Let me start by saying I wasn't going to write a review. The cruise we took on the Gem was very close to being the exact same cruise we took on the Gem 3years ago, which I had reviewed at that time. What changed my mind? Well, after filling out NCL's post cruise survey and finding no place to enter comments I figured I would share my comments here.
How do I know someone from NCL will read them here?
At our groups Meet & Greet, we got to meet a lot of the ships officers including the captain who told us that a few years ago NCL had a choice. To ignore cruise critic and their members or embrace the forum & it's members. They chose to embrace us.
So here goes...
Our background: Cruising was Myself (44), my wife & 11yr old daughter. We have cruised Carnival, Celebrity, NCL and Royal Caribbean before, over 10+ cruises and this was our 4th NCL cruise in 5years, 2nd time on the Gem. We are easy going, budget conscious and try to enjoy vacation and do as much as possible without breaking the bank.
Embarkation: One of the main reasons we took this cruise was going out of NY is easy. We had no airfare coming from PA, we were able to get someone to drop us off at the pier, pull up, porters are there to take luggage that you unload from car onto a cart & next time you see your bags was at the room. Can't ask for more. Checking in was OK, it took around 30 min, I identified myself as a Latitudes member, where we had our own line but I wasn't impressed, it looked as long as the non-Latitudes member line. I guess membership there doesn't have it's privileges unless you are a higher tier or you reserved a suite (different, very short line).
Sail away/sea days: Sail away from NY is nice, scenic, it was cold but not bad for Jan 8th. It was in the 60's by the 1st full sea day and they surprised everyone by having a poolside barbecue with pasta,chicken & rice. Typical sea days, some activities & entertainment, casino ect..
We did attend our CC meet & greet which had it's benefits. We got to put some faces to the people we were talking to online. Made some friends that we had throughout the cruise & beyond. It's always nice to have people to go along with you when you get to the islands. The Captain & his staff came & spoke to us and the meet & greet organizer actually was able to set up an exclusive bridge tour for all the people who attended the meet & greet. The staff gave us cards with their extensions & told us not to hesitate to contact them if we had any issues.
Puerto Rico: After almost 3 full days on the ship everyone is ready to get off. We left NY Sunday @4 arrived in PR Wednesday at 3pm but there was some problem with the ship clearing to dock so we were delayed 30-40min getting the Ok to disembark & then there was the cattle rush. They extended the return time 30min (9:30 instead of 9pm). The last time we did this cruise we didn't have PR, we had Barbados & had a full day there, 3-9pm or 3:30-9:30 just doesn't do it for me. We got off the ship, walked up to Castle San Cristobal which closed @6pm. It was close, inexpensive & we got some nice pictures. We walked back down through Old San Juan & into some of the shops but ended up at CVS to grab some stuff.
St Thomas: Having been to St Thomas before we decided after looking at the ports of call boards (Great resource) that we wanted to take the ferry over to Cinnamon Bay in St Johns. It was the highlight of our cruise. Beautiful beach and knowing what to expect from the boards helped tremendously. We got back to the ship in time to do a little shopping outside the ship & we were off to...
St John's Antigua: Different from the St John's we visited the day before but much like St Thomas this was our 3rd time there. So I had researched Eli's Eco tour from the information I found on the Ports of call boards & wasn't disappointed. The tour picked us up right on the dock near the Gem where we literally drove up to 3 other beaches to pick up other passengers. Then we got a tour of the island, got to visit & climb Devil's bridge, short hike up bird island where the views were great, had a nice lunch & then went snorkeling. We didn't have much time to do anything else there once we returned. My DD bought a necklace from one of the vendors. But let me add once you get out of the "ship dock area" and into the marketplace it's usually chaotic with people trying to sell you tours, taxis or goods, so be prepared. Being originally from NY I can handle it, but if you look like a sheep you will be easy pickings.
