to come early to avoid lines. And being a Lattitudes member certainly speeds up the process and you do not have to wait in the "main" line. This was the best embarkation I've ever had on a cruise. It was also the earliest I have ever arrived to the pier. My big advice: get there early and avoid the lines!
I stayed in the cheapest possible room. Lowest level inside cabin room 4583. My previous time on the Jewel I had a balcony stateroom although I found that I didn't use it enough to justify the extra expense. The stateroom was clean (if I were going to be picky I could highlight that one of the bathroom shelves had dust). Unlike in other staterooms on different ships, I was pleased that the room had three functioning electrical outlets. I'm a gadget junkie with phones and cameras and tablets to charge so I made very good use of the electrical outlets. Storage is efficient and plentiful for me. I pack and travel light so many of the shelves I did not even need. But to be fair, the room is small. It's a tight fit for two people. I would not stay in this room with someone unless we were on an intimate basis. It's JUST that small. Given that I don't spend much time in the room, it met my needs and I could spend all the money I saved on a balcony on items that are more important to me: food and wine be chief among those.
The bathroom is also very small but there's plenty of storage for most. Although a person with tons of cosmetics and skin care might want to bring along one of those organizers that hangs on a doorknob. Don't expect luxury and you'll be fine. But this is NOT a two person bathroom. It's barely a one person.
The room attendant was friendly and available. I made sure to leave a tip upon disembarkation.
Overall Ship Impressions:
The ship is clean although the cleaning rarely gets in the way of the flow of traffic. Certain times the elevators can be incredibly full especially at midship. The ship design does not always flow logically with some elevators only going down to deck 7 and forcing those who want to go below deck 7 to use other sets of elevators. Once you get use to the illogic, it's not that bad but I wonder if there was a more customer friendly design. Several times during the cruise, one elevator was out of service. Taking the stairs from deck 4 to the pool can be a good way to burn some extra calories but at the end of a long day, having plentiful and working elevators can be a big deal. Public spaces are very plentiful and the push to sale drinks is much less than on other ships I've been on. A simple smile and a "No thank you" was enough that bar staff knew I was only enjoying the public space and not looking to drink.
The card room and library offer great views and a respite from the noise. Even on a crowded ship, one does not have to look very hard to find some alone time and tranquility. The atrium can get crowded but is relaxing early morning. The gift shops can be a zoo. Go at off times or not at all.
The sales pitch on the Jewel was toned down on this trip. The shopping consultant rarely made announcements. Of course some may be bothered by the art auctions and bingo announcements but seasoned cruisers will have no trouble tuning out what they are not interested in.
The smoke filled casino has less open hours on this itinerary. A smoking/cigar lounge would be nice to allow smokers to go some place besides the casino.
Mama's: I've eaten here several times on my previous cruise on the Jewel and at nearly identical restaurants on other NCL ships. The $10 surcharge is reasonable. The food is good but don't expect it to conjure up Tuscany or even an Italian-American grandmother's cooking. It's a few steps above Olive Garden. The menu remains nearly unchanged over the years. A few more changes could help NCL frequent cruisers to stay more interested. I dined here twice on the 7 day cruise. The calamari had a burned taste to it (old frying oil?) but the salad with figs and pancetta was excellent. Unlike on previous trips to NCL's Italian Restaurants, the meal did NOT start off with the chef's antipasto. It was not offered (only a selection of unimpressive breads). I enjoyed the vegetable lasagna which was loaded with summer squash and had a very fresh tasting and light tomato sauce. The seafood linguine was watery and lacked a big flavor punch. The shrimp and mushroom risotto was very good if not quite as creamy as a home cooked and properly stirred risotto. As always on NCL, I had the superb cheesecake for dessert. Service was very friendly although the waiter seemed ill-informed about the menu. Was the salmon wild? He had to check with several people before getting the answer: no. Did the tomato sauce have meat? After a few minutes, he was able to find out that the answer was no. For only a $10 surcharge, it's hard to complain. The $10 is worth it just to get away from the crowds. Mama's location near the buffet is not a plus but they do their best to give it a distinct character and flavor. If you don't have high expectations, try it.
Cagney's: I had dinner here twice and had eaten at Cagney's previously on the Spirit and the Dawn. NCL's signature steakhouse continues to offer freshly prepared (you can watch the cooks prepare many of the selections at an open kitchen) cuisine in an atmosphere that harkens back to the roaring twenties. The menu is strictly traditional, and that is this restaurant's strength. Nouvelle cuisine lovers beware, Cagney's dishes up crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, oysters rockefeller (all excellent---feel free to try as many of the small sized appetizers as you like), chopped salads with blue cheese (very good), onion rings (good), Parmesan truffle fries (piping hot and so addictive and delicious on this cruise that I think they should be classified as a controlled substance), large cuts of beef, a kosher chicken, lamb chops (very good) and salmon stuffed with crab (a good dish but the pale and flavorless farmed salmon was overpowered by the crab). Side dishes of note are the garlicky potato gratin and the creamed spinach. The lobster bisque topped with lobster custard was outstanding. Service was particularly good with the waiter very patient as my dinner party slowly sampled and savored nearly 2/3 of the menu. Obviously, this is not a restaurant for dieting or anyone who finds buttery sauces and other fatty foods objectionable. There's enough hollandaise sauce and bacon and blue cheese on the menu that this restaurant serves as a throw back to days before food became our enemy, before every bite of something flavorful had to come with a measurable amount of guilt. Don't forget the cheese course: real Gorgonzola, Saint Andre and Gruyere with fig preserves and fresh fruit (this was the only restaurant on the ship that offered cheese that wasn't of the mass produced factory American type). And if you can hold it, I'd highly recommend you try the warm chocolate espresso brownie (or have it sent back to your stateroom so, after a long walk or an evening of dancing, you can enjoy it more). The cheesecake was shockingly light in texture and very flavorful. Some may complain about the $25 surcharge but I dare anyone to find a comparable meal in any U.S. city for less than three times that price.
