Cruising the Mediterranean is a excellent way to explore the history and beauty of Malta, Italy and Southern France

Since the Phoenicians began using it to ply their commerce thousands of years ago, the Mediterranean has been crucial to international trade and commerce. Today, a major part of that commerce is generated by cruise ships that make travel to Europe accessible and very, very comfortable. Norwegian Cruise Lines has been a leader in European pleasure cruising with a variety of itineraries. We recently sailed on board the Norwegian Gem, the newest ship in the NCL fleet. Our seven day voyage started in Barcelona, and after a relaxing day at sea, we visited Malta, Naples (Sorrento & Pompeii), Citivecchia (Rome), Livorno (Florence & Pisa) and Villefranche (Nice & Monaco) before returning to Barcelona.

The Gem is the sixth in a series of ships built for NCL since 2001, beginning with the Norwegian Star, Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Jade, and the most recent, The Norwegian Gem, completed in 2007. With each ship the company and their shipbuilder have made improvements in the design and onboard technology.

Some are little things – like elevators so smooth you don’t feel them move – to more obvious creature comforts such the latest in mattresses and luxurious duvet covers. A cruise industry first is having wireless computer access is available throughout the ship.

The Gem has 13 restaurants, 11 bars and lounges, a bowling alley, a fully equipped gym and the Yin & Yang Spa and Beauty Centre where you can unwind, indulge and pamper yourselves. In addition to the treatments offered, you can use the spa facilities (steam room, sauna, whirlpool, therapeutic pool, and private lounge area) for a small daily fee or purchase a weekly pass.

The Body Waves fitness staff offer supervised fitness classes or work out on your own – the center is open 24 hours a day.

The Pool Deck is the centre of daytime activity with four hot tubs, two heated pools (one with a corkscrew slide and the other for adults only), Topsiders Bar, sheltered tables and lounging areas. Overlooking the pool on deck 13 there are more lounge areas, a jogging track (2 ½ times around is a mile), golf driving range, and basketball court. You’ll also find the supervised climbing wall, which is hugely popular with the younger, more nimble crowd. The variety of activities makes The Gem an ideal ship for a family vacation.

NCL has continued with the popular Courtyard Suites, and Garden Villas on The Gem. The Courtyard Suites have their own private sundeck, and are ideal for families. The Garden Villas, with their own living and dining rooms, can open out to include two other bedrooms in addition to the huge master bedroom.

Concierge and butler service are included. Again, if you’re travelling with the family and have the financial means – these suites and villas offer an excellent opportunity to be together – and at the same time provide everyone with their personal space.

There is a variety of accommodations to suit most budgets, from inside to balcony staterooms. The Gem also offers a large number of adjoining cabins for people travelling with children.

During the evening, the entertainment options on The Gem shift into high gear. The main shows in the Stardust Theatre (a lovely venue with seating for 1,300) are high quality productions that could easily be successful in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. NCL has been a leader in providing first class entertainment, and the shows we saw on The Gem received enthusiastic audience response.

Throughout the ship, you’ll find piano players, dance bands, and even a string quartet that performed nightly in the Crystal Atrium, which is the centre of activity onboard.

The Gem is a great example of the advantages of Freestyle Cruising. Arriving back from an excursion at 6pm, you have plenty of time to freshen up before going to dinner because there are no set seatings. You dine when and where you choose. The Grand Pacific main dining room, with a sweeping staircase and warm South Pacific décor is a favourite. While formal dress is optional, this is the “dress-up” dining room for those two evenings. The specialty restaurants of Cagney’s Steakhouse and the continental style of Le Bistro are also very popular. Every meal is “showtime” in the Teppanyaki Restaurant, where Japanese chefs entertain with their skilful preparation of your meal right in front of you. Great entertainment for a family dinner or to meet other guests.

As the flagship of the Norwegian fleet, The Gem has been the testing ground for the next generation of Freestyle Cruising, aptly called Freestyle 2.0. Guests are offered champagne when boarding, Freestyle Tasting of different menu items from the restaurants, and a Pillow Menu, (guests can choose from a variety of pillow types), and your selection of fresh fruit, delivered to your stateroom daily.

