BACKGROUND INFORMATION: My husband and I and our 14 and 10 year old children have cruised four times on Royal Caribbean. We chose the Norwegian Gem this time because it had the best Embarkation port and itinerary for us: it was the closest and easiest ship for our extended family of 15 to get to from up and down the East Coast and our group, (age 5 to 83) felt it would be easiest for our family to go to one port and stay there for a few days. The Gem leaves from midtown Manhattan and spends 3 days in Bermuda, as opposed to 2 days for Royal Caribbean.
HOTEL INFO: My family and my parents stayed at the Ink48 Kimpton Hotel. We primarily chose the Ink48 because it is one short block from the Manhattan Cruise Pier. On Embarkation day, we left the hotel and walked for 5 minutes to the Pier. This is the best hotel to stay in Pre cruise if you are leaving from New York City/Manhattan Cruise Pier. We love Kimpton hotels; they are hip, have large, comfortable rooms and there is a free wine hour and a free coffee hour every day. The rooftop bar is not to be missed; we spent the evening before our cruise having a fabulous time up there; good drinks, nice staff, beautiful view and comfy seating. Ink48 is in Hell's Kitchen, but it is a 15-20 minute walk to Times Square. It was the perfect hotel for our family's needs.
EMBARKATION: Having read Norwegian's info and other reviews on Cruise Critic, we decided to get to the Pier at 12:00 noon. We did not realize that the Gem was allowing people on board at 11:00 am, so we arrived to find a very long line to get through security and another long line to get to the front desk. In all, we were in line for about an hour. Norwegian staff were moving people along, but I would suggest arriving at 11:00 am to beat the line.
Before the cruise, I emailed Norwegian and had 2 wheelchairs reserved for my elderly parents for Embarkation and Disembarkation. When they got to the Pier, they were seated in line in a waiting area for their wheelchairs. The process worked well for them and I suggest that anyone with mobility issues reserve a wheelchair in advance by emailing Norwegian.
Norwegian is better than Royal Caribbean at having rooms ready when you board. We were on board by 1:00 pm and our room was already open for us! What a nice way to start the cruise. We dropped our bags in the room and were free to eat or explore without worrying about our bags.
SHIP INFO: Our first impression of the Gem is that it looks like what you would imagine a cruise ship to look like. Very colorful and tropical design. We liked it. While we also like Royal Caribbean, the decor on its ships is more muted and somewhat bland in comparison.
Other than the decor, we all felt that Royal Caribbean has better ship design. The Gem is hard to walk around because many of the decks dead end and you have to go up or down a flight of stairs to continue walking from one end of the ship to the other. Two of our group have mobility issues, so this was a problem.
For instance, the Gem has two main dining rooms, The Grand Pacific and Magentas. It was frustrating trying to find them because the deck layout is counter intuitive. The dining rooms are not near one another, they are hard to find and hard to get to because you can not walk the length of the deck to access them. In addition, you have to walk down a flight of stairs from deck 7 to get to the Grand Pacific and then walk down another flight of stairs to get to the tables. Again, two of our group have mobility issues, so this was a real problem. We did not know, until after we had eaten at the Grand Pacific, that there is one elevator that goes to the 6th floor behind the Grand Pacific. No one told us, about this elevator, we found it by accident.
Another Gem design flaw is the small pool area and shortage of seating at the pool. The Gem has two pools side by side on the 12th floor, one for families and the other for adults. They are about ten feet apart. Except for a small sign, there is no way to tell that one of the pools is the adult pool. There is nothing similar to Royal Caribbean's separate Solarium pool for adults. In addition, there is some lounge seating around the pool, but most of the seating in the shade is comprised of tables and chairs for breakfast and lunch, not loungers. The space is too tight for the number of passengers. There is more lounging space one deck above the pool, but it is shared with the jogging track. The Quiet Lounging Space on deck 13 is nice and bar staff circulate frequently up there, but there is no shade.
The Gem does have a very nice Cigar Lounge on Deck 6. It is small, but comfortable. Right outside the Cigar Lounge is Magnums Champagne Bar and the bar staff regularly come in to the Cigar Lounge to take drink orders. If you want to buy Cuban Cigars in Bermuda, go to Chatham House on Front Street in Hamilton. The prices are not bad and the Cigars are authentic.
