I worked a summer in the print shop aboard the QE2 back in college and while we didn’t get to experience the passenger food much, we got to see the shows and bars. Then some 13 years ago, I did a photography cruise to Alaska on HA which was very nice. There were classes during sea days, a group to eat with at dinner, the food was spectacular in their MDR. It was scheduled dining and by the 2nd day, our server knew what I wanted to drink. There was a bit of fanfare surrounding the initial departure, one night was an amazing dessert offering where the chefs got to show off with ice sculptures and sugar art we normally only see on cooking shows, and the final night they served baked Alaska in the MDR complete with staff presentation.
So perhaps I went into my NCL cruise with unreasonable expectations that all cruises were like this. I knew some lines had a reputation for being party cruises, and I'm definitely not a partier, but this seemed a good option. It was a similar itinerary to my last cruise, but I was going with friends, so liked the idea of going again.
Embarkation was surprisingly smooth. We arrived around 1pm. Unlike my last cruise that provided physical luggage tags in advance, we were somehow expected to print our own. Not that printing is a problem, but protecting those tags through the abuse of bag handling seemed tricky. We didn't print our tags mostly due to oversight, but the porter grabbed our bags from the car, took them to a tent where they gave us proper tags, wrote our room number on it and added them to a truck. Then it was a long walk through the building to a short line before the check in desk.
Once on the ship, we were able to go to our room right away and leave our carry on bags. From there, we went to O'Sheehans. I had researched menus online and had expected to spend a lot of time there as many things looked good. One review specifically raved about the wings, so we got some wings as a snack. Buffalo style, with the requisite blue cheese (I live in Texas where they prefer Ranch on them for some reason!) The wings were ok, but were oddly sweet and a bit spindly.
That evening, we went to Summer Palace. They went through the motions of a higher end restaurant, but the food was disappointing. I got the Pappardelle pasta with tender duck, shiitake mushrooms, green peas, and duck jus. Presentation was decent, but the dish was bland, with the duck being bit dry and stringy. The noodles were blistered, probably from being reheated in a pan rather than par cooked and boiled as needed as is normal. I got the chocolate lava cake for dessert, but it had no lava and was a bit dry, suggesting it was overcooked.
Unfortunately, these turned out not to be isolated cases. The next day we went to O’Sheehans for lunch and I got Shepards pie, a favorite at home. This version had maybe 1/4” of minced filler consisting of indistinguishable ingredients (think a dryer sloppy Joe mix), with an equal amount of mashed potatoes that were toasted. And while you want toasted potatoes, you would expect to have enough for them to be moist inside. This dish required a significant amount of salt and pepper to make it edible.
We went to Moderno that night and this was actually decent. It wasn’t Fogo de Chao, the chain we have in Dallas that actually has a location in Brazil and all the staff are from there, but it was good for the price. The best part was the grilled pineapple, though once it had come by once, it was hard to get more. We asked, and while the table next to us had been to Moderno previously and expressed their love for the pineapple and actually got a plate of it brought to them, we had to ask several times to get another visit from the pineapple guy. It was early in the evening, but it was clear the number of people bringing the meat around were limited and so it wasn’t a matter of sending the right person over, if you wanted more of something specific, they might have to go get it from the kitchen instead of what they were currently offering.
One day, we ate at the free asian place for lunch, it was ok, the lunch entree options were really limited (3 options I think) so what I got wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great.
In Skagway, we went to a seafood place near the ship and had king crab. Later that evening, we wanted a snack, so went to Indigo and got salads and dessert. The waiter thought it was funny when we told him we were skipping the entree. I don’t remember the salad, I think it was just ok, the ranch dressing was weirdly thick. For dessert, I got the apple pie, which I believe was grocery store grade, not really even apple slices, more of a gel. I could press on the top crust and it would balloon out and then retract when released.
It seemed that everything was from mixes or pre-made. A friend wanted a frozen rum runner like they had on an NCL cruise in the Caribbean, but were told they couldn’t get it because they didn’t have the mix. Is it really so hard to stock and use base ingredients?
Cagneys was decent, probably the best food we had on the ship, but not better than a middle-grade steakhouse on shore. Even discounted, steaks were still in the $20 range. Sides were cheap, and ultimately they didn’t charge for the sides or desserts. This became a trend. We are with friends at Cucina later and they did the same thing, not charging for the appetizers. It’s probably an effort to increase tip, but since the tip is pre-applied to the bill, I don’t think it works for them. If we had to write it in, I’d be more likely to do that.
