Perfect Multi-Generational Family Trip to Alaska
Norwegian Jewel Cruise Review to Alaska - Inside Passage
Sail Date: June 14, 2014
Ship: Norwegian Jewel
Cabin Type: Suite
Cabin Number: GTY
Traveled As: Large Group
Reviewed: 3 years ago
Our family group of 14 just returned from a week on the Jewel cruising Alaska. Because of the vast differences in ages (grandkids ranging from age 11 months to 20 years through 81 year old grandparents), the cruise was an excellent way for us to be together while also offering the flexibility needed for such diverse interests, ages and abilities.
My parents had arranged for wheelchair assistance for embarkation at Seattle. Unfortunately, we were told the ship only had 3 wheelchairs to be used for this purpose, so there was a long wait for two chairs to become available. During this extended wait time, the rest of our group checked everyone's luggage, including the luggage of those people waiting for wheelchairs. Once the chair arrived, the crew couldn't have been nicer or more patient as we went through the check-in process to board.
Because one in our group was in a Haven suite, they allowed our entire group to go through Priority Boarding. This was a nice benefit as it allowed us to wait in a side room, with cold drinks and cookies, while each of us was photographed and checked in, however, this process took much longer than I thought it should have. Once finished, we were escorted aboard by our concierge, Bruno, who kindly told us he would help us out with dinner reservations for our group, and would do what he could to make sure our entire group had a good shipboard experience.
I've cruised four times on four different cruise lines, and the first impression when boarding a ship is always the worst. You are bombarded by crew welcoming you aboard, and you are encouraged to enjoy lunch at the buffet (which is an overcrowded nightmare). It was no exception aboard the Jewel.
After dumpiing our carry on bags in our staterooms, we headed to the Garden Cafe and had to fight our way through the crowds to get to the food and to find a place to sit. It probably took us 20 minutes to find seats that could accomodate us. My biggest problem with the Jewel was the Garden Cafe. Low ceilings, lattice panels on the ceiling with fake flowers (really??), dividers separating the seating area from the buffet areas. It felt closed in and claustrophobic, especially when packed with people who seemingly hadn't eaten in a week. HOT TIP: Later in the week we discovered we could sit in the La Cucina restaurant for breakfast and lunch - much quieter and easier to find a seat than the crowded and noisy Garden Cafe. Normally we would have sat on the Aft outdoor seating area, but the cool weather made this unappealing to the grandparents.
While the Garden Cafe offered a wide variety of food, there was nothing special, interesting, or creative about their offerings. It was adequate, but fairly standard American food (with the exception being the daily Indian and Asian stations - the curries were a bit too spicy for my tastebuds). Standard salad bar items, standard sandwiches, pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and hot entrees that you would expect. Omelet station in the morning had egg whites available, but limited vegetables to toss in (and they were using frozen spinach instead of fresh!).
Unfortunately, it seemed the crew was not very knowledgable about the ingredients in some of the dishes, and the small signs identifying the food didn't help. I wanted to know which dishes were vegetarian as I don't eat meat. A strict vegan or someone who required gluten-free (nobody in our group) would have had a hard time eating much beyond the raw vegetables and cut fruit. Additionally, the signs tended to get moved around or would disappear. NCL should do a better job of identifying the ingredients of their offerings. Every day there were sugar-free desserts available at the buffet. The kids overindulged in the
On the second or third day we discovered the meals being grilled outdoors near the pool - outstanding salmon, chicken, grilled vegetables and a few salads. It was a fresher and more delicous option than the Garden Cafe.
We had all but one of our dinners in Tsar's, the most 'formal' dining room aboard the Jewel. While they offered the same menu as Azura, we liked the spaciousness of the room and the stricter dress code (still casual, but no flip flops or shorts for men). Because of the Freestyle Dining, our choices were to make a dinner reservation or show up and wait for a table. On the first night, we had a fantastic server, Claudeth. She was attentive, sweet, and so patient with our large group. The challenge was getting seated in her section each night - we would make a reservation and request her section - sometimes our request was met, other times it was not. We found the front reception staff at Tsar's to be cold and impersonal. One in our group went to Tsar's for breakfast and asked to be seated in Claudeth's section - he was told she was not working (turns out she was). On another occasion, he asked to be seated in her section for lunch and was told she was on break (she wasn't).
