CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews

Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Jewel by Grazzi Yoon Eastern Caribbean December 17, 2006

This is the first cruise my wife and I have taken, so we don't have a wide basis of comparison. But we did travel with two other couples, both with small children, and their experience mirrors our own.

Embarkation seemed like all heck was breaking loose, kind of like a Disaster Film, but actually was over fairly quickly. There were endless lines that moved fast, leading up to the boat, getting various forms, cards, etc. We came to realize that everything had been thought through, and the cards were your lifeline to everything on board. [Don't lose them!]

The Boat: the ship itself doesn't yet show its age. It's nicely done, with tones that, despite being bold, are somehow appropriate, even muted. The bars and restaurants were all themed, some a little kitsch, but I think that's part of the fun. It did NOT feel like a huge boat with enormous numbers of people. Somehow, the designers managed to make it seem intimate. There were always staff cleaning, relentlessly, giving the ship a sparkling edge.

Once aboard, we realized that our cabin was small, but remarkably well laid-out. Despite the size, we didn't feel cramped, there were tons of hangars, much closet space, shelving, etc., and the bathrooms were terrific: clean, logical, well-appointed. The room itself was designed like a moderately upscale hotel, like you would expect, say, in Hong Kong or Tokyo (given the size).

Some aspects of the cruise were marvelous. First and foremost, the staff. Many had limited English; most were from the Philippines or Romania. But it seemed that, no matter what and with few exceptions, they did their maximum to help out. I didn't encounter one moment of "attitude" and, except for one quasi-bizarre waitress, everyone was relentlessly pleasant, without being "fake" (at least not overtly so).

I used the health club several times, and was impressed. All the machines were new-ish, clean and well-maintained. Some were not available in local gyms, at least not widely. Fortunately, most people on the cruise were not there to exercise, so it wasn't hard to 'score' a treadmill or bike.

Entertainment: we tried to see several shows and they were, well, corny. Clearly aimed at "wide taste", and not even remotely cutting-edge or subversive. BY FAR the best was Cirque Bijou, a clear steal from Cirque du Soleil (which is unfathomably more impressive), but nonetheless superbly executed. The acrobats in particular were terrific... and they were performing on a boat rocked by waves.

The Food: well, that was the sore point. Let me say that neither my wife nor I are gourmet types, and aren't super-picky about food (although neither of us eats lots of animal products, and never red meat; there was still a lot to choose from). I must report that the food ranged from pretty good all the way down to flat-out awful. By a very wide margin the best item was one that other reviewers have seized on: the pizza. Just superb. I quickly started having pizza, salad, fruit (not enough choices) and espresso (free! and very good!) for lunch and a lot of dinners.

We ate at most of the restaurants. Service was GREAT. The food was not. Here's the key problem: everything *looked* right, but *tasted* wrong. Le Bistro is far and away the most horrific French food I've encountered. The pre-made / purchased food (e.g., pate) was fine. Everything cooked, well, yuck. My wife and her friend got the bouillabaisse, a dish I've had in France and elsewhere. Both of them found it inedible. I was skeptical, so I tried it. Just awful. My entree was better, so the three of us shared that. A friend's Chateaubriand was overcooked to the point of needing to be sawed through. I tried just about all the dishes there, and nothing was good. [To the staff's credit, they noticed that two of the entrees went uneaten, and didn't invoke the service charge for two of us, unasked. Classy.]

Chin Chin was Pan-Asian; coincidentally, so were three of our party, from Korea, China and Hong Kong (I was the only red-blooded American; yee-haw!) Some items, like the Sate, were great; others were, well, like La Choy. The fried rice is easily the worst I've had in any context, and we eat a lot of rice; the laksa, a great favorite of mine, was also pretty bad. And I'm not talking "wasn't on par with the best authentic versions I've had", but "I would never return to a restaurant that served something like this". That bad. Mama's Kitchen was better. Believe it or not, their pasta was poorly done! [My own, using Barilla and store-bought sauce, is worlds better.] Their antipasto was great, though, as was the service (even if the Filipino wait staff didn't seem to have any idea about how Italian food was supposed to 'go'.)

Everyone like Tsar's Palace; it's good for people who like meat (which I don't, really), but you can also order off the kid's menu (!), which has a lot of nice, simple options. The desserts were well-done. Sadly, we got locked out of almost all the other restaurants, since we committed the grave crime of waiting a few hours after getting on the ship to make reservations. MAKE YOUR RESERVATIONS IMMEDIATELY. If not sooner.

We wound up just going to the buffet a lot. You can't go too wrong. Don't like something? Never have it again, and just get something else. Like the superb pizza. The cruise, though, is an expensive way to eat a lot of pizza, no matter how well prepared. If you have kids, the buffet will be your godsend. There is even a dedicated area for families, with special kid foods and a high tolerance for noise, mess and mayhem.

Excursions: my friend had told me San Juan was "a dump", but I didn't agree. We took a paid tour ($10 each; cheap... DO NOT buy the ship's version, which is a total ripoff). Then, we just walked around, got a mojito at the bar, saw a lot of interesting places. Antigua, now, THAT is a distressed locale, despite the ample sunshine. We did go to a nice beach, but I also wanted to see how "people live". And the answer is: in squalor. People seemed dejected everywhere. No economic opportunity, and everything -- and I mean EVERY THING -- is sadly run down. [I felt like the quintessential Ugly American with my digital camera, walking among people ekeing out a living.] St. John, on the other hand, was magnificent, with a lovely set of beaches and a generally higher standard of living, although there isn't much to see other than the beaches. Strangely enough, what I liked best was the utterly manufactured "Great Stirrup Cay", owned by the cruise line. The beach is pristine, the water crystal clear (literally), and I took an hour-long hike by myself to see a bunch of old, abandoned buildings, including a distant pier and weird lighthouse. The island is much larger than one might imagine and, even if the beach was crowded, there were plenty of chairs and tables, plus all kinds of snorkeling stuff and food, to keep everyone happy.

OVERALL: I liked it. I wasn't bowled over, and the food was a major disappointment (although less so for a non-foodie like me... but others, who expect to be WOWed, will not be), but it was an enjoyable way to spend a week. I would try it again (my wife would not), as would most of the rest of our party.

Bottom line: the boat is nice, the staff are great, the excursions are well worth taking, there is much to do on board and -- if you can avoid the bad options in the dining -- even the food has much to recommend it.

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