Having spent 10 days in Portugal and Spain travelling via myriad forms - air, train, bus, car, subway, and tram - we were anxious for the biggest journey of our trip, nine days aboard the newest cruise ship on the seas, the Norwegian Gem.
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This was our first sailing with Norwegian Cruise Lines, and though we'd read and heard a variety of reviews on NCL's product, the attraction for this sailing was its price - a bargain on an aft balcony cabin - as well as the logistics, nine days from Barcelona to Boston with one stop in Madeira.
A bit of background about us - working couple in mid-30s from Ottawa, having cruised together previously on Celebrity (three times), Oceania, and Princess; and two more for myself on Royal Caribbean and Carnival. We generally opt for an inside cabin, spending the difference on other out-of-pocket expenses and on future cruises. Once previously we had splurged for a balcony on a last-minute special, and when we saw this sailing on sale at an unbelievably low price, it was an offer we couldn't refuse. We are not cruising 'traditionalists' in that flexible dining and informal dress code appeal greatly to us, and we are fine with paying extra for some meals at 'specialty' venues where warranted. Nor are we purely cruise devotees, as we tend to mix it up between land and sea. Our previous two vacations this year had been on land - one in the summer at an all-inclusive resort in Cuba, the other being 10 days in Europe late last winter. And even when we cruise, we prefer to have some land time before or after sailing.
Our time in Lisbon and Barcelona had been outstanding, both in seeing and experiencing sights and cultures as well as eating and drinking. And our success with travel weather had continued, with sunny skies following us across the Iberian Peninsula through sail-away.
Coming over the bridge at the port of Barcelona, then, brought with it great anticipation. Ironically, we saw two ships - the first, Celebrity's Century, being the ship on which we'd sailed previously a year ago - and the other of course being the Gem. She was sparkling new, pun intended, with a paint job that featured NCL's creative use of hull art. Check-in procedures went very smoothly, and by one o'clock we were crossing the gangway and entering Gem's centerpiece, the Crystal Atrium.
A ship leaves us her first impression in a matter of seconds, perhaps a few minutes at most. The initial feeling we got from the Gem was a bit like Las Vegas - not the old, tacky Vegas, but the new, classy Vegas, still over the top but excitingly comfortable. The Crystal Atrium is vibrant in its funky pastel colours and hip feel, with (literally) over-the-top parts including a Dale Chihuly glass piece as well as the two-story giant LED screen, one of the largest in the world.
One flight up and a walk towards the aft, and we were soon at our home away from home for the next nine days, our aft balcony stateroom. The cabin was shiny and clean, and very bright basking in the Mediterranean sun. We found the room to be functional at a 9 out of 10, with adequate storage space and beds high enough to fit our luggage underneath. The bedding itself was very comfortable for us, and both the layout of the sitting area as well as the bathroom (with separate areas for shower and toilet) worked quite well. Our balcony was large enough to accommodate two sitting chairs as well as two sun loungers (which were brought later that day as per our request), and was a blessing as we used it throughout the journey given the marvelous weather en route.
The only complaint we had regarding the cabin, and we heard this echoed by other passengers, was regarding the lighting. The bedside lights were dim and the ceiling lighting inadequate, making reading at night anywhere in the cabin (other than in the 'conference room' as it were) uncomfortable - the lighting reminded us of our cabin on the Queen Mary (not the QM2 but the original which is now a hotel in California). This was not as much of a factor given the size of our room plus balcony, but during a cabin tour we did see an inside cabin which, with similarly dim lighting but a smaller square footage and a real 'dorm' or 'cell' feel to it, makes us consider future bookings on Gem and sister/cousin ships at minimum in a balcony cabin. Not to appear a snob here - we've always been content sailing on inside cabins and will gladly do so other lines, particularly Celebrity and Oceania whose inside cabins we've found to be more than adequate.
That digression aside, we very much enjoyed our cabin on the Gem, with a great service team of MadE (from Bali) and Jonald (from the Philippines) - room always clean, ice bucket always full, loungers delivered straight away, and the guys always smiling and asking if we needed anything. Having put away our gear - and, this is the best feeling, put away all our valuables including wallets, credit cards, etc into the safe, knowing we could live on our cruise card for the next nine days - we headed off where else but to eat.
* PART II - WE CAME, WE ATE, WE SAW *
It was as if we had gone without for the previous 10 days, which of course was anything but true; we'd eaten very well actually and knew we'd miss our sweet and savoury pastries from Portugal and tapas from Spain. We checked the menu at Grand Pacific, one of two main dining rooms, but instead opted for the buffet. Previous experiences with mass market cruise lines had taught us that buffets can be hit and miss - Princess and Celebrity in particular have their high points as well as their pitfalls. Our first impressions of the Garden Cafe, Gem's buffet, were very positive. The layout was attractive, with foods arranged by type and ethnicity around various stations. There was no platter, as Princess and Royal Caribbean give, nor were there trays to be found - rather, one simply takes a plate, requiring a second (or third!) trip if necessary but also reducing waste. Silverware is found at the tables, rolled neatly in white cloth napkins. A waitress carried Jen's food to our table and offered to get drinks for us both, all with a smile. Nice points. Lunch itself, though, is what really scored for NCL. The rotisserie chicken, fresh out of the oven and chopped to order, was moist, well seasoned, and some of the best we'd ever had - and this was offered daily. The Indian and Asian selections were impressive, offered daily with variety from one meal to the next, and I especially enjoyed the palak paneer and the made-to-order 'hawker' soup. The burgers looked appetizing and the pasta station jumping (enjoyed these later in the cruise), and the staff were serving up everything with a smile, which made us feel glad to be onboard. The desserts, though a bit lacking in chocolate offerings according to Jen, were tasty, and - and this was a major plus for me - several machines are available brewing espresso, cappuccinos, and lattes, both regular and decaf. We'd only seen this on Oceania previously, so kudos to NCL.
