Today we arrived home from our 7 day cruise aboard the magnificent Norwegian Gem. Previous to this, we have sailed a 4 day Disney Cruise and a 7 day Carnival - by far, the Gem was our FAVOURITE cruise. Our family of 5 (including 3 kids ages 7, 5 and almost 3) truly had a "vacation of a lifetime" and we can't wait to hopefully return to this ship one day.
We drove 10 hours from Toronto, Canada do depart from Manhattan, New York - our first time visiting this city but it was stressful and fun all at the same time. We parked our car at the cruise terminal for roughly $35/day but at least knew it would be safe. Last time we parked at our hotel in Baltimore and returned only to find our passenger window was smashed in while we were on our trip. Embarkation was slightly chaotic and slow, we thought our experience on Carnival was faster and more efficient. When we finally got on the boat, we weren't greeted with champagne (like on Carnival, but maybe because it was a New Years cruise?) and no one really directed us where to go. But we figured out we had to take the elevator to the 12 floor which was their lido deck and from there, as expected, it was packed and busy and we could not find a place to sit. But we figured things out and all was well. I was surprised and pleased how fast the Staterooms were ready - even before we could finish our lunch. The luggage also arrived very quickly, within an hour or so of getting on the boat.
Boat and Activities
We really enjoyed the layout of the Norwegian Gem. We stayed on the 8th floor (midship) and everything was a short distance away. The decor was colourful and fun. Our kids enjoyed the kids pool (quite deep, so weak swimmers should pack floats), the small pool area with the baby slide and the 2 hot tubs that kids could go in. The hot tubs were actually hot, which the kids enjoyed. On the top deck there was a "big shower" the kids liked playing at too. They also had a jogging track, rock climbing wall, full size basketball court, outdoor shuffle board, checkers, chess and two golf practice areas. There were lots of places to lounge and relax. The kids enjoyed the big comfy chairs on the top deck at the front of the ship. Throughout the week, there are opportunities to participate in activities such as walking a mile, free throw competitions, ping pong tourney etc to collect OSA (organized sports activities) points which you can redeem at the end of the cruise for Norwegian prizes (deck of cards, t-shirt, key chains etc). It was fun trying to collect as many points as possible. At the end, you can combine as a family.
The first night we ate at the Grand Pacific but were told by the greeter that tomorrow my husband would not be allowed in without long pants. I swear I read somewhere that freestyle cruising meant anything goes and I told him to not bother with packing pants - unfortunately I was wrong. But no worries, we still had Magenta (the other dining room) to eat at for the rest of the week. Overall we were happy with the food, but we are fairly easy going. I thought the desserts on Carnival were better - but still, we always managed to find something we liked. The lido deck buffet (Garden Cafe) was fine as well. We thought there was more selection on Carnival, but we still enjoyed it every day - especially the "kids area" with little tables and chairs, a TV and their own mini buffet. The kids looked forward to eating here every day! The Gem did not have a 24 hour pizzeria like Carnival, but they did have Blue Lagoon - which was a restaurant that was open 24hrs on the 8th floor. Their wings were great and overall a pleasant place to dine at, eat in or take out. Access to soft serve ice cream and coffee, tea etc was not as easy as on Carnival - when you are on the pool deck on a hot day, you either have to buy from the bar or walk into Garden Cafe. It would have been nice to have a drink station set up on the pool deck. On the last day we were surprised they didn't have a huge deck party with a feast of food like Disney and Carnival did. Instead they had a chocolate party in the Garden cafe, with chocolate sculptures and everything chocolate, probably over a hundred different chocolate choices to choose from. Bring a camera, it is really cool like walking through a chocolate museum!
We were happy with the size of the room and the comfort of the beds. We lucked out with our obstructed view cabin and had enough bedding for 4 people so all 5 of us (since kids are so small) were able to stay in one room and the other room was used for storage. Our room steward David was great, professional and courteous and did an excellent job. I thought he was the best we've ever had! We did have an issue with noise all week. At first we thought it was a loose cable on the lifeboat hanging outside our room. Later we found out it was the noise from the sliding door of the jewelry store below. Around midnight we would hear a loud rattle and rolling sound and until 1am when all the workers would finally leave, we would hear the door sliding as they went in and out of the store. Can't believe in the 5 years of Gem's existence, we were the first family to complain! The inside stateroom which we did not stay at was above the Stardust theatre and it was LOUD during performances so when you book, make sure you know what is above or below you!
Kids Camp and Nick Jr
We were EXTREMELY happy with the kids program on the Norwegian Gem. On our last cruise, our 3 kids lasted 15 minutes on the first day of Camp Carnival but on the Gem, they all went (even the 2 year old) for up to 30+ minutes a day. This says a lot for our kids as they usually prefer to play with each other or spend time with us. We owe it to the great staff and the wonderful facilities. Walking in to the kids camp, right away you see a large play structure which is so fun and inviting. They did lots of crafts throughout the day and best of all, they had a lot of free play times so the 3 kids could be together and not in separate groups. In regards to the Nickelodean themed activities, I expected to see the characters more around the boat -- but instead the photo ops were planned, but still we took part in the Dora Dance Party and the Dora storytelling hour and all the Nick arts and crafts (on the last day they gave out t-shirts to colour!). The presence of Nick on the boat was not as much as I anticipated, but the kids still really enjoyed this aspect of the program and would highly recommend it. We did pay the extra $15 for the Pajama Jam breakfast at Spinnakers lounge which featured all of the characters on the ship (Dora, Diego, Ang, Sponge Bob, Patrick, Wanda, Cosmo and the lady squirrel -- not sure of her name). The free giveaways consisted of a plastic cup, a small container of bubbles and a rubber bracelet (nothing to get too excited about) and the breakfast itself was not great. They added food colouring to waffles and pancakes to make it look funky, but food at Garden Cafe was definitely better -- no big deal, after the party we headed downstairs for a proper breakfast. What made it worth it was that each child gets one free professional photo (which normally costs $20 each). Kids had a good time, we would do it again.
