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Cruise Ship Review

Norwegian Jade - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Cruise Line's first ever ship to sail in Europe year-round, may boast an incongruously decor that's tropically focused (more on that later), but the recently refurbished vessel is "freestyle" through and through.

For the most part, its "Freestyle" design refers to an onboard ambience that abandons traditional cruise formalities. All meals are open seating and choice of cuisine and vibe is relatively unrivaled (range goes from a top-notch steakhouse and Tepannyaki to French, Italian, tapas, sushi, buffets and even a 24-hour cafe, complete with traditional English breakfast).

"Freestyle" also incorporates onboard activities and entertainment ranging from its spa to comedy shows; opening hours are pretty expansive and performances aren't geared around restaurant seatings.

Beyond that, Norwegian Jade, which in April 2008 repositioned from a year-round post in Hawaii (hence the tropical decor) to Southampton (and now on to the Mediterranean), got a fresh new look. Carpets were replaced and worn furnishings repaired. The small Hawaii cultural center has disappeared while the Jade Club Casino -- banned on ships that cruise in Hawaii -- has been added.

Where the majority of passengers and crew were North Americans aboard Pride of Hawaii (90 percent of crew were required to be U.S. citizens), the breakdown on our 12-night Istanbul to Athens cruise was rather evenly divided between passengers representing the U.S. (1,286) and those from international countries, including Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Mexico and Japan (1,115). The more global experience, with announcements now coming in Spanish and German as well as English, was the defining element of the cruise. I played poker at a table composed of players from Israel, Mexico, Northern Europe, the Midwest United States, Japan and China -- all yelling at our shy Peruvian dealer. The melange of languages flying by was somewhat distracting during play, but it still felt entirely natural.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle -- with its new geography, moniker and clientele -- is the fact that Jade is also the first ship to debut Freestyle 2.0, NCL's new fleetwide service, dining and cabin initiative (other vessels have since followed suit). The touches range from little gestures, such as a "bubbly" welcome or on-deck Evian spritz, to new programs, such as the introduction of NCL-U "education" courses (beer tasting, digital photography classes) to the more indulgent addition of pillow menus to suites.

NCL also debuted two new theme parties aboard Jade: the Monte Carlo casino party with its show girls in feathered hats and annoying host continuously rolling his tongue as he bellowed "Monte Carrrrrrlo" and the White Hot Party, a very well-attended danceathon where a large number of passengers clad in white spazzed about to some bass-heavy joints. Menus in all the restaurants have also been overhauled (and surcharges increased we should note), with signature dishes added to all specialty restaurants (Cagney's Steakhouse has a 32 ounce porterhouse). With "Lobster Galore," passengers will now find lobster in at least one restaurant every night of the cruise. And suite guests have a new place to dine for breakfast and lunch with the opening of Cagney's to guests booked in Romance Suites or higher.

An interesting, but less talked about, upgrade is Crew 2.0. A happy crew is a good crew so this new initiative includes better food in the crew galley, opportunities for the crew to go on shore excursions, and more crew-passenger interaction (perhaps a crew vs. passenger b-ball tournament).

All said, the dramatic shifts seem to have been taken in stride. It's a cruise where U.S. passengers can see Europe in the most economical way possible, and European and Asian travelers can take advantage of the woefully performing U.S. dollar. Clearly no one minds the island vestiges of Pride of Hawaii. Complaints about the additional costs of all the specialty restaurants -- something that's dogged NCL's Freestyle concept from the start -- were common, and a case could be made for NCL doing a better job of providing more realistic expectations. If guests really do want to enjoy the wide variety of dining options available during a single cruise, as the multiplicity of restaurants clearly suggest, an additional, say, $25 per person, per night, should probably be figured into the cost of the cruise.

The concern of "nickel and diming" aside, Jade provides an international cruise experience on a relatively new ship, with a spectrum of dining and accommodation options. NCL's aim is to characterize itself as the line of unfettered choice, and now on a global level.

Dining

Grand Pacific and Alizar are Norwegian Jade's two main dining rooms. Open seating breakfast and lunch are offered in one of the two (check your Freestyle Daily), and both are open for dinner; walk-ins are welcome every evening. Grand Pacific tends to fill up before Alizar; my sense is it's because the former is a larger, more traditional space that may feel familiar to cruisers not used to the Freestyle concept. To avoid disappointment, we suggest you make reservations if you are looking to eat at a specific time or with a large (or small) party.

Though traditional items like lobster and beef Wellington appear throughout the week, the chefs get creative with other items. One night, appetizer choices included eggplant dip and spring rolls, with sweet potato cakes atop a Morrocan chick pea stew as a main vegetarian course. Portions are fairly small, so if you are looking for a filling "cruise" meal, definitely order all of the components that interest you -- salad, soup, appetizer and entree, or any combination of those.

There are special menus for kids, as well as Cooking Light selections for health-conscious travelers, and a few vegetarian choices. On the "always available" menu, you'll find broiled chicken, sirloin steak and salmon.

Where Jade stands out dining-wise is in its impressive number of specialty venues. So how do they stack up? Be patient, there is an absurd number of options:

Papa's Italian Kitchen levies a cost of $10. And while menus have been overhauled, favorites like the antipasti trolley with its mozzarella, tomato, peppers, marinated mushrooms, mortadella, etc. remain. Other starters include fried calamari, a Caesar salad and pasta e fagioli. You can create your own pizza and pasta dishes with a variety of toppings and sauces. The Pesto a la Genovese sauce, with basil, parmesan, pecorino, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, was our favorite. And if you can't decide on one pizza or pasta, pick three or four. Papa's long dark wood bench seating lend nicely to a communal dining vibe.

Dinner at Cagney's Steakhouse ($25 per-person surcharge) was easily my favorite meal of the cruise. Things begin with an appetizer or salad like a crab cake with spicy avocado sauce or a chop salad with about a dozen ingredients including eggs, bacon, onions, avocado and mushrooms. The main courses consist of high-quality steaks and other cuts of meat like veal and pork, seafood, chicken, with a variety of sides (try the Cagney's Fries, with white truffle oil and parmesan cheese). And save room for dessert; both the Chocolate Obsession and bananas foster are quite titillating.

But despite the fine meal, here's the rub with Cagney's. The standard surcharge menu, at $25, included a five-ounce filet mignon. If you want a slightly larger cut, say the eight-ounce filet that I ordered, or a filet and lobster tail combo, you'll pay another $15 on top of that. With one or two glasses of wine, you could easily end up spending almost $60 per person for the meal. This can come as a bit of shock to the uninitiated.

Jasmine Garden is the ship's Asian fusion complex; you could try a different component every day for four nights. The "main" menu here is nouvelle Chinese, with spring rolls and crispy crab wontons with plum sauce as appetizers, and Szechuan Stir-Fried Lobster Tail (the specialty dish), Lo Mein and Vegetable Chow Fun as mains. Though our meal, which we shared family style so as to sample, was somewhat disappointing, the sushi we also ordered (always available anywhere in Jade -- not just at the sushi bar) is the best as sea.

For $20, you can eat as much raw fish as you want, including standard rolls (California, spicy tuna) and specialty rolls (the Dynamite Roll included yellowtail, salmon and green onions); sake is extra. Or, also for $20, try Shabu Shabu, loosely translated to "swish swish," which refers to the action by which thin slices of beef are cooked in hot water.

Teppanyaki is NCL's answer to landside Japanese hibachi restaurants like Benihana -- and it's certainly worth heading there at least once during the cruise. Though it carries a $25 per person surcharge, the food -- and the show -- is worth the splurge (and you can always order double portions). Everyone automatically gets seaweed salad with ginger, garlic fried rice, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables, miso soup, and ginger and mustard dipping sauces. Then you choose from a variety of steak, vegetable, chicken and seafood combinations as a main course. Chefs are happy to honor substitutions; I ordered filet, chicken and shrimp. Mochi Ice Cream (sticky rice with an ice cream center) or Fresh Fruit Sashimi are offered for dessert. Four tables seat up to eight people each in four sittings (5, 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m.). You'd think that in a restaurant with 32 seats reservations would be crucial, but come the final seating, following long days in port (and an older demographic that preferred to dine earlier), the place was generally empty.

The French Le Bistro ($25) is the cruise line's signature eatery, predating even the Freestyle Cruising concept. The house specialty, Cardinal of the Seas, with its gutted lobster carcass served on the plate watching over your meal, was quite unpleasant to consume. Remember, of course, that the wait staff is there to accommodate you, so don't hesitate to order another dish if the first is unpalatable. The chocolate fondue, which had disappeared on Pride of Hawaii, has returned; the crepe suzette, though not flambeed tableside due to open flame regulations at sea, was light.

On the other side of the coin are several casual dining options. Blue Lagoon, a 24-hour sit-down "diner" overlooking the atrium, offers breakfast similar to what's found in the main dining room, and an all-day menu of "comfort food" including Buffalo wings, tuna melt, hot dogs and spinach and artichoke dip. The food wasn't particularly impressive, but the service was personal, with the hostess engaging me with a story about her excursion in Ephesus (part of the new Crew 2.0 program). "I'm Filipino, and Filipinos are Catholic, so I was happy to see the Virgin Mary's church, Mr. Dan."

By the pool, The Grill has breakfast from 7:30 until 10:30 a.m. and serves up fresh hamburgers and hot dogs as a late lunch or anytime snack from noon until 5:30 p.m.

The Garden Cafe (formerly Aloha Nui), Jade's lido eatery, is open for breakfast from 7 until 11 a.m., and offers hot and cold items, such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, fruit and pastries, as well as an omelet station for made-to-order egg dishes, and a crepe station with your choice of fillings. The morning fresh juice bar is also a nice touch. Mix and match grapefruit, carrot, apple, orange, melon, etc. -- $2.50 for a small, $3.50 for a large. Also great was the multi-faceted cafe latte/cappuccino/espresso maker available free of charge. For late risers, a breakfast buffet minus the omelet station stays open in Great Outdoors, the Garden Cafe's open-air extension, until 11:30 a.m.

Lunch and dinner are available here as well, all served at staggered stations as opposed to a long line. If it seems confusing or overwhelming, do a walk-through before grabbing your plate, taking stock of what you want to try. Then you'll navigate the stations like a pro. At lunch, expect a sandwich station with deli meats and cheeses, a salad bar, a selection of hot items (pastas, stir fries, Indian food etc.), a carving station, a pizza counter and desserts. Dinner adds tablecloths, some mood lighting, and more hot selections akin to what you'd find on the main dining room menu.

And as on previous NCL ships, we adore the line's signature buffet station for tykes. The Kid's Cafe is located in a corner of the Garden Cafe with miniaturized tables and chairs, and kid-friendly foods like chicken nuggets in fun animal shapes. Confused looking adults were found sitting there on the first few days of the cruise, looking uncomfortably hunched, frowning as they tried to dine.

Finally, room service is available around the clock, including a Continental breakfast and all-day sandwiches and snacks like Buffalo wings. As part of the Freestyle 2.0 enhancements, the room service menu has been expanded with new sandwich, soup and salad options available. At dinnertime, you can order off the main dining room menu, and if you are booked in accommodations with a butler, he or she can hook you up with items from Papa's, too, since its galley is close enough for the food to stay warm en route to your room. Honestly, if you have a suite, they'll get you whatever you want.

An electronic system launched on Norwegian Jewel to cut down on lines and wait times in restaurants is also in place here. Monitors throughout the ship's corridors reveal how busy each eatery is with a bar that ranges from green (come on in) to red (crowded, and you might have to wait). This screen also acts as an electronic hostess, letting cruisers know how long the wait is for a table for two, for example, and where large parties are being accepted.

Our advice, though, is to make all or most of your reservations at the beginning of your voyage -- even for the main dining rooms in which reservations are not required. You can always take your name off the list if you change your mind (note that at for-fee restaurants, a penalty of $5 applies for cancellations made within 24 hours of a reservation). If you truly want to cruise spontaneously (shall we say, "freestyle"?) and make no concrete plans, you'll have better luck getting walk-in seating at your first-choice venue closer to opening or closing time -- those screens get pretty red during the peak dinner hours, generally between 7 and 9 p.m.

Editor's note: With cover charges raised in all venues, price savvy passenger dine during "happy hour." Every day from 5:30 until 7 p.m., you'll get two cover charges for the price of one at Papa's, Cagney's, Le Bistro and Jasmine Garden (excludes sushi, Teppanyaki and a la carte items).

Public Rooms

Guests enter the ship via the Aloha Atrium, a central meeting spot that also houses the reception desk and concierge, the shore excursions desk, and the Port of Call shop, which features collectibles and memorabilia. The Aloha Bar here serves up for-fee Lavazza coffee products (hot and frozen), tea, cappuccinos, pastries and cookies, and plenty of plush red armchairs dot the floor at the foot of two grand staircases.

As you work your way aft from the Aloha Atrium, the photo gallery with prints for sale is set up starboard (don't forget to take a peak; there are some really horrifying photos), while the art gallery, powered by who else, Park West, that impenetrable force in at-sea art auctioneering, and Internet cafe line the port side of the ship (there are eight terminals, open 24 hours; per-minute rates start from 45 cents -- it is cheaper if you buy a package). Where the ship previously lacked a duty free shop, it being subject to Hawaii's taxes, the international registry now allows for it. Aft on Deck 7 is the Dufry, a large department store-style shop where you can find everything from destination specific jewelry like Egyptian kartouches, brand name watches and clothing, toiletry items (but sadly no mouthwash) to souvenirs like key chains and stuffed animals.

