The 93,500-ton, 2,402-passenger Norwegian Jade, which is based in Europe year-round, epitomizes NCL's "freestyle" mantra.
For the most part, the goal is to create an onboard ambience that abandons traditional cruise formalities. All meals are open seating and choice of cuisine and vibe is rivaled by only a few ships. The range goes from a steakhouse and Tepannyaki to French, Italian, tapas, sushi, buffets and even a 24-hour cafe, complete with traditional English breakfast.
"Freestyle" also incorporates onboard activities and entertainment ranging from its spa to main theater shows to themed dance parties; entertainment is offered continuously and performances aren't geared around restaurant seatings.
Similar dining and entertainment options are, however, found on all of Norwegian Jade's fleetmates. But here's what makes Jade unique: This is a seriously international ship. The passenger mix on our 12-night Istanbul to Athens cruise was evenly divided between Americans (1,286) and international cruisers (1,115 Canadians, Australians, Brits, Germans, French, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, etc.). The more global experience, with announcements now coming in Spanish and German as well as English, is a defining element. During one poker session, I took on players from Israel, Mexico, Northern Europe, the Midwestern United States, Japan and China -- all yelling at our shy Peruvian dealer. Some called the melange of languages flying by somewhat distracting, but somehow it felt entirely natural.
Fantastic passenger melange aside, complaints about the additional costs of all the aforementioned specialty restaurants -- something that's dogged NCL's Freestyle concept from the start -- is relatively common. (Perhaps it had something to do with just that melange. Broadly speaking, European cruisers are less used to paying extra fees for onboard eats.) A case could be made for NCL doing a better job of providing more realistic expectations. We'll do it for them: If passengers really want to enjoy the multiplicity of dining options available during a single cruise on Jade, an additional, say, $20 per person, per night, should be figured into the cost of the cruise.
Guests enter the ship via the Aloha Atrium, a central meeting spot that also houses the reception desk and concierge, the shore excursions desk, and the Port of Call shop, which features collectibles and memorabilia. The Aloha Bar here serves up for-fee Lavazza coffee products (hot and frozen), tea, cappuccinos, pastries and cookies, and plenty of plush red armchairs dot the floor at the foot of two grand staircases.
As you work your way aft from the Aloha Atrium, the photo gallery with prints for sale is set up starboard (don't forget to take a peak; there are some really horrifying photos), while the art gallery, powered by who else, Park West, that impenetrable force in at-sea art auctioneering, and Internet cafe line the port side of the ship (there are eight terminals, open 24 hours; per-minute rates start from 45 cents -- it is cheaper if you buy a package).
Aft on Deck 7 is the Dufry, a large department store-style shop where you can find everything from destination specific jewelry like Egyptian kartouches, brand name watches and clothing, toiletry items (but sadly no mouthwash) to souvenirs like key chains and stuffed animals.
The SS United States Library features ample shelves of fiction and non-fiction titles in multiple languages, but it is also worth a visit just for a peek at original photography, vintage advertisements and original lithographs from marine artists that decorate the space. The library is open 24 hours, and borrowing is done on the honor system. Enrichment courses are held in the nearby Lifestyles Room, and a chapel one deck up can accommodate 24 for an intimate wedding.
Editor's note: It is easy to find your way around, even on day one of your voyage. When you exit your cabin, look down at the carpeting. If you follow the direction of the dolphins, you'll be headed forward; if you need to go aft, swim against the current!
The two-level Stardust Theater, with playful jester masks decorating the walls, is the main venue for Vegas- and Broadway-style reviews. The entertainment options range from the standard cabaret or song and dance review to the more offbeat ("The Sound of Music" sing-along) to the really out there (interpretive dance set to the sounds of Frank Sinatra).
There's a variable 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. show nightly, with one comedy/variety act and one more standard Broadway or Vegas revue.
One of the most enjoyable experiences is the crew variety show, held on the final evening. Performances ranged from traditional Indian dance to renditions of Bon Jovi's "Bed of Roses." The talent was impressive, and the tryouts are apparently very competitive -- the cruise director tells me only the best of the best are selected to perform in front of cruisers.
