A friend and I took the Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel to the Bahamas May 1, 2010. Now, maybe I'm jaded since I've already experienced Princess and Royal Caribbean. Or perhaps over the years things like service, tradition and "the cruise experience" has come to mean something different. Or maybe it's just that your first cruise is remembered as more glorious than it actually was.
Whatever the reason, I will not cruise on Norwegian again.
There were two major issues. One was their "Freestyle Cruising". Now this may be all well and good for some. Possibly those who have never experienced the old-fashioned cruise ships won't mind it because they've nothing to compare it to. But for me it brought that aspect of cruising down to nothing more than going to the local restaurant. There was virtually nothing about freestyle dining that reminded you that you were at sea, on a cruise or somewhere special.
While some might not like the restrictions of assigned seating and assigned dinner times, there is something quaint about it. And something lost when it's no longer observed. Assigned dinners mean you know where and when and there's a table waiting for you and it even has your name on it (figuratively speaking). The server gets to know you and your prefernces. "You like extra bread. And you like decaf." You build a realtionship and really do start to feel special. Assigned seating means you become friendly with other passengers who, each evening, share their day's experiences.
Freestyle means you better get there early or you'll have to wait (The Jewel even had paging devices!). It means you'll sit with your travel mate and no matter how much you love 'em you've been with them all day long and a little conversation with someone else would be welcome around dinner. It means where you sit is hit or miss and the server will be different every time.
This Freestyle Dining was a pretty frequent topic among others we met on board. A few couples who had sailed Norwegian before noted that every time they cruise on Norwegian, more and more of the regular restaurants have become "specialty", making what used to be included, excluded unless you pay extra. I have a sneaking suspicion, though I can't prove it, that the quality of the food in the "included" restuarant may have slipped a bit to encourage cruisers to escape to the pricier alternatives.
So put me back on assigned seating, please. I felt special. I felt pampered. I never had to wait and I liked meeting up with our tablemates every night.
Now, the other complaint had to do with the "hard sell". That was the single most often discussed subject on board. As we boarded the ship, we were met by a staffer with two tropical drinks at hand. What a lovely welcome, I thought. Hmmmm. Then we found out we'd be charged for them, not to mention the extra fee for the "special" plastic glasses. We passed. So right off the bat, we had a bit of reality check - this set the tone for the entire cruise. They never missed an opportunity to scape another dime off their passengers. I couldn't help but recall the greeting we received as we boarded our Princess Cruise - granted it was many years ago and it was then called Sitmar - but as we stepped on board we were personally greeted by the Captain himself. Not some staffer tricking cruisers into unwittingly purchasing an overpriced drink.
As we arrived in our cabin, we were delighted to find a bottle of drinking water, but . . . oops, when we picked it up there was a little card behind it telling us it wasn't a goodwill gesture but an item for sale. Good grief, would it bankrupt the cruise line to toss in a free bottle of water once during the week-long cruise?
I expected the overabundance of photos for sale - that seems pretty standard, albeit annoying. And I had learned from my experience on Royal Caribbean that art auctions have become highly profitable side-businesses. But, please, when your art auction sucks up so much space, taking over an entire bar, over a perios of days, it does become annoying. Jewelry bargains appear to be the next biggest money-maker judging by the frequency with which we saw tables full of bargains set up. That which isn't terribly overpriced is just plain junk, folks! Does salt sea air cause people to lose their senses? Is this a cruise ship or a floating mall? There were times when I felt like I was living at the mall all week.
Beware the cocktails! If you don't specify that you want the regular glasses you'll get their lovely plastic glasses at an additional $2 charge. Even the magician on board was hawking magic kits. At first I thought he was kidding, but it turns out he was dead serious. I suppose bingo is always charged for but it sure seemed expensive on this cruise. I thought the prizes for the game shows were cheezy and cheap. C'mon, Norwegian, these folks have just entertained your guests, at least give them something worthwhile!
This truly was the most popular topic of conversation we had with others on board. They were very disgusted with the hard sell. In fact, the day we were tendered over to the private island, the running joke was that it was free to go over but they'd charge a fee to bring you back.
Other observations: boarding was quick and easy. The room was neat and tidy. Our porter was delightful. The beds were fabulously comfortable. Our room was quiet (except for overexuberant guests who thought everybody should be up, but this is out of the control of the ship). It was hard to find the elusive glass of water outside of the dining rooms. There were very few deck chairs out as we left NYC, the majority being tied up so guests couldn't access them themselves although a few tried. Food was mediocre. Don't bother stating your preference regarding your steak - it'll all come well done. Service in the restaurants was very good (with one exception) but there was never a relationship created as they is with assigned tables. (The one exception was a 15 minute wait for maple syrup for my pancakes which for some reason took a long time to find.) Showers were very good - lots of hot water and more space than I was expecting. The final night show featuring the talent of the crew and staff was really quite fun - some very talented folks there. And the grand finale "Fountains" was hysterical.
(Oh, side note: we met a woman from Europe who was totally disgusted with the cruise. She said the Norwegian cruises in Europe are fantastic but this one was a huge disappointment. I have to take her word for it.)
Debarkation looked it was going to be a nightmare as we "walk offs" lined up in the hallways. However, once the ship was cleared, it went very quickly.
As I write, I'm already planning another cruise next month. And it won't be on Norwegian even though they have cruises to Alaska (indeed, never Norwegian again). Nope, this time I'm specifically looking for assigned dinner seating. I can only hope this upcoming cruise won't be trying to sell me junk at every turn.