Please see the complete review with pictures on the Norwegian Cruise lines threads.
Cruising the Norwegian Gem turned out to be a "George Bailey" moment for me - you know, the character from "It's A Wonderful Life" who has a great impact on those around him, but never fully realizes it. This brainchild of mine began on a fluke back in May, when I was just perusing the internet in search of a long-overdue graduation trip for my twin daughters. I went on Expedia, and compared the itineraries of several cruises, with NCL having the best prices, and ports that were interesting. I knew that my cousin in California had a cruise travel agent, and so contacted her to find out the info. When I mentioned my idea, and asked if she would like to come, she didn't even hesitate and said "YES!" I then asked my parents, brother (who lives in LA) and another cousin from New York. Everyone was "on board" (pun intended) with this idea!!
So the cast of characters for OUR EXCELLENT ADVENTURE is as follows: DH, DS (age 23), DD1, DD2 (the twins, age 19), DM, DD, DB, DSIL, DN (nephew, age 17), DC1, DCIL1 (my cousin and her husband), DCS (cousin's son, age 28), DC2 DCIL2 (the other cousin from New York and her husband), DCD1, DCD2, and DCD3 (their three daughters, ages 24,and twin 21 year olds), DA (My Aunt). That's 19 of us! We'll try to keep everyone straight throughout this review...
So, after months of preparation, much of which involved obsessing on the CC message boards, we were off. I decided, after agonizing for weeks, to get money for our trip using three different methods: I ordered, through HSBC bank, Euros through the mail, which were delivered via UPS, I opened up a separate checking account with no overdraft (in case the card was stolen) from my bank and put $1000 in it, and I took about $800 in US currency. We kept most of the money in the room safe in the hotel/ship. This worked out great, because the exchange rate changed, so I hedged my bets. I was also paranoid about pickpockets, even though I worked in Manhattan for years, and am cautious by nature. I bought a small shoulder pack bag, which you will see in the photos, and this worked great. The zippers were really hard to open, so that was good. In Barcelona, a "gypsy" did try to pickpocket SIL, but she heard the zipper open, and thwarted the attempt.
We flew Delta nonstop, and the flight was actually early arriving in BCN. We arranged early check in at Grand Hotel Central - which, as its name implies, is right in the heart of things. My DC found this one through Amex, and although it is not cheap (172 E for a standard double, breakfast included), it was a lovely hotel with an infinity edge rooftop pool. The rooms are small, but modern, and clean, and the bathrooms are first rate. The breakfast has wonderful options, much better than I anticipated. It is within walking distance to the Gothic Quarter, the Barcelona cathedral, and Las Ramblas. So, while DM and DD rested that first day (our family was the first to arrive), I changed and went up to the pool, with its wonderful views of the city. Boy was it hot!! After a short while DC2 and her family came, and we spent a few hours lounging by the pool until we became so exhausted that we ventured down to our rooms (which by now were ready) and slept for a couple of hours. Then DH and I headed out to the square near the cathedral to look around - there was live music, and great street vendors there.
I made reservations, through DC2's Amex concierge (evidently my Costco AMEX does not provide such services!!) at Can Manel la Puda in the Barceloneta. Everyone piled into taxis and there we were, in our own private room at the restaurant. They couldn't have done more for us, kept the Sangria flowing, and we all had paella. No, most other people would give it rave reviews, but, by way of background, our family is of Spanish descent, and we have a family recipe for this dish. So, this version did not hold a candle to what we make - it was mostly rice, and a lot oilier than the family version. But it was still great to try it in its native country. The meal cost around 20 E each - with a very generous tip - so it was a bargain. The next day, we had booked Pepito Tours for a half day tour around the town - the HOHO bus was not an option because of the heat, and anyway, the tour, via private air conditioned minibus with a driver and guide came out to 35 E per person, and the HOHO is 21E. We saw all of the highlights - Montjuc, the Olympic Stadium, Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, the block of discord, and the outsides of Casa Mila, Casa Battlo. We went into Sagrada Familia, which is astounding - definitely the highlight of the city, IMHO. Our Guide, Miriam, was very knowledgeable. It still amazes me that this cathedral will take another 15 years or so to build!! I really wanted to go up into the tower via elevator, but there was no time that day, so I ade palns to come back the next day (by myself I may add, by taxi) to ascend to the top.
