I need to qualify my review so that similar type of cruisers benefit and those that could be put off without need will not be. Hope that makes sense. In the last year I've ridden twice on the QM2 in the grills, enjoying both an eastbound and westbound journey. At 150k tons the QM2 holds 2,620 passengers. The NCL Breakaway, at similar tonnage held 4,509 for my week aboard.
I chose the Breakaway exactly based on its name. A lousy winter and I just wanted a casual environment where I could relax and renew cold and weary bones. I was not looking for a formal ship and have a 3 cruise (Med (Dream, 11/01), Western Caribbean (Sun, 04/02), and New England (Dawn, 07/05) history with NCL so calibrated my expectations accordingly. OK, with that proviso, here I go.
a) 4500+ (we had 4,509 with 700+ kids) people in a 150k ton ship is just too many, especially when we are talking only two banks of passenger elevators that ride on a very slow door close and movement rate. Constant tussles between passengers and frustrations were voiced, many often opting for stairs, even if it meant 5 or more flights, out of pure frustration. Having said that this ship is great for families. Though the cabins are very small, the Splash Academy and outdoor slides, rope course and putt putt course, along with the pools, an arcade, etc etc are tremendous for kids and family fun. Kids have a blast on this ship and are kept well entertained. (some of their parents can learn a thing or two but that's another topic)
b) Inconsistent customer service: customer service felt like you were one among 4,500 most of the time, which isn't to say awful but don't expect a high touch service, especially if you hit a snag, except for The Haven, a segregated "First Class" area (I was in there the last 2 days).
Friends of mine (two women sharing a cabin) had a very bad time of it. Their cabin had a kind of intense swooshing sound that would startle and waken them throughout the night (inside 13th deck). It took 3 complaints before they were heard (4 days into trip) and moved. Once moved their new room keys didn't work which took another round of complaints before it was understood they couldn't get in their rooms (they kept giving them (3x) new keys instead of having maintenance check the door). They were eventually moved to a third cabin (in 7 nights, 2 moves isn't great) and were finally able to catch up on sleep the last 2 nights (just saying that phase says everything about their experience). Not really how you want to spend 7 nights but they were good soldiers.
c) Food overall was what I expected. A bit better then a catering hall and a bit above that in the specialty dining areas, though I never found a dessert I liked, including sorbet or ice cream, though the ship's coffee was very good. I thought it was just me but polled a bunch of folks and they agreed. I was great with starters and entrees (nice variety) but desserts, yuch. Breads were good too. I did the ultimate dining package allowing me to sample 5+ specialty restaurants. I ended up with Le Bistro 3x and Cagney's 2x with the main dining room (Manhattan and Savor) the other two. The Garden Cafe was well done with nice variety, spacious and well staffed, though I avoided it at peak day periods for fear of my life.
d) Entertainment: if you can't find something you like on this ship you're not trying. From the rides (for the kids but I did too @ 58! - slides scared the heck out of me and were a blast) to Second City comedy, to Rock of Ages (didn't like this cast much but it was OK), ito jazz, to bank-e-okee, etc, there's a huge variety (of course casino) of things to do and see.
e) Ambiance: Based in NYC it's clear the designers went for more of a subtle NYC sophisticated style over in your face stuff. Lots of use of wood style (I don't think it was wood) paneling, muted colors, etc. Deck space is often criticized for being tight with chair/chair/chair/chair setting. True - with the space taken for rides on the main sun decks this is not the typical pools with surrounding deck chairs and one above. Though there's a wonderful sunning space on the front of the very top, port side. Beautiful views and wonderful sunning place. Where there are tons of people, you feel it and in my case, wanted. to get away as much as possible, which leads me to,
f) The Spa: where I spent most of my days. Great hydrotherapy pools ($198 a week for daily entrance), steam room, sauna, sauna-light and Salt room. Great location at forward on 15, a true get away (no kids allowed), not very populated (calm, relaxing) and well done. There's also heated stoned recliners good for warming. I also indulged in 2 massages with Boigoy, the only male masseur and they were excellent. I especially liked the stone massage. The spa made the ship for me. I'd work out in the morning and spend a lot of time in the spa hydrotherapy pool, jacuzzi, steam or sauna and just relaxing reading. This was well worth the price of admission and I'd have to consider better than the QM2 Canyon Ranch spa even.
Embarking/Disembarking: NCL has this down well and there weren't issues beyond a long line for immigration. Getting a taxi across the street was a bit weird but ultimately easy. Never easy to cross the West Side Highway whatever the hour or day.
Freestyle dining: I like it for the freedom it brings, along with the variety. Having said that you do miss a sense of home base for dining and getting to know your waiters, etc. Still, I prefer free style, especially when looking for an informal warm weather cruise. On the high seas with 'Cunard' I like one table and one main dining room.
Overall it did the trick but I know I prefer something around 100k tons with a great spa.