To begin, I'll offer a disclaimer. I'm generally not a great fan of Freestyle Cruising. I really prefer a more traditional style of cruising, but I live in New York City and was willing to go along with the Freestyle program ... Read More
To begin, I'll offer a disclaimer. I'm generally not a great fan of Freestyle Cruising. I really prefer a more traditional style of cruising, but I live in New York City and was willing to go along with the Freestyle program because of the opportunity to leave from Manhattan and avoid flying during the busy holiday season. This was a very full cruise; the capacity of Norwegian Gem at two passengers per cabin is about 2,400. There were about 3,000 passengers on board, but the Gem's staff did a very good job keeping people moving around the ship. There were only a few isolated situations where the ship felt crowded.
We had a party of three: my wife, my 16 year old son, and myself. We have cruised a fair amount, with 20, 18, and 19 cruises, respectively, on six lines. This was our third cruise on NCL.
Embarkation was relatively easy; since the cruise departed on Christmas day, we weren't anxious to get to the pier and on the ship at the earliest possible minute. We had intended to leave the house about noon, but ended up leaving 30 minutes later and arrived at the terminal a little after 2:00 pm. As is usually the case at this terminal, the check in process was relatively efficient and without any major incident. We received our cruise cards and proceeded to the gangway with bags in tow, ducking around the embarkation photo as we usually do. We travel light, so we did not check bags and had everything with us in carry-on bags and backpacks.
After having our cruise cards scanned at the ship, we were greeted by bar waiters with embarkation drinks for sale. Now, on some lines, one may receive a complimentary flute of sparkling wine (definitely not Champagne), but on NCL the embarkation drinks are for sale. Some reviewers of NCL cruises have a problem with this and at this point bitterly complain that they are being "nickled and dimed." The reality is that on all but a few lines, drinks are available only at additional cost. If you don't want to buy a drink, use the three magic words, "no, thank you," and the waiters will move on to the next guest. In fact, while I'm on the subject, a little more use of "please" and "thank you" on the part of some passengers would go a long way.
We had a category G obstructed oceanview aft cabin on Deck 8. The room was accessible for persons with disabilities, and the bathroom was somewhat less claustrophobic than the standard cruise ship bathroom. The cabins on board seem to be fairly standard ones - colorful, with lots of fake woodgrain. We had a queen bed with a single bunk that folded down for our son, with a small desk, flatscreen tv, and minibar/fridge. The view out of the cabin's picture window was over a lifeboat tucked into the side of the ship, but it still provided a good view of the scenery in port and while underway. One plus with this cabin was that it was extremely conveniently located to restaurants, public areas, and bars. We've cruised in inside, oceanview, and balcony cabins, depending on cost and itinerary; on this trip this cabin worked for us.
One feature of NCL is a large number of specialty restaurants that require payment of a cover charge, as well as several options that do not have an additional charge. We did not eat in any of the specialty restaurants, and I won't comment on them, but we ate in the outdoor casual restaurants (Great Outdoors and Grill), the Blue Lagoon indoor casual dining restaurant, the Garden Cafe, and the main dining restaurants (Grand Pacific and Magenta). The food was not life changing, but it was good, on about the level of the restaurants in a business hotel like Radisson, Hilton, or Marriott. Appetizers and entrees were generally better than deserts, and there was no real "signature" desert as is true with some lines.
I have seen some reviews of the Gem that describe the food as "inedible" and "disgusting," and that certainly wasn't our experience. Other reviewers have said that the food is the same at every meal and there was nothing available that was worth eating (except at the sainted specialty restaurants that come at an additional cost); we did not find this to be true. I am not sure where the authors of these negative reviews are eating, but I'd be surprised if they have better food at home. It is true that NCL has a core of dishes that are available every day, but there are other options in the non-specialty restaurants that change from day to day. The exception is the Blue Lagoon, which is open 24 hours and serves breakfast and non-breakfast menus that do not change from day to day
Freestyle cruising is not the same as traditional cruising where one eats at the same time at in the same room at the same table with the same waiters. I personally like having our waiters get to know our preferences and getting a chance to talk with them and learn something about them as well. We generally give our waiters a gratuity in addition to the recommended amount, but that really doesn't work with the freestyle concept and different waiters every day. Also, the maitre 'd's didn't seem to be as involved in dealing with the passengers as on other lines, but this may be by design.
