This was the first cruise that my boyfriend and I have been on. Guess you could say that we didn't really have a benchmark to compare our experience to, but we certainly do now. And the benchmark is set LOW. I wouldn't say that it was completely unpleasant as the ports were beautiful, but the feeling we take away from the the experience was that we're constantly having to'watch our backs'. Because if we're not careful, we will fall for one of NCL's hard selling traps and be slapped with extra charges.
But before I get to that, here are some general highlights:
Room: We stayed at a Penthouse suite at the bow of ship. It was smaller than I expected, and the decor was really gaudy. For example, our carpet was bright green with red butterflies, quite distracting really. I expected tacky, but this was pretty bad. We embarked early, and caught a glimpse of the Owner's suite next to ours, and immediately tried to pay for an upgrade, but apparently, others had the same idea, as we were put on a long waitlist (that is, if the original people don't show up.. small chance, but worth a try!) Anyway, we felt our room paled in comparison, maybe we shouldn't have been so nosy! Now I see that the extra money would've been worth it. So if you plan on booking the penthouse, maybe consider Owner's if it fits your budget. Gorgeous suite, with bathroom size probably 3-4 times bigger than ours.
By the way, our suite is on deck 9, 2 decks above the Stardust theatre. So it gets noisy when shows are going on. Fortunately, the shows don't go on for too long.
The bed was large and really comfortable, but maybe alittle too soft because our backs were sore by the third or fourth night. We noticed that smaller cabins also had beds of the same size, so at least they ensure that you get a good night's rest regardless of the size of your room. Best part of room was the HUGE balcony, which we made good use of when we arrived and departed from the ports. Another two extras that I liked about our suite are the Lavazza espresso machine, and Elemis toilettries (very large bottles). Also, we had a bowl of fresh fruits and different canapes waiting for us every day after our shore excursion (Eg. cheese, chocolate dipped strawberries). Our butler was very helpful, and we could always find him (fast dial to his mobile!)
We were invited to two exclusive cocktail parties for "VIP guests", where we got drinks on the Captain. That was nice. Believe me, all the guests took advantage of the open bar!
Food: We had breakfast on our balcony most mornings catching the sunrise as we arrived at the ports. Beautiful! Pretty much could order any breakfast item we wanted, even if it wasn't on the room service menu provided.
I'd say food in general was pretty average. Our favorite restaurant was Le Bistro (French), we had dinner there twice. Grand Pacific twice, which surprisingly was good. I like the fact that they give small portions, so that you can have room for the wide selection of appetizers and desserts ( these change daily, so variety is good.) Cagney's is free of cover charge for breakfast and lunch because we stayed in the Penthouse suite. Food was average, but since we like to dine in a more quiet setting, this was a better choice for us than the main dining halls. Stay away from the Sushi Bar! We are from Asia, and may be spoiled with top notch Japanese food, but honestly, this was the worst sushi we've ever had. The raw fish was not fresh at all. We only ordered one plate of sushi, and couldn't even finish half. Not worth the cover charge.
Public Area: The Tahitian pool area was way too crowded/noisy. They seem to alway have a band playing there, which I guess is to create a more festive atmosphere, but we found it to be alittle annoying (and cheesy! But I guess that's just personal taste.) We ended up paying about USD 160 for a couple's pass to the spa area where there is a private jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, etc. We only used it twice, but since they only have 80 passes, it ensures that the area doesn't get overcrowded.
Shows: Only one we enjoyed was The Second City, a comedy/improv show. Quite funny. The rest was pretty cheesy and boring.
My boyfriend wanted to highlight some things that particularly bothered him:
Firstly, you really have to have your guards up when it comes to their hard selling. Even though I've read about it beforehand, I have to admit that we still fell for it a couple times. They got their sales pitches down pat. For example, after the massage treatment (deep tissue was great, but didn't like Swedish massage as it was too light), they recommended some massage oils/gels, which we ended up purchasing. Also, we bought the wine package where you choose 6 bottles, and get 20% off. However, the price came out to be way more than we expected, and we didn't catch this charge on our bill until after we disembarked, so I'll need to follow up. We are positive that it shouldn't be so much, given the 20% discount. Sadly, I get the feeling that this won't be resolved.
Secondly, be careful with the costly NCL shore excursions. They tend to try scaring the unsuspecting cruisers into thinking that local tour guides are highly unreliable and inefficient. Not true. Again, do your research and meet with others in the roll call thread. We met really friendly people, and definitely recommend it. Not to mention, we saved a lot of $$$!! I understand that NCL is charging more for the convenience, but they are charging 3-5 times more than local prices!
The only port I'd recommend for a shore excursion with NCL is Cannes, France because I was told that people booked with NCL excursions get priority with the tenders that take you to shore. Since you only get half a day there, it would be worth the money if you want to make best use of time. We took the tour "Monaco and Eze". However, be warned, NCL obviously don't screen for quality of tour operators because our tour guide, Celine, was NOT informative at all, and quite lazy. She basically took us to the destination, told us to meet back at a certain time, and that was it!
Our concierge was completely useless, he isn't helpful at all. We were planning on exploring Florence on our own, but last minute (night before we arrived) we inquired on an NCL shore excursion, in particular, one that included a lunch at a 5 star hotel. However, we were told that it was too late to book with them. That's fine with us, but we wanted to know what was the name of the restaurant, so that we may go ourselves. Our concierge bluntly said that he can't tell us the name, that it was for the NCL tour group. I guess I'm not aware that NCL owns this private restaurant and has made it exclusive to a set group of people. Are they afraid that the others will realize that they are paying 2-3 times more for the exact same meal? Whatever the policy is for the concierge, he was just NOT helpful at all in providing any suggestions for activities at ports of call, instead he is focused on hard selling NCL excursions.
All in all, my boyfriend and I wanted a more romantic, luxurious, European experience. And having to be constantly conscious of all the "nickel and diming" was just tiring. So, NCL Gem was not really our thing.