This was our first time cruising on NCL. We were worried about the whole "Freestyle" thing. We had cruised on Royal and Carnival, and thought we liked the standard specific dining times, with the same table and the same wait staff nightly. But we wanted to try all of the "big three", and we did like the itinerary, so we booked on the Gem for the end of Jan/beginning of Feb. When the day came, we flew into LaGuardia, and took a car service to the pier. We used GroundLink (the one that is recommended on the NCL website) and they were excellent and far less expensive than taking the bus "ground transfer". As soon as we arrived at the pier we dropped our luggage and were whisked to a VIP lounge (we'd taken an upgrade to a suite- the "upgrade fairy" called us just a couple days before departure) where they had nice snacks and drinks. We also met our concierge Florentina, who asked us if there were any dinner reservations or shore excursions we were interested in. This was handy, as those were the exact two things we needed to do and weren't quite sure how that would happen. It was nice to meet some Cruise Critic folks in the lounge while we waited (we hooked up with so many more at the meet & greet in the Bliss lounge, which was attended by senior members of the crew and staff- they obviously care about Cruise Critic!). We talked to Florentina a few times during the cruise, and she always answered her phone and was very polite and answered every question and followed up on everything. But we found it wasn't so difficult to make and change dinner reservations ourselves, so we didn't really 'use' her as much as maybe we really could have.
After a short wait, we were led out for our "priority boarding". Once on board, we were sort of herded into an elevator- a little odd as nobody really told us where we were going. Turns out we were going to Cagney's for lunch, which was very good, but we both found it a little heavier than we're used to for lunch and thought maybe we wouldn't eat lunch there every day. The suite came with the option to eat breakfast and lunch there daily, and we did eat breakfast there just about every day. The pancakes with bananas were sooo good, and it was very nice to get the option of our own French press on the table. For lunch most days we just grabbed a salad or made sandwiches in the buffet, which was about what we were looking for. A little hard to find a seat during the peak of the lunch rush there, but a little before or after the peak was no problem. Don't ignore the 'great outdoors' buffet and seating all the way aft. It's a very nice spot! One more note on the buffet.. what people say about the 'pretzel rolls' is, in our opinion, 100% true! We loved them so much we told our butler to make sure our stateroom was stocked with them at all times!
The ship is big and clean and very attractive, with an army of crew continually at work keeping it up to snuff. All the employees are neat, neatly uniformed, and greet you with a smile (If only the people you see in the businesses in your daily life could manage just these few things!) Our forward-facing penthouse (9000) was about the size of a big on-land hotel room, with a vanity table outside the full bathroom, a dining area in one corner a huge bed and a pull-out couch (which we turned on the first day to face out the big front window). The full-size tub in the bathroom was great to have. Yes, the height of the tub wall was a couple inches higher than a normal tub, but no, unlike other reviewers, we did not find we needed Olympic high-jump skill to get our legs over it. It's no big deal. The "balcony" was more like a front lawn.. enormous. Probably as many square feet as the room. This was such a great place to sit in port and while arriving or departing ports, but was quite windy underway. Also, due to it being front-facing and right below the bridge, we had to keep the door closed and shades drawn so the light wouldn't bother the officers on the bridge. So no late-night dance parties out on the balcony! But we didn't find that too limiting.. we had plenty to do in the evenings. We met our butler Jason who showed us around the room and how to use the espresso maker (I used it once. It was perfectly fine, but coffee I didn't have to make was so accessible I didn't bother with it more than once). The room had two safes. One was broken. I told our room steward Felipe about it and he said he would report it. It was never fixed. Felipe did follow up with me on it after a day, but I told him I wasn't worried about it, as we had one working safe and that was really all we needed. Still, I thought someone in 11 days would come by to fix it. We bought one adult soda package ahead of time, and had to figure out on our own where to get the sticker for the key card (turns out it was a overwhelmed-looking employee who was mobbed with people standing by the bar in the atrium. A very congested area right by the door where embarking guests were pouring through). The next day we got, delivered to our stateroom, good instructions for getting the sticker, but we bought it to use it from day one, not day two. Our bags showed up at our room about 5 pm.
