My mother, my brother and his friend and I cruised on the 5 night Christmas cruise. I have been on 5 cruises (Celebrity to Russia and Baltic, Caribbean, Western Med and Oceania to South America, plus a river cruise to Eastern Europe). My mother has also cruised on Crystal and Seabourn. We have never cruised for shorter than 10 days. This was my brother's first cruise.
We decided to try NCL because of the "Freestyle" dining where we could eat when and where we wanted. The number of specialty restaurants was also very appealing. In addition, the abundance of Asian food, including Shabu Shabu is hard to come by or non-existent on most lines. My brother likes to dress casually and we decided Celebrity would probably not work for him. We thought considering everything NCL was our best option.
Embarkation: This was a nightmare. It took a least an hour just to get to the check in desk. We had all our paperwork and quickly got our SeaPass. Not sure why the lines moved so slowly. It was the most unorganized embarkation I have experienced. Once onboard we went up to the Garden Cafe (Tsar's was already closed) because the cabins were not ready. As soon as we sat down the announcement came that the cabins were now ready. We were not impressed with the choices in the cafe. I chose a bunch of different items but it was all unappealing.
Stateroom: We were in BA 10168 Aft. I received a call a few days prior to the cruise asking if we wanted to upgrade to a mini suite for $320. I really wanted to try the aft location so kept my original choice. We were very pleased with stateroom location. The room was a little smaller than on other lines. The colors were also not to our liking (purple and orange sofa, orange and pink carpet, blue drapes, you get the idea). But the layout was good. There were two large pillows on each bed. The safe was large and very deep. We requested two lounge chairs for the larger aft balcony which took 3 requests. The balcony was the best part of our cruise and lived up the positive reviews on Cruise Critic. It was an added plus that not once did we smell anyone smoking. This was a great worry of mine prior to the cruise. The bathroom is divided in 3 sections: Shower with door, Sink, and toilet with glass door. The bathroom feels smaller because of the separate compartments. I think the door for the toilet might be unnecessary. There was also a glass ashtray attached the wall in the toilet area. Could have done without that too. The toilet area is very small and anyone over six feet must feel very squished. The best part about the bathroom was the dispenser of Elemis lavender hand wash next to the sink. I loved the soap! It was so soothing. As for the rest of the cabin, the telephone is in a strange place on a table near the sliding glass door. The closet had over a dozen hangers which was a nice surprise. The television was an old CRT 13 inch. It was very hard to watch. I usually don't watch much TV on a cruise but the size of this one made it nearly impossible.
Crew: The crew was very professional and eager to please. When our stateroom attendant introduced himself he added that he was responsible for 32 staterooms. Our room was cleaned promptly everyday. I really liked the wheel outside the room that you can turn indicating Do Not Disturb, Make up room, or turn down. Our fruit bowl was replenished everyday but once the bananas were soggy they were not removed. The crew were vigilant in the sanitation of spritzing everyone with germ cleanser. They even have the dispensers in the elevators.
Entertainment: We went to 2 ¼ shows. I say ¼ because we only saw the last 15 minutes of Band on the Run which was more than enough. The theater is a nice size but the stage is so small. They also do not have tables between the seats like they do on Celebrity. We also saw the Second City show which was pretty good. Cirque Bijou was ok. It was mostly dancing and singing with some acrobatics. There was one very talented and very thin young woman who was essentially a contortionist. The other performers just sort of danced around her. Celebrity used to have the traveling Cirque de Soleil show. The Celebrity show was far superior. The crew and captain joined at the last show singing the gooey "We are Family". However, it was nice to see the captain and senior officers.
Food: This is so subjective but here are our thoughts. We only ate in the specialty restaurants, Garden Cafe and Blue Lagoon. As I already mentioned the Garden Cafe was unappealing for Breakfast or Lunch. Eggs were watery, Eggs Benedict too cooked, and selection of cheeses was very poor. The smoked salmon was just ok. The lunch items were more varied but again just couldn't find much that I liked. For our first night we had dinner in Cagney's. I had the twin lobster tails and everyone else at our table of four had the Surf and Turf. The meal was good but the service was lacking. Our waiter accidentally pushed all the sautEed mushrooms off my mother's plate while removing the lobster from the shell. I am not faulting him. However, he did not bring any additional mushrooms as they were now on the table and my mother's wine glass. He also did not clean up the mess. The Cagney fries were soggy. The Kahlua Crème Brule was excellent. I finished it in 5 seconds. The next day we had lunch at Blue Lagoon. It was not good. Won Ton soup had no taste. The chef salad was embarrassing. Very small and the ham was too fatty. My mother had the stir fried pork which she said was just ok. We had dinner in Le Bistro that night. It was a great disappointment. I had read such positive reviews of this restaurant and I was very much looking forward to it. The Escargot was nothing special. The Foie Gras appetizer was good. The frise salad was uninspiring. Just some frise with a tiny bit of fig and a smidgen of Roquefort. Main courses were both terrible. Chicken with stuffed Foie Gras was almost inedible. My mother had the Duck for but had to send it back. She ordered the steak instead. We have eaten in many French restaurants and were not expecting Michelin stars but Le Bistro was probably the worst "French" food we have ever had. The food did not actually seem very French. The Chocolate Napoleon for dessert was good. The nicest part of the meal was that we had a seat near the window and could see the ocean.
