Western Med Cruise On Your Own
We have been on over 11 cruises and have traveled to Europe several times, so were interested in trying to do our NCL Gem cruise, roundtrip from Barcelona, booking our own shore excursions as much as possible. We had an online "booking special" that included $200 obc, a balcony cabin, air from and to Miami, all transfers, and one night pre-cruise stay in Barcelona at the Mont Blanc Hotel which was very nice and conveniently located near Las Ramblas. The hotel has in room internet (ask for a cable at the desk), breakfast buffet, and an in room safe (5 euros extra) for leaving our passports and most of our money while we were out. We took copies of our passports with us, one credit card (Capital One because they don't have a foreign currency transaction surcharge), driver's license, and about 50 euros, all hidden in passport holders under our clothes in most all ports, except Cannes. Remember to notify your credit card company before you leave the country and tell them what countries you will be in to help avoid any unpleasant experiences of being denied use because of "suspicious activity". For communication back home we signed up for the on board internet package of 100 minutes, but were sorry we did this because it is too slow to be much use. We ended up just using our unlocked gsm quad band phones that we have (you can pick one up on Ebay) and inserted global sim cards when we arrived overseas. Mine cost around 69 cents per minute for me to call the U.S. for the countries we were in, but I just kept the calls to a minimum. My sim card was purchased at acetelecomstore.com , or you could also get one on ebay. If you are going to do the excursions on your own, as we did, make sure you get good city maps of all the port cities in advance and take a look at where you want to go. You can easily find them on the internet or copy them from a public library book. You can get a map of Cannes when you disembark the tender by immediately going up the stairs to your left where there is a tourist information office which will give you both a city and a bus map.
BARCELONA: We walked and took the metro to get around. It would be a good idea to print out both a metro and city map before you go to Barcelona. The works of Gaudi are absolutely amazing and we enjoyed seeing La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. On Sunday morning we were transferred to the ship, and checked in with no wait. There is a Latitudes check in line (the last one...it's pink), but the other lines didn't look too long either. They gave us a complimentary glass of champagne when we boarded and then we went to the Grand Pacific dining room for a nice sit down lunch. I don't think many folks were aware the dining room was open because it was not at all crowded and they did try and persuade us to go elsewhere as we entered by politely asking, "Don't you want to eat at our buffet which is open?". Our room was ready by 1:30pm and we dumped our carryon luggage and left the ship again to return to Barcelona via the port bus right at the ship's pier. It only cost 2 euros one way or 3 euros return. The bus runs right to the Christopher Columbus statute at the end of Las Ramblas. Right across from that is the Maritime Museum, which does not charge admission on Sunday, and which we enjoyed touring before returning to the ship by the port bus in time for the 5pm lifeboat drill. The Maritime Museum also has a place to store luggage if you want to visit it before or after your cruise. We even were given a 2nd glass of champagne when we reboarded! The lifeboat drill was quick and painless, as our meeting location was indoors. Our luggage, including our box of wine, made it on just fine. We signed up for the spa package and were glad we did as we used it every evening to relax in the whirlpools and hot stone loungers. I cannot comment on the shows because we opted to be in the spa instead. We ate most dinners in the Grand Pacific, that we enjoyed, but did have 2 in the smaller Magenta dining room. I personally preferred the smaller quieter more intimate atmosphere of Magenta, but they were both just fine and have the same menu. We had to wait a short time at the Grand Pacific (10-15 minutes at 6:30pm), but they do give you a beeper giving one the option of 2 for 1 drinks in the Bliss Lounge if you so desire. They do still offer cappuccino in dining rooms (including decaf) and there is a machine for them at the buffet, but they are much weaker and not as tasty at the buffet. Our room was a category BA balcony on the port side and our neighbor was in a similar cabin right next to us. We still enjoy the towel animals they leave at night, and I was kind of surprised that they still left mints on our pillows after reading that they had cut back on this. Our room steward was kind enough to unlock the balcony partition between our 2 balconies so we had one long shared balcony with our neighbor who was traveling on her own. I understand that it is not always possible to get the steward to unlock the partition. We propped open the partition door with a deck chair and had smooth seas the entire trip, but I can see that if the sea was rough, that the door might bang around a bit. Our stateroom had a hairdryer, small fridge, 2, 110 volt outlets, 1, 220 volt outlet and large in room safe (my 10" netbook fit easily in it). We used room service every morning (it also served as our wake up call) and on the card I wrote in a request for a large pot of coffee and an omelet made with egg whites which was honored with no questions. We also wrote in a request for 6am delivery, even though the card says breakfast room service starts at 6:30am, and we received it right at 6am. They always call first before delivery, and we keep a small package of dollar bills handy in our stateroom for tips.
