NORWEGIAN JEWEL BALTIC CRUISE
We just returned from a 12-night Baltic Cruise aboard Norwegian Jewel. This was our family's 9th cruise (4 on Norwegian, 3 on Royal Caribbean, and 1 each on Celebrity and Carnival). In our group we had 20 people traveling, 18 of whom "did the cruise together," and a mother and daughter who preferred to spend time alone outside the group. Of the 18 who hung out together, we had 2 grandparents in their early 80's, 7 seasoned adults (late 40's to early 60's traveling with their kids), 4 young adults in their early 20's (all single), and 5 teenagers between 14 and 17.
PRE-CRUISE: While it's possible to fly transatlantic overnight and make your way to Dover to board the ship in one Herculean effort, this didn't appeal to our group as we'd be starting the cruise exhausted. Instead, one family flew to London several days ahead to do some sightseeing, and the rest of us flew to London two days before the cruise. This gave us an overnight in London to collect our wits and start recovering from jet lag, and then we took the train to Dover and spent a night there before boarding the ship. TIP: We selected a hotel near Victoria Station in London to help reduce the friction factor of travel. Victoria Station is the collective melting pot for the Gatwick Express Train, the Heathrow Airport Coach, and the train to Dover. By staying at a hotel within easy walking distance of Victoria Station, we never had to worry about finding enough taxis to move a large group and their bags about town, nor did we have to haul our cruise luggage up and down stairs between platforms in the London Underground. The Tube is enormously convenient if you are traveling light, but it would be a nightmare to negotiate with large suitcases. Keep that in mind when you make your travel arrangements. There are several reasonably priced small hotels and guest houses near Victoria Station; contact me if you would like more information.
In Dover we stayed at the Churchill Hotel (managed by Best Western) which has the perfect location right down on the waterfront and which offered us a good price for a comfortable night's rest (beware of the sea gulls; our friends left their bedroom window open and went out to eat, then returned to discover a wily gull had apparently popped in and enjoyed unwrapping and eating their tea biscuits, leaving crumbs all over the bed!).
STATEROOMS: Norwegian Jewel is a beautiful ship; this was our second cruise on Jewel. We also sailed a 12-night Mediterranean Cruise on this ship in 2007. Our group was divided between interior and oceanview staterooms. The balcony cabins are a little larger, but we all managed in the smaller rooms which are cramped, but well designed with good storage space if you follow a couple simple rules. #1) Don't try to live out of your suitcase. Unpack as soon as your bags are delivered; put things away in the closet and drawers, then stash your suitcases under the bed. #2) Repack dirty clothes that you do not plan to wear again as you go instead of allowing them to pile up around your cabin. This will also make your packing at the end of the cruise a breeze because most of it will already be done. TIP: I bring Downy dewrinkler spray in travel sized bottles (available at Wal-Mart) to keep our clothes wrinkle-free, but on this cruise NCL was offering some very good discount prices to press clothes, so a couple of the guys got some of their shirts pressed - $2 per shirt I believe it was.
While the interior and oceanview rooms are on the cozy side, the bathroom design on NCL is better than most other ships in this class. The showers have a glass door (no icky shower curtain that sticks to you while allowing water all over the bathroom floor), and there is decent counter space for toiletries. A hairdryer is provided, and the electricity is wired for 110 small appliances. I believe there was a plug for 220 as well (please check on that to be sure).
FREESTYLE DINING: There are two main dining rooms with open seating for dinner (NCL's signature "Freestyle" Dining). Tsar's Palace is the larger and dressier of the two, while Azura is smaller and more informal, although guests are requested to not wear jeans or shorts at night (especially Tsar's Palace and the specialty restaurants). We found to our disappointment, however, that despite posting the dress code in the Freestyle Daily, the rules were not well enforced on this cruise (two years ago the dress code was enforced on Jewel, which made the dinners onboard more pleasant). Both main dining rooms serve the same menu on any given day. We made reservations for the first formal night (Tsar's Palace) and also for a surprise birthday party for my husband (Azura), but otherwise never had reservations in the main dining rooms, and never had to wait to be seated despite that we regularly had a sizable group eating together.
