I'm just back from a wonderful week sailing through Eastern Mediterranean countries on Norwegian Gem. This was my fifth cruise (previously we cruised twice with Royal Caribbean and twice with Costa); having read negative reviews on NCL Gem, I was kind of worried and had low expectations towards the services onboard. But I couldn't be any happier now!
Boarding was easy without any waiting line: we reached Venice port with our own car and had a problem finding the baggage drop-off (but this is the fault of the poor service given by Venetian port authority, not of NCL!). Once reached the terminal all went smoothly: for security reason you are taken a photo with a web cam and are requested to sign a declaration about being in good health. Before handing you the key card, you are also requested to make a deposit for onboard expenses. After metal detectors, be prepared for a long walk before going onboard.
We arrived at 1.30 pm and there was a sign saying that staterooms wouldn't be ready before 2 pm, so we headed towards The Great Outdoors Cafè for lunch with a beautiful view on Venice in the distance. At 2 it was announced that the staterooms were ready: we had an inside cabin on deck 9 and I was expecting a brightly coloured and dwarf-sized cabin but all I could see was that our stateroom looked brand new and comfortable. It was indeed smaller than usual inside cabins on other vessels but did not lack anything. The bathroom had a spacious shower and elegant dispensers for soap and shampoo plus several glass shelves for storage purposes. The safe was easy to use and so was the airco system.
Then we started exploring the ship: the Gem is well decorated and elegant (especially if compared to some really kitsch Costa ships!) with plenty of public areas. There are 2 outdoor pools on deck 12 (one is only for adults, the other has a very slow waterslide) plus a small indoor children's pool with water games. Pools are not supervised: this was a minus for us as our 6 years old daughter cannot really swim so she required our supervision all the time. Deckchairs are all around the pools and on deck 13: we had troubles finding one only on the last day at sea when anyone wanted to get suntanned! NCL adopts a very intelligent and environmentally-friendly policy for beach towels: the towels are delivered to your stateroom on the first day (one for each guest) and the guest is responsible for the loss of the towel (a 25 USD charge apply). So basically you need to look after your towel if you go to the pools and this prevents people from taking 10 deckchairs at one time using beach towels as we saw on Costa. When you need fresh towels, you drop them on your cabin floor and the attendant will change them. If you need extra towels, you can rent them at a desk near the pools (25 USD deposit required).
The entertainment at the Stardust theatre was amazing: besides the great Broadway-style shows given by the Gem production cast, we could see the performance of a magical duo, of an acrobatic duo from the Circus of Moscow and a couple who had also performed at Le Cirque du Soleil. My daughter and myself enjoyed these shows so much that we saw most of them twice in a row! We didn't really like the musicians performing around the ship and in general we found the music entertainment to be quite boring and scarce compared to other cruises. The staff also organised funny games and activities (e.g. line dancing, newly married vs. not-so-newly married, the White Party) but we couldn't take part into any of them because they were not suitable for our daughter.
Rather than having fun among other people, my husband and myself opted for the quiet and silent atmosphere of the Yin & Yang Spa: as others wrote, the weekly pass is definitely worth the price (178 USD per couple) as you have unlimited access to hot tubs, whirlpools, hot stone chairs, steam bath and sauna, all of them with a stunning view on the sea.
While we were at the Spa, our daughter was at Tree Tops Kids' Club. My daughter is not easy-going and usually complains about the activities offered at this kind of children's club. Last year at Costa Squok Club she stayed only one hour and did not want to go back the following days. This time I was sure she wouldn't even last one hour as none of the youth counsellors was Italian mother-tongue. But I was surprised! She liked it so much she would never leave. Once I had to go back four times before she was finally convinced to leave! The games they organised were not as loud as on Costa and children are very well taken care of.
