We originally booked this cruise for March of this year, but NCL cancelled the itinerary - presumably scared of the political situation in the Middle East - but as it was an itinerary that we really wanted to do we took the option of rebooking for October, and very glad that we did. By the by, we understand that Egypt is being taken out of the cruise for later sailings and replaced with Crete and Naples so we were fortunate to get the itinerary that we wanted.
This seems a strange decision as we felt perfectly safe everywhere in Egypt, and the people were very friendly and excited to have tourists back.
We arranged our own travel out to Rome rather than pay the usual excessive cruise company charges and had a pleasant flight with BA, other than the usual scrum in T5 at Heathrow, and our transfer through Get Your Guide worked well. We had decided to fly out early and spend a couple of nights in Rome prior to departure and were delighted with our hotel - Hotel Crosti - which we would highly recommend. Around a 10 minute walk from Termini Station, it is quietly situated and although it only serves breakfast the owners also have a restaurant further along the road with excellent food.
Knowing that we would have two sea days to relax, we crammed a couple of excursions in to our full day; in the morning to the Vatican Museums and then in the afternoon to Tivoli with the Villa d'Este and Hadrian's Villa. We made the good decision to take an organised tour (via Viator) to the Museum and thereby jumped the huge line waiting for access which would have lasted at least an hour. The Museums are fabulous and a must for any visit to Rome, but I think we may have been suffering from culture overload by the time we reached the Sistine Chapel as we felt that it was overshadowed by some of the earlier areas. The hordes of tourists in the Chapel may have affected this view!
It was nice to get out into the country in the afternoon and enjoy the expansive site of Hadrian's Villa and then the beautiful fountains in the gardens of Villa d'Este. Georgia, our guide from Dark Rome, was amazingly knowledgeable and passionate about the sites and really brought the times of Hadrian to life. Highly recommended.
And so to the ship.
Although there is a train service from Termini to Civitavecchia, having called on a previous cruise we were aware that taxis from the station to Civitavecchia are thin on the ground and we didn't fancy the 10 minute walk to the port entrance and then the shuttle bus so we arranged a shared shuttle from the hotel through RomeLimoCabs which worked perfectly.
The berths at Civitavecchia each have their own terminal building (a plastic bubble!) but as NCL don't issue specific boarding times it was heaving, so check in was rather a scrum and there didn't appear to be a separate area for Latitudes members so it was every man for himself!
After the usual formalities of card issue and security clearance into the haven of the ship. We have cruised on the Jade before so knew what our cabin was going to be like; perhaps a little smaller than is now the norm, but well appointed and with an adequate balcony. One major plus is that the shower has a solid door so no curtain to fight with and the toilet also has a door separating it off. Also, perhaps unusually for a US line, tea and coffee facilities in the cabin.
Lifeboat drill was conducted before we sailed as is now the norm post Costa Concordia and went smoothly.
NCL Freestyle means no set dining times in any of the restaurants and we ate in both of the MDRs where the menus are the same although our preference is for the Grand Pacific which in our view is a much nicer space. Speciality restaurants abound on NCL ships and we had dinner in the Bistro which serves basically French cuisine and Papa's Italian on a couple of occasions. We also enjoyed brunch in the Bistro on the last sea day being entertained with traditional jazz.
Overall the food in the MDRs was OK, not great but adequate,however the Bistro is worth every bit of the $20 cover charge and Papa's is also good with a lower charge of $10.
The ship was virtually full with 2,400 passengers on board but we only had to wait for a table on one occasion and then only for 15 minutes before our beeper summoned us back. Only around 50% of the passengers were native English speakers and most of those from the US with Brits and quite a few Australians making up the balance. During the course of the trip we spoke with Germans, Spanish, Italians, Koreans and Japanese guests so it really was an international gathering.
On the entertainment front I must single out the musicians of the Jade orchestra who are fantastic, and really love their work be it playing jazz or accompanying the shows. It is so nice to have live music played really well rather than taped tracks.
There were three production shows during the course of the cruise (plus the crew show which we missed as we were off the ship that night) and we were disappointed to find that two of them were the same shows that had been on our previous cruise on the Jade in 2010. To be frank these shows - Showdown which is a sort of staged X factor and Shout which looks back to London in the 'sixties are past their sell by dates. Talking with some of the entertainment team it appears that NCL run shows for up to 8 or 9 years and have a total of about 18 different shows across the fleet, but it should surely be possible to rotate these.
I must say however that the third and new show Elements was very good indeed combining the talents of the production cast with some of the speciality acts who had been performing in their own shows, notably the magicians and acrobats. I would rate this particular show as good as those put on by P&O.
