We decided to use the opportunity of the low cost of cruising in 2009 by booking 4 different cruises on 4 different cruise lines in the Mediterranea in November and December. It took a lot a research,but finally we booked consecutive cruises on the Costa Victoria,the MSC Splendida,the Azamara Quest and the NCL Gem. Even though at first sight these ships seem to fall in different categories,the daily price for a balcony cabin on a Med.cruise was very similar, so direct comparisons between these ships were realistic.The cruise on the Gem was the last one and we started it in Barcelona after flying from Athens where the Quest had left us . The embarkation process started fine; there were many attendants (20+) to look after the check-in and we were quickly aboard the ship ! It was still early and the cabins were not ready,so we were given glasses of sparkling wine or juice while waiting ! The problem started when the number of passengers increased : we quickly ended up being over 200 waiting in the lobby,being told that the restaurants would open only in one hour and rooms available in two hours ! Only when I enquired for a place to drop our carry-ons did we learned that the restaurant in the Garden Cafe was open for service and in fact had been for a while ! There had been a lack of communication within the staff ! Rather than waiting for our luggage in the cabin ,we decided to go out and visit Barcelona for the remaining of the afternoon.
The first impression of the Gem is surprising ! The decoration on this ship is quite different from what we we had seen on the Victoria,the Splendida and the Quest: it is a kaleidoscope of colors and every corner of the ship seems to have its own decor and style ! It is definitely very original and generates different reactions ! The public rooms are very spacious,easily accessible and spread all around the ship. There are numerous bars, all quite distinctive and with comfortable seating ! The Stardust Theater is located at the back of the ship and has a lot of seating space without any obstruction for viewing ! The sound is excellent and it is an area not too affected by the rocking in bad weather !The Fitness Center is very well equipped and located at the front of the ship where the view could be impressive ! The library is too small for the demand but it has a good choice of books ! There is a choice of 4 restaurants where service is free and 7 specialty restaurants where they charge a cover for what you get ! Each restaurant has its own distinctive decor ,with varying taste but seating is excellent ! It was our third experience with Free Style dining and we found it well organised for the size of the ship ! Dining was average,no more ! We took most of our breakfasts at the buffet at the Garden Cafe and found the choice to be very wide, food warm enough ,seating available but coffee worse than tasteless ! The cappuccino machine would work for a couple of hours each morning but after 8h30the tasteless brew would be the only type available! Lunches and dinners were average with a good choice that included Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine mixed with an Italian pasta bar and North American food , the only problem being with the temperature of the food that would vary in time ! Meals taken at the Grand Pacific and the Magenta restaurants were generally very good with a varied selection of courses ! Specialty restaurants were of a mixed breed : the Tequila offered Mexican chain food in a nice decor; the La Cucina had a good choice of pasta and pizza but the meat and fish proved to be average,no more; only did the Cagney's Steak House offered excellent choice and cooking but at an additional cost of 25$ ! We did not try the other restaurants but got mixed feedback from friends !
The cabin was of average size,nicely laid-out with a lot of space for luggage , enough space for movement and the decoration was more sober than the rest of the ship ! It was kept clean for the duration of the whole voyage,was not noisy and we did not feel too much the rocking of the ship. The service was very good from all groups of the crew !
What requires a lot of improvement on this ship is the entertainment ! The shows presented at the Stardust Theater were on the average of better quality and more original than what we had seen on Costa,Princess,Azamara,MSC and even HAL but this is where the + ended ! There was only one enrichment program,with seminars that lasted 40 minutes each for 5 days , this is not much for a 13 days cruise that had 7 days at sea. The problem increased when the ship got in the Atlantic ! The sea got very rough and for 5 days the passengers experienced the effects of gusty winds with waves of close to 30 feet ! The Spinnaker Lounge where most of the morning and afternoon activities took place got to be the least comfortable location on the ship making it difficult to attend morning exercises,dancing classes,trivia,even the seminars.. The staff refused to transfer these activities at the Stardust Theater since it was reserved for performers for practice sessions 9 (2-3 hours). There were two movies projected in the Main Lobby which has a capacity of less than 200 for 2300 passengers , again this could have been transferred to the Theater ! With the pool areas close due to the bad weather,the Spinnaker Lounge being very rocky,the Library being very small and the Gym being at the front of the ship where using the treadmill was hazardous,let alone the weights it became apparent that cabins were the place to be ! The television screen was of a good size but did not show very much !There was a Fox channel discussing about politics (perceived as being anti-government for a non-American),an ESPN broadcast of old sporting events, a channel showing pre 1960 movies and only on day 10 of the cruise did we get access to a Movie channel! There was no daily news bulletin delivered to the rooms like we had on the Costa and Azamara ships and we had to buy newspapers to get in touch with the rest of the world ! This was a trans-Atlantic cruise and there should have been some alternatives planned in case of bad weather ! We have to give a big+ though on the way the Gem handled the bad sea and the crew has to take some benefits! The last time we had seen waves of this size was on the Cape Horn, ! We did not see anyone being sea sick,a lot of people wearing ear patches and bracelets and less people circulating in the public areas !
The itinerary in Europe was very interesting with ports of call in Cannes,Livorno,Rome Ajaccio and Malaga. Information provided by the ship proved very useful for passengers visiting on their own and getting out and back on the ship was easy ! The disembarkation process in New-York was slower than expected and this was probably due to the freestyle process where everyone selects its own time of disembarkation so that the first groups were overcrowded and the others late. Overall, this cruise was the least expensive cruise of the 4 we had taken and we got what we had paid for ! It was not a disappointing cruise but we had expected more from NCL !