DAY AT SEA: I highly recommend that if you are going on a cruise that you sign up on your Cruise Critic roll call. We were excited to meet our fellow Cruise Critic members (about 30 of us) from our roll call at 11am in the Magenta dining room. The Captain made a brief, but welcoming appearance, as well as 7 other officers and crew members. They made a point of asking us to let them know if we had any complaints or suggestions to improve our cruise experience, as they would rather we tell them first before we complain about it on the boards. I think his request was fair enough. Having the meet and greet with our fellow cruise critic members was a good way to make new friends to drink, dine, and share a taxi or train ride with, as well as share suggestions and ideas. The Latitudes event with drinks with the Captain was around 1:30pm and was crowded, but nice. NCL was really pushing their new rewards program where you could get onboard credit for this cruise if you gave a deposit for a future cruise, but we decided to wait to book our next one. It was "formal" night in the dining room and I always look forward to the lobster for this night. It was a little tricky finding it on the menu as they call it "Surf and Surf" or something like that with no mention of lobster in the name. Just ask your waiter. I was a pig and ordered the duck, too, which was also delicious.
MALTA: It is very pretty sailing into this walled city of knights and we were lucky enough to have pre-booked tickets online to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. This hypogeum consists of several levels of underground burial chambers and passages, the oldest of which dates back to 3600 B.C.! Seeing this was one of the highlights of my cruise. They only permit 10 visitors per hour in a strictly controlled environment, so tickets sell out well in advance. If you know you are going to Malta, I highly recommend you try and book this at the Heritage Malta website. Malta is known for their buses, and you can easily reach this site by taking the #11 bus from the city center to Paola, walking up the hill and turning right at the signs on the side of the building (a 10 minute walk at most). The bus only cost .47 euro and change for small bills or euro coins can be made on the bus. From Paola, you can also walk to another interesting ancient archeological site (above ground and not limited in the number that can be admitted) called the Tarxien Temples. You do not need to purchase these tickets in advance. We took a bus back to Valetta (just ask the driver if he is going to town) and walked downhill from the main road to the museum of Archaeology which has a lot of artifacts from the 2 sites we just visited. From there we viewed St. John's Co-Catherdral (there is a charge to enter) from the outside and walked on to the Grand Master's Palace where we saw the stunning State Rooms, Tapestry Chamber, and Armoury. It was a 10-15 minute walk back to the ship and we had time for a nice glass of wine on the way. If I ever return to Malta again I would probably want to see the city of Mdina, and it looks like it would be easy to take the bus to that from the City Center, too. Back on the ship we had fish and chips at the Blue Lagoon, which is always open for a late lunch. That night we ordered sandwiches from room service (cheese because they were out of peanut butter) and put them in ziplock baggies in our fridge. We took them with us the next day for our port day and did this for all our long port days to have something to munch on with us. We also took sunscreen, water bottles, hand wipes and granola bars. I highly recommend a hat if you go to Pompeii, too.
NAPLES/POMPEII: We disembarked the ship as soon as we were allowed around 7am and walked to the Piazza Garibaldi train station where we purchased tickets to Circumvesuviana line getting off at the Pompeii Scavi stop. Make sure it says a local train...not direct to Sorrento because otherwise it won't stop. It was a rather long walk to the train station and you might want to consider sharing a taxi with others and saving your time and legs for Pompeii. Naples is not really very scenic and if you walk, you're probably safer and better off being in a group, as we were. There will undoubtedly be others that you can share a cab with to the train station. The taxi drivers will try and persuade you to hire their services for the whole day, but it will cost you a lot more. When we arrived at Pompeii you can purchase your entrance tickets there. Don't forget to pick up your map and little guidebook at the entrance with your ticket. We also downloaded and printed out Rick Steve's written walking guide to Pompeii. He is supposed to come out with a free mp3 and Ipod audio walking tour in December, 2009 which would be handy for those of you that go in the future. Pompeii is an amazing place to see. We took the train back to Naples Central station and then got on the local train to "Cavour" station, where there is a walk through to metro station "Museo" which leads to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. This museum contains most of the stunning artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum. If you go, you might want to see the "Secret Room" located up the first flight of stairs off to the left that contains a lot of erotic artwork from Pompeii. We walked back to the ship from the museum stopping long enough for a quick sit down drink at an outdoor cafe.