The whole focus of Freestyle is that the cruise experience is centered on the guest, rather that ship scheduling. More staff is required to deliver the a-la-carte services. Instead of mass preparation of food, every dish is prepared individually. Even the traditional “buffet has evolved to “action food stations” where much of the food is prepared, rather that being pre-cooked in the kitchen. In the evening, white linen table cloths and intimate banquettes transform the Garden Café into a very pleasant dining area. Long gone are the days of cafeteria-style dining.

“The main reason that most of our guests choose this cruise is because of the excursions we offer to so many historical places” say Hotel Director Prem Kainikkara. “To be able to visit Malta, where Western and Middle Eastern civilizations meet; Naples, with visits to Sorrento and Pompeii; Rome and the Vatican; Florence, Pisa and the Tuscan countryside; and Villefranche, with visits to Monte Carlo or Nice; all combine to make this a very dynamic cruise.”

Prem is a veteran of the hotel and hospitality industry, have trained with Hyatt after graduating from Hotel Management school. He went on to hold management positions with Sofitel before signing on with NCL. His depth of experience, especially in the 5 star hotel category is a great benefit to staff and guests on board The Gem. “I am truly proud of our staff and crew. They come from 64 nations and we all work together. It’s a fine example of how people from different cultures and backgrounds can get along.”

There’s a practical consideration to opt for ship-organized excursions. The Euro is very strong, but your excursions are paid onboard in American currency; taking advantage of the cruise line’s buying power. This isn’t like finding the best beach in the Caribbean – these are fabulous cities of historical significance – and a tours with an informed guide are very rewarding.

Indeed, the guests we interviewed were enthusiastic about their tours. The historical significance of each port of call is compelling. The limestone walls of Valetta seemingly turn to gold in the morning sunlight as you sail into Malta. Walking the same streets as the Crusaders and visiting the huge co-cathedral of St. John and St. Paul, home of the Knights of St. John is awe-inspiring.

In Naples, we elected to take an excursion to Sorrento. The local guide provided an entertaining and informative background to the scenic coastal area on our way, and we had ample free time to stroll the narrow streets and sun-drenched village squares of this post-card perfect town. It’s easy to see why many Montrealers enjoy the temperate winter climate of Sorrento.

Citivecchia is the port city of Rome, and the only problem is… which excursion to take? Most of the tours include The Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica (the world’s largest church) – so it’s more a question of whether to visit Baroque Rome or Ancient Rome. I selected Baroque, and visited the narrow cobble stone streets of central Rome, the Trevi Fountain, the Italian Senate building, the Pantheon, (built in 27AD and still visited by thousands every day), The Novorno Square, and finished up with St. Peter’s. In addition the Basilica, the burial crypts for the Popes, is open downstairs, and it is a moving experience. They’re all there; beginning with the Apostle Peter, who went on to become the first Pope.

Our next stop was Livorno, the port city for Florence, Pisa and the Tuscan countryside. Again – which tour to take? After a day in Rome – we opted for a countryside tour of the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. Charming fishing villages – some accessible only by boat – where the scenery is terrific and the villagers extend a warm welcome.

Villefranche is the port city for Monaco and Nice. The cliff-side village of Villefranche itself is captivatingly beautiful. In addition to the organized tours, there is train and bus service available – to the right for Monaco and the Monte Carlo Casino – and to the left for the beaches of Nice and the famous seaside Boulevard des Anglais.

Then – it’s all aboard for the return to Barcelona. A fabulous week of visiting the historical beginnings of The Crusades and the charitable Knights of St. John in Malta, the rugged beauty of the sun-drenched Amalfi Coast, Rome, Florence and Villefranche. There is so much to see that you might want to give serious consideration to a back-to-back two week cruise, with different types of excursions – a city tour one week and a countryside excursion the next.

Travel Planner
The Norwegian Gem sails a 7 day roundtrip itinerary from Barcelona until mid-November. She then will sail 7 day Bahama & Florida cruises; (plus a 10 day Southern Caribbean itinerary in January and early February) before returning to Europe for another Mediterranean season in April 2009. The Norwegian Jade offers a variety of 10, 12, 13, 14 and two 21 day Mediterranean cruises; and the company also has ships in other parts of Europe. Transat Holidays offers packages that include air; with optional hotel extensions in Barcelona. For more information, please see your travel agent; or visit: or or call: 1- 866-234-0292. Bon voyage!

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