Pre-cruise - Saturday, 6/13 Barcelona
Just for some background, this was my sixth cruise, my wife's fourth cruise and my step kids (daughter age 13 and son age 17) second cruise. I have previously cruised on Carnival and Royal Caribbean and have found them to be comparable in quality. This would be our first time on Norwegian Cruise Lines so I was eager to try out freestyle cruising.
We left on Friday, June 12 for the journey to Barcelona. We flew from Dallas (DFW) to Barcelona with a layover in New York (JFK airport) for 3 hours on American Airlines and the flights went off without a hitch and were on time. It was sunny and warm upon our arrival in Barcelona and we were all pretty tired (I did manage to doze for about three hours on the flight but the leg room on our 767 from JFK to Barcelona was cramped at best so it was hard to get any true sleep). We breezed through customs and proceeded to baggage claim (which was extremely overcrowded as there was only one carousel operating to handle multiple flights luggage). As the luggage came out, people began to crowd and bump me, so it wasn't too pleasant but we manage to retrieve all of our luggage. We got a taxi (no problems at all finding one although we had to try about three different taxis to find one large enough to fit our four large pieces of luggage in the trunk) and headed to Hotel Regina which is at the top of Las Ramblas in an ideal location. I had printed out the name and location of the hotel, so I just showed that to the driver and he found it with no problems (the Barcelona taxi drivers seem to speak little to no English).
It was only 10 am when we reached the hotel so our room wasn't ready yet, but the hotel held our luggage for free. We ventured out and about a block away was Placa Catalunya and Las Rambles (which featured all sorts of vendors selling everything from typical souvenirs to birds, chipmunks, flowers, produce, chocolate, etc.) I had heard about the pickpocket problems in Barcelona but never felt threatened (although I wore a neck pouch under my shirt to hold our credit cards, passports and most of our cash). After exploring Las Ramblas, we headed back to the hotel at lunch time to see if the room was ready but it still wasn't. Thus we ate lunch in the hotel lobby bar (club sandwiches) as we were really tired and didn't want to venture back out quite yet. Finally after lunch, the room was ready and we headed up to our family room on the second floor. The room was quite large by European standards and was basically a large room with a queen size bed and two other beds for the kids, so all four of us could fit in one room. The bathroom was pretty nice sized too and had excellent amenities (shampoo, lotions, and individual toiletry kits for gentleman and ladies). The one problem with the room is that the a/c didn't work very well and the room was hot. The room was 78 degrees most of the time (I have a travel clock that also lists temperature) but we were so tired that I just let it go and didn't complain (since we were only here for one night). We rested a bit and then headed back out to the chocolate museum which is a small museum featuring items made out of chocolate, information about how chocolate is made, and a small cafe/gift shop. We then wandered into the Gothic quarter and really enjoyed the narrow streets and shops there. We somehow ended up at the Christopher Columbus monument so we decided to go to the top for a scenic view. The views are excellent from the top, but it's very cramped so I wouldn't recommend it for someone who has claustrophobia. Finally, we took a taxi back near our hotel and ate a light dinner at a place called Fresco (salad bar buffet with some pasta and pizza) which was average (although the pizza with corn on it was pretty good). It was about 8 pm by now so we called it a night and headed back to the hotel. I think we were all asleep by 10 pm and I slept well even though it was hot in the room!
Day 1 - Sunday, 6/14 Embarkation
We slept until 10 am and woke up feeling much better and refreshed. We checked out around noon and took a taxi (the hotel had called one for us) to the pier. Once again, I had printed out the name of the port, and just handed the print out to the taxi driver. We arrived at the port around 12:15 pm and dropped off our luggage (there were plentiful luggage porters around to assist). We went inside; breezed through security and got in a short check-in line for mini suites and balconies (they had separate lines for general check in, mini suites/balconies, suites and cash only). About five minutes later, we were checked in and headed for the ship. This was the quickest and easiest embarkation we've had for all of our cruises. NCL does a great job in this regard. We had the obligatory picture taken and boarded the Gem (I was handed a glass of champagne upon boarding which was nice). We were starved so headed upstairs to the Garden Cafe (the Gem's buffet) for lunch. The buffet is nicely laid out with separate stations for pasta, sandwiches, ice cream, soups, salads, etc. All of the food was tasty and enjoyable and there was a good variety. Seating was a bit limited and cramped but we always seemed to find a table whenever we came here. The only negative about the buffet to me was that the items didn't vary from day to day. I'd rate the Gem's buffet above RCCL, but I still think Carnival does the best job with their buffets.
