My wife and I decided to take a long holiday cruise vacation this year since our adult children were going to be staying with their partner’s families. While we usually prefer NCL’s style of cruising and passenger makeup we were also looking at other line’s offerings due to what we perceived as a recent diminishing of value in NCL. We were interested in a longer 12 to 20 day relaxing itinerary and after a bit of looking decided this recently added 14 day Panama Canal cruise from Miami to Los Angeles was being offered at an exceptional value. Inside guarantees were $899pp, and actually dropped to $649pp at about 30 days out. I felt part of this value and lackluster bookings may have been due to what I considered some poor ports on the itinerary or that the cruise was just at the very beginning of the better season for canal cruises, but after a few price drops the ship filled quickly and sold out.
We live in the central East Coast, USA and found very reasonable flights to and from Delta’s hub in Atlanta, GA. We actually flew into Fort Lauderdale airport one day early and rode Uber to the Hilton Garden Inn at Miami South Beach. The fare was $28 and the hotel was about the same cost as those near the FLL airport. The hotel did have an extra fee restaurant, but many better dining options were within reasonable walking or a short $3 ride away. Lincoln Road Mall offered a wide variety of things to do. In addition to providing a safety cushion for flight travel plans, the extra day in Miami provided a nice beach stop and gave us a chance to visit the city, as we were last there in the mid 1990’s.
As there were no scheduled arrival times for this cruise we arrived at the port about 9:45, a little earlier than normal, but I was afraid getting a ride to the port might become more difficult as the morning progressed. There were five ships embarking at the port of Miami that morning. I felt better about it when first on board around 11:45, I looked out to see both the MacArthur Causeway and Venetian Way between Miami Beach and access to the port in a terrible traffic jam. We were among the first 200 people lining up for the security check to open, which began around 10:00. There were two unusual incidents at embarkation. One was unfortunate as a young boy got his arm caught in the rollers of one of the x-ray machines (I met his parents later in the cruise – after a day in the Miami hospital they were all able to catch the ship in Cartagena and the boy was expected to fully recover). This incident caused a lengthy complete shutdown of all the security lines and created a very long line outside the terminal building. This is port security, mainly looking for contraband, and not like a security breach at an airport so it seemed a little of an overreaction to me, but everyone found it hard to complain when a child was injured. This may have been a factor in our late sail away, but was probably also because the ship had a lot of provisioning to do as it had just come from a two week cruise going right into another.
The second quirk at embarkation was with check-in and had to do with priority suite check-in. Jewel class ships have both Haven and regular suites, but the newer ships that normally embark at this Miami terminal only have Haven suites. After passing through security I looked for the suite check-in area and noticed the area with a sign that said “The Haven”. I entered the room and asked the agent at the desk if this was also the check-in for the other non-Haven suites, clarifying we had a two bedroom family suite not a mini-suite. She replied “No, all non-Haven suites must use the regular lines”. A little put off, we went on only to find they were funneling all check-in into the same line, no Latitudes preference, no suite preference, nothing. Luckily we were early and it only took about 15 minutes to get to an agent who took our pictures and credit card info then he asked why we were in this line rather than at the suite check-in. He then had to take us back to the “Haven” room to get our sail away cards. After admitting her error the “Haven” check-in lady went out to find several other passengers she had misdirected. We enjoyed some snacks, met some fellow cruise critic roll call passengers and were moved to another suite holding area then escorted onto the ship about 11:30.
