Gen-Xers pump iron and practice yoga alongside baby boomers wrapped in seaweed. Nearby, kids careen down a yellow water slide while their parents soak up the sun and tropical drinks. Seniors vie for shuffleboard titles and perfect their golf swings while tots explore the kids' club.
Welcome aboard the multi-faceted Norwegian Jewel.
Jewel launched in August 2005, and on it, Norwegian Cruise Line continues to refine the Freestyle Cruising concept that's become its corporate motto. Freestyle 2.0 was introduced across the fleet in spring 2008, with several enhancements to the menus, new beds throughout and service tweaks at all levels.
On Jewel, more than 2,300 passengers enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they wish. Casual is the operative word here, with formal night optional.
The Jewel was a floating test for land-based amenities and services like high-rent luxury villas, martini and Champagne bars, interconnecting family-friendly cabins, and an electronic restaurant reservations system. No doubt, Norwegian Jewel and its younger sisters, Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Gem, offer an experience akin to a land-based resort vacation.
Fully loaded with so many land-based bells and whistles, the Jewel is at its best at night with passengers dispersed among its numerous restaurants, lounges and entertainment venues. In an effort not to miss any of the eateries, lounges or countless activities, I found myself rushing about the ship and frequently checking my watch. It took a conscious effort for me to slow down, block out the hubbub, and simply enjoy the splendid Caribbean views from our cabin balcony.
In the needs-improvement department, though, the ship can do even better handling the throngs. With more than 2,000 co-passengers, I fully expected waits. But I was not prepared to stand on the dock in Roatan -- for more than 30 minutes, alongside 75 other shore excursion guests -- waiting for one tardy couple. The tender process was long -- especially transferring from the dock in Roatan back to the Jewel. Adding another metal detector and a couple more local tenders would help, and not once during the cruise could I find an empty lounge chair poolside.
Excursion loading and unloading in the Baltic was more efficient, with no tender ports and staggered excursion times. However, there was too much deck chair hogging around the pool -- even in the weak summer sun of Northern Europe -- and spare loungers were a rare find.
Ultimately, there's much about the Jewel that sparkles -- most notably the dining options, amiable crew, appealing staterooms and impressive fitness center. Though numerous restaurants, an electronic reservation system and streamlined debarkation help with crowd control, there are times (muster drill, tenders and shore excursions), when you feel the presence of your fellow shipmates. Happily, there are quiet places to read a good book and enjoy the splendid views. Deck 7 offers outdoor seating when the pool deck is packed. The library is almost always empty, and Spinnaker Lounge is sunny and quiet by day. By dinner time, the spa empties out, and you can savor the sunset from a hot tub or chaise.
The Jewel's 10 dining venues offer open seating, flexible hours and excellent service. An electronic reservations system keeps things running smoothly -- we made reservations for the week at the reservations desk upon embarkation and never had to wait more than a few minutes to be seated. Reservations can also be made by phone. It's best to book early for the specialty restaurants, especially for large parties or for smaller venues like Teppanyaki. Cancellations after 5 p.m. incur a $5 fee.
Judging from the crowds at Teppanyaki and Le Bistro, passengers don't mind paying $10 to $25 in cover charges. A few venues -- Cagney's, Chin Chin and Le Bistro -- sometimes have early bird deals.
Complimentary hot tea, coffee, iced tea and ice water are served with meals; soft drinks, bottled water and alcoholic beverages are available at an additional charge (pretty standard onshore bar prices).
Surrounded by so many dining venues, it's easy to forget that 24-hour room service is also available (except on the morning of debarkation). From 6:30 a.m. until 10 a.m., you can enjoy continental fare like juice, fresh fruit, muffins and cold cereal. Lunch and dinner options include perennial favorites like chicken Caesar salad, sandwiches and pizza, plus kid-pleasers like hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Tsar's Palace and Azura, the two main restaurants, share dinner and lunch menus with daily selections. Healthy, cooking light selections are always available, as are Caesar salad, chicken, salmon, steak, vegetables and baked potatoes. At breakfast, waiters outnumber diners at the ornate Tsar's Palace, decorated in royal hues of burgundy, green and gold with chandeliers, marbled pillars and stunning faux Faberge egg balustrades. This room is an elegant space and, with its Russian-inspired decor, is particularly appropriate to the Baltic -- flooded with light during the long evenings thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows on the aft side.
With its pop art, wood veneer and soft lighting, the smaller Azura -- a sleeker and more contemporary venue -- is also a more intimate space. But, it appeared gloomy by comparison, and the service was all over the place; my cocktail arrived with my starter, and my glass of wine came when I had nearly finished my main course. The Captain's Gala Dinner menu -- with broiled lobster tail -- was our best no-cover-charge meal.
