One couple traveled from the US to meet the other three couples in the UK for our flight to Barcelona, where we had booked the two-day pre-cruise package. Our British Airways flight to Barcelona was delayed an hour when a already checked-in family misplaced a child, frighteningly not located by the flight time. The general mood on the plane was of sympathy with the parents and concern, and the pilots soon made up most of the time enroute. Flawless transfer to our hotel, Hotel Confortel Barcelona, a luxurious and modern hotel very close to the beach (which we didn't find out until the last morning).
Transfer to the ship on Sunday November 1 took an hour, during which time we meandered around the city only picking up at one other hotel and finally coming back very near our hotel to enter the pier area. We think the driver was killing time so we wouldn't arrive till noon at the ship - we probably should have been picked up 30 minutes later. Once we got there, embarkation was amazingly quick and we were on the ship before 1pm, where they had a lovely buffet ready for us in the Garden Cafe.
The Norwegian Gem is a beautiful ship, large but not overwhelming. Once we found favorite places to hang out, we didn't keep exploring, so I'm sure some nooks remained hidden to us. We took all our breakfasts in the Garden Cafe, finding seating sometimes challenging, but lots of room (and different good food) on the back deck, divided into smoking and non-smoking sections.
Based on previous travelers' reviews, we bypassed the "extra cost" restaurants and varied between the Grand Pacific and the Magenta, always making a reservation. We ate early at 6:30, because that's when we could get reservations and because we were usually up and out early the next morning on tours; after 6:30, the main restaurants had a "first-come, first-served" policy. We preferred the Magenta, because it was smaller and a little less noisy, but both were nice in that they had sea view windows. We found the food "nice restaurant" quality and liked that we could order two appetizers - or desserts - if we wished.
We only had one day at sea, so I don't have much to say about occupying oneself on the ship. We did go to several port lectures, and especially enjoyed informative ones on Pompeii and on Michelangelo. Several of our group liked the ping-pong tables, one enjoyed the putting green, and all of us relished a dedicated card room, where we took up residence most nights after dinner. We did appreciate two shows, one featuring songs and dances from around the world.
I'll treat the ports separately.
I have to commend NCL for their efficient embarkation and disembarkation process. This was our fifth or sixth cruise, all on different cruise lines, and theirs was by far the most painless.