After the four hour tour, some went swimming, some went to Las Ramblas, your truly included, to have a "light" lunch. NO such thing!! By way of explanation, we are a family of overorderers - we eat with our eyes. But this was over the top - for 11 of us, we ordered 5 tapas plates, which were HUGE, two small pizzas, and a glass of beer or sangria. Take a look!!
This was more food than anyone could eat - and it was delicious. Now I know that you are going to ask me the name of the place, but all I can remember is that it had blue umbrellas, the name began with a "Z" and it was about midway down Las Ramblas. The tables were outside on the median of the street. The meal ended up costing us 30 Euros each (a little pricey for lunch, but hey, we're on vacay, right?)
For dinner, we had reservations at Meson David, recommended by a CC member, but when the cabs arrived there, it seemed to be in a sketchy (as the kids would say) area, and we doubted whether we would be able to get cabs back, so we bailed on that idea, and headed for a place that Miriam recommended. "Centro Ciudad" was in the name (again, I do not remember it), but it was on the street perpendicular to Las Ramblas, with a fountain on it. It is a huge place, and the tapas were excellent, and we ate outside. At the end of the meal, we went inside to use the ladies room, and who was sitting in the restaurant? Miriam, of all people!! I just said hello and left, but DC began a conversation with her, necessitating her leaving her friends and coming into the street, where of course we took pictures! I am sure we were annoying Americans, just validating the impression that Spaniards have of us tourists. But Miriam was a good sport about it.
The next day, I decided to return to Sagrada Familia to go up the elevator. What at view! To see Gaudi's work close up is not to be believed. Definitely worth the 2.50 Euros. To avoid long lines, get there when they open at 9 AM, I only waited about 20 minutes to enter the cathedral (I had to pay the 9 Euro entrance fee again, even though I paid the day before with the tour). Then it was a 2 minute wait for the elevator.
I also took a cab to La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila - another amazing Gaudi site. They used to serve drinks in the evening on the roof, but no longer do. I could see why, given the stairs and the narrow walkways. I almost tripped a few times sober in broad daylight - I cannot imagine what happened at night!! I waited about 15 minutes to get in - 10 Euro entrance fee. Then I cabbed it back to the hotel to check out, and go to the Gem.
The kids decided that they wanted to see Casa Milo, so they took off to do that, and DH and I checked some of the bags with the hotel, and then took some to the harbor. It was about 1PM and what a traffic jam up to the ship! I guess we hit peak time. It took us about 20 minutes to check in - we had a minisuite, and the line was a little long. By the way, they want you to check all of your bags, but just say no if you have carryons - they don't insist. I only travel with carryons, because once you have had your luggage lost, you never check again. After the xray machines, there are duty free shops where you can buy all sorts of stuff, wine and alcohol included. If you have a large tote or purse, the shop owners suggest putting it in there.
By this time the rooms were ready, but what a line for the elevator! We took the stairs to 6, then walked through the casino to the forward elevators, rather than wait forever for the mid ship ones. The minisuite was not very large, but was clean, new, and had tons of storage, so I was happy. DD2 was staying with us, and DS and DD1 were across the hall in an inside cabin (they hate the light, so that was perfect for them). My DD and DM were also in a minisuite, as was DB and his family. My DCs had penthouse suites - those were amazing! After settling in, we had to return to the checkin in order to provide the kids with the necessary credit card so that they could check in, since they weren't with us. Then I changed and checked out the pool, which was already hopping.
So here is a list of stuff that I brought, most of which was very useful - everyone made fun of me, until it came time for them to need it! Bubble wrap for all of the olive oil (very flavorful in Spain), wine, and Limoncello purchases, bungee cord for the door, extra hangers (there are only 12 in the closet), a power strip for the only 120 volt outlet (which is near the hair dryer on the desk), door decorations so we knew whose cabin was whose, scotch tape, birthday decorations (we had 2 birthdays on the cruise), battery operated candles, bandaids for blisters, a soft sided cooler for water bottles (which by the way, I also bought a case of at the duty free shop by the ship), ice packs (no freezer, but I put these in the fridge, helped to keep the water cold). I also copied info about each port and site, and also emailed everyone with the link to Rick Steve's free audio guides to the Colosseum, and the Gallerie Della Academia and Uffizi, and copied the maps from his guide books.