If I had one criticism of the main dining rooms, and I offer this reluctantly, it was that the service was slower and uneven on this cruise by comparison to two years ago. The exception was my husband's birthday party where the staff in Azura could not possibly have knocked themselves out more to make it a success. Otherwise it seemed as if the main dining rooms were a bit short staffed, and my hunch is that this is a cost savings measure on the part of the cruise line as they tough out the recession like the rest of us. We paid a little less for this cruise than we did for our 12-night cruise on the same ship exactly two years ago, and I don't know about you, but I am paying more these days for just about everything from gas to food at home compared to a couple of years back. The travel industry is trying very hard to weather the storm, and in the process they surely must be forced to cut a few corners here and there to stay afloat while offering folks like you and me a swell vacation, and doing it at a price cut. All in all the meals in the main dining rooms were delicious and the staff was both cordial and attentive.
Jewel also has a cafeteria style buffet, alfresco dining at the Great Outdoors, Blue Lagoon is open 24 hours a day for burgers, chicken fingers and fish and chips fare (the teenagers and twenty-somethings regularly went there for a "second supper" in the wee hours of the morning after dancing the night away at the disco), and a tapas bar that serves light fare if you are not especially hungry. These are all included in the price of your cruise. Additionally there are a number of specialty restaurants onboard, each with a modest cover charge: Mama's Kitchen Italian, Tango's TexMex, Chin Chin Asian with an adjacent Sushi Bar, Teppanyaki Japanese (like Benihana or Kanpai of Tokyo), Le Bistro French and Cagney's Steak House. We ate at both Le Bistro and Cagney's on this cruise and both were excellent. The doting service was measurably better than the main dining rooms, but of course, for a cover charge one expects better. On our 2007 cruise on Jewel we tried Tango's (immense burritos) and Mama's, the latter not being as splendid in our opinion as Impressions Italian restaurant on Norwegian Dawn. There are electronic boards throughout the ship that offer updates on seating availability so that in a pinch you can check to see which dining room or restaurants are full and which have room for your party. Two families in our group were able to make last minute reservations at Teppanyaki (one family even went twice!), which is often the hardest specialty restaurant to nab because of its small size and the "show" that goes along with dinner.
Breakfast and lunch are offered in a dining room (Tsar's Palace I believe?) but we preferred to eat at the Great Outdoors. There was always a substantial selection of tasty dishes available plus fresh fruits, made to order omelets at breakfast, and salads at lunch. We enjoyed The Great Outdoors, even if it was just for a cup of coffee or tea, taking in the fresh air and the passing sights. Freestyle Dining worked like a charm on this cruise.
TRAVELING WITH KIDS: Although we still have teenagers in our group, none of them used the teen center on this cruise as they are all "veteran cruisers" and have no trouble meeting others their age onboard. Having offered that caveat, Norwegian ships offer a marvelous staffed program for kids from toddlers through teens divided by age group. My own kids claim that they have enjoyed the best counselors on NCL ships. Note also that while most cruise lines start their little kids' program at 3 years old and potty trained, NCL has organized programs for 2-year olds where parents are given a beeper to be paged when needed for a diaper change (no staff on any cruise line can change diapers due to health regulations). All cruise lines end their teen program at age 17, which can often leave the 18-20 year old crowd in limbo ... they cannot participate in the teen activities, but they are also not allowed in the adult venues either. On most NCL ships (I believe the exceptions are Alaska and Hawaii where the ships remain in US waters) your 18-20 year olds are allowed to hang out in the adult disco and bars and if you sign a consent form, they are permitted to have beer and wine onboard (no hard alcohol). Perhaps we are lucky, but our kids in this age bracket have not abused this privilege and they have a terrific time joining in with the early 20's crowd dancing and going to the clubs at night.
NCL initiated a change in their booking policy on this cruise which caused considerable last minute heartburn for our group. In the past we have been able to book our kids in the cabins next door to the parents. We have sailed NCL for years and never had any trouble reserving 3 and 4 staterooms for a large family; in fact, this is one of the reasons we liked NCL. When I set up this group last November, that booking policy was still in place. When I went to pay all the final bills in April, however, I discovered the policy had changed, and now NCL is requiring all staterooms to have someone over 21 booked in each cabin (I was told that this has always been the policy, but I know for a fact that this is not the case as we are not newcomers to NCL). This new policy is a nightmare for large families because we need more than 2 staterooms for a family with only 2 parents over 21. In the end we had enough people in the group to shuffle folks around on paper, sometimes placing people who had never even met in the same cabin in order to show somebody over 21 in with each under 21 passenger (all involved were people we knew ahead of the cruise who agreed to this of course), but what if we had not had a surplus of older people in our group? Would we have had to cancel our cruise at the last minute? As it was, once onboard, it was like an episode from a Pink Panther spoof with people swapping rooms the first afternoon - crazy! I am hoping NCL will come to their senses and change back to their former policy (and change the online check-in which they have also monkeyed with, to the detriment of family travel). NCL is in every other way so well suited to families; it would be a shame to have to cross them off my list, giving all our business to Royal Caribbean and Celebrity (among others) who remain family-friendly in their booking policies.