With a good meal and good vibes now in us, we settled into that 'cruise mode' and began to explore the ship.
Directly below our cabin, but not a noise issue at all, was the Bliss Ultra Lounge. A mElange of red and black velvet, complete with four bowling lanes and a plethora of plasma screens playing sexy and scintillating videos (I'll thank you for indulging me the alliteration just this once), Bliss is another of this ship's unique selling points. Bowling and social venue by day, Bliss turns into a high energy dance club in the evenings, especially transatlantic evenings with no port the next day. It was here that we had the Cruise Critic bowling tournament, and it's nice to be able to blame a gutter-ball on the movement of the ship. Though, truth be told, we didn't encounter that much movement. This was our first transatlantic, and we'd certainly read and heard tales of how rough the seas can get, but as other reports here have indicated our crossing was very smooth indeed, not unlike most days we've spent on the Caribbean.
Coming out of the dark Bliss, one's eyes are met with a barrage of colours and patterns as the corridors to the Crystal Atrium pass through the art and photo galleries. The carpets and ceilings feature a host of pastels and creative patterns, and change artfully from venue to venue to give the effect of distinctive spaces. Back to the Atrium itself, we did not find it overly garish, though depending on what was playing on the LED screen, the entire area (including Tequila and the Blue Lagoon, the eating areas above the lobby) could take on hues of purple, magenta, sometimes even green.
Deck 7 starboard leads to another atrium, this being above Bar City and surrounded by Orchid Garden, the Sushi & Sake Bars, and Teppanyaki. For our first dinner, with 2-for-1 coupons in hand, we opted for Orchid Garden (normally $10 per person), and were treated to an excellent surprise. We could have dined on the appetizers alone, particularly the Peking Duck Crepes, of which we ordered more and our next time here Jen had three orders (served in sushi-roll holders); the assorted dim sum, crunchy pork salad, Chinese chicken salad, and Tom Yum Koong (Thai prawn soup) were all notable. A mild Pad Thai and effective Singapore Noodles were both nice, and the beef in black bean sauce served in a spring roll basket was creatively done. The "best dessert on the ship" as many of the Orchid staff say (and perhaps the Captain would agree?) is the frozen pineapple soufflE, a bit like biting into an ice cream cake but oh so light and refreshing. The lychee saketinis are addictive, too!
At Orchid that first night, we noticed many senior officers and staff coming through the dining room, not only to eat here but to see how the service was going. Radmila, Gem's highly capable Restaurant Manager, came by our table to ask how everything was. "Wonderful," was our mouth-full answer, and we meant it. Perhaps this was a first night thing, to set the tone for the cruise? That alone would have been impressive. And yet, even better, this was the case for the entire journey. We frequently saw Radmila, F&B Director Sean, Hotel Director (the venerable) Klaus Lugmaier, Captain Mikael Hilden and many others out and about, highly visible to both staff and guests and making sure that standards were being maintained. We chatted with Captain Hilden several times, most memorably at Orchid about how we were Celebrity regulars but were "pleasantly surprised" by this NCL experience and that he and his team had "exceeded expectations" in nearly every area. The Captain smiled, and in that dry sense of humour, said with a wink, "what's Celebrity?" Indeed, this cruise reminded us of the first one we took together, a tremendous experience aboard Celebrity's Constellation, when the captain and his team set the tone early and often and everything seemed to be 'clicking.' It can happen anywhere, it turns out, and not just at sea. This is an example of how to provide a superior product and 'wow' the customer - we heard these observations echoed by many on this sailing, both from NCL fans as well as first-timers who'd come in hearing mixed reviews. More on this later.
A GREAT SURPRISE
One level down from Orchid is Bar City. The atrium area is a lounge at night, but by day hosts art auctions and seminars. This is where another of our great experiences occurred. On our first full day at sea, I'd seen a familiar-looking woman walk out of the Spinnaker Lounge, and commented later to Jen about this. The woman had looked like Nancy, one of our tablemates from our last cruise on Century, with whom we'd gotten along great and spent much time together. It would have made sense, as she and her husband were from New Hampshire, and this ship heading to Boston was full of New Englanders. "I was probably wrong," I'd commented at the time, attributing it to the fact that I'd just been thinking about Terry and Nancy earlier that day. "Well, we'll probably never know," Jen said, "with two thousand passengers on the ship, what are the odds of seeing her again?" Lo and behold, an hour later we went down to the art seminar on Salvador Dali, whose museum we'd visited in Figueres the day before the cruise, and who should be walking in front of our seats but the same woman. "That's who I was talking about," I mentioned to Jen, who didn't miss a beat and immediately yelled "Nancy!" And so it was, and what a great surprise! We chatted after the seminar, and made plans for dinner at Tequila the next evening as they'd had a great Mexican meal the first night - and Nancy said she'd keep it a surprise for Terry, saying she'd met 'some nice people' and made dinner plans. "Well I'll be!" Terry said as Jen and I approached the table the next evening. It was great to see them both, and we'd spend more time together on this cruise as well.
Back to Bar City, then, which holds the champagne bar, martini bar, whisky bar, and cigar lounge - all tastefully done, with the 'Maltings' whisky bar perhaps being our favourite, with its dEcor inspired by the lobby bar at the Mandarin Oriental in London. The framed picture of Che Guevara in the cigar bar (along with those of Churchill, Schwarzenegger, and other aficionados) was an ironic touch. Though admittedly, I didn't have a cigar here the entire cruise - with an aft balcony I enjoyed my Habanos every day alfresco.
