My wife and I have cruised 3 times with Carnival in the Caribbean. We had planned for a Western Mediterranean cruise last year until a shocking discovery of lung cancer in my wife blew the whole plan out of the water.
After a surgery, many radiation treatments and an on-going chemo treatment, we never thought another cruise was possible, but her oncologist gave us the good news in Feb: her cancer is stabilized. And the good doctor highly encouraged her to go out, be active, and take a vacation....
With that, we resumed our planning and soon gathered 9 more friends and siblings to go along.
This was the first Mediterranean cruise for all 11 of us, and the first with NCL on the Jade. After countless hours of research on CruiseCritic and TripAdvisor, we went with an open mind about the much touted FreeStyle, and about NCL.
We knew all mass-market cruise lines have to make up for their low cruise fares by enticing cruisers to spend extra on specialty restaurants, casino, drinks, excursions, and the like. The so-called nickel and dimming never was an issue with any of us. Carnival did the same thing, why would we expect NCL to do differently?
The only thing I was unsure of was the MDR food service given that with "fixed" dining, you get the same servers everyday; with "FreeStyle", the servers changed every time. I was concerned that having different servers meant inferior service, since they wouldn't expect extra tips at the end of the cruise therefore would not give their best. We always tipped extra for our "fixed" servers before.
I also wanted to find out if NCL's food quality was worse than Carnival's. I am happy to say that food is on par in the MDR with Carnival. Except lobster night. The lobster was a disappointment. I think NCL used the African cousin - Rock Lobsters - instead of the ones we're used to. No big deal, I just ordered me a second entrEe.
I was pleasantly surprised that our servers performed over and above their call of duty - once we settled down on our choice of MDR.
The first night on May 23, we made reservation for the Grand Pacific. For some reason, the food was extremely slow in coming. I saw a couple getting up and leaving. Since there were 11 of us, there was no shortage of chit-chat to while away the wait. But I didn't want to chance it again and decided to give Alizar a try the next night.
I have to give Alizar's Maitre D and entire staff an "A+" for running a "tight ship." The Maitre D was out and highly visible every night. Servers and staff were all smiling and friendly. Food was brought out promptly and hot. Needless to say, we settled in for the Alizar the rest of the cruise.
Granted, portions are small, but you can order as many times as you wish. And if you don't like your choice, order a different entrEe. I was shocked that my second entrEe appeared almost before I finished ordering! I never experienced this kind of service with Carnival.
Breakfast at the Garden Cafe required a good bit of patience and luck in finding available tables. NCL needs to do something about this. Other than that, the variety of food beats Carnival's buffet hands down. There is no excuse for not finding something you like. Finding a seat is another mater.
Since I did my homework, we booked private excursions for all 11 of us. For Livorno and Civitavecchia, we used Limousine System which turned out okay, but there are better ones. For Naples, we hired AP Tours which was excellent! Highly recommend them. Our driver guide in Rome loved living dangerously: fast motor bike, bungee jumping, women.... He literally drove like a bat out of hell in Rome. Yes, even in congested traffic.
The great thing about private excursion is that we get dropped off near each site we wanted to visit, and getting in quickly. At the Colosseum, our driver guide marched us right past a mile long line of people waiting to buy tickets. Since I had instructed our excursion to pre-book our tickets, we walked right in after only 5 minutes at the ticket counter. Nice!
The Jade is a clean ship and well laid-out. The thing that struck me most is the lack of cigarette small in most of the public places and cabins. With Carnival's ships, you can't get anywhere without going past the casino which means a suffocating second-hand cigarette smell! Thank you NCL, for putting your casino in out of the way place!
I also liked the generally more subdued ambience on the Jade vs. the "party boat" atmosphere of Carnival's ships.
We all really enjoyed our NCL cruise immensely. To us the extremely negative reviews are mostly un-called for. If you read them closely, you can almost sense a mean spirit. It's like they deliberately tried to find fault. Sure, if you want to find fault, there's plenty to go around - with any cruise line - even high-priced ones.
We had great weather too the entire time with the temp in the 70's in settings of sun-kissed beaches and cobble-stoned streets. I am happy to report also that my dear wife did fabulously. The only thing she and another elderly gentleman from our group missed was the 2-hour walking tour of Pompeii. She more than gained it back from the breathtakingly beautiful Amalfi Coast drive that followed.
We were back in Barcelona at the same hotel we started from: NH Duc de la Victoria right in the heart of the Barri Gotic 3 minutes from either Plaça Catalunya and Las Ramblas. Clean, comfortable, safe, and convenient. Can't ask for a better hotel.
I'm sure there were lots of pickpockets in Barcelona. My heart goes out to the shipmates that got hit. We strolled up and down Las Ramblas, La Boqueria, and Barri Gitic with heightened sense of our surroundings and were always safe.
I attribute our wonderful experiences to the many prayers from a great host of Christians from all over the place in our behalf. We give thanks to our good Lord.
Have a blessed time if you are planning your next cruise.