Saturday, June 28, 2008

Cruise Review

A few of you have asked for an overall review of the ship and cruise. This post is my attempt to do that for you. Of course, reviews (like blogs) are idiosyncratic... sometimes with an emphasis on the idio-t part. :-) So, keep your grain of salt at the ready.

Public Rooms

The NCL Jade is a very attractive ship with a pleasing, flowing layout (pictures to follow sometime next week). We were aboard the NCL Sun for one night in April, and I was less impressed with its public design. In my mind, the Jewel-class ships (such as Jade) have corrected the Sun’s design shortcomings. Indeed, I rather enjoyed seeing the evolution. I don’t have a lot of points of comparison, but I feel the Jade (and by extension other Jewel-class ships) has a very different feel from RCI’s ships with their multi-story dining rooms and atriums. As such, I think it’s better to evaluate the ship individually rather than compare it to different vessels, much like one can’t really judge the quality of a Romanesque cathedral by comparing it to one in the Rococo style.

Cabin

We loved our cabin. We had originally intended on an inside cabin but later upgraded for about $500/pp extra to an aft balcony (Deck 8, #8134). In my mind, this was worth every penny… as the views were magnificent and the balcony adds a real sense of spaciousness. The cabin was nicely appointed with a “cheerful” décor and in good condition (though the carpet could probably use replacing). The bed was very comfortable with extra pillows and nice bedding – the best I can recall at sea. Likewise, the bathroom was stupendous! It included a pretty roomy walk-in shower with sliding glass door (no wet bathroom floor from a goofy shower curtain) and good quality fixtures. Storage space was perfect for us (as moderately light packers), but I have no earthly idea how those with steamer trunks full of clothing managed! The mini-fridge (which we had cleaned out immediately by our cabin attendant) was really helpful for keeping drinks and/or snacks cool. The cabin steward was very nice and helpful… though, I’ve had better as the little things were sometimes overlooked. Nonetheless, I expect this is typical when on such a long voyage. Overall, the NCL cabins aren’t huge but are nice. We lived there very happily for 14 days and could do another 14 days starting tomorrow in it without getting “cabin fever” (pun, once again, intended).

Dining

This is always a favorite topic in cruisedom and a seemingly significant point of contention amongst reviewed. We tried every single dining option aboard, aside from Sushi (as we ran out of time and into higher seas – a bad combination to encourage culinary adventure). I’m not going to belabor the point of a blow-by-blow as I think the blog covers it pretty well. Instead, I’ll talk more in general terms about the “hot topics” posted in other reviews.

First, many people complain that some of the dining options aren’t “free” on their “freestyle” cruise – get their wit? Thank goodness Shakespeare is dead so he doesn’t have to worry about being usurped! No, freestyle isn’t always “free.” Sometimes restaurants are busy… so you have to wait (though we actually never had this problem). Sometimes restaurants are booked… so you can’t make a reservation (though we never had this problem either). Sometimes restaurants charge more than others… so you have to pay if you want to go (which we did). This is just like your “freestyle” life on land.

Second, many people seem to complain about the service of the wait staff. With “freestyle” you don’t have assigned times and tables. Thus, you don’t usually have a waiter or assistance waiter to build familiarity with… although, by the end of the cruise some will get to know you if you frequent certain venues (for example, a gentleman working at the al fresco Lido deck bar learned of my preference for wheat beers and Libby’s for diet coke – he was right there to help as soon as we sat down with our plates from the buffet). That’s not to say that all of the waiters are great… some were better than others, and I suspect this might have even varied from day-to-day. Again, this is just like a vacation on land. Put it this way, if you went out to eat 2-3 times per day for 14 days to different places with different waiters… do you think you’d have “great” service at all of the 28-42 meals? Given that, I’d say 14 days of overall “good” and usually “very good” service meets/exceeds our expectations, especially on a mass market cruise ship.

