Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Cruise The Mediterranean 'Freestyle'

Explore the Mediterranean on an NCL Freestyle Cruise.

Checking-in at Barcelona’s cruise port terminal is a frantic affair and not unlike an airport, with baggage scans and passport control. But as you step through the gates and leave the hustle and bustle behind, the serenity and majesty of the Norwegian Gem greets you, with her towering white funnels and ever-decreasing colourful gems tumbling from her bow.

The enormity and grace of the vessel calmly awaiting her passengers takes your breath away, and as you board, a photographer captures the moment and one of the crew hands you a glass of champagne.

We were embarking on a seven day Mediterranean cruise on the Norwegian Gem, the newest ship in the NCL fleet who mde her inaugural voyage in January this year. Boasting fifteen decks, thirteen restaurants, eleven bars, a theatre, a club, a bowling alley, casino, spa, gym, tennis court, two swimming pools, a water chute, a rock climbing wall, a kids club and a teen lounge, it is hard to be at a loose end - unless of course, you want to be.

With facilities like these, the choice of how to spend your week is limitless and there are always the optional on-board activities which include salsa and quick step lessons; bridge, bingo, backgammon and blackjack tournaments; art auctions; lectures on acupuncture, botox or Renaissance art; and martini and margarita tastings.

Yet your time is your own on board an NCL freestyle cruise, and as the name implies ‘freestyle’ means anything goes, including jeans and trainers if you so wish. They have done away with old-fashioned protocols and created a more relaxed way of cruising, which means you can eat where you want, when you want, with whom you want, whilst wearing what you want. The only exception is that some restaurants won’t allow shorts in the evening.

I had never cruised before and was concerned that I might feel trapped or claustrophobic, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. And for those who think they aren’t blessed with sea-legs, I can assure you that you barely feel any rocking or rolling at all. There is also a certain magnetism to the midnight waves crashing against the ships hull, with the glint of white surf reflecting in the moonlight.

Accommodation varies from rooms with a port hole to staterooms with private balconies, but they are all surprisingly spacious, complete with televisions and extremely comfortable beds with mattresses that engulf you. If you can afford it, opt for a room with a balcony, not only to experience the lure of the night-time waves before bedtime, but so you have the choice of watching the departures from the privacy of your own room instead of on the busy decks.

It’s the attention to detail which really makes the trip on the Norwegian Gem, with hand signed letters welcoming you to your cabin, invitations to drink with the captain, the option of a fruit bowl in your room and the daily petit fours delivered in the late afternoon.

Each night when you return to your cabin, you find the Freestyle Daily which contains details of all activities and entertainment lined up for the next day and information about the port you will wake up in. The crew are friendly and helpful, and work unbelievably hard to ensure all your comforts are met. You can even order 24-hour room service if you find yourself peckish in the early hours.

At first the décor of the ship seems bright, garish and slightly tacky, but the longer you spend on board, the more of the carefully styled intricacies you notice, making every day a slightly different sensory experience.

Each area or venue has its own carefully designed style and décor. The smoking room is reminiscent of a 1920s men’s club with leather chairs and wooden furnishings, where as Spinnakers Lounge has bright velour Star-Trek style chairs. There are the Maltese glass-blown flowers gracing the ceiling above the Tequila Latin Tapas Restaurant, bubbling champagne glasses at the front of the Magnums Champagne Bar, Versace-designed plates at Le Bistro French Restaurant, and a million dollar Picasso behind reinforced glass at the reception desk.

Bright psychedelic carpets line the entire ship, and you find yourself recognising which bar or area you are in by the design. Cleverly, you can tell whether you are walking towards the front or the back of the ship by the direction the dolphins face on the carpet in between the venues - an extremely helpful feature if like me, you lack any sense of direction.

Entertainment & Dining

There are twelve restaurants on board so all tastes and moods are catered for, and dining can be a totally difference experience each night. The Garden Café is a help yourself buffet ideal for lunch, with salads, cold meats, cheese, plus hot dishes of curry, chicken, soups and of course on this American cruise line, burgers and chips.

The Grand Pacific Main Dining Room is more of a traditional cruise dining experience, with beautiful large windows and ornate curtains which hark back to an era of elegance and style.

All the food on board is free except at certain restaurants where you need to book twenty-four hours in advance and pay a surcharge. The $20 fee is well-worth it, and really enhances the dining experience. Cagney’s Steakhouse has fabulous steak and extravagant lobster, Le Bistro serves French gastronomy and the Teppanyaki Room is truly an interactive dining experience where a chef comes and cooks the food directly on the hot plate in front of the table with theatrical panache. If you only pay for one meal on board, this should be it.

Evening entertainment ranges from drinks accompanied by a piano player in the Crystal Atrium, vocal guitar sounds in the Star Bar, performances in the Stardust Theatre which include magicians and musical-style shows every night, or the clunk of roulette wheel in the Gem Club Casino.

