Took my wife and 3 of her friends on the NCL Gem on a cruise to nowhere out of Manhattan for my wife's 50th birthday celebration. I booked 2 interior adjoining staterooms on deck 11 which was just 1 deck below the Garden Cafe buffet, the pool and sports, deck, etc! I booked this cruise due to the convenience of hopping on in Manhattan as we are from Long Island. I read a lot of negative reviews for the NCL freestyle experience, so I had to see it for myself as we are experienced cruisers with 12 under our belt split between Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise lines and their set dining times which we are fan of. Here is a quick rundown of our fantastic 50th birthday celebration:
Embarkation - A total disaster as 2 NCL ships were being loaded, the Gem and Jewel. We arrived at the Manhattan cruise ship terminal at 12:15, paid our $30 to park overnight, and from there the cue lines were ridiculous and we did not board till 2:30. Taking over 2 hours to check-in is unacceptable, it must go better when there is only one ship being checked in.
Dembarkation - Great experience, ship docked a little after 8 AM, we ate breakfast at the garden buffet, and we could leave at our leisure from our rooms at any time no later than 10 AM. We grabbed our bags from our room at 9 AM, we easily got off and in our truck and we were out of there and out of Manhattan by 9:30, and home an hour later at 10:30! Great de-embarkation system, no calling decks, special assists, etc, just leave when you want!
Dining - As soon as we boarded we dropped our bags in our rooms and headed to the buffet which appeared overcrowded. We then got seated at the Grand Pacific dining room and had a nice lunch of philly cheesesteaks, french fries, portobello mushrooms, steak, etc. Service was just ok, but the food was good. After lunch and the lifeboat drill, we hit the pool area, and saw a fantastic outdoor BBQ where the food looked amazing, I wish we ate there, and we will hit on a future NCL cruise! The best dining times for the best restaurants were already booked up by 3 PM, so I called and got the La Cucina Italian restaurant for an 8:45 dinner. Sitting in that restaurant made us feel like were at an italian eatery in town, the food was worth the $10 cover charge, we had nice meal, no crowd, nice atmosphere. Having a bad perception of the free style dining was washed away as I took a tour of all the restaurants, and they all looked worthy of their cover charges. You can make a reservation via phone in your room, on the phone in the passage ways, or at the restaurants themselves. There were TV screens area showing the times and availability of the restaurants, so that system worked well. We hit the Garden Buffet on the pool deck in the afternoon between lunch and dinner and the next morning, and we loved the layout of it. It was different and had a different nice feel compared to Carnival, again, it felt like a Las Vegas buffet with the themed dining stations. overall the food in the buffet was good.
Room - Our inside suite was very nice, comfortable mattresses, great Ikea wood like decor everywhere including in the bathroom where the shower stall had a great layout and glass shower doors, soap was provided, we loved it. We peeked in the balcony rooms and hope to book a suite the next time.
Entertainment - The NCL Gem had a great Las Vegas vibe, maybe it was the NY/NJ crowd who were looking to party till our eyes bled knowing we were there for only one night. The party started immediately after the lifeboat drill at 3 PM with the DJ rocking the pool deck. It was cold and windy, but people were dancing and partying for 2 hours, we had so much fun. The main show at 7:30 was cheesy but fun, the flow of the lounges, bars, public areas was a nice change from Carnival and Royal, and the Blizz lounge had a fantastic rock band from England. When the band was done at 11 PM, the DJ picked right up for the toga party, and we danced and partied till 1 AM in the ultracool Bliss lounges that had full size beds in it. Again I felt like we were in Las Vegas. There was plenty of live entertainment in multiple lounges, the bars were beautiful, we really enjoyed touring the public areas.
Spa - I purchased Spa admission for the 5 of us at $30 each, and we spent 2 blissful hours in there in the hot tubs, heated chaise lounges. The Spa had separate areas for men and women with Sauna, steam and whirlpool tubs, and they had a coed area that was was pure joy. The Spa had a European feel, we relaxed sweated, took in the sites and we would buy a Spa package in the future!
Summary - We were pleasantly surprised with our overall NCL Gem experience. The ship had a great vibe, people were buzzing and partying everywhere, the food was good not great, the service was good not great, but with so many dining choices you will be satisfied. We will sail on NCL again, next time for 7 days or more.