STATEROOM: Our family had connecting balcony staterooms. The rooms were more than adequate, with plenty of storage and very comfortable beds. However, the balconies were smaller than other ships and you can not open the balcony door between rooms when you are sailing, only in port. The bathrooms on the Norwegian Gem are much better than those on Royal Caribbean. The showers were bigger and the water flow is fantastic, best shower on a cruise ever! There are also privacy partitions that make the bathroom more functional.
SERVICE: Our Room Steward, Ricky, was the best room steward we have ever had! He introduced himself to us right away, made our requested changes to the room layout and had the nicest personality. Throughout the week, we never had to ask for anything, he always had ice and fresh towels available, and our room was constantly being freshened up or turned down. We saw him all the time and he always had something nice to say to us and our kids. The towel animals he made for them were enchanting! The rest of our group felt similarly about their room stewards. In the past we have had indifferent, invisible and even surly room stewards. Based on Ricky and the other room stewards we met on the Gem, I would say Norwegian has the best staff in this area.
DINING: After 5 cruises, we have found the food is fine as long as it is hot and fresh. So we were very surprised to find ourselves complaining about the dining on the Gem. Across the board, this is the ship's weakest link.
First, the Soda package only covers Pepsi products. If you order root beer, or a soda not produced by Pepsi, you will pay extra. I have no problem with this as long as you accurately call it a Pepsi Package. It made us feel taken advantage of.
Next, Freestyle Dining is a nightmare. Unless you know how Norwegian operates, you will never be able to eat dinner without a long wait. Here is the best advice: Make any specialty restaurant reservations AND main dining room reservations for the whole week BEFORE your cruise or AS SOON AS YOU BOARD or you will have trouble getting them. If you do not want to do this, then you have to eat dinner between 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Norwegian keeps tables open in their restaurants between those hours for people without reservations. You can walk in and sit down easily in that hour. After 6:00 pm there is always at least a 45 minute to one hour wait for a table at most restaurants.
Third, the Buffet line in the Garden Cafe is not laid out well. Until you get familiar with the layout, you will experience very long lines. The thing you need to know is that the Garden Buffet is part of a 3 part system. At breakfast and lunch, The pool bar, the Garden Buffet and the Great Outdoors all serve the same basic food. You can go to any of the three. The pool bar and Great Outdoors are never as crowded as the Buffet. In addition, the pool bar serves a nice barbecue for lunch every day, so you might never go all the way into the Garden Buffet for lunch.
Seating for the Garden Buffet is also limited, so take your meal to the tables at the pool, eat inside La Cucina specialty restaurant (the ship has a very small sign pointing the way) or go to the back of the Garden Buffet, through the doors and eat outside at the Great Outdoors. Our family preferred the Great Outdoors. It's a wonderful, shady spot with a nice breeze and ocean views, it was the best part of the cruise!
The food on Norwegian is ok, but not as good as we thought it should be. The one area where Norwegian shines is the fresh fruit, it is consistently good and should not be missed. However, the deserts are bad; tasteless, not appetizing to look at and not worth the calories. Most of us never finished the deserts. The Chocolate Buffet was particularly disappointing. If you go, be aware that each station is the same as the others, except for the cake, which changes at each station. The food on the buffets is fine, but is the same every day. The food in the main dining rooms is fine, not amazing, but fine. We ate at Cagneys and enjoyed the food and service very much, but found the food in La Cucina and the Asian restaurants to be not bad, but bland.
Across the board, we had problems with service in the dining areas. The waiters are friendly enough, but they did not seem to understand how to wait tables. I ordered a virgin strawberry daiquiri for my tween and the waiter brought a Shirley Temple. I thought it was an honest mistake until she told me that my tween had a soda sticker and that it would not pay for a daiquiri. I told her that I was paying for the daiquiri and she said "Oh. Well, I thought she would rather have a Shirley Temple." I told her again that I wanted to get the Daiquiri and she told me that we already had the Shirley Temple, just drink that. Later in the week, some of our party ordered Chocolate Sundaes for desert and the waiter brought Baked Alaska because he thought it was better. He never asked them; the Baked Alaska just showed up. Another time, when we asked for another serving a chicken skewers the waiter looked at us and said "You want More? Are you sure?" My husband ordered a Latte in the main dining room and they brought him an Espresso. When he told them it was the wrong drink, they insisted that they were right. My husband told them it was the wrong drink and it took a manager to look at the cup and agree that it was the wrong drink. Finally, my husband ordered a Latte at the Java Bar and after 10 minutes of waiting, he still did not have his drink, so he complained and left without the drink. A few hours later we got a call from the Food Service Manager for the entire ship who was very apologetic and bought us some drinks to make it up to us. The Food Service Manager could not have been nicer, but there seems to be a disconnect between his level of customer service and some of his staff. To be fair, we had outstanding service in Cagney's Steakhouse from Jeff as well as very good service in the Blue Lagoon Lounge. In addition, except for the Java Bar, the Bar Staff across the ship were also outstanding: friendly, fast and personable.
