We were a little worried about the embarkation process, since I'd heard about some negative experiences here on the boards, but it all went very smoothly. We woke up before the crack of dawn on Saturday 3/1 to catch a 6am flight to NYC--given that it was March in Rochester, I wanted to leave us lots of room for unexpected delays. But the weather cooperated, and our flight arrived at JFK at 8am (only a few minutes late). We'd made arrangements with Carmel car service ($60 + toll + tips for a minivan), and were picked up five minutes after we got our bags. There was very little traffic going to the port, and we were there before 9am, sleepy, hungry, and a little worried about how early we were. In retrospect, we should have grabbed food at JFK before heading to the port! As it was, we settled in by the windows overlooking the Gem, and my husband and son went off to forage for food, finding drinks and bagels at a nearby H&H.
At around 10:15am, just after we started seeing the first guests exit the terminal, they started letting people through security and into the checkin lines. We were among the very first in, and there were zero problems with checkin. (We'd printed out our edocs and our advance registration forms in advance.) As we entered the checkin line, we were given tags with boarding numbers; it looked as though they gave tags numbered from 4-10 for one set of priority embarkations (suites, I think), tags from 10-20 form another set of priority embarkation (Latitudes, probably), and then started with 21 for general boarding...we had tags numbered 21. They told us that embarkation might not begin until 1:30, but it actually began at 12:15. There was cake, hot chocolate, and orange juice available for everyone waiting. By 12:45 we were onboard, and on our way to the Garden Cafe, where we were able to snag a table that comfortably sat all five of us. We ate a delicious lunch, then split up to explore different parts of the ship. I headed straight for the spa, where I got a tour and then signed up for the $75 thermal suite week-long pass (*well* worth it; the facilities are incredibly beautiful and relaxing), and a $30 3-class Pilates program. They announced that our rooms were ready at 2pm.
We had two staterooms for our family of five--DH and I in an aft mini-suite (11156), and my adult stepdaughter and our 11 and 13yo boys in an aft outside cabin (8622). Both rooms were very nice, and the boys were delighted that there were no "bad" beds so there wouldn't be arguing over who got to sleep where (their cabin actually could sleep four, with two single beds, one bed that pulled out from underneath another bed, and one bed that dropped down from the wall). Our aft mini-suite was *fabulous*--I loved having the sitting area separated with a thick curtain, so that one of us could stay up late and watch tv without disturbing the other, or get up early and enjoy the sunlight without waking the other up. We loved the sound of the wake off the balcony, and the panoramic view. There are even separate climate controls for the two areas, which is nice for keeping the sleeping area cool and the sitting area a little warmer. The beds were wonderfully comfortable, and the storage space was abundant in both cabins.
Our wonderful steward Wayne left us adorable towel animals regularly in the evening, and we chatted with him for a bit. He's from Grenada, and has been working on cruise ships for 15 years. It's hard for him sometimes, because he's only home for 6 weeks out of the year, and he has two kids (close in age to our boys).
On embarkation day I took the kids to see the Leopard Lounge where their age groups ("Tween Crew" for the 11yo and "Teen Crew" for the 13yo) would be meeting. They both had some concerns about the organized activities seeming childish, and about not liking the other kids. They thought the lounge space was very cool, though, with its two Wiis, three PS3s, and comfortable couches and nooks. And they seem to have changed their policy for the Tween Crew, allowing kids to sign themselves in and out if their parents have okayed it (which I did, happily).
As it turned out, my 11yo *loved* the Tween Crew, and spent most of the two sea days hanging out there. My 13yo decided he really just wanted to do his own thing on the trip, so he didn't go to any of the activities--instead he played his guitar, read, and sketched a lot. It was amazing to me that my kids had so much fun with no computers, and none of their favorite television channels!
(I brought home the flyers from the 10-12yo and 13-17yo programs and will scan those with the dailies when I get home, and post a link to them in the NCL forum.)
They've raised the prices on all of the specialty restaurants--Cagney's and Teppanyaki are $25, Le Bistro and Sushi are $20, and Orchid Garden is $10. They've also added a $10 charge for La Cucina--I asked the hotel director about that, and he said it's a four-week test, so maybe that will go away. They did do the half-price special from 9-10pm at Cagney's, Le Bistro, and Orchid Garden every night, but they only advertised it at the beginning of the cruise, so I think a lot of people didn't realize it was in effect all week. They have not yet rolled out the "lobster galore" aspect of freestyle 2.0, much to our disappointment.
Garden Cafe: The food was really excellent, especially for breakfast--you can get eggs and omelettes cooked to order, as well as excellent french toast and waffles. Breakfast was often my biggest meal of the day! If you picked your times carefully, the crowds weren't too bad, but there were times when it was really difficult to find a place to sit. (We also found the screens around the ship that showed how full a restaurant was were often quite inaccurate.) The kids loved the soft serve ice cream machines (one in the Garden Cafe, one in the Great Outdoors), but they were often out of order. I loved the espresso/cappuccino/latte machines, which were available all day in the same places.
