We were first-time cruisers and had read much on Cruise Critic, especially about this ship. To be honest we were a little apprehensive due to the many negative points and issues we read. Frankly, I think many of those issues lie with the individuals themselves and not necessarily the staff! I will elucidate later on this point.
We chose this cruise due to the many interesting ports from Stockholm through to Istanbul. It is far from South Africa and we needed to see as much as possible. Firstly we are glad we did not opt for a 7-day cruise. Only after 7 days did we really relax and begin to unwind.
We spent an extra day in Stockholm and enjoyed the old city to which we could walk from the hotel. It is an expensive city and we did not dine out. Due to the airport taking so long to get our bags out we had missed our shuttle, but as they run regularly the next one was able to accommodate us. Have the address though as they do not know all the hotels. Friendly people in the hotel who assisted us.
We had just enough kronen left for the taxi ride to the port. Embarkation was orderly and we were a little early but already there were a good many people. After 20 minutes we boarded and waited for the cabins to be opened. A lunch buffet was available and we enjoyed our first culinary experience. What I do not understand is that our bags were checked in simultaneously but we had to enquire about my wife's bags that night. Our cabin attendant did well to find the bags and it was our first encounter with Karen, an older lady from Nicaragua. She turned out to be a star and we had some good laughs and times together.
Our cabin was a large outside stateroom and I am not sure where the 'large' comes in, but it was comfortable, tidy and spotless. Karen kept it that way. The one drawer was dodgy and I reported that and it was promptly fixed the following morning. For such a long cruise we were glad we chose an outside cabin. We are South African, after all, and like to see the sun! Karen would also look for our lost laundry even though I was happy for her to follow it up the next day and it was never too much for her. Well done.
A bit of a mess was made with our My Time Dining reservations but it was sorted with the dining room and thereafter we had no problems. As someone mentioned they still try to get you to the same table in MTD to have the same waiters - in fact we eventually requested the same waiters as they were so professional and good to us. This impressed us: On the first night my wife jokingly commented to the head waiter Raymond that there was nothing with garlic on the menu. Within two minutes we had a bowl of garlic on our table. The next night we received our bowl of garlic within seconds from being seated and from there on it was the norm. We shared our garlic with the table. We later found that Raymond had briefed all the staff that when we arrive, we are to be presented with garlic. It was a nice touch and one greatly appreciated. Well done Raymond!
To be honest we found the food in the dining room up and down. There were really good dishes (lamb shank) and the next night it would be so-so. Of course we did not expect to be ecstatic every night, but we would order two sirloins and one would be really tough. We only went to the dining room for our waiters and the pleasure of the interaction with them. That says a bit about their attitude and service orientation. The Windjammer was always available and the selection was wide and quite tasty and often competitive with the dining room. So there was no reason to go hungry (as if that would ever happen on a cruise ship!).
After a day we cancelled our soda package. We don't like the syrup they use and decided to opt for the real thing instead. We found that you really had to drink a bit to make the package worthwhile. They did not credit me though and towards the end of the cruise I had to draw their attention to the fact.
Again, thank you to Estoban at the Service Desk who dealt with it promptly and professionally. So don't leave it until the very last day when the queues are long. The basic wine package was sufficient for us and again Raymond was a star. When I really did not like one wine that was unknown to me (there are no South African wines on the list) he replaced it with a recommended wine that was spot-on to my taste.
Obviously not all the shows were to our liking and we did not expect it to be. However there were some stunning performers and I appreciated the musical versatility of the ship's orchestra, playing saxophone myself. There was enough to keep oneself busy and we came to relax, in any event. We chose not be overwhelmed by activities and it suited us.
We had made a number of reservations for port visits (thank you to CC where we gleaned our ideas from fellow cruisers) and made the most of the ports. Segways are the most fun! And a way to see as much as possible when you have a guide like Shamus in Copenhagen. A bike tour in Lisbon with Felipe is also a pleasure although your butt will complain the next day. In some ports we juest walked and our friends found the hop-on hop-off buses effective.
We did one excursion with the ship and that to the Alhambra in Granada (port of Malaga). It is a long trip inland by bus. We are only able to complement the tour operator on this one - from the bus and guide to the guide in the Alhambra (father and son) - to the lunch which included a bottle of wine and glass of champagne. At first we were not sure if the wine was included, which it was. A great excursion. Unfortunately some of our new friends were not so lucky on their excursions, but they can tell their own story.
Speaking to friends who were on a much larger ship they had to rise early to be taken ashore, being tendered. We always docked in port and perhaps there is something to be said for a smaller ship for the speed they are able to get one to disembark (mostly).
We do not gamble nor did we use children's facilities, so cannot comment. The gym saw me once and then lost the popularity stakes when I beat my conscience down.
I like good coffee and drink espresso like other people drink tea. Thus I enjoyed the speciality coffee on offer (you pay for it) and the dining room staff quickly remembered my preference.
There was one sour(ish) note, and that was the smell of sewerage on the port side deck outside on deck 4. I could not pinpoint it but it seems to possibly have come from an air vent. In any case it was not pleasant, but we never lingered there.
Disembarkation was fast and we found our luggage quickly although other people did not have the same experience. The system seems to be prone to foul-ups, though. Now if only our shuttle service in Istanbul was as organised...
We spoke to people and that included the people who served us. They have families and they work hard. A kind word, a joke often make a difference to the way they perceive one. We were surprised at fellow passengers who did not know the name of their cabin attendant, even at the end of the cruise. Perhaps that is why our cruise was so enjoyable?
On our way back we stopped over in Amsterdam to take in the museums (Van Gogh and Rijk). Our hotel was almost on Museum Square. At Schipol Plaza bus 197 will take you to the square and can be boarded there again for the trip back to the airport as early as 06h00. At 4 euro per person it is substantially cheaper than the shuttle or a taxi.