Tsar's menu worked well for our group - plenty of choices with one side of daily specials and the other side available every day. I had salmon for dinner three times and appreciated the smaller (but very adequate) portions. Again, the Tsar's menu did not identify any of the menu items as vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. We sailed on the Celebrity Reflection last summer, and as I recall the menu in their main dining room did a very good job of identifying the items on their menu for those who had special dietary needs. I'd rate the food at Tsar's as 4 out of 5 - very good, but not extraordianary or super-imaginitive. We appreciated the calm of the restaurant and the slow pace which we could enjoy our meal. Even on the occasions when we ate early (around 6:00), we never felt rushed to clear our table. Most nights we ate closer to 9:00 p.m.
Traveling with an elderly parent in a wheelchair, I was very conscious of the helpfullness of the crew. They were always offering to help push up or down ramps, and a Garden Cafe employee saw two of us accompanying my father in his wheelchair and offered to carry our buffet items on a tray. She followed us through the buffet and beverage lines and to our seats. Very kind and we appreciated her pro-activeness - I'm sure she would have helped had we asked, but she offered up the help. A nice touch.
Entertainment in the Stardust Theater was OK. The 'Bijoux' show on one of the last nights was by far the best of those we saw. Magician/Comedian was OK - too much goofy joking around, not enough magic. Stand up comedian was funny, but in a "I've heard that joke many times before" kind of way.
Staterooms: We had several types among those in our group. My parents Deck 10 midship ADA balcony stateroom was quite spacious - they were very happy with the extra room which allowed them to easily maneuver around with the wheelchair (NOTE: wheelchairs do not fit through a standard cabin door). The ADA shower and toilet area had grab bars and a seat. My sister's Deck 10 adjoining balcony staterooms were comfortable and spacious enough. The 'family suite' on Deck 11 was probably the most disappointing - we were told it would sleep four, but with the Pack & Play (supplied by NCL) open (as it was the entire trip for an 11 month old who took frequent naps), it was close to impossible to access the balcony. I was also told the tub (one of the reasons they booked a family suite) was quite deep and too hard to reach over to bathe an infant. My kids were happy with their Deck 8 balcony stateroom. I didn't hear any complaints about excessive noise or rocking other than one night when the seas were quite stormy and everyone aboard the Jewel had to be aware of the motion.
On the other hand, my husband and I hit the jackpot and were upgraded to one of the Owner's Haven Suites, #9004. Two balconies (the forward balcony just under the bridge was large enough to accomodate all 14 of us viewing Sawyer Glacier - although it did get a bit windy there at times), a living room and dining area, separate guest bathroom (toilet and sink only), spacious bathroom with tub and shower (with wall mounted side water jets), dressing table in the closet, TV's in the main bathroom, bedroom and living room (DVD player in the living room and a list of DVDs available to borrow), Lavazza espresso maker (kept stocked by our butler), champagne on ice when we arrived, afternoon snacks and fruit delivered to our room daily, beautiful large fresh flower arrangement, three complementary bottles of wine or spirits (in addition to the champagne), umbrella and binoculars in the room, sodas and sparkling water also kept stocked by our kind butler, Henry. Our family all tended to hang out in the stateroom and I'm convinced Henry was even more generous with the cookies and snacks knowing we had a large group enjoying the room. It was an amazing experience to luxuriate in that much space, lovely furnishings, and multiple balconies. And the delicious espressos and lattes whenever we wanted kept us fueled with caffeine to explore Alaska!
My parents booked a Victoria, BC excursion through the excursions desk and were happy with the tour. All other excursions our group booked were done independent of NCL.
