First, a little background information about us. My husband and I are in our late 30's, no children, and have sailed on 3 other cruises. We have sailed on Holland America's Westerdam (Mini Suite, June, 2005 - Eastern Mediterranean), Norwegian Cruise Line's Wind (Outside, April 2000 -- Alaska) and Disney Wonder (Inside, January 2000 -- Bahamas). The Norwegian Jade is truly a jewel!
Since this was our first time at Concierge Level, we didn't know what to expect. We booked a Penthouse, Starboard Aft. We consider ourselves to be budget-minded, but we were celebrating our 10th Wedding Anniversary and found an amazing deal on this cruise. We booked 6 months before the sail and actually booked this room at the time of booking.
Overall, this ship is more beautiful than the other ships we have sailed on. The food a bit disappointing; the staff and stewards were very accommodating and extraordinary (some exceptions in the Spa), and room amenities were remarkable. If you would like more details, please read on!
This review will begin with our 3 night pre-cruise stay at the Gran Hotel Barcelona which we booked separate from the cruise line and will end with our 1 night stay at the Renaissance Marriott by the Barcelona Airport.
PRE-CRUISE, 3 nights, Gran Hotel Havana, Barcelona, $125.00 US per night
This was simply a beautiful hotel very nicely situated. For the money, it was exceptional. The staff, some of which were fluent in English, was excellent. Our room is exactly as pictured on the hotel's website. We booked directly with the hotel. The room was very comfortable, the bed superior to many US luxury hotels, and the amenities were simply awesome! If you love hotel toiletries, then you will love what this hotel offers. EACH day, we were given a plastic tray that included the following toiletries: a comb, a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, face soap, body soap, lotion, sewing kit, bath sponge, shoe polish, shoe horn, travel size tissues, and everything very neatly boxed and packaged into this tray. It was refilled every day without exception, including a new toothbrush every day. I am not going into a whole lot more details about the room, check out their website because it really is very close to what you will see pictured. We hailed a taxi from the hotel to the cruise terminal for about $25 Euros. We mostly traveled the Metro, which we found to be efficient, cheap, and easy to navigate. They have so many options for tickets, you can easily find one that best suits your travel needs. The Metro was very safe, well lit, and very clean. If you have ever traveled the Washington, D.C. Metro then the Barcelona Metro won't intimidate you. We visited the usual sites (pardon the spelling)in Barcelona, and I will make a few notes here. Do not miss the following sites: Barcelona Cathedral, Cathedral St Marie del Mar, Gothic Quarter, La Boqueria, La Sagrada Familia, Placa de Catalunya, Placa de Espanya, Arch d'Triumph, and the Ramblas. For an even more spectacular view of them, visit them AT NITE, because they will look very different during the day. Don't worry about the Metro, it runs to 1:00 am most nights. Skip (and save yourself $20) to go to Montjuic, although the view from the lift is spectacular. We weren't that impressed with Port Vell either. If you have time, spend $30 per person and take a day to go the Monastery at Montserrat. You can purchase your admission, lift tickets, and train tickets at the Metro. I highly recommend that you visit this Monastery, it was the highlight of Barcelona. Although it will take you 2 hours to get there, the bluffs are well worth the travel and how often do you get to see the Black Madonna (which was found in 800 AD, very near to wear the sanctuary is located). If you purchase the complete Montserrat Package, you will have a ticket to their museum (which holds paintings by: Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso, and Gaudi -- also, take a peak at the petrified cat in the Egyptian display cases). Your ticket will also include lunch in the Cafeteria (which was absolutely horrid). Take a hike when you are done with the Basilica and visit the minor sites of Montserrat, including the legendary hermit's caves. The day of our visit, we could see the snow-capped Pyrenees from Montserrat and Barcelona!
I thought this was easily the best embarkation I've ever seen. We arrived about 12:30 via taxi from our hotel (25E). Because we were in a Penthouse, we breezed through security, check-in, and was escorted to our stateroom almost all in the span of about 15 minutes. We also met Monica, the Concierge -- easily one of the most efficient and knowledgeable Concierges in my experience of traveling.
STATEROOM IMPRESSIONS (Remember, we were Penthouse)
There was more than adequate storage space, a generous closet (with inside lights), two safes, a vanity, a flat-screen television, two phones (one cordless), a dining table with 4 chairs, a small sofa and chair, a bench, 2 stools, a full-size tub with adjustable shower head and luxurious toiletries from Elemis Spa. On the balcony, 2 chairs, a small table, and a lounge chair with nice pillows. You will love the espresso machine, fresh flowers, a fruit bowl, tea service, and of course the mini fridge! We also loved the bath robes so much, we bought one when we returned to the States.