First night DC made ressies at La Cucina - now, we are all native New Yorkers, so we have very high standards when it comes to our Italian food! This was okay, not fabulous, and the service seemed to fall apart when the restaurant got a little crowded. Definitely not worth the $10 per person cover charge, IMHO. We all had a blast looking at the sailaway, and we were all so happy to be together, so it was fine. Then it was off to the casino for most of us (big gambling family).
The next day was a day at sea - so I was up early, checking out the Garden Cafe. Good choices here, grilled tomatoes were a favorite, egg white omelet, and lox. No one else was awake of course, but I enjoyed the time by myself, reading Angels and Demons again, because it takes place in Rome, and also because all I wanted to do was to visit the Santa Maria della Vittoria, where the Ecstasy of St. Theresa is. More on that later. Everyone came up to the pool, and boy was it a scorcher that day! We relaxed and recouped from Barcelona. DCS (my cousin's son) was ill with something - so he was in the cabin, for most of the cruise it turns out - so the rest of the kids, and various adults drifted in and out during the course of the day. Meanwhile, my family was forming a bingo cartel - they played every game every day - talk about obsessive. But they won, almost all the time! I had arranged a Meet and Greet, but no one else showed up but us, so it was disappointing to say the least. We made our recommendations, which were few - like not charging a $50 sitting fee for a group portrait (that is just wrong), and the fact that when we attempted to book more than two people in a cabin, it was denied, and my TA had a heck of a time getting 3 in a cabin, even in the penthouse suites. Other than those two complaints, however, we raved about the ship, service, and the amenities. My DC1, a very frequent, high-end cruiser (read Crystal) had nothing but wonderful things to say about NCL, and she and DCIL would absolutely cruise with them again. The butler turned out to be worth his weight in gold, because he pretty much took care of DCS for most of the cruise, because he was feeling so poorly. He couldn't have done more - we all wanted to bring him home with us.
It was DC1's birthday, so NCL was kind enough to provide a card which gives a free cake (they usually give it to the recipient's cabin, but I picked it up at the reception desk on deck 7 because I wanted it to be a surprise). I had decorations, and when she was out of her cabin, I put them up.
It was great to spend her birthday together, because we live so far apart we usually done get to do that.
By the way, all of our cabins were under the fitness center, and we did not hear a peep! I had trepidations about booking these because I am such a light sleeper. No problems at all. Also, there were about 700 children on board, according to NCL, and no problems with them either. Once in a while, one of them would try to sneak into the adult pool, but they were promptly chased out by the guy manning the water slide.
Next day was Malta - we had no plans, other than to walk around Valletta a bit. We woke up early (some of us, that is) to watch them sail into one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world. It was one of the hottest days of the summer - temps topped out at over 100 degrees. The bus into town is not air conditioned, which I didn't know, and after ushering my group on, I was immediately fired as cruise director (LOL). I told them to imagine our ancestors on such a bus, except with a chicken or two in their laps! They were getting in touch with their roots. The walk from the ship to the bus is around 5-10 minutes, and too long for my parents and DA, so we asked to be driven, which the ship did do, and the driver would not take a tip. I thought that was really accommodating of the staff, and to me, just demonstrated the high quality of service. Can you see us sweating in the pictures below?
We went into St. John's Co-Cathedral, (you need to have your shoulders covered), and got the audio guides, which somehow were included in the 6Euro price. Well worth it, because it points out the highlights. Oh, and it is not air conditioned. Afterwards we ducked into an HSBC bank just to the left of the cathderal exit (the AC was on in there!) to exchange money and use the ATM - good rates. Then we sat in a cafe, and explored the bargains- and there were many - including a store where all the clothes were 5 Euros! I bought a lovely dress.
Caffe Cordina is just down Republic Street and they have fabulous local food offerings including some of the best baked goods I have ever had - get the honey rings!
