With Freestyle Cruising comes a daily choice of where you want to dine, when and with whom for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The options are so varied, and in some cases so impressive, it's sometimes hard to decide. Fees charged by some of the venues help you sort that out, and for many, the decision comes down to how much you want to spend.
The ship has two main dining rooms, Windows and the Garden Room, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner at no additional cost. Of the two, Windows is the more elegant, located aft with dramatic Palladian-style windows on the sides, overlooking the stern's wake. With its classic ocean liner decor -- dark woods and cushy chairs -- the space is downright romantic. The U-shaped Garden Room has a more modern, casual look (also with windows on the sides). That said, the cuisine in the dining rooms is a bit pedestrian. Foodies will want to check out some of the alternative dining venues -- fortunately, there are many to choose from.
For a splurge, there is no better spot than Cagney's Steakhouse, a plush space where $29.95 buys you a wonderful rib-eye or other cut of steak, chops or seafood with all the usual steakhouse trimmings, including creamed spinach and not-to-miss truffle fries (yummy!). An extra $10 will get you a whole lobster. It's open for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Passengers in suites also get exclusive access to breakfast and lunch at Cagney's (with menu service and a solicitous waitstaff).
Sushi fans will love the all-you-can-eat sushi bar. For $15, you can order from the menu or ask the friendly sushi chefs to surprise you with treats, and they will. The sushi bar is located in Shogun, a complimentary venue which also has a full menu of Chinese and pan-Asian delights that include delicious, spicy beef and sweet-and-sour pork. Lunch is served from noon to 1:30 p.m., and you can get dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Another popular choice is the 10-person Teppanyaki room, where the chefs perform a stir-fry meal before your eyes, flipping knives in the air in the process ($25). It's more about the show there than the food -- you choose steak, chicken or seafood, and it's prepared with a little soy sauce here, a little onion or garlic there. (Minus the drama, you could do it at home with a wok.) You can have lunch there from noon to 1:30 p.m. For dinner, make reservations for seatings at 5 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 8 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.
Hint: You can watch some of the action through the windows, even if you don't dine there.
Le Bistro, the French restaurant ($19.95), serves a decent bouillabaisse, filet mignon and a sinful chocolate fondue dessert -- you dip chunks of fruit in warm chocolate. The space on Deck 7 is cushy with fancy chandeliers, plush banquettes and Versace plates, though, on my visit, it was hard to think romance with a badly sung version of "It's Raining Men" leaking in from the sound system during a karaoke session in the nearby Shanghai Bar. This venue is open for dinner only, from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
The Lido buffet, Raffles Court, has been reconfigured with a large number of stations that serve everything from vegetarian Indian and Tex-Mex to New York deli-style dishes. NCL has made big improvements in its buffets, and it shows. The made-to-order waffles and eggs at the buffet breakfast are great. Raffles Court is open for Early Riser breakfast (6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.), breakfast (7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.), Late Riser breakfast (11 a.m. to noon), lunch (noon to 2:30 p.m.) and dinner (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.). Both indoor and outdoor seating are available. At night, a section of Raffles is converted to La Trattoria ($10), which serves up pasta and other Italian fare (open 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.).
You can grab a burger, fish and chips, mozzarella sticks and other such comfort foods (and breakfast, too) at any time of day or night for no extra charge at the 24-hour Blue Lagoon. Late-night snacks are also available in the casino (sandwiches, chicken sate with peanut sauce, veggies and dip). Another casual venue is the Bier Garten on Deck 13, overlooking the main pool. On a nice, clear day, enjoy knockwurst, soft pretzels and beer in an alfresco, Oktoberfest setting (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). You can daydream that you're in Munich.
Do not miss the signature Chocoholic Buffet, held one night. The entire ship comes up to Windows Restaurant for this extravaganza, which includes sculptures and a myriad of edible creations. (According to the chief pastry chef, it takes his team of 25 and 15 additional helpers two days to create the sweet delights, and some 80 people are needed to set up the buffet.)
New and geared toward gourmets is a weekly Enchanted Dinner, featuring a special chef's menu and a glass each of Champagne and wine; it's held in the art auction gallery ($65). The evening is limited to 20 passengers, and the Captain stops by for a photo.
Room service, available 24 hours a day, carries a $7.95 fee per order; morning coffee and Continental breakfast are free. Suite and Haven passengers are not required to pay the room service fee.
With all the waiter-serviced dining venues, reservations are suggested (with the exception of Blue Lagoon and the main dining rooms, though if you want to sit near the windows of the latter, you are better off booking ahead). You can book a table by phone or at the reservations desk in the atrium.