In the bathroom, expect some of the largest bath towels you can imagine. Deluxe samples of toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, body wash, a loofah, large round soap). For your added pleasure, they also have 2 dispensers that dispense shower gel, shampoo, and hand soap). The toilet is also separated from the shower/sink area by a sliding glass door panel.
Our Stateroom was immaculate, generously appointed and maintained by our cabin stewardess and sometimes our Butler, Mary Jane (easily, the hardest-working staff member we encountered with the possible exception of Monica, the Concierge). The only complaint I have about the Staterooms: Our cruise had an outbreak of GI upset and the ice buckets were hi-jacked and you had to ask your cabin steward to return them. I wasn't that impressed with the nightly snacks that were delivered each nights, either, although the chocolate-covered strawberries (served twice) were delicious -- they were small! We could have easily used more coat hangers and I am sure the staff would have brought them had we asked. I wasn't that impressed with the flower arrangement either. I used to be a florist, so I am extremely particular about flowers -- but, I found the "bowl arrangement" of white daisies, baby's breath, gerberas, alstromerias, and mini roses accenting an anthurium to be a rather dull and unimpressive arrangement. Despite these minor and trivial details, our stateroom was elegant, bright, comfortable, and spacious! I'm not sure what I expected, but the pictures from NCL's website -- do not give this room any justice at all! Decor is as pictured, a bit loud -- but the hot pink and jewel green will grow on you, but I don't know about the butterfly patterned carpet. The extra-thick, heavy drapes will almost darken the room completely and lend a luxurious feel to the room. Overall, the room and cabin amenities, FAR EXCEEDED our expectations.
NCL has more options than any other cruise line, but we found the food to be rather dull and unimpressive with a few remarkable exceptions. The Main Dining Room (The Grand Pacific) is beautiful and elegantly appointed. It is also the noisiest dining room I've ever been in. Service ranged from mediocre to excellent (and, we eventually requested the same person -- who was clearly much better trained than his peers). Service was not as attentive as our previous experiences on cruise lines, including our other NCL cruise. We didn't think the Alizar (the other main dining room) to be any better - in fact, it was more intimate (smaller, ceilings not as high, decor -- very simple) but the service was worse and it was every bit as loud as the Grand Pacific. We ate at the buffet, 3 times -- and it was so unimpressive -- we just decided to make do with the Blue Lagoon (a 24-hour, sit down dining option). We enjoyed (FREE) breakfast and lunch at Cagney's -- a perk reserved for Penthouse and above. Cagney's would have been excellent, except the jogging track is right next to the bank of windows so while you are eating your filet and eggs, you are watching people run only about 3 feet away from you or you can listen to the sound of sneakers pounding the deck.....We ate at only 2 of the boutique restaurants, Paniolo's (which was excellent, both in food and service) and the Jasmine Garden (a bit over-rated). We felt the additional fees, were ridiculous. Expect to pay $10-15 per person, except $25 for Cagneys (and all boutique restaurants will charge extra for lobster in addition to the cover charge) Our expanded room service, ranged from mediocre to good. At the Penthouse level, you can request your butler obtain menus from the main dining hall (or, anywhere else) and have it delivered to your stateroom. Overall, food ranged from uneatable to very good -- but, MUCH WORSE than expected. Soda and bottled water ran from $1.75 (with a service charge added). Beer was $4.75. Irish Coffee, $7.50. Lattes and Mocha, $3.75.
SPA AND THERMAL SUITE
I had no less than 5 separate spa treatments, ranging from the OxyDermal Facial to Hot Stone Massage, Cleopatra Wrap, Ginger and Lime Scrub, a regular facial, and a regular massage. I thought the Spa to be rather dull and unimpressive, the staff ranged from extremely friendly to mostly snooty. The thermal suite was nice, not great. We elected for a pass that allowed access for the entire cruise. I think the Steam Room needed essential oils and was almost unbearably hot, the Dry Sauna was very nice and has a large window overlooking the sea and could easily accommodate 15 people. There was a "cold dip" pool which I refused to get into, and only 3 shower areas. One a tropical-warm rain shower and the other just a rain shower, neither of which were very impressive. The jacuzzi in the women's thermal suite was nice and was situated in the front part of the thermal suite with a commanding view of the bow. They were constantly running out of towels and I had to sometimes wait for a bath robe. The used towel bend was quite often a mottled mess and not very well maintained. I was dismayed that the Spa Staff did not provide bottled water, tea, or juice (they said they couldn't because of the GI outbreak) but I think at least bottled water should have been offered. Every other spa I've been in on a ship easily surpassed this one -- so just expect the basics and nothing else, and you probably want be disappointed.
