A Cruise to the Holy Land on the NCL Spirit
We traveled to the Holy Land from Rome on the NCL Spirit on December 2, 2019. We were wondering how we would perceive this older, smaller ship since we had just disembarked from the brand new MSC Grandiosa. Without going into details, the Spirit was perfect for this port-intensive trip, the passengers were much friendlier, the food and restaurants better, and the atmosphere couldn’t have been nicer.
I was surprised how nice the Spirit looked, considering that it is going into an extensive drydock in early 2020. It will be absolutely splendid when it is finished.
Keep in mind that the NCL Spirit is regarded as a more adult ship for port-intensive itineraries. Even with the renovations, it isn’t going to have all the bells and whistles of the newer, large ships that cater to families.
Embarkation at the Port of Civitavecchia
We were on an MSC ship right before this cruise and had one evening to stay in the port. We chose Hotel Borgo del Mare that provided free shuttle service to their hotel and back to the port. My husband was under the weather, so I ventured out to the pharmacy and grocery, which was about a 20-30-minute walk. The signs were all in Italian, but I survived the cultural experience.
The hotel was somewhat isolated, but the weather that evening was pretty rainy, so we wouldn’t have ventured out to explore anyway. Next time, I would stay closer to the port.
Our day of embarkation was rainy, but the luggage drop off was inside, so the weather didn’t affect much. December is still going to have cooler weather with some rain, so this is to be expected.
The processing was quick, and we were on the ship by 11:30.
The Asian décor was rather garish but will be removed next month. The ship was decorated for Christmas, and that made the décor somewhat better. The staff mentioned that most will be happy to see the removal of that ugly fountain on deck 7, the seashells on the cabin doors, and the horrid statues by the staircases. Cagneys will look quite different as they are removing the private rooms.
We went to the Windows Dining Room for a quiet lunch. Our luggage was delivered quickly, and so we unpacked and then explored the ship. With three sets of elevators, we almost never had to wait long.
We booked an inside cabin midship on deck five as this was a port intensive cruise in the cooler weather. No need for a balcony! It was a great choice as it was quiet, with no public areas above or below the cabin. The storage was more than enough for two people, the bed and pillows were comfy, and the bathroom was clean and an adequate size, and the water was always hot. The small couch, used only for our suitcase and bags (upholstered furniture often reeks with germs) and pictures were quite old. The picture above the bed was labeled “Super Star Leo,” which went back to the Spirit’s earliest years before it was acquired by NCL.
Our attendant introduced himself right away and was always pleasant and efficient.
Restaurants and Buffet
We preferred to eat at Windows because it is quieter than the Garden Restaurant and is open for all three meals. The menu and food would be rated between good and very good.
The buffet is called Raffles, and the food was also good, and remarkably, we could always find a place to sit. There are many tables on the outside aft of Raffles, but of course, the wind and weather affected its use.
The Blue Lagoon Café (known on other NCL ships as O’Sheehans) is available 24 hours a day, but the seating consists of hard benches, and the foot traffic makes it quite unatmospheric. This café will be redone and expanded during drydock. Pity the poor waiters who had to deal with serving in this hectic environment.
The specialty restaurants are all very good. We liked Cagneys and LeBistro the best and ate there five times. We had the five complimentary dinners plus the two Platinum Latitude dinners. We missed our reservation at Tempanyaki because we arrived late back to the ship. La Trattoria was fine, but it is really just a section of the buffet they isolate for the dinner time. We didn’t try Shogun or the Sushi bar.
This group was about the nicest I have ever traveled with. People struck up conversations in the elevator and seemed to be having a good time. My CC friends liked almost all aspects of the cruise, but a few other passengers complained about the food. I don’t agree with their views on this topic.
This cruise also reinforced the importance of getting to know other people on the Cruise Critic Roll Call. Our group of about twelve, which planned many excursions together, really bonded. We toured together, often ate the evening meal together, and played games on sea days. Another nice feature was that we looked out for one another. This was especially evident when one single woman fell on an excursion and had to return by taxi to the ship for stitches and a possible concussion. One of our group volunteered to go with her. Another time, when the ship didn’t notify us about a time discrepancy, we worked hard to notify one another about this problem.
Our group evolved from the Cruise Critic Roll Call. For our joint excursions, we met at a lounge and disembarked together. These wonderful people looked out for one another, played games on sea day afternoons, often ate together, and became good friends. We set the expectation to be on time, and everyone happily complied.
May I suggest that on cruises like this that the roll call folks keep chit chat and other personal issues off the roll call board? Arranging a junk food exchange took the group down another alley and was hard for any new folks to find the helpful information.
