Norwegian Gem Cruise Review by Uniall: New York City & Caribbean On NCLâ€™s Gem At Chanukah & Christmas Time
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New York City & Caribbean On NCLâ€™s Gem At Chanukah & Christmas Time
An outbreak of Noro Virus among the disembarking passengers necessitated an intensive ship’s disinfecting and cleaning before we could board. Boarding, originally scheduled for 1130 am, was delayed until 3pm which pushed back sailing from 4 pm till 530 pm.
Our “Yellow Diamond” Owner’s Suite #9004 was magnificent. The 25x20 Living & Dining room was adjacent to a 12x25 Bedroom and 12x25 Master Bath including dressing room/closet, shower stall and separate tub. There’s a powder room off the Living Room Foyer. There are two balconies, one side balcony off the Living/Dining Room and a forward facing balcony off the Bed Room.
Hotel Director, Jenny Lim and Concierge, Carlos Zarate had large urns of ice tea and lemonade laid out in our dining room with huge bowls of munchies for our Cruise Critic Sail Away Party. Despite the late departure, 35 CCers had a “smashing” good time. We were able to enjoy the electric More lit New York skyline in the dark and a breath taking view of the Statue of Liberty set aglow by flood lights.
After the Sail Away, about half the CCers stayed on for an extra half hour to help our Jewish members celebrate the last day of Hanukah with the lighting of the eighth Menorah candle. The observance was concluded with a short prayer and sharing of Challah bread and wine.
We attended the 7 pm show in the Stardust Theater which was an overview of the NCL singers and dancers troupe routines. At the end of the show we returned to our suite where our butler served late supper of steak and lobster in our dining room for us and our good friends: Franco & Karen.
We began the day with breakfast in our cabin, delivered by our butler at 830 am. The sea was rough and our tummies a little queasy but hot tea and toast helped quell the discomfort.
We arrived at the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet in the Bliss Lounge (deck 7 aft) at 11 am. The meeting was a superb success due in great measure to the great planning of Lou (Brighten Line). Lou had provided preprinted lanyard name tags and a list of all of the officers who would be in attendance.
The Meeting was commenced with the introduction of Captain Stephan Vilhelm; Hotel Director, Jenny Lim; Food & Beverage Director, Vitor Da Silva; Cruise Director, Matt Sole; Executive Housekeeper, Alex Patagnan; Executive Chef, Tyson Pinto; Restaurant Manager, Marek Bus; Beverage Manager, Sandy Delos Reyes; Guest Service Manager, Nomita Rambhuunjan; and Group Service Coordinator, Etienne Saladin.
We took lunch in Cagney’s which serves breakfast and lunch to Platinum and Suite guests. We attended the Captain’s private cocktail party in the Haven at 7pm and had late dinner in La Bistro. The rack of lamb was superb and well accompanied by Wolf Blass Australian Cabernet at a very reasonable price. With an after dinner snifter of brandy enjoyed with goof friends, we retired for the evening.
Set the clock ahead on hour tonight.
We slept in and had late breakfast served en suite by our butler. I had a few glitches in the computer preparation of my daily Cruise Critic daily report but the ship’s Tech Manager helped solve the problem.
We got to the 11 am Slot Pull a little late. We found 30 or so CCers having a fun time under the direction of Lou (Brighten Line), our great Roll Call Coordinator. Lady Luck was not smiling on us and we each received a refund of $5 on our $15 “investment” after 5 pulls on the slot machine.
After the Slot Pull, we adjourned for lunch in Cagney’s restaurant with Lou & Dee and our cruise mates, Franco & Karen. We finished a leisurely noon meal just in time to meet and greet the Captain and senior officers at the 230 pm Latitudes cocktail party in the Spinnaker Lounge. (I wonder if the Spinnaker will be converted to Suites like other ships in the NCL fleet?) I bought two future Cruise Rewards certificates and won 100 internet minutes in the door prize drawing….. Oorah, I can keep my daily log going.
