Well, we are back from another marvelous cruise. This was my 12th cruise, second cruise on NCL. I've sailed on all the major lines: Princess, Celebrity, HAL, Carnival, RCL of course Norwegian, and a few other now defunct lines. I often make comparisons because there are slight differences between them, however, a good cruise can be had on all of them. I'm often asked which line is my favorite. I don't really think I have one. Prior to this sailing I would've ranked the lines in this order RCL, Celebrity, Carnival, Princess, HAL, NCL. After this cruise I'd probably say RCL, Celebrity, Carnival, NCL, Princess, HAL. Overall it was a great cruise, a few plusses, a few minuses but nothing major. My reviews are always long. I try to provide a lot of detail because I get so much information while preparing for the trip that I want to give back and help future cruisers. I do try and organize by headings so that you can pick and choose what you want to read.
We arrived in Miami from Atlanta GA on Thanksgiving Day. We booked a room at the Hyatt Downtown. It was a very nice hotel, though the bathrooms were a bit dated. It was close to the ship and within walking distance of some Miami attractions. Since it was Thanksgiving we knew there wouldn't be much open, but there were a few places in Bayside Marketplace that were still open. Miami has a free monorail system that transports you around a very limited small center of downtown. So, we were able to find enough to keep us occupied. We shopped, relaxed and got ready to cruise.
We arrived at the pier around 11am. The cab ride cost about $20. We completed the advanced guest registration online so the process was pretty simple. We were asked to complete what I call the "Norovirus questionnaire". You have to certify that you aren't symptomatic before you embark. Then we went through security, to the desk to establish our onboard account and finally to take pictures. My father left his passport accidentally and he was denied boarding. He had to leave the pier and go to the passport agency a few blocks away and get a new emergency passport issued. They charged nearly $300 for this service. So everyone double check for those important documents. They mean it when they say you can't cruise without it. It was an expensive lesson in forgetfulness. Anyways, he got back to the ship about 20 minutes before it departed. He did get to sail with us but it was an unnecessary close call.
Throughout the review, I have lots of notes to parents of small children. Life changes when you have a child and there are so many different considerations and questions that we have now travelling with a baby. Hopefully these notes will help parents that may have some of the same concerns. There were several cabs that were reluctant to take us because we had a small child. They didn't seem to like the hassle of car seats, nor the time it took to insert them. I had heard from a few parents on this site that the cab driver turned them down if they didn't have a car seat. Please keep this in mind because I know there are parent that don't travel with their car seats. We purchased a Joeysafe Freedom Rider a few weeks before departure. They fold up and fit in a diaper bag so they are convenient and approved travel car devices. The cab drivers didn't seem to be receptive though. Some of their reluctance may be because it is a harness type restraint that adapts to an adult safety belt. Since they aren't accustomed to seeing them, they may have been concerned that it was an approved "seat". I had to convince them it was safe and approved.
I liked the Norwegian Jewel decor. I prefer contemporary modern dEcor so this was kind of right up my alley. Much better then the tacky color combinations of Carnival or the dull tones of HAL/Princess. The Jewel is a nice ship, well maintained. As usual you could find someone polishing, cleaning, or touch up painting.
We have sailed in everything from an inside to a suite. As long as we are on the ship its all good to us. This cruise we originally booked an inside cabin and were upgraded to an oceanview. Outstanding! It is rare to receive an upgrade of so many categories. This happened the last time I was on NCL. So I have to give them the edge when it comes to upgrades.
Entertainment was a mixed bag. I really did not like the first show "Big Band". I found myself wanting to walk out. On the other hand Cirque Bijou was terrific. Definitely one of the better shows I've seen at sea. I didn't care much for either of the comedy shows I went to. I was also disappointed with the CSI activity. I went to the first one thinking that it would be a mock/interactive crime scene that we would have to solve. It wasn't . It turned out that it was a lecture about the cast members etc. So I was extremely disappointed. There were plenty of people who appeared to enjoy it though. On the Jewel there was almost always something to do, however, not always something I wanted to do. This is really where I feel Carnival and RCL have the edge. On Carnival and particularly RCL's mega ships, there were often so many things I wanted to do that I was struggling to do everything before the cruise ended. Not the case on the Jewel. We often found very little to do after 10pm, particularly since there was no true "night club" on this ship. I also missed some of the more educational activities that Princess and HAL excel in. They often have cooking classes/photography and investment activities, above and beyond the standard activities found on cruises.
