When it took three and a half hours (3 of them standing) to board I thought at the time that this might be an omen. Norwegian began by sending out early notice of the departure facility as Canada Place instead of Ballantyne Pier and we talked to people in the lineup who hadn't received the correction and had already spent time at Canada Place only to find out they were at the wrong terminal. In any case it was an ordeal standing for so long to clear security and then even longer to check in with an agent. When we did make it to the check-in desk they acted as if they had no record of our information at all and the agent was not friendly, did not smile or act welcoming, just stressed out and indifferent. Another omen. Finally we were able to go to the departure level which had no public address system just haggard looking attendants sadly trying to call out the numbers we had been assigned to line up for customs, not easy in a huge hall with a 1000 or more impatient people at a time talking. But there were at least chairs to sit in after 3 hours of standing on concrete.
Sadly, I did see elderly and disabled passengers who clearly had not been told about special services check-in which provided a short-cut around the long lines. Clearly no one at security thought to tell these poor folks. It was amusing however to see several very able-bodied-looking people, desperate to get on board, decide to jump the line and suddenly start limping over to use special services.
Once on board, the Captain broadcasted a half-hearted apology and blamed our 3 hour late departure on the Customs people. Odd because customs was the fastest most efficient part of the whole disembarkation, heck, we even got a smile out of the border guard which is more than we got from the ground crew.
Balcony on Deck 9 probably the smallest at sea for that category, tiny TV and balcony with room for two chairs and a tiny table. Chair height exactly with the railing in your sightline so if you sat down you could see the railing and if you looked down through the dirty glass, the ocean. We couldn't remember that on the other ships because the balconies were wider between the sliding door and railing. The cabin seemed fairly clean with the exception of several spots on the mirrors that looked like sneeze marks. We put a post-it with a smiley face on the mirrors and they looked better at turn-down, but still spotty. The bathrooms have glass sliders next to the toilet and the shower stall which really made me wonder how some of the larger passengers managed to use the toilet without bruised knee-caps and limbs.
Unlike the other lines, it took two days for the steward to introduce himself. But he turned out to be one of the few staff who was sincerely interested in providing consistently good service. We always leave a fiver on the table with a thank you note before turn-down service and that was followed by, as in the past, special thoughtful touches, including robes which usually only come with suites or higher. The coffee maker is a little plastic 4 cup Mr. Coffee and the coffee is better than what you get in the dining rooms and buffet, so the extra coffee packets we requested came in handy. The only other decent coffee was the lattes at the Java Cafe which worked out to 5 buck apiece with tip.
Unlike the other ships we have been on, there was only one pool area with a small adult pool and a small kids pool with 2 hot tubs each. Open deck, with no heat no cover and the hot tubs were only lukewarm, so given the air temperature we did not bother with any of it. On our last trip to Alaska, having indoor pools and hot tubs available made the trip so much more enjoyable. It looked like there was a pool indoors for Suite Guests in the Haven section but not available to 2nd class folks in the balconies and lower. The decor on the ship is higher end shopping mall, apart from the two nicest specialty restaurants there is no real artwork to speak of and lots of plastic plants and flowers here and there. Kind of tacky, but designed so that jeans and t-shirts never look out of place. No reading or writing room and not alot of places to retreat to for cards or reading a book. We did hangout on Deck 13 in the almost always deserted "Star Bar" for card-playing. The German-built ship's layout is lop-sided in almost all areas on most decks, which means it get pretty crowded with all the common areas and walkways clustered to one side or the other and that makes the whole ship feel smaller than it really is. A few nice touches like the Art Deco friezes feel lost amidst the neon and orange and purple carpeting. If you are looking for a nice hotel atmosphere, you won't find it here, as it feels more like a Holiday Inn than a Fairmount. Fair enough and pretty much what we expected, being new to this Free Style concept which has few if any surprises, pleasant or otherwise. Strange that NCL cruisers we talked to thought the other lines had set times for dining. Apart from getting to wear jeans and t-shirts in the dining rooms, the other lines all have anytime dining. We like to eat alone sometimes usually at breakfast, but not sharing tables is not the custom on NCL, and this meant we didn't meet very many people over meals. We missed that part of cruising alot, because meeting folks from all over the world is a fun and interesting part of cruising. The one time we were told we would have to wait or share a table over dinner we were reminded of this, and had a great time enjoying the company.
This was the biggest disappointment of all. The outdoor facilities were only open for limited times because it was on 45 degrees outside and this, (along with the lop-sided design of the passenger areas) left the buffet extremely crowded and congested for most of the times it was open. Only by staking a table out before going to line up for grub, could you possibly be seated with a warm (never hot) plate of food and a beverage in front of you. Staff have all they can do to clean the tables as they turn over, never offering a drink or to refill or get a beverage. It's everyone for themselves. The atmosphere is kind of like an overcrowded food fair at the mall that has great views if you manage to score a window table, which we never did. In any case the food was totally hit and miss. Thin crust pizza which was never sliced completely so folks would struggle with the tongs and end up with tiny. soggy, malformed slices in a sad bland little heap on the plate.
There was always roast chicken available, which if you didn't get acquainted at lunch, might re-appear as part of your dinner later in the day. Bland potato or pasta salad, hamburger patties which were either charred from sitting on the grill, or as we had on a couple of occasions, alarmingly pink in the middle on the third bite. Worst of all, the desserts were minuscule, bland and sometimes unidentifiable wedges and widgets. Like apple pie made with a single piece of apple between mushy pastry topped with, you guessed it, Cool Whip! Go to your cabin and there's edible oil creamers for your coffee. After the processed cheese in the soup and on the hot sandwiches, I wondered if Sunoco or BP has shares in NCL?
