Freestyle cruising fits our lifestyle perfectly. My husband and I (51 and 49) cruised long ago on the SS Norway. Our 17 year old son had never cruised. Cruising has come a long way in 20 years! We were completely blown away by the size and ... Read More
Freestyle cruising fits our lifestyle perfectly. My husband and I (51 and 49) cruised long ago on the SS Norway. Our 17 year old son had never cruised. Cruising has come a long way in 20 years! We were completely blown away by the size and cleanliness of the ship, the quality of the food, the size and features of the cabin, and the friendliness and service level of the crew. We are ready to go on the Gem again tomorrow! We plan to do a future cruise on NCL - we do not see another cruise line that better fits our lifestyle.
We spent 3 days in Barcelona pre-cruise, making our own air and hotel reservations. We stayed at the Hotel Arts, a Ritz-Carlton property. Very expensive, but great location and great rooms. We enjoyed the Sagrada Familia and Las Ramblas as well as casual dinners at the Olympic port as we adjusted to the jet lag. I can't imagine flying in the day of departure. You would not enjoy the first few days on the ship as much.
Day of departure: we took a cab to the ship - 20 Euro for 3 people, 3 large and 3 small bags. We arrived about noon and there was no line to check in. Our checked bags were taken away and we went through a security check similar to the airport, but without the restrictions on liquids. We had two small carry-ons filled with water and sodas, and no one stopped us. We had a special check in line for Courtyard Villas, but even the regular check in lines weren't busy. We were escorted to a special waiting room where we hardly got in the door before we were greeted by Claudio, the concierge, Ivana, the shore excursion specialist, and Putu, our butler. We gave Claudio our dinner preferences for the first two nights and Putu took us on board. After swiping our cards and sanitizing our hands, we were given champagne/orange juice and escorted to our room. We then had lunch in Cagney's, found that our bags had been delivered already, and walked each level of the ship to get oriented before the sail away and lifeboat drill - a sit-down affair in the Blue Lagoon restaurant!
Cabin: We splurged on a Courtyard Villa. The extra perks and service were well worth it. They included: The concierge who made our dinner reservations - and got us great tables each time, Putu, the best butler ever, who was so friendly and accommodated our every need and whim, reserved balcony seats at the shows so we could arrive late and still have a great view, a choice of snacks every day (chips, cheese, cookies, fruit, etc), private breakfast and lunch in Cagney's - the portion that overlooks the pool deck where no one can see in the windows- , free bottle of wine one night at dinner, bottle of champagne and bottled water in the room on arrival, the ability to wait in our room for the short excursion instead of going to the theater with the masses, free DVD selection of 100 DVDs, and probably more stuff I can't remember by now.
The room was huge by cruise ship standards. It was actually a place we enjoyed being in - not just a place to sleep. Having the large room really made the cruise perfect for us.
I was concerned about the possibility of smoke smell in the room - even took my Febreeze spray along - but I couldn't smell a thing - and I'm very sensitive. Actually the only time I ever smelled smoke the whole trip was when I walked by an outside door to the promenade deck right by a smoking area and got a big blast - easy enough to avoid!
The master was barely bigger than the queen bed but also had a tv/ dvd player and lots of bedside shelves. The tv had cabinet above and below for storage. The bed had a heavy curtain to separate it from the master bath.
The master bath was huge - giant closet with large overhead shelf - we put two suitcases there - 2 safes and 3 drawers and two small shelves. The double sinks had lots of counter top space and drawers/shelves underneath. The shower was large with a hand spray arm. The bathtub wasn't a whirlpool, but was large with another tv. The toilet was in it's own room. The only drawback was that the door to the living room was frosted, but not entirely private for dressing.
The living area had a large bar with a free expresso machine - little packets of expresso or tea went in the machine and out came your drink with no mess. There was a good sized frig - we took out all their drinks and put in our own - no issues with doing this - and it saves a ton of money! There was a square table - game table sized with 4 chairs, a 2-seat sofa and two other side chairs, another tv/dvd and a nice-sized coffee table - even a pair of binoculars for use during the week. We saw one CV with a rollaway bed in the living area, so there's even room for another bed if needed.
The balcony was probably the same size as in the normal cabins since the bathtub took up what would have been balcony space, but it was totally private as it was between two bathtubs.... Two nice-sized chairs and a small table - not loungers.
The extra bedroom had a pullout double sofa bed and a drop down single, a large closet with 3 drawers, and a decent sized bath with a full shower and plenty of counter space and shelves. It also had a tv and phone.
