Too many Cruise Critic members define "critic" as "someone who frequently finds fault or makes harsh and unfair judgments". Actually, the word comes from the Greek word meaning "able to discern", which in turn derives from the word kritEs, meaning 'a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation". It is in this spirit that I offer my critique of our 2009 eastbound transatlantic crossing and Mediterranean cruise aboard the Norwegian Gem from New York to Barcelona from April 18 through May 3, 2009. On the whole, it was the trip of our lifetimes (so far, anyway) which exceeded our expectations in some areas and fell short in a few others.
I cruised with my wife as an early (it's next year) 25th wedding anniversary celebration. This was our seventh cruise since being bitten by the Cruise Bug in 2006, and our fourth with NCL. We are approaching 50; our two kids are in college and class schedules kept them there for this trip. We had previously sailed on a 2-nighter aboard the Gem in December 2007, and although she no longer looked brand-new she was well maintained. The public areas and open decks were always kept spotless.
Embarkation at Pier 88 in New York was relatively smooth and quick. The representative who handled our boarding barely said a word; good thing we knew what to expect - a first-time cruiser would have been confused. That was the only glitch, and after we were handed our numbered passes we waited in the crowded terminal for boarding to begin. Standing there (there were four times as many people waiting as there were available seats) we got our first look at our fellow passengers. I expected Rodney Dangerfield to appear and say to one of them: "So, how does this ship compare to the Mayflower?" Ba-DUM dum! I had expected an older crowd, but I was surprised at how old - the majority had to be over 70. Later, I'd learn the implications of sailing with this bunch.
Our cabin was a mini-suite, which is not in the suite category but is actually a "deluxe balcony", on Deck 11 approximately amidships starboard. We knew that the standard balcony staterooms were on the smaller side, and the extra space in our mini-suite was valuable for a 15-night sailing. The cabin location was ideal, with only minimal noise from the pool deck above. Plus, it was up one flight to get to the Garden Cafe buffet and down 5 flights to Magenta, one of two main dining rooms. There was a curtain which could be drawn to separate the sleeping and sitting areas, handy if you stay up later than your companion. The highlight of the cabin was the bathroom, which was divided into three separate sections with the toilet on one side, the sink in the middle and the tub and shower on the right. Yes, a bathtub! It was a first for us, and a hot soak was a great way to relax after a busy day. Far and away, the Gem boasted better bathrooms than any cabin we'd ever booked. On embarkation day it was announced that the cabins would not be ready until 2PM, so after boarding at 1 PM, we spent the next hour or so having lunch at the Grand Pacific, the other main dining room. Afterwards, we headed to our cabin, but it was still not ready. We stowed our carry-on bags in the closet and left to explore the ship. In the end, the stewards were not finished until almost 4:30 PM, just after sailing time. Even then, it wasn't very clean. It was obvious that, for whatever reason, preparing the cabins had been given a low priority that day. However, by the first morning the stewards had recovered from the rough start, and Deival and Jeffrey did a competent job for the rest of the cruise. They always followed through if we mentioned something that needed attention, but I would have preferred that they took care of things before being asked. Service staff on the Gem, whether in the hotel or food service areas, was always friendly and cheerful. In a competition with a typical American waitress or hotel chambermaid, they'd win hands down! Sometimes, though, attention to detail was lacking and as a rule I'd call their approach reactive rather than proactive.
We chose this cruise because of the unbeatable itinerary. We had never taken a transatlantic cruise and we had never been to Europe. This itinerary accomplished both, with more ports and fewer sea days than most transatlantics, and allowed for a 15-night cruise while using only ten vacation days. After departing Saturday afternoon and enjoying splendid views of the Statue of Liberty and our passage under the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, we headed out to sea, with the next landfall not until Thursday morning in the Azores at Ponta Delgada, over 2300 miles away. After that we'd have another sea day, then hit Lisbon on Saturday, Malaga in Spain on Sunday, Cadiz, Spain on Monday, enjoy a final sea day Tuesday, arrive in Ajaccio, Corsica on Wednesday, dock in Italy at Civitavecchia (Rome) on Thursday, Livorno (Florence, Pisa) on Friday and Cannes France on Saturday. Then we'd disembark in Barcelona on Sunday. Looking back, it felt like two separate cruises - the first week was relaxing and unhurried with lots of free time, and the second a frantically paced, port-heavy grind. We lost an hour's sleep each night for most of that first week, finally ending up six hours ahead of New York. I thought it would be easier to adjust a bit at a time, not all at once as in jet travel. However the process left me with a sleep deficit and I was quite tired as we neared the end of the cruise. Some of our shore excursions required meeting times as early as 6:40 AM. That certainly didn't help!