Last but not least, the food! We are Italian and vegetarian which means we are used to great cooking but we have limited choices when approaching a menu. The first night we dined at the Magenta: we were there at 7 pm and didn't have to wait a minute to be seated. The staff was very kind and we were even given the choice if to drink "regular water" (out of jar) or bottled water. Having mentioned that we are vegetarian, the waitress called the manager who phoned the kitchen to see what they could prepare for us in addition to the vegetarian main dish appearing on the menu list that night (Indian curry). In the end he managed to serve a veggie burger with fries and plain pasta with cheese for my daughter and the Indian curry with steamed vegetables for us. Had we chosen to eat at a restaurant every night, we could have ordered our meals the day before to make sure the cook could prepared what we liked. But we felt this a little too complicated for us, so the following night we tried the buffet at Garden Cafè and it was very satisfactory. As others said, the dishes being prepared are almost the same from night to night but this is a real problem only if you put everything on your dish at one time! If, like we did, you select the food you want to eat, you cannot be bored: one night we had Chinese noodles, the other one pasta and pizza, the following one Indian and so on. At one dinner I also asked for steamed broccoli and the cook at the active food station steamed them for me. The specialty restaurants are also a good choice and I think the cover charge is really a small amount: you can have an all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet for only 15 USD! We tried La Cantina Italian restaurant: the ambience is really cozy and does resemble an Italian old-fashioned osteria. The menu is not as good (apparently the cooks there are not Italian and in fact pasta seemed to be too spicy and full of sauce compared to our standards) but I think spending 10 USD there is well worth the tmoney at least for the atmosphere.
In general, when you are eating, none of the bar service staff interrupts you trying to sell you drinks: if you want to buy a beer or a soda, you can just ask the waiter or go to the counter. In a whole week I was never pushed into buying drinks nor did I feel nickeled and dimed for anything. We felt completely free to buy or not to buy things onboard.
I cannot comment on the quality of shore excursions because I didn't buy any of them: even with a child with us, we are not afraid to explore new places on our own. In Dubrovnik we only walked around the old centre for a couple of hours as the city was a bit disappointing for us. It lacked "personality": all was white and clean, all the shops sold the same souvernirs etc...
In Athens we managed to share with another couple a taxi from the terminal to the Acropolis (25 euros one way for the five of us - pre-agreed fare without meter). We had to queue for 20 minutes to buy our own tickets to the Acropolis (12 euros per person, children below 18 enter for free) and then we climbed up. To descend, we walked on the other side of the Acropolis and within 15 minutes of easy downhill walk (mostly shadowed) we reached the Roman Agora and Monastiraki. Here we had lunch on a beautiful restaurant in Adrianou street, we walked to Plaka, did some shopping and walked back to Monastiraki square to take the metro back to Piraeus. The ticket is only 1 euro one way. Piraeus is the last stop so it's extremely easy to get there (signs are both in Greek and in English). However from Piraeus metro station to the point where the Gem is docked you need to walk at least 20 minutes along a very busy street. As it was 3 pm and the temperature was 38°C, we preferred to hire a taxi: this proved to be a very good decision as the ride took 5 minutes and the price (using the meter) was only 3 Euros!
For Izmir I had pre-booked a private tour to Ephesus and Pamucak beach with E-ephesus.com. I do recommend this operator as they proved to be very professional. We spent 120 USD for the whole family and the payment was done in cash at the end of the trip, so no need to email your credit card details to anybody beforehand. The English-speaking guide was waiting for us at the pier together with the driver: we boarded our AC minivan and drove to Ephesus on the main highway. Ephesus is really remarkable and would requires more than the 2 hours we had! However it was very very crowded and very hot, so we couldn't stop to comment every single ruin but had to quickly walk from the Magnesia Gate to the end of the Curetes roads and the theather. We absolutely didn't want to be trapped into carpet weaving and ceramic moulding, so we had pre-arranged that after Ephesus, the driver would take us to a beach. We ended up in Pamucak, which seems to be one of the best sandy beaches in that area. The beach was almost empty and we rented two deckchairs and a umbrella for 10 euros. However the quality of the beach and of the sea were very disappointing: the beach was dirty and the seashore full of algae. I didn't dare go in the water but my daughter did and enjoyed it because it was very shallow. After 2 hours at the beach, we drove back to Izmir through a scenic way along the coastline. Last port, Navplion, is a little jewel. Contrary to Dubrovnik, this small town really has a personality! There are dozens of shops selling handmade crafts so have your credit cards at hand! You can also walk to a very beautiful beach: unfortunately we didn't (we were lazy and didn't go ashore before 10 am) but those who got to the beach told us the water was crystal-clear. Too bad the ship only anchors in this port for a few hours! Weel, that's about it. I strongly recommend this cruise to families and can't wait to go freestyle again with NCL (maybe the Epic next year...)