We are truly people who appreciate a good value for money spent. We tend to seek out the more modest rooms, but we do like to at least have a bit of a view and on this trip the porthole was all we needed. For goodness sakes if you're on a cruise there is plenty of deck space and it doesn't mean just next the the loud musical combo playing poolside. There were many places for us to be in the fresh air and not feel crowded or cramped. In terms of the comfort our cabin was quite adequate. We really liked the dark wood cabinets, the beds were comfortable, there was plenty of storage space for the way we travel...just don't bring steamer trunks. Most importantly, we found the bathroom to be very usable in spite of the space limitations that naturally go with being in a modestly priced room. The Norwegian Gem is nicely laid out and the unusually bright colors of fabrics and furniture was somewhat Alice in Wonderland in nature in the public areas. This was the best part of our experience.
In terms of Free Style Dining, I would not recommend it as anything more than college dormitory in quality. Yes, the main dining room was visually pleasing and comfortable. You really should ask one of the servers the hours of peak dining to avoid waiting in lines. The servers are mostly very attentive and willing to please to the best of their ability. Providing food for thousands of people in multiple dining facilities is no doubt a daunting task, but maybe they are just trying to do too much. If you are not looking for a gastronomic delight the food has it's surprise moments and you certainly won't lack for quantity but stick with the Grand Pacific Dining Room because the specialty restaurants are not so special, they just add to your tab very quickly. We were optimists and tried three of the specialty dining rooms thinking that we just hit a bad night. The only one that seemed remotely worth the extra expense was the Bistro. Absolutely forget the Teppanyaki restaurant and the Cagney Steak restaurant is great for those who like the flavor of frying pan steaks. I understand that they don't want open flames, but my rib eye steak was not that appetizing especially when I could have had essentially the same thing in the main dining room and not paid the extra price. So one can avoid lots of extra and certainly unnecessary additional expense by staying out of the specialty restaurants. The best part of the buffet was the morning greeter who could put a smile on the grumpiest of faces. The food was mediocre at best. If you wanted capers with your bagels, salmon, and cream cheese you had to request it from a very busy attendant. Ice tea stations were frequently empty and the dining area felt very cramped. In general I would say that the best food we had was off the ship in the ports of call. Oh, by the way, you will be visited frequently by staff members assigned to promoting the specialty restaurants and they are very persistent and high pressure. After being nice, I found that saying "go away" finally worked.
If you like your cocktails, beer, and wine, brace yourselves for a really big bar bill. Here is where they really make up for the teaser booking rate. Most everything is $6 or more. A bottle of wine will cost you a minimum of $25 dollars and we're not talking premium wine. If you don't drink anything besides tap water, coffee, and iced tea, you will be just fine. Whatever you do, don't buy the bottled water they are selling as you go on excursions. At $4.50 per small bottle you are being charged more than double the price you can purchase out of a vending machine on shore. Of course they are scaring you all the time about the dangers of going ashore without water to make the sale. That is their catch and we learned early not to follow their advice. Find an on shore market and you can buy a big bottle of water for half the price.
Now talking about shore excursions. Keep in mind that you really don't have enough time to see a great deal in any port. The shore excursions are very expensive and I really suggest you stay away from them unless you are fortunate enough to have unlimited resources and you don't care. Do some planning in advance and you can save a huge amount of money. They again will scare you that if you don't take their approved tours you could end up missing the boat and be left behind. We didn't do enough advanced homework and therefore we opted to take their offers in three ports. The ports in Rome and Florence are too far away to walk to anything of interest, but you can do these cities without being fleeced...just be smart and alert.
If you plan to keep in touch with family while you are away, you will pay steeply for Internet availability and it is a satelite connection meaning something only slightly better than dial up speed. Think you are bringing your own laptop and will be less costly? Take your laptop on shore and find a free Internet zone at a coffee shop because they will charge you just as much on board to access their wireless connection as if using their 12 computer terminals.
Don't get me wrong, the trip was fine. It's just that I have great difficulty with matching my expectations developed from NCL's promotion with the actuality. So their is my disappointment. If I had expected to incur costs matching the cost of the cruise booking itself, I would have been fine with that. I was not expecting that however, and therefore I'm annoyed more than angry. I think this has put me off cruising for awhile. For what it cost, I could have just gone to a couple cities in Italy and Spain, stayed in a nice hotel or apartment, found my own food and restaurants, and really enjoyed the cities more than the exhausting attempts to make it feel like I had actually been in the cities/ports of call.
