DH and I are in our 40's, traveled with our two youngest DD's - 5 and 8. We had been excited for this cruise for a long time because the NY winter was really harsh.
Embarkation was a breeze. We had traveled this itinerary a few years back and were pleasantly surprised at the vast improvement in getting everyone on board in an orderly and stress-free manner. You can now make dinner and spa appointments while waiting to board. They had a kids' crew table, but it was only for minimal information. They should do registration there in the future and also have some fun activities for the children while they are waiting.
There were over 1000 kids on the cruise this time, and I was worried that the lines for the kids' crew would be as chaotic as they were last time. I made complaints about the situation before because it was a serious safety hazard with hundreds of parents pushing and shoving to be the first to get their kids in or out each time. For this cruise, they had very good crowd management around the kids crew area and while many newbies were complaining about the lines, there was nothing unsafe going on. Besides, with over a thousand kids sailing, people should have been grateful that the lines weren't much more longer than they were. There were hardly any lines at all if you came later or picked up the kids a little earlier before closing.
The kids' crew staff were amazing and my kids never wanted to leave to go eat or to do other things. Since there is a kids' buffet set up in the Garden Cafe, it would be nice if the kids' crew took them to eat lunch together, but this might be a logistical nightmare for NCL. I like how they stay open and don't close at certain times like the other cruise lines so it fits into their Freestyle concept. However, it makes it difficult to drag out the kids and make sure they are eating well because they just want something quick so that they don't miss a thing in the kids' centers. If NCL could figure out a safe and orderly way to have the kids eat lunch together every sea day, this would be a big help to the parents. Then we would only have to drag them out once for dinner. My kids had a fantastic time in the kids' crew so I made sure to tip accordingly since they are not in the tip pool.
Speaking of the tip pool, I think this may have made some staff complacent because they are going to share in the tip pool no matter what. I say this because our room attendant never once came to introduce himself. We never got our welcome glass of champagne, we had to ask multiple times to get our room service breakfast forms, and our TV was down three days before a technician came to fix it. Our room was barely serviced. We would not know most of the times wheter the attendant had come except for the occasional towel animal. On the first night, the sofa was turned into a bed and it stayed that way for the whole cruise. On other lines, and even NCL before, they would put it back to a sofa during the day. Our attendant remained a phantom until the very last night when he suddenly showed himself for his tip, I believe. I gave him nothing in his hands but I did leave him $15 on my way out the next morning. This was the worst tip I've ever left an attendant, and frankly he didn't deserve that much, but I had a wonderful cruise and was in a happy, happy (washy, washy) mood.
The first day and night at sea was rough because we went through several storms. The Hotel Director told us at the Meet & Greet that they had never experienced rough seas like that before and that a bunch of crew were sick in bed and that passengers were throwing up all over the place. I had been a bit queasy myself, but didn't think it was all that bad. A lot of people were wearing patches behind their ears the next day and the dining rooms were not crowded. One good thing about the rough waters: it seemed to help make a lot of quarters fall out of the quarter-pushing machine in the casino (along with the rolled up $20's, $10's and $5's).
I don't get all the negative comments made about the food. The dining rooms were excellent. Great food, good service, something for everyone. Breakfast in the Pacific was a treat each morning that we didn't order room service. I have a small complaint about the "maple syrup." When a menus reads "maple syrup" you should expect just that and not Karo syrup. Now I know maple is expensive, but list it as "maple blend" or "maple-flavored." Or better yet, charge a dollar or two extra for "real maple syrup" - as long as NCL is charging extra for cappuccinos might as well charge extra for other good stuff.
One more complaint about the dining room service - they got our orders wrong 100% of the time. That's not acceptable. Now it didn't make our meals any less tasty and it didn't "ruin" our cruise, but there's something wrong when you go out of your way to speak slowly, point to things on the menu, have them repeat your order, and STILL they get at least one thing wrong! This was true in Pacific, Magenta, and Blue Lagoon. Despite this, the free dining venues were great and I didn't feel like there was some sort of conspiracy to push everyone to the specialty dining.