The main bar concept, dubbed Bar Central, features three connected but thematically different watering holes. Magnum's Champagne and Wine Bar, Mixers Martini and Cocktail Bar, and Tankard's Beer and Whiskey Pub each have their own comprehensive menu and distinct decor. The seating area of Magnum's spreads out toward the Corona Cigar Club (new name), and a piano where an entertainer plays nightly -- this is by far the busiest of the three areas, and a great spot for pre- and post-dinner cocktails. We also like the Star Bar for a drink, another upscale lounge with a piano player, and during the day, Bali Hai, which feels like a beach shack.

NCL has gotten rid of the Kumu Cultural Center. In its place guests will find displays showcasing the new Freestyle 2.0 parties -- Monte Carlo casino party and White Hot Party. You'll also find a convenient "Menu Central" display with copies of all the specialty restaurant menus.

The SS United States Library features ample shelves of fiction and non-fiction titles in multiple languages, but it is also worth a visit just for a peek at original photography, vintage advertisements and original lithographs from marine artists that decorate the space. The library is open 24 hours, and borrowing is done on the honor system. Sadly, over 100 books were "lost" on a previous cruise, and so we can't promise that the 24-hour system will continue to be in place. Enrichment courses are held in the nearby Lifestyles Room, and a chapel one deck up can accommodate 24 for an intimate wedding.

Editor's note: It is easy to find your way around, even on day one of your voyage. When you exit your cabin, look down at the carpeting. If you follow the direction of the dolphins, you'll be headed forward; if you need to go aft, swim against the current!

Cabins

Cruisers are spoilt for choice onboard Norwegian Jade, with cabins ranging from entry-level insides to $10,000-a-week Garden Villas that seem more like something you'd find at a five-star resort than on a mainstream cruise ship. Sixty percent of the 1,080 standard staterooms are outsides, and of those, 54 percent have balconies. Best of all, for families, interconnecting cabins are available in a range of categories from standard insides to suites. And it's not just apples to apples: Different grades of cabins can be interconnected -- balcony to suite or suite to penthouse, for example -- to create two- to five-bedroom combos for small or large clans.

All staterooms have a richer feel due to cherry wood finishes, and boast mini-fridges (you can have it customized or emptied), safes and in-cabin coffee facilities. And as part of the Freestyle 2.0 initiative, an impressive list of new standard features have been added, including the addition of upgraded mattresses and mattress toppers, new linens, duvets and pillows, including the trendy Euro pillows. And as of June 2008, passengers will find Elemis bathroom amenities.

Standard inside and oceanview cabins (143 and 161 square ft., respectively) are very small industry-wise, but functional, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert to a queen, and partitioned bathrooms with sliding door shower stalls on one side, a separate toilet compartment on the other, and a central sink area. When you move up into oceanview cabins with balconies, things get roomier (167 square ft., with a 38-square-ft. balcony); 134 mini-suites are slightly larger (231 square ft., with a 54-squre-ft. balcony) with a full-sized sofa and a small bathtub.

If you're booked in a balcony or mini-suite, NCL will add a customized never-ending fruit basket, and some other small touches like better bathrobes, priority debarkation (honestly the whole process seemed a breeze for everyone), and a cookie on the last night of the cruise. Oh boy!

What's a little odd, and especially for a relatively new ship built in 2006, is the absence of flat-screen TV's.

It's the 48 suite (and above) accommodations that really benefit from Freestyle 2.0. NCL has added all new bedding, dubbed the "Bliss Collection by NCL," to all suites and villas, which includes pillow-top mattresses, down comforters and Euro pillows. Passengers will receive a free bottle of Champagne, evening canapes, private breakfast and lunch in Cagney's (with steak and eggs, eggs benedict and French toast rounding out the menu; at lunch, try the Caesar salad with chicken or steak), a pillow menu and MP3 connections.

The suite distinction begins with the Romance Suites (there are four), which are balconied staterooms with a full tub and shower, and living and dining areas. Penthouse Suites (there are 24) feature a living area, private balcony, dining area, separate bedroom with queen-size bed, and bath and separate shower with massaging heads; most have a "spare" bedroom (slightly bigger than a big closet and outfitted with two twin beds -- great for kids). The living and dining areas are equipped with a mini-fridge (stocked with complimentary waters and sodas). There are three flat-screen TV's -- one in the living area, one in the main bedroom and one above the tub; the first two connected to CD/DVD players.

The exclusive 14th deck is where you'll find the 10 Courtyard Villas -- a concept introduced on Norwegian Jewel. They are essentially identical to the Penthouse Suites (save for the fabulous tub set against a window with a birds-eye view), but what's extra is that they surround a private courtyard shared by all Courtyard Villa guests. The space is gorgeous, with a sleek pool, a Balinese bed, a Jacuzzi, a treadmill and a Stairmaster; one deck up is an exclusive sun deck with wicker loungers and a hammock.

The only categories above Courtyard Villas are the Owner's Suites on Decks 9 and 10 (there are five) and the Garden Villas (there are two), on Deck 14 with the Courtyard Villas. The Owner's Suites offer king beds, BOSE entertainment centers, a whirlpool tub and walk-in closets; guests booked in these cabins are granted access to the courtyard. But the kings of all cabins are the Garden Villas, each with a private roof terrace and garden for open-air dining, hot tubbing and sunning. These complexes include three separate bedrooms -- one with a whirlpool tub -- and BOSE accoutrements. New with Freestyle 2.0 for all Villa and Owner Suite passengers is a private breakfast and lunch in the courtyard area.

All suite guests (including the penthouse and romance cabins) also have a concierge and butler at their disposal to arrange restaurant reservations, expedite room service orders, stock diet Cokes in the mini-fridge, etc. L'Occitane products in the bathroom are replenished daily. The in-cabin coffee maker is also upgraded to a fancy espresso and cappuccino machine, and balcony furniture improves from plastic found elsewhere to teak.

All cabins on Deck 14, as well as the owner's suites on Decks 9 and 10, have Wi-Fi; otherwise, in-cabin Internet access is available shipwide, but don't forget your Ethernet cable. TV programming includes a selection of movies, plus CNN, Fox News, ESPN. The interactive Freestyle TV system can be used for ordering room service, accessing e-mail, confirming shore excursion bookings, etc.

The ship offers 27 cabins in a variety of categories for disabled and wheelchair-bound passengers.

Entertainment

The two-level Stardust Theater, with playful jester masks decorating the walls, is the main venue for Vegas- and Broadway-style reviews. The entertainment options range from the standard cabaret or song and dance review to the more offbeat ("The Sound of Music" sing-along) to the really out there (interpretive dance set to the sounds of Frank Sinatra).

The main events have also been slightly reconfigured. There's now a variable 7:30 and 9:30 show nightly, with one comedy/variety act and one more standard Broadway or Vegas revue.

Despite the ship's new home in Europe, the crew variety show held on the final evening was very well attended. Performances ranged from traditional Indian dance to renditions of Bon Jovi's "Bed of Roses." The talent was impressive, and the tryouts are apparently very competitive -- the cruise director tells me only the best of the best are selected to perform in front of cruisers.

NCL-U "educational" programs are the main Freestyle 2.0 entertainment additions. The focus on destination lectures (The life of Socrates), technology (digital photo), and food and beverage (30-minute Italian meal, beer tasting at Tankards, wine tasting at Le Bistro). Also new are improv classes run by Second City performers, including one for kids (class clowns). By the end of the cruise, digital photography class was among the best attended.

Separate from the 2.0 offerings, Jade is also serving as something of an experimental setting for new entertainment options. The Second City International Cabaret features a mixture of crowd-influenced improv comedy, lounge music, and other cabaret acts.

If you want your own spot for entertainment, the Medusa Cabaret Lounge -- a loud looking venue with blazing orange fire flower sculptures -- is outfitted with three private "Whatever" rooms (complete with curtains). Inside you'll find seating, a huge flat-screen TV, a phone for dialing in your bar orders, as well as Nintendo Wii and a karaoke setup. All the necessary goods are locked behind glass doors, so you'll have to request a key from the bartender. And if the demand is high for the rooms, you may be held to an hour or so (it makes more sense to invite the waiting group to join you). NCL is also trying to discourage the drawing of the curtains, because, well, the game playing might transcend the virtual.

High atop the ship, overlooking the bridge, forward, is the secondary showroom. Spinnaker Lounge serves different purposes throughout the day. Passenger-participation shows, such as the Newlywed, Not-So-Newlywed game, take place here; Second City's International Cabaret; and a DJ spins tunes into the wee hours. Otherwise, onboard activities run the gamut from trivia in the atrium and three-on-three b-ball tournaments up on the sports court to informal chess, checkers, cards and Scrabble in the Card Room on Deck 12.

Music is found throughout the vessel, with a more toned down "San Tropez" style poolside crooner and a packed jazz night in the Aloha atrium -- with plenty of guests tappin' and boppin' along to oldies standards.

Norwegian Jade's Jade Club Casino lets you double down with slots, black jack, roulette, craps, and the first at-sea Texas Hold 'Em cash game ($60 minimum buy-in; $200 maximum). There are also at least two tables using euros.

Editor's Note: Gone are the 70's style hairy leg contests, wacky pool games and emphasis on karaoke. NCL feels it's time to move on.

Fitness and Recreation

The pool area midship on Deck 12 features two swimming pools (there's a third, further aft, just for kids). These are flanked by whirlpools under bright awnings and a water slide. One good thing about Norwegian Jade's port-intensive itinerary is that there are only two sea days -- so there's less overall demand for deck chairs! But on those sea days, come early. Most poolside loungers do, however, get snagged early in the day. I never had trouble, however, finding somewhere to sit and sun, particularly one deck up on Deck 13.

The Ying & Yang Spa & Beauty Salon is operated by London conglomerate Steiner Leisure, and offers the usual treatments (facials, massages) as well as more trendy wellness offerings, such as acupuncture and teeth whitening (a 40-minute session was on special for $199).

Arrive early or stay after your treatment to take advantage of the steam room, therapy pool and heated-tile loungers.

The fitness center is open 24 hours a day and features state-of-the-art equipment such as treadmills and bikes, as well as weight machines and free weights, all with floor-to-ceiling windows as a backdrop. There's also an aerobics room for class. Some, such as stretching, are complimentary; others (yoga, Pilates and cycling) cost $10.

For staying in shape outdoors, the stadium-style sports deck with bleacher seating that was introduced on Norwegian Jewel is back, and accommodated, on my cruise, basketball and football (soccer). The court also could serve as a regulation size tennis court, but no such activity was offered. There are also golf driving nets on either side of the aft sports area, a shuffleboard court (very popular -- high-stakes games going at 10:30 p.m.), Ping-Pong tables, oversized chess sets and a walking/jogging track (5.5 laps to a mile).

Family

NCL's Kids Crew, like other children's programs industry-wide, divides younger cruisers into four groups with age-appropriate pastimes: Juniors (2 - 5), First Mates (6 - 9), Navigators (10 - 12) and Teens (13 - 17). Activities for Juniors might include, for example, storytelling and painting, while Navigators visit the video arcade or participate in team-building sports games.

The colorful children's facility on Norwegian Jade, Tree Top Kids Center, is divided into areas based on activity and in some cases age range. There's a spacious cinema with a big screen for movie viewing and cushy beanbag chairs, an arts and crafts station, a long desk with several computers for gaming and learning (don't worry moms, no Internet access here), and even a naptime area. The Sapphire Kid's Pool features slides and a wading area. For teens, there's a surf-themed Wipeout Club with a touch-screen jukebox, gaming terminals, a juice bar (all the mocktinis and mocktails will run you $3.50 each) and easy access to the arcade, which includes Zoofari, our favorite fun-time arcade game. Your task? Shoot peanuts into zoo animals' mouths.

During days in port, parents booked on excursions can leave tykes between the ages of 2 and 12 behind for supervised complimentary "Port Play" from arrival into port or 9 a.m. until departure from port or 5 p.m. (in both instances, whichever time is earlier). At night, group babysitting is available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. and there is also a "Late Night Fun Zone" from 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. "Port Play", group babysitting and the "Late Night Fun Zone" are all fee-based services; the costs for each program are $5 per hour and $3 per hour for siblings in the same family (charged to guests' onboard accounts).

Editor's note: Children who are not potty trained are able to participate in the Kids Crew program -- but youth staffers are not allowed to change diapers; parents will need to remain onboard and carry a beeper or have a phone handy so that they can fulfill that particular duty. Also, children under the age of 2 cannot be left with youth staffers, but families can meet in designated areas throughout the ship for scheduled "Under 2 Zoo" playtime. Norwegian Jade is one of several ships in the fleet that boasts a jungle gym with a ball crawl.

Fellow Passengers

In a clear nod to cruise travel's international explosion, the passenger manifest was split nearly 50-50 between passengers from North America and those from other countries including Australia, Great Britain, France, Spain, Mexico, Japan and Korea. Typical of longer European itineraries, the average age hovered around 55, with the largest number of guests in the 55 to 70 range.

In terms of the younger lot, about 4 percent of those onboard were from the under 18 group. The youth program staff told us that 99 children, ages 2 to 17 were onboard, a not surprising number given the longer length of the cruise.

