After cruising the Eastern Mediterranean on the NCL Jade in December 2013, I couldn’t wait to do another Mediterranean cruise. Since the Jade was redeployed to Houston for the fall of 2015, I had to choose between the Spirit in October and the Epic in December. With 10 ports in 12 days v. only five port stops on the Epic, we chose the Spirit, although the Epic was a better per day value. The first part of this review will focus on the ship and the second part on the ports.
Reviews suggested that the Spirit was old and tired but we found that it was in good shape with a more traditional, old world feel. The atrium, glass elevators and Asian details make it a unique NCL ship. The bridge viewing room, which can be accessed through a staircase in Galaxy Bar, is very interesting with souvenir gifts from the various ports of call. Most appealing were the lion’s head from Malaysia and sculptures from Thailand (a glass ship) and India (a mini Taj Mahal). We first visited this area on our Behind the Scenes Tour for Platinum members where we met one of the female second officers but anyone can visit on his/her own.
We had the UDP as a booking perk and for the first time ever, LeBistro and Cagney’s were always filled to capacity with many large groups even at the earliest dining times. The hostess told us that they did try to accommodate individuals who didn’t book ahead but that most of the reservations were made in advance. The best meal of the cruise was the filet of beef at LeBistro with crème brulee for dessert. At Cagney’s, order your meat rarer than you’d like; my medium filet was well done; I knew better when we went there a second time. Shogun, the Asian fusion restaurant, is now free, and when we went at 6:00 p.m. (opening time most nights), it was not crowded. The menu has been “downgraded” with fewer choices and “premium” entrees like Szechuan lamb and lobster have been eliminated. It’s not like it used to be but it is fine for a complimentary option. We also ate in the Italian restaurant where the grilled shrimp and tiramisu were good but not worth a $20 charge.
We were lucky to be chosen to dine with a ship officer and very much enjoyed our evening with Silvio, the Cruise Consultant. He was a very warm and engaging host. Do enter that raffle; we always put our names in but have only been chosen twice (the other time was when I hosted the Meet & Greet). At that dinner in the Windows Dining Room, we were treated to wine and cappuccino but the food was, in a word, awful—presented well but cold and not flavorful. If I weren’t with Silvio, I would have given it back. On two evenings when we had big meals in port, we stopped at the buffet for a light bite and the selections were varied and much better tasting than the dining room. Carlos Bakery does not have a place on the Spirit (in Europe) and there were excellent, free pound cakes available at the Atrium Cafe. You can bring your cake to the Blue Lagoon, a few steps away, where drip coffee is always available.
Note that on port days, the breakfast buffet is quite frenetic. We got to meet fellow cruisers since sharing tables is a necessity--that was a plus on this cruise. On some mornings, we opted to go to the Blue Lagoon for a continental breakfast—it was quiet and a better option than room service.
When we first booked in February 2015, we chose an oceanview cabin and two perks-the UDP (dining plan) and UBP (beverage plan). I thought the price was high so, when one perk was offered for any cabin in July, we switched to an interior cabin and one perk. We had to pay the 18% gratuity on the dining package and give up the free beverages but saved $1200 which more than covered all shore excursions, taxis, admissions, etc. Since the Spirit is a one-of-a-kind ship, our cabin, Room 5035, was also unique at 200 sq. feet (double-sized room). It had better lighting than I remembered and a small chair-and-a half that became a shelf for our menagerie of towel animals. Gede, our room steward, was very helpful in getting us an adapter for our electronics, bar soap and replacement cushions for the chair and chair-and-a half. There was plenty of room for storage. As a Platinum perk, we each got one free bag of laundry on any day. (The laundry special at $19.99 was offered once.)
I’m one who takes advantage of the activities on board so here is my assessment. My husband enjoyed the gym—the equipment is new and in good condition and best of all, never crowded. NCL has really cut down on the activities for sea days. Do you consider “Tongue and Pulse Analysis” or “Check Out Library Books” an activity. Gone are the food presentations, vegetable carvings, pastry demonstrations—replaced by a comedy cake-making presentation between the cruise director and the pastry chef. There are fewer trivia competitions, arts and crafts projects, lectures, etc. We did win enough trivias to combine our points for a t-shirt (30 points) but a beer can cozy “cost” 20 points—a prize that used to be a give-away for winning one game! The Cruise Staff did a very good job with origami but only one session was on a sea day.
