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Review: A 12-day Barcelona/NCL Gem Adventure

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We shall start and end this review with lost luggage….

 

For those of you who have ever wondered how luggage manages to get lost traveling from point A to point B, I can confidentially say I know the secret.

 

While traveling to the Orlando International Airport on our way to catch a flight to NY and then Barcelona, we spied a lone suitcase in the grass on the side of one of the airport “backstage” roads, which was adjacent to the road leading into the airport. Collectively, all the adults in the vehicle said, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh……” Clearly, the suitcase had fallen from a luggage cart that had been speeding towards an airplane. My mom blurted out, “Quick, let’s say a luggage prayer so that doesn’t happen to us.”

 

Fast forward 45 minutes later, as our traveling party is sitting at the windowside seats at the American Airlines terminal, we see a suitcase fall off another luggage cart. Again, the collective, “Ohhhhhh……” We quickly breathed a sigh of relief when we realized that the luggage cart had stopped at a nearby Continental plan. Not us---PHEW!

 

Amazingly, half a dozen vehicles drove right by that suitcase and NO ONE stopped! Although it seemed like my family was a little crazy, or perhaps watching an imaginary football game because we were yelling and screaming and tapping on the glass in an attempt to get someone to see what had happened. Of course we know our efforts were in vain because those terminal windows have a reflective covering on the outside so no one could see us. Right! I was ready to find an AA agent and have them call Continental to alert them that they were about to have a lost suitcase problem, when luckily, that same luggage cart drove by, stopped, and picked it up. Crisis averted!

 

But, we were left to wonder if one of our suitcases would suffer the same fate…Just to be sure we were prepared, I had mixed out clothing in the suitcases so that no one of our suitcases was filled with only one person’s clothing. That way, if one was “lost” we would all still have something to wear.

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TIME TRAVEL

 

Our traveling party, which consisted of myself, DH, DS (7), DD (5), my mother, father, brother, and his wife. We were heading to Barcelona for 3 pre-cruise days, then on to the Norwegian Gem, for a 7-day Western Mediterranean cruise. The trip had been planned for months in advance, as we were celebrating my father’s 70th (b-day actually in September, but traveling to Med in summer worked out better for us), as well as DS 8th b-day.

 

Our flight to Barcelona was uneventful, which was a relief because DS is deathly afraid of flying. He managed quite well, sitting next to his oh-so-protective father. Earlier in the day, DS had wished that he had a time machine so he could instantly be past the plane flight. Later in the day, while on the NY layover, we were discussing the time difference between the US and Europe, and noted how we would wake-up on the plane in tomorrow because we were going forward in time. DS smiled and said, “So I guess we really DO have a time machine!”

 

We arrive at Barcelona almost 8 hours later. The kids, although tired, believe they slept all night because it is daylight when we land. The adults in the party know better…

 

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We disembark the plane in a very Euro way: straight down the stairs onto the tarmac, which the kids think is the COOLEST THING EVER! Bonus points in their eyes because the transport bus is parked under the wing. Walking under the plane really brings to light how big these planes are. Even more amazing is the fact that this plane is just going to turn around and fly again, and again, and again, back and forth over the Atlantic.

 

Standing in customs, we can’t help but chuckle at the unsuspecting Americans who have gotten in the much-shorter EU citizen line. Oops!

 

We are quickly processed through the airport, find our luggage (which didn’t fall off a luggage cart) and amble out front to load into two taxis. Our non-English speaking taxi driver has no trouble at all with us non-Spanish speaking people because we’ve handed him a little pre-printed slip of paper with our hotel address on it. Kudos to my Mom for thinking of this little trick. NOTE—be sure to keep this slip of paper in your wallet in case you need it later during your stay.

 

Two weeks prior to our departure, our Hotel (Gallerie Hotel) called to let us know that there was going to be extra noise at the hotel since the street out front was undergoing repair. No problem, we are easy-going and have found Europe (in the past) to be loud in general, what with scooters, police sirens, and whatnot. Little did we know that the ENTIRE street in front of our hotel (no joke) was CLOSED…completely. Our taxi driver was confused by the closure and actually attempted to turn into the construction area to get to the hotel. We were immediately met by loud shouts. A burly foreman walked over and began talking loudly to our poor driver, who was waving his hands and shouting back. Although none of us spoke Spanish, we knew the conversation was something like this, “You stupid idiot, you can’t drive here!” Meanwhile, our taxi was blocking traffic behind us, so a cacophony of horns was building. Argument over, the cabbie backs up the car (EEEK!) and continues down the block. He starts speaking to us and pointing. With our fabulous Spanish-deciphering skills, we quickly realized we are about to be dumped on the corner, luggage and all, and are expected to walk the rest of the way.

 

OK…

 

We suddenly wish we hadn’t brought 4 suitcases with us, since it will now be DH and I, each pulling 2 suitcases, while also holding our carry-on bags, and keeping track of our two kids. And, we wondered where the other taxi with the rest of our party went.

 

So, we blindly headed off in the direction of that the cabbie pointed (remember, we didn’t exactly know where the hotel was). At one point, the construction wall was situated so that the walking path was very, very narrow. We jammed our suitcases through that narrow portion (much to the chagrin of the Barcelonans walking down the street as well), turned the corner, and saw my brother standing in front of the hotel, waiting for us. Apparently, there is a back entrance to the hotel that our cabbie as not aware of, with CURBSIDE access!!!! Curses!