We made our way to our balcony staterooms 10554 and 10556 which were smaller than the balcony cabin we'd had last year on the Carnival Destiny. There definitely was not as much storage space but I do think the bathroom was better organized (it is small but it has a nice shower stall with a glass door and a separate toilet area). The balcony doors also closed quietly (although they didn't always stay fully closed when at sea) which was nice (on RCCL the balcony doors slammed shut which was quite annoying). Both rooms were decorated with birthday decorations and a birthday cake (it was my wife and step daughter's birthdays during the cruise) so we had some cake to celebrate! We checked out the television (a small flat screen set) and noticed the channels were pretty limited (Fox news, nick, BBC news, AMC and a bunch of ships channels as well as pay per view movies). The TV did have interactive features so I could check my account status, make shore excursion reservations, etc. We also had papers in both rooms that indicated that we had $100 on board credit per cabin. I'm not sure why we got this but I wasn't going to complain about it! It helped keep our tab for the week under control. The balconies were small (but nice) with two chairs and a small table.
We ventured out to explore the ship and visited the Stardust Theater, Spinnaker lounge (featuring a pool table, dart board, foosball, indoor shuffleboard and odd furniture), Bliss ultra lounge (with four bowling lanes and more odd furniture; even beds), the basketball courts, rock climbing wall, and the pools. We made dinner reservations for Le Bistro for tomorrow night and Cagney's for Friday night (they let you make reservations on the first day for any day of the cruise). We all enjoyed the interesting dEcor and furnishings of the Gem.
Upon return to the staterooms, our luggage had arrived. Unfortunately mine had been damaged (and it was a brand new suitcase) so I talked with the employee who was delivering luggage and he called his supervisor. I was told to bring my luggage (after unpacking) to the reception desk and they would address the issue. We unpacked and then headed down to reception where they told me they would keep my suitcase and have it repaired (and they would notify me when it was ready). It all turned out fine as they did fix the suitcase and I was notified two days later, so I felt it was handled adequately.
We decided to try the Magenta dining room for dinner tonight. The food here was good but not great. Freestyle dining (eating whenever you want) sounds great in theory, but I really missed the camaraderie and rapport that develops when you have the same waiters/waitresses for the entire week (and they learn your likes/dislikes). I also missed getting to meet and know your tablemates (and potentially meeting new friends). There also were no fun events at dinner (such as dancing waiters, singers, audience participation, etc). It was nice though being able to eat when we wanted to and not having to rush back to the ship from excursions to fulfill a particular dinner time. I'd rate the main dining rooms on the Gem below our Carnival and RCCL experiences as the food was certainly fine but nothing outstanding.
After dinner, we attended the Welcome Aboard show. It was fairly dull as the main entertainment was an Italian singer named Enrico Cifiello, who sang Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones types of songs along with some classic Italian songs. He had a nice voice but it was mostly laid back, low tempo type fare. Our kids were pretty bored by it. I didn't care much for the cruise director Andrea Olivieri or his assistant Bingo Joe (more about my dislike for Bingo on the Gem later). The cruise director was basically a one trick pony (saying Hello USA, CANADA, UK, SPAIN, etc. for each and every show that he hosted) and wasn't very visible on the ship (on other cruises I've seen the cruise director all over the place, but not here). After the show, the kids were hungry and I thought a snack sounded good too, so we checked out the Blue Lagoon. I'd heard that the service was really slow here, but we didn't encounter that and enjoyed our snack. I didn't order the wings or fish and chips (I had heard these were the best items) as I wasn't all that hungry but what we had was good (hot dogs, chicken strips, cheesecake). We returned to the cabin and day one of the cruise was now in the books!
Day 2 - Monday, 6/15 At Sea
Today was a day at sea so we slept in until 10 am or so and then ventured up to the Garden Cafe and encountered the legendary 'HAPPY HAPPY' guy at the entrance. Every morning, he would be there to proclaim 'happy happy' and 'washy washy' and he definitely made even the grumpiest morning people smile. The Gem is very conscious of cleanliness and everyone was strongly encouraged to use hand sanitizer upon entering any of the dining rooms on the ship or whenever actually boarding the ship itself. The ship was also very clean and I witnessed crew members cleaning carpets, windows, etc multiple times throughout the cruise. Our buffet breakfast was tasty (they have scrambled eggs, made to order omelet's, fruit, Danish, muffins, cereal, cinnamon rolls, Eggs Benedict, and many other items). Orange and apple juices are also available at breakfast time.
For lunch today at the Great Outdoors (a separate outdoors buffet at the rear of deck 12), they had an Austrian/Bavarian buffet (in addition to the normal buffet) featuring sausages, spatzle, etc. I thought this was a great idea and would have loved to have seen a different theme each day but the rest of the days there were just burgers and hot dogs at the Great Outdoors. After eating, my wife and I attended an Italian wine tasting event which was interesting (we got to taste 5 different wines along with various cheeses and crackers). I'm not a wine expert by any means, but we enjoyed it. There were many other tastings during the week (for sangria, beer, French wine, whiskey, and margaritas) but this was the only one we attended. I would have gone to the sangria one but it was at an odd time midway through the cruise (one would think they would have had it on day one out of Spain). We split up after this and my wife and step daughter headed to sun bathe while my step son and I went to play darts. We also got in a game or two of ping pong which is always challenging with the winds at sea. We gathered back together to try to go bowling but there was an hour wait so we skipped it.
