This was my 12th Cruise, but first on NCL. I have sailed with Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Costa, Cunard, and Grand Circle.
I booked this cruise on-line with a travel agent. I normally book with my local travel agent, but the price was so much less I couldn't justify it this time. My agent was unable to get Norwegian to match the online price. There was very little pre-cruise information supplied by NCL except what could be obtained from there web site. This could present some problems for someone new to cruising.
Arrived at the dock in New York at about 11:30 AM. With two Norwegian ships in port the dock was very busy (mass confusion). The embarkation hall was upstairs. NCL separates new cruisers from the past cruises (Latitude members) for registration purposes. They give a group number and you stand in line to register. There were many more Latitude members than new NCL Cruisers. I think there intent was to treat Latitude members special. Just the opposite happened. I received a group number of 4 when I registered and the Latitude group number being given at the same time was 21. It thus took much longer for Latitude members to register. The embarkation room was large, but all of the available chairs were taken in short time leaving many people standing and sitting on the floor waiting to board the ship. The total time for registration for me was 45 minutes. Other ships I have sailed on have been somewhat better, but overall the time frame was acceptable. Other ships I have cruised on had refreshments in the hall prior to boarding, but there were none on this cruise. We started boarding the ship about 12:30PM which was a little ahead of their predicted boarding time. Once boarded we were able to get into our rooms about 2:00PM. This gave us time to get something to eat and to explore the set-up of the ship. We embarked New York at about 6:00PM which was two hours late. Loading of necessary supplies was late.
On this cruise I chose an inside cabin to save on costs. The cabin was about 130 Sq ft. This was a smaller than most of the cabins I have been in on other cruise ships. The cabin was well laid out and nicely decorated with bright colors. The bathroom had a good size shower and shelves for toiletries. The toilet was very close to the wall, which might make it difficult for a large person to comfortably use it. There was a Flat Panel HDTV. The number of TV stations available was limited and many times the satellite signal wasn't adequate. There was channels dedicated to ship information and you could book shore excursions from you TV. That was a good feature. There was a cost associated with any of the movies available ($5.95 to $11.95). On other cruise lines I have been on there was never a cost. On a transatlantic cruise it would be nice to be able to view movies at no cost. This may be something that is changing industry wide. Clothes storage space was limited, but adequate. There was a refrigerator supplied with water, pop, and alcohol. A liter of water was $4.50 plus a 15% gratuity. Luggage got to my cabin about 5PM. Luggage tags had the cabin number on them making it easier to get the luggage to the cabin in a reasonable amount of time. Some of the other cruises I have been on didn't have that feature and luggage was slow to get to the cabin. Cabins were kept clean. It did involve leaving the room on occasion to allow the cabin stewards to clean and make up the room. I believe the cabin stewards had too many rooms to clean. Between two stewards they were required to clean 34 rooms. The steward I talked to had been doing the cleaning on ships for 23 years and she indicated they use to do 14 rooms a person and the 17 was an increase.
There were a lot of public rooms available. Library, game room, bars. The spinnaker Lounge on the 13th floor was large and used for a lot of activities that required more than just a few seats. Much of the late night activities occurred in this lounge. The other lounge that was used quite frequently was the Crystal Atrium. There was a two story TV screen on one wall of the lounge.
There were twelve restaurants to choose from. The main dining rooms were Grand Pacific(7th floor) and Magenta (6th Floor). These restaurants do not take reservations. It is on a first come first serve basis. The wait in the evening was initially a problem, but after people settled down into a routine it became more manageable. They provide beepers when traffic is heavy so they can beep you when a table is ready. We had to wait 45 minutes to be seated early in the cruise. The Grand Pacific is the larger of the two, but they don't use the dining room to capacity. I found the service very good and the food Ok. Not as good as some of the other ships I have been on. You can eat breakfast and lunch in the Grand Pacific as well. The Magenta is the smaller of the two main dining rooms. The first time I ate in the Magenta it took 2 1/2 hours to get through the meal. This made it impossible to make the first show time. The wait I believe was from understaffing of the dining room. Food was OK, but not as good as other ships I have been on. The Garden Cafe (12th Floor) is the buffet type dining area. Food is at different stations through out the dining area. You basically pick up a plate and go to the area for the food you want. There are no trays to carry your food and that is a problems if you have several plates and glasses. You essentially have to make several trips. Seating is limited. At busy times it is impossible to find a seat.If you avoid the busy times, seating is adequate. You can sit in the pool area just outside of the Garden Cafe weather permitting. There is also covered outside sitting area in the back of the Garden Cafe. In the pool area there is also a place to get food such as hamburgers ect. Behind the garden Cafe there is another outside food area to get food as well. The food in each of these area was not as good as the other dining venues, but equal to most of the other ships I have been on.There are two other restaurants that do not charge a cover Tequila(Mexican) and Blue Moon (fast food 24 hrs a day). The other restaurants charge a cover. Cagney's (Steak-$25), Lacucine (Italian - $10), Lebistro (French - $20), Orchid (Chinese - $15), Sushi ($20), Teppanyaki ($25 - Cooking on a grill in front of your table). I went to the Lacucine and the Tequila restaurants. I didn't consider the food to be any better than the main dining rooms. When they bill you for the charge there is an option to leave an additional tip. I assume they expect you to leave a tip, although I don't know if the tip goes directly to the person that waited on you.The service was a little more personalized. In all of the specialty restaurants you can make reservations from 7:30 AM to 4:30PM on the day before or the day of dining. There is limited seating in each of the restaurants.
