BA check-in at Gatwick was quick and easy and it was good to see a rep from NCL there too. In Barcelona we had to wait quite a while for passengers on later flights to join us for the bus transfer to the port. Embarkation was extremely efficient, quick, friendly and professional - full marks for that. Finding our stateroom (deck 10, mid-ship, balcony) was a little tricky because of the way the rooms are numbered and when we did find it, it wasn’t ready for use. Our room steward wasn’t particularly welcoming and seemed to be quite stressed and under pressure. When we returned to our room a couple of hours later, all was ready and luggage delivered. Our first impression of the stateroom was that it was rather small and a bit cramped. The balcony was particularly disappointing – very narrow with barely enough room for 2 seats. I know it’s impossible to keep glass free from salt spray but the glass screen of the balcony and the sliding glass door leading onto the balcony looked as if they hadn’t been cleaned properly for months. Our bed was made up as a double, meaning that one side had to be very close to the wall and there was only one small bedside unit. Reading lights were good but in an awkward place – sitting up in bed meant almost having to lean against the light bulb. The bed proved to be very hard and sleep quality was zero. There was plenty of hanging space in the wardrobe but very short of shelf and drawer space. Generally, the furnishings in the room were quite dated, carpet and curtains looked tired. The TV was in a ridiculous place, up so high on the top shelf of a corner unit that is was impossible to operate the remote control from the bed. This stateroom was designed to accommodate 3 people so there was a huge couch which could be folded down into a 3rd bed – but really, could 3 people fit comfortably in this tight space?
The bathroom was the best part – arranged in 3 distinct sections: toilet, wash-basin and shower. All attractively tiled with plenty of shelf space and good lighting. The shower was excellent – powerful, easy to operate and a spacious cubicle. It was also better to have a sliding door rather than a shower curtain. The only problem was that over the 9 days of the cruise bits of tile grouting gradually came away and by the last day several tiles were very loose. The area around the wash-basin was quite restricted for drying after a shower. Soap and shampoo dispensed from wall units and no shower caps provided. The hair dryer was pretty old-fashioned – wall mounted with a long flexible hose - but got the job done somehow.
As mentioned above, our room steward could have been more cheerful. The speed of cleaning the rooms was often disappointing and was sometimes as late as 2pm. Room service (morning tea/breakfast) was always prompt and courteous. Crew members were mostly friendly, polite and cheerful but Front Desk staff we found often abrupt and impatient – some of them a bit difficult to understand too.
The evening entertainment was pathetic. We went to one show and sat spellbound – just couldn’t believe how poor it was! There was however an excellent pianist in Champagne Charlie’s (which is not exclusively a champagne bar) every evening – Ian West – and he regularly drew a large audience.
Food – the Raffles Court buffet breakfast was consistently good with a wide ranging choice and sensible, healthy options. Freshly squeezed fruit juices were charged extra though. Lunch in the buffet also had plenty of choice. Plenty of hand-sanitisers in all eating areas and these were enthusiastically used by passengers - always a good sign. Dinner – both the Garden Room and Windows restaurants offered excellent food (superb steaks) with friendly, efficient service and nothing too much trouble. The term “complimentary” was frequently applied to these two restaurants – they’re not complimentary, you’ve already paid for them! There are dining venues that incur an additional cover charge ranging from $15 to $30 per person. On the last night of the cruise we were invited as guests of some people we’d met during the cruise to eat at Cagney’s Steakhouse ($30 extra pp). The meal was very disappointing and the steaks nothing like the quality in the “complimentary” restaurants. The evening ended in disaster when the waiter served coffee. He brought the jug of boiling hot liquid to the table and the contents somehow ended up in our host’s lap resulting in severe scalding to arms and legs. Not the best of endings ……
As on most cruise ships the price of drinks is pretty high and incurs an automatic15% service charge “for your convenience”. The wine list is extensive with some good wines that are quite reasonably priced but the added 15% kills it. There is even a space on the bar receipt for you to add an additional tip!
Ports of call:
Casablanca – just the name sounds exotic, full of romance and intrigue. How wrong can you be? The place is a stinkhole! There is no purpose built cruise terminal here and the port area is filthy with a putrid stench of rotting rubbish. Dockside cranes and containers for as far as you can see. Vast flocks of hostile seagulls swirl and swoop overhead, dive-bombing passengers on the sun deck. Be warned! There was a “complimentary” shuttle bus service to the centre of town but there’s really little of interest there. We were in port from early morning until 11pm so I can only assume this is a cheap port at which to dock and a good place for off-loading refuse and garbage.
Funchal – now here we had to pay $8 each for a bus ride into town. From the ship it looked quite a long way to walk but if you have 2 legs and are anywhere near fit ….. save your money. The bus took a very circuitous route from the ship so it seemed like a long way but on the return journey it took less than 5 minutes. However, Funchal is a pleasant and easy town to stroll around.
Arrecife – a “complimentary” bus service and a long walk. Not a great deal to see here but again an easy place to wander around.
Malaga – 4euros for the bus here and another long walk. Of all the ports of call this was by far the most interesting and enjoyable.
A few other moans were: smoking on-board seems to be permitted in several areas including the Casino. If you have a problem with passive-smoking, take note. There was also a vague smell of gas on occasions, especially on the upper decks, which was a bit worrying. Also of concern was the fact that the ship felt quite unstable in the open waters of the Atlantic even though the sea didn’t appear to be very rough.
Debarkation was a very well-practiced, streamlined operation. Perhaps even too efficient as it meant we were deposited at Barcelona airport nearly 4 hours ahead of our flight time.
This was our first experience of NCL – and is likely to be our last. We really welcomed the open-seated dining arrangements and the relaxed dress code in the evenings and the food was better than we’ve had on most other cruises. Yet there was something missing – it didn’t have a wow-factor, nothing to make you feel special and not much to make you feel a valued customer. Nothing, in fact, to make you want to do it all again.