It is hard to give advice about cabin choice because it is a balance between personal preferences and budget. I’m willing to track cabin prices and research which cabins to avoid as I tend to like having a cabin I can retreat to from the crowds you can experience on a ship, yet we do have limited funds for cruising so suites are not always an option. I am picky about what cabins I book, as I am a fairly light sleeper, and hate noise in the early morning or late in the night. I originally had booked an ocean view picture window on deck five forward under the meeting rooms. Later, to take advantage of better promotions and a price drop, I moved to an aft deck eight ocean view above the shopping gallery. At the time the cruise was not selling well and we hoped for a late discounted upsell to a better cabin, but if not we would be okay with what we booked. As the cruise became close it was apparent the only budget upsells I would take were going to be to a balcony, which is not a real increase in cabin size. I was unwilling to take a mini-suite as they were all below the pool deck, buffet or kitchens. The only suites left were several non-Haven two bedroom suites, and only three were in good locations as several were under the fitness center. After much discussion with my wife and a significant price drop we did a full paid upgrade to the two bedroom family suite. Moving to this room doubled the cost of our cruise, but we went from 155sqft to 546sqft plus a balcony and all of the suite perks, beverages, dining, internet, and paid gratuities. We had the small extra bedroom set up as a bed in case someone really started snoring and the second toilet came in handy on more than a few occasions. We had several meals in the room and the table and dining area were large enough for additional guests. The bedroom and master bath area can be divided from the living room with a sliding glass door letting late sleepers do their thing away from early risers. The living room couch could be made into a decent bed for two but would be at the mercy of the night owls and early risers. On a two week cruise we decided the expense was worth it as I feel this cabin is pretty close to the ultimate cabin for two people – I like it better than any other penthouses and most of the owner’s suites. The only bad thing about this cabin was it is under the hard floor hair salon section of the Mandara Spa, a couple times we heard someone in high heels walking early in the morning. You could also lightly hear them vacuuming the Library a few rooms over early each morning.
Overall, the condition of the ship was better than what I was expecting. Jewel went through a modest refurbish in 2014 and does show her age if you look for it, some worn carpets and bubbling paneling in public places. There were propulsion problems on earlier cruises in Alaska and the Mexican Riviera that affected a couple cruises before us, we had no problems. Having sailed on a few of the larger, newer ships I am willing to overlook these flaws and forego the big ship attractions in exchange for fewer passengers and a less crowded feeling. Based on the itinerary and passenger demographic I think the ship was at normal capacity around 2376, averaging two per stateroom. I did not ask the total passenger count, but do know the cruise was sold out cabin wise. We never felt crowded or had trouble getting into events/areas. Get to the theater early as late comers will find there is a reason those seats in good areas are unoccupied, there were several that were broken and uncomfortable. If you think you will get two poolside loungers at 9:30 on a sea day think again, but there were always plenty just a little further out or on the overlooking deck. The ship now has all the standard NCL dining and entertainment options for this size vessel. I was disappointed the TV system was not updated to the newer standard as they still use DVD players rather than on-demand movies and are not interactive with ship information. The iConcierge app for cell phones/tablets was useful for viewing dining and activities but would display totally erroneous billing information. NCL’s decision to retain the Spinnaker as a forward observation lounge (lost on the Dawn class and newer ships) was a good one for passengers. The Fyzz lounge was underutilized and would be great if used like on the newer ships for a “Howl at the Moon” piano bar and/or small comedian venue that I missed from other NCL cruises.
While we have not noticed a change either way in the complimentary restaurant food quality we do prefer to eat at the specialty restaurants as they tend to have higher quality offerings. Our initial booking gave us the beverage package and pre-paid gratuities as the promotions so we purchased a ten meal specialty dining package as it’s more reasonable per meal. Once we moved to a suite we received four specialty meals so I backed our paid plan to six meals. I get bored with the repetitive lunch menus and I assumed they would open specialty restaurants for lunch on sea days as on other ships, but this was not the case on the Jewel. We only ate in the Tsar’s Palace MDR and found the food fairly good while service was hit or miss as there seemed to be a large amount of servers in training. I assume Azura MDR was similar. Finding a good meal there requires some common sense, when you have an Indian executive chef you can bet those dishes are going to be pretty good. Vegetarian lasagna rolls are never going to be good, even the vegetarians have a lot of better choices. The Garden Café buffet had several tasty offerings in addition to the old standard hot dogs, hamburgers, etc… but the food could lose temperature and freshness quickly. Seating would get crowded at expected times. We went a couple times for lunch on sea days. I noticed a lot of people tend to use the buffet seating area near the windows as a lounge, reading books or on their computers. We always could find room at the aft Great Outdoors area or if we wanted to stay inside we would just ask to sit with others that have room at their table. We met several very nice people that way. O’Sheehan’s had basic pub comfort food and was never crowded. French fry quality was hit or miss. We would just ask for another batch if we got cold ones and they happily accommodated. We would only rate Chin Chin Asian restaurant as fair because the food was overly salty and lacked genuine flavor. It was rarely busy. Specialty dining restaurants were generally of higher quality in both food and service. We ate at them all and my favorites were Teppanyaki for the seafood and Cagney’s for the steaks. All dishes on the menu at Le Bistro were cooked to order, I particularly liked the Lamb. Moderno was good and we enjoyed the buffet bar more than the meats, if you want something cooked towards rare you have to make a special request. La Cucina was the only restaurant we felt not worth paying extra for as I think the food quality was the same as that of the buffet, based on locations that may be true. Service was mostly outstanding in the specialty restaurants however one meal in Le Bistro took over two and a half hours, with us waiting 15 minutes before meeting our obviously new waitress, the restaurant was not crowded at the time. I feel that due to people getting the promo of only four specialty meals on a 14 day cruise was why most specialty restaurants were fairly empty. The exceptions were Teppanyaki, which often showed fully booked even though they were only using two of the four grills and Cagney’s on the last two days. We made reservations 90 days before the cruise but had no problems making changes, even when not through the concierge.
