Norwegian Gem Cruise Review by Anthony Jankel: A flawed Gem
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A flawed Gem
I've cruised for twenty five years so I feel well qualified to comment on my recent 14-night cruise aboard the Norwegian Gem with my wife and two adult children. To summarise, it was just about OK but the unavoidable extras unexpectedly made it a very expensive holiday. Some of the major pros and cons now follow:
In our case there was no 'free' transfer between the airport and the ship - we needed to take a taxi, an expense we weren't anticipating.
Registration and boarding was slick and efficient except that once aboard we were forced to route march past dozens of trestle tables all attempting to take our money - something that set the tone for the ensuing fortnight - before we were finally allowed to drop out and head for our cabins.
While waiting to board we learnt that instead of tipping the cabin stewards and restaurant staff, a charge of $12 per person per day was to be added to our bill "for our convenience". Whether this is or isn't excessive More isn't the point - by charging it regardless there is no incentive upon the staff to try to please, and no incentive upon the guests (customers? cruisers?) to reward exceptional service.
The levies continued with the 15% service charge on all drinks. And the drinks weren't cheap: Beer @ $5, Cocktails @ $9, Wine from $27, etc before the 15% was added. To add insult to injury every bill was then presented "open" with the Gratuity line and Total left blank for those of a particularly, generous disposition or simply plain stupid. Quite obviously you don't have to drink anything other than free iced water but if on holiday you like a few drinks and wine with your meals you can quite easily spend $100 a day without any effort at all. Put your mind to it - as my son did - and $200 a day is easily achievable!
Nothing was free - and therein lays the major failing with a NCL cruise. They work 24/7 at taking your money off you and you very quickly resent this. Want to join a group dance class? That's an extra charge! Want to join a group cycling class in the gym? That's extra too. Want to join.....you can be sure that NCL will be charging for that as well.
The theatre shows were just about OK but nothing more: to be blunt they were in fact a grave disappointment. The guest artistes on our cruise were quite forgettable and the ship's dancers gave every impression of having been barely trained before setting foot on the stage.
No 'theatrical' show lasted more than about 50 minutes presumably by order of the NCL Management so that everyone would have the maximum time to spend money on drinks, in the shops or in the casino.
Other shows on board tended to rely upon audience participation. If you live for reality TV shows you'd be in your element. If you don't want to experience a 50s-style, working-class, holiday camp environment you'll not enjoy this element of your cruise experience.
Whatever show you're attending, the warm-up act is always 10 minutes of patter trying to sell you scratch cards. This is extraordinarily tiresome and not least because so few get sold anyway.
Throughout the day the ship's tannoy would incessantly exhort all aboard to attend yet another (god forsaken) Art Auction. The announcements were intrusive and offensive, but inescapable. If you value peace and quiet while sunbathing, forget it - the tannoy stretched the length and breadth of the ship.
Port excursions were the usual rip-off with the sole benefit that paying through-the-nose entitled you to disembark at least an hour ahead of the riff-raff wanting to do their own thing. As we proved every time we disembarked, we could do for under $20 what NCL typically wanted to charge $99.
Port information was pathetically inadequate. It would have been easy enough to print up a decent fact sheet with a useful map and directions to places of local interest but all one actually got was a few turgid lines no general background but no consequence and a "map" bearing no discernable resemblance to where one was going.
Sun bathing was a problem if you didn't get up by 7am to "bag" your bed. In theory posted Notices declared that beds unused for 30 minutes would have anything lying on them removed, but in 14 days we never say this happen once. Needless to say a huge number of beds were unoccupied for hours but the deck staff did nothing to overcome the problem.
There were some sun beds under shade but not remotely enough of them. The problem wasn't lack of space but lack of beds.
The two swimming pools are small and close together. One is reserved for screaming children and the other for adults capable and desirous of squeezing themselves into what looks and feels like a rugby scrum. The pools are separated by a bandstand from which most afternoons live music is belted out at a million watts; moronic pool games are also noisily run from this bandstand.
Our inside cabin was compact but for the most part thoughtfully designed and well fitted with a safe, fridge, powerful hairdryer, decent lights, good storage and easy to reach power sockets; in fact when set up for two single beds the cabin had no shortcomings at all but with these pushed together to form a double, there was no clearance around one corner of the foot of the was bed, necessitating an ungainly scramble over the bed to get into it. This was far from satisfactory and indeed a major design failing.
The en-suite had a large, oblong shower cubicle. The shower was powerful and the cubicle's sliding doors proved to be watertight. Like the cabin, the en-suite was thoughtfully designed with adequate shelf space, towel rails and clothes hooks.
"Freestyle" dining really means "free-for-all". You can usually reserve a table if you plan to start dinner no later than 7:30hrs but regardless of this you queue to get in with those who haven't booked, and weathering this can take anything a minute or two if you are exceptionally lucky - or fifteen if you aren't.
The food in the "Freestyle" restaurants is chosen from a comparatively uninspired 3-course menu. The style is loosely nouvelle and therefore the portions are mostly modest in size. Quite frequently what appeared on our plates bore no resemblance to what we were expecting and this was usually a disappointment. On the upside, if you like your coffee barely lukewarm and as weak as a baby, you're in for a real treat!
Presumably the aim of the lacklustre "Freestyle" dining is to persuade you to use the "Speciality" restaurants. We tried several. All levy a cover charge of $20-$30 per head plus the obligatory 15% service charge. Since you are already paying to eat, this is a nasty little con.
Ignoring the iniquitous cover charge, the Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant was otherwise a pleasant experience - but for the fact that I only got a reservation at the sixth attempt by getting out of bed at 06:45hrs to make a personal booking - and even then there were people in the queue in front of me so that by the time I reached its head at 7:15hrs there were just eight places left for the following night within an hour of the time we wanted to eat.
Cagneys Steakhouse was also excellent, but the most expensive of the speciality restaurants. The fillet steaks were extraordinarily good and as good as anything I'd ever eaten before. But I still resented the cover charge.
To disembark one needs to acquire a coloured label denoting your time of departure. You'd think there would be a system to distribute these, but there isn't. The result is an undignified free-for-all for those that have accidentally discovered what's going on, and later on screams of disappointment and outrage from those that were blissfully unaware.
The actual disembarking (once you've got your label) is quick and easy. Less
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