We, (my husband and I aged 56 and 55) originally booked the NCL Jewel cruise because of the itinerary. We have previously sailed on the QE2 and so were unsure how "Freestyle" cruising would suit us. From Heathrow to Istanbul (remind me never to fly from HR again!) we docked at Izmir for Ephesus, Dubrovnik, Venice, Naples, Rome and Barcelona. We flew back to the UK from Barcelona.
First impressions were good - the ship looked colorful and huge. Embarkation was fine and our cabin (inside on deck 9) though quite small, was adequate and clean. The bed was comfortable and suited us although we had to request additional softer pillows. The shower was powerful and spacious and although other critiques had said the hairdryers on the ship were powerful, I was not convinced they would be - I thought they would be those silly little piped in dyers you get in some hotel rooms.
However, the dryer was great - almost professional!! Small things make me happy... There was also a launderette on our floor and I think, a couple more dotted about on the ship. Four quarters for soap powder and then free use of washing machine and dryer - there were also 2 x irons and boards. The laundry rooms are small and always busy - pick a shore day to use.
Customer base ranged from families - there were quite a few teenagers and a couple of dozen younger children - to couples of all ages. I was really quite surprised by the average age profile - younger than I expected. There seemed to be many different nationalities on board but mainly Americans and Brits.
Lounges and bars - Bar City was a nice place for pre dinner drinks. Quiet and in a position to watch the comings and goings of our fellow passengers. It got a bit more busy after dinner and when the shows were finished. Never went to Fizz, the Karaoke bar but the Star Bar was OK. The Spinnaker lounge seemed to be where it all happened later in the evening. We went a couple of times and enjoyed the 60's music night.
Entertainment - We never went to the theater to see the shows. Not our kind of thing - reports ranged from excellent to abysmal - personal taste I suppose. The individual entertainers and bands dotted around the ship in other lounges were professional and very good.
Restaurants - There's always more to restaurants than the food but the main free restaurants, Tsars Palace and Azura were fine. Tsars was impressive in a Hollywood sort of way - lots of glitz, big and noisy. Azura was more contemporary, smaller and noisy.
We tried a few of the optional restaurants. I felt The Bistro was pretentious, nicely fitted but kidding itself on that it was a quality restaurant. Cagneys - we had the best steak ever there and went back a second time. Sushi was good and the chefs were happy to advise.
Tepannyaki, the Japanese restaurant is worth a visit to enjoy the entertainment provided by the chefs. Mama's Italian place always seemed to be busy but we managed to get in one night and it was disappointing. We couldn't get in the main restaurant and so sat on the deck outside at what was The Great Outdoors through the day so maybe we didn't get the full experience and atmosphere.
Speaking of The Great Outdoors - it was, for us, the best place for lunch and/or afternoon tea.
The Food - apart from Cagney's, Teppanyaki and Sushi, was average - up-market canteen food, which is not a bad thing necessarily - they are catering for thousands of people after all but don't expect haute cuisine. Most of the food was pre-processed - for instance in the majority of the restaurants, all the chicken, veal, lamb, steaks etc came with those stripes on them that are supposed to be barbecue grill marks. Yeah right.
I was looking forward to some great puddings - New York cheesecake etc, again all was pre-prepared and the cheesecake was like marshmallow with sponge base. - not my taste. However, all were nicely presented with drizzles of coulis and flakes of chocolate.
Breakfast, however, in The Garden Cafe was superb. Lots of fresh fruit, cereals, freshly made to order omelets, waffles, pastries, bacon, sausages, hash browns, beans, cream cheese, pickled herring. You say it, the buffet probably had it. Something for everyone and well set out.
SHORE EXCURSIONS - There was also a Shore Excursion desk next to the Reception desk and intermittently open, which was fine if you wanted to purchase one of the ship's excursion which NCL was anxious to sell. If you wanted to do your own things at a port - forget the Shore Excursion desk. In many cases you would get misinformation. One example of this was Venice. Elsewhere on the Internet, I had found that a shuttle bus was offered to take you from the pier to/from Piazela Roma (saving a 20 minute walk). On enquiring about this, I was told one had to walk. In fact there was a shuttle bus. We used it 3 times and had to walk on the 4th occasion because the shuttle-bus stopped running after 5:30pm. Check with the bus-driver when the last one leaves or ask at an information desk at the pier.
In Venice, NCL arranged for a shuttle boat from the ship to Piazza San Marco at a cost of $25 for unlimited use. This was not useful to us as we wanted to go other places. Further, other cruise lines offered a free boat shuttle! However, if you could find the right person at the reception desk, you could get useful information with maps, directions and general information.
My impression was that NCL was very poor in supporting any shore activity that did not make money for them!
The NCL arranged shore excursion were of pretty good quality but quite expensive. We and our kids took several but not always the same ones. The tour guides were nearly all locals which enhanced their knowledge, However, in many cases, their command of English and local accent made them difficult to understand.
