The wife and I had originally planned to take the RCL Freedom of The Seas for Thanksgiving but then decided to take the Norwegian Jewel Thanksgiving cruise at the recommendation of our travel agent and here's a recap of our experience.
We arrived at the terminal around 11:00 am after dropping our rental car off at the Hertz Location near the port and taking their free shuttle. As soon as we got off the shuttle van, I could tell that the embarkation process was going to be nuts. There was a huge line and porters running all over the place grabbing people's luggage as they got off taxis, buses, etc. We were staying in one of the aft mini-suites (#11656), so we asked the guy at the door if we could use the shorter line for guests staying in suites to which he said it was ok. We thought this would help expedite our process, but as soon as we walked through the door, both lines merged into a single line if you can call it that. When we walked in we found what amounted to total chaos. There were four or five tables set up with Bahamas immigration forms which had to be filled out before you could get into the line that led to the check-in stands. Groups of people 3 and 4 deep gathered around the tables with all their carry on luggage trying to find a spot on the table to fill out the form. Once we were able to fill out the forms, we got into our line which snaked around several times a la Disney World before we got to the check-in stand. Finally! (We thought) we're going to be able to get checked in and get on the boat and out of this noisy mess. Little did we know that after going through the check-in process we would be shuttled into another line to get our embarkation photo. That station was also crazy, with people running back and forth trying to get their family members who were still in the previous line so they could all get their picture taken (Why not take the picture on the gangway right before you get on the ship?) Ok, so we got our picture taken in front of a green screen (for the computer generated background to be put in later) and then into yet ANOTHER line to get our key cards. The key cards were all stored in these Rubbermaid bins and you handed your ticket to one of the persons there and they proceeded to search through the bins to find your key cards. (Why don't they just give you the key card when you check in the first time?). Finally we have our key cards, great! Now we go to ANOTHER line for security screening, and we work our way through that and on to the gangway where we wait another 15 minutes in line as everyone gets their hands sanitized before getting on board. The total time from when got off the shuttle bus until we set foot on the ship: 2 HOURS. If I were to describe the embarkation process in one word it would be MAYHEM. NCL needs to re-engineer this whole process and streamline it (it can be done I've seen it done better elsewhere).
Once we got on the ship we were very impressed with the dEcor. I personally liked the cherry wood paneling everywhere. The ship was immaculate. Everything looked new and didn't have that worn-in look yet. We walked around a little bit, looked at some of the different restaurants and bars on decks 6 and 7, saw the Casino from the outside since it was closed. Overall we liked the look of the ship.
When we finally got to our stateroom, we were pleasantly surprised with the space and dEcor although the layout was a little uncomfortable. The bed sits up right next to the closet doors which makes it a tight squeeze when trying to get stuff in or out of the closet. The bathroom is huge and the layout is better than what I've seen on other ships. I like the fact that the shower/tub has a sliding door instead of curtain and the water closet area has its own sliding door as well. The only complaint I have about the bathroom is that when I looked in the tub there were several long black hairs in the tub, so apparently the room steward did not clean it. (More on the room steward later). But my wife is a neat freak, so she pulled out her Lysol cleaner spray (which she brings on every cruise) and proceeded to wipe down all the surfaces of the bathroom.
The view from the aft balcony is amazing, and I have been hooked. From now on, I only want aft balconies. There is nothing better than sitting out there listening to the rush of the water and watching the trail of foam the ship leaves in its wake. The only problem was we were right below the Great Outdoors eating area so we could hear the tables and chairs banging around up there in the mornings when people had their breakfast and also at night when the crew was cleaning up.
We expected to meet our room steward that day, but he never showed up. He actually showed up on Wednesday. On other cruises, the room steward is one of the first people you meet and he/she makes sure everything is to your liking. But not here, I actually had to request a dry cleaning bag and form several days in a row before I actually got it, and even when I got it, he seemed a little annoyed by the fact that he had to go to one of the supply closets to get it for me. I guess the fact that the fixed service charge guarantees their tip has a lot to do with the level of service you get. This brings me to my next section.
I found that the majority of the crew/staff members seemed to be annoyed or mad off all the time. Only what I would call management types seemed to be in a good mood and smiled. Also, I would say 90% of the folks that work on the ship have very strong accents which made it very difficult to understand when they spoke to you and they also seemed to have a hard time understanding us when we spoke to them. In general, I think the fact that NCL has done away with tipping has removed an incentive for crew/staff to go out of their way to ensure you are getting the highest quality of service.
