Worst Cruise Ever on the GEM: Norwegian Gem Cruise Review by KanadaChris

Norwegian Gem 1
Member Since 2012

Overall Member Rating

Worst Cruise Ever on the GEM

Sail Date: July 2012
Destination: Bahamas
Embarkation: New York (Manhattan)
My experience with NCL on the Norwegian Gem.

To give you a little background on the people involved, my wife and I are both in the 30-35 year old bracket, full time working professional people. We are in no way formal and generally enjoy a casual atmosphere; more 'jeans and t-shirt' than 'where's my tux?'.

We've cruised three times previously, always with Royal Caribbean. We've been to the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, leaving for these places from Spain, New Jersey and San Juan ports.

On our last RC cruise, we felt that standards were slipping a little, mainly in the friendliness of the staff and the quality and variety of the food served. With that in mind, we decided to shop around for our latest cruise and found the prices of NCL to be on a par with RC for similar routes on a very similar class of ship. Figuring we'd take a chance on a totally new (to us) cruise line, we booked up with NCL.

We chose the Norwegian Gem, leaving from Manhattan More cruise terminal on the 7th of July. The price was on a par with any other offer from RC and the itinerary slightly better; the cruise terminal is also fine as it's a short plane trip from our home on the East Coast of Canada.

I've decided to write this 'review' as an outline of our experiences and also as a comparison between our experiences with RC and NCL. I intend to go into excruciating detail, because the more information you have before choosing a cruise operator, the better!

Ok, fast-forward to the cruise day and we arrive at the port. The port building itself is very pleasant and highly accessible from the road (we walked right up from the NY Hilton) so we had no trouble there, no need for extensive directions or hailing down a cab to take us a short distance.

We got through the metal detectors in about 5 minutes and entered the queue to check-in and board the boat. A full one hour later, we got to the check-in desk! The longest I've ever waited in an RC queue had been less than twenty minutes. The reason for this? The operators seem to rely on filling out paperwork and shuffling files around rather than the slick operation we are used to on RC. They have to take your photograph right there and then hunt out your pre-printed card: these processes are split up on RC check-ins and the card is printed for you just before you board the ship. I have no idea why NCL operated this way, if it's the norm or something lacking at that specific location, but standing for an hour simply to confirm my name and be given a card was not fun. This was made worse as the NCL customer service split was ridiculously in favour of Latitude Members and those booking a Villa or Suite. I get that these people have spent more and want a faster check in, but to have 20% of all the agents serving these specialist queues, which only had two or three guests in the line, while a one hour line develops for the other agents is galling.

Moving on, we eventually got on the boat. Goodness, what a surprise!! The colour scheme and decor appears to have been specially selected by and for the blind. While NCL use words like 'bold', 'vibrant' and 'striking' I personally would use some others: 'nauseating', 'confusing' and 'clashing horribly'. After recovering from this retina-detaching experience, we decided to explore the ship a little while our state room was readied.

The first thing that struck us about the Gem was the immediately obvious differences between it and the other RC ships we'd been on previously. RC ships are designed with large central atriums rising almost the height of the ship, with the corridors radiating off on either sides. There's light and space to be had. The Gem is the absolute polar opposite; with the largest room space being only two stories tall and the entire ship being laid out as two interrupted corridors on each level running along the side of the ship. It's dark and cramped and the layout is incredibly confusing. With no atriums you have no central landmarks to figure out which part of the ship and what side you are on: get ready to spend a lot of time studying the maps as you walk the gaudily daubed halls of this ship!

Our first couple of hours on the ship were a bit of a confusing mess, but we figured that we'd eventually get the hang of the differences and decided to go and get some food at the buffet. We went up to the 'Garden Cafe' buffet. The buffet, to fill you in, is also just a giant corridor with seats lining it on one side; it's used as a main thoroughfare for people passing from aft to midship and the room itself is very narrow. On RC ships, the design of the buffet area (Windjammer Cafe) seems in my mind to be a vastly superior design, as it's a large open space where you can instantly appraise how busy the place is and where the empty seats are. You have no such luxury at the Garden Cafe, so you'll be hunting for a seat for a while if it's busy.

