Let me preface this review with a few notes. First, the only reason that we took this cruise with NCL was because we had a fairly generous peace offering from NCL due to our first experience with them on the Sky in its first month of operation in the Bahamas. (We did them a favor and did not review this cruise, but if you check out reviews from the same timeframe you will get the idea.) Second, I have only ever cruised on NCL, this one and the Sky. My boyfriend on the other hand has cruised on Carnival and Princess in prior years.
DISEMBARKATION: There was a little bit of a line and for the first time we had to fill out health certification forms, I'm guessing these are more for liability purposes than public safety as the representative who took our forms did not even read them. I will say though that the process was fairly smooth, we had our bags dropped off and made it through the check-in process in about 30-45 minutes…not too bad at all. We were greeted in Norwegian style with a glass of champagne and an invitation to wander the ship while we waited for the cabins to be prepared.
SHIP: The ship is quite nice, a little garish in places, but altogether bright and happy. I do have to say, I found this ship difficult to navigate, in a five-day cruise I never got quite comfortable finding my way around. The main attractions are split between two areas in the ship. Everything important indoors is on 6 and 7 and everything important outdoors is on 12 and 13…that makes for a lot of stair climbing! The biggest frustration on the ship was probably the elevators, by the end of the first day my calves were burning from the frequent trips up and down the stairs. I believe in the five days we took the elevator twice. Norwegian has done a great job updating and rehabbing their ships but this is the second time the elevators were woefully inadequate.
I'm not quite sure where this belongs but I do have to mention that the first night/day of the cruise was quite rough. According to our TVs the ocean was "moderate" but the ship was pitching and rolling like nothing I've ever felt. I heard several passengers (including my boyfriend) say that this was the rockiest ship they'd ever experienced. One woman said she'd been on a cruise where they encountered 15 foot waves and it wasn't as bad as this one. That being said the crew handed out motion sickness pills (very effective) and it improved the following day. The only thing my boyfriend and I could guess was that they didn't want to expend the extra fuel to turn on the stabilizers—if this is true I would highly recommend that the next time NCL spend the extra money!
SERVICE: Contrary to some previous reviewers we found the staff to be excellent. Everyone greeted us with a smile and a hello, our cabin assistant was fantastic, he checked on us, asked about our excursions and always had the room in the most organized state he could manage given our belongings were strewn all over the place. Also, the service in the "free" restaurants was also quite good, our server at Azura let us in on a wine transfer service that we had no idea about. We ordered a bottle of wine at Azura and could not finish it, rather than waste the rest, he had it transferred to Cagney's for our meal the following night. This was consistent throughout the ship, I had no complaints about the service, on an individual level, throughout the entire cruise.
FOOD: I've read everything from the best to the worst on Norwegian's food. I'm going to land somewhere in the middle on this one. The breakfast food is very good, standard fare, but very good. My only recommendation is to stay away from any kind of southern cooking. I tried the biscuits and gravy—one very sad interpretation of my favorite breakfast food! And my boyfriend tried the ribs one day, lets just say that for these Midwesterners they were found wanting. Once we smartened up and avoided the hometown fare things were pretty good. I found the food available at Azura's to be quite good, definitely above mid-range restaurant standards. While on the ship we tried two of the ships "pay-for" restaurants. Le Bistro and Cagney's. We were disappointed with both. This could be because we are pretty spoiled when it comes to French cuisine and steakhouses, but still, definitely not worth the money for us. My boyfriend got steak in both and found the cuts of meat to be good but completely lacking in flavor. I tried the Duck Confit at Le Bistro and I don't know how this is possible with Confit, but the duck was dry as a bone. Very disappointing. I tried the king crab at Cagney's and was equally disappointed. These were the smallest king crab legs I'd ever had and they had an usually fishy taste, very strange. On a side note, we absolutely loved the coffee shop, it is centrally located in the atrium and we found ourselves stopping there a couple times a day, it was a great way to decompress at the end of a busy day or get revved up for the start of one!
