I planned this cruise for a long time and as the months became weeks then days, I found myself .... smiling more often. I think everyone does on a much awaited cruise. Well anyway, this was going to be a celebration of our 15th year anniversary and my 40th birthday. We usually sail with our 2 kids (D 10, S 4) but this time it was just me and my hubby. Thanks to my Mom and Dad for looking after the kids while we go on vacation. This is our first time on NCL and we cruised on Princess four times, Disney once and Carnival twice. Let me just start by saying that the GEM is beautiful!!!! I was worried when I booked NCL because of the reviews I read on cruisecritic. However, the itinerary was perfect, the price was great and the service was beyond compare. I liked the fact that it starts and ends at the same port and that it was only 7days. To me it was perfect because I didn't have to be away from the kids for a long time. We originally booked a balcony but 2 weeks before we sailed I saw an opening for an aft penthouse suite on travelocity for a very good price. I also read that the suite came with extras so I called my TA to upgrade. I love love love the suite. We had Alex our concierge and Andres as our butler. I think our NCL experience went up another notch because of these extras and the room was wonderful too. Alex made sure our dining reservations were always for a table next to the window. Plus, I think because Alex made the reservation we never had any problems even if we were late, there was always a table waiting for us. I mentioned this because other people were either told to wait or had to sit with other groups. Andres, our butler, gave us the best service. If you are lucky enough to get him as your butler, you will have the best time. I told him that when I'm back at home making breakfast I will remember him. From the moment we met him at the registration desk until the last day, he was very accommodating. After checking in, and I should add was a breeze, Andres took our hand carry and led us through the building into the ship to our room. It was about 1pm and people were waiting in the lobby area because their rooms were not ready but we bypassed all that. In our room, Andrew acquainted us with the amenities plus chit chat about the Philippines since we came from the same country. Let me tell you about the suite, the espresso machine was heavenly that my hubby was making coffee probably 5x a day! The room was very spacious, lots of cabinets, big flat screen tv with a choice of DVD (I needed this because there's only a few channels in English), our own wireless phone to use everywhere on the ship, spacious bathroom with tub, thick towels, nice furniture indoor and out on the balcony. But the best feature of this room was the bed. I was in heaven and felt like the bed was hugging me. The pillows were wonderful too and you get a pillow menu to choose from. My only complaint about the room was that you feel the vibration of the engine some nights (not too bad, I'm just a light sleeper) and by the middle of the week, there was soot on the balcony from the smoke exhaust. By the middle of the week, they gave us an advisory that they were going to clean the balcony while we were off shore. I didn't notice the soot before that but I did notice it the day after they cleaned. I think next time I would go for a suite elsewhere because of the soot and vibration. Being in the aft though protected the room from the wind if you want to leave the sliding door open. Another perk of the suite is being able to eat at Cagney's for breakfast and lunch. Andrew would bring our Cagney's breakfast and we'd eat by the balcony. Lunch at Cagney's was also nice, they had enough selections for the whole week. We loved the colossal shrimp cocktail which was truly colossal. We were so spoiled that we didn't go to the buffet anymore. I think the only time I went was to have ice cream or their crepe with a scoop of ice cream, yummm. I thought the buffet area was chaotic with everyone trying to get their food. It was nicely laid out, even better than at Princess ships, but of course with the number of passengers this cannot be avoided. As for the specialty restaurants, we tried La Cucina, Le Bistro and the Sushi bar. We loved them all but would go to La Cucina again anytime. This place had a $10 cover charge as opposed to $15 for the other two and I thought that for the price the food was excellent. Le Bistro was okay and the Sushi bar was awesome, all you can eat sashimi/sushi. The other restaurants we didn't try had a cover charge of $25 plus another $10 (if I remember correctly) if you get lobster. I thought that was too much. As for the main dining rooms, I agree with the other reviews that they tend to make the food less appetizing to sway people to the specialty restaurants. I thought that the food at Princess or Carnival was much better. Nevertheless, we enjoyed every night.We decided to take tours offered by NCL even though they were outrageously expensive. We wanted to relax on this cruise and didn't want to be worried all the time. I heard a lot of horror stories of being left and then having to find a way to get to the next port that I decided going on our own might be more expensive in the end.
