We arrived in Barcelona around 10:30 am and decided to head directly to the port. We had no intention to explore the city on this day as we had a hotel booked after our cruise. The transportation to the port was by taxi, it was 30 EUR for two people with two large suitcases. It has been suggested that travelers in Europe should always confirm the rate with the taxi driver before getting into the vehicle. Another option is to make arrangement with NCL for an airport shuttle; I believe the rate is $25 per person.
The port was large and very clean. We dropped off our bags and proceeded to the check-in counters. Check-in was relatively easy; multiple counters were opened with minimum waiting time. We were informed that the boarding time would be 12 pm. However, the bags would be delivered around 2 pm. For those who want to board the ship and use the pool facility, it is recommended that you pack your swim wears in your carry-on. If you want to explore Barcelona, you have the option to take a free shuttle to Barcelona Port Vell area (close to La Rambla). We decided to board the ship.
Ship crew welcomed all guests with either orange juice or sparkling wine. Everyone was very friendly. Once inside the reception area, we noticed an area for restaurant reservations. Free style cruising means you can dine whenever you want, but a few specialty restaurants required additional charges of $10 to $25 per person. There was a two for one special on embarking day for dinner between 6 to 7 pm (except for the Teppanyaki), we booked our first meal at Cagney's Steakhouse. The next section will cover the GEM.
Overall, the GEM was a very good ship. Here are some highlights and comments:
Stateroom - our room was an inside cabinet. It was small and dark in the night, but it was good enough for us. TV channels were limited and boring, but you can purchase movies.
Stateroom staff - did a good job cleaning the room on a daily basis. They also turned down the cabinets at night that included an information guide for the upcoming day.
Day time activities - plenty to do on the ship, just refer to the information guide. Bingo was definitely a popular activity.
Pool area - it was busy, on a hot day, you do need to get there early to grab a tanning chair. There is a band that performed periodically by the pool, it was very entertaining. If you want less noise, head up and go towards the front of the ship, there are some extremely comfortable cushioned chairs for you to relax.
Casino - table minimum for card games was $10, roulette was $1. Casino also hosted blackjack, poker and slot tournaments. It was a bit smoky inside.
Shows - most nights have two shows, one early and one late. The magician and the Second City comics were great, the others were average. Cruise Director Ray was funny, he reminded me of Jon Lovitz.
Night time activities - live bands, pianist and themed parties at different bars or clubs kept the nights busy.
Restaurants: Garden Cafe - buffet styled, always busy in the morning. No dress code. Blue Lagoon - 24 hrs, finger foods including fish and chips, wings, and burgers. It was very good. No dress code. Magneta - full service, menu changes daily; some nights are great that included surf and turf. You do have to wear pants. Grand Pacific - a bit upscale with the exact same menu as Magneta except jeans are not allowed, but no one really cared. Specialty restaurants - Cagney's Steakhouse, Teppanyaki, Sushi, Asian fusion, Italian, Mexican, these required an extra charge of $10 to 25 per person. Overall, free style dinning was awesome; eat at your own pace and at your own time. Cruise ship food was average; it was about quantity instead of quality.
Tipping - $10 was automatically charged per person per day. 15% gratuity was added to all drink orders. Unless you are super generous and like to carry cash with you, extra tipping is not necessary.
Ports of Call
We woke up early every morning and explored the ports and the surrounding cities on our own. We saved money, saved time, and explored more areas. I did a lot of research before the trip and was well prepared. In addition, we had maps of all the cities. For those who don't like planning ahead and wanted a worry free vacation, please book your shore excursions with your cruise. Here are some good websites about each port: European Port Review (EPR) - http://www.europeportreviews.com/ Cruise Critic port site - http://www.cruisecritic.com/ports/area.cfm?area=16 Wikitravel - http://wikitravel.org/en/Main_Page I highly recommend reading EPR, the author took pictures of key points around the ports and the cities, and I will add some additional notes below:
Valletta, Malta - absolutely stunning, you must catch the ship dock into the port around 7 am, go to the upper deck and check out the spectacular view. You can explore city sites on foot. Key place we went included the St John's Co-Cathedral, Magisterial Palace of the Grandmaster, Grandmaster's Palace Armoury Museum which all required entrance fees. The Upper Barrakka Gardens was free, it offered a good view.