Go see the Crew Show; it is always a fun activity. On the second sea day, the feature presentation was an engineering talk by one of the officers. It was a bad weather day and the Galaxy Bar was filled to capacity—an audience in the hundreds. The officer was not a public speaker and I truly felt for him. He lost the crowd after 30 seconds. Everyone was polite but this was not fair to the officer or guests; a second officer should have been there to assist. There were no speakers on any of the ports or on any topics of interest to the guests. I know cruise lines are looking at the bottom line but most guests would pay a few dollars more to cover the room costs and compensation for guest speakers. The cruise director, Jill, was always around, very professional and very good at her job.
Our Meet & Greet, masterfully hosted by Judi, was held after our first five ports. The guest services coordinator really amped up the buffet with fruit and sandwiches in addition to the usual coffee and pastries. The hotel director, Armando, answered questions. I don’t recall any cards with officers’ phone numbers like in the past but there was a suggestion box in the atrium. If you’re on your first or umpteenth cruise, the Meet & Greet is a great chance to meet other cruisers and spend time on a sea day.
NCL excels in evening entertainment. The shows were entertaining and appealed to an audience from all over the world with an emphasis on song and dance. Elements, the acrobatics show, is always well done and enjoyable no matter how many times we have seen it. The participatory game shows were a lot of fun to watch, too.
The staff at Guest Services is very polite but you must be insistent on follow-through. Our UDP (dining package) was not stamped on our cruise card and we immediately asked guest services. Apparently, we were not in the system. Luckily, I had all my paperwork and amenity confirmation with me. Even so, it took three days to straighten out. The desk promised to call us but never did; we avoided paying and asking for reimbursement by using our Platinum dinner coupons. Likewise, at the end of the cruise, we inquired about a planned strike at the Venice airport. The strike was canceled a day before; we found out by checking the Internet in Venice.
The main attraction of this cruise is the itinerary-10 ports in 12 days. Our plan was “Mediterranean Lite,” no eight or nine hour excursions. Everyone has different opinions about this but if you attempt to “see it all,” you run the risk of that classic movie title, “If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium.” Since I’m a slow walker, I’ll point out any mobility challenges; keep in mind that the streets in the Mediterranean countries are cobblestone.
We flew into Barcelona non-stop from JFK in New York City and arrived at our lovely hotel, L’Avenida Palace, around 10:30 a.m. We had a sleepless night and were in no position to go sight-seeing. Luckily, a room was ready about noon. Yay! In the afternoon, we walked around the corner to the fashionable Passaig de Gracia, home to the finest shops and the Street of Discord, the site of some of Barcelona’s architectural marvels. Next door to Casa Battlo, one of the Gaudi houses, is the Casa Amattler, a lovely mansion and now museum of a wealthy man who made his fortune in chocolates. It was well worth 12 euros each to tour of the private quarters to see the glass and art collections of Amattler and to see the uniquely decorated rooms. The docent was so enthusiastic and interested in sharing the secrets of this special house. The ground floor café and chocolate shop were worth a stop as well. Our hotel was around the corner from the well-regarded tapas restaurant, Ciudad Condal. There were no lines when we went in the early evening and the food was good and reasonably priced. The waitresses, who spoke perfect English, helped with ordering.
The morning of boarding, we took time to visit Gaudi’s La Pedrera (Casa Mila), within walking distance of the hotel. It certainly was “different” walking on the roof with all the weird structures. We had no trouble or lines embarking the Spirit in Barcelona at around 1:30 p.m. The taxi from our hotel was about 20 euros with tip.
Walking tip: There is a flight of stairs at Casa Amattler but there are hand rails. At La Pedrera, be careful on the roof. There are many steps and although entry is limited, watch out for guests with backpacks who aren’t looking when they take photographs. At La Pedrera, there is an elevator to the attic rooms under the roof.
