As my mother-in-law has always wanted to see the Norwegian fjords, we began looking for cruises that would allow her that opportunity. After initially being booked on a Windstar cruise with a similar itinerary, we decided to cancel that ... Read More
As my mother-in-law has always wanted to see the Norwegian fjords, we began looking for cruises that would allow her that opportunity. After initially being booked on a Windstar cruise with a similar itinerary, we decided to cancel that reservation and cruise with Norwegian both to save money and to have more dining and entertainment option for our 13 year old daughter who also traveled with my mother-in-law, my husband and I. Full disclosure, this was my first cruise ever and I was concerned that I would not like cruising.
We arrived in Hamburg the day before the flight and stayed at the Lindner Hotel Am Michel. I highly recommend this hotel. Not only was it in a good area near St. Michael's (which has a day and night viewing deck...don't miss it!), the rooms were modern, spacious and well kept. We had a two room suite with a balcony overlooking the city rooftops. The staff was excellent as well.
After arriving at the Altona Cruise Terminal on the day the cruise departed, we quickly dropped off our bags and then waited in an excessively long line. Having never cruised before, I wondered if this was normal. But, other experienced cruisers, like my mother-in-law and husband, as well as people we met in line, assured me that this was out of the ordinary. I don't know what the hold up was, perhaps it has to do with the fact that the higher Latitudes Rewards members can skip the line, but I found the embarkation process to be very slow.
I was however pleasantly surprised when we finally got aboard the Jade. The ship was in great condition and I found my 10th deck balcony stateroom to be bigger than I had expected with plenty of room to store all of our stuff for a two week cooler weather vacation. My husband and I shared one stateroom while my daughter and mother-in-law shared the adjoining stateroom. There was an interior door between the two rooms as well. Their room felt slightly more cramped to me as the beds were separated with a small table between them leaving less room around the edges. I found the bathroom and shower to be of adequate size. I read reviews of the Jade on Cruise Critic before I left saying that the stateroom bathrooms were especially small. My husband and I are both large people and had no problem in either the toilet or the shower which are separated by a sink area and can be individually closed off by sliding doors. I also thought that the balcony, equipped with a small table and two comfortable chairs, was an adequate size. The USB ports under the light fixtures next to the bed were very useful and I found the bed to be comfortable as was the small coach near the balcony door. There was a clothes line in the shower. We did use a few cruise critic hacks in the stateroom that enhanced it for us including using an over the door mesh organizer, which we secured to the wall with magnetic hooks. This gave us so much extra storage space. We also used magnetic hooks to secure a longer cloths line that we brought and to post things, like the Daily Freestyle, right on the wall. I should mention that our steward was outstanding! Our room was always clean and she entertained us daily with her creative towel animals.
I found the Jade, which was recently retrofitted, to be in great shape. I didn't notice any wear and tear in the public spaces and everything was cleaned thoroughly every day. The crew was terrific, very friendly and always willing to assist. For a cooler weather itinerary like this one that brought us to Norway, Scotland and Iceland after departing Hamburg, there should be more thought given to increasing the amount of covered outdoor areas. For example, there was never enough seating in the Garden Cafe at breakfast and, while they also opened up La Cucina, some people were literally left out in the cold. Perhaps a retractable covering could be added to cover some outdoor spaces in the future. Some of the newer furniture in the public spaces could have been more comfortable too, specifically the couches in the booths at the Spinnaker Lounge and the bar stools at Bliss.
I thought that the entertainment was, for the most part, very good. We only missed two shows in the Stardust over the course of the 14 night cruise, a comic impersonator while we were docked in Reykjavik and a Neil Diamond tribute by Jumari, neither of which interested us. Of the shows that we did see, the ones that featured the ship's production singers and dancers, Showdown, Blazing Boots and Elements were terrific. The two shows by the Beatles impersonation band were good too as was the duo who did a Cirque type show. Less successful were the illusionists and the juggler. We did like that there were two times for the show each night and that there was also entertainment in the Spinnaker. We loved Broadway Night and An Evening with Lyle there. The game shows and the trivia were standard fare but definitely fun if of very short duration. (Why are all the activities only 45 minutes long?)