Next to the cigar lounge is the entrance to Le Bistro, Gem's French restaurant about which the word on the street, as it were, was very positive. At the lunch buffet our first day, we'd met a waiter from Le Bistro named Allan, whom is well known to some on these boards. We got to talking about the Philippines, and it turns out that Allan went to the same university in Manila as did Jen's mother - small world. So with Allan's encouragement, we made reservations for our second night to dine at Le Bistro. I only have two regrets about this evening - the timing, maybe we'd 'overindulged' on food a bit leading up to it; and the table, a two-seater placed just outside the kitchen doors, one I should have passed on but didn't - well the room was quite full, with many taking advantage of the 2-for-1 special prior to 6:30. Anyway, no harm done, we had a lovely time at Le Bistro. The lobster and scallop martini was a nice appetizer, not too heavy, and the watercress veloutE with frog legs (thank you, Allan) was a treat. I enjoyed the duck a l'orange, not the very best I'd ever had but enjoyable - and Jen went with Allan's suggestion and had the braised short rib and grilled beef tenderloin that was done just right in a port wine reduction. Being at a French restaurant, I had to go for the cheese course, and was pleased with the selection along with a glass of tawny port (different from the experience we'd had at the Port Wine Institute in Lisbon, but equally nice). We had heard about the off-the-menu chocolate fondue, and Jen savored this delight for nearly half an hour, requesting extra bananas ("yes ma'am, anything is possible") in the process. Had it been a longer cruise, we probably would have made a return visit to Le Bistro, but nine nights barely gave us an opportunity to try every venue aboard.
WORKING IT OFF
Just so that you don't think we spent the entire nine days eating, I'll wrap up this section of the review with a couple of areas where good exercise can be had. First off, the fitness centre, one of the best we've seen at sea, with new equipment and plenty of it. But that's inside, and one of the best aspects of cruising, at least for us, is being outside and connecting with the ocean. Despite its size (93,000 tons, which is pretty much 'midsize' these days) and its vast array of indoor offerings, Gem has plenty of places to experience a sea day the right way. The deck space up top is plentiful, with adequate seating around the pools as well as on the upper decks. A rock climbing wall and full-size tennis court add to the activity, and are complemented by a jogging track, two practice golf tees with nets, the de rigueur shuffleboard, and two giant chess boards with life-sized pieces. Perhaps the best part for me, though, is the full wraparound promenade deck, something that isn't seen as much on new ships (Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, take note). Though the decorative 'hull art' can be a bit much for some, we nonetheless always find a stroll around the promenade deck extremely relaxing. The waves crashing against the bow, the sea air and the rich colour of the ocean, just being able to walk laps around the deck and soak it all in - for us this is unparalleled. When not our on our balcony we enjoyed sitting in the sun on the Promenade Deck as well, including one cooler day wrapped in a blanket, reading a book, unwinding in the middle of the Atlantic.
* Part III - LIFE AT SEA *
Mad Mariners! That was the name of the Cruise Critic group for this sailing… Mad Mariners II, to be precise. Jen and I weren't fortunate enough to have been part of the original Mad Mariners transatlantic on the Pearl last year, but of course had read and heard much about their adventures. The online roll-call was quite active leading up to the cruise, and many activities were planned for the time we'd have at sea. Please forgive me in advance for leaving out some names, but we'd like to thank those who went out of their way to organize this group and make a great cruise even better: Barb, Jim, Petra, Phil et al - your work is much appreciated. And of course we were aided a great deal by Gem crew such as Connie, the Group Services Coordinator, and others who took note of the CC folks and really went above and beyond. An early impression came at the Meet & Greet, where lines such as Celebrity or ROYAL CARIBBEAN often send the cruise director (or an assistant) - NCL sent an entire lineup of senior crew and staff, from Captain Hilden to HD Klaus Lugmaier, Radmila, Prem, Sean, Clint, and the gang. They thanked us for our keen interest in cruising and in NCL, and took a number of questions from a group that ended up at around 70 pax or so, enough to warrant having the venue upgraded to the Magenta dining room. As said earlier in this (now loooooong) review, the tone was set early and often by Gem's leadership team, and we can only thank them once again for one of the best holidays we've ever had.
Mad Mariner activity number two was Teppanyaki. For my twelfth birthday my parents told me we were going to a Japanese steakhouse - I couldn't quite get my head around this one, and imagined trying to eat a T-bone with chopsticks. Well it turned out to be quite the show as well as a decent meal, and we'd go back every so often, though it became less of a novelty once I'd lived in Japan and then in California. Now I hadn't been to one of these in over a decade, the last one being a Benihana in LA maybe 15+ years ago. Jen, on the other hand, had never been, so when a group dinner was organized, we were in. And again the food, service and entertainment did not disappoint, especially on a day when we'd see a matinee magic performance and the feature show being juggler Romano Frediani. I went for my usual "surf and turf action" with the tenderloin (tender indeed) and shrimp, while Jen had the lobster and scallops. The garlic fried rice is something we try to replicate at home, and this held its own against the best I'd ever had (at the Tokyo Hilton). Chef Pony put on an amusing show as well, juggling and chopping while an audience gathered at the window behind us, not to mention at one point doing some real magic by holding up the lens cap of our camera, which I'd dropped and had rolled somewhere under the table (and bless the waitress who came over with a flashlight and took our room number in case it would turn up later). At the $20 price point (a bit odd considering the same price gets you Le Bistro or Cagney's, while Orchid is only $10), this was a once-a-cruise event, but with the CC group we had an outstanding time - good food, good show, great conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT & ACTIVITIES
I mentioned the shows. Earlier that day we'd seen magician Duck Cameron, who puts on an energetic illusion show with some audience participation, the highlights being the 'levitation' scene and the Houdini suspended straightjacket act. Duck would do an encore performance as well as a magic workshop later in the sailing. We'd also enjoyed Douglas Starks, who was featured in the Stardust Theatre one night doing impressions of Sammy Davis Jr., and another evening at the Spinnaker Lounge in a funny if slightly blue standup act. And as mentioned, after Teppanyaki we went to see juggler Romano Frediani - his show started off slowly, as we'd been advised by fellow CC Mike & Wendy, but was worth the wait as it picked up energy to a fun closing thanks to his high-energy interacting with the audience. The three production shows were each worthwhile in their own right: "World Beat" featured a variety of numbers inspired by different countries and cultures; "Get Down Tonight" had grooving '70s tunes that had some folks dancing in the aisles; and "Colors" was a creative mix of songs with themes or titles in the spectrum, from "Little Red Corvette" and "Pink Cadillac" to "Devil in a Blue Dress".
