We are a family of three - Mom (US) and Dad (UK) in their forties, and just-turned-11 daughter, and we've had a busy summer. We were looking for a one week holiday option in mid August which didn't involve too many logistics or planning inputs. A cruise seemed ideal. We live in Switzerland, but our daughter had spent the summer at camp in the US. With school about to start, we thought a Europe itinerary would be better - have some time together and deal with jet lag all in one go. When we saw the NCL Greek Islands itinerary (one of the few which fit in our tight time frame) departing from Venice, we knew that would fit the bill perfectly. It meant we could avoid crowded summer airports and take the train, which was a nice bonus.
Thanks to Cruise Critic, I was able to get a lot of advance information, and I'll try to pay back by adding possibly useful details here. It's a long set of impressions, but I tried to organize it by category. Please take all this with a grain of salt - these are all just my own comments, but I know how much I appreciated all the other efforts which went into prior reviews. Also, I'll admit at the outset that I'm critical and tend to focus on things which could be better rather than on all the things which were already great, but I'll try to keep it balanced. I can say right now that we really enjoyed our cruise - much more than I expected we would given the crowded ship, hot weather, and busy itinerary.
Cabin: When we decided to book, the ship was already filling up. We had hoped to get a Garden Villa, but the last one sold literally as we were on line, but we did manage to get the last AB suite. I knew we'd be comfortable, but I must say the cabin exceeded all expectation. I hadn't really focussed on the fact that the suite has two bedrooms, which meant our daughter had her own room. That room, with no window, was still a reasonable size, with a couch that turned into a double bed, as well as a pull down upper single bunk. In theory, you could get three people, just in her one room. It also had its own bathroom, so it was like her having her own cabin, which she was thrilled about.
The main living room had two comfortable chairs and a slightly uncomfortable couch (I think that could also be made into a double bed), as well as a table with four chairs for playing games or dining, and a bar with one of my absolute favorite features - a Lavazza coffee maker which made very nice coffee. We drink a lot of coffee and are a bit fussy about it and this machine made very good espressos and lattes (there's a milk steamer and pitcher), in contrast to coffee elsewhere on the ship. The bar was well equipped with glassed and drinks equipment as well as a mini fridge. The living room opened onto a small but comfortable balcony which had two comfortable chairs and a coffee table. I spent a lot of time out there!
The third room was our bedroom and bathroom. I thought it might be a bit odd to have the bathroom in the bedroom, as it is open plan, but the bedroom area was nicely defined with a curtain you could close (we didn't, but it gave the illusion of a separate room). The bathroom itself was extremely well thought out, with a tub right under the window, two sinks, ample storage, and a separate toilet and shower room. The shower also had a long, nearly full length window.
The cabin fit out is clearly of high quality, although the colors are a bit garish (it works on a cruise ship, though, somehow), and someone gave a lot of thought to the design and particularly the storage space. The closet was large and had plenty of good quality hangars (and our daughter had a separate small closet), and there were drawers and shelves a-plenty to store all our gear. Also, we had several plugs - both for Europe two-pin and American plugs. There was decent lighting, with the one exception oddly being in our bedroom, where the small reading lights were insufficience for their purpose, and the overhead light too bright and uncomfortable for reading in bed.
Concierge, Butler, Room Steward: I cannot fault their availability and attentiveness. We didn't actually ask for much, but anything we asked for (dinner reservations, extra coffee capsules, continuous supply of milk for coffee, different bedding arrangements) was supplied promptly and graciously. We ordered room service breakfast the first few days, which was nice, but we didn't make full use of the room service option, including the option to order from restaurant menus, so I can't really comment.
Kids Program and facilities: Ironically, we had chosen this ship because of its children's pool with water slide and kids program. In the end, our daughter preferred to spend time with us and didn't participate in any of the scheduled activities. Nice for us! It means I can't say more than that the program looked creative and comprehensive and the facilities decent. One aspect that I thought a bit lazy was the combined play time they had on the schedule for several hours each day which meant that all age groups just hung out in one big group. Since our daughter didn't participate though, I'm being critical with no foundation and maybe it works well after all. There was an outbreak of headlice on the second to last day which meant they closed the facilities for a while. They took care to notify everyone who was registered in the program, including us, which was appreciated.
