This was my first NCL cruise and my first Bermuda cruise and my first solo cruise. All three were better than I ever could have imagined. I booked very last minute--only nine days out--and honestly only chose NCL because it left from the port I wanted to leave from (NYC) and went to the place I wanted to go (Bermuda). After this accidental trip, I'm confident that I will be on many future NCL cruises.
Travel To Port of Embarkation:
Because I live only 70 miles outside of the city, there's very easy public transport into Manhattan. I took a $44 commuter bus to Port Authority Bus Station. I then took a $7, ten-minute cab directly to the port. I could have walked if I wanted to roll my suitcase behind me. I have never experienced a more painless way to travel.
I arrived at the port at around 10:50 and was all checked in and waiting to board by 11:10. The only confusion was at the luggage check area outside the terminal--it was crowded and disorganized, but I think that's because they were just finishing up disembarkation from the previous cruise. Even so, it wasn't a major issue. We were able to board right at noon--and all of the rooms were ready at that point! What a pleasant surprise!
Because I was traveling solo (and on a budget) I chose an inside cabin. I was in room 10007, which was on deck 10 almost all the way forward. The room was clean and well equipped. I was surprised by the efficient use of space--there would definitely have been enough storage even if I had been traveling with my husband. The wood finishes on the built-in furniture was nice and the bathroom was clean and modern. It was nicer than many NYC hotel rooms I've stayed in (and only a little smaller!)
The Gem is a beautiful ship. I continued to marvel at the attention to details. The public rooms were lovely, the furniture was made of quality wood and fabrics. I particularly liked the chairs and pillows in the Star Bar as well as the funky velvet-covered loungers in Spinnaker Lounge. The only public space that I did not love was Bliss Ultra Lounge, but that could be because I'm really a 65-year-old living inside a 31-year-old body! I'm sure the 20-something crowd enjoys lying on a canopy bed in a public lounge (see what I mean about being an old soul?) The main dining room--the Grand Pacific--was the quintessential ship dining room--big, beautiful chandeliers, a dual staircase entryway, a baby grand piano, and huge windows spanning the entire length of the wall all the way aft. It was lovely.
But more than anything else, I was shocked by how clean everything was. At one point on day four of the cruise, I sat down on the edge of the pool to put my feet in. I realized that I was somehow sitting on perfectly dry, perfectly clean wood. I don't think I've ever been to a pool anywhere that allowed for muck-free edge seating!
I had very low expectations for the food on board the Gem, as I'd read that NCL is not a cruise line that you select to experience fine dining. Of course, it was not fine dining--but it was perfectly enjoyable food. In fact, I'd have to say that I had several dishes over the course of the week that were far above average.
The buffet had better quality and selection than I was picturing--and I'm a person that typically hates buffets. The breakfast options were vast and varied--you could have beans and broiled tomatoes with your eggs, or bacon and sausage, or lox and cream cheese on a bagel. I very much enjoyed the chocolate croissants--I had one every day of the cruise--and the has browns were quite good, particularly when drenched in the bernaise sauce found over by the eggs benedict. For lunch, the selections became even more varied. I'm a huge fan of Indian food, and I was honestly shocked at the quality I found on the buffet--and the dishes changed each day, to prevent boredom. The only reason you'd have to eat the same thing twice is because you really liked it!
The food in the main dining room wasn't gourmet, but it was tasty, well-seasoned, and beautifully presented. I tended to enjoy the appetizers and dessert more than the main courses--but then that's fine, as you can order more than one of each (though I never did.) The desserts were excellent--I can't think of one main dining room dessert that I did not absolutely love--and I'm typically not a sweets person.
I visited three of the specialty restaurants--Le Bistro, La Cucina, and Tequilas. Of the three, I enjoyed Le Bistro the most. The rack of lamb that I ordered (during the 'Best of' lunch) was the entree highlight of the cruise. La Cucina offered up the best dessert--a panna cotta 'tasting' that was much (MUCH) better than the panna cotta in the main dining room (and that panna cotta wasn't bad, either!) Tequilas wins the prize for the best appetizer and the best salad--the spice rubbed ahi tuna was really, really good, and the ensalata tostada was a wonderful little salad served in a crispy fried tortilla bowl (yum!) topped with the most tasty strips of grilled beef I've ever had the pleasure of enjoying (double yum!)
There was more to do on board that any one person could possibly hope to enjoy. I played trivia every day, attended an improv workshop, and enjoyed two tastings--a martini tasting and a French wine tasting. The trivia was great (even more so because my team won the week-long progressive match), the wine tasting relaxed and informative, and the improv workshop would have been fun if I'd chosen to participate rather than watch (my mistake!) I cannot recommend the first martini tasting of the sailing, however, because it was so packed with seemingly already drunk people that it was more like being in a crowded, noisy bar than anything else. However, drunk passengers are not the fault of NCL and, additionally, there were two more martini tastings later in the week. I walked by during one and there were maybe eight people present--that likely would have been more my speed. Though be warned--you will drink WAY too much vodka in WAY too short of a time. But it's almost all worth it to see the staff play around whilst mixing the drinks. At one point one of the bartenders placed a tray full of (full) glasses on his head and stood on one leg! And this was during the most rough day at sea--I was quite impressed!