Dress Code

On Jade's European itineraries, guests' dress choices were varied. But in general, with an older demographic, there were plenty of suit coats, dress shirts and dresses on display around dinnertime. None of the guests donning suits for their evening meal looked particularly out of place. And with so much time spent in port -- there were only two sea days on our 12-night Eastern Mediterranean sailing -- dinner on said sea days took on even more of a formal demeanor.

During our days at sea, when the sun was out, resort- and beach-wear were appropriate in public areas and by the pool respectively; it's kindly requested that shorts and tank tops are not worn in restaurants (except for the Garden) after 5 p.m.

Gratuity

Because of the resort-like nature of Freestyle Cruising, NCL and NCL America ships carry a tipping policy that's slightly different from other cruise lines. A fixed charge of $10 per person, per day ($5 for kids 3 - 12), is deducted from guests' onboard accounts -- which jives with the industry standard -- but here it is considered a "service charge," not a "gratuity."

The line explains on its Web site: "Our crew is encouraged to work together as a service team and is compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that the service charge supports ... guests should not feel obliged to offer a gratuity for service that is generally rendered to all guests. However, all of our staff are encouraged to 'go the extra mile,' and so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities entirely at the discretion of our guests." Guests are able to adjust the automatic charge at the reception desk.

If you utilize a butler and/or concierge, NCL recommends offering a tip "commensurate with services rendered"; I kept a mental tab throughout the week of meals delivered, requests handled, etc., and offered my "thanks" accordingly in cash. However, fellow passengers were able to put gratuities for these staffers on their onboard account by visiting reception, so keep that option in mind.

Gratuities are not automatically added to bar tabs; you can add a tip to your onboard account, or leave a buck or two in cash.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

Dining

Grand Pacific and Alizar are Norwegian Jade's two main dining rooms. Open seating breakfast and lunch are offered in one of the two (check your Freestyle Daily), and both are open for dinner; walk-ins are welcome every evening. Grand Pacific tends to fill up before Alizar; my sense is it's because the former is a larger, more traditional space that may feel familiar to cruisers not used to the Freestyle concept. To avoid disappointment, we suggest you make reservations if you are looking to eat at a specific time or with a large (or small) party.

Though traditional items like lobster and beef Wellington appear throughout the week, the chefs get creative with other items. One night, appetizer choices included eggplant dip and spring rolls, with sweet potato cakes atop a Morrocan chick pea stew as a main vegetarian course. Portions are fairly small, so if you are looking for a filling "cruise" meal, definitely order all of the components that interest you -- salad, soup, appetizer and entree, or any combination of those.

There are special menus for kids, as well as Cooking Light selections for health-conscious travelers, and a few vegetarian choices. On the "always available" menu, you'll find broiled chicken, sirloin steak and salmon.

Where Jade stands out dining-wise is in its impressive number of specialty venues. So how do they stack up? Be patient, there is an absurd number of options:

Papa's Italian Kitchen levies a cost of $10. And while menus have been overhauled, favorites like the antipasti trolley with its mozzarella, tomato, peppers, marinated mushrooms, mortadella, etc. remain. Other starters include fried calamari, a Caesar salad and pasta e fagioli. You can create your own pizza and pasta dishes with a variety of toppings and sauces. The Pesto a la Genovese sauce, with basil, parmesan, pecorino, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, was our favorite. And if you can't decide on one pizza or pasta, pick three or four. Papa's long dark wood bench seating lend nicely to a communal dining vibe.

Dinner at Cagney's Steakhouse ($25 per-person surcharge) was easily my favorite meal of the cruise. Things begin with an appetizer or salad like a crab cake with spicy avocado sauce or a chop salad with about a dozen ingredients including eggs, bacon, onions, avocado and mushrooms. The main courses consist of high-quality steaks and other cuts of meat like veal and pork, seafood, chicken, with a variety of sides (try the Cagney's Fries, with white truffle oil and parmesan cheese). And save room for dessert; both the Chocolate Obsession and bananas foster are quite titillating.

But despite the fine meal, here's the rub with Cagney's. The standard surcharge menu, at $25, included a five-ounce filet mignon. If you want a slightly larger cut, say the eight-ounce filet that I ordered, or a filet and lobster tail combo, you'll pay another $15 on top of that. With one or two glasses of wine, you could easily end up spending almost $60 per person for the meal. This can come as a bit of shock to the uninitiated.

Jasmine Garden is the ship's Asian fusion complex ($15); you could try a different component every day for four nights. The "main" menu here is nouvelle Chinese, with spring rolls and crispy crab wontons with plum sauce as appetizers, and Szechuan Stir-Fried Lobster Tail (the specialty dish), Lo Mein and Vegetable Chow Fun as mains. Though our meal, which we shared family style so as to sample, was somewhat disappointing, the sushi we also ordered (always available anywhere in Jade -- not just at the sushi bar) is the best as sea.

For $15, you can eat as much sushi as you want, including standard rolls (California, spicy tuna) and specialty rolls (the Dynamite Roll included yellowtail, salmon and green onions); sake is extra. Or, also for $20, try Shabu Shabu, loosely translated to "swish swish," which refers to the action by which thin slices of beef are cooked in hot water.

Teppanyaki is NCL's answer to landside Japanese hibachi restaurants like Benihana -- and it's certainly worth heading there at least once during the cruise. Though it carries a $25 per person surcharge, the food -- and the show -- is worth the splurge (and you can always order double portions). Everyone automatically gets seaweed salad with ginger, garlic fried rice, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables, miso soup, and ginger and mustard dipping sauces. Then you choose from a variety of steak, vegetable, chicken and seafood combinations as a main course. Chefs are happy to honor substitutions; I ordered filet, chicken and shrimp. Mochi Ice Cream (sticky rice with an ice cream center) or Fresh Fruit Sashimi are offered for dessert. Four tables seat up to eight people each in four sittings (5, 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m.). You'd think that in a restaurant with 32 seats reservations would be crucial, but come the final seating, following long days in port (and an older demographic that preferred to dine earlier), the place was generally empty.

The French Le Bistro ($25) is the cruise line's signature eatery, predating even the Freestyle Cruising concept. The house specialty, Cardinal of the Seas, with its gutted lobster carcass served on the plate watching over your meal, was quite unpleasant to consume. Remember, of course, that the wait staff is there to accommodate you, so don't hesitate to order another dish if the first is unpalatable. The chocolate fondue, which had disappeared on Pride of Hawaii, has returned; the crepe suzette, though not flambeed tableside due to open flame regulations at sea, was light.

On the other side of the coin are several casual dining options. Blue Lagoon (free), a 24-hour sit-down "diner" overlooking the atrium, offers breakfast similar to what's found in the main dining room, and an all-day menu of "comfort food" including Buffalo wings, tuna melt, hot dogs and spinach and artichoke dip. The food wasn't particularly impressive, but the service was personal, with the hostess engaging me with a story about her excursion in Ephesus (part of the new Crew 2.0 program). "I'm Filipino, and Filipinos are Catholic, so I was happy to see the Virgin Mary's church, Mr. Dan."

By the pool, The Grill has breakfast from 7:30 until 10:30 a.m. and serves up hamburgers and hot dogs as a late lunch or anytime snack from noon until 5:30 p.m.

The Garden Cafe (formerly Aloha Nui), Jade's lido eatery, is open for breakfast from 7 until 11 a.m., and offers hot and cold items, such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, fruit and pastries, as well as an omelet station for made-to-order egg dishes, and a crepe station with your choice of fillings. The morning fresh juice bar is also a nice touch. Mix and match grapefruit, carrot, apple, orange, melon, etc. -- $2.50 for a small, $3.50 for a large. Also great was the multi-faceted cafe latte/cappuccino/espresso maker available free of charge. For late risers, a breakfast buffet minus the omelet station stays open in Great Outdoors, the Garden Cafe's open-air extension, until 11:30 a.m.

Lunch and dinner are available here as well, all served at staggered stations as opposed to a long line. If it seems confusing or overwhelming, do a walk-through before grabbing your plate, taking stock of what you want to try. Then you'll navigate the stations like a pro. At lunch, expect a sandwich station with deli meats and cheeses, a salad bar, a selection of hot items (pastas, stir fries, Indian food etc.), a carving station, a pizza counter and desserts. Dinner adds tablecloths, some mood lighting, and more hot selections akin to what you'd find on the main dining room menu.

And as on previous NCL ships, we like the line's signature buffet station for tykes. The Kid's Cafe is located in a corner of the Garden Cafe with miniaturized tables and chairs, and kid-friendly foods like chicken nuggets in animal shapes. Confused looking adults were found sitting there on the first few days of the cruise, looking uncomfortably hunched, frowning as they tried to dine.

Finally, room service is available around the clock, including a Continental breakfast and all-day sandwiches and snacks like Buffalo wings. As part of the Freestyle 2.0 enhancements, the room service menu has been expanded with new sandwich, soup and salad options available. At dinnertime, you can order off the main dining room menu, and if you are booked in accommodations with a butler, he or she can hook you up with items from Papa's, too, since its galley is close enough for the food to stay warm en route to your room. Honestly, if you have a suite, they'll get you whatever you want.

An electronic system launched on Norwegian Jewel to cut down on lines and wait times in restaurants is also in place here. Monitors throughout the ship's corridors reveal how busy each eatery is with a bar that ranges from green (come on in) to red (crowded, and you might have to wait). This screen also acts as an electronic hostess, letting cruisers know how long the wait is for a table for two, for example, and where large parties are being accepted.

Our advice, though, is to make all or most of your reservations at the beginning of your voyage -- even for the main dining rooms in which reservations are not required. You can always take your name off the list if you change your mind (note that at for-fee restaurants, a penalty of $5 applies for cancellations made within 24 hours of a reservation). If you truly want to cruise spontaneously (shall we say, "freestyle"?) and make no concrete plans, you'll have better luck getting walk-in seating at your first-choice venue closer to opening or closing time -- those screens get pretty red during the peak dinner hours, generally between 7 and 9 p.m.

Editor's note: With cover charges in all venues, price savvy passenger dine during "happy hour." Every day from 5:30 until 7 p.m., you'll get two cover charges for the price of one at Papa's, Cagney's, Le Bistro and Jasmine Garden (excludes sushi, Teppanyaki and a la carte items).

Gratuity

There's a fixed charge of $12 per person, per day deducted from passengers' onboard accounts -- which jives with the industry standard -- but here it is considered a "service charge," not a "gratuity."

The line explains on its Web site: "Our crew is encouraged to work together as a service team and is compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that the service charge supports ... guests should not feel obliged to offer a gratuity for service that is generally rendered to all guests. However, all of our staff are encouraged to 'go the extra mile,' and so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities entirely at the discretion of our guests." Guests are able to adjust the automatic charge at the reception desk.

If you utilize a butler and/or concierge, NCL recommends offering a tip "commensurate with services rendered"; I kept a mental tab throughout the week of meals delivered, requests handled, etc., and offered my "thanks" accordingly in cash. However, fellow passengers were able to put gratuities for these staffers on their onboard account by visiting reception, so keep that option in mind.

Gratuities are not automatically added to bar tabs; you can add a tip to your onboard account, or leave a buck or two in cash.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

Dining

Grand Pacific and Alizar are Norwegian Jade's two main dining rooms. Open seating breakfast and lunch are offered in one of the two (check your Freestyle Daily), and both are open for dinner; walk-ins are welcome every evening. Grand Pacific tends to fill up before Alizar; my sense is it's because the former is a larger, more traditional space that may feel familiar to cruisers not used to the Freestyle concept. To avoid disappointment, we suggest you make reservations if you are looking to eat at a specific time or with a large (or small) party.

Though traditional items like lobster and beef Wellington appear throughout the week, the chefs get creative with other items. One night, appetizer choices included eggplant dip and spring rolls, with sweet potato cakes atop a Morrocan chick pea stew as a main vegetarian course. Portions are fairly small, so if you are looking for a filling "cruise" meal, definitely order all of the components that interest you -- salad, soup, appetizer and entree, or any combination of those.

There are special menus for kids, as well as Cooking Light selections for health-conscious travelers, and a few vegetarian choices. On the "always available" menu, you'll find broiled chicken, sirloin steak and salmon.

Where Jade stands out dining-wise is in its impressive number of specialty venues. So how do they stack up? Be patient, there is an absurd number of options:

Papa's Italian Kitchen levies a cost of $10. And while menus have been overhauled, favorites like the antipasti trolley with its mozzarella, tomato, peppers, marinated mushrooms, mortadella, etc. remain. Other starters include fried calamari, a Caesar salad and pasta e fagioli. You can create your own pizza and pasta dishes with a variety of toppings and sauces. The Pesto a la Genovese sauce, with basil, parmesan, pecorino, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, was our favorite. And if you can't decide on one pizza or pasta, pick three or four. Papa's long dark wood bench seating lend nicely to a communal dining vibe.

Dinner at Cagney's Steakhouse ($25 per-person surcharge) was easily my favorite meal of the cruise. Things begin with an appetizer or salad like a crab cake with spicy avocado sauce or a chop salad with about a dozen ingredients including eggs, bacon, onions, avocado and mushrooms. The main courses consist of high-quality steaks and other cuts of meat like veal and pork, seafood, chicken, with a variety of sides (try the Cagney's Fries, with white truffle oil and parmesan cheese). And save room for dessert; both the Chocolate Obsession and bananas foster are quite titillating.

