My friends and I (four women, plus one friend's parents) booked the back-to-back Med cruise from June 23-July 10. It was a GREAT trip!
PRE-CRUISE/EMBARKATION: We booked a couple of nights at the Hotel Abbazia, near the train station. This was convenient as we had flown in to Milan. It's a quaint hotel, formerly a monastery, with comfortable rooms and modern baths. We caught the shuttle to the ship from Piazzale Roma. We already knew the bus would be hard to find: we actually found the group of passengers waiting by recognizing their luggage tags! My only complaint about the bus is that they did not run the A/C until they were ready to leave and it was HOT sitting there for about ten minutes! Once we arrived at the terminal, signage was clearly marked and the process was pretty simple and quick.
OUR ROOM: We had a quick lunch at the Garden Cafe (yummy grilled burgers) and then checked out our stateroom. My friend and I selected an outside view stateroom. As much as I love balconies, it saved us about $700/person to take this option. I was very pleased with the picture window and the layout of the room. We had two twin beds on opposite walls with a nightstand in between. One fold-down bunk over one bed, which we did not use. The beds were VERY comfortable! We had a nice desk with a mirror for doing hair/makeup and lots of drawers and storage space. I was afraid the room would be very gaudy but it had lots of "wood" trim and was very pleasant. The bathroom was just big enough (tight but adequate) and I LOVED the shower. Great shower head and water pressure! The TV selections were lacking -- other than the ship's programming, the only English-language programming was sports, Sky News and the BBC. I would have loved a headline-news format but Sky News seemed sparse and the BBC was mostly featuring programming with interviews, etc.
THE SHIP: Again, I was pleasantly surprised with the layout and decor. I have sailed with Carnival (gaudy) and Disney (classic) and expected the decor to lean more towards the gaudy, per the photos I saw. But nothing was over-the-top. I loved the classic style of the Grand Pacific dining room, the faux-rattan deck furniture was very attractive, and many of the public spaces were stylish and tasteful. The approach to the Grand Pacific was a little strange (it's on deck 6 but you have to approach it from a stairway on deck 7) but the rest of the layout was easy to pick up on.
THE PASSENGERS: Summer is not my favorite time to travel but this was a great deal that my travel agent set up -- so I was already expecting hot weather, crowds and lots of kids. We had a high mix of Europeans to Americans, and LOTS of kids, especially during the second week. Too many kids unsupervised, unfortunately, running down the halls at night. The pool area was always crowded so I avoided it for the most part.
THE SPA: Since I didn't have a balcony and wanted a refuge for reading and relaxing, I decided to invest in the two-week spa pass to allow access to the facilities. This was about $150 but I thought it was well worth it. The spa is beautiful, with cushioned lounges facing picture windows to the bow of the ship. There are also heated tile lounges in the unisex area, along with a thalassotherapy pool and spa. The ladies-only lounge also had the same lounges with the great view and two private whirlpools. There were also a couple of private showers, which were very convenient. There's a hairdryer in the vanity area but it's not very strong -- I preferred to use the one in our stateroom, which was much better. In the unisex area, they also serve iced water, orange juice, and hot tea. I booked two massage/facial combos during my two-week cruise; one was advertised in the "Freestyle Daily" as a "Ladies Night" special and the other was a special offer for booking excursions with the ship. I thought both were good values and enjoyed them.
THE ENTERTAINMENT: I work for a company that produces pretty spectacular shows so my standards are a bit higher than average. We didn't see all of the big production shows but I thought the Gem singers and dancers did a very good job. My only criticism would be the overall creative/writing aspects of these shows. For the "World Beat" show, the segment about China opened with the song "Reflection" from the Disney movie "Mulan." Really? For Africa, of course they featured the song "Africa" from the group Toto. I know these songs are well-known but they're not exactly authentic. But entertaining, and I suppose that's the real point. We saw the acrobat show and I thought that they were tremendously skilled but again, could do with a bit better show flow (there was one segment that ran much too long where the woman was fashioning outfits from lengths of fabric -- what was the point, really)? I enjoyed the 70s show and saw both performances of "Four Ever," the Il Divo tribute group. I'm not a big Il Divo fan but loved this group and their shows. We also saw a few shows in the Spinnaker lounge. The Gem singers put on a little cabaret show that featured their vocals, which I really enjoyed. The Gem show band is very talented as well (more on them later). I was not impressed with Harmony & Rhythm, the ship's house band. The instruments were pretty strong but the vocals were often pitchy and the lyrics/pronunciation were weak at times. I caught some of the other lounge entertainment in passing and they all sounded good but I didn't really stop to listen for long. I enjoyed the shows that involved passengers, although they tended to be a bit on the silly side, and in the case of the "Quest" competition, rather raunchy. Now I knew what to expect (this is NOT a show for kids) but it amazed me how many people would volunteer to do such degrading things for a free t-shirt.