This itinerary had six sea days plus a day on the ship in the Panama Canal. When we looked at the Freestyle Daily there was a deluge of activities listed, however that is one point I will call a flaw with this ship. It might just be that I’m not into activities like towel folding, origami, ping pong, dance classes, etc… and have no desire for the thinly veiled emerald, herbal remedies or Peter Max “seminars”. NCL did have a Panama Canal authority member broadcasting narrative information on the day we passed through. We are not gamblers and do know the odds on cruise ships well enough to keep it a seldom used entertainment source. I knew the itinerary would give us a lot of time on board so one “activity” we did pay extra for was the thermal spa access. We have used the spas on most of NCL’s ships. While the price was reasonable at $179pp for the two weeks I felt it was barely worth the money primarily due to the spa’s design. I much prefer the ships that have mostly co-ed areas with only unisex changing rooms. The men’s and women’s separate areas were too large and totally underutilized. Frequently we were the only two in the thermal spa co-ed area, a few times two or three other people were in there. One major complaint is the relaxation areas are under the Spinnaker stage so forget any chance at relaxation when the bands or shows are going on. I will include here that the internet speed seemed adequate. I did not try streaming video or making VOIP phone calls, just basic emails and some social websites. We used only about half of the promotional 250 minute package.
Overall service on the ship was very good. We never experienced more than a two minute wait at a bar and actually could find poolside servers, both things we found lacking on our previous NCL cruise in March. We never found a staff person unfriendly or unwilling to help. After a day or two we found which areas we preferred and the staff soon recognized us by name or beverage choice. We do agree with NCL’s basic daily service charge policy but also feel a small gesture of appreciation goes a long way towards staff happiness and better service, especially at repeat venues like bars, the theater and even restaurants. Our cabin steward was very good but obviously tired. Our butler was also very good, I would be grateful to have him again if he decides to sign up for another contract after 12 years with NCL. The concierge, Bruno, did all that was expected and more. There did appear to be a higher than normal amount of new, inexperienced or training staff, perhaps a higher than normal turn over or maybe training for the new ship(s). The lack of experience was noticeable at times, but all put forth the effort and were accommodating.
While I tend to be more reclusive and would be happy in the spa or lounging in the cabin my wife enjoys NCL for the entertainment. Apart from the aforementioned finding a comfortable seat, I found the shows were enjoyable. They are definitely not what you get on the larger ships, although the final night show Le Cirque Bijou was close, but you also don’t have to worry about reservations. The acrobats, dancers, comedians, and staff talent show were all enjoyable. I didn’t enjoy the cover bands as much as my wife did. On this cruise all the suites were being allowed into the private Garden Villa/Owners Suite balcony area. We only sat there when dinner got us to the theatre too close to show time, otherwise better seats were available. Keep that seat availability idea within reason as I would still arrive at least 15 minutes before the show. That gives plenty of time for a good seat choice and to get some drinks. The only downside to the shows was the constant interruption of latecomers trying to find a seat, sometimes thirty minutes into the show. NCL really needs to enforce a no entry after the show starts policy. We do not sit in the lounges to watch the musical entertainers, but they seemed to attract audiences. For some reason I found it uncommon to be at the pool when a live band was playing; they were always setting up or taking things down with short sets in between. As mentioned above, Fyzz lounge would be great for a dueling piano or alternative comedian venue. Many entertainment and activities there were mediocre and poorly attended and most people seemed to prefer the Spinnaker Lounge. Bingo did not draw us in, but was well attended on the final day for the chance to win a free cruise. Deal or No Deal games were held in the theater and not well attended compared to the Away ships, maybe that is why they keep holding it in the atrium as it’s an obvious money maker for the ship.
