My husband and I cruised for the first time in April this year on the Thomson Spirit. It was our honeymoon and we booked this particular cruise because of the itinerary. Very few cruise lines seem to include the holy land in their itinerary, so for the ports of call alone - Limassol, Latakia, Alexandria, Port Said, Ashdod, Limassol - this cruise has to be given bonus points.
Unfortunately, however, I have very mixed feelings on the holiday as a whole. It started off bad with the flight to Paphos uncomfortable. Trying to find a Thomson representative and/or our coach was chaotic, and when we finally were shown which coach we'd been allocated to, the coach driver refused to let us on, saying his coach was too full! So it was two rather tired and crabby honeymooners that eventually arrived at the ship, much later than anticipated. It took rather a long time to embark but I was impressed on entering the ship itself with the big line of cabin stewards waiting to greet us and take our luggage.
It was about 11pm when we finally got into our cabin (the ship was supposed to leave at 10pm so we were already a hour behind departure time). We were disappointed to see in our 'Cruise News' that we had missed the introductory tour round the ship, the first show in the Broadway show lounge and the start of a deck party that was going on outside. I was also disappointed to find that we had missed the booking deadline for excursions at our first port of call. Being cruising first-timers, we didn't realize - and were not told by our (Thomson) travel agent - that it is advisable to book excursions in advance.
On the whole I was very impressed with the standards on the ship. The cabin was very comfortable and immaculately kept by our personal cabin steward, Ganesh, who was very attentive to our requests. The only complaint that my husband had about the cabin was the fact that he had to tune in the TV himself, and after the first night the only channel we had was CNN.
As for the rest of the ship, we found enough to amuse ourselves for the first couple of days, but after this there just wasn't enough to keep us entertained. The nightly shows in the Broadway show lounge may have been other people's cup of tea, but not really ours. Raffles bar and casino was very pleasant, and had a very talented pianist and singer who it was a pleasure to listen to. High Spirits bar, which on paper looked to be more our thing, was more like High Tedium - it always seemed to be half empty and the 'gameshows' and 'quizzes' that were held there in the evenings were more suited to a Butlins holiday camp than a cruise ship. We went on the first evening expecting something like a pub quiz, but instead people were offered 500 bonus points for doing a can-can or other ridiculous things like that.
Apart from the day at sea, there was precious little to do on board during the day. High Spirits was dead, the shops were closed, the cinema usually was showing something other than that advertised in Cruise News, and there were no activities to take part in. The shops in fact only opened at the strangest times - sometimes not till 11pm at night - and this was not very handy if you needed to buy a packet of paracetamol or something like that.
We had one formal evening - the Captain's Cocktail Party. Having never cruised before, I obviously didn't know what exactly to expect but had imagined it to be an actual party with music and dancing and cocktails! Wrong. We had to stand in a queue for the best part of hour to get our photo taken and eventually be introduced to the Captain and have our photo taken again with him. After that we were shown to a seat in the show lounge where we had the dubious pleasure of listening to a 10 minute speech from the Captain and his staff before dinner.
As for the dining itself, I certainly can't criticize the food, the choice or the service. I was a bit worried about what the food on the ship would be like as I'm not a very adventurous eater - but I found the choices available in the Lido Restaurant (the self-service buffet restaurant where we ate most nights) were enough to satisfy even me. If there was nothing I fancied we could always go back after 11pm when the late night buffet started and there would be a change of menu. The restaurant was open 24 hours so you could never go hungry.
We did try the Compass Rose dining room one evening, which we didn't really like because you are shown to a table with 6 strangers who we had nothing in common with. In both restaurants, however, the service was second to none - the waiters are so polite and courteous, and as with the bar staff and very funny too and actually were a lot more entertaining than the entertainment staff!
The reception staff were not as efficient however. On the crossing to Ashdod I felt very seasick and went to reception, where it said in our welcome pack you could get tablets to help. The girl there just looked at me as if she didn't know what I was talking about, then after some muttering with another member of staff they said that they didn't have anything and the medical room was locked up but they would get someone to open it up, and would bring the tablets to our cabin. I'm still waiting!! It certainly was not encouraging to see how little concern they took in their passengers' welfare.
We had further trouble with reception when not once, but twice we got a letter through our cabin door asking us to go there with our credit card because our mid-week payment for our on-board account wouldn't go through. This turned out to be because they'd taken down the wrong card number not just once, but twice!
The reception/admin staff let themselves down yet again when we arrived in Ashdod. Israeli authorities have to meet each person on the ship individually to check their passports and 'ok' them to go ashore - even those not intending to go ashore. We were booked on a full day excursion to Jerusalem so we were called down fairly early to be checked. The customs official checking my passport looked me up and down suspiciously and asked me to take a seat in a waiting area, and put my passport on top of a big pile of ones to be rechecked. The number of people joining the waiting area grew and grew, yet the Israeli officials just kept adding more passports to the top of the pile so that none were actually being dealt with. It turned out that on the list of passenger details Thomson had supplied them with, which they were cross-referencing with passports, Thomson had my sex down as male and had mixed up my date of birth with my husbands! After over an hour of waiting we were getting extremely angry, but Thomson said they could not do anything to hurry the officials up because it was nothing to do with them - but of course if Thomson had taken down the details from our passports properly in the first place, there would have been no mistakes that the officials needed to check out!