Before dinner, my wife and I went to play Bingo (we usually enjoy this on our cruises) and discovered that NCL has taken up-selling to a whole new level with their bingo games. On Carnival and RCCL, we usually spent $10 to $20 (the high end for any of their bingo sessions) and had a good time. On NCL, the basic packs were $20 to $25 and to really have a realistic chance of winning, one had to spend upwards of $100, which was totally ridiculous to us. The reason for this is NCL uses bingo machines, which basically play the entire game for those who purchase them (they are idiot proof) and replicate 70 to 100 game cards for each game. So, instead of spending our $10 to $20 per bingo session during the week, we played no bingo at all. We noticed a lot of others at the first bingo session leaving or not playing due to the excessively high pricing of game cards/game machines.
Tonight was our reservation at Le Bistro French restaurant so we got semi-dressed up and headed to dinner. I really enjoyed dinner here. I had escargot and French onion soup for my starters, both of which were quite good. My wife and I got the rib eye steak for two which had an extra charge but it was really delicious. My step son liked his scallops' appetizer so much that he asked if he could get some more, which they gladly brought him. My step daughter loves Caesar salads so we asked if she could get one (as they don't have a Caesar salad on the Le Bistro menu) and that wasn't a problem either. I really felt like they aimed to please in this restaurant and it was an enjoyable evening for all. The 'fondue for two' dessert is quite good.
After dinner was the Colorz show which featured the Gem singers and dancers performing songs that have colors in the song title (such as Purple Rain, Yellow Submarine, etc). The show was pretty good and enjoyed by all and was the nice cap to a relaxing day.
Day 3 - Tuesday, 6/16 Valletta, Malta
The Gem docked at Valletta, Malta at 8 am this morning. I'd heard that the entry into Malta was quite scenic so I immediately went out onto the balcony upon waking and was treated to a view of us entering a beautiful harbor. Since it was an early day, we ordered room service for breakfast and it was right on time. Room service for breakfast only consists of rolls and cereals but it was adequate for our needs. We had a tour booked through the ship called Malta Jeep Adventure and met our group on the pier (we initially met in the showroom until our tour was called). There were about fifty people on the tour and we were assigned to jeeps that held five passengers each; one up front and then four in the back on bench type seats that faced each other. I sat up front and the rest of the family sat in the back along with a stray teenager whose party had been split up amongst several jeeps. We first headed to the north end of the island for a scenic overview (we could see two other Maltese Islands - Gozo and Comino). After this, we headed to Popeye Village which was built for the 1980 film Popeye starring Robin Williams. I saw actors dressed as Popeye and Olive Oyl roaming the village down below so I imagine it must also be a theme park that can be visited.
Our next stop was at a nearby beach (they had filmed some scenes from the movie Troy at this beach) where we stayed for an hour and did some swimming (I just waded though and tried the local beer called Cisk). Quite a few movies have been filmed in Malta (Popeye, Troy, U-571, Gladiator and many others) which surprised me. After the beach, our final stop was at another scenic overlook looking down from some cliffs. The tour description is a little misleading as the jeeps never really went off road at all (just onto a few bumpy roads), but regardless of that, I really enjoyed the tour and we had a phenomenal driver. There is one tour guide for the entire group of jeeps and her commentary is played over a cb type radio. We couldn't hear our radio very well though, so our driver provided his own commentary and made it a truly enjoyable experience. We even found out that he had been an extra in U-571 and had met Jon Bon Jovi during the filming (he said that Bon Jovi was incredibly nice and gracious). We got back on board the Gem with plenty of time to spare before she departed at 3 pm. Sailing out of the harbor was equally scenic to when we sailed in this morning. Around 8:30 pm, the cruise daily noted that we'd sail past Mount Etna on the port (left as you face forward) side of the ship and that was quite spectacular as well (luckily our cabins were on the port side).
Tonight was the 'formal or not' night so we got dressed up, had some photos taken, and ate dinner in the Grand Pacific dining room. Food here was exactly the same as the Magenta dining room. The show this evening was the Second City comedy troupe, who performed both rehearsed skits and completely improvised routines (based on audience suggestions). We all loved this show and had a great time. These are definitely talented individuals.
