This was my fifth cruise, and first on Norwegian. I went with my husband and 3 children under the age of 12. Our last cruise was on Carnival. We chose this particular ship for the Eastern Mediterranean itinerary. I will apologize upfront for the length, as I am trying to provide details and explanations for my ratings.
The ship is in good shape and well maintained. The Hawaiian dEcor is out of place, and sometimes a bit loud, but at other times it's quite fun. There are a few things I noticed about this ship that I want to point out for those that are considering a first cruise on it:
*This ship has a lot of indoor areas with windows, but it does not have a lot of outdoor space. We liked that there was a good library, game rooms, deck observation room, and plenty of window seats available. It's easy to sit and watch the scenery, but be shielded from the February cold. However, I'm not sure how this would be for a summer cruise, when you want to spend as much time as possible outside. I would expect a lot of competition for lounge chairs!
*It was very hard to find a quiet spot to be alone, other than our room or braving the cold outside at night. This was the first time I've had that problem on a cruise. It might be because most everyone wanted to be inside during the cruise.
*We felt the movement on this ship more than previous cruises. My husband and daughter had to take Bonine while having relatively calm seas, a first for them. Our rooms were low and near the center, like on our last cruise. I don't know whether this was a function of the Mediterranean Sea itself, or the ship, though.
We had one inside room and one porthole room. Both were in good condition. We loved the door on the shower in the bathrooms. The porthole room was noticeably bigger and had more storage. My biggest complaint here is that the porthole room was nice and bright during the day, but was quite dreary at night. Even with every light on, we wished we'd brought a small lamp. The interior room was adequately lit, though.
For us, it was a "you get what you pay for" experience. We booked cheap cabins, and it felt like we were staying in a 2* European hotel. No chocolates on the pillows or daily towel animals, no robes or coffee makers because we were in low category rooms (all known ahead of time). The beds, pillows and linens were functional, but far from as nice as Carnival's. Each thing individually isn't a big deal, and at the end of the day we would remind ourselves that we booked this for the ports, and not to be pampered or vacation just on the ship.
The room stewards were quiet, and occasionally it took a while to get our room made up, but no better or worse than any other cruise we've experienced.
The nightly entertainment is way above average for a cruise ship. Some shows weren't my taste, but they were still performed well. The Cruise Director, Karen, was very responsive to a complaint I made about a show being inappropriate for children. My husband wants to point out that she was the only Cruise Director that didn't annoy him - which says a lot.
There are many daytime activities, but they seem to get repetitive when you have 6 days at sea. Every day it was the same offerings: Dance lessons, trivia, art auction, bingo/casino, liquor tastings and NCL promotions (future cruises, shore excursions, etc.). On other cruises, we've spent hours just laying out by the pool, but it was too cold for that, and we did get a bit bored. They played movies in the lounge only on port days, and I would have loved to have had one on a sea day. We appreciated and used the library many times.
A few niggly things about the theater: You can easily have instant raffle tickets brought to your seat, but it's close to impossible to get a drink. Bring it with you if you want a drink during the show. All seating is individual with fixed arm rests in between (so no snuggling up close). The evening shows are very popular, and we found we needed to get there 15-20 minutes before show time. Even then, on one night, the five of us ended up in 4 different rows, but we were fine with it.
I must give kudos to the Kids Krew counselors, as they were very good with the kids. On our sailing, there were only 100 kids total on board. As a result, they combined all the activities for ages 6-12. They tend to alternate an activity with "Freestyle Free Play" in which the kids can color, play legos or a game. Overall, my kids liked the Kids Club, but 2 out of 3 preferred Camp Carnival. Our middle child would have liked it better if they were allowed to play Wii during free play. The activities (which I think were more in line with what they normally do for ages 6-9) were not as interesting to our oldest.
If I had to pick one word to describe our dining experience, it would be Frustrating, for many reasons:
1) The food quality is wildly inconsistent. Most dishes were okay, some were really good, and a few were so bad I was able to overcome my Catholic guilt of wasting food and only take one bite. Desserts were consistently lousy (with the exception of the pound cake in the Blue Lagoon and the ice cream.)
2) We got tired of receiving food that didn't match the description on the menu. "Chicken Piccata" had tomato sauce instead of piccata (lemon) sauce. The "Crab and Avocado Salad" had no avocado, but was a step up from the "Spinach and Artichoke Dip" which had neither spinach nor artichoke. The "Honey Crème Brulee" was a thin veneer of a crème brulee-like substance over chocolate pudding. The "Fresh Fruit and Cottage Cheese" at breakfast was fruit served with cream cheese - to which the Maitre D apologized, but said the chef insists its European Cottage Cheese. (I live in Europe and can buy cottage cheese.) I could give many more examples, but I think I've made my point clear.
3) It was really hard to eat healthy. There isn't the equivalent of Carnival's spa entrEe each evening and most entrees are served without a vegetable, or just a few shavings of one. One of the times the description matched the meal was the "Chicken Curry" which was literally just chicken pieces with curry sauce. So every evening I would add a side of steamed vegetables to my order. It seemed to add time to our meal, and it was always 2 pieces of broccoli, 2 pieces of cauliflower and a few carrots. It got so bad that a few times we went to the buffet before the main dining room to get some other vegetables as our appetizer. It's also frustrating to go to La Boqueria (the outdoor covered market) in Barcelona and look at all the beautiful produce, but not see anything of that quality on a ship that departs from there.
