My goal this time around is to keep this short and sweet — or at least shorter than most of my previous reviews. :) I don't believe reviews that are all glowing or all scathing, so you'll find a mix here. The bottom line is that anything that momentarily annoyed me or compared unfavorably to past cruises did not affect my overall appreciation of this cruise at all. This was a wonderful trip, the ship is amazing, and the itinerary was top-notch. We love NCL, and we'll definitely be sailing with them again.
My husband and I are in our early 30s and this was our eighth cruise together, our fourth in a row on NCL. We've grown to love the "Freestyle" philosophy, we love the ships' layout and appearance, and, since we're big fans of food (ha), we appreciate all the specialty restaurant options (more on that later).
As in the past, since I hate to fly, we picked a cruise leaving out of NYC and booked a night at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Newark, NJ, which has a good stay-and-park deal that allows us to leave our vehicle there while we're cruising. (The hotel itself is nice enough, but this was probably our last time staying there, as we've had multiple run-ins with the same rude employee and we've grown weary of it.)
We had a service called Fortas Limousine pick us up in NJ, and they came in a Navigator, a welcome sight considering the sheets of ice covering the roads that day (Feb. 2). They were efficient, on time and pleasant. We'd use them again.
Embarkation went smoothly, as it always has for us with NCL. We arrived at the port around 11 and were on the ship by just after 12.
We previously sailed on Jewel's sister ship, Gem, so we were already pretty familiar with the layout. There were a few touches and amenities that Gem had that Jewel lacked — we missed Gem's Bliss nightclub, for one, and what's up with the dollhouse-like furniture in the Jewel's atrium? — but all in all, she's a gorgeous ship. Everything was spotlessly clean and attractive. The layout is easy to navigate, and everything is spaced well enough that there rarely seemed to be congestion.
Our favorite place to hang out was Bar City, the convergence of three bars — Maltings Whiskey Bar, Magnum's Wine and Champagne Bar and Shakers Martini Bar — in one area. The Spinnaker Lounge, with its forward-facing windows and colorful furniture, was gorgeous as well.
My husband fell in love with the Chill Out Lounge, the private spa area. It was $119 per person for the 10-day cruise, and it featured a room at the bow, lined with windows, containing heated ceramic lounge chairs and a thalassotherapy pool. There also were gender-specific areas containing a Jacuzzi, tropical showers, a plunge bath, steam room, sauna and lockers. This was a great place to read or relax — when there weren't too many people. They only sold 50 passes (or so they claim), but the women's area seemed bustling most days, and unfortunately (despite the myriad of signs begging patrons to be silent) there was a lot of loud, disruptive talking. There were fewer men, though, so my husband found it a great place to get peace and quiet. All in all, it was worth the money, though Norwegian Dawn's private spa area far exceeded Jewel's in quality, with more co-ed amenities like a warm freshwater lap pool and Jacuzzi.
The gym is probably the site of my biggest complaints. (If you don't work out, you can completely skip this part — you won't care.) I'm kind of a gym rat, and I tend to go a little bonkers on food on cruises, so I usually work out twice a day. The gym is open 6 a.m.-10 p.m., yet they advertise that the weights and treadmills are only open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Um, why? And it turns out, that's not exactly true. I got up every morning to work out at 6 a.m., and some of the treadmills were available, and some were roped off. This makes no sense to me. On Gem, the gym was open 24 hours, so why is the gym only open some hours on other NCL ships, and why is some equipment even more limited? It's been my experience that a lot of die-hard gym people like to get up early, so putting a restriction on the equipment like that just seems ridiculous.
Also, as on every other NCL cruise I've been on, the front desk tried to tell me the gym wasn't open the morning of disembarkation. But, as on every other NCL cruise, it WAS. So if you like working out ... you might not want to take them at their word. I marched down there that morning and sure enough, it was open. I learned my lesson from previous cruises.
Lastly, this has nothing to do with NCL — and they actually enforced it well — but please, people: don't let your young children run around the gym, banging on the equipment. On the first day, I saw a woman with multiple kids in the gym, and while she rode a bike, her kids loudly abused the rowing machines and dashed around until a crew member was forced to ask them to leave. Come on ... have some courtesy. There are plenty of children's facilities, and the gym isn't one of them. OK, I'll get off my soapbox now!