The seas were smooth, the weather cool and a bit windy for the crossing. The outdoor decks were deserted and the pools empty as we made our way east. The temperature was between 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. Our balcony was crunchy with the crusty salt spray that continually dried there, blown by the wind even to Deck 11. The highlights of those early days were our Cruise Critic meeting, the Cabin Crawl that was organized through the roll call, and the destination lectures given by Marianne and Peter Bonenberger that familiarized us with the countries we'd visit. We enjoyed bowling in the Bliss Ultra Lounge, where I came in dead last, even with the bumper rails up. I blamed the ship's movement for my poor score! One night there was a Murder Mystery dinner, and we participated with our Cruise Critic friends. We did not use the casino or the spa, and we only attended one evening show...we'd enjoyed Comedian Bill Hildebrandt on the Norwegian Dream in October 2008, and he repeated his act, word for word, on the Gem. Not quite as funny the second time around. Our favorite entertainers aboard were Furioso, a string quartet from Poland. We'd stop by to listen for awhile after dinner most nights, which is certainly not an option back home. We didn't find much else worth staying up for that we had not seen already.
Dining aboard the Gem was the biggest disappointment of the cruise. The food was rarely the proper temperature, the soups thin and watery. Comparing the menu descriptions to what you were served was always interesting. I remember one bit of "menu honesty" though. What we normally call a Hot Turkey Sandwich at home here was referred to as a "Warm Turkey Sandwich". And, the portions were very small. I estimated that you'd have to stack three servings of NCL prime rib to come close to what we enjoyed on Princess in 2008. If I were a host I'd be ashamed to serve such meager dishes to my guests. There were probably only three or four dishes that I truly enjoyed during the cruise, but most were of no better than average quality, and some a lot worse. The "Always Available" "Baby" Shrimp Cocktail was like eating a bowl of grubs. The "shrimp" were thin and stringy, and the whole mess was covered by a cocktail sauce and mayonnaise concoction. The Fish & Chips in the Blue Lagoon 24 hour eatery certainly wasn't haddock. Nor was it any other fish I've ever eaten fried. I loved their tomato soup, though, and most times it actually arrived hot. The Blue Lagoon had the worst service of any eatery. They didn't use an order pad, and as a result you sometimes didn't get everything you ordered, or all the items would arrive at once. It might take 20 minutes to have your water glass refilled. "Comfort food" indeed! At one meal in Grand Pacific, we were served a breadbasket that looked like it had been already used. At the same meal, my wife's Caesar Salad was very warm. She asked for another, but it was no better. They should put the entrees wherever those salads are kept - maybe they'd warm up closer to the proper temperature! Paying more to eat in the specialty restaurants was not always a solution. The Lobster Ravioli at La Cucina were gummy and too fishy-tasting. Rumor has it they're purchased in bulk, not made onboard. Worst of all were the "nachos" in Tequila. We were served a plate of thin chips with Cheez Whiz poured on top - that's it! I haven't had nachos that were quite that bad since a visit to a drive-in theater in 1980! The filet mignon at Cagney's was cooked perfectly and the Oyster's Rockefeller was outstanding, but if those French fries weren't frozen shoestrings I'll eat my napkin. They sure didn't taste like they'd come anywhere near the truffle oil the menu said they were cooked in. The servers would address a problem if it was brought to their attention, but again, it was after the fact. We met some friendly servers and chatted with them. One, Shamilla in Magenta, was particularly personable. What they serve is decided on a corporate level, and I'll bet all cruise lines have reduced their food budgets. But these hard working servers carry out their duties with hospitality and aplomb.
