. . . on a ship, that is!
First off, I think a cruise is always the most relaxing of vacations, and have to have one every year. This was the one and only for us in 2013.
However, we picked NCL only because we were part of the Aquafest group on board - an association of GLBT folk who each year at Hallowe'en partially charter a ship for a great party. NCL works well for these events, with its "Freestyle Cruising". The party was fun, the ship was fun, the crew was fun, but outside of an Aquafest function we would be sailing on another line.
Embarkation was great. We're from New Orleans, so, of course, it's a fantastic place to start your trip! We were on the ship quickly and smoothly. In time for the lunch we always enjoy on sailing day in the main dining room - here, Tsar's Palace. This is a good idea. You avoid the push and shove of the buffet, and are seated for a refined, civilized experience.
The ship is decently laid out and easy to get around. I have never seen such clear markings of where the venues are on any ship in the past. Also, the elevators have guides, telling you what is on each deck. This was my first cruise I did not walk the ship deck to deck before sailing to familiarize myself with it. We were able to join the group party at the Sky Bar instead!
That said, there is a massive bottleneck between the pool deck and the buffet, as it skirts the pool grill and goes past the pool's restrooms. Two columns in the middle of this path were padded, gridiron style - a reminder of past boo-boos. It appears the pool deck at one time had paths on both the port and starboard sides, allowing for better flow. The port side is closed at both ends - aft by a hot tub that is an obvious addition. A pleasant consequence is there is a nice secluded place by the pool and two hot tubs in the forward port corner of the pool deck. The pool deck on the Jewel is quite large, accommodating two large pools and four hot tubs, plus the one that was an afterthought.
The itinerary includes the usual Western Caribbean suspects: Cozumel, Belize, Roatan, and The Magic Mayan Kingdom (a/k/a Costa Maya). I understand there's a different set of itineraries too, including Jamaica and Grand Cayman. Again - we were on board for the party, and not the ports. At Cozumel we had a booked excursion through Cozumelwatersports.com. A catamaran/snorkel excursion that was absolutely fabulous. Not too large. A real catamaran. The cast and crew very attentive to safety and comfort. Will do again. NCL quite often, for more money, places you on a cattle boat with 80 people for a "snorkel/sail".
Yes, Belize is third world. But not everyone gets to live in the USA. Explore the city. Stay on the main street that goes over the pivot bridge. Absorb it. Watch your wallet, especially when someone "bumps" into you. Ignore the men trying to sell you their sisters. We walked down this street to St. John's Anglican Cathedral, and enjoyed a delightful treat of early 19th Century Caribbean architecture. You could absorb the history from the plaques on the walls. Across from the back of the church is the Government House, open as a museum. Some fine displays of Belize in the past, and a great specimen of old colonial days. I thought I was in a W. Somerset Maugham story! Wondering around the grounds of Government House the staff pointed out to us two iguanas in the trees. What a treat. Walking back the children were being let out of two schools on our route, and it was great to see them in their starched white uniforms. (Much more presentable than the typical American kid, I might say.) Back in the tourist village we went to our favorite shop, The Loom Ltd., which sells pillow covers, runners, etc., to find them in the midst of a liquidation sale. Budging them out of their space? Diamonds International. As if they need more room!
At Roatan we did a beach party with our Aquafest group, and it was a blast. A great beach club. Great Honduran beers. Great fun! Not too much at the Coxen Hole port, it appears. Consider an excursion here.
Costa Maya was another beach party, one that NCL gave to Aquafest for free. Thank goodness we did not pay for it, as it was a poor cousin to the Roatan experience. 45 minute bus ride each way - but in a comfortable bus. Not much in the way of shaded areas, and no umbrellas. However, a very special young lady pointed out an open thatched hut with recliners and chairs - even a table and a counter - and we enjoyed the day there. Great food and beverage service. But, we might not have been so happy if we had to pay for it. Costa Maya is a huge disappointment, and we are glad that next year, when the Jewel sails from Houston for the Aquafest cruise, it will be off the list.
As for restaurants: We are used to dining well - both at home and when traveling (we're from New Orleans!). The only restaurant on board worthy of the upcharge, we concluded, is Le Bistro. The food there is excellent. The staff is the most coordinated and pleasant of any of the dining rooms on board. We ate there four times - twice as scheduled dinner - once as part of the "Chef's Table" event - and a fourth time for the Jazz Brunch the final day at sea. I would recommend all of it. Especially Chef's Table. A multi-course meal with champagne and three different (and good) wines - for about $80.00 per person. A couple photos, too! And, after dinner drinks. The food and service were memorable. Look for this - especially the day you board. We found out about it from a pleasant lady bringing specialty restaurant menus around the main dining room on the day we sailed. Or, ask about it at a specialty restaurant desk in the lobby the day you board.
On future cruises we will likely eat in the main dining room for dinner on the other nights, as we did our first night - when we had a pleasant meal. Cagney's is just a steakhouse, and while the food was good, it was rushed and the service was poor. We were ignored after our entrees were served. Moderno, a churrascaria, is a meat lover's orgy - maybe too much. We did not like some of the flavors. The salad bar there is wonderful, though. At Chin-Chin's (Asian flavas) we really enjoyed the appetizers, but our entrees were like the Chinese take out we can get back home. We have yet to have done the hibachi tables they have, though - that might be fun. Finally, we cancelled the Italian restaurant in favor of another Le Bistro dinner after hearing a few bad things, and recalling some less than stellar meals in the Italian restaurants on other NCL ships in the past - moreover, the ship was giving it away to the Aquafest group, another sign . . .
On sea days - wait for the cookout on the pool deck. Much better than the buffet, and they stir up a wonderful paella!
It is kind of hard to get a drink on this ship. On the pool deck I would observe more crew clearing tables than I would beverage servers. Not the fault of the crew, for sure. A staffing matter.
We did not do any ship entertainment because the Aquafest demimonde took up our evenings. There is a great guy who sings and plays piano in the Martini bar on deck six. This bar, and the adjacent Maltings, are among the more civilized venues on board.
Overall - a great time!