This was our 9th NCL cruise, the second using NCL's open seating, and our second trip to Alaska. The ship is beautiful, looks spanking new and clean, and is very well maintained. Staterooms were relatively roomy and well appointed. Our rooms were always made up nicely and an extra touch of towel sculptures (a towel shaped into an animal likeness sitting on our bed when we returned from dinner) was very nice; for the first time, however, we never met our room steward (in the past they have made a point of being around to introduce themselves at least once).
The restaurant food was excellent as was the buffet food (breads and pastries were the best I've had on cruise)-- plenty of selections and the quality was always there. What was not there was service. While we had some excellent waiters and met some excellent dining room supervisors(the circumstances I'll describe in a moment)the general trend was that wait staff was unimpressive -- disinterested, impersonal, and not inclined toward the "pamper you" style of service. The buffet would have been a great alternative if it had not been for the crowds (during prime meal time) which meant that after you navigated the buffet area with your plate in hand, you would usually spend at least 5 minutes searching for an empty table, even for one or two people. When you found the empty table, it could be a long way from the buffet serving area, so if you wanted to go back for seconds, it could easily take 5 minutes to go back and forth.
After three bad dining experiences in the first few meals aboard (including a dinner, lunch, and breakfast), I asked the front desk, on Tuesday morning, for an appointment with the hotel manager (who had been at our Cruise Critic "Meet and Greet" on Monday and told us to contact him if we needed anything (the Captain was also at that "Meet and Greet" and he was very personable). Within half an hour, there was a message on my room phone to call the desk, and I was offered an appointment within ten minutes of my return to the room.
I met with Michael and he had invited Jorge, the restaurant manager to meet with us as well. I told the specifics of my story to the two of them, and they listened quietly and patiently, and then agreed that what happened, should not have happened, and they were apologetic and determined to make it right for me and my party (totaling 8). We were offered a free meal in one of the specialty restaurants for dinner, and they provided also a free bottle of wine for the table, and also a free breakfast at the fancy steak house specialty restaurant. In addition, Jorge gave me his ship phone number and told me to call him about any future reservations for the main restaurants and he said he would make sure we were well cared for. And we were!
From that point on, when we mentioned to the restaurant greeter that we had a reservation, giving our room number, it was like the clouds parted and sun shined on our heads, and people fell all over themselves to see we were pampered. I don't think we had a meal after that where we didn't get a visit from at least two dining supervisors, and on two occasions Jorge himself came down to talk to us at our table. I don't think other cruisers were getting quite this level of service and obviously my complaint was clearly heard and dealt with. I only wish I hadn't had to complain at all -- this was the first time in 13 cruises that I have ever felt the need to complain.
Embarkation was very easy, and disembarkation was very easy with NCL's new "Bags" program where, for an extra charge of $20 a head, they took your bags, on the last night, from the hallway outside the door, and checked them through to your final airline destination -- and our bags actually showed up when we got to our home airport! Very nice and worth the money to avoid the usual hassle.
The itinerary was great and the ship was on time for all ports and things were well coordinated for going ashore.
Entertainment was super, as it always has been on NCL cruises. The dance group was nicely supplemented by two performers who hung from suspended loops and fabrics and did acrobatics. The comedian was great, and a comedy juggling team was very entertaining, and a four person a cappella (spelling is probably wrong) group was very, very good. Unfortunately, there was often crowding and lack of space in the venues used when only one show was put on. The cruise director was funny but hyperactive.
The casino was standard fare, but usually very smoky. Shopping facilities on board were very nice. The sports program was good and the work-out room was very well fitted out. We never used the Spa.
We thought drinks were too expensive this time around, perhaps inflation has left us behind, but the $10 for the fancy drinks (who can have a cruise without having a pina colada) was high enough to cut down on what we usually drink.
We still like NCL but we do prefer standard cruise dinner seating both for the socialization with newly met people, but mostly for the relationship with the waiter and busboy who come to anticipate your needs and likes, and usually strive to do the "pampering" I have come to expect on a cruise. I did like not having to wear suit and tie for dinner, though, but it is a sacrifice I'd willingly make for the old time good service, and may well go to another cruise line to get.
Perhaps if the servers had a large identifying number on their name badge, there could be some system to report exceptional service, good or bad, and that might lead to some motivation, otherwise absent, for the servers if management used the feedback to "adjust" the tips we were pretty much forced to pay for what would have been poor service had I not made the complaint, or so it appears to me as I reflect now. I hope this helps both NCL and other cruisers. (If you want to use the buffet, go early or late).