Day 4 - Wednesday, 6/17 Naples, Italy
We docked in Naples, Italy at 8 am this morning and prepared for the first of our three tours with the highly touted company Rome In Limo. We had arranged to share all three tours with a couple from Singapore that I had gotten in contact with through cruise critic so I was looking forward to meeting them as well. We got off the ship and walked through the cruise terminal and sure enough, there was our tour guide from Rome in Limo holding a sign with my name on it. Lorenzo would be our driver for the day and he greeted us warmly. A minute or two later, our new friends from Singapore showed up, so we were off and running with no hitches. We had Mercedes mini vans for all three days of our Rome In Limo tours, which were very comfortable (and there were no backwards facing seats) for our party of six. We headed out of Naples and Lorenzo told us some facts about the area and culture which was interesting. Our first stop of the day would be Mount Vesuvius, which is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted in the last one hundred years (the last eruption was in 1944). We drove almost to the top, at which point Lorenzo told us it was just a fifteen minute walk to the top. We purchased our tickets (there was a nominal charge) and forty minutes later (that fifteen minute figure must be for trained athletes) I huffed and puffed my way finally to the summit. My step son did make it up there in about 20 minutes but my poor wife and step daughter gave up halfway up and went back down. The views from the top were spectacular so it was worth the effort. I could see the Gem and Naples in the distance as well as Capri and several other islands. The volcano itself was interesting too although I had to chuckle when I heard a nearby child exclaim "that's it, where's the lava" upon reaching the top.
Next we headed to Sorrento. We were going to go to Pompeii next, but Lorenzo suggested we go to Sorrento first as otherwise all the shops would be closed by the time we arrived. It was a good suggestion, so we drove along the coast to Sorrento and enjoyed some spectacular scenery (we stopped along the way to take pictures). In Sorrento, we had two hours to eat lunch (Lorenzo suggested a nice local pizza/pasta type place which had excellent pizza) and shop. I bought some limoncello (lemon products are popular here as there are many lemon trees in and around the region) and stopped to try some gelato (it was creamier than the gelato I've had back home) which was delicious.
Finally, we headed to Pompeii, arriving there around 2 pm in the heat of the day (it's better to come here in the morning but Mount Vesuvius is more strenuous so should be done as early as possible before it's hot). It was about 90 degrees by now and sunny. Our driver told us that they don't recommend visits to Pompeii during July and August because it gets so hot. We met our private guide that Rome in Limo had arranged for us, and she led us on a fascinating tour. Pompeii is much larger than I expected and I really found it interesting to see that they used bricks, sliding doors, and other modern techniques way back in AD 79. We spent about one and a half hours exploring and were glad we had a guide to direct us to the most interesting spots, rather than wandering and wasting time. I definitely recommend a guide if you have limited time here. I got a little over heated at one point but had plenty of water with me so was fine and there was a breeze too which helped. Our guide recommended that we see Herculaneum and the Naples National Archeological Museum (which contains Roman artifacts from both Pompeii and Herculaneum) on a future visit to get the entire picture.
It was time to head back to the ship and we arrived at the port around 5 pm (the Gem sailed at 7 pm) and said good bye to Lorenzo. He had done a good job but I wasn't completely overwhelmed like I had expected to be by Rome In Limo. He was very good though and we had a quite enjoyable day. We were all pretty tired so the wife and I went to the buffet for dinner and the kids ordered up some room service. Later before bed, we were still a bit hungry so we went up to the Great Outdoors for some pizza and dessert. We could see lights on some nearby islands as we ate outside and it was very relaxing and scenic.
Day 5 - Thursday, 6/18 Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy
The Gem was in port today from 7 am until 7 pm and it was day two of our Rome in Limo tours. Today, our driver was David and he seemed more reserved than Lorenzo and much less eager to offer information as we drove, although he gladly answered any questions we had. The drive to Rome takes about one hour to one hour and fifteen minutes. Our driver did let us know that traffic can be pretty crazy in Rome and that many ride scooters to navigate through the congestion. Sure enough, the closer that we got to Rome, the more scooters we saw weaving crazily in and out of traffic.
The first stop of the day (and the first sign of trouble with our driver David) was at the Roman Colosseum. David dropped us off at the entrance to the Roman Forum, which was a short walk from the Colosseum, as the line to buy tickets here is much shorter than if you go into the Colosseum to buy tickets. This was a good move. The bad part though, was that he didn't tell us that we needed to ask for Colosseum only tickets, not Roman Forum/Colosseum combination tickets, which I mistakenly bought since all the signs were in Italian and the ticket sellers did not speak English. Also, I inadvertently bought an audio tour for only the Roman Forum so all in all I wasted about 20 Euros by purchasing the wrong tickets. This could have easily been avoided had David instructed us properly or gone to the ticket booth with us. I'd read many other trip reports that indicated that the driver would actually take care of the buying the tickets for us and whisk us into the Colosseum but unfortunately that was far from reality. Regardless, we loved the Colosseum. I could just feel the history oozing from the place as we explored. We had about ten minutes left when we returned to our rendezvous point so my step son and I hurried into the Roman Forum for some quick pictures. I'd love to come back and spend more time there as I was truly fascinated.