You can sup champagne in Magnums Champagne Bar, drink potent yet elegant flavoured martinis in the Martini Bar, join in with the cover band and a spot of karaoke at Spinnakers Lounge, or enjoy the disco and bowling alleys in the Bliss Ultra Lounge and Night Club, which serves divine margheritas and boasts cushion covered four poster beds instead of chairs.

Off-Shore Excursions

The ship docks in the early hours of the morning, and passengers are free to leave from around 7am onwards. You have to be back on board by 6.30pm most days and this is non-negotiable. The ship will leave without you and you would have to pick it up at the next port, wherever that might be.

We had a hairy experience on the return train from Rome to Civitavecchia where we and fifty or so other passengers on the same return journey were concerned that we wouldn’t make it on time with the extra delay. We were back on board ten minutes before the curfew, but you could certainly feel the tension in the air as everyone embarked.

Although time is of the essence when you leave the boat, a new destination to discover each day makes you feel like a proper traveller, especially if you explore some of the locations yourself.

NCL’s organised shore-excursions are definitely worth looking at and are perfect for those who like everything to be taken care of.

They range in price from £30-£200 depending on what the trip entails, and it is wise to research and book these before you go to avoid disappointment when you arrive. You can book them on board but any spaces left are rapidly reserved.

We took two organised trips, one that was exceptional and one that was below par. The tour called Flavours of Sorrento & The Amalfi Coast which included an afternoon in Pompeii cost around £90 ($180) and was fantastic, and one that you could not easily recreate yourself.

A coach drove us from port of Naples along the narrow coastal hairpin roads that lead to Sorrento. After a coffee and a walk around the cathedral we headed to Pompeii with an outstanding guide who brought the ancient city to life. The eight hour tour did not drag for one moment, and was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.

The £30 ($58) four hour trip called A Taste Of Malta was disappointing. We visited Mosta, one of the largest domed cathedrals in Europe, followed by a great wine tasting, but the other stops were commercial arts and crafts centres and the San Anton Gardens. It would have been nice to have paused at the ancient city of Mdina or the beautiful capital Valetta. But there is more than one offshore excursion per port to choose from, so perhaps we just didn’t pick the best one on offer and in retrospect, it would have been better to independently walk into Valetta from the port and explore the city solo.

Exploring the destinations on your own is fairly easy and cost effective. Trains from the ports are easy to use and reasonably priced – our hour and a half train journey from the port of Civitavecchia to the centre of Rome cost only 6 Euros, and the city’s tube network was easy to follow.

The only drawback is that you can never anticipate all eventualities and when we arrived at the port of Livorno, planning to take the train to Florence we discovered there was a train strike. Luckily Pisa was only a 40 Euro taxi ride away, so we explored here instead. Pisa was beautiful and once out of the commercial areas, reasonably priced, but do not spend any money in the area around the Tower or outside the medieval gates, unless you are 100% sure of the price first. Four coffees and a croissant cost us 40 Euros in one of the cafés.

It was a fabulous week on the NCL Norwegian Gem - but there is one thing I would do differently, and that is the same cruise on a two-week run which would leave more time to relax in between ports. As I discovered, it is on the sea days that you can really enjoy the ships facilities, whether it is sun bathing on the numerous sun beds on top deck, enjoying the spa with its enormous windows that overlook the sea, visiting the gym and swimming pools, or simply relaxing with a drink in the Bali Hai Grill. Did I really say I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy cruising?

Booking Details

NCL operates three Freestyle Cruising® ships in Europe. The Norwegian Gem from Barcelona, Norwegian Jewel from Dover and Norwegian Jade from Southampton in summer and Barcelona in winter.

The Norwegian Gem will be sailing round-trip from Barcelona in 2008/09, priced from £649* per person, travelling to Valetta in Malta; Naples, Civitavecchia (Rome) and Livorno (Florence / Pisa) in Italy, and Villefranche (Nice) and Cannes in France. This price includes seven nights NCL Freestyle Cruising® on board Norwegian Gem, return flights from/to Heathrow airport, all meals and entertainment on board, transfers between the ship and airport, government and port taxes, plus current fuel supplements.

For more information or to book, call NCL Freestyle Cruising® on 0845 658 8010, visit www.ncl.co.uk or see your local travel agent.

*Fares published are guideline prices, may be subject to change at any time and are subject to availability. Except where indicated, all fares are per person, based on double/twin occupancy and include current fuel supplements, relevant government fees and taxes.

Fuel prices have fluctuated in recent years and because of this price volatility, NCL is currently charging a fuel supplement of £4.50 for the first two guests and £2.00 for each additional guest per cruise day. Fuel supplements may change based on the price of oil – see booking conditions at www.ncl.co.uk for full details.

Fares do not include travel insurance, drinks, hotel meals, shore excursions, UK regional flights (available at a supplement), personal expenses, cover charge at selected restaurants, service charges, tips on board and ashore or any other item not expressly included in the fare.

Onboard service charges+ are additional and will be automatically added to your onboard account, are subject to your discretion and may be subject to change. Please refer to www.ncl.co.uk for full booking conditions. All information believed correct at time of going to print September 2008.

Rachael Hannan: September 2008

Published on 50connect.co.uk

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