We took the Gem out of NY on the 12/4/12 sailing. We've cruised over 20 times now this our 2nd time with Norwegian. Our first stint with Norwegian a few years back on the Dawn was good but did not meet the baseline expectation level of service and quality for which we used Carnival for such a comparison. Bottom line is we expect a bit more from Norwegian in comparison to the value ships of Carnival which lately has upped their game significantly.
My wife and I by nature are not picky travelers and expect service and quality problems from time to time. We also believe that if a problem is resolved professionally it actually impresses us more than if the issue never happened at all. We also took in consideration that there was a huge tsunami that crossed over the Phillipines the day before the cruise and had a sympathetic heart to a good portion of the crew who were from the Phillipines. Here are some review topics I want to be sure any of those considering the Gem for their next cruise vacation.
Before the ship even sailed off, we noticed a scrambling for napkin/utensil sets on the buffet tables. Rarely did we have a situation where we were either hunting for them or others seeking ours if we had any extra on the table. A quick follow up trip to the buffet and leaving the table resulted in doing the entire search ritual all over again. The game changer was after the 3rd day, a Noro-virus red-alert came into effect where all flatware and napkin sets were handed to us as we walked into the buffet areas. This had its benefits from a service perspective. In a way, we didn't want the alert lifted, with exception to the coffee lines during breakfast which could get 15-deep and only one person serving.
During the day, we frequented the back of the ship buffet seating area, primarily because the main buffet seating was always full. This area had limited selections vs. the main buffet station area but for the most part, was enough to prevent us going thru the massively congested area we labeled 'the curve of death', which I will describe shortly.
The interesting thing about this station was the coffee machine, which seemed to break down at least once each day, even during the NoroVirus sessions when the required server was helpless. Also, they used traditional milk pourers (milk, skim, and half-and-half) with signs next to the pourers. Unfortunately, the guests would not place them next to the sign and it became a 1 in 3 chance of getting the right one. It also became incredibly tedious hopping over those seeking sugar, those getting coffee, those getting tea and those looking for their pot-luck milk. Forgot the stirrer?... good luck and expect a hand reaching into the crowd with hopes they didn't bump into anyone or thing as they pull back their hand. Funny thing is that the other stations had automatic milk dispensers. Why the ship didn't include them at this station is beyond me. We dealt with it since we were often forced to sit there anyway due to the overcrowding in the main section. They often would use the La Cucina dining area as a spillover area which we sacrificed just to at least get a table albeit at a much slower service rate. We often had to self-discard the previous guests dishes on our own when we finally found a table. In the end, rarely did my wife and I have a complete breakfast or lunch together since one of us was either protecting our table while one of us went up, searching for napkins or getting a refill on our drink. All other cruise lines we've been on have a refill person who walks up and down with water or juice during lunch or regular and decaf during breakfast to limit guests getting up a lot. I really missed that on NCL and would have been a nice added touch.
One of the better breakfast features of Norwegian is their plentiful option of smoked salmon and herring for breakfast. I really missed that on our prior Carnival stints and it was a nice way to start the day if I had the determination to make it through the crowds. The french toast was done perfectly too.
There were two big challenges in regards to the buffet area. The layout of the area allows for the tables to be placed along a narrow stretch across the entire length of the buffet area with the ones closest to the food stations being of the most prime real estate. Given this, you had to walk very far, most of the time with a plate and drink in hand to find a table. To do this, one had to go thru the 'curve of death'.
For those familiar with the ship, there is an area of convergence where all buffet station guests exit (with dish and drink in hand) and make a sharp right turn to find a seat. At that point there are others coming into the area from the opposite direction who can't see those past the sharp curve. Right in the middle of this intersection are the buffet crew swinging door where they come out with those infamous gray trays to pick up dirty dishes and glasses. Let's add some additional danger to the mix: due to the high traffic and subsequent spills from banging into each other, the area is often wiped down with mops thus making the slick tiles even slicker. During these times, you often have to slide your way to the safe area. Not sure why the company has not addressed this but there may not be much they can do given the buffet area setup.
