As a former concierge & agent for a very successful luxury cruise agency, I have been fortunate to have sailed as a guest on Crystal (3 times),HAL,Cunard, Windstar, etc. Now I'm a 'civilian' and until this month, had not been on a cruise in almost 7 years. I wondered if a mass market ship could meet my expectations and more importantly, would my current partner (who had previously never cruised and has never been to Europe) embrace the cruise experience as I have?
We chose the NCL Jade because of the wonderful itinerary and the price. We paid about $800 CAD pp for an inside cabin, ports & taxes in. That's a great deal in my books. Yes, we had some further expenses onboard, including the daily 'service charge' etc. and we paid the upgrade for 3 specialty dining reservations (more on that below) but overall, I still believe the cruise to be an excellent value. I think anyone that complains about the 'nickel and diming' that goes on should get their head out of the sand and pay attention to the facts. The Jade has over 1,000 crew members on board. We never had a dirty plate or empty water glass the entire cruise. The abundance of food available was incredible and I found the quality in the buffets to be excellent (aside from the desserts...more on that later) The entertainment alone must cost a fortune and the plethora of wonderful musicians performing daily really added to our overall enjoyment of the ship. How could anyone think the cruise lines can endure and prosper if they don't try generating on-board revenue? So what if they overdo the self promotion a bit? You don't have to join in on bingo or purchase bottled water or have your photo taken.
I digress! You really just want to know what to expect from your Jade cruise, which is why you're reading this. So, here are the highlights, in 'quick read' format:
Embarkation: Very quick & simple. We took the train from Rome to Venice, walked to P. Roma and then took the People Mover to the port. NCL could have had better signage but basically you just walk toward the ship and eventually you'll be greeted by staff that will take your checked luggage and you then enter the terminal for check in.
Ship: It's a mid-size, middle aged, mass market ship. Pretty much what I expected, having done so much research, but to be fair, it was really clean and the cabin was very nice with no signs of wear. The pool deck is a bit worn looking and the layout could be better, but other areas of the ship made up for this. We really enjoyed lounging about in the Atrium, people watching and listening to the wonderful live music. We're both avid weight lifters, so the gym was a nice surprise too. Probably the best I've seen in terms of size, equipment etc. Also note, there is a very spacious steam room in each locker area, available at no extra cost. On both days at sea we had a late afternoon work out, used the steam rooms and showered in the locker room as well.... all clean and shiny and ready to take on the night!
Dining: We pre-booked 3 specialty restaurants, as I knew we'd want to try some out and NCL has a very good advance booking deal available online. The first night was at Poppa's and it was one of the best meals of the cruise. We both had Osso Bucco and it was excellent. We ate at Cagney's on our first sea day, and I'd say that one was a bit disappointing. My steak wasn't very flavourful and I still regret not getting the lamb. The atmosphere is nice though and I did have the Crab Cakes everyone raves about and yes, they're yummy. On our 2nd to last night on board we ate at Le Bistro and overall it was excellent. Very romantic, quiet and a menu that made it hard to choose . I had the Bouillabaisse, which was really good and my DH had the duck - also very good.
We also ate dinners in the Grand Pacific, twice in Alizar and once in the Blue Lagoon. I wouldn't bother with the BL again but its ok if you're just peckish and in a rush. We had breakfast once in the Grand Pacific and it was a nice change but I'm a huge fan of a leisurely breakfast on the deck, so most mornings we headed to the Great Outdoors.
My overall rating for food is 4/5. My food was always hot, always tasty, not overly salty (except for the lobster chowder at Cagneys) and there certainly was plenty of it. I was really impressed with the variety of food available and it was really nice to see some themed buffets, which were not advertised but just happened to be.
My real only let down was with the desserts and I think NCL really needs to address this issue. I had read plenty of reviews prior to sailing and the quality of the desserts was a constant theme, so I was prepared to be less than impressed. And, being a former desserts cafe owner, I have a pretty educated palate for sweets(which I did keep in mind as I am probably harder to fool than the average bear) I don't know the source of the problem on the Jade, but if I'm pushing away my dessert plate, there is definitely something wrong. Its not that the desserts were 'bad', they just weren't great. The cheesecake is tasteless, rubbery and stale. The plated desserts in the dining rooms are small and blah and lacking imagination. If you like pound cake, there's no shortage of that, but other cakes...not so much. My DH thought the self serve ice cream was one of the best treats all week and while its nice to have, it shouldn't be the best thing on board. The Chocoholic Buffet was a big'miss' for me and I really think they could use a lot more imagination and actual chocolate in the edible desserts. Towards the end of the cruise, we gave up on having desert with dinner, but we did head up to the Garden Cafe and had fresh made crepes with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. So, even though the desserts and sweets were not the best, I still gave them a chance to redeem themselves every day, more than once and I gained 7 lbs in the week so obviously I didn't starve!
Service: On the whole, I'd say the service was very good. Our cabin steward was friendly and addressed me as Miss Vivian every time we passed in the hall. He didn't do anything spectacular and we only got one towel animal, but I was fine with that. The 'washy washy' staff were extra friendly and they did a good job at keeping germs away. I think the only real let down, service wise, was in the the dining room and specialty restaurants. Usually on a ship, the very best staff , in terms of language, timing, personality and professionalism are chosen as main servers in the dining room(s). I think perhaps only in Le Bistro was this level of staff apparent. It wasn't that anyone did anything wrong, they just didn't do it as well as I would expect. Orders were not always heard correctly and 'banter' was completely missing. Perhaps this was just me - having been used to set dining and uber professional dining staff. I certainly never encountered any staff being rude or uncaring. On the other hand, our CD, Gary Glading was lovely, just as advertised. If you are lucky enough to be on a sailing with him, be sure to attend his biographical chat, should it be scheduled. He's led a fascinating life and his dedication to animal welfare is admirable.
Entertainment: Definitely a high point of the cruise. It got off to a rocky start on night 1, with a forgettable performance by Sander & Allison, the resident Magicians and two so-so musical numbers by the Jade dancers. However, we fluffed that off and every day after that was good to amazing. We were fortunate to have '4Ever' on our sailing, a mens' quartet from Spain. Wow! Like Il Divo but in Spanish (and English) We saw two performances and we were highly entertained by both.
The other onboard duo, Roberto & Dorota, were amazing, as they balanced, swooped, tricked and flew their way through astonishingly difficult acrobatic and gymnastic feats. I guess they chose to the Jade because of the very calm waters in the Iberian Sea, as I can't imagine they'd welcome any movement of the ship while she has him balanced on one foot and one finger (or thereabouts)
The Dixieland Jazz performance from the Jade Orchestra was wonderful and the crowd went wild! Too bad they held that in the Atrium, as it could have been a bit more enjoyable in a larger space. JD Redd, a Jade regular was very talented and I really enjoyed his daily appearances in the Atrium. The rest of the entertainment staff seemed happy and enthusiastic, but with our busy scheduled, we did not partake in any of the bingos, game shows, dance classes etc.
Conclusion: My goal was to introduce my DH to the joys of cruising, without spending a fortune and on the calmest seas possible. To that end, it was a great success. He loved it, I had a great time and we are already planning next years' voyage. In terms of value, I think the Jade gave us tremendous 'bang' for the buck. Are we life long NCL cruisers now? Probably not and in fact, I've already booked Oceania for May, 2014. But if I had a choice of spending $1,000 plus airfare or not travelling at all, I would sail NCL again, no question.