This was our 7th cruise with NCL (Dawn three times, Jewel twice, Pearl and now Gem). We had a wonderful time, but some things fell short from past experiences. However, these issues could be easily resolved, if NCL reads these reviews and takes them seriously.
Embarkation: Normally we're on the ship by 11:30 AM. However, there was a Coast Guard check which held up embarkation. We were on the ship by 12:30 or so.
Cabin: Mini suite 11072. Clean, quiet and the midship elevators are right outside your door. No noise from the Garden Cafe above. Menzi was our steward, and though he was polite and very nice, we didn't see him much during this cruise. Our cabins were made up by 1:00 -2:00 PM and turned down every evening. However, we had become accustomed to our rooms being made up and turned down within 20 minutes or so from us leaving the cabin. I think Menzi is a newer staff member. He was unobtrusive, but at times difficult to hunt down, if we needed something.
Dinging: Grand Pacific, Magenta, Le Bistro, Moderno, La Cucina, Cagney's, Garden Cafe/Great Outdoors, Blue Lagoon & Poolside Barbecue.
Grand Pacific was the better of the two inclusive dining options. The food was good (though on the last morning, I ordered two eggs over easy, and they were "slimy" inside, so I didn't eat them.) However, service was a bit slow, as there were many newbies on this ship. Ate dinner twice and breakfast twice in this dining room.
Magenta: Slow service - same reason as above. Food was subpar in this restaurant, and I had to send back my dinner twice, as it was overcooked - pork medallions. Only ate in this dining room once.
Le Bistro: Very slow service. Dinner was OK, but not as good as my trip on Jewel last Oct (2012). Once again, new staff, and my burgundy chicken was not cooked the same. ONE pearl onion, a few itty bitty carrot pieces and one VERY tiny potato. Though the food wasn't bad, the service and main dish were completely Subpar to my last cruise experience in this venue.
Moderno: Very good - very good service. Though filet mignon was a bit on the dark side for me.
La Cucina: Good service, but I'd like to know what obsessed the chef to send out a plate of chicken parm with no sauce on it. I got a breaded chicken cutlet with a piece of melted mozzarella. Sent it back and asked for it to be cooked the "right" way - WITH sauce and melted mozzarella over it. Very attentive and willing to please. The second plate came out the way it should have been served in the first place. Appetizers and salad were good. However, any Italian could taste the sauce was jarred sauce, unlike my last experience in this venue where it wasn't so obvious that the sauce came out of a jar.
Cagneys: Ate here twice. Very good service, excellent food. Had a Filet Mignon the first time and the Ribeye the second time. Celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary here. The best of the specialty restaurants in my opinion.
Garden Cafe: Ate here once for lunch and a few times to grab a quick bite for breakfast. Actually ate breakfast at the Great Outdoors. Normal buffer style lunch. I used to be a huge fan of buffets, but in the past 2-3 years or so, they're not my thing anymore. I like my food at the right temperature, and everything on the buffet tends to be warm when it should be hot or cold.
Blue Lagoon: Lifesaver! Ate late evening snacks and lunch here every day except day one. All was good: wonton soup, mozzarella sticks (the sauce for the mozzarella sticks was better than the stuff they tried to pull off as sauce in La Cucina), chicken fingers, chicken wings (if you order them hot, you'll have to put a roll of toilet paper in the fridge afterwards!), tuna salad, fish n' chips, hamburgers, brownie with ice cream.
Poolside Barbecue: Hamburgers, hot dogs, some decent wok dishes. However, the hamburgers in Blue Lagoon were better as per my husband.
Casino: I have a major problem with the casino. We have earned free cruise certificates from Harrah's entertainment in the past, and we use our casinos discounts for NCL cruises nowadays. However, I find it ridiculous that all black jack tables with the exception of the $25 tables are played with an automatic/carousel dealer. This is really bad! Every card in all 6 decks are in that machine at all times, so cards are NEVER eliminated. Every time the dealer showed a 10 or face card, you can bet your bottom dollar that he had an 8,9 or 10 in the hole. I've never seen a casino where the dealer never breaks with a 16 and you constantly push with a 20. Ridiculous. I did play the $25 tables for a while, but the problem with that is that there were hardly any players at that table, and it's not exactly wise to play BJ one on one with the dealer. As for Three Card Poker and Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, it was up and down. The machines in this casino (though I don't play machines, but I have family members and friends that do play them) are tight! With that being said, our free booze card for the casino came in handy, the dealers were all really nice people, and we had a good time with them. I took pics of them and told them that I was going to blow up their pics and throw darts at them when I got home for taking my money. LOL I played in the BJ tournament, and I was #1 on the leader board and going into the finals. I placed second in the finals - all finalists were given a bottle of Chilean wine. However, the grand prize was $338! WT?
Staff: The staff in general were polite and helpful, I spoke with alot of the staff and found that most of them were on their first contract and had only been on this ship for about 2-3 months. For some of them, it was their very first cruise. With that being said, I can understand why the service wasn't what we are accustomed to. Many of the more experienced staff was taken off this ship to go to Breakaway. Just because you have a new humongous ship out there, that doesn't mean that the other vessels should be sold short, so to speak!
