* The Jewel: Not that old of a ship, but seems a bit old/dated. Caribbean colors & theme throughout (sails there in winter) which didn't quite get us in the mindset for Alaska. One thing I really missed was a quiet, 'common' inside area with comfortable seating to enjoy the views. Restaurants have peripheral windows if you are lucky to score one when dining, the buffet has a wall of windows, as does the Irish Pub. Magnum's has windows, but for some reason, the decorator decided to make high backs on the (very uncomfortable) benches so if you are sitting in one of the chairs opposite the bench, all you see is sky. One quiet place with a view is the library, but sssshhhh, must be quiet so this isn’t the place to gather for a nice, relaxing conversation with a fellow traveler. And it was always full...wonder why? Guess others wanted a quiet space apart from the bars! So, if you aren't eating in a restaurant/buffet, go outside, but the chairs aren’t too comfy. I think the ship could benefit by having groupings of comfortable seating with a view where one could read, enjoy a coffee or drink, without having to go to a bar or restaurant. RCL had this & it was really nice. The mustering exercise was useless. RCL’s was top-notch.
* Freestyle dining: NCL makes it sound so great, but everyone tends to want to eat at the same time so why not have assigned seating times to avoid rush times, relieve stress off the staff, etc.? Service staff friendly, but service is definitely slower during peak times. Plus, the atmosphere & ambience is so relaxed it seems to diminish the 'specialness' of cruising. Even though NCL pushes 'freestyle', & they have an 'optional' dress-up night, we saw a number of couples/families/individuals dressed up every evening. I think when people decide to go on a cruise, they want to dress up. We decided we weren't a fan of the freestyle dining.
* Restaurants w/surcharges: If you prefer dining in a more refined & quiet atmosphere, without a bunch of little ones running around, this may be a great option. These 'upscale' restaurants have a suggested dress code, but we never witnessed it being enforced so why have it? Baseball caps & flip-flops kind of ruin the ambience. In the end, it still rankles me that these options have a cover charge on top of the cost of the cruise itself. Perhaps all cruise lines do this these days??
* Food: HUGE disappointment. Average & sub-average are the best descriptors. Very institutional. I did expect (hope?) that on an Alaskan cruise, they would offer indigenous seafood ie. Salmon, halibut, king crab (the salmon offered was Atlantic salmon) but to no avail. Buffet is great if you want lots of options; wonderful for kids, teens & people who just have to have piles of food. We only did lunch here; the soups were consistently awful. Salad bar was passable. B-fast in Tsar's was consistently good. Tried the Irish pub for b-fast one day & lunch the day we boarded - ick. Avoid this place. And no Irish beer in an Irish pub?? Open dining rooms had a few items that changed daily, majority of the menu remained the same. Ho hum. Beware of the descriptions: Cherries Jubilee is nothing but vanilla ice cream with canned cherries (pie filling?) on top. Option: hit the paid dining restaurants for dinner. Quite a clever plan on NCL's part. Based on previous cruise experience, we opted not to purchase the paid restaurant dining package because cruise ships are known for their awesome food. Mistake. We ate at the French, Brazilian, and Japanese restaurants, with the best of those being the French Le Bistro. Food beautifully presented and prepared. Japanese (Benihana-style) was least favorite. Miso soup horrible, main meats overcooked, green tea dessert was yucky. Brazilian food decent, many options. None of the paid restaurants we went to rose to the standards of fine dining or what you think of when thinking of dining on a cruise ship. Good, certainly better than the buffet, but wonderful and delicious? Nope. If I went to them in my hometown, I wouldn't return. On RCL, I remember having wonderful midnight food buffets with beautiful fruit displays and carvings - nothing like that here. Also, restaurants have limited hours. Judging from other online reviews, it seems NCL is gaining a reputation for sub-par food.
* Staff & service: This is where the Jewel shines. Friendly, helpful, knowledgeable. Waitress in Le Bistro said she had been w/NCL 13 years; that says a lot about the organization.
*Final thoughts: Alaska is beautiful, people we talked with in shops & tour guides/leaders were very friendly & welcoming. The Jewel was very disappointing, average. You can't put a price on memories, but our experience on board the Jewel did not provide a good return on investment. We will not sail NCL again.