We arrived in Barcelona a few days before the cruise, checked into Hotel Jazz, and decided to take the hop on hop off bus. The hotel was very accommodating - our room was ready and very comfortable. After freshening up, we checked with the hotel about the bus tour, and not only got directions to the closest stop, but also got discount coupons for the tour. This was a very good choice for our first day as we could see most of the city without walking and could get off and on the buses as we wished. Headsets are provided to give you an overview of what you are seeing and it was just a great way to get acclimated to the city. Tip: do not start your trip for the bus at Placa de Catalunya square as it is very crowded and the lines are long. Go a few blocks to the previous stop and board, less crowded and you can get a better seat. After returning to the hotel late that afternoon, we had a very nice meal of tapas and Sangria just around the corner from the hotel - again a recommendation from the hotel. Made it an early night and overslept the next morning getting a late start to Montserrat - yikes!
Our second day in Barcelona was spent at Montserrat. Again, this was easy as we took the metro right near the entrance to the hotel to the Espana train station. There we bought our tickets to Montserrat, boarded the light rail train with all the other tourists and got off at the Montserrat Aerie stop. We boarded the cable car up to the top and enjoyed the wonderful atmosphere and views all around us. Our only problem was that we overslept, and had tickets for a performance at Palau de la Musica at 7pm. So we had to watch our train schedules closely. By not seeing everything we wanted to see, we were able to make it back to the hotel for a quick change and short cab ride and made it to our show on time. The performance was wonderful. Tip: go see a performance at the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona - it is a beautiful venue and seeing a performance is exciting and to me more interesting than just taking a tour. We heard a wonderful performance by a very talented and expressive Argentinian singer and the language barrier was no problem - music is the universal language. But we will definitely have to see Montserrat again - a beautiful place.
Finally, embarkation day! Again, as everyone has already said, this is probably the easiest embarkation you will ever do. We caught a cab at the Taxi kiosk close to the hotel - again, Hotel Jazz is in a wonderful location for all manner of transportation - and very quickly were on the ship. We immediately made our way to the spa as I knew that with the port intensive days I would need the spa package to get me through it. They had a special of 2 for $169 for the whole week - a deal when you are tired, sore, and out of energy after touring all day. The best investment we made. As for the ship: The ship was in immaculate condition, food was good and plentiful, the service was excellent, and only a few children on board - life was good! Not that we don't like children, but our steward said that on an early cruise, the kids were rolling toilet paper down the halls for entertainment - yikes! Our balcony cabin was as expected, we have sailed with NCL several times and were very familiar with cabin layout - clean, well appointed and comfortable. Our cabin stewards were very friendly, efficient and accommodating with our needs (not many, just some extra pillows), and did a great job of keeping our cabin neat and tidy - I do love when the "fairies" visit during the day and take care of the housekeeping. Worth every penny of the $12 per day per person charge. All of the crew work hard on this ship and deserve our respect and admiration for the cleanliness and order they maintain with thousands of people needing almost constant attention.
Entertainment: The entertainment on this ship was very good, especially the performers in the lounges. We only saw the first and second shows in the theater - too tired the rest of the week to bother and again, the lounge performers were excellent. But I will say that there is a definite difference between the quality found with the Jean Ann Ryan performers and the "Colorz" performance on the Gem - NCL, stick with Jean Ann!
Our day at sea was wonderful, sunny, warm, but not hot, and again knowing what was coming we spent time laying out in the sun resting, eating and spa-ing in preparation for the port intensive itinerary. We also took the opportunity to eat in Le Bistro (we have tried most of the other specialty restaurants), and we both agreed that it was the best of them. The food was very good and worth the up charge.