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The Gallerie Hotel is 4-STAR hotel located centrally near Catalunya, Ave Diagonal, and Las Ramblas. It was very nice, and other than the closed front street, suited our needs well. We had 3 rooms booked: a double (brother and wife), and two triples. The triple rooms were actually doubles, with a roll-away cot.

 

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NOTE—in Europe is often very difficult to find quad rooms. So, we knew in advance that one of our children would be having a “sleep-over” with their grandparents every night while in Barcelona.

 

Although we couldn’t check into the hotel quite yet (it was 11am, and check-in was at 2pm), we arranged to stow our luggage and then headed off into the city to explore. Even though we were tired, we knew if we just kept forging ahead, our jetlag would not bother us.

 

We randomly walked the area around our hotel and discovered 2 of Gaudi’s apartment buildings nearby. Very futuristic looking. One we aptly called the “Mermaid building” because the roof looked like a mermaid’s tail.

 

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We don’t go into either of these houses because the line is quite long, and the entrance fee quite high.

 

We also discovered a McDonald’s on nearby Catalunya, where we stopped and purchased lunch for the kids. The Spanish Happy Meal consisted of chicken or hamburger, fries, apples or yogurt, and choice of drink, and each cost approximately 6+ dollars. Ouch!

 

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Kids happily fed, we wandered off in search of our own lunch. We stumbled upon Taller de Tapas, a really cool tapas restaurant, and all had various samples interesting things to eat. Of note, the chicken skewers (good!) and the fried potatoes with mayonnaise and paprika. Lunch cost a lot, but we didn’t let it bother us as we knew in advance that food was pricey. It’s only money…

 

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Following lunch, it was time to go back to the hotel and check in, and FINALLY rest. Despite our attempts not to, all eight of us “rested” in our rooms, and actually ended up taking 2 hour naps. Shoot—we were trying to tough it out and not sleep all day so we could “beat” the jetlag.

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Rested and revived after our naps, we headed back out into the city again in search of dinner. We wandered down to Las Ramblas, which is a bustling “square” area of Barcelona, with entertainment and street vendors. This area is also know for its Living Statues, which are street performers that dress up as characters and come to life once you give them money. Really neat!

 

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As we made our way back to the hotel, at the close of the LONGEST DAY EVER, we stopped and enjoyed the first of many ice cream treats. Not gelato (we’re in Spain, remember), but ice cream bars and frozen fruity treats. Although we have many similar things in the US, they just taste so much better in Europe.

 

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Another thing that tastes so much better in Europe is Fanta Orange. It is not so much soda as it is orange juice with Sprite mixed in. So good, and refreshing, and light. Mmmmmmmmm….

 

We also stopped at a grocery store to buy bottled water and Fanta. I have no idea where this store is, and couldn’t find it again if I tried. We just accidentally found it. Oddly enough, there were very few grocery stores in the area of Barcelona we were in. Just where do the Spanish shop?

 

Back at the hotel, before retiring to bed, we all gathered on the rooftop terrace to watch the sun go down and reflect upon our upcoming trip and plans for the next few days. What a great start to a trip!

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The next morning, we were well-rested, and our jet lag seemed to be gone. We would find upon our arrival back in Florida that recovering from jetlag coming from Europe is much, much harder.

 

Our traveling party met at 8am at the hotel breakfast buffet. It was a typical European buffet, consisting of meats, cheeses, and breads, as well as pastries and cereals. My mother and I were ecstatic to find our all-time favorite thing: Guark. Made by Dannon, or “Danon” in Europe, it is European yogurt with fruit. Like Fanta and ice cream, it’s just not the same as US yogurt. And, it comes in a glass jar so it’s just cool!

 

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Our traveling party was splitting for the day, with brother and wife heading out on their own, while the rest of us spent the morning on the HOHO bus. As part of our hotel reservation, we had all received a free “Barcelona card” which provided various discounts and free stuff while in Barcelona. We used the Barcelona card to get a discount for the HOHO bus, which conveniently stopped a block away from our hotel.

 

Onboard the bus, you receive a set of headphones that get plugged into the seatback in front of you, and you hear a narrator tell you about various city sights. It is very well-narrated and we learned a lot. DD enjoyed plugging, and unplugging, and re-plugging her headphones in, She also amused herself by switching her headset channel to other languages, which just made her giggle. Funnier yet, is when she would sneakily change MY headset to another language, and wait for my reaction upon hearing the Chinese narrator bark at me. After the 15th time, it really wasn’t funny anymore—at least to me.

 

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We decided to “hop off” the bus at the top of the hill overlooking the city. What a great view! Barcelona is so unique, with traditional concrete/stone building and super-ultra modern new building, I couldn’t help but think I was looking out at a Lego city, created by my son, all jumbled together in various ways.

 

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The National Museum was also located at this stop, and on a whim, we went in. The kids and my “senior” parents were free, but DH and I used the Barcelona cards for a slight discount. Surprisingly, it was a fantastic museum. Lots of really neat religious art from Spain, of course! One section of the museum was dedicated to frescos from a church. Amazingly, they used a reverse transfer process to remove the frescoes from the crumbling church walls and put them onto a new surface, which remained in the museum. Hard to describe, but amazing. The kids marveled at all the religious painting, and couldn’t help but stop and stare when they feature (gasp) naked people.

