My wife and I booked a 2 week Norwegian Cruise through the old locks of the Panama Canal and came away highly disappointed. The biggest disappointment fell in two categories. First, almost all of the food served at the “Freestyle dining” restaurants was mediocre – at best. We frequently had to send food back because it was cold, or overcooked, or stale or simply not what was requested. Much of the food itself – quality, selection, etc. - was on par with a Denny’s restaurant. Most fish was heavily breaded which overwhelmed the taste of the fish and the beef was nowhere near a premium grade. Aside from some of the breads, it seemed like all bakery and dessert products came out of a box or carton – none seemed fresh or for that matter were at all tasty – even below the Denny’s standard. Norwegian touts the fact that they have 12 (?) different restaurants providing a multitude of dining options for guests. The reality was that many of the restaurants shared as much as half of their entree selections with many of the other restaurants. This meant that when trying a new restaurant, their menu may only have a couple of entrees that we hadn’t seen previously at a different restaurant.
The buffets were typical cruise fare. I asked if there were any other jams/ jellies besides Smucker’s strawberry in those little plastic spoonful size cups. Answer was no – but there is a single marmalade available. I guess buying in bulk can lower the costs but it also sends a message that NCL is more interested in the bottom line than the satisfaction of customers.
Particularly disappointing was Moderno, the restaurant that was "exclusive" for VIP/ penthouse suite level guests - but just for breakfast and lunch. Based on our experiences, we would rate it to be among the lowest for quality of food, service and breadth of menu – which according to their chef, was the same for breakfast and lunch and for all 14 days of the cruise. We were told that the menu we saw on the first day of the cruise is the same as what we’d see on the last day of the cruise. Several other restaurants had no changes between lunch and dinner further limiting entrée options. Osheean’s did sometimes offer a “Daily special”. But for the most part, the food at the Freestyle dining places was fair to poor, the selection was limited and sometimes, the wait staff seemed overwhelmed or confused about who does what. The response time and service level was below par.
The lone exception of the above was the Tsars restaurant. Although a good portion of their menu is the same as the others, they had some unique and tasty alternate selections. They also had some small daily changes with 1 or 2 different entrée offerings. Tsars was the only eatery that we willingly returned to.
The “Specialty” restaurants were an obvious step up from the standard restaurants but none of our meals there would be considered 4 or 5 star meals. Cagney’s steaks were a little better than Outback but certainly not up to the standard of a Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good rib-eye but there was nothing “Wow” about it. The Tepanyaki was also good and the food was (obviously) fresh-cooked. We had tasty prawns and beef fillet with vegetables. To us, the Bistro was the best overall of the dining venues. Good variety, good service and the food taste and presentation were above par compared to the others. But even there, we were unable to get a truly delicious dessert.
So all-in-all, I’d rate the “Freestyle” food on this cruise at about a 2 out of 5 stars. And the specialty restaurants (average for those mentioned) at 3-½ stars.
The other negative about the cruise was the nickel/ diming that is pervasive and the seemingly obvious ways they try to cut corners and reduce their costs. I had read reviews about this prior to booking and when talking to the NCL salesperson, I said that I wanted an all-in price for a package that included all of everything (excluding excursions or direct purchases) – all fees, service charges, taxes, gratuities, all beverages, so that at the end of the cruise, there will be a zero balance on my account. Turns out, that is not what I got. Even though I had the premium beverage package, if I want a cappuccino after dinner, I’d have to pay $2.50 extra for that – but a $9.95 Irish coffee is included in the package. I can also get a $13 glass of wine or champagne for free but I can’t get a bottle of sparkling water – or just plain water in a bottle – without an upcharge. And for some reason, they exclude the butler gratuities for consideration in their “All Service Charges”. There is a $1 per minute charge for internet time once you go over the 250 free minutes. If someone is paying a good deal of money for a penthouse suite, there are certain amenities, privileges or benefits that are typically found on other cruise lines. That is not so much the case with Norwegian.
