We recently returned from 12 days on the NCL "Jewel". This was our "Friends and Family Annual Winter Caribbean Cruise". There were 24 of us. I have orchestrated the winter cruise for more than 25 years, now and we have been anywhere from 14 to 43 of us.
Embarkation was a breeze! From getting off of our charter party bus that brought us to the pier to being on the ship, it was maybe 8-10 minutes. We arrived at the pier at 1PM. I think not arriving too early expedites boarding. Everyone who gets there early has to queue up to get on, once the initial boarding starts and they are all on, the rest of the boarding process is a breeze. I had a couple of bottles of wine in my carry one and expected to have to pay a corkerage fee. No one said anything to me and I did not volunteer any information, so.....on I went with my wine. Also, in St Martin I bought a bottle of vodka, put it in my carry on, boarded, put my bag on the security belt, went through ship's security, no one said anything to me, so I said nothing to them and enjoyed a couple of vodka on the rocks in my cabin during the cruise.
The ship was maintained spotlessly. The staff and crew were friendly and accommodating. We had an inside cabin. We've been on a LOT of cruises (over 100) and this was one of if not THE smallest cabins we've ever had. The bathroom however, was larger than expected.
We enjoyed the "adults only" pool and hot tubs. As we sailed from NY, it was nice to have the pools heated the first and last days of the cruise and thus, usable.
Dining: As we were a group of 24, we could only dine as a group at either 5:30 or 9PM. No matter who we talked to, dining as a group at any other time was absolutely positively a "NO!" We opted not to and dined as groups of 4, 6 or 8 "whenever". The joke amongst the group was that "Freestyle" dining meant you didn't dine when YOU wanted to, you dined when they were ready to feed you. Whenever we went to the dining room we got a beeper and they would beep when a table was ready. Service in the MDR is "OK". It was not the staff's fault however. They were VERY understaffed. Usually a cruise ship dining room will have a waiter/waitress assistant and a separate person for bar service. We had a waiter/waitress who did it all, and also had one or two more other tables. The food in the MDR was however, quite good. But we never saw items like shrimp cocktail on the menu. They were on the surcharge restaurant menus, however). The food in the self serve buffet area was I thought outstanding, both in variety and quality. We dined in one surcharge restaurant one evening (Bistro) and the dinner was wonderful. But what's on the menu in the surcharge restaurants is pretty much on the MDR menus on other lines we've sailed. Not so on NCL. Though what we had in the MDR was very, very good, options were rather limited and no "higher end" options...ever! (other than one night surf and turf, a lobster tail and a fillet)
Cabin staff was very, very good. We were in an inside lower priced cabin and our steward was very, very attentive and took care of all of our needs promptly.
I thought NCL was a little too over the top with the "nickel and diming", especially when it came to dining.There were at least 4 separate surcharge restaurants, there was no tour of the bridge but there was a "behind the scenes" tour that included going to the bridge....for a fee. Spa fees were pricy, drinks were more expensive than on other line we've been on, and there seemed to be many more opportunities of "optional" spending.
Shows were very good, live music was very good, but different bands played in different rooms and in many rooms, there was no dance floor!!! Too bad, as we all like to dance and other folks commented on that, as well.
My only complaint, and I think this is VERY important.....someone in our group fell on an outside stairway and cut his head. He ultimately was taken away in a wheelchair and required 9 stitches, but it took 8 minutes for appropriate staff to arrive to assist from the time we notified someone of the accident. Time it.... 8 minutes is a LOT longer than you might think!
We did not take any of the cruise sponsored tours. They were about double the price that anyone on the pier was offering fro pretty much the same tour. Internet access was 75 cents a minute. I think they need to rethink that and charge say, $15-$20, period, as on all the islands it was very very, easy to find multiple places offering free WIFI.
In all ports, we were able to disembark minutes after arrival. Disembarkation in NYC was fairly effortless and quick. Except...once off the ship there was someone monitoring people taking the escalator down to the area in which the luggage was collected. They would only allow a couple at a time on the escalator and would not allow the next couple on until the first couple were 3/4 of the way down. So....after disembarking the ship, we stood on the pier, outside in the cold and wind for at least 15 minutes, because this "escalator guard" would only allow two people at a time on the escalator and the stairway was blocked, so it could not be used as an option. I still don't understand why, but....that's NY!
We had a wonderful time!!!!! It was 80 degrees, the sun was out and it was winter. Because we were a large group that wanted to dine together (the cruise is the only time some of us see other members in the group) anytime between 7 and 8:30 and we couldn't...we probably won't sail on NCL and "Freestyle" again as our annual winter group cruise. But if we went alone or with only 2 or 4 other people, we most likely would include it in our options.