Baltic Capitals on the Norwegian Jewel: 4 July 2008
Ahoy. This is my first review and only my second cruise, so I only have RCCL to compare it with. On that cruise, I was struck by the number of complaints in the tenders about how Princess did this better, Holland America did that better, RCCL's tender operations did not measure up to P&O's, etc. Having met great people, received good service and generally had the time of my life, I sniffed that they were all miseries and that yours truly would never become blasE and moan about which ship had a bigger stateroom sink than that ship. Another cruise wiser, I'm already doing it, so here goes ...
Embarkation/disembarkation: NCL's embarkation and disembarkation processes were a slick and seamless operation. It's impossible to judge RCCL in comparison as we arrived at the ship an hour before sailing after an interesting rail jaunt from Rome to Civitavecchia, so the jury's still out. Don't try this at home kids; fly out at least a day in advance. We cut it very fine and looking back it was an unwise, nay stupid, decision. This proved particularly true having seen one malingerer screeching up to the ship, arms flailing, having been left behind in Stockholm. I digress, however. For embarkation/disembarkation, full marks go to NCL. Even if they do leave some of their tardier passengers behind.
One teeny weeny little niggle regarding 'sailaway', as we have come to call it. NCL would do really well to drop the tacky rendition, warbling out of the speakers at a huge rate of decibels, of 'The White Cliffs of Dover' when leaving that particular port. No, no, no! Cover your ears, it's really naff.
Ship: Lots of plus points again. I have a minor confession to make here: My name is Windbag the Sailor, and I am a gym and Spa addict. The facilities on this ship were superb in both regards. I bought a cruise-long spa pass for $115 and it proved a real bargain, as I used it nearly every day. It was clean, never too crowded, had lovely views over the bow of the ship and the gym was well-equipped and roomy. The staff at the spa were great, too.
The Jewel was immaculately clean. Admittedly, her dEcor was loud. Some might call it cheerful; perhaps I'm being unfairly pessimistic here. When passing by the Casino in particular, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd strayed into the Big Top of a circus, minus the animals, I hasten to add (for most of the time at least). I made a mental note not to pass this way with a hangover ...
The layout of the ship wasn't as user-friendly as the ship we'd sailed on before. There was no central atrium from which all the decks can be reached: these serve as a useful reference point. The stateroom couldn't be faulted. It was comfortable, roomy, had plenty of storage space, and a fridge, coffee-making facilities and robes were provided.
Ports: This is what made the trip for us. We tend to avoid the ship's excursions and explore different ports either on foot or using public transport, in order to get a 'feel' for the places we visit. For the sake of economy I'll only mention two or three of our favourites. The first was Warnemunde/Rostock/Berlin. Reluctantly, we'd decided to skip the latter, taking the view that we wouldn't have enough time to appreciate it. I'm happy we did. First stop was a short rail journey to Rostock, an attractive little town, but it was Warnemunde itself we really loved. There was a Rostocker beer festival in full swing, and we participated with gusto. The locals were really friendly, the stalls full of amber goods were better and cheaper than anywhere else, and the beach was lovely. We did get drenched by a thunderstorm, but even that added to the ambience of the day. The place had a real holiday atmosphere and with the river cutting through the middle, Warnemunde is not dissimilar to Whitby in Yorkshire. A lot of smaller boats accompanied our huge Jewel out of port, all waving and hooting their whistles, and there was a real holiday atmosphere. That was after a very fast sprinter only just made it back to the ship on time, performing a special little victory dance before reboarding. Cautionary note: get back to the ship in plenty of time or they WILL leave you.
Tallinn was another pleasant surprise. It has many historical buildings but is thoroughly modern and affluent. The ubiquitous matrioshka doll was absolutely everywhere, taking the form of everyone from Putin to Bart Simpson. Who came back with one of these things in your suitcases? - admit it! And yes, I did ... oh the shame. The next port was St Petersburg where, like naughty schoolchildren, we were not allowed out unsupervised (this is because of their strict procedures on tourist visas though, not because we were on detention). Disembarkation from the ship is only allowed as part of a ship's tour unless you've obtained a visa independently. Watch for the little bands on the portside playing football songs. We visited St Isaac's cathedral, St Catherine's Palace, the Hermitage and the church of the Spilled Blood over the two days. I can recommend a visit to any or all of them. Another highlight was a trip to the Palace Theatre to see Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Wonderful but ... they changed the ending so Odette doesn't die. There was I, hanky in hand, gearing myself up for the big tragedy, and it never happened. What a swizz! Seriously though, it was an unforgettable performance and highly recommended. Stockholm + wallet = ouch. Be warned. The Vasa museum is well worth a visit though and the sailaway through the archipelago is spectacular.
