This was our 5th cruise, 2nd on NCL, so we knew what to expect. We spent 2 days discovering Barcelona prior to the cruise and stayed at the Hilton Diagonal Mar, which is a stone throw from the beach. As expected, it was a superb choice, since you can't go wrong with the Hilton, especially in Europe.
Part of the NCL's appeal is it's easy embarkation/disembarkation. Both went without a hitch, no lines, no waiting. Very well organized. Bravo, NCL.
ACCOMMODATIONS: absolutely wonderful. Spotless rooms, very comfortable beds, well designed bathrooms and plenty of closet space. I booked an outside cabin and the little window was all we needed as we only used the cabin to sleep, shower and change clothes.
AMENITIES: again, better than average. We read many reviews where people complained about the lack of lounge chairs by the pool. We did not encounter this problem for several reasons. First of all, unless you need to keep an eye on your kids in the pool, why would you want to stay on that deck? It's very noisy with the loud music, screaming children, etc. We used the "quiet area" on deck 14 with it's awesome round sun beds and the best views. Also, on rare occasions when the chair/bed we wanted was occupied by someone's towel, I simply moved aside it and used the chair. Yes, people think that they can reserve the best spots if they put their towel down, but no towel ever objected when I put it on the floor. Feel free to do the same and don't let it bother you.
FOOD: No complaints here either. We did not eat at any of the "specialty" restaurants. We tried them in the past and have determined that it wasn't worth the extra $$. We were very pleased with all the "free" restaurant choices. The service at every single one was consistently excellent. Food-wise, there were definite "hits" (such as their chilled soups) as well as "misses". Still, given the quantity of food they prepare on a daily basis, I think the Gem did an exceptional job. The quality and variety at the Garden Cafe was very good, and on several occasions we completed our meals there after a disappointing menu at the Magenta or Grand Pacific. Also, we never encountered any lines, although I should mention that we usually ate at around 7:30 pm. I believe the lines started an hour later. Breakfast was a bit difficult, seating-wise. The Garden Cafe was very busy in the morning, likely because most people tried to eat at the same time so they can get off the ship early. Also, we read some unflattering reviews about the Midnight Chocolate Buffet so we skipped it. My reward was coming off the cruise without gaining a pound.
ENTERTAINMENT: We found it disappointing. To be fair, we only attended the main night performances at the Stardust Theater but out the 4 shows we saw only Colorz was OK. The rest were unimpressive: lame comedy at best.
Many reviewers mentioned that they felt "nickel-and-dimed" and subjected to the "pressure sale" tactics. I would have to agree: we experienced that as well and it was unpleasant. However, we realize that cruise industry is big business and it's their objective to take you for everything you've got. It's up to you not to let them. We became very good at saying "No, thanks" and returned home with our bank account intact.
THE PORTS: If you plan on taking the NCL-provided excursions, skip this
section. This is for people who plan on getting a private tour or
seeing the ports on their own. We wish we knew some of the information
prior to taking our cruise. First of all, the only port that is
difficult to do on your own is Naples. It's hard to see the Amalfi
coast without having a car. However, don't try booking a guide based on
the names you read in the reviews. We found out that All tour guides
are a "one trick pony". ALL of them will show you the EXACT SAME sites,
and you will like it because the scenery/art/historic aspect speak for
itself. I always wonder: when people gush about their guide being the
best, what their reference point is? How can they actually make a
comparison? Case and point: We booked a tour of Sorrento/Amalfi
Coast/Pompeii with the guide who was supposedly the best and highly
recommended, therefore we paid the top dollar (or Euro, to be exact)
for his services. We did enjoy our tour with Marchello. However, our
friends took the exact same tour with a different guide (a driver,
actually), went to the exact same places and saw the exact same things
for less than half the price.
Also, keep in mind that there isn't really any competition between
them. We booked Aldo Monti from yourtourofitaly.com because some
previous reviewers recommended him. Instead, he "pawned" us off to Nick
who worked for a different tour company. Not that I'm complaining. We
liked what Nick showed us in Rome and all the historic info he provided
us with. We thought he did a good job, but again, we wouldn't know any
different. My point being, when choosing your tour guide for any port,
let the price determine who you book for your tours.
Another thing: EVERY tour guide will bring you to a restaurant for
lunch, likely owned by his friend or a family member. They'll claim
that the food there is something special. In reality, you should skip
the sit-down meal, if only because there's no time. Plus, you'll pay
20-25 euro per person (minimum). Keep in mind they add a hefty "cover
charge" to your bill. Instead, ask your guide (and be VERY FIRM about
it) to bring you to a local market, where you can get the locally
grown/produced food of your liking for a fraction of the cost and soak
up the local culture. Saves both, time and money.
I actually brought some plastic containers and packed lunch on the
ship. Of course, we bought those "must try" things: gelato, coffee,
If you decide to take the public transportation, it's quite simple and
convenient in most ports. To find taxis, particularly in Livorno, you
need to get past the first line of "pretend" taxis who will try to sell
you the tour.
Since it was our 1st trip to Naples, Rome, Florence and Cannes, we
wanted to cram every sight we wanted to see in only one day that we
had. In fact, it is an impossible task. All of our tours were very
rushed, and I wish we did our homework and picked a few sights we
really wanted to see instead of trying to rush through everything. For
example, Vatican should be a separate trip as it takes (at the very
least), an entire day. So, when your tour guide tells you to book
tickets for 2 pm, be prepared to miss a LOT, especially if you don't
book a private guide specifically for the Vatican. (You can't enter the
Basilica from the museum without a guide). Also, make sure that your
guide gets your Colosseum tickets in advance, otherwise you'll waste a
lot of time waiting in line.
I would recommend joining the Roll Call and finding people to share the
tours with. We were glad we did. We would've never got so much helpful
information without it.