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.
We were awed by the Leaning Tower and stunned by the its marble and that of its church and bell tower. We also enjoyed the street markets:-)
On the way to Florence, Pierro asked if we wanted to stop at a winery or an olive pressing plant, and the group voted for the olive pressing plant. It was fascinating and the little farm shop enticed all of us. Pierro made our travel time very special, as he endeavored to have us appreciate the beauty, the culture, the history, the agriculture of Tuscany.
When we got to Florence, we first visited an overlook to get the lay of the land before driving into the center of town to see the major sights, the Duomo for example. He explained the influence of the Medici on art and culture, and showed us examples of the work of their "pet" artists. We went first to the Academia, where we admired the statue of David, and then had a few hours to walk around town between the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio before meeting him to drive back to the ship. Another incredibly enriching, educational, unforgettable day! I can't say enough about the excellent guides from Your Tour in Italy!
Dominico picked the eight of us up in Naples, exactly on time and as promised, and ascertained what we wanted to do. When I mentioned that half the group were keen gardeners, he designed a tour starting in Ravello, site of two gorgeous gardens (even in November). The mountain switchbacks, many and scary though they seemed, were easily handled through his expert driving, and the towns/villages we visited (additionally Amalfi, Positano, and Sorrento) were charming. They could have easily merited a full day each. When asked to describe the Amalfi Coast to an American, I explained it as a combination of the incredibly scenic California coast with ancient and charming red-tile roofed villages.
We spent two hours in the afternoon in Pompeii and, barring the cold rain, everyone could have spent much more time there. Despite all the reading I'd done, I hadn't hoisted in that Pompeii was a town, and it covers a huge area! That was a highlight! (We followed the guidebook, rather than having a personal guide, and that may have taken us longer.)
The day was visually spectacular and culturally enlightening, and Dominico was a big part of that. We definitely got value for money. NCL's intimate shore excursions ran $425 -$450 per person; for eight of us, the cost for each Your Tour in Italy excursion was 580 euros (about $150 each).
One fantastic sight followed another through the day: the Roman Forum, the Colliseum, St. Peter's Basilica and Square, the Trevi Fountain. Roberto's explanations of what we were seeing were aided by a wonderful book showing Rome then in an overlay over Rome now; I bought a smaller version for myself, and it's a wonderful resource and memory tool.
We had to rush to our Vatican Museum tour, as we'd taken our time in the Forum. That was my only disappointment with Roberto, amidst many kudos; he let us take as much time as we wanted in various places, and we were kind of leisurely. However, since we didn't know Rome, we needed him to tell us "If you take an hour here, we'll have to cut _____ short." As it was, we only had an hour and half in the Vatican Museum with our fantastic, informative, erudite but interesting guide. The Sistine Chapel alone could have taken a day, and will live in my memory.