Having wrapped up our Navigator of The Seas, we have now sailed with each of the three massive lines focused on the American mass-market; Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The big question for us is “are these three lines interchangeable, or is there a noticeable difference in product quality amongst them?”.
As far as we’re concerned, there are, indeed, differences and there is a clear best choice, so, let’s rank them, starting at the bottom…
Third Place - Norwegian Cruise Line. As compared to its two primary competitors, NCL offers a less homogeneous hard product, with a fleet which remains something of a hodgepoge. In our experience, we found that, not only was the ship crowded, but the cabins were cramped and there were few appealing public spaces. Food was disappointing and the bar offering didn’t really cater to people who enjoy decent wines or spirits.
Second Place - Royal Caribbean. If our reviews were based simply on the number of bells and whistles attached to the ships, RCCL would win hands down, they offer a modern fleet which is continuously renewed with vessels which set new records for capacity and variety of facilities. In contrast to NCL, we found plenty of places to sit in peace and quiet, despite the vast number of fellow passengers. Like NCL, food was nothing to write home about, but there were at least wine bars and cocktail venues catering to grown ups.
First Place - Carnival. In our experience, Carnival is in a different league from it’s principle competition. Yes, some of the ships, including Triumph, are older, but ongoing improvement projects keep them relevant. While there are noisy kids arcades and clubs, there was also appealing bars and quiet lounges. The staff on Carnival were friendly, attentive and enthusiastic - really contributing to a great atmosphere in places, notably the pool bars and casino. Food, perhaps because it has no pretension to being haute cuisine, is far superior to that offered on RCCL or NCL - the sea day brunch is particularly good.
The downside to Carnival is that, unlike both NCL and RCCL, they offer very infrequent cruises in Europe and almost never anything sailing from the UK. That being said, if we were already in the US for work or another holiday, we wouldn’t hesitate to add a short Carnival sailing on to the end of the trip.
Overall, we can’t see ourselves rushing back aboard Norwegian Jade or any other NCL ship. Certainly not in northern Europe, where their ships, built for the tropics, seem ill-equipped to accommodate people sheltering from the climate.
I suppose, it might be a different story in the Caribbean, but then we would say that out past experience with Carnival was far superior, so we’d go with that.
In short, not an actively awful experience, but when thinking of the things we look for in a holiday experience, we wouldn’t seek out:
Not a lot to be said about disembarkation from Norwegian Jade in Hamburg. NCL did a good job of dealing with both those of us ending our cruise and others who were remaining onboard for a longer voyage who had shore excursions booked in Hamburg.
Despite holding back in a lounge on the ship for a later disembarkation, we were still at the airport with hours to spare, despite the bad traffic in Hamburg.
The mix of travellers on Norwegian Jade was, I think, a bit different from what you’d find on other cruises leaving Southampton - it certainly seemed to have more in the way of American’s wanting to explore northern Europe than Brits on holiday. There were quite a lot of older Brits on board, but the majority of passengers seemed to be large American family groups, with the exception of the huge, aforementioned, Chinese tour group.
Given Norwegian’s, generally, lower marketing profile in Europe, my assumption is that their European sailings will carry more visiting American’s than other lines.
Go on a cruise,” they say “there’s something to do every minute of the day.”
Well, yes and no. Jade offers the standard production shows, some kids activities and the odd quiz, but we were hardly overwhelmed with options. And, so apologies, we’ve really don’t have much to tell you.
In truth, I’m sure that the situation would be different in the Caribbean and come back to an earlier point - this ship isn’t suitable for cruising in Northern Europe, there simply isn’t enough indoor space available when it’s too cold or wet to be on deck.
First, the positives… The spa on Norwegian Jade is nicely appointed and the therapist was both competent and charming, at least during the treatment.
Sadly, I only recall these things because I wrote them down. My overriding memory of the experience is of being given the hard sell.
It began at booking, where I was talked into changing from a deep tissue massage to a bamboo massage (I guess the bamboo masseuse had more capacity), which, to be honest, wasn’t great. But after the massage, oh boy, for the first time on a ship I actually bought the ludicrous products being pushed on me as I began to think I’d never make it out alive otherwise.
Oh, and both the treatment and the products were pretty expensive.
Another “could do better/stop ripping me off” for Norwegian.
Some context on pricing before we dive into this... Norwegian offers a variety of promotional schemes which differ depending on your country of residence (or your travel agent’s location) - the biggest being “Free at Sea” (USA) and “Premium All-Inclusive” (European markets). The upshot of these schemes is that most people who want to drink on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship are entitled to unlimited “free” drinks; indeed, all-inclusive beverage packages seem more and more common throughout the industry.