CIVITAVECCHIA (ROME): Again we were first off the ship at 7am and shared a taxi van with fellow cruise critic members that took us directly to the train station (paid 5 euros each). Do not try and walk, it is quite a distance and it is an industrial port. Often NCL representatives will not let you walk out anyway. The NCL shuttles do not start until 7.30am. We purchased a B.I.R.G. ticket for 9 euros that is good for the roundtrip train fare to and from Rome as well as the metro and buses in Rome. This is a real bargain, and the train is actually the fastest way to get to and from Rome as it avoids traffic jams. Make sure you validate your ticket in the little yellow box on the wall before getting on the train at Civitavecchia. We took the train to the St. Peter's stop (San Pietro) where we got off and took the #64 bus to St. Peter's Square that was right outside the train station. Be very careful on this bus because I have read numerous articles indicating there are many pickpockets on this bus that is frequently used by tourists. Perhaps it was too early in the morning still for them, but we were fortunate to not have experienced anything bad. We had purchased advance reservations for the Vatican museums (includes the Sistine Chapel) for 10am online and walked around to the other side for the entrance to the Vatican museum. They let us in 45 minutes early. If you have reservations, go to the reservations desk downstairs to pick up your entrance tickets before proceeding upstairs. We walked through the Vatican museum admiring the art for about 40 minutes before arriving at the Sistine Chapel (no pictures allowed here). We used the Rick Steves's free downloadable audio guide and maps for this place as well as St. Peter's Basilica, the Coliseum, and the Forum and found it very helpful. We also used his guides in Florence for L'Accademia and the Uffizi museums. Upon departing from the Sistine Chapel, one of Mr. Rick's helpful tips is that in the back right hand corner of the Sistine Chapel there is a door marked for tour groups. Just hang out till you see a tour group exiting and exit with them. You can go from there directly to St. Peter's Basilica (which is free and pictures are allowed) and this will save you at least 30 minutes from walking all the way around and standing in line again. Note, if you rent an audio guide from the Vatican, you cannot do this as you have to go back to return you guide. We then took the metro from the metro stop directly north of the Vatican over to the Spagna stop where we briefly saw the Spanish Steps and took a few photos. From there we walked to Trevi Fountain and then on down to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill where we had prebooked tickets so we didn't have to wait in line. They are amazing! Unfortunately, we did not have time to see the Pantheon, but since we threw coins into Trevi Fountain that means we will be returning to the "Eternal City" for another visit. The metro near the Colosseum will take you back to the main train station, Termini, where you can get the train to Civitavecchia, which is the last stop. You can easily walk back to the port gates and there was just a short wait for the free shuttle back to the ship.
LIVORNO (FLORENCE): We had originally planned to take the train again from this port into Florence, but our ship was about an hour late due to the police investigating some unknown incident that happened on the ship the night before. When we finally received clearance to disembark we tried to get a taxi to the train station, but all the taxi drivers just wanted to be hired for the whole day and take us all the way to Florence instead of the train station. Since we were already an hour late and were meeting friends in Florence, we went in with several other cruise critic members who also originally planned to take the train, and we all hired a taxi van together to take us to a central spot in Florence. The cost without tip was 45 euros each roundtrip, but it was worth it for us to have the extra time. We met up with our friends for coffee, a stroll around the local market, a climb up Brunelleschi's Dome for a spectacular view of Florence, and then on to L'Accademia (we had pre-booked tickets) to see David and other magnificent art. We had lunch at a cafe, walked to see the Ponte Vecchio and went to the Uffizi museum in the afternoon with pre-booked reservations for 2pm. We had just enough time for a nice glass of wine and gelato before meeting the taxi driver at 3:30pm and then drove back to the ship. Florence is a beautiful and fantastic city with many remarkable buildings and art. The taxi driver, Massimo (who was wonderful) will include a side trip to Pisa, but that costs more.
CANNES: You only have part of a day here and have to tender, but it was very easy and simple to get around. It isn't too big, and if you want to wander around and see the shops, I recommend you find the Marche Forville (Market, not far from the port). There is lots of interesting and colorful good smelling fruits, vegetables, cheeses, etc. There is a beach further on down from the port that you can swim in, or you can take the open top Tourist bus around a loop for 2 euros. We met up with some relatives and had a nice lunch with some delicious French wine before heading back to the ship. We ate our only meal in the specialty restaurant, Le Bistro (well worth the $15. up charge), on this night, and really enjoyed the excellent food and service....a wonderful end to a fantastic and memorable cruise of a lifetime. If NCL is reading this review as our Captain indicated they do, thank you for a great cruise (and of course I was only joking about sneaking on that box of wine)!