We retired to our cabin for an afternoon nap to prepare for the evening’s festivities. We met our cruise mates, the Muratores, in the Pacific Main Dining Room and were seated at a lovely table for four by the Aft windows. We all ordered the lamb shank but opted for different sides: Franco had the bean casserole, Karen and Sharon with mashed potatoes, and penne pasta for me. After dinner, we headed for the theater and had our butler serve us a glass of champagne before the show. It was a magnificent performance in five languages by Jennifer Fair a superb Soprano Prima Donna backed by the ship’s orchestra.
Following the theater, I headed to the Atrium Bar to convey the best regards of a friend and CC regular (Mandy in Seattle) to Michael Blackwell, a great “mood music” pianist. I then re-joined my wife (save the marriage) and our companions who were listening to the Beatles Nostalgia tunes by Leo in Magnum’s Bar.
Off to bed……..tomorrow San Juan, PR.
We slept in today and began with a late breakfast served en suite by our Butler, Elvie Valencia. This is her try out week as a new butler. What she lacks in experience, she makes up for with a lot of heart.
After breakfast, we just lolled around watching TV and tried to stay out of the way as our superb Cabin Steward, Irma Lendame, straightened up our daily cabin disarray.
We were scheduled to arrive in San Juan at 3pm. So we asked Elvie to serve lunch in our cabin for ourselves and cruise mates at 2pm. Elvie outdid herself bringing Club Sandwiches and Cobb Salads for four at the appointed hour. The foursome “lunch bunch” was treated to a magnificent entry into San Juan harbor from our forward facing balcony under the Captain’s bridge.
At 3pm, we went up to the Star Bar for an early VIP escort debarkation from the ship led by “The Stalwart of the Fleet” Concierge, Carlos Zarate.
Once ashore, we signed on for a 2 hour tour of the Old City and Fort Moro in one of the many 15 passenger mini buses waiting just outside the terminal. The price was $20 per person. It included a stop at the Puerto Rican Capitol with statues of US Presidents who have visited San Juan, starting with Teddy Roosevelt and at Condado Park overlooking the Caribbean with its beautiful fountain. Our guide gave an excellent presentation on this history of the San Juan neighborhoods and Puerto Rican culture. Our final stop was a 40 minute visit to Fort Moro, the iconic fortress protecting San Juan Harbor. It was enough time to see a short 10 minute movie of the history of Puerto Rico with a photo op of the fortress and a quickie visit to the gift shop. Our driver dropped us off in the old town, where we visited the CVS pharmacy for several sundry items we’d forgotten, while our cruise mates went off afoot for more exploring in the Old City. With a leisurely stroll of 4 blocks, Sharon Rae and I returned to the ship about 7pm.
A Special Dinner was served in our cabin. The day before, I’d opined my disappointment that the ship’s menu no longer included Shepard’s Pie. Our butler learned the chef had prepared the dish just for us. She served the wonderful comfort food after hors d’verves and cocktails in our dining room.
At 930 pm we went to down Magnum’s Bar to catch the last set of Michael Blackwell’s magic on the baby grand piano accompanied with a bottle of bubbly uncorked and left for us by our butler. We were joined by fellow CCers: Will & Jenna (MJ Six) and Franco & Karen (Esperanza).
At 10pm, Michael was followed by the ship’s six member “Amar Orchestra” (comprised of a pianist, sax, trumpet, trombone, bass guitar and drummer.) Their first set included a new female vocalist, Rachel Paige. She did a nice job on some of Barbara Streisand’s songs from “Funny Girl” the musical bi-op of Fanny Brice. Rachel has a nice (not great) voice. The hoots & howls of her fellow ship’s entertainers’ fan club, from the back of the room, was a little distracting.
The orchestra’s second set was vocalist free and provided a lovely end to a lovely day.
At 730 am we were awakened by the aroma of fresh brewed coffee laid out in our dining room by Elvie, our butler. We had several cups and started dressing for the day. About 9am we joined our cruise mates, Franco & Karen, in Cagney’s to complete our breakfast of poached eggs and smoked salmon.
We were delighted to see the NCL Sun docked at the same pier. This was a festive omen since we’re booked on the Sun next September for 22 days including a Panama Canal transit.
Our foursome disembarked about 10 am and proceeded to the modern and stylish cruise port just inside the pier entry and obtained a superb map of the island at the Information booth. Walking about 20 meters outside the port enclave we found a major domo who informed us of the length and prices of tour guides. We opted for the 2.5 hour island circle tour with 40 minute visit in Marigot on the French far side.