Atmosphere and Entertainment: I can'ambiancet comment on the cabaret as it's not really to our taste. We prefer live music, a relaxing drink and conversation, and this is what we gravitated toward here. There was plenty of variety: RJ Red the guitarist was very good, the Alambre trio were lively and great fun and the Four Seasons string quartet also went down well. We did feel the absence, it has to be said, of RCCL's Schooner Bar, which has a fantastic atmosphere. The piano-playing entertainers singing popular tunes and getting everyone to join in with the East End pub singalongs are a scream, especially for we Brits. And Steve, the pianist, rocks ...
There was a downside to this ship's atmosphere, but one which it has to be said is not NCL's fault. Having read others' reviews I'm sad to say that, even in a concerted attempt to avoid being a whining Windbag, the behaviour of some of the passengers was obnoxious. We, too, noted the 'bull-rushes': people barging past and bodily shoving their fellow passengers out of the way whilst talking over everyone else at the tops of their voices. Grrrr. We were unfortunate enough to have a party next door who thought it would be a good idea to keep everyone in the vicinity awake with a long, shouted conversation at 4.00am. That was the end of sleep for us that night and we kept the balcony door shut for the remainder of the cruise. How rude!
Shipboard Service & Food: Service was uneven. The food and service in the Azura restaurant were not up to scratch; Tsars was somewhat better, but the menu in both was identical and spectacularly uninspiring. On a positive note, the Garden Cafe had a large and very good variety of food on offer but one word of warning, beware the late-night chocolate buffets. I not only felt sick but had to do an extra hour in the gym the following day, out of fear of being used as ballast. Our favourite eatery was Chin-Chins. It hit all the right notes, the Maitre di was lovely, as were the waiting staff and the food was superb. Our cabin stewards were also excellent: lovely towel animals, thanks Emmanuel. One thing that really did get on my tip with NCL, however, was the consistent hard-sell. It's a major put-off factor: NCL take note as we are by no means the only people to be irritated by this. Valerija, our shopping consultant, was everywhere; ditto 'Soozy' (I am reliably informed that the spelling, similar to 'Boozy', is in fact correct) the Cruise Director. I now have an encyclopedic knowledge of some little-known stone called Ammolite, even though I don't actually own any Ammolite. If you are very, very good, they will explain to you how few people actually do. Hardly a selling-point, I would have thought.
Here is a typical hard-sell scenario, experienced whilst waiting to order in one of the restaurants.
WAITER: Would you like some water? (holds out two bottles of Evian). WINDBAG: No, thank you. WAITER: What, no water? WINDBAG: No. WAITER: But you have wine here no, you don't want any water? WINDBAG: As I've now already stated twice, no. I DON'T want any water! WAITER: Not even iced water? (note to readers, this was some way into the conversation and only now was the non-chargeable variety of liquid refreshment mentioned). WINDBAG: (goes puce in the face) WINDBAG'S BELOVED (Intervening): Yes, bring us some iced water please.
In future, I simply ordered iced water to prevent any future 5-minute pre-dinner arguments. Bottoms up ...
In summary: So, how does freestyle cruising compare? Like anything else, it has its good and bad points. It's fine if you are traveling in a large party. Couples, including us, tended to stick to our tables for two, and that made it much more difficult to meet and befriend people than it did on the more formal seating arrangements (not mandatory) that we experienced on RCCL. We tended to use the main dining with rigid seating arrangements on that cruise more for the people than the food. For these reasons, for me, RCCL wins out as far as the cruising experience, as well as the quality of service, is concerned. On the plus site, you don't have to weigh your baggage down with a lot of formal clothes, and after a long day touring ports it's a relief not to have to put your face on, wriggle into the L.B.D., ensure there is no V.P.L. (female cruisers will understand what I'm talking about here), and stagger about after the dinner-wine in a pair of spike heels.
Verdict: Not perfect, but NCL and the freestyle brand does have its advantages and we'd sail with them again. We shall how see it contrasts with our next cruise with uber-formal Cunard on the Queen Victoria, leaving Venice on 18 September.
Avast, landlubbers (0 knots)