We sailed on the 9 day Jan 25th Caribbean Cruise ex Miami. We are a married couple and this was our 5th cruise (4 NCL, 1 Celebrity). The ship was not full, anecdotally about 75% full which meant plenty of space generally and no bookings required for restaurants other than the free Italian one. The main pool areas were often over crowded and it seems for tropical cruises there is far too little poolside seating, might not be an issue on Alaska cruises. Age ranges was kids to seniors.
The ship is only a year old and is as you would expect in beautiful condition. Whilst some of the colors chosen are very bright they are in keeping with a fun atmosphere. If this is your first cruise I think you would find it a great choice and would thoroughly enjoy the experience and it would be a good ship to have a first cruise on. The specialty restaurants noted below are well worth paying for.
The Captain was often wandering around and gave good commentaries on the PA system. He described everything as "smashing", the irony of his choice of words was lost on him I think. He backed the ship into the very tight harbor at St Lucia and later said it was the first time anyone had backed a cruise ship in.
On the tour front we only did one tour, not through the ship. We did the Cosol tour in St Lucia, recommended widely in reviews and it was outstanding. Modern air conditioned vans with ample room. The tour fee is a real steal at US$50 per person. Its 5 to 6 hours and you only pay in cash at the end of the tour. It visits the Toraille waterfall, botanical garden, volcano, Marigot bay, fishing villages, banana plantation, shopping, beach and snorkeling at the Hilton Jalousie Hotel that is located between the Pitons and many more things on the way.
Cosol pays all the entrance fees. There is lots to see, lots to do, lots of local fruit and food to sample and hot fresh bread and cheese for lunch, all included in the price! At several stops Cosol has free drinks including bottled water, rum punch, local beers and soda and a wild straight rum at the end (a must try). The tour leaves at 8:30am and he has a sign with ("COSOL"). Bring along your camera, swimsuit and snorkeling gears. If you have any more queries call him on his cell (758) 7196697 or visit his website at cosol-tours.com.
For experienced cruisers I feel if you have travelled on NCL previously, or compare it to other lines like Celebrity the food will be a disappointment. The many comments on forums about the standard of food decreasing appear well founded.
It seemed to me that the level of food in the main dining rooms was substantially reduced from previous NCL trips and Le Bistro was to a standard similar to NCL's main dining rooms previously and not at all the elegant experience we had found it previously. We made two reservations and cancelled the second after eating there.
On the positive side it seemed to me that the buffet had been substantially upgraded over previous ships, Cagney's was great and the Teppanyaki, Shabu Shabu and the Lotus Asian Fusion food were all excellent and were well worth paying the surcharges.
The service in comparison to previous trips was a bit erratic. Some staff were superb but others clearly disinterested and somewhat perfunctory. I think the $10 per day which used to go to staff and be described as a gratuity now is a mandatory charge and a "portion" goes to the staff meaning NCL keeps some or most of it. With 2,500 passengers at $10 each its almost $250,000 on a 9 day cruise so you can see why NCL would want to keep the fee for itself. Certainly across the board service was not what it has been previously on NCL ships and a lot worse than Celebrity.
Many people had smuggled liquor on board. We did not but the ways were very ingenious and only one person said they had a bottle taken off them (and returned at the end of the cruse). Amusingly they had two in their bag and only lost one, so were well pleased.
Constant nickel and diming by NCL was a recurring comment from many on the cruise and has been mentioned in forums. Comments ranged from reducing the beverages available to charging excessive prices for bottled water and the loss of beach towels plus everything else you can imagine. I personally found the constant barrage of retail offers for jewelry, art, spas, bingo and everything else to be constantly irritating and far more excessive than previous cruises. At least 5 pieces of junk mail a day in the room was typical. Plus sometimes being accosted on the gangplank with jewelry deals. In the same vein not being unable to disembark without running the photographers gauntlet was irritating and often caused delays in disembarking at ports and seemed to generate a lot of ill will for little financial gain to NCL.
By my guess NCL gets about 40% of its revenue from nickel and diming so I don't expect any improvement any time soon. So you should probably allow 50% over the headline price of a cruise to be the real price and if you don't pay that much consider you have done well.
The airline industry has eviscerated and commoditised itself for over 20 years now without recognizing customer loyalty and the benefit to customers of under promising and over delivering. I cant imagine NCL learning the same lesson other than the hard way which means plenty of last minute bargains will be had until the industry is forced to consolidate to survive.
Once its fully commoditised itself (and it seems NCL will be the cheer leader and poster boy of this silly process) the smart cruise lines will recognize that the 80:20 rule probably applies to cruisers and hopefully treat their customers better.
In passing despite 3 previous NCL cruises, two in suites we have never had a newsletter, letter or any follow up. The marketing (at least to those who live outside the US) doesn't seem to be a priority to NCL. After the first couple of cruises we wrote and asked but never heard back so gave up.
Another comment I heard a couple of times was that the prices dropped and those who had paid earlier were not allowed by NCL to pay the lower prices. Their only option was to forfeit their deposit and they would not be allowed to re-book. In one case someone paid $1,000 more than the later discounted price, and were understandably aggrieved.
We booked only a few weeks before departure and were not affected. The bottom line seems to be pay early and have certainty or wait till the last minute to book and possibly get a bargain but don't expect both.
Finally we had a Garden Villa and I imagine some people will be interested in knowing is it worth it. I would say yes with some caveats. The price we paid was apparently discounted, we didn't know that when we booked. It cost about 60% over a balcony cabin.
The cabin was large and elegant, nice to sit in the bath and watch the world go by. The service was poor, the butler did the bare minimum begrudgingly the concierge tried to avoid the passengers altogether. I wont identify them in case NCL reads this. You could have restaurant meals around the pool or in your room which was nice. There was also fruit and coffee in the mornings by the pool and juice and cookies during the day.
The best part was the pool and jacuzzi. Outstanding. Frequently we had it to ourselves, it was never crowded, always plenty of seating and an upstairs sun deck was always deserted, 50 seats/loungers/beds and never more than 5 used. As a caveat we heard the cruise before us had lots of kids and the pool area was chaos, so I'd avoid school vacations! It had a glass roof which was closed when it rained and open when not making it an excellent all weather feature.
Overall it was a good cruise, some niggles but still a good cruise. For the future I'm not sure we would go NCL again. We might but Celebrity (for us) was a lot better and we hear good things about other lines so will shop around and choose by route and value over the cruise line. It seemed a lot worse on the food and service side than previous NCL cruises and I cant see that will change anytime soon.