What a great city indeed. We arrived in Barcelona a day before we boarded the Norwegian Gem and took a taxi to our hotel in the Marina district. It cost about 60 euros. What we didn't know was you can take a subway train right from the airport, change at EL Prat de Llobreget station for the train headed either to Barcelona Sants train station or Estacio de Franca depending on where you want to go in the city. If you are headed directly to the port, get off at Paral-lel or slightly closer; Drassanes. This will cost you 2.30 euros each. Walk a few blocks to the statue of Columbus (Colon) and you can't miss it, it's big. Walk to the port side of the busy street and you will find blue buses that take you out to the cruise docks for another 2 euros. The metro/underground train system is extensive and you can get just about anywhere. Usually there are elevators as well as escalators. Some stations only have stairs but we managed to carry our luggage up or down as necessary. By the way, if you look back from the Columbus statue you will find you are at the end of La Ramba. This is a very lively and interesting, mostly pedestrian boulevard with street vendors and weirdly costumed and painted mimes. If you have a need to purchase a turtle, rabbit, bird, flowers, art piece, cat, dog, or simply a post card you can do this on La Rambla. Do sit at one of the outdoor cafes in the center of the boulevard, pay the extra price for a beer or coffee. It's worth it to watch all the people walking past. Mostly a very happy lot indeed. Don't miss the St. Joseph market. The entrance is not that large, but once inside it opens into a cavern of vendors with beautiful displays of fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, etc. I wish I could do my grocery shopping there every day. You might also want to grab a snack from one of the little food bars throughout. Whatever you do, try to find a restaurant off La Rambla. You will find the prices considerably lower and quality of food better. Also, often times you can order tapas while sitting on a stool at the bar pointing out what you want and enjoying just as much as sitting at a table but paying more for the table location. If you speak Spanish it can be helpful but remember this is Catalonia part of Spain and they speak Catalon a language that seems a mix of Spanish French and Italian. I'm no liguist so don't hold me to that observations. I speak enough Spanish but haven't a clue when it comes to Catalon. Just the same, lots of people speak adequate if not good english. If all else fails these people are very understanding of sign language. Of course there are many sights to be seen in Barcelona, so don't short change yourself here. It's the one place that you get off the boat and are not required to be back on at the end of the trip. Take advantage of the desire you built to see more of those cities that you will now examine in your photos to remind you that you swept through. Stop in Barcelona for a day or two. We did and we also went by local train to the wonderful seaside resort of Sitges which is approximately 30 minutes from Barcelona Sants train station. Again, 2.30 euros per ticket each way. You can go to Sitges just to walk the streets and along the wonder sea front for the day. We spent four days there, rented an apartment in advance through http://www.sitgesapartamentos.com/. We could not have been happier. We were a group of four. We had an apartment with two double bedrooms and a single bedroom. We had a full kitchen, livingroom, dining area, two bathrooms, a washer (the dryer is the clothes line) and right in the middle of town. This was a great place to finally relax. The costly was only slightly more than a hotel room with private bath. Mornings are great for shopping. Stores close at 2 for siesta and time to have a menu of the day lunch. It is a great value. Shops open again in the evening. You won't believe how cheap bottles of wine and six packs of beer are in the grocery store near the train station. The old part of town is all walkable from the train station. We liked the apartment idea and were so happy with the amount of space compared to a hotel room. It gave us a reprieve from eating exclusively in restaurants. We puchased lamb shanks from one of the vendors in the shops above the large market I mentioned, but you will find small butcher shops and produce markets all around. After the food on NCL we were thrilled to be eating our own cooking again and we were quite happy with some of the places we ate in Sitges. If, however, you have homophobia too bad for you first, for being so up tight but also because Sitges is very gay friendly. But Europe takes the whole thing in stride and if you can go with the flow you will not be bothered by the sight of men holding hands. You will see just as many old people sitting along the pedestrian walkways conversing with both gay and straight tourists. You won't feel like you're out of place for sure. Night life really starts about 10 pm and goes into the wee hours of the morning. If you have ear plugs they may be useful if you are on a street with heavy pedestrian traffic. Better yet, join in the fun. Sitges is for me everything I envisioned in an old worldly seaside resort. Don't expect ultra modern...it's an old place but very charming.
