Norwegian Jade Cruise Review by ToldYaSo: Getting the most out of your Eastern Med cruise
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Getting the most out of your Eastern Med cruise
On this cruise from Istanbul to Athens it was just my wife and I. As we wanted to get the most out of our cruise we thoroughly researched both the Jade and our port itinerary before sailing. By doing so I truly think we were able to optimize our NCL cruise experience in as much as it was possible to do so. Throughout the review I will try to consolidate what we learned from earlier reviews along with our own live experiences so that those of you taking this trip in the months to come can also get as much value out of your cruise as we did.
SHIP - The Jade still retains its bold Hawaiian theme throughout and management gave us no hint that they are planning to change that anytime soon. The wild colors used in many of the public spaces onboard may remind some cruisers of Las Vegas. When NCL does eventually update the Jade we personally hope they do so with a more elegant, understated design and also choose one that is geographically neutral. Overall the ship looks and feels More exactly its age at about 5 years old... not the newest, but also not old yet by any means.
CABIN - We booked a standard cabin with outside window view. Unfortunately, our window was quite dirty with sea spray when we first boarded in Istanbul and was not cleaned until mid-cruise in Iraklion. Overall we found the cabin to be adequate as a floating hotel. Cabin service by our stewards was both consistent and friendly throughout the cruise.
The shower had sufficient water flow and consistent temperature. We counted three available US power sockets in the cabin including the one the coffee machine is attached to which was sufficient for our camera chargers, etc. There was also plenty of space to store our empty luggage between the wall and bed.
A definite negative, however, is the toilet placement. It was so poorly situated inside the tiny bathroom area that it was literally impossible to sit on it at anything other than an angle. TV channel service was also very limited. We were only able to get Fox News, a handful of foreign language stations, and a lot of constantly repeating NCL promotional channels. The reason given by the Jade for this was that the satellite signal in this part of the world is limited to those few channels, but in this day and age I'm personally a bit skeptical about that.
CABIN TIPS: Bring along some extra wire hangers and a travel alarm clock as you'll likely want more hangers and the ability to set your wake up time on this cruise. You might also want to bring along a couple of bars of soap and your own bottle of shampoo as the Jade only provides liquid soap & shampoo dispensers in the bathroom. There is also no mouthwash provided, but if you don't want to pack your own you can buy a very small bottle of it for $7.25 in the gift shop. There are no self-serve Laundromats onboard anymore, so either bring two weeks worth of clothing or be prepared to pay hotel laundry rates for the Jade to do it for you.
FOOD - We are both early diners so we personally never faced a wait to be seated at 5:30pm when the restaurants first opened. However, we did notice long waiting lines at virtually all of the free restaurants between 7pm to 9pm. Cover-charge restaurants always seemed to have plenty of seating capacity and a few, like the Teppanyaki, went empty most of the cruise.
We ate our dinners in the Grand Pacific and Alizar, the free dining rooms that some of our fellow passengers had jokingly renamed as "Grand Pathetic" and "AllisSubPar". The food here was certainly edible but don't expect commercial restaurant dining quality. It clearly falls into the mass produced food category and the entrEes are quite similar in quality to an average catered wedding dinner. There was only one meal, the Teriyaki stir-fried beef at the Alizar, that I could honestly say was delicious. Everything else generally looked much better on the menu and plate than it actually tasted. Although the service was not necessarily the fastest in the world, it was always friendly and we made a point to have fun with our waiters.
For breakfasts and the occasional lunch we primarily used the Garden Cafe buffet. Not only was this much faster than going to a restaurant, but we found it also was the only way for us to get enough daily vegetable and green salad. This is because the meals in the restaurants tend to be heavy on starches but lean on veggie (unless two asparagus sticks leaning against your dinner entree qualifies as sufficient veggie these days). In any case, the Garden Cafe offered enough fresh greens albeit prepared largely the same way every day.
Ice tea, water, orange juice, tea and coffee are all available at the buffet beverage stations. Sadly, NCL does not brew coffee in advance for you. Instead they make you refill your own tiny cup at one of three automated coffee machines located in the Garden Cafe. Unfortunately that's hardly efficient because these are very slow and take numerous button presses just to fill up a small cup. Consequently there is often a line for them. A nicer touch would be for NCL to provide a roaming coffee service.
