This cruise departed from New York City on 12/19/2009 with three scheduled ports (Port Canaveral, Big Stirrup Cay and Nassau, Bahamas) before returning to New York on 12/26. This was the fourth cruise for my wife and me but our first cruise with NCL. I had read many positive to very positive reviews about the NCL Gem and its crew. Many had said good things about the NCL's "Freestyle Cruising" so we were prepared for a great holiday cruise with our two adult daughters who had never been on a cruise.
Having outrun the Blizzard of 2009, we arrived at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal just after 11:00 am on 12/19, easily found the parking area, paid for parking, checked our luggage and quickly made our way through check-in. We made it onboard the Gem about 1:00 pm and did some exploring until our staterooms were available just after 2:00 pm. After we checked out our staterooms (deck 4 forward), we made our way to the Garden Cafe (deck 12) for some lunch. It was very, very crowded and we ended up sitting outside (in the freezing cold) because there was no room in the inside dining area (this was a chronic problem throughout the cruise). By the way, no trays were available to carry your plates and drinks which made things cumbersome.
The most favorite things on our cruise were the efficiency of the stateroom stewards (they were very pleasant and asked how things were going every time we saw them), the evening shows, the easy embarkation, the walk-off disembarkation (very quick), the availability of the elevators, the large showers (at least for a cruise ship), numerous storage shelves in the stateroom and the comfortable beds (which were by far the most comfortable we have slept in on any cruise). While much of the food was a disappointment compared to our other cruises, it was far from our biggest disappointment. The biggest disappointments on this cruise were the uninformed crew (particularly at the Guest Services desk and dining servers), the always crowded buffet dining room (Garden Cafe), the long waits for seating in the main dining rooms (Grand Pacific and Magenta) and the unwillingness of the crew to help with most problems. The most common answer we received whenever we asked a crew member a question was, "I don't know," with no willingness to do anything to find out.
Let me provide some examples of issues that we had (these are just a few). After dinner on 12/19 in the Grand Pacific at about 7:15 pm, we stopped by the Guest Services desk to ask if there was going to be any religious services on Sunday. The answer was, "I don't know." We asked about Christmas services, (note: my travel agent had told me that NCL had services scheduled at 6:00 pm on Christmas Eve and midnight and 6:00 am on Christmas). The answer from Guest Services was, "I don't know, but you can check in the Freestyle Daily on Christmas Eve." As we are Catholic, we asked if a priest was on board. The answer, "NCL does not provide a priest, if a private family has a priest with them, I am sure they will offer daily services." We learned from the 12/20 Freestyle Daily, which unfortunately had not been delivered to our stateroom on the evening of 12/19, that there was a priest onboard who offered Sunday and daily masses at 8:00 am.
A member of the Cruise Director's staff mentioned to those in a lounge, where we were playing a game, to remember to pick up tender boat tickets at the Shore Excursion desk for our second port (Great Stirrup Cay). Before dinner, we stopped by the Shore Excursion desk and asked when tickets for the tender would be available. Their response was, "I don't know. Maybe you should ask at Guest Services." We went to Guest Services, which is about 20 feet away, and asked about the tender tickets. The answer, "I don't know, but you should probably check with the Shore Excursion desk." When we returned to our stateroom after the evening show, we checked the 12/22 Freestyle Daily and, sure enough, it directed us to pick up tickets for the tender at 10 am on 12/22. However, it did not say whether everyone had to pick up their own ticket or whether a single member of a group could pick up tickets for everyone. We didn't even call to ask because we knew the answer we would get. So, all four of us lined up at the Excursion Desk at 9:30 am. (Note: The tender tickets really seemed like a great idea, as it was meant to prevent crowding the disembarkation deck. A great idea which failed because of very poor communication.) With our tickets in hand, we went back to our stateroom and waited to be called. When the first ticket number was called, I opened our door and asked several passengers that were filing past if they had their tender tickets. Surprise, surprise, most did not and had even heard about the necessity of getting tickets.
My final examples happened on Christmas Day (last day of the cruise). These examples demonstrate our general frustration with the dining staff throughout the entire cruise. In every previous dinner menu, NCL provided an "Always Available" menu in addition to each specific day's selections. On Christmas Day, the menu was formatted differently and did not show the "Always Available" menu. My daughter didn't care for any of the Entrees and asked if she could have a steak (which had been shown on the "Always Available" menu). The server looked at her as if she did not understand the question. My daughter repeated her request. The server just pointed to the menu and asked which entrEe she wanted. No offer to find out if the steak was available. Under the Desserts, Ice Cream was one of the choices, but on Christmas Day the menu stated that there were "special favors available, just ask". So I asked. The server's answer was, "I don't know." I requested that she please check in the kitchen and let me know. She said okay. As the dishes from the main course were being cleared, we asked the server if she had found out what the special flavors of ice cream were. She said she had not, but would go find out. About 15 minutes later, she returned and told me the special flavors were Frozen Peach Yogurt and Pineapple Sherbet (both of which had been listed separately on the menu above the Ice Cream choice). On my way out of the restaurant, I asked the Maitre D' what the special flavors of ice cream were. Her response, "I don't deal with the menu."
To make matters worse, on Tuesday, the Garden Cafe went from self-serve, to crew service only. This unexplained action immensely increased congestion and wait times. We began using the main restaurants and Blue Lagoon for breakfast and lunch in order to get a seat. (The rumor was that there were numerous, severe illnesses onboard during the first two days.)
Here is my estimate of the average wait times at the main restaurants after being seated; to get a menu - 5-10 minutes, to place an order after getting a menu - 15 minutes, service time after finishing each course - 10 minutes and very, very slow water refills (my daughter had to hold her glass up above her head for 5 minutes at breakfast one day to get a refill).
We only ate in the Grand Pacific, Magenta, Blue Lagoon and Garden Cafe. (I suspect service in the Specialty Restaurants was much better but can not comment.)
Overall, our take on Freestyle Cruising means that NCL has disregarded their responsibility to accommodate their guests and has shifted that responsibility to the guests to take care of themselves.
On our first day at sea, my wife and I attended the CruiseCritic.com Meet and Greet with the senior crew including the Captain. The Captain even gave us his and others' phone extensions so we could contact them if there was a problem. To quote the Captain, "I don't want you to write a review stating that the trip was the Cruise from Hell without giving us a chance to rectify the problems you are experiencing." I noted the numbers but figured I never have to use them. However, when I did use them, a notice came up on the phone that the extension was either "incorrect" or "out of service." So much for getting help from any of the senior staff. During the Meet and Greet the Captain said that we had 2,970 passengers on board. This significantly exceeded the 2,466 passenger capacity listed on NCL's website. In NCL's frequently asked questions, the maximum passenger capacity is shown as 2,807 with a crew of 1,110. While the extremely high number of passengers may explain much of the overcrowding, delays and wait times, it does not explain the lack of information, the misinformation and general lack of helpfulness that we received from many of the crew throughout the entire cruise.
(Not the "Cruise from Hell", but certainly close enough that we won't be returning.)