Background Information: This was my first cruise. I'm a single mother traveling with my 5 year old daughter and booked this 30 days out.
Embarkation -- I took Metro-North to Grand Central Terminal. We took a cab from there, leaving about 10:00. It was about a $20 cab ride including tip, largely because we were stuck in lots of traffic going into and out of the port. My cab driver seemed a little bewildered by the entire process though (it's the only experience I've ever had with giving street coordinates and having the driver say "where's that?", which may have contributed to the longevity of the ride). By 1030 we were at the port, and we walked through the security and check-in lines quickly (less than 20 minutes total). Everyone was really friendly and made the entire process a breeze. After receiving our key cards, we went into the waiting area, which had a refreshment area and tables where you could make restaurant reservations for the week or book spa appointments. At 11:30 they started general boarding. We walked onto the ship and into the Crystal Atrium, where we were greeted by Kids Club staff, among others, with information on the children's programming for the week. The Shore Excursion desk opened at 12 and I rented a clamshell for Great Stirrup Cay and booked the excursion to Disney. The Garden Cafe was open, but we went to one of the main dining rooms, Tsar's Palace, on deck 7, to get our vacation started at a little more relaxed pace. After lunch, we explored the ship while we waited for the announcement that our rooms were ready, I didn't hear the announcement, so we ended up just going to our room around 2pm. Luggage was there by 3, just in time for muster, which took place in Tsar's Palace. It lasted about 10 minutes and was primarily a quick review of life jackets etc. I noticed the room was dead silent for the whole presentation though! After that it was time for sailaway,so we went up to the Sundeck and watched the Gem depart. They had a barbecue open so snacks and music were available on deck to get everyone in a festive mood, which was great.
Stateroom- I was worried about getting sea sick so we booked a Mid-Ship Inside GTY and ended up in a waaay aft family inside that faced aft rather than starboard or port (I don't know how else to explain it other than it faced the back of the ship, in a different direction from most of the other inside cabins). The cabin was perfect for the two of us. There were a couple of periods when I felt a little queasy, but they only lasted for about an hour each on the only 2 occasions when the boat was really rocking, and location didn't seem to have anything to do with it. Size-wise, it was on par with an NYC hotel room...definitely small but completely liveable! There was a bunk, which folded down from one side that my DD was thrilled about, and the two twin beds were lashed together to make a double. The beds were so comfortable and thanks to whatever padding they put on it, it felt like a regular double bed rather than having that sort of dip in the middle. The room says it can hold 4, but I'm not entirely sure where the 4th person would go? Storage was great, with plenty of room under the beds and in little cubbies along the wall. The bathroom had a shower with a lockout feature on the tap that could be adjusted to make the max water temperature higher. I work in a burn unit so I thought a little feature like that was great, especially in a room with kids. You can't have the bathroom door open and the closet door open at the same time, but once you get used to it, it's not a problem. Our steward, James, was great. He kept the room spotless all week and always had a kind word or towel animal waiting for my DD, which she loved.
Dining -- There were quite a few specialty meals on this sailing including the Best of All lunch, Taste of India, Big Band Brunch (I forget if that was its exact name but the concept was brunch with jazz etc), a Chef's Table, Nickelodeon character breakfasts and Caribbean Night. We went to the Best of All lunch on Sunday, which was held in Le Bistro. The concept is for a $15 cover charge you can try a selection of dishes from each of the specialty restaurants. The menu was similar to others I had seen for this particular lunch on cruise critic with a set menu of selections you can order as well as a buffet with other options. For the price, it was worth it. For children 4-12 there's either no cover charge or 50% off of the cover charge so it ended up being a great deal for us. I also didn't feel like I was missing out by not going to any of the specialty restaurants later in the week. Azura and Tsar's Palace both have a side of the menu that doesn't change all week as well as a side of the menu that changes nightly. The set menus offered similar items but prepared different ways. We ate in Tsar's Palace for lunch on several occasions and Azura for dinner once or twice. Lunch was a little faster than dinner but I knew from reading other CC reviews that to allow at least an hour for a meal in an MDR, so we planned accordingly with meals there. NCL has boards around the ship listing all of the dining venues and potential wait times so we just picked whatever was least crowded when we wanted to go. One of the comments I made in my post-cruise survey was that it would be great if they published the variable MDR dining menu for each day on the in-room channel that broadcasts availability for all of the dining venues. They're posted outside of each MDR so they're easy to access if you're walking by, but I didn't always remember to check.
