21 days is a long time to be in a contained space, but somehow the NCL Jade, cruise critic and friends, both old and new, made it Oh so bearable!
My review may be on the long side, but so was my vacation.
Embarkation. Barcelona port facilitated such an easy embarkation you actually wondered if you were in fact checked in. NCL staff on hand was friendly and helpful and in no time we were on board at 12 pm. As we had sailed the Jade before we knew the ropes and sat out the wait for our room on the Garden cafe deck.
We noticed a few changes from our cruise in May 2008. As a smoker the smoking areas have been relocated and half the outdoor dining areas allocated to smokers. Noticed a much more smoker friendly ship than before and wondered if this was due to the European clientele. I know not a good change, but as a smoker, a welcome one. No more good night candy at turn down. No biggie, but would have been nice. Soon forgotten though. Food stations at buffet less but with more International variety. Indian cuisine every evening and themed evenings saw changes in menu every evening amongst the staples of burgers, pizza and pasta. (The Greek evening was one of my favourite.) For us Internationals it was nice to have familiar International comfort food. Deserts also a great improvement, firstly because the ice cream machines actually worked (!) and a crepe station was added.
Ports of call Rome. Rome was a washout and most folk like ourselves who ventured on their own got soaked. Free shuttle to the port entrance was helpful. Athens was Athens! We found the 040 bus to Syntagma easily and preferred this option to the metro. Just a block from the port. No shuttle offered to anywhere this time around (?) Izmir. Did a tour organised with cruise critic and pleased to have finally done Ephesus. Really worth it. Funny thing was our guide was waiting just outside our exit area waiting for us. Happily we followed only to be chased down by another guide also with our groups details. The first guide had poached our info from cruise critic and was attempting to "steal/kidnap" us. It would have worked if they got us out the gate as we were paying cash and the vehicles do not necessarily have the companies names on. Alexandria. Heavy fog delayed our entry into port by three hours so all tours had to be regrouped and switched. We had gone with Moustafas tours and cannot speak highly enough of this wunderkind of a man! His guides and drivers have to the friendliest, most educated diplomats in Africa. Needless to say we got to see Alexandria and its many sites, then Cairo and of course the pyramids and Egyptian museum. We did Alexandria with a group and Cairo on our own, both with Moustafa. On both occasions their tours blew us away. On cruise critic a lot of public debate ensued regarding Cairo tours and many fake cruise critics (competitors we learnt later) were trying to sabotage Moustafa. We publicly defended him and stuck to our gut feel. He rewarded us with personal gifts, which made Egypt our highlight. Malta. An absolute surprise package of a port. No city, country or attraction can compare to this Island state. It is a beautiful sail in with photo ops in every wind direction. It is steeped in mystical history with the knights and their palaces and armoury. It is spiritual with some of the most beautiful churches and cathedrals in the world. (Preferred St Johns Co. Cathedral to the Vatican!) It is scenic with small fishing harbours and hilly farms with old forts, castles and palaces balancing on low hills. What a place, what a thrill, what a surprise! Montserrat Back to Barcelona and a day trip to Montserrat. Closer to heaven I doubt you can get. This monastery will be recommended to you and until you get there and hear the bells ringing, the choir singing and see the sweeping views you will not quite understand. Just go and see for yourself. Definitely the best attraction Barcelona has to offer, and they have tons! Casablanca. Where is the mysterious, smoky Morocco from my fantasy? Free shuttle into city centre. From there you start walking trying to get to the Hassan II mosque. Problem is the city really is less than you expect and resembles Lagos or Nairobi, not Morocco! So I know it is Africa but where is the Moroccan architecture, art and things familiar to Morocco. Sorely disappointed. Found the Mosque which truly is HUGE and