Norwegian Gem Cruise Review by olmedo
We are a couple in our 70's, both widowed and retired, going together for nearly a year. It was my first cruise for ~30 years, while my girlfriend (GF) has taken an NCL cruise down the Mexico coast within the past 3. She had never been to Europe, I had been to Italy twice before, but a long time ago. Our intent was to have a great time, see the sights, without overspending too much. The results were mixed. I had read all the reviews I could find about the Norwegian Gem by others who had taken the same cruise, and gained a lot of useful information beforehand. First of all, the Gem is a huge, great ship. It was clean. You couldn't finish a dish without an attendant taking it away almost instantly. The idea of being sprayed with hand sanitizer every time you go into a restaurant makes a lot of sense. GF found the Gem to be quite similar to the one she had taken before, I believe it was the Star. Freestyle cruising is great. It makes for a relaxed, happy atmosphere. On my first cruise in the dim distant past, we dressed for dinner, ate in time slots, sat at the same table each meal. We had great weather for the last week in October, never a wave over a foot high, always cool, even in Malta. I think I felt a drop of rain, once. Not quite sure. Remember, as a miser, my intent was to minimize cost, and the GF left the details up to me. This was probably a mistake on her part. I chose the lowest cost airfare, which turned out to be American to Chicago, Iberia to Madrid, Iberia to Barcelona, leaving the night before, arriving on the day of the cruise. In retrospect, I shouldn't have taken Iberia, didn't do enough research. They had a two-day demonstration strike scheduled for the day after we flew, and that was worrisome. The overseas flight was OK, although the TV screens were overhead, about 3 or 4 to a cabin. In economy class, the seats were only 17" wide, knee room was almost non-existent. GF had looked up their website and discovered they only sell food, and it's expensive. There was nothing to say it was different on overseas flights, and we disagreed on whether that would happen. I thought no airline could be so cheap as to sell food on an overseas flight, and fortunately I was right. The meals were good. But she brought a lot of snack stuff, which came in handy on the Madrid to Barcelona legs, where they did indeed only offer food and drink for Euros. Arriving at the new Madrid airport was an amazingly awful experience. Walk, walk, escalator up 3 floors, escalator down 3 floors, passport control, more escalators, much more walking, full inspection, take the train to the correct terminal without knowing the gate, a constant stream of Spanish babble over the loudspeaker but almost no English, and a board that displays the flight number and terminal but not the gate. We had to find an information desk to learn the gate. When we got to the gate, we saw a list of flight numbers rotate through the display but ours wasn't among 'em. Asking a desk attendant got us an answer of "wait." Yet, after a while, our flight number joined the others on the display. It was confusing to have multiple flight numbers show on one gate. I believe the others were some of the favored connecting flights on from Barcelona. I'll never know for certain. The announcements were only in Spanish. IMO, the US should retaliate and drop all Spanish announcements. Evidently they haven't discovered seating by rows in Spain; they just turned the mob loose and as a result, boarding the flight to Barcelona was painfully slow. At least Iberia aircraft were fairly new Airbus types. I probably should have taken us to Barcelona a day or two early and sprung for a hotel, because in our cab ride to the port, 40 Euros, we saw what looked to be a very interesting city. But we arrived a bit before noon, and sat in the port terminal waiting, until the desks were manned (they parade in like Swiss Guards and man the many desks at the same time), then checked in and boarded just after 12:00. All our luggage was carry-on. A sad note: before leaving Chicago, we pooled our money and changed dollars to Euros at O'Hare and got totally screwed there. Of course, they're going to take a cut, but it was more like a bite from a T-Rex. I was a math major (which is no guarantee of accuracy), so I'll lay it out: the exchange rate for a Euro was about $1.50. Our price was effectively about $1.69, which doesn't sound like much but on $1500 turned out to be a difference of $172, the amount of money I figured we paid to convert. ($1500 got us 885 E and change, should have been much closer to 1000 E.) As soon as it hit us how badly we had been taken, we were sick. All numbers are approximate. Next time, if there is