One thing that really disappointed my husband was a lack of a cigar bar. I'm no fan of smoking, but he likes to smoke cigars while on vacation, and we spent a lot of time hanging out in the Havana Club cigar bar on the Dawn last year. He was bummed to learn that the Jewel had inexplicably gotten rid of its cigar bar. The area where it once was is still there (and it's still on the deck plans), near Bar City; it even still has cigar posters — right above "no smoking" signs. The worst part of this is that though cigarette smokers have all kinds of places they can light up, including the casino, cigar smokers are forced to smoke outside at the Sky High Bar, which was often windy and cool and, thanks to wall-mounted blue lights, has all the ambiance of a patio with those obnoxious bug zapper lights. If you're going to make so many accommodations for cigarette smokers, can't there at least be one indoor place for cigar smokers? This didn't ruin our trip by any means, but I disliked the Sky High Bar so much that my husband usually ended up there alone, whereas on the Dawn, we could hang out together, relax, and meet new people.
We were in 5528, an oceanview. It was like every other NCL cabin we've ever been in. Nicely laid out. Love the sliding shower door versus the curtain that allows bathroom flooding on other cruise lines.
As on all of our NCL cruises, the food was great, with a few misses and a whole lot of hits. We love the fact that the dining room and buffet food is typically very good, so eating in the specialty restaurants isn't a necessity, if you don't want to fork over the cover charge. But it's nice to have the option.
We actually ate in more specialty restaurants this time than ever before. We tried Tango's, Teppanyaki, Le Bistro, Cagney's and Mama's, the Italian restaurant. We enjoyed all of them. For main dining rooms, we preferred the ambiance of Azura, but both seemed fine. (Azura and Tsar's Palace serve the same menu.)
The buffet, Garden Cafe, was extensive and well-organized to distribute passengers and try to alleviate crowds. There was always a plethora of hot entrees, excellent pizza, burgers, the best salad bar I've ever seen at sea, and tons of desserts. If anyone tells you it's impossible to find a seat, they're not venturing far enough down the line. There always were plenty of seats to be had.
My "must-eats" of the trip, in my opinion: the chocolate chip cookies and double chocolate chip cookies in Garden Cafe, the onion soup and mussels at Le Bistro, the truffle-oil fries and espresso brownie at Cagney, the apple streusel pie and chocolate Bavarian creme in the main dining room, the chicken fajitas and cinnamon chocolate cake at Tango's, the shrimp and fried rice in Teppanyaki, and the foccacia bread and chicken parmagiana at Mama's.
Over the years, we've kind of come to terms with the fact that sailing NCL means giving up a little bit of the personalized service you get on other ships. On most ships where you have a set dining time, you have the same server every day in the dining room, and you develop a rapport. On NCL, you never know who you might have. And, in the past, we've never met our room stewards on NCL, unlike on other lines.
That said, this time, we did meet our stewards on the first day, and they greeted us every morning in the hall and were very responsive to our needs. And we met a bar server in Bar City, Chastine Aliser, who was exceptional, always remembering what we liked, greeting us, chatting with us. We went back every evening to buy drinks from her. Gusti, in the martini bar, was constantly attracting a crowd, performing tricks like balancing glasses on his head and making napkin roses for the women.
In fact, overall, we would say the general service on this ship was the best we've seen on four NCL cruises. It was excellent.
The cruise director, Silas, was friendly, but I felt he wasn't as visible as some past cruise directors, and had kind of a ... car salesman-type aura to him. And the announcements by him, the captain and the assistant cruise director, "Ferdilicious," seemed interminable. Short and sweet, please! We're trying to relax!
My husband and I don't go to many shows, but we went to the welcome aboard show, which is a good way to get a feel for the various performers on the ship, and the Cirque Bijou on the last night, which we declared the best show we've ever seen at sea. It had music, dancers, acrobats — it was amazing, even more so than the similar production on the Dawn.
