One couple traveled from the US to meet the other three couples in the UK for our flight to Barcelona, where we had booked the two-day pre-cruise package. Our British Airways flight to Barcelona was delayed an hour when a already checked-in family misplaced a child, frighteningly not located by the flight time. The general mood on the plane was of sympathy with the parents and concern, and the pilots soon made up most of the time enroute. Flawless transfer to our hotel, Hotel Confortel Barcelona, a luxurious and modern hotel very close to the beach (which we didn't find out until the last morning).
Transfer to the ship on Sunday November 1 took an hour, during which time we meandered around the city only picking up at one other hotel and finally coming back very near our hotel to enter the pier area. We think the driver was killing time so we wouldn't arrive till noon at the ship - we probably should have been picked up 30 minutes later. Once we got there, embarkation was amazingly quick and we were on the ship before 1pm, where they had a lovely buffet ready for us in the Garden Cafe.
The Norwegian Gem is a beautiful ship, large but not overwhelming. Once we found favorite places to hang out, we didn't keep exploring, so I'm sure some nooks remained hidden to us. We took all our breakfasts in the Garden Cafe, finding seating sometimes challenging, but lots of room (and different good food) on the back deck, divided into smoking and non-smoking sections.
Based on previous travelers' reviews, we bypassed the "extra cost" restaurants and varied between the Grand Pacific and the Magenta, always making a reservation. We ate early at 6:30, because that's when we could get reservations and because we were usually up and out early the next morning on tours; after 6:30, the main restaurants had a "first-come, first-served" policy. We preferred the Magenta, because it was smaller and a little less noisy, but both were nice in that they had sea view windows. We found the food "nice restaurant" quality and liked that we could order two appetizers - or desserts - if we wished.
We only had one day at sea, so I don't have much to say about occupying oneself on the ship. We did go to several port lectures, and especially enjoyed informative ones on Pompeii and on Michelangelo. Several of our group liked the ping-pong tables, one enjoyed the putting green, and all of us relished a dedicated card room, where we took up residence most nights after dinner. We did appreciate two shows, one featuring songs and dances from around the world.
I'll treat the ports separately.
I have to commend NCL for their efficient embarkation and disembarkation process. This was our fifth or sixth cruise, all on different cruise lines, and theirs was by far the most painless.
Barcelona is a beautiful city and its people were very friendly. My recollection of it is tarred by a very unpleasant experience, however. We were warned, in guidebooks, by the hotel, by Metro subway guards, about the prevalence of pickpockets, and as city dwellers ourselves, thought that meant not carrying much money or being ostentatious about it, holding onto purses and bags, etc. But, entering a Metro car, my husband was roughly pushed around by two young men who seemed to be trying to leave the car. After they physically forced the closing doors open and exited, he instantly realized that his wallet was missing, taken from his zipped front pocket during the fracas. We all got off at the next stop, found the Metro Police station, and he and I spent many hours filing a report and trying to contact credit card companies while surrounded by dozens of other shell-shocked and, occasionally, hysterical tourists who'd had different versions of our experience. The morale of the story - avoid crowded places, wear an inside money pouch, don't carry passport or valuables with you, be suspicious if anyone tries to get close to you. One young woman's rucksack had been cut off her back and taken by a young man who theoretically was helping her clean bird poop from her shoulder - in reality, a dark substance he'd put there to start with. These people are professionals, and Barcelona needs to deal with them better.
We had planned strenuous Italy trips, so were low key about Malta, the day before we hit land in Italy. It was a stirring sight to come into Valletta's harbor and see the great city walls, and we were pleased that the city bus stops just beyond the harbor to take cruise passengers to the center of town for one euro. I wanted to see St. John's Co-Cathedral while my husband, a WWII buff, wanted to visit the Malta WWII Museum. I'm so glad we did. I was a history minor in college and thought I knew my 20th Century European history, but I didn't know anything about Malta's critical role, its citizens' bravery under siege, and the cost to the Allies of resupplying Malta during the war. The Co-Cathedral was a stunning testament to the wealth of the Knights of Malta and the different branches' desire to outdo each other in building showy chapels. In between we stopped for a cake and coffee in a darling cafe in an atrium in a theatre. Back on the ship by mid-afternoon and a beautiful sail out of the harbor.
