We had a group of 4 cruised with NCL Jewel before Xmas last year. Since this is our first time, there is no reference to compare with.
We live only one hour away from NOLA, lucky for us we don't need a hotel.
Embarkation is pretty fast, bringing all necessary documents and pre-printed boarding pass definitely accelerated this process.
Food is fine. Our favorite restaurant is Azura and Tsar's palace, which provide standard four-course meal for dinner (steak in Azura is really nice). The big buffet dinning on the upper deck (sorry I forgot the name) is close to everything (i.e. pool, card room, fitness center, playground etc.) The only complaint about the food is we barely got any seafood. (I know this is NCL, but we actually expected lobster or so)
Among the three ports (Georgetown, Jamaica; Grand Cayman; Cozumel), we like Grand Cayman the most. The most disappointment is the shore excursion we attended in Georgetown, which we bought from the ship. We thought we would go soft with our first shore excursion for the safety sake, which was proven a wrong decision, and the worst part is the 30-min shopping in a really small shop in the middle of nowhere.
For that reason, we took a taxi to the beach by ourselves in Grand Cayman. Love the water and the beach there.
However, the NCL shore excursion we bought on the ship for the submarine in Cozumel is pretty nice. And we still have the time to go to beach by ourselves after the excursion. But the water and the beach is big disappointment compared to Grand Cayman, probably the taxi driver didn't take us to the good place.
For dressing, we saw people dressing in formal attires, but 80% of them worn whatever you want to be comfortable including us. But jeans and flipflop are not allowed in the two main dinning room.
Overall, first time cruise is pretty pleasant. No hassle no worries. I've seen people in a large group bringing walkie-talkie, which I think is really a good idea since there is no way to get in touch with your friends once you are out of your cabin.