The room opened onto a hall with only 5 rooms. The entrance to the Courtyard was off this hall. The area was nice but always seemed very steamy as they only opened the roof part way each day. It wasn't really comfortable to sit out for too long. The pool was freshwater! And had a current machine. There were always snacks available - we had breakfast there one morning when our short excursion was at 7. There was also a menu to order from and a waiter ready to assist. The hot tub was nice and there were also two saunas, a treadmill, and exercise bike. Upstairs, on the port side, there was a private sundeck, which was never busy. There were nice loungers and two hammocks. We watched the sailaways from there and were the only ones there a couple of times. The only complaint is that they didn't have any umbrellas for shade, but they might have put them up if we had asked.
Another nice feature of our room was the security. You had to use your swipe card on the elevator to get to the 14th floor - only the mid-ship elevators go that high. Then you had to swipe to get on our hallway, and again into the room. We had the wheel system on our door also - welcome, do not disturb, clean room, or turn down - which worked very well.
Ship in general - we were amazed at how many different areas the ship had and how they had been decorated to match the theme - like the paintings on the sports deck of people playing tennis, etc. The ship is so big we kept discovering new ways to get from point a to b and seeing areas we hadn't found the first day. It really was like being in a small city. The restaurants were especially surprising in their dEcor matching the food theme. And the GP looked like it was straight out of Titanic. We wandered in there the first afternoon and had the place to ourselves so we got some great pictures. We didn't spend much time on the pool deck - only one afternoon -they had a system that allowed you to check out beach towels to your room - so don't pack one! The band was a bit noisy, but all in all it was good fun and we could go to the courtyard for quiet times. My son enjoyed the slide into the kids pool - even though he didn't think he would. It was hard to find chairs, as others have said, but we did. There was a lot of shaded area, too, which was nice.
Food: I'm surprised at the number of people writing reviews that didn't know there is a surcharge on several restaurants. NCL clearly states this on the website and pre-cruise information. We were not upset about having to pay $10 to $20 extra for the specialty restaurants. Note that if you don't cancel by a certain time, (5pm I think), you'll be charged the cover charge anyways. We enjoyed each one we tried. Everyone has different tastes in food, but for us, Cagney's was by far the best, followed by the Italian and the Asian. We didn't try the French because we were spending a week in France after the cruise and knew it would not be as good as the actual food in France. We ate in the Garden Cafe for lunch one day and dinner another. Yes, it was crowded and we had to scout out and hold a table, but the variety and quality of the food was much better than we expected for a buffet-style restaurant. There was something for everyone and we could mix and match cuisines. At night they even had tablecloths and someone seating you. We also ate in the Grand Pacific two nights. One was the "lobster galore" night - probably our most disappointing meal. The lobster was small and tough. Our other meal was very good, however. Service was definitely better in the specialty restaurants, but not really bad in the GP. The breakfast for the suites in Cagney's was fantastic - buffet with breads, fruit, cereals, plus a menu with steak and eggs, eggs benedict, pancakes, waffles, all you could eat. Lunch in Cagney's was also great - one day we were the only ones there! It was always a 3-course meal with about 4 choices per course. We loved the fact that we could dine at a different restaurant and time each night. We had a table just for the 3 of us so we could have family time, not chat with people we'll never see again. For us, there was no desire to "get to know our waiters" so it didn't bother us to have a different group each night. The casual dress was perfect for us as well. I wore a skirt or capris, my son and husband wore long pants - ie khaki's and golf or short sleeved shirts with nice shoes - something between wing tips and bright white American tennis shoes. We didn't take any special clothes for dinner, which is a real help when you're gone on a 3-week vacation!
Entertainment: We only went to part of one show - the "World Colors" showcase - basically the crew doing songs from around the world. It was just ok... not worth staying for. We wanted to see the magician, but never could work it into our busy schedule! There was a nice string quartet playing in the atrium most nights, also. We're not "sit in the bar and listen to music" people so we couldn't comment on that.
Teen program: Our son did a few events - rock climbing, poker, bowling - and enjoyed them. It was nice for him to be able to do those things with his peers not his parents, but he wasn't interested in most of the activities since they conflicted with other things we did as a family. Each night it looked like the teens could go to dinner and the show together, but he chose not to.
Spa and Casino - didn't do either - not our thing.
