We are a couple on our thirties, and as we got married last year, changed house etc we were on a tight budget for this year holidays.
So while browsing the web for ideas, I came across a good deal for the NCL Jade eastern Mediterranean cruise for the last week of August.
I think the great experience we had on the Jade is going to change forever the way we choose our holidays.
I knew nothing about cruises, but I read everything I could before and after booking. Of course I also found this beautiful site, full of great info (Some of that later).
So I'll try to give back something, hoping it may come useful to other people.
Booking NCL through US agencies was much cheaper than from european ones. We saved about 20% of the total cost of the cruise. Some cruise lines do not allow Europeans to buy from the States, but NCL does allow that.
Getting to the port and check-in
We went to Venice by train, it's about 3.5 hours from Rome where we live. We chose a hotel very close to the station (it was just OK, nothing worth writing). Getting to the port is easy from the train station (santa Lucia) provided you can walk 5 minutes and cross a bridge with irregular steps, to reach the "people mover", a small train that connects Piazza Roma to the port (less than 5 minutes, ticket 1 euro). From there, you can walk to the ship (10 more minutes) or get a free bus.
We arrived at about 14.00. The queue for dropping lugguage was about 20 minutes, and the Jade staff gave us fresh water and towels, which were very welcome under the sun. There were a few people who tried to skip the queue (and mainly succeeded). The staff tended to look at the other side when this happened.
After that everything went smoothly: we were given our keys and were onboard after another 15 minutes.
The cabin and Lilibeth, our stewardess
We got cabin 8537, it's on the front, over the theatre, close enough to the front lifts. We found it perfect for two people, very well laid out and enough room to put everything. Of course, as suggested on this site, we put our (big) suitcases under the bed. This saved a huge amount of space. This particular cabin was perfectly silent at night. During the day I wouldn't know as we were almost never there.
Everything was kept wonderfully clean by Lilibeth, our stewartess, who gave us the "outstanding service" NCL mentions on their site.
For example we brought an electric Espresso machine (you know, we are Italians after all and we love drinking coffee in bed before getting up :-)). Well, on the first day she brought us cups, sugar (4 different types) and cream for our coffee. And she changed the cups every day, twice a day. I could mention other episodes like this, when without asking she anticipated our needs. This really was a nice touch and one of the great surprises of our cruise. And of course she remembered our names since day 2.
There were some crowded areas of course, as others mentioned before. The swimming pool area and the hot tubs were out of our reach for most part of the day. Our "outside" refuge was deck 14, where there is a "quiet area", and from the third day, deck 15, a secret deck only accessible through a small stair from deck 14 (don't tell anybody!). There we could relax and enjoy the sea and the sun.
As I'm an early riser I used the hot tubs and the swimming pool at 8 in the morning, and most days I was absolutely alone there.
I used the gym everyday, some days twice. The equipment is very good, and from the floor to ceiling windows you don't miss the beauty outside. The lessons were good, even if the instructor wasn't my favourite. One day he skipped the 7.00 stretching lesson (probably sleeping?). I don't know if I will ever be able to forgive him after I put the alarm at 6.40 for that lesson. ;-) Anyway, I did my own stretching and then jogged, which was fine.
There were many activities during the day (all described in the "freestyle daily"). I listened to a few lectures. Some were only a way to advertise products, like one on acupuncture where the very competent lady kept telling how wonderful acupuncture was for treating everything starting at only 199$ per session, please book your treatment there. Or something like that.
But some were wonderful. My favourite was one where Gary, the cruise director, talked about Ephesus and Athens, two of our ports of call, explaining history through ancient greek miths and gods. Informative and entertaining! By the way, that guy is brilliant, he seemed to be able to be everywhere at the same time, with an incredible timing.
The library was another fine and quiet place to be. We went there a couple of times.
Of course we also attended the CC meet and mingle, and there we met some very nice people!
Onboard, evening and night.
The theatre shows were surprisingly good. Most days there were two shows, at 7.30 and 9.30, and most of them lasted less than an hour.
Elements (last day) is great, a show to remember!
We also loved the magician and the acrobats. Never had any problem finding good seats in the Stardust theatre, even entering 5 minutes before the show.
In most bars in the evening there was excellent live music; while waiting for dinner we usually enjoyed a glass of (free!) sparkling wine in the main hall (the best singer, but too crowded) or in front of Le Bistro (good piano player, much quieter area).
From 10/11pm there were dancing parties, usually with a theme: the 80s, the white hot party etc. We just got a quick look at those, but generally we just enjoyed a hot camomile in front of the sea before going to bed (I know, I know, this is what your grandma would do, but who cares?).
We tried once to get to to the casino but there were too many smokers and left immediately.
I am vegetarian, so didn't try any meat or fish.
In my opinion the food on the Jade is wonderful. Everything I tried anywhere was creative, tasty and fresh, and there was plenty of choice. We didn't try any specialty restaurants as they mainly focus on fish and meat, but we were perfectly happy with the main restaurants and the buffets. We liked the atmosphere in the Grand Pacific, and had most dinners and some breakfasts there.