The buffet navigated, we got our first pleasant surprise of the trip: the food is excellent! Unlike RC, the Bacon and the Chips (French Fries) are not just edible on the Gem, but considerably better than RC's offering. The French Fries have been modelled on the kind you would find in McDonalds and were very good. In parallel, the French Fries on RC are modelled on Burger King's 'King Fry' and look and taste (I imagine) much like deep fried snot. RC's Bacon is also uniquely horrid and greasy, looking and tasting a lot more like a pig scab than a piece of food. Top marks to NCL here and pay attention RC! All was not without fault however, as it appears that NCL believe a burger should be raw in the middle (of 10 burgers on the trip, 8 were chronically under-cooked) so perhaps RC claws some points back for knowing how to use a grill and actually cook a burger!

Shortly after that, our cruise director came on the PA system to announce that the staterooms were ready an hour early and we could go and get settled in whenever we were ready. This is where laughing at puzzling little design 'quirks' and making a mental note to revel in the differences became a real cause for concern. We got into our state-room and it was spotlessly clean and tidy... There was just one small problem. The entire room seemed to have been designed by a committee of three: an accountant, an idiot and a monkey. There is an ashtray in the toilet, on a non-smoking ship. When you open a drawer, you cannot open the wardrobe. For seating there were barstools tucked under a table, with no room to put them anywhere. The space around the bed was tiny, but the shower was huge (twice the size of RC, which sounds like a good thing, until you realise that there's no room to get around your bed).

Worse was to come however, as we realised with horror on the first night that everything in the room had been specially designed to keep you awake. The door rattled and clunked as the ship swayed. The paintings on both walls squeaked and the entire room and corridor outside it had no sound-proofing whatsoever. No underlay on the hall carpet (if you like hearing CLANG CLANG CLANG as people walk outside, you'll love this feature) and no noise damping in the walls or doors either. I hope you love your neighbours, because you'll be hearing EVERYTHING they are doing at all times on the GEM. Toilets make a great exploding noise as they flush; you can hear every word of a conversation in the corridor or in a neighbouring room; and even the noise of people passing your door will wake you up.

Our first night we slept terribly, even with earplugs in -- but since we were on holiday it's no problem, we could just have a long lie in the next day, right? WRONG. The PA system does not have individual speakers in your room that you can adjust the volume on; it has speakers in the corridor cranked to full volume and you WILL be woken up at 9am by the captain's announcement or the cruise director. Ten minutes later you'll be woken up again by another announcement and so it goes until about 10:30. This to us was utterly shocking. Each of the RC ships we'd been on, once you closed that door you couldn't hear gorillas playing with hand grenades outside, whereas on this ship the sound of a mouse walking down the hall would clang its way directly into your room and wake you up. The lack of volume controls on the announcement system is also totally unacceptable and I can't for the life of me even figure out why an intelligent person at any cruise company would think this a good idea and approve it!

I could stop the review right now, but stay tuned kids: there's more to come!

So the next day we pulled ourselves out of bed and vowed to make the best of it, hoping we'd sleep much better the next night. We headed out to the pool deck to see what was happening and debated getting a swim in. My advice if you are an avid swimmer is to just stay home and fill your bathtub. Both swimming pools and hot-tubs on the Gem are utterly, hopelessly tiny. The adult pool is directly beside the kids pool (kiss any idea of some peace and quiet after a hellish night good-bye there) and the pools were literally packed with people. Figuring this to be the first day 'let's all hit the pool' vibe in action we didn't worry too much; but in fact this was to be the way for most of the cruise. It was possible to get a swim in around 9pm when most people were having dinner, but the downside of this is you had to share the water with straws, cigarette butts and other random garbage that people using the pool that day had thrown in.

