I took this cruise with 3 of my girlfriends. Three of us had never been to the Mediterranean before and one had never cruised before. We decided on the Gem because of the great itinerary and the newness of the ship. I volunteered to be our "cruise director" and did all the research for our trip. Even though I have been on more than 10 cruises, this was the first time I had the luxury of Cruise Critic and was able to get invaluable information from all the wonderful people out there. Thank you all.
Since we were going so far, we wanted to spend a little time in Barcelona before and after the cruise. We left Newark on Friday evening and had an uneventful flight and even landed in Barcelona almost an hour early. We had no problems with our luggage (unlike some others on our cruise). Our plan was to get some Euros from the airport ATMs but the only one that I was able to find wasn't working properly. Luckily our first time cruiser didn't realize you could do this and brought US dollars to exchange. We hailed a taxi to our hotel which I found on Tripadvisor. We were only staying one night and didn't want to spend a lot of money. The Hotel Condal was a basic, but clean hotel in a great location. We were less than 100 yards off Las Rambles near the Boquiera Market down a small side street. Our location was wonderful; close to a lot of great restaurants, bars and the excitement of Las Rambles.
Since we were so early, our rooms were not ready so we dropped our luggage off and headed out down Las Rambles to do a little sightseeing. We picked up the HOHO bus and enjoyed a tour of Barcelona. What a wonderful city. At this point, we were getting hungry so we found a little restaurant right around the corner from our hotel. Our waitress was very friendly and enjoyed the fact that we were Americans and she could practice her English on us. At the end of the meal to show her gratitude, she brought over 4 shot glasses for us. We asked what it was and she said Crème Catalan. It was like Bailey's only so much better. We thanked her and headed back to our hotel. I was starting to get a little worried at this point about the hotel that I picked out. My fears were for nothing. We had 2 rooms which each had 2 twin beds, a desk with chair and a large (by European standards) bathroom. The rooms were basic but clean and our windows opened into an alley so there was virtually no noise. I was extremely pleased with the hotel and for less than 100 Euros for each room, you couldn't beat the price. After settling in, 3 of us ventured out again for more sightseeing. After wandering around for a few hours, we found a nice little Irish pub and had a glass of wine outside. At this point, it was time to eat again and we found a wonderful tapas restaurant right on Las Rambles (La Xerinola). We sat at the bar and had the all you can eat tapas dinner for 14.95 Euros per person. The food was delicious and there was so much of it. I love the fact that you get a little taste of everything and not too much of any one dish. Back to the hotel after dinner. I knew we'd all sleep well - by this time we had been up for much longer than 24 hours.
Embarkation After a great night's sleep, we headed out to the same restaurant where we had lunch the day before. Both the owner and waitress remembered us and thanked us for coming back. After an almost American breakfast we did a little more sightseeing and found an ATM for Euros (Citibank). No problem using my Capital One ATM card tied to my Money Market account. Great exchange rate and no fees.
Checked out of the hotel and hailed a cab down to the pier. We had to wait a few extra minutes to find a cab big enough for all four of us and our luggage but it really wasn't a bad wait. Headed down to the pier where we got our first glimpse of the Gem. What a beautiful ship. It's been almost 6 years since my last cruise and this was by far the largest ship I've ever been on. Embarkation was unbelievably quick and easy. After getting out of the cab, we were on board in less than 15 minutes. I've never experienced that. Great job NCL. We were told that our cabins would be ready between 2:00 and 3:00 so we headed up to the pool deck. I was surprised at how many people were already on board and it wasn't even 1:00 yet. We ordered our first cocktail and immediately made friends with Adonis, one of the bartenders at the Bali Hai bar. We wandered around the pool area and checked out this area of the ship.
We decided to go check and see if our cabins were ready about 2:15. We were immediately greeted by our cabin stewards, Jeffrey and Deval. We had booked 2 adjoining mini-suites (11062 & 11064). This was my first cruise with a balcony and now I understand what all the hype is about. It was amazing. The cabins were set up with 2 twin beds, desk, pull out sofa and table. The bathroom (with tub) is so spacious and there is so much storage. We actually didn't have enough to fill the closet or all the drawers. My travel agent was kind enough to send us each a bottle of wine so we opened them and enjoyed them on our balcony after unpacking. After the muster drill, we headed back up to the Bali Hai bar, which became the place you could find us every night during the week. We grabbed a bite to eat at the sailaway BBQ and just enjoyed our first night on the ship. It started to rain a little and there was a storm coming in over Barcelona but we were heading away from it. I never saw lightning like that in my life but it was all off in the distance and continued all night long.
