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Mike Davis

Age: Retired

Occupation:Retired newspaperman

Number of Cruises: 7

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Norwegian Jewel

Sailing Date: January 22nd, 2006

Itinerary: Eastern & Western Caribbean

Norwegian Cruise Line
NCL Jewel Cruise Review
Western Caribbean & Eastern Caribbean

Mike Davis

Aboard the Norwegian Jewel (Saturday, 21st January to Sunday, 5th February 2006).
Sailing from Miami: Caribbean

CONNECTION:

Our flight from Manchester, England was via Chicago on American Airlines.

Boeing 767 on time from Manchester. Arrival at Chicago (Ord) Terminal 5 on time. The flight, in coach class, was reasonably comfortable but the TV in our section of the plane was not working. Meals were OK – just. Cabin crew took a couple of hours of (siesta, perhaps?) during the flight, reappearing some 90 minutes before touchdown to serve a snack.

Long walk to immigration at Terminal 5. Very long line of people waiting to be ‘processed’ by US immigration. We were surprised to encounter an officer who was (very unusual, this) polite and reasonable. Though having fingerprints and photograph taken makes you feel no better than an arrested criminal.

Baggage was on the carousel just behind immigration awaiting our collection. Re-checked the baggage through to Miami. Caught airport train service to Terminal 3 for connecting flight for Miami which was due to leave some 2 hours after landing. Encountered further very long queues to go through security. This entailed having to remove shoes, which is fine on a security level, but less than helpful was the fact no chairs are provided nearby for the elderly to replace their footwear.

Had to prove age qualification for alcohol at a Terminal 3 bar. Faintly ridiculous as a half-blind man would know immediately that we are well over qualification age limit. To rub salt in the wound, 3 medium-sized beers, 1 modest-size glass of red wine cost $27. . . yes, that’s right. . . 27 USD. Yikes.

Delayed departure of our connecting flight (over 1 hour). We discover, on arriving in Miami, this particular flight is always late. Long, long walk to carousel and baggage collection. Good service from NCL staff at airport who direct us to bus for hotel.

OVERNIGHT HOTEL:
Sofitel Airport Hotel. It’s just five minutes away. Excellent hotel; large bedroom with well fitted en-suite replete with towels, and accoutrements. King-sized bed – probably the most comfortable we’ve yet encountered in a hotel. Delicious, and huge cheeseburger and fries in the downstairs bar/restaurant ($18). Really good buffet breakfast ($14)
Transfer to ship by coach was at 12.45.

DOCUMENTATION AND EMBARKATION:
Terminal D at Dodge Island. Huge queue. More form-filling. It’s hot, humid and very uncomfortable waiting in this slow-moving, perspiring human chain.. We have ‘pre-registered’ on-line, but it doesn’t seem to speed things up any. Our passports are retained (‘confiscated’ - in my opinion) by NCL – so I demand receipts. We join another long queue to get our on-board key/credit-cards. Cheesy photograph by ship’s photographer. Drinks are available at the key desk – and are much in need. Then through ships’ security – all hand luggage is X-rayed.

CABIN:
Somewhat on the small side (8242 AFT). The twin beds are pushed together. (We later get them separated and this gives a much roomier feel to the cabin. We have a pull-down bunk bed on one wall and there’s a connecting door to an adjacent cabin (obviously it’s for a family room in normal usage). There’s a TV with a number of shipboard channels – two news channels (CNN – and Fox News – both pretty awful, but Fox takes the biscuit for it’s sheer right-wing bigoted nonsense) . The en-suite is a 3-section affair with sliding doors for toilet area and shower. It’s cramped but well-fitted and very well supplied with towels; face-cloths; bathmat, etc. Excellent shower.

Cabin has good drawer/wardrobe space. Sockets are US standard 110v – (don’t forget to take adaptor – and should mention that some UK equipment will not function on this lower power) We don’t get an easy chair - there’s an upright chair and a small dressing table stool only.

Lifeboat drill is held (for our section of the ship) in Tsar’s Palace each week – lasting about 20 minutes. Lifebelts are in top of wardrobe. Safety information on back of cabin door.