 

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Also in this museum is Europe’s largest organ. It’s huge!

 

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Back on the HOHO bus to finish the route and head towards the Cathedral Gothic, which is supposed to be one of the most gothic Catherdrals in the Mediterranean. At the Cathedral, we get stopped by the security. No Entrance, he says. Huh?

 

After some back and forth, we finally figure out that it is closed for the afternoon for three hours due to siesta. AARGH! I really, really wanted to see this.

 

We stop for lunch at a nearby restaurant called Taverna dei Bisbe. Mom and I have something called “Cathedral” bread. It’s a fabulous crusty piece of bread with pork, tomatoes, and emanthal cheese

 

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The kids begin their french fry diet. They are very picky eaters. Since there is no such thing as a kids menu in any of these local restaurants, and there is no such thing as a chain restaurant other than McDonald’s, I resign myself to allowing them to eat french fries, knowing that as soon as we board the cruise ship, they will back to “normal” with sandwiches, mac-n-cheese, fruit, and veggies.

 

French fries it is…

 

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NOTE—I did bring various snacks with us from home (Florida), and was always sure to have a various assortment of them in my bag: Pop Tarts, fruit snacks, Little Debbie Nutty bars, and peanut butter crackers.

 

While we wait for the food to arrive, I play cards with my daughter. Remember, no kids menu so no fun menu to color or anything like that. The waiter approaches and tells me with a very serious look, “You may not play cards in a restaurant in Barcelona.” What? Are you kidding me? Do you see not see that these are silly kids cards? I think this in my head and don’t say it aloud.

 

Apparently, it is illegal and could get me arrested.

 

Those who are heading to Barcelona—be forewarned!

 

By the end of lunch, it has become a joke between the waiter and I, and how I am a criminal, and how I COULD walk in the street makes because that is NOT illegal. Crazy rules!

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Following lunch we hop back on the bus, switch routes, and stop at La Sagrada Familia, where we meet up with brother and his wife.

 

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What an amazing site! We spend quite bit of time touring the church and its museum

(underneath the church) and learn lots about Gaudi and his theories. Very little of the church was built before Gaudi died. So,. Kudos to the team who has kept Gaudi’s vision alive! I wonder if anyone will ever worship in the church? The church is a bit of a monstrosity of “overkill” with so many statues.

 

Previously, as we were waiting in line to buy tickets for the church, we were accosted by the first of many beggars that we will see during our trip. This woman, dressed in a long dress and carrying a picture of a small child, looked forlornly at us with her hands out. It was a bit unnerving, the dichotomy of being on vacation and frivolously spending money while being faced with someone who was starving. We did not acknowledge her and walked right by. When we exited the church, we saw that the police were ticketing her. No sympathy from them either.

 

Across the street from the church was a small market. DS and DD quickly discovered the candy stall, and looked longingly at the wares displayed. Of course we bought them some fabulous European candy. Mmmmm….

 

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My mom, the kids, and I hopped back on the bus to finish out the day, while DH, my brother and wife went to a local tavern to enjoy the beer. Despite having several pints, they made it back to the hotel, and joined us for dinner.

 

We closed out the day with more ice cream, and then another evening visit to the rooftop terrace. The kids amused themselves by playing hide-n-seek, with less then 3 places to hide. It was very funny to watch.

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We arose to another fabulous European breakfast, and more Guark. I love the stuff! This morning, our plans included all traveling as a group to the market at Las Ramblas.

 

OK.

 

Easier said than done.

 

We walked, and walked, and walked, and NEVER FOUND IT!!!!! The market, that is.

 

We did enjoy Las Ramblas and the Living Statues again. We also discovered the flower vendors at Las Ramblas. Oh, the sweet smell of flowers, and what great pictures!

 

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Further down, we also stumbled upon several small groups of artists. We are suckers for local artists, and couldn’t help but buy a few things.

 

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Oh my gosh, we walked so far that had ended up at the waterfront! That’s a long way, so don’t tell the kids, who were complaining that they were tired of walking.

 

At the waterfront, we visited the Christopher Columbus monument. It is a very tall statue with elevator inside so that once on top, you can see for miles.

 

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Knowing that our Barcelona card gave us FREE ADMISSION, we went inside. At the counter, there was a lot of confusion, and we didn’t clearly understand that in addition to the Barcelona card we also needed a coupon to ride the elevator. Unfortunately, we didn’t all have those coupons since we had left the coupon books back at the hotel. So, as we opened our wallets to pay, asking how much, the man the desk got frustrated with us and our large party, and just told us, “Forget it—no pay, just go up.” AAAA!!!! Awkward. We felt like stupid American tourists. Following that incident, we forbade my mother to talk, since it was her incessant “What, I don’t understand, but we have a card…” rambling that had stressed out the counter guy.

 

Once inside the statue looking out over the panoramic view of Barcelona, I once again couldn’t help but think it was a giant Lego city. We saw some cruise ships docked at the nearby pier, and got very excited for our upcoming cruise—tomorrow was the big day. Looking closely, I saw that one of the ships was the MSC Orchestra. How cool! We are cruising her in April. DS, was confused by seeing the MSC Orchestra in Barcelona and asked, “Are we coming all the way here again for our next cruise?” Eye roll from him as he says this. I explain that we will be taking a Caribbean cruise again next time. “Oh,”, he says, but I really don’t think it makes sense to him.