But despite the fine meal, here's the rub with Cagney's. The standard surcharge menu, at $25, included a five-ounce filet mignon. If you want a slightly larger cut, say the eight-ounce filet that I ordered, or a filet and lobster tail combo, you'll pay another $15 on top of that. With one or two glasses of wine, you could easily end up spending almost $60 per person for the meal. This can come as a bit of shock to the uninitiated.

Jasmine Garden is the ship's Asian fusion complex; you could try a different component every day for four nights. The "main" menu here is nouvelle Chinese, with spring rolls and crispy crab wontons with plum sauce as appetizers, and Szechuan Stir-Fried Lobster Tail (the specialty dish), Lo Mein and Vegetable Chow Fun as mains. Though our meal, which we shared family style so as to sample, was somewhat disappointing, the sushi we also ordered (always available anywhere in Jade -- not just at the sushi bar) is the best as sea.

For $20, you can eat as much raw fish as you want, including standard rolls (California, spicy tuna) and specialty rolls (the Dynamite Roll included yellowtail, salmon and green onions); sake is extra. Or, also for $20, try Shabu Shabu, loosely translated to "swish swish," which refers to the action by which thin slices of beef are cooked in hot water.

Teppanyaki is NCL's answer to landside Japanese hibachi restaurants like Benihana -- and it's certainly worth heading there at least once during the cruise. Though it carries a $25 per person surcharge, the food -- and the show -- is worth the splurge (and you can always order double portions). Everyone automatically gets seaweed salad with ginger, garlic fried rice, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables, miso soup, and ginger and mustard dipping sauces. Then you choose from a variety of steak, vegetable, chicken and seafood combinations as a main course. Chefs are happy to honor substitutions; I ordered filet, chicken and shrimp. Mochi Ice Cream (sticky rice with an ice cream center) or Fresh Fruit Sashimi are offered for dessert. Four tables seat up to eight people each in four sittings (5, 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m.). You'd think that in a restaurant with 32 seats reservations would be crucial, but come the final seating, following long days in port (and an older demographic that preferred to dine earlier), the place was generally empty.

The French Le Bistro ($25) is the cruise line's signature eatery, predating even the Freestyle Cruising concept. The house specialty, Cardinal of the Seas, with its gutted lobster carcass served on the plate watching over your meal, was quite unpleasant to consume. Remember, of course, that the wait staff is there to accommodate you, so don't hesitate to order another dish if the first is unpalatable. The chocolate fondue, which had disappeared on Pride of Hawaii, has returned; the crepe suzette, though not flambeed tableside due to open flame regulations at sea, was light.

On the other side of the coin are several casual dining options. Blue Lagoon, a 24-hour sit-down "diner" overlooking the atrium, offers breakfast similar to what's found in the main dining room, and an all-day menu of "comfort food" including Buffalo wings, tuna melt, hot dogs and spinach and artichoke dip. The food wasn't particularly impressive, but the service was personal, with the hostess engaging me with a story about her excursion in Ephesus (part of the new Crew 2.0 program). "I'm Filipino, and Filipinos are Catholic, so I was happy to see the Virgin Mary's church, Mr. Dan."

By the pool, The Grill has breakfast from 7:30 until 10:30 a.m. and serves up fresh hamburgers and hot dogs as a late lunch or anytime snack from noon until 5:30 p.m.

The Garden Cafe (formerly Aloha Nui), Jade's lido eatery, is open for breakfast from 7 until 11 a.m., and offers hot and cold items, such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, fruit and pastries, as well as an omelet station for made-to-order egg dishes, and a crepe station with your choice of fillings. The morning fresh juice bar is also a nice touch. Mix and match grapefruit, carrot, apple, orange, melon, etc. -- $2.50 for a small, $3.50 for a large. Also great was the multi-faceted cafe latte/cappuccino/espresso maker available free of charge. For late risers, a breakfast buffet minus the omelet station stays open in Great Outdoors, the Garden Cafe's open-air extension, until 11:30 a.m.

Lunch and dinner are available here as well, all served at staggered stations as opposed to a long line. If it seems confusing or overwhelming, do a walk-through before grabbing your plate, taking stock of what you want to try. Then you'll navigate the stations like a pro. At lunch, expect a sandwich station with deli meats and cheeses, a salad bar, a selection of hot items (pastas, stir fries, Indian food etc.), a carving station, a pizza counter and desserts. Dinner adds tablecloths, some mood lighting, and more hot selections akin to what you'd find on the main dining room menu.

And as on previous NCL ships, we adore the line's signature buffet station for tykes. The Kid's Cafe is located in a corner of the Garden Cafe with miniaturized tables and chairs, and kid-friendly foods like chicken nuggets in fun animal shapes. Confused looking adults were found sitting there on the first few days of the cruise, looking uncomfortably hunched, frowning as they tried to dine.

Finally, room service is available around the clock, including a Continental breakfast and all-day sandwiches and snacks like Buffalo wings. As part of the Freestyle 2.0 enhancements, the room service menu has been expanded with new sandwich, soup and salad options available. At dinnertime, you can order off the main dining room menu, and if you are booked in accommodations with a butler, he or she can hook you up with items from Papa's, too, since its galley is close enough for the food to stay warm en route to your room. Honestly, if you have a suite, they'll get you whatever you want.

An electronic system launched on Norwegian Jewel to cut down on lines and wait times in restaurants is also in place here. Monitors throughout the ship's corridors reveal how busy each eatery is with a bar that ranges from green (come on in) to red (crowded, and you might have to wait). This screen also acts as an electronic hostess, letting cruisers know how long the wait is for a table for two, for example, and where large parties are being accepted.

Our advice, though, is to make all or most of your reservations at the beginning of your voyage -- even for the main dining rooms in which reservations are not required. You can always take your name off the list if you change your mind (note that at for-fee restaurants, a penalty of $5 applies for cancellations made within 24 hours of a reservation). If you truly want to cruise spontaneously (shall we say, "freestyle"?) and make no concrete plans, you'll have better luck getting walk-in seating at your first-choice venue closer to opening or closing time -- those screens get pretty red during the peak dinner hours, generally between 7 and 9 p.m.

Editor's note: With cover charges raised in all venues, price savvy passenger dine during "happy hour." Every day from 5:30 until 7 p.m., you'll get two cover charges for the price of one at Papa's, Cagney's, Le Bistro and Jasmine Garden (excludes sushi, Teppanyaki and a la carte items).

Gratuity

Because of the resort-like nature of Freestyle Cruising, NCL and NCL America ships carry a tipping policy that's slightly different from other cruise lines. A fixed charge of $10 per person, per day ($5 for kids 3 - 12), is deducted from guests' onboard accounts -- which jives with the industry standard -- but here it is considered a "service charge," not a "gratuity."

The line explains on its Web site: "Our crew is encouraged to work together as a service team and is compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that the service charge supports ... guests should not feel obliged to offer a gratuity for service that is generally rendered to all guests. However, all of our staff are encouraged to 'go the extra mile,' and so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities entirely at the discretion of our guests." Guests are able to adjust the automatic charge at the reception desk.

If you utilize a butler and/or concierge, NCL recommends offering a tip "commensurate with services rendered"; I kept a mental tab throughout the week of meals delivered, requests handled, etc., and offered my "thanks" accordingly in cash. However, fellow passengers were able to put gratuities for these staffers on their onboard account by visiting reception, so keep that option in mind.

Gratuities are not automatically added to bar tabs; you can add a tip to your onboard account, or leave a buck or two in cash.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in ChiefThe 93,500-ton, 2,400-passenger Norwegian Jade, which is based in Europe year-round, epitomizes NCL's "freestyle" mantra.

For the most part, the goal is to create an onboard ambience that abandons traditional cruise formalities. All meals are open seating and choice of cuisine and vibe is relatively unrivaled (range goes from a steakhouse and Tepannyaki to French, Italian, tapas, sushi, buffets and even a 24-hour cafe, complete with traditional English breakfast).

"Freestyle" also incorporates onboard activities and entertainment ranging from its spa to improv comedy shows to theme dance parties; opening hours are pretty expansive and performances aren't geared around restaurant seatings.

Similar dining and entertainment options are, however, found on all of Jade's fleetmates. But here's what makes it unique: This is a seriously international ship. The passenger mix on our 12-night Istanbul to Athens cruise was evenly divided between Americans (1,286) and international cruisers (1,115 Canadians, Australians, Brits, Germans, French, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, etc.). The more global experience, with announcements now coming in Spanish and German as well as English, is a defining element. During one poker session, I took on players from Israel, Mexico, Northern Europe, the Midwestern United States, Japan and China -- all yelling at our shy Peruvian dealer. Some called the melange of languages flying by somewhat distracting, but somehow it felt entirely natural.

Fantastic passenger melange aside, complaints about the additional costs of all the aforementioned specialty restaurants -- something that's dogged NCL's Freestyle concept from the start -- were common. (Perhaps it had something to do with just that melange. Broadly speaking, European cruisers are less used to paying extra fees for onboard eats.) A case could be made for NCL doing a better job of providing more realistic expectations. We'll do it for them: If passengers really want to enjoy the multiplicity of dining options available during a single cruise on Jade, an additional, say, $20 per person, per night, should be figured into the cost of the cruise.

Dining

Grand Pacific and Alizar are Norwegian Jade's two main dining rooms. Open seating breakfast and lunch are offered in one of the two (check your Freestyle Daily), and both are open for dinner; walk-ins are welcome every evening. Grand Pacific tends to fill up before Alizar; my sense is it's because the former is a larger, more traditional space that may feel familiar to cruisers not used to the Freestyle concept. To avoid disappointment, we suggest you make reservations if you are looking to eat at a specific time or with a large (or small) party.

Though traditional items like lobster and beef Wellington appear throughout the week, the chefs get creative with other items. One night, appetizer choices included eggplant dip and spring rolls, with sweet potato cakes atop a Moroccan chick pea stew as a vegetarian main course. Portions are fairly small, so if you are looking for a filling "cruise" meal, definitely order all of the components that interest you -- salad, soup, appetizer and entree, or any combination of those.

There are special menus for kids, as well as Cooking Light selections for health-conscious travelers, and a few vegetarian choices. On the "always available" menu, you'll find broiled chicken, sirloin steak and salmon.

Where Jade stands out dining-wise is in its impressive number of specialty venues. So how do they stack up? Be patient, there are an absurd number of options:

Papa's Italian Kitchen levies a cost of $10. The menu consists of appetizer favorites like the antipasti trolley (mozzarella, tomato, peppers, marinated mushrooms), fried calamari, Caesar salad and pasta e fagioli. Then, you can create your own pizza and pasta dishes with a variety of toppings and sauces. The Pesto a la Genovese sauce, with basil, parmesan, pecorino, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, was our favorite. And if you can't decide on one pizza or pasta, pick three or four. Papa's long dark wood bench seating lend nicely to a communal dining vibe.

Dinner at Cagney's Steakhouse ($25 per-person surcharge) was easily our favorite meal of the cruise. Things begin with an appetizer or salad like a crab cake with spicy avocado sauce or a chop salad with about a dozen ingredients including eggs, bacon, onions, avocado and mushrooms. The main courses consist of high-quality steaks and other cuts of meat like veal and pork, seafood, chicken, with a variety of sides (try the Cagney's Fries, with white truffle oil and parmesan cheese). And save room for dessert; both the Chocolate Obsession and bananas foster are quite titillating.

But despite the fine meal, here's the rub with Cagney's. The standard surcharge menu, at $25, included a five-ounce filet mignon. If you want a slightly larger cut, say the eight-ounce filet that I ordered, or a filet and lobster tail combo, you'll pay another $15 on top of that. With one or two glasses of wine, you could easily end up spending almost $60 per person for the meal. This can come as a bit of shock to the uninitiated.

Jasmine Garden is the ship's Asian fusion complex ($15); you could try a different component every day for four nights. The "main" menu here is nouvelle Chinese, with spring rolls and crispy crab wontons with plum sauce as appetizers, and Szechuan Stir-Fried Lobster Tail (the specialty dish), Lo Mein and Vegetable Chow Fun as mains. Though our meal, which we shared family style so as to sample, was somewhat disappointing, the sushi we also ordered (always available anywhere in Jade -- not just at the sushi bar) is the best as sea.

For $15, you can eat as much sushi as you want, including standard rolls (California, spicy tuna) and specialty rolls (the Dynamite Roll included yellowtail, salmon and green onions); sake is extra. Or, also for $20, try Shabu Shabu, loosely translated to "swish swish," which refers to the action by which thin slices of beef are cooked in hot water.

Teppanyaki is NCL's answer to landside Japanese hibachi restaurants like Benihana. Though it carries a $25 per person surcharge, the food -- and the show -- is worth the splurge (and you can always order double portions). Everyone automatically gets seaweed salad with ginger, garlic fried rice, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables, miso soup, and ginger and mustard dipping sauces. Then you choose from a variety of steak, vegetable, chicken and seafood combinations as a main course. Chefs are happy to honor substitutions; I ordered filet, chicken and shrimp. Mochi Ice Cream (sticky rice with an ice cream center) or Fresh Fruit Sashimi are offered for dessert. Four tables seat up to eight people each in four sittings (5, 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m.). You'd think that in a restaurant with 32 seats reservations would be crucial, but come the final seating, following long days in port (and an older demographic that preferred to dine earlier), the place was generally empty.

