My wife and I returned home yesterday from the Gem's 9 night Eastern Caribbean itinerary. I would not call myself a seasoned cruiser - this was only my fourth cruise, and first in almost ten years, it was my wife's second. We are 43 and 44 years old respectively and our children are in college, and this was our "empty nester" cruise.
The embarkation process went relatively smoothly - we live in the Philadelphia area and drove up to NYC on Friday night and stayed over one night in Manhattan. So it was a short drive from Midtown to the pier on Saturday morning. We had to deal with traffic for a Food Network event taking place on the next pier, but other than that, parking was very easy. We dropped off our luggage on the first floor, and moved relatively quickly through the check in line. When we were at the front of the line, the computers went down, so there was a bit of a delay there (10-15 minutes), but an announcement was made quickly so people knew what was going on. Also, the gentleman directing passengers to each open agent was very friendly as we chatted with him during the delay.
We boarded the ship around 12:30 or so. We made a cash deposit on our stateroom account (no line whatsoever), booked a couple of on board ship activities, purchased the water package, talked to the spa representative, and by about 1:00 the announcement was made that we could proceed to our cabins. All in all, no complaints about embarkation.
The Gem itself was impressive - clean, easy to get around, elevators working efficiently, etc.
We had a balcony cabin on deck 9 port side - the cabin was small (but aren't they all), but the bed was very comfortable, and all linens/sheets, etc. were clean. My only complaint here was our cabin steward was almost like a ghost. She never introduced herself to us, and we only saw her a few times briefly in the hallway. We did get a few towel animals during the cruise, but I recall on past cruises our steward being much more accessible/friendly.
The dining experience was mostly positive. We ate most of our breakfasts at the buffet, decent omelettes, not a lot of variety from day to day, but plenty of choices so unless you eat everything on the buffet, you could change it up from day to day. We ate one morning in the Grand Pacific and another in Blue Lagoon, both of these were fine. The orange juice is great - tastes like freshly squeezed. The coffee was very weak for the first 8 days and nights, which was disappointing as we like stronger coffee, but for some strange reason the last night of the cruise as well as at breakfast the final morning, the coffee was much stronger. If it had been that way the entire cruise, it would have been great.
Lunch was also solid - between the buffet, the Grand Pacific, Blue Lagoon and the outdoor grill, you could have something different every day - hot or cold - burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, salads, soups, a nice selection of breads, etc. Decent variety in the main dining room as well. We also had a la carte sushi one day for lunch - absolutely fantastic, and very reasonably priced.
Dinners were a mixed bag. We ate six nights in the specialty restaurants (one in each), once in each of the two main dining rooms (Grand Pacific and Magenta) and once at the buffet. The buffet was decent, more options than at lunch, typical buffet food - I laugh at the people who write negative reviews about the quality of the food at the buffet - after all, it is a buffet people, how much can you really expect? The main dining rooms were a disaster. The one night we ate in Magenta, it was extremely loud, and the waitstaff was obviously in over it's head, with way too many tables per server, and the quality of the service suffered. The kitchen must have been short staffed as well, because there were extremely long delays - my cioppino came out cold, and my wife's steak didn't come out until 10 minutes after that, and they ended up bringing her two. Grand Pacific was also not impressive - maybe the worst piece of prime rib I have ever had, so fatty and at one point I bit into something solid - not good. Most of the specialty restaurants were extremely good.
We ate at Le Bistro the first night - the onion soup was very good (although I would have liked to have seen more cheese), entrees were solid and the desserts were great. My wife liked her Chocolate Napoleon so much, she went back later in the week just to have another one!
Cagney's was fantastic - steaks cooked perfectly - sides were all great. However, we were quite tired that night so I don't think we enjoyed it even as much as we could have - we weren't as hungry as we needed to be that night, as I would have loved to have tried a couple of the other appetizers.
La Cucina was also excellent - I had the Osso Buco, my wife had the lobster fettucine - everything was just great, fantastic desserts as well.
Moderno was a big let down. I would venture to guess that if one had never dined at a churasscuria before, they might have thought it was good, but having eaten at no fewer than 10 of them up and down the east coast, Moderno pales in comparison. A paltry salad bar, and meats cut and served by not true gaucho chefs left a lot to be desired - overcooked meats, poor cutting skills, etc. I will say that the lamb chops and bacon wrapped chicken were good, but the rest of the meats only average. This would be the only specialty restaurant I wouldn't eat at again on a future cruise.
Orchid Garden was very good - similar meals/quality to PF Changs. I recommend the lemon pepper shrimp. The creme brulee flight for dessert was also very good. Our waiter was one of the best - he was so nice, bringing us out extra things to try, etc., we went back the next day for lunch for sushi and he was our waiter again, overall a great experience here.
Teppanyaki was awesome, On par with any local hibachi place I have ever been to - entertaining chef, tasty food, generous portions. The green tea ice cream for dessert was a real winner.
We were very impressed with the overall entertainment on the ship - we saw all but one nightly feature show. The production singers/dancers were solid, and the choice of music for these events was very good and catered to the wide age of guests on the ship. The juggling comedian was hilarious, the magician/comedian was not very funny, but his magic was great. The main comedian Jeff Harms was hilarious. We liked him so much that we made sure to attend every other ancillary event that he participated in.
Plenty to do on the ship - trivia/name that tune/origami/cooking demos/game shows, etc.
The casino had a decent variety of slot machines and at least one of every table game that you would see in a major casino at home. Always pretty easy to get a seat at whatever table you wanted.
The staff on the ship always seemed to go out of their way to make everyone feel special and welcomed. Staff members that we hadn't seen in a few days still remembered our names. Very impressive with the overall level of service. The cruise staff, every one of them, were a delight.
The ports were nice - we didn't book any formal excursions, we explored on our own, or took a local tour when we got off the ship. I had been to St. Thomas and St. Maarten on past cruises, not much has changed in ten years. The resort area of San Juan was very nice. We didn't care for Samana, too much pressure from the locals.
Disembarkation went smoothly, other than the typical scramble to find our luggage. Once we had it, we got a porter to help us, which enabled us to cut most of the line and get to our car about a half hour earlier than we would have otherwise. A $40 tip very well spent.
We were so happy with the cruise that we are already planning on sailing on the Nov 11 2014 Canada/New England itinerary on the same ship.