July 2014 - Norwegian Jewel to Alaska - Inside Passage
Granted, it's been 20+ years since we lasted cruised (on Royal Caribbean) and so much has changed. The ships are so much larger, many more activities (like rock climbing walls!!) and the world is a different place so many health and security measures are in place that weren't there before. I've tried to keep that all in mind and be open minded when crafting this review; many of the new measures are for the benefit of all on board, and greatly appreciated. We boarded on time, then waited & waited & waited. We ended up pushing off 4 hours late!! Not off to a great start.
* Freestyle dining: This concept sounds good in theory, but not so much in application. NCL makes it sound so great, but everyone tends to want to eat at the same time so why not have assigned seating times to avoid rush times, relieve stress off the staff, etc.? Service staff friendly, but service is definitely slower during peak times. Plus, the atmosphere & ambience is so relaxed it seems to diminish the 'specialness' of cruising. Every now & again someone would come in dressed like they would for a dinner out to a nice place, and they stood out like a sore thumb. This type of dining probably does encourage families and others to cruise, and not have to be tied to a dining schedule or formal dinners. The funny thing was even though NCL pushes 'freestyle', and they have an 'optional' dress-up night, we saw a number of couples/families/individuals dressed up every evening. I think when people decide to go on a cruise, they want to dress up. We decided we weren't a fan of the freestyle dining.
* Restaurants w/surcharges: Again, concept good in theory - if you prefer dining in a more refined & quiet atmosphere, without a bunch of little ones running around, this may be a great option; which may be the rationale behind this option. I will mention that the children we observed who were dining in the specialty restaurants with their families were all very well behaved and all seemed to be having a nice family experience. These 'upscale' restaurants have a suggested dress code, but we never witnessed it being enforced so why have it? Baseball caps & flip-flops kind of ruin the ambience. In the end, it still rankles me that these options have a cover charge on top of the cost of the cruise itself. Perhaps all cruise lines do this these days??
* Food: One of the biggest disappointments. Average (and even below average) is the best descriptor. Perhaps this is a result of the ships being so huge & having to fix food in such mass quantities. I did expect (hope?) that on an Alaskan cruise, they would offer indigenous seafood ie. Salmon, halibut, king crab (the salmon offered was Atlantic salmon) but to no avail. Buffet is great for many options, and wonderful for kids, teens and people who just have to have piles of food and try everything, maybe more than once. The ice cream bar seemed to be a big hit. We only did lunch here; the soups were consistently awful. We ended up sticking with the salad bar which was passable. We ate breakfast in Tsar's, and that worked well for us as it was consistently good. Tried the Irish pub for b-fast one day &lunch the day we boarded - ick, bad food. Avoid this place. And how do you have an Irish pub and offer not one kind of Irish beer??? Open dining rooms had a few items that changed daily, but the majority of the menu remained the same. Ho hum. And beware of the descriptions - Cherries Jubilee is nothing but vanilla ice cream with canned cherries (pie filling?) on top. Option: hit the paid dining restaurants for dinner. Quite a clever plan on NCL's part. Based on our previous cruise experience, we opted not to purchase the paid restaurant dining package because cruise ships are known for their awesome food, right? We should have. We ate at the French, Brazilian, and Japanese restaurants, with the best of those being the French Le Bistro. Food beautifully presented and prepared. Japanese (Benihana-style) was least favorite. Miso soup horrible, main meats overcooked, green tea dessert was yucky. Brazilian food decent, and you can easily over eat :). But none of the paid restaurants we went to rose to the standards of fine dining or what you think of when thinking of dining on a cruise ship. Good, certainly better than the buffet, but wonderful and delicious? Nope. If I went to them in my hometown, I wouldn't return. On RCL, I remember having wonderful food buffets with beautiful fruit displays and carvings - nothing like that here. Another casualty of mega-ships?? Also, restaurants have limited hours. After dis-embarking, we were talking with a couple in the shuttle who just took a Princess cruise & they said their food was absolutely delicious; later, standing in line at the Space Needle, we overheard the couple behind us talking about cruise food and they mentioned NCL was the line to stay away from. I don't know what context in which they arrived at that conclusion, but judging from those comments & similar online reviews, it seems NCL is gaining a reputation for sub-par food.
* Staff & service: This is where the Jewel shines. Multi-international staff; absolutely everyone we interacted with was helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable. Our waitress in Le Bistro told us she had been w/NCL 13 years. That speaks volumes for the organization. And they do an excellent job of keeping everything ship-shape. Carpets always newly vacuumed, treads on stairs are even washed frequently. Anti-septic hand wash stations are everywhere.
