Best advise I can give to anyone planning their first or umpteenth cruise is to research, research, research. I feel it has helped tremendously on having a better experience for any trip to any novice or frequent traveller. My husband and I are in our mid-30s, and travel overseas often. However, this was our first cruise so I did not know what to expect. Visions of missing the boat, lost luggage and stormy seas were dancing around my head, but we decided anyway to give cruising a try. I booked thru our World Perks membership on Northwest Airlines, without much trouble. Thanks to cruisecritic.com and other valuable travel forums (or is it 'fora'?) online, we were counting the days with great anticipation. We arrived Barcelona a day before, which was welcome reprieve from the long and tiring 12+ hour travel. After a short nap, we changed into fresh clothes and took the metro to Poble Español, an artisan Spanish village where we had reservations for a wonderful flamenco-dinner show (www.tablaodecarmen.com). Embarkation was not until 1pm, so we went on a leisurely stroll along La Ramblas early that morning (when it's less crowded). We checked in at around 2:30pm which took less than 15 minutes. We were celebrating a wedding anniversary that week, so I ordered their Romance Package, which was a great deal. There was a nice bottle of red wine and a plate of dipped strawberries in our cabin upon arrival. Our room stewards from the Philippines, John and Shara, were awesome. We would return to a clean room within a hour every morning, after breakfast. They were not only fast and efficient, I've never seen such sincere, hard-working folks. Working in the hotel industry, I've learned that 'nice begets nice' - treat your server with respect and appreciation, and they will gladly go that extra mile for you. After a sip of the welcome bottle of wine, we decided to explore the ship as most would want to do. The main restaurant reservations is at Tango's (7th level) or by dialing 050 from your cabin. They can only accept reservations for up to 3 days, so it's best to call them every morning to book ahead, for the popular restos do get filled fast (Teppanyaki most especially).
The Garden Cafe was the only place open on that first day, so it was PACKED with so much people, it gets frustrating to meander through the crowds. It's the place for breakfast and lunch as well, so practice much patience when you can not find any free table after you go through the long lines of buffet. The staff is quick to bus out and have clean tables as soon as guests leave, though, so it is best not to let this frustrate you. If you don't mind eating outdoors, it is best to head out to the pool lounge where there are plenty of clean tables to chow down. The buffet was varied and meant to suit every taste and preference. Food quality was alright - not outstanding in the gourmet sense - but acceptable nonetheless. The steak and lobster dinner on the optional gala night at Tsar's and Azura for me was the best deal for the no-cover charge restos. Le Bistro was pretentious as a "fine-dining" venue, since the servers' presentation was almost too comical to take seriously ("As they say in France, un doo twa and walah!"). Tangos Tapas Bar had a cosmo decor and ambience. Teppanyaki was fun and funny, as the crazy Filipino chefs seemed to have morphed this art of Japanese food preparation into a style uniquely theirs. Service in all the restaurants we went to are extra prompt - plates were cleared immediately after each course, but it never felt 'hurried'. Entertainment on board was phenomenal. The Jean Ann Ryan group, Shawn Farquhar and Chicago's Second City comedy troupe wowed us on the nights they performed. Had a Las Vegas flavor to it, which may be cheesy for some, but we loved every performance.
We didn't take any organized shore excursions, though I would recommend those who are not as adventurous as us, to do arrange them. Our first port was Messina (Sicily) and we just explored the small town on our own, since Taormina and the Mt Etna expedition didn't really appeal to us. We took the local Italian train to see the ruins of Pompeii on the next day. It wasn't too bad, although the trains weren't too clean, but I've seen worse conditions before. The train trip to Rome and Florence the next two days wasn't too bad, but I would suggest waking up early so as to catch the earliest train from the port, since travel time is 1 hour for Rome and 1.5 hours for Florence. Villefranche was our favorite port, and the short 15 minute train ride to Monte Carlo was a pleasant one. We're not really fans of organized travel (which is why we chose the Freestyle Cruising of NCL) and with some advance preparation (I bought our tickets for the Vatican Museum, Uffizi Gallery & the Galleria Accademia on www.tuscanyall.com), a simple Italian phrase book, and a bold, adventurous spirit, we got to experience the real local culture and save money for more shopping! Shore excursions are expensive, but having the security of a tour guide and a bus to herd you along are important to you, then I suppose it will be a good value for you. For info on going and exploring the ports of call on your own, I found this website very helpful: www.europeportreviews.com It was over-all a wonderful experience for us. The Norwegian Jewel was a beautiful ship, one could see that no expense was spared in making this floating city a true gem in the Mediterranean seas. Cruising can be very expensive too, so be wary everytime you give your room card to be swiped for that fruity cocktail drink or earrings from the duty-free shop. We felt some schaudenfroide when we saw some of our fellow passengers get a near coronary when they requested for their bill on their last day (note to parents: your kids get an embarkation card, so they can swipe charges to your account!). The only thing we didn't like about the entire thing was the crowds. Although the ship's mantra was "Freestyle Cruising", some habits die hard. People still eat at the same time, swim at the pool, bask under the sun, and enjoy that cocktail drink at the same time as you, so it can get frustrating. But with a positive attitude (after all, it IS your vacation), we thoroughly enjoyed our freestyle cruising and can't wait for our next NCL experience.