one, we'll try to find a better way, probably go to a bank in the destination city in Europe. We spent the afternoon exploring the ship. The ship sailed promptly at 7:00 PM and we sat on the deck and watched the scenery flow by - it takes a long time to leave the Barcelona port area. That was great. Monday was entirely at sea and that's good. It takes time to adjust. Monday night, we attended Colorz, a song and dance revue. Excellent singing and dancing, lots of talent on the cast, but I hated it, because the amplification level was about 4000 decibels. There was never a change of pace, only frenetic singing and dancing. The GF didn't seem to mind the volume as much. The other revue show by the same cast, forgot the name, was just as bad. Other shows we saw were by Second City, a comedy troupe - hilarious, loved it. I'm terrible with names: a lady singer from Australia and her husband, a base guitar player, excellent, sound levels OK. Another show was a musician who played many instruments, mostly marimba and pan pipe, and he was very good (not nearly as much amplification.) A magician who did sleight of hand with cards and foam balls, was not great. His continuous vocal patter was in about 4 different languages, English, Spanish, German and I believe French, and it was distracting. Tuesday morning, arrival in Malta. Very interesting and picturesque, great views. I had cleverly figured that we would just take a cab up to the city, mess around aimlessly there until about 1 PM, then walk back down to the ship. However, after walking off the ship, we fell into the evil clutches of a cab driver who offered to take us around the island for more than two hours for 50 E. We bit. What he did was take us to 4 places we really didn't want to see, then turn us loose for a few minutes and wait for us: a garden, beautiful plants - GF liked that, it was pleasant enough. A cathedral, never learned the name, but it was miles from Valletta and reputedly had a replica of an unexploded German bomb which had landed there, but which we didn't find. The problem with cathedrals in Europe is there are so many of them, and they're all beautiful, but in the same way. We walked in on a funeral. Next was a glass factory, where we watched them shape molten glass into useless multicolored items, bottles and such, then went through the inescapable shop, where a water tumbler was 12 E, and the prices went way up from there. I tend to buy my water tumblers at K-mart, so I wasn't totally impressed. Finally, we went to a medieval castle/town called Mdina (the spelling is correct, no e) and had all of 15 minutes to walk around, and that was 14 too many. On our cab ride we had seen a lot of Malta, but at high maniac-cabdriver speeds and no coastal views, for which Malta is famous. We did enjoy his point of view and information, and he was the only driver we encountered on the cruise who spoke English well. Once back in Valletta, he let us off near the gardens, which is the correct end of the peninsula from which to walk down to the ship. Not knowing much about Valletta, I had suggested the Co-Cathedral, then the War Museum. We found the cathedral, but there was an enormous line to buy tickets, so we passed. The War Museum was next; Malta took an incredible pounding during WWII so I thought it would be impressive. It wasn't very. Also, it was down a long, steep hill, so steep the sidewalk was laid out in steps for a long stretch. We walked. My GF is part superwoman, part mountain goat, so she had no trouble. Every now and then she would kindly stop and wait for me. Along the way, we discovered a McDonalds, so I ordered a small milkshake and she had a coke. They did small to a ridiculous extreme: perhaps 4-6 ounces, and almost 2 E. We did the War Museum, hot and stuffy, largely unimpressive, then asked a guard how to get back down to the ship, and learned we had to go back to the gardens. It was now uphill. The GF danced up the hill while I painfully labored but finally made it. I figure it's about 2 miles each way. The cruise out at 3 PM was gorgeous. Grading myself for Malta planning: F-. Tuesday morning, we arrived in Napoli at 8 AM. I had planned to be flexible. We took the jet ferry to Capri for about 17 E per person. It is a beautiful island, and the ride there was good. Once unloaded, we found ourselves in an area of shops and restaurants around the harbor. The GF's eyes glazed over as they always do around shops, but she didn't find anything she wanted to buy, so we took the rail car up the hill (called the funicular, I believe) to Anacapri, but it was only about halfway up the mountain. More shops, more robotic shopping behavior by the GF. She finally finished after about and hour, and we took a bus back down