A little more about the butler Jason. While he was VERY deferential and responsive, and like Florentina always picked up his phone and always followed through on everything we asked, we really had trouble thinking of things for him to do for us (maybe we're just rubes who don't understand the concept of a butler!). For us, his most appreciated service was being able to get food/treats delivered that weren't on the regular room service menus. It was a little awkward each time we interacted with him, though. We had read some posts about tipping, and decided to would tip him on the last day, pretty generously, for his service all week, but at every interaction there were these pauses and we couldn't tell if he was expecting a tip each time he came to the room. Maybe that wasn't it, maybe it was just his (very) quiet deferential way.. we admit to never really figuring the guy out.
Everyone on these boards is right about the NCL muster drill. They don't make more of it than they need to: Here's where the life jackets are, here's where to go if there's an emergency. It's not rocket science, and can be thorough without being long.
We ate in the Grand Pacific that first night and found it to be delicious and very well prepared and the service very attentive. We had read reviews to the contrary and after our excellent meal there (braised lamb shank and salmon) we were scratching our head. The room itself is textbook cruise-ship "grand" dining room. A very attractive and elegant space.
We had two at-sea days and found the Spinnaker lounge an awesome place to hang out. Big picture windows all around, lots of very comfy "mod" chairs and couches, bar service and never a lot of people. They had bingo there, and some dance classes, but in those comfy chairs it is easy to tune it all out. We took refuge there throughout the whole cruise just to unwind, play games, read or nap.
We also bought the "romance package" which came with a number of perks. A bottle of sparkling wine (which for non-"real"-champagne was pretty tasty), a "champagne and cake" party, with a free portrait (that was up in the Star Bar, and was a nice little get-together.. the cake was delicious and there was no shortage of that sparkling wine flowing), canapEs delivered one day (although daily canapEs already came with the suite, delivered by our butler, all of which were very good). It also came with dinner for two at Le Bistro with a complementary bottle of wine. Unlike the sparkling wine, which was probably inexpensive but pleasant-tasting, the complementary wine at Le Bistro was Tisdale Merlot, which is pretty bottom-shelf. Our local grocery store sells it for $3 a bottle. A little ridiculous when your waiter is doing the whole present-the-cork-taste-a-little-bit rigmarole with wine that costs less than Thunderbird. Not to be a wine snob, but the point is that food at Le Bistro is not bottom-shelf. If I was ordering Le Bistro-quality food ashore, I would not order wine like that to go with it. If they need to raise the price of the Romance Package and include a better wine, they should. Still, we thought the package was a good value.
We also went up to the spa to get a couples pass (Florentina offered to do this for us, but we were up there anyway because they were giving tours). A very nice woman took us all around, including pointing out the 'individual' whirlpool tubs in the locker rooms (two in each), which looked very inviting. During the week, though, one of the ones in the male locker room was not working, and a few days later the other one stopped working. The ones in the female locker room did not work, we were told when we complained about it, "from day one". Yes, machines break. But there should be people aboard who can fix them. They offered us dinner for two at Cagney's with a complimentary bottle of wine, which we thought was a very generous accommodation. The dinner was excellent, and the 'complimentary' wine list had better wine on it than the plonk they included in the "romance package".
As for the other "specialty" restaurants.. We ate at Teppanyaki, where the amount of food was impressive. We could barely eat it all. Two of us at the table ordered the filet and shrimp combo and the chef put three big filets on the grill. You do the math. Orchid Garden was very good also, as was Le Bistro (we ate two dinners there. Really solid 'French Restaurant' staples.. Coq Au Vin, Coquilles St Jacques, etc) but we really went bonkers for the chocolate fondue dessert (after having it in Le Bistro, we had Jason bring it in our suite a couple times!) If you order it, ask for some ice cream on the side for the leftover melted chocolate.
