This was our first NCL cruise and it was chosen to avoid air fare for 9 people. I actually did not know if I would be pleased with the Norwegian Gem but I and the 8 others were totally impressed.
Start off with remembering this is a large ship that had many, many families with children in the week following July 4th. As a result embarkation might have been a little slower than a more adult-oriented cruise. So, have a good attitude, smile and talk to the employees and you will find that they will go out of their way to please you.
The biggest thing that made this cruise exceptional was that I choose a concierge/butler cabin. With this came VIP status that served us very well throughout the cruise. I think it even expedited the boarding process a bit but since I didn't highlight this perk we got on in about the same time as everyone else, I believe. We were quickly impressed by the cleanliness of the ship and found our way to the Grand Pacific Dining Room where they seated all 9 for a quiet, delicious and well served lunch. The Grand Pacific actually became our favorite non specialty place to eat. It is a beautiful room and the wait staff seemed particularly efficient, especially since we had three children, ages 14, 9, and 2!
Since we were celebrating 2 anniversaries, we decided on a party in the suite and butler, Zahid Ahmad made it happen even though I had arranged it through NCL before boarding. This was just one of the many wonderful services he provided during the week. I tipped the butler and the concierge over the daily amount. By the way, I feel NCL's approach to gratuities being charged everyday is a fair way to handle the staff receiving appropriate compensation. I have been on two cruises where table mates gave no gratuities to dining room wait staff that was superior.
Here are some more advantages to the upgraded suite and VIP status, the ability to have lunch and breakfast in Cagney's, otherwise a specialty restaurant with a great staff, an in suite Lavazza coffee maker that was absolutely fabulous. On the ship, they charge an extra
$2.50/cup and I had at least 4 cups a day! Also, every day cookies or some sweet would be delivered. We received an invitation to a cocktail party in the Haven and went to see the layout. I am not sure I would ever opt for it as the setting completely removes you from the cruising experience. By the way, folks, even though this is a very casual ship, a formal cocktail party deserves better than a rock band t-shirt or a baseball cap.
Having said all that, I think that any level cabin receives wonderful standard services and would book a lower level without thinking twice.
La Cucina allowed 9 of us to enjoy a wonderful Italian dinner together at one large table (an experience we won't ever forget) and the staff of the Orchid turned itself inside out to please the palate of the 2 year old.
As for staff, NCL can be very pleased with the wait staff of the main dining rooms and the buffet. I found the appearance of the Grand Pacific to be the most appealing and the staff there even on our last breakfast on Saturday was as gracious as you would find in a fine restaurant in a large city. I thought the buffet was overall as good or better as any cruise ship I have been on and superior to all inclusive resort buffets.
As others have mentioned the pools can get very crowded but that did not stop everyone I saw from having a good time. Finding shaded areas to relax was a little challenging but we were successful every day. The poolside bbqs were amazing.
The children and teen programs were huge hits with our youngsters. The staff was amazing.
Read everything you can before getting on the cruise since the ship has so many activities. Remember the dolphins in the carpet face the front of the boat. Get half price chips at playslots.com and most importantly find the time each day to go to the rear of the ship for a drink at the Garden Cafe bar with the delightful, Oswell Raymond!