I was also pleasantly surprised by the dining options on board the ship and loved the freestyle dining concept. Most breakfasts were eaten in the Garden Cafe (or out in the cold as I mentioned above). The selection was extensive with plenty of options. We also ate breakfast a few mornings in the Grand Pacific which, while the food was good, I found slow. The majority of our lunches were eaten in port although we did go to O'Sheehan's on occasion. I was not overly impressed with the menu or the service there. Our favorite spot for dinner was Alizar although we also enjoyed the Grand Pacific the few nights my husband felt like putting pants on. The menus were good and the food was tasty and prepared properly if a little under seasoned. My daughter, who is a picky eater, was always able to find something that she liked. I appreciate that they have the standard entrees, like steak and fries and pesto fettuccine, available every night in case you can't find anything else on the menu. My only complaint about dinner is that it did tend to drag on a bit which meant gobbling dessert to make the 7:30pm show some nights or changing our plans and attending the 9:30pm show.
I ate at four of the specialty restaurants and would highly recommend Moderno, Cagney's and Teppenyaki. For the extra money, I would not recommend La Cucina as I did not think that the food there was anything special. My husband and mother-in-law also ate at Le Bistro and enjoyed it.
I liked some of the extra ship activities like the beer festival with German cuisine and an Ommpah band and the Viking ceremony when we crossed the arctic circle. I never really saw any of the lounge performers or visited the specialty bars.
As I'm sure you can tell, I loved my first cruise. The preconceived notions that I had about the size of the stateroom, the cleanliness of the boat, boredom on sea days and rude fellow travelers were for the most part dispelled by my experience on the Jade. While there were obnoxious guests to be sure, I steered clear of them and found my other concerns not to be valid.
One area that I do think there is a great deal of room for improvement though is the NCL shore excursions. First, I was disappointed that there were no lectures about the upcoming ports. I wish that NCL would add these to their itineraries as I'm sure that I'm not alone in wanting to learn more about the locations we are visiting. All of their current educational programs are sales related. Learn about emeralds so you can buy them in the ship's shop! No thanks! Perhaps they could even offer educational videos or movies about the upcoming ports.
Second, the tender ticket situation on board the Jade is ridiculous. Having done my homework in advance by reading Cruise Critic reviews of recent sailings, I knew that I needed to be in line early for the first tender port, Shetland. I arrived an hour and a half before the tickets were being distributed and was near the front of the line and able to get tender one. By the second tender port, Edinburgh, everyone knew the secret and the line starting forming over two hours early. It's especially critical to get an early number tender ticket in Edinburgh as it's an hour round trip to the port from the ship meaning that if you didn't have an early tender ticket you could be waiting for hours to get off the ship. This was a super stressful situation for everyone as a number of travelers (including me!) booked activities in Edinburgh for the morning without realizing the tendering problems. I put the blame squarely on NCL for that. Once you book a cruise, you should be advised as to which ports of call require tenders and given a reasonable time that you can expect to be off the ship, not docked, but in port so you can plan accordingly. Also, they need to fix the tender ticket process itself. I have no idea how but they can start by not allowing an individual to get 37 tender tickets at once!
Third, over the course of the cruise we took five NCL excursions. Most of them, while very pricey, were fine. These included Land of the Trolls in Alesund, Norway in a Nutshell in Bergen, Shetland Ponies and Scalloway Castle in Shetland and Jewels of the North in Akureyri. However, one of our tours Best of the Highlands: Castles, Loch Ness and Inverness, was terrible. Not only were there rude travelers who kept us waiting not once but twice (and once for a half hour!), there was a mix up at the hotel where we were to have lunch in Inverness. We waited 45 minutes for an awful lunch missing out on looking around Inverness entirely. Additionally, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle were quite literally overrun with tourists and the gift shop at Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness sells nothing Nessie related as the town of Loch Ness has a trademark on Nessie. My advice is to take the WOW Scotland tour which is similar but less expensive, offers a boxed lunch on the bus so you have time to see Inverness, goes to the town of Loch Ness and visits the quieter side of the Loch.
