Background This was my ninth cruise, second on Norwegian. First time on the Gem, but this past June-July, we went on the Dawn. We have also been on the Explorer of the Seas the past two Februaries, the Carnival Pride in July 2011, the MSC Orchestra in February 2009, Holland America's MS Noordam in February 2008 and December 2006, and the Majesty of the Seas in December 2003.
If you read my past reviews, I wrote that in my past two cruises, out of Boston, MA and Cape Liberty, right here in New Jersey, were both extremely easy. Manhattan, not so much. The terminal is supposedly still facing some difficulties as a result of Hurricane Sandy, but we felt this was only seen during disembarkation. We arrived at the pier at the normal time we do, around 12:30. We were not on the ship until 2:10-ish. Finding a porter was nice and easy, and from there we headed upstairs to the check-in facilities. Pier 88 had recently undergone a very big renovation, and it was hardly recognizable from when we were last in there, back in 2008. We got onto the security line, which took about 25 minutes to get through it and the security check. From there, we waited about 1:05 minutes on the check-in line to get our passports checked and we (finally) received our SeaPass cards (or whatever Norwegian calls them.) From there, we waited on a 10 minute line for our embarkation photo, and then we finally got onto the ship.
Service on the Norwegian Gem was probably the worst I have ever seen. Even worse than the service on the MSC Orchestra, where service members cursed us out and told us to make up our rooms ourselves.
In the Restaurants: The service in the restaurants was just okay. The first and second nights we had a terrible waiter and waitress who couldn't even get half of our orders right (we had 14 people at our table.) We were supposed to have the same table every night, but we weren't given that table until the fourth night, where we were introduced to the one good waiter we would have. His name was Ramesh. We asked for him again for the rest of the trip, but we only had him twice more.
The Maitre D was not very kind or helpful in the Grand Pacific Dining Room either. We only ate at the Grand Pacific, with the exception of the three specialties we tried (see below.) There was quite a difference in service between the Main Dining Room and the Specialty Restaurants, however. In the specialties, service was much better, albeit was still slow. One night in the Grand Pacific, it took an hour and a half for our appetizers alone. That same night, pieces of plastic was found in one of the soups. The Maitre D did nothing about it. Another night, I received my entree before my appetizer. On the second to last night, paper was found in one of the salads. After that, we were treated to dinner in Le Bistro on the last night.
Around the ship: If you read my review on the Dawn, you probably saw that service was impeccable and everyone was extremely kind, friendly, and helpful. It's amazing how much of a difference one ship can be from another. Some crew members were very obnoxious and inconsiderate. For example, one receptionist couldn't understand what one of us was saying (he has a Polish accent), so she yelled at him and sent him away. On Royal Caribbean, crew would be much kinder about the situation. Crew was also not helpful.
Cabin Stewards/Stewardesses: Probably the kindest department. Our cabin stewardess, Susan from the Philippines was very kind and helpful. We would ask for a few more pillows, she would have them for us as soon as she would put down our room. She was very nice. Three cabins down from us was our friends, who had a man named Antonio (I think that was his name) who was also very nice to them. One complaint we heard of was from another group in our party, who had a lazy man who did not provide anything but the worst for them.
For this cruise, we had Cabin 10537, which was an Inside cabin, Category I. Needless to say, we have had inside cabins in the past, and none were as small as the one we had on the Gem. The one upside, however, was the bathroom. The bathroom provided a shower that you can actually stand in, unlike the ones on the Explorer of the Seas. The toilet was inconveniently located in the corner of the bathroom, where you would have to sit/stand sideways. There was also not enough closet space, as there was only one closet. We were also unable to store half of our suitcases under the beds because there was a cot under one of them.
Entertainment was actually pretty good on the ship. The comedian, Jeff Harms was not very funny and was actually kind of obnoxious. He also had three headlining shows, which was not very good either. The production cast was featured in three shows, on the second, fifth, and eighth nights. They had an act on the first night, and a five-song set of Hairspray music on the last night. I also liked the guest bands that they had onboard, Kenosis, a rock band, and Groove International. the reggae band. Groove International was actually going on vacation after this cruise. Kenosis basically played out my entire iPod throughout the course of the trip. I loved it, and wished they sold a CD. Back to the headlining shows, a Jeff Dunham-esque comedian-ventriloquist named Michael Ziegfeld performed one of the nights as well. He had an odd act, and I would rather watch Jeff Dunham with Achmed the Dead Terrorist over Ziegfeld and his Bird-like puppet. Also featured was Aaron Shaw, finalist of Britain's The X Factor in 2007. Personally, I don't like his style of music and I thought there was nothing very special about him. Also was comedian hypnotist Dr. Scott Lewis, who was a bit odd at times, and had two shows (one kid-friendly and one for adults) as well as a seminar. Also given a headlining show, as well as several other shows was The Second City Comedy Troupe.
The three Production Cast shows:
World Beat (night two): A show that took us from New York to South Africa to China and back. It demonstrated the many cultures of the world through music.
