In 2007, while living for a period of time in Germany, I convinced him to try again and we took a 12 Day Mediterranean cruise, also aboard the NCL Jewel, to celebrate our 30th anniversary. It was wonderful and we were hooked on Freestyle Cruising! We have been one of NCL's biggest fans ever since, raving to many friends about NCL. We cruised the Mexican Riviera out of San Francisco aboard the Sun in Oct. 2009 as well as a short RCCL Bahamas trip in April 2010 and we were really excited to be cruising on the Jewel once again in Oct. 2010 to New England/Canada.
Ship Overall: The Jewel is a magnificent ship! The pool area w/its palm tree topped lights surrounding it is a sight to behold on a moonlit night. The Spinnaker Lounge affords wonderful views from the bow when it is simply too cold or windy to enjoy being out on deck. The Great Outdoors in the ship's aft is a wonderful place to enjoy breakfast on a sunny morning and one of our favorite places when weather cooperated. Color choices of carpeting in the staterooms is a bit over the top in some regards and seating a bit uncomfortable in several of the lounge areas, but still beautiful and fun to enjoy. Everything is kept immaculately clean and appears to be in good repair, although this ship IS only 5 years old so that would be pretty much expected.
Embarkation: NCL seems to have the initial procedure down to a fairly workable science. We always arrive early and that helps. What small lines there were seemed to flow seamlessly and quickly. We were on-board in probably no more than about a half hour from the time we arrived at the port. We did, however, notice a disabled passenger who appeared to be waiting for assistance for quite some time. They eventually gave up and decided to embark along with all the other mobile passengers rather than to keep waiting for someone who did not seem to be coming in any reasonable time frame. Don't really know all the details of that situation.
Disembarking and embarking at the port areas was, however, an entirely different situation!! There appeared to be numerous issues of poor communication both between crew themselves and between crew and passengers. Once an announcement was made over the public address system directing passengers to a certain area and when the huge crowd of people rushed to that spot, they were informed that we could not disembark at that point which was being used for shore excursion passengers only...even though NO ONE at all was using the area at the time. This was extremely frustrating and passengers were not happy! The lines every day in port were long both getting on and off the ship and extremely disorganized causing tempers to flare. We stood in huge disorganized groups in parking lots waiting to board buses in the hot sun...don't know what they would have done it it had been raining. Lines for ship tenders returning to the ship in Newport, R.I. were completely and ridiculously unacceptable! There appear to be way too many ships in port in almost every port. The ships and the port areas do not seem to be able to acceptably handle the huge amount of passnegers pouring into these areas at the same time and ship, as well as port, resources are stretched WAY TOO THIN!!
Itinerary: One of the first criterions I look for when researching a cruise possibility is itinerary. Ports, amount of time allowed in those ports, time of ship's arrival (don't want to be up at the crack of dawn every day of my vacation!), and especially the spacing of sea days in order to provide much needed recuperation time in between busy/active days of walking in port. This was the FIRST disappointment w/this cruise aboard the Jewel. Because of a ship mechanical issue, itinerary was changed to lessen the times in port for several of our stops and both sea days were moved to the end of the cruise, leaving us with an extremely intensive 6 days of ports ALL IN A ROW! This was done w/o any consideration of compensation from NCL to make up for our inconvenience/disappointment. No additional shipboard credit, no cover-free meal in one of the Specialty restaurants, no room upgrade, or free photo, NO NOTHING! I believe this should have been the least that NCL could do to appease their many customers who had, in good faith, agreed to something other than what they ended up getting! Add to the already diminished times in port, the lengthy lines and disorganization with disembarking at almost every stop, and our time to enjoy these beautiful places was severely compromised! The port offerings were acceptable, not anything exceptional though.
