There are some things I look for when choosing a cruise line. The first thing is the facility for children as I have a toddler. Any parent knows that if the kids aren't happy, well, you know. Next would be food. I love food. Good food. Itinerary and accommodations are also considerations.
We've been on one other cruise line, Carnival (Valor), so that is the only thing we can compare our NCL cruise to so you will see comments about both. Although we enjoyed our Carnival trip, we thought we would try a different cruise line. NCL's freestyle dining options seemed very appealing to us.
EMBARKATION Embarkation was straight-forward. We walked into a door and were directed to a line. What they missed telling us about was a form that needed to be completed prior to getting up to the desk. The staff at the desk was nice and handed us the form to fill out. Next, we went to another line to get our card key. What was confusing about that was the line continued on to a snack area. I stepped out of line to chase my son and when we returned, although we already had our key card, no one would let us merge back into the line. Everyone was in line to get a beverage and a cookie and no one would let us in. They were literally elbow to a-hole. Wow. So we sat down in the chairs next to the snack area waiting for the line to die down so we could move onward. My husband came walking up with a drink and cookie for our son. He was swept away in the line, which mind you was only 50-60 feet long. Not so long that I would think anyone would mind letting us back in. Like I said, we already had our key card and everyone was there getting the first free snack of their vacation.
Another note, once you got a cookie and drink, it had to be consumed before going through the security area, about 15 feet away. Funny.
We went through security without a problem, then onto the first photographer. From there, we went through some doors and then to a second photographer. As we saw some passengers bypass him, we followed suit. All in all, it was fast. I recall Carnival's embarkation being longer and more confusing. So good job NCL.
Before getting on the ship, you have to sanitize your hands. No problem. You get used to doing it where ever you go on the ship.
When stepping onto the ship, you don't step into a big atrium that takes your breath away (Carnival), but rather onto a landing where there are four elevators waiting to take you to your floor. All four elevators were working and it didn't take too long to get one. I recall with Carnival, only a few elevators were working and you had to fight to get on one.
I guess I should point out that the NCL Jewel (Passengers: 2,376, Tonnage: 93,502, Decks: 15) is smaller than the Carnival Valor (Passengers: 2,974, Tonnage: 110,000, Decks: 13).
Once in our room I called and made reservations for Cagney's, La Bistro and Mama's Italian. We had no problem getting them and as a bonus, we dined at times that allowed for buy one, get one free; so basically half-off our ticket.
OUR CABIN Our room was a category AF – mini-suite. It was smaller than Carnival's balcony room but it had a bathtub, which came in handy with our toddler. There is a separate toilet room with a sliding door for those private movements. The closet and drawer space was more ample with NCL than Carnival.
The first thing I did was request some bathrobes for us. They weren't as nice as Carnival's, then again same with the bedding. The NCL bed was a standard hotel bed. Not great. Carnival had soft beds with a great duvet and awesome pillows. It really felt like a luxury hotel room. The NCL pillows were flat as pancakes. I called to request some more and I was delivered the rejects. These pillows were just balls of material sewn inside a pillow case. I am serious. There was not one solid piece of pillow but a lot of baseball sized chunks of foam. I called down and requested replacements. These were delivered by the same woman who did not look happy at all but the pillows were of the same quality as the ones initial in the cabin.
Once we were settled, we went to the buffet. I have to add that our cabin was in a primo location. Up one set of stairs was the buffet, pool, and Kid's Club. Perfectly convenient for all our needs.
FOOD When you enter the buffet, there is a person assigned to the door to remind you to use the hand sanitizer. Once inside, I was impressed with the food. It was very crowded but I figured that was normal due to it being the only place serving food. Unfortunately, it was crowded during the entire cruise; something that I did not experience on Carnival. You see, there is a full size buffet and a smaller buffet on the Jewel. On Carnival, there were two large buffets, which adequately handled the crowds of hungry passengers.
There is a separate kid's buffet with their own seating area. Unfortunately, that area was over flowing with adults who would rather sit in miniature chair at a miniature table rather than eat outside of the buffet area, regardless of signs posted stating the area is for children. The kid's buffet did not change at all. Everyday it was the same noodles, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, Jell-O, cookies, and brownies. Here is the other kicker, the beverage options for children were milk, water, or ice tea. Even if you purchase a beverage card, you can not get juice other than in the morning unless you paid for it and that was separate from the beverage card. My son does not like tea and was quickly getting sick of water and milk, so we did something we do not like to do, we gave him sips of soda.