Our driver was James and drove a blue minivan which was very comfortable for the four of us; We made several stops on the way to Marigot including a small wild life and fauna f preserve where we photographed iguanas in natural habitat along us indigenous caged snakes and monkeys.
Continuing on, we preceded to the marked but unguarded border between Dutch & French sides of the island. After photo stops, we arrived in Marigot and enjoyed a cappuccino with fresh baked goods from the French bakery. On our way back to Phillipsburg on the Dutch side, we wound our way through the narrow streets of the tiny village of Grand Case (pronounced Cass). It has more than 18 restaurants covering everything from Caribbean beans & rice spots to French haute cuisine bistros.
When we returned to Phillipsburg, our friends decided to explore the many and varied shopping opportunities while we returned to the ship. Then, we enjoyed a cocktail while overlooking the port facilities from our forward facing balcony.
We and our cruise mates met our illustrious Concierge (Carlos Zarate) for dinner in La Cucina Italian restaurant. We all ordered the mouthwatering Osso Bucco (Veal shank braised in tomato sauce) which was done to perfection.
We decided to skip evening entertainment, since we had seen the NCL production of "Earth, Wind & Fire" several times before on other cruises. Instead, we had our dessert sent to the cabin to be enjoyed with brandy and cappuccino prepared with the espresso machine in all the suites.
We ordered room service coffee and juice at 7am and met our cruise mates for eggs and smoked salmon in Cagney’s at 8 am. We watched our arrival in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands from the restaurant’s windows.
After breakfast, we disembarked on the pier located about a mile south of the Havensight Port Mall’s shops and restaurant. The port shops are usually reached by motor tram circling between the dock and Mall every 15 minutes. We had used this tram before but it was not running today.
The only other transport available at the pier were mini vans for 7 and open air jitneys for 16 passengers which traveled the 4 miles to the Main Village for $4 per person. Our mates headed for town on a jitney. The Taxi Starter (Tsar) insisted there were no private hire taxis available and we’d have to share space with others and pay an extra charge for my wife’s rollator (wheeled walker with seat).
The only venue within our walking distance was the pier side “Senor Frogs” bar and restaurant with patio and pool. Since the ship provided free food and pool we returned to our suite and spent the morning sipping Canadian Club whiskey with 7up and vodka with tonic on our forward facing balcony with a view of the harbor, pie and main village. We spent the day playing cards and reading. At 2pm we played movie trivia in Magnum's Bar while enjoying a bottle of bubbly. It turned out to be a perfect day of decompression. When hungry, we called our butler who brought sustenance and fresh ice for our CCs & Tonics.
There were some excellent movies available on DVDs or “On Demand”. So, we decided to skip the comic providing the evening’s entertainment in the theater. Our butler, brought served dinner from the main dining room menu (BBQ Ribs and coconut breaded shrimp) and brought after dinner dessert and popcorn for movie munchies.
It was a very low key, catch your breath day.
We dropped anchor about 3 miles off shore from Samana DR around 730 am. There were rain squalls all around us with wind gusts and choppy seas. Many of the guests had booked the ship’s shore excursion to a small island of Cayo Levantado in Samana bay for its private beaches. Others opted for tendering to Samana for local tours. Having visited here several times, we took the tender to Samana had our photo taken by the ship’s photogs, did a quick look see and returned to the ship.
We spent the remainder of the morning sipping cocktails on our balcony and ordered in noon lunch. At 130 pm, we took advantage of the ship’s Spa Special of a one hour massage for $10, which put us in the mood for an afternoon nap.
Our evening began with complimentary cocktails with the Captain, Hotel Director and Cruise Director at the Latitudes Party in the Spinnaker Lounge at 7 pm. There was an excellent combo with female vocalist who performed iconic 1950s rock and roll and country songs. The Cruise Director, Matt Sole, did a very good rendition of The Righteous Brothers “Lovin feeling”
We headed to the Orchid Asian restaurant for our 8 pm reservations. Alas, the hoped for wonderful repast of Asian cuisine was not to be. The food was not up to NCL’s usual standards. The service was poor. And, the ambiance was totally destroyed by the loud audience participation piano bar sing along carried throughout the restaurant from the open atrium Magnum’s Bar one deck below. Oh well, live and learn. We’ll not return for Asian food on the Gem again.
