Chose this cruise because of the departure port and Caribbean tour. Enjoyed NCL cruise a couple of years ago so decided to stick with the line. Overall, the trip was meh. Had no expectations, and that was good. The folks who wrote five-star reviews of this ship were definitely sailing on a different ship.
Embarkation: The Gem got into port late that morning so it was extreme chaos and took many hours. I expected and was prepared to wait but not for as many hours as we did. Finally boarded and first impression was crazy crowd of people trying to squeeze onto the few elevators. Total madness. Hiked down to cabin; it was ready and fine. Time to dine.
Food: Lines for complimentary restaurants looked long so hiked all the way up to Garden Buffet. Food that night was poor at best - there were just two things I would eat - and there were no seats except the outside section, which was open even though it was snowing. Ate dinner standing up at perimeter like many others. Staff was working hard but was overwhelmed b/c ship is small - you can easily see out of windows on each side if you turn your head - and it was full. (Complimentary restaurants in following days were better choices.) Did not get seasick, but saw others suffering - this ship does not have the heavy stabilization system of large ships where you feel nothing, and it rocked like a manic cradle in rough seas. Something to know. (I found it hilarious but felt bad for the folks who got sick.)
At sea: Three long days before first port, as we knew. Pool deck always crowded - hard to find a seat - Jamrock band that played for hours was too loud and could not make out one single word sung. (And I really love reggae btw.) It was not at all relaxing to sit on crowded deck listening to neverending noise - um, music - but that was your only choice if you wanted to enjoy the sun. Thankfully, bartenders there and everywhere with one exception (Topsider) were absolutely fantastic, especially Reggie. Casino visited at night of course was simply a money vacuum but fun until cash was gone. The dealers looked terribly sad.
Positives: Good weather, very clean, very pretty ship and very few children - win-win-win. And bartenders. Bless them all. You will really need them. They served us quickly with a smile and they cared. Thank you, bartenders!
Ports: Aruba was the best; beach we went to on our own was very beautiful and relaxing. Other ports were nice, however leaving Bonaire and St. Lucia (?) at 1 p.m. was a bit early. We knew it was a tasting menu of islands of course; just be aware of the schedule and be sure to reset your watch when the ship time changes. (Had no problems, thank goodness, but can see that catching folks by surprise.)
Entertainment: Bliss was a cool lounge. Went there a couple of times. Piano player/singer was good. Did not see shows after the one starring the highly vaunted juggler-comedian, who thoroughly embarrassed himself and his audience and did not care. Movies on the large screen were mostly very old and also poor choices. Huge missed opportunity - previous NCL ship knew how to do movie nights right and they were much enjoyed by many. Some diversions and contests also, but many too many sales presentations. We avoided the art sale events and the ubiquitous photographers because we know the goods are very poor and shockingly overpriced.
Positives: Most of the staff works very, very hard and we really appreciated that. Thank you, NCL staff! Did not have to wait to eat in complimentary restaurants - that was terrific. Some of the food was good and some was not - kind of a gamble really - but the service was consistently very good. (If you value food quantity over quality you will be totally thrilled - you can eat till you burst.) Small size of Gem means you learned the layout pretty quickly, and the signage at the elevators was excellent. The bridge room viewing area was very cool.
Most passengers were cool and many were friendly. There were loud exceptions of course. Didn't socialize a lot because I found the crowds a bit intimidating, but we met two nice couples and I did see folks wading in to crowds on the top deck and having good times.
Decided when I stepped onboard to enjoy my trip no matter what, and so I did. Attitude is everything. Definitely felt relaxed once home. Sunning oneself in the winter is fun.
Sharing my impressions, good and not, with you in the hope of being helpful. (Re my title, it honestly did feel like "Survivor: Cruise Edition" at points though. It was challenging; many issues are not detailed here and high points were few and far between. And short.) I was more than happy when we finally arrived at our home port. Disembarking was not as crazy as embarkation, but still took three-quarters of forever and tested everyone. Carry your own luggage and pack extra patience if you go. Will be exploring other cruise lines personally. ...