From Venice to Athens and back: The Haven aboard NCL’s fleet promises and delivers (mostly)

Reviewing a cruise isn’t easy. It’s certainly a lot more difficult than reviewing a flight or a hotel. Why? Well, a flight lasts 12-13 hours at the most, you’ll be served one or two meals and all you see is your own class. The same with hotels. You see your room, eat your breakfast and maybe, maybe, have a meal at a restaurant. And while we often refer to cruise ships, such as the NCL Norwegian Jade, as floating hotels, with the “only” difference that you wake up in a new destination more or less every morning, there is still a big difference:

The Haven by NCL – a ship within the ship

Leaving Venice ever so slowly in order not to damage the fragile city is a marvel and a once in a lifetime (?) experience. Photo: Private

Leaving Venice ever so slowly in order not to damage the fragile city is a marvel and a once in a lifetime (?) experience. Photo: Private

Cruise ships are a) huge, they’re more like villages in a way, and b) you’re trapped aboard while not in a harbor. Unlike a hotel, where the entertainment lies outside the hotel doors (unless you’re in Vegas baby…) In a way, you’re stuck with everyone from coach (decks four to six where most cabins don’t even have windows) to business class and first class, or – as NCL prefers to call it – The Haven.

The Haven on the NCL Norwegian Jade, the ship we cruised on recently, is located on deck 14, midship. It consists of a dozen suites plus two huge three bedroom villas on either side of the ship, one starboard, and one port side. Ever since our first cruise on the Pride of America, the NCL ship touring the Hawaiian archipelago, we’ve been suite customers. It started with us wanting to have a separate room from our snoring toddler, and when grandpa decided to tag along, it was really nice to have a common living area with a connecting door to his stateroom (as NCL and other cruise lines prefer to call their cabins). The Pride of America doesn’t have a Haven, but the service is similar.

Our ship at the harbor in Corfu Town. We didn't take that many photos of the ship since this is already our fourth cruise on NCL. Photo: Private

Our ship at the harbor in Corfu Town. We didn’t take that many photos of the ship since this is already our fourth cruise on NCL. Photo: Private

Unlike on a plane (and I’ll stop the analogies here, because they only get you so far), the passengers in the Haven descend to the bowels of the ship to shop, eat, mingle, do sports and get entertained. However, the passengers from the lower echelons aren’t welcome upstairs. You need your key card for the elevator and the door in the stair case. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people, or should I say “curiosity kills the cat”?

We had a bit of a nightmare experience on this tour when a couple of Spanish tourists decided to tour our stateroom in the middle of the night, as maintenance workers who were trying to repair the AC unit in one of the bedrooms had left all doors open. My dad, my husband our son and I (me with a sleeping pill, as it was the first night aboard and I hadn’t slept much the night before) had gone to bed shortly after ten pm. The only ones up were my aunt and uncle, occupying the room with the faulty AC unit. When my uncle walked into the living room, he discovered the uninvited guests taking in our living room. When he asked them to leave, they refused and – instead – walked out into the open patio and up the stairs to our private sun deck. Only after our butler had been fetched to take care of it, did the intruders leave the apartment. Later, interviewed by the head of security (thank goodness for security cameras), they claimed to have thought our room was a public area. Yeah, right…

Our suite: the garden villa

A rare view of our living room with dining area and our grand piano (which plays for you, in case you don't have a concert pianist in your travel party, compliments Toshiba) Photo: Private

A rare view of our living room with dining area and our grand piano (which plays for you, in case you don’t have a concert pianist in your travel party, compliments Toshiba) Photo: Private

The incident was a bit nerve-wracking. Knowing I was out like a light and didn’t hear a thing of the whole raucous was deeply disconcerting, and the fact that you pay a lot of money for privacy, only to have that invaded like that? Luckily, nothing was stolen, even though two laptops and other valuables were in the living room. The upside? The crew handled the situation very well, and the head of security kept us informed of his investigation. But still. Imagine a stranger walking into your house? That’s how that felt. Only I was asleep. Creepy!