then some. On maps it looks like you can just walk there from the port. Not so. A huge construction project and the adjoining Old Medina (low income area, some would refer to as a slum) in the way! Smells and sights I saw in Casablanca are not fit for the faint hearted. Ricks cafe was cool refuge even if it is only a replica of the Casablanca movie set. Was ironic to be in an actual building built to resemble a movie set! Agadir. Maybe we would find Morocco here? Nope! Destroyed by an earthquake in the sixties, the city of Agadir is all new modern white resorts catering to the European tourists. Took a tour to the ancient city of Taroudannt which lies Inland where maybe here we would find what we were looking for. Nope. 7 kilometre wall surrounds more of the same as we saw in Casablanca. So our pictures of Morocco, with the exception of a window or a doorway, could have been taken anywhere in Africa and do not themselves speak of Morocco. This was our only NCL tour. Our guide was smoother than silk! In Taroudannt he "guided" us for 20 minutes through the narrow alleys of the souk (market). Being a former policeman I noticed a few times we were actually passing the same way an alley or two away. Snaking through if you will. He was trying to confuse us was my impression. When I asked where we were headed he brushed it off with "this way" or "come". At the inevitable carpet shop we were led to we abandoned the tour and made our own way back to the bus. The souk is full of men who escort tourists and we found our own to get us back, and had our own experience in this city of chaos. The group joined us later after being allowed 15 minutes free time! Needless to say we were not impressed with his strong arm sales tactics. One cool thing we saw was the goats who climb trees to eat the fruit of the tree. Hundreds of goats were running about in and out of the trees. Very bizarre but cool. Las Palmas. Being Jaded from the third port day we only made it to the mall we were moored alongside. We sat and had coffee watching the world go by and the unbelievably long line for the Hop on Hop off bus. There were idyllic beaches and a volcanic crater to be seen, as well as caves and a number of attractions but sometimes you just have to say enough!
Funchal. Now this city will entice the most cynic of traveller off the ship seducing with its beauty and charm. What an absolute joy. You could walk into town and it is a distance with a narrow sidewalk crammed with Jaders trying to out walk each other. We opted for the tourist trap items taking the cable car to the botanical gardens and the toboggan down the hill. Walking around after the toboggan revealed a hilly city with flowers and trees of all sorts in various blooming phases. Truly a sight for sore eyes. Malaga. The ship offered a shuttle at $6 return but we opted to walk as it was only 20 minutes. At the port entrance we found the Hop on Hop off bus and got to see this quaint Spanish city from a few lofty angles. Very hilly and scenic with old forts, a Roman amphitheatre and a multitude of architectural styles. Birthplace of Picasso so you see this proudly advertised.
The food. Not being a food critic we had no problem with the food on the Jade. The buffet options were varied and of a good quality. The sit down restaurants had good variety and if you wanted something from the kitchen which was not on the menu they genuinely made an effort. Our complimentary dinner in Le Bistro was one of the best I have ever had. The Steak was so good it was almost a religious experience. A night of dining which became one of our holiday highlights. The rotation of staff was a hindrance though, as they did not always know their own menus and food products. You would have a waiter in the buffet for breakfast and find the same waiter in the fine dining restaurant that evening. By the next day you can find the poor waiter serving lunch in a different restaurant. For International diners this was frustrating as for example if you wanted chutney with a curry, they had to find out what it was, then if they had it. The diversity of english accents, approaches and cultures further confused the staff and cruisers. For example what we call scones in countries outside the US was biscuits to the staff, and they wanted to put gravy on them! We found that strange and declined in favour of cream and strawberry jam.