Traveling with a 5 year old meant we ate most meals in the Garden Cafe or the Great Outdoors to cut down on the waiting aspect. As buffets go, I was really pleased. I went in expecting mass produced buffet food and it actually exceeded my expectations. It wasn't 5 star cuisine but it wasn't pretending to be either. It was good food with a lot of variety and several "cook while you watch" stations. For every "less healthy" option there was another healthier option to complement it. Breakfast: cereals, yogurts, fruits, muesli, large variety of traditional baked goods/breakfast meats (I recommend the caramel banana concoction next to the waffles, French toast and pancakes...I haven't eaten French toast in years but I had the caramel banana topped French toast every morning!), omelets, eggs benedict, fried rice and stir fry vegetables. Lunch and dinner had a variety of sandwiches/wraps, pasta, grill food (various kinds of sausages, hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled salmon/chicken, fries), a huge salad bar, usually 2 kinds of hand-carved meats, soups (the chilled fruit soups were always great), at least a few kinds of seafood and vegetables, always a line of Asian and Indian foods. They do have some of the same foods at each meal, but they also rotate several entrees/sides so there are new options daily. They also had a large selection of desserts, but the soft serve ice cream bar was definitely my favorite. I can't tell you how many times I wandered through right before the buffet closed for "just one more little cup".
Coffee (the free variety) was available at a table set up by Java Cafe throughout the day and Topsiders Grill on the pool deck was a great place to grab burgers, ribs and salads throughout the week.
I knew I liked a slightly more relaxed start [and window seats : ) ] for my meals so we tended to go to the buffet and MDR at times that weren't likely to have a wait or massive crowds. This meant hitting the Garden Cafe or Great Outdoors by 8am every day, lunch around 1130-12 and Dinner by 6, especially if we were eating in an MDR. If we got to the buffet late we could usually find seats in Kids Cafe, which is a special section of the cafe for kids and their families with their own mini buffet, lower tables and for most meals, juice.
Activities and Entertainment
- Children's Clubs: My daughter was in the 2-5 year old room, which is next to the room with the playspace that they show on the website. The room was a little bit dark and lacked windows, so it was a struggle to get her to go in at first. However, once she got in there she had a great time! There were so many times when I came to get her and she didn't want to leave. They had free play sessions a few times a day when all of the kids were together in the larger room, which she loved. Every day seemed to have a different theme (princes and princesses, pirates, etc) with activities to go along with it. I think my DD had her face painted a different way every time I picked her up,which she loved! Nickelodeon at Sea is also a feature of the Jewel and they had different activities/meet & greets a few times a day throughout the week.
The Freestyle experience is truly what you make of it and you can do as much or as little as you want. There are plenty of quiet spaces on board if you feel like relaxing and reading for a while, the casino was fun (smoking is allowed in this area), and there's always a presentation, game show, trivia, or tasting of some sort going on at all hours of the day. I went to a wine tasting, sangria tasting and beer tasting, but there were also martini, margarita and whiskey tastings while we were on board. All had a $15 fee and included about 5 different kinds of whatever was being tasted, with the exception of the sangria tasting which included a glass each of the red and white sangria. That tasting also came with a plate of tapas as the cost of a glass of sangria on its own was only $5.50. I know it's a personal thing but I can't imagine anyone being on the ship and being able to say "I have nothing to do'. There's trivia several times a day, live music, various game shows and the evening shows in the Stardust Theater (Duo Elegia and Cirque Bijou were great!)