High atop the ship, overlooking the bridge, forward, is the secondary showroom, Spinnaker Lounge. The venue serves different purposes throughout the day. For instance, during the afternoon, passenger participation games, like the Newlywed, Not-So-Newlywed game, take place. At night, The Second City troupe, which features a mixture of crowd-influenced improv comedy, lounge music, and other cabaret act hold forth. A DJ spins tunes into the wee hours.
Jade also hosts a pair of themed parties. There's the Monte Carlo casino party, with its show girls in feathered hats, and the White Hot Party, a danceathon where a large number of passengers clad in white spazz about to some bass-heavy joints.
Other onboard activities run the gamut from trivia in the atrium and three-on-three b-ball tournaments up on the sports court to informal chess, checkers, cards and Scrabble in the Card Room on Deck 12.
If you want your own spot for entertainment, the Medusa Cabaret Lounge -- a loud looking venue with blazing orange fire flower sculptures -- is outfitted with three private "Whatever" rooms (complete with curtains). Inside you'll find seating, a huge flat-screen TV, a phone for dialing in your bar orders, as well as Nintendo Wii and a karaoke setup. All the necessary goods are locked behind glass doors, so you'll have to request a key from the bartender. And if the demand is high for the rooms, you may be held to an hour or so (it makes more sense to invite the waiting group to join you). NCL is also trying to discourage the drawing of the curtains, because, well, the game playing might transcend the virtual.
Music is found throughout the vessel, with a more toned down "San Tropez" style poolside crooner and a packed jazz night in the Aloha atrium -- with plenty of guests tappin' and boppin' along to oldies standards.
Norwegian Jade's Jade Club Casino lets you double down with slots, black jack, roulette, craps, and the first at-sea Texas Hold 'Em cash game ($60 minimum buy-in; $200 maximum). There are also at least two tables using euros.
Cruisers are spoiled for choice on Norwegian Jade, with cabins ranging from entry-level insides to $10,000-a-week Garden Villas that seem more like something you'd find at a five-star resort than on a mainstream mega-ship. Sixty percent of the 1,080 standard cabins are outsides, and of those, 54 percent have balconies. Best of all, for families, interconnecting cabins are available in a range of categories from standard insides to suites. And it's not just apples to apples: Different grades of cabins can be interconnected -- balcony to suite or suite to penthouse, for example -- to create two- to five-bedroom combos for small or large clans.
All cabins have a richer feel due to cherry wood finishes, and boast mini-fridges (you can have it customized or emptied), safes and in-cabin coffee facilities.
Standard inside and oceanview cabins (143 and 161 square feet, respectively) are very small by industry standards, but they're functional, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert to a queen, and partitioned bathrooms with sliding door shower stalls on one side, a separate toilet compartment on the other and a central sink area. The oceanview cabins with balconies are slightly roomier (167 square feet, with a 38-square-foot balcony); 134 mini-suites are larger still (231 square feet, with a 54-square-foot balcony) and include a full-sized sofa and a small bathtub.
If you're booked in a balcony or mini-suite, NCL will add small touches like bathrobes.
Those looking to splurge should consider booking one of the 48 suites, which include pillow-top mattresses, down comforters and Euro pillows. Suite passengers receive a free bottle of Champagne, evening canapes, private breakfast and lunch in Cagney's Steakhouse (with steak and eggs, eggs Benedict and French toast rounding out the menu; at lunch, try the Caesar salad with chicken or steak); and MP3 connections.
The 375-square-foot Romance Suites (there are four) feature a balcony, full tub and shower, and living and dining areas. The 341-square-foot Penthouse Suites (there are 24) feature a living area, balcony, dining area, separate bedroom with queen-size bed, and bath and separate shower with massaging heads; most have a "spare" bedroom (slightly bigger than a big closet and outfitted with two twin beds -- great for kids). The living and dining areas are equipped with a mini-fridge (stocked with complimentary waters and sodas). There are three flat-screen TV's -- one in the living area, one in the main bedroom and one above the tub; the first two have CD/DVD players.