Prices were ridiculously expensive. They offered routine specials throughout the cruise, discounts if booked on port days, and mini packages. Expect to pay between $125-$225 for a facial or a massage. Also, expect a sales pitch to purchase the product used and prices on product were equally ridiculous. $33.00 for toner, $33.00 for face cleanser, and $130.00 for face cream. All in all, we spent about $1100.00 for spa treatments.
Spa staff, again, ranged from the wonderful to snooty (mostly snooty at the front desk). Tips are included in your bill, but we did tip an additional $10-$20 for most services and then on our 3rd treatment -- I requested the same person for my 4th and 5th treatment.
Thermal Suite, again mediocre -- but, worth it -- if to avoid the masses collected out by the main pool and Jacuzzis. We never found the Thermal Suite to be crowded, but did find the 6 heated, tile chairs in the common Thermal Suite usually occupied. Expect the usual complement of gym equipment in the Fitness Room.
We booked 3 through NCL and generally found them to be quite good and worth the extra expense. Rome and the Vatican is a whirl-wind of activity and if it is your first time to Rome, then DO NOT CONSIDER TRYING TO DO ROME ON YOUR OWN. Our last cruise originated in Rome, even with 4 nights PRE-CRUISE we still didn't see all of what we wanted to see. Our tour included traditional Italian wine, pasta, and beef and potatoes entree with raspberry gelato for dessert. I think we paid about $170 per person, which included a brief stop at the Coliseum, our fabulous lunch, admission to the Vatican Museum through the Hall of Maps, to the Sistene Chapel, through St. Peter's Basilica, out the square and straight to an over-priced, NCL sponsored souvenir shop. We purchased Rosary Beads from a street vendor outside for about half the price paid inside the store. Granted, it was most likely pop metal versus sterling, but the difference in Euros is enormous!
At Izmir, we elected NCL's Magnificent Ephesus and although I could have done without the 2 hour stop at the Carpet Factory, for $69 per person (including a free souvenir, a lite lunch, and admission to Ephesus) it really is a bargain! We did not see the Terrace Houses, we are saving them for another trip to Turkey.
In Egypt, we elected NCL's Pyrimids and Nile in Style. DO NOT WASTE YOUR MONEY ON THIS PARTICULAR SHORE EXCURSION -- DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT. The Nile River Cruise was mediocre at best. The food was bad, the belly dancer okay, and the river itself a bit unimpressive. At Giza, be prepared to be bombarded by people trying to sell you everything from rocks, to cats, to camel rides. Do not agree to take any pictures of any people, or let any people take pictures of you. Even the police were trying to take our cameras and God-alone knows what they were going to do with them afterwards. I found that if you speak "gibberish" to people bugging at you Giza, they would move on to someone else. Cairo is an exceptionally dirty, disgusting, depressing mess of a place -- but, take your blinders off and you will discover something completely unforgettable. On the 3 1/2 hour bus ride, we elected to purchase the Egyptian cartouches, which were VERY REASONABLY priced. We were told by our Armed Security Escort (who wore an Armani suit and carried a sub machine gun) that the tour guide received a 50% commission on the jewelry and the Camel Rides they will charge you at Giza. Still we paid $35 (US) for a sterling silver pendant and $135 for a sterling silver bracelet. Not too bad for a once in a lifetime souvenir that is personalized with your name on it in Egyptian hieroglyphics. I've gotten a million complements on my bracelet. Also, go ahead and buy some papyrus at the Papyrus Institute -- expect prices to be from $50.00 to $500.00 depending on the size and print you select, but again -- you will have an amazing piece of art for your home that will make anything you buy at the Park West Art Auction look simple. Egyptians are shrewd business people, if you pay full price (you can even dicker with them at the Papyrus Institute) you are paying way too much. For outside vendors, start your bidding at 50% of their price. For example, I had one vendor try to charge me $10 for an Egyptian perfume bottle, I actually walked away with 5 bottles for $10, making them $2 each. They accept US dollars, so do not bother changing your money for Euro or Egyptian at this port. The second day, we elected to pay $60 for a 2 1/2 hour horse and carriage ride around Alexandria. Again, if you can look past the filth, pollution, piles of trash, abject poverty, you will experience a place unlike anything you've ever seen. But, be prepared --it is NOT going to be the cleanest port on your itinerary, in fact, you may be so disgusted you will not want to get off the ship on your second day. Also, I found the Egyptian People to be some of the friendliest people I've met any where. On our carriage ride, we felt like we were in a parade for two hours. We waved to the left, to the right, and we had people stepping outside their shops to wave at us. Women hanging laundry out above our heads were waving, men on every corner, yelled "Welcome to Egypt!" It was without question, a PHENOMENAL place.