After writing all this, I've talked myself out of another cruise anytime soon unless it's back to Alaska or similar place of spellbinding beauty visible from the ship.
We waited for all the NCL tours to off load. They were going to Nice, Monaco, other nearby communities. We had a leisurely breakfast in the Grand Pacific Dining Room while they jostled to board the tenders. By 9 AM they were long gone and we boarded a tender for the dock in Cannes. A charming and relaxed stroll was perfect for us. No need to take a taxi, or bus, just walk leisurely along the harbor with all the boats in the slips. Although we were there during the Cannes Film Festival, all the "beautiful" people were still sleeping it off from the previous night of parties. We did get to see some incredibly large yachts. You can easily go to the beach for a swim, or sit at a sidewalk cafe eating French pastries and drinking coffee. Prices for clothing is unbelievably expensive so don't make that your objective in Europe. I saw the Polo shirt I purchased in a discount store in Palm Springs for $24 available in Cannes for 96 euros/$134 at that day's exchange rate. We also walked a couple blocks off the seaside street and found cafes at considerably lower prices and probably better quality. Since we had to be back on board by 2:30 and considering we had to wait in line for the tenders, Canne was best as a wander, sit and sip, and watch as all the people strolled by type of experience.
Again, we took the NCL tour bus "Florence on You Own". $125.99 EACH for a bus ride and conductor. We explored Florence completely on our own from that point. I didn't find out if anyone took a train from Livorno to Florence because I could not stand to hear again if they had told me it was as easy as in Civitavecchia to get to Rome. We couldn't cancel either because of the 48 hour advance requirement for cancellation. NCL has it all figured in their favor.
Florence is a marvel of art history and cathedrals and if you're into tombs of the likes of Michelangelo, Rossini, and Galileo, to name a few then you definitely won't want to miss Santa Croce Cathedral. Those names are all there among so many other famous people and wealthy families. You will have a hard time deciding which line to wait in for some of the best art in Florence. Michelango's David is housed in one location. The Uffizi gallery houses some of the most important paintings of the Rennaissance. Warning: buy tickets for the Uffizi before you leave on your cruise. It's almost impossible to walk up and get same day entrance tickets. Currently the first floor of the Uffizi is closed for renovation.
If you are able to walk up a hill and some stairs you will be pleased you didn't take a tour unless you want to see some distant sight and there are some very interesting places that one would see if not just there for less than 8 hours. I have five stents in my heart, take good care of myself, am not overweight, and at 58 years old found the walk managable at a strolling pace. Once you have walked along a narrow sidewalk to one of the gate entrances to the city it is not too much longer before you are done with climbing.
We enjoyed the views of the harbor from one of the garden/parks. We spent most of our time in the main cathedral, but that is due to my love of old master paintings. Here you will find Carrivagio within the cathedral and for the art lover, they alone are worth the visit to Valleta. As is the case with most large cathedrals in Europe one never can get over the dedication and committment of the artisans who managed to amass incredible works in one location. There are a couple other churches nearby that were large and small and all had their own levels of incredible art pieces. One things you will be told on the ship is that you must cover your shoulders and wear long pants. Well the long pants thing really means covering your knees. So if you are there in hot weather and not inclined to wear long pants, just make sure you have shorts that cover the knees, if only just slightly.
I had read that Naples is like a pretty woman with dirty feet. Now isn't that an interesting thought...or maybe not. We decided that we really wanted to see the ruins at Pompeii. We were shuttled by bus some 30-45 minutes from the port. Taxi's were available but we didn't speak with anyone who went to Pompeii in this manner. Entrance fees to Pompeii were 11 euros per adult. Our tour cost $99.99 each. We had a rather odd tour guide. He wasn't unpleasant, but you could tell he wasn't really into it all that much either. I think I would have preferred to do the walking tour with head set and recorded information so I could have gone at my own pace. Some of the older participants had difficulty keeping up with the group and some got separated from the group and only rejoined us at the original drop off point. They were angry. Pompeii is a very popular tourist destination and I must say I'm glad I saw it. I was not expecting it to be as large an area as it is and I'm really glad I saw it. I'm a big history buff too so that made it a predetermined winner. All I would suggest is that if you take a cab, you ask for the price before getting into the vehicle. If you think it too much, just thank the driver and walk away, you may be surprised to find the offer will get better especially if walking toward another taxi driver nearby.
