My husband and I decided to go on a kid-free vacation this year as the kids were old enough, and my parents young enough to look after them! We'd always wanted to go on Star Clippers, and since we've been to several Caribbean destinations, opted for the Mediterranean. We were mainly interested in Greece. However, our travel agent pointed out that for about the same price as a week with Star Clippers we could do two weeks with a regular cruise line, and since Europe's so far to go, it's better to make the most of it.
We started looking at ships and like the 'Freestyle" concept. We looked at itineraries and were immediately excited about NCLs 12 night Athens to Istanbul which included all the main Greek ports, plus Ephesus, and a bonus of Istanbul AND EGYPT! What an opportunity to get to the the pyramids during a larger trip, and from the comfort of a cruise ship! So we booked in the spring.
Our final payment was due in July. We'd paid in Canadian funds as that was how the travel agent had the cruise co. quote it. By July, the Canadian Dollar was gaining strength against the US dollar. Little did we know when we booked that the exchange rates the cruise cos. use are set late in the year for the following year, so the rate we were given was not as good as the current rate. Furthermore, since we'd booked in CDN$ they would not change to USD. We could have cancelled and rebooked, but we'd lose the early booking discounts so it would have cost more, and the cruise was almost full so we would not have got a very good cabin, or in the class we wanted. I was very disappointed! I was told it's just a gamble. The dollar 'could have 'dropped and then we'd have come out ahead. So, I had to deal with it. At least all onboard charges including excursions would be charged to my account in USD, which I'd pay at the rate my credit card company charged.
We booked air through NCL so that we could cancel before full payment in July, and so there'd be more guarantee if there were delays (we didn't want to take any chances) so we arrived in Athens with Delta two days early. One hotel option was the Metropolitan hotel. It's a new hotel, likely built for the 2004 Olympics. It's halfway between the port and downtown but they run a free shuttle every hour. The Jewel is a new ship, only 2 years old. It will be the twin of the Gem when it's launched this year. I won't get into specs. as you can get that from the website, but we found it to be clean, have large common rooms, excellent service from the room porters (they introduced themselves the first day, and all of them were friendly and went out of their way to help in any way) and especially the wait staff, who practically fell over themselves. We used the spa and the fitness area. All were well appointed. We went to the Open House for the Spa on the first day and were given 50% of any one Spa treatment, which is good as they are pricey! I really have no complaints about the ship. We had some choppy seas and with the stabilizers out we only got a little jiggle.
Our cabin was a mini-suite on deck 11, midships (under the pool deck). It had a good sized balcony, and lots of storage, a well-laid out bathroom, mini bar, TV and safe. We also got bath robes. The bed had only a duvet and we roasted the first night! We asked for a top sheet and blanket instead and were obliged. It was much better after that! The room was great, relaxing to come back to, and we enjoyed some room service breakfasts there on the days at sea.
The pool area was usually very packed, but the deck hands remove towels from unused chairs after app. half an hour (I saw people leave with clearly no intention of coming back and not bother to put their towels in the laundry!). The pools were warm (31' C!!!) and both had a shallow area you could sit on surrounding the deeper part. This was great as you did not have to be swimming to enjoy the water, and it was better for kids. If you wanted more privacy, there are chairs on deck 13 and 14, and a Freestyle Sundeck (you can guess what THAT is for!) on deck 15!
There are LOTS of bars, and as usual, alcoholic drinks are pricey! Hard to understand when the on-board duty-free shop has really cheap liquor. Too bad you cannot buy it and take it back to your room!
Activities we didn't participate in any, although I herd things like Bingo announced. There wasn't really anything I thought was interesting.
Dining -There were 12 restaurants, and we ate at all but the Sushi Bar and the French Bistro (we were not impressed with the menu). Teppanyaki is definitely neat to go to! There is a service charge but it is worth it as they cook the food in front of you. The Steakhouse is also great, and has a service charge. We seemed to like the Tex-Mex place the best, and there's no service charge. The buffet restaurant always had a good selection in including, my favorite, the breakfast omelette bar! We only had to wait to eat once, on the formal night. And our meals were always served promptly and were hot, and we weren't kept waiting between courses. The menus had such great selection it was often hard to choose! Good thing we would go back!
One thing about the dining, and the Jewel in general, is that they are fanatic about germs! There are gel handwash dispensers everywhere! You can't board the ship or enter a restaurant without having your hands sprayed, and in the buffet restaurant, you can't even serve yourself! They have staff to put everything on your plate! It's impressive and I'm sure cuts down on GI outbreaks!
Children's Clubs -we did not use them, but we had a look to see in case we bring our kids in the future. They were closed when we looked so no kids were there. I would not say the rooms for the kids clubs looked very impressive, but I will add that it would be the staff and activities that would determine how good the programs are, so I can't comment.
Entertainment -this would be the one area of disappointment. Although there were musicians playing in several areas in the evening, the main shows at the theatre often seemed amateurish at best. Only a couple shows even interested us, and one was a crew member singing, and he sounded like am American Idol audition. Another was a comedian, Lenny Winsor. He was OK, used the audience a lot in his gags, but some material was old. That being said, we were impressed by the Cirque Bijou production. It was professionally done and choreographed, definitely a highlight!
Shore Excursions -there was a huge line at the shore excursion desk the first day, one I'd hoped to avoid by booking online in advance, but we couldn't get into one so I called the desk and was initially told to come wait in line as there were now openings, but when I explained I'd tried to get in before, the girl promised to reserve spots for us, but we still had to go to the desk. The excursions were well chosen and well run. Unfortunately, being on a tour bus always has drawbacks, and everywhere we went was so busy, whether from other cruise ships or land-based tours. In Athens, Ephesus and Istanbul I booked private tours before hand and it was great as we had more time, and the latter two were private so we could stay away from the groups if needed. I thought the ship excursions were well organized and the process was speedy considering the number of people leaving! In Santorini we booked an excursion in the hopes it would get us to shore faster (you have to tender there) and it did, and also we were tendered to the old port where buses take you up, so we didn't have to wait for the cable car or take a donkey, AND we got to see more of the island.
Disembarkation-We were very unhappy with our flight arrangements, as we had a 6am flight, which meant we were booked on a 2am bus to the airport (we were NOT alone!!) which meant we were up at 1am. I complained to the cruise line when this was booked but they said that unless you book 'custom air' you get what you get and that 'some' people want to get off and get going...WHO????? I ask????? People with later flights or private arrangements got to lounge around until, I believe, 9:30 was the latest disembarkation! Summary-I've pointed out the only negative things, but there were too many positive things to mention. All in all we were very happy with everything, the ship, the itinerary, even the weather co-operated! For such a large ship, we never felt crammed in, and found our way around quite easily. We would definitely cruise with NCL again if the itinerary suited us.