We booked Aqua Class and had stateroom 1531 on deck 11. This was a good location, a few steps from the forward lifts and a short walk to the Relaxation Room and the "secret" spiral staircase to the spa at the end of the corridor. The room was a little larger than we were expecting with the bed near the bathroom. Ideally, we could have done with a little more storage. The cupboards over the bed are not easy to reach if you are short! In contrast, the bathroom had plenty of cupboard and drawer space and the shower was wonderful. Small Niggle: the bedside tables are far too small, especially when one of them has the telephone on it which makes it virtually useless as a table. This is a design flaw as there is plenty of room for them to be a bit larger. Also, I found the shape of the glasses in the room difficult to hold, in fact I dropped and broke one of them.
Most people head to the cafe or Bistro on 5 for lunch but as we had eaten on the plane we were quite happy to sit on the balcony drinking our champagne, eating our fruit and watching the other ships come and go. These included 2 wonderful Star Clippers in full sail and a very colourful Moby ferry which had cartoon characters painted all over it. Our bags arrived within an hour or so and once we'd unpacked we headed off to explore the ship, ending up on the Solstice deck with a rum punch for sailaway.
FOOD: As we were Aqua we only ate in the main dining room for brunch on the last sea day. This is not to be missed. There was a huge selection of hot and cold foods, ice sculptures, chocolate fountains etc. Blu: For a variety of reasons we only ate here about 5 times. However, we loved it. The food selections are good and the portions just right. The smaller room makes it a much nicer experience and the service was fantastic. We had pre-booked 2 speciality restaurants online beforehand but changed onboard to take advantage of the 3 meals deal. Tuscan Grill: This is right at the back of the ship and has wonderful views. The food was OK, not great. We both ordered Lemon Herb Chicken which was huge, and tasted of neither herbs nor lemons. The service was very good. TIP: Try to get a window table, particularly if you are sailing out of port. Murano Grill: This was much more formal. We both had the veal. Mine was delicious but DH's had quite a lot of fat. Again, we had excellent service. Qsine: This was the best experience of the lot, completely unique, from the way you order to the descriptions and presentations. You select your favourites from the menus on the iPad and your waiter helps you by suggesting what order to eat them in and whether to reduce items or leave some out. If you order cocktails they bring the ingredients to table and show you how to make them. The only disappointment was the "surprise" dessert - it turned out to be apple pie which was not very good so the waiter took it away and brought me a small portion of chocolate cake. The service throughout was fantastic and all the staff are determined that you have a good time. Small Niggle: They have a habit of turning down the lights in the restaurants as the evening goes on. I presume this is to create atmosphere but it makes it hard to read the menu and see what you are eating! Bistro on 5: We ate here one night. It was not very busy and the menu was quite limited. Service was average. Throughout the whole cruise this seemed to be the least used. Oceanview Cafe: This was a bit hit and miss. They have changed the layout so that there are various "stations" set in the centre. In theory this should work but in practice does not. You end up trailing from one station to another to get a whole meal. It also leads to a lot of log jams and getting in each other's way. The food selection and quality were pretty good and there was plenty of table space, including outside at the rear. Mast Grill: This is located on the upper deck of the pool area. The disadvantage to this is that there is nowhere on the pool deck to get free drinks unless you go into the Aqua Spa Cafe. It also means you have to tackle the stairs back down to the pool balancing your plate/drinks etc. We only used this once to have a cheeseburger which was very good. Room Service: This was the biggest disappointment. The selection is extremely limited - as we were Aqua class we were supposed to have an expanded menu - the non-aqua class menu must be really short. The printed menus in the rooms were missing from the information folder - apparently they were not ready in time. This is unforgivable considering the time the ship has been in preparation. You can order through the interactive TV but despite advertising 24-hour room service, you can only actually order between certain times which is just daft. Aqua Spa Cafe: We mainly used this for breakfast. The selection is fresh fruit, toast, cereal etc. You can also order different kinds of eggs. Service was pretty good but there are not nearly enough tables.
We did not use Michael's Club or the Lawn Club Grill and we only found The Porch on the last night of the cruise. We also found the lighting in the Ensemble Lounge to be positively Dickensian. You have to walk through it to get to the speciality restaurants and Blu, it was like walking into a dark tunnel - not nice.