Third, some people complain about the food itself. We had very few items that were truly “bad” and absolutely no meals that I would call less than “ok.” In general, I do think the surcharge specialty restaurants are of slightly higher quality and have larger portion sizes. That said, we had some wonderful dishes and meals in the main dining rooms. The buffet was more hit-and-miss. Overall, I believe that I prefer RCI’s buffets (especially for “hot” entrées). However, the buffet did offer a very good salad bar (with nice gourmet cheese assortment and cold cuts), excellent hot dogs and hamburgers, good sandwiches (including a “custom sandwich” action station), and a simply sublime crepe-making action station in the evenings that is not to be missed. Would I opt to eat in any of these places on land at “full” price? Probably not but only because my standards on land are fairly high and growing (under the influence of some of my “foodie” friends, such as Dick, Frank, and Jason) and the choices/competition is more abundant. Overall, the cuisine reminded me a lot of what one would get at a nice, business-class hotel’s restaurant in America (at which I’ve eaten a lot of meals in my life). The notable exception was the Asian choices, which I would absolutely frequent at home.

My advice on dining aboard the NCL Jade:

1. Book early if you really want to eat somewhere at a specific time.
2. If you don’t have a reservation, early and late will be less crowded. At peak times, the surcharge specialty restaurants were also usually less crowded. This is typical / to be expected.
3. Pay the extra price and try the specialty restaurants (indeed, go expecting to pay and add it to the cost of the cruise – if it’s still a good deal… why not?)
4. Order foods you wouldn’t ordinarily eat. If you don’t like it, say so and they’ll replace it with your “safe” choice. The pricing isn’t a la carte. If you don’t like it, what’s the risk?
5. Pay attention to the Freestyle Daily (as times changes in venues based on the day’s cruise / port schedule).
6. Go to the buffets well before the closing time for best selection and freshness.
7. Expect to wait 30-45 for room service in the evenings – plan accordingly.

Entertainment

I’ve written about this extensively in the rest of the blog… so, I’ll largely skip the details. Overall, I thought the program to good in terms of its variety and quality for a mass market cruise line. Are the production shows as good as Broadway or the West End? No. Are they an hour or two of pleasant entertainment? Absolutely! What surprised me most is how few of the scheduled acts we actually attended. We tend to like this sort of thing… but after busy days in port, we often enjoyed just sitting on the balcony watching the world go by. I’m ok with that as cultural events are a part of our “normal” lives already.

On a related note, I wasn’t overly impressed with the new “NCL U” curriculum. Many of the “educational” events were semi-veiled attempts to promote paid aspects (spa treatments, art auctions, etc.). We only had one guest lecturer: an older gentleman—a minister/historian—who tried to please but came across as more “cute” than “enlightening” to us. The best events (which had a cover charge) were the “tastings” which allowed you to sample wines, beers, whiskies, foods, etc. for about $15/pp. Of course, I’m naturally a fan of that sort of thing… as I like the expanding my sensory memory.

Ports / Shore Excursions

If you’ve read the blog, you’ve read all about these already. So, I’ll restrict myself to a few meta-comments. First, please read my post on “Europe by Sea” in general. Cruising is a very different—not better, not worse—way to experience this wonderful continent! We enjoyed all of ports to varying degrees. Of the new locales we visited, we were especially fond of Lisbon and Vigo/Santiago de Compostela. Barcelona and southern Spain will also be worth another trip. Of course, we enjoyed our old favorites too (Rome, Tuscany, and the south of France)!

We can’t review the shore excursions, as we did everything on our own (intended or otherwise). Thus, I can’t offer a review of those. That said, I think shore excursions are good for many people, especially new travelers or those wishing to be “worry free” (though still take care, as I’m confident that pickpockets and disreputable vendors are more likely to take advantage of tourists walking about with “NCL” stickers affixed to them). For NCL’s care and your lack of hassle, you pay a premium… so don’t be shocked if you hear that your “Rome on Your Own” tour at $119/pp. could have been duplicated on the train for as little as $20/pp. I don’t think this is unfair on NCL’s part…

I have no opinion of arranging your own shore excursion (i.e., some sort of guided private tour that you booked yourself). This seems like it could be great or could be a huge hassle. I just don’t know not having done it. I’d look for strong recommendations and/or avoid paying up front, if possible (in case the ship has to divert or you’re under the weather).