Colorz (night five, one show only): A show that headlined songs that demonstrated the many vibrant colors there are. (i.e.- Pink Cadillac by Bruce Springsteen and Black and White by Michael Jackson were some notable songs.)
Get Down Tonight (night eight): This was the 70s-themed show, but it could not compare to the Norwegian Dawn's Band on the Run, which was ten-times better. This went around to the music of Donna Summer and more highlighted the disco aspect of the seventies, not classic rock. Also on the eighth night (not the last night, surprisingly) was the crew song. This was where the singers came out and sang "You're Norwegian Now" and all the crew (including Team Nick and Spongebob) came on stage. Even the captain came on stage.
For the first three-four days, there were not many scheduled activities, or they were inconveniently scheduled. Also, there were not enough poolside activities. By the end of the cruise, however, I had over 30 OSA (organized staff activity) signatures, which are given after every event. These signatures are signed on your OSA card, which you redeem at the end of the cruise for prizes. Also, the Rock Climbing Wall and Sports court were hardly open, and not enough time was allotted for tennis (8-10 a.m. each morning). The sports court closed at 5:30 every day for unknown reasons, and was not reopened until 8 am the next morning. Inside, activities took place, but there were too many that required an additional fee.
Splash Academy Kid's Club / Entourage Teen Club
The Splash Academy, located in Tree Tops Kid's Club, was for all kids ages 3-12. This, as well as the teen's club, were located on Deck 12, Mid Ship, right by the entrance to the Tahitian Pool and Garden Cafe. From what the several 7-10 year olds in our big group (33 guests,) all ages were combined. My 8 year old sister had to play with little three year olds as well as the 12 year old. She enjoyed the Splash Academy on the Dawn much better, where the kids were divided into three age groups.
The three 13-14 year olds hated the Entourage Teen Club, which was located adjacent to Tree Tops, in the Leopard Lounge. If you read my review on the Dawn, I wrote that we did not really like the Teen Club because it was hardly open with not a lot to do. On the Gem, it was even worse. It was open for 2 1/2 hours at a time, twice a day (approximately). It was open even less on port days. The teen instructor, who went by the codename Ranger, was not very nice either.
Other than service and the several mishaps and objects found in the food, the food was pretty decent. Let's go through a run-down of the restaurants I went to.
Garden Cafe: The lido buffet on the ship. Comparable to other ships, nothing special. The same foods. One special thing was the Great Outdoors, all the way aft at the back of the buffet was an outdoor buffet as an addition to the main buffet. Also in the Garden Cafe was complimentary soft serve AND scooped ice cream. At night was Norwegian's infamous Chocolate Fondue Fountain. The Garden Cafe was also home to the Kids Cafe, an extremely petite and fogotten about corner by the entrance to the Great Outdoors.
Grand Pacific Main Dining Room: Not great. Not even good. All the problems, poor service, cold food, it all adds up. We had an 8:30 reservation every night and we were often held in there until 11:15 or so because of the extremely slow service. We never made it to Magenta, though I cannot imagine it being much better. Also, if you read my review on the Explorer of the Seas, a friend of ours had 5-6 lobster tails, as an appetizer. She also was offered more, but declined. On the Gem, however, they refused to give her more than three. Our waiter also was reluctant about giving her the third one as it was.
Moderno Churrascaria: To be honest, Moderno was not as good as it was on the Dawn. Too much spice was used in the meats, and as a party of six, one little half-pint of each of the sides was not going to cut it for all six of us. They refused to give us more also, which for an all-you-can-eat joint, made no sense.
teppanyaki: Overall, one of the best meals on the ship. It was a set of four hibachi tables, located inside the Orchid Garden Asian Fusion Restaurant. Very good food and service, but nothing more than Benihana at sea.
Orchid Garden: We had this on the last night, while others had Le Bistro. Orchid Garden is the ship's Asian Fusion restaurant, which happened to be much better than Bamboo, the tasteless Asian Fusion restaurant on the Dawn.
Blue Lagoon: The 24 hour go-to place for a (not-so quick) snack. Serive was slow, albeit much better than the neighboring Moderno (right next door) or even the Grand Pacific. I would often grab something to go on my way back to the cabin late at night.
Bali Hai Bar and Grill: The name describes it all. Located Deck 13, Fwd, adjacent to the sun deck and directly above the pool deck was this open air bar and self-serve grill. You can just ask the chef to whip up a burger, and you can pick it up five minutes later. Very convenient, but it was rarely open.
Topsiders Bar and Grill, featuring The Grill: The poolside bar and grill. This is located at the Tahitian Pool, Deck 12, mid ship.The bar is a full service bar. The Grill featured American classics such as hamburgers and hotdogs. It also had unique specialties, not located anywhere else on the ship, including (one of my favorite foods on the ship): the Teriyaki Burger. This was a hamburger, with teriyaki sauce and bacon. It also came with a slice of pineapple on top for flavoring.
The Great Outdoors: Located on Deck 12, all the way aft behind the Garden Cafe was a slimmed down buffet line with a lesser selection than in the Garden Cafe. In addition to this buffet was The Great Outdoors bar, a sports bar always showing ESPN. This buffet was the only place to find Norwegian's signature Chocolate Chip Cookies, and they were only available four brief times throughout the entire nine day trip.