I have never experienced this high level of service--ever. I've only cruised once before--on Celebrity--and while I wouldn't call the service on Celebrity lacking, I have to say that the staff of the Gem went way above and beyond. At times I actually felt badly--I'd like to think that I have good manners, so when someone with a tray of dishes crosses my path, I get out of their way! But the staff on the Gem won't have this--they step aside for you! I accidentally knocked over my iced tea one day at lunch, and while I tried to clean it up, a man actually took my napkin out of my hand and did it for me, saying 'you're on vacation'. My room steward learned my name and made it a point to greet me by name whenever I passed him in the hallway. And, it is important to note that I was a solo traveler in an inside cabin--yet I felt like I was being given the royal treatment. Bravo, Gem staff!
Honestly, I'd almost cruise on the Gem again just to be able to enjoy all of the Second City performances. I attended every single one, and they only got better (and more...ahem...adult) as the week went on. In addition to all of the 'included' entertainment, I also enjoyed the for-a-fee murder mystery lunch on the last sea day. It was probably the best money I spent on board, as the food was basic yet very tasty, and the entertainment was fantastic and well-timed with the meal.
Port & Shore Excursions:
How can one complain about Bermuda? I certainly can't! It's beautiful, easy to navigate, and the people are warm and welcoming. While I did not book any NCL excursions, I found it simple (and cost effective) enough to tour on my own. A $28-three-day transportation pass, purchased right as soon as I got off the ship, allowed me to see the island at my own pace. I took a ferry to St. George (a MUST DO), walked to Tobacco Bay Beach ($10 for snorkel equipment for one hour was the best money I've ever spent), and took the ferry back. On day two I took the ferry to Hamilton, toured Hamilton, then used the bus system to get to the Botanical Gardens (not great) and to Horseshoe Bay Beach (the most stunning sandy beach I've ever seen!) The only time I encountered a crowded bus was that afternoon coming back to the Dockyard from the beach. The bus was full of school children and really, they could not have been more well behaved or polite. When I'm ok with being smushed onto a bus wiht lots of kids--they MUST be great kids!
On my third day I thought about booking a snorkel excursion, but decided to have a leisurely breakfast instead (all of the NCL snorkel excursions left at 8:15 that morning.) After slowly wandering off the ship at around 9:30, I checked at the ticket kiosk and found a snorkel cruise just about to leave--so I bought a ticket and hopped on the boat. It was GREAT. I don't even know the name of the company, though I know that the name of the boat was Coral Princess and that it was staffed by three very nice (very cute) very personable young men (ok, they were probably my age or older, but remember--I'm an old soul!) It was an excellent way to end my visit to Bermuda.
My only regret was that I didn't spend more of my in-port evenings at the Frog and Onion pub. I visited for happy hour on our last day in port, and was truly sad when I had to (and I mean HAD TO--it was less than an hour to sail away!) go back onto the ship. The Frog and Onion has great (read: STRONG) rum swizzles, and during happy hour a man plays the steel drums. It was also filled with lots of happy people that were more than happy to socialize. On my next Bermuda cruise (yes, I'll be going back) I'll be sure to spend some of my evenings off the ship and in the port.
Because I was only traveling with one small rolling bag--and because I really wanted to be on the 9:00 bus home from Port Authority--I chose self-disembarkation. I rolled my bag down to the atrium at 7:15 and was maybe 30th in line to exit the ship. I stood--or, rather, sat--in line (there were window seats lining the area where I waited) until around 7:50, chatting with the people around me. And then we were allowed to leave the ship. One last scan of my card and I was making my way into the terminal, through security, and onto the street. I was standing at the gate for my bus in Port Authority (after taking a taxi from the terminal) by ten after eight in the morning. I have no complaints about disembarkation whatsoever! It was as quick and painless as the embarkation process.
What more can I say? This was a great cruise. I admit that I had very low expectations--so of course they were all exceeded. I also admit that I mainly chose to take this cruise as a way of getting to Bermuda--not as a cruise experience in and of itself. But life aboard the Gem surprised me, and now I understand why people love cruising. I'd like to return to Bermuda this summer, this time with my husband. And honestly, while I don't typically repeat things, I don't see why I'd try to fix something that's not broken. Thus, it is more than likely that I'll be sailing with NCL again! Dollar for dollar, it was one of the best trips I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.