The French Le Bistro ($25) is the cruise line's signature eatery, predating even the Freestyle Cruising concept. The house specialty, Cardinal of the Seas, with its gutted lobster carcass served on the plate watching over your meal, was quite unpleasant to consume. Remember, of course, that the wait staff is there to accommodate you, so don't hesitate to order another dish if the first is unpalatable. The chocolate fondue, which had disappeared on Pride of Hawaii, has returned; the crepe suzette, though not flambeed tableside due to open flame regulations at sea, was light.

On the other side of the coin are several casual dining options. Blue Lagoon (free), a 24-hour sit-down "diner" overlooking the atrium, offers breakfast similar to what's found in the main dining room, and an all-day menu of "comfort food" including Buffalo wings, tuna melt, hot dogs and spinach and artichoke dip. The food wasn't particularly impressive, but the service was personal, with the hostess engaging me with a story about her excursion in Ephesus (part of the new Crew 2.0 program). "I'm Filipino, and Filipinos are Catholic, so I was happy to see the Virgin Mary's church, Mr. Dan."

By the pool, The Grill has breakfast from 7:30 until 10:30 a.m. and serves up hamburgers and hot dogs as a late lunch or anytime snack from noon until 5:30 p.m.

The Garden Cafe, Jade's lido eatery, is open for breakfast from 7 until 11 a.m., and offers hot and cold items, such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, fruit and pastries, as well as an omelet station for made-to-order egg dishes, and a crepe station with your choice of fillings. The morning fresh juice bar is also a nice touch. Mix and match grapefruit, carrot, apple, orange, melon, etc. -- $2.50 for a small, $3.50 for a large. Also great was the multi-faceted cafe latte/cappuccino/espresso maker available free of charge. For late risers, a breakfast buffet minus the omelet station stays open in Great Outdoors, the Garden Cafe's open-air extension, until 11:30 a.m.

Lunch and dinner are available here as well, all served at staggered stations as opposed to a long line. If it seems confusing or overwhelming, do a walk-through before grabbing your plate, taking stock of what you want to try. Then you'll navigate the stations like a pro. At lunch, expect a sandwich station with deli meats and cheeses, a salad bar, a selection of hot items (pastas, stir fries, Indian food etc.), a carving station, a pizza counter and desserts. Dinner adds tablecloths, some mood lighting, and more hot selections akin to what you'd find on the main dining room menu.

And as on previous NCL ships, we like the line's signature buffet station for tykes. The Kid's Cafe is located in a corner of the Garden Cafe with miniaturized tables and chairs, and kid-friendly foods like chicken nuggets in animal shapes. Confused looking adults were found sitting there on the first few days of the cruise, looking uncomfortably hunched, frowning as they tried to dine.

Finally, room service is available around the clock, including a Continental breakfast and all-day sandwiches and snacks like Buffalo wings. As part of the Freestyle 2.0 enhancements, the room service menu has been expanded with new sandwich, soup and salad options available. At dinnertime, you can order off the main dining room menu, and if you are booked in accommodations with a butler, he or she can hook you up with items from Papa's, too, since its galley is close enough for the food to stay warm en route to your room. Honestly, if you have a suite, they'll get you whatever you want.

An electronic system launched on Norwegian Jewel to cut down on lines and wait times in restaurants is also in place here. Monitors throughout the ship's corridors reveal how busy each eatery is with a bar that ranges from green (come on in) to red (crowded, and you might have to wait). This screen also acts as an electronic hostess, letting cruisers know how long the wait is for a table for two, for example, and where large parties are being accepted.

Our advice, though, is to make all or most of your reservations at the beginning of your voyage -- even for the main dining rooms in which reservations are not required. You can always take your name off the list if you change your mind (note that at for-fee restaurants, a penalty of $5 applies for cancellations made within 24 hours of a reservation). If you truly want to cruise spontaneously (shall we say, "freestyle"?) and make no concrete plans, you'll have better luck getting walk-in seating at your first-choice venue closer to opening or closing time -- those screens get pretty red during the peak dinner hours, generally between 7 and 9 p.m.

Editor's note: With cover charges in all venues, price savvy passenger dine during "happy hour." Every day from 5:30 until 7 p.m., you'll get two cover charges for the price of one at Papa's, Cagney's, Le Bistro and Jasmine Garden (excludes sushi, Teppanyaki and a la carte items).

Public Rooms

Guests enter the ship via the Aloha Atrium, a central meeting spot that also houses the reception desk and concierge, the shore excursions desk, and the Port of Call shop, which features collectibles and memorabilia. The Aloha Bar here serves up for-fee Lavazza coffee products (hot and frozen), tea, cappuccinos, pastries and cookies, and plenty of plush red armchairs dot the floor at the foot of two grand staircases.

As you work your way aft from the Aloha Atrium, the photo gallery with prints for sale is set up starboard (don't forget to take a peak; there are some really horrifying photos), while the art gallery, powered by who else, Park West, that impenetrable force in at-sea art auctioneering, and Internet cafe line the port side of the ship (there are eight terminals, open 24 hours; per-minute rates start from 45 cents -- it is cheaper if you buy a package).

Aft on Deck 7 is the Dufry, a large department store-style shop where you can find everything from destination specific jewelry like Egyptian kartouches, brand name watches and clothing, toiletry items (but sadly no mouthwash) to souvenirs like key chains and stuffed animals.

The SS United States Library features ample shelves of fiction and non-fiction titles in multiple languages, but it is also worth a visit just for a peek at original photography, vintage advertisements and original lithographs from marine artists that decorate the space. The library is open 24 hours, and borrowing is done on the honor system. Enrichment courses are held in the nearby Lifestyles Room, and a chapel one deck up can accommodate 24 for an intimate wedding.

Editor's note: It is easy to find your way around, even on day one of your voyage. When you exit your cabin, look down at the carpeting. If you follow the direction of the dolphins, you'll be headed forward; if you need to go aft, swim against the current!

Cabins

Cruisers are spoiled for choice on Norwegian Jade, with cabins ranging from entry-level insides to $10,000-a-week Garden Villas that seem more like something you'd find at a five-star resort than on a mainstream mega-ship. Sixty percent of the 1,080 standard cabins are outsides, and of those, 54 percent have balconies. Best of all, for families, interconnecting cabins are available in a range of categories from standard insides to suites. And it's not just apples to apples: Different grades of cabins can be interconnected -- balcony to suite or suite to penthouse, for example -- to create two- to five-bedroom combos for small or large clans.

All cabins have a richer feel due to cherry wood finishes, and boast mini-fridges (you can have it customized or emptied), safes and in-cabin coffee facilities.

Standard inside and oceanview cabins (143 and 161 square feet, respectively) are very small by industry standards, but they're functional, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert to a queen, and partitioned bathrooms with sliding door shower stalls on one side, a separate toilet compartment on the other and a central sink area. The oceanview cabins with balconies are slightly roomier (167 square feet, with a 38-square-foot balcony); 134 mini-suites are larger still (231 square feet, with a 54-square-foot balcony) and include a full-sized sofa and a small bathtub.

If you're booked in a balcony or mini-suite, NCL will add small touches like a fruit basket and bathrobes.

Those looking to splurge should consider booking one of the 48 suites, which include pillow-top mattresses, down comforters and Euro pillows. Suite passengers receive a free bottle of Champagne, evening canapes, private breakfast and lunch in Cagney's (with steak and eggs, eggs Benedict and French toast rounding out the menu; at lunch, try the Caesar salad with chicken or steak), a pillow menu and MP3 connections.

The 375-square-foot Romance Suites (there are four) feature a balcony, full tub and shower, and living and dining areas. The 341-square-foot Penthouse Suites (there are 24) feature a living area, balcony, dining area, separate bedroom with queen-size bed, and bath and separate shower with massaging heads; most have a "spare" bedroom (slightly bigger than a big closet and outfitted with two twin beds -- great for kids). The living and dining areas are equipped with a mini-fridge (stocked with complimentary waters and sodas). There are three flat-screen TV's -- one in the living area, one in the main bedroom and one above the tub; the first two have CD/DVD players.

The exclusive 14th deck is where you'll find the 10 440- to 572-square-foot Courtyard Villas -- a concept introduced on Norwegian Jewel. They are essentially larger versions of the Penthouse Suites (save for the fabulous tub set against a window with a birds-eye view), but what's extra is that they surround a private courtyard shared by all Courtyard Villa guests. The space is gorgeous, with a sleek pool, a Balinese bed, a Jacuzzi, a treadmill and a Stairmaster; one deck up is an exclusive sun deck with wicker loungers and a hammock. Included in the mix are Family Villas, which add another bedroom and accommodate five.

The only categories above Courtyard Villas are the Owner's Suites on Decks 9 and 10 (there are five) and the Garden Villas (there are two), on Deck 14 with the Courtyard Villas. The Owner's Suites offer king beds, BOSE entertainment centers, a whirlpool tub and walk-in closets; guests booked in these cabins are granted access to the courtyard. But the kings of all cabins are the Garden Villas, each with a private roof terrace and garden for open-air dining, hot tubbing and sunning. These complexes include three separate bedrooms -- one with a whirlpool tub -- and BOSE accouterments.

All suite passengers (including the penthouse and romance cabins) also have a concierge and butler at their disposal to arrange restaurant reservations, expedite room service orders, stock diet Cokes in the mini-fridge, etc. L'Occitane products in the bathroom are replenished daily. The in-cabin coffee maker is also upgraded to a fancy espresso and cappuccino machine, and balcony furniture improves from plastic found elsewhere to teak.

All cabins on Deck 14, as well as the owner's suites on Decks 9 and 10, have Wi-Fi; otherwise, in-cabin Internet access is available shipwide, but don't forget your Ethernet cable. TV programming includes a selection of movies, plus CNN, Fox News, ESPN. The interactive Freestyle TV system can be used for ordering room service, accessing e-mail, confirming shore excursion bookings, etc.

The ship offers 27 cabins in a variety of categories for disabled and wheelchair-bound passengers.

Entertainment

The two-level Stardust Theater, with playful jester masks decorating the walls, is the main venue for Vegas- and Broadway-style reviews. The entertainment options range from the standard cabaret or song and dance review to the more offbeat ("The Sound of Music" sing-along) to the really out there (interpretive dance set to the sounds of Frank Sinatra).

There's a variable 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. show nightly, with one comedy/variety act and one more standard Broadway or Vegas revue.

One of the most enjoyable experiences is the crew variety show, held on the final evening. Performances ranged from traditional Indian dance to renditions of Bon Jovi's "Bed of Roses." The talent was impressive, and the tryouts are apparently very competitive -- the cruise director tells me only the best of the best are selected to perform in front of cruisers.

High atop the ship, overlooking the bridge, forward, is the secondary showroom, Spinnaker Lounge. The venue serves different purposes throughout the day. For instance, during the afternoon, passenger participation games, like the Newlywed, Not-So-Newlywed game, take place. At night, The Second City troupe, which features a mixture of crowd-influenced improv comedy, lounge music, and other cabaret act hold forth. A DJ spins tunes into the wee hours.

Jade also hosts a pair of themed parties. There's the Monte Carlo casino party, with its show girls in feathered hats, and the White Hot Party, a danceathon where a large number of passengers clad in white spazz about to some bass-heavy joints.

Other onboard activities run the gamut from trivia in the atrium and three-on-three b-ball tournaments up on the sports court to informal chess, checkers, cards and Scrabble in the Card Room on Deck 12.

If you want your own spot for entertainment, the Medusa Cabaret Lounge -- a loud looking venue with blazing orange fire flower sculptures -- is outfitted with three private "Whatever" rooms (complete with curtains). Inside you'll find seating, a huge flat-screen TV, a phone for dialing in your bar orders, as well as Nintendo Wii and a karaoke setup. All the necessary goods are locked behind glass doors, so you'll have to request a key from the bartender. And if the demand is high for the rooms, you may be held to an hour or so (it makes more sense to invite the waiting group to join you). NCL is also trying to discourage the drawing of the curtains, because, well, the game playing might transcend the virtual.

Music is found throughout the vessel, with a more toned down "San Tropez" style poolside crooner and a packed jazz night in the Aloha atrium -- with plenty of guests tappin' and boppin' along to oldies standards.

Norwegian Jade's Jade Club Casino lets you double down with slots, black jack, roulette, craps, and the first at-sea Texas Hold 'Em cash game ($60 minimum buy-in; $200 maximum). There are also at least two tables using euros.

Fitness and Recreation

The pool area midship on Deck 12 features two swimming pools (there's a third, further aft, just for kids). These are flanked by whirlpools under bright awnings and a water slide. Those looking for prime deck real estate should come early, especially on sea days. Most poolside loungers get snagged early in the day.

The Ying & Yang Spa & Beauty Salon is operated by London conglomerate Steiner Leisure, and offers the usual treatments (facials, massages) as well as more trendy wellness offerings, such as acupuncture and teeth whitening (a 40-minute session was on special for $199).

Arrive early or stay after your treatment to take advantage of the steam room, therapy pool and heated-tile loungers.

