This sailing on the Gem was my 5th NCL cruise, second time on the Gem. I had a group of 36 people who were traveling together. In general the cruise was fine and we had a great time. It was a holiday sailing and there were almost 800 children on the ship. There were a few times you were aware of the kiddie overload, but all things considered the ship "absorbed" them rather well. (The kids club did seem crazy, often having long lines).
Overall the group was pleased but I think most people had a few experiences of less than ideal service. There was nothing that ruined anyone's cruise but enough things to demonstrate NCL is okay, but definitely a notch or two below Royal Caribbean and Princess. There did not always seem to be a rhyme or reason for what happened. For example, each day our group met for a gathering in the morning in El Bistro. This had been pre-arranged through the group coordinator. Each day the set-up of chairs was different. Regardless of how it was configured we made it work, but why seven different arrangements for the seven days we were there?
There are also inconsistencies in the service. A group of six of us had three side by side cabins. One cabin had two bath robes, another had one, the third had none. Some people praised their cabin stewards; some thought their service was marginal.
Cabins: Cabins on cruise ships are small. These seemed particularly small, with limited storage. It was the balcony cabins that were the tightest, the interior cabins offered more room. There is no bar soap offered in the bathroom. There are soap and shampoo dispensers, which you kind of get used to, but it always feels like you are bathing with a vending machine. Our cabin was the last in the line for our steward, so most days the cabin was not touched until after 12:00. But the bed was plenty comfortable.
Food: In general the quality of the food was good to very good. I loved having smoked salmon every morning. There were great baked breads and rolls. The soup was great. Some of the dinner specials were outstanding. We had a fantastic meal in LaCuchina and an awesome filet in LeBistro. I liked the variety of the buffet, particularly at lunch.
The quality of the service was more sporadic, sometimes ridiculous.
- We were a party of six. One several occasions we were brought to tables set for five.
- One night in Magenta they ran out of glasses. We had to wait for piping hot glasses to come from the dishwasher before they could pour water. The same thing happened with the wine, hot glasses straight from the dishwasher for chilled white wine.
- One morning for breakfast we were the first party to enter the dining room and they led us immediately to a table directly in front of the kitchen. We asked to be seated at another table nearby, which they allowed us to do, but that seemed to miff the matre' de and confused the staff as to who was to wait on the table.
- The first few days of the cruise there seemed to be a spoon shortage. (Really, I'm not making this up.) There were no teaspoons on the table in the Grand Pacific for breakfast. Someone in our party asked for one to stir the coffee. They brought one to the table which was passed around. By day four that issue went away.
- The worst experience was in Blue Lagoon. We went there (a party of six) for lunch. They first brought out appetizers for three people. Fifteen minutes later they brought out two more first courses and three entrees. One person up to that point had been served nothing. The servers were equally confused and indifferent. We tracked down the maitre' de whose attitude was as sharp as could be. We could not figure out if she was angry with us or the staff; she never offered an apology. She came back and said "oh, we threw out your ticket." It was well over an hour and a half for soup and a sandwich.
- The food at Cagney's was good, service was fair at best. The famous Cagney fries, (which are not worth the effort) were cold. Entrees were brought to the table with first course dishes still piled up. We had to open our second bottle of wine and serve ourselves. This service was really disappointing for Cagney's.
Casino: A decent place, there are a few good video poker machines. It was often smoky, particularly in the evenings. I don't believe they have "smoke free nights" as some cruise lines do. Earning player points is ridiculous. Yea, I know I am not a high roller. But my level of play which would easily be earning me comps in Vegas and AC did not even get me to the point of getting a free drink. Don't play for the comps. Slotplaycoupons.com offers $50 of slot play for $25; a great deal.
Spa: For me the best investment on the ship is the pass to the spa. I love the pool with the various water jets. I especially love that water cannon thing that just knocks all the tension out of your shoulders. The sauna is awesome, incredibly hot and with a great view out of the front of the ship.
Our other favorite spot on the ship was the Star Bar and deck 13. It was always peaceful and quiet with a great view of the pool. Unfortunately for those of us who did not have suites in The Haven, this space was not available for us from 7:00 AM -- 3:00PM.
Entertainment: I am just not a big fan of most cruise ship entertainment. I did not form any bonds of endearment to our cruise director. I like performers like "Leo" who simply plays a guitar and does some easy listening music. "International Groove" also provided some great music. Other than that the production shows and "headliners" really don't do much for me.
Disembarkation: It was chaos, but this is not necessarily NCL's fault. Apparently the pier in NY was damaged in Sandy and the area that the Immigration Officers normally use is not functional. This means that they had to come on the ship and do what they need to do in two small locations on board. If in fact everyone had listened to instructions, things probably would have gone smoother. But essentially the entire ship got on line at once and was painfully slow and crowded.
NCL offers great value for the money and I will keep coming back to them. But part of the NCL experience will always be dealing with small oversights and weak service that remind you it is not a five-star offering.