Our favorite component of the entertainment, however, would have to be the Second City. The famed improv from Chicago & Toronto has its troupes aboard several NCL vessels, and the one aboard Gem was great. They did a show in the main theatre and two more performances in the Spinnaker lounge, and the audience enjoyed a rollicking time in all three. Additionally, Second City put on two improv workshops, and rather than doing a dry Q&A about what it's like to be in improv, they made it a hands-on class. So we had the chance to walk onto the stage, embarrass ourselves in fun exercises, and get a real feel for what these professionals do, or at least where they started. It was this type of enriching activity that made this transatlantic crossing for us anything but boring.
We also enjoyed a few lectures by Melvyn Foster, a maritime historian who's taken over fifty crossings and spoke about the early days of this voyage (think 3-6 months on a wooden sail ship, sleeping on the floor, being seasick half the time, and having near 50-50 odds of not even making it to final destination thanks to disease). Coming home and having to give a speech to my Toastmasters club, I borrowed a bit from Mr. Foster's presentation, juxtaposing what it used to be like to cross the Atlantic with how we're spoiled today. And rounding out this section we'd have to include the information session held by the captain, chief engineer, and staff. Captain Hilden and Freddy Hansen were like Abbott & Costello up on the stage of the main showroom, giving a rundown of what it takes to operate the Norwegian Gem. Some of the numbers presented at this session were staggering: those who've cruised will probably have seen the 'shopping list' of food for a week onboard, such as 22,000 pounds of vegetables, 12,000 pounds of beef, 500 gallons of ice cream, etc. And, along with some behind the scenes photos and talks, these were presented, but what really got some 'aaahs' from the audience were the facts about the ship: 28,000 light bulbs, 825 miles of electric cable and 65 miles of pipe, and a capacity of 660,000 gallons of fuel (consuming nearly 53,000 gallons of fuel per day). But these are available on a fact sheet as well; what made the session was the way it was presented, with a wry humour that makes you pause before chuckling, kind of like 'did that guy just call the captain "old"?'
Leading up to our departure from Ottawa, I'd done a lot of planning, borrowed many books from the library and had a rough idea of what I'd like to ready, study, and absorb in our time at sea. I'm no ashamed to say that I didn't get to very much of it. That wasn't the goal, of course. The great part is that enough was available onboard the Gem that we kept ourselves occupied. Occupied when we wanted to be, that is - other times it was simply enough to relax on deck or on the balcony, enjoying our time at sea.
A benefit of the westbound transatlantic is that you gain an hour most every day. Out of Barcelona we had two days at sea, the first sailing past Mallorca and around the southern coast of Spain, and the second in the Atlantic heading southwest for the island of Madeira. This meant that late in the evening of the first full sea day, we would pass through the Strait of Gibraltar. We'd kept an eye out for land or lights, but saw little until exiting the show for the evening - World Beat, where one of the numbers had been entitled "Africa." Sure enough, off the port side of the ship, the northern tip of Africa was in clear view, well clear for nighttime anyway, with the lights of Morocco's Tangier and Tetouan (and Spanish Ceuta) brightening the sky with the silhouette of mountains in the background. On the starboard side was the rock, Gibraltar, even brighter if slightly further in the distance, with Algeciras and Tarifa around it. We knew that this was a part of the world we'd like to come back to visit on a land trip, but for now we were content to sail through the calm seas, surprising for the Strait actually.
Even once we entered the open Atlantic Ocean, the seas did not pick up much force. Swells and the occasional whitecap were no different that what we'd experienced in the Caribbean, and save for parts of a day later on in the sailing (where the occasional squall saw brief gusts across the bow at about 90 knots), our transatlantic crossing was smooth indeed. Along the way we'd see many a sunset, two of which stand out as some of the most memorable scenes at sea, along with a couple of rainbows, one being a 'double' directly off the aft and enjoyable from our balcony. And as we moved west from Madeira into the heart of the Atlantic, where depths of the ocean floor would reach 5000-6000 meters (down to 19,000 feet), we'd come to appreciate being in the middle of nowhere as even most of the satellite television channels were out of reception (all but Fox News, unfortunately).