That being said, through some quirk of timing and booking, I seemed to be the only person on this god-forsaken vessel who was actually paying for drinks. Paying handsomely, for bad drinks.
While we did have a nice bottle of wine in Cagney’s Steakhouse, the wine selection available at bars throughout the ship is woeful. The notion that any of it is worth $14 a glass is laughable.
Furthermore, all of the bars seem packed and noisy, particularly before dinner - there is nowhere to relax with a quiet cocktail or glass of Champagne.
I will say that, on embarkation day, we enjoyed great service, views and a well prepared martini in The Spinnaker lounge, but it was expensive and not generously poured. Other drinks there were ludicrously priced - I tried a “Spanish” gin and tonic (it was served in a goblet - that’s the extent of it’s connection to Spain) at $18 and almost wept. Other times we tried to return to The Spinnaker, it was being used for a variety of loud and intrusive activities - I can’t remember exactly what, from the noise, I’d guess it was a dwarf tossing competition.
It seems that, on the newer Norwegian vessels, the concept of a “Main Dining Room” has been done away with completely, in favour of a wide variety of “specialist” restaurants - some included in the cruise ticket, some with a cover charge and some with a la carte pricing. As an older ship, Jade is something of a halfway house - there is still a large Main Dining Room (split into the Grand Pacific and Alizar), but there is also a wider selection of alternative restaurants than might be found on other ships of a similar size and vintage. In addition to the standard dining room, buffet and coffee shops, Jade offers:
As this was a short trip we didn’t have time to sample all the offerings, but did eat at Cagney’s and La Cucina, as well as The Grand Pacific dining room and the buffet. Overall, the food wasn’t much to write home about, although the standard in The Grand Pacific seemed higher than in the restaurants we paid extra for.
The Grand Pacific and The Buffet
Breakfast in the buffet was the stuff of nightmares - packed with rude people fighting for access to poor quality food and insufficient tables. In The Grand Pacific, things were at least civilised, but the bacon and French toast were both poor, although the grapefruit was at least fresh, rather than tinned (take note, P&O).
Beware that the buffet hours seemed rather limited, although, considering the offering, this may be a blessing.
Lunch in The Grand Pacific (see above) was more successful. The calamari appetiser wasn’t great, and arrived tepid, but nachos were better - as good as nachos are going to get. The fish and chips were surprisingly good - at least the fish was, the chips were mediocre. There was a peanut butter cup cheesecake offered for dessert; there’s not much I can say about a slice of frozen cheesecake.
Another mixed bag - good service and lovely wine (which is not available many places on this ship), but the food only sporadically good. A shrimp cocktail appetiser was small and tasteless, while an iceberg wedge with blue cheese was excellent. The steaks (rib-eye) were fine, but not fantastic; a little tough. On the other hand, the sides were wonderful (mac ‘n’ cheese, potato gratin, broccoli).
Dessert was another slice of frozen cheesecake (Oreo this time).
For some reason, the night we ate here the restaurant was almost empty, so the atmosphere was odd. Almost as odd as some of the food.
The bruschetta appetiser was terrible - small and tasteless with wilted basil. The pasta course rang from the OK (carbonara) to a bizarre interpretation of a pasta with Italian sausage, featuring an entire sausage. There was then a rather insipid prawn dish and an acceptable osso bucco.
In summary - a wide variety of mediocre foods.
As usual, we booked a standard balcony cabin on this voyage. Unusually, this is the first time we’ve walked into a cabin and thought “bloody hell, this is tight”.
The balcony was small.
The room was small.
The shower was quite large, but the rest of the bathroom was so small, and so awkwardly divided by a screen, that anyone without advanced yoga skills will find defecation problematic.
Oh, and the bed was not comfortable. At all.
Norwegian Jade offers most of the facilities that you’d expect from a large ship, but none of the bells and whistles found on the massive new ships. There’s a pool, large theatre, gym, nightclub and a casino that’s themed to look like Chinese restaurant in Woking, circa 1986.
There’s also an oddly large Duty Free shop that doesn’t seem to sell anything remotely appealing and takes up space that really should be given over to nice bar or lounge - there really seemed to be nowhere relaxing or quiet for a drink. The Spinnaker Lounge, which should be the setting for a peaceful drink with a beautiful view seems to be used for all manner of quiz and gathering - often multiple events seemed to take place simultaneously, fighting to be heard over each other.
This may have been a function of a ship that was clearly designed for the tropics sailing an itinerary in Northern Europe - when everybody is inside, rather than sunbathing, things are cozy. In a similar vein, there is no covered pool, so forget swimming on most sailing to Norway. Curiously, there is an attractive library and card room featuring menus, models and other artefacts from the United States Line.