We were lucky enough to have multiple choices for disembarkation. Additionally we planned on staying in Los Angeles after the cruise so did not have an early flight to catch. We had Latitudes priority, could carry our own luggage for easy walk off and also could use the concierge for early walk off or use suite priority baggage tags. To make the most of our first day in LA we used Bruno for early walk off and were in the first twenty people off the ship. The line for walk off began forming early but only had about 40 people in it at 7:45 as our group left, they immediately followed our group off the ship. NCL actually docks at the San Pedro port right next to the USS Iowa battleship museum. Customs had seven or eight stations so I do not expect the lines became unbearable. I did not see any porters, but we may have been through too early. There were ample taxis, shuttles and Uber available. We had rented a car through Hertz on Sixth Street a few blocks from the port. They offer $7 towards a cab, but we decided to walk as it was nice enough along the waterfront promenade. Hertz gave us the $7 credit anyway. We later dropped the car off at LAX airport with very minimal fees.
Part of this cruise was to determine if we would continue to use NCL as over the last couple years we felt NCL’s product was diminishing in value primarily based on recent customer unfriendly administrative regulations, cut backs and reduced menu/beverage choices. While some of these changes have been happening over the last two years there were four significant negative changes made after I booked and the only way I was made aware was through cruise critic, NCL quietly made the changes to their website and menus. While I won’t go into that here you can find more banter about those topics on the cruise critic NCL community forums. While these changes did have an effect on our experience I cannot say they would make me chose another line solely based on them. I realize being in a suite probably insulated us from some things like the room service fees and the dreaded nickel and dime claims for getting any extras - we paid them up front by booking a suite for a more all-inclusive feeling. With some of these changes a little willingness to make substitutions like bringing our own reusable water bottles, eating scallops rather than lobster and drinking beverage plan covered Bulleit or Jameson rather than the now extra fee The Glen Livet and we still felt fine. I have no solution for Coke diehards who cannot make it between ports. I do feel the cost for getting a more all-inclusive NCL cruise has increased as a whole, and currently initial suite prices are shocking. If you are tempted to want the extras be prepared, but with a bit of work and research you can still find some deals with NCL. I did not purchase any Cruise Next certificates but I will still look at NCL for future cruises. Because this is Cruise Critic I am relaying complaints on what overall I feel was a good value for the money spent. I don’t feel anything I mentioned either individually or even cumulatively overly affected our cruise experience. I think you have to be prepared for these little annoyances or cruising might not be for you. Many of these reviews are full of complaints blaming NCL for a myriad of things. While I have found NCL can often be its own worst enemy and can really drop the ball on occasion most of these complaints are due to lack of research into the product people are purchasing. So if you have made it through this review this far I hope you continue to read many other reviews and into the forums to better your cruising experience.
After much discussion with my wife and a significant price drop we did a full paid upgrade to the two bedroom family suite. Moving to this room doubled the cost of our cruise, but we went from 155sqft to 546sqft plus a balcony and all of the suite perks, beverages, dining, internet, and paid gratuities. We had the small extra bedroom set up as a bed in case someone really started snoring and the second toilet came in handy on more than a few occasions. We had several meals in the room and the table and dining area were large enough for additional guests. The bedroom and master bath area can be divided from the living room with a sliding glass door letting late sleepers do their thing away from early risers. The living room couch could be made into a decent bed for two but would be at the mercy of the night owls and early risers. On a two week cruise we decided the expense was worth it as I feel this cabin is pretty close to the ultimate cabin for two people – I like it better than any other penthouses and most of the owner’s suites. The only bad thing about this cabin was it is under the hard floor hair salon section of the Mandara Spa, a couple times we heard someone in high heels walking early in the morning. You could also lightly hear them vacuuming the Library a few rooms over early each morning.