Our suite was HUGE, in fact, almost twice the size of our house. Three bedrooms, each with their own bath, the smaller ones with private balconies, the master bedroom with huge walk-in closet and a separate bath and shower with double sinks, a guest lavatory and a huge living room with grand piano, dining table for eight and a bar stocked with liquor and wines we chose beforehand, and a coffee maker that was working hard throughout the entire cruise. Sodas, juices and a constant flow of snacks, cookies and sweets completed the ensemble. Between the living room (check out videos on YouTube for a better impression) and the bedrooms is a courtyard with seating area, an 8 person jacuzzi and another 8 people dining table. Stairs take you to deck fifteen and a huge sun deck, just for the guests of the garden villa. There are TV sets in every room, and even a refrigerator (not that I’d know what to do with it, as the one in the living room is fully stocked…) along with great amenities, towels etc.

A shot of the family having dinner outside in the courtyard, with amazing views forward and to the side. Paired with good food, great wines and company, makes for unforgettable evenings. Note the Jacuzzi, just for us, where - downstairs - up to 20 kids would be cramming into... Photo: Private

A shot of the family having dinner outside in the courtyard, with amazing views forward and to the side. Paired with good food, great wines and company, makes for unforgettable evenings. Note the Jacuzzi, just for us, where – downstairs – up to 20 kids would be cramming into… Photo: Private

When we boarded the ship, we quickly noticed that the room had not been properly cleaned. There were false eyelashes in bathroom drawers, Q-tips on the floor, not to mention hair. And I hate other people’s loose hairs lying around the floor, in bathtubs or even worse, on towels that hadn’t been exchanged. In the living room, I found entire plates and food lying under a side board. It seemed the crew had been in an awful rush to get the room ready for us… Naturally, I complained and ended up spending almost six hours in various meetings with executive staff members to discuss this and other mishaps (e.g. uninvited guests, birthday cake etc.) That is not how you want to spend the first sea day… Trust me. But after a proper clean up, things were a lot better. Still not perfect (not the way I’d clean…) but a lot better.

The cruise itself and the destinations spelt “dreamy”: Corfu (a first for all of us), Santorini (my favorite of the Cyclades), Mykonos (a new gem we discovered), Athens (always worth a visit) and Split (with an amazing old town to linger in and an archipelago to sail through that is simply breathtakingly beautiful. Since our garden villa came with its own outdoor dining area, we spent three nights of our eight days aboard out there for dinner. Ordering from the speciality restaurants, the butler would serve us. White linens and decent china while we were dressed in t-shirts and shorts, enjoying the evening sun and the amazing sunsets. Undisturbed by other guests, with breathtaking views.

Entertainment

Hubby and I enjoying a glass of Prosecco in the aft bar on deck 12. We got a few minutes out while the rest of the family looked after our sleeping son. Photo: Private

Hubby and I enjoying a glass of Prosecco in the aft bar on deck 12. We got a few minutes out while the rest of the family looked after our sleeping son. Photo: Private

Norwegian Cruise Lines are known for their “Freestyle Cruising”, which basically means “no hassle, no stress”. You can come as you like, wear pretty much whatever you feel comfortable in, and eat wherever and whatever you like. I’ve walked through their buffet café a number of times and I have to say, the food looked really tasty, at least to the eye. And it was super convenient to grab a soft ice for the kid while we were scouring through the ship to pass time between one thing or another.

As we spent most days ashore, and since we’re traveling with a three year old with semi-decent bed times, we spent most of our ship time in our suite, part due to necessity, in part due to the comfort of it: our own private jacuzzi, our own private sun deck, huge living room, lots of food all the time and beds to nap on after hours in the scorching sun. There is so much entertainment aboard those ships. And since we didn’t have a babysitter, we spent most evenings in the room, but we did catch a couple of shows, one singing show by a quartet of professional singers and a cirque du Soleil inspired show. I’m really surprised by the quality of those acts. While some of the dancers were obviously not material for big ballets, all in all, we were very well entertained.