If it wasn't so hot, I think that I would have explored a little more. DH and DS went to St. Paul's Shipwreck church, where they were duly impressed with the actual arm bone of St. Paul. I shopped instead. Then it was back on the bus (1 Euro roundtrip). DB and his family took a horse-drawn carriage down, and negotiated the price to 10 Euros, I think, from 50. They are really off as far as tourism goes - according to the driver, it was half of what it was last year.
When we got back on board around 1:30, I headed straight up to the pool, and got to watch the sailaway, again breathtaking. They did play some really cool and dramatic music, which sounded as though it was from a movie soundtrack. Then the band came on, and really revved it up.
That night, we went to the Grand Pacific - how beautiful to have dinner with a view off the back of the ship. We saw Mount Etna, but someone had said that you could see it erupting, but that was not true. It was still nice to see all of the land formations, Sicily and Italy. Of course, our usual is to go to the Casino - where we did quite well, thank you. DS was up several hundred dollars.
The next day, it was up and at 'em! Rome in Limo met us at 8 AM sharp, right next to the ship. We had three vans and three drivers, Tony, Stefano, and Jenny. We piled in, and started to drive down the coast. I thought it was very interesting that someone should be selling doughnuts on the side of the road to cars stuck in traffic. They looked good!
First it was off to Vico Equense, a small town that our ancestors emigrated from. Stefano is from that town, coincidently and showed us around, including a very old church from the 12th century, where perhaps my great grandfather was baptized.
We saw the town square, with its beautiful fountain, and "little Italy" looking side streets. Then we stopped for what we were told (and now believe) is the best gelato on the whole peninsula, perhaps the whole country!
If you ever get there, go to Gabriele's. Yummy!! Did I mention that most members of my family are "foodies?" We really appreciate good and delicious (and sinful I might add) food. So this fit the bill nicely, even if it was only 10:30 AM!!
Next, it was off to Sorrento, where we were really limited in time, so kamikaze shopping!! DD2 bought two lovely high quality leather handbags, I bought a fun tote bag, and of course, some limoncello. We only had about 45 minutes. DC1 had been there before, so she guided me down the alleys and side streets for the best bargains!
They had arranged a lunch for us high on the hilltop overlooking the town - it was just lovely, and relaxing, although some of us wanted to shop more...
The food was fabulous, but way too much, if you ordered all of the courses. We just ate the appetizers, and split one entrEe between the four of us. The limoncello was outstanding!! The fresh mozzarella was the best I have ever tasted.
Now, off to Positano, down the beautiful Amalfi coast. Those of you who have ever been on the road to Hana on Maui - this is much shorter, and they have guiderails now in Italy.
Now we had a choice - either swim in the Med, or go shopping. I chose to swim. The beach was beautiful, if somewhat rocky. Again, it was 100 degrees, and the water was like a bath.
I savored this view for quite a while, before it was time to go back up to the hilltop - I even managed to buy a little something before the van swung by and picked us up. Then it was back to the ship. The ride took about 45 minutes, but they allow more time because of traffic, which can be horrendous. As a parting gift, the drivers gave each van a bottle of limoncello as a souvenir, which I thought was a really nice gesture, and very much appreciated. I have to say, Rome in Limo made touring hassle free, and provided a needed respite from the strenuous walking that would normally be required. I cannot imagine doing this in a large tour bus, or having the flexibility to do what we wanted.
Off to dinner that night, again at the Grand Pacific, which proved to be fabulous at meeting the needs of our diverse group. Each night there was an appetizer, entrEe, and dessert from Cooking Light cuisine, which had the fat, fiber, and calories listed beneath it on the menu. This really helped us keep track (if we wanted to). The other entrees were tasty, and just the right portion size. If we wanted to, we could always order more, as did some of the kids. Mt DCH ordered every soup they had on the menu each night - sometimes it was three of them!!! The restaurant manager, Sanya, took really good care of us, and even got one of the recipes for us from the kitchen! She really made the trip for us. We managed to see part of the Second City show, most of which was hysterical, and made fun of the NCL ship (especially the washy washy part). More winnings at the casino, then off to bed...tomorrow was Rome!
