This was our second NCL cruise (the first being the Jewel last Nov from Miami) Same room levels (AF for us and an inside cabin (II) for our two girls)
Leaving out of NY is a totally different experience! The positives include easy drop-off at the port (we live in NJ), sailing under the Verazzano Bridge in the snow and seeing the Statue of Liberty. Plus not having to fly during the xmas season is big. The negatives were cold weather and very rough seas - but these were expected.
The Gem is a beautiful, clean ship with lots of service minded people. The first meal was lunch from the buffet and it was not very fun - the seating situation was awful and really did not improve throughout the cruise. Even with the overflow going to La Cucina, there was not enough seating. With the outdoor seating unavailable to due to weather for the first few days, we could not figure out why other restaurants were not opened for seating/serving. Our first night out was very rough, but we made it to Teppanyaki and enjoyed good food and a fun 'show' DH and DD1 liked the show while DD2 and myself were cabin bound for the evening due to mild nausea. Fifty mile/hr winds and monstrous waves can do that to you!
We were smart and upon boarding the ship DH and I bought two spa passes for the Thermal Room. Only about 85 were sold and we used the warming chairs, sauna and hot tubs everyday.
The girls (13 and 10) had fun exploring the ship - DD1 checked out the teen club and was disappointed - more often than not, no one showed up. She did get to do rock climbing once and met some people to hang out with. DD2 got a bit gypped in the Kid's club dept. The little ones have their own space with fun equipment, the teens have their own lounge with stuff to do. The 10-12 year olds had a conference room next to the Stardust Theater. She dabbled in and out and was not really happy with it, although she enjoyed the end of the cruise pajama party.
We had a great meal at La Cucina the following evening! We also ate dinner at Blue Lagoon, Tequila and the Grand Pacific. All the food was very good with good service.
I went to the CC M&G on Sunday - it was so nice meeting everyone. The officers were very solicitous and answered all the questions.
We tried to eat most breakfasts in the Grand Pacific as we appreciated not having to walk around looking for seating early in the morning. We did find it frustrating that the closing times changed from day to day (we were not great about reading the FD) and that if we wanted to eat there we had to be there before 9 most days. Not so fun on vacation. The other thing that bothered us at the GP was the wait to be seated. Many times, the line would be out the door with many tables being free. It seemed as if the hostess simply could not get it together with the servers - or there were not enough people available to escort guests to tables, resulting in lengthy waits.
The shows were mediocre. When we sailed the Jewel last November, we saw shows by the Jean Ann Ryan company that rivaled off-broadway productions. I don't know if it was b/c it was xmas week or due to budgetary cutbacks, but all the shows were done by the in-house dancers/singers. The exceptions being the juggling, Second City (very funny) and Bryan G (weak). The Gem female singers were great - the males were ok. The shows as a whole were mildly amusing and a pleasant way to pass some time. Nothing compared to what we had seen on the Jewel - which was a shame.
The ports of call were pleasant - on time arrivals/departures and relatively smooth sailing. Great Stirrup Key was a huge disappointment. NCL needs to bring the caliber of this private island way up! Tendering over took some people over two+ hours and we were only there for about 6 hours. There were three tenders for 3000 people. They had a number system (you had to wait online that morning for a number - kind of annoying). Once you got to the island - you realized that there were maybe chairs/chaises for about 700-900 people and the rest were expected to sit at picnic tables and the like. Now, I like a picnic as much as the next person - but when I goto the beach - I want to sit on the beach. As did all 3000 other people. NCL needs to more fully develop the island (taking a page out of Disney's book) and manage to create a dock, have facilities for the majority of the passengers and create a non-crowded beach. We brought our own snorkeling equipment and then were told we HAD to have vests (fine, safety is paramount) and that we HAD to pay for them. Not expensive, just frustrating to have to do.
Myself and DD1 went back and enjoyed the pool which was nice and empty:-)
Despite the rough seas going out and coming back, it was a good week. We spent quality time together. Yes, there was illness on the ship as others have reported - but we sanitized and washed etc. and put up with the lines at the buffet when it stopped being self-service. Some people were not so nice about it - but I looked at it as NCL was trying to keep everyone else from being sick!
I would cruise NCL again - but out of NY, I would wait for warmer weather, as it would alleviate several issues. I would also try to find out what shows were being run (something I did not think to do beforehand - although it seems like I read every post on the Gem - twice!)
Just my thoughts:-)
Underneath the Leopard lounge so a bit noisy some nights. Earplugs made it a non issue.
Loved the Airboat excursion. Chilly but fun. We saw alligators, enjoyed a wildlife show and tasted fried alligator.