Background Info: Independent travelers 40+, prefer to make our own travel arrangements and get value for money. We live in Ireland and holiday in Spain two or three times a year, but are now cruising so that we get to see more of Europe without the hassle of airports, and packing/unpacking.
Travel to Port: We flew with Air Lingus from Dublin to Barcelona and took a taxi to the port - 25 Euro
Embarkation: Arrived at the port at 11:30 am, our bags were taken off us as soon as we got out of the taxi by a porter and were delivered to our cabin by 2:30 pm. There were a number of NCL representatives directing passengers to various check-lines, tea/coffee/juice was available, we were only in line for 15 minutes. There are a number of shops in this area before you board where you can buy water etc. to take on board - we found these most beneficial. Hand luggage was not scanned on this occasion but it was at every other port. Once on board we were offered a glass of Champagne or orange juice and directed to the Garden Cafe where lunch was being served - it was at this point that we really become aware of the hand cleansers - they are at the entrance to every restaurant and also before you get on the ship at all the ports. NCL have a staff member stationed to remind you to use them. Our cabin was ready well before the 2 pm announcement.
Fellow Cruise Critic 'hhchu' had arranged a meeting which most of the senior crew members including the captain attended and answered our questions. As Prem Kainikkara the Hotel Director said, if we don't tell them there is a problem how can they fix it.
Cabin: We like an inside cabin because we are light sleepers and really like the blackout effect. Our cabin was 140 sq ft but the clever placement of mirrors made it look more. There is a lot of storage space, our cases fitted under the bed, the bed itself was so comfortable we miss it. There are tea/coffee making facilities which is great, a mini bar - which is expensive. The bathroom is an adequate size, the shower is great there is a hairdryer and even though I am only 5 ft I can understand previous review comments about the toilet. There is a washing line in the shower section to hang your wet swimming suit etc. Our cabin stewards were Onofre and Merianne and they came twice a day and were excellent. We were on deck 5 and there is a laundry room with a washer, dryer and iron. NCL offer a special on laundry on the 3rd last day - all you can jam into a bag provided to be washed, dried and folded for $20. The on board information sheet 'Freestyle Daily' is delivered to your cabin each evening.
Dining: Previous CC's have given well informed and in depth information on all the restaurants so I am not going to go there. We had a number of meals in the Garden Cafe/Great Outdoors which we were happy with - we loved being able to sample a little of everything on offer and they did have a wide range of dishes. Buffet/Food stations - it is all relative; personally I did not miss having a tray too much and it probably helped reduce the quantity of food we consumed. There is extra seating available in the Le Bistro area at breakfast time. Food is available 24/7.
Bars: Euro 08 was in full swing - what can I say ladies - only I went shopping!! There were 800 Spaniards on board and they really had a good time. Soft drinks package is available at $6.25 per day. Fosters in cans 750ml -$6.95, Stella, & Heineken on draught - $5.50 per pint. Coors/Miller/Bud bottles - $3.95. There is also 'buckets' of 6 bottles of beer for the price of 5. Check out 'Cruise Critics/articles/alcohol policies' for a full list of beer available. Star Bar - this is located right beside Cagney's Steakhouse and is really under utilized due I believe to the fact that the signage for bars/restaurants could be better. If you like to have a quiet drink this is the place to go. Open from 4 pm with background music from 'Old Blue Eyes' Frank Sinatra, after 7 pm Kenny Stringer singer/guitarist provides the entertainment and is very good. Lyndsey & Shama the bar staff looked after us very well. Spinnakers Lounge at the front of the ship has some funky seating and was a good spot to be in on the days you leave port mid afternoon. Hubby enjoyed the banter with the bar staff during the football matches and the floor staff were attentive without being pushy. Bingo is played here and although not our scene it seemed to be very popular despite the minimum charge of $30. Other entertainment included 'Mr & Mrs', Line dancing and the comedy team 'Second City'. Bliss Lounge: This is were the bowling alleys are located. They had an 'Ice Party' were guests were encouraged to wear white and also a Toga Party. There are lots of other bars on board but draught beer is not available in all bars.
Shops on board: Prices are in $US dollars - I bought some great make-up & perfume at nearly half the price I would pay in Dublin. There are also various promotions every evening such as jewelry, bags, watches - Guess, Lacoste, DKNY, and Fossil to name just a few. It is possible to buy everything from 'an anchor to a needle' in the shop.