The fitness center is open 24 hours a day and features state-of-the-art equipment such as treadmills and bikes, as well as weight machines and free weights, all with floor-to-ceiling windows as a backdrop. There's also an aerobics room for class. Some, such as stretching, are complimentary; others (yoga, Pilates and cycling) cost $10.

For staying in shape outdoors, the stadium-style sports deck with bleacher seating that was introduced on Norwegian Jewel is back, and accommodated, on my cruise, basketball and football (soccer). The court also could serve as a regulation size tennis court, but no such activity was offered. There are also golf driving nets on either side of the aft sports area, a shuffleboard court (very popular -- high-stakes games going at 10:30 p.m.), Ping-Pong tables, oversized chess sets and a walking/jogging track (5.5 laps to a mile).

Gratuity

There's a fixed charge of $12 per person, per day deducted from passengers' onboard accounts -- which jives with the industry standard -- but here it is considered a "service charge," not a "gratuity."

The line explains on its Web site: "Our crew is encouraged to work together as a service team and is compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that the service charge supports ... guests should not feel obliged to offer a gratuity for service that is generally rendered to all guests. However, all of our staff are encouraged to 'go the extra mile,' and so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities entirely at the discretion of our guests." Guests are able to adjust the automatic charge at the reception desk.

If you utilize a butler and/or concierge, NCL recommends offering a tip "commensurate with services rendered"; I kept a mental tab throughout the week of meals delivered, requests handled, etc., and offered my "thanks" accordingly in cash. However, fellow passengers were able to put gratuities for these staffers on their onboard account by visiting reception, so keep that option in mind.

Gratuities are not automatically added to bar tabs; you can add a tip to your onboard account, or leave a buck or two in cash.

The 93,500-ton, 2,402-passenger Norwegian Jade, which is based in Europe year-round, epitomizes NCL's "freestyle" mantra.

For the most part, the goal is to create an onboard ambience that abandons traditional cruise formalities. All meals are open seating and choice of cuisine and vibe is relatively unrivaled (range goes from a steakhouse and Tepannyaki to French, Italian, tapas, sushi, buffets and even a 24-hour cafe, complete with traditional English breakfast).

"Freestyle" also incorporates onboard activities and entertainment ranging from its spa to main theater shows to themed dance parties; entertainment is offered continusously and performances aren't geared around restaurant seatings.

Similar dining and entertainment options are, however, found on all of Norwegian Jade's fleetmates. But here's what makes it unique: This is a seriously international ship. The passenger mix on our 12-night Istanbul to Athens cruise was evenly divided between Americans (1,286) and international cruisers (1,115 Canadians, Australians, Brits, Germans, French, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, etc.). The more global experience, with announcements now coming in Spanish and German as well as English, is a defining element. During one poker session, I took on players from Israel, Mexico, Northern Europe, the Midwestern United States, Japan and China -- all yelling at our shy Peruvian dealer. Some called the melange of languages flying by somewhat distracting, but somehow it felt entirely natural.

Fantastic passenger melange aside, complaints about the additional costs of all the aforementioned specialty restaurants -- something that's dogged NCL's Freestyle concept from the start -- is relatively common. (Perhaps it had something to do with just that melange. Broadly speaking, European cruisers are less used to paying extra fees for onboard eats.) A case could be made for NCL doing a better job of providing more realistic expectations. We'll do it for them: If passengers really want to enjoy the multiplicity of dining options available during a single cruise on Jade, an additional, say, $20 per person, per night, should be figured into the cost of the cruise.

Dining

Grand Pacific and Alizar are Norwegian Jade's two main dining rooms. Open seating breakfast and lunch are offered in one of the two (check your Freestyle Daily), and both are open for dinner; walk-ins are welcome every evening. Grand Pacific tends to fill up before Alizar; my sense is it's because the former is a larger, more traditional space that may feel familiar to cruisers not used to the Freestyle concept. To avoid disappointment, we suggest you make reservations if you are looking to eat at a specific time or with a large (or small) party.

Though traditional items like lobster and beef Wellington appear throughout the week, the chefs get creative with other items. One night, appetizer choices included eggplant dip and spring rolls, with sweet potato cakes atop a Moroccan chick pea stew as a vegetarian main course. Portions are fairly small, so if you are looking for a filling "cruise" meal, definitely order all of the components that interest you -- salad, soup, appetizer and entree, or any combination of those.

There are special menus for kids, as well as Cooking Light selections for health-conscious travelers, and a few vegetarian choices. On the "always available" menu, you'll find broiled chicken, sirloin steak and salmon.

Where Jade stands out dining-wise is in its impressive number of specialty venues. So how do they stack up? Be patient, there are an absurd number of options:

Papa's Italian Kitchen levies a cost of $10. The menu consists of appetizer favorites like the antipasti trolley (mozzarella, tomato, peppers, marinated mushrooms), fried calamari, Caesar salad and pasta e fagioli. Then, you can create your own pizza and pasta dishes with a variety of toppings and sauces. The Pesto a la Genovese sauce, with basil, parmesan, pecorino, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil, was our favorite. And if you can't decide on one pizza or pasta, pick three or four. Papa's long dark wood bench seating lend nicely to a communal dining vibe.

Dinner at Cagney's Steakhouse ($25 per-person surcharge) was easily our favorite meal of the cruise. Things begin with an appetizer or salad like a crab cake with spicy avocado sauce or a chop salad with about a dozen ingredients including eggs, bacon, onions, avocado and mushrooms. The main courses consist of high-quality steaks and other cuts of meat like veal and pork, seafood, chicken, with a variety of sides (try the Cagney's Fries, with white truffle oil and Parmesan cheese). And save room for dessert; both the Chocolate Obsession and bananas foster are quite titillating.

But despite the fine meal, here's the rub with Cagney's. The standard surcharge menu, at $25, included a five-ounce filet mignon. If you want a slightly larger cut, say the eight-ounce filet that I ordered, or a filet and lobster tail combo, you'll pay another $15 on top of that. With one or two glasses of wine, you could easily end up spending almost $60 per person for the meal. This can come as a bit of shock to the uninitiated.

Moderno Churrascaria ($20) is a Brazilian-style steakhouse that offers about 10 different meats, including lamb chops, filet mignon, sausage and two different types of chicken drumsticks. In addition, diners can choose from options that include international cheeses and dried meats, olives, and pickled and marinated veggies from the restaurant's all-you-can-eat salad bar. They will be served a standard four sides of mashed potatoes, fried bananas, rice and beans.

Jasmine Garden is the ship's Asian fusion complex ($15); you could try a different component every day for four nights. The "main" menu here is nouvelle Chinese, with spring rolls and crispy crab wontons with plum sauce as appetizers, and Szechuan Stir-Fried Lobster Tail (the specialty dish), Lo Mein and Vegetable Chow Fun as mains. Though our meal, which we shared family style so as to sample, was somewhat disappointing, the sushi we also ordered (always available anywhere in Jade -- not just at the sushi bar) is the best as sea.

For $15, you can eat as much sushi as you want, including standard rolls (California, spicy tuna) and specialty rolls (the Dynamite Roll included yellowtail, salmon and green onions); sake is extra. Or, also for $20, try Shabu Shabu, loosely translated to "swish swish," which refers to the action by which thin slices of beef are cooked in hot water.

Teppanyaki is NCL's answer to landside Japanese hibachi restaurants like Benihana. Though it carries a $25 per person surcharge, the food -- and the show -- is worth the splurge (and you can always order double portions). Everyone automatically gets seaweed salad with ginger, garlic fried rice, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables, miso soup, and ginger and mustard dipping sauces. Then you choose from a variety of steak, vegetable, chicken and seafood combinations as a main course. Chefs are happy to honor substitutions; I ordered filet, chicken and shrimp. Mochi Ice Cream (sticky rice with an ice cream center) or Fresh Fruit Sashimi are offered for dessert. Four tables seat up to eight people each in four sittings (5, 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m.). You'd think that in a restaurant with 32 seats reservations would be crucial, but come the final seating, following long days in port (and an older demographic that preferred to dine earlier), the place was generally empty.

The French Le Bistro ($25) is the cruise line's signature eatery, predating even the Freestyle Cruising concept. The house specialty, Cardinal of the Seas, with its gutted lobster carcass served on the plate watching over your meal, was quite unpleasant to consume. Remember, of course, that the wait staff is there to accommodate you, so don't hesitate to order another dish if the first is unpalatable. The chocolate fondue, which had disappeared on Pride of Hawaii, has returned; the crepe suzette, though not flambeed tableside due to open flame regulations at sea, was light.

On the other side of the coin are several casual dining options. Blue Lagoon (free), a 24-hour sit-down "diner" overlooking the atrium, offers breakfast similar to what's found in the main dining room, and an all-day menu of "comfort food" including Buffalo wings, tuna melt, hot dogs and spinach and artichoke dip. The food wasn't particularly impressive, but the service was personal, with the hostess engaging me with a story about her excursion in Ephesus (part of the new Crew 2.0 program). "I'm Filipino, and Filipinos are Catholic, so I was happy to see the Virgin Mary's church, Mr. Dan."

By the pool, The Grill has breakfast from 7:30 until 10:30 a.m. and serves up hamburgers and hot dogs as a late lunch or anytime snack from noon until 5:30 p.m.

The Garden Cafe, Jade's lido eatery, is open for breakfast from 7 until 11 a.m., and offers hot and cold items, such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, fruit and pastries, as well as an omelet station for made-to-order egg dishes, and a crepe station with your choice of fillings. The morning fresh juice bar is also a nice touch. Mix and match grapefruit, carrot, apple, orange, melon, etc. -- $2.50 for a small, $3.50 for a large. Also great was the multi-faceted cafe latte/cappuccino/espresso maker available free of charge. For late risers, a breakfast buffet minus the omelet station stays open in Great Outdoors, the Garden Cafe's open-air extension, until 11:30 a.m.

Lunch and dinner are available here as well, all served at staggered stations as opposed to a long line. If it seems confusing or overwhelming, do a walk-through before grabbing your plate, taking stock of what you want to try. Then you'll navigate the stations like a pro. At lunch, expect a sandwich station with deli meats and cheeses, a salad bar, a selection of hot items (pastas, stir fries, Indian food etc.), a carving station, a pizza counter and desserts. Dinner adds tablecloths, some mood lighting, and more hot selections akin to what you'd find on the main dining room menu.

And as on previous NCL ships, we like the line's signature buffet station for tykes. The Kid's Cafe is located in a corner of the Garden Cafe with miniaturized tables and chairs, and kid-friendly foods like chicken nuggets in animal shapes. Confused looking adults were found sitting there on the first few days of the cruise, looking uncomfortably hunched, frowning as they tried to dine.

Finally, room service is available around the clock, including a Continental breakfast and all-day sandwiches and snacks like Buffalo wings. As part of the Freestyle 2.0 enhancements, the room service menu has been expanded with new sandwich, soup and salad options available. At dinnertime, you can order off the main dining room menu, and if you are booked in accommodations with a butler, he or she can hook you up with items from Papa's, too, since its galley is close enough for the food to stay warm en route to your room. Honestly, if you have a suite, they'll get you whatever you want.

An electronic system cuts down on lines and wait times in restaurants. Monitors throughout the ship's corridors reveal how busy each eatery is with a bar that ranges from green (come on in) to red (crowded, and you might have to wait). This screen also acts as an electronic hostess, letting cruisers know how long the wait is for a table for two, for example, and where large parties are being accepted.

Our advice, though, is to make all or most of your reservations at the beginning of your voyage -- even for the main dining rooms in which reservations are not required. You can always take your name off the list if you change your mind (note that at for-fee restaurants, a penalty of $5 applies for cancellations made within 24 hours of a reservation). If you truly want to cruise spontaneously (shall we say, "freestyle"?) and make no concrete plans, you'll have better luck getting walk-in seating at your first-choice venue closer to opening or closing time -- those screens get pretty red during the peak dinner hours, generally between 7 and 9 p.m.

Editor's note: With cover charges in all venues, price savvy passenger dine during "happy hour." Every day from 5:30 until 7 p.m., you'll get two cover charges for the price of one at Papa's, Cagney's, Le Bistro and Jasmine Garden (excludes sushi, Teppanyaki and a la carte items).

Cabins

Cruisers are spoiled for choice on Norwegian Jade, with cabins ranging from entry-level insides to $10,000-a-week Garden Villas that seem more like something you'd find at a five-star resort than on a mainstream mega-ship. Sixty percent of the 1,080 standard cabins are outsides, and of those, 54 percent have balconies. Best of all, for families, interconnecting cabins are available in a range of categories from standard insides to suites. And it's not just apples to apples: Different grades of cabins can be interconnected -- balcony to suite or suite to penthouse, for example -- to create two- to five-bedroom combos for small or large clans.

All cabins have a richer feel due to cherry wood finishes, and boast mini-fridges (you can have it customized or emptied), safes and in-cabin coffee facilities.

Standard inside and oceanview cabins (143 and 161 square feet, respectively) are very small by industry standards, but they're functional, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert to a queen, and partitioned bathrooms with sliding door shower stalls on one side, a separate toilet compartment on the other and a central sink area. The oceanview cabins with balconies are slightly roomier (167 square feet, with a 38-square-foot balcony); 134 mini-suites are larger still (231 square feet, with a 54-square-foot balcony) and include a full-sized sofa and a small bathtub.

If you're booked in a balcony or mini-suite, NCL will add small touches like bathrobes.