Naples, Italy - the GEM actually docked about 1 km east of the actual terminal which put us a lot closer to the train station (10 minutes walk, refer to EPR). We went to Pompeii. Map of Pompeii and guide were provided at the entrance, the site is massive, you can literally spent hours there, just make sure you wear comfortable shoes. We spent the rest of the day exploring Naples including visiting the Piazza del Plebiscito, Castel dell'Ovo (Egg Castle), and had pizza at Antica Pizzeria Brandi.
You can take the same Pompeii train to Sorrento, but we actually took the train back to Naples hoping to go to Capri by boat, that didn't work out due to limited departure in the afternoon. For those who wanted to go to Capri, go there in the morning, the boat station is just west of the terminal. You can spend the morning in Capri and still be able to visit Pompeii in the afternoon.
Civitavecchia, Italy - this the port to Rome and ship docked at 7 am. We had to take a free shuttle to the terminal entrance. Once there, the train station is about 5 minutes walk. (refer to EPR). Return train ticket was 9 EUR per person and included the usage of public transportation in Rome. Just remember to always stamp your ticket in the yellow box at the train station to validate. Once you arrive, check the posted schedule for the returning trains. There are multiple trains that go through Civitavecchia, you do have to go through the board to locate them, should be 20 minutes apart for each departure.
Refer to EPR and start the trip at the Vatican City. In the morning, we visited the St. Peter's Square, the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel (no line-up on the day we visited). We took the subway to Spagna and on foot visited the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum (even went inside). If you can walk at a good rate, you should be able to cover a lot of ground in Rome.
Livorno, Italy - this is the port to Florence and Pisa and the ship docked at 7 am. Refer to EPR. There is a free shuttle to the city centre that will get you closer to the train station, but the shuttle started at 8 am. We took a taxi and shared it with another couple, the rate was 20 EUR. The return train ticket was 13 EUR per person and allowed you to get off at Pisa. We were able to explore Florence on foot. We started off at the Duomo and proceeded to the Accademia. We waited in line for about 40 minutes to get into the Accademia. For those museum lovers, you may want to reserve tickets ahead of time for Accademia and Uffizi. For a few EUR extra, reserved tickets allow you to visit the museums at a preset time to avoid long line-ups. After Accademia, we walked around Ponte Vecchio.
We took the train back to Pisa around 3 pm. Pisa to Livorno is about 15 minutes by train, just make sure you check the train schedule. We took a taxi to the Leaning Tower and spent the rest of the afternoon there. You can pay 15 EUR to climb the Tower, but they only allow 40 people every 30 minutes, the wait was about two hours.
Villefranche, France - this is the port to Nice, Monaco and Cannes. The train station is not very far from the terminal (refer to EPR). We decided to check out Nice, the ticket was 3 EUR and it was only 10 minutes away. There were only limited number of trains operating on Saturdays, please make sure you check the return schedules. Nice was very easy to explore, just head towards the Mediterranean Sea and you will find everything close by.
Barcelona, Spain - we stayed in Barcelona for two nights after our cruise. Most hotels have maps and information guides about the city. We purchased two day passes (26 EUR / person) for the Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour, it was the easiest way get around and to see the main sights of Barcelona for yourself. Service was every five minutes and the commentary was given in multiple different languages. We also received a coupon book that offered savings to the tourist sites. Plenty to shop in Barcelona, local brands were cheap, international brands were not due to currency conversion, but items were definitely more fashionable. Luxury goods such as Lois Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel were definitely cheaper. Most prices included the VAT (Value Added Tax), and you can get the tax back at the airport if you spend a certain amount (90 to 100 EUR) at the same store. Here is the site with all the information: http://www.globalrefund.com/
You have the option to join GEM's disembarking program which you will be given colored luggage tags and you have to leave your luggage outside the cabinet the night before. The other option is for you to carry the bags out on your own at any time. Final check out time was 9:30 am and disembarking was very smooth.
Overall, GEM was a good ship and this trip was fantastic.