From Steerage to the Suite Life

This article is a detour from my usual historical writing, but I hope you find it interesting.

My husband and I were treated to “the suite life” on a cruise by my daughter and her husband. We typically cruise in cabins classified as inside to those that have balconies, and this was our first full suite (Penthouse with large balcony). I thought it would be interesting for the readers to read a compare and contrast of the cruise experience in different types of cabins.  For those of you who have never cruised, I hope this inspires you to try one.

The captain hosted a cocktail reception in the Haven (shown above)

This cruise was a seven day Mexican Riviera trip on the Norwegian Jewel, but we had sailed on the Jewel in 2015 on a 19 night Panama Canal Cruise in a balcony cabin. Our last cruise in January 2017 was an inexpensive last minute 4 day Bahamas RCL cruise in a SMALL inside cabin.

We traveled with my daughter and SIL and their two children, ages 7 and 10. This was our first time traveling with family and it was wonderful!

First, I want to state that I feel privileged just being able to cruise and see many parts of the world while someone else does the cooking and cleaning. Second, the suite life hasn’t spoiled me for future cruising, and I’m happy to return to an inside if I cruise again. Did I appreciate the suite life?  You bet!

Embarkation

After dropping off our bags with the porter, we went through security and then onto the area for suite guests. The check-in process was very efficient, but there wouldn’t be much waiting for the general (non-suite) check-in if you arrived after 11:00.  There were a variety of sandwiches, fruits, cookies, etc. to enjoy while we waited in the special suites area.  The concierge came at about 11:30 to walk us to Moderno for lunch.

Summary: Suite passengers receive complimentary food and quicker check-in.  Wouldn’t it be sad if we had to wait until lunch to fill our bellies? You really struggle with all the extra food you automatically receive in suites. My experience with the non-suite waiting area is that those people tend to be more social with strangers. The regular passengers can access the ship at about the same time and can enjoy lunch at either the buffet or the MDR- Tsars. Most ships funnel the regular passengers to the buffet which is often VERY crowded. We always choose the dining room for embarkation lunch.

Cabins:

We were in a forward Penthouse Suite with Large balcony on the ninth deck. It was decorated very tastefully. We had a very large king size bed with very comfortable pillows. There was a table for two for in-cabin dining and a large desk area with a DVD player. A small couch (could sleep one person) was near the window. There was a very nice makeup area for my use, and the shower/tub was large with nice amenities (lotions, poof, cotton balls, q-tips, etc.) The hair dryer was a nice high power one that stayed on rather than the type in the inside cabins where you have to hold the button continuously.

The butler, Ronald, introduced himself and instructed us on how to use the Lavazza coffee/tea machine. There was a pantry filled with glasses, cups, cloth napkins, etc. He brought in a nice flower arrangement and two plates of chocolate covered strawberries (one for us as suite guests and one for Platinum Latitudes) and fresh fruit.

Our family was in the adjoining Owner’s Suite which was larger and had Haven privileges. They had two balconies: one forward and one on the side. Their in room dining table was a bit more formal, and they had a few extra benefits: a pillow menu, cookies, gummy bears and M&M’s on demand. The butler unlocked the access doors between the cabins.

We had been cautioned that the forward cabins were on the breezy side, but greatly enjoyed them while at port and while sailing between the ports in Mexico where the weather is warmer. The temps in LA were in the 60’s and even the first day out, the winds and chilly breezes made the regular pool areas not pleasant. Also, the fog horn, if necessary, is obviously located very close to the front near the bridge, and it blasted every five minutes from about 5 AM one morning in Mazatlan. The anchor makes a loud racket in the forward area when the ship has to tender, so that was another morning of a surprise at about 5-6 AM.

Summary: The cabin experience was of course significantly different in a Suite. I enjoyed being pampered with all sorts of extras and upgrades. Keep in mind that your gratuities are not only higher in suites, but there are more people to tip: the Butler and Concierge are amongst those not included in the gratuities.

Our last cruise was a last minute one on RCL to the Bahamas where the inside cabin was so tiny that if you kept the beds together, one person against the wall had to crawl over the other to get out.  There was also a bunk bed above, and it was easy to hit your head on it (yes I did).  Fitting more than two people in a tiny inside cabin is only for the super budget conscious and patient and flexible temperaments. The cabin was on deck 2, and strange clunking noises could be heard at various times, and the pillows were worn and flat. The TV was above the head of the bed, which made viewing it in bed ridiculous.  That said, the cruise was about $50 per night pp, so it was a great bargain if you could handle the tiny room and inconveniences. The steward also did a great job keeping it cleaned.

Inside Cabin (what we call steerage)

Our balcony cabin on a previous NCL Jewel cruise was very nice and comfortable with a couch and all the basics we needed for a very nice Panama Canal cruise. The steward was excellent.

Balcony Cabin on the NCL Jewel

So, one’s budget and personality type guide the decision to go inside, OV, balcony or suite. As a person with a grateful and non-demanding spirit, I can enjoy any cabin.