Okay, this is where I am going to rant. Personally, I think the whole Freestyle Cruising thing is a lot of bovine manure. But I get ahead of myself. Let me start by our first dinner. We decided to go to the Tsar's dining room. We got the same treatment I described before from the wait staff (basically seemed annoyed to have to serve us). We ordered our dinner. I started by ordering my favorite cruise drink, a Mojito. What I got back was basically water and mint leaf with a couple of ice cubes and some kind of cheap rum that tasted like kerosene (even though I specifically asked for Bacardi). Apparently the bartenders there don't know how to make specialty drinks right and on top of that it seems NCL has a very strict policy of measuring out exactly the amount of liquor that goes into these drinks. I could not drink it, and ended up using my soda card and ordered a diet Coke. For dinner, I ordered the skirt steak, and specifically stated I wanted it cooked medium. Now I'm not really picky about how steak is cooked, but I expect medium to be well medium not bloody and almost raw which is what I was served. I tried to eat some of it but on top of that it was tough and cold. I did not ask for another item because I did not like anything else on the menu that night and on top of that we felt like we were being rushed to finish up so they could give our table to one of the other people who were standing outside waiting to get in. Apparently the waitress understood my medium to be medium rare (once again NCL needs to make sure these folks understand basic English). I left and figured I would order some room service later on.
So we get back to the cabin after walking around the ship a while and I pick up the phone to order room service and get again what I feel to be an annoyed person on the other end. I ordered some pizza which was completely un-edible. It seemed like it had been sitting out for some time. I finally ended up going to the Great Outdoors for some finger sandwiches and cookies which were actually quite good.
The next morning we decided to try Tsar's for breakfast. I ordered the scrambled eggs. Big mistake. It appears the eggs on this ship are powdered eggs because what I got back was a cold pile of runny, watery disgusting matter which turned my stomach as soon as I saw it. Ok so I'm 0 for 2 now. I end up eating pastry and coffee for breakfast. By this time I am PO'd. I've been on the ship for a day now, and still have not had a good meal.
For lunch we did the Chin Chin restaurant which was actually quite good. And that got me thinking. Maybe the food in the dining room sucks on purpose so you spend more money in the specialty restaurants hmmm. So we decided to try the Tepanyaki for dinner that night and were lucky enough to get reservations because for the rest of the cruise it was virtually impossible to get reservations for any of the other restaurants except for Tango's one night.
The Tepanyaki restaurant was the best meal we had on the ship. The food was fresh, the cooks put on a good show, and we really enjoyed, even if it did cost us an extra 50 bucks including the drinks.
The only other restaurant we went to was Tango's and that was also a let down. I ordered the BBQ ribs and got back what seemed to be those microwaveable pre-cooked, pre-sauced ribs you find in the warehouse clubs like SAM's or BJ's, not the grilled baby back ribs I had envisioned. I sent it back and asked for a burger, and managed to get that down with a beer. Oh well, this is Freestyle Cruising.
On Thanksgiving night, we were able to get into Tsar's after waiting in line for about 45 minutes and we actually got a waitress who understood English and was very helpful. The food that night was good, not excellent, but good. The portions were very small and it didn't seem like Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.
The rest of the cruise we basically ate our meals in the Garden Cafe buffet. For breakfast I basically stuck to pastry and coffee because the eggs were the same watery goop I had been served before and the lines for omelets and waffles were always long and it took forever (not to mention the amount of just plain rude people who kept cutting in line). I really stayed away from anything that had a line (like the pasta or stir fry) because it was always long. Basically I survived on pizza, pasta salad, fruit and pastry. Freestyle Cruising = Pay a ton of money to eat in the food court. At least that was my experience.
I really found this ship to be rather boring with not a lot to do during the days at sea. The night time entertainment was ok. Several shows we really enjoyed like The Second City comedy improvisation group and the Le Cirque Bijou show. They were awesome. The magician guy was totally LAME. We sat up in one of the balcony areas for his show and could see all the tricks from up there. It really sucked. We don't gamble and are not into karaoke (which seemed to be the two main activities at night) so we found ourselves spending a lot of time in the room just sitting on the balcony or watching TV, waiting to get into the next port of call to be able to do something else other than walk the halls of the ship for the umpteenth time.
I would give this cruise 2 stars out of 5. I do not plan on cruising on NCL again. I don't like the Freestyle concept. I prefer the more traditional type setup where I know I don't have to wait an hour to eat dinner. I also like to have the freedom to tip for excellent service and withhold my tip when the service is not good, which is what would have happened on this cruise.