We tried La Cucina this time with the kids after coming back from our first port day. The service was absolutely wretched! The place was not crowded at all, and there were more than enough workers to take care of all the tables, but they were inept, there was no adequate supervision, and from start to finish it took 2 hours and 40 minutes. DH had to get plates, silverware and water glasses from other tables when none of the staff was taking care of it. After the appetizer (which they only brought two of instead of one for each person as requested), a burnt pizza was served while we waited over an hour for our main course. My kids were so hungry that they tried to eat around the burnt parts, but the pizza just wasn't good. There was supposed to be pasta courses before the main courses, and we kept asking for them to bring something out but we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally they brought three main courses. DH and I had the rib-eye which was shoe leather despite ordering "medium." He ate a few bites of his but I spit out the only bite I took because it was like rubber. By that time, my 8 yo was almost asleep but was fighting the urge so she could have her parmesan chicken. She lost that battle because her chicken came 40 minutes after our plates came and by that time her father had already left to take her back to the room. He asked me to have it sent to the room in case she woke up later, but it was rock-hard and not worth the trouble of having to tip room service to bring it to us. After my husband left with our daughter, the pasta courses came, and came and came, and came. They brought order after order after order of pasta. I had to keep telling them to stop. I ate one of the plates of tortellini and it was good. My 5 yo enjoyed her spaghetti and wanted to stay for ice cream. We waited, and waited, and waited for our dessert. Part of the problem is that I ordered a cappuccino and that takes a very long time for them to get apparently. My youngest kept me entertained throughout the snail's pace, so it made the situation tolerable. She really enjoyed the calamari, spaghetti and ice cream and never complained about the wait. I had the panna cotta tasting with my cappuccino and it was quite delicious. DH was peeved that we came back so late and didn't argue about being charged for our 8 yo that only had half a plate of calamari to eat. I figured $5 is not something to argue about, especially when I didn't tip extra. Besides, the 5 yo more than made up for what her sister didn't eat.
La Cucina didn't fare well with us, but we didn't give up on specialty dining. We did Le Bistro before and returned this time without the kids. It was full, but service was so efficient that we were in and out in an hour. From start to finish, the whole experience was well worth the cover (and more!). My beef filet was perfectly grilled and just melted in my mouth. DH had the rack of lamb and he raved about it.
We tried to do specialty dining once more before the end of the cruise. We checked the board at 6PM and saw that Tequilla's had green dots all the way through to closing. So we headed there with the kids to get some of their delicious lobster tacos. When we arrived, the place was empty except for two tables, but we were told (rather rudely) that since we didn't have a reservation we had to wait until 8:45 because they were "full." We were ignored when we pointed out the obvious, and also we were ignored when we asked whether we could wait as "stand-by" in case one of their "full bookings" didn't show. This turned me off about eating there, so we just stuck with the free venues from there on out.
About shore excursions... NCL has really added a lot of variety to their excursions since the last time we cruised with them. It was really hard to choose from all the great stuff to do. We decided to visit Universal Studios in Florida because we always go to Disney and we wanted to try something new. DH and my kids really loved Universal and thought it was better than Disney. I disagree. We were there about 5 hours and only got to ride 4 rides. There is no adequate shade, no beautiful landscaping, and it reminded me too much of Six Flags's uber-commercialism.
Great Stirrup Cay was much more to my liking. This time we took an eco-boat tour and it was worth every penny! Our host was very funny and he taught the kids a lot about the Bahamian culture in general, and sea creatures specifically. They stopped the boat to pluck out giant starfish for us to hold, conch, and several varieties of crab. We also got to see a lot of sting rays, including a poisonous barb in a jar. GSC itself was beautiful and the water was perfect for swimming and floating. The only complaint is that there needs to be better crowd management, especially at the buffet. When I took my two little kids, we stood at the back of one of several very, very long lines, and a staff member attending the buffet told us that the lines were for the fruit stations and that there was no one in the burger/hotdog station and we could just walk over there. We did what we were instructed to do, and people started to jeer at us. One lady even jumped out of the fruit section to block us from getting a hamburger and her friend knocked tongs from my hand that had a piece of chicken on it. My kids were able to grab a hot dog and run for safety. I looked for the staff person who told us to go over there and couldn't find him. It was such a mad house that we just left from there.