 

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As we sneak away from the Christopher Columbus statue (we are silly Americans), we notice a small antique market across the street. All kids of really neat old things for sale: books, china, posters, toys, coins. DS really likes the coins so my brother buys him one. According to the seller, it is Italian. The coin is unrecognizable, and basically just looks like a dark blob of metal. No distinguishable markings. So, we quickly make up a story about how it is a coin from Pompeii. DS buys into the whole story. And can’t help but tell everyone for the remainder of the trip that he has a coin from Pompeii! It’s very funny!

 

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Since we have walked a thousand miles (according to the kids), we decide to be adventurous and take the subway to our next destination: Park Guell. Luckily, there is a subway station nearby, and even more luckily, that specific line stops nearby Park Guell. As we approach the subway ticket vendor, we quickly SHUSH my mom and forbid her to talk, knowing that we are about to attempt to use our Barcelona cards for free (legitimate) subway fare. It works!

 

We hope on the subway and are on our way. Sadly, my kids call it the “Sandwich” train, in reference to Subway sandwiches, which glaringly shows that they are young victims of American marketing. Sigh….For them, it is their very-first subway ride.

 

After a few stops, the subway car stops, and an announcement comes on. We realize that somehow we have reached the end of the line. Hmmmm….But we are not-yet at our destination. As we emerge from the subway we realize that we are very near our hotel, and the subway was at a “faux” end-of-the-line due to street work. Yes, that very-same street work in front of our hotel!!! We are directed to a bus, and told that the bus will travel the “missing” stops from the subway. But, seeing that there are about 200 others amassed on the median waiting for the same bus, we decide to take a taxi the rest of the way.

 

We pile into two taxis, and quickly are wisked away to Park Guell, which is located above the city.

 

What a neat place. Designed by Gaudi, it is full of really neat stone sculptures, walkways, cool benches, and other Gaudi-esque living art. After being told for several days to “watch out”, “stay out of the way”, “hold my hand”, and “be quiet”, the kids enjoy the freedom to run around the park and climb on things. Yahooo!!!

 

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Us adults meander along behind them and slowly sweat to death.

 

Following our jaunt to the park, my brother, his wife, and I head out for some power shopping while everyone else retires to the hotel for an afternoon siesta. We head back down to the waterfront section of Barcelona, nearby the Dali museum. There are lots of little boutique and pottery shops, and we spend a good hour picking out a few chachkis. As we wind our way through the narrow streets, we are amazed to find ourselves at the Cathedral Gothic. Somehow, Barcelona allows you to walk further than you actually think you can and you end up in far-flung places.

 

We decide to go into the Cathedral, seeing that it actually IS open for visiting. It truly is amazing, and gothic, and dreary-looking.

 

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Back at the hotel, we decide to all go our separate ways for dinner. My parents join us as we visit a nearby German taverna. Good beer, and GREAT tapas, consisting of veal skewers. The kids have french fries….again.

 

One last visit to the rooftop terrace before retiring for the evening. Everyone is anxiously looking forward to being on a cruise TOMORROW!!!

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Sunday had finally arrived, and although we were sad to say goodbye (temporarily) to Spain, we were glad to be moving to our new “home” aboard the NCL Gem. For the kids sake, I was glad to finally be able to feed them more appropriately!

 

I have no idea why, but we gathered for an early-morning breakfast at 8:30am. Following that, we had a bit of time to kill, so we went to the square around the back of the hotel and let the kids run wild amongst the pigeons. As I sat off to the side, a youngish looking woman approached me w/a cup, and I assume she asked for money. I said, “Nope, I have nothing on me.” And I truly didn’t. My purse was inside the hotel. She yelled at me in Spanish and walked away angrily. DH says she accused me of lying. How could I claim to have nothing when I was holding a bottle of water in my hand? Yeah, right. This an “old” bottle of water we had “stolen” from the rooftop terrace last night, from an unlocked refrigerator in the gym. I did not pay for it. So there, crazy beggar person!

 

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Enough of pigeons and such. We all traipsed upstairs, gathered our luggage, and congregated in the lobby. As you can imagine, 8 people and their luggage is quite a crowd!

 

Then, I made a HUGE mistake. The concierge approached and asked if we needed taxis. Of course we do! Can you arrange for two that can accommodate all of us?

 

Nooo---I had forgotten the cardinal rule of not pre-ordering taxis. Doing so allows them to turn on the meter as soon as they are dispatched BEFORE they even pick us up. So, when we sat down in the taxis, we were alarmed to see that there was already a 9.5E charge accrued. AAAGH! And, to make matters worse, DH and my mother second guessed me, and CHANGED the order to 3 really big taxis. Noooooo. That just added on another really big taxi fare.

 

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We arrived at the pier, paid our 33E taxi fare (ouch) and were ASTOUNDED to learn that the other two taxi fares were only 23E each. We had been scammed. Gah! Not a good way to start off a cruise. But, my mother put it all into perspective and said, “Let it go. If that’s the only thing we’ve gotten scammed on so far, we’re doing good.” OK….True, though. I recall being charged quite a hefty fee on our last trip to Italy when we ordered calamari that we all shared. Instead of being charged for one plate of calamari, we were EACH charged for it. Ouch, ouch, ouch!!!

