About us: We did this same itinerary on the Jewel last year and had such a good time we thought we would try the Gem, as we needed an early June escape before work and summer schedules got too hectic. We are a family of five, two 40's adults with 19, 16, and 13 year olds. We sailed June 2 and there were only 80 kids on board. The "family vacation" is questionable, as it was really like a couples trip and the kids were off at camp! The kids had such an amazing and fun time at the kids group (and the 19 year old with the other young adults on board) that we barely saw them the entire week! We chose NCL last year for "Freestyle" and found this still suits our family quite well.
Embarkation: We drove thru the night from western PA to New York, arriving at the pier around 10AM. It was surprisingly easy to navigate NY on a Saturday morning, and parking at the pier is very convenient, albeit pricey at $35 per night, payable when you pull in. We walked our bags to the front, including a case of water and a case of soda, with a luggage tag attached. It showed up in our room unscathed later that afternoon.
Check in: We were able to check in right away, no lines. We waited about an hour for our number (5) to be called so we could board. The waiting area started to fill up with other eager cruisers. We were onboard and seated at the Grand Pacific around 11:30AM. Let the cruise begin! This was the last time we ate all together the entire week!
Cabins: I am very susceptible to motion sickness, and wore the patch. I woke each morning very thirsty, but no illness. I specifically chose an inside, midship, low deck cabin. We had an inside cabin, the children had an oceanview porthole window directly across the hall. This was our first inside cabin, and I was surprised that it was smaller than the oceanview. Our cabin steward was fantastic, greeting us by name every time we saw him, and he was a very visible presence in the hallway outside the cabins. He seemed to straighten the cabins every single time we walked out of them, left us fantastic towel animals daily, was eager to greet and converse with us, and pampered us like we were VIPs.
Dining: We ate at both MDRs, the buffet, and the Blue Lagoon. We did not chose any of the additional cost dining options. We are not fussy and found all of the food to be tasty and plentiful in options. We were always able to find way more than we needed to eat! At breakfast, bacon was offered both soft cooked and crispy, eggs were cooked to order, and there was little wait to toast your own bagel. The Great Outdoors was also a nice breakfast spot with plenty of seating. We tended to get a late start each day, with breakfast around 8:30, lunch around two and dinner when we convinced ourselves we were hungry enough to eat again. We ate most of our lunches in the buffet, and did not convince the children to dine with us again after embark day, they were always too busy with their friends and the kids club activities. We did see them in the buffet on occasion, passing through with friends or grabbing an ice cream cone. I thought we would dine in the MDRs for dinner each night, but we found the buffet to be much quicker and better suited to our plans on most evenings. The scooped ice cream was a nice addition to the soft serve machines. Soups and salads were always available, and many main dish items along with a pasta bar and pizza station. Juices were available at breakfast, lunch and dinner had unsweetened iced tea and another beverage, such as lemonade or pineapple juice or a fruit punch each day.
Onboard activities: The staff is enthusiastic and eager and offer many OSA's daily (Organized Staff Activities). If you participate in these, you get signatures on business sized cards to turn in at the end of the week for NCL promotional souvenirs. The team of seven rotated around the different activities, and got to know the participants on a first name basis, very friendly! We enjoyed teaming up with new friends on the daily trivia sessions, joined our kids in sports court venues like family dodgeball or basketball, and played bingo when the very reasonable "$10 one game" sessions were offered. We spent some time in the casino, and all three adults won a small amount of money on the slot machines. We caught the show in the Stardust each night, though they were very similar to last year's offerings on the Jewel, we still enjoyed them. The cruise director Sinan was fantastic, very witty and personable. He hosted several shows in the Spinnaker during the week, along with Fish~the assistant cruise director. Sinan was great with impromptu stand up comedy, both with children in a circus show at the end of the week and adults in "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game".
There were also a variety of martini tastings, beer tastings, a pub crawl, towel folding lessons, pastry demonstrations, and art auction activities that you could choose to fill your day. We attended the Latitudes party, our first invite, it was very nice. We had a very active Cruise Critic roll call, and we met with them for a Meet and Greet, slot pull, and cabin crawl. These were great for socializing and were really fun!
Kids Activities: Our daughters practically lived in the teen lounge and had no complaints at all for the week! They loved hanging out, doing the organized activities, and chilling with their "leader" who treated them to smoothies in the teen lounge on most days. They sought us out only briefly to sign waivers for the rock wall and then rushed away to enjoy their vacation. They learned juggling and stilt walking to participate in the circus show at the end of the week. They ate with the kids crew or friends they met there for every meal on sea days, and even rushed back from our excursions to rejoin the teen activities.
Our 19 year old son was too old for the "club" but found many similar age teens to keep him busy the entire week. I was happy to see an "18-20 year old mixer" offered early in the week, not sure if he attended or not, but it is a great feature for this group.
Excursions: On GSC we rented a newly completed cabana. It provided shade and a dry spot during a short cloudburst. We utilized the beverage credit, hipposlide passes and family raft, and found it to be very reasonable for our family of five (plus we added a teen for the day). It was a huge improvement over the clam shell shelter, and the dedicated server was a nice touch. There was no cooler in the cabana, which I was expecting, but the server brought a bucket of ice.
We planned to parasail in Cape Canaveral, but it was too windy. We ended up renting a boat and tubing (independent of the ship excursions). In hindsight, the kids would have been just as happy to return to the boat once we discovered parasailing wasn't going to happen.
In Nassau, we booked a segway tour on our own, and it was a fantastic excursion. The tour guide was very personable and excellent with our 13 year old newbie. We visited the Straw Market for a few minutes and enjoyed the crew dancing and passing out cool towels and cold water as we reboarded the ship.
Overall GEM thoughts: The ship was very clean and the crew and staff were always visible. The buffet area was cleaned continuously, we often saw the carpeting being swept, and our room was managed impeccably by the room steward. There are a large variety of daily events that everyone should be able to find entertainment if they desire it. The ships officers were often seen and approachable, we had minipresentations at the Meet and Greet, Latitudes party and opening night show, and saw them throughout the week in more informal settings. The pool and hottubs were usually busy, but not overcrowded. The sports court, rockwall and bowling areas were surprisingly easy to access, I had anticipated long lines for participation but this was not the case. There was always seating available in the Great Outdoors, we didn't wander around with a plate full of food looking for a dining spot. It did get busy in the buffet, but the servers were great about keeping the tables bussed and with table service. Sinan was fantastic, and the entire crew was enthusiastic and eager to have fun, making for a great trip!
Disclaimer: There were a few minor glitches throughout the week, but we are generally an easy going, fun loving family and there was nothing to impede or alter this attitude. The air conditioning in our room wasn't working the first day, way too COLD, but was attended to almost immediately after we finally mentioned it. The toilet flush button stuck one day, also corrected promptly by housekeeping. I would have liked to change the bottle of red wine (complimentary in our cabin) for my preference, white, but was told that they no longer do this (switch the wine). No big deal, we had a fantastic vacation, filled to the brim with fun people having a great time. While it wasn't our usual "family" trip, it was a rather nice bonus to have some adult time while knowing the children weren't feeling left out! In hindsight, we should have insisted we "dine" together or have some sort of daily meeting, though I am sure that would have been met with grumbling if they had to miss any of "their" activities.