SHIP’S FACILITIES:
Unsure of who got responsibility for ship’s decorative schemes, but good grief, do they like ‘bright’! The exterior artwork on the prow of the ship gives a degree of warning; it is garish and glitzy.

But for sheer O.T.T. kitsch pay a call to the main restaurant - Tsar’s Palace - on Deck 6 (rear). The food they serve here is excellent, as is the service, but in truth you are best advised to wear dark glasses when entering.

In honesty, I’ve seen tart’s boudoirs done up more tastefully than this place. From the mock ‘golden’ staircase – mounted at intervals with the most grievously decorated ‘Faberge’ eggs, to the green marble pillars (whose ‘marbling’ is already showing damage from chair backs, through to the reproduction portraits in ornate frames of various Czar’s, Czarina’s and assorted kith and kin hanging around the room like a flock of ugly inbred sheep – the room positively shrieks bad taste.

It resonates with that wild, uninhibited excess which Las Vegas does so well – and clearly no expense has been spared by NCL to create this particular house of horrors.

For those without dark glasses, Azura – the other (smaller) main restaurant - is altogether much quieter and easier on the eye, and with the same very high quality menu.

Deck 7 is the promenade deck. The promenade area, covered by what appears to be very durable anti-slip sandpaper, is some 550 yards in circumference (4 times around equals 1.4 miles). Shuffleboard courts (2) on the starboard side.

The centre of Decks 6 and 7 features the Crystal Atrium; also located here is the Reception Desk, Shore Excursion desk, a shop (which features the most awful clocks we’ve ever seen) the Java Bar is a central feature.

A trio plays every evening on the atrium staircase landing (Anna Y Trio Vientos) – they are good but their repertoire, we soon discover, is limited.

Forward on Decks 6 & 7 is the superbly-appointed Stardust Theatre/Lounge – a 1000+-seater, with excellent sound and lighting.

There are sufficient bars around the ship to satisfy even the most dedicated drinker. The quieter ones are on Deck 6: Maltings Beer & Whiskey bar; a champagne bar and Cigar club, Martini and Cocktail bar. I will mention briefly at this point that, no matter how ‘dedicated’ you might be, it requires very deep pockets to drink seriously on board this ship. More about this later.

Up top on Deck 13 is the Spinnaker Lounge/Bar. It’s a very large comfortable room and provides wonderful views at the very prow of the ship. Fitness freaks can dampen their sweat bands one deck down from here in the exercise room.

There’s a health spa (Bora-Bora) also up front on Deck 12, but if you can resist its vanity-polishing blandishments you’ll save yourself a small fortune in fees...

Two swimming pools/slide/Jacuzzis (one children’s pool) are found on Deck 12, which also has a large sun-deck area with lots of sunbeds – plenty of sunbeds are also available on Deck 13.

DINING:
I’ve mentioned Tsar’s Palace and Azura – whose kitchens are centrally located, and who share the same daily menus.

The food in these eateries is never less than excellent and, as mentioned, the service is exemplary. Should you not like the dish you have been served they will gladly replace it for you. Should you wish to ‘mix-and-match’ items from the menu they will do this without hesitation.

We heard complaints about the food (some Americans deemed it to have too much ‘European’ influence) but I have eaten all over the world and can state honestly that, from my experience, the cuisine in the restaurants on this ship is 5-star quality.

The Garden Café upstairs on Deck 12 has numerous serveries cleverly designed to minimize crush, and the food here is very good indeed. However, there are times when this place can be very crowded. Quite often, when the tables were busy, we took our plates of food from the Garden Café into Mama’s Kitchen (located on the other side of Deck 12) but on the very last day of our two weeks we found at breakfast (which was incredibly busy) the staff had locked the doors of Mama’s – a very silly decision.

The Great Outdoors and the Poolside Grill also provide excellent food (BBQ at the pool). Hotdogs onboard the Jewel are ‘all-beef’ – I mention this for those who might be squeamish about the usual hotdog content of pigs jowl or cow’s cheek.

I cannot report on the quality of the many other restaurants aboard as we didn’t see any need to pay premiums where these applied.

PORTS OF CALL:
(Western Caribbean itinerary) Roatan (Honduras); Grand Cayman; Ocho Rios (Jamaica); Nassau (Bahamas) – substituted for Great Stirrup Cay (in first week).