We went to a few art seminars, which were interesting. We like the art auctions, but were trying not to spend too much money, so avoided those this time. ;) My husband attended an NCL-U Scotch tasting event at Malting's (for an extra charge) and loved it. After eyeing some of the fitness courses all week, I took pilates in the gym on the last day ($12) with Adrian from Australia. There were only two of us in the class, and it was really fun. (My abs hurt for days afterward!)
I also splurged on a port day deal at the spa and got a full-body massage, scalp massage and facial for $129. On past cruises, I've sometimes been disappointed by the quality of the spa treatments relative to the cost, but not this time. Sarah from Australia gave me the best massage I've ever had!
We sat for a few minutes in a Broadway performance by the production cast in Spinnaker but left when we didn't seem to know any of the songs — they were all obscure. But the singers did have beautiful voices.
We weren't a huge fan of the piano player in Bar City (too much Carpenters, ugh!) but RJ Red, the guitarist, was very good if you like folksy music. We saw Twist of 8, a pop/rock musical group, a few times around the ship and thought they were great, and we also enjoyed the calypso group that often played on deck.
The itinerary was excellent on this cruise. We'd been to all of the ports before, but we didn't mind.
We had two sea days right off the bat; the first was cold, the second was fairly nice.
The first stop was San Juan where we just walked around and took pictures before getting back on the ship. The city is filled with history and gorgeous buildings, plants and statues are plentiful. I bought a churro from a street vendor that was the best I've ever had. We had considered doing the bioluminescent bay kayak trip, but I was too lazy to take the lengthy ride by bus to the site (I have the attention span of a gnat!).
In St. Thomas, we'd planned to shop and then go to Magen's Bay, but we decided instead, after doing some shopping, to just relax on the ship.
In Antigua, I insisted on going back to what I am convinced is the most beautiful beach in the world: Dickenson Bay. As before, we asked the cab to take us to Tony's Watersports, and we rented chairs beneath a thatched umbrella and read and relaxed. The sand is smooth and white, the water is turquoise, and the entire scene is just breath-taking. People constantly approach you to sell you bracelets, horseback riding excursions and, heh, even some "local herb," but they're generally friendly when you politely turn them down, and it isn't too intrusive.
We took an NCL excursion in St. Maarten, a lagoon kayaking trip across Simpson Bay. It was really cool. Our guides, David and Oliver from Tri-Sport, led us in double kayaks across the bay, where there were dozens of yachts, and to the place where the imaginary line divides Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin. David showed us mangroves, plucked a jellyfish and sea cucumber out of the water, and told us about the island's history. I had never kayaked before, but we caught on fairly quickly. It was definitely worth doing.
We'd booked an outside excursion through another company in Tortola, to visit Virgin Gorda, but it got cancelled due to lack of participants. So I just wandered out to the local market for a few minutes, which was pretty much the standard collection of touristy shirts and knick-knacks, tote bags, flimsy dresses and cheap swimsuit coverups. Otherwise, we just stayed on the ship. We'd been to Tortola before and found it pretty but a little sedate for our tastes, so we didn't have much interest in doing anything else.
Two sea days back: It was still warm and pleasant the next day, then got cold again the last day before getting back to NYC.
Disembarkation went smoothly. We learned long ago after a bad experience on Carnival that we have no desire to do the "easy walk-off" where you carry your own luggage and get off first. Unless your definition of "easy" is people screaming and practically stampeding in the halls, I wouldn't recommend it (to be fair, we've never tried it on NCL). Also, we really don't care if we're the last people off the ship. So we took the colored luggage tags for the last group to be called (although apparently we would have had to anyway, as for the first time, NCL had required certain decks to take certain colors, and we were on 5).
After eating breakfast and cleaning out our stateroom, we waited in Bar City and played cards, then got off easily around 10:30 when our color was announced. The only small annoyance was having to stand outside in the cold in line for 15-20 minutes, waiting to get into the terminal, because there was a backup at the escalators. It was quite the jolt after 85 degrees in the Caribbean. We found our bags easily, grabbed a porter, got a cab, and we were off.
We're booked on Carnival for next February, but we can't wait until we can cruise NCL again. We loved every minute of this trip and would definitely recommend it!
If you have any questions or would like to see pics of any particular part of the ship (I took hundreds), please feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com . Happy sailing! Read Less