EXCURSIONS: In Israel we booked all our tours through the ship. In Haifa we docked right in the centre of town. As we had a port side room we had wonderful views. Our first trip was Haifa and Acre, but should more accurately have been described as Acre and Haifa as we spent so long in Acre that we had to rush back to Haifa to get to the Stella Maris monastery before it closed and saw next to nothing of Haifa itself which was a shame as it looks very interesting, unlike Acre which was actually rather uninteresting. This was DH's choice as he is a history buff but even he said it was not a good choice - you spend hours traipsing round the rooms of the Crusader fort, which are mostly very similar and then through the worst souk we have ever seen - small, filthy, smelly and generally horrible. There are much better souks elsewhere in the Med. What's more, the tour totally missed the seafront and city walls which are the very things the Israeli tourist board say you must see. It was very very hot and extremely humid. The next day was Nazareth and Galilee. Unfortunately, I was unwell in the night so DH did this on his own. The trip included a visit to the River Jordan which, according to DH, was very commercial and he found it difficult to glean any religious experience from it. There were lines of people queuing to take a dip, plus the water was very dirty. However, some of the churches on the shores of Lake Galilee were absolutely beautiful. Both Capernaum and Nazareth were well worth seeing. The included lunch was taken at a kibbutz and DH said the food was absolutely wonderful. We sailed overnight and arrived in Ashdod early morning. Today we had a trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This was wonderful and we had a great guide. He took the trouble to make us stop and think about what it would have been like in Jesus's time. We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, the Wailing (or Western) Wall, walked along part of the Via Dolorosa and then headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcha. This was absolutely packed and again it was difficult to get any religious sense but was very beautiful. After a wonderful lunch at a hotel we headed into Bethlehem where we took on a local guide. We were very lucky that once we got to the Church of the Nativity which holds the grotto over Jesus's birthplace there was next to no queue. This was an amazing experience and very moving. After visiting the grotto we headed to the Catholic Church where they were singing the service, very beautiful. On the second day in Ashdod we did the trip to Masada and the Dead Sea. It's quite a long drive and we had to make a stop en route as our air conditioning was not working. Fortunately, we stopped at a view point in Jerusalem while we waited for the replacement bus. Masada is an amazing place if you are interested in history or of the Jewish faith as this place is regarded as the birthplace of Israel. It was extremely hot so I elected to stay at the bottom of the mountain while DH went up to the top in the cable car. Rather annoyingly, the guide did not tell me that there was a restaurant where I could have waited. When DH returned via the cable car he waxed lyrical about the amazing views and how interesting the ruins were. We then drove to the Dead Sea resort area for another wonderful lunch and the chance of a dip in the sea. The hotel had direct access to the sea, plus a swimming pool. While it is something you have to do, I would not say it was particularly pleasant. As it's so buoyant you have no control so it's actually quite difficult to manoeuvre. Tip: Take beach towels from the ship as the ones the hotel provide are quite small and they only give you one. Overall, our experience in Israel was wonderful. I know some people were concerned about the political situation but as our guide told us, life goes on as normal and we had no problems whatsoever.
Kusadasi: We've been to Turkey many times so didn't feel the need to do any tours. After a leisurely breakfast we walked to Pigeon Island for a wander around and then had lunch in a restaurant by the port. I did take the opportunity to have a new gold wedding ring made at a jeweller near the port (I managed to lose mine a while ago) and this was ready by the time we returned from lunch. DH also splashed out on a diamond bracelet for me (aah). Again, the ship docks right in the centre and the view from the Relaxation Lounge was wonderful. I bumped into our assistant steward in there admiring the view. Sadly, he was not scheduled for any time off and I felt quite sorry for him.
Mykonos: We did the ship's island tour in the morning and then stayed in the centre for a wander around. We were scheduled to tender at this port but were lucky enough to berth at the new harbour. Yet more beautiful views from the Relaxation Lounge. This was our first visit to Mykonos and it probably won't be our last, it's a jewel of and island and well worth a visit.
Naples: As we'd been to Naples/Capri before, we opted for the ship's tour of the Amalfi Coast. This is a long drive along the coast with stops in Sorrento and Amalfi. The included lunch at hotel was distinctly average, although the location was wonderful. They also make a compulsory stop at a cameo factory, which frankly was only useful as a toilet stop. Tip: Try to get a seat on the right hand side of the coach and take a travel sickness pill as the road is very twisty. This was probably the least enjoyable trip.
Rome: We had transfers included but as our flight was not until 18.10 we decided to take the ship's city tour and airport transfer. Once we'd collected our bags and put them on the coach we were on our way. We headed for the centre of Rome and picked up our local guide. The best thing about this trip is that we got to the Vatican City and St Peter's early in the morning and, more importantly, got priority entry which meant no queue. After a very comprehensive tour of St Peter's we headed to the Coliseum. By this time it was very hot and a few of us decided to sit outside, rather than tour it. The guide did not react very well to this and was quite short with us. We then headed to the airport. We arrived at about 2.30pm and I used the self-service machines at the BA desk to check in and print our boarding passes. Rome airport is a nightmare with very little seating and miles of walking. We were extremely frazzled by the time we got on the plane.
ENTERTAINMENT: We only went to the theatre once for the Broadway show which was average. The dancers need to work on their timing. The acrobatic acts were quite good and I would have preferred to see more of them. The party band Sipra were great as always and we often sat having a coffee in the evening listening to them and watching people dance. We did not do any other activities. We did TRY to do one of the art studio seminars which was a disaster. We arrived 5 mins before the start time to find it full with people very engrossed in what they were doing. We thought this was probably the previous class. The woman running it totally ignored us. After a couple of minutes I asked her when the class was going to finish and she told us that it had already started. Apparently people arrived early so she just started without bothering to wait until the official start time and it was now too late for us to join in. We were not impressed.
We did not use the casino.
SUMMARY: The ship is beautiful but we felt it was a little too large for us. We did not experience any of the bad behaviour previously reported but that was probably due to the fact that the children's school holidays were over. That said, I can easily see how the pool area could become congested with lots of kids on board. I would definitely recommend Aqua Class for Blu alone. The rest of the "perks" are just fluff really and not worth getting excited about. We only used the Persian Garden once and did not use any of the spa services.