DINING ROOM TIPS - If you are not either an early or late diner, make dinner reservations for the restaurant you want as early as possible every day as the Jade only allows 50% of the restaurant to be reserved in advance. On the "at sea" days reservations fill up especially fast. Otherwise be prepared to wait 15-30 minutes just to be seated. Be sure to eat as early as possible on the nights you want to catch the first show of the evening because serving times onboard are slower than at a commercial restaurant. A meal that normally takes 45 minutes onshore can take a full 30 minutes longer here.
BUFFET TIPS - If you are a big coffee drinker consider packing a lightweight coffee mug along for the cruise so you can fill a proper sized cup. We brought our own and were told by numerous coffee junkies like us what a good idea that was. Be advised, however, this tip only works for half the cruise because after visiting Egypt the buffet method will switch from self-serve to the crew serving you from the buffet stations.
ENTERTAINMENT - We only had time to see Smokey Joe's Cafe, Showdown LIVE!, the Jade crew show, comedian Tony Stevens, and magic with Tim & Tom. We also sat through part of a Second City improvisation. As a point of reference if you consider Broadway show quality as "A" level and high school productions as "E" level, then the entertainment onboard would be generally fall in either the "C" or "D" category. They were professional performances to be sure, but generally we found ourselves clapping politely rather than enthusiastically.
Let's discuss the production shows first. These are staged by a fair group of singers accompanied by a pretty good live band. Although they can all sing in tune, there are clearly no undiscovered pop stars among the performers. And to put it gently, many of the singers could also afford to spend a little more time at the gym than at the buffet. The female performers in particular look like they had all developed a serious "cruise body," you know, the type that has no waist curve.
But what about the shows? Despite its name Showdown LIVE! was actually just a scripted and uninspired "American Idol" style plot that simply rotated through a standard set of 60's songs. Smokey Joe's Cafe dispensed with having a plot altogether and seemed little more than just a Cafe stage set used to take the same singers through a similar list of songs. Since the music selections here were chosen to appeal to older audiences your entertainment mileage will vary by your age. The only show we personally enjoyed was the talent show put on by the Jade crew. The guitarist who played "Samba Pa Ti," the female juggler, and the "Fountains" skit all stood out in particular. If you decide to catch only one show, this is the one to see.
Next, we have the stage acts. Although I found the comedian Tony Stevens mildly humorous to watch, it was merely chuckle-worthy but not laugh-out-loud funny. As far as magic, Tim & Tom were easily the most "flamboyant" magicians we've ever seen, but the magic tricks themselves seemed routine and unambitious.
We both like improvisational comedy and count the Canadian comedy troupe "The Kids in the Hall" among our favorite comedians. Since Second City also hails from Canada we had high hopes for them as well. The troupe started their show on the Jade with a few stock skits whose punch lines were largely groaners. Perhaps it was just old material we wondered? Unfortunately our fears were confirmed when they decided to do a live improv with the audience. A female improvisationist chose two people in the first row as her "Mom" and "Dad" and tried desperately to come up with funny dialogue in between throwing a football back and forth to them. In a revealing twist the two audience members themselves proved to be much funnier than the Second City girl running the improv. At this point we realized that the only talent SC can afford to send onboard cruise ships must be their third and fourth string players.
ACTIVITIES - In addition to formal entertainment the Jade also had the standard cruise leisure activities some free and some not. For example, the darts in the Spinnaker Lounge were free but the pool table next to them was not. Similarly the Wii video game rooms were free but the arcade games were not. These kinds of activities should all be free in our view. Given the tiny profit that they could possibly generate for the ship, why would NCL want to risk having bored passengers onboard or be thought of as a nickel-and-dime cruise line? Some of the activity hardware clearly needed attention. The sole ping-pong table onboard was oddly placed on a slant and next to a water drain that had deadened the ping-pong balls floating in it. The two dart boards on the Jade only had three measly darts between them both. Surely darts can't be that expensive or impossible to find in the next port of call. And on a ship made to hold thousands there really ought to be more than one pool table aboard.