Blue Lagoon, a pleasant food court-style venue overlooking the atrium, is another option for breakfast and lunch. For a hearty start, order the Full House -- fried or scrambled eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms and hash browns. That will keep you until late lunch, which offers a menu of fish and chips, burgers, soups and salads. Garden Cafe and the Great Outdoors -- indoor and outdoor buffets -- are good for a quick breakfast or lunch but are less appealing for dinner. Passengers complained the food was inconsistent and often cold. During the day, the Garden Cafe is under a lot of pressure, and seats can be hard to find. Nice touches include a soft-serve ice cream dispenser and self-serve coffee machines that brew decaf and regular lattes and cappuccinos. For morning juices and pastries or burgers and hot dogs for lunch, the poolside grill is quick and convenient.
Cagney's Steakhouse ($25 cover charge), which sports cowhide chairs and western decor, serves filet mignon, strip loin, New York cut, boneless rib eye and T-bone steaks.
Moderno Churrascaria ($20) is a Brazilian-style steakhouse that offers a expansive lineup of skewered meat, including lamb chops, filet mignon, sausage and chicken. There's also the obligatory salad bar featuring international cheeses, dried meats, olives and marinated veggies, alongside the traditional salad ingredients. Sides, including mashed potatoes, fried bananas, and rice and beans, are served with the meat.
Chin Chin ($15 cover charge), the main area of an Asian fusion complex, offers starters like dim sum and satay, followed by miso or tom yum soup, and entrees like chili mussels in lemongrass coconut milk, chicken curry and pad thai. Save room for Thai banana pancakes with coconut ice cream. Knives and salt shakers go flying at the hibachi-style Teppanyaki (cover charge $25; half price for children). Entrees include combinations of chicken, beef and seafood (including lobster) served with miso soup, ginza salad, vegetables and garlic fried rice. Entrees are followed by ice cream or fresh fruit. California and New York rolls, barbecued eel and flying fish roe are among the selections at the Sushi Bar ($15 for all you can eat).
NCL's signature restaurant, Le Bistro ($20 cover charge), may not have the original Impressionist art found on Norwegian Dawn, but it still gets our vote for best restaurant with a cover charge. The service is especially attentive and the food presentation memorable. Don't miss the decadent chocolate fondue with fruit, served in a half-pineapple. A jazz brunch served here on a sea day ($15) received rave reviews from my traveling companions.
At the rustic Mama's Italian Kitchen ($10), you can create your own pizza or pasta with sauces ranging from traditional (tomato, Alfredo and Bolognese) to haute (shrimp with lemon and basil or smoked salmon with white wine cream and chives).
There's nothing subtle about the Jewel's public rooms. Imagine "Finding Nemo" meets "Austin Powers." After a couple days of sensory overload, your brain adjusts, and the decor starts to look normal. Smoking is not permitted in the show lounges or indoor restaurants, but it is allowed in the casino, Corona cigar club and on outside decks. Fortunately, there are helpful directories inside and outside the three elevator banks.
Deck 7 is home to the bustling shore excursion and reception desks, Internet cafe, art and photo galleries, and enormous galleria and port of call retail space for duty-free items. The Crystal Atrium features a trendy Java Cafe and elegant, white, baby grand piano.
The Internet cafe, open 24 hours a day, has eight computer stations. After an account activation fee of $3.95, the basic charge is $0.75 per minute. Frequent users do better with package rates: 250 minutes for $100 or 100 minutes for $55.
The Library's wood burl shelves are lined with a good selection of self-help, sports, travel, science, history, fiction and children's titles in multiple languages. Passengers can check out three books at a time (except travel and reference). Despite stunning views, gold decor, floor globe and orchids, most guests find the straight-backed, box-shaped chairs simply too uncomfortable. There's also a DVD library (a well-kept secret) for passengers in suites, although we brought our own portable DVD player and were allowed to borrow from it.
From standard insides to balcony suites, interconnecting cabins to luxurious villas with butler and concierge service, the Jewel offers a tremendous variety of living quarters. All cabins are furnished with cherry wood finishing, televisions, refrigerators, safes, duvets, and bathrooms with showers and hair dryers.
In-cabin Internet access is available with an Ethernet cable. (Our connection wasn't working initially and had to be established through the Internet manager). TV programming includes a rotating selection of movies, as well as CNN, TNT, Cartoon Network and ESPN. Ship-to-shore calls from the cabin to the U.S. run $5.95 per minute. Mobile phones are another option, thanks to a roaming network, with rates determined by home carriers. (Europeans should note that all calls are routed via Bermuda, and the charges are enormous.)