Well worth staying an extra day or two before or after a cruise. We stayed in Miami Beach. We considered an oceanfront resort, but found the Hilton Garden South Beach a more affordable, recently renovated historic building and a very short walk to the beach with easy access to restaurants, shopping and entertainment. It was a much quieter are than those hotels further south.
Port stop was a short 8am to 2pm. Several couples from our Cruise Critic roll call booked the City Tour with Dora De Zubiria. With three ships in port she booked up early and we were in a "Group Two" with Veronica, Dora's niece. Dora's team was waiting for our group of 12 with signs right at the pier. We had a clean, large van with PA so everyone could hear. We enjoyed the time at La Popa, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas and in the walled city, but could have spent less time in the Dungeons (tourist shops) and Emerald Museum (jewelry store).View All 367 City Tour Reviews
A visit to the Monteverde cloud forest was one of the reasons we booked this cruise. We chose Thumbs Up Tours and arranged a private group with eight of our CC roll call members. We were met just outside the port gates and had plenty of room inside a nice Mercedes van. Our guide Ronald obviously had a biology background and we had a photographer Albert who sent us pictures after the cruise. Weather was 20 degrees F lower than at the port and very refreshing. The flora, birds and monkeys along the roads, trails and swinging bridges at the Selvatura Nature Park were awesome. We stopped at the hummingbird garden afterwards, highlight of the cruise for my wife. Well worth the 80 minute ride.View All 28 Rainforest Tour Reviews
CC doesn't offer Corinto, Nicaragua as a choice but I wanted to include this information so my apologies to Zadar. Our roll call members booked three vans with Julio Tours, we found ours easily just outside the port gates and headed for a Leon City tour, about an hour drive from port. While I heard fairly positive reviews from other vans unfortunately we had a disinterested guide, Sergio, who barely spoke the entire excursion. To make matters worse I was unaware of how far behind other Central American countries Nicaragua is. This is not a port or city I would want to visit again. There are some very touristy 8-in-1 offerings nearby the port that would have been better.View All 31 City Tour Reviews
After looking over Antigua on Google Photo Sphere I decided another colonial city was not going to add much to this cruise. We booked spa packages directly with Santa Teresita Hotel and Thermal Spa who sent a van to pick us and another CC couple up at the port. They offer a multitude of thermal and regular pools and several massage packages. The facility is oriented towards native Guatemalans, but hey are working on becoming more English friendly. We barely speak the basics and we had no trouble. It is a fantastic facility with views of the volcanoes about an hour from the port, the same as Antigua.
Acapulco was one port I was not interested in. Unfortunately the violence that began a few years ago (there are still US travel advisories) has damaged the tourism industry and most cruise lines no longer visit the port. The main tourist areas are now safer with the large, noticeable influx of federal and military police. We spent as little time on land as necessary and went snorkeling with Swiss Divers Association using their free five minute shuttle from the port gates. SDA is located nearby on Las Playas peninsula under an derelict relic of a hotel. The boats were a bit rough but the equipment was good. We had nine people on our boat with plenty of time in the water. We saw a decent amount of sea life, but very little coral.View All 9 Snorkeling Reviews
Again we had a short stop from 7am to 2pm (tendered), so several CC roll call members independently booked a 2.5 hour covered boat excursion with Whale Watch Cabo. WWC is located an easy walk along the port perimeter, the office is on the backside of the front shops and could use a sign. We had 12 people on our clean, newer boat. The only downside is that government whale disturbance laws are not enforced and it was a bit of wild west mentality with competing tour companies. Our guide was obviously well educated in the marine biology field and would not infringe on the whales space, unfortunately other competing ships didn't care and would practically hit the whales trying to get close. WWC also emailed us photos after the cruise.View All 90 Whale Watching Reviews
We spent some time in LA after the cruise. We rented a car near the San Pedro port and later dropped it off at LAX airport, very reasonable rates. We stayed reasonably at the Hilton Garden El Segundo - free parking won me over. What can I say, it's LA. We've now done most of the touristy things: Beaches, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, movie studios, amusement parks and the La Brea pits. Definitely worth some extra time, especially for an East coast dweller.