EMBARKATION - We decided to fly into Istanbul the day before the start of the cruise and so arrived Sunday evening. US citizens can get their Turkish visa upon arrival for $20 cash by stopping at the visa window right before passport control. Interestingly the Turkish Currency Exchange window was still in operation at 11PM on Sunday night and offered better conversion rates than those we saw in the US. Since it was very late at night we simply grabbed a taxi to the Hilton in the Beyoglu district which turned out to be ideal as it was very close to the port area. We checked out in the late morning and took a 5-minute taxi drive to the port arriving at the Jade slightly before noon.
NCL had been vague on which pier in Istanbul the Jade would be docked at saying only it would be either the Salipazari or Karakoy pier in the Beyoglu district. Well which one exactly, NCL? Fortunately we had spotted the Jade from the taxi as we rode in from the airport the night before and so were able to manually direct our taxi driver to the correct pier the next morning. In the end I think it was the Salpazari pier because we were docked well north of the Galata bridge where Karakoy starts... but who knows.
In any case it took only 30 minutes after arriving at the terminal to check in our luggage, clear security, get our ID cards, and get onboard. You have to surrender your passport to NCL upon check in and they hold onto it until the day before arriving in Egypt. We immediately headed for lunch at the Grand Pacific. By 2pm our cabin was ready so we quickly checked it out and then prepared to go sight-seeing in Istanbul. Overall I would rate embarkation procedures for the Jade as very well done.
PORT OF ISTANBUL - We had already decided earlier to see Istanbul on our own but this proved to be even easier than we imagined. This is because all the important tourist sights are concentrated right next to each other in the heart of the city and connected to the port via an inexpensive tram. To get to the nearest tram station simply walk outside of the port entrance up to the main road and take a left. A few blocks down you will see a Tram station in the center of the road by which a tram runs directly into town every 20 minutes or so. A one way ticket was only 1.60 Turkish Lira making further taxi service in Istanbul unnecessary.
The Haghia Sophia mosque it is not open on Mondays but as we arrived in the mid-afternoon the lighting was perfect at that time of day for photographing it from afar. We started our solo tour by visiting the inside of Blue Mosque instead which sits just across the street from the Haghia Sophia. The history of the mosques was well covered in our tour book and we never felt ourselves at a loss without a tour guide. Next we walked over to see the obelisks standing in the old Hippodrome area alongside the Blue Mosque. Then it was off to see the Topkapi Palace and finally a visit to the underground Basilica Cistern. The light was starting to fade after we finished the cisterns so we caught the tram back to the ship in time for dinner and got ourselves to bed early that night as we were still a bit jet-lagged.
The following morning we jumped on the tram again to head back into the city. First we got great photos of the Blue Mosque which is always best lit in the mornings. Then we finally bought tickets to see the inside of the Haghia Sophia. Sadly we found it to be under some interior reconstruction with scaffolding that reached all the way to its highest dome, but even so it was still beautiful to behold. After taking our fill of pictures, we refueled with some simit bread from a local pastry shop and then jumped on the tram again to head further west to the Turkish Bazaar. The bazaar wasn't what we consider to be a must-see sight for Istanbul but with having to be back on board at by 2pm there was just the right amount of time to get there, walk through it leisurely, and sit down for a Turkish coffee. We returned to the port via the tram right on time.
PORT OF IZMIR - Izmir is unfortunately quite a distance from Ephesus, the principal archeological site to see. As there is no fast public transportation to and from Ephesus the only choice we had was to take either an NCL tour bus or private tour. In the end we had read good things on this forum about Ekol Travel and decided to book a private tour with them on a customized itinerary to see Ephesus, the Terrace Houses there, and the House of the Virgin Mary. We paid $120 per person which bought us a comfortable private van, private tour guide, and allowed us to see the Terrace Houses at Ephesus (which the NCL tours all missed). Because we custom defined our tour itinerary with Ekol we were also able to avoid being dragged to any tourist shopping stops.
With the beautiful restoration of its library, amphitheatre, and terrace houses, Ephesus is a must -see site that will make other ancient archeological sites on this cruise seem relatively unexcavated in comparison. We also found that it seeing it in person reinforced how much the Turkish coastline was a part of Mediterranean civilization in ancient times. Both of us also enjoyed the visit to the House of The Virgin Mary even though the historical certainty of this site obviously can't be archeologically proven.