I almost put Madeira in a separate travelogue for Portugal, but of course it was very much a part of our cruise. As is our wont, we eschewed the ship's excursions and made arrangements on our own to see a bit of the island, booking through a local firm for the 'west island tour.' A few others from our ship had also made such plans, and several others from the Royal Caribbean ship alongside us. We'd seen Madeira forecasted to get clouds and rain while we'd been in Lisbon, but were treated to another sunny day on this subtropical archipelago some 1000 km southwest of mainland Portugal and 700 km off the coast of Africa (of which it geographically belongs). Sailing at dawn into Funchal, the island's capital and main port, with the sun rising behind us and basking the hillsides, we felt a bit of similarity to Santorini or Saint Thomas, more the former though. The natural ruggedness and beauty of Madeira, however, is more akin to Iceland, Bermuda, or Hawaii, the notion of islands in the middle of an ocean with unique topographical and horticultural features.
After first visiting the seaside town of Câmara de Lobos, with its idyllic cove that Churchill adored and painted various scenes, we ascended through the terraced vineyards towards Cabo Girao. Here rising from the water are the second highest sea cliffs in the world, and at 580 meters (nearly 2000 feet) straight down provide amazing views of Câmara de Lobos, Funchal, the western stretches of coastline, and of course the beaches directly below. Another picturesque seaside town lies past here, Ribeira Brava, and after stopping for 30 minutes or so, we traversed the Encumeada pass and spent a couple of hours on the wilder north coast. This part of the island is breezier and gets a bit less light, but has natural beauty galore - waterfalls, steep hillsides ripe with lush vegetation, and mountains that spill right into the Atlantic producing unrivalled sceneries of cliffs and capes. We ate lunch in town of Port Moniz, a picturesque town at the islands most north-western tip, perched on a small peninsula with lava rocks forming tidal pools and a popular swimming area. Here we lunched on the island's delicacy, the black scabbard fish, one of the ugliest sea creatures you'll ever encounter: long like an eel, black as night, with eyes almost as wide as its body and croc-like rows of teeth - and tasty as hell, a white fish not unlike cod or orange roughy. After walking around the town a bit, including a purchase of local Madeira wine from a mom and pop supermarket where the proprietor invited us to try her homemade ginja liqueur (nice digestive after the meal), our bus quickly ascended a narrow and winding artery, and within minutes we were above the clouds in the highlands of Paúl da Serra. While occasionally having to stop for cows in our way, we were treated to views one would expect from Colorado or British Columbia, but between the clouds beneath was the ocean.
Our day in Madeira was coming to a close as we drove back to Funchal, but we'd gotten a taste of this captivating island and would gladly return in a heartbeat. We were on our aft balcony when the Gem pulled out of the harbour, serenaded by church bells ringing from the slowly fading hillside wishing us a safe journey. For good measure we passed the cliffs at Cabo Girao as the setting sun cast a magnificent reddish hue, an image that would last us across the Atlantic and indeed for a lifetime.
* PART IV - THE GEM IS SHINING… AND DINING *
I mentioned they fed us?
Because God forbid, one should go on a cruise and lose weight. And yet we'd read some reviews by people who'd claimed to have done just that on their NCL cruise. Anyhow we'd eaten well in Portugal (first meal in Lisbon was a juicy steak in a garlic cream sauce, mmmmmm, but that's a different review on its way) and Spain, so we weren't too concerned about the cruise. And as discussed earlier, our first two days aboard Gem hardly left us starving.
GARDEN CAFÉ & GREAT OUTDOORS
On a cruise we usually do our best to make it to the dining room for breakfast, having a relaxing meal in a more refined setting. With the Meet & Greet on the agenda for the first day, however, we opted for the Garden Cafe for a buffet breakfast. Again, Gem's 'action stations' compared very favourably to our Celebrity experiences. Omelets were cooked to order, hash browns and bacon were crispy but not overdone, a nice selection of yogurt and cereal was always available, and both smoked herring (kippers) and salmon (lox) were regular items. Bagel and a shmear, and you can't go wrong. Food at the buffet was consistently served at a proper temperature, and a sufficient variety existed from day to day to keep things fresh. Servers were always on hand to assist with guests' needs, either running down items we were seeking or offering to carry our trays to the table. You can probably tell by now that we made breakfast at the Garden a regular thing - even though many said they'd enjoyed the main dining room or the Blue Lagoon. The only negative was that, at certain peak times (perhaps a 30-45 minute rush at breakfast and another hour during lunch) it was sometimes difficult to find an open table. Four seating areas are actually able to accommodate the buffet meal - the Garden Cafe itself; the Great Outdoors (an open-air eating area at the aft of Deck 12, overlooking the wake - here we had the Bavarian Frühschoppen twice, complete with oompah bands and sacher torte); La Cucina (the Italian restaurant, which opens for dinner and otherwise has seats available); and the window tables by the pool. Still, the amount of indoor seating for the buffet was considerably less than we'd seen on other lines. With good weather much of the way, crowding was less of a factor; it is imaginable, however, that on wintry-weather days out of New York, where Gem home-ports for the Caribbean season, seating very well could be at a premium.
Another confounding issue here is that, as a number of fellow passengers also pointed out, if Gem is lacking anything it would be adequate places to sit and read. Again, this may not be as much of a factor on port intensive sailings, but for a transatlantic (and even for the sea days to/from New York), Gem simply doesn't have the variety of quiet, comfy spots as do many other ships. What this does, then, is push people (especially those who have smaller staterooms with no balcony) to the few public areas that do accommodate reading. We regularly saw guests occupying tables at the Garden Cafe for long periods of time, consuming nothing more than a coffee while reading or looking out the window. I wouldn't have a problem with this, except that at peak lunch hours, it can be frustrating to walk around looking for an open seat while holding a plate of food that is rapidly lowering to room temperature. Nonetheless, this experience occurred no more than twice, and when having breakfast, we opted for the Garden Cafe all but once, when we tried the Grand Pacific dining room.
