As a background, my only previous experience for comparison purposes has been a week in the Norwegian fjords on the slightly smaller mv Athena where, as in this case, the attraction was the itinerary rather than the fact of cruising. Overall, this wasn't to the same standard of food or entertainment, although we the itinerary met our requirements.
Embarkation/Disembarkation: In Alexandria we queued for an hour, gradually shuffling along the quayside, up the gangway, up the steps into the lounge to eventually have our security photo taken and be released to our cabin. Although we were on the last transfer coach from the airport and towards the back of the queue, it is unacceptably long time to queue to embark, without any refreshment offered or anywhere to sit.
Disembarkation in Lisbon was equally chaotic. Despite docking at 7 am we were given a disembarkation time of 9.10, which was unrealistic for the departure flight of 11.10. Even then, the time for disembarkation passed without any information as to what was happening, and we eventually disembarked at 10 am without explanation for the delay. Why we couldn't disembark at the more sensible time of 8.30 (we all had to vacate our cabins by 8 am anyway) I don't know. The flight, needless to say, was an hour late (fortunately it was their charter and not a scheduled service).
Cabin: Our cabin was comfortable, and being the last one at the front had slightly more room and a pleasant layout with a centrally positioned queen bed (although would be prone to greater sea movement in rough weather and noise from docking mechanisms). The cabin service was excellent, and our steward (Alex) was always cheerful, friendly and efficient.
Food : The food was acceptable, although disappointing overall, as the man that writes the menu is more talented than those that cook it. There were many instances of the food not living up to the descriptions, and some where it had been badly cooked. For a cruise ship it was disappointingly average. The exception to this was the separate Yacht Club restaurant - an excellent idea where passengers can book a table and dine in a smaller restaurant environment at no additional cost. Unfortunately we were only allowed two bookings on the cruise (otherwise I assume it would be oversubscribed as surely most people would rather eat there), but we had two good meals there.
Entertainment & Activities: The entertainment is of variable quality. The ship's singers/dancers put on a reasonable performance, but not every night and there were no comedians or other cabaret acts to break the show. The show band was good, a duo was vocally challenged (especially the lady whose voice went through you like a buzz saw), but a Romanian classical trio - Cafe Concerto Strings - were excellent.
The daytime activities were limited, but the lectures were generally good. The internet must be the slowest I've encountered. For bridge players there is a bridge room that looked well attended, and there is a reasonably equipped gym. The swimming pool on the lido deck is a hole with a 4-metre diameter (one stroke and you're across), and nothing like the cleverly taken picture in the brochure.
The ship's newspaper (Discovery Today) was very lightweight and often had wrong information on such things as which musical group was performing where, timings and exchange rates.
Dress code: Although a dinner suit is not compulsory for the formal nights, most people adhered to it on the two formal nights out of the 12. The advertised informal nights (blazer/jacket and tie) were hardly worth it, as we had just one in twelve nights, which did not warrant the additional weight of blazer etc. in the luggage allowance for the flight.
Gratuities: This is something that I feel needs commenting upon. The literature makes great play of the fact that for UK passengers gratuities are included in the price. It mentions this fact in a number of places within the brochures, the Welcome Aboard booklet and in the press advertisements. Therefore it is fair to say that this point is highlighted as an advantage for marketing purposes. Consequently I think it is improper to officially solicit further gratuities for staff at the end of the trip (both in the Discovery Today and the disembarkation notices). It is true that mention is made that gratuities are included, but the thrust of the message is to tell us of the hard work involved by the staff and that a gratuity would be appreciated - an unambiguous suggestion that passengers should give a tip. They even provide envelopes for the purpose! I am sure that there are many who accept the brochure's blandishments about gratuities being included at face value, only to be faced with the uncomfortable choice of giving further tips that they have not budgeted for (and deciding how much in the circumstances), or the embarrassment of appearing mean. In short I think that it at best the company is being misleading, and at worst it is deliberately deceiving people.
Community Manager's Note: 'This review was written when the ship sailed for Voyages of Discovery. As of February 2013, it is now sailing under the Cruises & Maritime banner"