PORT OF MYKONOS - This was our first tender port. For those unfamiliar with the term "tender" this means a port where the Jade is unable to dock at a connecting pier and must use ferry boats to get passengers ashore.
Our main objective was to see the ruins on the ancient island of Delos. Not being able to research options to get there in advance we decided to simply book the NCL tour for it. The only real advantage that gave us was the ability to get on one of the first tender boats into port... not so critical for this port because we were not scheduled to depart Mykonos until midnight. Once on Mykonos we were handed off to our tour guide who put us immediately onto the standard Delos ferry for a 20 minute ride to the historic island. After ten minutes on Delos we could see that our guide was going way too slow for us and so we went independent and saw everything else on the island for ourselves. This included climbing to the top of the mountain to see the spectacular views of Mykonos, something those who stuck with the tour guide missed out on completely. We rejoined the tour group at the port right on schedule and were brought back via ferry around noon to spend the rest of our day in Mykonos. Here is also where I saw one of the few generous acts extended by NCL to its passengers during the cruise... at the tender ship point they had setup an NCL tent with a free cold water station which provided a nice relief after hiking most of the morning.
In retrospect taking the NCL Tour of Delos turned out to be the only thing we would have done differently on this cruise. I would advise anyone wanting to see Delos on future NCL cruises to simply take the tender boat into Mykonos and once there buy a Delos ferry ticket. As soon as you get onto Delos go directly to the museum to get a free map and site guide. Then set out on foot to see what interests you. Touring the island solo can easily be done in 2-3 hours. We also noticed that another cruise line docking at Mykonos managed to shuttle their passengers directly to Delos via their own tender boats without going through Mykonos and feel that NCL should consider this service.
PORT OF SANTORINI - This was also a tender port. Santorini is actually one of the most picturesque Greek islands because of its spectacular views. On this short visit, however, we found it far too swamped with tourists from the three cruise ships in port that day to truly enjoy. Congestion is usually a problem anywhere on holiday, but Santorini has an additional bottleneck because steep cliffs separate the city from the port below. There is a cable car that connects the port to the city but it can't handle 3,000 cruise passengers all trying to get back to their ship at the same time. My only advice here is to get onto Santorini as early as possible in the morning and then be ready to head back earlier than necessary in the afternoon. Very long lines (800 meters+) start forming in the early afternoon for the cable car ride back down to the port. Carefully gauge how many cruise ships are in port to decide when you need to get in line. We found the Jade leaves port right on schedule and you usually have to be back one hour before departure.
PORT OF IRAKLION - The Palace of Knossos is the main thing to see in Iraklion and luckily there is convenient public transportation to get to it. A shuttle bus will take you from the ship to the terminal and from there you only need walk right past the taxi stand to eventually get out to the busy main road. Cross to the other side at the stoplight and take a right. After walking about 800 meters you will see a public bus terminal on the left. The ticket office for it is actually on the far outside of the building (not on the inside) and the ticket guy knows just enough English to sell you a ticket for Bus #2 to Knossos. I think it cost 2 Euros.
The Palace of Knossos itself is somewhat controversial because some feel it is too reconstructed with new materials to be true to the actual ruins, but the bold colors of the reconstructions made for some striking photos. Make sure to buy a combo ticket here for both the palace and the museum in town, it's cheaper than buying separate tickets. After touring the site solo for an hour or two we caught the same Bus #2 back into town. The bus driver was primed to let the tourists know which stop to get off on to see the Archeological Museum, but pay attention. The museum was less than 5 minutes walk from the stop. Unfortunately the bulk of it was closed for remodeling through the remainder of 2008 but they have wisely put their key Minoan exhibits on display in a small concentrated gallery. At least you will not feel like you missed out completely.
PORT OF ALEXANDRIA - NCL flew in an Egyptian immigration officer to join the ship in Iraklion which allowed him to stamp regular US passports with an entry visa wile en route to Egypt. The passports were then returned to us ready-to-go the day before arrival. Time in Egypt is severely limited so obviously the sights near Cairo have to trump anything to be seen in Alexandria. We chose to take our overnight excursion with De Castro Tours as at $215 per person (on a tour group of 6 other people from the Jade) as it was less than half the cost of the NCL overnight excursion.