The ports are the same as they always are, sailing from New York. After a pretty quick two and a half days at sea, we arrived in beautiful San Juan, Puerto Rico at 1:30 on Sunday, Day Four. This was an hour and a half earlier than the scheduled 3 pm. Since we didn't have the full day in San Juan (as we never do), we went walking around Old San Juan, with our usual stops in Senor Frogs, Del Sol and the Coach outlet. Not many stores were open, because it was Sunday. The next day we were in Phillipsburg, St. Maarten. We docked at the Wathey Pier, not far from downtown Phillipsburg. We snuck into the Westin hotel, with its private beach and pool. We did the same last year, and it is where I got sunburned to a pulp. I was virtually unable to walk for three days after that. Can't say I didn't do the same thing this year, but my sunburns were not as bad. Tuesday we docked in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas at the West Indian Company (WiCO) pier. We went to Emerald Beach, located at the Best Western, right near the airport. We then came back to the pier and went to the Havensight Mall, an outdoor shopping mall in close proximity to the ship. Wednesday, we anchored off in Samana, Dominican Republic. The island is the poorest, and most undeveloped of the four. As we have in the past two times we came here, we took the optional tender boat (the ship has to anchor in Samana, as there is no pier) to Cayo Levantado, a private beach island. Wow, has the quality of the beach gone down in the past two years since we were last here. The island was so poor and unpleasing that the comedian joked saying "We all loved the ports we visited this trip. We went to San Juan, St. Maarten, St. Thomas,...San Juan."
Probably the worst part of the cruise was debarkation on Saturday. This is where we really witnessed the terminal's lingering effects from Hurricane Sandy, almost four months later. Customs and Immigration had to be done on the ship, and the so called "conga lines" wrapped all the way around the ship. From the time our luggage tag color was called, we waiting on line for about an hour and a half. This line led all the way around, starting at the mid-ship elevators and ending in Orchid Garden, where we would be situated by a Homeland Security officer. From there, we were off the ship in ten minutes. We got on the gangway at Deck 7, Fwd. This took us to the front of the terminal, outdoors. We then had to walk the distance of the terminal, which was a bit longer than the ship. This was all done outdoors, in 35 degree weather. This took us inside to the terminal where we would be led downstairs to claim luggage. We were able to find our luggage quite easier than in the past, and from there we met up with another Customs official who took our Declarations form, and we were set to go home.
Trade Routes Shops and Boutiques
The shops were also a bit of a disappointment. Operated by Dufry, there was not a lot of NCL branded merchandise. The other shops, Colombian Emeralds (jewelry) and a convenience store (with candy, Nautica brand clothing, wine/alcohol, and basic supplies) were also just okay. Of course, there was the $10 Bijoux Terner sale on Wednesday, as there always is on the ships. One other shop, located away from Trade Routes was Ports O' Call, the specialty shop featuring perfume and anything that had been featured at a "sidewalk sale."
Now lets talk about the cruise director, Sinan Ulucay from Turkey. Sinan was a much better cruise director than Johnny Cash-Sanchez (from the Dawn), but did not host as many activities as cruise directors have in the past. Sinan was funny, though he woke me up four out of the nine nights via his announcements. His daily 10 am announcements started off by him singing "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are...(pause)... grey!" He sang that on the sea days, whether it was sunny, cloudy, or rainy. He also sang "If You're Happy and You Know It" several times over the P.A. system. He ended his announcements by saying "Hasta la Pasta", which made no sense to me at all. Also, at the Farewell Variety Show on the last night, he brought back the "Fountains" bit, with him , his cruise staff (a position of three staff members), one oversize kid's club counselor named Scooter, and one other person. The bit is where all six of them spit on each other. It was very funny.
Overall, the ship was very nice, but a bit too colorful for me. Another thing I did not like is that they were already telling you to visit the Cruise Consultant about future cruises on day one. They also over-advertized the Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian's newest ship, scheduled to arrive in May 2013 and homeport in Manhattan year-round. "The Best of NYC sails to Sea." That phrase is now stuck in my head. But now Norwegian has two ships homeported in Manhattan year round.
I liked the ship in general, though it can be confusing to get through at times. I also liked the concept of bowling at sea, though when the ship was moving, it became very hard. I also like that there was karaoke every night, and there was bandeoke with Kenosis twice as well. (I sang a terrible rendition of "Brown Eyed Girl" at Bandeoke, and I sand several different songs at Karaoke.) Two people I would like to recognize are Joe and Nick. They are two of the best karaoke singers I've seen on a cruise. Joe sang "Sherry" from the Jersey Boys at least four times throughout the cruise, and he had the perfect whining voice for it. Nick was very good with the lower pitched songs. I can see him singing Linkin Park songs.
One more note, the ship is only five years old. It was still brand new, but it can use a touch up. Signs on the ship led to a Latin/Tapas restaurant, which is now occupied by Moderno. Things need to be updated and refreshed on the ship.
Read my Ports review for more information on the ports.