 

We dropped off our luggage with the porters, and I had a brief “OMG” moment because I wasn’t sure that anyone had tipped them. Would our luggage get to our rooms? Oh no! We shall see…

 

We entered the terminal, which was very clean and well-organized. Proudly, we walked up to the balcony/mini-suite line, and were promptly called to the counter to check in.

 

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Keys were assigned, credit cards deposited, and photos were taken in a matter of minutes. We were then quickly ushered up to the gangway, where we took the obligatory photo. This photo was being taken in front of a green screen, which meant they were going to add-in a background. Sort-of cheating, I think. DH commented that he was going to be invisible, since he was also wearing a bright green polo shirt. (I nearly fell over laughing so hard when we saw the photo later. Sure enough, DH was invisible, with only a head and arms. He was ninja-DH!)

 

Up the gangplank, a quick scan of the cards and the mandatory hand sanitizer, and we were ON! Oh my gosh! My mother and I nearly cried. All the months and months of planning, and here we were. Champagne glasses in hand, we were escorted up to the Garden Café for lunch. All this by 12:15pm.

 

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A quick tour around the ship followed lunch, since we were still not able to access our cabins. And, a stop in at the Reception desk so that we could request additional room keys. Although we were traveling in one cabin per family, we had booked them differently so we could “spread out” the Latitudes members and get the discount for each cabin, Cheating, I know. But it worked. So, now we only needed an extra key for each cabin so that we could “switch back” to our normal family units in each cabin.

 

We had three balconies side-by-side 9160 (quad), 9162 (double), 9164 (double) which are starboard AFT. Great cabins. Not too much noise, and at the back of the ship so not too much foot traffic nearby. I must confess that one closet, one set of shelves, and set of drawers seem like less space than on many other cruise ships. But we made it work. I also chose to NOT bring the over-the-shoe door hanger (LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it when cruising) due to space/suitcase constraints while traveling abroad. Normally, we cruise out of Florida, which is where we live, so we can pack the suitcases to the MAX with no weight concerns. Not this time—so the over-the-door hanger got the cut.

 

I was curious to see how the quad cabin would be laid out. Amazingly, in addition to the couch folding out into a bed, the pull-down bed is actually right in front of the balcony door. So, we had to perform some amazing contortionist acts to get outside after the cabin was turned down for the night. My DD choose to sleep in the pull down bed, and I had no qualms at all about her doing so, even though we didn’t have her traveling bed rail (another victim of suitcase weight) because the bed wasn’t really that high, and when the couch was folded out, it butted up to our bed. So, if she fell, she would do so on mattresses. By-the-way, in case you were curious, she didn’t fall at all.

 

We quickly hung up our cabin doors sign and made the cabin our new “home. Actually, we had made cabin signs for all three cabins, which consisted of a “Papa and Max’s B-Day adventure” poster as well as a poster with the cabin occupants names brightly colored by the kids. I was surprised to see that we seemed to be the only ones on the entire ship that had door signs. Not really an NCL thing, I guess.

 

We spent the remainder of the afternoon at the pool.

 

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Being among the first on the ship, we had full-run of the pool and slide. The slide was quite humbling because somehow us adults didn’t seem to shot down the slide as quickly as the kids. As a matter of fact, some of us adults even came to a complete STOP halfway down. Not sayin’ who…

 

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A quick NOTE about the pool: Diapered babies are not policed, nor is nudity. Really! DS came up to me and said, “Um Mom…there is a (whisper) naked kid over there, “ and pointed his finger in the direction of a 2 year old, running amok completely naked. No, she hadn’t escaped while changing clothes. She was swimming, with parents looking on. She was one of many we would see during the week that were naked or topless. It’s quite the European thing to do as a child, and would frankly FREAK my 7 year old out! Diapered babies were allowed in the pool—or at least no one asked them to leave. But, no one really seemed to be policing the pool area. At one point, a chef (high hat and all) came over and asked some kids to stop horsing around the bottom of the slide. Another couple (from Denmark) thought is was fun to have their infant (couldn’t walk yet) in the hot tub with them. AAAAGH!

 

There was an infant pool located on the port side of the pool area, complete with smaller slide and wading pool. But, since it was tucked away in the corner, not a lot of people knew about it I guess, and opted to keep their diapered wee-ones in our pool. Yuck!

 

After a pleasant but long-winded multi-lingual Lifeboat Drill (n the Grand Pacific—SCORE!), we watched the boat sail away while on our balconies. AAAAH! The kids blew bubbles, and we spotted jelly fish in the water below. Really cool ones, with tentacles.

 

Dinner was easy. Although we were a LARGE party of 8, we were able to walk right into Magenta and be seated. We came to discover throughout the week that the Europeans prefer to eat later. So, there was NEVER a wait during the “American” dinner hour(s) of 6-7:30. The new electronic wait-time signs are a great tool for assessing when and where you should eat.

