NCL boasts about it's "Freestyle Cruising", but in my opinion, it's nothing to boast about. Freestyle cruising is supposedly a great option because it allows you to eat when, where and with whom you want. Great idea, but the execution of their concept needs work. There are several dining options to choose from. You can eat a traditional dinner in one of two dining rooms. We chose to eat at Windows 3 nights and we ate in the Garden Main Dining room one night. We also ate at Cagney's Steakhouse one night. "Freestyle" basically means poor service if you don't pay the up-charge to dine in one of the restaurants with a cover charge.
When you have traditional dining, you have the same waiter every night. In fact, I still remember the names of our waiters on the last two cruises we took on Carnival. With freestyle dining, the waiter doesn't seem to care how long you wait for food. They seem annoyed when you need a refill of tea, or when you order more than one appetizer. The quality of the food was on the level of a moderately priced hotel. Nothing special, but not bad. The steaks we had in Cagney's were good, but nothing I haven't had on other cruises without having to pay the up-charge. Then, if you wanted lobster, there was an additional up-charge!
Not all of the food was bad. The breakfast buffet in Raffles was wonderful everyday. Omelet stations, waffle stations, and plenty of just about anything you can imagine for breakfast. Lunch buffet in Raffles was ok. Not as good as breakfast, but certainly what I expect from a cruise line for lunch. The bright spot for us was the Blue Lagoon. They had excellent hamburgers, hot dogs, salads, chicken wings, chicken strips etc, open 24 hours. We ate there quite a bit. In fact, it is so popular, I expect NCL to begin charging for this at any time.
This brings me to my next point. NCL will nickel and dime you to death. Beer was $6+ 17% gratuity. Cocktails were upward of $10 after gratuity. There is a $12/person per day auto gratuity at the end of the trip. This is customary, but I have never paid that much per day. Usually, I am happy to pay this gratuity because our cabin steward and dining room waiters would get this along with the Maitre'D. With the "Freestyle" concept, I never had the same waiter twice, so that personal experience was lost. The cabin steward was annoyed when we asked for extra towels (that he didn't replace to begin with). We only got turn down service twice, with towel animals twice. We had friends on the cruise that got these services every day, and they were on the same level as us. So, $12/day per person was a little too much.
The 2 of the 4 ports I would like to visit again. Cozumel always pleases us, and Belize City was nice. Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala and Costa Maya, Mexico have nothing to be desired and I don't care if I ever go back.
The ship was in great shape. I enjoyed the Asian decor. The main lobby was one of the prettiest ship lobbies I have ever seen. The Galaxy of the Stars lounge and nightclub was very nice as well. The Stardust was more like theater seating, which allowed for larger crowds. A can't miss is the view of the captain's bridge. The ship was very clean and well maintained.
We were on this trip during Spring Break, which made for some interesting people watching. We had fun with the boisterous crowds. But, NCL has no problem letting just about anyone that looks 16 have alcohol. My 16 year old son knew several kids he met on the ship that were his age, drinking, gambling, smoking and entering the adult venues and clubs. I certainly had a problem with that. We had to keep a close eye on who our son was hanging out with and what they were doing.
The shows were typical of what I expect on a cruise. The female singers were great, the guys, not so much. The Cirque de Soleil type show was better than expected. They were very talented. The Second City comedy troupe was funny and we enjoyed their shows.
The casino staff was friendly, the sundeck waiters were friendly and plentiful, the bartenders were friendly and the cruise director and her staff were fun too.
We went with friends, and did have a wonderful vacation. I would have rather paid more money to go on another Carnival ship rather than NCL though. I will know better next time.
By the way.....If you choose not to take any of my comments to heart, take this one with you. PLEASE don't leave valuable in your car, not even in the trunk. The $112 you pay to park your car does not include security, and your parking ticket will say that. Our car was broken into at the Port of New Orleans port authority parking garage on the 5th floor. They unlocked the car, opened the trunk and stole a GPS, 2 DVD players, 2 movies, chargers for ipods, cell phones, etc. I think it was an inside job because several people we know that were on the cruise had the same thing happen to them. Take your stuff on the ship with you.