Roatan was our favourite of the week: It’s very green and has interesting wildlife and lovely scenery.

Grand Cayman is best viewed at a distance or, put more simply, as far in the distance as possible. A wholly charmless place inhabited by bankers and other disagreeable types. OK if you are there for snorkeling, jewelry buying, checking your off-shore deposits in one of the many banks, or lying in the sun taking your chances on attracting a spot or two of melanoma. The high point of my visit was eating a green-turtle-burger. The low point of the visit was the burger’s disgusting flavour (yes, it serves me right for eating it). My advice is don’t bother getting off the boat here.

Ocho Rios: We took a trip to Dunn’s River Falls and Dolphin Cove. The falls are very picturesque but Dolphin Cove is not a very wholesome spectacle. Unless, that is, you are one of those who enjoys seeing beautiful wild creatures penned up forced to perform ‘tricks’ for the human visitors – including the toe-curlingly awful sight of seeing those visitors who pay extra getting to ‘kiss’ a dolphin. Ugh!

Nassau: Apparently the rich and famous come here to live. Rubber-necking tours of their homes are available. With six cruise liners at the dock the day we visit Nassau town is, shall we say, somewhat crowded and unpleasant. Again, it’s fine to go and stretch your legs – that is if you can actually find a few unpopulated yards, but truthfully it may be an advantage to stay on board.

(Week 2)

(Eastern Caribbean) San Juan, Puerto Rica. A wonderful place for the first-time visitor, full of history and splendid architecture. We visited the magnificent Fort San Felipe del Morro – a US National Monument (and deservedly so). Then strolled around the old town which is full of marvellous old buildings. The quaint, cobbled streets, paved in blue-hued cobbles, exude an olde-world charm that is impossible to resist. San Juan is listed as the oldest city in the United States and totally captivated us. Worthy of spending a few days here.

Antigua: (Our favourite port of call) is, as always, a delight to visit. We spent the morning shopping in St Johns, followed by a few hours at Dickenson Bay beach. Just idyllic, and such pleasant, friendly and fun-loving people.

St Thomas: This looks to be a lovely island. Sadly, the weather when we visited (for most of the morning) was unpleasantly rainy. We took the tourist bus into Charlotte Amelie, then rather wished we hadn’t bothered. It’s shopping streets seem to comprise wall-to-wall jewelry shops, though we did find a very nice open-air bar in one of the side streets; an oval-shaped and nicely-tiled establishment run by an extremely engaging and entertaining young American man. This helped somewhat to moderate our sour opinion of Charlotte Amelie, but, to be honest, we wouldn’t exactly clamour to return here.

Great Stirrup Cay. This is NCL’s own private island. Sounds exotic but in reality turned out to be a scrubby little strand, a couple of miles or so long, and about half a mile wide – part of the Berry Islands group. However, it actually provided us with a very pleasant day. The main (popular) beach is small – so much so, that when all the ship’s passengers are crowded on to it, the tide might have difficulty getting in. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a few hours swimming, looking around, and were provided with a splendid barbecue meal.

ENTERTAINMENT:
Each week (on Fridays) the Stardust Theatre features a show, ‘Cirque Bijou’ presented by the Jean-Ann Ryan Company. This is one of the finest productions currently presented anywhere. A non-stop torrent of inspired and thrilling aerial and stage acrobatics interspersed with some incredibly talented dancing. It is breathtaking, audacious and marvelously executed by a hugely talented cast. NCL deserve plaudits for putting this show on.

Additionally, ‘Gossamer Magic’ – also presented in the Stardust, and featuring an illusionist (whose name, sadly, I can’t recall) is well worth seeing. Aside from this the general standard of entertainment on board was utterly lacking in any kind of depth, imagination or sparkle. The Cruise Director – a Canadian-Polish gentleman named, Mike - has a pleasant personality but very limited talent and imagination.. He cracks the self-same corny jokes at almost precisely the same time each week. Surely someone as well-paid could at least have at his fingertips at least a modest variety of quips, jokes and patter sufficient at least to carry him over seven days.. When the ship has its ‘at-sea’ days, those passengers keen to enjoy a bit of fun and frolics are hard-put to find something even mildly-diverting. They deserve much better. Happily, and fortunately, as it turned out, we’d taken some decent reading material with us.