If you can't find something to like about Rome, I think you just don't like the history of human civilization. One day in Rome is just not right. To begin with, Civitavecchia is about 1 1/2 hours drive from Rome. So to begin with you are spending 3 hours coming and going. That leaves you about 5 hours in the Eternal City. The shore excursions were very expensive and we opted to do the Rome On Your Own Tour. This meant we had a bus that picked us up dock side, there was a guide who told us about Rome and warned us to hang on to our wallets and purses. Front pockets for wallets and purses in front as well. We were also told about the subway system, taxis, and given a map. We were dropped off in a garage next to St. Peter's Basilica and the guide took us to the square in front of the basilica. From there we were on our own. We went directly to the Basilica. No entrance fee and it did not take us an unreasonable amount of time to go throught the line and security check point. Actually, it was more organized than at the airports. Again, absolutely no shoulder exposure, extreme cleveage, or exposed knees. Otherwise, attire was everything one would imagine seeing anywhere on any day. We manuevered our way throught the masses of people inside and had a designated meeting place at a designated time. The Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums were closed. It was Ascension Thursday and there were masses being said in St. Peter's. If you can get into the museums I wouldn't do anything other than the Vatican if history and art are your thing, or you are devotedly Catholic.
From St. Peter's we walked about 10 minutes to Ottaviano subway station, made one transfer from the A line to the B line at Termini station and took that to the Coloseum/Forum part of Rome. Again the crowds were staggering. I was fine with observing the structure from the exterior, walking along a busy street that offered a lookout to see the Forum and on to the Victor Immanuel Monument. We stopped for a pizza along the way and soon we were at the Pantheon. After marveling at standing in front of Raphael's tomb and coming to terms with the 2000+ year old age of the structure, we walked to the Trevi fountain to throw our obligatory coin, right hand over left shoulder to guarantee a future trip to Rome as legend has it. If you throw four coins, you're supposedly hoping for a divorce. Don't plan on this being a quiet and tranquil place because the rather small square accomodating this very large fountain is jam packed with people. Moving on to the Spanish Steps we climbed half way and looked down on the crowds reminding myself that no were were not ants in a colony of such. We walked to the nearby A line subway station (Spagna) and returned to our original starting point near St. Peter's in time to rejoin the tour guide who then led us back to the bus garage. Oh by the way, if you see Roman soldiers waiting to be in a photograph with you, be sure to ask what they expect in return. For a single picture we heard one "soldier" demanding 20 euros!! per person in the photo. Now that's a lucrative business and although very alluring at the start once you've been enticed in you cannot extricate yourself until you pay. On top of that ignore the Gypsy beggars. They are incredibly adept at garnering your sympathy, but their children and co conspirators will strike and steal from you while you are occupied being charitable. I experienced this on a previous trip to Europe. Worse yet is they will often follow you once you have given them anything. Now how's that for appreciation?
Again, the cruise people told us it was difficult to take the train to Rome and very unreliable. "Gee, just last week we left two people behind at departure time." The reality is there is a shuttle bus that takes people from the port to the train station. It costs 9 euros and trains run on average of every 30 minutes. Granted, Italy has a pace all it's own, but if you allow sufficient time to return to the ship, you will find this immensely less expensive. Remember the Termini Station in Rome where we transferred from the A line to the B line? That's where the train arrives and then you are in the middle between St. Peter's and the Forum/Colosseum and can take either subway line from there. We spoke to several people who independently did this and were very happy with the result. Wish we had been 1. more adventurous and less wimpy or 2. not so inclined to trust the NCL advisors. In summary, we paid $119.00 EACH for a bus ride with a conductor and did all the rest on our own just the same. 9 Euros each way on the train seems the way to go.
We really saw many locations, but did we really have a chance to take in anything as much as we would have liked? NO. If you want to see Rome, fly there and stay in a hotel. You can spend days, weeks, more exploring what Rome has to offer.