Our day at sea was very relaxing. We started our day with breakfast at the Garden Cafe. We did find that it was a little crowded but there were plenty of servers available to take you to a clean table. We had omelets made to order which were very good. The fresh fruit was also delicious. Our CC meet and greet was scheduled for 11:00 so 2 of us went to meet a lot of folks I had been communicating with over the past few months. I booked private tours in Italy and was able to get 4 people to join us in each port so it was nice to meet them all as well. There were quite a few officers that attended the meeting and gave us their phone numbers in case we had any problems during the week. They would rather hear about them while you are still on board so that they can correct them. It's too late for them to help you out if you wait until you get home to complain. It was my impression that they read the CC message boards and want to do whatever they can (within reason) to insure you have a great trip.
We knew we had a busy week ahead of us so we spent the day exploring the ship and just enjoyed our time outdoors. We had made reservations the day before for dinner at Cagney's tonight. Our reservation was at 7:00 and we were seated right away. The food was delicious and worth every penny. I had the jumbo shrimp cocktail, filet mignon and apple crisp for dessert. The service was excellent - like dining in a nice restaurant at home. After dinner it was back up to the Bali Hai bar. We didn't make a conscious decision not to go to any of the shows, but it just seemed to work out that way. We met a lot of very nice people on board and preferred to spend our time with them rather than sitting in a theater. I'm sure a lot of people go to the shows but we found it just wasn't our thing this trip.
Malta Our first stop, Malta. Listen to what everyone says and get up for the sail in. It is by far the prettiest port and the sunrise reflecting off the buildings is just beautiful. Our room was in a perfect location to run up to the Garden Cafe and bring our breakfast back to the room to enjoy on our balcony. We did this every port day and it worked out perfectly. We did not have a set plan for this port and it was just as well. Our new Canadian friend joined us for the day. We took the HOHO bus up to Mdina where we got off and walked around for a bit. Another beautiful city. We didn't do too much else here. On our way back to the ship it started to rain a bit and this was the only rain we had all week. We stopped for a gelato before getting back on the ship. Later on we had a late lunch in the Blue Lagoon which was very good. I liked the casual atmosphere and the food was very tasty.
We had decided that tonight we would try the Grand Pacific for dinner. As it turns out, it was a very good choice. We had 2 friends join us for dinner and had no trouble getting a table for 6 around 7:30. This was lobster night in the main dining rooms and most of us tried it. It was pretty good but could not compare in portion size to what some had in Cagney's the night before. They served it along with a piece of grouper which was tasty. A few in our party ordered extra lobster tails and our waitress happily brought them out. This night was by far the best for dessert. I ordered the crème brulee with chocolate ganache on the bottom. Wow is all I can say. It was delicious. I don't think I've ever had anything like it. One of our new friends liked it so much he ordered 2 more and again, our waitress brought them without issue.
Naples Now the fun begins. Our primary reason for booking this trip was the Italy ports. Malta and Cannes were just a nice bonus to what we wanted to see. I booked private tours through Romeinlimo and was able to include 4 others that I met on cruise critic. We had 2 gentlemen from Florida who took all three tours with us and we had a great time with them. The other 2 spots were filled by different people each day. Today we had 2 ladies from Philadelphia join us. Our driver, Giovanni, picked us up at 8:00 a.m. sharp and we headed towards Pompeii. As we drove we told him what we wanted to see that day and he told us that to leave it to him and we would have a wonderful day. We were one of the first groups to reach Pompeii where we purchased our tickets (no line) and met our guide, Alfonso. He was great; so knowledgeable and personable. We spent a few hours here just taking it all in. It is truly an incredible place.
