Travel Back in Time on the Holiday of a Lifetime
Reviewed by: The Urban Traveler
Overall Grade: A+
Kid’s Rating: n/a
Fun Factor: A+
The Food: B+
Best For: History and culture buffs; family-friendly, too.
Date of Stay: October 7-12 2008
The Lowdown: The flagship of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), the Norwegian Gem celebrated its first birthday while I was aboard. This is a brand spanking new ship with 11 bars & lounges, 12 restaurants, a four-lane bowling alley, climbing wall, basketball court, several pools, waterslide, spa and flexible, inter-connecting staterooms perfect for families or groups. You can (and will) get lost exploring the many, many things to do aboard ship. But you won’t have too much time to worry about whether you’ll go
bowling, swimming or to the spa today, because you’ll definitely want
to take advantage of the incredible shore excursions in cities like
Valletta (Malta), Naples, Rome, Florence and Cannes. One of the best features about NCL is their policy of “freestyle cruising” – you get to do what you want, when you want. That means you’re not tied to a pre-arranged seating time in the dining room with the same group of passengers, and you don’t have to attend the formal dinner in a cocktail dress (of course you can, if you want to!) Die-hard, old-school cruisers look down their noses on NCL and the freestyle concept, but it seems to me like an idea whose time has come, for a new generation of cruisers.
Kid’s Comments: My children didn’t accompany me on this dream vacation – it was a jaunt for two best gal pals, but some of our fellow cruisers did bring their families, and they all raved about the experience. There’s a special kid’s pool on deck 12, (perfect for toddlers), and for unparented fun there’s the Tree Tops Kids Club (for younger children), Leopard Lounge (for teens) and a video arcade, too. But before you bring your kids to the Mediterranean, think long and hard about whether they’ll be up to walking around the ruins of Pompeii or touring the Vatican. My sense is that the shore excursions might leave them a little bored.
- The Ship:
It’s brand new, it’s sumptuous and it’s got thousands of things to do. From live theatre to relaxing in the spa (my fave daily activity!) you could spend a week on board and not cover everything – even if you never went ashore.
- The Food: There’s a commonly held belief that everyone who takes a cruise will gain ten pounds while aboard ship. Given the broad range of restaurants and buffets, this could well be true. But if you cruise the Mediterranean, take advantage of walking tours in the big cities and you’ll be able to afford a sumptuous dinner when you get back to the ship. As for the quality, some of the shipboard restaurants were excellent (notably Teppanyaki and Tequila) while the others were adequate. Be aware that the better restaurants charge a $10 or $20 surcharge (usually well worth it). We ordered room service several times, but I was frankly disappointed. The selection is very limited (for a ship boasting 12 restaurants, the room service menu pulls from only one of them) and the quality is not top-notch. And while it was pure heaven to eat breakfast on our private balcony overlooking Mount Vesuvius as we pulled into port in Naples, Italy, the bland and dry pastries in our continental breakfast failed to enhance the experience.
- The Ports of Call: This cruise embarks in Barcelona, so why not arrive a day or two early and explore all that this beautiful Spanish city has to offer? We did, and it was one of the highlights of our trip. Enjoy all the ship-board amenities during your day at sea, and get a good rest before arriving at the amazing grand harbour in historic Valletta, Malta. Next stop: Italy! Three days in this beautiful country could never be enough, but you will get a delicious taste of this wonderful country in Naples, Civitavecchia (Rome) and Livorno (Pisa, Florence). Then it’s off to France’s Cote d’Azur where you’ll dock in Villefranche-sur-mer, and you can choose to visit Cannes or Monte Carlo (Monaco).
- The Shore Excursions: NCL offers a wide array of shore excursions in each port of call. In Malta and Naples we took part in NCL-organized excursions, but in Rome and Florence we were looking for a bit more leeway to do our own thing, so a group of six of us shared the cost of a private driver with the service Rome In Limo, which I highly recommend.
After a day at sea, you’ll be thrilled to arrive at the amazing city of
Valletta, Malta, where you can take a tour up to the medieval city of
Mdina. History buffs will love all that Malta has to offer, but there are shore excursions for outdoor enthusiasts and shoppers as well.
When you dock next morning in Naples, take advantage of tours through the ancient ruins of either Pompeii or
Herculaneum. You may even want to consider taking a coach
to beautiful Sorrento and then a ferry to Capri – it’s an experience
you won’t forget! Naples is also the birthplace of pizza, so don’t
forget to have an authentic pizza here. The margherita (tomato, basil and mozzarella) is traditional.
When you dock in Civitavecchia, your real destination is the Eternal City: Rome. There’s so much to choose from: all the ruins of the ancient Romans (the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum), the famous Trevi fountain and Piazza Navona, and all the splendours of Vatican City (the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica). If you plan well, you can see them all in a day, or you can choose to focus on one area and see it in more depth.
Next port: Livorno. It’s just a short drive from here to Pisa, where you can snap a picture in front of the famous leaning tower (and climb to the top if it’s open) then stroll along the quaint markeptlace. And don’t give up the chance to drive through the Tuscan countryside to Florence – a city that cannot fail to amaze. While in Florence, be sure to visit the Uffizi Gallery to see Boticelli’s Venus, or check out the Galleria dell’Accademia to see DaVinci’s David in all his glory (this was the top-point of my trip). Whatever you do, don’t forget to grab a meal of pasta, caprese salad and chianti – the classic wine of Tuscany, finished off with dessert of gelato.
Finally, you’ll dock in Villefranche-sur-mer, an unbelievably picturesque town on the French Riviera. We chose to explore Villefranche on our own by foot, but there are organized NCL excursions to both Cannes and Monte Carlo, Monaco, as well as the beautiful medieval town of Eze, perched high up on a cliff overlooking the sea. Tomorrow it’s back to Barcelona and then onwards to home. Try not to shed a tear as the ship heads back out to see for the last time on the voyage!
- The Spa: Offering all you’d expect from a full-service spa (and more: you can get your teeth whitened and have botox injections, if that’s your cup of tea), the Yin and Yang Spa and Beauty Salon is one of my favourite attractions on the Norwegian Gem. For a reasonable rate you can get unlimited access to the hydrotherapy pools, sauna, hot tub, and my favourite – heated stone reclining benches. The spa is located at the front (oops, I mean bow) of the ship on deck 12 with a panoramic view of the sparkling Mediterranean sea. Not to be missed!