Dining: We found the food choices this time on the Jewel to be noticeably less inviting in both variety and presentation. In general, we found most meals to be majorly lacking in the vegetable department. Two or three bites is NOT what anyone would consider a serving. Also, one of the biggest disappointments was the removal of Mama's and Tango's as two of the free dining options. This left the free options so limited that, coupled with the cooler weather which kept most people looking for indoor seating, dining rooms were almost always incredibly crowded and very noisy. This is a huge negative to the overall dining experience for these cruisers, and could be easily anticipated by the cruise line during colder seasons & destinations. NCL needs to do something to alleviate this problem during cold weather itineraries! I shouldn't have to feel forced to spend extra $$ on Specialty restaurants in order to get a quiet, enjoyable dining experience. Even in Tsar's, unless you chose to dine very late, it was usually noisy with clanging plates and silver at the many server stations throughout and the chattering of people. The only night we really enjoyed peace and quiet in Tsar's was the night we were seated in the smaller wing on the starboard side of the ship. Something needs to be done with the decor to enhance noise absorption, if possible. Azure's felt cramped and noisy as well, something we did not experience at all during our 2007 trip on the Jewel because crowds were more scattered with the addition of outdoor seating areas more in use, as well as two additional offerings in the free options. Our experiences in the Blue Lagoon were varied. The food was indeed very tasty, especially the tomato bisque. However, we visited there several times for dessert and coffee at late night (11-12pm) following the late show or other entertainment. Service was severely lacking on most of those occasions as the staff, despite having very few tables at this time, seemed to be distracted with cleaning and other chores. Every time we had to ASK for our coffee to be refilled, which is an absolute Faux Pas for us when dining out! One night the server even took the napkin and silverware away when learning that we were only ordering dessert. He did bring me a spoon with the dessert but I was left w/no napkin and had to ask to be given one! Little details that make a BIG impression, and not a good one.
Service: In general, we observed a definite decline in the overall level of service being offered throughout the ship. Wait staff in the free restaurants appeared more rushed in order to keep up with the demands of the crowd and the need to quickly move diners in and out to accommodate those waiting. Few took time to really be personable and give that extra touch of friendliness. One server worth mentioning was Horace (Tsar's). We made a special point of taking him an extra gratuity on the last night of the trip. He served us several times and was the ONE exceptional server we experienced on the entire 9 day cruise, including our Specialty restaurant experience! I find this a bit of a shame and one of the criticisms I have heard from others regarding the Freestyle cruising experience! As has been mentioned by other reviewers, it appears that there is an overall lacking of crew who are truly excited about what they are doing, or maybe they are just overworked and stretched too thin. As also noted by others, the extra amenities that have always made cruising special, like cute towel creations, chocolates at turn-down, exceptional service on all fronts, all inclusive dining, soft drinks, etc. are slowly eroding. The one exception to this general downturn in service was with the bar staff. They were ANNOYINGLY persistent in all areas of the ship! We are non-drinkers (alcoholic, that is) and were continually bombarded at all times of the day with one server after another asking if we needed something from the bar. If there were 6 different staffers working in any one venue, and we did not have a drink glass on our table, it seemed they ALL approached us numerous times. There needs to be some way of indicating to the bar staff when someone has made it clear that they do not wish to order drinks from the bar and to let them know that you have already been approached numerous times. Once when we were approached during a game time in the Spinnaker Lounge, the server placed a cocktail napkin upside down on the table in front of us and we seemed to be left alone after that. If that is all it takes, that would be an easy fix to keep passengers who choose not to imbibe from feeling badgered. Even the security personnel aboard this vessel seemed to be less friendly and more businesslike than I've ever noticed before. Maybe it was just the issues at every port getting passengers on and off the ship that had them frustrated...and it showed!
Shore excursions: This was our first NCL cruise where we did not purchase even one ship sponsored shore excursion. This is because we have learned from previous sailings that the prices are just way too high! The convenience of NCL making the arrangements and having the ship wait on you should any time issues arise is certainly a plus and worth paying something extra for...but NOT double the cost of doing the same thing on your own. NCL needs to realize that with the use of the internet and the need to shop more wisely in a struggling economy, options are too numerous and tempting to be stuck paying double the price for something. If they would lower their prices some, I believe more people would take advantage of the convenience factor. Otherwise, it just isn't financially sensible. Sharing cabs, utilizing public transportation, and local tour groups/HO-HO buses are simply too easy and accessible in most ports.