Chin Chin: Think you can't find good Chinese (well perhaps more appropriately called Chinese-American) on a cruise? NCL seeks to change those perceptions with their fleet's Asian inspired restaurants. I've eaten at many of NCL's Asian restaurants including on a previous trip on the Jewel. I've never been disappointed and this meal was no exception. My advice: don't skimp on the appetizers as these offer small portions of some very flavorful food. Start your meal off with as many as you can stomach and you won't be disappointed. The steamed vegetable dumplings, crab wontons (yes REAL crab), spring rolls and shrimp with spicy slaw are stand outs. Sadly, my favorite fried fish dish has been discontinued so I tried its replacement, the gingered mushroom mahi mahi. The fish was slightly overcooked but the flavorful and surprisingly light sauce made up for the shortcomings. The spicy lamb chops were shockingly tender despite being cooked more than I would have liked. The curried noodles were too spicy to be paired with other milder foods and the Cantonese Vegetable Chow Fun was a gloppy mess of stuck together noodles that appeared to have been cooked ahead of time. The banana pancakes and trio of creme brulee shouldn't be missed. Service was very friendly and attentive. The $15 surcharge is reasonable. Sushi is available al la cart. Unfortunately, NCL no longer offers the $15 flat feet sushi bar experience. And that's a shame for sushi lovers.
Tsar's Palace Main dining room: I ate here for lunch and dinner several times. Service was always friendly if inefficient at times. Food runs the better side of average although the sheer amount of food they must produce on a daily basis prevents the food from every being called great. Selections are mostly traditional fare. Lunch is the same menu the entire cruise but the dinner menu has permanent selections as well as changing nightly selections. It's hard to imagine that even the pickiest eater couldn't find something to enjoy on the menu but it's equally hard to imagine that anyone will have a wonderfully memorable experience in the main dining room. Cooking for a thousand on a daily basis limits what can be done with the food. The friendly wait staff is the stand out of the main dining room. They, despite being very busy, seek to please. Don't be afraid to ask for something else if your first dish is not to your liking. The menu at Azura, the other main dining room, is identical although the atmosphere is more casual.
Jazz Brunch at Le Bistro: This brunch is a mixture of a buffet and a la carte selections. The buffet included a Caesar Salad station (add grilled shrimp, chicken or anchovies if you like), a selection of very boring pastries (save your calories and skip these standard items), pale colored smoked salmon (as ubiquitous on the Jewel as it is flavorless---it's all salt and no depth to the factory tasting fish), several standard cheeses and a large selection of desserts (very good cheesecake and pretty standard creme brulee are the best selections). The a la carte menu included several beef dishes, a salmon with saffron risotto (salmon was flavorless but the risotto was great) and a vegetarian pasta dish (standard tomato based sauce with olives, good but unspectacular). The service was good but not quite as attentive as I'm used to at NCL's specialty restaurants. The popularity of the Jazz brunch makes it hard for the wait staff to keep up with demands. I requested French press coffee (it's standard at Le Bistro in the evenings) and my waitress was kind enough to ask the manager if she could serve it even though it is not a standard part of the brunch menu. It's little touches of nice service that make me wish many on shore restaurants could have comparable service. The $15 surcharge seems reasonable.
Garden Cafe Buffet: Quantity rules out quality here although the salads are good. It's incredibly popular for reasons that escape me. It's crowded from early breakfast until late dinner. It's too noisy, too packed with people piling plates miles high for me to enjoy eating here. It's just not my cup of tea but judging by the crowds, I'm in the minority.
Blue Lagoon: They call this comfort food. It's fast service sit down diner like setting. The fish and chips were greasy but pleasant. The tomato soup was surprisingly good. It's open 24 hours. I had a less than pleasant encounter with a wait staff member during one of my early morning visits for coffee. Upon arriving, she barked at me that the buffet was on the "other side" and waved her hand in the direction of Moderno restaurant. I replied that I just wanted coffee. I started to sit next to the window and she barked again that the buffet was on the other side. I then asked if it was OK for me to sit where I was sitting. She then barked that I should help myself to the coffee and pointed at the coffee machine she was standing next to. I helped myself to the coffee then asked her where the orange juice was. Her tone of voice got louder as she barked again that "everything" was on the other side. This kind of service is very unlike NCL. I assumed she was overworked and tired of customer questions. If they didn't want anyone to sit on the cafe side, just block it off. But several like me wanted to enjoy the view (it is a cruise after all) and it didn't seem to me that asking for coffee and juice at a 24 hour cafe was an unreasonable request. This was my 4th NCL cruise and I've never had any interaction with any crew member who was anything near this unpleasant.
