My wife and I are travelers who like to visit interesting places with culture. We have always stayed in hotels within cities for multiple nights, so we were always apprehensive about cruising. We have heard both good and bad about cruising so this is my attempt to provide as much detail to those who have never cruised, and to provide my experience on the Norwegian Gem.
First, my point of view is going to be skewed since we opted for the penthouse suite. I am sure our experience is not going to be similar to those in regular rooms; furthermore, we opted to pay for some dinners in the specialty restaurants, which will also provide a different experience then relying on the regular restaurants and buffet.
We arrived at the port in NY and were dropped off with our bags. We typically pack very light with minimal baggage. However, we brought my mother and aunt on this trip and we had more than we can handle on our own. We had a porter take care of our bags. Because we had a suite, we were able to advance to the front of the line for both check in and for security. The process was not too bad, but I am glad I did not have to wait in the extra long lines. We decided to bring our own wine bottles on board, so after we checked in and went through security, there was a little desk to have stickers issued to be stuck on your bottles. You are then given a receipt, for they charge a $15 dollar fee per bottle for corkage fees. I believe I could have put a few bottles in the checked baggage and would have been fine. Also, it turned out that we did not drink all of the wine, so on the last day of the cruise we received a refund for the corkage fees.
We were then brought into the priority lounge where we met our butler and concierge. We were then escorted by our butler (Tim) to Cagney's Steakhouse, which is where the suite guests may go for both breakfast and lunch. We sat down and had our first meal. The menu is limited and does not change, but the food is very good. After that was complete we were shown to our room.
Before departing there was a mandatory drill. On our room keys was a letter and number which reveals where you need to meet. We made it to our point and the ship eventually had the warning bells go off and then a demonstration on how to put on the life jackets. After hearing about this drill from others, I thought it would have been much more involved. It truly was nothing more than sitting and watching someone put on a life jacket.
After that we all headed to the pool deck to watch the ship depart and pass by the Statue of Liberty. It was cold and windy, but it was also a great experience.
I want to get this part out of the way. I know there are those who will think my experience is greatly different due to the suite, and I would agree in some instances, but the majority of my time was spent in areas that had nothing to do with the suite.
Here are the perks of having a suite:
- Larger Space and Balcony
- A Butler, as well as a room attendant
- A Concierge
- Priority Embarkation & Disembarkation (also applies at port of calls)
- Private breakfast and lunch dining at Cagney's Steak House
- Daily evening snacks and treats, i.e. chocolate covered strawberries, sandwiches, etc...
- Extra comfortable bedding and pillow menu
- Cappuccino Machine in Room - Free Espresso!
So are the perks worth the price? Yes. The privacy and level of care offered to the suite guests truly made the experience that much better. A simple call to our concierge about anything was handled promptly. Reservations, billing issues - no problem. Our butler brought us plates of sandwiches, cheeses, and pitchers of orange juice and pineapple juice when we decided to have a small get together.
One of the best parts was the breakfast and lunch at Cagney's. We did go to the buffet on occasion and quickly realized that dealing with the crowds was not nearly as pleasant. We would just order off of the menu and had a nice dining experience every day. The crab cake Eggs Benedict was great!
Overall in general I found the entertainment to be just ok. The people who sang or played instruments were average and I wonder if the pay they receive represents the talent. If sitting with a drink and listening to singers was my thing, then I may have been more disappointed. I found myself listening for brief moments while passing by or waiting for something or someone.
We went to see the Hypnotist Nadeen and it was amusing but I think she was having a bad night, or I should say the people who came on stage were not great choices. It was mildly painful to watch.
I also went to the Cabaret show which was much shorter than expected (15 minutes) and was ok, but lacked what most Cabaret shows would offer.
The casino was a typical casino and is typically not my thing. It was smoky and easily claimed your money. It is always fun to play a bit, but I can not believe how many people were so quickly in the casino and gambling. It was like they have been sitting there for days already.
The crew seem to put on a bunch of events around the ship, from bingo to ping pong contests, to basketball contests, to even ring tossing contests. There seemed to be an upbeat appearance by the crew, but most of the time you found things to be a bit muted, which is what I like. I do not think I would like a constant high energy environment. It was nice just to lay on the deck and sun.