MAIN DINING ROOMS
Our first culinary experience at the Grand Pacific (one of two main dining rooms onboard Gem, along with Magenta) was not stellar. On previous evenings we were not inspired by the menu selections (standard fare of pasta, chicken, a beef or pork dish, but nothing particularly enticing in description - even Jen, the queen of dessert, didn't find much appetizing from the sweet section). So we'd been to three for-charge restaurants (Orchid, Bistro, and Teppanyaki) and another dinner at the no-surcharge Tequila, one of the best meals we had aboard ship. We (along with many others from CC) had signed up for the Murder Mystery Dinner, however, and so on the fifth night we had our first main dining experience. Though we prefer the more open, two-tier (or three!) dining rooms seen on many ships, Grand Pacific is a stately room, a bit reminiscent of the dining on Oceania (and the other ex-Renaissance) ships, comfortable and elegant enough that you don't notice that it's only one story (in contrast to Princess' Grand class, with its low ceiling dining rooms, not to mention odd choices in music, but then don't get me started about Princess). The wait staff knew we were in the Murder Mystery, and seemed to back off a bit and let us have our event in peace. That was fine, though there was sometimes confusion regarding both food and beverages, what went to whom etc, and the communication between the staff seemed to be lacking. The food itself was no more inspired than the menu - as little jumped out from the offerings, I opted for the shrimp cocktail, soup, Caesar salad, and striploin. The soup was not hot, nor was the steak, and the soggy Caesar salad - with iceberg lettuce - was a far cry from Celebrity (or even Princess). The desserts seemed to be the same as we'd seen in the buffet at lunchtime, and Jen, who normally will order two desserts, ordered just one and finished perhaps half. We had a fun time with the Murder Mystery, each of us really hamming it up when it came to playing our parts. The meal didn't really matter; a good time was had by all. A return dinner date at the main dining rooms, however, was questionable.
TEX-MEX AT SEA
Back up a step. Tequila is one of two eateries that flank the upper levels of the Crystal Atrium, and is where we had dinner on the fourth night (after a full day in Madeira). Here we met up with Terry and Nancy, our tablemates from last year's Century cruise whom we were so happy to run into this time. They'd had a nice meal at Tequila the first night, and so we figured 'why not'. Having lived in Texas, Arizona, and California, I have a fairly keen sense for good Mexican food, both authentic as well as Tex-Mex. Here in Ottawa, however, good Mex is hard to come by, and I'd say the last time we had a decent Mexican meal was, well, Cozumel a year ago, and LA a year before that. Our expectations weren't necessarily high for NCL's version of Tex-Mex, but once again we were pleasantly surprised. Jen and I both had the tortilla soup, and it was among the best we've ever had. Jen went for a chicken quesadilla, just enough spice, while I had a crabmeat quesadilla - both were excellent. We dangled the idea of ordering the "Il Popo", an entree for two about which many others have raved. Instead Jen had a satisfactory burrito, while (upon Terry's recommendation) I had chicken & shrimp fajitas that came out sizzling and were a veritable treat. We made a return visit to Tequila, one of two encore dinners that we had, the other being at Orchid Garden.
For our return visit to Orchid, on Day 6, we brought Terry and Nancy, and were able to be served by Ketut, the Balinese waiter who'd done an excellent job our first night along with his assistant Perdita. It was this second time that Jen asked for three orders of the Peking duck crepes, each order being three rolled crepes. Ketut didn't miss a beat, and I only regret not taking a picture of the three 3-roll (temaki-sushi-style) stands in front of Jen - but the looks on everyone's faces around us in Orchid at that moment were priceless. I somehow limited myself to one lychee saketini that night, but am planning on concocting these at home very soon… maybe for New Years?!
Day 8 was our return to Tequila for dinner, and though I've heard reports of inconsistency in their margaritas, you'll read no complaints from this tequila drinker. And what were we doing for lunch during this time? We'd check the menu in the Grand Pacific, then the display at the buffet. The standard routine we'd gotten into was to have a course at the buffet, usually with the rotisserie chicken or the Indian vegetarian dish (or both!), and then, after some walking around on deck for a while, we'd have a second course downstairs at the Blue Lagoon, the other dining venue at the atrium and open 24 hours. We'd been warned by our tour companions in Madeira to avoid the fish & chips and the shepherd's pie - since they were Canadian and seemed savvy enough, we took their word for it. But Grace, who manages Orchid and other venues, recommended the buffalo wings, and I couldn't pass that up. Repeat visits to Blue Lagoon saw us having double- and triple-orders of the wings, served hot and punctually by a mostly friendly and capable staff. I generalize, but in actuality it seemed that many servers got their start here, and some shone more than others. Also of note at Blue Lagoon are the fish cakes, the wonton noodle soup (great with ginger), and the fried rice. It's billed as "comfort food," and honestly, even the fish & chips looked good from where we were sitting, though we've got a good one in the neighbourhood here so there's that.
On a cruise, of course, one must pace oneself. There are only so many meals in a day, and so many days in a sailing. With 9 days and more than a dozen venues, well, you do the math. I'm told that the steak sandwiches at the Bali Hai grill (above the pool) were outstanding - I meant to have one, honesty, but somehow just didn't get around to it. They are reputed to have good fries as well. Yet we very much enjoyed the fries at the Garden Cafe, always fresh and hot - even the burger was thick and moist, so that's a nice combination. And I think I missed the steak sandwich because subconsciously I was saving it up for Cagney's.