Arrival in Malta is just a dramatic as promised - a beautiful, ancient city perfect for a getaway vacation - unfortunately we only had till 2:30 for our short visit. The weather was again perfect. We walked off the ship to the bus stop, passing many cab drivers offering tours. At the bus stop we find that the bus will not come by for another ½ hour - and from CC we know that the walk into town can be strenuous. Since we had planned to go on to Mdina, this was going to be a problem. A very nice German lady also approached the bus stop and we discovered that she was on another cruise and had only had till 12:00 to see the sites. So we all decided to walk into town. While walking we were again approached by cab drivers wanting to show us the sites. Since the walk uphill would take some time, we asked one of the drivers to take us only to Mdina and for $20 he agreed. Our new friend was included in the drive and would split the fare. As we went along in the comfortable taxi, she and I discussed taking the whole tour and splitting the $50 fee. Our driver was very happy with this arrangement and began to narrate the sites. This was one of the best things we did and well worth the money. Tip: you can usually find someone else to share your tour without pre-planning everything, so find a friendly person or couple and discuss touring together - you will save money and meet some interesting people along the way. Our driver took us to a beautiful garden where we strolled about the grounds, then it was on to the glass works where I bought some beautiful Maltese glass (we skipped the other shops since we had no interest in them, again, you can tailor the trip to your preferences). And then it was on to Mdina where we arrived before the tour busses. We were able to tour the city in the quiet, early morning sun, walking along charming streets and viewing the countryside all about us, and be on our way before it became crowded with everyone about. We were there before all the stores opened and did not tour the museum, but for this first trip we wanted an overview. Then it was back to Valletta where we paid our driver and said goodbye to our new friend. We strolled through the town, visited St. John's co-cathedral (beautiful) and walked back down towards the harbor. Strolling along the harbor back towards the ship, we visited the hanging garden, and the monuments along the way. The views were breathtaking! Then it was back to the ship for lunch and a stunning sail away to another adventure. We truly loved Malta.
We started out early the morning we arrived in Naples (a beautiful, warm, sunny day) - but for some reason the ship did not dock until 8am (I think it was supposed to be 7am). Based on excellent guidance from CC, we had decided that we would do this day on our own by train to Pompeii, then to Sorrento, and the hydrofoil back to Naples. The port area around Naples is loud, busy and dirty at 8am in the morning and we only knew that we should go to the right to get to the train station knowing it was approximately a mile to walk. Again, it can be done and we were not very sure which bus to get on, and I think you need exact change to board which we did not have. But luck was with us: as we studied a "you are here" map on the sidewalk, another couple (A&A) joined us in trying to find the train station - and to our delight we became friends for the whole cruise - a lot of fun. And as we four studied the board, another fellow cruise traveler came up looking for the boat to Capri. "J" was going in the wrong direction, but when he learned we were on our way to Pompeii, he hooked his star to us and we all joined forces to find the train station - 3 new friends to share our adventure. With some local help and Mr. A's blackberry navigation we found the station and waited for the next train to arrive. Ms. A was very anxious to keep on schedule and I think I finally met my match in the "tour until you drop" department. While chatting on the train another family also from the cruise ship were on their way to Pompeii and we all decided to arrange a tour together. With 10 people at $10 euro each, we got a two hour private tour - a bargain! Tip: get into a guided tour group, you get personal attention, see the most important sites and use your time more wisely. After the tour it was back on the train for Sorrento. Ms. A was again very nervous that we return to the ship on time. As I was not sure if the hydrofoil was still running in Oct., we decided to try to find that information on first arriving. So we went towards the harbor and discovered that getting that information was not going to be easy. But I had come to see Sorrento and with the return schedule for the train in hand, I was determined to enjoy the moment and not fret. However, Ms. A was not as laid back as I was - she had not done her homework on CC. While A&A tried to find the hydrofoil, DH, J, and myself ate lunch in a very charming restaurant. The manager who had excellent English did not know about the hydrofoil, but to our delight obtained the information before we left. The boat we needed left around 4:30. A&A returned with no luck, but once we explained about the shuttle everyone relaxed and decided to tour the city. What a charming and beautiful city it is! Every corner revealed even more delights - the lovely shops, the gorgeous buildings and the friendly people. I have to go back to Sorrento for a longer visit next time, I miss it already. It was my favorite discovery of the cruise. As we had a 4:25 boat shuttle to catch, we soon headed down to the harbor and the return to our ship. What beautiful views from the harbor, breathtaking! From the hydrofoil dock it is a short walk back to our ship. A&A had other plans for their day in Rome, but we invited J to join us and he readily agreed. We all agreed to get together for our tour of Florence.