Those looking to splurge should consider booking one of the 48 suites, which include pillow-top mattresses, down comforters and Euro pillows. Suite passengers receive a free bottle of Champagne, evening canapes, private breakfast and lunch in Cagney's Steakhouse (with steak and eggs, eggs Benedict and French toast rounding out the menu; at lunch, try the Caesar salad with chicken or steak); and MP3 connections.

The 375-square-foot Romance Suites (there are four) feature a balcony, full tub and shower, and living and dining areas. The 341-square-foot Penthouse Suites (there are 24) feature a living area, balcony, dining area, separate bedroom with queen-size bed, and bath and separate shower with massaging heads; most have a "spare" bedroom (slightly bigger than a big closet and outfitted with two twin beds -- great for kids). The living and dining areas are equipped with a mini-fridge (stocked with complimentary waters and sodas). There are three flat-screen TV's -- one in the living area, one in the main bedroom and one above the tub; the first two have CD/DVD players.

The exclusive 14th deck is where you'll find the 10 440- to 572-square-foot Courtyard Villas -- a concept introduced on Norwegian Jewel. They are essentially larger versions of the Penthouse Suites (save for the fabulous tub set against a window with a birds-eye view), but what's extra is that they surround a private courtyard shared by all Courtyard Villa guests. The space is gorgeous, with a sleek pool, a Balinese bed, a Jacuzzi, a treadmill and a Stairmaster; one deck up is an exclusive sun deck with wicker loungers and a hammock. Included in the mix are Family Villas, which add another bedroom and accommodate five.

The only categories above Courtyard Villas are the Owner's Suites on Decks 9 and 10 (there are five) and the Garden Villas (there are two), on Deck 14 with the Courtyard Villas. The Owner's Suites offer king beds, BOSE entertainment centers, a whirlpool tub and walk-in closets; guests booked in these cabins are granted access to the courtyard. But the kings of all cabins are the Garden Villas, each with a private roof terrace and garden for open-air dining, hot tubbing and sunning. These complexes include three separate bedrooms -- one with a whirlpool tub -- and BOSE accouterments.

All suite passengers (including the penthouse and romance cabins) also have a concierge and butler at their disposal to arrange restaurant reservations, expedite room service orders, stock diet Cokes in the mini-fridge, etc. Elemis products in the bathroom are replenished daily. The in-cabin coffee maker is also upgraded to a fancy espresso and cappuccino machine, and balcony furniture improves from plastic found elsewhere to teak.

All cabins on Deck 14, as well as the owner's suites on Decks 9 and 10, have Wi-Fi; otherwise, in-cabin Internet access is available shipwide, but don't forget your Ethernet cable. TV programming includes a selection of movies, plus CNN, Fox News, ESPN. The interactive Freestyle TV system can be used for ordering room service, accessing e-mail, confirming shore excursion bookings, etc.

The ship offers 27 cabins in a variety of categories for disabled and wheelchair-bound passengers.

Dress Code

While NCL's overall approach to dress is quite relaxed, on Jade's European itineraries, passenger dress varies. In general, with an older demographic, there were plenty of suit coats, dress shirts and dresses on display around dinnertime. None of the passengers donning suits for their evening meal looked particularly out of place. And with so much time spent in port -- there may be only a couple sea days on some of the longer Mediterranean sailing -- dinner on said sea days took on even more of a formal demeanor.

During our days at sea, when the sun was out, resort- and beach-wear were appropriate in public areas and by the pool respectively; it's kindly requested that shorts and tank tops are not worn in restaurants (except for the Garden) after 5 p.m.; however, passengers are able to wear jeans to dinner in any specialty or main dining room, if they wish.

Gratuity

There's a fixed charge of $12 per person, per day added to each passengers' onboard accounts -- which jives with the industry standard -- but here it is considered a "service charge," not a "gratuity."

The line explains on its Web site: "Our crew is encouraged to work together as a service team and is compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that the service charge supports ... guests should not feel obliged to offer a gratuity for service that is generally rendered to all guests. However, all of our staff are encouraged to 'go the extra mile,' and so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities entirely at the discretion of our guests." Guests are able to adjust the automatic charge at the reception desk.

If you utilize a butler and/or concierge, NCL recommends offering a tip "commensurate with services rendered"; I kept a mental tab throughout the week of meals delivered, requests handled, etc., and offered my "thanks" accordingly in cash. However, fellow passengers were able to put gratuities for these staffers on their onboard account by visiting reception, so keep that option in mind.

Gratuities are not automatically added to bar tabs; you can add a tip to your onboard account, or leave a buck or two in cash.The 93,500-ton, 2,402-passenger Norwegian Jade, which is based in Europe year-round, epitomizes NCL's "freestyle" mantra.

For the most part, the goal is to create an onboard ambience that abandons traditional cruise formalities. All meals are open seating and choice of cuisine and vibe is rivaled by only a few ships. The range goes from a steakhouse and Tepannyaki to French, Italian, tapas, sushi, buffets and even a 24-hour cafe, complete with traditional English breakfast.

"Freestyle" also incorporates onboard activities and entertainment ranging from its spa to main theater shows to themed dance parties; entertainment is offered continuously and performances aren't geared around restaurant seatings.

Similar dining and entertainment options are, however, found on all of Norwegian Jade's fleetmates. But here's what makes Jade unique: This is a seriously international ship. The passenger mix on our 12-night Istanbul to Athens cruise was evenly divided between Americans (1,286) and international cruisers (1,115 Canadians, Australians, Brits, Germans, French, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, etc.). The more global experience, with announcements now coming in Spanish and German as well as English, is a defining element. During one poker session, I took on players from Israel, Mexico, Northern Europe, the Midwestern United States, Japan and China -- all yelling at our shy Peruvian dealer. Some called the melange of languages flying by somewhat distracting, but somehow it felt entirely natural.

Fantastic passenger melange aside, complaints about the additional costs of all the aforementioned specialty restaurants -- something that's dogged NCL's Freestyle concept from the start -- is relatively common. (Perhaps it had something to do with just that melange. Broadly speaking, European cruisers are less used to paying extra fees for onboard eats.) A case could be made for NCL doing a better job of providing more realistic expectations. We'll do it for them: If passengers really want to enjoy the multiplicity of dining options available during a single cruise on Jade, an additional, say, $20 per person, per night, should be figured into the cost of the cruise.

Dining

Grand Pacific and Alizar are Norwegian Jade's two main dining rooms. Open seating breakfast and lunch are offered in one of the two, and both are open for dinner; walk-ins are welcome every evening. Grand Pacific tends to fill up before Alizar; our sense is it's because the former is a larger, more traditional space that may feel familiar to cruisers not used to the Freestyle concept. To avoid disappointment, make reservations if you're looking to eat at a specific time or with a large (or small) party.

Though traditional items like lobster and beef Wellington appear throughout the cruise, the chefs get creative with other items. One night, appetizer choices included eggplant dip and spring rolls, with sweet potato cakes atop a Moroccan chick pea stew as a vegetarian main course. Portions are fairly small (for an American cruise line), so if you are looking for a filling "cruise" meal, definitely order all of the components that interest you -- salad, soup, appetizer and entree, or any combination of those.

There are special menus for kids, as well selections for health-conscious travelers, and a few vegetarian choices. On the "always available" menu, you'll find broiled chicken, sirloin steak and salmon.

Where Jade stands out dining-wise is in its impressive number of specialty venues.

Papa's Italian Kitchen levies a cost of $15. The menu consists of appetizer favorites like caprese salad, soups, fried calamari and Caesar salad. Then, you can create your own pizza and pasta dishes with a variety of toppings and sauces. The Pesto a la Genovese sauce, with basil, parmesan, pecorino, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil is a favorite. Papa's long dark wood bench seating lend to a communal dining vibe.

Dinner at Cagney's Steakhouse costs $25 per person. The meal begins with an appetizer or salad like a crab cake with spicy avocado sauce or a chop salad with about a dozen ingredients including eggs, bacon, onions, avocado and mushrooms. The main courses consist of steaks, veal, pork, seafood and chicken, with a variety of sides (try the Cagney's Fries, with white truffle oil and Parmesan cheese). And save room for dessert; both the Chocolate Obsession and bananas foster are quite titillating.

Moderno Churrascaria ($20) is a Brazilian-style steakhouse that offers about 10 different meats, including lamb chops, filet mignon, sausage and two different types of chicken drumsticks. In addition, diners can choose from options that include international cheeses and dried meats, olives, and pickled and marinated veggies from the restaurant's all-you-can-eat salad bar. They will be served a standard four sides of mashed potatoes, fried bananas, rice and beans.

Jasmine Garden is the ship's Asian fusion complex ($15); you could try a different component every day for three nights. The "main" menu here is nouvelle Chinese, with spring rolls and crispy crab wontons with plum sauce as appetizers, and Szechuan Stir-Fried Lobster Tail (the specialty dish), Lo Mein and Vegetable Chow Fun as mains.

Sushi is sold a la carte, including standard rolls (California, spicy tuna) and specialty rolls (the Dynamite Roll included yellowtail, salmon and green onions); sake is available for purchase.

Teppanyaki is NCL's answer to landside Japanese hibachi restaurants like Benihana. Though it carries a $25 per person surcharge, the food -- and the show -- is worth the splurge (and you can always order double portions). Everyone automatically gets seaweed salad with ginger, garlic fried rice, a shrimp appetizer, vegetables, miso soup, and ginger and mustard dipping sauces. Then you choose from a variety of steak, vegetable, chicken and seafood combinations as a main course. Chefs are happy to honor substitutions; I ordered filet, chicken and shrimp. Mochi Ice Cream (sticky rice with an ice cream center) or Fresh Fruit Sashimi are offered for dessert. Four tables seat up to eight people each in four sittings (5, 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m.). You'd think that in a restaurant with 32 seats reservations would be crucial, but come the final seating, following long days in port (and an older demographic that preferred to dine earlier), the place was generally empty.

The French Le Bistro ($25) is the cruise line's signature eatery, predating even the Freestyle Cruising concept. Expect first courses like foie gras, steamed mussels and escargot; and heavy entrees feature lobster, swordfish, steak and lamb. Desserts include creme brulee and chocolate fondue, among other decadent options.

On the other side of the coin are several casual dining options. Blue Lagoon (fee-free), a 24-hour sit-down "diner" overlooking the atrium, offers breakfast similar to what's found in the main dining room (omelets and such), and an all-day menu of "comfort food" including burgers, dogs, chicken nuggets, fish 'n' chips and brownies a la mode.

By the pool, The Grill has breakfast from 7:30 until 10:30 a.m. and serves up hamburgers and hot dogs as a late lunch or anytime snack from noon until 5:30 p.m.

The Garden Cafe, Jade's lido eatery, is open for breakfast from 7 until 11 a.m., and offers hot and cold items, such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, fruit and pastries, as well as an omelet station for made-to-order egg dishes, and a crepe station with your choice of fillings. The morning fresh juice bar is also a nice touch. Mix and match grapefruit, carrot, apple, orange, melon, etc. (additional fee applies). Also great was the multi-faceted cafe latte/cappuccino/espresso maker, available fee-free. For late risers, a breakfast buffet minus the omelet station stays open in Great Outdoors, the Garden Cafe's open-air extension, until 11:30 a.m.

Lunch and dinner are available here as well, all served at staggered stations as opposed to a long line. If it seems confusing or overwhelming, do a walk-through before grabbing your plate, taking stock of what you want to try. Then you'll navigate the stations like a pro. At lunch, expect a sandwich station with deli meats and cheeses, a salad bar, a selection of hot items (pastas, stir fries, Indian food etc.), a carving station, a pizza counter and desserts. Dinner adds tablecloths, some mood lighting, and more hot selections akin to what you'd find on the main dining room menu.

And as on previous NCL ships, we like the line's signature buffet station for tykes. The Kid's Cafe is located in a corner of the Garden Cafe with miniaturized tables and chairs, and kid-friendly foods like chicken nuggets in animal shapes. Confused looking adults were found sitting there on the first few days of the cruise, looking uncomfortably hunched, frowning as they tried to dine.

Finally, room service is available around the clock, including a Continental breakfast and all-day sandwiches and snacks like Buffalo wings. The menu features sandwich, soup and salad options. At dinnertime, you can order off the main dining room menu, and if you are booked in accommodations with a butler, he or she can hook you up with items from Papa's, too, since its galley is close enough for the food to stay warm en route to your cabin.

An electronic system cuts down on lines and wait times in restaurants. Monitors throughout the ship's corridors reveal how busy each eatery is with a bar that ranges from green (come on in) to red (crowded, and you might have to wait). This screen also acts as an electronic hostess, letting cruisers know how long the wait is for a table for two, for example, and where large parties are being accepted.

Our advice, though, is to make all or most of your reservations at the beginning of your voyage -- even for the main dining rooms in which reservations are not required. You can always take your name off the list if you change your mind (note that at for-fee restaurants, a penalty of $5 applies for cancellations made within 24 hours of a reservation). If you truly want to cruise spontaneously and make no concrete plans, you may have better luck getting walk-in seating at your first-choice venue closer to opening or closing time -- those screens get pretty red during the peak dinner hours, generally between 7 and 9 p.m.

Editor's note: With cover charges in all venues, price savvy passengers who want to partake in all the options might consider a dining package, which represent a small savings over the cover prices.