Our first night on the cruise we ate at Cagney's. The menu looked great. I ordered the lobster bisque. It was brown and so salty I gagged. The waiter told us they changed all the menus a few days prior and that included changing the soup recipe. He said the chef is roasting the lobster shells instead of boiling them and that was why the soup was brown. He did not address the saltiness. Next I had the oyster Rockefeller. There was way too much sauce on them. When I found an oyster and ate it, it was so fishy that I was afraid to eat another for fear of getting food poisoning. I had never eaten an oyster that fishy tasting and it honestly frightened me. I then had a filet and jumbo baked potato. The steak was cooked perfectly and tasted great. The potato was not so jumbo but it was good. How can you mess that up? For dessert I order the cheese plate, which quickly became a staple with all of my meals. The waiter kept saying to us and others around us to order one of everything. So I got the chocolate decadence to go. It was like a truffle cake and was so good and rich; I couldn't eat any more than one spoonful, so my husband and son finished it off. The waiter told us if we ever wanted a dessert anytime during the cruise, we should come wave him down and he would get us one. We never did though. It felt too tacky.
After being somewhat disappointed, I started having second thoughts about eating at La Bistro. We went down to look at the menu only to find that they too changed their menu. I decided that it wasn't worth the chance and we cancelled our reservation.
The buffet items changed slightly but not enough to where you wanted to eat there.
Breakfast could be difficult with the crowds but the best part was the egg station. Although there was always a wait for one, I think I ate an omelet almost every morning. There was a good selection of breakfast items but they never changed. Not a problem for me because breakfast is not something I like to experiment with.
The lunch buffet had mostly hot foods with a hidden sandwich station. You could get pretty creative over there. There was always a roasted chicken carving section and pizza. So it was typical lunch food.
The dinner buffet offerings quickly bored me. There was always some type of rice, but never at the Chinese station. The Chinese station served Lo Mein all the time with varying flavor. A hot carving station had the typical types of carving meats. There was a pasta station which always had a line but didn't totally interest me. Partially because the pizza they served had very little flavor to its sauce, so I could imagine what the pasta sauce was like. But like I said, there was always a line and I never tried it.
We ate at the Blue Lagoon once for breakfast and once for lunch. It is located midship and it was never crowded. The breakfast menu was limited but still had your basic stuff like eggs, omelets, waffles, French toast, and cereals. We liked it there for the peace and quiet. Lunch was again not very crowded. The service we received for lunch was not that great. I saw many people waiting just to have their order taken. I would say that it was under staffed. The menu included chicken wings, hot dogs, hamburgers, fish sticks, chili, and such. We were not that impressed so we never went back.
I went to the Grill a few times. It is a great place to grab a hot dog or burger. Unfortunately, I accidentally got a steam burn on my hand when reaching for a back item. It was pretty darn painful and I don't typically let pain get to me. I made trip to the doctor after the pain wouldn't go away. He put some ointment on it and a large bandage. Fortunately, because it occurred on the ship, the treatment and ointment was free. It was pretty embarrassing to say that I burned my hand reaching for food at the buffet.
Tsar's and Azura turned out to be a great surprise. I honestly had good food there. We tried some hot soup again there but it was too salty. I don't know why all the hot soup was overly salted. Everything else was great. I went there for lunch and ate moussaka that was amazing. The lobster dinner was cooked very well and not rubbery. Those places also saved our butts because when our son became ill two days into the trip and we were stuck in the cabin, they let us order from their menu and bring it back to our room. Unfortunately, with our son begin sick, our trip began sounding like home with the usual question, "What do you want for dinner?"
I asked Mama's if I could order from their menu but I was told only cold foods. So I ordered Tiramisu which was not bad. We never made it to Mama's for dinner because of my son's illness.
The last night of our cruise I was stir crazy. I wanted to eat out of the cabin. Chin Chin's was the only place that could accommodate us so we went for it. I ordered and ate almost every appetizer they had on their menu. It was all good. Fortunately, I did not order an entrée because after I ate the appetizers, my son wanted to go back to the cabin. We left my husband there alone to eat his dinner and pay the bill.
The room service menu was disappointing. I ordered my son a pizza one night and it came with American cheese on it. There were other things disappointing, too. For instance, you could not order soda. I mostly used them for late night hot tea after a couple of food disappointments. I asked if they could get food from the dining room and they said no. Okay, maybe I was pushing it but I had to try.