Our next stop was Rome (another sunny, gorgeous day) and we had prearranged for Rome in Limo to take us around the city. Meeting J on the pier the next morning we waited a short time for our RIL driver - he arrived at 8am as promised. Discovering another passenger, his only worry was that we had pre-booked Vatican tickets and J might not get a ticket. But no worries now, we were off in style eager for our dream day in Rome. And what a day it was! The Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, Capitol Hill, the Palatine Hill, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain (what a magical moment to through our coins into the fountain!). Tip: Download Rick Steve's audio tour for the Colosseum - with his narration, we had a great tour on our own. The whole day was like a dream - we kept saying "can you believe we are really here!" When Angelo, our driver, mentioned lunch, I told him I really wanted some good Gnocchi, and he found a wonderful place for us to eat, really good food and I believe reasonably priced. J was so delighted to have been included in the day that he graciously insisted on buying lunch - thanks again J for your kindness! It was our best meal in Italy. After lunch on to the Vatican Museum and St. Peters Basilica. Because it is October and the crowds were mostly gone, J had no problem buying his ticket and we all entered together. By the time we went through the museum to the Sistine Chapel we were so overloaded, that I know I saw Michelangelo's masterpiece, but I honestly can't remember it! There was so much to see inside this beautiful chapel, and the whole museum. It is beyond words the glorious works of art on display - floor, walls, and ceilings. St. Peter's was our last stop and so incredible. The Pieta was more beautiful that you can imagine. Everything was so over the top and beautiful. Our day in Rome was over, but our memories would last a lifetime. Then it was a comfortable drive back to the ship. As a parting gift, Angelo gave us a set of postcards to remember our day. RIL was our one splurge for touring and I very strongly recommend that you do this. Every day is very port intensive, so having someone else do the planning, and maneuvering for one day is worth the expense - you won't regret it! While planning this trip, I kept thinking, "no worries for Rome, RIL will plan that for us" and they did an incredible job making sure that we had a wonderful day. We ended our day back of the ship in the great outdoors, buffet dining while listening to our favorite Spanish Guitar player and singing "Volare" as the ship set sail -- no we really could not believe that we were really here!
We had made plans to meet up with A&A and J as soon as the ship docked for our train trip to Florence. Again, we shared the $20 euro cab ride to the station and caught the train into Florence. We had discussed taking the hop on hop off here, but on arrival found out that the college students were protesting something.... Yes, these kids still protested, and apparently on a regular basis. DH and I had called ahead and booked our tickets into the Accademia to see the David so our new friends would have to wait in line to purchase their tickets. On our way, we discovered that all of the protesters were meeting in the park near the museum so after wading through the crowd we finally found the museum. Luckily for our friends there was only a short line to enter and while they waited in line, we walked directly into the pre booked entrance and were immediately admitted with no problem. Again, no crowds in October, and although the weather was not as good this day (we got some sun with light rain and a little drizzle) we were grateful for the beautiful weather so far and could not complain. No photos allowed of the David, but we were thrilled to be actually seeing it. The rest of the museum is OK, you are really there only to see the David, so it was a quick visit. Then we walked to the Duomo (spectacular), did some shopping (I got a gorgeous hand tooled leather handbag), and a stroll past the Uffuzi gallery (no time to go in, we must save it for another day), and we are standing by the river and gazing at the Ponte Vecchio. DH is not impressed with the bridge, but he does love the views of the city across the water. Then it is over the Ponte Vecchio pass all the jewelry shops (no interest for any of us),and into a wonderful little Gelato stand on the other side of the bridge where we ate gelato at 10:00 in the morning and watched the light rain fall. After the rain stopped we ventured out again and walked around some more. What a beautiful city, and yes, we can hardly believe we are actually here. Lunch this day was not as good as DH and I had a calezone that was really terrible, but the others were generous and shared some pretty good pizza with us, so no worries. Not even a bad meal could get us down in such a beautiful city with such delightful companions. Then it was back on the train and back to the ship. I strongly suggest that you do this day on your own - it is just as easy as recommend by our friends on CC. And unless you are traveling during peek summer times, no need to pre-book all of your tickets.