Another early day, and Luca, Vincenzo, and Luigi met us right at the ship. We were in Luca's car. He gave us the entire history of Rome in 12 minutes (yes, there will be a test). His English was impeccable, and he attributed this to the fact that he spent a semester at Ohio State during his college years. This was a little bit of a problem, because we have two Penn State students in our group - they are really big football rivals. But my kids didn't hold a grudge! First stop was the Colosseum, where Luca explained the fascinating history of this monument. Again, the heat was brutal, and we had 30 minutes to explore, thankfully plenty of time, before getting back into the air conditioning.
Right after the Colosseum, DC1 suggested a special side trip to the drivers, the only place in the world where you can see three different countries at once. I do not want to give it away, but if you ask the RIL people, they will know.
We went to the Pantheon next, which is really fascinating, especially since I had just finished re-reading "Angels and Demons", where there is a scene in this landmark. I couldn't believe the narrow alleys the drivers were able to navigate. DC2 and her family wanted to visit Castel Sant'angelo, so they took off separately. The rest of us passed by the Spanish steps (no big deal really), and then went to the Trevi fountain. Luca and Vincenzo kindly drove me to the Santa Maria della Vittoria, which was closed!!! I guess I'll just have to come back...
Next we had lunch at this little square with really good shopping - I bought 2 dresses for 9 Euro each and some glass jewelry for 3 Euros. There was a small pizzeria, where we got a pizza and a beer. The best pizza I have ever had!
Now we had to rush to go to our Vatican tour - DC2 and her family were across from the entrance, munching on some pizza, not good pizza I might add, as a matter of fact it reminded me of school cafeteria pizza. So don't eat at the place across from the Vatican group tours entrance, if you can avoid it. We were ushered into the Vatican with our guide, and then he sat us down for an art history lesson, which I would have enjoyed a lot more if it wasn't so darn HOT!! I couldn't believe how uncomfortable it was - and I like the heat! We went into the museum, which you could spend weeks in, but we just had time for the highlights. The Sistine chapel was of course magnificent, and they left small patches of unrestored plaster so that you could see the difference. The colors were amazingly bright. It is hard to believe that one man designed and painted all of that - what patience and talent.
After the Sistine, we entered the Basilica. I could not believe the scale of it, and how magnificent. I have been in St. Patrick's cathedral many times in New York, and this dwarfs it.
Now, on to St. Peter's Square. It was beautiful, and large. Our guide showed us the spot to stand on where all of the columns appeared to be one. We only had a few minutes, before Luca was calling us so that we could return to the ship. A quick stop at the Vatican gift store and restrooms, and we were on our way. Exhausted, but fulfilled with all of the wonderful sites. Luca, Vincenzo, and Luigi bought us packages of postcards to commemorate our day.
Unfortunately, DCS was still sick, and could not come on any of our Italy tours. Duman (RIL's owner) was nice enough to eliminate his portion of the charge for the tour, which he didn't have to do. We thought that was really nice of him, considering the cancellation policy is one week prior.
Another fabulous dinner at the Grand Pacific - at now what had become OUR tables. We were really getting tired at this point, and a few of us had colds, but we shouldered on...
Third day with RIL - our drivers were Maffi, MarieClara, and Giovanni. After extensive discussion, we were off to Pisa. I had originally told Jany from RIL when I booked, that I had wanted to do Florence first, but somehow that got lost in translation because our reservations were for 2:30. We went to Pisa for a little while, just to take pictures. It is a beautiful little town, and DCH bought wine in bottles that looked like the leaning tower (which DD1 now has in her college apartment).
Another 45 minute ride to Florence, then in to see the David. Remember I had told you that I downloaded the Rick Steve's guides on our iPods? I used the map in his guidebook, turned on my iPod, and voila! My own guided tour! This worked great. We were only there for about 30 minutes (it's not a big place). Then we went with Maffi to the top of the city to view it from above. Maffi explained that there were 3 states represented by the three large buildings in the city. One represented the church (Duomo), one represented the politics (Uffizi), and one represented business (Medici Chapels).
I was anxious to shop, as were many others, and some of us wanted to eat lunch (by this time it was noon). Maffi probably felt like the guide in "My Life in Ruins" (which I happened to see on the plane ride over), where she wanted to tell us about the great and rich history and architecture of the place, and all we wanted to do was eat and shop!
