“Auburndale Cruisers” Review Our Third Cruise Aboard NCL’s Gem February 26th to March 7th, 2014 to the Eastern Caribbean
We were a party of two, my wife and I, both senior citizens. This was our twenty-third cruise since 2001, our fifteenth with NCL, and our third aboard the Gem. We had previously sailed on NCL’s Breakaway, Crown, Dawn, Jewel, and Star and had also sailed with Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean cruise lines.
We are platinum members of NCL’s Latitudes Club and usually receive perks. This cruise we received priority check-in and boarding, priority disembarkation, complimentary dining and wine in specialty restaurants, in-cabin champagne and sweets, a ship tour, laundry service and a cocktail party.
Enough about us. Let’s talk about the cruise, the Gem and NCL.
We hope that this review might give those contemplating a Gem cruise, or with another NCL ship, some insight as to what to expect, augmenting what they might find on NCL’s website.
We arrived by limo at the Manhattan Passenger Ship Terminal at 11 am on February 26rd, were whisked through security and priority check-in and directed to a waiting area. By 11:30 we were on-board and by noon at lunch. This was probably the quickest embarkation we had ever experienced. The staterooms were partially ready upon our boarding and we were able to stow our carry-on baggage. NCL also offers a secure location for carry-on luggage if passengers choose not to carry their luggage until their staterooms are ready. The required safety drill was held and we sailed at 4:00 pm as scheduled.
The Gem is an NCL Jewel-class ship having a passenger capacity of 2,384, a crew of 1,154 and has been in service since 2007. The ship appeared to be in excellent condition and was spotlessly clean. However, a few more rust spots than were noticed on our last Gem cruise in 2013 were evident. Our balcony stateroom on Deck 10 was small as were those on most other NCL (and other cruise line) ships we’ve been on. Closet and storage space were limited. The bath/toilet area was especially small. The room had the usual amenities; a flat screen TV, hair dryer, wall safe, coffee maker and mini-bar. A complimentary bottle of sparkling wine, a box of chocolates, invitations to dinners, a cocktail party and a behind-the-scenes ship tour awaited us in the room. It had previously been our experience that the stateroom steward would introduce himself almost immediately. This was not the case and we didn’t meet him until later that evening. The steward, Edward, was courteous, friendly, efficient and very adept at making towel animals. Our luggage arrived quite quickly.
Cruising is a special occasion. Dining, as well as entertainment and service are important parts of that special occasion. As such, dining should be gracious. Cruise dining should take the passengers away from their kitchens and dining rooms for a week or so. It should all be as gracious as the TV and magazine cruise ads portray. We believe that we experienced gracious dining in complimentary as well as in specialty dining rooms in our eight cruises on NCL’s Dawn prior to its redeployment in 2010. On our recent NCL cruises since then that graciousness seems to reside only in Le Bistro, the Orchard Garden and perhaps La Cucina. Diners should not be asked if they would like to share a table. If waiters write an order down they should deliver that order in total to the diner’s request. The napkin should be placed. One dinner experienced in the chaos of the Grand Pacific led us to reserve another specialty dinner or go to the Magenta, only slightly better. Has NCL reduced staff to cause this chaos? The wait staff appeared to be quite young with many on their first contract. Is this NCL’s ploy to have more passengers subscribe to their new specialty dining room plans?
Free Style Dining
NCL offers “Free Style Dining” where passengers are free to dine at any complimentary restaurant at any time without assigned tables or reservations. Passengers can also dine in the extra-cost specialty restaurants with reservations. We’ve experienced both “Free Style” with NCL and the more traditionally “assigned seating and dinner times” on other lines we’ve cruised. We never had a problem getting a table at the main complimentary dining rooms at our choice of times with the “Free Style” system.
There were two main dining rooms, the Grand Pacific and Magenta. The Garden Café and Great Outdoors provided buffet style dining. The Blue Lagoon, a smaller venue, provided twenty-four hour dining and snack service.