Le Bistro: NCL's signature French restaurant might not be all that French but the food is very good and perhaps more palatable to the American consumer. Provencal style scallops, garlicky escargot and Asparagus with orange hollandaise are just a few of the stand out appetizers. The lamb chops were very flavorful. The duck was overcooked but still remained moist. The duck skin should have been much more crisp and flavorful. Le Bistro needs to work on its side dishes. Compared to Cagney's they are subpar. Unfortunately, 2/3rds through my meal, the service changed from friendly and excellent to almost non-existent. It was nearly 9pm and two parties of six came in. This arrival seemed to stall the kitchen and rattle the wait staff. My table and several tables around me waited over a half hour for continued service. Two tables asked to see the manager and complained. Waiters didn't even come by to accept more wine orders, a sure sign that service had stalled. (When you can't order alcohol on a cruise, you know something is wrong!) 45 minutes after finishing the main course, we received the cheese course (cheap American cheeses) then our desserts (a passable chocolate fondue: the chocolate tasted cheap and very good creme brulee). We had to ask specifically for coffee service which came slowly. When we received the bill, they had mis-charged for the wine, a mistake the rushed looking manager needed to correct. Tables around us were still waiting for service. One of the tables of six seem particularly bothered by the poor service. When the service is worse than the main dining room, it's difficult to be happy about the $20 surcharge. Le Bistro needs some menu changes. French cheeses, some classic French sauce choices and a better French wine list would help. I've always enjoyed Le Bistro but not sure I'll be rushing back on my next cruise.
I'm a poor judge of cruise entertainment as I don't like family comedy shows or Broadway style singers who over-sing to the point of migraine. So, I skip any shows with those themes so that means most evenings, I'm enjoying dinner, wine and perhaps a jazz piano player instead of the main shows in Stardust. I did enjoy the husband and wife acrobat team. Don't miss it! The second seating for most shows is much less crowded. Like the buffet, I don't go on cruises for the entertainment but clearly both are very popular with cruisers.
Spa and Gym:
I signed up for the spa pass ($119) that gives access to the men's changing room with wet and dry sauna, showers, relaxation rooms, hot tub and cold plunge. It also gives access to a co-ed relaxation area with small pool (not big enough to do laps). While the area is not quite as grand as on the Dawn, which has an indoor lap pool, the spa pass was definitely worth the price especially on an Alaskan cruise where outdoor pool time is limited. The men's changing area was rarely crowded; the spa staff was always friendly. As usual on NCL, there's not heavy sales pitch to buy products or services even though I encountered many spa staff each day of my cruise. The gym is standard cruise ship gym where there seemed to always be gym staff ready to sign cruisers up for classes. The locker room next to the gym has a steam sauna (this is available for NO charge). The lockers aren't accessible unless you walk all the way over the spa to get a key, making the men's locker room pretty useless to gym goers. Why not keep the keys in the gym?
Ports of Call:
Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Victoria all offer enough for the nature lover and adventurist. Sun lovers beware. It is Alaska and the Pacific Northwest so don't expect to get a tan. The lumberjack show in Ketchikan and the railroad in Skagway should be enjoyable for all age groups. The tour of the Mendenhall Glacier was a bit of a let down. I'm not sure it's worth the expense and time spent there. But it was very beautiful I toured Victoria on my own, and it's very walkable. The Empress Hotel is overpriced but worth a visit. Check out Chinatown for lunch in Victoria. Four stops in a cruise can be too much for some seasoned cruisers who enjoy their sea days but I found it to be a perfect number. It was also nice that to see ports that have (yet) to be completely overtaken by the usual cruise industry traps (although Diamonds International and Caribbean themed retailers like Del Sol are threatening to make Ketchikan look like a stop in Nassau or Cozumel). The Alaska itinerary is definitely for anyone who's tired of the same old Caribbean ports.
The room staff knocked on my door twice before 830am to see if I was ready to leave the room. I left the room for breakfast and returned to find the bed already stripped. By then it was 9am. Although I felt rushed to leave the room, disembarkation was smooth if not as efficient as embarkation. There was a line to get off the ship. Customs officials ranged from rude to friendly, although this is completely not under NCL's control.
While not a perfect experience (what is?), I can say I enjoyed my second time on the Jewel at least as much as the first and possibly more. NCL's freestyle cruising truly does allow cruisers to make the day what they want it to be. I always recommend NCL to first time cruisers because NCL seems to be better suited for those who might be put off by more traditional cruising.
A special applause should be given to how the Jewel gets the kids programs out of the way of cruisers who aren't interested in them. It was a Nick at Sea cruise but other than the occasional person dressed as a favorite Nick character, I wouldn't have known. Kudos to NCL for giving the kids what they want without getting the adults annoyed.