Yes, they have difficult guests to contend with. Especially on this cruise! I'm not prejudiced against any group, but the elderly aboard this cruise were the most rude, crabby, and cantankerous crowd I'd ever seen. They continually pushed in lines. They cut in front of people in the buffet. As a matter of fact, the Garden Cafe was such a free-for-all of rudeness and crudeness that after the first week I never returned. It was not worth the aggravation to fight for the poor-quality food and lack of seating. The undersized seating area was especially a problem when it was too cold or windy outside to eat. The opened the nearby La Cucina for overflow seating, but by the time you got there, your food was stone cold. And if you wanted anything else, you'd have to walk all the way back. The service was generally better in Magenta than in Grand Pacific, where orders were frequently mixed up, beverages never arrived and where the meals were often unevenly paced. Mealtime on the Gem meant another chance to see how cost cutbacks affect the product. On the positive side, because the senior set lined up to wait for the included dining rooms to open at 5:30, there were plenty of tables available later in the evening, and the specialty restaurants were practically deserted. These food frustrations were what led us to reconsider purchasing a future cruise credit. There are others lines out there....
We booked excursions through NCL in all ports except Ajaccio. Ponta Delgada, located on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores, was beautiful - a green, hilly island which looked completely undeveloped outside the towns. It's volcanic in origin, and we loved seeing the caldera lakes and thermal vents on our "Hot Springs & Botanical Gardens" excursion. There are many cows, and we saw them effortlessly standing on the impossibly steep slopes, presumably not worried about the sheer drop to the sea a few feet away. The island was clean, with evidence of new infrastructure improvements funded through membership in the European Union. Tea is produced here, and we enjoyed a sample while visiting a plantation.
Lisbon, Portugal's capital seemed a bit less affluent than most capital cities I've visited. They have all the trappings of modern life, but also cling to their rich history, heritage and culture. It was a real treat to sail under their 25 de Abril Bridge, which spans the Tagus River on the very day it was named for, which is the anniversary of the day the country replaced their dictator with a democracy in 1974. The bridge reminded us of the Golden Gate Bridge, and we learned it was built by the same company. We chose the tour "Monumental Lisbon". After visiting Rossio Square, the Alfalma, and the Jeronimos Monastery, we headed to both the Monument to the Discoveries and the Belem Tower. There's a row of restaurants close to the port, and after our excursion we enjoyed a drink and a snack at one of them near the river. Because it was a holiday in Lisbon, some things that were normally open may have been closed. At sailaway, one of our fellow Cruise Critic members invited us and a few others to a party in their bow penthouse suite, with excellent views of our passage under the bridge, up the river and out to sea.
On Sunday morning we arrived at Cadiz, Spain in a 50-knot, wind-driven rain. We waited a few miles offshore for the storm to subside. The wind buffeted the Gem's side and I could not open the balcony door because of the pressure. The ship actually listed a few degrees too. The captain came on the intercom to reassure the passengers. Finally, the storm broke and we proceeded to the dock for a late arrival. Our excursion was delayed as well; we finally boarded the bus at 11:30 and headed out into the rain and the "Arcos & Sherry" tour. Arcos de la Frontera was a Pueblo Blanco, or white village, where the whitewashed homes are situated along a sandstone ridge. The top of Pena Nueva provided spectacular views of the valley below. The skies began to clear as we began the 30-mile ride to Jerez de la Frontera and the home of the Estevez Group, a winery that makes the region's specialty, Sherry. The tour covered the bodegas, or aging cellars, but nothing else. It seems that every time we choose a shore excursion to learn how something is produced, we'll see it, and maybe taste it, but nothing else. At tables inside, four Sherries were offered for tasting. The last one tasted like raisins or prunes. Very sweet, and not my style. I overheard one of our elderly fellow passengers saying "I'm not paying $8 for prune juice"! It seemed, though, that folks were much more jovial on the ride back to the ship after the wine tasting.
That night, the Gem would pass through the Strait of Gibraltar and enter the Mediterranean Sea. I would have loved to see Africa so close off to starboard, as the Strait is only 7.7 nautical miles wide at its narrowest, but our transit was scheduled between 1:15 and 2:40 AM. Because I had a much-needed appointment in my very comfortable bed, I skipped my chance to see the lights of Morocco.