We retired to our room about 11 and hope to make a full day and night of it on the morrow.
Began the at sea day with breakfast in the cabin at 830 am.
At 11 am we had a VIP tour of the bridge for 3 couples guided by the Captain. Following the bridge tour, we enjoyed lunch in Cagney’s.
At 100 pm We went to the photo department to pick outstanding photos from the last 48 hours. We found a great photo in the photo department which was perfect for us to order 300 Christmas/Chanukah cards. Now, that’s one stop shopping..
We returned to our suite and met with the concierge and our butler to plan our Cruise Critic pre-dinner cocktail party. We mad finish reservations with Pacific Main Dining Room Manager, Aurora, for CC farewell dinner a 7pm. The food was delightful and the service impeccable under the leadership of Aurora, Dining Room Maître ‘D.
We hosted a lovely pre-dinner cocktail party in our Owner’s suite at 630 for 14 Roll Call members. We added another couple for dinner and a rousing toast was made to salute our Roll Call Coordinator: Lou (Brighten Line)..
We finished off the evening with a bottle of bubbly served by our butler in the Stardust Theater. The show of the evening was an eclectic presentation by the NCL dance troupe of various music genres from the Jersey Boys to Mo-Town to neo mod rock.
Tomorrow will be out last cruise day….
We set our clocks back an hour last night and got an extra hour of sleep. We invited our cruise mates, Karen & Franco, to breakfast with us en suite. Once again, our “eager to please” butler, Elvie brought double portions of our order. When multiplied by 2 persons it was a lot of food but multiplied for 4 people it made the wooden table creak and groan.
After breakfast I spent about an hour making my final selections of on board photos and ordering a thumb drive copy of all of my chosen pics.
We started organizing our clothes to expedite the afternoon of packing and wrote thank you notes to accompany an extra gratuity for those who provided special service and assistance.
We went off to lunch with a bottle of champagne. Good Lord, we have 2 more bottles of sparkling wine and 2 bottles of red wine. What to do? What to do? We developed a game plan over cold salmon and bubbly. The four of us will drink 2 bottles of red in Le Bistro tonight. Then we’ll share a bottle of champagne in the theater and finish off the second bottle with breakfast in the morning. Oh the pressures of these heavy decisions. I may crack under the strain.
We finished packing after lunch and laid out our clothes for the morning, including warm sweaters and coats….. back to reality. Time for a last vodka tonic and Canadian and 7 Up. Now, off to Le Bistro. The meal was superb and the service impeccable. Since we were guests of Mr. Di Silva, the Food & Beverage Director, we must email a thank you when we return home.
The final show was very enjoyable with an outstanding encore by comedian Jeff Harms who memorializes the contrast between growing up in the 1950s and 2013. The Assistant Cruise Director put on a bravura baritone performance of operatic song. The Grand Finale' was act that keeps on giving: "Fountains". If you have to ask, you must cruise NCL to learn what that means....The evening has ended. It has been a wonderful 9 days.
For debarkation day, NCL changed the VIP breakfast venue from Cagney's to Le Bistro, deck 6, which is also the deck for the NYC gangway exit. But, after breakfast we and our cruise mates went back to our suite to wait for debarkation last call in more comfort. We wanted to limit our waiting time for hotel room availability.
The Concierge Carlos's stalwart Butler Team provided rapid debarkation off the ship and through customs and the terminal for all VIP guests. Once outside the terminal, the nightmare began. Most people left the terminal at street level and had to cross 2 roadways: a 2 lane service street and an 8 lane main street to reach the outdoor taxi stand (about 1/2 mile). They were then exposed to the cold wind off the river for a 15 minute wait in the taxi line. Others went to the second level of the terminal which is in a wind protected area with overhead heating lamps. But, here the wait was 30 minutes because you were waiting for taxis dropping off guests for that days sailing and they were just starting to arrive. In the future, I will order a private car to pick us up on the upper level.
