My wife and I recently sailed on the Norwegian Jade, on the Nov 16, 2011 Eastern Mediterranean 10-Night Cruise. It was our first cruise ever. The bar has now been set pretty high, in my opinion, in terms of a cruise experience. We had an absolutely FANTASTIC time. And the Norwegian Jade was a huge part of that success.
I've got so much I'd like to say about our entire experience, but I'm going to try to stay focused on the Norwegian experience, with minimal diving into all the things we did/learned on our fabulous shore excursions.
The itinerary was as follows. We embarked in Rome. Then spent a full day at sea. Then we had a day in Katakolon/Olympia, Greece, followed by a day in Athens and a day in Izmir/Ephesus, Turkey. Then came a full day at sea, before spending two days at Alexandria/Cairo, Egypt. Finally, we had two full days at sea before returning to Rome. We did privately booked excursions in Olympia, Turkey and Egypt. We did Athens on our own. And on the 2nd day in Alexandria, we made a last minute decision to take the ship's bus excursion around Alexandria ("Highlights of Alexandria" a half-day tour).
EMBARKATION: Because this was our first cruise, I'd spent a lot of time researching what to expect, including reading a lot on Cruise Critic. The only issue I have with embarking in "Rome" is the fact that you actually embark in Civitavecchia...which is a long way from Rome AND the airport. We had stayed a couple of days in Rome before the cruise, and were just off the Prati district. Thus, our ride (privately arranged) to the port was just a little over an hour. They tell you to expect 2 hours, but I guess we had favorable traffic. Other than this, embarkation was a BREEZE!! We pulled up to the port at about 1pm, and because our luggage already had the tags Norwegian had provided, a porter quickly whisked it away (plus a $1 per bag tip). We then went through security, which took all of two minutes, then stood in line for another 2minutes before being seen by a desk clerk (for lack of a better word) to check in. Credit card # was provided for which we received the keys to the kingdom in the form of our ID/room key cards. Then the obligatory embarkation photo, then a few pictures of us on the dock with the ship in the background. We walked to the gangway and by 1:15, we were onboard. 15 minutes to embark. We grabbed lunch at the Great Outdoors, the bar and small buffet area on Deck 12 aft. (This was to become perhaps our favorite spot on the ship.) We had an excellent lunch and a couple of stiff (expensive, but stiff) drinks. A little after two, we wandered over to our cabin (9008, forward, starboard. Balcony stateroom). Nothing could have been simpler. It all went so fast and smoothly, that we had NO anxiety.
STATEROOM: At 185 square feet, the stateroom is hardly humongous. But we didn't expect anything bigger, and the room was immaculate. When our luggage arrived mid-afternoon, we were able to easily find space for everything without ANY need for clutter. Our suitcases all slid under the bed. So the room looked great still. I suggest you look at photos/floorplan on the NCL site, because descriptions are not my strong suit. But there was a King bed (which turned out to be quite comfortable) and a small love seat. Two tiny desk areas. A little square table and one extra chair. A small bedside table on one side of the bed. The bathroom was tiny, of course, but we actually got quite used to it. The toilet is in its own little room (I do mean little.) The shower was small, but I think I've had smaller in hotel rooms in NYC. The sink area didn't have a lot of shelf space, but we had some handing cosmetic bags and just hung those on the door. Hot water came fast and plentiful.
The room had one outlet in the bathroom (it says "razors only"...we never used it). There were two outlets in the main room, one at each little desk area. I had brought a power strip and a couple of extension cords. This was plenty for charging camera batteries, running my ipod player/charger, and other incidentals. Because of a tiny bit of advance planning, we had no issues. There is a hair dryer at the desk nearest the restroom. It was okay but my wife has long, thick hair, so she used her own hair dryer. There is a small fridge (not terribly cold, but okay) that has no freezer space. We had Madonna, our excellent steward, clear it out of all the mini-bar stuff. There was a small, old-school TV...but I understand they are replacing those during the dry dock happening right now. TV choices were minimal...mostly British news and sports, plus CNBC and E!, plus a German and Italian station. There were lots of ship specific channels, plugging the store, plugging excursions, but also showing maps and weather. We did not spend a lot of time watching TV, except when getting ready in the morning.
The balcony is small. There were two chairs and a small table. But it was perfect for sitting out and reading or relaxing. I never had a complaint...standing at the railing as the coast of Sicily goes by or reading my Kindle in the sunset with the gentle swale of the Mediterranean outside is not something I'm going to complain about! We'll never cruise without a balcony. Having that full size sliding door to the balcony also makes the room seem much bigger.
Again, this is a small room. But it was comfortable and relaxing. We never heard much from the rooms around us or out in the hall. I have no significant complaints. Set your expectations so that you understand this isn't the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton, and you'll be good.