to the harbor. The road must have been constructed during Capri's donkey cart days, and the width of it took up almost the entire lane. It wound it's way down the mountain, and pedestrians and motor-scooter riders looked as it they would be crushed against walls, but somehow the driver missed them. The exciting part came when we met another bus coming up. Both drivers stopped, and then we passed each other slowly, and I doubt if you could have slipped a sheet of typing paper between them or between our bus and the stone wall on the other side. Scary. We had a nice lunch in one of the harbor restaurants, then took the ferry over to Sorrento, where we wanted to take the train to Pompeii. Inevitably, it was a long way to the train station, and all uphill. I believe all of Italy is that way on purpose. We spent no time in Sorrento, and even though there were shops, the GF knew we didn't have a whole lot of time and wasn't distracted. We found the train, which runs back to Napoli, stopping at Pompeii Scavi, and I remember the cost as 2.40 E per person. The trains are by far the cheapest mode of transportation in Italy. We went though several tunnels and finally got there, but not before being joined by a huge crowd of kids getting out of school. Evidently they commute on the train. They were like kids anywhere: cute, happy, and constantly jabbering and kidding each other. I figured we had an hour in Pompeii, the entrance to which was a steep climb, naturally. By then I regarded any steep climb with great horror. It's a mistake to go there without a guide, it's too spread out. However, mistakes have become my way of life. We therefore had a very superficial encounter. We saw some of the temples and the forum, some of the petrified casts of people, but never did find any of the well-preserved villas of wealthy residents. I had been there twice before, with guides, but many years before. We wanted to make the 4:15 train back to Napoli because we wanted a cushion, and we made it. (We later talked to folks who told us the train after ours was very late, and they almost missed the ship.) The train eventually made it to the Garibaldi station, which according to the Google map, was where all the tracks ended, but they must go on underground, and it confused us when people stayed on the train at the point we thought was the last stop. We got off anyway, figuring we could get back on, and asked someone how to get to the port. We got the same story: Bus One. We finally managed to find our way out of the Garibaldi station, not easy, it's huge. We kept coming to side corridors leading to more trains. Outside, there was a huge open square with lots of streets leading into and out of it. We asked a policeman how to get to the ship, and he said Bus One and pointed. We walked that way, found a place where buses stopped, and the numbers were listed, but no Bus One. We asked someone else, who said Bus One and pointed. The procedure continued again and again, and there was never a Bus One. By now I had decided, the truth was that Bus One is a practical joke they play on tourista; much like a snipe hunt. I had also determined there are no English-speaking Italians. So, I decided we needed to hop a cab to the port. We did so. It wasn't easy telling the driver how to get there. I finally wrote NCL on a slip of paper and he got it. My grade for planning the day: D-. The next day, our luck took a turn for the better. I had put out a feeler on the NCL Gem's Roll Call for our cruise date, and had connected with a nice group from Paris, and a mother of one of the ladies, from Montana. We shared the cost of a (Rudi's) van and driver for about 200 E all together, about a third of what he charged. The driver was great, had tickets for the Colliseum and the Vatican so we didn't have to stand in long lines, knew where to take us, and was flexible. We saw the forum, the Trevi Fountain, drove by the Spanish Steps. I had wanted the GF to have a great Rome experience, and she did. My grade for planning: A+. Had we not connected, it would have been the train for 9 E, with a much shallower experience. The only flaw was that we whizzed through the Vatican Museum, with a guide, with almost no stops. But we spend more time in St. Peters and the Sistine Chapel, and that was good. Walking on the Rome streets is a great way to get run over, because cars and motor-scooters are always coming, and the streets are narrow. The favorite driving game is chicken, and it's almost fun to see which driver will give way. Our driver never did, but it was close at times. Now and then he would mercifully slow up for a pedestrian. The pedestrians would pretend cars didn't exist, and weren't approaching at 50 mph, and stepped into the street