EXCURSIONS:

We took just two official NCL tours: Ocho Rios – Dunn’s River Falls & Dolphin Cove, and an Everglades tour on the final day of our cruise. Mostly we organized our own sightseeing as we learned on previous cruises that it’s by far cheaper to ‘do-it-yourself’ and, without a large group with its concomitant hassle – a much more relaxed experience. The ‘official’ tours are undoubtedly twice the price you can normally expect to pay if you self-organise.

WHAT WE LIKED:
The Sofitel Hotel, Miami Airport (excellent).. The food and service aboard the Jewel (excellent). The cabin stewards (super service – and very pleasant people) Games of Shuffleboard (ok, it’s a simple pastime but we counted it as very pleasurable). The ice-cream – always available in the Garden Café. The promenade deck. The Stardust Theatre and the shows I’ve mentioned.Antigua, San Juan, Roatan, Great Stirrup Cay visits – in that order of preference. The general friendliness and enthusiasm of all the staff aboard.

WHAT WE DIDN’T LIKE:

Restriction of ship’s facilities:

The denial to passengers of certain facilities during the first week of our cruise. This was caused by the filming of an NCL TV commercial by a film crew who took over parts of the ship on various days. On one day, Deck 7 (promenade) was closed for hours; another day one of the pools was closed to us and a large area surrounding it was roped off. Another day, Tsar’s Palace was closed for filming. We thought it presumptuous and mildly offensive to be told: “We hope you enjoy watching the filming of NCL’s new TV commercial”. Well, no, we didn’t enjoy the experience. It was a huge inconvenience. Some passengers were persuaded – by being offered 100 dollars each – to participate in the filming of this commercial. In truth, all passengers aboard that first week were deserving of 100 dollars as compensation for the sheer inconvenience caused by filming..

In the second week other access to certain facilities was denied to all passengers because special ‘groups’ had booked facilities. For example, the Spinnaker Lounge was taken over for a period by a religious group. Another day, the Azura restaurant was closed to general passengers, and there were other small similar instances. My argument is that if all passengers have paid to enjoy all facilities on board there should be no restrictions of any kind – or any private reservation of public space by any group.

Tendering:
Most of the ports visited were tendered. Sometimes there were long waits queueing in hot sunshine, and long waits aboard ship for ticketed turns to tender ashore. It was rarely a smooth or easy mode of transport, and we heard quite a number of people complaining..

Cabin Noise:
We were in cabin (‘stateroom’ in this instance is so utterly pretentious) 8622 AFT. This turned out to be the worst part of the ship to get a decent night’s sleep. (Unless your own experience was to the contrary?) Engine noise was particularly intrusive –as were passenger voices in the corridor. Doors were slammed at night on Deck 7 below – probably both by passengers and crew.

The ship did not appear to be decently stabilized in heavy seas and had marked rolling even in a moderate swell, and so this too did not promote a comfortable nights sleep.

Cost of drinks aboard:
Two years ago we sailed on the NCL Sun to Alaska. I wrote a review at the time (published elsewhere on these pages) in which I commented on the high prices NCL were charging for a bottle of wine.

Since then NCL have further increased their prices to levels that can only be described as extortionate. On this trip we found that a bottle, which would cost, in a supermarket, no more than £4 to £5 (8 USD), is now priced around 40 dollars.

To add insult to injury they add an automatic 15 per cent service charge. Then there’s a further invitation for the customer to add a further gratuity. The bill carries the words: “For your convenience we have added 15 percent for gratuities” What utter convoluted verbal twaddle‘. . . for your convenience, etc’ is when subjected to the cold light of simple analysis. Even Scicilian bandits – when robbing their prey - operated with far less brass-necked effrontery than this bunch.

However, they don’t stop at wine. . .all alcohol, soft drinks – even bottled water – consumed aboard are at prices that are positively eye-wateringly expensive.