St Martin: The last time we were in St Martin I did the Americas cup racing boat tour (would highly recommend)while dw & dd went horseback riding (not 4me). This time they wanted to go back again (still not 4me) so they went with the friends we met at the M&G. I thought about the Cup race again but I wasn't in the mood. I wandered to the taxi stand & ended up with a group of people on a 3hr island tour. The tour was great since I had never seen the whole island. The tour ended up being almost 4hrs & was only $25pp ($30 w/tip) because the group had 8+ people.
Tortola: Last stop before heading home, much like PR the arrival/departure time left much to be desired. Arrive at 7am, everyone back on board 12:30 depart @1pm. We took a taxi over to Cane Garden Bay ($8pp) stayed there 2 1/2 hrs then had to get back. Nice beach, wish we had more time.
Heading back: It was very windy off Florida so no bbq by the pool & upper decks were closed, by the 2nd day back it was pretty cold, 70mph winds & 20ft waves so we were rocking. It didn't bother us and that last night we had the buffet almost to ourselves..Which leads me to...
Food: The food was what we expected from past cruises on NCL. Some people on the boards complain but we found everything tasty and had no complaints. We ate in the Grand Pacific, Magenta & the buffet. We never felt rushed, and I thought the service timing was better than it was on past cruises. I like the idea of an everyday menu along with the daily specials menu.
The anytime dining is one of the biggest reasons we have stayed with NCL. Getting my DW anywhere on time is a challenge and I don't like to fight with her about being "on time" for dinner. Plus you go to dinner when you are hungry, not when scheduled.
My only complaint here is the buffet never changes (maybe 1 station does) in all of the 10 days and even the outdoor bbq is almost the same each time.
I would also LOVE if the Blue Lagoon kept a snack type menu 24 hours instead of switching to breakfast and other menus throughout the day. If you want anything besides breakfast before 11:30 am you have to call room service or for a $5 pizza (which I did 1 morning & it seemed like a leftover pizza from the night before that they threw some more cheese on it & reheated).
Cabin: We booked an inside cabin because we don't usually spend a lot of time in the room. I must say it's getting to be a challenge as DD gets older and we had 10 days of clothes with us for both warm & cold weather. The 1st day we noticed there was no shower gel dispenser in the shower (not empty, totally missing). I called the front desk and they took the information. My DW had brought a bar of soap so we used that. I mentioned to the cabin steward about it the next day when it still wasn't fixed & he said they went to the wrong cabin. That night he left us a small bottle of shower gel. It never got fixed & we didn't complain about it again, we just used a bar of soap we bought from CVS in PR.
Staff: Voted friendliest ship of all cruise lines (or something like that) and it's well deserved. Our cabin steward always greeted us by name and was always working. Everywhere you went people were helpful & would say hello.
Entertainment: If you had never been on a cruise before you will probably enjoy yourself. The shows are entertaining but for me it's a repeat. The Second City did the same shtick with different people. Even the Hypnotist who was a totally different person did the same routine!! For a cruiseline that pushes for repeat business why can't they recognize that the people who are coming back want to see something a little different. Also I took DD to Name that tune & it was 50's & 60's music! I don't think the median age was that high!
Kids club: When my DD was younger it was the place to be. It was like she had her own vacation. Now she is older that time is over. She spent most of her time with Mom and some time with Dad. Why? The age groups are setup 2-5, 6-12 and 13-17. With DD being 11 (almost 12) putting her in with 6yr old kids doing Lego's is torture for her. The program is definitely geared to the younger kids. The few times she went was when it was teen room takeover or if something caught her eye, but she didn't go nearly as much as she had on other cruises. I asked if she was 12 would she be able to get bumped to the higher age group and was told no because that group has 17yr olds in it and they don't want anyone below 13 in with them. There should definitely be another tier in there somewhere with activities geared more for 9-12 year old and their interests...
Overall: Solid vacation, more or less what was expected going in. I will definitely be back on NCL (bought the future cruise credit). Will be looking closer at the tradeoff from going out of NY & being on the ship for so long down & back with cold days on both ends to flying to Florida & being warm immediately but having airline/hotel/transportation costs.