*Accommodations: If you're going to go to Alaska, spring for a balcony. Not only does it let in a lot of natural light, and fresh air, it's wonderful sitting and enjoying the scenery - even if it's only water. The sunsets are amazing, too. Our bed was very comfortable and the black-out shades do a great job of blocking out that natural light with a 4:30 a.m. sunrise! Our bed skirt was torn and looked pretty worn in other areas. Our cabin steward was great and attentive.
* The Jewel: Not that old of a ship, but seems a bit old. The ship sails to the Caribbean in the winter months & the ship's decor is centered on Caribbean colors: bright pinks, oranges, turquoise. Pictures of beaches adorn the stateroom walls. Didn't quite get us in the mindset for Alaska. That aside, one thing I really missed was a quiet, 'common' inside area with comfortable seating to enjoy the views. Restaurants have nice peripheral windows if you are lucky to score one when dining, the buffet has a wall of windows, as does the Irish Pub. Magnum's has windows, but for some reason, the decorator decided to make high backs on the (very uncomfortable) benches so if you are sitting in one of the chairs opposite the bench, all you see is sky. One quiet place with a view is the library, but sssshhhh, must be quiet so this isn’t the place to gather for a nice, relaxing conversation with a fellow traveler. And it was always full...wonder why? Guess I’m not the only one who wanted a quiet space apart from the bars! So, if you aren't eating in a restaurant/buffet, go outside, but the chairs aren’t too comfy. I think the ship could benefit by having groupings of comfortable seating with a view where one could read, enjoy a coffee or drink, without having to go to a bar or restaurant. Royal Caribbean had this and it was really nice. The mustering exercise was useless. RCL’s was top-notch.
*Ports of call: Ketchikan & Juneau are very touristy & kitschy; lots of the same stores, same stuff. Skagway was a pleasant surprise - some of the same stores but we didn't feel it was a carbon copy of the others.
*Expeditions: If you can, take advantage of an expedition, it's a great way to see parts of Alaska you'd not see otherwise. We debated about booking thru NCL or thru the tour companies directly. We opted for the former, mainly because it was our understanding that if there is a problem (delay, etc.) the ship will wait for you if you booked the expedition thru them; if you book outside of the cruise line, they are not obligated to hold the ship for you & it is then your responsibility to get to the next port of call. You have to weigh the odds to decide if the higher price is worth the security or not. Also, tours companies set up their booths outside of the ship and offer tours. We didn't see a whole lot of difference in the prices we paid & what they were offering - maybe because it was high tourist season. Sea plane over Misty Fjord (Ketchikan) well worth it. For one who isn't crazy about small planes, I was completely surprised at how smooth the take-off & landings were. Very smooth flight, too.Tracy Arm Fjord & Sawyer Glaciers (Juneau): When we boarded the Jewel, we received a notice that we could cancel this tour & re-book a different tour because the Jewel goes through the fjord and gets up close to wildlife, etc. Well, yes, the ship meets the vessel that took us thru the fjord & to the glacier, but there is NO WAY you should cancel the tour & believe what the cruise line said. The much smaller boat took us into nooks and cranny's that a liner couldn't - up close to waterfalls and icebergs. Additionally, we spotted a whale & the boat slowed its engines & positioned so we could all enjoy a bit of whale watching. The liner wouldn't have done that! The small boat maneuvered us close to the glaciers & such an awesome sight! Lots of harbor seals basking in the sun & the sound of calving was incredible. The liner couldn't get that close; those who cancelled on the advice of NCL missed out on a lot of what makes Alaska great! Grizzly Falls Zip line (Skagway) was SO fun!! Never done this before, but will definitely zip again if I have the opportunity. Great guides! The 20-yrs olds in our group were nervous/scared - us older fold left them in our dust :-)
*Costs: They tell you up front about the added fee pp/pd, but it’s still a shock to see it in print. I’m sure this was done because there are always individuals who left little or no gratuities for staff & stewards (Shamefully, I happen to have a relative that would fit into this category!) But NCL doesn’t let an opportunity to pass without a fee of some kind. And forget the internet, those charges will send you to the poor house. All I’m saying is be prepared, read the fine print because there is a lot of it.
*Final thoughts: Alaska is beautiful, people we talked with in shops & tour guides/leaders were very friendly & welcoming. The Jewel was very disappointing and average. You can't put a price on memories, but our experience on board the Jewel did not provide a good return on investment. We will not sail NCL again.