Firstly about the cruise line:
This was the first time we used this cruise line and had high expectations considering our experience with HAL (Holland America Line) 2 years ago. So like last time we did not book direct but through an travel agent in a packaged tour/cruise deal. With the package it was 2 cruises back to back and thankfully we could retain the same cabin for both cruises. So travelling as a middle-aged but very active couple seeking to explore the Mediterranean for the first time.
So like other cruise lines, we got email notification from NCL that we could log on and personalise our experience. Their system is easy to use and worked well.
They also have an on-board app called ‘I Concierge’ which is linked to your account and uses the ship’s Wi-Fi system (for free) but you create your log on via your name and birthdate. It does work extremely well and allows you to look at your account and book experiences (packages such as spa, specialty dining etc.) but the system has a flaw which we heard from a couple of passengers whose birthday is 29th February (leap day) as the system does not recognise this date (poor programming from the designers of the app) so they could not create their log on and had to use the manual system of bookings and print outs of their accounts, a little disappointing for those technically inclined.
When you board the ship you are issued with a cruise card that is linked to your account, identifies you as a passenger and unlocks your cabin door. Good security system and works very well. Equally the disembarkation worked wonderfully (we chose the walk off option which gave us more time and flexibility to be packed and off by 9am deadline). Also the day at port for the changeover between the 2 cruises was very well managed and stress free.
As part of our package we were offered the choice of 2 of the 5 ‘Free at Sea’ deals. We chose the shore excursion credit and the unlimited beverage package (UBP). Bear In mind that all passengers travelling together in the same cabin have to have the same choices, which is understandable and prevents sharing of benefits.
Here is how they worked; the UBP is linked to your cruise card and allows you unlimited number of alcoholic beverages to the value of USD$15 per glass, so this covers quite a few beers, wines, spirits and cocktails (with the average cost of a beer being USD$8 and wines USD$10, it is an effective package and well worth considering depending on how much you drink); shore credit is a little more tricky.
So with shore credit, firstly it is applied as a USD$50 credit to your on board account and is given at the completion of your booked shore excursion at each port. Here’s the thing, it is only applied to cabin account once per port irrespective if more than one excursion is booked and if you are overnighting in a port it will not apply to a second day’s excursion booked if you had done an excursion the previous day.
So one credit per port only (however it does change on other cruises where you spend multiple days in a port but you have to check that out with them prior to booking to see if that exception applies).
If you book your excursions after you board, the USD$50 credits will be deducted from your tours on you onboard account so in effect you get a discount for your excursions. However, if you book online or by phone prior to booking, these credits will be applied not to the tours but your overall on-board account for your other purchases so if you don’t spend extra you will lose that credit as it will not come off the total bill, to get the value, you will need to spend the equivalent amount in specialty dining, internet, drinks, spa etc whilst on board. They will not refund any unused portion of the credit at the end of the cruise. This is something you need to be fully aware of if you choose this package.
Having said that, we waited to book until we boarded and were not disadvantaged in any way, managed to get on every excursion we had requested.
We stayed in Rome for 2 nights as part of our package and had a wonderful time exploring the city and some of the big iconic sites. We opted to stay in the centre of the city which gave us great access to all the city has to offer and public transport should we need it (which we really didn't as we could walk everywhere easily).
So about the ship, it is the smallest of this cruise line, holding 2000 passengers. It is not the smallest we have seen so consider it mid-sized. The cabins are a tad smaller than the bigger ships but still comfortable. The ship is well maintained, nicely appointed and the staff are extremely helpful.
Boarding – efficient and no hassles and extremely well managed.
Theatre /Shows – good theatre but the seating is a little tricky as the rows are too close together so trying to sit down with the seat needing to be flipped down can be difficult as the seat rubs on the back of your legs but once you are seated it is comfortable enough. As for the shows, some are fantastic others not quite so.
Bars – there are a number of them on-board and all are lovely, lots of seating, good views, ultra clean and have good service from the staff. Different events are hosted in the various bars so quite and noisy times but you can always find something to suit your style.
Dining – Specialty restaurants, bars, buffet bistros and main dining options.