When we awoke the next day, we were approaching Malaga, Spain. As the Gem maneuvered toward the dock, we passed two naval ships, one from Greece and one from the U.S., and a beautiful Star Clippers vessel. Today we'd see the Alhambra, about 2 hours away by bus - and there were six buses headed there from the ship, so we knew we'd have plenty of company. "Granada and the Magnificent Alhambra" included a 2 ½ hour tour of the palace and fortress complex, a remnant of the days when the Moors ruled Granada almost 800 years ago. From there we moved to the Generalife Gardens to see the flower beds, hedges and fountains. Our tickets were repeatedly scanned as we moved from exhibit to exhibit, causing some our fellow passengers to complain loudly. The kvetching increased considerably at our next stop, a local hotel for a buffet lunch. It was very crowded, and not particularly well-managed, but I thought it was unnecessary for someone to shout "Help! Would somebody PLEASE tell us what to do?" at the top of their lungs because they couldn't figure out where the two lines began and ended. After lunch, we headed straight back to the pier, skipping the promised "panoramic tour of the city" and photo stop at the Albaicin. I have no idea why that happened - no explanation was offered.
Then came Tuesday and our final sea day of the cruise. We slept until 9AM, and enjoyed every minute. The weather had turned nicer and the seas smoother once we were in the Mediterranean, and we hit the pools for the first and only time during the cruise. The chair hogs were out in full force, and lounge chairs were at a premium. It was a nice, relaxing day. By 11 PM we had sailed 4,150 miles since New York and had another 145 miles to sail before reaching Ajaccio, Corsica the next morning.
Corsica is a French island 110 miles from the Côte d'Azur. We had planned to venture out on our own in this port. We got off the ship at about 9:30 and headed out to find Le Petit Train d'Ajaccio, similar to a Disney World tram but resembling a train engine with cars full of tourists in tow. I had discovered this online, and it sounded like a great way to see some of the city for only 10 Euros each. We found the office, but they told us that the trains were departing from... the pier! So, we walked all the way back, bought our tickets, and waited about an hour for one to show up. While we were waiting, an elderly man collapsed just outside the cruise terminal. His companions tended to him until the ambulance arrived. It's a good thing that one came - despite running back to the gangway and asking that the ship's doctor come down to help - NCL staff would only say that the ambulance was coming. Finally, trains began to arrive and the passenger backlog began to clear. As we boarded I watched more than a few portly passengers hoist themselves into the cars with a great deal of heaving and hoeing in an effort to navigate the narrow openings. Ajaccio is the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, so a stop at his monument was obligatory. Then we set out for Les Îles Sanguinaires, rocky wind-swept islands where we saw a tower dating back to the time when the Genoese ruled Corsica. The tour ended back at the town square, and we continued our explorations on foot. There was even time to by a baguette at a boulangerie before re-boarding the Gem in time for a late lunch in the Blue Lagoon.
A day later we were docked in Civitavecchia and on our way to the Eternal City on the "Rome and the Vatican" tour, which was the most expensive excursion of our cruise. My wife looked forward to this port the most. She had waited all her life to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Michelangelo's Pietà. First stop was the Vatican Museums. Our guide had a deep knowledge and great passion for Michelangelo and we benefited from her experience as we negotiated the displays using "strategy, my dears!" I expected crowds here, and I got 'em. It was hard to keep up with the group due to the crowding; there was only time for brief glances at the wonders on display. Soon enough we found ourselves in the Sistine Chapel gazing upward in awe Michelangelo's unbelievably impressive paintings. Amazing. Four years, on his back, working alone. It took our breath away. We were warned not to take pictures, and we didn't - at least none that used a flash... After another buffet lunch at a hotel we were taken by bus past some ancient Roman ruins, with a stop at the Coliseum. We were not able to go inside, but we snapped photos from a block away. We discovered a gelateria where I first tasted the awesome wonders of lemon gelato. I hope it won't be my last taste! I wonder why something that good isn't widely available in the States.