The stop at Port Canaveral was way too short (docked at noon and back on the ship by 9:30) which makes to and from any Disney Park too rushed. We were in Florida the week before so we didn't bother get off the ship. Looks like many people felt the same way, boat way fairly crowded. Those who did get off and manage to make it to Disney seem to still have fun though. Next stop was Nassau, Bahamas and everybody got off the ship. We opted to just stay on the ship and enjoy the empty pool, hot tubs and slide -- kids had a great time. For the slide, if kids are too young or small -- they can still go on with a parent. Folks we know who got off the ship said they loved the excursions. Make sure to thoroughly check height restrictions as they are quite strict. The third stop was Norwegian's private island Great Stirrup Cay. The only experience we had with this was Disney's Castaway Cay -- which the boat could dock right at the island, so we did not have to take a tender boat. A "tender" is when the boat anchors in the middle of the ocean and a small boat carries or tenders about 400 guests to the private island at a time. The schedule said we would arrive at 11am and we were told the night before to line up by the pool starting at 9am to get our tender tickets. I woke up at around 8am and we had already arrived. When I went up at 8:45am to get our tickets, there was already a long line and they already started handing them out -- we got "group 5" -- which was fine, we figured we would take out time and have breakfast before we left. But at 9am they were ready for "group 1" to start loading the boat and since seats were counted out, I was fairly sure you had to be on time for your boat otherwise you would have to wait for the next avail space. So we rushed through breakfast and made it on our tender by 9:30 or so -- yes, it was a bit stressful and there was a little waiting and if you did not listen to announcements or organize yourself, one group we knew got "group 23" tender tickets for example which meant long waits to get to the island. From reading other reviews, the tendering process is a pain no matter which cruise line you go with, so just educate yourself with the process and you will be fine. We packed sand toys from home so we saved some money not having to buy it from the gift shop and they said there could be "sand fleas" so to use bug spray or lots of sunscreen, which were both conveniently located in the gift shop. We didn't encounter any sand fleas at all. The water was really warm, some large rocks though. The island and beach was not as nice as Castaway Cay, but still white sand and we had a great time. Pack your own snorkel gear, lots of fish to see if you swim out. A lot of people rented rafts and floats, or a clamshell shade cover -- we didn't bother. Beach chairs did fill up fast. At first we saved 5 chairs for our family of 5, but it became apparent that the kids were not interested in lounging so we collapsed down to 2 to make room for late arriving guests that were happy to get a chair, since they were now all gone. The walk from the tender boat to the beach area is s short walk, DO NOT bring your stroller (if you can avoid it) like we did (like you see in the tender video) it is mostly sand so pushing a stroller from the boat the beach was difficult, our kids just walked. The large inflatable hippo slide was cool, we didn't go on it, FYI you have to be 42 inches. In speaking with staff, we heard the island has built a lazy river -- but there were sharks in it so it hasn't been open to the public yet. In fact, heard between Norwegian's island and Royal Caribbean's private island right next door, the waters were infested with sharks. They are probably the small kind, but still something to think about. One thing the island needs is showers, heard they used to have them but they took them out. Other than the ocean, there is nowhere to rinse off sand. When you get back on the tender to return to the ship, there is water running down the ramp to wash your feet and sandals. Forgot to mention I didn't like the food they served for lunch, again thought Disney's lunch at their beach was better. But still it was better than nothing.
I wanted to save the best for last. What MADE this trip so special for my kids was meeting Lauren Atkins, one of the principal Norwegian Gem singers. Early on in the week, we sat in the front row for one of the first shows and our kids fell in love with Lauren. She is so beautiful and talented and our kids miss her so much already. Following the show, the dancers and singers greeted guests in the hallway and our kids got to meet Lauren and she gave them her personal attention. Following this we would bump into her throughout the week and she always remembered our kids and stopped to say hello. During each show, she would always give our kids a wink and a wave and this meant the world to them -- Lauren touched their lives in such a positive way, they will ALWAYS remember her and how special she made them feel. Thank you so much for this, you are truly a gifted and wonderful person. Our 2 year old actually called her an angel! :)
Overall, we were blown away with the entertainment on this ship! The Gem singers and dancers are all so talented, we enjoyed every minute of every show. This week we were also treated to a performance from Donovan Jones and Rebecca Peache (currently on America's Got Talented), Darrell Joyce (comedian) and the Second City comedy troupe. I was also really impressed with the Gem's Cruise Director Ken and his assistant Joel (Jersey Boy). They were visible, around a lot and kept us constantly informed. I can't even tell you who the cruise director was on our last ship.
There is SO MUCH to say about the Norwegian Gem and our experience we had as a family, that I could go on and on for pages. As you can tell, I am glowing from our experience on the Gem. It was truly a special and wonderful week and we would go on the Gem again in a heartbeat. Happy sailing!