EXCURSIONS: This cruise had two stops, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. We were supposed to have gone to Xcaret in Cozumel but for some lawsuit related reason NCL cancelled the excursion. Both of us were very disappointed, particularly because we didn't find out about this until we boarded the ship and read the notice in our cabin. We did a bit of scrambling to reorder our excursions and came up with a snorkeling trip in Cozumel that sounded pretty good, we ended up not doing an excursion in GC since basically everything involves swimming with stingrays. In GC we could not tender at the main port so we had to go on the other side of the island and catch buses to George Town. Since the island operates on tourism they were ready for us. We wandered the shops and had lunch in the most fantastic little shack that literally sits on the rocks and out into the ocean. I can't remember the name but I highly recommend it. Unlike some reviewers we had no problem with the tenders and found them to be highly organized using a number system for people who did not have excursions on the island. Cozumel was not quite what my boyfriend remembered from his previous trips. Much more touristy and very aggressive sales people, our necks were actually sore from shaking our heads "no" so much! The snorkeling was great and well organized. We always book through NCL because they do provide quality excursions and the guarantees are always reassuring, the security is definitely worth a little extra money.
SHOWS: The shows were good…for a cruise ship. People complain that these aren't Broadway level productions, but really, what do you expect? Please don't go and expect the sort of show you would see in New York or Chicago, it just will not happen. But for what they are they are quite good. My boyfriend confirmed the sentiment that NCL edges out the competition on shows. Cirque Bijoux is quite impressive, I have not made it to Cirque du Soleil so I can't compare to the "real" thing, but it was very enjoyable. The bands and other shows were also enjoyable. The only thing we missed was Second City, but being from Chicago, we can catch them anytime!
ROMANCE PACKAGE: I've read positive reviews of this, so I don't know if we just didn't get the concept but I would not recommend dropping $80 on this one. For $80 you get a free 5x7 photograph (or $5 off a larger one), canapés, cake/champagne, a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries on embarkation day, and dinner at Le Bistro with a bottle of wine. Here is the problem, they drop off the strawberries (and warm bottle of champagne) and canapés off at a designated time rather than being able to request the time. Unfortunately for the canapés this meant that "drop-time" was during an excursion…so by the time we got them they were warm and there was no way we were going to see if they were safe to eat. Also, the cake/champagne night is a group event, though the company's documents do not make this clear, so we were under the impression that room service would bring it one night, not that we had to go and track down our cake and champagne (we didn't even try it). Also, the 5x7 photos are kind of a rip because those are only boarding and port photographs, so if you want the higher quality photos you are stuck with the 8x10 and still having to pay $15. As for the dinner, you've already read our feelings on that one. All in all, not worth the money for us.
DISEMBARKATION: We did the express walk-off (more on why we had to do this below.) It was a breeze and there were plenty of busses to the local airports. In fact, even though NCL does prearranged transportation, I would highly recommend this method, it was great to be able to get breakfast and leave the ship at our leisure.
NCL GENERALLY: Now we noticed this a bit on our last cruise and could not miss it on this cruise. NCL is starting to feel like a time share operation. Literally throughout the entire cruise there are people trying to get you to spend more and more money with NCL. Every hour of every day there is some NCL representative pitching another way to drop money with the cruise line. It is hard to avoid and incredibly annoying. I know all cruise lines do this to some extent but NCL has taken it to a whole new level. Another problem was that while the freestyle concept can be great at times, NCL needs to work a little harder on scheduling. There were two separate occasions when we returned from port only to find that the services were needed were closed and had actually closed while the ship was in port. The most frustrating was that we were ported in Cozumel until 6pm and the deadline for booking off-ship transport was at 5pm, this was not announced nor was there anything in volumes of brochures delivered on our bed three times a day that called special attention to this.
All in all, we did really enjoy our vacation. The freestyle concept generally works pretty well. We have decided to sail again with NCL when we take my boyfriend's 4-year old son along. But when we do our next "grown-up" cruise we've decided that we'll give RC or Princess a shot.