Overall, our cruise was uneven. It's hard to write a balanced review when there was so much gap between the highs and the lows, but I'll give it a shot!
Embarkation from Barcelona was smooth, but the lines were long. We arrived a little before noon, and the line went right outside onto the sidewalk.
We had a minisuite on deck 11. It was lovely -- especially having a bathtub, and a reasonably sized one at that. I had presumed it would be like the little shallow tubs you often find in midrange hotels, but this was a proper tub, comfortable for my six foot sweetie to use. What luxury!
Another pleasant surprise was a chair on our veranda with a reclining back. The second chair was regular wire mesh. We asked our steward for a third chair (third bathrobe, third cup etc&the room had been set up for two) and he looked doubtful, but went off and came back with another regular garden chair. He told me we couldn't have 2 reclining-back chairs because they take up too much balcony space and it would be unsafe (?), but when he couldn't fit the regular chair through the doorway to our stateroom, he disappeared and returned with a second reclining back chair.
So, we are happily ensconced in our minisuite. Got our chairs, got our books, got our fresh flower (one gerbera daisy -- it was in pretty sad shape by day 5!) and all is well with the world. As an added bonus, the dEcor was a little more subdued than the NCL photos. I think some changes have been made. Unfortunately, we had air-conditioning malfunctions twice during the week, but a maintenance worker arrived right away both times.
The muster drill was way more comfortable than the RCCL ... we all went to the theatre and sat down while they did an airline-like demonstration of how to fasten your lifejacket. Evidently the theatre is where we were to go in case of an emergency ... seriously ... personally, I'd be heading for the lifeboats and to heck with the rules!
The Tsar's Palace was fine. Not outstanding, but nothing to complain about, either. It was the only alternative to the buffet at breakfast and lunchtime, and that alone made it shine like a beacon. I had really good fresh-squeezed OJ at breakfast, and the service was consistently good.
The buffet, on the other hand, was more all you can stomach than all you can eat. I heard a number of people complaining that the buffet food has gone way down from previous years.
The buffet did serve waffles, omelettes, eggs to order etc. at breakfast, and it had a self-serve cappuccino/espresso machine and soft-serve ice cream going all day. However, the lunch and dinner food was pretty bad, and should be avoided.
The setup of the buffet has nearly all the tables very close to the serving stations, so it is noisy. On the other hand, you can go to the great outdoor, a lovely table area at the aft (just keep walking through the buffet...you'll get there). One side smoking, one side non-smoking, and (I didn't figure this out until a couple of days in) it has its own buffet table which had different food from that in the main buffet. It also offered cream scones for afternoon tea (self-serve).
The alternative restaurants were really good. We dined at all of them except Cagney's (just never got there) and Blue Lagoon (fish and chips and burgers). Le Bistro had the most fabulous salmon appetizer and French onion soup, but our steaks were a pretty flavorless. The presentation of the main course is a bit cheesy (As we say in Paris, un-deux-trois, et viola! while they lift the cover off your dinner. Puh-leeese!)
Chin-Chin Asian was our favorite and served a variety of foods from Thailand, Indonesia, China, Japan and India. Mama's Italian was a real surprise; we had a fabulous meal there and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
We really liked the freestyle dining concept. The only hitch was that we did not go straight to the Blue Lagoon on the first day to make reservations, and consequently there were nights when we had dinner in the Tsar's Palace or Azura's by default, because everyone else was full. Kind of takes a bite out of the concept of what you want, when you want it because you do have to plan ahead.
Pool and spa
The pool was a huge hit with the kids on the ship, and it helps that there is a little kids' pool that is separate, and that the family pool has a waterslide. The rule that kids can't go in the hot tubs without an adult was widely ignored (I didn't care, but some folks might).
The drawback to the pool area is that the adult pool is right beside the family pool, so if you are seeking tranquility this is not the place to do so. Hardly anyone ever entered the adults' pool.
Also, all the deck chairs are clustered in the open area around the pools, and the shady areas at the sides of the ship are filled with tables and chairs. Again, I hardly saw anyone using the tables, and those of us who burn in the Mediterranean sun (okay, me) were dragging lounge chairs into the shade and having to push tables and chairs out of the way to make room. One nice note...a spray bar spritzes you with tiny drops of cool water periodically if you sit right at the edge of the covered area. Very pleasant.
The spa was quite lovely. I had a haircut and a pedicure. I would highly recommend the pedicure as you get to sit in a cushy armchair looking straight out through huge windows to sea. Oh yeah, my feet felt great afterward, too!
My 11 year old daughter went straight to the kids' program the first night to sign up. Like other cruise lines, the kids are divided into groups by age. The kids' area was terrific. The preteens got to use the teen club (I guess the teens were elsewhere) with a full disco lighting system, a popcorn machine, X-Boxes, computer games, a music video jukebox, a miniature pool table and ping-pong. My daughter loved the kids' club and we couldn't drag her away!