Our first port was San Juan. We did not arrange anything to do there, just thought we'd poke around Old San Juan, where we'd been on a previous cruise. We popped into Raices for a snack (fried cheese and some mahi-mahi ceviche) and a couple drinks. We were looking for a place to get some wifi, and tried Starbucks, where they handed us a card that said they had it, but there was a good chance it wouldn't work for us. Not helpful. We couldn't get connected. We actually found some wifi just walking down the road, some leaking signal from just a random building. In most of the other ports, there were places that advertised wifi as a way to bring people in. We didn't see any of this in Old San Juan, which is really odd considering the number of cafes and restaurants and shops around vying for cruise passenger attention, and the fact that it's really still the US and pretty affluent by Caribbean island standards. The bathrooms in the ferry terminal next to the cruise pier are abysmally disgusting- do not even think about it. There's a CVS pharmacy right across from the cruise pier where you can buy sodas you can bring on board, and all sorts of other things you might have forgotten to bring. We also stopped at La Bombanera for some of their excellent powdered-sugar covered pastries and strong coffee. Back on board, we had a bite at Blue Lagoon. Wanted to try the chicken wings everyone raves about. The wings are certainly good, maybe even very good, but not as mind-blowingly over-the-top good as some have said. We stopped at the tapas bar many of the days in the afternoon for their "Margarita Madness"- discounted margaritas of several different varieties in a good perch overlooking the atrium. Speaking of Margaritas, we went to a "Margarita Clinic" one day in the Star Bar, where for $15 a person, you got six different margarita variations. We only paid one $15 and shared the drinks, for fear of needing to be wheeled out afterwards on stretchers. Still, it was a fun event and we actually learned quite a bit. Thanks to our Cruise Critic friends for putting this together! Oh yeah, and speaking of Cruise Critic-organized events, we had a nifty little tour of the bridge one day, and the Captain was there to meet us all and answer our questions and make sure none of us pushed any buttons.
St Thomas was our second port. The last time we were there, we did an active excursion (sailing out to snorkel among sea turtles) and this time we went in the other direction- a relaxing beach/resort day. We plan to get all-inclusive day passes at Sugar Bay Resort (formerly the Wyndham Sugar Bay). For $85 you get everything- use of the facilities- their beach and nice pool and all you can eat and drink. The property is very beautiful and relaxing and it was fun to see the big iguanas slinking about as if they own the place. There was something of a delay getting there, as the cabs at the pier are big open-air vehicles and the drivers don't want to leave until they've filled up a cab. Some people said they would walk into town away from the pier to try to get regular small cabs. Considering the hot walk away from the pier area, though, we don't know if they did ultimately did any better than us. The wait to leave wasn't so bad, really. Maybe 15 minutes. We had some spare moments at the end of the day to stop for a drink at Senior Frogs at the pier. It was clear there were plenty of folks there who'd spent their whole day there. Very boozy and lively. You sort of know when you walk in what to expect. Still, the rum concoctions we had there were cold and tasty, and the manager even comped them for us because he thought we'd waited too long to be served. So even at a place like that (complete with a scary-looking brackish pool out front) they maintain a respectable level of service. That night we ate at Magenta. We had no problem with the food, but we found the space a little weird. It has odd twists and turns and feels cramped. The service was good, and again, the food was tasty (steak- good but not as good as the big slab we experienced at Cagney's later in the week- and chicken kebabs), but we decided we liked the expansive feel of the Grand Pacific over the "intimate" atmosphere of Magenta.