After the Colosseum, we stopped and visited the Pantheon which has amazing architecture, and drove past the Spanish Steps (time for a quick photo stop) en route to Trevi Fountain. We all did the obligatory throwing of a coin (and making a wish) over our shoulders into the fountain upon our arrival. It was now time to stop for lunch and David dropped us off a large square for a one hour lunch break. I asked him for a restaurant recommendation and he told me there was a pizzeria to the right. Well, upon entering the square there were dozens of pizzerias so we just had to pick one at random. Our random pick turned out to be an average and overpriced touristy type place so I wasn't happy with David about that. He really made little to no effort to help us find a good place for lunch. I tried a three cheese pizza at the place we ate at and was overpowered by the taste of blue cheese so I didn't even finish my pizza which is a rare occurrence indeed for me. The meal was 70 Euros for some pizzas and drinks which I found ridiculous. It was time for us to visit the Vatican Museums and St. Peters Basilica so David dropped us off and we met our private tour guide Sara. She was very knowledgeable (although a little bit bossy) and we thoroughly enjoyed the art work, tapestries, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peters Basilica. St. Peters is really awe inspiring and is another location I could have spent much more time at (and the Sistine Chapel of course is amazing as well). We stopped at a shop for a quick break but before I knew it, I was practically pulled out of the store by Sara. This really annoyed me as I wasn't quite done shopping and we had only been there five minutes. We certainly had time to spend another five to ten minutes here but it seemed like she was in a huge rush to get done with us. The portion of our tour with her came to an awkward ending as Sara then abruptly asked for her money. I had been instructed by Rome In Limo in advance of the tour that I'd just pay their driver for her services at the end of the day. Thus, I was really surprised to see her hold her hand out demanding money like that. Also, our travel mates from Singapore and I had each brought exact change in Euros to pay our Rome In Limo driver (since we split up the tours) and it would have messed us up to pay her separately. David did tell us to not worry about it and that he'd take care of it but it was really an awkward moment that could have been avoided. I also had not had a chance to purchase any water since Sara was in such a rush, and to his credit, David did stop and buy me a bottled water.
We headed back to the ship and arrived back around 5:30 pm with me wondering if I'd made a mistake by booking all three trips with Rome In Limo. Tomorrow would really tell the tale! We ate dinner back at the Magenta dining room and returned to our cabins to rest, as it had been another long day (but enjoyable despite the issues with our driver). My wife and I did attend a star gazing session on the top deck of the ship (they turned all the ships lights out and boy could we see a lot more stars than we see at home) which was fairly interesting.
Day 6 - Friday, 6/19 Livorno (Pisa and Florence), Italy
The Gem was again in port from 7 am until 7 pm today and it was day three of our series of Rome in Limo tours. The weather was once again sunny and hot (we had nice sunny weather in all ports which was great even though it was a bit hot). I'd been fairly disappointed in Rome In Limo up to this point (Lorenzo on day one was good but David on day two was average at best) so we'd see how today would play out. We met our driver Vinnie and before we left, he huddled with us to make sure of exactly what we wanted to see and to formulate a game plan for the day. Good start! We told Vinnie that we definitely wanted some shopping time built into our day, as we hadn't really had any time to do that in Rome. We headed to Pisa first and Vinnie gave us detailed background information and history about the areas we were driving through and about Pisa itself. He was extremely knowledgeable and a veritable encyclopedia of information. I had a good feeling about the day now! We stopped at the field of miracles in Pisa (where the leaning tower and a medieval cathedral are located) and Vinnie got out with us and gave us historical information about the tower. We were on our own for about 45 minutes to explore and take photos. There were also numerous small stalls around the outside of the field selling souvenirs so we did some shopping as well. I was surprised that the leaning tower was right in town as the pictures I'd seen always made it look like it was out in the countryside. We tried to take some of the usual touristy pictures of us holding up the tower, but the sun was at an angle that made it difficult to do so. As we drove out of town, Vinnie showed us a second leaning tower (another tower that had been built with foundation problems and was leaning) that most people don't know is there. According to Vinnie, due to the soil in the Pisa area, many buildings there aren't standing straight and it's a common construction problem.