Also, once the sailaway or other events are planned, only provide a bad weather option if it is outside. One person decided on her own to change it, and that split the group in two because it was supposed to be in Champagne Charlies (bad weather place as it was rainy) but she moved it to the noisy Galaxy Lounge. Communications broke down because of this.
Also, if you are a solo traveler, it is probably best to just work with the whole group rather than try to arrange solo events. The ship tries to assist solos, and we were always happy to include any single people who wished to dine or travel with us. On our last TA in 2018, the solos were the ones who organized game times on sea days. We were invited and loved joining them.
If you are the “lead person” who organized a private tour, it is really nice if you take some responsibility and try to get others’ contact information. I attempted to do this with my van for GTI, and the group evolved into a very nice travel and dining group. Those who gave me their contact info probably had a much better experience. We had each other’s’ backs!
The NCL App was very helpful in keeping us in good communication. For just $9.99 for the trip, it is a great idea and good value. The light on the cabin phone for voice mail didn’t work (I verified this with CS), so it was even more important to get the App.
The public areas never seemed too crowded except in the evening at Champagne Charlies. At times, there weren’t many good alternatives, and this was a place that had reliable entertainers.
The crew were almost all very pleasant and helpful. I met a few very nice customer service people who handled issues with a smile and competence. The officers tended to not be noticeable, but as long as they are doing their job, I don’t really care.
Since this was a very port intensive cruise, the entertainment wasn’t a huge factor, but we still had a good time. The lounge entertainment was good, depending on the group. Hotwire, the Acoustic Soul Brothers, and Ian, the pianist, were our favorites. The Latin Fiesta Duo was geared to the Hispanics onboard. We enjoy dancing so the Galaxy Lounge was our favorite. There were quite a few dancers on board.
The one place I just don’t get is the Maharajah’s Lounge, and I doubt it was in vogue twenty years ago. It featured big heavy velveteen drapery, dumpy upholstered couches, and lots of hammock type seating. No wonder it was often a ghost town, but it took up so much space. The casino smoke that drifted into it made this lounge unusable. I sure hope this place is turned into a functional dancing lounge at drydock!
The main theatre entertainment was the weak link of the cruise, but this was a very special, port intensive and tiring 13-day cruise with only three scheduled sea days. I didn’t see any production shows because I believe I missed one due to fatigue, and the other two were canceled because of sea conditions. The performers put on a cabaret show as a replacement.
The Spirit has a very nice card, reading, and computer rooms. The Galaxy Lounge is available during the day for a variety of activities.
The cruise director was one of the least visible and frankly maybe one of the worst we have ever seen, but her staff were attentive and ran many nice games and activities.
The ship itself never seemed crowded, and even exiting and reentering the ship at ports was never a problem.
The pools were rarely used because of the rain or cool temperatures.
We had one major issue with the ship concerning their not adequately notifying people that the ship time and the time in Kusadasi Turkey would be different. It was listed in small print in the daily as a “travel tip.” If it hadn’t been for a member of our small travel group noticing this issue, most of us would have been an hour late for the private excursion. I’m not sure if the ship didn’t care about those not going on their ship excursions, but the importance of this detail should have been clearly communicated. Perhaps NCL was just reinforcing their preference for passengers to take ship excursions.
Ports of Call
Our itinerary was absolutely wonderful. We chose to use private excursions or just walk around a few ports ourselves rather than use large ship excursions. The companies we chose were really great and highly recommended. It is so much preferable to go with a tour company that you can ask questions of beforehand by email.
The guides were always waiting outside the ship as they promised. The smaller vans can get in and out of traffic better than the large buses, and you don’t have to wait for the always late for the types who are problems on almost every ship excursion. So much better to travel in a van with seven to eighteen people rather than 55-65 people on a large bus. I have no idea how the tour guides kept their groups together, especially in places like the narrow streets of Jerusalem. Also, those number stickers the tour groups must wear are like flashing red lights for pickpockets.
A few of us went to Pompeii by using a City Sightseeing Bus (HOHO) designated just for Pompeii. The specially designated bus met us at their center drop off point, which was an easy walk from the ship. We had purchased our vouchers before we left the states, and it was a great, quick way to get to Pompeii. The cost was $15.00 pp round trip. The drop off point in Pompeii was at the entrance near the tourism office and you purchase the single ticket entry to Pompeii. We used Rick Steves audio guides supplemented by his written walking tour instructions. Easy peasy! The map given at the entry site is a bit too complicated.
The Pompeii site is, of course, wonderful to see, especially with the free Rick Steve guides. The ride back was equally easy, and we walked around the commercial center for a while.
Athens and Corinth
One of the CC members found a full day trip split between Athens and Corinth. Our driver who gave us some background information didn’t enter the sites with us, and in retrospect, it would have been better to have a tour with a guide.