 

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The WELCOME ABOARD show was very long and tiring. The Cruise Director wanted to be inclusive of his audience, so he said “WELCOME to the Americans!!” We all cheered. Then, he continued on with “Blah, Blah Blah, Italians…!” in their language and “Blah blah blah Danish”, and so on until he was grasping at straws to figure out who he hadn’t welcomed yet. Ah yes, the South Africans, of course. I kid you not. His lingual abilities were amazing, but after about 10 minutes of that, I was ready to stick a pencil in my eye. He then introduced the amazing ELVY ROSE, who regaled us with her fabulous singing abilities. She really did sing great. She just looked awful. A little too old to be shaking her breasts and flipping her ponytail extension around in an imitation Charro-esque way. She was followed by a magician, who performed 3 tricks, but took a reaaaaallly long time doing so. One good thing: we all received a free bingo card on the way out of the show.

 

As we picked up the kids from the Kids Club, we met John Lukas, my DS’s new friend, from MALTA. What? I barely even know where Malta is, so how is I possible you’re from there? He and DS traded email addresses. It turns out, that the Maltese (see how quickly I am hip to Malta) start/end their cruise in Malta. So, this ship has a never ending cruise passenger turnover. Interesting.

 

And so ends our first day. Off to retire to our cabin, and a sea of mattresses (since there is NO floor space once the couch is opened out.) We could have a jumping party and literally jump around our entire room.

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OK...taking a break for the evening. I will resume the review tomorrow. Until then...good night!

 

CeleBrat

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Fabulous review - can't wait for more! (And can't wait for our cruise). :)

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Loving reading your whole adventure. I've been on the Gem twice and loved it. However, it's so interesting to read from another perspective (i.e. a large family cruise).

 

Pls keep it coming and thanks!:D

 

p.s. Beautiful family!

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So, today I woke up in the Caribbean. Or at least that’s how it felt. You see, our family cruises, a lot. And other than one Alaskan cruise, we always cruise the Caribbean since we live in Florida. So, waking up to a beautiful brilliant ocean view, with no land in sight, has confused my brain. It’s really no different that being somewhere in the Caribbean. And, our ship is an “American style” ship. I don’t know if I like this as I have moentarily lost that European feel you get while being on-land in Europe. Hmmm…..

 

Breakfast in the Garden Café was chaotic. I see what people were saying about this buffet being poorly designed. I agree! The seating is very spread-out, while the food is secluded on the upper end of the Café. Once we got our food we are directed toward La Cucina to eat. It’s a long trek, and my French toast is cold when I arrive.

 

We decide to spend the morning swimming. Staking out a nice table on the non-smoking side, we quickly learn that the non-smoking signs are invisible to everyone but us. Ugh! One cool thing we really DO like about the pool area: the mist spray that turns on every 5-10 minutes. Never saw that on a ship anywhere, and boy, what a GREAT idea! Unfortunately, the brisk wind makes it a little too chilly to swim, so the kids abandon their swimming task in favor of Kids Club, again! Plus, there’s sure to be no naked kids there. At least we hope not as I can’t imagine what sort of activities would allow that.

 

Lunch ROCKED! We attend the Fruhschoppen Feast, which is a German/Austrian buffet in the Great Outdoors, complete with Oom-Pah-Pah band.

 

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We are a German family (in heritage) and give our stamp of approval at the lunch. Very nicely themed food and music, although the band definitely did not LOOK the part. Something about the drummer having long permed hair, and the Filipino trumpet player. They did a fantastic job sounding authentic, which is amazing considering they are also the show band. We discover pretzel break sticks and knots on this day, and I can’t pass through the buffet without picking one up.

 

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We also unanimously decide that the Great Outdoors, which is much less crowded, will be our dining venue of choice when wanting to eat buffet-style.

 

Following lunch, we meander through the ship, purchase a $15 embarkation photo, play some bingo (with our free card, as regular price is too much!), browse the stores, and have a card-playing tournament. Milles-Bournes to be exact. It is a favorite game from my childhood, and since my brother was along on this cruise, we figured it was a great time to play. Although, we were a bit rusty and hadn’t played in oh….20 years. So, admittedly we read the directions.

 

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What a wonderful review, so much detail. Love the pics that come along with it. Your children are beautiful. Looking forward to some more details on the Kids Club!

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At some point that afternoon I also took a nap in one of the ridiculously oversized but really comfy yellow chairs in the Spinnaker lounge. They are so quirky and extravagantly large.

 

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I really like the quirky décor on this ship, and really, really like the furniture. There are fun silver “people” chairs in Spinnaker...

 

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beds in Bliss...

 

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flower chairs in Spinnaker, settees on deck 14, weird furry green swirly things in the Reception area...

 

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and great wicker furniture around the pool.

 

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Bliss lounge/bowling area has oversized orange and black beds, which are over-the-top, but cool too.

 

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Nice that NCL is “out-there” and doesn’t have the standard cruise-shippy décor. It’s fun to walk around and discover the neat pieces they have in the lounges.

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We also take some time this afternoon to try out the bowling alley, and are quite surprised to find there is no wait. How cool is it to bowl on a ship? WAAAAY cool. Albeit really hard. There are not a lot of ball choices with the right finger-size and weight. So, my ball was either or an 8 or 10, when I really needed a 9. But the one and only 9 had finger holes that were too small. Somehow, my Mom wins, and none of the rest of us break 100. For shame.

 

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NOTE—The bowling age is 6, but they didn’t ask, so my DD (5) bowled. The shoes did not fit her, so she bowled in socks. And, as a fabulous added feature we snagged the lane with the lane bumpers for the kids. Make for more interesting bowling because their balls just kind of zig-zag down the lane, bouncing from side to side.