The Ship We loved the ship and the layout and flow was easy to navigate. Initially we had a (very small) port hole on deck 4. Loved our nest and were settling in nicely, till the dreaded Novo-Virus made it's visit. Although we were not affected it did something to our plumbing and from day 3 we had a faulty toilet. Either it would not flush or would gurgle, splutter and flush on its own. A minor inconvenience until it started occurring more than once a day. We reported it and were assured it was being looked at. No change. Filled in an actual written request. No Change. Made an appointment to see the hotel director. This took some negotiation. Had a great meeting and they promised to fix the problem. Apologies, and a free dinner in Le Bistro later, but still no change. Call again, as now have direct line to Directors staff. On board credit, and a spare extra stateroom later, still no change. By day 9 my partner had had enough. He photographed our new brown "mini Jacuzzi" which was threatening to spill over with the sway of the sea, and presented the photographic evidence to reception. Timing seems to be everything. Unbeknownst to my partner the Captain was hosting a Photo opportunity session with guests dressed to the nines at the very reception he was at. I will say this photo is a masterpiece of horror and I was dying of shame in my cabin whilst he was waving this at reception demanding a solution. The poor manager had her work cut out calming him down and keeping the ladies in evening gowns from seeing the photo. The situation never did get better in our room on the 4th floor but for the second leg of our cruise we were ship royalty! We got moved to a balcony along with our friends who were joining us for this leg. Fruit basket after fruit basket and we just loved the new 9th floor balcony accommodations. I believe the ship was full to the brim for the second sailing so really appreciated their efforts to compensate. Also believe they did everything in their power to resolve the situation but were just struck with a gremlin in the pipe works. Now we can laugh about it and feel it could not be anyone's fault. I could tell you what was divulged in the meeting was being found in the pipelines, but have already scarred a few with the mental picture of the infamous photo. After our room change it was a whole different cruise and nothing went wrong at all. In fact after a few days we were wondering if it had happened at all.
The Service All very good with a few exceptions. As I mentioned we tested their channels of communication and had to speak louder than normal to get results. May have been due to the fact that passengers were progressively getting more ill and irritated with the silver service, and they had more to deal with. Be this as it may the reception staff were surly, abrupt and did not make me feel welcome. Messages disappeared and for example, we bought chocolates for our saviour of a service manager, which a receptionist promptly delivered, but failed to leave our accompanying message. And the Silver service! OK I get it, do not touch anything. Not the food, them or even yourself. But outside of the dining areas it was a free for all for germs. The shop, Internet cafe, casino and other public areas were not policed like the dining areas. And there were a number of buffet stations closed during peak times when passengers were returning from port visits, making an already slow service worse. They called it silver service, I called it Oliver Twist service as you were constantly saying "Please may I have some more". If you reached your table and needed salt or extra sugar, back to the line you had to go! The cabin attendants were the unsung heroes of our cruise. They worked from morning to night and had extra laundry and disinfectant duties piled on them. Even so our Martin and Mary Lou could always be found humming a tune and smiling their days away. Always time for a towel animal, getting more ice or a chat about your day. I was horrified to witness many passengers removing their auto-gratuity. I guess it is a personal matter for everyone but we were so touched by the cabin stewards we gave them extra with a song in our hearts.
Disembarkation Barcelona can do no wrong I am convinced. We walked off with our luggage got into the organised taxi line and were on the way to the airport within five minutes of closing our balcony door for the last time.
In general We love the NCL concept of freedom and flexibility. Loved that we could dine in our shorts and t-shorts and it suited our laid back vacation attitude. Variety of food in the buffet was more than enough and we had to consciously make an effort to dine elsewhere for a change of scenery. Prices on board were expensive but we limited ourselves and bought drinks (non alchoholic) in port and put them in our bar fridge. While in a port the on board drinks are more expensive than at sea we discovered. Some extra port tax (!) You can get bargains on board though. We bought Chanel perfume as gifts for at least $20 cheaper than any of the many duty frees we travelled through. Also the "market" days on board provided many of our inexpensive trinkets.
We would sail NCL again without a doubt, but would base this on our love of their brand of flexibility and value for money. I am also of the opinion that if you have a problem they will listen and rectify the situation within reason.
And lastly what made this a holiday of a lifetime was the cruise critic friends we made and will most likely keep for life. Our cruise critic meeting was out of control with over a hundred people all talking and making a giant International noise. In the months leading up to our cruise the sharing of information, ideas, jokes and personal stories was overwhelming. I would like to Thank those who are reading this and know they now have a warm place in Africa to come and rest for a while. Thank you for the memories!