Getting there: We flew from ATL to BCN; flight was delayed, but we still had plenty of time. BCN took a while to get out of because there were lines and people were confused about which ones to get in. We had no prearranged transport to the port, but the NCL counter was near and they set us up on the next NCL bus. With the dollar being so weak against the euro at this time, we found it was typically advantageous to book things through NCL, even though it seemed more expensive. It all came pretty close once you figure the conversion rates. Embarkation was pretty simple and our rooms were ready by the time we boarded.
Cabin: We got an inside cabin, which is the absolute smallest we have ever been in (even compared to other interior cabins), but the bed was great, plenty of storage, includes coffeemaker and mini-bar. We figured we would not spend much time in the room, but we ended up spending a fair amount of time in there because it rained several times. We will probably not book a room this small on any cruise over 3 days in the future, but that is just personal.
Food: Overall the food was absolutely wonderful. Plenty of options all the time. The Great Outdoors is open pretty much anytime the Garden Cafe is not (walk through the Cafe to get to the Outdoors). Plus there are outdoor places by the pool, weather permitting. NCL has quite a few specialty restaurants, but most charge a cover. We ate at the Sushi Bar ($15 pp, no reservations, but never crowded) and Tequila (no cover, but make reservations). We liked the main dining areas and decided not to pay too much extra for the specialties. They suggest, but do not require reservations, but I advise making reservations. We got my husband the soda package, but had a hard time the first day getting the cup or sticker or whatever he needed to get sodas. You can only get sodas from the bars, most of which do not open until around lunchtime. No one ever offered any sodas in the dining areas, even when we brought his cup along. It was still a good deal, as he drinks a lot of Diet Coke.Freestyle Cruising: We did not find it to be that much different than what other cruise lines are now offering, with the exception of dinner seating. We typically eat late and the time difference threw us off anyway, so we ate at times that were not too crowded. Be advised that if you choose a busy time, you may have to wait, even in the main dining rooms. This only happened to us once and we were offered a pager to let us know when we could be seated. It was nice just to have the two of us at the table...for the first few days. I do not mind being seated with other couples (provided we all speak the same language!) and I really missed it this cruise. Freestyle is not bad (no required dress-up night either), but I think we prefer a dinner seating in general.
Pools & Such: I had read previous reviews about the horrors of the lounge chairs, but we did not find this to be a huge problem. There is a sun deck overlooking the pool deck and tons of chairs. Plus, head up another level and find more lounge areas with fabulous loungers (if you can grab one, otherwise there are regular loungers). There is a quiet deck all the way to the front of this same deck with pod-like cushioned loungers that will fit 3 people on them and offers a great view.
Fitness Center: The fitness center aboard the Gem is nice; it does get crowded at peak times. Classes were offered in the fitness center room overlooking the pool (one-way glass, so the pool patrons don't see you!) but most cost extra. I had taken advantage of several classes on previous cruises with Disney, but they had been free. So, did not do any classes this time.Service & Staff: We had excellent service during the entire cruise; cabin steward knew our names before we even introduced ourselves. He also made fabulous towel animals. All of the staff we met spoke English, and many spoke 3+ languages quite well. All announcements were given in English, Spanish, German, and usually French as well. They took a bit of time, but we had quite a diverse group on board. The staff seemed to have quite a good time and I believe some of them were even enlisted to "party" with the patrons at some of the events/activities.
Activities: We saw a few shows and they were pretty good. Second City was very funny, right up our alley. We skipped the musicals and such, as my husband was not too enthused about those (although others said they were pretty decent). He very much missed a sports bar, which we have loved on previous cruises. We also definitely felt the absence of a movie theater on board (especially when it rained) and will definitely look for this when making future bookings. The majority of passengers were middle age and beyond, and some of the activities seemed a little out of sync with the majority of the passengers. They were also not the crowd to hang out at the super-swank "Bliss" which features bed-like lounge areas. It was nearly always empty when we went, except for the occasional bowlers.
Tours: We did three excursions through NCL and did two days on our own. We were satisfied overall. I was a bit frustrated in Rome (rain, noisy fellow passengers, other things that are not really anyone's fault), but the tour was decent overall. We received a note in our room that one of our tours had been booked in French (although we had booked it in English), but to see the desk if that was not correct. They explained that a computer glitch had messed up a few of the language reservations for that tour and promptly fixed it. Glad they pointed it out because I did not look at the tickets very closely!
Disembarkation: We did express and carried our own luggage. Getting breakfast was a beast that day, and we ate standing up. Getting off the ship was easy though, and plenty if taxis lined up outside to get everyone.
Odds & Ends: A tip in Europe: Go to the restroom whenever you see one, because there will NOT be another!!! Also, one of our waiters let us know that you can purchase a bottle of wine in a dining room and finish it later, even in another dining room. I usually only have 1-2 glasses at dinner and the hubby does not drink wine, so I found this rather helpful. I never saw this advertised anywhere, but it is available. Heard rumors on previous postings around self-service laundry but never found it.
Overall: We had a decent time, although we missed a sports-type bar/pub and will look for a movie theater in the future. I might try NCL again in the future, but I'm not devoted. I missed meeting people at dinner, and I especially missed the dinner service that Disney provides (you see the same wait staff each night, they move restaurants with you). I felt a bit nickel-and-dimed the whole time ('Freestyle' does not mean 'free' as another passenger commented), but that's becoming the norm with cruising and airlines. Food and service are very good on the Gem and it is new and VERY clean.