This was a 21 day cruise consisting of 2 cruises back to back: a 7 day cruise departing and returning to Venice visiting Croatia and the Greek Isles and then a 14 day transatlantic cruise from Venice to New York City visiting several ports in Spain and Portugal. This was our 4th cruise on NCL and our 2nd Transatlantic cruise on NCL. We have been on 20+ cruises.
Before anyone starts to ready this—I want to apologize for all the complaining. I’m sure that there were many folks on board who loved the cruise—unfortunately I’m finding after cruise # 4 on NCL that I’m just not a fan of Freestyle cruising because the service just isn’t the same with Freestyle as it is on a traditional cruise ship. I want to have the same waiter every day who knows what I prefer even before I sit down. Some people could care less about the service—I have friends who are just as happy going to the buffet every day and hate sitting down for meals. Luckily, we have the freedom to choose what we prefer.
Overall I was disappointed in this cruise. The itinerary and ports visited were fantastic—but the food, service, and activities on the ship were average to subpar. NCL’s cost cutting was evident at all times and trying to avoid hidden costs was a major activity and frankly—exhausting.
Food—compared to Holland America, Royal Caribbean, NCL 2 years ago and even Carnival—the food in the buffets and main dining rooms was generally boring and not always well prepared. The breakfast buffet (and yes it is a buffet except for the made to order Omelets) featured the exact same food for 21 days. The only thing that ever changed was the type of fruit in the Danish. Lunch and dinner buffets also featured the exact same food every day except for a different meat and fish entrée and the desserts varied. (The fish was cooked “to order” and the Ceasar salad was also made freshly as you approached the salad station, so that’s why NCL doesn’t call it a buffet anymore.) In the main dining rooms, I was surprised to see the same menu on the 21 day cruise 3 different times—most ships feature at least 14 days worth of different menus. It used to be that the menus used to feature: appetizer, soup, salad, main course and dessert. NCL’s menu has the main course and then a list of several things to choose from before the main course. The waiters seemed pained when a soup, salad and appetizer was chosen from the before dinner list instead of just choosing one item. Dessert of course follows. We frequently felt rushed thru dinner in the main dining rooms—on more than one occasion—the appetizer, soup, and salad was delivered so closely to the main course that all four plates were on the table at one time.
With Freestyle cruising there was ALWAYS a wait to get into the main dining rooms when we decided we wanted to eat. (Generally 15 – 30 minutes). We considered this a positive and not a negative issue, because if you got handed a beeper, it meant that you could order 2 for 1 drinks at the bar while waiting for your table. (Only certain cheaper drinks were eligible, of course).
The specialty restaurants were better, but not great. (Holland America’s steak restaurant served the best steak I have ever had.) We resorted (because of boring menus and poor service) to mainly eating in the specialty restaurants or in the buffet for dinner. (Have never in over 20 cruises eaten at the buffet for dinner before.) The specialty Italian restaurant that is an extra charge was especially disappointing since we had fallen in love with the food prepared at the free Italian restaurant on our NCL cruise 2 years earlier. The steak restaurant was OK—but our table partners ordered steaks medium well and had to be returned because they were well done. (2 days earlier our steaks that were ordered medium were practically uneatable because they were so raw). One nice feature was that the specialty restaurants were 2 to 1 for Latitudes members on the 14 day transatlantic cruise portion of the trip only from 6:30 to 7:30PM.
I was surprised by the lack of outdoor barbeques for lunch or dinner. They had paella outside on the Lido deck for lunch once or twice for about an hour, but by the time we decided to get some—the service had already shut down. Also I know that the day of the midnight buffet is gone—but what happened to NCL’s famous chocolate buffet? They featured this for the 7 night Greek Isles cruise, but it never happened during the 14 day Transatlantic cruise. Room service food choices were extremely limited--I don't ever remember seeing such a limited menu on a cruise ship before. And I suppose this also fits into the food category: —what happened to the nightly chocolate mints? They completely disappeared. I guess that’s due to more cost cutting. And beware of the freshly squeezed orange juice in the garden buffet—that’s an extra charge. (Free on Holland America). Drinks—prices were posted for drinks, but when the drink came with that special plastic glass that everyone throws away—the drink was twice as much—I made them bring me back the drink without the glass at the posted price.