Flu/virus: After our trip to St. Maarten (with 6 ships in port that day including us), there was a stomach virus/flu going around the ship. In the buffet, you were served - you could not serve yourself. You had to ask for ketchup and any other condiments, and you were given packets. All restaurants had the same protocol - nothing on the tables - salt, pepper, sugar, etc. The staff was diligent about this, and though I understand the restrictions, it could be a bit troublesome here and there. All that were affected with the bug were quarantined. This lasted for the remainder of our cruise. With that being said, and understanding the necessity for this, would it have been so hard to just bring a salt or pepper shaker or a ketchup bottle to a table when asked for them? All that would have to be done would be for the condiment bottle or salt/pepper shaker to be wiped down when removed from the table and before the next sitting. I can really understand not having people serve themselves at the buffet - too many people touching ladles and such without them being wiped down. As a matter of fact, I think it a good idea for a server to put portions in your plate at the buffet at all times, not just when there is some type of bug going around, as KIDS touch this stuff at the buffet with runny noses without anyone having the chance to wipe down the ladles before the next person touches it. Getting back to not having any condiments on the restaurant tables, I think about it this way - how many people touch cards and spin reels on machines? Really think about that. They wiped down the machines and tables every night, yet people were still touching all this stuff all day/night long. With this being said, I didn't see the need for this protocol to the extent it was taken in the dining rooms, specialty restaurants and the Blue Lagoon. In restaurants, it's one bottle of ketchup and a salt or pepper shaker placed on the table when asked for that can easily be wiped down before someone else touches it. As for the casino and how many people touching the machines and cards, at least KIDS with runny noses and such can't touch the cards and spin reels in the casino! I am by no means a germaphobe, I don't sanitize my hands 50 times a day, and I don't have anything against kids, having a grown son of my own, but THINK about it while thinking isn't against the law yet.
Puerto Rico: Beautiful port and lots to do right there by the pier. Took the San Juan City Tour. Saw their Capitol Building which is beautiful, went to a beach for a bit and then spent time at the fort. Need more time to fully explore the fort, but did get to see a decent portion of it.
St. Maarten: Went to Maho Beach to watch the planes land. Hung out by a Tiki Bar. Decent food, decent drink and decent people. Water was absolutely beautiful to swim in, but the current is a bit strong when trying to get out. A good time was had by all - including the casino staff that we saw there and that came over to us to talk and take pictures.
St. Thomas: Beautiful views - did the Old St. Thomas & Black Beard Tower tour. Couldn't go into the tower because of some rain that we had, but the tour was decent for those that like history. Got to see historic houses with all the furnishings from the time period. Lots of walking too. Went to Senor Frogs afterwards right by the pier. What happens in Senor Frogs, stays in Senor Frogs. Just remember to leave your dignity at the front door!
Samana: The most beautiful rain forests and jungle. Very poor country, but we learned alot. Took the ATV adventure. The ATVs are right there as soon as you get off the tender. They took us through the streets to a dirt road, then we rode off road for a ways and went to a very tiny village where we learned about their culture and sampled some of their drink and food. Then we were taken through the rain forest to a waterfall where you could swim. Back to the ATV's and then to the beach - gorgeous views but no swimming. Too dangerous to swim. From there we were taken to a tiki type bar where we had fresh Pina Coladas made in a pineapple with other drinks to offer: soda, water. $11 for two Pina Coladas and water, not too bad at all. We hung out there for a bit and then took the ride back to the ship where my husband almost hit two piglets that ran into the road, and I almost hit a rooster shortly afterwards. Animals truly do just jump out in front of you here! Was alot of fun. With all this being said, these folks are really poor, and they will try to sell jewelry, pictures and other things to you. This is how they make their living. We bought a bunch of stuff just to help them out a bit.
Overall Cruise: I'd have to rate this cruise fairly good in general, but the service and food did suffer in comparison to our past NCL cruises. We had a bit of a bumpy ride down, and the last day of the cruise was rough, but that didn't bother me at all, as I like bad weather on a ship because it's really cool to see what mother nature is capable of, and it reminds you to respect her. I also don't get seasick, so the more fierce, the better for me! Well at least just ONE day of this. The ports on this cruise are well worth the trip.
Disembarkation: Took a while, as we arrived in port a few hours late due to the stormy conditions the day before. Normally my husband and I just walk off the ship with our belongings, or we use the yellow tags for priority disembarkation (we are gold latitudes only 2 points from platinum). Since we had family members with us, we waited until their luggage tag colors were called, so it took a while, and then the terminal itself was so packed with people getting their luggage that it took us another half an hour or so to get a porter - this is to be expected in NY, hence the reason why my husband and I normally carry our own stuff off the ship. The NY terminal has taxis ACROSS the street instead of just having them pull up to the terminal. This changed also, and makes for a bit of a nuisance when needing a cab. That's NY for ya: the less sense it makes, the more common it is, and any NYer will tell you (such as myself) that there are three things we do better than anyone else: stand in line, pay taxes and complain! :-)
I understand why the service was as it was as well as the food quality. It wasn't the best that we've had, but it wasn't really bad either. Looking forward to The Sun out of Tampa next September/October. Hopefully, all will be back to normal by then.