After leaving Pompeii, we headed down the Amalfi coast towards Positano. Giovanni was terrific. He stopped numerous times and let us out to take pictures. At one point, when we stopped, he brought out a bottle of wine and some snacks for us - very thoughtful. Back into the car and into Positano. Here he dropped us off so we could do a little shopping and exploring of the area. It is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to and we enjoyed wandering the streets and walking down to the beach. After our nice little break we headed back into the car and Giovanni took us to lunch. The drive itself was pretty intense, up narrow, winding roads until we reach what feels like the top of a mountain. He had already made reservations for us at Trattoria La Tagliata and they were expecting us. As soon as we sat down, the food and wine started to arrive. What a feast! There was so much of it and everything was magnificent! We all got to sample a little bit of everything including dessert and of course, the limoncello. After a very relaxing and enjoyable lunch, we headed back towards Sorrento where our driver let us out for about 45 minutes. Unfortunately that is just not enough time as Sorrento was a gorgeous little town. We wandered around and bought a few souvenirs to take home. We headed back towards Naples where we arrived in plenty of time. As what was becoming our routine, we enjoyed a cocktail out on our balcony and just reminisced about what a fantastic day we just had. We skipped dinner tonight because we were all still full from our amazing lunch. We ended our evening back at the Bali Hai bar comparing our day with our new friends.
Rome Up again early for our day in Rome. I had booked Romeinlimo again and I knew after yesterday we were going to have a terrific day. We met our driver, Nicola at 8:00 along with our new travel companions for the day, a young couple from Oklahoma celebrating their 5 year wedding anniversary and our new friends from Florida. The drive into Rome is pretty long and kind of boring. There really isn't too much to see but Nicola shared some history with us as we drove. After all my research and reading, I was still surprised when we arrived at the Coliseum. I don't know why, but I wasn't expecting it to be right in the city. After Pompeii yesterday, I just imagined it would be off on its own but it is still an amazing place. Nicola took us to a place where we could purchase our tickets (again, no waiting) and then told us exactly which line to get into (bypassing a very long line of people waiting to purchase tickets) and we went right in. We were able to spend some time here walking around and of course, taking pictures. Nicola picked us up and we headed up to a spot overlooking the Coliseum and the Forum. He then took us over to the Pantheon where we walked in on an impromptu concert given by a girl's choir from Australia. They sounded incredible - the acoustics are amazing. Nicola dropped us off for a quick break to see the Trevi Fountain where we threw our 3 coins in guaranteeing our return. It was now time for lunch and Nicola took us to a restaurant in the city where he had made a reservation for us. The food was good but not nearly as good or as much as yesterday.
After lunch it was time for our tour of the Vatican. We had booked a private guide through Romeinlimo to take us in. We met Sarah outside and she took us right in where we purchased our tickets (no line). We spent more than 2 hours here and could have spent even longer because there is just so much to see. Sarah was extremely knowledgeable and filled our head with so much information; it was hard to take it all in. After the museum portion, she gave us a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel. There are no words to describe it. You have to see it to really understand and appreciate it. We were all in awe of everything we saw. We headed into St. Peter's which is another amazing site. We spent some time here and then made a quick stop in the gift shop for some souvenirs before meeting up with Nicola again. By this time we were a little behind schedule and traffic was starting to build up getting out of the city. No worries here. Nicola was on the phone with some of the other drivers and Duman himself found us in traffic to let us know there was a minor delay ahead but after that we would be back on the ship in plenty of time. Of course he was right. They are very conscious of making sure that their cruise passengers get back on time and do everything in their power to make sure no one gets left behind. Great job, Romeinlimo!
After an exhausting day, we headed to Magenta for dinner which was excellent. Both main dining rooms on this ship are very nice and the service was wonderful.
Florence & Pisa This was the day I had been looking forward to all week. By this time though, we were looking for a day where we could actually enjoy the city without rushing from place to place. When we met our driver, Laura, we told her that the main goals for Florence today were to have a nice lunch, have some time to shop and I needed to have some really good gelato. She said she would take care of us. We headed towards Pisa first and were there before the crowds. We took some pictures, walked around a little and then headed to Florence. Laura was a terrific guide. She gave us the history of the region and just had an all around great personality. Before we even entered the city, she took us to a point overlooking the entire city where we were able to take some great photos. We had an elderly woman with us today from England who was traveling with her daughter so Laura was going to drop us off for some shopping while she drove the 2 ladies closer to where they wanted to be. My friend and I were looking to purchase leather bags and Laura took us to her friend's store where we each purchased a beautiful leather bag for only 60 Euros each! What a bargain and I love having it as a souvenir. We walked around for a while and then met everyone for lunch. We thought today would be a good day to have some pizza but Laura told us that it was not as good in Florence as it is everywhere else. We didn't want to be disappointed so she took us to a wonderful little restaurant (Cucina Tradizionale Boccadama) whose specialty was lasagna. We all ordered it along with some wine and we were not disappointed. The pasta was incredible and the portions were huge! We also had some appetizers, fresh mozzarella and basil and another house specialty, an assortment of cheeses served with honey and walnuts. It sounds strange but it was terrific. This was also the most reasonable of lunches - 69 Euros for 4 of us.
