Just returned from a 9-day cruise on the Norwegian Gem from NYC. Had a great time, but in many respects, NCL didn't compare favorably to our most recent experiences on Celebrity and Holland America.
Embarkation in NYC was easy. Friendly service. I don't understand some comments I read about the Manhattan port suffering damage from Hurricane Sandy. Red Hook had damage, but the West Side of Manhattan was unscathed. Was told by senior people responsible for the port that the only water damage was to the lowest levels that people don't ever see and it didn't affect anything.
Cabins - smaller than Celebrity and HAL and comparable to what we experienced with RCCL. We had connecting mini-suites with our kids and the space was more than ample. Plenty of room to unpack into and to store luggage under the bed. Couch would fold out into a bed for those who need a third in the room.
The furniture on the mini-suite balcony was a bit disappointing. Two chairs, neither of which had the slightest recline. While the balcony wasn't big enough for a lounge, I would have hoped for an angle chair and a leg rest to make it a hospitable place to relax with a book during an afternoon.
My wife's parents had guaranteed balcony room and were very disappointed with their balcony -- it turned out to be an entirely enclosed balcony with a "cut-out in the wall to get fresh air from the outside.
The beds, incidentally, were extremely comfortable and I slept better than I do almost anywhere else.
Food - generally okay, but not great. The portions were often on the smaller side for cruise ships. The Garden Cafe had good burgers for lunch (actually quite good) but otherwise was uninspiring. I liked the food in the main dining room. The specialty restaurants were a mixed bag. La Cucina's food seemed over-salted. Moderna was below average for a Churrascaria. Orchid Garden was pretty good. Teppanyaki was outstanding (and the one restaurant that was consistently booked every night). Le Bistro was probably the biggest disappointment. We didn't go to Cagney's, which was unfortunately because my brother and sister-in-law went on the last night and said that it was by far the best meal they had on the ship. Desserts on the ship were almost uniformly below average.
Service - we had a wonderful cabin steward and the crew was generally friendly, but we thought the dining service was very slow. Perhaps that's a consequence of the freestyle cruising (they don't need to adhere to a schedule as they would with set seatings), but meals almost always dragged on far longer than the children could handle. Le Bistro took 3 hours.
Children - we had a huge # of children on our cruise due to it being a holiday week (I heard there were 700+). As a result, the kids club was so mobbed -- there were long lines just to get in the first two sea days. When you combine the lines, the chaotic feel and the completely unbending NCL rule about age groups (so our 9.5 year old son was not allowed to be in the 10-12 year old group with his sister), our kids decided to skip it altogether. They did try to go to cupcake decorating in one of the restaurants on the first sea day, but it was way, way too crowded. It was their first cruise without ever attending kids club. They had lots and lots of fun since we traveled with extended family, but I think they would have enjoyed it even more if it was more inviting. One thing NCL should definitely do is to allow siblings who are less than a year from a particular age group to be with their siblings (i.e., let a 9-year old join the 10-12 group or a 10-year old be with the 6-9's if they have a sibling in that group). Given that the activities are virtually identical anyway, letting siblings be together would make a difference. NCL also needs to anticipate holiday times better to have adequate staffing and space. My 1-year old nephew was shunted off to an inside conference room so that the older kids could have more space even though NCL charges the same full price for the little kids.
Internet - while obviously slower and more expensive than on land, the speed was a pleasant surprise. It was quite possible to log on for just a couple of minutes to download all emails and even attachments and then review them off line.
Activities - NCL was a big tease here. They have a tempting bowling alley, but except for the first two days, it was never open before 7:30pm. I never got an explanation for that other than that they periodically used the space for art auctions. As a result, after the first day of the cruise, my kids never got to bowl. The rock wall was lots of fun, but it seemed to be open limited hours and even then, it would often closed due to weather or winds. I understand that conditions need to be right to use it, but NCL never had the attitude of opening it when the weather was perfect if it wasn't previously scheduled to be open. I would have liked to see a more flexible attitude -- okay, it's raining now so we're going to close the rock wall, but if it's clear in two hours, we'll open it then instead. Nope. Close it now due to rain, but won't open it later because the schedule says it's only open now.
