Before going into details, let me say that I'm another of those readers who looked at some of the negative reviews before embarking and began to wonder if booking might not have been such a hot idea. As it turned out, I need not have been concerned. We had a great time and all aspects of the cruise were great. Onward. Embarkation, even for a couple of first-time cruisers with no idea of how the process worked ahead of time, was smooth and hassle-free.
If you've been in an airport, you've been in the Seattle terminal, except that everything's on a much smaller scale. Baggage check-in was a little confused, as there were no clear lines and people were just crowding around the tables, but even so we were able to make sense of things and got through it fairly quickly. The rest of the process was very smooth. Having all our forms filled out ahead of time helped, and the NCL staff was very organized and efficient. There were also plenty of staffers on hand to direct traffic, answer questions, and generally keep things moving. We completed the process early, so much so that we found out that it would be another hour before boarding commenced. So, we left, had breakfast at a place down the block, did some last-minute shopping, then came back and simply walked on board (well, except for the metal detectors and x-ray machines).
Finding our cabin---sorry, stateroom---was easy. It was small, but we'd known it would be ahead of time, and it was immaculately clean, comfortable and well-organized. We changed clothes and went off to explore the ship.
The buffet was cram-packed with people, as it was the only restaurant open just then, so we settled for cadging a couple of paper towels, filling them with finger foods, and eating on the fly as we continued our explorations. Once we got the deck plans in our heads. we just relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the trip.
The service was uniformly excellent: friendly and efficient. The ship was clean, very.
Problems, and they were always small (a light went out in our stateroom, for example), were solved quickly. One thing to keep in mind, however. The lines at the hotel desks in the Atrium can get really long, especially at the beginning of the cruise, and none more so than the shore excursion desk. Book your shore excursions online! It's truly incredible how many people showed up at the shore excursion desk without a clue as to the trip offerings, prices, or anything else. Scheduling ahead saves a long wait in line and greatly improves your chances of getting the outings you really want.
The food onboard was very good. Well, the two buffets (the Garden Cafe and the Great Outdoor Cafe) were only okay but, c'mon, they're buffets for crying out loud! Excellent food and buffets just don't go together. The buffets are also hugely popular, and finding a seat in particular can sometimes be problematical. We much preferred the two main dining rooms (the Four Seasons and the Seven Seas). We were always seated quickly, and the waitstaff was friendly and attentive. The food was very good and attractively presented. And talk about a meal with a view! Be prepared to spend an hour per meal, as everyone there seems to prefer leisurely meals. If you're going to be pressed for time (particularly at breakfast with the port of call beckoning), tell the waitstaff that you're in a hurry and you'll find them pretty accommodating.
A final note: we ate very few lunches aboard as it was too much time and trouble to return to the ship, and found that a great many fellow passengers were like-minded on the subject. So be prepared to spend a little extra money for lunches ashore.
The onboard entertainment was...well, pick your favorite superlative. Three shows by the Jean Ryan Dance Company and not a bad one in the lot. Comedian Mark Harmon was hysterical. The musical acts in the bars and disco were all great as well. One minor complaint, however. Some of the venues were just too small when a popular act was scheduled. When word of mouth got out about how good Mark Harmon was, Dazzles (the disco) ran out of even standing room for his subsequent performances. Same story for some other acts. Arrive early for shows, and you'll be glad you did.
Our time ashore was wonderful. The weather was even great. Normally, southeast Alaska in June is cool (very) and raining (or threatening to rain). We got lucky: shirtsleeves temperatures and sunny skies. NCL can't control the weather, though, and you should plan your wardrobe accordingly.
Ketchikan is small, but very nice, and we had no trouble finding things to do and places to see. We didn't have much in the way of excursions scheduled for that stop, so we just did a tour of town, took in the Great Alaska Lumberjack Show (they're lumberjacks and they're O.K.!, for you Monty Python fans), then just walked around town stopping at anyplace that looked interesting and doing a little shopping. The residents were quite friendly and we really enjoyed talking to them.
Juneau was the second port of call. Much bigger than Ketchikan, of course, as might be expected of a state's capitol city. We'd scheduled a helicopter glacier flight and...wow. Up and over the mountains, got a really good look at the Juneau Icefield, then landed on the Mendenhall glacier. Incredible doesn't begin to describe it. It was my wife's first time in a helicopter, so she was a little nervous at first, but the sheer spectacle pulled her out of that quickly. This was one of the pricier excursions, but money well spent. A tour of the city wasn't part of the package, but the motorcoach driver gave us one anyway on the way back from the airport, and so we enjoyed that part as well. The rest of the time in Juneau was filled by taking the Tramway to the top of Mount Roberts, doing some hiking up there, then coming back down and following our noses for a couple of hours.
The late afternoon and early evening were on board ship cruising Tracy Arm, the goal being to view the Sawyer Glacier. A late spring had resulted in heavy ice and the captain was forced to turn back short of the glacier, but the scenery was incredible all the same. Lots of wildlife viewing as well, and our cameras and binoculars got a real workout.
Skagway was our final stop, and we enjoyed it as much as the others. We scheduled the Best of Skagway excursion and it pretty well lived up to it's name. Began with a motorcoach tour of town, then headed up into the mountains, stopping at points of interest along the way. Crossed into Canada, then at Fraser Pass were transferred from the motorcoach to the train (White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad) for the trip back to Skagway. I could wear out a thesaurus looking for superlatives to describe the eye candy on that trip: scenery and wildlife (even a bear) and an abundance of both. The motorcoach picked us up at the train station, then it was over to Liarsville for a salmon bake and show. A very pleasant hour-and-a-half there, then back to Skagway. The finale was a visit to the Red Onion Saloon, in business continuously since 1898 and Alaska's first bordello. The entertainment these days is strictly PG-13. A tour of the upstairs was topped off with a complimentary beverage in the saloon downstairs. A day and a night later we were back in Seattle.
Disembarkation went as smoothly as everything else. We opted for the Express Debarkation, which eliminates baggage pickup procedures and so gets you on your way faster. It requires packing light, however, as you must be able to carry all of your baggage yourselves, and in one trip. Most people took the shuttle buses to the airport but, after checking prices, we took a taxi. It cost only a little more and got us to the airport before the buses had left the terminal.
To sum up, this was a great trip and worth every penny. As first time cruisers who had been unsure about how much we would enjoy that form of travel, we were pleasantly surprised. Several fellow passengers who were veteran cruisers told us that they thought it compared well to their previous cruises. There are always a few complainers, and Lord knows they've been vocal enough in other reviews but, as another reviewer said: "Were they on the same trip?"