First, I have been on only 4 cruises prior to our Alaskan cruise so I am not a "beginner" cruiser. I also spent several years in the US Navy with deployments on ships. I understand how cruise lines operate... a friend was a captain for RCL, so I have a bit more knowledge than most.
I originally had an inside cabin (about 140 sq feet) booked for me and my two teen sons, but due to a job offer, I moved the cruise up by a month... thus allowing my teen daughter to join us (who would have been at camp in August during our original sail date). I upgraded to a balcony (about 200 sq feet) rather than pay the OUTRAGEOUS penalty for changing date of the cruise... the 1000 fee to change date was waived (although it cost me 1300 to upgrade and add my daughter).
Embarcation: Flawless. One of the smoothest embarkations ever. Presented documents for citizenship, set up spending account limits for each child... filled out a document allowing each of them to spend up to $100 on the ship for the week). Waited about 15 minutes and by 11:30 we were on the ship. Rooms were ready by 1 pm. BRAVO!
Luggage: we all received our luggage by 5 pm (4 suitcases- one for each of us). Fairly reasonable, although previous cruises I have walked on with luggage, and will again do so in the future. OK.
Garden Buffet: Upon arrival we were directed to the buffet for lunch. Not terrible, mediocre. Same foods, with some rotation of soups... I really liked the pretzel sticks and rolls... Reminded me of real German pretzels. ALWAYS crowded and difficult to find a seat. Kids were happy with the selection, so no real complaints until the last night ... more later. OK.
Stateroom: Cabin 9634 was of decent size, but when set up for sleeping you could NOT access the balcony without some tricky maneuvering. Many bumps on heads... The pullman is directly in front of the sliding doors. Not the greatest in design... FLAWED! Our steward made up the room by 6 pm, essentially rendering our balcony useless when the skies were light until 11pm. The beds were HORRIBLY uncomfortable. The sofa sleeper, although wider, was like a rock slab. My daughter complained of it nightly... and it would fall apart! The foot piece is brought in from storage to extend the bed out, held on only by a weak velcro strip. The pullman was pretty uncomfortable too, but my 13 year old didn't seem to mind. Another fatal flaw in the layout, when the cabin is set up for 4 single sleepers, as we were... (Single mom and 3 teen children) the ladder to the pullman does not securely attach to the pullman... lots of near falls. We alleviated that by setting one bed on a slight diagonal, but it wasn't perfect. BE WARNED! The bathroom was of decent size for a cruise ship, although of all the ships I have been on Holland America has the biggest. Storage? TERRIBLE for a family of four... there was one closet, 4 useable cubbies and 3 drawers. I wound up moving the teapot and ice bucket tray to accommodate more storage. There was too much extra furniture (chair, and 3 tables...). Hindsight, I should have asked for their removal completely to give us more room, but we needed the space to set binoculars and miscellaneous items on. The main beds... not terrible, but mediocre. The bedding consists of a mattress, 2 layers of nasty looking foam (looked like carpet padding) and a mattress cover. The sheets were silky soft and much enjoyed after a long day of walking in port.
If you have a family, and can afford it, go for 2 cabins (I would have saved a bit more booking two interior cabins and we would have been MUCH more comfortable). MEH!
Safety drill Tsar's Port Side forward: I know the hurdle everyone must jump before relaxing. Most disorganized drill EVER! Staff were yelling at passengers in an almost threatening tone... Not cool. It was a completely booked cruise, so they should have expected latecomers etc... No reason to yell! It lasted entirely TOO long... and most people didn't pay attention anyway. (So far, Carnival's has been the most organized and expedited.) Advice, BE PATIENT! Kids are screaming, crew is yelling, parents and seniors just want it over... It does end, sure enough. If you have small children, bring a low tech toy (electronics must be shut off during the drill) to capture their attention. TWO THUMBS DOWN!
Spa: BEST THING GOING FOR NCL! I purchased the week long spa pass (must be 18) for both my 19 year old son and myself and made serious use of it. The heated chaises are the best place to be when pulling in or out of port or just to take the chill off after a rainy day tooling about Alaska. There is a co-ed therapy pool and in each locker room there is a hot tub, lounging area, sauna, herbal steam room, and a Japanese cold pool... plus lockers, toilets and several showers. I have read they only sell 50-60 passes for the cruise, and believe this to be true as the spa was NEVER crowded. People were polite, and lots of pleasant conversation. There was mutual respect if you were taking a snooze on the chaises... Hot water for a variety of (Lipton in a Bigelow box) teas, cold water, and orange juice were available at all times. Nice touch. The spa staff was friendly and helpful. By the end of the week all knew your name. My 19 year old, 17 year old and me all had massages... on par with expensive spas, but still overpriced. Be careful!!! the 18% gratuity is added automatically. I didn't realize this until I got to my stateroom. We tipped an additional $15 each. (Perhaps that is why the staff was always so friendly to us?) I don't regret it, I should have read the receipt more closely when I signed. I do think there should be a sauna for general use... STANDING OVATION!
