Trip Report (with some tips and recommendations)
Norwegian Gem, Nov 3-10, 2018, New York City to Florida/Bahamas
Our goal was to just “get away.” The destination and cruise line were secondary. We wanted a 7-day cruise to anywhere warm, where the departure/return ports were within driving distance, and at a reasonable cost.
Norwegian offers Freestyle cruising, which means you can eat whenever you want. The dining options and hours are printed on the Freestyle Daily newsletter you will receive each evening. Some restaurants are open-seating and some will take reservations. If you’re hungry, there will be some place to get food.
My Travel Partner (TP) and I did not travel with children, so this report will have very little information about them. There are Splash Academy (Ages 3-12) and Entourage (Ages 13-17) for these groups.
Checking in at the NY cruise terminal
We arrived at noon and the place was packed! It didn’t help that Disney passengers were checking in at the same time, so it’s hard to say whether arriving earlier or later would have been better. In many reviews I read prior to the trip, passengers arrived at around 10:00am; some reviews recommended to arrive later to avoid the early rush. The cruise document says boarding begins at noon, to NOT arrive before 11:00am, but must be on board “no later than 2 hours prior to departure,” which is 1:00pm. If it helps, the buffets open at 11:30am and the dining room at noon, otherwise, we cannot recommend what to do here for lack of information.
First things first
It will take a few hours to receive your luggage, so go find your room, then go to the buffet. Good luck with this strategy since everyone else will be doing the same thing. The problem with the Garden Café buffet is the lack of seating. There is spill-over seating into the Great Outdoors buffet (the food is the same for both), which is fine if it is warm outside. NYC in November is not exactly warm. Sometimes, they will open La Cucina for more spill-over seating. If La Cucina is closed and it is cold and/or rainy outside, your dining experience may not be good. If you’re on the Ultimate Beverage Package (UBP), good luck with that too! Every bar will be packed with sober passengers wanting to get drunk. Recommendation: Next time, I would try the Grand Pacific dining room and order off the menu. It goes against the all-you-can-eat mantra of starting a cruise, but you can order as much as you want in the dining room and be served, as opposed to serving yourself.
Ultimate Beverage Package
TP and I had separate rooms and only one of us had the “free” UBP. We decided to share it. (Some cruisers have a problem with sharing the UBP. We did not have a problem sharing and will not debate it with anyone.) You are allowed to order two drinks at a time with no wait-time between orders. Be sure to read the list of drinks that do not qualify, and that includes bottled water (see below). Since sharing is not allowed, we were discreet about it. We poured drinks into travel mugs and/or drank in the rooms. It worked very well. The bartenders swipe your key card for every drink you order. A sales tax was added while docked or within 12 nautical miles of NYC and Port Canaveral. There was no tax while at-sea or at the Bahamas/GSC. If you have On-Board Credit, it can be used to pay this tax. The standard cocktails were in the $10-$12 range. They offered a Drink of the Day for $8.95. The cost did not matter to us, but it gave us a reason to try different drinks. The Long Island Iced Teas and Bahama Mamas were good. The Signature Mai Tais were not. The Moscow Mule was weird. As a side note: I was unaware of this tax until I checked my account on the room TV. There were charges of $1.23, $1.53, and $0.70 from the various bars, but the descriptions did not specify what these charges were for. To get more information, I checked with the Reception Desk. Without additional proof, we believe this is a sales tax levied by the municipalities, not by NCL, and did not deter us from drinking whenever we wanted. Recommendation: No way would we pay the $89.00 + 20% ($17.80) service charge per day, but do check your account periodically for any charges you may not recognize.
Bottled Water vs Tap Water
There must be something magical about the bottled water we don’t know about. Strangely, it is NOT included with the UBP. If you want it, you can order the Water Package:
(6) one-liter bottles for $14.95
(12) one-liter bottles for $27.95
(24) one-liter bottles for $44.95
Prices do not include a “20% gratuity and beverage service charge…[and] applicable VAT (sales tax?) for certain ports of call.” Or you can fill your water bottles from the tap or water stations for free. The tap water tasted fine with us with no negative reactions. The tap does come from reverse osmosis of seawater.
The Cruise Norwegian app
You must be logged into NCL’s free wifi, otherwise this app is useless. This free wifi is different from the not-free internet package. The app allows you to review the day’s schedule; the schedule will also be in the Freestyle Daily newsletter. You could make dining room reservations through the app, but don’t trust it if it says “sold out.” The Orchid Garden and Magenta were both sold out, but we went there anyway and found out they did not accept reservations. I believe you can activate the texting function for $9.95/device, but we did not do this. Recommendation: It didn’t seem to matter. It was good to have the schedule handy at all times. One of us carried around a smartphone, the other had the paper copy, and we were both quite happy.
Internet and phone calls
The 250-minute internet package was sufficient for email, but we could not make VoIP calls. Once you connect to the ship’s wifi, you go to login.com, create an account, then login. Very simple. The homepage tells you how many minutes you used and have left. Just make sure you logout, otherwise the clock will keep running.
Standard calling from Port Canaveral was no problem. There was no cell signal on sea days (that we were aware of), but NCL offered in-cabin calling for $4.99/min. Intra-ship calling was free. You would need to be on an international plan to call from Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay (we did see a cell tower amongst the palm trees!).
We walked through the casino a few times, but the smoke was bothersome so we did not play. The craps table limit was $10.00 with 3x-4x-5x odds.
Port Canaveral, FL
If the ship is docked on the north side, you cannot walk to the south side (this was confirmed by the Canaveral Port Authority prior to the trip). We decided to stay onboard and chill with our drinks and books. Buses and taxis were waiting at the terminal.