As we drove from Pisa towards Florence, Vinnie asked us about the kind of restaurant that we would be interested in for lunch. He said that he knew of a good non touristy place that he could take us to, and we were all for that idea! We took a detour through the Tuscan countryside and it was breathtakingly beautiful. Chianti wine and olive oil are the main exports from this region and it was amazing seeing the various farms (Vinnie called them farms and not wineries) where the wine is produced. We made another stop at an overlook on the way into Florence for an amazing view and then proceeding into the city itself. My wife and I both loved Tuscany and Florence and already are talking about returning there for a land trip someday. Vinnie had taken our shopping request to heart and asked us what exactly we wanted to buy. It seemed that we all wanted to buy some Italian leather so he said he'd take us to two shops (one with excellent quality and good prices and another with even better quality but higher prices). The first shop was great in that we loved the quality and the prices seemed pretty reasonable; my step daughter found a purse and my step son bought a beautiful leather jacket. I found a wallet to buy for myself. Amazingly, my wife didn't get anything though. We decided to forgo the second shop and look at souvenirs (our new friends checked out the second shop and said it was good also).
Next up was the Accademia museum and Michelangelo's David. We pulled up to the museum and there was a long line waiting to get in, but Vinnie whisked us in a separate entrance (he had made reservations for us in advance) so we had no wait at all. This was more like the Rome In Limo experience I had been expecting! Photos aren't allowed inside the museum so I took a photo of a replica of David in a nearby square in Florence. The statue itself really is perfection and was created in Michelangelo's earlier years. The Accademia is actually a small museum and contains some Florentine paintings and some other sculptures, in addition to David.
It was time for lunch and Vinnie parked and walked us into an amazing little restaurant. We had to go downstairs into the cellar to eat but it was cozy and quaint, and not a tourist in sight (what a difference from the previous day's lunch in Rome). The menu was hand written in Italian on a piece of paper so Vinnie interpreted the entire menu for us and made a recommendation of an appetizer (various meats and fishes served on top of Italian bread) that wasn't on the menu. He also asked if we wanted to try some wine (which I did) so he grabbed a bottle of wine off the wall and instructed the waiter to serve us some. It was a delicious Chianti and an excellent recommendation on his part. He also advised us to try a sweet Italian dessert wine and pointed it out to us so we'd know what to order. Two plates of the appetizers arrived and all the toppings were fresh and delicious. I ordered both pasta and veal which were both excellent. For dessert we had the sweet wine which was served with biscotti's to dip into the wine. The waiter brought out a large rectangular block of dark chocolate and a chisel, and chiseled off chunks of fresh chocolate for us to dip into the wine (I liked this even better than the biscotti). It was nothing short of an amazing authentic dining experience, all made possible by our wonderful guide. Also, at lunch our new touring friends gave us some little gifts from Singapore (a bottle opener, some pens, etc) and I thought that was really kind of them and a neat idea. Wish I'd thought of it too!
I mentioned to Vinnie that I'd like to purchase some of the dessert wine and he said he'd walk me to a good wine shop at our next stop. We stopped at the square where the replica of David can be found which is within walking distance of the famous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge). Vinnie walked me to the wine shop as promised and I purchased some wine and also olive oil that he personally recommended. We walked across the bridge and back and then headed to a nearby gelato shop. Vinnie told us that it was half the price of the more touristy gelato shops and better quality. Pistachio was the house special here so I ordered a cone of it and it was even creamier and more delicious than the gelato we'd had in Sorrento. I'll be craving that gelato for years!
Sadly it was time to drive back to the ship and during the drive back, Vinnie and I chatted about Italian and American culture as if we were old friends. He had provided us with an amazing day that exceeded my high expectations of Rome In Limo. I made sure to write to the company when we returned and let them know how highly we thought of him (and to advise them of David's shortcomings). This day had been the highlight of our trip so far and I was actually sad getting back on the Gem. I gave Vinnie a large tip as I felt he really went above and beyond and deserved it. We also said goodbye to our friends from Singapore, who we really enjoyed touring with. As we left port in Livorno, a team of Italian rowers raced the ship which I found interesting. They were quite loud as they urged each other on to beat the Gem, but alas we won!
After freshening up, we headed to Cagney's for dinner which was surprisingly excellent. I had read some negative reviews about Cagney's prior to the trip but I really enjoyed our meal. I had Oyster's Rockefeller, a nice Caesar's salad and a delicious filet mignon. Everyone else really enjoyed it too. The only thing I didn't like there was my dessert. I ordered a dessert sampler and it was a microscopic amount of three different desserts. In general, the desserts aren't very good on the Gem. I didn't have a single dessert during the week that I would call excellent (although the fondue for two was really good in Le Bistro). This is definitely an area for improvement. Second City had an entirely improvised show tonight so we attended it and laughed heartily once again.