ENTERTAINMENT AND ON-BOARD SHOPPING
We did not frequent the bars or the nightclubs, but here are some observations on entertainment. The nightly shows were quite good, lasting only about 45 minutes. We had a comedy show, a Broadway show, a puppet show, a magic show, and a variety show. Overall, Entertainment was a bit dull. Port lectures were very good, music acts very good, and the Cruise Director was good. The Assistant Cruise Director needs to do something different, he seemed almost over-rehearsed and forced. NCL has limited options for Free Entertainment. Most of the wine tastings, beer tastings, martini tastings all charged $15. The trivia games were the most popular, but prizes ranged from key chains to coffee cups, a few of them actually gave away a dinner certificate or a bottle of champagne. Billiards and Darts were $2 per game, which we thought was terribly expensive! There is a library, a DVD library (if you have a DVD player in your room), a shuffle board area, a full-size basketball court, two pools, a water slide, several outdoor Jacuzzis, and the usual complement of card games, board games that you could expect on a cruise ship. We also found the Bingo to be VERY EXPENSIVE, $35.00 for 3 rounds? I did play the "FREEPLAY" in the ship's casino - which was almost never crowded. It sits wedged between the magnificent Stardust Theatre and the equally interesting Medusa Lounge with its fabulous underwater theme, funky chairs, and beautifully tiled bar. The Jade Casino did sponsor several tournaments, all with a $15 fee, including a Slots Tournament, a Blackjack Tournament, and a Texas Hold'em Tournament. The Cigar Bar was closed and had been moved outside, but expect to pay about $8.00 for a cognac and $8.00 for a Macanudo. The Galleria, a place to shop on board, was a bit of a disappointment. Expect high quality, and equally high prices. If you have sailed with NCL before, don't forget to show your key card and get your Latitudes discount. They sponsored several sales during the cruise, usually gemstones. There were several "Buy 1, get one discount" events, including a decent discount on GUESS purses. The Galleria also has the usual complement of goods and services, tobacco products, liqueur, some clothing, designer sunglasses and purses, a lot of jewelry, Clinique, Lancome, and just about any fragrance you might want. If you can wait, chances are it will probably go on sale sometime during the cruise.
Also, we thought the Internet Cafe was ridiculously expensive, unreliable, and expect to pay about $1.00 per minute.
The television channels are laughable. Don't expect to watch much television on this cruise, there are more channels dedicated to ship operations and current positioning maps, and other NCL marketing channels than there are anything else. Expect CNN-International, BBC News, and a sports channel. That is about it. Every now and then, they might play a movie -- Oh, and that is something that really NCL could offer. Why not play more movies in your theater, not everyone is interested in learning how to salsa or waltz (for a fee). I am not really interested in martini tasting (for a fee) either.
Also, expect the usual Art Auction -- with most people probably attending because of the lack of other entertainment options available.
Absolutely, took no more than 15 minutes. But, Penthouse and above are escorted off the ship and we paid $40 Euros for a taxi from the terminal to the Renaissance Marriott at Barcelona Airport.
POST CRUISE, 1 night, RENAISSANCE MARRIOT AT BARCELONA AIRPORT
This hotel room was an award night. Absolutely and unquestionably, the worst Marriott on the planet. Some of our shipmates paid $300 a night. What a rip-off! It took literally, 45 minutes to check-in (this was possibly due to a number of American Airline passengers with canceled flights) but still abhorrent! The lobby was a chaotic mass of people lounging on chaises and at least 40 people were waiting in line to check-in. The hallways looked mysteriously like we had walked into a sanitarium or controlled facility, and the bed! I have slept on futon mattresses that were softer than this mattress.
We were treated so rudely by the hotel's restaurant staff, that I complained to management who quickly comped me breakfast delivered to our room the next morning, which would have been very good had it been actually hot and not as cold as the marble tile floor. I would advise anyone looking for a hotel close to the airport, to look for something (anything) elsewhere.