On Day 7, in the middle of the Atlantic and at that time when we were all reaching the 'sweet zone' of shipboard relaxation, Jen and I joined fellow Cruise Critic members Bill and Linda for a memorable evening at Cagney's steakhouse. We'd met Bill and Linda at the Meet & Greet, after communicating online of course, and would periodically run into one another throughout the cruise. Jen and I are both very glad we all made it a point of getting together at Cagney's, for good food and good company. Now visions of a porterhouse steak had been dancing in my head, but somehow the 24 oz. cut seemed just a bit much, especially with all the other choices on the menu. So I went with the 16 oz. T-bone instead, and don't regret it for a minute - the steak was tender and cooked to perfection, lightly spiced to give the right flavour, no need for the sauce which I'd asked for on the side. Jen had the filet mignon, bigger here than in Le Bistro. The shrimp cocktail was better than most we've had at sea (save for Polo Grill on Oceania, but those shrimp were practically lobsters!), and both the crab cakes and lobster bisque were very impressive (the bisque better than Celebrity, the crab cakes more flavourful that on Oceania). And those fries? Those fries were addictive! We've tried to replicate that here at home, thus far to moderate success. What would I change about Cagney's? The restaurant is in two rooms, and the side behind the Star Bar is a bit dim, and could use some sconces and/or table lighting as both Jen and Linda were a bit in the dark. And the guns on the door handles and paintings of mob scenes, I thought a bit much. What I wouldn't change for the world was the service - the highly professional Catherine had served Bill and Linda a couple of times already, and was impeccable in her attentiveness, timing, and manner.
We'd end up right back at Cagney's at the next morning, not for breakfast but for something that had nearly broken this Mad Mariners group apart.
* Part V - LATER DAYS AND FINAL THOUGHTS *
In the weeks leading up to the cruise, we on the Cruise Critic roll call arranged a "cabin crawl" that would give us a peek at various staterooms and suites on the Gem. But we came across a, how shall I say this, a certain bump in the road. The Mad Mariners will know where I'm going with this. Communicating online can have its pitfalls - and I should know, that's how I met my wife! So there are times when a remark is innocently (or not-so-innocently, but anyhow casually) made online, be it in an email or in an online forum like Cruise Critic, and said remark causes upset to one or many. Such was the case with the cabin crawl discussion, and without going into specifics, suffice it to say that an ensuing discussion of the original remarks and subsequent revisions of said remarks had some members fleeing for the exits - not canceling their cruise, but limiting or ceasing their ties with the group. Fortunately these matters were mended eventually - these are Mad Mariners, after all (think 'Denny Crane and Mad Cow') - and the group carried on.
So on the morning of Day 8, we gathered outside Cagney's for the cabin crawl / roaming Cruise Critic conga line. The highlight of the tour was a visit, in small staggered groups (not staggering, that came later) to the Courtyard Villas. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking (cheers from the peanut gallery), but we all enjoyed getting a look at these "ship within a ship" suites, both one- and two-bedroom, all of which have access to the private courtyard. Some have bathtubs with an ocean view, while others have private balconies with their own Jacuzzi. We visited other suites on the ship - Penthouse and Romance, which are just as colorful as the Villas and often have an aft view - as well as mini-suites, outside and inside cabins. The look was invaluable, as we normally don't mind staying in inside cabins (the savings can be immense), but this one, as stated before, was not our cup of tea. It was too small and dimly lit. I don't know about the lighting on other ships, but from looking over NCL's information, perhaps only the Sun would give us a inside cabin large enough for our needs (and to make up for that lighting). Hopefully others will give some feedback here.
Other Cruise Critic activities included the aforementioned bowling tournament, breaking gutter-ball records at sea; sailaway martinis at the Star Bar; as well as a pre-cruise meet-up in Barcelona - Jen and I were unable to attend as we spent the day in Figueres and Girona, but reports and pictures suggest a fine time was had by many, and I think you found one of the better tapas places in town. The final event was the farewell dinner - the "last supper" of the cruise, if you will - at La Cucina.
The Italian venue is one of the no-charge specialty dining options onboard, and for our tastes, were it not for the CC get-together, we may or may not have checked this one out on our own, at least given the number of nights and number of venues. We've had a lot of mediocre Italian food over the years, some of it in Italy. And I've had some excellent Italian cuisine, sometimes in unexpected places like Minneapolis or Tokyo. But then, food is subjective; Italian food, in our opinion, is even more subjective. La Cucina has an appetizing enough menu, if not particularly creative or daring. But those of us who had the veal, well, Robert & Marlene noted that it could be used as a substitute should your shoe soles give out. How did they know? Was it that obvious? I'd put hundreds of miles on my shoes, been wearing 'em on our travels for years, and they're so comfortable I really don't want to part with them. Alas, the soles are wearing out, the heels are crumbling, it's time to retire this pair of Rockports (or at least retire them to the snow bin). Anyhow, I digress, back to the sole. I mean, the veal. Sole would have been a better choice, a nice filet with a glass of pinot grigio. The point of the evening, of course, was socializing, and we enjoyed good conversation with our tablemates - before we knew it, time had run out on our group 'charter' of La Cucina, and the masses were rallying at the gates to enter.
Time was also running out on our Gem cruise, as we were in the chillier waters off the East Coast, approaching Boston at a depressing speed. Couldn't they turn the ship around and head for Miami? Or Havana? I know, most cruise ships don't go to Cuba, we've been over that (see previous review). Before we arrive at our literary port of disembarkation, I wanted to touch in a few points.