Pre-cruise I read a lot of reviews about this ship. Service was often criticized. I found service to be on par with most of the other major cruise lines. It's no Celebrity cruise, but the majority of the staff was friendly and kind. I think particularly because I was travelling with my 1 yr old, the staff really seemed to adore small children. By the end of the cruise she had made more new friends then we had. ? The fee restaurants had excellent service.
My daughter wasn't old enough to attend the regular kids activities. The minimum age is 2 yrs. However, I did love the fact that they had the "under 2 zoo". Parents had to stay as it was unsupervised, but there was a designated area with age appropriate toys. There never seemed to be more than one other child there at a time, so it wasn't crowded. My only criticism was that they seldom seemed to have the toys ready on time. I usually had to go up to the kids area and remind them it was time to set it up. Other than that the under 2 zoo was great. They seem to need more toys though. I wish I had known. I would have brought some of my daughter's old baby toys from home and donated them to the ship. Also, on port days, if there were no older children in the camp, we were able to use the jungle gym and the rubber mat play area.
I also loved the Kids Cafe. I thought this was a great idea. Child sized tables, chairs, always juice available, separate buffet full of child friendly foods. Since we were surrounded by other families no one stared when your kid cried or babbled. Snaps to Norwegian for having this.
I was really reluctant to cruise NCL again. My first NCL cruise I thought the food was horrible. So, I went with low expectations and I was surprised. The first two nights we were in Azure and Tsars. The food was better than I remembered, decent but not great. Thereafter, we ate mostly in the Garden Cafe. Not only was there a great variety, I felt the food was slightly better and it was definitely friendlier to kids. My biggest criticism was the lack of juice, lemonade, sweet tea during the day. I found myself missing the constant lemonade available on Carnival. I was also disappointed with the sandwich deli, another thing Carnival does well. The pizza on the Jewel was awful. There is no pie like a Princess Pie, the best pizza at sea. I can't say much for the soups or desserts either, as I went the entire cruise and never found a single soup or dessert worth raving about. (Until Cagney's)
NCL Freestyle/Fee Restaurants
We tried a few of the fee restaurants while onboard: Tango's- the food was great Chin Chin- the food was even better Cagney's - definitely the best meal that I had the entire cruise. The service/food quality made it well worth the $20.
What I didn't like about the fee restaurants is that in addition to the cover charge there were certain entrees that they charged an additional fee. I wished it had been a flat fee to order what you want. If Norwegian can't make it for the cover charge price put it on the menu in another restaurant with a higher fee. It adds to the sense of being nickled and dimed to death. Unfortunately, that is becoming more and more popular on lines today.
Tsar's was designated as the dress up restaurant, ideally for those who don't like dining with people who aren't dressed up. However, I'm not sure how well this works because there was such a wide range of what is considered "dress up". If you expect everyone to be in a tux or cocktail dress you will be disappointed.
I did have a new appreciation for Freestyle Dining this cruise. I use to value getting dressed up every night. Now that I have a toddler who spills food and melts down. I frequently felt like it wasn't worth the hassle. It was nice to not worry that we were running behind schedule and keeping a whole table of dinner mates waiting. We never made a reservation the entire cruise, including at the fee restaurants. We just showed up and never waited longer than 5-10 minutes for a table. I can see why NCL does have a loyal following. For more casual, laid back cruisers you can't beat this system.
Ports of Call
Samana, Dominican Republic
I was extremely frustrated while planning activities for this port. There was little information out there for independent tour takers. We don't like to take ship excursions and because this is an up and coming port, was hard to find. I found the following vendors:
-Cruisesamana.com-Only books through the ship/would not book with independent groups
-Casadoradodr.com- had fishing, diving,snorkeling, beach and whale watching excursions only
-Bavarorunners.com-never responded to my e-mail, but I got the impression that their tours departed from another city in the DR.