For other facililities for kids, I thought they could have been better - the arcade was very loud and crowded and very very expensive (about $2 per game, I think). The pool was equally packed with kids, and the slide had long lines at times and even our relatively timid daughter thought it was too slow. The library has a children's section in name only as it contained about a dozen random and oddly selected books. The children's section of the Garden Cafe was, I thought, depressing, with a mini buffet of tired looking food, no views, and uncomfortable looking furniture. I couldn't see any reason anyone would use it, as the regular buffet had loads of kid-friendly food, and the regular seating was much more inviting and comfortable, even for small children. Restaurants: The freestyle dining concept was a big plus. My husband and I had travelled on other cruiselines before and we appreciated (a) not having to dress up; and (b) not having a fixed time or place to eat on this trip.
The buffet was ok, but tended towards crowding at some hours and tired selections at others. The crew made really good efforts at keeping tables cleared and clean, and it was also very nice to be able to take food all the way to the back and eat outdoors. We didn't use the buffet often, though, as we thought there were better options.
The two main dining rooms were nice, with varied menus. We preferred Magenta as it was smaller and a bit more modern, and we ate there one lunch and one dinner. The food portions are small, in a good way (you can always order more!) but good. You can tell there is a bit of "mass production" going on which affects quality, but generally I couldn't fault the selection and presentation.
We took good advantage of the speciality restaurants, but I can appreciate that this adds a lot of extra cost. I would say that if you can, it's best to think of this as part of your cruise cost, because the ship really comes into its own in the variety and quality of these smaller restaurants. We ate at Tequilas, Cagneys, Sushi/oriental, and Tepanyaki. We didn't eat at Le Bistro (we get more than our fill of French at home) or the Italian. We liked all our dinners at these restaurants. Of all of them, I would say the Tepanyaki is a bit over-rated, although it's always absolutely sold out. The food was ok and the chef pleasant, but it was pricey for what you get. I'd give that one a miss next time.
We also got to eat at Cagneys for breakfast and lunch as part of the suite perks - we did go for breakfast one morning (disembarkation day), and it was good, but too much food for us - I preferred going up to the buffet for a plate of fruit and muffins. We ate lunch there twice - delicious! Again, pretty big portions, but probably the best food I had on board.
We didn't make much use of the bars or poolside facilities - they looked ok. We did get bottles of wine in the restaurants, and they have a nifty system where they store an open bottle centrally, and you can recover it in any restaurant or even take it back to the cabin. We had a few cocktails, which seemed ok. Others have commented that drinks were pushed on them, but we didn't get that impression. Our daughter had a soda card which was reasonable value and very convenient. We did notice that drinks were very slow to arrive most of the time, even when there was a bar area nearby. Also, the system of presenting cards and waiting for processing of drinks and meal charges was a bit slow and awkward and could be greatly improved upon.
Shows and entertainment: We only attended one, and half by accident, which was a comedy juggler. It was excellent, actually, and we all three enjoyed it very much. Not enough to try other shows, though, which just didn't appeal to us. The theater is very nice, however. They did use it to show movies once in a while, but it seemed otherwise underutilized. One real gap we felt in the ship's program was the lack of lectures, whether live or on the tv system. We were in the Greek Islands, and an historian, archeologist, literary expert, mythologist - any one of those would have had an easy time crafting some interesting lectures for this itinerary. There was NOTHING. That surprised us a lot. Even broadcasting one of many commercially available series would have been a plus. The tv set up is not great. There are loops of ship info - useful at first then redundant, and some port info, restaurant availability info, ship info on speed, distance, etc. and some news and sports channels. There was no kids channel which was silly - you could easily broadcast 24 hour Pink Panther, Flinstones, etc. which I am sure would be much appreciated. Also, no free movie channel with, e.g., old movies. The pay channel selection was pretty decent, though, and in line with hotel prices - we didn't mind paying $12 for the new Shrek film, for example. But honestly, other options should be made available.