Great Stirrup Cay
You need to tender to the island and you DO need to bring your government-issued photo ID and key card. You will need to pick up a boarding ticket at 8:00am the same day to know when you will board the tender. Getting on the island first is key if you want a beach chair in the shade. There are plenty of beach chairs, but not many in the shade. Also, there are no lockers. Just bring the minimum that you need. If you want to snorkel, bring your own gear (mask, snorkel, fins, snorkel vest). There are lifeguards on duty and it was not clear if they were enforcing the vest requirement. You can rent one for $5.00, or buy one (before the trip) at Amazon for $20.00. It doesn’t hurt to have one. The Underwater Sculpture Garden is a little ways out from the main beach maybe 50 yards, marked by three buoys. The main beach is mostly sand, so not too many fish. If you want to see more fish, take a 5-10 minute walk to the west (left when facing the water on the main beach) to the last set of beach chairs near the tide pools where the signs says to stay off the rocks. (We ignored the sign and walked on the rocks to check out the little tide pools.) The fishies like the rocks!
The food is a part of the cruise, so no additional cost, and available 11am-2pm. You can go to Abaco Taco or the buffet or both. If you’re on the UBP, the drinks are included as well. Recommendation: Worth getting off the ship. Water shoes/sandals are better than flip-flops. Bring a little cash if you find a souvenir you like.
We were aware of the travel advisory issued by the U.S. State Dept, the Bahamas Minister of Tourism complaining that cruise passengers are not spending enough money, and the negative reviews by other cruisers. We were going to stay on the ship, but we decided to get off and limit ourselves to Bay St., between Parliament St. and Market St. There were two other ships present, so there’s safety strength in numbers, right? It was not that bad. There were locals trying to sell you stuff, but politely say “no thank you” and they will not bother you. It was our first visit to Nassau, so it was worth the walk, but there really was not much to see other than an endless array of souvenir junk. It’s the world’s largest market for shot glasses, T-shirts, hats, refrigerator magnets, and trinkets. I’ve been on an Alaskan cruise and it was funny to see the same stores (Diamonds International, Cariloha (bamboo sheets), and Del Sol (color-changing clothing)). It’s good to know I can get these “unique” items anywhere in the world! Recommendation: We can see why repeat visitors don’t bother getting off the ship
There was one main show each evening in the Stardust Theater. On most days, you had the option of attending the 7:00pm or 9:00pm show. Some shows were at 8:00pm only -- get there 30 minutes early for these. The Norwegian Gem Production Cast was very good -- high-energy singing and dancing. We enjoyed Justin Golan at Magnum’s. He’s very talented with the piano and can sing and play just about anything you want. Comedian Dylan Mandlsohn should not be missed either. Recommendation: We enjoyed the shows.
We were on the early schedule, more from habit than by choice, so we missed all of the 10:00pm parties at Spinnaker. Day 6 was Norwegian’s signature White Hot Dance Party. Apparently, the Norwegian Gem Production Cast was present and did their thing. Regrettably, we missed it.
Formal night - There is no ship-wide formal night. You can choose which night(s) you want to dress up, then go to the Grand Pacific dining room. This dining room is nicer than the Magenta dining room, but the menu is the same. You can dress up every night or no nights -- it’s up to you.
Binoculars - If you have a balcony room, we recommend bringing a pair of binoculars. We had them and used them a lot!
Specialty Dining - We are not hardcore foodies, so the standard fare was perfectly fine with us. We both gained weight.
Keeping with the Freestyle theme, you have the option of self-disembarking with your luggage. We recommend this! The caveat is you must do so without crew assistance. You will be the first group to disembark. The buffet opens at 6:00am, you need to vacate your room by 8:30am, and off the ship by 9:00am. You will follow the crowd through U.S. Customs, then proceed to the lower deck of 12th Street (you arrived and checked in on the upper deck). The line moves slowly, but it’s still quicker than disembarking in the after-9:00am groups.
Overall, a very enjoyable and memorable trip. The service all the way around was outstanding! Although we do highly recommend the Norwegian Gem, we would be open to sailing other cruise lines and other Norwegian ships.
Inside Stateroom (IC) and Mini-Suite with Balcony (MA)
The floor plans shown at NCL.com are accurate. Both rooms had two 110V and one 220V (European) outlets (no outlets in the bathroom). The mini-suite had a tea/coffee maker, the inside did not. The mini-suite had a shower/tub; the inside was shower only. The toilet, sink, and shower were all separated by two see-through doors in the mini-suite; in the inside, there was no door between the toilet and sink, but there was a see-through door for the shower. Both rooms had a telephone, safe, small refrigerator, TV, and beach towels. The outside door is metal, so you can affix magnetic message boards on it. We slid notes under the door. Stiff index cards worked better than notebook paper because of the narrow gap between the door and floor. The TV had limited shows, but plenty of onboard information, including your Account Review, Navigation info, Movies ($9.99), Dining, Parental Controls, Ports & Tours, Messages, Spa, Onboard Attractions, Casinos at Sea, Onboard Services, Onboard Shopping, and Bars & Lounges.
If you are considering an inside stateroom, be aware that it is small. The picture on the website is THE bedroom. That’s it! The main bed is two twins that can be pushed together (like in the picture) or separated. The third bed folds down from the wall. It’s probably not too bad for two adults and two children. It may be claustrophobic with 3-4 adults. After you make your reservation, NCL may offer you an Upgrade Advantage. This is a program where you can bid on an upgrade. If NCL accepts your bid (as late as two days prior to your sail date), your credit card will be charged automatically and you will receive an email of your new room assignment. Your perks will not change, but the additional cost may be worth the larger room.