Eventually we did get to board the coach and we were on our way to Jerusalem. Our guide was very knowledgeable and very entertaining - however, the sites we visited were so busy and he didn't use a microphone like we noticed other guides doing, so unless you were standing next to him you couldn't really hear anything. We also felt very, very hurried - our walk up the Via Del a Rosa was so rushed that we had no opportunity at all to look at anything, or take any photos, or buy any souvenirs. When we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was the site I had particularly wanted to see, we were only given 10 minutes to look inside, so it was impossible to take anything in because it was so, so busy.
In the afternoon we continued on into Bethlehem for lunch and to see the Church of the Nativity. We were all very surprised when our guide announced that as he was not a Palestinian, and Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory, that he could not cross the border with us! And with that he jumped off the bus, and left us with the coach driver who spoke no English. The border itself looked like the Berlin wall and was guarded by soldiers (who came onto the coach - guns n' all - to inspect us on our way out), and we carried on through into the town of Bethlehem where the coach stopped outside a hotel. We assumed this was where we were due to have lunch and the driver did motion us to go in there, so in we went.
The lunch itself looked completely inedible - certainly everyone at our table looked with the same surprise at the dish that was in front of us, nobody seeming to have any idea what it actually was! Being a picky eater, I couldn't eat a thing, so my husband and I didn't stay at the table long and went outside hoping to get back on the bus. It was locked, so we stood for a while on the street waiting for our group to rejoin us - while Palestinians across the road were looking at us suspiciously, and a young child went past with her mother and laughed at us as if she'd never seen tourists before!
Back on the road, the coach drove on for a bit and then went into a multistory car-park where the driver again motioned for us to get off. By this time I was feeling quite anxious being in a strange place, not knowing where we were supposed to go or what we were supposed to do and with no-one with us who spoke our language. The group of us found our way up a hill to the Church of the Nativity, where we tagged onto another Thomson group but of course with so many people and only one guide, nobody could hear anything she was saying so we just had to have a look around the church ourselves.
All in all, it was an extremely tiring day and when we finally arrived back at the ship, Israeli customs had to recheck our passports before letting us back on - and of course we had the same problem as we had that morning, and so more waiting was involved.
I should say a word or two at this point about the other ports of call/excursions. Latakia we gave a miss as we couldn't get booked on an excursion and didn't fancy going it alone. Our next port of call was Alexandria, and as we weren't going on one of the excursions we thought we'd have a wander out ourselves. From the ship, Alexandria looked absolutely beautiful - the port area itself having stunning views. But as soon as we stepped off the gangway we were immediately hounded by street vendors and taxi drivers. As it was our first visit to Egypt, this was the first time we'd experienced this, and I really had no idea how unpleasant these people are. We ended up just getting past the 'Welcome to Alexandria' sign, when we inadvertently turned into a side street in an attempt to avoid an adamant cab driver and we had apparently walked into one of the city's slums with heaps of rubbish and horse crap lining the street. It was enough to make us turn on our heels and flee back to the safety of the ship!! Other passengers seemed to enjoy their day at Alexandria very much so if you are on an organized tour it may well be an interesting place to visit, but I certainly would NOT recommend going it alone.
Our next port of call was Port Said for Cairo. It was a very long journey into Cairo - about 4 or 5 hours I think. The guide on the coach was very interesting and informative though. We did the Pyramids and Tombs tour, and the sites we visited were very interesting but again, as with Alexandria, you couldn't move an inch but you were face to face with yet another vendor. The pyramids truly are a stunning sight to see, but it is spoiled by the fact there are so many vendors there who won't leave you alone. Stand in one place for more than two seconds and someone else is upon you! I could barely even take photos - I was trying to get a shot of the great pyramid when a man on a camel walked into the shot, and then wanted money because I'd taken a picture of his camel!!
One other thing about the excursions to Cairo that is that every single one involves a stop at the Papyrus museum and souvenir shop. The guide takes orders for personal cartouches which she phones into the shop so they are ready for you to collect. On the one hand, it's quite good to be given the chance to buy souvenirs from a proper shop and not have to deal with the street vendors, but on the other hand I don't think it's very ethical of Thomson to be trying to force these items on you because you do feel almost obliged to buy something. Clearly, since the shop is part of every excursion to Cairo, Thomson must make quite a good commission from this.
I have already talked about Jerusalem. The port of Ashdod itself is not much to talk about - it is really an industrial port with no nice views, just lots of freight containers and warehouses. There is however a free shuttlebus that takes you into the city where there is big shopping centre. We did venture there on our second day at Ashdod, but didn't buy anything because we had no local currency. This was the second thing that we felt had not been properly explained to us by our travel agent - he had told us that we didn't have to order any local currency from them before we left the UK because there was a bureau de change on the ship. He also said that it would however be handy to have a few euros just in case. We were disappointed to find that actually you could only get euros or dollars on the ship, so there was no chance of us getting any shekels! We also found that dollars are more handy to have in these countries than our euros, which were pretty useless.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about our cruise on the Thomson Spirit. While it was a great itinerary, I felt the excursions could have been a lot better organized and the destination services staff a lot more on the ball. The standard of service by housekeeping, bar and waiting staff however was impeccable, the cabin clean and comfortable and a good choice of food that was well-prepared. My expectations were not quite met entertainment-wise, and in fact the lack of entertainment spoiled the holiday completely for my husband, who hated it from start to finish - he says the only good thing about the holiday was the in-cabin movie King of Kong!
Personally, I am not put off cruising and want to give it another go. I think perhaps that maybe the ship was the wrong ship for a young couple, so I've finally convinced my husband that another cruise-line might be a whole different experience for him and we're now looking at larger ships where there is more to do on-board.