Blue Lagoon: The kids ate here pretty regularly. From an appearance standpoint, it was much classier than the "snack bar" I'd expected. It's a waited-tables space overlooking the Atrium. Unfortunately, the service there was often bad. The first time we went our waiter disappeared after taking our order, and after 30 minutes he was still nowhere to be seen. We finally flagged down another waitress and she had our food to us in about 5 minutes, so the problem clearly wasn't the kitchen. I had at least one other bad experience with service, although the boys said that didn't happen much to them when they went alone. The food there was spotty--the fish and chips were delicious, but the potato skins were tough and chewy, as though they'd been microwaved too long.
Grand Pacific: We ate here once as a family. The food was okay--not great. The service was good, and the ambiance was lovely.
Magenta: I ate here once with my boys, and we really enjoyed our meal. The service was a little better than Grand Pacific, and I preferred the modern decor.
Sushi Bar: My older son and husband ate here once, and said it was excellent.
Cagney's: My stepdaughter and DH ate at Cagney's once (during the 9-10pm 'happy hour'), and my husband wasn't terribly impressed with the food. His oysters rockefeller were very very tiny, and his filet mignon looked beautiful but tasted flavorless. He said the cheesecake also looked better than it tasted.
Le Bistro: DH and I had dinner here on Thursday night, and it was an amazingly good dinner. The warm goat cheese tart was delicious, and my husband said the escargot were great as well. I had canard a l'orange, which was flambEed tableside, and he had grilled turbot--they were both delicious. Then we had three desserts between the two of us--the apple tart a la mode, the creme brulee, and the chocolate fondue, which was all *amazing*. I was so full after that meal I could barely breathe! The restaurant is beautiful, too, filled with Gaugin paintings and windows looking out on the water. Our only complaint here was that the chairs were very uncomfortable, which was hard on DH who gets tailbone pain and sciatica easily.
Gym and Spa
I was a good girl on this trip, and went to the gym nearly every day. I did the 3-class pilates sequence (and boy did I feel that after the first class!), and alternated with cardio on the elliptical trainers that faced out to see. The equipment is all very high quality, and the gym feels very high-end.
The spa was amazing and wonderful and one of my favorite aspects of the trip. Well worth the $75 for the week-long pass. There are separate men's and women's areas that include two private whirlpool tubs, a steam room, a glass-enclosed sauna that actually extends out the side of the ship, giving gorgeous views, and lounge chairs facing out a bank of forward windows. The shared area has the water therapy pool (amazing for getting kinks out of muscles), a hot tub, six heated tile loungers, and another set of lounge chairs facing forward windows. My stepdaughter and I went here every day, and it was wonderfully relaxing. (We didn't do any of the spa treatments, since they seemed overpriced to me.)
The pool areas were insanely crowded when we weren't in port--it was impossible to find a lounger at those times. But during port days, it wasn't too bad at all, and I spent time there getting sun on most of our port days. The poolside grill was nice, and great for the kids to get mid-afternoon snacks.
I did laundry once during the trip, when we were in port at Nassau. There are three laundry rooms--one each on decks 5, 9, and 10--with three sets of (fairly small) washer/dryers in each. The machines are free, and the there's a dispenser that sells laundry soap for $1.
On embarkation day, they do a special where you can have garments pressed for $1 each, which I took advantage of. And midway through the cruise you can give them a (somewhat small) bag stuffed with dirty clothes which they'll launder and return to you on Friday night for $20.
On-Board Activities and Entertainment
We didn't do a lot of the organized activities. DH went to the Friends of Bill meetings, which were small but good. I went to Armando's martini tasting on Friday, and that was excellent. The boys and I went to the towel animal demo by the housekeeping staff. It was great fun to see how they make the animals, and they gave out instruction sheets as well. On Friday night my stepdaughter and went to the Quest game. There were a lot of drunk spring break college students there, and the assistant CD running it wasn't really all that great.
We did go to a number of shows. The production show "Sounds of the 70s" was entertaining. We enjoyed it, but weren't blown away. The female singers were quite good, but the mens' voices had very little character; it was like hearing muzak versions of 70s rock songs. The Second City show was great--all of us really enjoyed it. And we loved the comedian (Ross Bennett). We were totally unimpressed by the magician (Duck Cameron) who opened for the comedian. His tricks were simple enough that my 11yo could have done them.
The kids also went to see Second City Scriptless, which they said was good. And my 11yo attended a tween crew workshop with two members of the Second City group that he really enjoyed. (They did an open workshop that afternoon, also.)
I attended the CC meet-and-greet on Sunday morning, and there was a good turnout for it. Some of the ship's officers (captain, hotel director, food & beverage director, restaurant manager) arrived about 15 minutes after we arrived, and did a short spiel about how they wanted to know about problems on the boat rather than on CC after we left. The cruise director (Julie) arrived towards the end, but didn't talk at all. And while the HD (Prem) said they'd take our questions, they all took off moments after they were done talking. It didn't seem well-organized from the ship standpoint--no nametags available, no sense of connection with the staff.
