This was our fourth cruise, the first two being on Holland America Line and the third on Celebrity. We wanted to have a look at the NCL "Freestyle" type of cruising and the five day itinerary out of Rotterdam seemed perfect. Especially as the balcony cabins were going at a reduced rate. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for and we were not impressed or happy with our cruise.
Embarkation was not difficult, but it was a bit confusing to the many (a lot really) Dutch people who simply don't read or understand English well. We completed a health survey, handed over our tickets and credit card, and were given our keycards. We then joined in the group trying to get onto the ship. It was about noon and the ship was fully booked, so we were in line to get aboard for about 20 minutes. Our picture was taken, we showed our passports to immigration again, and then we were free to board.
The cabins were not going to be ready until 2 p.m., so we decided to go for lunch. We were told that the Garden Cafe (Lido) was serving lunch so we headed in that direction. There's no polite way to say this, the Garden Cafe was a zoo. The lack of enough seating seems to be the cause of this feeling. There are no trays, so picking up an entire meal in one go is pretty much out of the question. Also, it's very important that one of your party (you're out of luck as a single) find seating and then you relay back and forth to the buffet to get your food and drinks. We looked around, saw the chaos and lack of seating and walked out.
As we pushed the button for the elevator, a helpful crewman asked if he could help us. We mentioned that we were looking for lunch and only then did we learn that the main dining room, the Grand Pacific, was also serving lunch on Deck 6 aft. We found the Grand Pacific and it was an oasis of calm. There was someone at the door to welcome us, a waiter to take us to a table for two and an actual menu from which we could choose a meal.
And here we come to our first (and most lasting) disappointment with the entire NCL dining experience. The service ranged from incompetent to disinterested and the food from mediocre to inedible. For a ship with 12 restaurants, 8 of which you must pay extra to enjoy, you'd think they'd have a bit more interest in serving good food in a timely manner. We actually finished a meal in the main dining room and had to go to the buffet to get something to fill us up. Granted, not everyone has the same taste, but I have never before been served a raw spring roll. The lunch set the tone when, after being seated, we were promptly ignored for 15 minutes. Other people were seated and served before a pointed look at the dining room manager conveyed to him the idea that we might actually have come to the dining room with the idea of getting a meal.
Here's some point on which NCL could improve:
1. Train the service staff to understand that there's a difference between decaf and regular coffee and that's why the tops of the coffee carafes have different colors.
2. Teach the service staff that when people are dining together they like to have their meals together. We often had to wait more than 10 minutes for the second meal at the table and saw one poor couple stare at his eggs and bacon for 20 minutes before the man got up, walked over to the waiter, and ask where his wife's breakfast was.
3. If you're going to ask extra money for "specialty" restaurants, make sure that the specialties they serve are edible. We had dinner at Paniolo's (tapas and mexican food) and were surprised to be served fajitas that were too bitter to eat (something bad in the marinade) and an enchilada served in a flour tortilla (actually making it a burrito) and filled with grilled vegetables and cottage cheese. We found the food so disgusting that we didn't even stay for the dessert we had already paid for, feeling that the risk was too great.
4. If you run out of something in the kitchen (and how do you run out of a certain breakfast cereal twice in five days?), don't just bring something to replace it, but rather inform the customer and allow them to make a second choice from the menu. When one of us couldn't have the ordered chocolate mousse served in a dark chocolate cup, we were brought two chocolate cookies from the buffet which were placed on a plate with a layer of chocolate frosting between them. Frankly, the fruit cup looked more appealing. The dessert remained untouched.
The dining experience was not worth the price of admission.
A highlight was our nice cabin and lovely balcony. The room was small, but certainly big enough for a five day cruise. I wouldn't want to spend two weeks in the cabin though. The separation of the three main areas of the bathroom: toilet, from sink/mirror, from shower was a welcome change, making it easy to share the facilities during the beginning and end of the day. We did not see much of our cabin steward though.
We did not partake of the entertainment, so we cannot give an opinion on that. We did hear the constant announcements of the various activities though, which is quite annoying, especially after the "once-a-day" style of announcements on HAL and Celebrity. Honestly, do they think that we don't read the daily?
In summary, we'll leave freestyle cruising to those who don't care about service and good food. We will never cruise with NCL again.