The show lounge was very nice and seemed to provide adequate seating for two evening shows. Entertainment took place in all of the bars on a regular basis, and it the show lounge twice each night. The Gem singers and dancers were excellent and performed three times. A group called Cats Pajamas performed twice in the show lounge and once in a bar and were also excellent. There were other sings, guitar player, piano player, magician, and comedians. A well rounded group of entertainers. The entertainment was better than most of the other ships I have been on.
Spa and Fitness
I didn't use the Spa and Fitness center, but it appeared to be well laid out. prices seemed to be high for Spa treatments and there were charges for pilates and Yoga.
Shore Excursions There were a wide variety of shore excursions. They seem to be higher in cost than the other ships I have been on in the past. This could be as a result of the valuation of the dollar against the EURO. I took two shore excursions. One in Cadiz to Arco. This went out to small town outside of Cadiz and basically left you on your own to look through the town. It also went to a Sherry plant with some Sherry tasting. The trip wasn't all that great. I also took an excursion to Florence and Pisa in Italy. We were late getting into port and were told by the shore excursion people that were would still get the complete excursion. As it turned out we didn't get the full excursion time. When we got to Florence the guide wasn't where she was suppose to be and we got a late start. Lunch was nothing special. It was so crowded in Florence you could hardly walk. When we went to PISA we only had a few minutes to look at the leaning Tower of PISA and then return to the bus. NCL discovered that our Rome stop on May 1 was their Labor day holiday and many places would not be open, because of the holiday. Then they hurried around to decide what they were going to do about many of the Shore excursions that went to places that were not going to be open. It seemed curious to me that wouldn't have known this ahead of time and let people know. Shore excursions staged in the show lounge. Most days there were many excursions going out and the lounge was nearly full. When they announced excursions going out from either side of the lounge it was mass confusion. You had 500-100 people trying to get out and it was gridlock. People sitting on one side of the lounge had to go out on the other side and cross by each other in the process. There must be a better way to organize these departures.
Port Discussions There was a person on the ship who gave a port talk each day at sea for the upcoming ports. On other ships I have been on in the past the port talk included a little history of the port and some detailed information on things you could do on your own in the port. The port lecturer on NCL provided some historical information on the ports, but very little detailed information on how and what you could do on your own in the port. On some ports I enjoyed doing things on my own. Other ports I would rather count on the shore excursions to get me to the places I want to go. This cruise had a lot of good ports to stop in especially for a transatlantic cruise.
Porta Delgada Portugal - Azores Islands. This was a small town that was easily accessible from the ship. A free shuttle bus was provided to get you from the ship through the dock area to downtown. The town had a nice shopping area with a lot of craft type items and souvenirs. I spent the day walking through the downtown area. There were some shore excursions to the outlying countryside. As it turned out it was foggy out in the countryside making it difficult to see much of the mountain area.
Lisbon Portugal There were a number of shore excursions in and around Lisbon. I had been to Lisbon before into the countryside. This is where the port lecturer could have provided a little information. Just about 1/4 mile from the ship was a train station that took you downtown. For 1.1 Euro each way you could ride the train down and back. It was a five minute ride and once you got downtown you could get a map and within reasonable walking distance you could see most of the sites downtown. NCL provided a free shuttle bus to downtown city gates. You had to catch another bus when you got downtown to get further into the city. Bus didn't run on a regular basis.