Regarding the dining rooms, there was only one night of the nine nights where we didn't have to wait. They give you those buzzers so most people end up walking around with these things in their hand. Often the wait was no more than 20 minutes and were pretty accurate in comparison about how long they said we would wait. Bottom line is that I never had to wait for dinner on Carnival. Even Carnival now has a flexible aka 'freestyle' seating plan and have always been immediately seated, even at peak times. On the Gem, the service varied from very good to horrific depending on the waiter/waitress and we never had a 'wow' moment at any of our dinners.
One horrible server forced us to be sure to avoid that dining area at the Magenta dining room for the rest of the trip. I normally don't criticize service and just let it be. Heck, anybody can be having a bad day. One server we had made it a point to slap down our appetizers and dinners and not once asked us how everything was. We ignored it until he gave us our dessert (which he insisted on having us order at the time of our dinner order) and walked away so fast we couldn't even ask for coffee. Then again, you think they would ask us? Are we asking for too much? We walked out and I decided to calmly bring it up to the Maitre 'd which is a rarity for me. He apologized and told him we don't want to get anybody in trouble and deflected the blame on the waiter telling him that he may just have had too many tables.
Quirky thing about the incident was that the Maitre 'd insisted we give him our room number. I really didn't want anything out of it rather than communicate to the staff an operational opportunity to improve. After the 3rd time asking, we gave it to him and he wrote it in his personal memo book and insisted we come the next night for dinner. We did so as a courtesy but never was anything mentioned to us nor was anything communicated to us in our room mailbox. Again, we weren't looking for anything but why a person of his managerial service level would insist on giving him our room number. Still puzzles me.
During our 2nd night we overheard a couple talking to an officer who was walking around asking everybody if we are enjoying our stay so far. We are generally easy-to-please people and thought that the officer doing this was a touch of class and more importantly, made people feel special. We overheard however that the couple missed the Latitudes guest thank you party, which all who have sailed at least once on Norwegian are invited. In the past, it is basically a private event where you get a few complementary drinks in return for a captive audience to hear about all the lovely art that one can buy on the ship. Nonetheless, we go to these parties, particularly for my wife, since it makes us feel special. The next day I decided to mention it to the Guest Relations person. He graciously apologized and said the invite should have been in our room upon arrival. He immediately offered us invitations to the premium VIP reception later in the cruise. I've heard about such an event from a friend who is a long-time NCL guest and only available for NCL cruise customers who have sailed 10 times or more. We attended the event and were a bit disappointed in these regards. The room was filled with +10x cruisers and probably those with many times more on an NCL ship. It basically was 30-minutes of free drinks and dancing which is not bad on a ship that charges a fee for practically everything. Thirty minutes is enough time for a drink or two max with a dance. Before you get comfortable, they basically close the bar. In fact, we met another couple there and chatted past our allotted VIP time. A Nickelodeon kids party followed and we had more fun at that...and we have no kids!
In summary, if I was a long-time cruiser with NCL, I would expect more from a party that Carnival basically gives to everybody at the formal night, and Carnival (that 'no frills/value line') includes really nice appetizers to boot! Celebrity did the same on their formal night when we sailed with them. I will never be a VIP at Norwegian like those guests but I think they deserve a bit more respect than throwing them a few drinks. My suggestion is to have one of the officers speak for a brief minute in-between songs to thank them for their loyalty and understanding that we all have a choice of cruise lines and we chose NCL. It wouldn't' cost them a dime and would allow each guest to walk (or stumble) out of there knowing that for a brief moment, they felt special.