If it’s Tuesday, it’s market day in Toulon, a Naval port near Marseilles. Home to a diverse population, the streets in the commercial area were filled with stalls selling flowers, produce and herbs. There were also stands with fish, cured meats, linens and clothing. The market appealed to the senses and was worthy of lots of photographs but the level of sanitation was a turn-off. We tried to use wi-fi at some of the cafes but it was “down.” The highly rated Naval Museum was closed on Tuesdays.
Tip: Take a private tour or ship excursion in this port.
At this port, you must pay for a shuttle to get to the gate (five euros) or train station ($15 to NCL). Since there isn’t much to do in Livorno and since we have been to Florence on our own, we opted for a shore excursion here, a half-day to Pisa. The tour included a trolley from the parking lot to the Field of Miracles, a long walk. We have been to Pisa before but love the area around the Leaning Tower. NCL handled the shore excursions for the morning in an organized and professional manner and we were at the site well before 10:00 a.m. Our guide, Irene, spoke perfect conversational English, had a great sense of humor and told us many anecdotes on the bus and at the site. Who knew that Pinocchio was named for pine nuts or that there is Islamic influence in the architecture at Pisa. In any event, after our first guided tour of the square we had the option of a second guided tour or a walk on our own until meeting time at a café at 12:20 p.m. We opted to be on our own, and visited the church. We didn’t have the timed tickets, but the guard let us in. By the time we stepped outside, the thunderstorm was just starting. Don’t worry, vendors have umbrella and ponchos if you need them! Never was I happier that I had an NCL tour. We had a lovely shelter with free wi-fi, clean facilities, food, etc., to wait out the torrential rains. After 12:30 p.m., when the rains let up a bit, the trolley came to escort us to our bus. The day was great in spite of heavy rain and the pricey tour was worth every penny. Many passengers who did Pisa on their own got soaked to the bone; even those on private tours got soaked. Strange as it seems, Florence did not have much rain. The Port of Livorno had free wi-fi.
Walking tip: This is a good excursion if you can’t walk long distances. You do have to get up on the metal step of the trolley which is slippery when wet; ask for help if you need it.
We have been to Rome and I searched forever for an excursion here. I did find a great one—a cooking class in Civitavecchia with Federico, the chef at Aqua Ristorante. I posted on our Roll Call and two couples joined us. Federico met us at the gate. Of course, nothing is easy. There were five ships in port, our arrival was delayed, and shuttles (free) had to bring us to the gate. In the morning, there was one shuttle for our ship!! So, allow extra time. Federico drove us to the restaurant where we made tiramisu, Bolognese sauce with gnocchi, and beef saltimbocca. It was a great day and the recipes can all be replicated at home. We were driven back to the port after our delicious lunch and by then, there were numerous shuttles to the ships. The lesson and meal were well worth the cost-70 euros per person.
I decided after much research that Herculaneum would be doable for a slow walker. If you like ancient history and mythology, like I do, it is a great choice; if not, there is much to do in Naples or the Amalfi coast. For the first time ever, we met up with another couple in the taxi area and shared the cost of a taxi to Herculaneum. With bargaining, the cost was 100 euros for the cab with a two-hour waiting time. You need an audio guide, handbook or guide to appreciate this site. It was great weather for touring; in summer, it would be very hot. It was amazing to see all the houses, villas, bath-houses and taverns that survived the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Two hours was not enough time to see everything.
Walking tip: There are many high steps here so if you are with a companion, it is doable. There are some spots, including the bath-house, where you can sit.
Our first time in Mykonos and we were impressed. Beautiful island, lovely landscape, shops that catered to the rich and famous. We docked at the new port and were shuttled to the town (no waiting). If you want hand-crafted jewelry, bring money or just window shop. Lots of choices, no pushy merchants, many cafes, shops, etc. We happened upon a wonderful bakery that had all kinds of pies, sweet and savory. We tried the spinach pie, spanakopita, made without cheese. Delicious! Sailaway from the ship at 3:00 p.m. was lovely.