This was a view I had been particularly looking forward to: arriving in Santorini. I had been here three times before, by plane, but the view from a cruise ship of this island is spectacular. Photo: Private

This was a view I had been particularly looking forward to: arriving in Santorini. I had been here three times before, by plane, but the view from a cruise ship of this island is spectacular. Photo: Private

Then there are a gazillion other things to do, from crazy hook-up competitions to Miss pageants (I had to witness it from our living room, and I wasn’t amused), parties and art auctions, making sure that those passengers who’d crawl the walls of their windowless cabins are only spending time there with their eyes closed, to change clothes or shower. In a way, “The Haven” is a separate world, a ship inside a ship, with its own tiny gym (a treadmill and a cycle), a little pool and jacuzzi and snacks every now and then. During nice weather they can open the roof above the swimming pool, making the courtyard open to the fresh sea air, even for those guests in the Haven who do not stay in a villa. There’s also a separate private sun deck for the other Haven guests. We barely interacted with anyone.

Well, we tried. As a gay couple, my husband and I always try to make it to the LGBT meet and greet, but this time, the times were awkward, at 8:30 pm, too late to be before dinner and too early for us to be done with it. Having a kid made it almost impossible to get there. We made it once, but since the meets are unattended, there was no one there when we got there and only one couple walked in after a half hour, looked at us (checking out the meat) and left again. Oh well. We look forward to our next cruise, having been given tips from other LGBT travelers on what to do to improve the odds of making friends for real. I’ll try them out in December on the Norwegian Pearl…

To remember: Haven and suite guests have reserved balcony seats for all shows. We were always escorted to the theater by our concierge. Great seats, too!

Food & Drink

Leaving Athens, a rare shot from our sun deck. You can spot the little roof of our Jacuzzi below, in the courtyard. Photo: Private

Leaving Athens, a rare shot from our sun deck. You can spot the little roof of our Jacuzzi below, in the courtyard. Photo: Private

Needless to say I have to talk about the food. Haven passengers eat their breakfast at Cagney’s, NCL’s steakhouse, and the buffet is very well stocked with everything from fish to cold meats and lots of eggs and even streak to order from the menu. Once we’d taught our servers that us Europeans drink our coffee strong (i.e. not see through in the pot), we were fine. Sadly, the orange juice is from concentrate, something we’ve told NCL countless times to fix. Unacceptable if you aspire to be a first class establishment. Now it’s no better than a better breakfast joint, and that is sad. Charging us for an espresso for lunch after having paid money for free drinks and 40K US for the room? Come again?

However, apart from that the food on NCL is really, really good. Sure, not all dishes are top class, but given the circumstances (all food loaded at the beginning of the cruise, no daily runs to the market downtown), it is really astounding. The meats are among the best you can get, better than most in Europe. No wonder, most of the products are procured stateside and shipped to Europe. Whether that makes environmental sense is another story entirely…

This is the view forward from our port side suite. You see the midship pool and the main sun decks. However, from those decks, you have no view into the suites, except if your standing forward on the sun deck. Photo: Private

This is the view forward from our port side suite as we arrive in Piraeus, the harbor town of Athens. You see the midship pool and the main sun decks. However, from those decks, you have no view into the suites, except if your standing forward on the sun deck. Photo: Private

The wine list is extensive and we have a few favorites on board. Sadly, NCL is an American company, and the understanding for wine and vintages is very limited. Watch out, you could get served a 2012 followed by a 2013 or vice versa… This is sad, and comes with its own challenges during a dinner on say deck thirteen or twelve, as the servers have to run to the central storage area to get the more expensive and unusual bottles. Again, this is a village, not a house, and each run takes 15 minutes. When you order your second bottle of wine for your main course, you might be done by the time it gets to your table… We’ve slowly begun to learn, and order two bottles from the get go, as it’s simply impossible to expect the staff to understand “fine dining”.