DINING: I am now somewhat discouraged by how many people have knocked the Jade on its food quality. Again, set your expectations accordingly. If for some reason you expect food prepared for over 2000 people to be gourmet quality...then you will be disappointed. But overall the food was quite good (and needless to say, it was plentiful). I've also read many complaints about "small portions" at the Main Dining Room. Okay, they aren't huge like we're used to in America...but also know that you can order more with NO TROUBLE. Several nights, there was a salad and a soup that sounded great...so I ordered both! By the time you have a salad, a soup, some bread, a modest sized entrÃ©e and a lovely dessert...you should be full. If not, order more. Try several things. There is NO REASON to be hungry on this ship.
On roughly half of the evenings on board, we had dinner at the Grand Pacific MDR. It is the larger and more elegant of the two. We frequently had seats on a window, which was extra special. The room is lovely (yes, it has a South Pacific theme...but we actually kind of enjoyed it, especially the really well done murals). The service was almost always terrific (one night, a few mistakes were made, but this did not blunt our enjoyment). The food was generally very good. The only "failure" I would comment on was the "available all the time" grilled chicken. It was fairly tasteless and bland. The appetizer/salad/soups were always top notch, and the desserts were always excellent as well. Throughout the ship, we had excellent cheesecakes...not too heavy and with delicate sauces. The entrees were generally very good as well. Not every one was slam dunk, but most were very tasty. We never left the table truly disappointed. One night we tried the other MDR, Alizar. The service and food were the same...but the space itself just didn't appeal to us as much. Lower ceilings and a less exciting dÃ©cor. I know others feel just the opposite. Some say the Grand Pacific is more "formal" and I guess it is...but frankly, there was plenty of informal dress everywhere, even on the "dress up or not" nights. We never dressed up...we usually were there in what I'd describe as "business casual." We only tried two of the specialty restaurants. Teppanyaki, even at $25 per person, was a blast. Highly recommended. Cagney's Steakhouse was very nice. Service was a notch more attentive. The crÃ¨me brulee was to die for. But at $25 per person, I can't honestly say it was worth it. It's more formal, certainly. We went there on a "date night" and it fit that bill. But the food was not geometrically better than in the MDR. It is good for a "romantic" night out, I think...but it is not a must-do. I'm not sorry we went, but I wasn't as bowled over as I might have hoped.
For breakfast, we either ate in the Grand Pacific (sea days, because it took longer), and it was fabulous. Anything you could want, prepared your way and with impeccable service. On port days, when we were in a hurry, we hit the Garden CafÃ© (the main buffet). Pretty much what you'd expect from a gigantic buffet, but we enjoyed it. The seating in their dining room was ALWAYS full...but we took our food into Papa's Italian, and never had trouble getting a nice table there.
Lunch we grabbed in various places. Often, we went to the Great Outdoors. They have a small but very well done buffet. Our first sea day, they had a German themed buffet, and it was awesome! We ate once at the Blue Lagoon for lunch (comfort food, open 24 hours) and had a nice burger and fries. We also went there several times for early appetizers. (On shore days, we ate lunch off the ship, obviously.)
Room service was available, but we only used it once for a late night dessert. The breakfast menu had no eggs or meat available...and there was no way we were heading out for a long day on shore without some protein!
BARS: Bars are everywhere. Drinks are pricey. But we still indulged frequently. Great Outdoors, Atrium (which also has a free coffee bar and a variety of free pound cakes. Delicious and they don't advertise that they are free, so we never saw anyone getting any. Best place on board to get a FAST treat), Spinnaker and at the restaurants. The bartenders were universally making strong drinks. If you want to help defray the costs, a run runner of two full of Bacardi and a soda card for unlimited Pepsi would really help out. Not that I'm advocating that, or even saying we did it...but I'm just throwing it out there.
ENTERTAINMENT: There is always something going on. A lot of the incidental entertainment, such as piano in Bar Central was forgettable, frankly. Background music only...I'm sure the players were skillful enough, but they were there to provide mood not a show. That being said, we found ourselves drawn many evenings to the Atrium to listen to RJ Red. Just him and his electric guitar, playing Beatles, Croce, Dylan, Elton, Kansas, etc. Mellow stuff...but he had quite a following, and spending 20 minutes with him in the evening was often a great way to finish up our day.