Day 7 - Saturday, 6/20 Cannes, France
We decided to use this as a beach day as I figured we'd be tired after three long days of touring and indeed we were tired. We slept in all the way until 9 am. Yeah! We would have slept later but the Gem was only in port from 7 am until 3 pm today. It would have been nice if we'd stayed until at least 5 pm or so, but we made the best of it. We got on a tender (this was the only port where we had to tender; we docked at all other ports) and quickly made it ashore. We walked through the parking lot towards the left and soon (within minutes) reached Plage Du Midi, which was a nice sandy beach. It really was more like a series of small beaches divided up by restaurants which had beachfront tables and umbrellas. We picked one of the small beach segments and laid down our towels (there weren't any chairs but there was a shower; only the restaurants seemed to have chairs). I wasn't going to swim but the water looked so inviting that I changed my mind and took the plunge. The water was cool and refreshing and the sand smooth and comfortable to walk on. We did see a few European women going topless, but it was mainly a family atmosphere with lots of children around.
After about an hour and a half, we had our fill of the sun, so we walked around a little bit to explore Cannes. We pondered where we should eat lunch and happened upon a Tex Mex restaurant (we're from Texas) which was really humorous to me since we were in the south of France. My wife and step daughter were tired so they decided to eat lunch back on the ship at the buffet. My step son and I continued to explore, and found an area with some sidewalk cafes and bakeries so we picked one at random and it was fairly good. I had an assorted cheese and bread platter and my step son had steak tartar. It didn't seem like very many locals spoke English in Cannes (or they chose not to) but I got by with my limited French (I had taken three years of French way back in high school so I remember a few words). We went to a bakery for dessert and had some excellent French pastries. It was now almost 2 pm though so we stopped to by some quick souvenirs and then took the tender back to the Gem.
We spent our last dinner on the Gem in the Magenta dining room and had a good meal. My wife and I attended the Showtime: World Beat show which featured dances from around the world and we both thought it was very good (I liked it better than Colorz). The captain warned that we might hit some high winds upwards to 40 mph and sure enough it began to get rough around dinner time. The seas had been the calmest we'd ever sailed on up until now. Fortunately we had all taken Dramamine (I always take one in the morning and one at night when on a cruise as a precaution) so no one felt sick at all. It was interesting watching the dancers attempt their routines with the ship swaying from side to side, but they really did an admirable job with just a few misses and staggers here and there. I know that I would have fallen flat on my face had it been me up there!
After the show came my least favorite moment of every cruise....packing. We got it done though and then went to bed. I had no trouble falling asleep but it took my wife awhile as the Gem was really rocking and rolling.
Day 8 - Sunday, 6/21 Disembarkation, Barcelona, and London
We had decided to spend a few days in London after the cruise, but our flight to London wasn't until 6 pm today. Thus I had scheduled us to take a Barcelona city tour through NCL with a drop off at the airport. We met in the show room at 8:30 am and waited for our tour to be called. It didn't take long and we were off the ship in minutes. We easily found our luggage (they had luggage carousels like in an airport and of course mine was one of the last ones to appear, so I was convinced that my suitcase was lost) and our tour bus. The bus tour was decent but not great as we had been spoiled by our private tours in Italy. We stopped at a scenic overview with nice expansive views of Barcelona, drove past some Gaudi buildings and made stops at the Sagrada Familia (which was truly amazing) and in the Gothic Quarter for a short walking tour. We were dropped off at the airport around 1 pm and then began the long, long wait for our flight.
British Airways wouldn't let us check in until two hours before the flight, so we had to wait in the main entrance area of the airport. There were limited shops and amenities here so it wasn't the most pleasant wait. Finally, around 3 pm I saw some activity at the BA counter so I tried the electronic check in machine and it worked! We sweated it out as our luggage was weighed (we had gained a lot of weight in souvenirs) but it all was under the limit. We breezed through security and near our gate there were many more shops and restaurants so it was much more pleasant. Our flight was uneventful (they actually served sandwiches that were complimentary) and we arrived in Gatwick airport at 7:15 pm. The UK is one hour earlier than Spain.
I had planned on taking the Gatwick express train into London but after reading some information in the BA flight magazine, it seemed that a taxi would cost just about the same since there were four of us. We decided to take a taxi and avoid hauling the luggage through a train station. Our driver was quite talkative which was fine (although I'd have rather dozed than chatted) and in about one hour we arrived at the London Metropole Hotel. The hotel is located near Paddington Station and near the Edgware Road tube stop, so the location is pretty good. Our hotel room was fine and had two queen size beds and a roll a way bed so there were beds for all of us. We were starved and tired so we ate at the hotel restaurant which was really slow and over priced. The bill was over one hundred dollars for some burgers and pizza and drinks. After this, it was lights out!
Post-cruise Monday, 6/22 London
We got up at 9 am today and it was already bright and sunny and much cooler than it had been in Spain and Italy. The sun rises quite early (4:30 am) and sets late (almost 10 pm) in London in the summer time (we had arrived just a day after the summer solstice).