 

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Dinner tonight is at the Grand Pacific, where we “sneak” by with the kids wearing jeans. The rest of us are dressed appropriately though. And, once again, we walk right in with our massive party of 8.

 

We head to the Stardust lounge for the 10pm World Beat show, and make sure that we arrive at least 30 minutes early to get a good seat. We laugh to see that we are the ONLY ones in the lounge that early. Losers! We attempt to sit in the closest balcony seat on the house left side, and are dismayed to see a sign stating, “The seats in this section are reserved for Garden Villas, Courtyard Villa, and Owner’s Suite guests.” Curses! We are resigned to sitting in the second closest balcony section. NOTE—we NEVER sit on the main floor, just FYI. The World Beat show is great. I am impressed by the fact that the cast includes 5 singers. That’s a lot for a cruise show!

 

Following the show, it’s off to bed, and our incredible mattresses-y room.

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We rise early. Must see the incredible Malta entry.

 

A little underwhelming I must admit. For some reason I had this romantic idea that we would be sailing through a narrow wall of rock, then amazing cliff-side villages would be revealed to us. Nah. Valetta is a normal city. I think the “amazing” sites people refer to is the maneuvering needed to get the ship into the harbor. The ship enters the harbor area through a narrow-ish entry way marked by two low stone walls, then immediately has to make a sharp left hand curve to avoid hitting a large stone wall. While the feat in itself takes a lot of skilled ship-manuevering, it really is no different from when a ship has to a parallel park at a dock.

 

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Our kids blissfully sleep through the amazing harbor driving, and we have to twist ourselves into human pretzels just to get onto the balcony between the desk and the low-hanging Pullman bed. I am proud to say I only bumped my head once.

 

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We meet for breakfast at Great Outdoors, our new favorite buffet hang-out, and immediately run into John Lukas, who gives DS a big hug and says “Goodbye friend”. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker because you know, goodbye’s are just always sad. And, they’re kids.

 

Our party of 8 has signed up for the Malta Historic Towns and Crafts tour through NCL, so we dutifully assemble in the Stardust lounge and don our “Look-at-me, we’re-tourists-on-a-tour NCL tour stickers”. Actually, they’re not that bad as they are small and round, and quite discreet. Can you tell, I hate those stickers? For the remainder of the week we have booked private tours JUST SO we don’t have to wear stickers. Really! I mean, kidding.

 

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Once ashore, we board a Greyhound-style bus, and are relieved to see that it is not 100% full. Nice!

 

NOTE—For the Med cruises, NCL offers tours in many languages including Spanish and French.

 

We drive through the city and part of the countryside where we learn about the history of the island and whatnot. The island seems very beige. All the buildings are beige, and the grass is the same dusty beige color. It was very odd. The tour guide mentions that they get very little rain there, which helps explain the odd beige color.

 

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We stop at a church, and see a large group of people assembled outside, nearby a hearse. The tour guide mentions that a funeral has just finished, and we must wait until they clear out the church until we can enter. I have never felt more like an intrusive tourist than at that point. Darn that awful NCL tour sticker and my large floral print bag and camera, and sunglasses. Seriously, I almost felt like staying on the bus because I felt like we were being so intrusive.

 

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But, none-the-less, we got off the bus, and went inside eventually. This church had been bombed during WWII, but had miraculously survived. I love how all European churches have some sort of miracle that surrounds their history. To help verify the bombing story, the guide point our a discolored tile area on the roof where the bomb had “come through” as proof, then took us to a back room to see a reproduction of the bomb, which somehow magically never exploded. The kids loved it.

 

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Back on to the bus, where we navigate the narrow streets and drive over to the Craft Village. First stop, the Valetta Glass factory. We got an insider’s view of how glass is blown, literally, with half a dozen men with really long sticks that had orange blobs on the ends of them. How neat it was to be able to see them transform the orange blobs into something beautiful? Again, the kids loved it.

 

 

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Since we were astounded by their craft-making skills, we spent quite a few Euros in their store, buying a vase (37E). The kids also got to pick out a small (less than 5 Euro each) knick knack for themselves. The rest of our traveling party also picked up various much-needed glass items. NOTE-Miraculously, all those glass items made it home unbroken!

 

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Next stop in the Craft Village, a gold filagree factory. EEEK! No thanks. So we inquire how long this stop will be, and quickly sneak away to the nearby pottery factory. Much more fun, and affordable.

 

Leaving the Craft Village we zip over to the Catacombs.

 

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Fun, but very dark, and many treacherous uneven stone work surfaces to walk on. DD gets a little freaked out thinking that skeletons are going to be lurking around the next corner for her.

 

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Back on the bus for more driving through the beige countryside to the city of Mdina. If you were wondering, Mdina stands for “Noble City.” It is an amazing walled-in fortress style medieval city, beige of course. We walked through this neat city, into their beautiful cathedral. Beautiful. Lots of gold.

 

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Then, off for a quick 20 minute shopping/ice cream break. We can’t help but marvel at this beautiful, but hauntingly quiet city, and much like DD and her Catacomb skeletons, I keep expecting a medieval horseman to come galloping down the alley towards us. Hard to explain, but you’ve really got to see this city.

 

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All-in-all, we were very surprised by how much we enjoyed Malta since we knew so little about it.