ENTERTAINMENT: Norwegian has the best entertainment at sea, and Jewel was excellent both this year and back in 2007 too. We have seen superb magicians, jugglers, comedians, and singers in the main theater, plus they always have a quiet piano bar or guitarist (our cruise had both) playing in one bar or another throughout the evening. The pianist, Michael Chio, in particular was wonderful - nobody whispered a word over drinks when he played Phantom of the Opera. In addition to their main shows, often the entertainers put on a cabaret on another night in a smaller venue, such as a magician act doing a big, glitzy show one night in the theater, and then a more intimate sleight of hand cabaret for a smaller audience in a lounge another night.
The Jean Ann Ryan Company put on performances like you will see nowhere else at sea. Most cruise ships have competent Broadway / Las Vegas style reviews, but in my experience, not up to what you will see from the Jean Ann Ryan Company. On the 12-night cruise they put on two high energy shows with singing, dancing, and some gymnastics. But where they really shine is their cirques; on Jewel it's the Cirque Bijou. Gymnasts fly overhead, East European aerialists are exquisitely agile and graceful, and the singing and dancing are spectacular - everything from Latin to Bollywood to Irish Riverdance. Bravo! Norwegian Jewel also has its own show band onboard (no canned music for theater shows like on some ships). On our cruise we were delighted to discover the band was Rama 111 from Poland. We had seen them before (Norwegian Majesty, Christmas Cruise 2006), and we were so impressed then that we bought their CD. They are apparently quite well known in Eastern Europe as they play all the jazz festivals there. As a show band they can play anything from country to Broadway and pack a wallop, but we were especially glad that they had occasions on our cruise to play a few sets in Spinnakers - big band one day, jazz or bossa nova another - a welcome change for many of us from the rock and roll band (Crossroads) that played more often than not at night in that club.
There was also a string quartet on the cruise which played classical selections (unfortunately often in the Atrium Lounge which is too noisy with people passing through - a pity because the quartet was quite good), and a Latino guitar trio that offered a wide range of music in their sets. On Norwegian Jewel there is a wide variety of entertainment to carry you through until about 1am daily, and after that usually the only people still going strong are the younger generation tearing it up dancing in Spinnakers at the late night disco.
ONBOARD ACTIVITIES: We enjoy participating in the trivia competitions, which usually got a good turn out on this cruise. Bingo also attracted a crowd, although that isn't our scene, nor is the casino. In fact one of the things that I appreciate about the design of Norwegian Jewel is that the casino is completely self-contained, and you are not obliged to walk through it to get places like on most ships. Norwegian doesn't go in for cultural or naturalist talks onboard like some cruise lines (Celebrity comes to mind) and we would go if talks of this type were offered. They did have assorted seminars on wine / beer / and martini tasting. We did the martini class and it was fun, not to mention getting a bit loopy sampling the drinks. Two of the most accomplished Jean Ann Ryan dancers, Svetlana and Roman, offered dance lessons. We attended one session and they did a first class job. There was lots of humor to keep it fun, and they didn't skimp on offering detailed instruction with personal attention. I have remembered the steps (now if my husband will join me on the dance floor we may have accomplished something!). I could do without all the overhead loud speaker announcements, but given that sometimes people even in our own group hadn't read their Freestyle Daily, I guess half the ship would never know anything that was going on if they didn't make announcements. We also found that the ship seemed to always have muzak playing ... I don't remember that from our cruise on Jewel in 2007, and we preferred the quiet over hearing recorded background music all the time.
