We are a family of experienced cruisers (2 adults, one teenager) with more than 20 total cruises on five or six different lines. This is our second NCL cruise.
We flew into Seattle and took the Go Shuttle from SeaTac airport to downtown hotel for $12 per person. Great deal, convenient, and much cheaper than a taxi, limo, or cruise line transportation.
On the afternoon of embarkation, went to the pier, and found that the boarding formalities, in spite of long lines. were moving speedily and we were on board in less than 45 minutes from arrival at the pier. We knew that the staterooms would not be open before 1 pm, and so there was no reason to rush to get on board. So we slept in at our hotel, had brunch there, and then went to the pier at about 1:30 pm.
Once on board, we went to our stateroom. It was a nice balcony cabin, lots of storage, and a bathroom with a separate little toilet room and a bathtub/shower combo. We had to almost turn sideways to pass between the end of the bed and the wall, but we've had that experience on other lines and found that the space is efficient and compact, but does not seem terribly cramped. I remember thinking, "next time, we should spend the extra money and get the mini-suite." Last night, as I was looking into booking another NCL cruise, I discovered while looking at cabin floor plans, that we actually DID have a mini-suite--but folks, it does not feel significantly bigger than a standard veranda, because much of the additional space is occupied by more closets, and a bathroom with a tub and a tiny, separate toilet room. It does not feel more spacious, in out opinion, than does a regular balcony. As for the tub, only a small child could bathe in it; certainly no grown adult could. Bigger people might find the toilet room similar in size to that on an commercial airliner.
Dining was generally terrific. We enjoyed the Garden Cafe and the numerous islands of different foods--particularly the Indian foods, and the Asian foods. These were available at lunch and dinner, along with the usual hot dogs, hamburgers, plenty of hot dishes from around the world, a good salad bar (all of which were being constantly replenished) and good desserts. Believe me, nobody could leave hungry!
We did try several of the specialty restaurants, feeling that they offered a special dining experience that would cost twice or three times the cost of the surcharge if you were to try to duplicate the experience in a fine restaurant in a major city. We went to the Italian restaurant, the Brazilian churrascuria, the Asian restaurant, and the fancy steak house during the cruise and ate in Azure main dining room twice. We felt that the specialty dining was truly worth the extra cost, and while it was not "the best of the best," each of the venues would have been a great evening out and a great meal in all but the top dining cities in the world. If you live in Manhattan, Chicago, or LA, you might say, "I've had better," but if you live in Pocatello, Baton Rouge, or Las Cruces, you will find each of these restaurants to be a real treat.
We set up our own shore excursions, using the Cruise Critic "Ports of Call" boards, and Internet searches. Pretty much every excursion you buy on board can be purchased on the dock for a minimum 30% off, so don't worry if you can't make up your mind before the cruise. Also, be aware that if it's rainy and dreadful, your helicopter/seaplane tours will probably be canceled and you'll need to rebook something at the last minute--if this happens to you, do your shopping for substitute tours on the pier--NOT at the Shore Excursions Desk.
In Juneau, we did a whale watch/visit to Mendenhall Glacier combo. Saw lots of whales and had a great visit.
In Skagway, we took a van tour to the Yukon border; pretty scenery, but essentially the tour consisted of driving in a van for a while, crossing the US/Canada border, driving a bit more, and then turning around and going back--on the same road. Boring, expensive, pretty. Would not repeat.
In Ketchikan, we did the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's Tour. Great tour, and even got to see huge crabs, octopi, longline fishing, and even bald eagles up close. Great, great tour. Two thumbs up! Very calm waters--don't think it will be like the Dangerous Catch shows, because it's completely tame and flatwater experience.
In Victoria, we did the Fairmont Empress High Tea, which we booked (more inexpensively) through the Fairmont directly. It was an outstandingly decadent and elegant experience; the surroundings, the food, the atmosphere were all sublime. Would we do it again? Probably not, mostly due to the cost, but we don't regret doing it and we don't hesitate to name it as one of the high points of this trip. There was also a fascinating exhibit about the race to the South Pole at the British Columbia Museum a block away; very well done.
We were not able to see the glacier in Tracy Arm--there was too much floating ice in the waters of Tracy Arm to allow the ship to travel fast enough to actually make it to the glacier. Disappointing, but there is nothing else they could have done without risking safety of the ship and those on board.
I'd like to alert future passengers to the existence of the Bridge Viewing Room on Deck 11, Port, all the way forward. There is a huge window overlooking the control room of the ship, the bridge. You see all the officers at work, the computerized control and navigation equipment and displays, and they even have duplicates of the computer monitors in the viewing room so you can see the exact same displays the navigators and watch-standers are viewing. Fascinating.
There were several hundred children on board, ours included, but it seemed like we never saw them, and we did not see them stampeding around in packs as we have on other cruise lines. The ones we saw were either in activities with their parents, or with the kid's groups on board. They seemed well-behaved, but we did see a few kids in the adults-only pool and there was no evidence of any enforcement efforts.
A couple of real drawbacks to this cruise:
1. The Blue Lagoon Restaurant is truly an embarrassment to NCL. They should be ashamed to have this restaurant open, as it is so stunningly, and consistently, bad. Late at night, this is the ONLY place to sit down for a meal (other than room service), so we ate there several times after leaving the casino, or listening to music in one of the bars or lounges. First, the staff working there never smile, they never refill a water. coffee, or soda unless you ask; they do everything grudgingly and minimally--I got the idea that those who were working there were somehow being punished for something they had done--at least they acted that way. But mostly, they never, EVER, got an order right. From the tepid and tasteless Won Ton soup with a single won ton, to the room-temperature mozzarella sticks (an order of, wait for it, three sticks), to the order of ten fried chicken wings with mild sauce that turned out to be an order of barely warm and definitely old six wings in spicy sauce. And they did not pace the meal so that everybody got their food at the same time, so that one person might be starting an entree while another's appetizer had not yet appeared. They did not clear dirty dishes unless you made eye contact and asked whether they could take the dirty plates. They did not, out of five visits, ever get our orders right. Summary: really bad food, really bad service, really bad attitude. If NCL feels shame (in a corporate way), this is what they should be ashamed of.
2. Sofa Beds in cabins with three or four occupancy. Our cabin came with a convertible 2-person sofa bed, and it was beyond firm. Some people enjoy a firm mattress, and to those people, I'd like to suggest you still consider bringing a mattress topper, or air pad, or the like. I cannot see how a person who sleeps on a pillow-top mattress at home will be comfortable on this mattress. While the main mattress in the cabin was very comfortable in my opinion, moderately comfortable in my spouse's opinion, this sofa bed was really unbearable as it had no padding on top of a super-hard mattress. Think of sleeping on a billiards table, and you'll get the idea.
Staff on board was cheerful, positive, and helpful in every instance other than the Blue Lagoon (see above). Entertainment was very fine, and included all the usual bingo, trivia, dance instruction, karaoke, and the bands were fun and energetic.
All-in-all, a great week. We saw great and interesting things, had a great time, and comments about the Blue Lagoon and the beds notwithstanding, we came home well-rested and (very) well-fed.