 

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Back on board the GEM, we assemble on deck 12 near the pool for a late lunch, and watch the sail away. It only seemed fitting, since we did make an extra effort to watch the sail-in that morning. As we slowly drift past the harbor, some really great “hauntingly” beautiful music is playing through the poolside speakers. I had never heard it before, but it totally captured the spirit of Malta, skeletons, horsemen, and all. Midway through a particularly glorious moment of one song, the music was abruptly cut-off, and replaced by…..HOT, HOT, HOT. Ugh! Talk about a mood killer. And, now, I feel like I’m back in the Caribbean again. Stupid NCL music picker-outer person.

 

To help put us back in the European spirit, my Mom, SIL, and I traipse over to the Stardust Theater to attend a Rome/Florence lecture, hosted by a guest professor/lecturer. He seems very smart, and well-spoken, but his voice is a little to calming and the three of us, along with most of the other 2 dozen people in the audience are quickly asleep. I attempted to listen and take notes as long as I could. It didn’t help that the boat was rocking immensely, and quite unnervingly, we could hear the water crashing against the bow of the boat even though we were inside. (The Stardust is at the front of the boat.)

 

Dinner is at Grand Pacific, where once again, our giant party of 8 is immediately accommodated without needing reservations. Yahoo!

 

The kids hurry off to Kids Club, and all of us stayed far, far away from the show because tonight is ELVY ROSE’s headline show. Shudder.

 

DH and I walk around aimlessly, and happen to be outside when the ship passes thorough the straight between Sicily and Italy. Off in the distance we see a strange orange wiggley line. Holy Cow. Could it be? Is that Mt. Etna? With lava?

 

Why yes it is….we even checked Wikipedia and learned that it is in an almost constant state of eruption.

 

No one else in our traveling party believed us. But, if Wikipedia says it’s true, then it must be, right?

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We get up bright and early again, not to see the ship dock in the ultra industrial port of Naples. Rather, we have an early-morning departure time for our private tour with Rome in Limo. My Mom is seriously doubting my abilities to secure, confirm, arrange this tour. But, all her fears are put to rest when we spy a man holding sign with our name on it. See? It worked, and I am all grown up and can do important things!

 

Chris is our driver, and escorts us to his Mercedes van. It is clean and spacious, but has an odd layout in the back. The 2nd row of seats are facing backwards so that everyone in back is facing one-another. Oooohhhhh, and this might just be a little problematic for those of us who get a little motion-sick. OK—so we put the kids, and my dad in the backwards seats, and off we go. Chris is jovial, and shares some interesting facts with us. He uses the term “the best” often, and says it “the beste”, which makes us laugh. First stop, a coastline with Vesuvius in the background. WOW! Great photo moment!

 

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Getting back in the car, we all trade seats, as my DD has decided that riding backwards isn’t so swell. Quick, give her a Dramamine!

 

Next stop, another coastline overlook, where DD decides she needs to throw up. Nice. So, while everyone is enjoying the view, I am consoling DD actually trying to convince to her to throw up so she doesn’t do so in the van.

 

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We find a series of locks attached to the rail at the photo overlook, and Chris tells us that this is a “tradition”. When people are in love, they write their names on the locks, attach them to the rail then throw the key in the ocean, signifying their true undying love. He also jokes that there have been times when a locksmith has been around, cutting off some of the locks because the true love just didn’t work out.

 

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Again, we change seats, as now my SIL is also getting car sick. OK, these backwards seats are killing us.

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Next stop, Positano. A cute shopping area with several rambling streets of boutiques, pottery shops, bakeries, etc. We all make sizable donations to their economy, of course. DD is now fast asleep, so I leave her with DH and go off exploring with my son.

 

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We discover a cathedral way down at the bottom of one of the streets (long downhill walk), and go in. Very beautiful. But, when is a European church ever NOT beautiful?

 

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We also stop at a bakery where DS has an ice cream cone (yes, it’s only 10:30am) and I, on a whim, have a small cream-horn type pastry. Oh-my-gosh! It’s the best tasting thing ever. So light, and crispy, and creamy. Unbelievable!

 

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We load up into the van again, and Chris asks if anyone needs a potty break. We do, of course, and the amazing Chris stops at a nearby Best Western (honest!) and arranges for us to use the bathrooms in the lobby. These private tours ROCK. Love all the special access stuff.

 

Continuing to drive through the narrow, winding streets, we are all various shades of green. Eventually we end up at seaside Sorrento, at a lovely waterfront restaurant called El Dolphino. This place looks like something out of “The Talented Mister Ripley” with striped blue umbrellas, a wooden dock where sunbathers lay in a neat row, and local beach adjacent to the restaurant.

 

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We eat al fresco because there really is no such thing as indoors at this place.

 

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Pizza, pasta, and bread, is enjoyed by all, except for DD, who is still very green and opts to eat my emergency stash of peanut butter crackers. DS figures out how to get to the neighboring beach, and spends the majority of lunchtime stating, “Moooom, I really wish you woulda brought my suit,” while running around picking up rocks from the beach. The beach which couldn’t have been more than 50 feet long before, was very hard sand, almost dirt-like, and was filled to capacity with local topless Italian children.

 

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After lunch, we all pile back into the van. The guys opt for the backward seats, which works out well. We speed off through the mountains to Pompeii. Mostly, everyone just sleeps. Pasta for lunch will do that to you. And Dramamine, of course.

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