One positive aspect of booking NCL excursions is that you don't have to worry about tender tickets in tender ports if your NCL shore excursion leaves in the morning. We'd likely skip NCL tours in the future except at tender ports.
We booked our own tours in Orkney, Edinburgh and Reykjavik which were less expensive, and for the most part, better, than the ship's tours. We would have booked more independent excursions but my mother-in-law was concerned about making it back to the ship on time. I don't think this is a valid concern as the private tour companies know how important it is to their business to get you to your ship before it departs. A word of advice on booking your own tours, for the small ports like Orkney, do it well in advance as they sell out quite quickly...months in advance of the cruise. Finally, for the Edinburgh (New Haven) port, because of the long tendering time, don't rush back to the port to get on the tender. We waited an hour in the tender line in port. It would have made more sense to show up just in time for the last tender or, if you show up early, have a beer at the port while the line lessens.
As I mentioned, we did travel with our thirteen year old daughter. She loved the food, entertainment and shore excursions but was not impressed with the Entourage program. I think that there are a few reasons for this. First, the program is for kids aged 13-18, which is a wide age difference. As there weren't all that many kids on this cruise to begin with, there were only about 20 who attended Entourage events at the beginning of the trip. The older kids were not interested in hanging out with the younger kids as much as they were with each other and my daughter stopped going after the first few days. My guess is that if we were on a different cruise, for instance, one of the Caribbean, that there would be more kids in the overall Entourage program and the age groups would splinter off instead of all the 13-18 year olds hanging out together.
Do go to the crew question and answer panels that are offered. I enjoyed both that I attended, one with the Captain and Senior Officers and one about running a floating hotel.
Also, go to the cruise critic meet and greet. the people were nice, the gift swap was so fun and it was great to hear the presentation from the senior staff. The senior staff invited us to a second gathering during the cruise and asked us to share our opinions with them about how the cruise was going to that point.
Do also track a senior crew member down if your have a suggestion. From what I can gather, if you have a valid suggestion, they will not only write it down but also send a treat to your room.
Do sign up for the Latitudes Rewards Program as well and attend the future cruise presentations. My husband and I found those enlightening and we are already planning our next NCL cruise!
Do, when you book, if you are reserving a room with a view, make sure you find out which side of the ship the shore will be on for the majority of the trip and book accordingly.
Do take advantage of the half price laundry bag when it is offered. It was $19.95 and we were able to stuff an incredible amount of laundry in it by lining it with a pillow case and rolling our clothes.
Don't bother buying the onboard wifi. It is so slow. My mother-in-law got it as a free offer but was still so frustrated!
Do get the UBP if you plan to drink and can get it as an offer. It was so nice not worrying about what we were drinking.
Do try a cruise if you are a skeptic like me. You just might love it!!
If you've read this far, you no doubt have gathered that I loved this cruise and the concept of cruising in general. I would definitely recommend this itinerary and the NCL Jade!
Next, I'll just give a breakdown of what we did at the ports and what I'd recommend:
Alesund: NCL Excursion: Land of the Trolls highlighted the Trolls' Path and the Stifffossen Waterfall. Our excellent guide told us about the history of the trolls, shared facts about Norway and even bought us strawberries! The motor coach was comfortable. We had a great buffet lunch featuring salmon in several ways. Traveling through the Norwegian countryside is amazing. It's breathtakingly beautiful, so green and pristine. I'd definitely recommend a tour similar to this although staying in Alesund seems like a good option too.
Bergen: NCL Excursion: Norway in a Nutshell included a ride on the Flam Railway and a buffet lunch again featuring salmon several ways. The comfortable motor coach maneuvered the hairpin bends of Stalheim Canyon and we saw the lovely Tvinde Waterfall. Our guide was better in Alesund although we did learn more about Norway and the trolls. As I mentioned above, Norway is beautiful. I'd recommend s tour similar to this as well but Bergen looked like a wonderful place to spend the day and I'm sorry we missed it.