Housekeeping: This was probably the area where we had the fewest problems on this cruise. The cabin stewards and their helpers were friendly and ready to serve at a moments' notice. Twice we requested an iron...it was delivered in a timely manner and retrieved just as quickly when we were done. We missed the nightly towel creations (only had about 4 during the entire 9 nights) but we assume this is a new NCL policy to save on towels and laundering costs. Not a big deal but disappointing, none the less. After moving to our second room, we noticed that the sheets did not seem to fit the bed properly. They were never tucked tightly in around the sides and often came lose and got tangled around us as we slept...annoying, for sure. Also, our ice bucket was not filled on most days, a minor infraction.
Entertainment: In the past we have been highly pleased with the entertainment offerings on NCL, not only the choices but also the quality. Much of this was the same. The ship's band and dancers were excellent as usual, as were their two main shows, "Band on the Run" and "Cirque...". The adage couple was certainly incredibly talented showing strength and flexibility that was at times almost uncomfortable to watch :). What was also uncomfortable, however, was the extremely immodest costumes they donned. This was true of the skin- toned outfits displayed by the ship's dancers in the first show as well. I just don't think the skin toned, nearly see-through leotards/costumes are really necessary for us to appreciate their talents. Toned and muscular bodies are beautiful, but when costumes come so close as to practically, and I believe purposefully, almost show unnecessary private areas, and clearly convey an air of near nudity, that is too far and not what I would consider family programming! We have avoided other cruise lines who offer these and Vegas style entertainment in order to avoid this type of fare and frankly, were very disappointed that NCL has slipped to lower their standards in this area.
On the positive side...the Clachan Brothers were enjoyable, as was the pianist in the piano bar. The Modal Magic band was VERY good, with great range both in voice quality and music selections. We also liked the Irish guitarist/drummer/comedian and enjoyed both of his shows, but like other reviewers have noted, it didn't seem like the type of thing really suited for the main stage evening entertainment. Same goes for the juggler...he was OK and good enough, but nothing special and certainly not as good as some we have seen on other trips. The hypnotist was the exact same person we saw on the Sun the previous fall and unfortunately, with the exception of different audience participants, the show was basically the exact same thing...but funny and interesting. We could have done w/o the Second City group...some of their comedy was good, but some escaped my sense of humor. I know what they do is not easy, but I guess it's just not my cup of tea. We obviously did not attend the late night show as we do not call offensive language funny or entertaining. They need to take a lesson from the likes of Bill Cosby, Chevy Chase, Jim Carey, and Jerry Lewis...you don't need to be crude to be funny or to become famous! We did not attend the night the singer performed and if I'm forgetting anything else, they obviously did not make a big impression on us :). For all nights other than the two main shows, there could have been a lot more done with staging decor to make the stage area more appealing. For the most part there was no backdrop, only black floor and background...very boring and non-memorable!