On later visits to O’Sheehans (for convenience, mostly) we tried the spinach artichoke dip, which was pleasantly creamy and perfectly edible, but lacked any seasoning beyond the cheeses. Same with the nachos. We got them without the jalapeños and it consisted of chips with a thin cheese sauce poured over. It was better than Velveeta and was also edible, but on par with ballpark fare, maybe. We went to describing the food as inoffensive. One visit we were greeted by the manager and sat by the window which was nice. But then spent a really long time waiting for our waiter. I began staring at the manager who wandered around, made a call, but otherwise seemed oblivious to this. Finally, he noticed and got us water at about the time our server came by. The person who turned out to be our server did walk by a few times previously, but was bringing stuff to other tables, so I can’t really fault him.
One thing that I found really offensive was the menu at O’Sheehans was not edited at all. Under the Irish Classics heading, was the description for hamburgers, followed by the Irish dishes. On the following page, was From The Grill, followed by the description for hotdogs, under which, was the three hot dog options, but this was followed with no line break by fajitas, and them immediately with the three hamburger options. It was super awkward to read and make sense of. If this were like the QE2 and menus were printed daily, then I would have expected it would be fixed. But I left a comment card about this and nothing changed. The menus had little date codes in the corners suggesting they were a corporate approved thing, which means they’re really not paying attention to even basic details. Ironically, the burger I had, was the best of everything I ate there, though the fries were soggy and limp.
We went to the late night snack buffet one night and were really disappointed that the extent of the sweets consisted of a couple hotel continental breakfast grade pastries, and a couple store-bought cookies. There were some soups, cereal and a few other things, but not at all what I expected. We did happen upon an afternoon snack at the Great Outdoors that was a bit better, but still nothing baked on the ship. We went to the buffet for breakfast a couple times too. It was similarly disappointing, one day there was a 4” slab of solid scrambled eggs, the next day that was broken into granules of egg. The bacon was not rubbery but wasn’t crispy either. There were two omelet stations but only one cook manning each so not exactly efficient. There was a fresh juice station which seemed like a hint of quality until I saw that it was $3.25/glass.
In contrast to the food, I thought the room was very nice. It was an inside room, nothing special. I had read that they had shrunk the cabins, but it still seemed fine. There was plenty of storage space for 2 people. The bathroom was surprisingly large. The shower had a shower head I could stand under at 6’1” which is rare. The sink had what appeared to be a kitchen faucet but that made it easy to fill water bottles. There was lots of shelf space for medications and toiletries. The only real flaw was the toilet, though at an angle, still ended 10” from the wall (I measured) which is less leg room than coach class airline seats. I found I had to sit with my legs spread apart and could easily lean my head against the wall in front of me. Definitely awkward. I later discovered it was possible to sit on it sideways and have a normal stance, still awkward. There was a card that was supposed to have our steward’s name, and maybe it did, but it was written as “name, name name name” which was confusing, as it was unclear whether one person had 4 names, or it was a team. I’m not good with faces, but believe I generally saw only one person around our room who greeted us. Service in the room was impressive, and probably the best part of the experience, not that it was super elaborate. He anticipated some specific needs and adjusted accordingly. The room was made up in what seemed like record time each day, complete with accent pillows. Then in the evening, the pillows were cleared and the beds were turned down, plus the daily program and a cute towel animal was left. Although we never made use of it, I was surprised that they actually filled the ice buckets.
Fit and finish of the ship wasn’t bad, but I was surprised that the windows were filthy even the day we embarked. I realize they’re likely to get splashed, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t have cleaner jets like the airport, or treat them with a rain-x type product. The QE2 seemed to have people out on the side of the ship re-painting or cleaning at every stop. The elevators were extremely slow. We only used them if going more than 4 floors. They seemed to stop on every floor regardless of what button was pressed and whether people were on those floors when we arrived. One elevator was labeled as being limited to 4-7 due to a specific guest’s needs. Despite being freshly remodeled a year earlier, the video projector in the atrium where they did lots of presentations was horrible. Or maybe it was the camera, but they did a chef presentation and the video was really washed out with all sorts of defects. In the bars, they had flatscreens showing sports and the video there was pretty poor quality, but at least that appeared to be video compression artifacts which suggests it was poor signal, probably due to satellite transmission (though their dishes are huge compared to my direcTV dish and I get great picture.)
I and most of the people on the ship were on the ultimate drink package. Despite that, bottled water wasn’t included. Not that they were against bottled water, they would happily sell you some for $6 or something crazy. Per advice I read, I brought a metal bottle and refilled it myself. They would refill at bars, but if you asked a waiter, they would just bring you a glass of water instead. Sometimes the bar would fill from the soda gun, sometimes from the sink faucet, it tasted the same to me.