Service -- Our room steward was great and the steward for the hall around the corner was great as well. : I really thought the service was great. The staff was very friendly. I'd heard a lot about NCL "nickel and diming" and incessant overhead announcements and I really didn't notice any of that. There was usually a morning announcement either from the Captain or announcing Bingo, then another announcement in the afternoon announcing Bingo and a third around 700 announcing the 730 show. The only announcement broadcast into my stateroom was the Captain announcing GSC had been cancelled, otherwise I had to open the door to hear them so they weren't intrusive at all (and 3 a day just didn't seem excessive to me). I didn't have any unexpected charges and didn't feel pressured to buy drinks or go to the specialty restaurants. The restaurant reservations desk was there if you wanted to use it and there were always servers around the pool or shows if you wanted to order a drink, but I was rarely if ever approached unless I flagged one of them down.
Port & Shore Excursions -- I'd been up in the air about whether or not to go to Disney World because the excursion got such mixed reviews, and because I didn't want to be locked into it if it rained! I finally decided to book the transfer and ticket to Disney World (the transfer is $70 alone but the price to get the park ticket with the transfer wasn't any higher than getting just the transfer and buying the ticket at the park). I was SO glad that we did it. We walked off of the boat and to a waiting bus, which left about 5 minutes after we boarded. The driver made the hour drive as entertaining as possible by pointing out wildlife (alligators and wild hogs, anyone?) as we passed and sharing little facts about some of the places/scenery we passed. We arrived at the Transportation Center around 115 and had the option to board a ferry or monorail to get into the park itself. It was a perfect day to be there. The weather was great. Thanks to a combo of FastPass usage and the park not being that full since it was January, we rode everything we wanted to and more, saw a parade and stopped in on a couple of shows. I don't think we had to wait more than 20 minutes for any of the rides. We left the park around 730, but the last bus didn't go back to port until 815 or 830 for those who wanted to stay longer. Both the ferry and monorail took about 10 minutes to get to and from the park, including wait times so that process was quick as well. Overall, I was so glad we did it. No regrets whatsoever!
Nassau- We knew we wanted a beach day and I'd researched various day pass options before arriving. You actually pass the British Colonial Hilton coming into port so we were able to see that and the public beach (Junkanoo Beach/the Western Esplanade). I was up in the air regarding which option to go with until we got off of the boat. We ended up walking about 15 minutes to Junkanoo Beach, which was clean with beautiful water. There were a few shops there with towels, chairs, snorkeling equipment and umbrellas for rent as well as drinks and snacks for sale. The beach also has bathroom facilities. When it started to rain we walked a few blocks over to the Pirate Museum, then over to Arawak Cay for lunch at Twin Brothers, which was great. Junkanoo Beach was on our way back to the ship so we stopped there for a little more beach time before we had to go back.
Disembarkation -- We received information about disembarkation and a customs form with our Freestyle Daily on Thursday night so we had an idea about what to expect. On Friday they had different colored luggage tags corresponding to various disembarkation times out for pickup in the Atrium, so you could pick whatever worked for you. We chose to carry off our own luggage, which meant we could leave the ship as soon as it was cleared by customs, around 745. We got up early to watch the ship sail in to NYC. We had our final breakfast in the Garden Cafe around 700 and watched the sun rise over the Manhattan skyline. People began to line up in the Crystal Atrium around 715 in prep for the 745 departure time. The entire process once we started walking off of the ship including customs and getting in a taxi took about 10 minutes start to finish. 10 minutes and a $10 cab ride later we were back in the real world at Grand Central.
Summary: Overall, I'd do it again in a heartbeat! I'll probably pick an itinerary that's a bit more port-intensive vs. 4-5 sea days in a week, but for a first-time cruise this was great!