right in front of us. The motor-scooter riders weaved in and out of traffic constantly. The driver said only about 200 of them are killed annually in traffic, a figure which I found incredible. I would have figured 200 a day. Or maybe even per hour. Friday was Livorno. This time I had signed us up for a ship's excursion: Pisa and Tuscany, $179 pp. Wise choice. I hadn't been particularly attracted to Firenze (Florence, as we call it, doesn't exist.) I know there are some attractions there, but there just isn't enough time to do anything well on a cruise. Pisa is very interesting. By now both the GF and I were in full shopping mode, and I suppose my eyes glazed over too. We found some good gifts in the shops there. After Pisa we were driven to a grape and olive farm where they made wine and olive oil, and we had a great lunch, with six or seven bottles of wine for every 8 people, and we finished them, with everyone becoming very friendly and cheerful during the meal, for some reason. The meal was served backwards, salad last. As a bonus, we learned more than anyone would ever want to know about olive oil and how it is made, and the various qualities of it. It was a nice drive as well. My grade for planning, another A+ Saturday, a half hour late getting off the ship. The ship was late several times, which could screw up precise planning. It was even late leaving the night before, but arrived on time. We took the tenders, really ship's lifeboats, to the port of Cannes, as the ship remained offshore. It really gives you confidence in the lifeboats. They are neat little boats which can rev up pretty well and hold more people than I ever imagined. The Titanic could have used some. To do more than Cannes means no shopping, and the short time there doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room. I had wanted to go to Monte Carlo but must have been struck by an attack of wisdom. The GF and I decided to merely spend the day in Cannes and shop. Unfortunately Cannes is closed until 10 AM, except for the bars, which were open when we arrived there just before 9 AM. There were few people on the streets until 10, at which point they magically became crowded. The streets facing the harbor are lined with restaurants, the shops begin the next street over. As an officially old man, I need to go about every 15 minutes, so not long after we arrived, I felt the urge. There were signs leading to public toilets. Locked. I went into a McDonald's located at the harbor. Knowing the loos are always on the right side as you face the front, I confidently proceeded through a door, and they got really excited, no doubt thinking I was a terrorist. I was in the kitchen area. They directed me to the other side, almost getting physical in the process. Locked. The sign on the door said it could be opened by passing your receipt, but on principle I didn't buy anything. By now the shops were beginning to open, so I held it somehow, and we shopped. There are good shops in Cannes. Just after eleven I persuaded the GF it was time to eat, and we found a restaurant on the second tier of streets (We had walked the first tier, only bars were open.) I asked if they had a restroom before committing to sitting down. The French really have style. I went into the restroom, and there were no lights, and I had to stoop over. I had to hold the door partly open to see how to flush and redress, and when I got back to the GF she pointed out I was unzipped. I was lucky to even have my pants up to my waist. So ended that particular adventure - she has an embarrassing tale to tell about me if she ever chooses to use it. About 2 PM we got on a tender and went back to the ship. My grade for planning, D. It might have been C but I never managed to get us to any topless beaches. We departed the next morning. Plenty of cabs waited, like vultures, as we debarked about 6:30, and the driver wanted 45 E to take us to the airport. This cab had a meter, and it clicked .05 E about every two revolutions of the rear wheels. Nevertheless, it was only at about 28 E when we got there. I figured the 45 E was mostly gravy for the driver so I didn't leave a tip, unfeeling clod that I am. Flying back the same day, cheap style, is long and exhausting. Barcelona to Madrid to Dallas and then home. Madrid just as confusing as before. I don't plan to come through Madrid again, if I can avoid it. A great cruise. Spent more than intended, darn it.
olmedo’s Full Rating Summary
We had the "partially obstructed ocean view", with a big window. The view was mostly blocked by a lifeboat. I liked it better than I would have liked an inside cabin. Storage was adequate, hallway was quiet. Quite clean and pleasant.
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