This was our 10th cruise as a family, with our 2 teens and grandparent. First time on NCL, so it was interesting to compare the freestyle cruising concept to the Royal Carribean and Carnival ships we have sailed before. Overall, it was a good cruise, but we won't likely be back.
We arrived 2 days before the sailing and stayed at the Loews in the South Beach part of Miami. Fabulous hotel; but a little pricey. Definitely the family hotel of the area. Great shopping and restaurants all in walking distance, and the pool and service at this hotel was excellent. We enjoyed walking to the park at the end of Miami Beach on Saturday and watching the cruise ships take off.
Embarkation was fine, and our stateroom was a mini suite, which was nice for 4 people. The stateroom was always cleaned, usually twice a day and our cabin steward was helpful. When I told him one of my teens thought the sofa bed was uncomfortable, he added a foam cushion, which she really appreciated.
The food was good. We all agreed the buffet was probably one of the best we have ever had. Excellent salad bar. Hand dipped ice cream and soft serve available most of the time. Nice outdoor setting on back of the ship to eat the breakfast buffet every morning. We ate in both Summer Place and in Indigo main dinning rooms, and the service in both was adequate, but not memorable. With freestyle cruising you lose the personal touch of your waiters who get to know you all week, and we missed that. We had different waiters every night. The food was good in the dining room, but nothing really special. I did enjoy that they had Snapper and I had it several times. It tasted like it was fresh. We also tried two specialty resturants, the mexican and the french. We had to pay extra at each of these, and that is always an issue for us, as some in my family object in theory to having to pay for meal that you have already paid for, but I understand that there are many cruisers that like this. I enjoyed some but not all the dishes in the specialty restaurants, and would like to have tried more restaurants, but with five of us, the expense was a real factor in our decision not to pay extra for dining every night. We were also very shocked after looking at the menu for Cagneys steakhouse that your $25 per person extra charge didn't include the most popular items on the menu, like surf and turf; those items had an additional upcharge. That was why we didn't dine there.
Freestyle dining is probably fine for couples, but for families or larger groups, it's not so good. One night we had to wait an hour for a table of 5. Some nights it was hard to get all in our party to agree on a dining time and a dining location. On more traditional ships, its much easier for larger parties to all know where to be for dinner and when.
The ship itself was very lovely, but a little hard to navigate. The entertainment was pretty good, and the cruise staff was fun. My biggest complaint however, which was shared by many other cruisers was the location of the shows in the Spinnaker lounge instead of a larger showroom. I arrived 15 minutes prior to a comedy show and still wasn't able to find a seat, and ended up leaving, and missing the one show I really wanted to see.
The ports were good; the beach day on a private island near Samena was very nice. In St. Thomas, I found a beautiful shopping and dining areas close to the dock called the Yacht Haven which had designer shops (Coach, White House/Black Market etc.) and wish I had found it earlier. The shopping in town and other areas around the dock are all mostly perfume, watches, and jewelry. We have been to Megans Bay before, but that is another good place to go in St. Thomas. In Tortola we went on an excursion to the Baths, an area of coral reefs and great snorkeling. The last day was Great Stirrup Cay which is their private island in the Bahamas, and was a nice setting, but hundreds of passengers were unable to find a beach chair, which really ruined the day for us. We ended up going back to the ship and laying out by the pool. Since this was an NCL private island, we could not believe they did not provided an adequate amount of beach chairs for their guests; this was unacceptable in my book.
We played some in the casino, but the slots were similar to other cruise lines; the pay out ratio is so low, that its just not worth the gamble. The craps table, when it was open, offered double odds, which for craps players is an attraction.
My teens complained that there were not very many kids their age on the ship. The teen club mixed middle school kids with the high school kids, and that was a big negative for high school kids. That is something other cruise lines have figured out, and I'm surprised NCL did not have a separate program for the older kids, who don't want to hang out with 13 year olds. All the other cruise lines have separate programs. As a result, my teens didn't want to go to the activites and were often bored at night. We were told by NCL that this ship would have lots of families, but it really didn't; it was mostly couples, and many foreigners.
We will likely be going back to RCL or Carnival next cruise, but glad to have tried NCL. I'm like many other cruisers in that I don't expect a cruise to be perfect, but NCL needs to learn some things from the other ships, like distributing tickets to passengers for shows they know there will not be enough seating so their guests can make other plans instead of being turned away or having to stand for a show. NCL also needs to spend a little of their profits on some more beach chairs for their guests at their island.
Like many other passengers, I voice our objections to NCL and other cruiselines, adding gratuity automatically to our stateroom bill; the level of service has declined since the cruise lines started this practice. I would much prefer to tip the staff who provided good service.