One note to new family cruisers, though...the kids' program on this cruise, like most, offers activities during shore time but the vast majority of kids at that time will be little ones who are left there while their parents are sightseeing. Older kids will find this very boring.
The kids' program offers one night when the kids have dinner together (yes, this means the parents get an adult night!). Or, if you prefer to dine in adult surroundings, you can feed your offspring at the buffet (kids don't seem to mind the food) and take them to the kids' club when it opens at 7pm, then go for dinner yourselves.
There is a fully stocked card and games room, with loads of cards and board games, and no one gets cranky if you take them to your room. On the other hand, the library shelves are locked except when the librarian is present...even the free book exchange shelf! Logic, please?
We never went to the shows or the casino. We did meet up with CC buddies (hi, Xander!) who said the dance lessons were lots of fun.
This is where things got dicey. At 7:15 our first morning, I woke to the realization that a stateroom underneath the gym did not mean innocuous activities above me like stationary bikes and stairmasters. It meant that there were treadmills. Did you know that some people use treadmills to (gasp) jog? Neither did I -- until they were doing it over my head.
It was really awful. The gym attendant said he had no idea what was causing the thump-thump-thump that I described to him, but he'd ask the free-weight users to set their weights down quietly. We tried to have breakfast on our balcony, but the thump-thump was even worse there, and reverberated across the steel.
I went to guest relations and stood in line. As soon as I described it and the woman checked the ship's deck plans to establish the location of my room, she said Oh, it's people jogging on the treadmills. Okay, so this must happen a lot! The really awful part (other than the noise) was trying to resolve this. I was told to call guest relations next time it happened.
In hindsight, this was where things went wrong. Did they think I was having auditory hallucinations? That I was a compulsive liar? Why did they have to verify that this was causing noise in my stateroom?
Anyway, like a good little passenger, I went away and next heard it shortly before lunch. I phoned guest relations. No one showed up for about 15 minutes, but I concluded that surely it would be attended to, and left for lunch. On my way out, I changed the do not disturb sign to please make up room.
We had lunch, hung out on the deck, and then I stood in line again at guest relations to make sure the noise thing had been sorted. I was told that my complaint had been recorded and that it had been resolved. Good!
So what happened when I returned to my stateroom? There was a message on my phone that the crew had come when I called before lunch, but since my 'do not disturb was still up, they couldn't knock on the door. Even though I had just phoned them from the room and asked them to come. Okaaaayyyyy...
An hour later, thump-thump-thump. I phoned. No one came. One jogger stopped, but another started. I phoned again. No one came. I phoned a third time. After half an hour, someone showed up, verified that I was not hearing things, and had the treadmills over our room shut down.
All told, it took 7:30 am to 4:30 pm, one trip to the gym, two trips to guest relations and four phone calls to solve a problem that one crew member had been able to identify almost immediately.
As I remained not impressed with that situation, I decided a few days later to follow up with the manager of guest relations. I left a message in the morning explaining that I had a complaint about the level of service I'd received, and asking him to call me back. Fourteen hours later, I called again to see whether he got the message. By this time, I was getting peeved, and when I asked him why he hadn't returned my call all that time, he said he had other things to do besides answer passenger complaints.
This attitude could have some impact on the standards of passenger service overall, doncha think?
I remained polite but persistent and the next day he gave us a $200 onboard credit as compensation.
Other glitches...my daughter told a woman in the buffet that the OJ machine was malfunctioning, and she replied that it wasn't her station...a waiter in Azura rudely interrupted us while we were speaking to him...my daughter went on a guided tour with the kids' club in the theatre, and was treated to full view of a porno magazine that one crew member was reading in the theatre (she described the picture to me in some detail!)
On the other hand...our room steward was terrific...Ashish from India, in the Tsar's Palace, insisted on carrying a tray of lunch foods all the way to the pool so he could serve us on the lounge chairs ... the vast majority of dining room staff and every single maitre'd was great and provided very good service. One night, three young women at a table beside us were being bothered by a persistent man, and the staff removed him quickly and discreetly.
It was our first cruise with NCL. I wouldn't write them off, but it won't be my first choice for our next cruise, either. Also, I have learned the value of choosing your stateroom very, very carefully. Pity that the minisuites are all located on Deck 11, which is directly under a deck full of public areas.
NCL is more casual than RCCL was, and that suits us fine. It was clear, though, that some of the more "luxe" touches I'd seen on the Mariner of the Seas were missing...no cushy pads on the lounge chairs, no really lovely central atrium area, that kind of thing. However, I do still expect that the food will be good and the service will be better than some of the experiences that we had. I don't need to be fawned over, but I do expect better than what I (sometimes) saw.