For those of us who take care of everyone in our lives 24/7 (literally), a 9 day cruise after four vacation-less years sounds tempting - and rightfully so.
As a middle income single mother of 2, in a very high stress job serving the financially better off, this was my much needed reprieve from the monotonous day to day –on call 24/7 work, emails, laundry, groceries, chauffeuring, meal preparation etc.... So to be served and waited on for 9 solid days seemed the answer to my prayers.
My boyfriend (after much convincing that it’s ok to spend money on "ourselves") and I took the Norwegian Gem out of NYC 9 days ago with excitement and anticipation for our dream vacation. He also works just as hard, 5-6 days a week doing back breaking manual work- 10-12 hours a day. We are in our late 30's and, working as hard as we do, felt this would be a much deserved.
As we embarked in NYC on the first day, earlier than anticipated (the port of New York does a fantastic job of organizing quick embarkation) we headed straight to the first clear open bar to christen our voyage with a nice vacation cocktail. There was only one on the ship open before sailing that wasn’t mobbed, and luckily for us it was outside at the Bali Hai . We found ourselves on deck 13, above the pool, and we met "Lalu" from Indonesia. He was friendly and accommodating. He became our go-to guy for any drinks throughout our trip. Many of the staff at his bar and others seemed uninterested in serving us. This was the case, consistently, all 9 days. After hearing this was the last run in a series of many, to the Eastern Caribbean from NYC, it made sense. These folks are tired. We were told they work 7 days a week, 10 hours a day with less than average U.S. minimum wages per hour. Appalling!
The drinks were made well. Very well. Even by the tired wait staff. We bought the unlimited drink card. When a mixed drink or glass of wine exceeds $7.00, this seemed well worth it. We are not quite in our 40's and we still like to party. Their rules are that you have to buy as many drink cards at $50 per day plus tax as there are 21 + travelers in your cabin. Considering we exceeded $1200 our last 7 day (that's right - FOUR years ago!) - the unlimited drink package seemed well worth the money considering this was a 9 day stint ahead of us. It included non-alcoholic drinks like fountain soda, which was also normally considered a charge drink.
The wine selection at all restaurants was outstanding and fairly priced. Even the glass selections were some of the bigger names and worth the $8-9.50 per glass (remember? Unlimited beverage package - works on wine by the glass in a restaurant too!)
We also bought the unlimited dining package for all the specialty restaurants. NOT well worth it. If you do the math, it works out to a similar end cost as if you were to pay as you go, and go EVERY SINGLE NIGHT to a specialty restaurant. Which tried really hard to do; out of necessity to maintain our stomach linings. If you can't made all 9 nights in a specialty restaurant, you have lost money on the ultimate dining package at $150 pp. We made it except for 2 nights, where we just lost track of time and missed our reservations.
The buffet was an unhappy place harboring more than enough sustenance to keep you alive but not enough to tempt your palette. The specialty restaurants tried very hard and served the same thing that was at the buffet, just in a different presentation. Cagney's served a very good rib eye and filet mignon - and this is why we visited Cagney’s 3 times during the 9 days. Le Bistro and Orchid Garden, however, salted their pasta so badly we did not eat those evenings. We meandered into the 24/7 restaurant, Blue Lagoon, only to be met by tasteless hot wings, greasy chicken strips and French fries which we were not allowed to bring back to our room. At 2Am after a fun evening, food in your room is the only way to go. After hearing that room service was painfully slow, it only made sense to sit and eat inside the Blue Lagoon (a free restaurant). Everything else was closed.
Food at the Garden Buffet was greasy, tasteless and boring. It's obvious they use the same main ingredients and mix them up in different ways to try and create different recipes - all tasteless and painful. Painful in that it caused ridiculous gastrointestinal distress. After breakfast each morning my boyfriend and I experienced sick, uneasy, and gross digestion problems. After about an hour +/- and several bathroom trips, it dissipated. Catching on to this theme, by day 3 I ate what I thought to be the safest - hard boiled eggs and toast for the rest of the trip.... safe choices that seemed to eliminate any sickness. After meeting several other passengers, it was confirmed. The oil used to cook the eggs, bacon, hash browns and corned beef hash etc. was some sort of old or badly stored oil causing sickness in many of the passengers. One of our new friends actually LOST weight on this trip by skipping breakfast every day.
