"Location, location, location" was the inexorable lure for us to cruise on the Norwegian Jewel in late January. The idea of taking a taxi to embark only a few blocks from our Manhattan apartment, avoiding the hellish airport, and winding up on gorgeous Caribbean beaches was more than we could resist. Furthermore, Norwegian's promotion of "freestyle" cruising seemed attractive enough. We imagined no dress up, none of the usual cruise formalities, etc. However the experience was not for us. Although we do not think of ourselves as habitual cruisers, we have, over the past ten years, managed to sail with a number of other cruise lines: Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Cunard, Carnival, Celebrity, even Disney (with our granddaughter), and Norwegian was certainly the bottom of the cruise-line industry as we have experienced it.
Norwegian's "freestyle" business model really means that much of the ship is physically, aesthetically, and socially devoted to their many you-pay restaurants. This results in serious lack of the commodious and interesting public spaces of other lines. The ship is studded with TV monitors, not unlike airport ETA boards, constantly blinking updates on which restaurants are "filling up fast." Now in the interest of full disclosure, we are New York foodies and we do not cruise for the food. We do our cruise dining in the all-included dining room and buffet. Given the scale of service, we do not expect much and we are not disappointed. But on the Jewel we often could not even find a seat for breakfast in the crowded buffet. We ate most of our dinners in the "Tsar's Palace" dining room dedicated to centuries of tasteless autocracy and mediocre fare. As always on these ships the wait staff is terrific, underpaid, and overworked.
Our cabin was designated as a "mini-suite," but was not as large or well-designed as the regular balcony cabin on Holland America or the mini-suite on Royal Caribbean, for instance. The closet could only be accessed by sitting on the bed. One night our toilet clogged and it took four calls and nearly two hours to get a maintenance person with a plunger to our room to fix it while the front desk kept insisting that it could be remedied from "the control room." This makes for a funny story after the fact, but at the time...not so much.
The ship was built in 2003 (I think) and recently "refurbished," but you wouldn't know it. It has a shabby look: the veneer is wearing off the buffet tables, the composite deck material on the promenade is cracked and peeling. (Oh, where are the teak decks of yesteryear?) This ship is indeed one of those unappealing rectangular floating resorts, but not even a three star version in our opinion.
Finally, we haven't given up on cruising, but we decided we are not "freestyle" people. (One more thing about "freestyle." Many people do dress up a lot.) As we look back on all of our experiences afloat, there is something to be said, after all, to dining regularly with a group of ship mates (6-8 is our preference) who engage in conversations about the day's events and happenings, and become, if only temporarily, friends.