The exclusive 14th deck is where you'll find the 10 440- to 572-square-foot Courtyard Villas -- a concept introduced on Norwegian Jewel. They are essentially larger versions of the Penthouse Suites (save for the fabulous tub set against a window with a birds-eye view), but what's extra is that they surround a private courtyard shared by all Courtyard Villa guests. The space is gorgeous, with a sleek pool, a Balinese bed, a Jacuzzi, a treadmill and a Stairmaster; one deck up is an exclusive sun deck with wicker loungers and a hammock. Included in the mix are Family Villas, which add another bedroom and accommodate five.
The only categories above Courtyard Villas are the Owner's Suites on Decks 9 and 10 (there are five) and the Garden Villas (there are two), on Deck 14 with the Courtyard Villas. The Owner's Suites offer king beds, BOSE entertainment centers, a whirlpool tub and walk-in closets; guests booked in these cabins are granted access to the courtyard. But the kings of all cabins are the Garden Villas, each with a private roof terrace and garden for open-air dining, hot tubbing and sunning. These complexes include three separate bedrooms -- one with a whirlpool tub -- and BOSE accouterments.
All suite passengers (including the penthouse and romance cabins) also have a concierge and butler at their disposal to arrange restaurant reservations, expedite room service orders, stock diet Cokes in the mini-fridge, etc. Elemis products in the bathroom are replenished daily. The in-cabin coffee maker is also upgraded to a fancy espresso and cappuccino machine, and balcony furniture improves from plastic found elsewhere to teak.
All cabins on Deck 14, as well as the owner's suites on Decks 9 and 10, have Wi-Fi; otherwise, in-cabin Internet access is available shipwide, but don't forget your Ethernet cable. TV programming includes a selection of movies, plus CNN, Fox News, ESPN. The interactive Freestyle TV system can be used for ordering room service, accessing e-mail, confirming shore excursion bookings, etc.
The ship offers 27 cabins in a variety of categories for disabled and wheelchair-bound passengers.
There's a fixed charge of $12 per person, per day added to each passengers' onboard accounts -- which jives with the industry standard -- but here it is considered a "service charge," not a "gratuity."
The line explains on its Web site: "Our crew is encouraged to work together as a service team and is compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that the service charge supports ... guests should not feel obliged to offer a gratuity for service that is generally rendered to all guests. However, all of our staff are encouraged to 'go the extra mile,' and so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities entirely at the discretion of our guests." Guests are able to adjust the automatic charge at the reception desk.
If you utilize a butler and/or concierge, NCL recommends offering a tip "commensurate with services rendered"; I kept a mental tab throughout the week of meals delivered, requests handled, etc., and offered my "thanks" accordingly in cash. However, fellow passengers were able to put gratuities for these staffers on their onboard account by visiting reception, so keep that option in mind.
Gratuities are not automatically added to bar tabs; you can add a tip to your onboard account, or leave a buck or two in cash.
As NCL's year-round Europe homeporter, the passenger manifest is often evenly divided between North Americas and those from elsewhere -- Australia, Great Britain, France, Spain, Mexico, Japan and Korea. Typical of longer European itineraries, the average age hovers around 55, with the largest number of passengers in the 55 to 70 range. During summer months, expect a sizable influx in families.
While NCL's overall approach to dress is quite relaxed, on Jade's European itineraries, passenger dress varies. In general, with an older demographic, there were plenty of suit coats, dress shirts and dresses on display around dinnertime. None of the passengers donning suits for their evening meal looked particularly out of place. And with so much time spent in port -- there may be only a couple sea days on some of the longer Mediterranean sailing -- dinner on said sea days took on even more of a formal demeanor.
During our days at sea, when the sun was out, resort- and beach-wear were appropriate in public areas and by the pool respectively; it's kindly requested that shorts and tank tops are not worn in restaurants (except for the Garden) after 5 p.m.; however, passengers are able to wear jeans to dinner in any specialty or main dining room, if they wish.