The taxi ride was about 2 miles but took 30 minutes ($18) in NYC traffic caused, in major part; by using one of two lanes for bicycles on 44th St. It was crazy. A ten block back up of stop and go traffic with an empty lane for nonexistent bikers.
We got to our hotel (Mela) one block from Times Square (120 W 44th St.) and they said they would have a room in about an hour. We went next door to the Irish Pub to await our room and the arrival of former cruise mates, Jim & Jeanne, who were coming over from NJ to spend the day with us. When they arrived, we enjoyed a light lunch in the pub and set off for a walk around Times Square. When we returned, my room was ready and I asked if there was an upgrade available with a sitting room so we could entertain our guests. Hotel Mela suggested an Exec Mini Suite for a modest price increase which was perfect.
Sharon and Jeanne went up to the room while Jim and I walked around the corner to a drug store (Duane & Reed) to buy soda, wine and beer. The four of us visited for several hours when we were joined by our Gem ship mates, Franco & Karen. After another round of libations and chat, we went to the Bistro French restaurant which is also adjacent to the hotel (other side) for their pre theater (5-7pm) pre fixe 3 course meal (choice from 6 starters, 6 entrees, and 4 desserts) for $28 and a lovely wine list ($30-$50 per bottle). The food was terrific (steak, chicken, mussels, salmon, pasta entrees), the service superb and the room and ambiance lovely. Our total bill for six (including wine, tax and 20% tip) was $300. Not bad for NYC one block from Time Square.
We returned to our mini suite for an after dinner drink and conversation. Jim & Jeanne left for home about 10 pm. Karen & Franco stayed another half hour to plan tomorrow's NY adventure.
We slept until 9 am and were awakened by room service delivering our breakfast from The Bistro next door to Hotel Mela. We ordered three egg sandwiches with ham on Kaiser Rolls ($8 ea.) and a pot of coffee with 4 cups($6)
W relaxed little and waited for Karen & Franco to come by at 1130. We walked the half block on 44th St. to the Times Square Toys R Us in light snow flurries.
When we left the toy store there was snow mixed with light rain blown by a cold wind. We walked to Ben's Kosher Deli on 38th St. Karen & Franco had a bowl of matzo ball soup and split a high piled corned beef on rye. Sharon Rae and I enjoyed the free homemade pickles and Cole slaw and also split a corned beef sandwich. The four of us shared a bottle of Baron Herzog cabernet.
By the time we headed back to the hotel the snow & rain was mixing with sleet. We were careful in our steps to avoid freezing sleet on the side walk. We went up to our room to rest and chat for an hour before heading over to Radio City Music Hall for the annual Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes.
We went to the hotel lobby 30 minutes before show time and the door man told me cabs were not plentiful and there were two parties ahead of us. There was no way we could walk the 1/2 mile in the strong wind and sleet. So, the door man arranged a private car for $20.
After a 5 minute ride, we were dropped off at Radio City but at the wrong door. We walked around the corner and were in our center seats 10 minutes before show time.
The next 2 hours were some of the most memorable and magic moments I have ever spent in any entertainment venue. The special effects, 3D cinema, cast of singers and dancers and the world famous Rockettes delivered an incredible performance of fun, nostalgia, humor, ancient and traditional Christmas music, a mix of sets, props and background film creating a realistic tour of NYC Christmas sights by tour bus, fantastic dance numbers and ended with a full stage tableau of Bethlehem valley and birth in the manger.
When we left the theater the weather had gone from bad to worse. I asked a NYC cop what was my best bet to find a cab for my wife with mobility issues? He told me he'd get me a cab. It took him 10 minutes but he got us a cab which we took to 6th Ave & 44th St & Broadway.
We went for dinner in the Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde Club which is a restaurant of kitsch and corny humor (ala Disney's Haunted Mansion) with secret doors and walls and statues that come to life as ghosts and ghoulies. We very disappointed with our server but the burgers were a full 1/2 pound and very good. They had a nice Sonoma cabernet for $35. It was fun but may be an only once experience.
The four of us walked a block back to the hotel and had a night cap while reminiscing the last wonderful 2 weeks. With hugs all around Franco & Karen headed back to their hotel.
We fly home tomorrow. Less
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