TOP TIP here: before sitting on a sun lounger, double check some lazy idiot hasn't left a glass on it for you to cut yourself on, as that seems to have been a favourite trick of the poolside 'day shift'.

Ok, fast forward to the next day and we are in Florida! We went to Universal Studios Islands and the day was great! The only minor draw-back with the Studios is that if they experience high winds, or rain or lightning or a host of other weather related issues they basically close most of the park. In the entire park there are only two rides in service at those times, so if you get caught out by the weather: tough luck! We lost an hour and forty minutes to a rain shower and lightning storm, which the staff informed us were very common this time of year. That said, we still got around everything OK and you wait for only a fraction of the normal time if you go into the 'single riders' queue and don't mind being split up. I'd recommend that!

We got back to the ship around 9pm for a 10pm push off and everything went smoothly getting back on. We went to bed a bit early after a busy day, knowing tomorrow we have NCL's private island to look forward to! Having been told by the staff on board and the travel agencies that Stirrup Cay (The NCL Island) is a lot like RC's private island, Labadee, we were excited and looking forward to the day!

After another atrocious night's sleep (CLANG, THUMP, BOING, CLANG, CLANG) we woke up like zombies and shuffled off to get some breakfast. We then started thinking about heading over to the private island and seeing what's on offer. Ok, first things first: the private island can only be reached by tender boat -- there is no Docking Cay at Stirrup Cay so instead NCL use a system of tickets and you get a place on a tender boat which transports you to the island. If you thought SC was going to be in any way as easy to get to as Labadee (where you simply walk off the ship onto the beach), think again. So, you take a ticket from the pool deck and after about an hour's wait you can head down to the tender. The tender itself is a rickety, two floor barge which takes an age to fill with people and then another 25 minutes to get to the island: be sure you want to go before you go to the trouble!

With that out the way we found ourselves on the magnificent island of Stirrup Cay!! Fantastic in every way, except that it's a half finished building site. It became instantly clear that NCL's Private Island is more of a Private Joke. There are around 450 loungers: for 3000 people. The 'sand' is actually crushed rock, sharp and nasty underfoot. The buildings look like a collection of cinderblock shacks: because they are. There is no shade on the whole island; all the palm trees are young and offer no respite from the sun whatsoever. A lot of the 'beach' is machined rock and is wickedly slippery under-foot.

So our first moments on "Amateur Hour Island" were not impressive, but we swore an oath to give the place the benefit of the doubt and have fun! We headed off for a swim and snorkel and then decided to go to the buffet. The buffet is a grill set up in a large shack with three lines running into it; it is also the worst run buffet we've ever seen. The lines are disorderly, there are few staff and the staff that were there sent a group of people into the middle of the line ("You can skip the salad if you don't want any") which allowed a nice fight to break out with people waiting in the line for "cutting the line". Anyway, we stood in line to be greeted by some under-cooked burgers, no juice ready (not enough staff to keep up there) and the deserts / fruit portion of the buffet was COVERED with flies. Looking around, there was not one single device to halt a fly's progress, with no insectecutors, fly-paper or anything else that's a common fixture at Labadee.

We got some ribs and went to sit down. The seating is very much like Labadee, in two large shaded over awnings. The major difference with Labadee is that on Amateur Hour Island there are Terns and Seagulls just waiting to steal your food. As you eat, you can enjoy the wailing of hundreds of gulls screeching at you while NCL staff chase them around trying to keep them from flying directly in and eating your food. I wish I was joking, but at least it explains why there seemed to be a lack of staff: they are all on 'scare off the gannets duty'!!!