NCL's kids' program, Splash Academy, divides younger cruisers into four groups with age-appropriate pastimes: Guppies (6 months - 3 years, with parent), Turtles (3 - 5), Seals (6 - 9) and Dolphins (10 - 12). The teen (13 - 17) program is called Entourage.
The colorful children's facility on Jade, Tree Top Kids Center, is divided into areas based on activity and in some cases age range. There's a spacious cinema with a big screen for movie viewing and cushy beanbag chairs, an arts and crafts station, a long desk with several computers for gaming and learning (don't worry moms, no Internet access here), and even a naptime area. The Sapphire Kid's Pool features slides and a wading area. For teens, there's a surf-themed Wipeout Club with a touch-screen jukebox, gaming terminals, a juice bar (serving for-fee mocktinis and mocktails) and easy access to the arcade.
Both Splash Academy and Entourage feature a different theme every day, like pirates, space cowboys, jungle fever or circus, with activities that are tailored to each age group. Specific emphasis is placed on active offerings -- soccer, physical challenges -- through a partnership with The King's Foundation and Camps, a United Kingdom-based organization that provides sport and activity programs designed for kids. For teens, bowling tournaments, soccer challenges and dodge ball under the stars are just a few of the active offerings.
Creative arts are also emphasized. With a focus on theater and the arts, young cruisers have the chance to participate in puppet shows, mini improvisational acting classes and themed activities such as Superspy Mission Impossible and Desert Island Adventures.
Splash Academy also offers activities for cruisers under three and their parents, like sensory play classes that include baby art featuring organic art products. There are also events such as parent and baby "Rhyme Time," where a storyteller recites popular nursery rhymes featuring puppets, and "Motion in the Ocean," a parent and baby mini-workout.
Through a partnership with Hilario Productions Cirque du Jour, Jade (and fleetmates) feature family circus workshops teaching a variety of skills such as balancing feathers, juggling, plate spinning and even stilt walking.
During days in port, parents booked on excursions can leave tykes between the ages of 2 and 12 behind for supervised complimentary "Port Play" from arrival into port or 9 a.m. until departure from port or 5 p.m. (in both instances, whichever time is earlier). At night, group babysitting is available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. and there is also a "Late Night Fun Zone" from 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. "Port Play", group babysitting and the "Late Night Fun Zone" are all fee-based services; the costs for each program are $6 per hour and $4 per hour for siblings in the same family (charged to guests' onboard accounts).
Additional offerings for families to participate in together include cupcake decorating; pizza making; family game shows; Family Deck Party; and a special Family White Hot Party.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The pool area midship on Deck 12 features two swimming pools (there's a third, further aft, just for kids). These are flanked by whirlpools under bright awnings and a water slide. Those looking for prime deck real estate should come early, especially on sea days. Most poolside loungers get snagged early in the day.
The Mandara Salon is operated by London conglomerate Steiner Leisure, and offers the usual treatments (facials, massages) as well as more trendy wellness offerings, such as acupuncture and teeth whitening (a 40-minute session was on special for $199).
Arrive early or stay after your treatment to take advantage of the steam room, therapy pool and heated-tile loungers.
The fitness center is open 24 hours a day and features state-of-the-art equipment such as treadmills and bikes, as well as weight machines and free weights, all with floor-to-ceiling windows as a backdrop. There's also an aerobics room for class. Some, such as stretching, are complimentary; others (yoga, Pilates and cycling) typically cost around $10.
For staying in shape outdoors, the stadium-style sports deck with bleacher seating that was introduced on Norwegian Jewel is back, and accommodated, on my cruise, basketball and football (soccer). The court also could serve as a regulation size tennis court, but no such activity was offered. There are also golf driving nets on either side of the aft sports area, a shuffleboard court (very popular -- high-stakes games going at 10:30 p.m.), Ping-Pong tables, oversized chess sets and a walking/jogging track (5.5 laps to a mile).
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