We flew into New York three days before our cruise. It was our first time to the Big Apple, so we wanted to spend a couple of days sightseeing before our cruise. That meant that we had a relaxing embarkation day, because we slept in, had breakfast, packed our bags, and grabbed a cab. The cab ride to the pier was quite reasonable, since we had been staying in Manhattan. The Larchmont Hotel, where we stayed is old and the rooms are small, but it is clean, affordable, and if you don't mind European-style shared washrooms, quite charming. They even provided free WiFi and breakfast.
According to the staff aboard the gem, the ship was full, so no room changes would be accomodated. A full ship meant more lines, so even though we arrived fairly early (just after 12), it still took us around half an hour to get onto the ship. There was a lineup for security, a lineup for checking in, a waiting area until our number was called, and then a lineup to actually board the ship. Fortunately, our room was actually ready to go when we got on board, so we were able to deposit our carryons, change the baby's diaper, and freshen up before heading to the buffet for lunch.
We had booked our cruise the day before final payment was due, at which point we paid for a balcony gty room. The boat was fairly empty at that point, so it looked good for upgrades. However, after Sandy, the ship filled up quickly. We did get upgraded though, from balcony on deck 8 to midship balcony (10608) on deck 10 (3 category updgrade to BA). Our cabin came with a bunk that could be let down from the ceiling and a hide-a-bed. NCL provided us with a playpen for our little one.
The grand pacific main dining room was delightful, with courteous wait staff who were eager to please, and the food was excellent, especially the night with the Caribbean jerk chicken chef special and the chocolate decadence we had on a different evening. As I grew up in the Caribbean, the plantains and rice are my comfort food, and the chocolate decadence was simply the best dessert I've had in a long time. We never ate in the Magenta mdr or in any of the specialty restaurants, but the food in the garden cafe wasn't bad. I would have been happy to eat in the grand pacific every meal, but the party I was with preferred the buffet as a rule for lunch and breakfast. The only reason I went along with them was that the mdr didn't offer chocolate croissants among their daily breakfast pastry selection. We only ate in the blue lagoon once, but we were disappointed. The food was good, but we liked the diner ambience that the blue lagoon had aboard the star a couple of years ago better. Other than that, our only complaint regarding dining was a change that happened mid-cruise. We came onboard after one of our port stops and went to the buffet for lunch, only to discover that NCL had managed to make the congestion even worse. Ostensibly to safeguard the health of the passengers, not only did we have to sanitize our hands every time we entered, but a staff member had to dole out plates, silverware, food, and beverages. Now although I can appreciate their efforts and believe they care, I found there was a bit of a double standard. For instance, at the beverage station, a woman wanted her water bottle filled despite the posted sign that this would not be allowed. After a lengthy argument, the staff member accepted the bottle into his gloved hand and filled a cup which he then poured into the bottle. Now his gloves were no longer sanitary, yet he continued to fill new glasses for others in line. Staff at the omelette/pasta stations would take your plate from you and fill it. The gloved hands once again were no longer sanitary. While I am personally not a fan of hand sanitizer, I understand that it has its uses in a business of this magnitude. But please, NCL, uphold your own standards.
Our baby was too young to be involved in the children's clubs, but we did check out the under 2 zoo, which was well stocked with soft mats and baby toys, and had a nice warm little tot pool. However, when looking for the cinema (more on this later), we discovered that it was home to the 2-5 year old program. I don't know if we will be cruising much when our little one reaches that age range if they are mostly entertained by movies. I suppose I will have to look into it.
I was very satisfied by the onboard entertainment, with only a couple exceptions. The shows in the stardust were all enjoyable, although we didn't go to the hypnotist for personal reasons. My favorite show was The Man From Mars, but the other performers were very good too. We enjoyed the dance lessons, especially the Boot scootin hootenanny one evening, the art auctions, and our one free game of bingo that we got for preregistering for the art auctions on embarkation day. We also enjoyed the pools, hot tub and the library. We did not enjoy the card room because every time we wanted to use it, it was filled to the brim with people playing mahjongg or dominoes or something like that. The biggest disappointment for us regarding entertainment came when we discovered that the gem did not have a cinema for public use. One of our favorite pastimes on the star a few years ago was watching a movie once in a while in the cinema, which basically played movies continually day and night, with posted times. I realize that people don't go on cruises for the movies, but it was a nice alternative for sea days when we wanted to do something low key.
The entire staff as far as we could tell was friendly and eager to please. I would especially like to highlight our room steward, Danilo, who had our names down after just one night, even the baby. We had a couple hiccups lining up makeup and turndown with baby's naptime and early bedtime, but by day three he had it figured out. We were surprised and delighted by the complimentary chocolate covered strawberries he delivered to our stateroom one evening. Our room was kept very clean and dirty dishes were always removed quite promptly from the hall.
We took no excursions.
Debarkation day was a bit of a gong show. We woke up and had a leisurely breakfast, then followed instructions to vacate our room by 8, then went through immigration and were ready to get off as soon as our tag color was called. However, we didn't clear customs until after 10:30 because some passengers repeatedly ignored polite requests and then firm demands to go down to immigration. So we finally got into our taxi, multiple lines later, with a very overtures baby at 11:30. Thankfully we didn't fly out until the following day. As it was, it was a bit of an inconvenience, but we made lemonade by playing some pictionary in a finally empty card room.
All in all, it was a great vacation. Even with the downsides, I would do it again. Thank you NCL.