Breakfast, lunch (sea days only) and dinner were available in the Grand Pacific. Dinner only, was available in the Magenta. The Garden Café and Great Outdoors, buffet style, were available a good part of the day and evening. We normally breakfasted in the Grand Pacific, preferring to be served in a quieter, less hectic environment than the Garden Café. Our lunches varied between the Garden Café, Blue Lagoon and Grand Pacific. The service in the main dining rooms was courteous (although often spotty at breakfast). The menus were sufficiently varied and the portion size adequate for us. The food was generally good and well presented although appetizers and desserts always seemed to be more varied and better presented. We rarely asked for an extra entrée or seconds, although a trencherman would likely have asked for more. Service in the Blue Lagoon was also sometimes spotty, especially at late hours when we stopped in for a cup of coffee or a snack.
Specialty restaurants; Cagney’s Steakhouse, La Cucina (Italian), Le Bistro (French), Moderno Churrascaria (Brazilian), Orchid Garden(Asian/fusion), Sushi Bar and Teppanyaki (Japanese) were available at an extra cost ranging from $15 to $30 per person through reservations only. We used our two complimentary dinner invitations at Le Bistro, which we considered the finest dining on-board (or on-board any ship we’ve sailed). A complimentary bottle of wine from the dining room wine list was provided at each dinner. We also dined at the Orchid Garden (very good), Cagney’s (not bad, but overpriced) and La Cucina (good) restaurants. We did not dine at Moderno, Sushi Bar or Teppanyaki on this cruise.
Pizza was always available in the staterooms at an additional cost of $5 per person.
Entertainment and Activities
There was always something to do, if you wanted to, morning through late night. On sea days, if you wanted a quiet time, a well stocked library and quiet reading and game rooms were available. Otherwise there were Bingo, indoor and outdoor games, food preparation demonstrations and art presentations.
We found that the evening shows to be getting stale. We only attended one of the nine, a music and dance review by the very talented Gem song and dance troupe. We did not attend the Second City, hypnotist or other comedy shows. Instead, most evenings we preferred to listen to lounge performers, especially guitarist/singer Leo, who succeeded in captivating a SRO crowd in any venue he performed. Poolside entertainment by a Caribbean band was also very good.
We did not play at the casino or do much shopping.
This trip we again decided to join the spa. This was once free on NCL ships but now only available at an extra cost. The enrollment was limited to seventy-five members. The spa provided a large hydro-therapy pool, hot tubs, hot beds, steam, saunas showers and quiet rooms. We used the spa daily, mornings and afternoons.
Ports of Call
Four islands were visited; Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Thomas and the Dominican Republic. The ship docked at Puerto Rico, St, Maarten and St. Thomas and anchored at the Dominican Republic. At St. Maarten, we took a water taxi into Phillipsburg and swam at the town beach. At St. Thomas we walked a nature appointed shopping mall. The ship anchored off Samana, D.R. and passengers were tendered into Samana. We only chose one excursion, a short boat trip to The Dominican Republic island of Cayos Levantando’s beautiful resort beach.
After twenty-two cruises since 2001, disembarkation finally occurred at the previously scheduled time. Yes, we gold and platinum Latitudes members were scheduled to disembark at 9:00 am, right after the walk-offs and wheelchair assisted passengers, and we did. This was the smoothest disembarkation we’d ever experienced.
This cruise was generally an enjoyable one. However, there were some indications in food and service that this was not the same old NCL we’d experienced in the past.
However, we would sail with NCL again.
As was said earlier, this was our fifteenth cruise with NCL so there must be something we like. That something was the crew. For example, when returning from excursions or sightseeing, crew members were on the pier with ice water and flavored ices. We didn’t see any of this at the other ships docked at the piers.
We liked the lounge and poolside musical entertainment.
We really liked the Le Bistro and Orchid restaurants.
We liked the friendliness of the crew.
Forget Cagney’s. Dine at Le Bistro instead.
What We Didn’t Like About the Cruise
Although the crew cannot, or will not stop it, we didn’t like the reserving of poolside deck chairs and then not using them.
Food wastage, especially in the Garden Café. Again no fault of NCL.
Turning the Atrium into a bazaar and portrait studio evenings while entertainers were trying to perform.
The lighting on main interior stairwells is dim and coupled with the dark carpeting can be difficult for older passengers to negotiate.
Men and boys who wear baseball caps in the dining rooms.
Souvenir photos were overpriced.