We just returned from 12 days Eastern Med cruise with Norwegian Jade. It was a FABULOUS trip, but I wanted to pass on a few pointers before the details fade. We are from the U.S., and this is our 4th European cruise and 10th cruise overall (we have also cruised Princess, Celebrity and Carnival). We tend toward doing most of the ports ourselves, and hiring private guides if necessary because we enjoy researching the ports and like the flexibility and efficiency of a private tour (we have found it to be cheaper than the ship's tours as well).
FLIGHTS AND PRE-CRUISE STAY IN BARCELONA If possible, plan to arrive in Barcelona a day or two early. We stayed at the Regencia De Colon hotel. It is a sister hotel to the Colon, both which sit at the foot of the Cathedral and a 2 minute walk from La Rambla. The room was small, but well appointed in a great location. We had to go to the Colon to get ice for our drinks. We had dinner at Neya's. A small tapas bar 1 1/2 blocks from the hotel. The food was great -- tapas and paella -- and very inexpensive.
We really enjoyed the city. La Rambla is maybe 6 blocks long and activity abounds! We spent much of the time just watching the street mimes. They get dressed up in amazing costumes and hold perfectly still til you come up to have your picture taken. Then they go into action! Quite a site to see. La Rambla is also lined with plenty of street vendors, artists etc. But they even have street vendors that are pet shops along with the normal florists and trinket sellers. We had sangria at a street side cafe. Ugh. It was thick and really sweet and reminded us more of childrens cough syrup than a cocktail.
On the day of embarkation we took the hop off/hop on bus. We took the north route to catch all of the architecture and it really was a beautiful ride. It did, however, take the entire morning as the traffic in the city was really bad. We bought a one day ticket that would have allowed us to take the south route if we had the time. Two day tickets are also available. Cash only, but you purchase the tickets at the boarding stops. We thought Barcelona was beautiful, we were pleasantly surprised. It is a very easy city to do on your own. Cabs are very easy to get either in the city or at the pier. It is about 10-15 E from the pier to the close end of La Rambla. Make sure and negotiate price before you get in.
DINING We had late seating, traditional dining. We love traditional dining, however, due to the lateness of some of the tours we ate every night at 8:45 pm. That's pretty late even for folks who like to have prolonged cocktail hours! We were rarely finished with dinner by 11pm. I won't comment too much on food, but all of the soups were absolutely fantastic. We never had a bad one. Many of the nights I had a hard time choosing which entree to select as none of them completely excited me, but they were all good.
THE SHIP It's not as fancy or as laden with goodies as some of its sisters, but the Jade is a very nice ship. The crew is attentive and there are many, many activities planned.
Downsides: It is short on public spaces; smoking is allowed in the one lounge where a lot of activities are scheduled, so you can't really escape it (the high percentage of Europeans adds to the smoking population too); and the rooms are small even for cruise ship standards (no drop down bunk, so kids sleep together on a pull-out couch).
Upsides: I thought the food in the Windjammer was a step above the usual (don't miss the Asian and Greek nights, the pastries at breakfast, the desserts and the fresh melon), and there is an excellent "salad bar" with unusual ingredients at lunch in the dining room; the bartender at the Champagne Bar makes a killer Chocolate Mint martini (skip the frozen drinks at the pool bars -- they are WEAK); there are a ton of fitness and game activities planned if you're interested. Do go to the port talks -- they are very informative. I'm impressed with how NCL aids the independent traveler and does not solely push their excursions.
THE PORTS Rome/Civitavecchia: After much consideration, we decided to book a private full day tour in Rome visiting some of the familiar places and including a few new ones. After researching companies to use, we decided on LimoinRome -- Claudio Caponera (www.limoinrome.com) as our driver/guide for the day. We shared this tour with 3 couples from our roll call. Our itinerary included The Roman Forum, Coliseum, Mouth of Truth, Circus Maximums, the Key Hole (Sov Mil Ordine Di Malta), Palatine Hill, Baths of Caracalla, The Catacombs, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Capitol Hill, and Gianicolo (great views of Rome from this spot) and Borghese Gallery. Claudio arranged for our lunch stop at Ristorante Massenzio. Good meal. If we could have eliminated one thing in the itinerary it would, in our opinion, have been the Borghese Gallery. After a full day of sightseeing, I for one was on "information overload". I would suggest that the Borghese Gallery be done by itself or perhaps along with a walk through the garden areas.
Athens: We hired a taxi driver from Spiros at email@example.com for the day (8:30-2:00). This ended up being a boon -- it costs 25 euro each way from Piraeus on the meter anyway, and saved us hundreds of steps in the heat. He parked at the back side of the Acropolis (it is not necessary to climb the hundreds of steps from the Plaka) and waited for us, then took us to the old Olympic stadium (actually pretty impressive), the Temple of Zeus, to the President's house in time for the changing of the guard (actually worth the stop), the Parliament building, the Roman Agora, and then the Greek Agora and Plaka. We zipped through it all -- again because we got out early I think, and were driving instead of walking -- and were back on board by 2, exhausted.
