This was our second year cruising on NCL Jade, sailing from Southampton. The attraction of an NCL cruise for us is the informality and the child friendly staff and facilities. We live only an hour away from Southampton so a UK departure port is always a positive for us and with 3 year olds takes away the airport hassle. We recommended the cruise to our friends who also booked up on the same cruise, bringing along their boys of 10 and 13. There seems to be more people cruising on Jade this year, a fact that was felt embarkation onwards. This was possibly due to NCL being better know as a brand in the UK having based Jade in the med from last year.
When you drive into Southampton you drop off your bags (picked up from the back of the car) to the porters then take your car to the car park. Be careful not to check in all your hand luggage as there may be a delay in receiving your bags in your stateroom so think about the essentials you want to walk on with. If your travelling with young children you take them on in their push chairs and there are facilities on the ship to temporarily check in small bags to a supervised area (usually one of the lounges) for temporary storage whilst you wait for your cabin.
Check in an embarkation had very long lines BUT we were spotted with our 2 girls who were playing up at the time and fast tracked to the front of the queue. My recommendation here would be if you will struggle in the queue for any health reason etc. Speak up and the terminal staff will be happy to assist you. When you eventually check in you are called in sections to board. There was very little seating in the terminal whilst we waited and it was very hot in there. Once called, boarding wasn't too bad and you are greeted with a glass or Orange juice or fizz when you get on. This can actually be quite a juggle if you've got kids and bags (down in one to combat the stress from the terminal and hand back).
The ship is very brightly coloured both in the public areas and staterooms (think purples and oranges). On embarkation day the lifts are very busy so if you need to use a lift you may have to wait for some time. We went straight to the self serve restaurant (The Garden Cafe) for a late lunch whilst we waited for the cabins to be available.
Cabins were available at 2pm and we had a Mini Suite that gave us a double sofa bed and more space for the girls. With small girls we coped well in the cabin but if you were a family with older children you may need to be quite regimented in the use of the space. The cabin was immaculate and it was nice to have a bath for the girls to use. The cabin steward looked after us well and made towel animals for the girls each night leaving them loads of chocolates on their bed each night which they of course loved. In fact they were always excited to go back to the cabin for bed to see what surprise awaited them.
Out of guilt I went to the Gym early most mornings which was well equipped with great views out of the panoramic windows. The machines were regularly sanitised and towels and cold flannels were readily available.
Garden Cafe:-I have to say the food in this self serve is excellent and very well laid out as stations, rather than one long line. At Lunch there is freshly made pizza, pasta and your choice of sauce freshly made and usually a roast of some kind with all of the trimmings. Im a bit of a curry head and the star of the show for me is a station with chinese and indian dishes that are very authentic. In addition there is a salad bar, soup station, sandwich station, Sushi, pretty much anything you fancy is here. The down side to the Garden cafe is that seating can be limited at peak times at breakfast and Lunch. Credit to NCL however as they opened up the italian restaurant that is right next door as additional seating. Also they had crew on hand to look for tables for you and help you with your trays. Being with young children we spent a lot of time in the Garden Cafe and they loved it in there. There is a children's dining area with small tables and chairs. There is also a dedicated children's food station in that area with still fruit drinks, children's foods (Macaroni cheese, chicken nuggets, baked beans and cakes jelly and cookies for desserts). All of the napkins are proper cloth ones which is a nice touch , though you can imagine the mess my 2 made of theirs. There are tea and coffee machines in the Cafe as well as several soft serve ice cream machines that get good usage by adults and kids alike throughout the day. Puddings were fair and nothing to get excited about but there are always healthier options on offer like fruit salad.
We dined in the formal restaurants in the evenings several times and we love the Grand Pacific for its decor and atmosphere. Grand Pacific is as formal as it gets on NCL and people tended to dress smarter in this restaurant, with no sports wear or shorts/flip flops allowed apparently. Food is average at best and the service varied depending on who you got. As the flagship formal free restaurant on the ship this restaurant get very busy and you really feel that the waiting staff are stretched and trying to get you in and out as quickly as possible. Having said all of this about Service and Food it was nice to go to and have an "adult" meal with the girls. I think you would be less forgiving if you went here a lot. I have to say our guilt secret was going to the blue lagoon 24hour restaurant for good old trash food. When you have had enough fighting for a table in the Garden Cafe you can come here, get a table and be served any time day or night. We loved the spicy chicken wings and the girls were addicted to the deep fried Mozzarella sticks. We even phoned down for a late night order one evening to pick up and bring back to our room for a late night post bottle of wine snack.