To remember: speciality dining costs extra, the food in the main dining halls and the buffets are included in your fare. There are special drink and food “tickets” you can purchase to simplify life on board and staying on a budget.

Shore excursions

We got to enjoy more than one such spectacular evenings... Photo: Private

We got to enjoy more than one such spectacular evenings… Photo: Private

Let me be honest here: I have very little experience with those, as we cancelled all our shore excursions on the Pride of America after the first day. Buses with 50 people, queuing and mass tourism etc just aren’t our thing. Needless to say, the variety is endless and if you don’t mind group excursions, there’s plenty to choose from.

For the customers of The Haven, there’s the concierge, and on this trip, Patrick, our concierge from the Philippines, did an amazing job. He’d organize cars, guides and whatever else we wanted/needed. Also, as Haven guests, he’d always escort us to the gangway or the tender boat through a staff elevator, to get us off the ship quickly. Excellent service, particularly for us who really, really don’t like to queue.

Other experiences on the NCL Norwegian Jade

You just never get enough of these views... Photo: Private

You just never get enough of these views… Sailing through the Croatian archipelago off Split, heading west-north-west, back toward Venice. Photo: Private

Boarding… As a suite guest, you have a separate boarding counter. So far so good, but even without queueing, it still took us 45′ to check in as the computer broke down (Windows PC… sigh) and the slow connection to the ship. Not to mention that the people checking us in had no clue who they were dealing with. But once we got to the Haven lounge, things progressed smoothly and we were quickly brought aboard.

We tried to enlist our son into the children’s program, and gave up after waiting 45′ and being completely ignored. Well, not all children have a mother, and we were simply overlooked for a mom who’d arrived 20′ after us. Given my patience for queuing, I left and let the concierge deal with it. He did, thankfully. But I’ll be honest with you, I doubt I’d survive in cattle class on such a boat. Maybe I have to add that I don’t fly coach either. Ever. Yeah.

Looking down on your floating hotel from the top of the caldera of Santorini at eight pm. Photo: Private

Looking down on your floating hotel from the top of the caldera of Santorini at eight pm. Photo: Private

The spa is always something we look forward to, and every time, we end up disappointed. My husband and I both don’t feel comfortable with female massage therapists, and this time we had been promised to male staff members would be working on board during our cruise. We were looking forward to daily pampering. No such luck. No male therapists for the third cruise in a row. I understand that most women and most straight men prefer female therapists, but there are people who for cultural, religious or personal reasons prefer (need…) male therapists. Luckily, we were able to find a therapist in Mykonos for at least one massage.

As this cruise was also a celebration of my father’s 75th birthday, I wanted to surprise him with flowers and a cake on the first night. Everything had been arranged and confirmed through Miami. But on the ship no-one knew anything. Luckily, Patrick, our concierge and our butler whipped up a beautiful and delicious cake and a beautiful bouquet of red roses. Dad was thrilled! But those two examples show that the communication between NCL HQ in Miami and the ships doesn’t always work.

There is no real anchoring in the caldera of Santorini, so the engines are at station keeping, thanks to modern technology. In the background the new volcano. Photo: Private.

There is no real anchoring in the caldera of Santorini, so the engines are at station keeping, thanks to modern technology. In the background the new volcano. Photo: Private.

The only other really bad experience was when we tried to break two €100 bills into smaller notes and failed. We were only allowed to change one bill. We had to send my husband down to deck seven an hour later to trick the cashier (we still needed the money). I’m sure they would’ve treated us differently if we’d been accompanied by the butler or concierge or if we’d told them we were Haven guests, but should that be necessary to get good service? Do I have to mention how rude the lady was? Arrogant?

