We enjoyed the Noordam. I'm not overly fond of the big megaliners, so this is a nice-sized ship. It is of course an older ship, so you won't have the 7-story atrium, lots of balconies, or other amenities found on the newer ships. What you will find is a well maintained ship with plenty of deck space, solid food quality (not gourmet but plenty of good food), and great service. If you've sailed Holland before, you know that the atmosphere is a little more genteel than the party ships, and I think this ship and itinerary draws experienced travelers who don't want to play a different game every hour and are interested in the ports. Another big difference is that this ship observes the standard dining arrangements of early and late sitting for dinner, and that worked well for us to go to late dinner since we were spending so much time in port.
I'm not a big fan of ship's tours for many reasons, but they work for a lot of people who have some physical limitations, so this is all written from my perspecive of independent travel if at all possible.
I loved Malta (be sure to be out on deck to sail in and out of port), my husband took a taxi with a tablemate to the war museum there (Fort St. Elmo) while I went on a taxi tour with 4 other ladies to Mosta and Mdina, and it was fabulous. The cathedral in Mdina looks like it is jewel encrusted. We've been in too many cathedrals to count, and that is fabulous. The driver also stopped at some beautiful gardens, and we wandered around there too. I hope you will get out on the island because all the boats are painted such bright colors in the harbors, and it is very picturesque. My taxi tour was about $50 U.S. with tip, and there were 5 of us in the cab. The driver dropped us off in town, and we went to the Grand Master's Palace. Caution: I don't think Malta has converted to the Euro, and U.S. dollars are not accepted at some places (and credit cards are only allowed for purchases over $15 or so). The taxi drivers took U.S. dollars. If Malta is not on the Euro, I recommend that you order about $50 in Malta dollars from your bank about 3 weeks before you sail.
Ah, St. Tropez. What wonderful memories we have of this delightful stop. This is a very easy port to do on your own. Our ship tendered the passengers in, and we were dropped off in the scenic harbor. It's a lovely town to just stroll around, and we climed up the hill to the fortress for panoramic views of our ship at tender in the harbor and of the village. It's a little like Venice without the canals. We also went to the art museum there.
On the island of Minorca, I assume that you will also be docking at Mahon. Mahon is another lovely town, and you can simply walk up some stairs where the ship docks through a park and into the town. Shops line the streets, and there are several small cathedrals. We took a 1/2 day shore excursion here because it was one where we got off the bus and didn't sit with our noses pressed to the windows, and it visited 5 very scenic stops including a cheese farm, to a working class fishing village, to a nice upscale village that was beautiful too, and to a scenic overlook high up in the mountains. I don't remember the name of the tour, but it was 5 hours and about $34.
Our port city for Corsica was Ajjacio, and we rented a car with another couple from our dinner table. I didn't make the rental arrangements, so I don't have details, but the port lecturer on board the ship gave instructions to our table mate, and it was easy. On this island, the scenery is also gorgeous, and you'll need to get out away from the port city and up into the mountains to see the panoramic views. The town was not that great, but it's an okay place to spend a couple of hours. You can walk into town from the ship.
I recommend that you hire a private driver for Livorno. If you have not seen Florence, I'm torn as to whether or not to advise you to go there. Florence is so wonderful, but it is very difficult to see it in a day. However, you'll have a much better shot at doing that in a small group. I have talked to dozens of people who went on the all-day Florence shore excursion on several different ships, and they always talk about how they were herded around, didn't have enough time to see the sights, etc. When 60 people or more are required to load/unload, potty, eat, etc. it just takes much longer than a small group, and you're not getting to see what you want to see. If you haven't already done this, you can easily form a group by asking your guide for assistance, posting messages on this board and cruisecritic.com, and asking around on board the ship. My husband and I traveled on our last trip on short notice because he was changing companies, and we had no problems filling our vans for tours. I think many passengers realize that the private tour experience is great, and they just don't have contacts or haven't formed a group, so many are looking for a group to join. We used Papillon tours in Livorno and were thrilled with their services (http://www.papillonservice.com
). We went to Siena and San Gimignano, and it was just magical. We loved both villages so much. Our driver also took us on the scenic roads in Tuscany, including the Chianti Road, and it was just so beautiful. We had such a good time that we extended the tour from 8 hours to 11 hours. We had been to Florence, so this was a wonderful alternative for us in the region. Our driver was wonderful too, and when will we have another opportunity to say that we used the same driver that Don Johnson and Nicole Kidman used? It was cheaper than the ship's shore excursions, and it was nice to be able to go on our own schedule. If you haven't been to Florence and want to do that (I think the day in San Gimignano and Siena was more special in a lot of ways), you could also do a quick stop at the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the way to Florence. There really are no bad options in this port.
Barcelona is very easy to do on your own. There is a hop-on hop-off bus that goes to all the major sights, and the subway system is very good too (and there is a stop for the Sagrada Familia that is one of the favorites of Gaudi architecture enthusiasts). I think the ships usually run a shuttle (there may be a small fee) from the industrial docks to the base of Las Ramblas. From there, you can stroll up that interesting street, and you can access the Gothic Quarter from Las Ramblas. Frommers has a great walking tour of that area. If you're been to Barcelona before, we loved visiting the monastery at nearby Montserrat, and the setting is just awesome. The boy's choir sings on Mondays.
We haven't visited the other ports you referenced other than last, but not least, Monte Carlo. Again, I think it depends on whether or not you have visited this port before. If you haven't, I really think Monte Carlo is very charming. It is very small, and you can easily see the sights on your own. Frommers has a great walking tour here too that includes the cathedral where Princess Grace is buried. The royal palace is nice (you can see the changing of the guard too, but it may be disappointing for some who expect something huge like you see in London), and there is a Napoleon museum next to it. The views from that area are spectacular. It's fun to visit the casino. Since Monte Carlo is so small and if you're up for a full day and on into evening, I highly recommend a private driver in this port. There are so many small villages that are just stunning in this area, and no trip would be complete for me without a stop in St. Paul de Vence. One lady in our group said that if she never got to go anywhere again, she would die happy just having been to that one place. We started in Cannes briefly to see the film festival area, drove the scenic coastal road, went to Eze and St. Paul de Vence (these are both pretty similar medieval villages, and St. Paul is the better of the two), to some panoramic overview photo stops for shots of Nice and Monaco. Since we were in port until 11:00, we left our private driver at about 6:00 and went on to Monte Carlo. We used Dream Tours (http://www.dream-tours.com/
) and could not imagine it being any better.
Hope that helps you with your trip planning, and we hope you have a great time.