The main change to the dining since the first time we cruised was Paniolos had become a pay restaurant. I have to be honest that this changed my views on it having dined there loads the year before. In short its Tex/Mex dining which is OK but maybe too OK to be paying $10 per person for. Definitely worth trying and we certainly prefer it over the Italian which we felt was like paying for someone to bring through Pasta from the pasta bar in the Garden Cafe.
Our experience of the other pay restaurants was very positive and we tried all of them only finding Le Bistro and Papas Italian Kitchen a little ordinary for the price (though Le Bistro could have been bad choices on our part). Teppanyaki is a well worth the money and on some evenings there were even offering free martinis after your meal. Its a show and a meal all in one and it was the most unrushed meal we had. Service was immaculate and they totally catered for the girls. They in turn got tucked into the food, loving the green tea ice cream. Jasmine Garden catered for Sushi, Mongolian hot pots (which we tried and enjoyed with the girls for $15 per adult) and Chinese cuisine. Its worth noting that in some of the pay restaurants you didn't have to pay the cover charge for the kids, some it was reduced and a few it was full for the (Teppanyaki but still worth it). Our night out without the girls was spent Cagney's and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Service was amazing and polished and the soups and steaks up to fine dining standards.
Entertainment wise we took the girls to the shows that were suitable and the in house group were very good delivering the usual samples of Broadway type productions. The theatre is well laid and tiered well and you can even get served drinks whilst your sat waiting pre show. Away from the theatre was more old school cruise entertainment; A singer and band providing songs to Waltz etc to, a several pianists come singers as well as a guitar singer. I would have preferred more modern music being played or comedians in the bar areas but that is likely a personal view. There were nights that we missed where comedians played the theatre that were highly recommended but we missed them as they weren't family friendly.
The staff on the ship were on the whole amazing. You were always greeted with a smile and a hello when you went into a restaurant, and they were always amazing with the girls, talking to them and accommodating their needs. Hygiene is taken very seriously and every restaurant has a dispenser of alcohol gel which everyone used. There is a staff feedback system on the ship for those who have gone above and beyond. We submitted 2 forms during our cruise and we were very impressed with the staff wherever we went, particularly when they entertained our girls giving us a moments peace.
We didn't book any excursions favouring getting off on our own at the ports where it was easy to go to the local town/city. We got off in Cannes, Gibraltar, Barcelona and Vigo which with the exception of Barcelona (where the port charged $10 per person return via the ship to be driven out of the port to the bottom of Las Rambla!) For us getting off was a change of scenery and a stretching of the legs so I will leave it to others to give a detailed run down of the ports.
My Wife and I used the spa whos treatments were excellent. We did complain about some issues with the spa reception which the Spa Manager called us up to discuss and gave us a free couples massage to make up for the issues. The key point being the behaviour and manner of the reception staff had changed since the feedback. Credit to NCL for responding and dealing with the issue rather than hoping it would go away. The spa is a tad expensive compared to home but the exchange rate wasnt as good as the year before so that was a factor I guess.
The girls were enrolled in the kids club which ran for free on Sea days and needed to be pre-booked and paid for on Port days. We didnt make use of this pay service. The girls loved going to the club and took part in all kinds of activities (Pizza making, dressing up as Pirates, Making Necklaces). The staff were very good and could manage the group well. We didnt leave them in for whole days rather got a 2 hour fix in the Sun and picked them up. Some evenings they went in when we went for a meal alone or after we had all eaten together. By the few days in they were asking us to go to the club as we were boring them in comparison.
Disembarkation was very slick. You choose the colour of tag relating to a time you wish to get off and your bags are taken the night before. 2 years running there was something on the bill that shouldn't have been on there which meant a long queue at reception to get sorted...Clearly we were not alone listening to others in the Queue. Our tip would be to get interim bills through the cruise to correct any anomalies before the last day when Reception is heaving with people.
In summary NCL has been the perfect compromise for us with 3 year old children. Jade and its crew are child friendly as are its facilities including toddlers pool and Children's pool complete with slide. There is generally a younger demographic of guests on the ship, many with their own young families which means greater tolerance to young children in restaurants and theatres. As long as you get the cruise at a low enough price point and mentally factor in the couple of hundred dollars to dine in a couple of the speciality restaurants you will defiantly find the cruise value for money. NCL is not for you if you expect formal fine dining in the free restaurants and begrudge paying any additional surcharges for an additional dining experience. So having said all of this why have we just booked with Princess for next year? Well NCL have moved their base port next summer to Barcelona and to that end there are no Southampton sailings round the med. As a result the price has gone up a little for airfare and we still value the fast start to the holiday we have from a domestic embarkation port. Also having done 2 years on Jade there are few surprises left for us and it would be too easy to get complacent and possibly begrudging of change/lack of change on the ship. If you are looking for a resort casual, young family friendly cruise and you can get it at the right price point compared with competitors then this is the ideal Cruise/line for you.