4) We didn't like Freestyle Dining like we thought we would. We did like that we could dine when we wanted. However, unlike traditional cruise ship dining, the meals aren't timed to go with the shows, and we found we had to eat really early and/or skip dessert in order to make it to the 7:30 show. It's also a bit more chaotic as table linens are being changed at the table next to you as you eat. The waiters are constantly busy, and you don't have time to chat with them and get tips for going in to port, etc. like you do on other lines.
5) The Jasmine Garden specialty restaurant we ate at was excellent. Best meal we had on the ship. We would have never chosen to eat here, but we were comped it after not being able to get settled into our rooms until after 6:30pm on embarkation day. Wish we had saved it for the last day, as it made the regular dining experience more disappointing, because you know they are capable of providing an excellent meal. I have to agree with other reviewers who feel that NCL is providing lower quality meals in the free dining areas in hopes that cruisers will pay extra to go to the specialty restaurants.
Overall, service was good. A few times it was excellent, a few times we had trouble getting our water glasses filled, and only once was it really a problem (and the Maitre D noticed and came in to pinch-hit for our waitress who was really out of it that day.)
I will note that we were able to find foods we enjoyed at the buffet, although the food there was inconsistent as well. The buffet could be loud, and required a bit of patience for getting a place to sit, so after a few days we started going to the Grand Pacific for breakfast and lunch as well. But after a few days of that, we returned to the buffet for lunch and some dinners as it was less frustrating. It would have been nice to have a better variety - especially at lunch - for a 12 day cruise. Replacing the corn chowder and chicken noodle soups with a "soup of the day" would make a big difference.
Initially, I was very disappointed that the overnight stop in Alexandria (cancelled due to political unrest) was swapped for two nights in Istanbul during its coldest, rainiest month. Although I would have rather gone to Cyprus or Haifa like other lines did, I realize that it probably was in our best interest not to go to that region. We did not do any NCL excursions, and with one exception, explored the ports on our own. It saves a ton of money, and allowed us to go at a pace that was best for our kids.
Barcelona - We drove to Barcelona from our home and spent the night just outside the city. Drove in early in the morning and parked at the World Trade Center and began our touring. Have nothing but praise for the two Runner Bean Tours we took of the Gaudi sights and Old City. The kids loved Park Guell and I loved the weather we had while we were there.
Civitavecchia/Rome - It's easy to take the train to Rome on your own. We made the most of the day seeing all the highlights (Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, St. Peter's Basilica and more) and took some time for some delicious Italian food & wine.
Piraeus/Athens - We were slightly delayed getting off the ship and didn't get to Athens via bus and metro until nearly noon. In the winter, the major sights close at 3:00pm, making it a challenge to sqeeze a lot in, but we still had a good day. Spent more time souvenir shopping. The Agora and New Acropolis Museum were our favorites.
Izmir/Ephesus - I splurged on a private guide for just our family (Ali with Ekol Travel) and felt it was worth it. We had a great day and were amazed by the Terrace Houses. We walked away with such a greater appreciation for life in Ancient Roman times.
Istanbul - By this time (3rd & 4th port days in a row) we were getting tired. The mosques were interesting, the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market were chaotic, and Topkapi Palace was impressive, albeit with many major portions closed off. Our absolute favorite was the "Turkish Dance Night" show on Saturday night. Truly amazing and impressive. The weather was so cold and rainy on our 2nd day that we gave up touring and went back to the ship early. We had wanted to do a Bosphorous cruise, but visibility was too poor and we were all ready for some hot chocolate instead.
Malta - I have to admit I'd never heard of this country before booking the cruise. What an intriguing history this place has. Public transportation around the island wasn't as easy as the guide books make it out to be, and although we got to Mdina and the Ta Q'ali Craft Village, we didn't get much time in Valetta like we'd planned. Still a nice place to visit.
Embarkation and disembarkation went very smoothly. Only a short wait each time. Overall, the employees were friendly, and we loved how warmly Evangeline greeted everyone at the buffet. We only had problems with the staff at the reception desk, who didn't seem very knowledgeable or well-informed about things. It was impossible to get a detailed weather forecast, or even just a % chance of rain. I was told that "if it doesn't say rain in the Daily, it isn't going to rain," only to have it be raining when we pulled in to port less than an hour later. As mentioned above, we had problems with getting rooms with a bed for each person that took hours to resolve. I won't go in to detail on because I don't want to re-live the frustration.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this cruise as an economical way to get to all the great ports, but I would definitely not recommend the cruise as the vacation itself if you aren't going to explore the ports.
One special note for those cruisers who will drive to Barcelona: The port bus did not (does not anymore?) stop outside the World Trade Center as advertised and where the signs are posted. It only stopped by the Colombus Statue, but we didn't know this at the time we were trying to get to the ship. We foolishly believed it when a parking lot employee told us we were only 1km from the boat and started walking with our luggage in tow. It took us almost an hour to get there! After disembarkation we got off at the Columbus statue and walked for 10 minutes to the parking lot.