-Finally we found MStours at samana.net/ms-tours They had the jeep tour we wanted, $65pp, responded to our e-mails, and they would let us bring our toddler. The only problem was they required a minimum of 4 people and we couldn't get two more who were interested. They also offered the Limon Waterfall/horseback tour $55 and Los Haitses National Park $75pp
So in the end we didn't pre-book anything and took our chances at the pier. Despite the many warnings that you must book a ship tour in this port. We still didn't listen. Yet this ended up being one of our favorite ports. When we got off the ship there were independent vendors trying to get you to take their tours. Since the jeep tour was not one of the options available, our plan B was the horseback hike to El Limon. The only drawback is that the prices were based upon 8pp on the tour. They will take you with fewer people but you will pay the same price as if were 8. So it is in your best interest to get as close to 8 as possible. We stood at the pier for about 1/2 hour helping the tour guide round up other cruise passengers to go. We ended up paying about $20pp for the exact same tour that the cruise ship offers for $79 Matter of fact, we ran into one of the ship tours while we were there. It was about a 1/2 hr ride to the ranch. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country and you get to see part of the island en route.
Once at the ranch, there is a store and a restaurant. You could either walk to the falls (free, just tip the guide) or go on horseback $10pp plus tip for the guide. Part of our group hiked on foot (myself included) the other part chose to go on horseback behind us. Even though we walked there were a few guides who walked with extra horses beside us the entire way. I guess they thought we wouldn't make it or would change our minds but we made it the entire way. My husband and I love to hike so this was a doable trail. It took a little over an hour to walk (one-way) to the falls. Note: I do not recommend walking to the falls if you are not an active person. It was muddy, very muddy in places, some steep hills, sharp curves, uneven terrain, and slippery areas. This is not a paved path like you'd find in a park. There was also a stream you had to cross (water was about mid-calf). We did choose to ride the horse over the stream. It was a very nice view along the way. Once your get there at the top of the falls you have the option of paying $2 admission to continue to hike down to the base were you can swim or you can sit at the hut and wait for the other members in your party. This is where we split from the horseback riders. They took one trail and the hikers took the stairs. Wow! My stair master had nothing on this climb. They were steep, slippery and numerous. I work out 2-3x's a week and I was breathing hard climbing back up these stairs. The falls were beautiful we didn't get in the water we just took photos and climbed back up. On the way back we did ride the horses. They charge the same $10pp fee if you wanted to ride back. We were running short on time and were afraid we would have to cut the rest of the tour short, so we all decided to ride back. I was more afraid of the horse then I was on foot. At least I can be sure of my own footing. When we were rounding the steep, narrow turns, the horse brought a new level of fear. The ride back cut the time in half. When we got back to our taxi driver, he cleaned our shoes for us then we were ready to go. He took us around to see a little more of the island and then dropped us off at the shops near the ship.
I can see why an unprepared cruiser could be disappointed in this port. It is probably near a mile walk to any real souvenir type shops. If you don't have an activity planned you will be bored.
A note to parents of small children: There are so few tours that allow you to bring a small child because of liability reasons. There are no age restrictions if you do this on your own. There was a cruiser we passed on the trail who was riding horseback with a small child maybe 2-3yrs old. I wouldn't have felt comfortable with my tot on the horse but I may have hiked with her in one of the kid carrying backpacks. This excursion we choose to leave my toddler with her grandparents. We weren't sure what the hike would be like. Having taken the trip my husband thought it would have been safe to hike with her. I have mixed feelings. It is definitely too long of a hike for young child to walk the whole way. However, if you can carry via backpack or have a child who is old enough to stay away from the edges, or ride the horse than I would give it a go. Please don't be afraid or stay on the ship and miss this beautiful port.
While I was in Samana I got the names and prices of other tours available at the pier to help other travelers like myself who were desperate to find useful info in Samana. This is a list of the tours and prices posted by the pier when we debarked. I'm sure you can probably arrange other things privately with the taxi driver.
Samana Independent tours: Keep in mind that these prices are based on up to 8 people per van. You will pay the same price for 1 person as you will if you take 8 people.
Playa del Rincon $170 Las Galeras $140 Cascada del Limon $140 Las Terrenas $170 El Valle $140
A note about safety: I also read so many reviews that warned cruisers to stay on the ship, that this port was unsafe, particularly to those who ventured out independently. There was never a point on this tour when I wished I had stayed on the ship nor when I felt unsafe. I always take those comments with a grain of salt. I often wonder if people who say things like this are from small or rural towns. We live in the suburbs of Atlanta. What we saw wasn't much different than what you'd see downtown in any major city. We were approached by kids trying to sell us shells but they were no where near as aggravating as the hair braiders in Nassau or the vendors in Jamaica. I really enjoyed this excursion, and would do it again, including the hike.