We saw 5 shows in the Stardust Theatre, the 110 0 seat theater. All were enjoyable. First up was SHOUT!, a London West End show featuring an all female cast performing a variety of songs from the '60s. The full lengthy show was shaved down to 50 minutes...but the cast was great, the live band was great, and the production values were just fine. Highly recommended. We saw a couple of different "variety" shows featuring acrobats, jugglers and that sort of thing. I'm normally a picky theater-goer...but after a pre-dinner drink and a lovely dinner in the MDR, I found myself in too good of a mood to be very picky. We enjoyed the shows very much. ELEMENTS, the Jade's signature extravaganza is a MUST SEE. I was amazed at what they pulled off technically. They saved this for the next to last night, and I was tempted to tell my wife I wanted to go to the second showing. It was quite exciting. The final night, they presented the crew show. A true variety show with frankly widely varying quality...it was still fun. After 10 days, the audience felt such an affinity for the wonderful staff of the Jade that sentimentality won out over good sense. And we had an extra "treat" when at the end of the show, one of the Assistant Cruise Directors (from Mexico) proposed to one of the spa specialists (who had done MY massage, is from Bulgaria). The crowd went wild. Jade uses this show to make you feel warm and fuzzy about the Jade...and ready to come back and spend more money there. It works...my wife and I would not hesitate to sail on the Jade again.
DISEMBARKATION: As smooth as Embarkation. We were on the last group off. We left the ship, found our luggage in about 15 seconds, and a minute later, were sitting on our van waiting to be driven to the airport. Again, all printed materials will tell you "2 hours to the airport"...but it took us an hour. I guess we had good traffic again. I'm glad we didn't go with the group an hour earlier, which is what the ship had originally recommended. We were at FCO 4 hours before boarding as it was. But NCL handled the whole process impeccably.
MISC THOUGHTS: I've read other reviews and comments that "we hardly ever saw our Cruise Director." Not the case with ours. Gary Gladding (sp?) was everywhere. The night we ate at the Alizar, he was dining with some folks at the table next to us. We finished dinner and got to the theatre 5 minutes before showtime. And who was there to greet us but our Cruise Director! He was all over the ship, leading talks on the Messina Straights as we passed through them, or hosting The Newlywed Game or just hanging out as we disembarked. He was like a game show host...perfect hair, perfect dress, a pressed-on smile. But it worked, because beneath the veneer, I think really enjoyed his work. He was approachable too.
I spent a few hours in the Casino. It was never very full. It was okay...a casino. What more to you want? They did have one $5 blackjack table that was always packed. Roulette started with just a $1 minimum. Bar service was fast...no free drinks.
The onboard shopping was mostly confined to the Galleria...one large store with jewelry and misc sundries and clothing. We spent some time browsing but spent little, because prices weren't exactly great. But it was a pleasant spot and always quite full. Closed while in port.
The photo gallery. Way overpriced, of course...but my biggest complaint was that the quality of the photos was not great. Whenever we go off the ship, there stood one of the team in a costume. For example, in Greece, the guy would be in a Greek toga kinda of getup. We'd have to pose with him and get a photo. My wife and I looked nice...but this guy in the toga didn't now how to smile, and thus the final photo kind of stunk. We didn't mind being photographed...but the photos just weren't very good.
Internet was expensive and slow. As expected. I saw folks trying to update their Facebook pages...I think I would have killed myself in frustration at the load times. I mostly checked email with our kids.
The debarkation process when in ports was quite smooth. The ship was always on time in port, and usually we were able to leave the ship a little earlier than announced the prior day. One thing that's weird...on NCL's site, they frequently talk about needing to be back on the ship 2 hours before sailing. This is wrong. Our on-board time was always only 30 minutes before sailing.
The Great Outdoors is one of the best places to hang out. There's usually some food, the bar is fast, and the views of ports and sunsets is great. As I said, this became a favorite spot to just chill out. We ate our first lunch there and our last breakfast. And many snacks and drinks in between.
Are there things that could be better? Yes, probably hundreds. But as I sit here now, less than a week removed from debarkation, I can really remember almost nothing that was a bother. Let's see. Only one ATM on board, in the casino. High fee to use and very slow. Currency exchange not very favorable. Old TVs (problem solved now, I think). The fact that they let people come into the theatre and find seats long after the show has started (except during ELEMENTS). A little less rock n roll played live than I would have liked. Because the weather was cooler, there were few outdoors events and those were the only times Sound Bytes played and "cranked up the jams." Could have used a little more of that. The spa is overpriced. The half day NCL shore excursion in Alexandria was mediocre...our guide's English was not that easy to understand, and when we asked her questions, she didn't always handle them very well. I think we did the right thing in booking private excursions. They were usually cheaper anyway, and the personal service was awesome.
But these are nitpicks. We had a GREAT time. The itinerary was darn near perfect, and our days on ship were a relaxing joy. Lots of events (if you wanted) or lots of down time. We're both 100% sold on cruising.
(I'll probably post individual port review s as well. But I will just say we were relived to be able to visit the Pyramids and such...we arrived when the riots were really getting going in Tahrir Square, but ultimately, we had no safety issues in Egypt, other than the most frightening traffic in the world.)