Now, in view of the fact that NCL operate an automatic 10 dollars a day per person (5 for children) gratuity charge, why on earth do they think 15 per cent drinks gratuity is justifiable?

I truly believe these high prices are counter-productive. NCL would generate more alcohol/drinks sales were they to price them at reasonable levels. In our case we restricted ourselves to four bottles of wine during the entire fourteen day voyage. In common with many other British passengers, we also cancelled the 140 dollars per person gratuity charge at the Reception desk on our final day, choosing instead to reward with tips those members of crew we felt merited our appreciation.

NCL’s hard-sell policy:
From the moment you first step aboard you become aware that passengers are first-and-foremost – at least, in the eyes of NCL – a marketing target.

One of the comedians aboard jokes that N.C.L. stands for: ‘No change left’. He has a point. Every other broadcast ships’ announcement is a sales pitch. The volume of sales literature that comes through the cabin door threatens to overwhelm you if you don’t immediately clear it out.

The selling of goods and services aboard ranges across a scale that goes from the merely persistent to the utterly relentless. It is unavoidable and so is extremely unpleasant.

Discrimination against non-US passengers.
Whether or not NCL are aware of this, we found it very irritating – as non-US citizens – to be treated like second-class passengers.

Embarkation/Disembarkation preference was always given to US citizens. They also get preference when it’s time to go through on-board immigration/customs inspection as non-US passengers are always last to be processed.

It wasn’t just ourselves who felt aggrieved by this. We heard from many fellow non-US citizen passengers this was ‘discriminatory treatment’.

American passengers were also allowed to retain their passports but all others had them ‘kept’ by NCL for the duration of the voyage.

Immigration/Bureaucratic procedures:
(This has nothing to do with NCL rules and regulations but is part of the necessary procedures introduced by the U.S. Homeland Security Department – and so directly this affects every foreign passenger aboard NCL ships sailing from US ports.)

Passing through U.S. Immigration has rarely ever – in our experience - been a pleasant experience.

Most US immigration officers are surly, monosyllabic, and even sometimes downright rude. That they may have a difficult job is not in doubt, but this applies equally to other countries immigration officers, and yet most of them are reasonably welcoming and have a courteous manner.

Britain – as at time of writing - does not require foreign visitors to be fingerprinted and photographed, and I, for one, am glad of this. It is at best a demeaning experience – akin to being treated as a criminal. In fairness, I will report that on our arrival at Ord airport we actually met a US immigration officer who was pleasant and reasonably courteous. (first time ever – she was a lady, and Afro-American).

However, the number of times we were subjected to US immigration scrutiny during this trip was quite incredible. Each time we passed into US territory – be it mainland or island – we had to join long queues to be scrutinized and approved by an immigration official. The number of forms we were required to fill in and then re-fill in became almost a joke. It affected everyone and became quite depressing in its repetition. Even those non-US passengers who didn’t want to get off in Miami on the turnaround day were required to get off the ship, go through customs and then spend a hour before being allowed back on board.

- NCL is powerless to affect these requirements as I have already mentioned. -

I have read reports in recent times of a sense of alarm among US tourist bosses, who complain that recently-introduced official American bureaucratic requirements are causing foreign tourists to avoid visiting America.

If this is true then it is a great pity. America is a wonderful country with some lovely welcoming and friendly people. I have now decided not to revisit the United States because of their immigration requirements. It’s a personal thing and is unlikely to upset anyone. I simply make the point as a small personal protest.

SUMMATION:
Last year (January 2005) we had a two-week cruise from Barbados on the Ocean Village. In truth it was a little bit like Billy Butlin’s Holiday camp at Sea. However, we had infinitely more fun and enjoyment aboard the OV than we did on the Norwegian Jewel.

The OV itinerary had so much more variety and far nicer islands to visit. There were fewer days at sea. Prices aboard the OV were fair and reasonable. And the Barbadian authorities – though security conscious – make their visitors feel like honoured guests.

Did we dislike our two weeks on the Jewel? Certainly not. There was much to enjoy – but on balance, the Ocean Village experience wins hands down.

Will we return to sail on NCL again? Definitely not, and you shouldn’t have had to read very far into my review to understand why.

Mike Davis, Shropshire, England. (report written February 2006).
 

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