Six of us -- all close friends -- traveled together on the Norwegian Jewel ... an adventure for us New Englanders eager to take a respite from the snow and ice and cold of the season. We wanted to relax and enjoy a stress-free vacation in the Caribbean, and the concept of free-style cruising really appealed to us. We were not disappointed.
We flew into Miami a day in advance and settled into the three adjoining rooms we had booked at the Embassy Suites Hotel. It's a beautiful hotel with all the amenities --including a rainforest-like atrium, a water fall, koi fish swimming lazily around in a free-form pond, a large outdoor swimming pool, exercise room, and free internet! Our experience there was extremely pleasant, though if you sit pool side airplanes take off overhead with ear-numbing regularity. Inside the hotel the noise is almost non-existent and even outside, you get used to it. The staff was excellent, from the Hotel Manager, Juan Carlos, to everyone on down the line. We grabbed a free hotel shuttle to the hotel from the airport and were delighted with our driver, Arturo, who took us under his wing and recommended an exemplary Cuban restaurant (La Rosa) for our dining pleasure that night. Orlando was the concierge who greeted us when we came in with true warmth and hospitality. The young women at the desk who quickly checked us in were lovely as well. Tamara too, was helpful as we ate our breakfast and checked in and out.
Shortly after we arrived, we wanted to grab a drink at the bar which wasn't open yet and we managed to track down Sylvia Bianco, who obviously had some clout, who welcomed us in and got us our drinks with a smile. Upon our return to Miami from the nine-day cruise, we stopped again at the Embassy Suites and found the experience excellent yet again. By the way, the hotel offers a delicious breakfast and, in the late afternoon, a free manager's cocktail hour which we very much appreciated. It's all part of the cruise package and we felt we got more than our money's worth.
The Norwegian Jewel is just that -- a handsome, , sparkling, well cared for floating hotel. We had three adjoining mini-suites that were very comfortable, clean and well designed. Our decks each had doors that opened onto each other and two of the rooms had an inside door that opened between the two rooms, so we felt very connected. The accommodations provided us with plenty of space to store our clothing and gear and also the large and comfortable bed was high enough to allow for the storage of our suitcases underneath.
The NCL Jewel arranged for a meet and greet for Cruise Critic members and we were all really impressed that officers and key staff -- including Captain Constantinos Fafalios, Scott Hamby, Hotel Director and Matthias Holz, Assistant Hotel Director, came by to say hello and answer any questions we had. They were most gracious to do so.
A couple of things we didn't like: the two pools are relatively small for the number of people they are supposed to accommodate and the rush for deck chairs -- particularly during the three days at sea -- was pretty disconcerting. We spent the better part of one afternoon just trying to locate chairs on the upper decks -- forget about the pool deck -- and saw stacks of them stowed away on an upper deck but could find no one to pull six out for us. Additionally, during the first two days, we would see used glasses and plates and silverware left behind on the upper decks. We were surprised that staff didn't come and collect them. On the second to the last day, one of the busiest days at the pool, the waterfall -- which we assumed helps circulate the water and was aesthetically pleasing -- stopped working and didn't come on again for the rest of the cruise.
Something we really liked: the emphasis on cleanliness. Everyone seemed very conscious of hygiene, no one could walk into the Garden Cafe without getting a squirt of disinfectant spray on their hands and globes of germ-killing gel stood at sentry everywhere - in front of the elevators, at the entrance of every restaurant and eating place, etc. Good for NCL!
Service Exemplary! Our room steward, Indra, his assistant Joe, and the room service folks, particularly Jameah, were so warm and welcoming and anxious to please. Indra's gift of turning ordinary towels into art by crafting them into animal shapes was a total delight for us. We found welcoming towel creatures on our beds each night.
We got to know members of the staff, including Scott Hamby, the hotel director, and Matthias Holz, the assistant hotel director, our concierge, Alex Forbes, each of whom made our voyage delightful and memorable. We loved the multicultural aspect of the staff and enjoyed our interactions with them all.
We were impressed in discovering that most of the NCL crew and staff were long-time employees, many of them indicating to us that they'd been working for NCL for 10 and 20 years. That spoke volumes to us. If the staff and crew is happy, changes are their guests will be too.
We booked our own, based on recommendations on Cruise Critic and they were fantastic. One of our party did all the research and found the best of the best to show us around.
We spent the day in Samana on the ship since we heard that the whale watching frequently involved riding through rough seas. On Tortola, the six of us hired a cab and drove around the island seeing the sights then had a wonderful lunch and did some shopping at Pusser's. In Antigua, Keba from Carl's Premier Tours, picked us up at the dock for a mini island tour with stops at Devil's Bridge, Shirleys Heights and transport to the Grand Pineapple Beach Resort. We enjoyed an all inclusive amenities/services day pass at that beautiful resort. Keba was a most congenial and knowledgeable tour guide.
Stephen Tryhane's "Thriller Turtle Tour" was a real highlight for us. We booked a private snorkeling tour and departed from dock next to the Waterfront Café @ 10:30 a.m. for a day that included snorkeling at three different locations, a beach stop, snorkeling gear, soda, beer and rum punch and a full lunch. Stephen and his assistant Matthew were just great. We'd recommend them any time.
On St. Lucia, we opted for a private Cosol island tour -- 5 hours of bliss including stops at the waterfall, volcano, botanical garden, Marigot Bay, fishing village, banana plantation, beach, shopping and a break at the Hilton Jalousie Hotel, located with breathtaking beauty between the Pitons.
Overall, our dining experience was excellent. We particularly enjoyed Cagney's Steak House, Mama's Italian (great Pizza!) and Azura, but the highlight of our dining adventure on board was Le Bistro. Horace was our waiter, Julia Vaild was his assistant, and Damodar Bandodkar was the assistant Maitre'd and they offered five-star service. The Garden Cafe was ideal for breakfasts (wonderful selection and delectable, strong coffee!) and poolside lunches. The food was delicious and plentiful and for all of us who are weight conscious, healthfully prepared. Lots of fresh fruit available all the time was a most welcome treat.
We didn't like: the skimpy drinks at poolside and at the restaurants. For the price, we expected generously mixed drinks. They weren't. Also, in the Stardust Theater and by the pools, the waiters are too aggressive in selling drinks.
The Jean Ann Ryan production people were awesome. The big shows, particularly "Band on the Run" and "Cirque Bijou" - an amazing gravity defying show -- were a feast for the eyes and ears. "Second City" was a treat as well. The talent booked on the ship was really excellent, including Wendy Allyn, who sang Reggae and standards at pool side in a most pleasing voice.
Disembarkation It was a piece of cake. Well organized and painless, the ultimate ending to a delightful cruise. Would we cruise again with NCL? You bet!