We visited Le Bistro on the last day for the Jazz Brunch. They have items that you can serve yourself (quiche, salmon, French toast, Caesar salad) and then you order a main course or two if you wish from the al a carte menu. I had the filet with prawns which was very good. Everyone else seemed to enjoy the meal.
The best food for us on this cruise was in the Asian restaurants. Both the Mongolian Hot Pot (Shabu Shabu) and the Chin Chin (Chinese food) were excellent. We also had sushi one night. They don't have hand rolls (temaki) on the menu but you can request it. The Shabu Shabu was delicious.
Ports: This was only a 5 night cruise with 2 ports, Cayman and Cozumel. Tendering in Cozumel was a zoo just to get to the tender. It seems about 90% of the people were doing their own thing in Cayman so everyone was going to the tenders at once. It took over 40 minute in very crowded hallways and stair wells just to make it to the tender for the 5 minute ride to shore. We had not been in Grand Cayman since 1981. I think it was much nicer back then. We visited 3 or 4 of the shopping arcades and then went to lunch at the Ritz Carlton. It was very windy and raining by the time we reached the hotel. The Ritz was wonderful. We ate at 7 which is on the beach but indoors. My mother had the penne pasta and I had the chicken curry with mango chutney. Both were delicious. As it was blustery outside we walked around the hotel and browsed their two shops. We had some trouble getting a taxi from the hotel back to port. Finally flagged one of the mini-buses down.
When we returned to ship my brother told us his Stingray excursion was cancelled due to the weather but not until they brought them all ashore and tried to sell them an alternate excursion. My brother and his friend ended up drinking in Cayman for part of the day. His friend had been looking forward to the Stingray encounter since she was six years old. She was very disappointed but I clearly understand if it was not safe to go NCL did the right thing.
The next day we visited Cozumel which thankfully was not a tender port. We got off the ship without delay and took a short taxi ride to Dolphinaris. This was our first dolphin encounter. The entire experience was very positive. Dolphinaris personnel are extremely professional. The entire program was well organized. Each participant was fitted for a life vest. Then we were given a locker for our clothing and personal items. Cameras are not allowed in the pool area but I knew that before booking. The pool area is quite large and right on the ocean. We had 60 minutes with the dolphins doing a kiss, handshake and belly ride. Afterward you can buy photos that they will put on a disk. The first 5 photos (just the dolphins) are free. Four photos of kiss, ride were $67. There was also a video of our encounter for purchase but we did not watch it. Our admission to Dolphinaris was booked online. $238 for two people.
After the dolphins we walked all the way back past the dock to calle 6 where we had lunch at Guido's. The food and ambience in the courtyard were wonderful. I had the lasagna and my mother had the snapper. We also had freshly made Pisco sours. They were almost as good as the ones in Chile. When we finished lunch we walked the gauntlet past all the shopkeepers back to the ship. Actually we did not think the shops were too aggressive. Most of them were pleasant.
Our last day on the cruise was at sea and was very relaxing. On our first day I had purchased one of the downloaded newspapers (New York Times) for $3.95 each. Unfortunately the equipment was not working on our last day to download any of the newspapers so I read my book and relaxed on the balcony.
Disembarkation: A breeze. Did express walkoff. We use the Heys luggage which is small and light. Both my mother and I were stopped and asked separately if we had ALL our luggage! It is amazing how much can fit in the small HEYS carryon.
In summary, in the future NCL will probably not be our first choice. It was a pleasure to eat when and where we wanted but the food quality and choices were disappointing. NCL excels in the Asian food department which is not surprising given the 50% ownership by Star Cruises. The Jewel is not that old, yet the stateroom dEcor felt dated. A refurbishing could change the entire feel of the cruise. A toned down interior with white and blue or maroon would be more soothing. I would suggest making Azura a bar instead of a restaurant. The bar areas on deck 6 are just too chopped up. The lobby on the Jewel is atrocious. Anything they can do to change it would be an improvement. We did not use the spa but liked the prices. They were willing to do a flat iron for $15 instead of the full $75 if you did not want a wash. The Fitness Center is a little too small. It is nice it is open 24 hours. The pool area was very crowded and we did not use it. There is a lot of promenade space on the Jewel. I think this makes the interiors feel narrower and smaller. It was odd in Cagney's to have the promenade outside where people could walk by. The large aft balcony, lavender hand wash and large pillows were the highlight of the cruise for me. We had a good time on the cruise but it was not a great time.
10168 aft is a great location. Balcony is larger than regular BA. I suggest they leave the loungers on the balcony so you do not have to request them. Closet is a good size but decor is too jaring. Orange, pink and blue are not my favorite color combinations.