PORT & SHORE EXCURSIONS: We arrived a day early in New York City so that we could take our kids to the Empire State Building. Luckily, my sister told us to buy an express pass online and print it out before we left for New York. While the express pass is very expensive, It saved us a 3 hour wait in line. With the express pass, it took us 10 minutes to get to the top of the Empire State Building and 10 minutes to get back downstairs. Without the Express pass, there was a 3 hour wait in line to get to the top and a one hour wait to get in line to get back to the bottom. You have to print out the express pass before you arrive at the Empire State Building. They do not sell Express passes at the building.
Bermuda is lovely and easy to get around. On our first day, we took a tour with Colin Jennings, who is highly recommended on Cruise Critic. We had a fantastic, in depth tour and really enjoyed getting to know Bermuda through Mr. Jennings. When we saw him on day 2 and 3, he always waved and gave us a big smile, he is a great tour guide and a very nice person. Wednesdays in Hamilton are Harbor Nights from 7 to 10:00 pm. It's a fun cultural experience, but if you miss it, Thursdays are Heritage Nights in Dockyard, right outside the ship. It's a similar event, with fun things to do, see and eat!
We spent day two at Horseshoe Bay. It was a lovely, relaxing time. There is a changing room here. We rented Beach Chairs and Umbrellas and had lunch at the snack bar. Everything on Bermuda is expensive, so be prepared to pay $15.00 per person for a burger fries and a soda. You can take a taxi to Horseshoe for about $24.00 or you can take the #7 bus or the beach bus for $4.00. Either way, it's an easy each to get to. There is a steep hill to get to the beach. When you are ready to leave, there is a $2.00 per person shuttle that will drive you to the top of the hill.
We spent day three walking around Hamilton and enjoyed the leisurely pace of the city. Then we went back to the ship and walked around the Dockyard area. We saw a cool glassblowing demonstration and had a relaxing time.
Three days in Bermuda is perfect; you can see and do everything at a leisurely pace and enjoy yourself a great deal.
CHILDRENS'S CLUBS: Unfortunately, we were very disappointed in the Kid's Clubs. We had four kids under age 10 and none of them liked it. The room is too small, so the over 10 kids are put in a small, dark conference room on a different floor. I can't comment on the programming, because after one visit, we never sent them back.
ACTIVITIES: We did not do many shipboard activities. The kids played at the pool and the adults read a lot of books. There is a nice library and a lovely spa. All the ladies had spa treatments and found Verona and Bhanta in the spa to be excellent. One of our ladies bought the spa pass and said it was the best money she ever spent.
ENTERTAINMENT: Our group enjoyed the entertainment on the Gem. Sinan is a great Cruise Director. He's very friendly and he's everywhere! His assistant cruise director is very funny too. A number of us participated in Karaoke in the Bliss Ultra Lounge and had a lot of fun. We thought the Man on the Moon Show was very good. The Second City Show was worthwhile. Our teen loved the Dancing With the Gem Stars show and my Tween loved Deal or No Deal. The White Hot Party was popular, we went to the family version and my teen had a good time. The Piano Player in Magnums Champagne Bar is very good with a broad range.
DISEMBARKATION: Norwegian did a great job getting us off the ship. We chose the Easy Walk Off program. We did not have to put our suitcases out the night before or wait to be called. All we did was get up, eat breakfast and walk off the ship. Easy Walk off is from 8:00 am to 10:00 am. It only took us 15 minutes to get off the ship and into a taxi.
SUMMARY: We always enjoy cruising, and this cruise was fun for our whole group. Norwegian is not as good across the board as Royal Caribbean, but it does some things better and all in all, we had a great time!