POOLs/Hot tubs: HEATED to a comfortable 86 degrees so even on the coldest Alaskan day, you can enjoy a swim. There is one pool and 2 hot tubs for families; one pool and 2 hot tubs for adults only. They were never crowded because the ambient temperature was never above 60... My youngest (almost 14) had a blast using them... BRAVO!!
Entertainment: We went to 3 shows... Magic, Comedy and Cirque de Bijou... all were first rate, however the comedy, although family "friendly" did get a bit risqué. WE enjoyed the shows, to be sure... However, if you plan on the 7:30 show, arrive at 7 and wait in line. My son and I went for the comedy show at 7:20 and had a zinger of a time trying to find seats. The 9:30 show is not as crowded. BRAVO!!
Casino: What can I say? Casino. My 19 year old son and I played a total of $90 using the special offers ($10 for 20 and $25 for 50) ... So our total loss was $45. At one point, I was up... but aren't we all? :-) It taught my son a great lesson! He doesn't want to gamble anymore! LOL (me either...) MEH...
Tsar's: The "complimentary" main dining room (same menu at Azura the other main dining room)... We liked the look and elegance of this dining room best. The food was better than buffet (to be expected) but not special. Night one or two (sorry I cant remember) was lobster tail (Maine) and the most horrible excuse for a sirloin steak EVER! Tasteless, tough and it looked weird... The lobster tail was great, broiled to buttery sweet perfection. The other nights had slightly differing menus with a Chef's special. The one night all 4 of us dined at Tsar's... our table was not completely set, we were missing flatware, butter, cream... I felt like I was annoying the server... because he acted ... ANNOYED. Not to mention, there were open tables EVERYWHERE, but they seated us around the corner with other families. I'm sorry, I have well behaved teenagers... I do NOT need to be seated by children who can't sit still for the duration of a meal, or by parents who do not know when it is time to take a screaming child OUT of the dining room. Because of that, two of my children opted to dine at the buffet for the remainder of the cruise. LUNCH MENU: BEWARE: NEVER CHANGES!!! Not ONCE! My theory, they WANT you to dine elsewhere... and pay for it. Ambience? BRAVO!! Service, hit or miss; Variety: BOOOO!!!! Quality: better than the buffet (and your only other complimentary option)
Teppanyaki: AMAZING! Worth the up-charge? Debatable. Definitely better than Benihana! The food was very good, presentation and service phenomenal. WHAT I AM USED TO IN THE MAIN DINING ROOM of other cruise lines. Seriously! We dined there on the 2nd last night and it made me wish I was rich so I could afford all the up charge restaurants. Our server gave my children Shirley Temples at no charge. BRAVO!!
Sushi Bar: Better than expected. My daughter LOVED the salmon nigiri. We each had 2 rolls. The miso soup was tasty!! The hot saki? Gekkeikan ($5 per bottle on land) $6 for a TINY bottle (about 3 thimble size cups full) Overall, BRAVO!
Chocoholics Buffet: A sight to behold! Get there early. If you are any later than 8:30 when the 7:30 show lets out, it is wall to wall pushing, screaming, rude PEOPLE! Is it so hard to act civilized in the presence of decadence? IT was also a sight of horrible gluttony and WASTE!. People loaded 2 plates overflowing with different treats and treasures... knowing full well they couldn't possibly eat that much... The sad reality was in the morning with barely eaten plates laying next to the stateroom doors. My family ate what they took... and enjoyed watching the idiocy of those around us. Mind you, it surely wasn't the majority... but seriously? You spend a pretty penny on a cruise, and I understand you want your money's worth... but do you have to act like Tarzan? No, I take that back, Tarzan was more civilized. Of all the upcharges on board, I think the only place there should be an upcharge is at this event.
Game room: well stocked with board games and well used. Bravo!
Library: good size lending library, well lit, comfortable. Bravo!
Gym: Must be 16. Good selection of equipment and classes but I did not use... My daughter used an elliptical a few times and enjoyed her time in there.
MARTINI TASTING: Just do IT! TWO THUMBS UP!! a flight of 4 half size martinis for $15, but you get an explanation, history lesson, and quiz, games... the more you participate, the more you get. The first night, I had 2 additional martinis. Beware, they are all vodka based, so gin martini lovers (like me) need to appreciate it for what it is and order a gin martini at the Martini bar another time. BRAVO!
