I have only been on one other cruise (RCI Voyager of the Seas transatlantic Nov 2007) but had loved the experience so much that I was eager to go on another. This one seemed ideal as I live close to Barcelona. What better than a trip from home to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Malta ending up back on my doorstep - with not an aeroplane in sight?
My partner and I are in our late 30's / early 40's, enjoy sightseeing, good food, lots of booze, a mixture of music, comedy etc....Pretty undemanding.
Embarkation was very easy and smoothly managed by NCL. We made our way to our stateroom and within an hour of reaching the port were on our way to lunch in the buffet style Garden Cafe.
At first we were impressed by the ship. Whilst not on the grand scale of Voyager it seemed to have everything that we needed - 2 large(ish) pools, a water slide, 4 hot tubs, a gym and lots of bars and restaurants. The food for lunch was also good - fresh roast beef and a great array of salads as well as loads of extra options.
Now we faced the first problem - there seemed to be a shortage of seats in the buffet. Not to worry we thought, everyone heads here when they board, it won't be like this on the cruise. How wrong we were. There was rarely a free seat to be had!
After sailing we went back to our balcony stateroom. We were located towards the front of the ship on floor 10. The room was compact but big enough. It was slightly smaller than the equivalent on Voyager, but clean and comfortable. The bathroom was also a good size with a great shower. We decided to change and get ready for dinner.
We obviously knew that this was a freestyle cruise - which means no set time or place to eat dinner - but had no idea on the MAJOR difference this makes to the cruise experience. For the first night we decided to try the included Grand Pacific restaurant. This along with the Alizar makes up the 2 main dining rooms serving food that is included in the price of the cruise.
The set times and tables that RCI use meant that dinner every night was an event. A formal night was extra special and every one made an effort. the food was often made more luxurious, the atmosphere felt magical. We may have been lucky with our table in 2007, but dinner often lasted 2 hours or more. There was conversation about ports and friends were made. If you didn't want to be tied down there was a pay restaurant, a coffee shop and the buffet - so you could be "freestyle" there. Enforced Freestyle by NCL actually means a lack of choice (you have to pay if you want better food) and no special feeling at night.
Dinner becomes a necessary evil. The waiting staff in the inclusive restaurant want you out as there will be others waiting to eat, no bonds are built up with other diners as you usually don't see them again and there is no feeling of any night being special. NCL really just want you out in the bar (spending money) or in the pay restaurant (spending more money).
I can best describe the food in the Grand Pacific (and for that matter in the Alizar as they serve food from the same kitchen and have identical menus) as bland. I would say that it is the quality you would get at a fairly cheap wedding. The menu sounds great but the food that is delivered is merely edible. I did have one of the worst prawn cocktails I have ever had and also a very rubbery steak during the trip. No one dish springs to mind - which says a great deal. In contrast I can still remember the surf and turf, amazing soups and chicken dishes I had over a year ago on Voyager.
The service in the inclusive restaurants was very fast. Several times we were expected to order our 3 courses (although I often ordered 4) at once. As soon as we ordered, the 1st course would arrive and we would often be out in around 40 minutes. Ultra fast may be good for some people, but a relaxed meal for me on a cruise should be the centerpiece of the evening - not something to get out of the way.
Now to reference my title for this piece - the waiting staff often asked what I call NCL questions. These are questions that include the expected answer. They are not rhetorical - more an energy saving way for the customer to not have to think. So every night we'd be asked "Are you enjoying our excellent food?"
we also ate in several of the pay restaurants (Cagney's steakhouse / jasmine Garden - oriental / Papa's - Italian). With the exception of Papa's ($10 extra and almost the worst meal on the ship) these were all leagues better than the inclusive places. They were also nearly always empty whilst the inclusive restaurants always had around a 15 minute wait. A good 10% of ship public space (my estimate) is given over to these pay restaurants, that are barely used, hardly an effective use.
To remind us that the pay places are there NCL also have screens around the ship telling you what places are open for food and how busy they are. We learned fairly quickly that the bar has little relevance to how busy they really are and often went to the Grand Pacific when it showed as full to find it half empty. Surely NCL aren't trying to squeeze as much money out of you as they can?
The other eateries on board included the Blue Lagoon (comfort coffee shop food), The great outdoors (more buffet) Le Bistro (additional charge), Mexican (additional charge), teppanyaki (additional charge), Sushi bar (additional charge) and Shabu Shabu (additional charge). 2 of these towards the end of the cruise (the Blue Lagoon and the Jasmine Garden) had to change their menu as they had obviously run out of some items.
Overall I would rate the food as adequate if you pay every night. If not then it moves towards awful.
The number of bars the Jade claims is also deceptive. They claim around 12 bars however, 3 of the on deck bars were almost always closed, the art bar did not seem to exist and Mixers,The beer and Whiskey bar and the Champagne bar are effectively the same small area. that means the real number of bars comes in around 6. Of these 5 seemed to have a performer on almost constantly which left 1 quiet bar - open only in the evenings.
As we had relatively bad weather on the trip and were not enamored of the food we quickly got fed up with the same old bars and the constant noise as people played bingo, did quizzes or listed to some rather bad singers. As you can imagine we spent a lot of time in our stateroom watching TV!
The ports of call were all interesting. Rome was fun and easy to do yourself (a €9 train fare and €16 for the tourist bus) rather than pay over $120 to NCL for their option. We never made it to Athens as we hit a storm and were too late to get into port. Izmir in Turkey was great and the NCL tour of Ephesus was good value at $59.
Next stop was an overnight in Alexandria. we really wanted to see the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids in Cairo but thought the $500 per person price for an overnight trip with NCL was too much. So we did it ourselves. Egypt on your own was daunting but we managed the train journey, the pyramids,the museum, the sound and light show and the obligatory papyrus factory without incident. We were in a good hotel overnight (The Intercontinental Giza Pyramids Park) and it cost us approx $300 for both of us (a $700 saving!).
After Egypt the ship took on a darker Orwellian quality. They had been anally retentive about norvo virus since boarding, warning us to not shake hands, wash frequently and disinfecting our hands every chance they got, but after Egypt this was ratcheted up a notch. Now we could not even use tongs at the buffet or handle a ketchup bottle! Everything was served to us - so if the lines were not long enough before or your food not cold enough (I rarely managed to get a hot meal from the buffet) now it would be. This fuss went on all the way home. You could not even get yourself a cup of coffee!!!!
Next stop was Malta. It was lovely. Again we did it ourselves as the ship docks right in Valetta. The sun shone, the shops were open and I was allowed to act like an adult and squeeze my own ketchup. Marvellous!
On a positive note the entertainment on board was great and the singers in the main showroom (the Stardust theatre) excellent. They also had a comedy team (part of second city) who although not the best I have seen, worked really hard and had the occasional funny sketch.
The spa was lovely but at $20 a day just to use the sauna and steam - very expensive. There was a small steam room in the mens locker room for the gym, but it was unpleasant and not used.
The best views on the ship were reserved for those in suites or for people that paid for the spa. The plebs (ie: the rest of us that had just paid for the "basic" package had to make do with side views).
Overall I would say that the "Beautiful" Norwegian Jade (it was only ever referred to by crew this way) is great if you decide to pay extra for everything. If you hoped to just have a few extras (booze, the odd meal etc) then think again and go for a cruise line that treats you as a guest rather than a potentially bottomless pit of money that they intend to dredge until it is dry.