My main reason for choosing this particular cruise was the ports of call. Rome was the initial temptation (I have always wanted to see the Colosseum), but Athens and Egypt were the clinchers. I, too, pored over the reviews for this ship and this particular cruise, writing down pointers as a first-time cruiser and trying to take the bad reviews with a grain of salt. Overall, we looked forward to this trip with great anticipation, but didn't set our standards too high as we didn't want to be disappointed.
We booked our own airfare as booking through NCL seemed quite excessive. I understand that the price includes transport to/from the airport or hotel, but we figured it couldn't be that difficult to make our own arrangements. We saved a bundle on airfare this way (found 2 RT from Denver to Barcelona with one stop for $700 each). We arrived in Barcelona the day before the cruise embarked and managed to easily find the right aerobus to take us to the Plaza Catalunya, an easy walking distance to our hotel. The Hotel Continental Barcelona is located at the upper end of La Rambla. It is rather old and quaint, but comfortable and pleasant, and we wanted something close to La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter. The front desk service was very friendly and helpful, and we would recommend staying here for the price and location. Your rate includes a breakfast and dinner buffet (nothing special, but decent), and complimentary wine, beer, juices and coffee at all hours of the day.
We spent that first day in a rather zombie-like state, having had almost zero sleep in the past 24 hours. We walked along La Rambla after checking into our room (they had a room ready for us even though it was only 9:30 a.m. and check-in isn't until 2:00), napped a little in the early afternoon, then took the metro to see Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. BTW, the metro is pretty easy to understand and get around in, and this is coming from someone who has never had to deal with this kind of transportation before (especially in a foreign country). Walked La Rambla some more, ate at a Tapas Bar and sipped sangrias, meandered through the Gothic Quarter and found some random music and dancing, bought some pastries, enjoyed the atmosphere, then went back to the hotel to collapse for the night.
The morning of embarkation, we were planning on sharing a cab with two ladies (a mother and daughter also staying at Hotel Continental and cruising on Jade) to get to the ship. Found out there was a marathon taking place that included La Rambla, so the whole area was cordoned off and no taxis allowed anywhere near. So the four of us hoofed it to the metro (lugging all our luggage) and made it to the Columbus statue where we found the blue bus that took us to the ship. It really didn't end up being that inconvenient to do it this way and we saved a bundle of money (turns out the taxis that were running had to drop their fares off at the statue instead of being able to take them directly to the ship due to the course of the marathon).
Embarkation was a breeze, and we were there before noon. The short lines that formed went rather quickly, and next thing we knew we were on the ship. They were very quick to inform you as to where you could safely stow your carry-on bags (the big suitcases were left at the port entry) so you are free to wander the ship and/or grab lunch at the Garden Cafe until your cabin is ready. I was very impressed with the timeframe between boarding and being able to go to our cabins, as well as the quick delivery of the rest of our luggage.
We booked a balcony cabin on the 9th deck. I came prepared (having read other recommendations) with an over-the-door hanging storage (which I didn't end up needing) and extension cord with extra outlets (which I did end up needing). Otherwise there was plenty of space and storage in our room and the closet came with enough hangers (although I brought extra and used a few of them anyway). I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the cabin and especially the bathroom and shower. And the beds were exceptionally comfortable. LOVED having the balcony for the extra light, fresh air, view and privacy.
No complaints about the ship overall. It was clean and well-maintained. Easy to maneuver and figure out where you are and where you're going. The Garden Cafe had decent food and pretty good selection (we ate most breakfasts there except for room service on excursion days and once in the Grand Pacific). The Blue Lagoon has passable fare but the service is mediocre at best. We ate almost all dinners in either the Grand Pacific or the Alizar and liked both atmospheres. The food was good-to-great (only once did they overcook the fish). It felt weird the first night to have a three-course dinner in a nice restaurant and then just get up and leave (instead of waiting for the bill). We splurged one night at Le Bistro (it was part of our anniversary package), and really enjoyed it. We would recommend at least one meal there even if you don't do one of the romance packages. Our biggest complaint about the restaurants (Alizar, Grand Pacific, Garden Cafe and Blue Lagoon) is that the service really went downhill the last two days on the ship. Longer waits before orders were taken and between courses (Grand Pacific and Alizar), servers in the Garden Cafe were slow to help you (they served the food the last two days rather than letting you help yourself -- mostly because of the small virus outbreak after visiting Egypt), and the already mediocre service in the Blue Lagoon became almost non-existent!
The nightly entertainment in the Stardust Theater was pretty good. We enjoyed the Spanish ballet and Extreme Vegas, and caught the comedy act and danced the night away in the Spinnaker Lounge. There was lots of entertainment available, but we chose to relax on our balcony, enjoy the live music by the pool, soak in the hot tubs, partake of the many alcoholic beverage tastings (very worth the $15 pp), chat with new acquaintances (most especially the two ladies we met at our hotel in Barcelona) or play gin rummy on our days at sea. For budget reasons, we didn't spend any time at the spa.