There were other entertainment options on board, like sailaway parties and the like, but we didn't take advantage of any of them.
Other facilities: The gym is great - very well set up, and seemed to have good availability of equipment. There were two personal trainers as well, and several classes - some of them free and some at a $12 charge (like yoga).
The spa facility was very nice, and the treatments we had were all good. The treatments are on the high side (and I'm a pretty big spa user around the world, including in pricey Switzerland), which was ok, except this is the first time ever I have had an expensive spa treatment without use of a good changing room and the rest of the spa facilities (relax room, sauna, etc). In order to use those facilities, you either had to buy a weeklong pass ($99 per person or $179 per couple) or, in some cases, you could pay an extra $10 added on to your treatment for a day pass. The "common" areas of the spa to which these passes give you access are very nice, and I'm sure the week long pass would be worthwhile, particularly on an itinerary which didn't have a lot of stops, but I was astounded it wasn't freely available once you purchase a treatment. One tip, if you don't have particular treatment desires - they did run a number of specials in the spa during the cruise - I had a combo mini facial and massage one day for $99 (plus service charge ...) which was a reasonable deal for 50 minutes. Other treatments can be purchased in sets of three which gives some discount, and some hours (8-10 am, I think) also gave a small discount. The pricing scheme is very complex, and I'm not sure we took the best advantage, but you'd have to make an effort to do so. They also push spa services pretty heavily, and also gave the impression on the first day that if you didn't book it would all sell out early. Not true, at least not on our sailing, where there were ample free slots every day for most treatments. They also push other services and products at the end of the treatment - tacky and unappreciated!!!!
We stayed well clear of the pool most days - it was very crowded at peak hours. We did use it one morning when we stayed on board and it was lovely and quiet. Towels were amply available and so was seating, on that day, anyway. Hot tubs, too.
The library was great for casual readers like me with a very good selection of mysteries and popular fiction. It really falls down for children and readers of nonfiction and more serious literature like my husband, though, so they could do a better job at balancing the selection. I really liked the shelves given over to passenger books - I was able to leave my finished paperbacks and "borrow" one to take home for the train ride. On balance, I think more contributed than took, so it was a good selection to supplement the ship's library, and gave an option to start books later in the cruise that you could take off with you to finish. The room itself was nicely kitted out with comfortable chairs and was well used by quiet readers. Next door was a game room also in good use.
We purchased one of the ship photos (our embarkation photo) which was lovely. We thought the various staged shots in ports were hokey so we avoided them as well as other photo ops, but I saw a lot of nice photos taken so I could see they were much appreciated and decent quality. Expensive, though, at $19.95 each. We did do a photo shoot offered by the photo company - the shoot itself is free, but the photos if you purchase them are pricey. Still, we decided we were all together for a change and we had the time, so we organized this and were pleased with the results and spent several hundred dollars to order some professional family shots which will make good Xmas presents for our parents and siblings and nice momentos for us. We found some beautiful silver frames, relatively reasonably priced, at a shop in Venice, so we're all set!
Ports: Suite perks really helped here by providing VIP tender tickets which meant we could just walk onto the next available tender. This was an enormous plus which I appreciated when I saw that people needed to line up just to get a ticket, and then hang around until the tender number was called, and at least in Mykonos, they were still calling tender numbers more than an hour after the first had left, so I can see your visit would be pretty curtailed if you didn't make a real effort or buy one of the ship excursions (those tenders left first). After the coffee machine in the room, this was the benefit I appreciated most! We tendered in every port except Iraklion.
We didn't choose the cruise because of the ports, so we had a pretty lazy attitude. That's why I'm giving a quick and personal summary here instead of putting in port reviews. We also didn't use any of the ship's excursions, which we found pricey and not that appealing.