Corinth, an hour away, was an excellent choice. We toured the ancient ruins of Corinth and the museum, viewed the remarkable Corinthian Canal. It is amazing to think that the ancients dragged ship over this land before it was turned into a canal in the 1800s. The most special time was a stop at the ancient pier of Conchae were the Apostle Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla left Corinth for Ephesus. We were the only ones there, and it seemed so authentic.
The hour drive to Athens was marred by the traffic coming to a standstill in the downtown area. It seems some group wanted to do a spontaneous protest, so the streets were gridlocked on the way to the Acropolis. It was nice with a smaller van as the driver could take some side streets.
One thing that strikes visitors is an incredibly large amount of graffiti in Athens. It is quite a tragedy, although some people view some of the vandals as street artists. No building, private or public, is safe from the graffiti, and they even paint on ancient ruins. Most is done by vandals as gang tags or to support sports teams.
Despite being seniors, we were in good enough shape to walk to the top, but it was quite cold and windy. That might be a surprise to those who go during the summer! Of course, it was spectacular, but watch out for those very slippery large rocks.
We went to Mars Hill, which is where the Apostle Paul spoke to groups who wanted to learn about the gospel. Because of the previous traffic issues, we did not get to go to a few other, more minor areas.
Before our trip, I have to admit to being a bit concerned about our safety in Turkey. We hired a great company Magic Steps Tours for their “Enjoy Roman Ephesus and Its Christian Heritage” tour at 55 Euro per person. That included a full day and a delightful buffet lunch at a Turkish restaurant. All tickets were included. We had a great guide name Ugar Duman who met us promptly at the terminal.
We went first to the House of the Virgin Mary, where tradition says Mary went to live after Jesus died. Then, we spent several hours at the ruins of ancient Ephesus and the Terrace Step Houses. After that, we went to the Basilica of St. John, which is an amazing ruin with a baptismal area with steps for full emersion.
Friends who went on the ship excursions usually saw just the main ruins but just walked or drove past the Terrace Steps and Basilica and didn’t go to the House of the Virgin Mary. We got it all on this tour! Excellent guide!
Lindos, Rhodes, Greece
The city of Lindos is spectacular and an easy walking port. After exiting the ship, just follow the wall to either the Virgin Mary Gate or the Marina Gate to enter, and the Grand Master’s Palace is an easy walk. Tom’s Port Guides has a detailed guide on how to walk the highlights.
We went to the Palace and the wonderful archeological museum, which was an ancient Hospital for the Knights of St. John. As a Christian, this town gave me a great appreciation for the Crusaders. While not always perfect, they did save most of Europe from the Muslims/Ottoman Invasions.
There are many delightful shops and restaurants to enjoy. The cobblestones on the Street of the Knights are a challenge.
We had another wonderful, private tour with Spanos Bus Tours for 38 Euros, pp. It included: Kolossi Castle (Foto stop), Kurion Archaeological site, Paphos UNESCO Tour (European Capital of Culture 2017), Petra tou Romiou - Aphrodite's Birth Place Rock, Santa Solomoni Catacomb, Ayia Kyriaki church and Saint Paul Pillar, Paphos UNESCO Archaeological Park, House of Dionysos Mosaics, and free time in old Harbor and Medieval Castle (restaurants, souvenir shops, cafeterias) Another great day by a knowledgeable guide.
I arranged a private excursion for a group of eighteen cruise critics with Guided Tours Israel. They are a very highly rated company that communicated very promptly and at a very reasonable price. Most of their tours are $99 per day per person.
We had to endure a rainy day, although the sun came out as we entered Bethlehem with our tour guide Yanothan, a very accomplished historian and guide. At first, the checkpoint was closed, but our driver called around to find an open one. Bethlehem is in a Palestinian controlled area, so we were turned over to Lahdo, a pleasant Armenian Christian from Palestine. The church in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas are very crowded and resemble nothing what the area looked like 2,000 years ago. The line to the crypt was very long, and we didn’t have the time or inclination to wait.
The tour in Jerusalem wasn’t quite what I had hoped for as the city is tense and intense. Even the Via Dolorosa, the path where Jesus walked, didn’t seem real because the ancient path is below the modern-day streets. The exact path is more of a tradition rather than fact, and some stories related to the stations of the cross are not found in the Bible.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is under the custody of three Christian groups: the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations. They share custody of the church, where tensions often run high over control of its various sectors. Centuries ago, the imposing iron key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was entrusted to two Muslim families. The arrangement dates back to the time of Saladin, the Muslim conqueror who seized the holy city from the Crusaders in 1187. He wanted to exert the Muslim’s control over the church.
We also visited the following sites: Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, Mount Zion, Room of the Last Supper, Jaffa Gate, Western Wall, Arab Souk, and the Christian and Jewish Quarters.