FOOD AND MORE: We dined most nights in the main dining rooms. I preferred the ambiance of the Grand Pacific to the chic decor and low ceilings of the Magenta dining room; both offered the same menu both nights. Service was good, although VERY slow on one of the last nights; it took us an hour to get our food that night. We usually ate breakfast and lunch at the Garden Cafe -- there was a great variety and I thought the food was really tasty. We enjoyed specialty dining experiences at the Teppanyaki restaurant, Cagney's, and La Cucina. Midway through our Teppanyaki experience, our chef left without explanation to be replaced by another. He simply said thanks and goodbye, and walked away. We didn't know if he was ill; they just said he was fine. It was a little weird and sort of put a damper on the evening for me. We also signed up for the Jazz Brunch at Le Bistro - the musicians were really talented and the food was tasty. I'm not much of a gourmand but I really liked the food on the Gem. The food always seemed fresh and they always had a good variety on the menu.
OTHER SHIP STUFF: One of my favorite hangouts during the day (when I wasn't at the spa) was the Spinnaker lounge. They had really comfortable seats/lounge chairs and great views. I signed up for the Casino card and enjoyed playing the slots. If I won anything, I'd usually just play it away, but it was entertaining. I entered the slot tournament and made it to the finals. I didn't win, but got a $20 casino credit. On our last day, the four of us tried bowling. It was a novelty, that's for sure. For some reason, they had the bumpers up so we all got pretty good scores, LOL! We also played a lot of trivia -- the "general knowledge" questions are pretty tough, by the way!! We also played Bingo but it's EXPENSIVE. The four of us went together on the "full meal deal." They have these electronic handsets that now allow them to sell you a lot more "cards" than you could possibly play the old-fashioned way. It was fun but not really worth the money, to me.
THE CREW: Everyone we encountered was gracious, very friendly and helpful, from the "Washy Washy" guy at the buffet to our cruise directory, Gary. Our room stewards, when we saw them, were very friendly but apparently not terribly experienced or effective. I had hoped to get them to empty the refrigerator but I couldn't find anyone to ask when we boarded. We didn't always get important info -- our friends on deck 10 had received a flier about checking our passports, which we had not seen. We called Reception and they sent up a manager, followed by a steward, who said they'd run out of fliers but had finally run more (don't they know how many to run?). Later our Latitudes hostess sent us a letter about a Latitudes member reception that we never received (our friends and travel agent told us about it); she printed another one at her office for us.
THE PORTS: Well, this is what I signed on for!! All were new to me except for our embarkation point, Venice, and Dubrovnik. We were disappointed to learn of the itinerary change for the first week, but I commend the NCL team for doing their best in a difficult situation. Due to a scheduled general strike in Athens, our visit there was rescheduled. On our original scheduled day in Athens (Tuesday) we went to Santorini instead. This was a plus, which I'll explain later. The downside is that the Napflion port was replaces with Athens, so we didn't get to visit Nafplion on this itinerary. Also, our Athens visit was cut from a full day to a half day. I had set up a private full day tour that I had to try and reschedule. Ultimately, we decided to sign on with the ship's tour, as time was so tight. There wasn't enough room in my "port reviews" list for every place we stopped so here are a few that didn't fit:
Dubrovnik, Croatia: Three of us had visited this port in 2005 but decided to walk the walls again so our fourth friend could enjoy the views. This is the only port this week where we had rain. It was light but made the uneven, sloping walkways VERY slippery. I slipped once but managed not to fall. Another friend did slip and fall but was not injured. The views were still incredible. We sought out and found the Buza bar that we had visited five years ago. It's perched on the outside of the western wall and serves cold beverages and snacks. It's grown since our last visit but still had the same laid-back atmosphere, great music and views. We must have sat there for an hour and a half, just enjoying it all and watching young men dive from the rocks into the sea below. It was a great, relaxing way to spend the afternoon.
Venice, Italy: When we arrived back in Venice, my friend and I walked back to the train station to purchase our return tickets to Milan for the next week. On the previous day at sea, we attended a meeting for back-to-back guests to learn about our options for Saturday. Happily, we did not have to do the muster drill again! We hadn't spent much time in the St. Mark's area when we first arrived so we took the vaporetto and strolled and took photos (we had toured the Doge's palace, St. Mark's and the campanile on our 2005 visit). Another hot and sunny day!
Split, Croatia: We did this on our own, exploring the basements of Diocletian's palace, strolling the streets, buying souvenirs, etc. We stopped at a sidewalk cafe and I ordered fresh lemonade. I had to add my own sugar as it was not sweetened -- I can't imagine someone drinking it without sugar! Split reminds me a bit of Cannes, France. It's a nice town but was probably not my favorite port. This was July 4th and we had a little BBQ on the ship when we returned. It seems to rain on Sunday afternoons in Croatia, as a little thunderstorm moved in but passed pretty quickly.
DISEMBARKATION: We chose to leave at 9:40. I picked our color-coded tags but they were apparently being called out of order. I didn't hear our color called but my roommate heard it much earlier than expected. Not a problem, we walked off the ship, got our luggage, and took a taxi to Piazzale Roma (after walking the route the previous week, we didn't want to try it with our luggage). We stored our luggage at the train station, spend a few hours in Venice, then returned to Milan for a couple of nights before flying home.
SUMMARY: I thought this was a great cruise and whatever criticism I have is very minor. Friendly crew, beautiful ship, comfortable rooms and a great itinerary!