The 93,500-ton, 2,402-passenger Norwegian Jade, which is based in Europe year-round, epitomizes NCL's "freestyle" mantra.
For the most part, the goal is to create an onboard ambience that abandons traditional cruise formalities. All meals are open seating and choice of cuisine and vibe is rivaled by only a few ships. The range goes from a steakhouse and Tepannyaki to French, Italian, tapas, sushi, buffets and even a 24-hour cafe, complete with traditional English breakfast.
"Freestyle" also incorporates onboard activities and entertainment ranging from its spa to main theater shows to themed dance parties; entertainment is offered continuously and performances aren't geared around restaurant seatings.
Similar dining and entertainment options are, however, found on all of Norwegian Jade's fleetmates. But here's what makes Jade unique: This is a seriously international ship. The passenger mix on our 12-night Istanbul to Athens cruise was evenly divided between Americans (1,286) and international cruisers (1,115 Canadians, Australians, Brits, Germans, French, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, etc.). The more global experience, with announcements now coming in Spanish and German as well as English, is a defining element. During one poker session, I took on players from Israel, Mexico, Northern Europe, the Midwestern United States, Japan and China -- all yelling at our shy Peruvian dealer. Some called the melange of languages flying by somewhat distracting, but somehow it felt entirely natural.
Fantastic passenger melange aside, complaints about the additional costs of all the aforementioned specialty restaurants -- something that's dogged NCL's Freestyle concept from the start -- is relatively common. (Perhaps it had something to do with just that melange. Broadly speaking, European cruisers are less used to paying extra fees for onboard eats.) A case could be made for NCL doing a better job of providing more realistic expectations. We'll do it for them: If passengers really want to enjoy the multiplicity of dining options available during a single cruise on Jade, an additional, say, $20 per person, per night, should be figured into the cost of the cruise.
As NCL's year-round Europe homeporter, the passenger manifest is often evenly divided between North Americas and those from elsewhere -- Australia, Great Britain, France, Spain, Mexico, Japan and Korea. Typical of longer European itineraries, the average age hovers around 55, with the largest number of passengers in the 55 to 70 range. During summer months, expect a sizable influx in families.
While NCL's overall approach to dress is quite relaxed, on Jade's European itineraries, passenger dress varies. In general, with an older demographic, there were plenty of suit coats, dress shirts and dresses on display around dinnertime. None of the passengers donning suits for their evening meal looked particularly out of place. And with so much time spent in port -- there may be only a couple sea days on some of the longer Mediterranean sailing -- dinner on said sea days took on even more of a formal demeanor.
During our days at sea, when the sun was out, resort- and beach-wear were appropriate in public areas and by the pool respectively; it's kindly requested that shorts and tank tops are not worn in restaurants (except for the Garden) after 5 p.m.; however, passengers are able to wear jeans to dinner in any specialty or main dining room, if they wish.
There's a fixed charge of $13.50 per person, per day in all cabin categories up to and including a minisuite. Suite guests will be charged $15.50 per person, per day. This is automatically added to each passengers' onboard accounts -- which jives with the industry standard -- but here it is considered a "service charge," not a "gratuity."
The line explains on its website: "Our crew is encouraged to work together as a service team and is compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that the service charge supports ... guests should not feel obliged to offer a gratuity for service that is generally rendered to all guests. However, all of our staff are encouraged to 'go the extra mile,' and so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities entirely at the discretion of our guests." Guests are able to adjust the automatic charge at the reception desk.
If you utilize a butler and/or concierge, Norwegian recommends offering a tip "commensurate with services rendered"; I kept a mental tab throughout the week of meals delivered, requests handled, etc., and offered my "thanks" accordingly in cash. However, fellow passengers were able to put gratuities for these staffers on their onboard account by visiting reception, so keep that option in mind.
All specialty and entertainment dining carries an 18 percent auto-gratuity; drinks carry an automatic 18 percent gratuity and the spa charges an 18 percent gratuity, as well.