I think those who refuse to pay any money on a cruise make a good point, but I think they are missing out on the specialty restaurants. We ate at the Grand Pacific restaurant and the Buffet and found both to be good, but the buffet was no comparison for either the sit down free restaurant or the specialty restaurants. I will not say the buffet was not good, but if I had to choose I would go to the other restaurants.
I will not go into great detail about the food in the restaurants, but here is my quick review of each:
Grand Pacific - Good food, big and loud - hard to have conversation.
Le Bistro - Excellent ambiance, excellent food.
Cagney's - Excellent ambiance, excellent food.
La Cucina - Excellent ambiance, excellent food.
Teppanyaki - Nice ambiance, nice food.
Orchid Garden - Nice ambiance, nice food.
Tequila - OK ambiance, good food.
The vessel is quite large but luckily much of it is due to the rooms and you won't find yourself walking every inch of the ship. Most of the venues are within specific areas and you are not too far from your room at any one time. To walk from the front to the back of the ship is probably a 10 minute walk, if that.
Now, ships of this size have stabilizers, but it should be known that there is a constant reminder that you are at sea. The ship does rock a bit even when the sea is calm, and when the seas a bit more rough you will definitely feel the rocking. I don't get motion sickness, but my wife does and she did not get sick on this trip even with the last night's big rocking in high waves and high winds.
We left New York on a Wednesday around 4pm and arrived in San Juan at 3 PM on Saturday. 3 days at sea is a long time. I would do it again, but you should definitely pace yourself and find things you like to do and just relax.
We decided to use our onboard credit for a couples spa pass, which gave us access to the indoor therapy pool, hot tubs, individual hot tubs, sauna, steam room, and warm ceramic lounges. This was a great purchase and offered a private retreat away from the crowds.
The fitness area was quite nice, and as big as it was the equipment was constantly in use. It was not hard to find a free spot, but it was heavily frequented by guests. Nice equipment and lots of choices.
At first we were not going to do any excursions. But, for some reason as the trip approached we went ahead and booked 4 excursions and we are so glad we did. We opted for a catamaran, snorkel and beach excursion on two days and a beach day for another. The people who ran these excursions were locals and did an excellent job. I think in some ways they provided better service than the crew on the ship. We had a great time.
For the first time in my travels I have found a level of stress free and relaxation that I have not experienced. I had such a good time that we are already planning our next cruise, but for none of the reasons why others have told us to cruise. It is not any one thing...It is not about all of the food, or all the places you visit, or all of the entertainment...It is so many components that come together that make it such a great time. But honestly, the one thing that I found to be consistent in what made each part of the trip enjoyable was the people. The attendants, the restaurant crew, the excursion crew, and the ship's crew...all made the trip enjoyable.
I have never experienced other cruise lines and how they do dining, and maybe NCL blows the free styling cruise out of proportion, but I really enjoyed the freedom we felt.
I have read how cruises like to nickel and dime you and I believe this can happen to anyone on any cruise. My final cost (after a $300 room credit) was $280.00, but my mother and aunt also had a room credit and walked away with under $200 in bills. Most of our bill was due to the corkage fees, the spa, and the specialty restaurants. I know others have much bigger bills and others have no bills. I think if you buy lots of drinks, or use the spa a lot, you may find your bill to be much higher, but I don't know if I would say that I was constantly being nickel and dimed by NCL. I think when you were being billed you understood why and I don't think there were things that I really wanted but was turned off due to a charge.
Well, unfortunately this process was not too good. Two cruise ships will disembarking at the same time, which I believe is a mishap on NCL's part. They should never plan for something like that to happen. The customs were overburdened, and the process took 2 hours longer than necessary. You eventually find yourself in a large room with everyone's bags and even though it was not too hard to find the bags, it was a big much to get out. Luckily, we paid a porter to help us who expedited us out.
As a first time cruiser I would say that I am glad I chose NCL for my first time. I felt that the ship and crew were well polished and everything was in order. I didn't feel like it was being ran by amateurs. I think you pay more for NCL cruises, and definitely more for a suite, but I truly believe it was worth the money. I look at how much I spend for airfare, hotel, rental car, and food on a normal trip and I think the cost is comparative, yet we receive a level of care that is not often found elsewhere.
Good job NCL Gem and crew.