With poor food, no loungers available and only a half hearted bar service (if you've ever had bar service on Labadee, you'll know how it should be done) we decided to return to the ship. Now, my review of the Island seems very negative, so I'll list a few good things about the island here:

Yes, that's right: there was not one single plus point on the island whatsoever and the whole half-baked dump was a real disappointment. A waste of time and effort: if you are thinking of booking an NCL cruise because 'oooh, they have a private island, just like RC's!' then please re-consider: you can have better fun staying at home and playing in a quarry. Sorry NCL, but you can't just open up a pile of 'sand' to tourists and call it an exciting adventure on a private island.

Later that night after dinner we decided to try a cigar in the cigar room. Now to fill you in, I'm not much of a smoker, nor is my wife, but we found the cigar bar nice places to be on RC ships, usually with an interesting person or two you can have an intelligent conversation with rolled in. The service in the RC cigar bars has been excellent, with knowledgeable staff who will find the right smoke for you, cut it and light it for you and then cater to your drink whims (the staff at the bars on the RC ships we went to had no problem running to another bar to mix my wife a cocktail, for instance. VERY good service). With that in mind, I don't mind smoking a cigar or two on a cruise ship simply for the company and having a nice drink with like-minded people.

So, off we went to the cigar room. Ugh, what a hole. The 'cigar room' is a tiny closet of a room with some dingy tables, ashtrays FULL of ash, no lighters, no cigar cutting equipment and whilst there were cigars in the display cabinets (which were not humidors) there was no member of staff in sight to help you buy one. The bar was outside the 'cigar room' so you had to order drinks after you'd put your smoke out! Again, just more NCL half-assedness. It's even sadder, as it's the only place on the ship you can smoke a pipe or cigar.

Not allowing this to ruin the fun though, we got some drinks from outside, lit up and decided to strike up a conversation with the sage-looking fellow beside us. He threw out his first conversational gambit 'I done think umbama should be inpeached because he's givin' all our monies to China {sic}' -- we smiled, nodded, complimented the gentleman on his John Deere Cap (and his great manners at leaving it on indoors) then promptly smoked a whole cigar in thirty seconds and left.

Now, that brings me neatly onto another vexation of the whole trip. The loud, ignorant, ill mannered, selfish, stupidity of a section of the passengers on the ship. I realise that NCL can't be responsible for who books with them, but I'm also aware that certain lines at certain times and from certain ports have a certain type of clientele, so here it is for you. Kids running everywhere with grossly overweight 'parents' bawling at them. People 'talking' to each other by shouting (until this cruise I had never believed in the 'Loud, Obnoxious American' stereotype; but now I can see how it happened). People barging everywhere (no 'excuse me') and pushing through crowds. No 'please' or 'thank you' to any of the staff. Older kids shouting obscenities to the younger ones and then the parents shouting back to 'stop f--ing swearing'; honestly, a bad script writer couldn't make it up.

Again, I need to stress this was not everyone and probably not even the majority of passengers: but on a ship at sea it only takes a few to make the rest miserable, especially if the crew don't care and let it all slide. On any good restaurant I've been to on land, I don't think the staff would let me get away with shouting at my daughter to 'shut the f--k up', but on this ship it's OK! Similarly, if your precious snowflake just HAS to dive into the adults pool (a place kids are not allowed) and ruin everyone's swim, then the NCL staff turning a blind eye is great news for you!

No, with this crowd if the crew gave an instruction to the passengers (if they could hear it over the din of their own voices) they would disobey it within a millisecond. I lost count of the amount of times that the crew had to tell people to stop milling about at random and blocking the fire escape routes on the ship and to stop taking flash photos of the dancers and acrobats: it just wasn't funny. Almost every corridor would have some group of idiots blocking it gabbing away to a friend about something; so much so that getting in and out of the theatre, a sixty second job on RC ships, could take ten minutes! At the lifeboat drill, the crew just gave up on trying to stop everyone chattering and paying attention to instructions. Fine, you don't want to listen to safety instructions, that's ok, but PLEASE shut your hole so I can.

