We are 63 and 74, have sailed HAL, Carnival and RCL. My review focuses on three major aspects of NCL compared to HAL and Carnival. They are (1)Staff, (2)Freestyle Dining/Food, (3) Overall Social Atmosphere.
Since it is my motto "I have never met a cruise I didn't like" I am happy to say that after this cruise I still feel the same. It was wonderful! However, you most likely could put me on a tug boat with some Rum and a swimming pool and I would be a happy. just a little humor there.
Dining: Freestyle, anytime dining, is the best idea of all. We enjoyed this aspect more than any other. We never waited in line and we could go to dinner anytime we felt like it. Also, do not forget to use the Blue Lagoon a 24 hour "comfort" food. I loved this place! This is the only ship I have ever been on that had fish and chips and they were decent. Chicken wings were nicely done. Don't miss a breakfast here, you can get perfect omelets, your very own pitcher of coffee or hot chocolate and the service is superb and slightly elegant. Tip: this area is accessible from the ninth floor internet room, no elevators, no waiting and from there you can also go down to the main atrium. It's perfect "fast food" alone or with partner.
Versailles: My favorite was the garlic mushroom sauce sirloin steak, I had it many times and it was perfect, hot plate and perfect presentation. The service and staff were excellent, fast and catered to our every whim.
Market Cafe (Buffett). Sorry to report that this venue lacked almost everything I love about cruising in the way of food. The overall comparison to HAL and Carnival is very negative with respect to the Buffett.
I am a salad lover and the "salad bar" really was pitiful, two stainless steel bowls of lettuce, some radishes and few other items. Watery dressing. It was lacking: sunflower seeds, garbanzos, kidney beans and just about anything else that goes in a good salad. They did have beets and cottage one day?? I did find croutons down the way a bit. This was a big disappointment. Did it ruin my cruise? Never!
We found ourselves confronted with pork this and pork that almost daily and very dry non tasty turkey one day. The desert area was a mess and sparse on selection. Nobody cared if the pie was sloppily cut or falling off the plate. The pizza was the worst I have ever had on a ship, not crisp, not tasty and just sitting there looking yucky under hot lights. On HAL and Carnival you can custom order a hot oven baked pizza with a Cesar Salad from the Pizza Station.
In presentation alone, NCL has it all wrong, no frills, no pretty displays, such as ice filled bowls and food adornments.... and it is all stainless steel very basically like a school cafeteria and not appealing at all. Half of the enjoyment of food is the way it looks, right? Just colorful tablecloths or rows of phony parsley or something to dress up the layout would have helped a lot.
When you enter a HAL buffet, it is elegant, the seating is comfortable and varied and the atmosphere is lovely, it even has candles. HAL always has a "carving station" with succulent beef, whole hams and turkey and other choices ,more than one abundant beautiful salad area(s) with bowls nestled in ice with so many choices you could not want for anything more.
The Grill fried their hamburgers then put them under hot lights to keep them warm and did not heat the buns unless you asked, and then they were Luke warm. HAL has this beat hands down as well. Hot off the grill with delicious hot crispy fries. NCL fries got a little better towards the end, but to begin was a precooked soggy limp piece of potato.
No Mexican food served, unless it was later at night I believe at the 9:30 snack station. No salsa, pickled jalapenos, sour cream, nachos, tacos, guacamole, Nada! Came home starved for Mexican food. We did find some raw jalapenos in the Indian Dish Area I believe.
On the other hand, even with the above issues, I must say that NCL has learned how to offer such a variety of places and times to eat that nothing is ever as crowded as with HAL and Carnival.
They had poolside BBQ's with huge Weber looking grills and that was a treat, they grilled a variety of items, and a lot of sausages.
Bars and Pools: Here is where NCL shines the brightest! I loved the Biergarten bar overlooking the beautiful pool, lovely ocean breezes, music from pool area, smoking allowed, very friendly bartenders, lots of friendly folks, hardley every crowded. The pool was deep, perfect temperature, great for a late evening dip as no one was in it! During the day it was a wonderful place to get cool and socialize and listen to music. The spas were pristine, hot and enjoyable.
Overall Staff, fellow cruisers and Socializing: Loved the friendly folks, very relaxed compared to HAL. Captain and all staff were present at our Cruise Critic Meeting and they graciously arranged for our group to have a Bridge tour which was very sweet treat. The staff in general was always around and accessible, I even got to shake the Captain's hand on leaving the custom's area. I have had the pleasure of sitting at the Captain's table for Brunch on HAL, however he was far more formal in his approach, I found the "approachability and open to all attitude, refreshing RCL has a way of doing this, without the feeling "they are just doing it for Public Relations" you truly get the feeling they are just interested in what they do and love it.
Room service (gotta have my coffee first thing) best I ever had, called before coming which was wonderful. prompt and nicely done. They have a service charge for later hours so make a note of that. Also, I do not think you can order a full meal from them, or at least it did not appear so. That is different on other cruises where you could order steak at dinner, or omelets for breakfast etc. Which is fine with me as it makes a pretty big mess to have a full course meal delivered and like stated above you have lots of anytime dining options.
Cabins: They were adequate, I liked the glass shower door and the sliding balcony door. a/c was perfect warm or cold, service was great. Uh oh the beds and space are not nearly as nice as HAL. The beds were ok but they sit nearly on the floor and were not of the quality we had on other cruises, also the space around them was alot smaller. I liked the no noise coating they put on the balcony floor so you could not hear the chairs being moved but I notice it was hard to clean especially after we had slight flooding after rain storm. We did hear reports from fellow cruisers that they had no hot water shower for entire cruise, that would be totally unacceptable to me.
It was exciting to us to try something different, however I did read the reviews and I knew BEFORE booking the food may be different. My advice is to try them all. We are leaning towards loyalty to NCL, why? I think it can be summed up with Three major points as mentioned above.. Price, Anytime Dining and the People we met. I have not done a detailed fact finding on price but ball park pricing appears to be significantly lower for NCL Star vs HAL or Carnival. If I can save money and have such a wonderful time (and I might add not gain one pound), yep will go with NCL. Get er done!