As this was my first cruise experience I didn't really have any expectations per se. I was also 9 weeks pregnant in the thick of morning sickness which lasted all day every day, so if some parts seem negative, specifically those involving food places, be fairly warned as to why. The review is divided into several sections corresponding to various parts of the cruise experience.
EMBARKATION: waited for about 2 hours to finally board the ship after after waiting in line for security + another line to get key cards to stateroom. In comparison this is tremendously more waiting than when boarding a plane (and for a pregnant woman spending all that time standing got tiresome) I'm glad I brought half my bagel sandwich from breakfast with me to hold me over during the wait otherwise may have fainted in line. Once on board the ship, we were all ushered to deck 12 (poolside) where there was an opening bar-b-q, which was utterly a madhouse with 2500+ passengers all trying to get a bite to eat after the long wait. Luckily we realized there were other food options - in the form of the Blue Lagoon sit down 'diner' which served basic fare like burgers, fish&chips, and pretty yummy tomato soup. The poolside bar-b-q was definitely not a good way to start off the cruise in terms of 'passenger' experience. On the upside, by the time we got to our stateroom, our luggage had already been brought in (we did wait in line for 2 hours to check in after all). The room was an OK size, it was an inside stateroom with no window, but was actually bigger than some hotel rooms in Japan we stayed in.
SEA DAYS: there were 2.5 sea days to the islands, and 2.5 sea days after to get back home. While at first we found things to do to pass the time being stuck on the ship, by the 2nd sea day, we were ready to step foot in port. One nice things about the 'freestyle' option NCL offers is that they have a LOT of onboard activities throughout the day. Unfortunately some activities that you'd like to do overlap with others while at other times there is nothing to do but sit by the pool or the library, or the stateroom. It also seems like NCL uses the sea days as a way to weasel more money out of you (read: you have to pay extra for everything, even juice!) There are plenty of gambling 'opportunities', with a smoking casino on board, as well as twice daily bingo games (overpriced if you ask me - minimum $40 to play), and deal or no deal ($20 to play), and several art auctions. Of course there are also plenty of shops on the ship, along with photographers who can't wait to take your photo, and charge you $20 a pop should you choose to buy it later. NCL also uses this opportunity to have the 'port shopping consultants' pitch how amazing the shops both on and off the ship are, and if you just talk to them about getting a VIP card, you'll get the best deal in the port jewelry stores (but only the ones they endorse which I suspect they also get a kickback from). On our cruise, it a was a couple (they claimed to be engaged) - she gave lectures on jewelry and gemstones while he gave a a fairly informative talk on different high end watches - I did learn a bit about watches - for example Rolex's aren't actually the highest luxury out there! (not that it would matter to us as we weren't in the market for them :) )
PORT DAYS: These were wonderful, getting off the ship and doing our own thing was great. We only did one shore excursion - in Samana as I wasn't completely comfortable getting off the ship in port and wasn't sure what there would be to do there. Instead in Samana we took the Cayo Levantado excursion which took us to a private island and we chilled on the beach the rest of the afternoon. In all the ports, I felt like we were rushed to get back to the ship (embarkation time was around 4-5pm in all ports and as such didn't give us a chance to see a lot.) Part of this was our fault as we didn't get to the port until 11 each day - between breakfast and just getting ready for the day. Individual port day reviews are below.
FOOD ONBOARD: As a pregnant woman with morning sickness, this is what I feared the most on embarking on a cruise. By far the most offensive part of the food onboard was the poorly named "Garden Cafe" buffet. Specifically Deck 12 midship contained the entrance to the buffet and make me EXTREMELY nauseas EVERY time I walked past which resulted in me attempting to avoid this area as much as possible. I don't know what it was that smelled so bad, maybe just the layers upon layers of buffet food smells overlapping, but the combination of all of them was atrocious. NCL should really look into better ventilation or better cleaning or something of that particular area.
Other that the buffet: there were several specialty restaurants in case the complimentary ones tired you out. Personally I think they are a bit of a racket as the food they served was not much better than the free places. We only went to the Italian specialty and after that experience decided to stick with the complimentary fare (especially since it seemed like the complimentary places had the same types of food available). The veggie lasagna my husband ordered wasn't as much lasagna, as just veggies piled on top of each other, barely any pasta, and some cheese and sauce. I can't remember my order but really not impressed. There was a sushi bar - but being pregnant we couldn't go there, and the hibachi restaurant looked good, but always seemed packed, and at $25 extra per plate didn't seem worth it.