WHAT COULD BE IMPROVED
I've gone on ad infinitum in many instances about this and that where NCL really did a great job, going above and exceeding expectations. Lest you should think I'm a shill for the cruise line, however, several areas left room for improvement or warranted attention from NCL. Sitting on the balcony on the last day of the cruise - yes, the weather was that good that we were able to sit outside every day, even crossing the Atlantic in December - I sketched out a rough spread sheet (someone's missing work while at sea?!) and ranked the cruises we've taken together in different categories. Though not the most well-thought out or scientific methodology, the total score for this cruise came to a *91* - tying that of the first cruise Jen and I took together on Constellation four years ago. 91 is a great score coming from this curmudgeon-in-training, but can certainly be improved upon.
Our pre-cruise with NCL customer service was hit and miss. We had booked in early August under the "Pity the Procrastinator" sale, but when the price went down a month later (but still before the standard final payment date) we, like many others, were not given a reduction. It's not that we should "expect" a reduction, even though it's a fairly common practice in the cruise industry, but to know that certain "Procrastinators" got a better price, and yet NCL's promotion suggests that those people should be pitied… ah well, life gives us irony. We did receive a telephone call from a courteous and professional assistant in the executive offices, who explained why we were not eligible, though could not offer anything tangible even as goodwill. Are Celebrity/Royal Caribbean any better as far as customer service? Not in our experience.
The biggest detracting point would have to be the main dining rooms. We were in Grand Pacific once for dinner, and to give it a fair try went once for breakfast. The quality of the breakfast was no better than in the buffet, and the service teams still didn't seem to have their timing and communication down very well. Some say the food in NCL's dining rooms is very good, others have compared it to a Denny's. Our experience was somewhere in between. To me, it felt like eating in an average hotel restaurant, not bad but not noteworthy either. Are NCL trying to steer people to the for-charge restaurants, as some say in these boards? Those venues are definitely advertised, but we found a multitude of dining options where one could enjoy a good meal at no extra charge - Garden Café, Tequila, and Blue Lagoon stood out, and between the former and the latter, good 'real' food is available around the clock, a plus for any line. If one wants to pay extra (and I know some are simply diametrically opposed to this concept on a cruise), other venues can provide fine dining. That's the definition of "Freestyle Cruising". Still, I believe NCL could fine-tune the main dining rooms without taking a cost absorption - make the menus more creative, do more with the presentation, and train staff better on communication and etiquette. Since our return, NCL has announced "Freestyle 2.0" - we shall see what improvements this brings.
Back to the buffet for a moment, we were advised by one of the servers that if we left a few rolled napkins (silverware inside) out on the table, we could return to the buffet and not have to worry about our table being taken. Well apparently not everyone got this message, as we did just that once and came back to find our table occupied by others. I decided not to make a stink about it, but it goes back to the frustrations caused by a lack of seating in this area. Still, we enjoyed the Garden Café overall, and I should add that a plus was having every food item clearly labeled - other cruise lines can take note. Would I rather be served than have to take my own food from the buffet? For snobbish reasons alone, no; for purposes of sanitation, however, this would alleviate some of the contact which has been known to spread Norovirus. We liked that NCL not only provides Purell stations in many areas but also has a few of these staffed in strategic places. Nonetheless, even with all the information that is available about Noro, it is discouraging to see passengers pass these stations up without a wipe. "I washed my hands in my cabin" people will say. Good - now did you touch any surfaces en route to getting here? If the cruise lines made this practice mandatory, we would applaud it.
NCL has gone a good way in lessening the smoke factor on this ship. I enjoyed my cigars out on the balcony, and would have gone to Churchill's had the weather turned. Yet some passengers reported smokiness (or was that the neighbours complaining about the cigars? or Jen?) here and there, and the non-smoker Jen also felt the smoke was a bit too much at times - and we'd spent 10 days in Europe before this. And the theatre, while a fine room, feels more like a movie theater than a showroom in its layout of seats. More aisles are needed, and gone are the cocktail tables seen in most ship showrooms, thereby leaving no place to put one's drink.
WHAT REALLY WORKED
Maybe the theatre isn't a big profit centre for NCL. And that was one of aspects we very much enjoyed, not having so many in-your-face profit centers. Others may have seen this differently, but we found the announcements not much more intrusive than on Celebrity or Oceania, and better than Princess or ROYAL CARIBBEAN. The layout of the ship wasn't one constant reminder after another about how to part with your money. Yes, every cruise line has profit centers, and when you see the fares for some of these sailings, it is clear why this must happen. Yet our impression of Gem was that this was tastefully done. Moreover, the transitions from one public area to the next were smooth yet distinct. The colours, fabrics, fixtures/furniture, even music from one room to the next were all varied, and yet for the most part both functional and tasteful. It's been said by some, in reaction to photos of this ship, that the colours are quite bold and perhaps overbearing. Bold, yes, we would agree. But experiencing it in person, what most people seemed to walk away saying was, "this really works" or "it just feels right." So words and pictures cannot do justice - much to my dismay at times - to that which one must truly experience to appreciate.
I'll close this review with a crew salute. It was the staff and crew of Norwegian Gem that made this one of the best holidays ever for us. The friendliness from top to bottom in the org chart showed that this was a cohesive environment. I've named some standouts in particular, and must also mention the crew talent show, largely Filipino crew who were otherwise working in the engine room, restaurants (such as Allan), etc., and put in the time to rehearse and jump on the stage to entertain us as well. Of course "Fountains," the piece put on by the CD staff, was amusing, and the individual ballads and tunes by ordinary staff really were the bright spot.
Will we cruise on NCL again? Highly likely, though my reticence to use that Future Cruise Reward is only due to the less-than-enticing inside cabins.
Would we recommend NCL to friends or family? To most, yes; some will want a more traditional experience, but the majority would appreciate and enjoy NCL.
I know we did.
This is what happens when expectations are exceeded. Read Less