As a whole, we often felt that the crew on the Jade was “tired”, disengaged. Maybe many of them were on the final legs of their eight month (pretty long!) tours, but the attention level wasn’t what we’ve come to expect and enjoy from NCL. This was, I’m afraid to say, the worst NCL ship we’ve been on, all in all, compared to the Pride of America, the Norwegian Gem and the Norwegian Sky (which was named best ship in the fleet last summer when we cruised the Bahamas). Now, having said that, the service level is still high.

To remember: the devil sits in the details and in the individual staff members…

The Haven: trying to square the circle?

As the less than perfect memories from the ship fade, these things will always remain: sun, warmth, great food, good wines and amazing sights to feast your eyes upon, like the old town of Mykonos. That is what really matters, in the long run. Photo: Private

As the less than perfect memories from the ship fade, these things will always remain: sun, warmth, great food, good wines and amazing sights to feast your eyes upon, like the old town of Mykonos. That is what really matters, in the long run. Photo: Private

Whenever there are issues, the upper echelons of the ship’s crew are readily available to meet with us. Sadly, so far, it’s been necessary on every cruise. When you pay forty thousand dollars for a cruise, you expect a great product, and I won’t apologize for that. The problem Norwegian seem to have is trying to offer a bit of everything to everybody, and I’m not sure that ultimately works. If your crew is educated to a Mc Donald’s level, they won’t be able to serve Bocuse customers to their satisfaction. And even our own butler had little to no idea how to properly open a bottle of wine and serve it. Even he had to go back and change the vintage. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this conundrum. On the new, larger vessels, the Haven has grown larger, with its own restaurants, lounge and bar. That certainly enables to have better trained staff serve those customers, but on the other hands, it separates Haven guests even further from the rest of the ship, the entertainment options, the sports etc.

We’ve tried to provide the crew with constructive feedback for four cruises now, but we don’t see the changes happening. I recently learned that Norwegian operate a second, upscale cruise line, for suite-only guests. Maybe that will be our next destination if the Pearl doesn’t deliver an unforgettable cruise? We like NCL, because they’re laid back, the food is great and we’ve really had some great experiences. What we’re scared of is stuffy “old” cruise lines with dress-up dinners and having to sit in humongous dining halls with people you might now like for an entire cruise. Norwegian gives us the flexibility to be ourselves, to eat with other when we want to (e.g. New Year’s Eve two years ago) or alone in our suite when we don’t feel like being social.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced that NCL will be successful with The Haven, and it’s down to two things: staff training and product refinement.

Conclusion

There's something about the Greek sun. Here's the view from our dinner venue with the perfect view of it all and then some... Photo: Private

There’s something about the Greek sun. Here’s the view from our dinner venue with the perfect view of it all and then some… Photo: Private

When I say this was our “worst” cruise so far, it feel very wrong to say so. Because the cruise was amazing, wonderful, so many beautiful sunsets, such amazing sights and experiences, and we had a blast on board. But the staff of the Norwegian Jade lag behind their comrades on the other ships we’ve experienced, and as I said, “tired” is the best word we’ve been able to come up with. Very few people were unfriendly.

I couldn’t even tell you not to go aboard the Jade, because by the time you embark, the crew will have been replaced, probably even the command crew, so your experience will be a completely different one, I’d imagine. The Norwegian Jade is a great ship, size wise: 2,500 passengers and approx. 1,300 crew, making it a decent sized village of just under four thousand people. Not too small, not too big. If you look for a luxury cruise experience, you should try NCL’s The Haven, but be prepared for hiccups. If you’re willing to overlook some things and wait for others to be righted, you’ll be just fine.

👍🏽 Ship size is perfect
👍🏽 Food & restaurant choices
👍🏽 Freestyle cruising

👎🏽 Staff training
👎🏽 Room cleanliness
👎🏽 squaring the circle: The Haven isn’t living up to the promise…

This is a very long review. Then again, it’s not just a room or a flight I’m reviewing, but an experience, eight days in a floating village, the Norwegian Jade from NCL. I hope you’ve found this valuable and if you have questions, please get in touch…

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Have a wonderful week!

Hans

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