Ephesus: We hired a private tour guide for this port -- Denizhan at firstname.lastname@example.org. We combined with another family I met on our Roll Call. I join the list of Cruise Critic people that highly recommend him. He was knowledgeable, personable, proud of his country, and completely professional. We started early and were through most of Ephesus by the time the first tour bus arrived. Since it reached 105 degrees that day, we were EXTREMELY grateful to have gotten to see it before the hottest part of the day. Be sure to also see the ruins of St. John's Basilica. Denizhan also took us inside a local and historic mosque and explained a lot about Islam and Turkish politics. Lunch was the best of the trip. We also visited the museum in Selcuk, which was fine, although it is hard to compete with the Vatican, the Egyptian Museum, and others on this trip. Definitely try apple tea if you can -- hot or cold, it's delicious. All in all, a great stop.
Alexandria/Giza: You definitely need a guide/tour for this stop. Most passengers ponied up for an NCL tour of some sort, and I was a little nervous not to, reading all the postings about police convoys. But having a private tour guide (we used Rasha El Ashmawy at www.egyptdailytours.com) worked out great, and we were very happy with the day. We didn't have to wait for the convoy (and I felt safer, being less obviously a tourist in a small vehicle), we lingered at things that interested us, and went quicker through things that did not. Price for a family of four was $100 for adults and $90 for kids; a group of seven was $80 for adults and $70 for kids (solar boat museum, going inside the pyramids and mummy room at the Egyptian museum extra, but lunch included). Keys to this day are FLEXIBILITY and HUMOR, and you should realize that even if you do it with NCL there might be glitches -- for example, the entire bus that took the NCL Nile trip got sick, and cartouches ordered on a different tour turned black when they were worn into the pool back on the ship. However, on the whole we heard that the NCL tours were pretty good. Our tour included the Giza plateau, where we walked around near all three pyramids, drove to a vista, drove back to go inside the medium sized pyramid (Kefern) and then visited the Sphinx. Lunch was a quick falafel sandwich, and then we went to the Egyptian Museum (including mummy room) and back out to shop at the Khan Al Khalili bazaar in Islamic Cairo. We left the bazaar at 6:00 sharp, and pulled up to the ship at 9:25 (had to be back onboard by 9:30, so you really do have to watch your time). Rasha did not travel with us, but checked in with us all the way back to make sure that we made it back on board.
Tips about this particular Giza/museum/bazaar itinerary: 1) change money before you get off the ship if possible because Euros/dollars are not accepted until you are at the bazaar; 2) take toilet paper in your bag -- bathrooms are often bare; 3) take small change for the bathrooms; 4) resist resist resist people offering you anything (even people that claim to work for the sites you are visiting) -- you will suspect it is a scam, but then you will not want to offend them, so you will go along, but it will end up being a scam at the end. We had a number of people flat out lie to us -- "I work for the government, not a tour guide, come see, I don't want to take your money" -- and then demand "baksheesh;" 5) take water and umbrellas -- Giza plateau is really exposed; 6) at the bazaar, decide what you are willing to pay and stick to your guns -- as a rule of thumb, Rasha told us to chop their asking price in half or more -- if you can't settle with the first guy, you will probably see the same thing a few stores away; 7) about going inside the pyramids -- a claustrophobic, hot, crowded, and stinky experience -- but my family was glad they did it. The middle pyramid (Kefern) offers much the same experience as the largest pyramid (Khufu), but priced at about $6 instead of $20. The experience takes ten to fifteen minutes at either pyramid; 8) The Museum -- so many treasures crammed right next to each other, it's overwhelming -- read a little before you go so you can sort out the experience before you're there. There are actually two mummy rooms to see for the additional admission price of $20 -- if you've seen a mummy before, you can honestly give this a miss, but if you haven't, it is fairly interesting. If the line is long, see the rest of the museum and check back in later -- it fluctuates depending on tour groups; 9) Get to Islamic and/or Coptic Cairo if you can -- much more atmosphere than downtown where the Museum is; 10) Do NOT eat at the bazaar -- most expensive (and worst) "snack" of the trip; 11) DO try the mint tea mmmmmm.
Valetta: This is the one port where we decided to do one of the ship's organized excursions, a "jeep adventure" tour of the island. Having just recovered from a pinched nerve in my back, I don't know what possessed me to book this excursion. The ride is VERY bumpy and rough, especially around the limestone quarries, so if you have any back or neck problems, you should opt for a different tour. That being said, the "Malta Jeep Adventure" is a good way to see a lot of the island. Each vehicle is an open-air jeep with seating for four people. There is a recorded guided tour playing in English to explain the various monuments or sights as you pass them. The last stop was at Golden Bay where we had free time to swim or lounge on the beach. Again, we are not big on organized tours, but this one was a good value for the money. Something that we found surprising was that all the signs were in English.
Overall this is one of the best cruises we've done and we highly recommend others to give it a try if you like to visit many ports with less sea days. Weather was great throughout the trip and we're glad we choose early October to do this cruise. The members of our roll call were a pleasure to meet and share tours with. We have great memories of this adventure. Would definitely do this trip again.