After lunch the group split up again to do our own thing. My group decided that we wanted to spend some time just walking around the city rather than going to any museums. Laura told us where we could see the replica of the David which you can actually take pictures of. I reminded her about my gelato and she told me not to purchase it in the city center - it would cost between 8 - 12 Euros and would not be that good. She would take us someplace before we left. We walked all around the city and over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge before heading back to meet Laura. During this time we ran into the couple we toured with the day before along with another couple we had met from Canada. It's very strange hearing your name called in another city where you don't know anyone. After a couple hours it was time to meet up with our group again. Laura took us just on the outskirts of the city and pulled over so we could get gelato. This was worth the wait. For just 2 Euros we got 2 pretty large scoops of homemade gelato. I had the dark chocolate and crème caramel. It was by far the best thing I've ever tasted! Everyone loved the stop and I'm still talking about it today. Our stop cost us a few minutes and we hit some traffic on the way back. Nothing to fear though because we were in front of at least 3 NCL tour buses that were also on their way back. We knew the ship couldn't leave without those people so we were safe. Back to our room to reminisce about our day over a glass of wine. For dinner tonight we decided to go back to Magenta and had another great meal.
Cannes This was our final port as well as a short day so we knew we just wanted to take it easy and do a little exploring on our own. We had 2 of our Canadian friends join us as well. We met up about 9:00 and took a tender into Cannes. There was absolutely no waiting to board and we left almost immediately. Once on the dock we noticed all the sailboats in the marina. There was a regatta scheduled for the next day so we enjoyed looking at all the boats tied up. One thing we wanted to do this trip was to stick our feet in the Mediterranean and what better place to do it than the French Riviera. We walked along the beach for a while enjoying the water and the beautiful views. We grabbed a walking tour map at the marina and used this as a guide as we walked around. We passed through an outdoor food market along with a pretty large flea market. We picked up some chocolate croissants as we walked. It was a very nice enjoyable day and before heading back to the ship, we stopped at a little outdoor cafe and had a drink. We walked right onto a tender and were back on the ship in no time. We happened to be sitting across from Brett, our cruise director and spent some time telling him how much we enjoyed our trip. He was happy to hear it and told us about the Gem's new itinerary for next year. It includes two different itineraries for Greece, Croatia and Turkey. (Two of us were so intrigued; we booked the Greek Isles trip for next October!) As we made our way onto the ship, all the sailboats that were docked this morning were now out in the water - what a sight! I was able to get some fantastic photos.
Since we were back on the ship so early, we decided to sit down by the pool where we were miraculously able to get 6 seats together right in front of the pool! This was the only day we used the pool and it was so nice sitting out there soaking up every last bit of our vacation. I had made dinner reservations for all of us at LeBistro tonight and we were extremely pleased. Everything about the meal was wonderful; the food, wine and especially the company. We spent our last night up at Bali Hai where we all exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to keep in touch (we have).
Embarkation Day We were staying in Barcelona for one more day so we did not have to rush off the ship. We kept our bags and after a leisurely breakfast at the Grand Cafe, we said our farewells to our cabin stewards, Jeffrey and Deval and walked off the ship. There was about a 30 minute wait at the taxi line but it seemed to go quickly because we were still excited that we had another full day in Barcelona. One of my friends was able to get us to rooms at the Hilton Diagonal del Mar with her points so we headed right there. Our rooms were ready immediately and we had the entire day in front of us. We ended up spending most of the day at the rooftop pool relaxing and reliving our trip. We did venture out for lunch and dinner but that was it.
Going Home We were up pretty early for our 10:45 flight home and were able to get a taxi for 4 (plus luggage) right away with the help of the bellman at the Hilton. There was a little traffic but it was Monday morning so I guess that's to be expected. Check-in at the airport was relatively easy and all we had to do was wait for our flight home. Arrived in Newark on time and had a quick trip through Customs and no problems with lost or delayed luggage.
Overall, we had a fantastic time and the Gem is a wonderful ship. I've heard people complain about the smallest things and can't imagine what that does to your vacation. When I'm on vacation, I don't expect everything to be perfect but I'm not about to let it ruin my trip that I've worked hard for all year. But I can honestly say that there's not one thing I would change about my trip and I'm looking forward to sailing on the Gem again next October.