The buffet bistro is always busy and can like all buffet venues have big queues, just need to pick your moment. The evening meals are theme based and add variety. It is included in your fare so no extra expense.
The main dining rooms (Windows and the Garden Room) have the same menus with full sit down service (no lining up). Good menu with delicious food, just lacking in vegetable content which us Aussies are used to and desire. After the first cruise, the menu was repeated so that was a bit of a disappointment.
We did not do the specialty restaurants but feedback from fellow passengers that they really enjoyed their meals.
Allergies – if you have a food allergy let the waiter know (if you haven’t already), they have allocated a specialist waiter to help you with your orders. Here is how it works; you will be encouraged to pre-order your meal for the next evening so the chefs have a chance to prepare your meal without the offending allergens. That’s fine but it does lock you into a specific restaurant.
As I have an unusual allergy it confused them somewhat and I had to explain and sometimes stand my ground about my choices. “But madam, that meal has portions that are not made on-board so we can’t guarantee it is allergen free” and my response “I have decades of experience at working out what foods are likely or unlikely to have that spice, I know this meal option will be safe for me to eat”.
This system only works for the restaurants not the buffet or cafés. I much prefer to ask if the meal contains the specific spice than be locked into a pre-ordered meal.
Cabins – we had 9182 allocated to us and it was not the best choice. The cabin was aft and directly above the theatre, below the kids club rooms and opposite the hotel storeroom. So a very noisy cabin at times. We heard all the shows, some louder than others….groan. The kids had active play at night and sounded like elephants playing soccer with lots of thumps, bumps, loud sharp bangs, yelling and general boisterous play. This went on late into the night and we had to have a polite word with the staff in that area about it.
They agreed to cease the active play at 9:30pm so we considered that fair and reasonable. However, it took quite a bit of discussion and investigation to resolve the noises coming from there between 1 and 2am every night. Worked out it was the cleaners, not sure if they were playing with the equipment while doing their job or just jolly noisy but either way the noise abated and we were given chocolate-coated strawberries and a bottle of red wine as an apology. Nice touch, but we just wanted to have uninterrupted sleep.
The situation was handled well by staff but the problem is the lack of insulation in the floor/ceiling space, so ultimately a design flaw. We had heard that others below the pub had even worse noise issues.
Apart from the issues above, the cabins are snug but well laid out and comfortable. Storage space needs a little redesign, much prefer shelves than drawers but that is a preference and my side of the bed did not have a shelf. The cabins are well maintained and if you are able to choose your cabin wisely, all should be fine.
They range in price and quality but mostly very good, it really is port dependant as some ports are just better explored on foot by yourselves. Naturally the big iconic places like Athens, Venice, Santorini, etc are just amazing. Again, I urge you to do your homework about the ports, google them, look at specific forums and use the features that google maps can provided so you get a better understanding of the place and the logistics for self exploration and scheduled excursions.
Some ports were not much to explore and docking a little far out to walk to the city but mostly good ports and easy access. In 2 ports there was an additional cost to shuttle to the city from the ship if you were not on a book excursion. That is a little disappointing but it is what it is. Several ports were simply stunning in terms of visual appeal (hello Venice, Malta for example) and easy free access to either just walk off, water shuttle service or shuttle bus.
Although we did have children with us, they seem well catered for and security surrounding their care was very well handled. Kids would love this ship.
CRUISE WITH NCL AGAIN?
That’s the question. We are not adverse to using them again but they are not our first preference. These cruises are designed to capture the party animal and families and we are not that way inclined.
So it would depend on the ports, after all that is what cruising internationally is all about, at least for us. Be aware that the cost of the cruise does not include the shore excursions so you could effectively double the cost depending on your choices.
Do your homework before you decide as you don’t have to book through them but it is easier to do so and there is a variety of tours for all budgets.
For us, we will be cruising on HAL again later next year as part of another land/cruise tour package so we will make a report on that and a better comparison but we are considering another line altogether for a another trip. More on that if and when it becomes a definite trip.
Ocean cruising is totally different from river cruises and you need to be aware of that. So our advice is look at the ports and how long each port stay lasts then compare the ships that do the cruises.
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