This was my 23rd cruise overall, and my eighth cruise on Norwegian. I booked with the Aquafest LGBT group’s annual Halloween sailing, and our group made up almost 500 of the Jewel’s 2100 passengers. I’ve sailed on the Norwegian Pearl twice, a sister ship of the Jewel, as well as the Norwegian Dawn twice. Both ships are similar to the Jewel in design and capacity, so I had high expectations for the Jewel.
I received the first indication that those expectations would not be met when I checked in. In the past, passengers received a pocket-sized brochure and map of the ship along with their key card. But on this day, I was handed a poor-quality black-and-white photocopy of that map. Norwegian’s continued cost-cutting has become evident even before stepping aboard. Strike one.
On my other seven Norwegian cruises, I’ve always admired the friendliness and efficiency of the staff and crew. So I was surprised when after I boarded, I went to the Guest Relations desk and asked where the check-in area was for the Aquafest group. The agent behind the desk stared at me blankly. Then she asked her colleague if she knew what the “Aqua Fresh” group was. I corrected her twice. The colleague didn’t know either. Could it be that the Jewel’s staff was not prepared for a group that was occupying one-quarter of the ship this week? Luckily, another Aquafest passenger was nearby and overheard the conversation, and informed me where to go. Strike two.
After checking in with Aquafest and meeting their staff, my friend and I headed up to the Garden Café for lunch. At some point, I heard the news that a surprise CDC health inspection was taking place – this is done approximately every six months on every cruise ship that operates out of the U.S. And when I saw the incredible disarray of the lunch service in the Garden Café – empty food trays not being replaced in a timely manner, lack of fresh plates, many items mislabeled or not labeled at all, etc. – I assumed it was due to the crew’s attention on the health inspection. But as the week progressed, I learned that the inspection was not the reason. These problems persisted throughout the week. Over eight Norwegian cruises, I had never seen the buffet restaurant so poorly managed as it was on the Jewel.
Strike three. The Norwegian Jewel struck out in the first inning without a single hit – and I’ve only been on board for an hour.
Throughout the week, there was nothing in particular that the staff or crew did to sway my disappointment from the first day. Even the service at dinner that first night in the Tsar Palace was quite slow. Other dinners that week were in specialty restaurants or in the Azure dining room, which had pleasantly prompt service. Our other dinners were in La Cucina, Moderno Churrascaria and Cagney’s Steakhouse – all were as enjoyable as I’ve experienced them previously on other ships.
One exception to the lackluster staff was the beverage manager, Katya. She was very friendly and sociable.
Because the Aquafest group provided its own entertainment for the guests, I didn’t get to see much of the Jewel’s entertainment. I did see Band on the Run and Jean-Pierre’s magic show – both were very entertaining and enjoyable.
But the best aspect of this cruise was the itinerary. New Orleans is a great embarkation port, and my friend and I enjoyed spending two nights here, plus one more night after the cruise ended. The cruise had four ports of call: Cozumel, Belize, Roatan and Costa Maya.
During my previous calls to Cozumel, I went to a nearby resort and bought a day pass. But because Norwegian uses the downtown pier, it was very convenient to walk around the town and explore the shops. Aquafest had also invited its guests to visit Senor Frogs, where we enjoyed a raucous daytime party atmosphere before heading back to the ship.
In Belize City, we took a ship excursion to Altun Ha, a very impressive Mayan historic site. Our tour guide, who had a Mayan background, was excellent in explaining some of the history and architecture relevant to the pyramids. We had the ability to climb to the top of the largest pyramid, which was quite the treat.
In Roatan, we joined some other Cruise Critic members for a catamaran sailboat charter, provided by Radical Adventures. This was the highlight of the cruise! Captain Ed and his wife Julie, along with a crew of three locals, sailed us to a secluded cove for a couple hours of snorkeling and a delicious lunch.
And in Costa Maya, Aquafest had arranged an excursion for the entire group at a beach club about 30 minutes away.
If I had to rank my eight Norwegian cruises solely based on the onboard experience, I would have to rank this cruise as the lowest one. I’m worried that Norwegian’s cost-cutting, as well as all the focus they are putting on Epic, Breakaway and Getaway, is having a detrimental effect on the rest of the fleet. Norwegian needs to do more to ensure that its passengers looking for a mid-sized ship experience are not being ignored.