Here's some information on the ports of call:
COPENHAGEN: On European itineraries we tend to wing it rather than book cruise line shore excursions. In Copenhagen we walked over to Tivoli; the adults enjoyed a light lunch while the kids did some rides. Then we went to Nyhavn and did a canal cruise. It was enjoyable, but Copenhagen is a large city and we discovered we spent a fair amount of time just getting from here to there, hobbling over cobblestones past lots of buildings that we often could not identify. The grandparents did the HoHo (Hop On Hop Off double-decker bus) and I think they got the better deal in Copenhagen. In addition to being taken round to see the narrated highlights of the city, they had a convenient stop at Nyhavn for everyone who wanted to take the canal cruise or enjoy a canal side pub, then hop back on the bus to the port. For $25 (US) the HoHo here is a good deal - take it.
WARNEMUNDE: We loved this port of call! Hundreds of people opted for pilgrimages into Berlin, and I use the word pilgrimage advisedly because the trip is long and arduous (that night onboard it was dead as a doornail. If the Berlin folks were not penitents setting out for the journey, they perhaps wished they'd done something else in port as they collapsed from exhaustion after). About half our group got up and out early enough to catch the ferry to Rostock and we had fun there. The kids played at a city park (teenagers and 20-somethings having a hoot - helped to offset that none of them had a decent night's sleep the night before), we walked the city walls and ate lunch outdoors in the beautiful old Hanseatic town square, then paid a visit to the maritime museum. Warning - they don't speak English at the museum. Fortunately my husband speaks German and one of the staff was delighted to give us a private tour. We returned to Warnemunde mid-afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful little seaside resort village; the other half of our group spent the entire day there. We swilled a couple pints at the sidewalk cafes and met some German couples who were either there on holiday, or were catching an Aida cruise from Warnemunde the following day. This is a charming, relaxing port. Unless you just have to get to Berlin right now for some reason, skip it on the cruise, and take your trip to Berlin another time. It's a LONG way from Warnemunde.
TALLINN: Another absolutely delightful town. We were fortunate to arrive on a sunny, warm day with a marvelous youth orchestra playing in the town square. We pulled up chairs at a sidewalk cafe and stayed awhile over refreshments to enjoy the performance, which was outstanding (mostly violins and accordions - hundreds of them). Tallinn's old town is a magical fairy tale place full of turrets and pointy roofed skinny buildings along narrow, twisty cobblestone streets. It's small so you can't get lost, and each turn offers more eye candy to those of us whose countries (US and Canada) only date back a few centuries. Tallinn was a Hanseatic town, like Rostock, but more of the original medieval city remains intact here (it helps that it wasn't bombed to smithereens during World War II). Make the most of your visit by having lunch at Olde Hansa. The restaurant has no (apparent) electricity - it's dark inside with candles and the menu is about as medieval as the atmosphere - we loved it:
SAINT PETERSBURG: This is the one port of call where I would NOT recommend you try to wing it. First of all, you would have to obtain a visa to do so, and then what? You are docked in an industrial port many miles from anything you want to see, and at each attraction you will stand in line for hours while those of us on tours zip right in ahead of the throngs of independent visitors. My recommendation is that you do as we did and book a private tour. It cost us about half what the cruise line shore excursions charge (we paid $260 for 2 full days; $234 for those with student IDs and also for our octogenarian grandparents), plus we had a comfortable midi-van for 20 people with a private guide rather than a big bus with at least twice that many people being herded about. We used Natalia at Guide Guru and I would recommend her highly (feel free to mention my name):
I was able to work with Natalia to customize our tour (impossible with a cruise line shorex) so we got to see exactly what we wanted to see for the amount of time at each place that suited us. The first day we spent the morning at Catherine's Palace, and the afternoon seeing the gardens and fountains at Peterhof plus the inside of Montplaisir, and ended the day with a stop at Saint Isaac's Cathedral before heading back to the ship. An evening program was available but we passed on it because we knew the older members of our party would be tired, and the teens and 20-somethings would want to enjoy the social activities onboard the ship in the evening. The second day we did a bus tour of the Nevsky Prospekt, took in a long visit at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, then visited the Hermitage for a few hours and topped off the day with a relaxing canal cruise. There has been much discussion about cruise ships making life difficult for passengers who book private tours, so heads up on this matter! Natalia warned us about it, and true enough hundreds of people on OTHER cruise lines have been hassled if they did not book shore excursions with the ship. I am pleased to say that Norwegian is one of the very few cruise lines which did NOT interfere with us trying to disembark and join our tour as soon as we docked. Evidently most other cruise lines have been telling their passengers that the Russian authorities insist that they clear all the cruise line shore excursions through immigration before allowing any private tours or independent travelers to disembark. This is baloney! It's a perk the ship is offering to passengers who bought their tour from the cruise line at the expense of others; it has nothing to do with Russian immigration policy (they could not care less whether you are on one tour or another so long as your documents are in order). On Norwegian Jewel those who had private tours were asked to use one gangway and NCL tours use another, but as far as I could tell this was mostly to help them keep their own tours organized as groups. Immigration the first day was slow for everyone, but we were being processed just the same as everyone else. On other cruises I have read that passengers were delayed by as much as 2-3 hours before being allowed to disembark. I would be livid!
