Just back on the GEM- and have just booked the GEM again!
We loved the NCL GEM on its Nov. 8 '09 W. Mediterranean sailing -- and have booked it again for its Jan. 24 '10 Caribbean sailing from NYC. That should say something!
NCL: The Nov. 8 sailing was our 6th NCL cruise in the past 4 years, and our 3rd NCL cruise this year. Obviously we enjoy cruising (though we do independent land travel too). We're fans of NCL because of their good pricing, also their freestyle concept and the flexibility that gives us, the vibe it creates, and the type of passengers it attracts. TIP: We've cruised on NCL from a single carry-on bag; other times we've lugged luggage and brought the tux. It depends on what port we're going from, how we'll get there, and how much time we'll spend on land and sea. Be free.
NCL GEM: This was decidedly our favorite ship of the six we've sailed on. The food was the best in all dining venues, the furnishings in both public areas and cabins most classy and comfortable, and the management especially accessible and interested in making us happy (and resolving any problems). Special praise to Richard Janicki, who oversees all hotel and food services on board. Also Shridhar Dhuri, maitre d' of Cagney's. Also have to mention our personable and handsome Captain, Mikael Hilden and our genuinely warm Cruise Director, Andy. TIP: Despite the great ports, give yourself some downtime on the ship. We wish we'd spent more time loafing and exploring onboard - which is why we're going back!
GETTING THERE / GETTING AROUND: Many people book air, port connections, and tours through NCL, and the simplicity and peace of mind are worth it to them. We, however, tend to be do-it-yourselfers, preferring flexibility and saving money, so we book air and hotel on our own, use buses or cabs to get us to hotel and port, and find like-minded people through the CC Roll Calls to put together small-group van tours to the places we want to see. (We should mention however that in Egypt last spring, we took an NCL bus to see the Pyramids.) Main thing: feel comfortable. TIP: For anyone touring, the more research you do, the more you'll get out of it. We like to borrow through inter-library loan Fodor's, Frommer's, D& K, and Rick Steves, photocopy the relevant pages, and bring them. Also Google things like "Barcelona taxi" "Malta," etc.
BARCELONA: Took Aerobus (3.75 or 5 euros) to Placa de Catalunya at north end of Ramblas, walked to our hotel Grupotel Gravina. Getting around Barcelona is easy via subway: went to Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, the old Cathedral, the Picasso Museum, walked the Ramblas (La Boqueria Market, the living statues), ate Tapas. Because we overslept the day of the sailing, we took a cab to the port (about 30 euros which included charges for entering the port, for our 2 suitcases, and for the taxi being called and a typical small tip). After the cruise, we took the Blue Port Bus (2 euros) to the Columbus statue near foot of the Ramblas, walked a few blocks north to catch a regular city Ramblas bus to Placa de Catalunya, and then the Aerobus to the airport. It was easy - but we only had one wheelie carry-on suitcase each. TIP: As with many big cities, be careful with your wallet, passport, etc. We like to keep our valuables in a money belt, under our waist band.
PORTS OF CALL: MALTA: We got a good free map in the port building everyone has to walk through, took a regular city bus up the hill to Valetta (1 euro roundtrip),visited the Archeological museum (okay), the St. Paul's Shipwreck church (nice, free), saw the cannons fired at noon from the Upper Barracca Gardens (not sure it's everyday). Walked around the town, shopped the shops (everyone speaks English), caught an outdoor market, had cappuccino at an outdoor cafe. Others took a bus around the island. TIP: The most beautiful sail-in port. Be somewhere where you can see it.
NAPLES: With 6 other cruise critic members, we went with Guemar Travel (inexpensive, flexible, responsible) to visit Pompeii on our own (okay), and then down the Amalfi coast (amazing sea vistas and olive harvest), stopped in Positano, split up to walk on the beach and/or have lunch, then to Sorrento to shop, and took the ferry back to the port -close to our cruise ship! TIP: We could have gone to other towns, but the 8 of us decided we wanted a time cushion before the boat sailed. Our driver also made sure the ferry was sailing and got our tickets while we walked around Sorrento; otherwise she would have driven us back to Naples.
ROME: Having been to Rome before on land trips and a recent cruise, we'd seen most of Rome and the Vatican before, so we took the train from Civitavecchia to Rome Termini (easy) to see some Bernini sculptures we'd missed. Regrettably, two of the churches we planned on seeing were closed from noon to 3:30 - the exact time we were there. We visited the Barberini palace (okay). TIP: If you're touring on your own, make sure you check the hours of the sites. Wished we'd stayed on board for a relaxing "day off."
LIVORNO: With 6 other cruise critic members, we went with Your Tuscany Tours to Pisa (just for exterior photos), then a lovely detour through the Chianti hills to see the end of the grape harvest (gorgeous views), then to Florence (aka Firenze), stopping at San Miniato al Monte,a pre-Renaissance church with splendid ikons and a matchless view over the city, then across the Arno to Piazza della Republica, where we split up to have lunch and/or walk to the Duomo (wonderful inside and out) and see the dazzling Baptistry doors (don't miss them). Then 4 of us went to the Uffizzi Gallery (lots of renowned paintings), and the other 4 went to the Academia to see Michaelangelo's David, (Florence's most famous work of art, but not much else there). Back to the Piazza with free time to explore the city center, or walk across the Ponte Vecchio with its lovely views and jewelry shops, or browse the leather market. TIPS: Your tour driver can reserve tickets for you at the major museums. You just pay when you get there. (Years ago, we waited 2 hours to get into the Ufizzi). Florence is a walking city, bring a map.
CANNES: A quick port day, we walked around the town, visited the Cathedral up top and browsed the shopping streets and yachts down below. (Others found an inexpensive bus to take them along the coast to Cagnes sur Mere with the Renoir Museum.) TIP: It's the last port and a short day, time to buy those souvenirs and postcards.
Enjoy the Gem! Hope to sail her with you someday!
Joan & Jim Murray
Penthouse Suite on the front, 9th floor. Spacious, comfy, pampered. Lots of perks (Lavazza coffee machine; butler bearing afternoon hors d'ouvres; breakfast and lunch at Cagney's). Lovely balcony while in port (captain's upstairs, might even wave to you), but while at sea in November, batten down the hatch).