We selected our excursions based on whether or not it would be easy to do our own thing and do it reliably enough to make sure one returned to the ship on time. In Istanbul we had already stayed an extra night in a hotel (Avicenna, one block from the Blue Mosque and highly recommended) to make sure there was time to react to any lost baggage (there wasn't any lost baggage) and also because doing so was less than half the cost of NCL arranged pre-cruise (and post cruise arrangements). We used a local tour operator. Our itinerary allowed us to visit more sights in less time than NCL could offer. We also took a cruise on the Bosphorous.
In Izmir, we took the Ephesus and the Virgin Mary tour. We had an excellent lunch in a small restaurant by the Temple of Artemis. For Izmir we used the same tour operator as we did for Istanbul. We were very impressed with the services provided.
You can email this company at email@example.com Athens - we used Spiros from www.athenstaxi.net He is very reasonable...around 200 euro for up to 4 people for a full day tour.
In Dubrovnik we took the Croation Riviera Tour. Light lunch in a quaint country setting and a glimpse of breathtaking views in the country around. Dubrovnik is a beautiful city that has been completely restored following the siege in 1993 by the Bosnians. Dubrovnik was the only port that required "Tendering" - boat from ship to shore.
In Venice we did our own thing. Our kids took the Murano/Burano tour on the 2nd day and enjoyed seeing the glass factory. They nearly got left behind while engaged in negotiating the price of a piece of glass! We experienced a temporary set-back when all of about 5 ATM machines we tried on Sunday evening were out of money!
Our kids took the Capri/Sorrento/Pompeii 10 hour tour seeing a lot more than one could probably accomplish by oneself. We chose to do Capri on our own using the same Hydrofoil that the Taste of Capri tour used at much less cost. We visited Anacapri, Villa San Michele, Gardens of Augustus and had a nice pizza lunch in a restaurant with a beautiful view. The 3:25pm Hydrofoil from Capri gets back at 4:05pm, providing plenty of safety factor to make sure one is back before the 7:00pm sailing from Naples.
From Civitavecchia, our kids took the Vatican Tour and we did our own thing. We were ready to get off the ship when it docked at 7:00am. NCL is required to provide shuttle busses to the port entrance from which there is about a 15 min walk to Civitavecchia railroad station. We missed a 7:38 train but caught an 8:08 train to Rome, arriving 9:40. The train fare is 4.10 euros one way per person. A little after 10, we took the #110 double-decker sight seeing bus to Piazza San Pietro (The Vatican). The bus offers an wonderful overview of the city providing earphones on which one can hear commentaries in various languages including English (though rather brief) about each site. The whole route takes 2 hours! One can hop on and off at any stop. The cost is 13 euros per person (An earlier blog reported problems with lining up for tickets and buses arriving full. I think this has been eliminated as tickets are purchased on the bus and they dispatch the bus from Piazza Cinquecento in front of the Roma Termini before each bus is full.)
There was a line all around the Piazza with people waiting for the Basilica security check! Previously I had booked a Vatican Museum/Sistine Chapel tour with Odyssey tours (http://www.odyssey-tours.com/tours/museum.asp). We were led through the museum and the Sistine chapel by Erin, their tour guide, who is a Texan studying in Rome. She is an excellent tour guide and speaker! After visiting the chapel and the Basilica, we had time to visit the Trevi fountain and return to the Termini station to catch the 5:00 reserved seat EuroStar Express arriving Civitavecchia on time at 5:40. (Note that I reserved the seats with Trenitalia on-line!
The cost was 14 euros per person for the reserved 1st class seat. This is 3 times the regular 2nd class fare. Whether it is worth is a matter of personal taste! We felt somewhat out of place surrounded by Italian businessmen in expensive suits! Being on this train is like traveling by air. They serve free pop and peanuts.) Most of the other Jewel passengers that went to Rome by train came back on the 4:30pm commuter train arriving at Civitavecchia at about the same time we did! We were in plenty of time for the 8:00pm sailing but got drenched by a thundershower walking back to the port entrance and waiting for the shuttle bus.
It is interesting to compare our tour with the NCL 9 1/2hour tour taken by the kids. They arrived at the Vatican at about 9:15 and had to wait in the security check line for the Vatican Museum for 75mins. We arrived at the Vatican at about 11:15 after an hour on the #110 tour bus, and stood in the security check line for the Vatican Museum at 12:00pm for 20 minutes.
The kids had a good tour-guide, but he was difficult to understand. Our Texan guide was terrific. The tours of the Museum and the Chapel each lasted about 2 hours total, not counting security line time and the Basilica tour. After spending an hour and half in a hotel for lunch (much too long), the kids saw Rome briefly and had a quick stop at the Coliseum and a brief tour of Rome on the NCL bus. We all or course enjoyed the Sistine Chapel and were not rushed though it! Our tour and transportation cost each was $80 plus $7 snack and the kids tour cost $185 each.
CONCLUSION No ship is perfect. NCL provides a good cruising experience provided you are willing to work around the restaurant issues. We like the free-style concept. NCL keep things very "ship-shape". NCL costs are somewhat lower than the competition. The itinerary was excellent.