Cannes (Nice, Monaco, and Monte Carlo):
This was the only time we took a ship excursion, and my least favorite day. We had decided on the ship excursion because of the time constraints associated with tendering instead of docking and the short day in Cannes (back on the ship by 2:30). We were suppose to take the Grasse and St. Paul de Vincent tour. However, the day before we arrived in Cannes we were notified that due to a "lack of interest" our original excursion was canceled. Very disappointed, but still wanting the safety of the ship excursion, we decided to take the Nice, Monaco, and Monte Carlo tour - and as an added bonus A&A were also on this tour. So, up before dawn (again), and on our way to Nice in the dark we saw A&A on the tender boat and after exchanging bus numbers with another couple, so we were all on the same bus - and there were many buses for this tour. At the first stop we suspected that we should have chosen another tour. After riding in the dark and arriving in Nice at first light, we made a very brief stop near the waterfront - where we were all quickly marched down a charming street to a beautiful market filled with fresh vegetable and flowers (nice, but what are we going to do with these???) and given approx. 30 minutes to look around on our own. Ms. A, like myself, was not pleased with how the day is starting. We quickly walked a few streets into the city area and realized that we would not see any of this beautiful city in the small amount of time given. 30 minutes to "see" Nice?? I was able to run into a cafe and get a croissant and chocolate (my favorite breakfast while visiting Paris), then it was back on the bus for a drive to Monaco. Scenery blearing by the windows, waiting in traffic, maneuvering the bus around construction and we finally alight in a parking deck to go up to Disneyland...whoops, that would be Monaco.... home to the perfect little country. Our guide was very into Princess Grace because everything she talked about included her - and she kept talking about her. Now I liked Grace Kelley and her movies, and I know quite a bit about her story, but my thought is: if you really cared about Grace Kelley, you don't need a 30 minute lecture about her wedding, life, death, etc, because you already know it. And if you don't know the story, then you didn't care in the first place. But my main gripe is that she would announce we had 30-45 minutes and THEN KEPT TALKING! Passing by the Princess's homes were instructed to "walk quietly" to give them their privacy. This was a public street, not a cathedral. So hearing another lecture on Princess Grace, I gave up, and wandered off to see Monaco, hoping DH and A&A would take the hint and follow me. Monaco is a beautiful place and the views are spectacular. There was a foot race that day ending at the palace with people cheering as the runners came in at the finish line - real life in a fairy tale setting. After buying a few souvenirs for our sons, and purchasing quick sandwiches for lunch (no time to actually stop and eat), it was back to catch the bus. Then it is a short drive to Monte Carlo and a group climb on foot up to the casino area. Again, very pretty, but not much to see (we weren't actually going to the casino for gambling), no time to really see the area (another 30 WHOLE minutes!) and too expensive for our blood. Ah but the scenery (not!)- pretty, exclusive shops, a few beautiful people obviously not tourists (we were the ones in comfortable shoes, wandering around with cameras) and my husband playing "name that expensive sports car." Then back down the hill en masse following our fearless leader (and she was, braving cars not inclined to let our large group across the streets) and literally running to use the facilities before the bus came, then discovering that the bus is late, and waiting for the bus...and waiting for the bus.... and waiting... you get the picture. Then a non-scenic drive back to Cannes, no time to see any of Cannes, and back on the tender boat to the ship. Glad I saw some of the sites, but take my advise: stay in Cannes or take the train to Nice. We would have done much better on our own and had less travel time. That evening we had a nice meal in La Cuchina with our friends and almost closed out the restaurant enjoying the company. Then it was back to pack and get some well earned sleep.
Back to Barcelona! Slept in since we did not have to fly back out until the next day. We ate a leisurely breakfast, did a very easy walk off with our luggage, caught a cab to our hotel near the airport (Marriott points!) and caught another cab back into the city to stroll down Las Rambles and see the Gothic Quarter. Enjoyed the Sunday strollers, the cafes, flower stands, and again, a picture perfect day. We decided to tour the Picasso museum (after 3pm entry is free on Sunday) and although not huge fans of Picasso, the museum is interesting since it shows the progression of his work and thought processes. My only problem this day: by not having a hotel room nearby to take an afternoon break, we overdid some of the walking. But we did take coffee breaks in lovely little sidewalk cafes, and enjoyed a long lunch and dinner. After whiling away the hours until dusk walking the charming streets, we finally caught a cab back to our hotel and went to bed early for the long flight home the next day.
I took over 1500 photos (yes, I am crazy) but each moment was a memory I wanted to try to recapture in the cold winter to come. But now that we have been home a week, I mostly remember the quiet moments sitting in cafes while watching the regular folks stroll by, meeting new friends, listening to the music of the many languages spoken all around us, seeing the smiles of our fellow travelers and experiencing the hospitality of the lovely people of Barcelona, Malta, Italy and France. I loved our European adventure, but am now busy planning our next cruise: Alaska this May on the lovely NCL Pearl. And maybe in May 2011, the Greek Isles? We really love to travel and the Gem was a great vehicle to get us where we wanted to go.