On the first day we drove to Cairo and saw the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, and the Giza Sound & Light show. If there is time, try to get your tour guide to take you to the Giza observation point in the late afternoon. That is when the pyramids are best lit by the setting sun for photographs. I also have a recommendation for the Sound & Light show. Try to get there as early as possible so you can sit in the front row (or as close to the front as you can). The reason for this is that there is no stadium seating at the show and there will inevitably be plenty of idiots in front of you blocking your view with their raised cameras.
On the second day we visited the Giza pyramids first thing in the morning as the tickets to get inside the Pyramids are limited and sell out almost immediately after opening. Per day the Egyptians only sell 100 tickets for the Pyramid of Cheops and 300 for the Pyramid of Khafre. We were lucky to get tickets to go inside the Pyramid of Khafre and thought it was one of those once in a lifetime experiences that should not be missed. After that we saw the pyramids at Saqarra before returning to Alexandria. Overall I would say we had a definite advantage in being able to ride in a private air conditioned van that allowed for much more interaction with the tour guide. The only disadvantage was that we had a bit more driving to do because our hotel was the Novotel in the 6th Of October City instead of the Le Meridian directly at Giza.
PORT OF CORFU - Thanks to its strong Venetian influences this picturesque port is perhaps the most Western city of the Greek islands. There is just enough time in port to walk through the city, tour the forts, enjoy a nice lunch, and then make it back to the ship. Those who rented a car or took a tour to visit the deeper parts of the island did so only at the expense of enjoying the main city itself. For us it was certainly a relaxing stop.
PORT OF KATAKOLON - This port was specifically built for public transport to and from Olympia and has small train station within 10 minutes walking distance from the ship. Simply walk out of the port up to the main road that runs through Katakolon and then take a right. Once you get to the edge of the village look out for an inconspicuous yellow cottage alongside an empty track and wait there for the train. We took the 8:36AM train to Olympia and it got us there at 9:18AM. After spending more than enough time to tour the site we returned to the station to catch the 12:05PM which arrived back at Katakolon at 12:48PM. The total round trip cost per person was 3 Euros... hard to beat. A ticket into Olympia will cost you 6 Euros and the museum was 3 Euros.
DISEMBARKATION - The Jade arrived in Piraeus at 4AM. We had decided to hold onto our luggage overnight so we could self-disembark and get into Athens as early as possible. After a final breakfast in the Garden Cafe we rolled our baggage off the ship at 5 AM and tried to figure out where we were. It turns out that the Jade was docked at a far pier of Terminal B. This terminal had no taxi service so the port authority provided some free shuttle buses that were waiting right outside the ship to take passengers to Terminal A. Once there we grabbed a taxi for 15 Euros into the city. NCL had advertised a bus service into the same area of Athens for $25 per person so managing your own transfer can save you quite a bit.
ATHENS - As it was in Istanbul, all of the key sites in Athens are concentrated in the city center and can easily be toured in one full day's time. We had reservations to stay overnight at the Ledra Marriott in Athens before flying back to the US the next morning so that gave us the perfect amount of time. We were able to drop off our luggage at the Marriott by 6 AM and then took off after that to see the sights.
Our first stop was the Temple of Olympian Zeus followed in order by the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, the Roman Forum, and finally the Plaka. The Acropolis was an overall disappointment for us as it was wrapped on all four sides by scaffolding and hardly photogenic in that state. Perhaps even worse, it was unbelievably congested with other tourists despite the shoulder holiday season. It took nearly 15 minutes to get both into and out of the Acropolis as the entrance and exits were packed like sardines with visitors only able to move forward at a snail's pace. In retrospect the better plan is to get to the Acropolis first and as early as possible in order to beat the tour groups that inevitably swarm it by mid-morning.
IN SUMMARY - When it was all said and done, we obviously enjoyed our cruise. They key for us was to have the correct expectation of what we were buying before we ever went. We had read all the reviews for the Jade in advance and because of that we did not expect to see Broadway quality shows nor eat gourmet quality food. And when it turned out to be exactly like that, we were not surprised. Ultimately what we did get in spades, however, was the chance to see a large number of stunning archeological sites within a two week period. As such our main cruise goal was accomplished. Hopefully our review gives you more information to also get the most out of your future cruise. Good sailing! Less
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