In Split we wandered off and found a good English speaking guide at Diocletian's Palace who charged us 10 Euros per person (plus about another 10 for entrace fees) for a personal guided walking tour. Lasted about 90 minutes and was perfect for us - no big groups. We tried to stay in town to eat lunch, but the restaurants were not that appealling, and, while the guide took Euros, there is still currency control, and so it's either change some money, guessing how much you might need for lunch, or find a place with a credit card. At that point, we were hot and tired from walking so we just went back to the ship and at on board. Tendering both directions was easy.
For Corfu, we had arranged our own horse riding with Trailriders. Sally, the owner, was really good on communications, and, true to her word, met us at the ship and also personally led our ride. We rode with one other person, so just the four of us (plus Sally), but I don't think she'd ever have more than 6-8 people total on a ride. The stables are about 30 minutes from the port and nicely situated and maintained. The horses all seemed a bit older, but well trained and gentle - perfect for us less experienced riders. We had a two hour ride through some attractive countryside, and Sally was fantastic about matching us with horses and also making the ride meet our abilities. She was also attentive to ensuring we learned a bit while we were riding so she quietly checked and corrected technique along the way. I'm sure she would do a slightly different ride for more experienced riders (more trotting and gallopping than we did!) Sally provided helmets and chaps, and a bottle of water to take along. We had a nice cool drink after the ride and she drove us back and left us in Corfu town. The town is quite crowded and very touristy, but we did stumble on a good restaurant for a meal of very fresh salads and grilled things after which we found the bus back to the port (1.20 euros per person, I think). The dock is a bit far from anything, so you need a bit of a plan if you don't book a ships excursion. There did seem to be busses and taxis available, though. There was a short line for the tender, and NCL provided frozen towls, which were much appreciated!
Santorini was next. Ugh! Even though we were the only large ship in port at the moment, tendering took forever as they seemed to use local boats rather than the ship's tender boats, and they weren't as efficient. Also, once we got to the bottom of the donkey/cable car, there was a 45-minute wait in very hot sun for the cable car (not sure about the donkey wait). The cost is 4 euros per person and the ride itself is fine - short and quick. Up top you are in narrow tourist land - all shops and restaurants. Not really our thing. We maybe should have had more of a plan ... in any event, we walked for about an hour, and then sat down to an early dinner at a quiet restaurant we found past the main shopping area (I think, called Ellis?) The setting overlooking the water was lovely and the food was good. We decided to head back to the ship early to avoid crowds. Ugh, again, aleady a HUGH line - this time not so orderly and there was a lot of line cutting and pushing. An hour just to get back down (and another 4euros per person). Then, a long tender line back to the ship. NCL had water available, which was a nice touch. All in all, though, I wish we had either made a bit of a plan (e.g., arrange a boat to meet us at the bottom of the cable car and take us somewhere, avoiding the cable car and the town of Fira altogether), taken an overpriced ship's tour (those tenders went elsewhere to meet up with busses, although at least one tour left people back in Fira to take the cable car back down), or just stayed on board!
Probably as a result of that experience, we decided to give Mykonos, the next port, a miss. We guessed it would be more tourist shops and tender lines. Probably, that was a mistake, as the island looked quite pretty from the ship, and unlike other places, the tender took you right to town (like in Split) which made the whole casual wander thing a lot easier. Oh well. We had a lovely time on board and got to use the pool!
We then made a slight error in getting off in Iraklion on the basis that it was the one place we docked so we could walk off the ship. We were only in port for a short time and arrived at 7am. The only way to see Knossos is to really get off on time - whether you join the ship's tour or arrange it yourself (there was a taxi rank right outside the port building). Anyway, we decided we'd not get up so early, but rather wander off and into town. Unfortunately, first you need to take a bus to the port building, then the town is an unattractive, hot 15 minute uphill walk, and there isn't much to see when you get up there, and then have to walk down and take the bus back to the ship. Pretty much a waste. By the way, we tried to be lazy and take a taxi into town since it was so hot, but the driver wouldn't take a short fare. My suggestion: either get up early and go to Knossos or stay on board!
