Embarkation went smoothly. Our wait was less than an hour and were on the ship by 11:30. After having lunch, we checked on our room around 1:00 and it was ready. Our luggage arrived around 3:00. One of the best souvenir pictures (with the ship in the background) is taken right as you're first getting on the ship - so you may want to be "picture ready" at embarkation.
Amazing! Every single crew member seemed to love their job. They were exceptionally friendly, attentive and respectful. After only the first day, the housekeeping lady already knew our names and what room we were in, a bartender knew my husband's name and what kind of beer he liked, the kid's Splash Academy knew which kid belonged to us and his name, etc. Every question was answered politely, and the staff was cheerful and entertaining for out little boy.
Ship & Room
The ship was beautiful and even better than expected. I'd read a review that this ship is showing wear. Maybe that was before the 2011 refurbishment? Everything was shiny and clean. The carpets didn't show sign of wear and looked clean.
We had debated paying the extra money for a balcony room. We were glad we did. Sitting out on the balcony and enjoying the views was one of the best parts of the trip. The room itself was a little small, but luggage fit under the beds and there were plenty of hangers and drawer space for our clothes. The location of our balcony room was great - it was in a quiet area of the ship and there was no wind when sitting on the balcony. It was only a little windy when standing right next to the glass edge of the balcony.
We were worried about the ship being too crowded and had read that the library was one of the few public places to go for peace and quiet. There were actually many areas on the ship where there were often only a few people on some outside decks, in some bars, etc. The ship is definitely big enough to easily accommodate the number of people on the boat. However, the buffet in the Garden Cafe was always busy.
There is plenty to do on the ship. At night, we only ended up going to the opening show in the theatre and one Deal or No Deal show. Other than that, we mostly chose to watch/listen to musicians and we went to the family White Hot Party where our son had a blast dancing. The 180 degree views from the spacious Spinnaker lounge are beautiful. The random activities throughout the day were fun too - beer tasting, origami, cupcake decorating for the kids, etc.
There was never anyone in the arcade room the few times we went. The room was loud due to video games volumes set on high - but we enjoyed playing a few games of air hockey there with our son as yet another family entertainment option.
Our son's favorite area was the water slide. The big slide empties into a shallow area. So, kids don't have to be able to swim to use the big slide, but the sign does say it's for ages 6+.
The Bingo games are kind of a racket. They are expensive ($39 to $69 per game) and they lead you to believe you can win $5k the first day and progressively up to $10k the last day, but it's set up so no one can really win any huge money until the last day of bingo where you think it will be a $10k jackpot, but they finally reveal that, unfortunately, the $10k jackpot is not available as they can only pay out 27% of sales, and so the jackpot ended up being around $2k. Still very lucky for the winner - but I really don't think $10k was really ever on the table as advertised. Will avoid Bingo next time -- too expensive.
Splash Academy, Nickelodeon
For some reason our son didn't enjoy the first night in Splash Academy, but perhaps he was just initially overwhelmed by the ship. After the first day, he enjoyed his time there. However, we only took him for one session a day because every time we picked him up he never asked to stay longer. He liked it fine - and he talked favorably about it. I guess he just wanted to see everything else on the boat too, just like the adults. The staff in Splash Academy were friendly. They had a good check in/checkout process. So, we felt it was safe. One of the days they had a circus rehearsal in Splash Academy (which our son loved) and then the staff took the kids to the Stardust Theatre to put on a super cute show on the big stage for all the parents.
The Nickelodeon theme was subtle around the boat. The characters were only seen at specific shows where they were scheduled to show up. There were several opportunities to see them for free and take your own photos with them, or buy the professional photos.
The Nickelodeon Pajama Jam was a bit overrated. The Pajama Jam breakfast had a few different kid's food choices from the regular buffet including Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes, green/red colored waffles and cupcakes - but not worth the difference between free and $20/person. The show with the Pajama Jam breakfast was brief. There are other free and better opportunities for kids to dance. The breakfast did include one free professional photo with a character ($20 value), but again there were other opportunities to have pics with the characters.
The food was fabulous. The Indian food was my favorite at the buffet - very flavorful. For those that don't like spice, there were plenty of other options (though the options didn't change much day by day) . There are also made to order options - pasta, omelets, etc. There was always someone standing at the entrance of the buffet with hand cleaner and a catchy little tune, which was a nice touch.
The two free non-buffet restaurants were nice getaways from the crowded buffet with additional options and the food was great there too.
The barbecue food out by the pool at lunch time gave yet more yummy food options. The bbq ribs were particularly good.
We went to one pay-restaurant, La Cucina. I had a veal dish there that was my favorite dish on the ship.
Shopping, Excursions and Wild Life
Ketchikan was the best port for shopping with the most stores.
We booked one excursion - the White Pass railway train in Skagway. There were breathtaking views from the train and you can stand outside on the platform to get great pics. Our son enjoyed the 3-1/2 hour trip. He only started getting a little restless the last 20 minutes or so.
The cruise through the icy straits on the way to the Sawyer glacier had some amazing views too.
We didn't see any bears, as we had hoped for. However, we got to see an amazing sight of hundreds of dolphins in a pod we passed as well as several whales and we didn't have to book any excursions to see these.
At disembarkation, there is an option to have luggage service and to choose the time of departure based on your selected luggage tag color (ranging from 7:00-9:30 a.m.). However, the times are not exact and requires listening to the announcements for your tag color. We chose the recommended option of self-service luggage to avoid the crowds and leave at our leisure. We departed the ship a little after 9:00 and had absolutely no wait getting off the boat. Not that we wanted to leave in a hurry.
A Few Other Details for New Cruisers
What to Bring
Some days were hot enough to go swimming, other days it was cold enough (particularly when cruising to the glacier) for coat, gloves and hat. We were glad to have brought both warm and cool weather clothes, but skip packing a winter coat - wait and buy one in town. Stores in Ketchikan and Juneau sell nice fleece-lined, waterproof, hooded jackets, with a small "Alaska" insignia for only $19.99. They are a great value and a nice souvenir, which I will wear off trip.
The room has three outlets. You may want to bring a multi outlet adapter. We had two phones, one camera and one video camera and so the adapter came in handy.
At sea, cell phones get completely confused on time and this was the only item we carried that was supposed to keep time for us. So, we sometimes had to ask a crew member what time it was if we wanted to try to catch an activity at a specific time. Suggest bringing a watch, if you don't normally wear one.
The shampoo in the shower was acceptable, but not conditioning and conditioner is not provided. Bringing conditioner was a necessity for me. The hair dryer was of nice quality and it is not necessary to bring your own.
Alaska is beautiful and Norwegian Cruise Line does an excellent job. We will choose Norwegian again!