I was tour guide for the day today so I led us to the Edgware Road tube station and we purchased four visitor passes for the day and headed to the Tower of London. I'd been here before but the family hadn't and they seemed to enjoy it! We saw the ravens, the crown jewels, various towers, a special exhibit featuring Henry VIII's armor and we even met the Queen's constable who talked to us for a minute or two. After touring the tower, we ate a quick lunch at subway (of all places) and took the tube to Westminster Station. From here I had planned to just walk by Westminster Abbey but we decided to go inside even thought there is a charge. I am sure glad we decided to do this as it really is spectacular. I had no idea that the tombs of Henry VIII's children were in the Abbey (Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Mary I and King Edward VI).
We then walked to Buckingham Palace for some pictures (tours are only offered in July and August) and then took a taxi to the London Eye. The London Eye was built for the Millennium celebration and is essentially a very tall and slow moving Ferris wheel that can hold 25 passengers per enclosed capsule, each of which features a bench seat and room to walk around. My step daughter was a little apprehensive about this due to the heights involved but ended up loving it. We had amazing views of London and could see Big Ben Tower, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, etc.
For dinner tonight we headed to Covent Garden and Porter's restaurant which I enjoyed more than the rest of the family. My wife really didn't care for English food at all and the kids seemed like they could take it or leave it. I had a version of Shepherds Pie which I really liked and a yummy pudding for dessert. We walked around Covent Garden afterwards and found some souvenirs and then called it a night.
Post-cruise Tuesday, 6/23 London
This was sadly the last day of our European adventure but we still had plenty to see. First up, we had a morning tour scheduled with Premium Tours to see Windsor Castle. We were met by a representative from Premium Tours in our hotel lobby at 7:35 am and boarded a bus which took us to their main terminal near Victoria Station (we made a few stops at other hotels along the way to pick up other passengers). Once at the main station, everyone was then redistributed to the proper buses for their particular tour. So finally at about 8:45 am we were on our way out of London towards Windsor. The drive was a little more than an hour to the town of Windsor. The castle itself is actually right next to the town which surprised me. The pictures I've seen always make it seem as if the castle is in the countryside by itself.
We were given a brief tour through the castle grounds, and then had two hours to explore on our own. Most of the people on our bus to Windsor were actually on a full day tour to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath so we would have a separate smaller bus to take us back to London. Those on the full day tour only had an hour at Windsor which definitely would not have been enough time. For the inside of the castle, we were given audio players (included in our tour price) which guided us through the various rooms. The most interesting parts to me were the areas where a fire back in 1992 had damaged many rooms and almost consumer the entire castle. The restoration work that they completed in about five years is truly remarkable. As we exited the castle we saw a gathering of people down the hill so we went to investigate. It was time for the changing of the guard which consisted of a band and traditionally dressed guards. After that, we went inside St. Georges Chapel where Henry VIII is buried. There is a big plaque on the floor showing the spot (he is buried below the plaque somewhere) but I was a little disappointed that you can't see a sarcophagus or anything similar. We had time for some quick souvenir shopping and then caught our bus back to London. One thing that the tour company had failed to mention is that we would not be dropped off back at our hotel. It wasn't a big deal but we were dropped off randomly somewhere in London and had to take a taxi back to the hotel.
Early this evening at 5 pm, we had a private Harry Potter tour scheduled. Our driver met us in our hotel lobby and we ventured through London to see various sites where the Harry Potter movies had been filmed. We stopped at King's Cross Station where platform 9 ¾ can be found (the driver had Harry Potter props that we could put on to take photos), Diagon alley, and various other sites where more minor scenes where filmed. He also had a mini dvd player so he would show us a scene in the movie and then show us where the particular scene had been filmed. We all really enjoyed it and I even bought some Harry Potter money from the tour guide as a souvenir. The driver dropped us off in Covent Garden and we went into a random pub for dinner and it was pretty dreadful. We had burgers and the meat had an odd taste to it and wasn't so good. McDonald's burgers were gourmet fare compared to these. We took a cab back to our hotel and thus our final day in Europe was over.
Post-cruise Wednesday, 6/24 Home
Our flight home was at 10:25 am from Heathrow Airport on American Airlines, so we arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 6:45 am. I wanted to leave plenty of time as I wasn't sure how long it would take to get out to Heathrow. I'd also heard that security can take a long time to go through there, but this didn't turn out to be true. We got to the airport by 7:30 and had one last breakfast in Europe before heading back home. Our flight was on a 777 so we would get personal entertainment systems (each seat has a screen where one can watch movies, TV shows, play games, etc). The flight home was uneventful (except my poor wife's personal entertainment system didn't work - we ended up getting her 10,000 frequent flier miles though for the inconvenience). All of our luggage made it without getting lost so the trip so all's well that ends well! Read Less