The May 31, 2009 NCL British Isles 13 night cruise to 10 ports was "hit or miss". The unique collection of ports in 6 countries was superb. The ship itself was somewhat mediocre in terms of food, ship maintenance/cleanliness and entertainment. We also gave it poor marks for giving out very little to no information about each of the ports. Requests for info from the Purser or Tour desk yielded virtually no info. They could not even give definitive info about whether buses to get to cities would be provided. You definitely needed to do research before boarding the ship to get a better understanding of transportation options at the port. Fortunately, several of the ports had their own people at the port to help give directions, maps. We chose the Jade after sailing last year on Jewel to Russia and Nordic spots. The Jade is a duplicate in terms of layout, but decorations, food, shows were not as good as the Jewel. We ended up booking only three weeks before sailing since NCL dropped the price dramatically and the route had spots we had never visited ( Le Havre[Normandy], Falmouth UK; Cork/Dublin/Belfast - Ireland; Glasgow/Inverness/Edinburgh- Scotland; Amsterdam- Holland; Bruges-Belgium. We flew from Philly to Birmingham UK ( on a new route for US Air that offered an economical choice to Heathrow.) Took the Southwest train to Southampton ( 2 hours 25 min.) where we stayed the night before embarking at the Novotel which is only a stone's throw from the train and bus stations .... but far enough to require a 5 b.p.s taxi. Hotel @ 69 b.p.s was ok, nothing special, but it did include a very nice buffet breakfast, Another short cab ride to the port, the next day, and we embarked effortlessly in just 30 minutes. Debarkation was also a snap. NCL has perfected both processes.
This ship asked guests not to go their room until 2 pm, so we ate at the formal dining room - Grand Pacific to kill time. Muster drill like no other we experienced, long and complex and held in the Stardust theatre which is very tight and cramped. They had us put on our life jackets while sitting in the very narrow seats... not exactly the best place to have a drill.The muster process lasted a very long time.
The ship accommodated the cruise critic group "meet and greet" that night, by offering some reserved tables in the Grand Pacific. We met with several people we had communicated with on-line and it was good to reconfirm some of the shared private excursions we committed to prior to sailing.
Food: With alternative and anytime dining, it is hard to get bored given all the options. The two main dining rooms - Grand Pacific (aft - formal dining room) and Alizar (mid-ship, supper club type of atmosphere) serve the usual fare which was sometimes good and many times not. Starters ok; soups very good; salads poor. Entrees mostly mediocre and desserts really mediocre. Breads were always good and the capuccino ( no charge) is good as well). The infamous lobster night was not held until the seventh night and instead of offering it as a full tail, they gave one-half tail and served it with grouper ... ugh. The second half of the tail was offered three nights later in a concoction of cream sauce over pasta with shrimp and scallops. Not good either.
We dined in two of the alternative dining rooms for an additional fee: Le Bistro ( ate between 6 pm and 7 pm so it is half the $15 p.p. additional fee). Had a great lobster bisque and perhaps the best Rack of Lamb ever. Towards the end of the trip we ate at Cagney's and had a dismal meal - prime rib ordered rare came well done the first time and medium the second time. The server just couldn't be upfront about not having rare cut of beef available. At $25 per head, this dinner was a major disappointment.
The food in the Garden Cafe on deck 12, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, buffet-style , was the worst we have had on any ship in terms of taste, quality and variety.While the layout and availability of the food is good, avoiding long lines, there is truly not enough seating and it was a struggle in the mornings to get two seats to be able to eat breakfast. Worse yet, no trays are used so guests have to juggle carrying a plate and beverage to tables. Not good for seniors. To the ship's credit, the crew does a great job of picking up the dirty plates, cleaning the tables to help compensate for the dire lack of seating.
There was a chocolate buffet towards the end of the cruise, late in the evening. While everything looked great, wonderful decorations, the confectionaries lacked that good old choco taste. We nibbled a little, but left soon after arriving.
One of low key, bright spots of dining is the small Blue Lagoon restaurant on the 8th floor which is open 24 hours a day and serves North American "comfort "foods from noon on. Buffalo Wings, Nachos, Artichoke Dip, Potato Skins, Mac N' Cheese, Fish and Chips, Cheeseburgers, Panini Sandwiches and warm brownie with ice cream and chocolate sauce were appreciated, As the trip went on, more and more people used this little gem, perhaps because the food at the Garden Cafe was so disappointing.
Entertainment was mixed. A ventriloquist and tenor on the first night out were repeated the next two nights. It was six nights before we had a major show. We had three major shows in all and each were very good, though not as lavish as on other ships. Stardust Theatre has a very small stage and not accommodating of big sets. There was a great Russian Violinist, who we saw on the Jewel, several comedians, a magician and a few other acts. Altogether, it was not the same show experience we have had on other lines. Worse yet, the theatre is so small and tight ( seats very uncomfortable ), and you have to get up every time someone wants to get to the center of rows. This theatre design is a major goof on both the Jewel and the Jade, making it almost impossible to serve drinks.