Cadiz Spain I had been to Cadiz Spain a couple of times before. We were in to Cadiz on a Sunday so many of the shops were not open. The old part of Cadiz is very easy to walk around and you are able to see most of what is there. The ship docks right across the street from the old downtown area. I opted to take a trip to Arcos a small town outside of Cadiz. I was a little disappointed in the shore excursion. There was an open topped bus available for tours.
Malaga Spain Malaga is the home of Picasso. It is a city of about 545,000. There were shore excursions available that took you to the outlying countryside they sounded very good. I choose to walk into the the old downtown area. A free shuttle bus was provide from the ship to the entrance to the dock area. It was a short walk across the street to the old downtown area. There was a Picasso Museum and an old church in the old downtown area. There was stores and souvenir shops through the old and new downtown shopping areas. There was a stop and go open top bus that you could take a tour of Malaga and get on and off at thirteen different areas. It costed about 15 EROS.
Ajaccio France Corsica Islands We tendered at this port and got in by boat. This was a small town with a limited amount of things to do other than walk around the shopping area.
Civitavecchia Italy (ROME) This is a very large port. I had been to Rome about 1 1/2 years ago so decided not to go back. Because it was a holiday many things were closed. I chose to go into Civitavecchia. It is a town at the port location. NCL provided a free shuttle from the ship through the dock area to the gates to the city. I walked around the downtown area, but because of the May day holiday there was very few places open. Not alot to do in Civitavecchia.
Livorno Italy Florence-Pisa A lot of good shore excursions available. The problem was having time to do more than one. I chose to go to Florence and Pisa. I was a little disappointed in the excursion, but there was definitely alot of good things to see. I also heard a lot of good things about Cinqa Terra. Wished I had time to go on that shore excursion as well. One thing you have to be careful about when going out on your own is getting back to the ship on time. I spoke with one couple who had gone into PISA on there own by train. The trains were running behind when they wanted too come back. They called the ship and told them they were going to be late and the ship said they would wait for them to a certain point. They ran a little later than they expected and saw the ship pulling away from the dock. They then had to find a way to get to the next port. This involved getting enough EURO to make the trip and finding a train that would get them there. As it turned out they were able to get Euro and catch a train to the next stop which was Villefrance France for about 40 Euro. It could easily have been a situation where they couldn't get enough money or there wasn't transportation available. Sometimes you think the cruise line is just telling you the problems that could exist to encourage you to take a shore excursion. If a shore excursion gets back late the ship waits for those passengers.
Disembarkation We got into Barcelona about 5:00AM. NCL provides the option of walking off the ship with your luggage. All others are set up in colors. You put your luggage out in the hall by 11:00Pm the night before with your color tag on the luggage. Once your color is called you go to the port area and the luggage was flowing through on conveyers. Barcelona is set up very nicely for disembarkation. As you walk off the ship and go down the escalators you come to conveyor belts where you luggage is going by, very similar to an airport. I have been in situation where you have to go into a large room to find your luggage. This is much more convenient. I chose to have NCL provide the transfer and air so they had representatives directing you to a luggage truck and a bus to go to the airport. Airport is Barcelona is 20-30 minutes from the port. The luggage was loaded on a truck and went out ahead of the buses to unload the luggage. We came later on a bus. There are two terminals in Barcelona. The luggage was dropped off in a parking lot near terminal A. Our bus driver dropped us in a parking lot past terminal B. He didn't speak English and pointed to terminal A as the location of the luggage. Nobody near for sure where the luggage was. After walking about 1 mile we started seeing people pulling luggage with the same color case as ours and asked them where the luggage was. We were finally able to find the luggage. There were a large number of unhappy people. For some of the older people carrying luggage it was to far to walk. NCL's transfer company dropped the ball.
Summary The Gem is a new ship about 6 months old. The ship is pretty well laid out with the exception of the Garden Cafe. The ship was kept in tip top shape. Overall the service was very good with a few exceptions. The crew were pleasant and always greeted you with a smile on their face. Entertainment was excellent. The food was average in comparison with other cruises I have been on. There seemed to be a lot of extra cost involved in things that were included on other cruises I have taken. Overall the value was excellent. Transatlantic cruises generally cost much less than regular cruises and are many times an excellent value. Free style cruising takes a little adjusting to get use to. i liked not having to dress up to go to an evening meal. I found the cruise to be a good experience and would consider sailing with NCL in the future.