Activities: With a cold weather cruise this is expectedly more limited than usual. Pool areas are uncovered and temps are not, in my opinion, warm enough to warrant use during colder weather. The hot tubs, as well, were NEVER heated to the point of comfort or what is normally expected for a hot tub spa. I would venture to guess they were never above 100 degrees F, which is simply not comfortable hot tub temperature on days/nights when outside air temps are cooler. This was especially disappointing on the two consecutive sea days! The fitness area is very nice aboard the Jewel as we knew from our previous trip; however we did not make use of it this trip due to such a port intensive itinerary. Games and bingo were the usual fare...nothing special to speak of. Although, the Asst. Cruise Director (Senon, sp?) was engaging, albeit cheesy. At least he appeared to enjoy his job! Can't say so much for Shona, the Cruise Director, as she was pretty much invisible except for at the start of each show in the evenings when she got to model whatever gorgeous fashion she was sporting that night. A loosely organized ping pong tournament was held on both sea days but they were scheduled for too late in the afternoon, actually early evening (like 5/5:30pm). Participation was difficult when wanting to be ready for dinner at a sensible time. Also, we had looked forward to using the tennis court during the sea days, only to find out that free play was only available until something like 10:30 AM. This was ridiculous since most people like to sleep in and eat breakfast late on sea days. What else was this area being used for during other parts of the day? Too much of the mid-day hours are filled with activities directed at selling something and generating more revenue. Emeralds, art auction, bingo, shopping info pushing the NCL recommended stores...all a ploy to get more $$ out of passengers. We did participate in several game/team type things but didn't find out about the participation card thing until the next to the last day of the cruise! I personally think this is a stinky way of doing things. Most people play just for the fun and challenge, but if NCL wants to encourage greater participation, they could fork out for a little in the prizes category. Why not offer coupons for free drinks, or a free/reduced cover charge in one of the Specialty venues, or even just NCL trinkets like T-shirts, mugs, key chains, etc...I mean, TRULY, how much would this really cost NCL in the long run? They need to stop nickel and diming us and get back to what the essence of cruising used to be about...lots of little things that make a BIG difference, luxury and service! Oh, yeah, and for those of us who have cruised on NCL multiple times...the Fountains skit is still funny and entertaining, but the cheesy jokes leading up to it are just LAME!
Disembarking in NYC: Once again this was a major fiasco! This port was completely unable to handle the number of passengers disembarking from 3 major cruise ships all at the same time. We sat in the Garden Cafe waiting for our luggage tag color to be called until the cleaning crew had cleaned every table around us and placed all the chairs upside down atop the tables. At that point we braved the common areas where all the other thousands were herded together also waiting. Customs seemed to be getting blamed for the hold up but when we finally got to the customs area, we breezed through w/o incident. Retrieving of luggage was also a mad house...simply too many passengers pouring out all at once from too many ships. Traffic was a nightmare, transport vans had no place to pull over and look for their pick-ups, tempers were flaring, and people were frustrated and worried about missing flights and connections. We got off the ship just in time to meet our scheduled pick-up (which thankfully we had scheduled late b/c we didn't have a flight to catch). However, we waited in the van for close to an hour w/another couple who had been waiting an hour longer than us, while the van driver tried to figure out how to find his other customers. While our transport van, with passengers inside and port authorities outside angrily demanding that it be moved, waited in an illegal parking area, a tour bus cut too close while making a turn, clipping the van's mirror and destroying it and continuing on w/o even stopping! Crazy place!!
To wrap it up, our experience with NCL on this trip did not do anything to keep us as loyal customers coming back for more. In fact, after trying a short RCCL cruise in the Spring, it gave us something more for comparison, and even though our RCCL ship was one of the oldest and smallest in their fleet, they still provided service with excellence in most areas. The issues with too many boats in the ports at the same time seem to be an industry-wide problem, but otherwise it is our opinion that NCL does not appear to be improving in customer satisfaction. Oh, yes, at one point during the cruise, we did receive a free one game bingo card...free, yes, but with hopes of encouraging us to spend more $ on more cards once you were able to hopefully get us into the room, I'm sure. Typical marketing ploys, but after a while these tactics begin to make a person feel as though they're being thought of as a pushover. At one point during the cruise we each also received a "free drink" coupon, which we understand was given to every passenger. We tried to use them for Carmel Machiattos at the coffee bar in the Crystal Atrium and were told this choice was not included, even though the cost of the house special drinks (which was included) was less than the price of the machiatto! What is wrong with this picture? Once again, not an ounce of bending to provide customer satisfaction, even in the small things. Time will tell what our future holds in the area of cruising, but I can say with certainty that if and when we are ready to cruise again, we will definitely be open and willing to give other cruise lines a closer look. Unless of course NCL does something in the meantime to convince us otherwise.