Overall the food was touch and go. Once you get a feel for what they do well and what they don't you can basically order worry-free. Again, the big surprise was the main dining rooms. Don't under estimate those places just because they have so many other options for dining. How does NCL compare to Carnival, I would say Carnival was better even with all the dining options NCL offered. It is not quantity, but quality.
KID'S CLUB Now the important part, THE KID'S CLUB. This should have been first but I digressed. First of all, DO NOT BELIEVE THE BROCHURE OR THE NCL WEBSITE. The brochure and website show this large room with lots of windows and a padded jungle gym. You are lead to believe that the kids play there. False! When we went there to register our son, I was told to bring him in the back door because that was where his age group stayed (ages 3 -5). It didn't make sense to me but I found out the next day when I brought him there that yes, I needed to take him down this narrow hallway by the kitchen to the back room which turned out to be the cinema. The cinema had no chairs or tables, poor lighting and no toys. In fact, I witnessed the events of a typical three hour session the kids had just by conveniently dropping him off and picking him up and various times. First they start with playing with legos and crayons. Next, they get to go to the main room and play on the jungle gym for about 45 minutes, per the staff. Afterwards, they go back to the cinema and watch Dora or Sponge Bob. You see, NCL would like you to believe that your toddler is spending the day in a sunshine filled room with a padded floor and hours to play on the jungle gym. How disappointing it was for me to see the truth. The counselors knew that this environment wasn't the best so they would take the kids on parade or to one of the evening shows at the theatre. Fortunately, since my son got ill so soon on the trip, he was only in the Kid's club about 4 – 5 times. I do have to comment about the adults in charge of the 3 - 5 year olds. "Jazzy Jeff" was rude and strangely out-going with the kids. Okay, phony. An act that was put on because of his job. In fact, one of the nights they took the kids to the theatre, he didn't even sit with them. He sat several rows behind them. Boy, if that isn't a clue about how much he loves kids. "Angel Angie" spoke maybe two words.
The older kids seemed bored out of their minds. Whenever I would peek in there, typically around the same time as dropping my son off, they would just be sitting playing board games or coloring. There were a lot of counselors but the only one that I saw actually involved with the kids was a middle-aged man. The other younger counselors would be off to the side gabbing away. One night, the older kids (maybe ages 8-12) got to do a scavenger hunt. They sent groups of 2 -3 kids around the ship to ask strangers questions like, "Do you have any tattoos?" Yes, I was asked that. Did the parents know that their kids would be allowed to run around unchaperoned when they signed them into the Kid's club that night?
Unlike NCL, Carnival's kid's center was loaded with toys and things to do. They separated the age groups into rooms. The center was so large that the cinema divided the rooms. Both of the large rooms had windows and plenty of seating and toys. Shame on NCL for not focusing more on the families that cruise with them.
KIDS POOL There was a kiddy pool off to the side of the Grill. The pool was small and had a slide in it, which was nice. All the times we were there, we never saw any kids in it. There was also a hot tub. The water temperature for the hot tub was not as hot as a typical one, which signaled to me that it was okay to be used by children. We came across a young European couple that were cuddling in the kiddy hot tub for about an hour. That made us uncomfortable, like we were interrupting a personal moment for them. She sat on his lap most of the time. Yes, it was very uncomfortable.
DISEMBARKATION - THE EXPRESS CHECK OUT WAY When I listened to the disembarkation lecture, I almost had a heart attack. You see, although we docked in Miami at 6 am, no one is allowed off the ship until 7:30am. Our flight home was at 8:40am. I pleaded with the receptionists to see if she could let us go early and she would not budge. I was told just to be ready to go when the announcement was made. Well, my husband went snooping around the gangway and although they tell you not to gather there, there was already a line forming. In fact, a couple had been waiting in line down there since 5:30am. So we gathered our bags and headed to this secret, forbidden line. Apparently, we were not the only ones to foolishly think we could disembark at 6am because there was a long line of people waiting to get off as well. Some had flights earlier than ours. The crew was nice enough to start a second line for those of us with early flights. When they opened the door, you should have seen all of us running. Customs was no problem. There weren't a lot of taxis waiting as promised, but a van driver said he would take 8 of us so we piled in. He said he could get us to the airport in 10 minutes and he did. We were checked in and through security by 8:10am. Not bad considering we got off the ship at 7:30am.
CONCLUSION This was a long read.
Would I cruise with NCL again? No. I have heard others on this cruise rave about Princess so maybe we will try that one. Of course, we always have Carnival.