One complement I must give is for the entertainment on board. Some of the best shows I've seen on any cruise ship. One woman (Daphne was her name I believe) should be selling out Madison Square Garden. The problem however is with the theater itself. NCL needs to address the theater seating during their next renovation. I am an average size person and my wife is a skinny short woman and both of us had little leg room. Those infamous late comers who insist on sitting in your row makes it almost impossible even just to get by while the entire row stands up to accommodate them. Also, there is no place to put your drink so I rarely ordered one at the theatre (I'm sure you're listening now NCL!) Most other cruise lines have tables or at least drink holders. Not sure what they were thinking when they built this thing. To add to the chaos, all attendees have to walk down two aisles adjacent to the center. There are no aisles on the ends, thus forcing all to find seats by interrupting everybody. I joked with another couple that I thought the name of the show was called 'Excuse me' since that's all I heard it throughout the beginning of each show during the cruise. For those entertainers who have earned and deserved my applause, I apologize, but I had a drink in my hand and didn't want to spill it over the guy who spilled my previous drink trying to get down my aisle.
Regarding the exteriors, their jogging track is not a jogging track but more of a merging lane on the outside of the ship. It wouldn't have killed us if they didn't have a track per se, but if you don't have a real track, then don't say you have one. I'm not sure what was more dangerous; trying to jog on the jogging track or trying to walk 'the curve of death'.
The ship is different in that they don't have that center mall-like look with glass elevators looking down. Not a problem here but the elevator wait times were ridiculously long especially when trying to go anywhere but deck 12, where the buffet and pool are located. A wait of 5 minutes or more was not that uncommon and we walked the steps most times. When we had something in our hands such as a dish to bring to our room (because we couldn't find a seat at the buffet) it was a battle of balancing and bumping from others in the elevator. We were so packed one time that there was one guy locked in and positioned so he was breathing right down my dish.
For those interested in buying liquor on board, I would recommend buying them at the ports of call. There was a special most nights on the ship, especially 2-for-1 specials that we thought were very reasonable. Since they store them like Fort Knox (like other lines) until the end of the cruise, we were in no rush to buy immediately. Every time we found the prices cheaper right at the port, particularly St. Thomas and St. Maarten. The pickup of the liquor at disembarkation was quick and efficient, however I don't think it would have killed them if they had them delivered to our room the night before like on Carnival.
A disappointing aspect to NCL in general is their upsells throughout the ship. Didn't' like dinner? No problem..Did you try one of our specialty restaurants? Sushi? Get your card out for that too and it was average at best. Want to splurge on a cappuccino one night instead of coffee? I certainly don't mind paying for things of value but Carnival gives all of this as part of your regular cruise fee....and better tasting too.
One of these standard features on most lines is the fitness center services. Many will have premium services such as massage and the like but on NCL, anything other than a treadmill and stretching area and you're gonna pay. We love the steam and sauna on cruises and really missed them this trip. I thought the $250 extra (the cost of my annual membership back at home) however was a bit excessive for this. They actually have one shower....ONE.. in the locker area. Guess I have a 1 in 2300 chance of getting lucky which I did not so I was forced to take my sweat into the buffet area (not the best idea for preventing virus) and grab a cold water there. Lastly in the fitness upsell category, they do not have earphones for their guests while working out. Most lines have sanitized earphones for your workout waiting for you. When asked a fitness person (who I managed to find only once one the last day during the entire cruise) said we have them but didn't give them out during the Noro Virus alert. Fair enough. He was honest enough to tell me that they are cheap and have terrible sound and I should probably bring my own next time. Sad part is the TV's on the workout equipment only work if there is a headset plugged in. So sad.
Bizzaro-world continued at the pool area. Kids were not prohibited from staying in the posted adult hot tubs and made me a bit uncomfortable at times particularly when a 'marco polo' game started....in an adult hot tub! Most guests are asked to leave but 2 minutes later when they return, it's basically an open invite. Their towel system in concept is good where you sign out extra towels. However the guy is there only Â½ the time and even when he was there and I returned them, he never put my room number down, telling me not to worry. I asked him kindly why bother keeping this log with my room number if it is never enforced when I properly return them. He couldn't give me an answer. Thankfully I never got a surprise on my bill although I cannot image anyone wanting to bring these rags home with them.
In summary, we made sure we enjoyed ourselves and didn't let all these things really ruin our cruise. We are quite reserved by nature and rarely complain. Even writing this was a stretch for us. I hope all future guests consider this when booking a Gem cruise and NCL so they can make an informed decision. One thing for sure, we won't be joining you.