Our second day was much more enjoyable as the weather was clear and sunny and we were in the countryside. We visited Nazareth and the famous Basilica of the Annunciation, Jordan River, Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Tabgha (site of the miracle of the multiplication of the fish and loaves and the Mount of Beatitudes. We stopped at St. Peter’s Restaurant for lunch (not included in the tour price.) Also, we stopped at a Kibbutz and their store, which offered better prices than we had seen anywhere else.
The third day out of Haifa was customized and not part of GTI’s usual offerings. It ended up being a great choice considering the trip to the Dead Sea, and Massada was a very long one, and it was a bit cold for swimming in the Dead Sea.
Our first stop was the Roman Caesarea (Maritima) on the west coast between Haifa and Tel Aviv. We visited the Roman ruins and the best-preserved Roman theater in the land of Israel.
We then went to the top of Mount Carmel in Haifa to view the Baha'i Gardens and the Haifa Bay. Because we had a bit of time, we made a stop at the aqueducts on the coast. Stunning!
Next, we drove to the old Crusader port town of Acre for a visit to the Crusader Fortress. That was a real highlight, and we greatly enjoyed our time in the town. We had lunch at a simple restaurant and were given many bowls of traditional foods to sample with our meal. We were given far more than we could eat, and it was at a modest price. We found a shofar at the silver and metal works store.
The last two days in Israel were quite wonderful, and I wish that Jerusalem had been a better experience. The tensions and sellers in the street added to the negative atmosphere, and I doubt it would have been much better on a sunny day. BTW, if you are an American and asked where you are from while roaming through Jerusalem, tell them you are a Canadian, especially if you are buying something. They will quote a higher price for Americans. There are some sour-looking types who seem to guard areas and ask tourists these questions.
We were supposed to take a ship excursion to Crete, but the ship canceled it for a good reason: there was a “Medicane” (Hurricane like conditions in the Mediterranean) brewing near the Straight of Messina and Italy, and we had to go through it. The captain needed to slow the ship’s speed while we went through the worst. Wow, was he right about his concerns!
The ship and passengers handled the storm well, but at times all the outside decks were totally closed as were the buffet and elevators for a while. It as wild, but most handled it fine. Whenever a really wild motion was observed, the passengers all vocalized together- “Whoa!” The ones who didn’t too well were probably in their cabins, but it wasn’t noticeable. The evening production show was canceled for the performers’ safety. Most crew members said this storm was the worst they had every experienced onboard a ship. Lucky us.
The exit process on the final day was a snap. We chose to self-disembark, and it took about ten minutes with no processing needed.
We stayed an extra day because we wanted to see Ostia Antica and are so glad we did! I have to say it is better than Pompeii’s ruins!
We booked a Habicab shuttle, and the driver agreed to take us directly to the hotel after he dropped off his other passengers at the airport.
We stayed at the Fly Deco Hotel in Ostia, which is right across from the beach. What a lovely town! It was all decorated for Christmas and we enjoyed walking in the lighted square that evening which was filled with activity.
The Hotel was wonderful: new, stylish, great service, comfortable beds and pillow, and a wonderful free breakfast. I never say a honeycomb at a buffet before. Highly recommended.
We were given our room early and stored our bags so that we could venture to Ostia Antica. Rick Steves strongly recommends this wonderful, massive ruin. We walked about eight minutes to the train station at Lido Central (just use Google Maps) and then purchase a ticket to go in the direction back to Rome. The stop for Ostia Antica is just two stops away. The RT tickets for two were just six Euros.
Once off, just follow the footbridge over the highway, and the signage down the path is easy to follow. The cost of entry is twelve Euros per person. We used Rick Steve’s audio guide and his book tour to find our way around. All the signs are in Italian and English.
It was like we had the place to ourselves because it is so large. We didn’t venture to the most westerly ruins and spent the whole day there.
We had lunch at the café and enjoyed the wonderful museum and the gift shop. Be sure to purchase inexpensive books with overlays so you can visualize what Ostia Antica was like back then. It is so exciting that these areas of Europe continue to be excavated and more ruins are continually being found.
The sun was shining, and it was a comfortable, glorious day in mid-December!
I highly recommend that instead of spending your final cruise day at an airport hotel where there are few alternatives that you stay in Ostia which is quite close to the airport anyway!
For ten Euro pp, the hotel driver took us the next morning to the airport. It was an easy 20-minute ride, and we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.
In summary, we were very pleased with this cruise. It had a great itinerary and was a super value. While a bit dated, it is good to know that a nice ship will soon be made much better when it goes into dry dock. My last NCL cruise on the Jade was generally disappointing and might have been my last, but the Spirit renewed my enthusiasm for Norwegian Cruises. Read Less