Main Areas: The Jewel is a very nice and well-maintained ship with great features. The atrium isn’t a stunner like some other ships but is tasteful and more functional. There are many areas to relax in all around the ship.

The Great Outdoors is a wonderful place to eat from the buffet and still enjoy the outdoors. Many of NCL’s smaller or newer ships have few places to eat outside, but the great outdoors (aft) and the topsider’s grill on the pool deck offer plenty of nice eating areas. You won’t find these on some of the larger ships.

The Spinnaker on the 13th deck is a lovely place to sit and watch for whales/dolphins and the ocean. Entertainment (dancing) and game shows are featured here during the afternoon and evening.  The Fizz Lounge is another nice dance floor and features many of the performers.

 

The pools are a good size, and one is adult only. The Haven pool is quite small but a very nice option on days when the weather isn’t cooperating as the roof is retractable.  Of course, you need to be in an Owner’s Suite or one of the adjoining Haven area suites to use it.

 

On warm days, the pools look like people soup. The chair hogs come out early like they do on all cruise ships and nothing is done. We removed towels from chairs that were unoccupied for over an hour. Then, you also have the supercharged chair hogs who rotate between their chairs in the sun and the shade. Yikes.

Drink Package: All the adults had the drink package. In general, it was observed that the mixed drinks were watered down. The beer, wine, and hard liquors were just fine. Note that you can order a drink up to $15 if you use the UBP.

Dining: Complimentary

Tsar’s Dining Palace is one of our favorite NCL restaurants. We love the décor, and the service was always good. It pays tribute to the grand Russian palaces. We love to sit in the aft area to watch the wake. My absolute favorite food was the Vietnamese Pho Soup (I’m a soup lover.) Go to Tsars for lunch on the first day to avoid the crowds in the Café.

Azura is the other complimentary dining area with a modern décor that has the same menu as Tsars.

O’Sheehans is the Irish pub that is available 24 hours. The soup and the corned beef sandwich are great. They offer a special each evening that is posted around the ship. The Jewel has nice seating near the window at this pub.

Garden Café is well laid out in stations and has a very nice assortment of foods. Their desserts are often better than the main restaurants, and you can see what you are getting. If it is crowded, remember that you can take your food into LaCucina where you will find seating.

Chin-Chin was busy, and we ate there only once on our PC cruise. We were not impressed. The food is similar to any Chinese takeout in the US. Our opinion tends to match many others on CC.

The Topsider Grill and luncheon cookouts are available in the afternoon and for an early breakfast. A nice option in good weather.

Cover Charge Dining (NCL has many special that have three of these included as a promotion):

Teppanyaki is their Japanese Steakhouse. Make your reservations early as the times are more limited.  We enjoyed all the foods, and the meat was tender and flavorful.  A children’s menu is NOT available here, and kids often don’t eat many of the selections (except our ten-year-old grandson who consumed huge quantities of filet mignon.) This is a very worthwhile experience.

Cagneys is their traditional steakhouse and was our favorite. The beef was excellent, and the desserts were amazing. I had the Oreo cheesecake. The service was impeccable.

Moderno is their Brazilian steakhouse. The salad bar has some excellent selections, and most of the meat was tender and flavorful. Excellent service.

LaCucina was better than many have reported. We both had the Chicken Parmigiana. Not as high quality as Cagney’s, but it was a pleasant option. My grandson reported that my lasagna was much better than at LaCucina although he liked theirs too.

LeBistro has been a disappointment on two different cruises. The service was SLOW and a bit confused. My salmon was to be cooked MW but was raw, and my dessert was a glorified applesauce.  Now I know that a tatin must mean “sweet applesauce” in French. The manager noticed I wasn’t eating my food and wanted to make things right, but the slow service discouraged me from allowing him to replace the foods. I was pleasant with the servers but disappointed. If I had to do it over again, I would have gone to Cagney’s twice!

Suite Breakfasts and Lunches in Moderno, which is only for suites’ passengers were very quiet, and the service was excellent. There are some very nice options (smoked salmon), and we ate in Moderno several times for both meals. Modernos is a great option on disembarkation morning.

Summary: The type of dining experience on the Jewel (except at Moderno for breakfast and lunch) isn’t affected by cabin selection. All of the food was very good to excellent (except LeBistro). I can’t understand reviewers who describe the food as “inedible.”

The food on RCL’s Majesty of the Seas was definitely a step below the food on the Jewel. I think this is because the standards are overall lower on the 3-4 day Bahama cruises. The food on our other RCL cruises has been of very good quality.

I have cruised with four different cruise lines and think the dining experience is more similar than different. Cruises below seven days probably (IMHO) provide a more inferior product. Also, cruises geared to an older and more demanding population have better quality foods (Transatlantics, European and Panama Canal cruises.)