Overall, the staff on the Gem seemed to be incredibly efficient, but not always warm. The cruise director (whom we saw only when she made announcements on stage after theatre performances) seemed very...plastic. We had very few bad experiences, but we also had equally few exceptional interactions.Ports of Call
We didn't do any shore excursions on this trip. It was our first cruise, and we knew we'd have a great time just exploring the ship and taking advantage of its facilities. It's also hard to find excursions that everyone in the family enjoys, and given the cost of taking five people on any excursion we decided it simply wasn't worth it on this trip. No regrets, either--if we do this itinerary again, we'll probably do some excursions.
Port Canaveral: When we were planning the trip, we knew that we'd inevitably forget things we needed, and we also didn't want to spend a ton of money on theme parks when we would really only have a few hours to explore them. So we planned to rent a car in Port Canaveral mostly to run errands. My husband and older son stayed on the ship, and the rest of us headedout. Disembarkation was very fast, and the Budget shuttle was there within minutes of our leaving the ship. We brought an empty suitcase with us, which we filled with soda and the various things we'd forgotten. I also was able to get an emergency supply of one of my medications that I'd forgotten to pack--I used my cell phone to call my doctor's office when we got to port, and had them call the pills in to a pharmacy in Cocoa Beach. We also grabbed lunch at a Panera Bread in Melbourne so that we could use the free wifi. That was the only time all week I used the internet--we didn't bother buying access on the ship.
Great Stirrup Cay: We woke to a beautiful Bahmamian morning on this day--sunshine, warm breezes, and a view of both NCL's island and Celebrity's island (where the Century was tendering guests ashore). DH had read in some of the literature that there were kayaks on the private island, and he and the boys really wanted to kayak, so everyone but me took the tenders to the island. Unfortunately, they did not have kayaks, but they still had fun at the barbecue before coming back to the ship. (DH said it was *very* crowded, too.) This was a great day to snag a lounger by the pool, which I did.
Nassau: We all got off for a short while here and wandered around the town. The kids bought some souvenirs, and we had an overpriced lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe before returning to the ship. In retrospect, I wish I'd booked the Comfort Inn room for $200 so the kids could go to Atlantis, but we'll know to do that next time.
Freeport: We pulled in between 7 and 8am, and I was amazed by how industrial a port it was. No sign of tourism anywhere...all container loading areas, quarries, and refineries. Apparently the closest tourist areas are ten miles away. As we came into port, a thunderstorm rolled right in over us, and there was quite a bit of rain for the early part of the morning. (The rain stopped by lunchtime, though.) We stayed on the ship all day, and had a lovely relaxing day.Medical Center
This was really our only seriously negative experience of the trip. My 11yo and I had a date at 9:15pm for dinner on the last night of the cruise at Le Bistro, and I picked him up at 9 from the Tween Crew. He hit his head very hard on a counter as he was retrieving his shoes, and by the time we got the restaurant he was feeling pretty awful--nausea, headache, slight disorientation. The restaurant manager called the medical center for us, but the nurse said there was no need for him to come down, that all the doctor would do is tell us to observe him, and that it was fine for him to go to sleep after eating a small dinner. That didn't sound right to me, so instead we had a light dinner (to make sure his nausea and headache weren't just from low blood sugar) and then I took him back to our cabin. DH, who used to be a paramedic, was appalled that they hadn't even asked to see him, in order to check his pupils for signs of a concussion. DH did check him out, and said he seemed fine--but there was no way for the nurse to have known that from a telephone conversation with me. We were pretty upset at how poorly the nurse handled the situation--it seemed as though she didn't want to be bothered with having to open up the medical office.
We signed up for express disembarkation, but because we knew we had a late flight home (8:25pm from JFK) we didn't rush. Disembarkation began a little after 10, and we left the ship at about 11:15. Getting off the ship and through customs went smoothly, but it was chaotic getting to where the taxis were. On the lower level, before we could take the elevator up to the taxi line, we were accosted by a lot of people who wanted to charge us $115 for a minivan to JFK. Instead I called the same car service (Carmel) that had taken us to the port, and they had a minivan there to pick us up 15 minutes later, for $60 + tax and tolls.
We had an amazing time on this trip, and would absolutely sail NCL and especially the Gem again. The freestyle approach was perfect for our kids, who loved the freedom to roam the ship and eat whenever and wherever they wanted. (And we loved the freedom of not worrying about where they were, what they were wearing, and when to meet them.) The ship is really beautiful, and there are lots of lovely public areas to relax in. We're totally sold on cruising vacations now--this was without a doubt the most relaxing and enjoyable vacation I've ever been on, and the only one that the whole family has enjoyed equally. We're all sad to be going home, and are already plotting for our next trip. (Transatlatic repositioning? South American glaciers? Alaska? So many choices!)