The room was very spacious, lots of cabinets, big flat screen tv with a choice of DVD (I needed this because there's only a few channels in English), our own wireless phone to use everywhere on the ship, spacious bathroom with tub, thick towels, nice furniture indoor and out on the balcony. The espresso machine was amazing that my hubby was making coffee probably 5x a day! But the best feature of this room was the bed. I was in heaven and felt like the bed was hugging me. The pillows were wonderful too and you get a pillow menu to choose from. My only complaint about the room was that you feel the vibration of the engine some nights (not too bad, I'm just a light sleeper) and by the middle of the week, there was soot on the balcony from the smoke exhaust. By the middle of the week, they gave us an advisory that they were going to clean the balcony while we were off shore. I didn't notice the soot before that but I did notice it the day after they cleaned. I think next time I would go for a suite elsewhere because of the soot and vibration.
The good thing about our room located at the aft is that we have a nice view sailing in and out of the port. I thought that the port of Malta is so beautiful with all the fortifications. We took the Scenic Beauty tour and we enjoyed it. The 4 hour tour was enough to see the area. I thought that Marsaxlokk was picturesque. Just looking at the similar colored boats with eyes in front on calm waters and the church in the background was very relaxing. After the tour, I walked from the port to the main square where the Cathedral is. The walk to the main square was beautiful once you get to town. It is a short walk with narrow pathways flanked by low level structures with wonderful doors.
We took the Pompeii tour in Naples and I highly recommend this tour. We decided to take only the half day tour instead of the Pompeii/Sorrento full day tour because I wanted to have enough energy for Rome the next day. Pompeii is eerie but at the same time interesting. Just thinking about how these people lived how many centuries ago and what they were doing at the time of the eruption makes you realize that people are still the same. Whatever they were into before is still happening now.
I love Rome. The last time I went was 15 years ago and I thought that I enjoyed it much more this time. However, the tour we took was kind of rushed and it was because Rome is about 2 hours away from the port of Civitavecchia. We chose the Baroque tour and we went to the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Vatican. I was also reading Angels and Demons at that time and seeing the sights mentioned in the book made it more exciting. By the way, I like how they conduct tours nowadays where they give each one a radio with earphones. That way, you can still hear your tour guide even if you are far away. No more angling next to your guide to hear what they said. Much more effective, plus with the number of tourists in these areas, it was just helpful. We did the baroque part of the tour in the morning and then lunch at a restaurant; I forgot the name, and then Vatican in the afternoon. I think NCL also offered a tour without lunch and had I known I would have just taken the no lunch tour. Food was awful. The only thing good that they served was the tiramisu. The Vatican tour was excellent; unfortunately there was not enough time to go around on our own. There’s always a next time.
We decided to take the NCL bus to Florence and then just do our own thing. The bus trip was quite expensive but then I didn't want to be left by the ship. Ok, I'm really paranoid. Florence is beautiful, even just going around by ourselves was ok. The city is walkable and small enough that you can see almost everything in a few hours. We didn't go to any museums because there were long lines and we just wanted to take things easy. If I get to do this cruise again, I would probably choose to go see Cinque Terre.
In Cannes, we didn't take an NCL tour. We walked off the boat and right when you get to the main street you will see the petit train. We took this petit train tour for 10 Euro each and went around the city. The city is beautiful, they were preparing for the film festival so we saw a lot of workers setting up. The train took us to the highest point in the city and here you get a good view of the ocean. Beautiful. After the tour, we walked around the area next to the port and found narrow streets behind the main thoroughfare. The narrow street was filled with shops of all kinds. I had to go in this wonderful dessert shop that sells macarons. They were laid out so nicely in different flavors and colors. I had to get a few. I think the shop is called Jean Luc Pele.
By the time we got off the ship, we were so tired that when we took the hop on hop off bus in Barcelona we were almost dozing off. Going around this city on the HOHO bus is advisable though because there is just so much to see. We only had a day to spend here and if I had a choice I would stay in Barcelona longer. The night we arrived before our cruise we were so surprised that people were screaming and honking their horns everywhere. All we read about this city is be careful of pickpockets. After awhile we realized that they were just celebrating their soccer/futbol win against Madrid. I loved going around and seeing Gaudi's work and also the Torre Agbar. I even waited for it to be lit from 8 - 9pm but it never happened. Unfortunately, I have to just see it lit in pictures.