NCL does not offer traditional seating which we have come not to prefer. We almost always agree to share a table (which we did one night in Tsars), and it was a very nice experience. The possibility of having tedious tablemates for 14 night+ cruises makes us choose freestyle or MyTimeDining options. On the other hand, we have enjoyed 100% of our tablemates on past cruises.

Entertainment:

Stardust Theatre Entertainment- The singers, dancers, and other entertainers were all very good. I’ve seen some of the shows before, so therefore performances like Band on the Run were repeats for us. We enjoy dancing (swing, waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha, merengue, etc.) and the bands and performers tried to get people on the dance floor, but it just wasn’t happening on this sailing.  I think it has to do with so many families and children on the ship. Much to our amusement, we became “the dancers.” People would stop us during the day on the ship and compliment us on our dancing. That was more of a statement on the lack of quality dancers on the ship if anyone considered us as “the dancers.”

 

The photos show dancing on the Jewel during the Panama Canal Cruise. Sponge Bob knows how to swing dance…

The show band, led by Larry was our favorite source for entertainment. The other groups (Souled Out, Tropical Four) were very good. Rockaway Duo…not so much. A Mariachi Band came onboard while we were in Puerto Vallarta and that was great entertainment for about three hours at the pool area. The singers and dancers and the acrobatic performers were excellent.

We reserved the Karaoke room (three available) in the Fizz lounge, and that was fun, but my daughter thought the list was outdated. You need to make reservations, and they are only open at night.

Summary: The entertainment and activities were often geared to families, which is appropriate since there were many children onboard. The ship at “full capacity” is about 2,400, but this sailing had over 2,900 passengers, making it busier and slightly more crowded. The spring break kids were all well behaved, though. There were few college age people onboard.

Cruises that are populated by “empty nesters” tend to be more traditional, lively and social. There is a lot of dancing and the passengers generally enjoy meeting new people. We have met many wonderful people from all around the world.  Family cruises usually result in people just socializing with their own family, which is very appropriate. Just sayin…

Here are some photos from our 2015 Panama Canal Cruise .

 

Going through a lock and there’s always one guy who thinks photo bombing is cute.

 

The adults got to crash the Kid’s Club to paint banners for the PC day. Guy on right is our neighbor Bob who came on the cruise with his wife.

 

Somewhere in Central America and going under the Golden Gate Bridge

Crew and Officers

The captain, Pelle Fredricksson was very pleasant, as was Steve Jacobsen, the head of the hotel dept. We met the officers at the Suites party in the Haven.  Most of the staff around the ship were very nice and hard working. I encountered only one grumpy cabin steward (not ours) that we passed quite often on deck 9 and it was obvious that he didn’t like to say hello to anyone. All the waiters and servers were efficient and very friendly.

Summary: We have been on about 13 cruises and only had one ship experience (Holland Westerdam) were the crew wasn’t up to par. We must choose happy, well-run ships. Cabin status doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to the efficiency and happiness of the crew.

Platinum Latitudes

We just achieved platinum status, and so enjoyed a few nice upgrades. There was a bottle of sparkling wine and two large bottles of water. We also received a small brochure that had the coupons for the free bag of laundry and the two complimentary dinners. Since we also had the UDP, we selected LeBistro (where we received another bottle of wine) and LaCucina.

Another very nice experience was the ship tour offered to Platinum Latitudes. We were taken to the laundry area (huge enterprise!), the kitchens (the soup area was most impressive) and the dressing room area for the dancers. Really an interesting experience.

Internet: We had the internet package included as a benefit with Free At Sea, and it worked well most of the time. Early morning and late day provide the fastest connections. Most of the adults we traveled with had purchased the  I-Concierge app (install it at home), and it was a little tricky to get used to. It didn’t work at times and totally failed for about 48 hours. The internet manager told me the internet was down, and he even used my phone to check the status- not working.

Summary: The internet was complimentary with our package, but I also realize many folks can’t do without, so it was a bonus. We didn’t use the IConcierge app as much as we thought we would.

Excursions:
We typically arrange private excursions because they are more personal and less expensive.  We often go with a Cruise Critic group and that is a lot of fun.  I’m not going to give details on the excursions, but so much depends on where you cruise.  There is nothing like going to Alaska or Europe!

Summary: Excursion experiences are not affected by room category. We usually do private excursions not associated with the ship.

We would be very happy to sail on the Jewel again. Like some of its sister ships, the Jewel offers most features that you would expect or desire. The Jewel class ships are our favorite class in the NCL fleet.

Mega ships are just too big for us. They double the number of passengers and add more decks for cabins. The result is that the pool area and the public rooms are very crowded.  Also, I don’t use climbing walls, ropes courses, walk the plank, slides, tubes, etc. so all that is wasted on me.  I know I sound boring, but remember that we are “the ships’ dancers” now, so if you want foxtrot, waltz, salsa, cha-cha, swing, polka, merengue lessons, just let me know!

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