There were too many people for the space so you find yourself tripping over people to get at the food and then, after thinking you have made a good selection, it turns into a disappointment every time. If you’re unfortunate enough to be traveling with short tempered passengers – your own patience tends to be tested. My boyfriend found this challenging so he avoided the buffet altogether. Except to cut through to get to the other side of the ship. Good luck at the drink fountains waiting to get juice in the morning while everyone is filling their personal water bottles.
Considering lunch and dinners at the buffet were the same it was nice to see the BBQ cooked on the pool deck daily. Fresh chicken and several variations of rice (Spanish, Mexican, Indian) were tasty and “sick feeling” free, but only after being cooked in their big BBQ hibachi's fresh each day. We all watched….no oil was used in this type of food preparation from what we could tell. Penne a la vodka in a hibachi fire pit made no sense to me. So I skipped that.
The coffee was the worst! Tasteless ‘coffee flavored’ water. Good thing we packed Starbucks K-cups for our room coffee machine! (I concocted my own invention to make this work, tearing open existing coffee bags and emptying, then filling with the home coffee - works like a charm!)
The entertainment was completely geared toward the elder set. They all seemed to be having a wonderful time; which was nice to watch. However, we tried several shows and music venues and found ourselves heading out to find something more livelily. We are big fans of 70's and 80's hits, current music, alternative rock, etc. but the rendition of these songs by singers the opposite sex of the original artists was a huge turn off, especially when they could not hold a tune.
When the DJ played light night at Bliss the music was geared mainly toward guests in the age range of 16-18. There were no opportunities to hear current popular alternative, rock or otherwise songs anywhere on the ship unless it was in between sets of the Calypso band on the pool deck (which, by the way, played the same 8 songs daily for the entire trip). The in-between music was obviously a satellite radio station on loop but it was the best music we heard the entire trip. Confirmed by all in our self made party with many of the other guests.
The"White Party" at the end was nicely done. The music spanned the different genres and the DJ mixed it up for once, using his laptop with his Itunes. At several occasions we contemplated grabbing our own devices with our Spotify and Itunes mixes from our room to play for everyone in public areas we inhabited. (This would have been considered work on our vacation though)
The itinerary was beautiful. The disembarkation to the various islands is pulled off seamlessly if you’re not inclined to be the first off the ship. We held back and waited for masses to abate and exited leisurely hours after the first waves. This made for nice visits to all the islands. The ship’s offering of Caya Lavantado private beach in the DR was smart. It was beautiful and nicely orchestrated as well as relatively inexpensive transfer via tender. This was a nice option to the main island Samana considering other guests who went there said there were natives sending their children right up to the tourists to beg for money. St. Thomas and St. Maarten were both gorgeous and we heard nothing but excellent reviews of the various excursions.
Our cabin was a mid ship family balcony with a queen bed and a pull out couch. The space is great for two adults. However, I can’t imagine tripping over any more than the two of us, never mind a family with more than one child, in the space provided. Especially if you’re a larger or handicapped individual. We visited a few cabins that were interior rooms. Their space was half that of our balcony, with narrower hallways and no room to maneuver around the bed. A trip to the bathroom meant your cabin mates had to take a seat on the bed so you could get there. The décor= exactly the same as the Dawn and the Spirit. Not sure why NCL doesn’t mix this up? Each ship = new theme? Maybe give your loyal multi time cruisers something else to live in for the duration of their time as your guest?