Bingo: OVERPRICED and only 3 games per session! The ship makes SOOOOOOOO much money from bingo. THe big jackpots are only won if the coverall bingo is in 47 calls or less. We played the "show me the money" level so that the kids could play free... we had fun, so that is what it was all about, right? OK!
Shore Excursions: DO NOT BOOK THROUGH CRUISE LINE: no matter what they say, the cruislines mark up as much as 75%. We did all our tours independently upon arrival. With the change of plans I didn't really have the time to prebook, but that wasn't a problem AT ALL! All the private tours cater to the cruise ships and most, if not all, guarantee you will be done and returned to the ship prior to departure. We did Saxman Village and City Tour/Dolly house in Ketchican... Sourdough Company. Saw over 30 bald eagles... Bears didn't want to be seen. Tour guide was great. In Juneau, we did whale watching (http://www.juneauwhalewatch.com)... The original price was $110 for a 3 hour tour... My son said he was having the best 19th birthday... and the lady gave us a $10 discount. Great tour! We saw several whales and were entertained by a momma and her calf! Refreshments and drinks were included. First rate tour! In Skagway we did the bus to White Pass and the city tour through Klondike Tours. Our guide was awesome. In Victoria, we walked to the Empress and had tea seated right away without reservations... pricy, but high tea is never cheap. My point: You do NOT need to book or pre-book a tour. THERE are PLENTY available on the pier and whether admitted or not... you might be able to get a discount to save even more money. We had a BLAST on all of our excursions NOT booked through NCL!
Our cabin steward was awesome. I gave him an additional tip on the last night. I always tried to do a once over in the cabin in the morning and make sure the kids were out so he could make up the room, but there were a few times where we weren't ready and he came back later. He always greeted me and the children by name, and made fantastic towel animals when he found out they are one of my favorite treats on cruises. :-) BRAVO! Have a great vacation in Indonesia next month!
Teen Club: My daughter participated in several activities and made a lot of friends. My youngest didn't go at all other than to sign up. My oldest wished he could have participated. BRAVO!
18-20 crowd: Cruise lines lack at catering to this precious age group. Too young to do some things, too old to do others. I know it is strange age range to be. My son went to the casino with me. He did a few adult activities, but there really were not organized ANYTHING for this age group. Did it ruin his cruise? NO! He had a great time talking to the older people in the spa. EVERYONE who met him was charmed by him and I got many compliments on how well behaved and courteous he is. I do wish, however, they had a late-teen or early adult program or even a few activities at the beginning of the cruise. I looked on day one because I read some cruise lines do this, but none was to be seen. BOO!
Kid's programs overall: There were over 700 kids on board and for the most part, they were well behaved and occupied with activities. Families I had spoken with had trouble coaxing their children away from the program. BRAVO!!! WELL-DONE!
Store: Great selection of goods. Although I did not purchase anything, I walked around and window shopped. They had all the souvenirs you could need. OK.
Freestyle cruising: Not sure I am sold on this. Yes, I enjoyed not having to dress up on formal night (I am a comfort seeking person... and love my jeans, blouse and sandals... but I do know how to glitz out). I don't think I liked the way the main dining rooms were run. One night we had to wait nearly 40 minutes for a table. Yes, we received vouchers for a free drink... but still.. If it were early and late seating... this would NOT have happened. I missed bonding with my table mates... It is always fun to see familiar faces and network. THE JURY IS STILL OUT.
Nickel and diming: true as it may be... all cruise lines do this, but NCL JEWEL takes the cake for the most gold digging. So many things I didn't expect to have charges, had charges... BOO!
Hidden gems: 11th deck port side (Bridge observation) LOVED IT!
LAST night at the Garden Buffet: I told you more later... Let me just say, when I asked politely if there was more pepperoni pizza coming out, the man said, "this is all we have so take it or leave it." HUH?? ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE, a simple, we have none this evening would have sufficed. REALLY sour taste for my last night on board.
Disembark: Walked off with our own baggage... smooth... easiest customs EVER! BRAVO!!
I am sure I missed something... Overall, we had a great trip to Alaska which is what was looking forward too. I tried NCL on a recommendation from a friend (was going to book a more familiar line, but it would have departed from Vancouver... Seattle was easier for us)... I would choose NCL again if it was the right itinerary and price... but as far as loyalty goes... Not there yet.
I hope you found this somewhat helpful. I am not an optimist by nature, but a realist... I am highly critical too... so take that with a grain of salt.