Another problem at GSC is the chair and hammock hogs. People put their belongings in whole blocks of chairs and in all the hammocks and never use them the whole time they are there. The water was so perfect that we just stayed in, but there needs to be staff that go around and remove belongings left for more than 15 minutes unattended. If people want a chair to place their belongings in all day while they are off doing other things, then they should have to pay for the privilege.
I really detest Nassau. I realize tourism is a big part of their economy but I don't like to be besieged at every turn. This time we decided to go to the private lagoon. No one bothered us there. All non-premium water sports were supposed to be included, but what they don't tell you is that just about everything there is considered to be premium. Even pool noodles are $9 to rent. Outrageous! The lunch area was managed much better here than GSC and the hamburger was good. The water was cold, so we decided to take the first boat back. Last time we went to the zoo and gardens and had a fabulous time, so I think we will do that the next time we go. It's cheaper and more fun because they have a pink flamingo show and you can feed the parrots.
All in all we had a great family cruise, but learned some hard lessons. First, I've come to believe that the Bingo is rigged. We paid $69/pp each game (except for the few times they had 2 for 1 specials). If you do the math, you will see that they must rake in at least $50k per cruise. They lure you in with a big jack pot that no one ever wins. Why? I believe it is because it's electronic and that they have all the serial numbers of each card entered so that they ensure no one will win the big jack pot. The other prizes are only a hundred to a few hundred at most. Where is all that money going? If it's used to defray the costs of our cruise to keep it affordable, then fine. But then, why do we have to pay Starbuck's prices for 7/11 quality lattes? Why do we have to pay service charges per person per day? Why do we have to pay for specialty dining? And is there a company running the Bingo for them? Who? Where is all that money going? I played bingo almost everytime, and now after thinking about it I won't be doing it any more. It's a racket.
Another racket is the spa. Each time I go, I always say I won't do it again because of their hard sales tactics. It ruins the mood! After paying so much to relax, you have to get all stressed saying "no!" to $300 worth of products they insist you can't live without. This time they had a 5 steps to Heaven special that I thought was good enough to put up with the sales tactics. I only got 4 steps to Heaven. Instead of the 5th treatment, I got 15 minutes of hard sales and she followed me out the door trying to get me to come back and buy something. I've bought their products before - they don't work. None of them! So I won't be going back unless they change from Steiner, who - by the way, doesn't require the therapists to be licensed because it's the high seas. In New York, the massage therapists must go to two years of schooling and pass a state licensing exam. There is also a continuing education requirement to keep the license.
Another racket is the art. We are art lovers and really enjoyed the art auction last time. We even purchased a piece. However, what was shipped to us was one eighth the size of what we thought we were buying. We didn't fall into that again this time, but a friend of mine "won" the art raffle on a recent cruise on the Jewel, but was told he'd half to pay a few hundred for the shipping, handling and insurance. He turned it down.
Of course casino is always a racket no matter if you are on land or sea, but that's one lesson I still haven't learned. As long as there is a casino nearby, DH and I will pump money into it. We win some, and lost more, but the excitement of it all was worth it because we had a lot of fun.
The hardest lesson I had to learn was that the biggest racket of them all are the jewelry stores. I was downright swindled, and that's all I will say for now while I look into my options.
These last few paragraphs are just words to the wise. Be careful before spending a large sum of money. A cruise ship is not the big place for bargains that they lead you to believe it is. Next time (and there will be a next time because I put down a future cruise deposit) I will know better and I will have even more fun.