Lerwick, Shetland Islands: Toured on our own in the driving rain in the morning. We visited the Broch of Clickimin, town hall to see the stained glass windows (it was under renovation so we only saw the ones on the first floor) and the Shetland Museum. I highly recommend lunch at Hay's Dock at the museum. It was delicious. In the afternoon we did the NCL Shetland Ponies and Scalloway Castle Tour. The motor coach was comfortable and the tour guide was good. We liked Scalloway Castle but were a little disappointed by the Shetland ponies. the bus stopped on the side of the road and we were met by a guide that told us about the ponies. There were a few ponies as well. Perhaps the rain made this not as much fun as it would have been on a sunny day.
Reykjavick, Iceland: We hired a private tour guide and did the Golden Circle tour during the first day which included: Geysir geothermal area near Laugarvatn Lake; Gullfoss waterfall; the UNESCO site Þingvellir National Park; Kerid Crater (do not miss this! It's stunning!) ; Friðheimar greenhouse cultivation center, Skalholt and Icelandic horses. We covered so much more ground on a private tour than we ever could have on a tour bus. At night we went to two shows at the Harpa: Pearls of Icelandic Song and the Viking Sagas. Both were outstanding. The Viking Sagas is definitely off-color but hysterically funny. On day two we took a private puffin tour (Expensive and despite the write ups online you don't get particularly close to the puffins.), visited the Saga museum (it was excellent), stopped at the free Einar Jonnson Sculpture Garden and visited the Hallgrímskirkja church. We then shopped our way down the hill. be forewarned about Iceland. Everything is shockingly expensive!
Akureyri, Iceland: NCL Jewels of the North included a scenic drive along the coastline of Eyjarfjordur, Iceland's longest and perhaps most spectacular fjord. It offered an excellent view of Akureyri and the opportunity to spot a whale in the harbor. We traveled through Fnjoskardalur, a pristine valley before stopping at Godafoss, an Icelandic word meaning "Waterfall of the Gods." We saw volcanically formed craters at Skutustadirre and then traveled to see the lava formations found at Dimmuborgir. We also stopped at Namaskard, a barren field of gurgling sulfur cauldrons and boiling mud pits. The motor coach was comfortable and the guide was knowledgeable although somewhat annoying. Lunch was only ok but we were stopped next to a beautiful park so many took advantage of that and ate quickly to enjoy the beautiful weather and scenery. We also got a quick tour of lovely Akureyri when we returned. I'd definitely recommend a tour like ours but, again, we missed seeing the port town.
Kirkwall, Orkney Islands: This is a magical place! My favorite port. We did a semi-private (15 people on a comfortable mini bus) tour with Orkney Aspects. We saw the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Bray, the Skaill house, Scapa Flow and Maeshowe with a lovely high tea at the Birsay Bay Tea Room. At the end of the day, Orkney Aspects took us to Kirkwall where we could shop and visit St Magnus Cathedral. They dropped us back to the port at exactly the promised time where we were greeted by a pipe band. I highly recommend this company and our guide Anne as well as the location in general. It's stunning and I hope to go back.
Invergorden, Scotland: We took a NCL tour: Best of the Highlands: Castles, Loch Ness and Inverness. The motor coach was comfortable and the guide was great. We traveled alongside the Cromarty Firth where you could see seals and stopped first at 14th century Cawdor Castle with its lovely gardens. We stopped briefly at Culloden, the site of the last battle of the Jacobite Uprising, which was not supposed to be on the itinerary. Then we went to Inverness where we saw nothing but the inside of a hotel banquet room! By far the worst experience of the trip! After lunch we went to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, which was overrun with tourists. The Scottish highlands are beautiful. I would not recommend the NCL tour. Check out WOW Scotland or another tour company instead.
Edinburgh, Scotland: We spent the day on our own beginning with a Harry Potter tour. This is the place to do it! Our tour guide was awesome and spent three hours showing us all the important JK Rowling/Harry Potter sites in the city. We then visited Edinburgh Castle and shopped the Royal Mile. The city was so busy with several cruise ships in port as well as lots of tourists in the run up to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. If you like short bread, do not miss Pinnies and Poppyseeds!! I was also underwhelmed by the crown jewels. maybe it was just the excessive wait. Don't miss the War Memorial... stunning! Read Less