When we arrived, our carpet was soaked. Apparently someone had forgotten to close/seal the bulkhead door leading to the balcony and when they were washing down the balcony, water came under the door. It took 3 days to get the carpet dry. They offered a standard balcony room to use during the noisy and hot/humid drying out period but that would require repacking and unpacking twice in 3 days so we just decided stick it out. I realize that occasionally these types of things can happen and the director of hotel operations asked if there was anything he could do to make our stay more enjoyable. I said that unlimited internet would be nice and he said he would see what he could do. To me the immediate response should have been “of course” since there was really no added cost to NCL for this but again, in their nickel/dime propensity, they allowed only another 250 minutes. How cheap can you get!
At the end of the day, the question is would we ever sail on Norwegian again? Doubtful. We have been a little spoiled some by the quality of Cunard, Crystal and Celebrity and there is nothing that NCL offers anywhere near that caliber of cruise experience. After booking the cruise 8 months before sail date, I read many reviews about NCLs mediocrity and poor food and subsequently cancelled the cruise I originally booked. Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the NCL rep offering a better stateroom and a lower price on an earlier sail date. They pleaded for us to “give them a try” and we acquiesced. But even with lowered expectations, we were still disappointed. We’re glad we went because we wanted to go through the old canal once just for the historic value and the forward facing balcony couldn’t have been any better for viewing. But for most cruises, the cabin probably plays a relatively minor role in the overall cruise experience (assuming certain quality parameters are met). If there was a situation where NCL had the best (or only) itinerary for some destination we wanted to go to – and/ or the cost was 40% - 50% less, we would probably consider sailing with them again – with expectations greatly lowered because there really isn’t much of anything that boasts of quality or luxury about NCL.
On a positive note, the cruise director was very good and the entertainment in the theater good as well - especially the "Cirque" show. The lone issue that was done on par with other lines was the priority embarking and debarking for shore excursions (except for the tenders at one port where the poor ventilation allowed the tender to become filled with the diesel exhaust) and final debarkation.
The stateroom was a good size and pretty well thought out. There is about 6 feet of room at the foot of the full king size bed and another 6 feet to one side of the bed where there is a sofa bed(single). There is a standard, cruise size desk along one wall with a fairly small (26” ?) flat screen TV. Also has a DVD player with free access to a somewhat limited but adequate list of DVDs. There is a small (30” x 30”) table which can realistically accommodate 2 people. It was quite handy for room service and as a flat surface for accumulated miscellany. There were many features that utilized the space very well. The closet is a fair size (about 5 ft of hanger space) with doors on the hall/ entry side as well as the bathroom side – so it was essentially a walk-through closet. We were surprised at how many times, when both of us were getting dressed to go out, we took advantage of this feature.
The pillow-top king bed was very comfortable and had dense satin privacy curtains hanging from sliding tracks in the ceiling that completely cordoned off the sleeping space from the living area. This allowed one spouse to read or do whatever and not interfere with the other spouse napping of retiring earlier. Again, we were surprised at how often we took advantage of this feature.
The bathroom was also pretty good sized with a shower/tub combination and toilet area separated by a sliding door. It wouldn’t be considered “spacious” - but nor was it cramped.
For early risers, an especially appreciated amenity was the small espresso machine in the room. To get a good cup of coffee without having to leave the room was a great benefit. It brewed various coffees and tea.
The location of the stateroom is at the very front of the ship, one deck below the bridge. The deck/ balcony is quite large (15 ft x 15 ft approx.) and for a Panama Canal cruise really provided an optimal view of the whole lock system as well as the surrounding areas.
The butler and room steward we had were excellent. They were always prompt to respond to issues and were frequently pro-active in anticipating what would make our cruise more enjoyable. Throughout the ship, most all of the crew and staff were friendly, helpful and anxious to help out. There were only a couple of “that’s not my job” types that we ran into.
I would rate this room on a cost to value scale at a 4-½.