Overall, it was a great experience. The cruise was filled with families and kids of all ages, and other large groups like ours. Between the Alaska itinerary, cooler weather, and Freestyle philosophy of NCL, people were dressed VERY casually, even at night. College sweatshirts, fleece jackets and jeans were the uniform of the passangers. This is not a cruise where everyone gets glammed up at night. Very down to earth atmosphere.
Similarly, the food and entertainment were a notch below our experience on the Reflection last summer. Adequate, plentiful but not unique gastronomic experiences. We did NOT eat at any of the specialty restaurants, so I can't speak to the dining experience in those venues.
Others have commented about the incessant push to spend and I didn't find it bothersome, I just ignored it. Typical glittery costume jewelry for sale every day in the Atrium. Photographers were all over the ship and while we took a lot of photos, we weren't pushed to purchase (only bought two).
O'Sheehan's was a good place to watch World Cup soccer on sea days but it was packed and there could be long waits for a table.
A FEW RANDOM THOUGHTS:
White Hot Party: Fun! My husband and I (50 somethings) had a blast dancing away to to the pounding music, video screen, black lights, foam sprays, glow necklaces, and crew dancers but we were definitely among the older passengers enjoying the fun. It seemed to us all the 20 somethings came out of hiding and showed up at the White Hot Party. Hot sweaty fun which harkened back to a college dance party.
Bingo: NICE that everyone got one free bingo card for the second game. We bought some too...nobody in our group won. I guess we had already gotten lucky with the stateroom upgrade!!!
Karaoke: Need I say more?
Washy Washy: Incessant singing of the "Washy Washy" song as passengers entered the Garden Cafe and were spritzed with hand sanitizer. I guess it is good to remind everyone so we could all stay healthy.
No toilet seat covers in public bathrooms: With all the emphasis on hand sanitizer, it kind of surprised me that they didn't think the toilets could be a place where germs hang out.
Basketball Court: My basketball playing sons were looking forward to this but with fairly strong winds, a net above the court which prevented arcing shots, and a flat basketball (the only one aboard ship - they ended up playing with a soccer ball - no excuse for not having a stock of basketballs) it was close to impossible to play.
Ping Pong: Another activity my kids enjoy aboard ship. Unfortunately, the tables were outdoors in windy areas. Impossible to play, lots of balls overboard. When we sailed last summer, ping pong tables were set up indoors in meeting rooms and they were a POPULAR activity for both adults and kids with competitive games!
Onboard shopping: Nothing special and lots of tacky souvenir type junk in the main store. One nice touch I haven't seen on other cruises: they sold travel guide books to Alaska (one of which I'd already bought at my local Barnes & Noble).
Excursions: Through Shore Excursions Group, we booked the Skagway train ride with a return ride on bicycle. It was a challenging and exciting experience and we even had an up close encounter with a bear at the side of the road. My family who took the train round trip said the ride was way too long...probably should have taken a bus tour back via a different route.
Gratuities: On the last night, we had a very hard time tracking down our server to hand deliver a gratuity to her. We went to find her in the dining room to be told she was already off duty and leaving the ship the next morning to go home for three months. If we had left an envelope for her at Guest Services Desk, who knows when (or if) she would have received it. We really had to push the dining room staff to try to track her down so that we could hand her an envelope personally. The entire process took about 45 minutes: the dining room staff saying they couldn't do anything, sending us to Guest Services, who sent us back to the dining room.
Overall, a great experience which met the varying needs of our group on an Alaska itinerary which matched the casualnes aboard ship. However, if I were just planning a trip for my family of four (and there wasn't a vast difference in cost), I probably would choose Celebrity again for the slightly higher quality of food and service, and slightly less casual dress code.
Food and Dining
Service and Staff
Cabin / Stateroom
Breakfast and lunch in Tsar's to avoid the madness that is the Garden Cafe. If you must eat at the buffet, go sit in La Cucina.