Walking tip: Be careful here. There are many steps without rails and large cobblestones. There are no sidewalks and we even had to walk on the sand in one stretch.
On last year’s visit to Topkapi, we did not see the harem, so that was our first stop. All admissions were in Turkish lira (now 35 cents to the U.S. dollar). At 45TL for Topkapi and the harem, it is a bit steep for the Turkish visitors, I think. I did enjoy touring the harem (a vast area) very much. There weren’t many visitors at 9:30 a.m., there was great signage and the history was pretty amazing as were the rooms. By the time we needed a snack around noon, the café was just outside the gate and we could not return. Hand stamps needed here. One diet soda and ice cream cost seven euros—pretty pricey. We did enjoy seeing the school groups visiting and the call to prayer at 1:00 p.m. On the way to the taxi stand, we passed Hagia Sophia, which is open Mondays during the tourist season. All I remember from last year was getting lost so we went back—no lines. The site has a very interesting history and dome but it is now under construction. Most of the tourists were playing with the cats inside. I know it is the number one attraction but I was disappointed.
Negotiate your fare before you get in a taxi. On our trip to Topkapi, we said 10 and the driver thought TL (about three euros) and we thought euros. He tried to give us back money but we let him keep the 10 euros---a very happy driver. On the way back, the driver did not know the port entrance, and stopped twice before finding the right place. There is construction near the port so make sure you are at the port before paying.
My husband was very concerned about security issues in Turkey given the refugee crisis and unrest in Ankara. He did ask at the Meet & Greet and felt that his concerns were treated in a dismissive manner. Thankfully, we had no security issues on our trip.
Walking tip: The restrooms at Topkapi were down a few steps with no rail and there are some high steps in the harem section. There is a lot of walking on level ground. I found it doable but some other guests found it too much.
Having visited Ephesus (a must-see) twice, I wanted to do something different. I found Yucel Bor, a driver who was also a “guide,” who took us on a course I plotted- real baklava from a bakery; Sirence, a nearby village; and St. John’s Basilica. He spoke perfect English, loved what he did, cared about his children’s education, and was a good driver. He walked with us through Sirence, negotiated my bakery purchase, and made the three hours very enjoyable. The price of 80 euros was per cab and very reasonable.
Walking tip: Although hilly, the main areas of Sirence are not difficult to negotiate.
This was our third visit and as one who loves Greek mythology and history, I always find things to appreciate. We took a taxi to the Plaka as our first stop because rain was predicted for the afternoon (never happened). It was our first visit to this well-known area of shops, cafes, etc. The taxi driver told us to watch our wallets but we had no problem—it was a Wednesday morning without many pedestrians. I did find a bakery to try the spanakopita. I hoped to find baklava, too, but there wasn’t any at that shop. I had no idea that spanakopita would be found in a bakery but live and learn. We then went to the new Acropolis Museum for a return trip. This is a world-class museum and the excavations are on view through windows on the floor. If you stop in the outdoor café, there is a view of the Acropolis.
Walking tip: The museum is fully accessible indoors and out. Most of the Plaka is closed to traffic so it is easy to negotiate.
The sail in to Venice and the trip via water shuttle from the port to the Grand Canal area ($20 per person) provide the best and most magical views of Venice. We haven’t been to Venice since 1969 and the beauty is still there, but mostly from afar. You can’t experience Venice without visiting St. Mark’s Square and seeing the magnificent artwork, architecture, etc. However, with four cruise ships in port and at least two river cruises, the main areas were flooded with people. No wonder they want to reduce the number of cruise ships. However, Accessible Venice has constructed ramps along the stairways of the Grand Canal making it easy to negotiate. We did stop at a café for cappuccino, people-watching and free wi-fi.
Walking tip: The walk from the shuttle to the ship is pretty long and would be hard to see at night (we had an over-night here). We also purchased vouchers to the airport for $30 each. I think it is hard to negotiate suitcases to get to transit or a hotel. If we were staying, I would have pre-booked a taxi.
All in all, two weeks full of adventure. It took me another two weeks to put this review together! Read Less