That being said, I would like to share the experience of my husband and I, and to tell you up front that we had no real expectations as we had never cruised with NCL nor been to Europe.
We'll start from embarkation: absolutely a breeze! No lines, no issues. Cabins were ready when they said they would be and luggage was delivered promptly thereafter. (Cabin was awesome, beds were like a Westin Heavenly Bed, very comfortable!).
Overall, we very much liked cruising with NCL and on this ship. Yes, there are surcharges for certain restaurants and yes, there are "up-sells" around every corner. However, that being said, working in the hospitality sales industry myself, I can certainly appreciate the up-sell effort, especially in these tough economic times! My biggest issue with some of the reviews on CC is about the extra charge for specialty restaurants. This is an OPTION...you don't HAVE to go to these restaurants and pay extra. There are at least 5 other places for you to eat each night for "free".
Malta: In Malta we did the Island Jeep Tour through NCL. While I think it was slightly overpriced, we absolutely had a ball. We were able to see just about every inch of the island and took some of the most gorgeous pictures. We even had some beach time and some time in Mdina. My only complaint: it is very hard to hear the guide speaking over the radio with traffic and such flying by. That night, we had dinner in the Asian Fusion restaurant, which was absolutely fantastic. TIP for sushi lovers: You can eat in the Asian Fusion restaurant and order off the sushi menu as well! This also works in reverse! Our waitress, Erna, was FANTASTIC! Wonderful service, amazing food!
Naples: In this port we hired a private driver (not through NCL) to take us all over the Amalfi Coast. We used Marcello Maresca (http://www.seesorrento.com/index_eng.html) and he was amazing! Marcello is born and raised in Sorrento and is very passionate about where he comes from. Where most companies stop their coast tour in Amalfi, he takes you along the entire coast line to Ravello and then back down the mountain on the other side to Pompeii. If you want to stop in every village along the way, go where the tourists go or shop, 1) you will never get to see the entire coast as it was meant to be seen, and 2) this is not the tour for you. My husband and I hate tourist traps and large crowds. Plus, there's no way to enjoy the beauty of where you are if you're shopping. Marcello came highly recommended from a travel buddy who has been to the coast over 5 times and used a number of different private drivers. He has recommended other companies in the past, however has received unfavorable reviews....Marcello consistently gets the best feedback from those who use him. Keep in mind, you get what you pay for. Most of the companies who claim to "specialize" in Naples, also seem to "specialize" in Rome, Florence, Pisa, etc. I don't think you will find another guide who is more authentic than Marcello. (email me for pictures!). **No dinner on the ship this night as we were still full from the amazing full course lunch we had in a tiny village below Ravello - authentic, homemade, amazing views and not another tourist in site!
Rome: Rome we decided to do "on our own". We took the train from port to the city (purchase the Birg ticket for just 9 Euro and it serves as an all day metro pass too!). My husband being Catholic, it was very important for him to see The Vatican and spend the appropriate amount of time there. If you have the budget, a private guide is the way to go here! You can skip the lines, your guide knows their way around and can help you avoid some of the crowds, plus they are extremely knowledgeable! We used myvaticantours.com and the tour lasted 3 hours, plus we were able to get in St. Peters. From The Vatican, we had a list of 3 things we wanted to see: The Coloseum, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. We took the train to Piazza del Popolo and then were able to walk and see all 3 things before getting back on the train! There is NO WAY to see Rome in a day, don't try (either with a driver or on your own). My suggestion is to decide on 3-5 things you want to see beforehand and budget your time accordingly. Purchase any and all tickets in advance to avoid lines. **Dinner back on the ship was with friends in Magenta Dining room. We had to wait for a table but not too long.
Florence: Here we opted for another private driver of the Tuscany region with a great group of wine drinkers! We used Guido from http://www.guidos-tours.it. Guido, a certified sommelier, knows his stuff! He took us to 2 great, yet very different wineries. We learned so much of the history of not only the area, but also about wine making itself. The ride was comfortable and the views were amazing (email me for pictures!). Be sure to bring extra cash for the purchasing of wine!! Our only regret was that we didn't purchase more! **Dinner was back at the Sushi Bar, where we were able to order both sushi as well as items off the Asian Fusion menu. Same great food and service!
Cannes: At this point in the trip, we were exhausted. We only made plans for the beach and some site seeing in Cannes, however the rain killed it all:( We did a short walking tour and then sadly, made our way back to the ship.
On our last night, we enjoyed dinner at Cagney's Steakhouse and it was well worth it! The food and service were amazing. My only complaint between the specialty restaurants and the main dining rooms is service. To my husband and I (who dined in the specialty restaurants 3 times and in the main dining rooms 3 times), there was a very noticeable lack of service in the main dining rooms (Magenta and Grand Pacific). I would hate to think that you have to use the specialty restaurants and pay extra to receive the service that is due.
Overall, we LOVED the Gem and the ports! Ryan, concierge and Duncan, cruise consultant, both provided outstanding service throughout our vacation. We are looking forward to cruising the Greek Isles next year, on this same ship! email@example.com