I’m a big fan of the “do it yourself” exploration of ports. That’s the most cost effective and flexible means of travel. We saw more (especially of what we wanted to see) in ports than on any of the ship’s shore excursions. And, we did for less than $400 in public transport/entrance/taxis fees what would have cost $2000+ via NCL shore excursions. However, I know… know… this is not best for everyone. It requires some knowledge of “how things work” in Europe. It also requires advanced research / information about what you want to accomplish, as well as a realistic assessment of what’s possible. All of this can be gained in advance, but it’s best for those with experiential knowledge of Europe.

Bottom line: if you want to travel independently on your “dream vacation to Europe” simply to save money – DON’T! You’ll regret it. However, if independent travel is what makes your European vacation a dream (as it does for Libby and me), than by all means have at it! That’s the best advice I can give.

Summary

We had an excellent cruise about the NCL Jade. We thought the service, food, accommodation, and ship to be all meeting or exceeding or expectations. Is the NCL Jade a floating Ritz-Carlton resort sprinkled with nothing but celebrity chef or multiple Michelin star awarded restaurants? Well… no! But do you really expect that on a 14 day European cruise that costs little more than $2000/pp. for a balcony cabin? I believe in assessment via a price-to-quality ratio for most consumer goods/services. For example, the $10 bottle of wine that tastes like it costs $20 is inherently a better value (and arguably a better wine when compared to its peers) than the $100 bottle that tastes like it should cost $80. In that light, this cruise was good value for money, and we had an exceptional time. By my standards, our cruise was outstanding.

6 comments:

Mom and Dad said...

Great blog about a great vacation! Have a safe trip to Tampa! We love you and are looking forward to welcoming you home.

Dick said...

Thanks for the mention in the blog. I too look forward to your return to Tampa and hearing more about the journey.

MikDon said...

Hi Paul and Libby,
We would just like to say thank you for a very intresting and informative blog. We are cruising on the Jade in July and hope to follow some of your foot steps, talking about foot step's we would be very interested to know the name of your travel agent,as staying on the same floor and in a the same type cabin is double the cost here in the UK. We hope you have managed to get home safe to your family and friends, we look forward to seeing your pictures. Once again thank you.
Mike and Donna

Paul said...

We actually didn't use a travel agent and just booked via the NCL (USA-based) web site. Originally, it was for an inside cabin at ~$1400 per person. Then near the final payment date, the price of balcony cabins dropped and we upgraded to a BD category balacony (also on deck 8) for about $500 extra per person. A day or two later, the prices dropped again. I called NCL ansd they upgraded us to the available BA cabin (aft balcony).

I'd noticed that the prices seemed a lot higher on the ncl.co.uk web site -- even for the same sailing. It seems like NCL charges almost as much in pounds as we pay in dollars on their US web site (thus making the trip, as you rightly pointed out, about 50% off relative to the UK price). I guess the only thing I can say is that it works against us in the UK (where I was paying about the same price for items in pounds as I would pay in dollars... making my beloved pasties a $6 delight or a Starbucks latte a $10 expense). Of course, I guess we're both suffering versus where we were against the euro. :-)

junie said...

I was on this cruise too and couldn't agree with you more.

resurgam said...

Paul thank you for such a great blog and for making it accessible to more than your family. I hope that you will copy your summary review to Cruise critic as yet again it is a thoughtful and well written piece. I look forward to following in the footsteps of yourself and Mike and Donna in August with my family we hope to meet up with my German penpal of long ago in Pisa!
Re travel agents I used an English one and the price for balcony for the family was approximately £4000 the two adults worked out as £1500 each. Not to different from prices in America although I will price up better next time.
Yes America and England prices have always appeared to be the same with just the dollar sign or pound sign being the difference. So at the moment it is great for us to visit America but a bit pricey for you to pop over to us (but you are more than welcome. Thank you once again for the blog