Why we booked:
Booked this when we saw the very good promotional rates ($550 credit per cabin!) and having had a good NCL experience before. We found that NCL had the ability to book adjoining mini-suites with a door in between which suited our family holiday perfectly. The Kids Club took children from 2 as well so we thought this might suit our son.
We got in to Barcelona the day before and I can't recommend it enough. We had spent time before there but do extend your time as it's very well worth it. The boarding process was very smooth and easy, and when we got on we were directed to the buffet outside for lunch. This was a good introduction to NCL Jade food- not very good at all! More to come on this shortly. We got into our rooms at 2pm promptly which was great.
The mini-suites are wonderful for our needs with a toddler. It was a wonderfully comfortable room with a curtain that pulls out between the 'sitting space' and the main bed, which gave us great space for when my son was napping and sleeping. The mini-suites had doors that opened between inside and on the balconies as well which was great for socializing as my parents were next door (don't worry, this is optional!). The rooms were very spacious and well fitted, and my parents, having been inside room cruisers were thoroughly impressed. The staff came soon and got my son's cot sorted as well with plenty of room.
Well, we are 'young' cruisers (31) and I don't think the look and feel of these boats is going to get folks our age onboard. Many people our age consider cruising tacky for a reason, and the decor of these boats was fairly typical of that. The splashy HI theme was out of place in Europe and the decor was such a let down in the common areas after the cabins.
I appreciated that despite the boat's size we did get to know staff over the course of the cruise. I actually felt the staff went out of the way to know my son's name and greet him very warmly across the cruise. Folks were generally very friendly when we were with him, though we had some rather surly staff in dining areas as well, especially when out just as adults. ~Our cabin steward was very accommodating and really was great with my son and making special touches (he loves his monkey!) that meant a lot.
Eeeek! Well, the good news is you don't need to put on weight. In general I found the food to be of very poor quality. It was generally hot (an issue reported previously mentioned) but was very uninspired. I'd liken it most closely to mid-range hotel buffet food. It was generally very over-salted, skimpy on nicer items (mini scallops had us all laughing), and often times poorly cooked (e.g., inedible lobster tail and salmon). Deserts were generally the strongest course. We ate at the Alizar as it's a bit smaller than the Pacific dining area. One other frustration was that any extra items (e.g. lemons for water) would often need chasing up. We paid for one meal at the teppanyaki which was good and enjoyable entertainment too. Also ate at 'blue lagoon' which is a good breakfast/lunch alternative.
The buffet upstairs was only used by us for breakfast primarily and was standard breakfast fare. Key is timing it right as it can get crowded and aggressive with other guests getting pushy at times. Wouldn't bother with room service for breakfast given limited menu and terrible coffee. Ah, the chocolate buffet is truly a site to see so worth going.
Entertainment and other facilities:
We loved the Second City folks, they were really great (especially their improv part in the 2nd hour) and were genuinely engaged in their shows and having fun. This was a high point for the boat piece. We peaked in at some other shows (marionettes, Smoky Joe, opera singer, flamenco) and they were all of solid quality, with the exception of the flamenco. Would agree with other comments that the events onboard were fairly limited and overly 'pay-based' in focus. The dancing band options were fine but not really our thing, and an earlier (pre 11 pm) DJ option would have been very welcomed.
The gym was very well equipped though I found their 'free' classes to be of mixed quality and rather awkward timing. The fact they were running pay classes given how few free ones were made available seemed pretty silly. Not sure what the gym folks do all day either as they were never in the gym to help.
The room service is a great help with kids, and the Kids Club was enjoyed by our son. He had never been in group childcare but happily went to play along with the other little ones there. It's nice as it's quite enclosed as well (good for nervous parents) and the beeper system for diapers worked very smoothly. The staff were fairly young 'camp counselor' types, typical of resorts. Nearby was a small kiddie pool good for little ones, but rather stupidly they put the smoker area right by this. Truly was mind-boggling as he loved the pool but was difficult to breathe well.
We ran right on schedule for the cruise which was great, and easily managed to find our own way at all the ports. At Casablanca we arranged a private tour which worked out well, but honestly you could keep it more low-key and just hit the medina and mosque. Agadir was okay as a beach stop as well, but highlights for us were definitely Madeira (so lovely!) and Malaga (Picasson museum).
Overall we had a lovely holiday and appreciated how hard the staff work (and how hard the work is!). NCL Freestyle remains the best cruising system for our needs, yet doesn't at this point provide the quality we'd hope for in some key areas of a vacation (specifically the food, overabundance of pay add ons, and more 'cheesy' cruise items).