Excursions - We did a lot of research before we traveled so we didn't attend the port information sessions. Malta - did it on our own. 15 Euro taxi to the old part of town -it's very steep and hot walk otherwise. Saw St John's and just wandered the streets - enjoyable. Best part is the view of the city as you sail away. The views as you pass through the narrow straight by Sicily are great, too - later in the day. Naples - we were booked on an excursion to Pompeii, but were told how easy it was to do on our own (by the concierge) so we cancelled. It wasn't so easy. The train that he said was just 2 stops was 20.... Took way to long. We ended up taking a cab all the way back to the ship - 50 Euro, I think - but at that point we were so exhausted, we didn't want to mess with the train. Pompeii, however, was amazing - so big and so much more to see than we expected. We were glad not to be stuck with a guide limiting our time there, but we would have probably taken a cab there instead of the train. We got back too late to make our reservations for dinner, but they did not charge us the cancellation fee - probably another suite perk. Rome - did the NCL excursion to the Colosseum, St Clemente's and the Vatican (Eternal Rome and the Colosseum, I think). We had been told this was a train ride into Rome which is why we booked it - my husband has chronic back pain and the train would have allowed him to move around in transit - but that morning we found out it's a bus - we still did it - they had a bathroom/souvenir stop on the way that allowed him the chance to stretch out - so it was fine, but we were very disappointed at the misinformation. The tour itself was great - the lunch was excellent - as was the guide. Yes, we ended at a souvenir shop recommended by NCL... but that's to be expected. We just felt that Rome was too big to try to do on our own - our son had never been - especially to get in the Colosseum - the lines are very long in the summer. Pisa - we booked tickets on the internet to climb the tower. None of the NCL tours actually go up the tower. We had planned to take the train to Pisa, but after our experience in Pompeii, just took a cab - 30 Euro. Plus to get to the train station in Livorno, you have to take the port shuttle (1 Euro), then a public bus... too many stops just to get TO the train. The cab worked out well. It was really cool to climb the tower. I'm not sure it would be worth going to Pisa otherwise. Villefrance - no excursion here - see disembarkation
Other activities on the ship - my husband enjoyed the art auction and bought a beautiful piece which has already arrived out our house in perfect condition. I attended a couple of the food demonstrations. I tried to get to the lecture on Pompeii, but the room was packed long before it started. We missed the ice carving and towel folding demos, but they sounded fun. We enjoyed the bridge viewing room - we had it to ourselves both times we went and it was amazing how much you could see and all the interactive displays they had.
Shops - I'm not a perfume or jewelry shopper, but there were several opportunities to buy both at "discounted" rates. The NCL Gem merchandise went fast - when they have the buy 2 get 1 deal on tshirts - buy them right then - they will be gone later in the week - we learned that the hard way! Although I will say the shop worker spend 20 minutes going down to the storage room looking for what we wanted in our sizes.... With a smile on his face. Service was excellent everywhere on the ship.
Other comments - The hand sanitizing was a great idea. One of the reasons we picked the Gem was because of the perfect score on the CDC inspections. You can see these at www.cdc.gov for all ships that stop at non US ports. You can even see the specific violations and what the ship is doing about it. Anyways, on the GEM, the entrance to every restaurant and most public areas had the Purell stations and someone standing there to make sure you used it. They also had them at the gangway when you returned from a port. Passports were not held on the ship as we had read in some posts. We took them with us each day to shore just in case we got stranded. Laundry - they did offer a discount on laundry on Wednesday - 30 US dollars for a good sized bag - to be returned to you on Saturday afternoon. We used the internet cafe a couple of times to check weather for our disembarkation - there was always a spot. The response time was slower than we have at home, but then again, you're in the middle of the ocean. My husband took his laptop, but never used it - that's the sign of a great vacation! The ship had a huge library - I'm a big reader and I took some books of my own just in case I couldn't find anything, but I should have left them at home. I went the first day as soon as it opened and checked out 5 books - only got through 3 of them - but they were all pretty recent and there seemed to be a lot of variety - all on the honor system to check out - with a sensor so you don't leave the ship with them. Other passengers seemed to be about our age, maybe some younger, but definitely not an old person's cruise. There were kids of all ages and people from all countries. My son played Texas hold-em with 3 boys from Morocco.... There were opportunities for formal family photos each night - in addition to all the casual ones during the week. We didn't do that, but it would be nice especially if you were traveling with your extended family.
Disembarkation - We got off the ship in Villefrance as we were spending the next week in France before returning to the states. We didn't want to leave, but it didn't make sense to go all the way back to Barcelona then drive 6 hours back to Nice. Claudio made this process go smoothly. We had checked with NCL before departure and they said that they couldn't pre-arrange for us to disembark in France, but that it would not be a problem and that they couldn't prevent us from doing so - especially since it's an EU country. The night before we landed, Claudio took our passports, so he could meet the French officials at 7 am to clear us. He then arranged for us - and 3 other groups with - to be on a tender at 11 - after the crowds had left for the tours. A porter took our bags down and we went to shore. Someone from the ship even helped us get our bags to the taxi stand just outside the tender dock. We called the number on the stand and a very nice gentlemen came with a large car and took us to our hotel in France. We spent our week in France missing the GEM! Read Less