This ship has two nice-sized salt water pools on deck 12, which didn't get much use because the large amount of ports visited and the lack of cooperation of weather on the two sea days.
10 of the 13 days were absolutley beautiful - with only three days of rain, and unfortunately two of them were the only sea days we had. Everywhere we went, people commented on how lucky we were with the weather as it was supposed to be rainy and cold. We figured that is why no other ships offer this route, and why NCL only does this route only once in the spring. It is a shame because it was a great collection of ports. The North Sea and the Atlantic were very smooth and we had no vibration in the assigned balcony room (10030) in the front of the ship.
We did not buy any of the ships tours as we found them way over-priced and not offering as much as we could get on our own with private tours. For five of the ports we pre-bought from Viator online tix to the HopOn/HopOff buses ( in US dollars which ended up being several dollars cheaper than what was charged at each city. The vouchers I printed were easily traded for bus tickets right before boarding each bus.
LeHavre Nomandy - We joined another couple we met on cruisecritic.com and rented a car right at the port ( with a gps ) for 105 euros and drove an hour and one-half to Arromances ( Allied troops landing ); Bayeaux ( saw remainging 4 German bunkers); and the absolutely beautiful American Cemetary on Omaha Beach. We ate lunch at what lloked like a charming little hotel and restaurant at the entrance to the American Cemetary. Unfortunatley the food was terrible and vey expensive. Avoid it. As it turns out the 65th D-Day Celebration with attendees such as Barack Obama was just a few days later. This experience was the highlight of the whole cruise for us. Something we will never forget. On the way back we stopped in the delightful French seaside town of Honfleur, with its cafes, and shops, but it was so busy since it was a holiday, we could not find a parking place so we drove back to the ship, a little disappointed we could not savour the town.
Falmouth UK: This is a tender port and tendering was not well done. We waited 65 minutes to get on a tender after we picked up the required tickets. Falmouth is a charming little seaport town with many, many shops. We just walked the streets and tried the famous Cornish Pasties which were very good and very reasonably priced.
Ireland: Cork, Dublin, Belfast ( we did the Hop On/Hop Off buses). We bought tix for these and other cities online from Viator which worked out well, as we saved quite a bit over the rate charged on site. For us, Belfast was the most impressive and had the most interesting blend of architecture.
Scotland: In Glasgow and Edinburgh we did the Ho/Ho's and used the bus supplied by the city to get into Glasgow and another tender to the port area to pick up a cab we would share with another couple to get to Edinburgh ( whose train at the port is in a very poor location; many uphill steps, walking in between a lot of bushes on a narrow path). Edinburgh is a fantastic city. Much construction in Glasgow made the city a little harder to traverse. For Inverness we chose a private tour with Ocean Links Golf and Tours. There were 6 of us on the large mini bus and we had a full eight hour tour which included Dunrobin Castle ( with a wonderful Falconry display); Dornoch cathedral ( where Madonna's son was baptized), views of many other Casles; Shins Falls where salmon try to swim upstream and many other inland drives. Our tour guide, Mrs. Pat Murray, a retired school teacher, did a fabulous job giving many details about the area. This tour was 55 euros p.p, and cheaper than the ship's tours.
Holland: For Amsterdam, our favorite city of the whole tour, we took the trolley #25 just outside of the major port terminal into the Central Train station and walked across the street to the water to pickup the HopOn/HopOff canal boat. We rode two of the three lines ( red and blue ) and were dazzled by the buildings, architecture and beauty of this city. We also walked around a lot and even took a quick tour of the Red LIght district. After viewing a few windows with "not so pretty maidens", we did some local shopping and had some delicious fries which everyone seemed be eating. What we didn't realize until the end of the day is that the Blue Line Canal boat drops you right back at the port's passenger terminal, which saved us from having to buy trolley tix.
Belgium: Our final port was Zeebrugge. We opted to go Bruges and shared a 45 euro minibus with four other couples. This saved us from having to get a bus to the Strand train station and then a train to Bruge. Our bus dropped us off at the Central Market Square, where most touring of this brillant gem of a city emanates from. We got picked up several hours later by the same taxi for the return 25 minute drive to our ship. Walking is the best way to view this medieval city which has lovely well kept buildings, many of which date back to the 1500 and 1600's. Two blocks from the market square we caught a canal boat and took the 30 minute boat ride through many of the city's back canals. Canal ride costs 6.7 euros.There were many horse and carriages available for hire right at the Market Square. There was also a local fish market around the corner from the square which looked interesting. Many nice shops offering lace and embroidered items. Unfortunately since we were disembarking the next day and had to sail back to Southampton, the ship cuts the Zeebrugges stop short, asking guests to be back for 4 pm sailing. This was one of those charming ports that you definitely want to come back and stay in.
While the food, entertainment and some other serivices were lacking, we still had a great time, because NCL created a port ine-up like no other cruise line. Everyone we came in contact with on the ship echoed the same comment ... "what a great set of ports".