Fitness and Recreation

The pool area midship on Deck 12 features two swimming pools (there's a third, further aft, just for kids). These are flanked by whirlpools under bright awnings and a water slide. Those looking for prime deck real estate should come early, especially on sea days. Most poolside loungers get snagged early in the day.

The Mandara Salon is operated by London conglomerate Steiner Leisure, and offers the usual treatments (facials, massages) as well as more trendy wellness offerings, such as acupuncture and teeth whitening (a 40-minute session was on special for $199).

Arrive early or stay after your treatment to take advantage of the steam room, therapy pool and heated-tile loungers.

The fitness center is open 24 hours a day and features state-of-the-art equipment such as treadmills and bikes, as well as weight machines and free weights, all with floor-to-ceiling windows as a backdrop. There's also an aerobics room for class. Some, such as stretching, are complimentary; others (yoga, Pilates and cycling) typically cost around $10.

For staying in shape outdoors, the stadium-style sports deck with bleacher seating that was introduced on Norwegian Jewel is back, and accommodated, on my cruise, basketball and football (soccer). The court also could serve as a regulation size tennis court, but no such activity was offered. There are also golf driving nets on either side of the aft sports area, a shuffleboard court (very popular -- high-stakes games going at 10:30 p.m.), Ping-Pong tables, oversized chess sets and a walking/jogging track (5.5 laps to a mile).

Family

NCL's kids' program, Splash Academy, divides younger cruisers into four groups with age-appropriate pastimes: Guppies (up to 2), Turtles (3 - 5), Seals (6 - 9) and Dolphins (10 - 12). The teen (13 - 17) program is called Entourage.

The colorful children's facility on Jade, Tree Top Kids Center, is divided into areas based on activity and in some cases age range. There's a spacious cinema with a big screen for movie viewing and cushy beanbag chairs, an arts and crafts station, a long desk with several computers for gaming and learning (don't worry moms, no Internet access here), and even a naptime area. The Sapphire Kid's Pool features slides and a wading area. For teens, there's a surf-themed Wipeout Club with a touch-screen jukebox, gaming terminals, a juice bar (serving for-fee mocktinis and mocktails) and easy access to the arcade.

Both Splash Academy and Entourage feature a different theme every day, like pirates, space cowboys, jungle fever or circus, with activities that are tailored to each age group. Specific emphasis is placed on active offerings -- soccer, physical challenges -- through a partnership with The King's Foundation and Camps, a United Kingdom-based organization that provides sport and activity programs designed for kids. For teens, bowling tournaments, soccer challenges and dodge ball under the stars are just a few of the active offerings.

Creative arts are also emphasized. With a focus on theater and the arts, young cruisers have the chance to participate in puppet shows, mini improvisational acting classes and themed activities such as Superspy Mission Impossible and Desert Island Adventures.

Splash Academy also offers activities for cruisers under three and their parents, like sensory play classes that include baby art featuring organic art products. There are also events such as parent and baby "Rhyme Time," where a storyteller recites popular nursery rhymes featuring puppets, and "Motion in the Ocean," a parent and baby mini-workout.

Through a partnership with Hilario Productions Cirque du Jour, Jade (and fleetmates) feature family circus workshops teaching a variety of skills such as balancing feathers, juggling, plate spinning and even stilt walking.

During days in port, parents booked on excursions can leave tykes between the ages of 2 and 12 behind for supervised complimentary "Port Play" from arrival into port or 9 a.m. until departure from port or 5 p.m. (in both instances, whichever time is earlier). At night, group babysitting is available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. and there is also a "Late Night Fun Zone" from 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. "Port Play", group babysitting and the "Late Night Fun Zone" are all fee-based services; the costs for each program are $6 per hour and $4 per hour for siblings in the same family (charged to guests' onboard accounts).

Additional offerings for families to participate in together include cupcake decorating; pizza making; family game shows; Family Deck Party; and a special Family White Hot Party.

Fellow Passengers

As NCL's year-round Europe homeporter, the passenger manifest is often evenly divided between North Americas and those from elsewhere -- Australia, Great Britain, France, Spain, Mexico, Japan and Korea. Typical of longer European itineraries, the average age hovers around 55, with the largest number of passengers in the 55 to 70 range. During summer months, expect a sizable influx in families.

Family

NCL's kids' program, Splash Academy, divides younger cruisers into four groups with age-appropriate pastimes: Guppies (6 months - 3 years, with parent), Turtles (3 - 5), Seals (6 - 9) and Dolphins (10 - 12). The teen (13 - 17) program is called Entourage.

The colorful children's facility on Jade, Tree Top Kids Center, is divided into areas based on activity and in some cases age range. There's a spacious cinema with a big screen for movie viewing and cushy beanbag chairs, an arts and crafts station, a long desk with several computers for gaming and learning (don't worry moms, no Internet access here), and even a naptime area. The Sapphire Kid's Pool features slides and a wading area. For teens, there's a surf-themed Wipeout Club with a touch-screen jukebox, gaming terminals, a juice bar (serving for-fee mocktinis and mocktails) and easy access to the arcade.

Both Splash Academy and Entourage feature a different theme every day, like pirates, space cowboys, jungle fever or circus, with activities that are tailored to each age group. Specific emphasis is placed on active offerings -- soccer, physical challenges -- through a partnership with The King's Foundation and Camps, a United Kingdom-based organization that provides sport and activity programs designed for kids. For teens, bowling tournaments, soccer challenges and dodge ball under the stars are just a few of the active offerings.

Creative arts are also emphasized. With a focus on theater and the arts, young cruisers have the chance to participate in puppet shows, mini improvisational acting classes and themed activities such as Superspy Mission Impossible and Desert Island Adventures.

Splash Academy also offers activities for cruisers under three and their parents, like sensory play classes that include baby art featuring organic art products. There are also events such as parent and baby "Rhyme Time," where a storyteller recites popular nursery rhymes featuring puppets, and "Motion in the Ocean," a parent and baby mini-workout.

Through a partnership with Hilario Productions Cirque du Jour, Jade (and fleetmates) feature family circus workshops teaching a variety of skills such as balancing feathers, juggling, plate spinning and even stilt walking.

During days in port, parents booked on excursions can leave tykes between the ages of 2 and 12 behind for supervised complimentary "Port Play" from arrival into port or 9 a.m. until departure from port or 5 p.m. (in both instances, whichever time is earlier). At night, group babysitting is available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. and there is also a "Late Night Fun Zone" from 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. "Port Play", group babysitting and the "Late Night Fun Zone" are all fee-based services; the costs for each program are $6 per hour and $4 per hour for siblings in the same family (charged to guests' onboard accounts).

Additional offerings for families to participate in together include cupcake decorating; pizza making; family game shows; Family Deck Party; and a special Family White Hot Party.

Family

NCL's kids' program, Splash Academy, divides younger cruisers into four groups with age-appropriate pastimes: Guppies (6 months - 3 years, with parent), Turtles (3 - 5), Seals (6 - 9) and Dolphins (10 - 12). The teen (13 - 17) program is called Entourage.

The colorful children's facility on Jade, Tree Top Kids Center, is divided into areas based on activity and in some cases age range. There's a spacious cinema with a big screen for movie viewing and cushy beanbag chairs, an arts and crafts station, a long desk with several computers for gaming and learning (don't worry moms, no Internet access here), and even a naptime area. The Sapphire Kid's Pool features slides and a wading area. For teens, there's a surf-themed Wipeout Club with a touch-screen jukebox, gaming terminals, a juice bar (serving for-fee mocktinis and mocktails) and easy access to the arcade.

Both Splash Academy and Entourage feature a different theme every day, like pirates, space cowboys, jungle fever or circus, with activities that are tailored to each age group. Specific emphasis is placed on active offerings -- soccer, physical challenges -- through a partnership with The King's Foundation and Camps, a United Kingdom-based organization that provides sport and activity programs designed for kids. For teens, bowling tournaments, soccer challenges and dodge ball under the stars are just a few of the active offerings.

Creative arts are also emphasized. With a focus on theater and the arts, young cruisers have the chance to participate in puppet shows, mini improvisational acting classes and themed activities such as Superspy Mission Impossible and Desert Island Adventures.

Splash Academy also offers activities for cruisers under three and their parents, like sensory play classes that include baby art featuring organic art products. There are also events such as parent and baby "Rhyme Time," where a storyteller recites popular nursery rhymes featuring puppets, and "Motion in the Ocean," a parent and baby mini-workout.

Through a partnership with Hilario Productions Cirque du Jour, Jade (and fleetmates) feature family circus workshops teaching a variety of skills such as balancing feathers, juggling, plate spinning and even stilt walking.

During days in port, parents booked on excursions can leave tykes between the ages of 3 and 12 behind for supervised complimentary "Port Play" from arrival into port or 9 a.m. until departure from port or 5 p.m. (in both instances, whichever time is earlier). At night, group babysitting is available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. and there is also a "Late Night Fun Zone" from 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. "Port Play", group babysitting and the "Late Night Fun Zone" are all fee-based services; the costs for each program are $6 per hour and $4 per hour for siblings in the same family (charged to guests' onboard accounts).

Additional offerings for families to participate in together include cupcake decorating; pizza making; family game shows; Family Deck Party; and a special Family White Hot Party.

Cabins

Cruisers are spoiled for choice on Norwegian Jade, with cabins ranging from entry-level insides to $10,000-a-week Garden Villas that seem more like something you'd find at a five-star resort than on a mainstream mega-ship. Sixty percent of the 1,080 standard cabins are outsides, and of those, 54 percent have balconies. Best of all, for families, interconnecting cabins are available in a range of categories from standard insides to suites. And it's not just apples to apples: Different grades of cabins can be interconnected -- balcony to suite or suite to penthouse, for example -- to create two- to five-bedroom combos for small or large clans.

All cabins have a richer feel due to cherry wood finishes, and boast mini-fridges (you can have it customized or emptied), safes and in-cabin coffee facilities.

Standard inside and oceanview cabins (143 and 161 square feet, respectively) are very small by industry standards, but they're functional, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert to a queen, and partitioned bathrooms with sliding door shower stalls on one side, a separate toilet compartment on the other and a central sink area. The oceanview cabins with balconies are slightly roomier (167 square feet, with a 38-square-foot balcony); 134 mini-suites are larger still (231 square feet, with a 54-square-foot balcony) and include a full-sized sofa and a small bathtub.

If you're booked in a balcony or mini-suite, Norwegian will add small touches like bathrobes.

Those looking to splurge should consider booking one of the 48 suites, which include pillow-top mattresses, down comforters and Euro pillows. Suite passengers receive a free bottle of Champagne, evening canapes, private breakfast and lunch in Cagney's Steakhouse (with steak and eggs, eggs Benedict and French toast rounding out the menu; at lunch, try the Caesar salad with chicken or steak); and MP3 connections.

The 375-square-foot Romance Suites (there are four) feature a balcony, full tub and shower, and living and dining areas. The 341-square-foot Penthouse Suites (there are 24) feature a living area, balcony, dining area, separate bedroom with queen-size bed, and bath and separate shower with massaging heads; most have a "spare" bedroom (slightly bigger than a big closet and outfitted with two twin beds -- great for kids). The living and dining areas are equipped with a mini-fridge (stocked with complimentary waters and sodas). There are three flat-screen TV's -- one in the living area, one in the main bedroom and one above the tub; the first two have CD/DVD players.

The exclusive 14th deck is where you'll find the 10 440- to 572-square-foot Courtyard Villas -- a concept introduced on Norwegian Jewel. They are essentially larger versions of the Penthouse Suites (save for the fabulous tub set against a window with a birds-eye view), but what's extra is that they surround a private courtyard shared by all Courtyard Villa guests. The space is gorgeous, with a sleek pool, a Balinese bed, a Jacuzzi, a treadmill and a Stairmaster; one deck up is an exclusive sun deck with wicker loungers and a hammock. Included in the mix are Family Villas, which add another bedroom and accommodate five.

The only categories above Courtyard Villas are the Owner's Suites on Decks 9 and 10 (there are five) and the Garden Villas (there are two), on Deck 14 with the Courtyard Villas. The Owner's Suites offer king beds, BOSE entertainment centers, a whirlpool tub and walk-in closets; guests booked in these cabins are granted access to the courtyard. But the kings of all cabins are the Garden Villas, each with a private roof terrace and garden for open-air dining, hot tubbing and sunning. These complexes include three separate bedrooms -- one with a whirlpool tub -- and BOSE accouterments.

All suite passengers (including the penthouse and romance cabins) also have a concierge and butler at their disposal to arrange restaurant reservations, expedite room service orders, stock diet Cokes in the mini-fridge, etc. Elemis products in the bathroom are replenished daily. The in-cabin coffee maker is also upgraded to a fancy espresso and cappuccino machine, and balcony furniture improves from plastic found elsewhere to teak.

All cabins on Deck 14, as well as the owner's suites on Decks 9 and 10, have Wi-Fi; otherwise, in-cabin Internet access is available shipwide, but don't forget your Ethernet cable. TV programming includes a selection of movies, plus CNN, Fox News, ESPN. The interactive Freestyle TV system can be used for ordering room service, accessing e-mail, confirming shore excursion bookings, etc.

The ship offers 27 cabins in a variety of categories for disabled and wheelchair-bound passengers.

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