Within just two days I really began to have a huge sympathy for the crew on this trip: they put up with so much crap from the kids while the 'parents' just sat and watched. In our dining room the second night, we watched a large family of 'shouters' as we have come to know them eating and the kids were running under the table and throwing bread around and spilling soup everywhere. When the family left the crew visibly sighed and relaxed, then stripped the whole table and spent 10 minutes tidying up... Only for the next seating to be exactly the same!

Various crew members had various theories about how and why the crowd was like this, ranging from 'hey, we took on in NYC!' to 'it's school holiday time' -- but having travelled from New Jersey on RC and having friends who live in NYC and NJ who are more than pleasant I don't buy the first notion. And having travelled outside term time before without any of the problems on this cruise, I'm not convinced about the second explanation either. I think the answer is simple: NCL just attracts a different class of person, the class you might not want to share a ship with for any length of time!

Interestingly, staff at the customer services (who will remain totally anonymous) agreed 100% with our findings and couldn't suggest any remedy, pointing out that they themselves just have to 'endure it' too. They also hinted that the GEM had more than its fair share of noise complaints' due to design and that we were not the first to mention it that cruise.

Ok, enough of the who and back to the where. The next part of the ship I'd like to tell you about is the theatre. I'm going to pay it a great compliment here and tell you that the shows are fantastic! The singers, dancers and stage performers were excellent. The design of the theatre however, was not. The first thing we noticed: no drinks holders in the chairs. Minor matter, but an important one if you don't want a drink spilt on you! Next up, the entry and exit rows from the top run through the seating; the disabled seating no less, so when you are trying to climb over the poor lady in a wheelchair with the rest of the theatre, you can thank whichever genius designed the place. I'd also like to ask that genius what he thought he was doing designing the top wing seating with a glass screen and railing totally obstructing the front row's vision!?

We loved the shows at the theatre, but we did not enjoy attending because the other passengers didn't think it possible to stop talking for even a half hour while a show was on. That's right; that idiot in front of you wearing a baseball cap inside and blocking everyone's view? He's not going to shut up for the whole show either. Sure, staff will tell him, but he'll ignore them and they'll let it slide. By all means try to move and find a quieter seat; it's not possible, so you can forget the theatre if you were looking to relax and watch a show in peace too.

Now, so far this review has been very negative (well, so was our experience, sorry it's not better news) so for a while I'd like to focus on the positive of this cruise!

I've already mentioned that the food was overall better than RC and that the entertainment was top-notch. I'd like to go on and say that our cruise director staff were good too. The cruise director and assistant cruise director were courteous, friendly and had bags of personality. On the last day the management staff did a theatrical dance routine called 'fountains' which has been one of the funniest things I've ever seen on a cruise ship and speaks volumes about the people that NCL have working for them at that level. Take note, RC.

Another thing I would desperately like RC to take note of, is NCL's on-cruise Art Auction. It was excellent! Having been to many 'art actually' auctions on RC ships, we almost didn't go to the NCL offering from 'West Park', but did in the end. Glad I did, the staff were knowledgeable, witty and the auction actually got going and sold some big pieces. We came away with a bundle of nice art for our house for less than the cost of only a couple of pieces on land. THIS is how it should be done! Top marks to NCL there.

Ok, having written this, I'm now unsure of how to wrap it up exactly, so I'll throw in a few random goods and bads and you can decide for yourself!


-Chocoholics night in the buffet was outstanding
-The Star Bar on the top deck is the nicest bar on the whole ship and is usually quiet


-Garden Cafe has the basketball court above it; great if you haven't slept in 5 nights
-Ship has been designed by an idiot and almost every detail makes no sense whatsoever; you'll feel like a lab rat in some bizarre experiment most of the time
-Bar staff couldn't mix a good Mojito to save their lives.

So, in conclusion, contrary to my expectations I was exceptionally disappointed in the NCL 'experience' and will not be booking with them in the future. If you think on comparing the two companies 'oh it's similar price to RC and they have a private island like RC, so NCL is just another RC' then please, I implore you: think again!! Less

Published 08/03/12

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