The pasta cooked to order was also sad, as the fellow took a long time to create something almost inedible. This is middle-America style chain restaurant food, Denny's, Howard Johnsons, kind of what I would expect to find on Carnival. But according to so many of the reviews here it's just fine, even good!
Okay, so in spite of a few tries, we avoided the buffet, did what we usually do and decided to rely on the Main Dining Rooms (there are two on the Pearl) for our main meals. Their hours are fairly limited so you have to pay attention -breakfast over a 0930, lunch over at 1330. This is where we really could see the difference between HAL. Princess and NCL. Food again was totally hit and miss. In a week of trying, we did not once encounter a decent bowl of soup, it was reliably lukewarm, watery and under-seasoned, blah. The starters were uninspired and the shrimp wherever they appeared were sad-looking pizza-shrimp, not the wonderful shrimp cocktail type, just bad. The seafood was obviously frozen and the prawns overcooked, On the whole, the main dishes would be okay in a cafeteria, but never once did I see one presented with pride. In fact, the wait staff know that a lot of it is sub-par and studiously avoid asking how it is when it's obviously not the best. Our 3 times in Indigo, the waiters insisted on knowing what you are having for dessert when you order your meal. Sheesh, even at the greasy spoon around the corner the servers manage to wait until you have finished your main before demanding to know what you are having for dessert. There was not one memorable meal in the MDRs, although some traumatic encounters still stand out. Like 3 days of trying to eat croissants that had a strange smell and aftertaste, like the lard or shortening was off. (The only fresh-tasting one was on the first day out). Or the surly waiter in Indigo at our last dinner who presented me with scallop and shrimp chowder. No scallop, one tiny pre-cooked brown shrimp watery powdered milk flavour and bonus! a huge rubbery mussel - left over from god knows when. I pushed it away knowing that last night means no accountability for food-poisoning once off the ship. We were dining with a young woman we met from Texas who just kept ordering and sending back until she got something she could could eat.
So by now a reader could be forgiven for thinking I am just a fussy impossible customer who can't be pleased. Wrong, I worked for many years managing restaurants, starting from the ground up and I know exactly what is achievable and what isn't. I am an understanding, generous and forgiving customer wherever I go. I am sharing my impressions to spare anyone like me the same experience. Others, who expect little, will probably think it's fine and good for them.
Another oddity is that there were many instances where we could easily have been sold a drink and were never approached. On the other lines they must sell a lot more liquor. Maybe this crowd is just beer, but I think NCL should try to sell more booze, it makes the food taste better and maybe they could put some of the extra $$ into upgrading the quality of the food. Just sayin.
The Good News (well sorta):
The three dinners we pre-purchased for the specialty restaurants came with a decent bottle of wine and while they could not cook a steak right in La Cantina (after 2 tries) it was probably my bad for ordering steak in the first place. Apart from that the service and food was pretty good. Second dinner was Le Bistro (which is a nice room) where they served a flawless meal, so good in fact that if they had a more varied menu I would have paid the extra 50 bucks a night for the two of us to at least know we could have a great dinner to look forward to for the remainder of the cruise. We also tried Cagney's Steakhouse and the steaks were excellent, the side dishes were lukewarm to cold but tasty and well-prepared. In fact keeping and serving food warm seems to be an issue that NCL just can't get the hang of. Breakfast was often cold, buffet food never hot when it should be or really cold when it should be. I think it is a food-safe issue when you have that as a problem. Room temperature or just above is not optimum. In any case, the three premium restaurants are proof than NCL can produce a decent even very good meal. They are clearly cutting corners here and there, wherever they can. Even in the pay restaurants there are no busboys, no sommeliers, no assistant waiters. The hosts act stressed out even when it's not busy. Very amateurish set-up, which now that I think about it, was portrayed in that Undercover Boss TV show where even the CEO couldn't get anything right. Someone needs to tell him that the secrets of success in food and beverage are consistency with your product and an approach to service that treats every occasion like a special occasion. The real successful players in the business who want brand loyalty know how to make a person feel a bit "spoiled", even encourage a bit of indulgence. The one time we ordered an extra entree to share, it was as if we were breaking the bank or taking the food from someone else's mouth. Even in the premium places they charge extra for that. Unheard of on the other lines.
I witnessed and experienced that extra effort and felt really looked after on HAL and on Princess over and over. For us the whole approach makes a huge difference. Attempts at friendly service on NCL were half-hearted and insincere apart from a couple of individuals who perhaps had been trained elsewhere or understood that a few of us are old school and ready to tip for it above and beyond the $12.00 a day the line uses to subsidize the low wages and calls a tip. The general impression is that they are just coping, seldom trying and almost never excelling.
I did write to the Hotel Manager who passed on my concerns to the Executive Chef. He sent chocolate covered strawberries to our cabin both before and after our conversations and he seemed to be sincerely interested in our feedback although he seemed unconvinced that there was any kind of issue. He also said many passengers thought the food was far better than HAL or Princess. So maybe it's just the luck of the draw. Good news is first cruise where I lost weight instead of gaining it. Bad news I had one sleepless night of extreme stomach distress which seemed to be induced by a waxy looking flavourless piece of prime rib
- enough to change my mind about trying the Breakaway in December. The disappointment would be too much. Royal Princess much more likely to try that.
Scenery and Ports:
Took the same trip last year on HAL and have to say Alaska is amazing from start to finish. Booked our own excursions all wonderful. Trip of a lifetime - I really highly recommend it. Saw more kids and families on NCL got the impression they are trying to chase Disney with fares that are 30% lower on this route.