The other musicians around the bars and lounges were good, particularly R J Red. There were of course the usual range of lectures and quizzes with rather an emphasis on TV game shows which is not our thing, but one doesn't have to do them and the line has to appeal to all tastes.
I must commend Gary Glading the Cruise Director for his fluency in all the main languages being spoken, although I didn't hear him trying Japanese or Korean. He did an excellent job and was highly visible as well as actually singing at the French and Italian evenings. His story which he shared in a lecture is fascinating as he started out starring at the Paris and Las Vegas Lidos.
Now to a major gripe - organisation of shore excursions. We had booked NCL trips in Turkey and Egypt but made our own arrangements for Cyprus and Israel. For some reason NCL insist that everyone taking their excursions gather in the theatre and be despatched from there. It felt rather like being back at primary school and took a ridiculously long time to accomplish. In Port Said departure times had been brought forward with the day trips being called for 05.15 and the overnight which we were on at 05.45. When we arrived at the appointed hour, all of those for the 05.15 call were still in the theatre with no tour having been despatched. Our tour was called after 06.20 and we finally got on the road at just before 07.00 having had to wait for other buses to travel in convoy.
There must be a better system - perhaps just give people their coach number and a time slot to be on it. It was so much easier doing private tours when we could just disembark and find our transport.
Having said that, the tours were good. Limassol and Haifa are covered in the port section of the review.
This tour covered the Roman sites of Aspendos, Perge and Side. Unfortunately it was raining hard, but the sites were fascinating glimpses into life 2000 years ago and the theatres in Aspendos and Side are in very good condition. We were taken to a carpet shop, apparently to have a detailed explanation of the manufacture and meaning of the designs but in reality an hour's worth of endeavouring to sell extremely expensive merchandise at up to $20,000 for a 2 metre rug. This was followed by an hour lunch break and I would have preferred to miss the carpets and spend more time at the sites but no doubt there was a financial incentive for the shopping stop. Even so, a good day.
From Ashdod we had arranged for a tour with Cruising Excursions to Jerusalem and had a small group of just 10 people in a mini-coach. As a bonus this also included a trip to Bethlehem which the others in the group had booked. It was an interesting experience as we had to change buses and guide to enter the West Bank. Our local guide was excellent and obviously well connected as we were able to skip the line at the Church of the Nativity which was fascinating. Our guide for Jerusalem was equally good and adopted a very relaxed attitude without rushing anywhere, helped by the small size of the group. The cost was quite a bit less than the NCL tour although lunch was not included but this enabled the guests to eat what they wanted and the overall cost still showed a good saving. A wonderful tour.
As the journey into Cairo takes about 3 hours we opted for the Overnight tour spending a night away from the ship to avoid spending 6 hours of the day on a coach. This was a great, if expensive, choice. On the first day we called at the Citadel and the Alabaster Mosque followed by a visit to the Egyptian Museum including the Tutankhamun exhibit - fabulous. We then adjourned to our hotel for lunch and had a couple of hours to rest. The hotel was the historic Mena House, originally built as a hunting lodge for one of the kings of Egypt and the base for many of the famous archeologists but now a 5 star hotel. Imagine the delight to pull back our bedroom curtain and find framed in the window the Great Pyramid of Khufu - fabulous.
In the early evening we were taken the short distance to experience the son et lumiere show at the Pyramids with Anthony Hopkins narrating as the voice of the Sphinx and then to for a 2 hour cruise along the Nile with dinner and entertainment (belly dancer and a whirling dervish)
The following morning we had an early start to be at the Step Pyramid at Saqqara before the crowds gathered - it was amazing to experience the site with few people just the immensity of sands and the pyramid and tombs. Then to Memphis and the giant statue of Ramses II and finally to the pyramids of Giza with the panorama from the plateau (we declined the camel ride) and then down to the pyramids themselves.In view of the crowds - it was a public holiday - our guide suggested we visited the third and smallest of the three - a good call as it was relatively deserted compared to the others. There were large queues to attend the Sphinx, but our guide arranged for us to enter through the son et lumiere compound and avoid them.
Lunch followed with an opportunity for purchasing papyrus and jewellery before heading back to rejoin the ship in Alexandria. The quality of the papyrus was totally different to that being hawked around the sites - chalk and cheese and well worth the price.
Two sea days followed and we arrived back in Civitavecchia in the pouring rain and cold wind - some contrast! We had booked a shuttle to take us back to Termini station and from there took a train to Venice for a couple of days to round off a memorable trip before flying back to the UK.
As always, the best thing about an NCL cruise is the staff who are unfailingly helpful and cheerful; nothing is too much trouble for them.