Service was fair. I don’t think that this was due to the crew not caring—there just wasn’t enough of them to accomplish things like: trying to get water refilled during dinner—impossible. (Same for the iced tea.) My husband finally devised a game to see how long it would take him to get hot tea with dinner. Every time we sat down for lunch or dinner he calmly explained that he wanted hot tea with dinner, not after dinner. The fastest time to get his hot tea was 30 minutes from when he asked for it. Forgetting it altogether was not unusual.
The only exception to the lack of service with meals was in the buffet Garden Café. There were an incredible number of crew standing around ready to swoop up one’s dish and silverware as soon as it looked like one was done eating. This resulted in numerous instances of plates disappearing when one was still planning on continuing to eat what was on the plate. One’s food was sure to disappear if there was a pause in your eating to look out the window. We got a chuckle out of watching fellow passengers protecting their plates by hunching over them and shouting “No” when a waiter would appear before they wanted to give up the plate.
Our cabin—Service was good. The room was kept clean, we had ice regularly. I do long for the old days when the room steward would introduce himself within the first 15 minutes after arrival at our room. We didn’t meet our room steward until several days into the cruise. The room steward looked like she had twice as many rooms to clean as what they used to have to take care of. Only time for a few towel animals—but of course we received numerous offers to buy the towel animal folding DVD. And we never did figure out how to find the room steward when we were unable to get into our room. (Not our fault—the electronic key mechanism’s battery was low). In the old days—the room stewards generally hung out at all hours in their crew areas near our room and were easy to find. The room itself was smallish compared to the same category room that we had stayed in 2 years earlier, but there was lots of storage space.
Shows: As is usual—some good and some bad. The Russian acrobats were the best we have seen on a cruise ship. The poor hypnotist was the worst show we have ever seen—his show was moved up a day unexpectedly because of a singer’s illness.
Activites: this ship was big on trivia—every day once or twice a day. Lots of time set aside for getting together to play bridge and cards also. There was the usual Bingo. We were disappointed in the lack of dance lessons—they were sparse and taught by the dancers in the show. Our previous NCL transatlantic had featured a competitive ballroom dance couple whose love for dance inspired us to learn complicated dance moves –the previous ship had dance lessons once or twice a day and the couple also were available during ballroom dance sets in the evenings. Generally the activities really gear up during the transatlantic portion of the trip—nothing extra was added activity wise that I could see. The murder mystery dinner that we paid for was disappointing—especially when we remembered that it was free 2 years ago and at dinner found out that it was the exact same script from 2 years ago. Note to anybody from NCL who is reading this—I have friends who will write you a new murder mystery script for $200.00. Buy a new script every year! Overall , I thought that the activities were not as plentiful as what I expected.
On the subject of cost cutting –on 4 separate occasions—I walked into a bathroom during the early evening or afternoon hours and found no toilet paper in my stall. Not good on a cruise ship –first time I encountered that phenomenon ever on a cruise ship.
On the positive side—the itinerary was incredible. I loved most of the shore excursions I took (and we did a lot), couldn’t have asked for better ports to see either. Also—loved the dinner with the officers (yes it cost extra)—was a very relaxing evening and felt like we got to know the officers on a personal basis. Also—wanted to specially mention our captain. His seamanship was excellent. We rode thru a storm with 30 foot waves fairly smoothly. He kept us informed regularly about the weather and calmly explained his strategy . He also strongly encouraged folks with difficulty ambulating to stick to areas with hand rails during the storm. Of course not everyone listened and they finally had to close the lido deck and the Garden Café Buffet because of the number of injuries from passengers falling in those areas. Another area of the ship that deserves positive recognition is the casino—no I didn’t win, but the crew there was particularly pleasant. Also—NCL still has Pai Gow Poker in their casino—the table was generally full when they opened it during the evening. Guess that it’s not a big money maker for them, but it was definitely entertaining for those of us who love the game. Frankly—if I ever go on an NCL cruise again—it will be because they have Pai Gow Poker in the casino.