A few days into the trip we realized it really was worth the wait to get seated in the formal dining rooms of either the "Magenta" or the "Grand Pacific" as they had made to order food that was two notches better than the buffet set in a more pleasant (although not fully offensive smell free) environment. The staff was pretty friendly and knowledgeable. The breakfast in particular in the "Grand Pacific" was the best meal of the day in my opinion, and is relatively sparsely populated between 7-9am when they're open - maybe people just didn't realize how good it was. The Blue Lagoon also offers breakfast but their fare was more hit or miss depending on the chef. The two formal dining rooms however had waits at peak dinner times (6-7:30pm), although those tapered off as the cruise went on, maybe people just gave up and decided to go to the buffet or the specialty places. Whatever reason, it was good for us, as I couldn't tolerate the buffet. The longest wait we had I think was 40 minutes (probably the 4th night on the ship).
One issue we kept running into was whenever we ordered dessert and asked for hot water for tea, it took a long time to bring out the hot water specifically, seemed like staff just gave up on the people who were finishing up their dinners and didn't bother finishing those orders, but for the most part they were pretty responsive otherwise.
Burgers at lunchtime were pretty good, and my husband tells me the turkey burgers were also very good, although I stuck to the the regular beef burgers (pregnancy cravings- go figure). Lunchtime had one downside which was that to get any nonalcoholic drink required going into the infamous Garden Cafe (walking through half of it) to get some fountain drinks (lemonade or strawberry kiwi water) while the burgers and other grill items were easily accessible poolside.
POOL: Two pools, one for adults only, and a handful of hot tubs, as well as a big looping water slide. Looked like fun all of it, but we never went into the pool. During sea days weather was too cold, during port days we weren't on the ship. If I wasn't pregnant, we'd have gone into the hot tubs, people were actually in there in all weather conditions, sometimes even overcrowded. There was generally plenty of seating between all the pool decks, so we were able to sit out overlooking the ocean go by on many occasions, leaving one of the islands we even secured on of the large bed loungers at the very front of the ship just in time to see the sunset which was amazing. We did however get kicked out of it as night fell and the staff decided to tie up all the loungers for the night (6pm).
ENTERTAINMENT: Top notch! The most redeeming quality of the entire cruise was the nightly entertainment lineup. There were several shows each night, and in our opinion definitely better than the things we saw at the all inclusive resorts we've been to in Dominican Republic. They had several comedians, a cirque-like show called "Man from Mars", a cappella, several onboard dance troupe shows, and the not to be missed "Fountains" show the last night of the cruise (search for it on YouTube). The White Hot Party was awesome (2nd to last night of cruise). We were pretty tired by 11pm each night, so we didn't go to the other club style parties the rest of the cruise. The Bliss Lounge where these parties took place was a nice atmosphere, with extra cushy couches and TVs playing music videos, along with a bowling alley which was also an extra charge.
There was a library where you could check out books for the cruise, and also had nice couches to veg out on with a good book. A card room, with many available board games and tables, a fitness center which I suspect didn't get used too much except by the crew members involved in acrobatic performances onboard. I attempted to go to the stretching class in the fitness center, but the room they use is so small, it only holds maybe 25 people, and all the mats were gone by the time I got there, many more were turned away as well. Seems they should move this activity to somewhere with more space, maybe poolside to accommodate more patrons.
There is a spa, with many different spa treatments, extra charge of course and probably a little more pricey than what you'd find on land. Although the spa does host several free workshops throughout the cruise (ie. 7 steps to clearer skin - which not surprisingly pushes the line of products they use on the ship).
DISEMBARKATION: again a madhouse, but we stayed out of it, after eating a relaxing breakfast in Grand Pacific, we hid away in the Spinnaker lounge (where the main nighttime entertainment usually took place), and observed the grey skies above NYC, and took a nap. Why in the lounge you say? Because all passengers had to vacate their staterooms by 8am even though we were not yet cleared to go ashore. Because of this, everyone else lined up on deck 7 where the gangway was, with their luggage, congesting the hallways and waiting to disembark. At around noon we finally made our way on shore. We were told all this was because the ship would be sailing again at 4, so they needed the time to clean and sterilize all the rooms. Still, seems both the embarkation and the disembarkation process could have been less hectic and more streamlined.
That just about sums up our Norwegian Gem experience, I hope this review is helpful to some of you (and particularly any pregnant women thinking of going). Overall we liked the experience because we got away from everyday life, relaxed, saw new places and had good nighttime entertainment, it's true the food and the smells could have been better, but I guess you can't have it all and at the price of the cruise!