Tortola, Virgin Islands
We went to the Baths of Virgin Gorda on our own. For me this was the highlight of the cruise. You have probably never done anything like this and I felt it was well worth the time and effort. We arrived probably shortly before 10am by the time we cleared customs and were able to debark it was around 10:15. You can walk to the ferry. It appeared to be about 1/2 mile or so, but we took a cab. The cab to the ferry was $3pp. Since we just missed the 10:30 ferry (it was pulling off as we were exiting the cab,) we waited around on Tortola until noon. We explored the downtown area and the shops to pass the time. At noon we hopped the ferry. They have had a price change. It was $30pp ($20pp for seniors). The ferry ride lasted about 45 min. When we arrived there were taxi's waiting. We negotiated $3pp with another couple from the ship. We took a cab to the Baths. There was probably about a 10-15 minute ride. The driver waited for us and told us we could pay him on the way back. There was a $3 admission fee to the Baths. We crawled, climbed and slid our way through. It was awesome. In my opinion this is a not to be missed experience. We got all the way through the Devils Bay Beach stayed a few minutes and it was time to make the trek back to meet the cab. I wished we had caught the 10:30 ferry because my only complaint was that we were really rushed. We didn't have any real beach time. There was just enough time to see it, experience it and move on. Our cab driver was waiting for us as promised and we went back to the ship on the 3:30 ferry. We got back to the ship around 4:15-4:30 with time to spare. It was a great day.
A note to parents of small children I was concerned whether I could take my toddler through the Baths. We did and it was not a problem at all. We hiked down with her in the Kelty backpack carrier but we quickly found that we couldn't keep her in it. There were many tiny crevices when it wasn't high enough to carry her through on back pack. In these places I went through and my husband passed her to me or vice versa.
This is a much more developed port. There were plenty of shops within walking distance of the ship. We elected to take an independent city tour. We hired a tour guide right off the pier. We met another pair who were waiting for a tour also and joined with them. We got a 3hr tour of the island for $20pp. We stopped at Nelson's Dockyard and Shirley Heights. Unless you are a history buff, I doubt you will see the significance of either of these stops. Basically its just a nice view. I found myself wishing we had gone on the opposite side of the island and done Devils Bridge instead. We also passed through Fig Tree Drive rainforest, which was scenic but again nothing you can't miss.
This was our third visit to Barbados. So we kind of have been there done that for most of the islands major attractions. I wanted to take the photography tour but I couldn't find enough people who were interested. So, we ended up hiring a guide to take us to tour the west side of Barbados. It was the only area we hadn't seen yet. We drafted other cruisers waiting for a tour at the dock and we negotiated $15pp for a 3hr tour. There really wasn't much on the west side. We stopped at historic St James Church and a few other scenic places for photos.
We met with many other cruise critics and took the Cosol tour. We paid $55 for the tour but some people were given a price of $65. Apparently they are raising the price, so future cruisers take notice. I had made arrangements for Cosol to provide a car seat. They did not bring it. That upset me a bit because I had to hold her the entire way. Being a safety person, I would have preferred to have her in a seat. Besides, I would have brought my Joeysafe if I had known that they wouldn't come through. In my opinion this tour is over hyped. I had high expectations. I suppose because of all of the reviews given here. It was a nice tour, and for all of the places we went to you can't beat the price, however, I didn't think it was quite up to the hype. We drove through Castries, many scenic overlook spots for photos, passed by the Governor's Mansion, the banana plantation, several fishing villages and Soufriere. We also stopped at the Toraille waterfall and its botanical garden. Sulphur Springs drive in volcano, viewed the Pitons and tasted lots of native treats along the way. There was also an optional boat that you could take to Jalousie Beach (sailing past the Pitons) for swimming and snorkeling. We opted not to go because I was uncomfortable taking my toddler on such a small boat but the other cruisers said it was great. We waited at a different beach that had a restaurant and souvenir shop until the others returned.
So there it is. Our trip in review! If you are still awake ? feel free to ask questions.
P.S Other useful tidbits
Washer/Dryers are no more. Norwegian is phasing them out of their vessels and they were not accessible for our sailing.
Photos $15 for a 5x7, $20 for embarkation photos $25 for 8x10's the most expensive at sea.