Embarkation/Disembarkation: These were the least organized and most unpleasant parts of the trip. NCL hadn't really given us much info, but we used what we found on Cruise Critic, which was very helpful. We had taken the train to Venice the day before the cruise, just to be sure, and stayed at a hotel by the station (the Bellini - perfectly decent and a great location literally 200 meters from the station) so that we could scope out the transfer options. Water taxis quoted 70-80 Euros even though it's pretty close by. We rejected that (but really wish we hadn't, in the end!) We found Piazzale Roma, which is close to the train station. There is a new bridge on the train station side which would save us one bridge to get there, and the new People Mover is now operating from the square to the port. So my husband wheeled our two large cases over to the square and over the bridge (you need some stamina, although there were some young men at the bottom who seemed to be offering to carry luggage over the bridge for a few euros - probably worth it!) We then got to the people mover and bought tickets (one Euro per person - best to have exact change, but the ticket machines are in multiple languages and pretty easy to use) and took the train one stop to the port. That was all pretty easy. It broke down at the port, however, as there is still a ways to walk and it is not at all well sign posted as to where you go. We did eventually find it (suggestion: look for the Costa signs!) and got on a long line just to drop off luggage. Chaos, and really unnecessary, as the actual drop off is quite easy. We were pretty hot and bothered by then. At that point, you see loads of NCL people milling about with signs, but that's way too little too late. They really should have better signs generally and also post one of those people by the People Mover to direct passengers, a number of whom arrived that way. In any event, once we got inside there was more disorganization, but we eventually found the right registration, and it was smooth sailing from there as we got our paper work in order, got escorted to a VIP area for a cool drink and then had an escort onto the ship. Our escort seemed a bit clueless, and we probably would have managed more quickly on our own, but we were eventually cleared through security, had a longish walk to the ship, got seated in the Pacific dining room for lunch as our cabin wasn't ready, had a nice lunch, found the cabin, etc.
Disembarkation was much easier, as we knew more what to expect and it was better organized on the NCL side. As suite passengers, we got to choose a dismebarkation time (8, 9 or 10 am) and got priority luggage tags. As our train wasn't until 4pm, we chose the 10am disembarkation. We had to be out of the cabin at 9 am, so we went up to Cagney's for a civilized breakfast and then down to Magenta's as instructed for escorted disembarkation. Again, the escort was a bit disorganized, but fine, and we very quickly found our bags and made the reverse hot sweaty trip to the people mover, into town and off to the train station to check our luggage for the afternoon. There was an ENORMOUS line to check luggage at the train station, so FYI, there are two other options: there was a luggage check at the port, and also at the People Mover. The line we were on at the station was not only long, but it was very hot inside the station, and we were also concerned about how long the line would be when we came to collect the luggage. I walked back to the hotel we had stayed at the week before and they were so nice and agreed to look after our bags for the afternoon. We gave the porter the money the storage would have cost (4euros per bag), so that really saved us. One point of interest: when we were looking for the train station left luggage area, we saw some train station porters with luggage carts and signs for the various cruise lines - looks like you can get your bags transferred directly, but I'm not sure of the cost and whether this is associated with a water taxi or just on its own.
All in all this was a great holiday for us - the timing worked welll, and there were a lot of things which exceeded my expectations - especially the comfort of the cabin. NCL really seems to know their clientele, and even though the ship was absolutely jammed with people, there rarely seemed to be crowds at anything other than the pool and for tender lines. We'd definitely consider cruising with them again. The suite perks were fantastic and delivered real value in my book. I'm aware not everyone is so fortunate in their holiday budgets, however, but you could have a fab cruise (as many do) in a "regular" cabin, by adding on a few perks like the spa pass and some of the specialty dining, and making good use of the common areas like the library and deck chairs, so in the end I thought you could have a wonderful and reasonably priced time as well.