I really cannot understand the people complaining for the food: there was so much, so good, at any time day and night.
As for drinks: fruit juices in the morning, then lemonade (great!), ice tea (horrible), water and flavoured water (mango was ok), free, easy to reach and plenty of ice if you wanted it.
For vegetarians: at the buffet no problem at all: all food is clearly labeled and when there might be some doubt, a nice "(VEGETARIAN)" description appears near the name of the dish. There are plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at any time. Also vegans should not have any problem there.
At the main restaurants: the menu is divided in two parts. One stayed the same all week long, the other changed every day. There was always at least one choice (out of four) of vegetarian starters and entrees in the daily menu, and it was always at the forth (last) place. In the other part there were two more veggie choices for each course.
I usually tried the daily dishes, and they were generally very good, except one night when I had an overcooked risotto as a main.
Restaurants were no good for vegans, unless they have a separate menu.
Except once, we always had to wait to be seated, from 15 to 45 minutes. They gave us a pager and a free glass of sparkling wine. We considered it a bonus, and it became a kind of game ("Let's hope we have to wait!") because before dinner we could sit in a bar, listen to some good live music and then go to dinner. Of course you can do that only if you time a little bit your evening, otherwise you will risk missing the shows.
On the last night there was a chocolate buffet. It was a joy for the eyes. What we had was the chocolate strawberries (again!) and some other fruit that was put in a hot chocolate sauce at the moment.
Ports of call
We found the NCL excursions generally too expensive so we studied a little bit and printed some material before leaving, and did on owr own..
We only did the NCL "Magnificent Ephesus" tour because Ephesus is 65 km away from Izmir and we wanted a guide, so if we did it ourselves it would have been both more expensive and complicated.
The guide was very good, Ephesus really IS magnificent, and we really enjoyed the tour. The only thing I would change is the shopping stop at the carpet store. It was actually interesting but the carpets were outragiously overpriced (I'd prudently say at least 300% of the real price? I know because my parents used to work in Turkey and DID buy some carpets) and we stayed there for about 1 hour and a half, almost the same time we spent in Ephesus! We didn't try to bargain though.
In Athens we used the HOP ON HOP OFF bus (red company, 20 for the whole day) which was perfect. We visited the Acropolis (very crowded, work in progress everywhere) and Monastiraky area: lively, funny and we met a nice guy in a shop, had a good chat and a greek coffee. Greek coffee is just Turkish coffee with another name.
In Croatia we just got a map from the tourist office and walked on our own. Dubrovnik is fantastic, don't miss the walk over the walls: incredible scenery. Split is very nice, easy to walk in a couple of hours. After that we just went to the beach (10 minutes walking). For tender tickets read other reviews, or risk waiting a LONG time for disembarking.
TIPS, expenses on board
There is a 12$ service charge per day, per passenger (about 20% of our cruise price!). When I read this I found it too much, and believed I would reduce it a little at the end of the cruise. Not only I didn't, I also tipped separately some of the staff when I thought they were great.
At the gym there were some lessons you had to pay (12 to 20$). On top of that, there was an 18% service charge. This should certainly be included in the cost. As I didn't like the instructor I only had the free lessons ;-).
You had plenty of opportunities to spend on board, but we never felt pushed to buy anything. Some things were good value: I would pay more a beer in a pub in Rome than on board. Other things were expensive, like the SPA treatments. You just choose what is right for you, everything is clearly explained, no surprises, no hard sell.
We loved the way everything worked for so many people, the fact that you can see many places whilst having a great time onboard, how hard the crew worked and made the most for passengers.
I was worried of eating too much, but I actually lost some weight as I exercised and walked much more than in my normal life.
We hated how so much food was thrown away: some people just kept getting food in their plates, just to leave them almost untouched. I realize that on vacation you want to feel free, and this "no limits" thing is thrilling, but it's really unethical. There is a buffet restaurant in Rome, where you can eat as much as you like, but you can refill your plate only when it's empty.
It's probably impossible to enforce a rule like that in a cruise, but still there must be some way to avoid all that waste! The same goes with towels: why change them every hour? Once a day may be enough right?
We love travelling, we love holidays. They are not the same. I believe cruising is much closer to holiday than to travel: everything is easy, you have a great time, but you don't have the chance to really meet local people, breath the local culture, understand how their daily life can be. Of course you also avoid all the difficulties and risks of travelling, and you see places you wouldn't see otherwise.
We liked the Freestyle concept: this is a win-win situation. You win because you get the freedom to do anything you want, whenever,
and NCL can fill their ships with more people and more opportunities to spend. Of course you need to be able to adapt as well.
Usually you get what you pay for: I believe this time we got much, much more than that, and I'm willing to consider booking a better cabin (or a suite if we can afford that) next time. Reading comments about the HAVEN made me wish to try that ;-)
So, I was VERY long, thanks for reading up to the end! I'll finish saying that we will certainly try to cruise with NCL for our next holidays, and were surprised, happy and grateful for the wonderful experience we had on the Jade.