This was my 8th cruise, my 5th with NCL-- every time on NCL has been great, if not consistent with the other-- until this time. I want to specify that my getting sick three days into the cruise (along with about half of the other passengers) did not affect my judgment or use of services at all.
First, the good: The ship looked and felt very new and appeared to be maintained well. The free wine and strawberries were in the cabin, as promised. Getting onboard early, our cabin was already prepared when we boarded (which is rare for any cruise, regardless of line). It seems the staff really did a great job of turning over the rooms. I have to say the one constant throughout this trip was that the housekeeping staff was fantastic and exceeded expectations the entire week. That being said, the rest of the experience was a letdown from previous NCL cruises and will most likely be my last "Freestyle Experience".
The bad: Embarkation in NYC was a disaster. They boarded two ships simultaneously using the same security gate. The line was 50 people deep, porters were rude and signage was confusing. After finally getting to the "VIP" line, check in was normal. Going to the Garden Cafe to get a bite to eat, before half the passengers had even boarded, was a hassle. The entire restaurant was disorganized, almost all the seats were filled (a bad omen) and there were no plates or cups to be found for almost 45 minutes. The hot food was cold and the cold food was warm. This was a consistent issue throughout the cruise, regardless of the restaurant you chose (free or pay)-- there didn't seem to be adequate staffing or seating available and (in the case of the buffet) rows of food seemed to be arbitrarily placed in repeated rows-- giving the illusion of many options, but really being a repeat of the same food every two stations. Azura, one of the free "fancy" dining rooms, looked great in pictures but the entire area surrounding its entrance had a strong mildew stench that made me and others very sick and kept me from dining there. The Tsar's Palace had great service from our waiter Pinto, but the food was just average. A lot of salt and not much in the way of inspired flavors. Keep in mind that night's special dish will be the next day's buffet special! Le Bistro was decidedly better in terms of food, but the service was slow and despite having paid for that meal, all three of our orders were wrong. As a former server, I forgive the mistakes-- but it was just extra irony. The bar service was great, but the mixed drinks were light on the alcohol, heavy on the ice, and the prices have gone up (anywhere from 9.75 to 14.00 for a mixed drink). The hot tubs and pools were all shut down before 9:30 every night-- even when there were folks in them. I was on the ship for 7 days and did not get a chance to even put my feet in once, even though the weather was gorgeous every night. I got a massage at the Bora Bora spa, which was $130 for 50 minutes-- very steep by Boston standards, but I figured it worth a try. The setting was fantastic, but the massage was only about 35 minutes, very soft and uninspired. The remaining 15 minutes were filled with a private high-pressure sales pitch to figure out what ailments I had and which expensive remedies I could purchase to take home with me. When I declined each one, I was told by the therapist "well then, you will not be feeling refreshed when you are home" and was presented my bill with an additional $21 in service charges-- a waste of money altogether. The entertainment was the same as my trip on the Dawn in 2011. The karaoke, casino and bars were teeming with children running around past their curfew time. The casino was the saddest, surliest place I've ever seen on a cruise ship--- staff looked like they were miserable, people were losing money like it was going out of style and I overheard that the slot machine TOURNAMENT was a failure because nobody qualified to win the basic prize!! Every tournament has a winner and a loser--- in this place, they let you pay to enter the tournament, have everybody lose and then asked if anyone would like to pay again to re-qualify. The entire casino was a bigger scam than an average casino (and that's hard to do!). I had charges double-billed on my account that I had to fight to have removed. When I complained about some of the issues I had, I was told "we hope this hasn't affected your vacation". Their shopping deals were very sad, with their "discount" perfumes at least 20% more expensive than Macy's and their last day "t-shirt bargains" still a ripoff. Save your money and go on a better cruiseline, or another ship with NCL. The Jewel is far from sparkling and has lost a longtime NCL fan because of it.