Have cruised many times on Princess, Celebrity, and NCL. We like NCL Freestyle and it was my first choice (until this trip). Had been looking for a good price on a British Isles itinerary and found one about a month before sailing on the NCL Jade. Did substantial research on the ports, and booked several excursions through the web. Flew to London, rented a car, did a 4 day driving (stressful, but doable) tour (Windsor Castle, Oxford, the Cottswolds, Bath, Stourhead Gardens) ending up at Southampton Airport to turn the car in.
EMBARKATION: Asked about transport to the ship and ended up on a torturous bus ride stopping at every street (it seemed) in Southampton and finally getting off near (but not near enough) to the port. Took a cab to the port -- should have taken one from the airport. Embarkation was smooth in spite of a power failure in the building -- agents were able to process us on battery powered laptops. CABIN: We booked an inside cabin on deck 5 midship (could have been higher for same price -- free upgrades) but wanted most stable location we could get. Cabin was oriented long-way parallel to length of ship and was large enough with good storage. We book inside to save money as we never spend any time in cabin on cruises anyway and the price differential for outside cabins seems excessive.
SERVICE: The first problem. Not a disaster, but clearly below standard. Most (not all) service staff seemed sullen and "going through the motions." Cabin, on arrival, was not thoroughly cleaned -- toilet was dirty and there was an empty bottle on the floor of the closet. Cabin service was OK, but not great. Room was not made up until mid-afternoon on some days. There was an ice bucket, but no pitcher of water and while the ice bucket was kept filled we were unable to get a pitcher of water to keep in the room. Dining Room. Very erratic. After eating in main dining rooms (both of them) for dinner, we found it took so long, and service was erratic (things ordered not delivered), that we stopped eating in the dining rooms. Never tried breakfast or lunch there. Wait staff not particularly friendly. No assistant waiter or bar waiter -- one waiter seemed to be doing it all and only marginally effective. Place seemed severely understaffed. Specialty Restaurants: Cagney's Steakhouse. Went twice, great service both times. Mexican Restaurant OK on 2 visits. Jasmine Gardens started off poorly, but a different waiter took over and it was fine. Buffet. Service poor. People inside the service islands didn't seem to know much about what was being served! Didn't understand questions much of the time and when they did, didn't seem able to answer. Hard to get bar service in buffet dining area! Bars, Theater. Seemed OK.
FOOD. Second problem. Food quality was very good and presentation in the dining room was fine. However, selection seemed much too limited and repetitious. Normally, when I cruise, my problem is deciding among several enticing menu choices. On this cruise I was lucky to find one that I really wanted. The buffet (where we ate all breakfasts (good selection here), some lunches, and many dinners) had limited choices too. There was one service island with only Indian food -- I like Indian food, but there were the same 5 or 6 items every night of the 13 night cruise! Signs identifying the food items were often missing and the "counter" staff were not much help. Most "hot" dishes in the buffet were COLD. Food is normally one of our favorite things on a cruise -- not this one. You are forced to the specialty restaurants (overpriced) -- maybe that's the plan? One nice touch -- free espresso/cappuccino machines in the buffet area (when they worked).
OTHER SERVICES. Shore Excursions. Shore excursions I thought I had booked on the internet were not in the system. I was told that I had probably booked after the cut-off date, but the web site seemed to take everything OK and I had no clue. Was unable to book a few excursion I wanted (sold out). ALL EXCURSIONS were SERIOUSLY OVERPRICED! I'm used to some level of overpricing, but this seemed excessive. At one port (Belfast) I was able to book a local tour excursion with a company that was well reviewed (McCoombs) -- a bus ride to the Giant's Causeway and bus tour of Belfast (tailored to the requests of the passengers) for $60 each. We rode in a new full sized bus and had an excellent trip. A Giant's Causeway trip from NCL (without the city tour of Belfast) was $103. A private shuttle bus from port (South Queensferry) to Edinburgh (1 15-20min ride) was 5 GBP each way; NCL offered a roundtrip bus ride for $103! In Zeebrugge, Belgium there was a free shuttle to a RR station and a 2.50 Euro train ride to Bruges. NCL offered a bus ride there and back for $82 (admittedly more convenient, but why so much?). The shore excursion shopping "expert" seemed clueless and totally unhelpful. There were no shopping suggestions, and she did not seem to know much about any of the ports. Two days before arrival in South Queensferry I asked her about transportation to Edinburgh (the real destination for this port). She said she thought (but wasn't sure) there might be a private shuttle to town and very few cabs (after checking her reference book). She urged us to take the ship's bus service ($103!). The PA announcement on the morning of our stop there did mention the private shuttle service and give the price -- but if you were in your cabin you would never know. The "handouts" about each port were very limited in info generally and devoid of practical info like transportation.
Freestyle Daily (ship's newspaper). 90% boilerplate. Things of interest, buried and not readily noticeable. We ate at the Garden Cafe (Lido buffet) one night and as we were leaving saw a sign that it was closing early to prepare for the Chocoholic Buffet! A check of the previous day's paper showed one line buried in the list of food service mentioning the Chocoholic event (which was a reasonably impressive offering). On every other cruise I've been on the "show" buffet is heavily promoted -- not on this cruise. Shopping. So-so. Not as much selection as on other cruises.
Activities/Enrichment. Very little -- a major shortcoming. No local experts to talk about the ports, history, or anything. Most of what was offered seemed to be just commercials for various products/services for sale on board.
Entertainment. So-so. A few good acts, but nothing spectacular -- not as good as on previous cruises. Local Irish and later Scottish folklore shows were good. Second City comedy evenings in the Spinnaker Lounge were nice (I'm into that kind of thing) but very underattended. Good music and dancing in a few places.
THE SHIP: Nice wood paneling but less attractive furnishings in most venues. Very easy to get around and find things. Tendered at 2 ports; very efficiently handled. Good mixture of passengers by age and nationality. Seemed to be lots of children and teenagers, but they did not get in the way. Weather and shore excursions kept us off the pool deck which seemed nice and the 2 pools seemed usable. Ship's crew seemed lackluster and unmotivated in general. Maybe the relative "newness" of the ship is the issue?
THE ITINERARY: Very good, but busy - only 2 sea days and they were too close together but that's the fault of geography, not NCL. Little good detailed practical info on the ports. That's probably because this is a little run itinerary.
OVERALL. Not a disaster by any means, but clearly not up to what I've come to expect from the large mid category cruise lines. Prior to this cruise, NCL was in fact my favorite. Now I'm not so sure -- I hope it's just the Jade that's below standard.