We had been advised to visit the Amalfi Coast as well as Pompeii, so based on previous travelers' advice, we booked Your Tour in Italy for tours in all three Italian ports. Each driver was wonderful in his own way and made our trip wonderfully memorable.
Dominico picked the eight of us up in Naples, exactly on time and as promised, and ascertained what we wanted to do. When I mentioned that half the group were keen gardeners, he designed a tour starting in Ravello, site of two gorgeous gardens (even in November). The mountain switchbacks, many and scary though they seemed, were easily handled through his expert driving, and the towns/villages we visited (additionally Amalfi, Positano, and Sorrento) were charming. They could have easily merited a full day each. When asked to describe the Amalfi Coast to an American, I explained it as a combination of the incredibly scenic California coast with ancient and charming red-tile roofed villages.
We spent two hours in the afternoon in Pompeii and, barring the cold rain, everyone could have spent much more time there. Despite all the reading I'd done, I hadn't hoisted in that Pompeii was a town, and it covers a huge area! That was a highlight! (We followed the guidebook, rather than having a personal guide, and that may have taken us longer.)
The day was visually spectacular and culturally enlightening, and Dominico was a big part of that. We definitely got value for money. NCL's intimate shore excursions ran $425 -$450 per person; for eight of us, the cost for each Your Tour in Italy excursion was 580 euros (about $150 each).
Again, Your Tour in Italy's driver Roberto picked us up and helped us design our visit. After driving to Rome, he took us to an overlook where we could get a sense of the city's layout and then to an excavation where we could see the many layers of Roman history; that kind of interpretation continued through the day and enriched our visit greatly.
One fantastic sight followed another through the day: the Roman Forum, the Colliseum, St. Peter's Basilica and Square, the Trevi Fountain. Roberto's explanations of what we were seeing were aided by a wonderful book showing Rome then in an overlay over Rome now; I bought a smaller version for myself, and it's a wonderful resource and memory tool.
We had to rush to our Vatican Museum tour, as we'd taken our time in the Forum. That was my only disappointment with Roberto, amidst many kudos; he let us take as much time as we wanted in various places, and we were kind of leisurely. However, since we didn't know Rome, we needed him to tell us "If you take an hour here, we'll have to cut _____ short." As it was, we only had an hour and half in the Vatican Museum with our fantastic, informative, erudite but interesting guide. The Sistine Chapel alone could have taken a day, and will live in my memory.
We were exhausted after two early mornings, but today was Florence! We were met promptly by Pierro, of Your Tour in Italy, and soon were on our way to Pisa. Seven of us were willing to skip Pisa to have more time in Florence, but the 8th really wanted to go there - and we were all glad we did! Pierro explained to us that the historic districts of both cities are pedestrianized but that their vans are allowed to drive into those areas because they're classified as taxis. The coaches that NCL and the other cruise lines book to take passengers on these tours are not allowed in, so passengers have about a 15 minute walk into town, for example in Pisa.
We were awed by the Leaning Tower and stunned by the its marble and that of its church and bell tower. We also enjoyed the street markets:-)
On the way to Florence, Pierro asked if we wanted to stop at a winery or an olive pressing plant, and the group voted for the olive pressing plant. It was fascinating and the little farm shop enticed all of us. Pierro made our travel time very special, as he endeavored to have us appreciate the beauty, the culture, the history, the agriculture of Tuscany.
When we got to Florence, we first visited an overlook to get the lay of the land before driving into the center of town to see the major sights, the Duomo for example. He explained the influence of the Medici on art and culture, and showed us examples of the work of their "pet" artists. We went first to the Academia, where we admired the statue of David, and then had a few hours to walk around town between the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio before meeting him to drive back to the ship. Another incredibly enriching, educational, unforgettable day! I can't say enough about the excellent guides from Your Tour in Italy!