Our next stop was Antigua, where we went into town alone in the morning for a planned excursion- Paddles Kayak and Snorkel. We kayaked around the mangroves, where our guide kept reaching in the water to pull out interesting things to show us, hiked a hill to an awesome view, snorkeled around a reef and relaxed on a beach. That was a great half day, and Jenny La Barrie really thinks of everything. In the afternoon, we poked around the shops by the pier and grabbed a bite to eat (decadent chocolate rum cake) and a cold drink (at a place that advertised wifi.. are you listening San Juan???). We again went to the Blue Lagoon for a bite later, where something happened we found odd. They had an item on the menu that was something like chicken tenders with biscuits on the side. Mrs wasn't so hungry and asked if she could just have a biscuit. For a reason we still can't understand, the waiter, very politely, told us we couldn't get them (although he did offer, and did go get, some wheat toast for her, which was not on the menu). We wondered if we could have ordered only the chicken without the biscuits! Should we have ordered the whole plate and just left the chicken untouched?
We arrived in St Maarten the next morning, and found our excursion- the NCL "Orient Beach Rendezvous". It was an informative guided bus ride to the beach, and the trip included a drink on arrival at the beach, a great lunch at the beach restaurant with a drink, and beach chairs. The umbrellas were a few dollars extra (we shared one and it was fine). It was top-optional where we were, and there were a number of ladies there who opted "no". The "nude" portion of the beach was further down and we didn't feel the need to walk down to see how horrifying that was. We had time after we got back to explore the beach on the Dutch side (again, lots of places advertising wifi), and do a little shopping by the pier.
Our last stop was Tortola, where we booked the NCL excursion 'Virgin Gorda Highlights', which left right from the cruise pier on a ferry boat. The ride there was about a half hour and the swimming and cave exploring at Virgin Gorda were phenomenal- an incredible spot! There's a nice restaurant/bar at the top where we grabbed some cold drinks before heading back to the pier to get the ferry back to the boat. We were only there for half a day, but felt like we got a good day of adventure there.
Overall, we were VERY impressed with the way the NCL cruise staff, including CD "Big Ken" and Steve the hotel director, would be out on the pier welcoming guests back on board. Staff with cold towels and cold water were also a great touch. It was particularly noticeable when we were in port alongside a Carnival ship which had.. well, nobody on the pier to greet guests. This costs the cruise line very little in comparison to the great impression it makes!
On board entertainment: first thing we noticed was that no show was more than one hour. Seems we've been to very lengthy shows on other lines and we walked out of them because we got bored. Better, and this is probably the idea, to leave 'em wanting more than boring them with an overlong production. We saw the 70's musical revue, which was really good- brought back a lot of our favorite hits, including TV show themes. Dolores Park (or was it Parker, Big Ken?) sang very well and had amusing patter and wisecracks with the audience. To call it schlocky would be a vast understatement. In a way, it's like she was doing a spoof.. so campy you could be forgiven for thinking you were at a drag show. But it was entertaining- especially the second time we saw her toward the end of the cruise when she got really punchy with the crowd and was quite funny. We also saw comedian Dave Nestor, who after saying "not to make potty humor...", proceeded to dish some very funny potty humor. But that wasn't his only shtick. He had some good observational stuff about cruise ship passengers. The Second City "improv" show was only OK. A few good yuks, but mostly predictable, sometimes painfully lame. The bit about boy-vs-girl Pictionary was very funny, though. This is the opposite of some of the posts we've read (who loved 2nd City but not Dave Nestor). The crew did a hilarious bit at the end of the farewell variety show called "Fountain", which I won't give away, but was silly fun from start to finish. One of the last 'entertainment' events we went to was the "White Hot Party" up in the Spinnaker which, in our mid 40s we might have thought we would be too old for. Not at all the case- there were people there of all ages whooping it up and shaking it on the floor- including us. It was a crazy scene and lots of fun.
To sum it all up, we went from being wary of "the freestyle thing" to booking our next cruise on the Breakaway. You could say the Gem made that good of an impression on us! We loved our experience on the ship, and the service we got from the crew and staff. Our complaints, what few there were, were minor in nature, and were far less than the 'bumps in the road' you'd experience on any other 11 days away from home. And the things that impressed us, and there were so many, REALLY impressed us. Truly, we felt like we had a vacation during which nothing went wrong. Thanks to NCL for a great getaway!