Our room steward was super soft spoken, very friendly, and accommodating – especially considering we became these pigs we never are at home because we were challenged in our small space. He rolled fantastically with our odd hours. We were leaving the room in the morning the first few days, then 2PM one day, then forgetting to turn the little dial to “Make up room” another day leaving him no choice but to skip our daily cleaning… and constantly ask “are you going out for the day?”. The poor man was tortured by our inconsistent comings and goings – he was tipped nicely. His timid demeanor left me with the feeling that he was a new recruit to the ship.
Disembarkation was a nightmare. On cruises past, I recall luggage tags being delivered to my stateroom the night before our last day. Simple. Put it on the bag, listen for your color to be called. Disembark deck 7. This time around, there were no tags. There was tiny font writing on the very back of the daily newsletter explaining that you should pick your bag tags up at the front desk? What? I read that daily newsletter – DAILY. Until 2 days before arriving back in NYC. I read the same, slightly varied, information about spa services, bingo, the same piano singer and the like, repeatedly for 7 whole days. When I gave up, I missed the disembarkation instructions. And so did our bags. When the room steward pointed this out to my boyfriend at 10PM the night before arriving in NYC, I rushed to the front desk. And so did everyone else. Angry passengers were denied luggage tags as they had “run out”. I was concerned I found myself smack mid-riot when the desk attendant was heroically returning with only purple luggage tags for 30+ people. Which equated to a 9:45 AM disembarkation. He seemed so confused about the time. My boyfriend asked “is this the real story, will our bags be out at that time?” This not only was annoying and inconvenient to us, but also to our paid return ride home. NCL’s website indicated a 12PM disembarkation. I had to change plans with our ride and move this to a much earlier time on very short notice.
The next morning the announcements warned to stay where we are as they had congestion at the disembarkation level. At 10 Am when only two tag colors were called, we decided to venture our way and try our luck at an early release to freedom. We exited through the ____ gangway (all the other passengers were clogged mid ship). NCL crew waived us through unaffected by our lack of orderly obedience; and we then made our way quickly through NYC Port’s customs with ease. NCL was disorganized in this whole process, the city of New York not so much.
All in all this was a nice reprieve from daily life for our middle-income pockets. Someone else still cooked (well, sort of). And someone else washed our 3 t-shirts (for $5.95 each). If we hadn’t met amazingly nice, down to earth people who made our time unforgettable, I would feel much more let down. At the end of the day it’s the PEOPLE you meet who make these experiences unforgettable. From all walks of life, and all places around the world. Thankfully “Deck 13” made this trip so special and really fun for us. We all were very lucky to have met, and agreed it’s as if we were brought together for a reason.
If you’re not the type to socialize and prefer to keep to yourself, maybe the entertainment and services on the Norwegian Gem are enough to make your experience as great. If you’re traveling with your children or an organized group, maybe the offerings are more suited toward your preferences. For us, (ages 37 and 39 as a kid free couple), it was all about our fellow cruisers. Nothing more.
After hearing stories of other passengers’ travels aboard other cruise lines I think it’s time to mix it up and move on to a different carrier. I understand Royal Caribbean offers a different menu daily and better live entertainment. It might be worth sacrificing “free-style cruising” to kick it up a notch…. We just have to suck it up and deal with the seated meal times. It might be well worth the change.
We’re not wealthy, or even upper middle class, people but when I save all year to be pampered I expect it to be so. Spa services, spin classes and the like I can get on land much less expensive, so I’m not paying for those on your ship. But tell me my meals are included in my ship fare and I shell out more than I spend at Christmas for my entire family’s gifts, festivities etc. then I expect an even slightly higher level of pampering.
Hopefully our experience gives you the information you need to make an educated choice about whether or not to travel Norwegian Gem or NCL altogether. I’m off to fend off another bought of NCL heartburn (something I never normally get) hopefully for one last night.
Big shout outs to “Cha Ching” Mike, Harry, Tony, Saverio, Allison, Nancy, Desiree, Jess, Axana, Jen and Donna!! That didn’t really happen in my mind, but I’m so glad it really did!