We did notice that NCL did seem to be making some efforts to make the specialty restaurants a more special experience. There was not, for example, a traditional "lobster night", and the staffing in the main dining (i.e.: free) restaurants appeared to be somewhat tight, although the high occupancy on the cruise may have had something to do with this. There was sushi at the Garden Cafe as well as the specialty restaurant, but the Garden Cafe sushi was vegetarian, without seafood. While some dishes were available only at the specialty restaurants, many items on the specialty restaurant menus were available at the main dining restaurants or the Garden Cafe. Many of these dishes were a real treat; the Indian items that I sampled from the Garden Cafe were uniformly excellent.
The parts of the production shows that I saw were fairly standard and just so-so. My DW attended a cabaret style show with the production singers and thought that they were in some cases very talented and comparing favorably with Broadway and Off-Broadway performers. The featured performers (juggler Barry John, singer Lumiri Tubo, and comedian Rod Long) were all good. The ship has a resident Second City troupe, but I'll just say that I've seen better and leave it at that. The ship's orchestra was, as is usual on ships, excellent. The musicians who performed at smaller venues around the ship were generally very good; we particularly enjoyed a guitarist named Leo Jostol. We found the most enjoyable entertainment was generally the events and shows organized by the Cruise Director's staff. The crew show was the best of its kind that I've seen and was very funny.
Okay, it was cold. When we got to Port Canaveral on Monday (third day out) the temperature was in the 50's, and that was once it warmed up. As every cruise line, NCL wants to sell you their shore excursions, but they were at least honest about what is available through their excursion desk and otherwise. We attended the shore excursion presentation where we were told that the Disney Magic Kingdom might reach capacity and be closed to additional guests before NCL could get you there and that passengers might consider another option. While the ship's excursions weren't the lowest cost option, they appeared to be fairly priced.
The ship also set up an easel with port information for Port Canaveral, including taxis and non-NCL shuttles, which is different from some ships where the prevailing attitude is that the only way to get off the ship is through the official excursions. By the way, there were a number of shuttles to Cocoa Beach at Port Canaveral, including a free one sponsored by a local bar and surf shop. We used it to and from the beach area, and went from there to Cocoa Village for some shopping; this worked out well as we weren't up for the Orlando attractions and heard that the Kennedy Space Center was a zoo.
NCL's private island, Grand Stirrup Cay would have provided a nice beach day if the temperature had made it over 70 degrees. There was a barbecue and activities like volleyball, and we had a good time hiking down to the end of the island, but the weather wasn't ideal for the beach, to put it mildly.
The range of activities in Nassau, likewise, was impacted by weather. The afternoon temperature wasn't much over 70, and we stayed away from the beaches. We did a little sightseeing and shopping in town, but not much else. Again, there are abundant options either through the ship's shore excursion desk or off the dock.
Services and Shopping
The on-board shopping was serviceable but not great, with the standard duty-free liquor, jewelry, t shirts, clothing, and souvenirs. There weren't as many rotating sales and specials as we've noticed on other lines. Other reviews have mentioned feeling pressured to spend money, but we didn't find this to be the case. I didn't feel that there were more announcements promoting on-board sales than is the case on other cruise lines, as some reviewers have claimed. I did attend the art auctions twice and thought they were rather slow paced and left to do something else.
I don't think that you can say that these guys don't care about the quality of the experience on the ship. I've never been on a ship where the department heads were as much in evidence. Steven Jacobson, the hotel director seemed to be everywhere and we spoke with him on several occasions. At one point I saw Vaughn, the Executive Chef, working with a group setting up a deck barbecue. Rob Sugar, the Cruise Director, put something of a different spin on the CD role, but was visible around the ship and very approachable. Rob Sugar and Steven Jacobson were out in the cold on our arrival back in New York on New Year's Day sending the passengers off.
I'd give the cruise a four out of five. It wasn't perfect but in general the staff appeared to be making a legitimate effort to make the passengers' experience a good one. NCL doesn't control the weather and there were some elements of the cruise that don't fit into my vision of an ideal cruise. For what NCL is seeking to do, the Gem seems to do fairly successfully. Read Less