Suites and penthouses on Decks 8, 9, 10, 11 and 14 (272 square feet and larger) feature glass doors with private balconies. Most suites have queen-size beds, separate living areas with dining tables, bathrooms with showers and tubs, and excellent concierge service. Oceanview staterooms with balconies on Decks 8, 9 and 10 (200 - 205 square feet) offer sets of two chairs on private balconies. Oceanview staterooms on Decks 4, 5, and 8 (150 - 161 square feet) include picture windows or portholes.
Our balcony stateroom on Deck 10 was cheerful and welcoming, decorated in vibrant Caribbean hues. An orange and purple love seat and blue drapes combined to create an appealing space. Mirrors outside the bath, beside the closet, and above the beds helped to create a spacious feel. A pair of plastic chairs on the balcony was practical, but unexciting.
A mini-suite on Deck 11 was more conventional, with a burgundy sofa bed -- separated from the main sleeping area by a thick drape -- and metal balcony furniture. Those cabins also had the added benefit of a bathtub.
With our luggage tucked under the twin beds, we found the closet space sufficient with a convenient safe, shelves and shoe storage. The well-stocked mini-bar had everything from Veuve Clicquot Champagne to Wild Turkey and Grand Marnier. Reading lamps over each bed worked well, and there were two power points (110v) -- adequate for most but tricky when you have two Nintendos, one laptop, one DVD player, three cameras and two cell phones!
The tropical theme continued in the well-designed bathroom with shell-shaped lamps and aquamarine, mosaic floor tiles. Separate toilet and shower areas (with a handy Elemis shampoo and soap dispenser, Elemis moisturizer and retractable clothes line for wet bathing suits) flanked a central white sink and vanity with ample shelf space. Kudos to our amiable housekeepers who never failed to freshen the cabin, turn down the beds and fill our ice bucket.
Families can choose from about 300 interconnecting cabins in a range of categories, from standard insides to suites. Different grades of cabins can be linked to create two- to five-bedroom areas for immediate families, extended families and family reunion groups.
If you're craving a butler and concierge, as well as your own piano, hot tub and silver toothbrush holder, look no further. The Jewel offers 10 stylish horizon villas and two 5,000-square-foot garden villas. In addition to the ritzy decor and furnishings, the luxe digs share a lounge with Internet access, a private sun deck and a gorgeous central courtyard, featuring a retractable roof, rattan sun beds, swimming pool, hot tub, treadmill and Stairmaster.
Each passenger is automatically billed $12 per day, which supports an incentive program for the service staff. Passenger who prefer to tip individually can fill out a form at reception. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to fitness classes and bar drinks or 18 percent in the spa. For passengers using concierge and butler service, NCL recommends a gratuity "commensurate with the services rendered." The bill can be paid in cash or with credit cards or traveler's checks.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The popular pool deck has two pools, four whirlpools with colorful awnings, and a bright yellow waterslide for kids.
Body Waves Fitness Center, Deck 12, is open 24/7 for gym rats. With glorious ocean views from floor-to-ceiling windows and individual televisions, you can almost forget you're exercising. The fitness center sports the latest weight machines, cardiovascular equipment and free weights, plus a separate room for fitness classes. Aerobics and stretch classes are gratis; step, Pilates and yoga cost $15, and in the Baltic, four 55-minute spinning classes cost $40.
Bora Bora Health Spa & Beauty Salon, Deck 12, is a tranquil place to enjoy exotic treatments -- from algae detox and lime and ginger salt glows to coconut rubs and milk ritual wraps -- at exotic (a k a expensive) prices. The hard sell of skincare products following treatments can rub you the wrong way. Robes and towels are supplied; bring your own shower sandals. In the changing rooms, there's a sauna, steam room, rest area and showers with an abundant supply of Elemis shower gel and shampoo.
Other recreational options include a jogging and walking track and a versatile sports deck with bleacher seating that accommodates basketball, volleyball and tennis. There are also two golf driving nets, a shuffleboard court, ping pong tables and a pair of life-sized "Alice in Wonderland"-like chess sets.
Norwegian Jewel rolls out the welcome mat for families, with amenities like interconnecting cabins, a kids-only pool and water slide, and an appealing Splashdown Kid's Club. In addition to a children's menu, young passengers can enjoy the Kid's Corner buffet with mini stools, low tables, and kid-pleasing fare like hot dogs and chicken nuggets. Families can gather in the card room for a game of Monopoly or Clue or sing together during family karaoke night.