I realize there are limits, but the entertainment options during the day were really lacking. Unless it was something lame like a board game with the cruise staff, they were mostly either paid things like Deal or No Deal, wine or whiskey tasting (not included in beverage package), or presentations/consultations which were really sales pitches for services (health, wellness, exercise.) We didn’t try to attend the “shopping in town” presentations, but walked by the theater during one and it was a sales pitch for a particular diamond seller, going on and on about how great they are, how they have 40 locations (they were at every stop), etc. The bowling alley seemed cool, but hours were really limited, there were only 4 lanes, and there was no waiting list, so unless you stood and waited for someone to finish, you couldn’t get a lane. Oh, and it was $7/game!
In the evenings, there was live music at various lounges which was nice. And the shows in the theater were decent. Their stage was fairly high tech with all motion lighting, lifts and even a turntable in the stage, and rigging for aerial acts. The house performers were reasonable. We also had a juggler that was quite good, a comedian that somehow turned the audience interaction that comedians do at the beginning of an show, into his whole act, but did it well, and a husband and wife aerial act from Russia that was pretty good. I’m told the show on the last day was good, but the late show was cancelled due to technical problems. They did pull in the comedian to stall for a while and did have their Elvis impersonator come out and play with the band for a while in lieu of that. Then they did a cheesy “you’re part of the NCL family now” show with staff carrying glow sticks. I didn’t stay for all of that as it was already pretty drawn out and had only just begun.
I’m not really a casino person, the only casino with appeal was the one in Niagara Falls because they use tokens and there is a nice tactile quality to it. The friends we were with were big on some of the table games and it was good until people started smoking. I realize they want to keep people there and not put any roadblocks in the way, but it seems like there must be a ventilation system that can remove that more effectively. One day, the AC wasn’t working in the casino but that didn’t seem to stop anyone. I did spend a fair amount of money ($10-20/day) on the quarter pusher game because at least that felt like a game with some required skill, plus it had the tactile quality of coins. Some of the table games were interesting, but while there were tiny LCD screens listing the payouts, there seemed to be no instructions for the games anywhere. Most curious to my analytical mind was the fact that the cards were fed out by machine, and shuffled by machine. On the one game, it would feed out three cards per person all at once, then when the dealer pressed a button to indicate all are dealt, it spit the rest of the deck out into the tray. When the hand was over, all the cards were collected, the extra cards added to it, and set in a second tray. That put a lever over the stack and dealt the next hand using a different color cards. So there were only two decks in play. One of the people playing said that she got a royal flush on a prior cruise and happened to see one of the admin screens and it showed all the hands at the table, plus how much each person had spent. So this suggests that it’s working like the slot machines do now… there are a set of odds for each hand, it randomly generates each hand against those odds, and dispenses that hand. It’s not a true shuffled deck with true card shuffling odds. On the flip side, depending on the odds they’re using, some, such as a royal flush, may actually have a better chance of appearing than it might by true card shuffle chance. Still, it means they can do the things they do on slots, and offer “near misses” where you almost had the perfect hand and keep playing. This is apparently legal as long as the actual wins/losses correspond to the stated odds. Overall, for having a captive audience on sea days, and the potential exposure to people who don’t normally go to casinos, it seems like they’d try harder to teach newbies, and to offer more accessible buy-ins. On the games I watched most, though it was listed at $10 minimum, there were multiple spots you had to populate with chips each hand, some were required, some were optional, and it was $10 per spot. So it could be $25-35 per hand. While the wins could be fairly large, the losses could add up pretty quickly as well. Slots started at a penny, but were all electronic, and there was no actual skill required, just push a button repeatedly, sometimes your balance would go up, sometimes it would go down, didn’t carry much appeal to me.
I know ships, and vacation resorts/destinations in general are all about selling you more stuff. The QE2 had the same art auction, bingo, casino, etc. But I felt like the selling on NCL was intense. As I mentioned, most of the daytime entertainment was selling. Announcements were often reminders to attend certain sales seminars. But what stood out was the absolutely relentless selling of their cruise-next program. It’s normal for ships to have people on board who can help you schedule your next cruise, and offering a promo to book on board makes sense. But from the time we set foot on the ship until the time we left, it was constant. You could put down money in increments of $250 up to $1,000 toward a future cruise. They would give you roughly half of that money back today in the form of ship-board credit to use now. You had 4 years to pick what that cruise is and use it. But of course, you could only use that money $250 per room booked. So unless you book multiple rooms or multiple cruises, that’s a bit limitation. Ultimately, I felt like if they were the cruise experience I expected, they wouldn’t have to work so hard to sell future cruises. A podcast I listen to on an unrelated subject talks regularly about Disney Cruises and how they were never given anything by Disney, but were blown away by their first one and happily book one yearly at full out of pocket cost. The friends we went with want to book another cruise next year, and I’m all for it, but I don’t want to go on NCL again. Read Less