By now we were getting that "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" feeling, but it was Friday and we had docked in Livorno. It was also May 1, a holiday in Italy. This we knew - but we couldn't have guessed how it would ruin the day for us. We picked the "Cinque Terre" excursion because we thought the museums in Florence might be closed, and instead we would enjoy some quiet time off the beaten path in the remote "five lands" which are inaccessible except by boat, train or a long, arduous walk. Wrong! Double wrong! I think the entire population of Italy descended on the Cinque Terre that day. The plan featured a bus ride to La Spezia, where we'd board a boat for the trip to the first town we'd visit, Manarola. From there, we'd walk the Via Dell'Amore, or "Street of Love" to Rio Maggiore. Then, we'd climb aboard another boat and make our way to the fishing village of Vernazza. Finally, we'd spend time in Monterosso al Mare, and maybe have lunch before taking the train back to La Spezia and the bus. Well, we did it, but we certainly were not alone. I later learned that the Cinque Terre is both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is often crowded, and more so on holidays. The stretch of the Via Dell'Amore that we walked was a narrow path along the cliffs overlooking the sea - so narrow, that with the crowds, the pace was "STEP, wait, two, three, four, STEP, wait, two, three, four" at its fastest. At the worst of the bottlenecks we stood, cheek to jowl, for minutes at a time without moving. The tour guide made a valiant effort to keep the group together, but this was next to impossible. An elderly couple with mobility problems kept falling behind. Understandably so, as the paths were narrow, steep in spots, with many stairs and tight corners to slow them down. I think the activity level of most of the European excursions should be adjusted to show the true level of difficulty for passengers like this in areas where easy accessibility such as we in the U.S. enjoy because of the Americans with Disabilities Act does not exist. Looking back, we picked the best excursion on the worst day. The Via Dell'Amore was not romantic - it's was more like a cattle drive. The restaurants weren't quaint, they were jammed. We got separated from our group and wandered around alone for an hour before we relocated our guide. But we did find a quiet dirt path in Monterosso that led up a hill past houses where fresh laundry hung outside the windows and lemon trees grew in the sunny side yards, and we discovered a centuries-old church where we lit a candle in thanks for our amazing adventure.
Then, Saturday, (a lil' French lingo here) the pièce de rEsistance... Cannes, France. The French Riviera. Not the original Riviera, though, as that honor goes to the Italian Riviera and the area from La Spezia to the French border. But when we tendered ashore in Cannes and boarded yet another bus for the trip to "Monaco and Nice", we knew this Riviera was no slouch. We passed the venue for the famous Cannes Film Festival and famous hotels like the Carlton along La Croisette and the sea. Arriving in Nice, we had time to stroll a spectacular open-air market with the most incredible variety of fruits & vegetables, meats, cheeses and flowers imaginable: the famous Cours Saleya. What a shame that we couldn't bring any of that magnificent produce home with us. But we feasted with our eyes, and took lots of pictures. We snapped up a small jar of pesto and a selection of local mustards as all-too-precious souvenirs. Back aboard the bus, we motored to Monaco. Along the way, we caught a glimpse of Nice's harbor from the road above. Eze was visible across the ridge, a medieval village we'd have to come back another time to visit. Then, we arrived in Monaco, where lifestyles of the rich and famous play out on a daily basis. It's tiny, too. Imagine: during one cruise were we able to visit the two smallest countries in the world. Monaco, at 0.7 square miles, is second only to Vatican City in size at two-tenths of a square mile. We had two stops in the Principality; one on "The Rock", the oldest part of Monaco and home to the Palace and the most breathtaking views of the harbor - and the other in Monte Carlo, home to the renowned Casino and ostentatious displays of wealth at every turn. The weather was spectacular as we drooled over the yachts in the harbor, saw the guard marching at the Palace and then took a quick lunch at a nearby shop. A short time later we stared in awe at the luxury sports cars, opulent jewelry stores and lavish hotels in Monte Carlo. We saw the viewing stands and the guardrails in place for the Grand Prix later in the month, the Formula One race held yearly through the heart of the Principality. What an exciting place to visit! All too soon it was time to climb into the bus and head back to the Gem. The ladies sunbathing without the hindrance of a top on the beach at Cannes kept many a male nose pressed to the bus windows on the return trip to the ship. That night, we'd have to face the fact that it was time to pack and prepare to disembark in Barcelona the next morning. Disembarkation was easy - your luggage is placed on airport-style carousels for retrieval.
Truly, it was the trip of a lifetime for us. Was everything perfect? Of course not. Would we do it again in a heartbeat? Absolutely! We have seen much more of this wide world now and we've seen its people - and we're richer for the experience. We met a great group of people on the Cruise Critic roll call that we would love to sail with again, and who added immeasurably to our enjoyment of the cruise. We loved the itinerary, but not the type of crowd a transatlantic attracts. I don't get it: they have money, the time and the physical ability to go on a cruise like this - so why are these older folks so petulant and rude? And, despite a few disappointments or places where we thought the cost-cutting had gone too far, Norwegian and the Gem and especially its crew were a good choice to help us get there. What a trip: over five thousand nautical miles of memories to last a lifetime.