I liked the sports court but it was difficult to use because NCL filled it with activities for 15 and older. The first day had "family dodgeball," which I think was meant to be for the younger kids (although NCL wasn't clear) but my kids steered clear because the court was filled with very aggressive teens and even more aggressive parents. After that, there were no "family" sports activities but almost exclusively for 15 and older. For example, sea day #3 had 15 and older 3-on-3 basketball at noon, 15 and older hockey at 1pm, 15 and older basketball shootout at 2pm and 15 and older soccer at 3pm. Gotta keep those teens from trashing the ship, but no interest in giving the younger kids sports games to play.
Swimming pool - the pool area wasn't that big and, as a result, the chairs were all taken well before 9am. I went out at 8am on one of the sea days and counted 5 free chairs. The rule against reserving chairs for more than 45 minutes was never enforced. I shudder to think about how they are going to fit twice as many people on the pool deck of the Breakaway (which will not be twice as big based on the floor plan) when it is launched in a couple of months.
Gym - not nearly as nice as those I've used on Celebrity or HAL or RCCL. Instead of a panaromic gym at the front of the ship where you can watch where we are heading, the Gem had a smaller, rectangular-shaped gym on the port side with side windows. It lacked the spacious feel, although there was enough equipment except during the most peak times. Also, in the 6 days I used it (during morning hours ranging from 7am to noon), I never saw a single person who worked in the health club. If they didn't have pictures of the two people who were supposedly the fitness instructors, I would have thought it was an unattended gym.
The equipment was state of the art and in good condition. Only complaint here was that it would be nice to have cold water - there was just a warm water fountain, so I filled up a water bottle in the buffet dining room before heading over.
Entertainment - didn't really get to any. My daughter saw the Second City family show and loved it (we all planned to go but were stuck in the 3-hour Le Bistro dinner so we just let her bail). We did the murder mystery on the last day and that was cute. Otherwise, nothing really inspired us.
The ship - it was not laid out particularly well. Unlike most ships we've been on where crowds can flow left or right when walking laterally through the ship, there's generally only one path you can take to get through the Gem. It creates bottlenecks and poor people flow. I also found the Gem to lack relaxing and beautiful public spaces. My family would spend an hour or two in the library or card room playing games, both of which were rather utilitarian spaces rather than beautiful. The Spinnaker Lounge has real potential -- nice vistas and spectacular couches/beds, but often there are activities going on there. Having a place with its views and the furniture that is relaxing would be terrific.
Excursions -- America's Cup sailing in St. Maarten was something we'll always remember and we also really enjoyed Castaway Girl snorkeling in St. Thomas. Walked around Old San Juan (I just wish that they got there earlier than 3pm so we'd have time for a beach or a trip to El Yunque) and went to Cayo Lavantado beach in Samana -- that's gotten mixed reviews, but we thought the beach was quite beautiful. My in-laws went whale watching and saw 4 whales.
Debarkation - we docked around 8:30am. They kept announcing we were early (arrival time is posted as 10am), but in fact, that's precisely when they expect to arrive. We still didn't get off the ship til 11:30am (such long lines to get off that NCL could have managed better by not calling the next color while there is still a 30 minute line for the prior color). Of course, if 10am had been the real arrival time, the ship would not have been emptied until well after boarding was scheduled to begin for the next cruise.
All of these criticisms aside, we all had a terrific time. Freestyle cruising offers great dining flexibility, I would sail from NYC again and again (I really can't say enough about the convenience of taking a 15-minute taxi ride and then being on vacation without a car, train or plane ride) and we got lots of R&R and fun family time together. I think that NCL could make some modest improvements that would actually be significant. Based on this experience, NCL would not be my choice next time (too bad HAL doesn't offer winter sailing from NYC anymore -- we loved the Noordam a few years ago), but if there weren't a better option from NYC, I would not hesitate to sail with them again.