Entertainment: This was hit and miss for our taste. The Gem Entertainment Team put on a number of entertaining shows. The comedy team Second City we did not get at all. The magician Bob Trunell was entertaining. Jose Manuel Rodrigues was very good and together with the Gem Showband gave passengers the opportunity to do some ballroom dancing. Most other Europeans we spoke to on board were disappointed in the entertainment and NCL might want to consider offering Karaoke for longer than 1 hour and maybe introduce more audience participation games.
Children's Club: No kids with us on this trip but I did notice that there seems to be lots on offer for kids and an in-port baby sitting service at something like $5 per hour. The usual video arcade and a designated dining area for children with little tables and chairs - beside the Great Outdoors - fresh orange juice was available for kids at breakfast. There were 600 children on board but we hardly noticed.
Shore Excursions: As stated we are independent travelers and feel comfortable making our own travel arrangements in Europe so did not take any NCL trips - just did our own thing.
Barcelona: There is a shuttle bus to take you out of the port, and there is a Hop on Hop Off bus pickup at the Columbus monument which costs about $30.
Malta: Local information desk as soon as you disembark. A local taxi was offering a 2 hour trip around the island for 15 Euro which took in Mdina. A local bus is available just across the road and cost 1 Euro return into town centre. It stops at the local bus terminal where you can pick up a local bus to other parts of the island for a couple of euro. We stayed in Valleta and took in the Malta Experience video show - 11 euro and also St John's Co Cathedral - 6 euro both very enjoyable.
As we left the port the Captain did tell us that Mt Etna would be visible later that evening. It was very impressive, we could see a lava flow quite clearly.
Naples: Lots of local taxi drivers just outside the port offering trips - bartering skills necessary. There is a bus stop right across the road from the port where you can catch the No.1 bus to the train station. The bus gets very crowed, be very careful with your wallets - we heard about people getting pick pocketed and hubby thought some people were getting too close for comfort. We took the train to Herruculeum which is smaller than Pompeii but have been told it is better preserved. Be sure to ask for the audio guide hand set - it was not offered when we paid our admission of 11 Euro and has to be collected from a different building. There are toilet facilities on site but no restaurant. The train cost 9 Euro and the trip took about 20 minutes.
Rome: This was one of our lazy days so we stayed on board and while I enjoyed the pool, hubby enjoyed the library - which is well stocked. The shuttle bus will take you from the ship into town, the train station is only a short walk and the train to Rome costs 9 Euro return, the travel time is 1 hour approximately. Last year we took the Hop on Hop Off bus which cost 20 euro and had time to get off at many of the important sites.
Livorno: The shuttle bus costs 1 Euro from port to town, there is a tourist information booth in the square where you are dropped off. They had maps and were very helpful giving directions to the main shopping area - Via Grande and other areas of interest within walking distance. We took a tourist sight seeing bus from this area which was good value at 5 Euro and lasted 1 hour 15 minutes. If you plan on going to Florence or Pisa on your own, you can buy a bus & rail ticket in the tobacco shop across the road from this square which will take you to the train station. Again, there were local taxis offering trips, we spoke to one couple who had taken a trip to Florence & Pisa with a group of 6 people they had just met in this area that morning and negotiated the price at just 35 Euro each.
Villefranche: We were tendered ashore in this port, there is an information booth just inside the terminal and the local 'tourist train' is parked just outside this building. Villefranche is very pretty but very hilly so the train is a good idea for getting around this port. As it was Saturday the trains to Nice & Monaco are not as regular as mid week, the train times for Monaco are 8:45 am & 9:51 am and 11:47 am, 12:38 pm & 1:13 pm. The information booth in Monaco train station was not very helpful, they did have information on the 'local tourist train' but totally misdirected me as to how I could get to where I could pick it up. I took the lift in the station as directed to ground level and did end up on a street where after asking for directions from a local did manage to catch the no. 2 bus which took me to the Museum Oceanographic where the 'train' starts from. This is not a hop on hop off and takes about 30 minutes to do the entire circuit, it cost 7 Euro. The friendly local had told me that if I had taken the escalator down to platform 'C' and exited through that door, I would have had the option of catching the No. 1 and No. 2 bus. There was a long queue to get the tender back onto the ship, it was very hot and the air conditioning in the terminal was nil. NCL did have a member of staff handing out cold water which helped a little.
Disembarkation: We opted for the 'express option' and took our own luggage off the ship. You just have to complete a form which is delivered to your cabin and hand it in at reception. I would definitely recommend it.
Summary: Overall we were impressed with the Gem, it is not as gaudy as it appears on the internet. Freestyle dining suits us and we did not feel any more 'nickled & dimed' than in any hotel we have stayed in. Staff on the whole were pleasant and attentive - given the long hours they work it amazes me that they can remain so pleasant. We will definitely cruise with NCL again.