I grabbed a Panini and beer, and wandered down alleys in search of bargains, which I found, and others sat and ate. The Duomo is spectacular, but we didn't have time to go inside. We went to the Uffizi, where we had reservations.
Again, I used the Rick Steve's guide and map, and the timing could not have worked out more perfectly - I saw all of the highlights, Botticelli's Birth of Venus included. The escape from this place takes you through many more galleries; there is no direct exit so allow yourself another ten minutes to get back on the street once you are done. Back to the car, and then the ride back to the ship - about an hour.
Now we are really exhausted, and we all vow to come back to this magical place to explore further. Dinnertime conversation included future vacation plans.
That night was the chocolate buffet. I barely escaped with my life! People are crazy. Before almost being knocked down, I managed to capture a few pictures. By the way, some pax touched the food and then put it back - yucch!!!
Sadly, there were already notices about disembarkation in our cabins. Now I know what post cruise depression feels like! Next day was Cannes, no more plans, so we were all on our own.
It took a while for everyone to wake up. DH went to Monaco by himself by train. The casino wasn't open, but the ride there was amazing - the Riviera on one side and beautiful villages and castles on the other. The rest of us tendered into Cannes. The kids took the requisite pic on the red carpet. Then we split. DC2, her family and DD2 went to Antibes by taxi, which they had trouble getting. DD2 translated, and the driver had a real attitude. They ended up going to the tourism office, where the folks there procured a cab for them.
Meanwhile, DD1, DB, DSIL, and DN went to the beach and then DB, DSIL, and I went on the little train tram around the city, which gave us the highlights. It begins right on the beach near the red carpet steps, and costs 10 Euros each for about a one hour ride. There are headphones on the train.
We saw a wonderful food and flower market which DB went back to. I hung on the beach and swam for the last time in the Med with DCH, and DCS, who by now had recovered, just in time for the last day! They headed back to the ship by noon
DB came back from his shopping expedition, and told me there were great stores just a block inland. He swam, and I took off to find treasures. He was right! About one block in from La Croisette (the street by the waterfront) there are both high end stores, and bargain shops. Ceramics and linens are especially good here, and I bought some stuff. The sales clerk started to dump my ceramic purchase into a shopping bag without wrapping. I asked for bubble wrap but instead got one - count it, one - piece of tissue around my purchase. The Dollar Store wraps its stuff better!! See what I mean about the bubble wrap? Thankfully, I had some spare pieces on the ship. I was back on board by 12:30, for a last afternoon in the sun.
At 4:30 the last game for the bingo cartel - DC1 won the cruise for two!!! She plans to donate it to a hospice care auction she chairs each year.
It was DM's birthday, so her cabin got decorated, and another cake was ordered for dinner. We all reminisced about our great adventure, and how it all came together so nicely, with everyone from around the country able to make it.
Bright and early the next day, we left our cabin for the last time, self disembarking around 7:15. No trouble finding a cab - 30 minutes to the airport. There was a very short line for our 10:30 flight, which went to Paris. Then a four hour layover before the flight home to JFK. I didn't want to take the chance on an hour and a half stopover just in case the flight was delayed. The flight from Paris to New York was on a 747 - they still fly those things?! It was old, old, old, and to make matters worse there were several screaming babies, whose parents didn't bother to walk them up and down the aisles. They just let them cry. My mantra was, "it's only eight hours, then you are off the plane. You can survive this!" Our flight arrived pretty much on time, but it took forever for the bags to come. We ended up getting home at around 10:30.
DD1 had college classes beginning the next day, so she slept until 3:30 and then a friend drove with her to Penn State. DH and I woke up a 4:30, and drive with DD2 upstate to her college to move her into her apartment there.
I kept thinking, what a juxtaposition. I was swimming in the Med 48 hours ago, and now I am in upstate New York cleaning out kitchen cabinets and unloading clothes. Back to reality!
All in all, it was the trip of a lifetime. The itinerary gave a taste of everything, so that you know what you want to come back to and explore a little more. Can't wait for my next adventure... Read Less