The Kid's Crew program is organized by age group: Junior Sailors (2 - 5), First Mates (6 - 9), Navigators (10 - 12) and Teens (13 - 17). In addition to the play room, the Splashdown Kid's Club features a kid cinema and video arcade. Age-appropriate activities range from lego-mania and silly songs for the younger crowd to a sports afternoon and survivor night for tweens. Club Underground is the teen hangout, with a juice bar, touch-screen jukebox, Microsoft Xbox gaming consoles, disco nights, socials and movies.
The facilities are superb, but what I hadn't realized at the time of booking was that the kids' clubs are not free, except on sea days. Until 7 p.m. on all port days, there is a charge of $5 per child, per hour ($8 for two siblings), whether parents are ashore or onboard; it seems unsatisfactory in a destination like the Baltic where families may only be ashore for half of the day (St Petersburg, for example, where the ship spends two days). Clubs are also not segregated into age groups when the ship is in port. On sea days, there is only a charge in the evenings, from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Unlike many other at-sea children's programs which start at age 3, NCL takes tots as young as 2. Appreciative parents are issued beepers for diaper changes and other emergencies.
In the Caribbean, the majority of passengers are American. The balmy, Caribbean weather also attracts Brits looking to escape the winter cold. The ship, with its whirlwind of activities and impressive amenities, enjoys a broad appeal across age groups. Children and teens are out in force during school holidays.
In the Baltic, there is a complete international mix, the major groupings being British, American, Canadian and Spanish, followed by smaller groups from places as diverse as Malta, South America, the Caribbean and Hong Kong.
Casual dress is a very popular aspect of freestyle cruising. Formalwear (black tie or dark suit for men and evening gown or cocktail dress for women) is optional during one formal evening. On our trip, about a quarter of passengers got dolled up in gowns and tuxedos. Even in the ship's most elegant restaurant, Le Bistro, diners donned resort casual attire -- which translates into polo shirts and khakis for men and sun dresses or skirts and blouses for women. After 5:30 p.m., jeans, T-shirts, shorts, tank tops and bare feet are not permitted in the restaurants.
Boredom is not an option onboard Norwegian Jewel. The challenge is choosing from among numerous daytime activities that include foreign language, cooking and dancing classes, trivia contests, lectures on handwriting, perfume seminars, bingo, art auctions, arts and crafts, volleyball, ping pong, tennis and human chess play, as well as checkers, bridge and Scrabble. There is also a martini clinic and margarita tasting for $15.
The Stardust Theatre is the main entertainment venue for nightly Broadway- and Vegas-style productions, comedy and magic acts, and a Cirque du Soleil-style aerial thriller -- Cirque Bijou. The fearless troupe includes gymnasts, acrobats and bungee jumpers. They played to a packed house.
In addition to the evening extravaganza, live guitar and piano music is performed at various venues. For night owls, there are late parties with themes like White Nights (attendees dress all in white), Caribbean and disco.
Karaoke and Nintendo Wii are available, both at the futuristic FYZZ Lounge and the private red, green or blue karaoke rooms at no extra charge.
Among the 13 bars and lounges is a central hub called Bar City, which consists of a Champagne and wine bar with pink art deco neon signage and a see-through wall decoration that features water bubbling throughout it. Also located there are a martini bar with zebra-striped chairs and large screen displaying James Bond-like female silhouettes, as well as a whiskey and beer pub. Despite the stylishness of the watering holes, some passengers grumbled about the cost of bar drinks. A beer runs $3.95 to $6.50. The cocktail of the day is $7.95. Fruit smoothies cost $8.95 with alcohol, $6 without. The cheapest glass of chardonnay -- Alderbrook from Russian River -- costs $6.50.
The Jewel Club Casino offers gaming lessons and slot machine, blackjack and poker tournaments. Passengers also watched the Super Bowl on a big screen TV and placed bets. Games include one penny to $100 slot machines, baccarat, roulette and blackjack.
From adventurous canopy zip-line tours (in the Caribbean) to sedate sightseeing trips (in the Baltic), shore excursions cover all the bases, including a new level of ultra-exclusive tours by private car or minibus. For security reasons, all bags go through a metal detector on return to the ship, and any duty-free items acquired are confiscated until the end of the cruise.
While the morning tender to Great Stirrup Cay -- NCL's private island in the Bahamas -- was well-orchestrated with timed tickets, the afternoon wait to and from the island on one large tender proved achingly slow. On the Baltic itinerary, there aren't any tender ports, so this wasn't an issue.
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