HELSINKI: I am sure Helsinki is on the itinerary due to its convenient location, but in my opinion there isn't enough here to warrant a full day of sightseeing. Since there wasn't a priest on our cruise (disappointing, as in the past we have had priests on our NCL cruises), we spent our Sunday morning seeking out and attending Mass. Fortunately the church was located along the HoHo bus route so that's what we did, although in 20/20 hindsight the HoHo here is expensive (25 euros or $35 and change at today's exchange rate) and frankly not worth it because there is so little to see, and the docks are not that far out for most folks (not the elderly) to just walk into town. After Mass we wandered through town and saw the humungous Lutheran Cathedral (very plain - not worth the hike up all those stairs unless you are into huge, plain white buildings). From there we walked over to the lovely conservatory-styled Kappeli Cafe near the gardens. It's charming, but OUCH, I paid about $100 bucks for four of us to have a snack / light lunch (ie a croissant filled with tuna salad or a slice of pie) with coffee or cokes. We then strolled over to Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox) which was beautiful, though small after the spectacular churches we visited in Russia. We took the HoHo out to the rock-cut church (Temppeliaukio) but it was closed so we didn't get to go inside. All in all we exhausted Helsinki in a couple of hours. It was very clean, which was nice, and everything was in tip top repair (given how expensive everything was, small wonder they have the resources to keep the place tidy and maintained), but I could enjoy similar countryside vistas visiting Wisconsin, and find livelier pubs there at a better price. If I had my druthers we would have skipped Helsinki and gone straight to Stockholm, spending the extra day (or even just an extra half day) with an overnight there instead.
STOCKHOLM: I was worried that with a 4pm sailing time we would be cut short here as we could have easily spent two days at this port. In the end, how much you will have time to see depends on where you are docked, and if you are planning a Baltic Cruise, this is one of the questions you need to ask. We were docked at Stadsgarden which is right in the center of town. It could not possibly have been a better location. Many cruise ships however, including Norwegian Jewel in 2010 I believe, dock at Nynashamn which is way the heck outside of Stockholm (it really shouldn't be called Stockholm at all it's that far away). Check them out on Google Earth and you will see what I mean. In our case, we were in the heart of the city, and the HoHo ferry (a real bargain at something like $12 or $13 per person) docked literally about 30 feet from the bow of our ship. The HoHo circuit runs continually at half hour intervals with stops at most of the places anyone would want to visit. We spent half a day at the Vasa Museum (the actual 1628 galleon raised from the sea - it's a magnificent ship to behold and the accompanying museum exhibits are superb) and then had to choose whether to do the Nordic Museum next door, or Skansen, or Gamla Stan, and opted for the latter. It was a very low-stress fun day. Once back onboard we understood why we set sail at 4pm rather than crowding the dinner hour. The sail away through the Stockholm Archipelago was magnificent, and it goes on for hours before the ship reaches open water. We nabbed prime seats up in Spinnakers, and the views were awesome. Sometimes the shipping channel cut in so close to wee little islands that it seemed like we were cruising through people's front yards; on one occasion a couple of pugs came out to bark at the passing ship, the way dogs do at cars back home. Awhile later we spotted a deer swimming between islands. Immense ferries passed by us like any two vehicles on a thoroughfare, sounding as the ships slipped past each other. It was a splendid finale as we departed our last port of call heading back to Dover.
Please feel free to contact me directly (JBFLeBlanc@aol.com) if you have any questions about Norwegian Jewel, or about Baltic Cruises.