This is my 26th review for Cruise Critic. Unlike some reviewers that join this group just to complain about a bad experience, I have, for the past 10+ years felt obliged to write about my cruise experiences. I am a professional writer in ... Read More
This is my 26th review for Cruise Critic. Unlike some reviewers that join this group just to complain about a bad experience, I have, for the past 10+ years felt obliged to write about my cruise experiences. I am a professional writer in another life which tends to make my reviews long and thorough. If you want to know simply if we liked our time on the Gem, just count the stars. If you want to know the how’s and why’s, read and enjoy.
This was our 47th cruise and our 13th with Norwegian. We favor RCCL because of the perks from their loyalty program (we are Diamond with them) but we went on this cruise for the itinerary. We are both in our early-mid 60’s.
NCL has an updated cellphone app and I’m happy to report that it is finally worthwhile. Previously it had been so far behind RCCL’s app that it was abysmal. I started making dinner reservations 5 weeks before boarding. I’m not sure that you can even do that with RCCL’s app. The dinner reservations that I made weeks before boarding began populating a calendar in the app immediately. This is a HUGE improvement and makes the app very useful. The Freestyle Daily is on the app; a huge improvement, but you still can’t add to your calendar the daily activities that you want to partake in. This app is way better than it used to be but if you have sampled Royal Caribbean’s app you can’t help but compare.
We got to the terminal at 11am and the security line was already a bit backed up. Our Platinum status with NCL had us on the vessel by 11:30 and that is with a slow moving queue in the gangway. My first impression of the ship was excellent. The ocean view stateroom (#4602) is a bit roomier than expected and the bathroom has a door that closes off the toilet and another one that contains the shower, both nice touches especially for a low-end room. Storage is plentiful. This was a 3-week cruise. We didn’t pack for 3 weeks as we always plan to have laundry done mid-cruise, but there was more storage than we needed. This isn’t the case on the Breakaway, for example, which sorely lacks in places for clothes in the cabins that we have stayed in.
We had lunch in the Grand Pacific dining room. Surely better than dealing with the masses in the food hall on boarding day. It is too crazy up there for us.
Dinner at Teppanyaki was exceptional! We have always liked this venue, but this time was even better than we’d remembered. A+! It was weird to be the only 2 people in there. I’m not sure why no one books specialty dining on the first night of a cruise. We always do. We finished the first day at the casino.
The first breakfast in the mess hall was typical. We didn’t have trouble getting a seat. Breakfast was fine, service was good. Still too cold outside for me! As Platinum members, we got priority tender tickets and headed ashore at Santa Barbara. We didn’t spend much time ashore but relaxed aboard and had dinner in the Grand Pacific. We don’t often eat in the MDR, but it was good and so was the service. The magician was ok, nothing spectacular. As we expected, this cruise is full of people in their 70’s and 80’s. There won’t be much clamoring for seats at the theater or at a restaurant. I suspect that They’re all going to have an early bedtime.
Day 3 began with an early arrival in LA and breakfast at O’Sheehan. Breakfast here is boring and predictable but there are ample tables and a waitstaff. We did an excursion to Rodeo Drive and met family for lunch there which was great. Dinner was at Le Bistro, the French specialty dining venue. Instead of using one of our dining package credits, I used one of the Platinum specialty dining vouchers. I assumed that these were equivalent to a specialty dining meal but they are not. There are a number of restrictions and ultimately it gives NCL the opportunity to show how they really can “nickel and dime” you to death. Example: my wife had the Lamb. There was an upcharge of $1.20. I had the Filet Mignon which had no upcharge. (Both were outstanding). In the end, they handed us a check for $1.20. This epitomizes “nickel and diming” in my view. It’s hard to believe that they do this with a straight face!
Day 4 was a sea day. We relaxed. It was still rather cool outside, perhaps a bit around 70, but we spent some time on deck. The barbecue lunch was decent. There aren’t many activities planned on this ship. We don’t live for the activities but it is odd to see so few. We spent some time at the art auction.
The menu selection at the MDRs didn’t seem interesting so, without a reservation, we showed up at La Cucina, the Italian specially restaurant. We had an excellent meal.
At the theater was a sing and dance show called Swing. It was ok. We didn’t stay for the whole thing. We relaxed for the rest of the night.
On day 5, we arrived in Cabo San Lucas at around 11. We have a Camel back ride on the beach planned here. We strongly recommend this excursion. Excellent time.
I’m puzzled by the Cruise Director Luz. I don’t live and die by the cruise director. I don’t need them to have a good time, but in my view, she is a dud. Her thick Latin accent is a bit of a crutch but that aside, she just doesn’t seem to have any stand-alone talents. Don’t expect to see her on any new ships like the Joy or the Encore.
On the 6th day we were in Puerto Vallarta. A new port for us. We took a $10 cab into town and had a great lunch. It’s a cool town.
Dinner was at the MDR and it was very good. We don’t often go to the MDR. In fact, there have been some cruises where we never visited the free dining room at all. We have enjoyed our meals in the MDR so far. Admittedly, if we don’t see menu items that intrigue us, we will use a dining package voucher. That’s the plan. Tonight’s show was a 4-man vocal group called These Guys. They were really excellent.
We are nearly a week into this cruise and we both feel like the Gem is exceeding our expectations. We boarded expecting to not like this vessel all that much. But we got on this cruise for the itinerary; 13 amazing ports (10 of them new for us) plus the Panama Canal over a 3 week period. We knew the ship was old, but we are not finding it to be decrepit. Some reviewers have said that it is badly in need of an update. This isn’t so. The exterior seems a bit shop-worn and in need of paint at some places, but the interior is modern and nice. The ship lacks the hi-tech amenities like a roller coaster, laser tag, bumper cars and skydiving, but those ships don’t go to the ports that this ship goes to. You have to make a choice. As I said, this cruise was about the ports and we didn’t sail to those ports in a rusty bucket of bolts. At least, that’s my feeling a week in. Tomorrow: Ixtapa, Mexico.
Day 7 started with breakfast in the dining room. This is a welcome diversion from the mess tent but I wish the food was better. The service is nice but in spite of NCL’s efforts to offer some different items (I had Biscuit Eggs Benedict) they’re never as good as they sound. At least not yet.
We lounged by the pool and then took a tender ashore to Ixtapa, Mexico. We had lunch at a beachside restaurant there.
We had an excellent meal at Moderno tonight, but what is most notable to us is the service. In each of our specialty dining experiences, the Matre ‘d has come to our table, introduced himself, and offered us something. Maybe it was a complimentary Espresso, dessert or maybe just his business card, but in every case, he made us feel special.
The magician on board gave his second show, a decided upgrade from his first one. Bravo! The entertainment here isn’t Broadway-type like on Royal or like on the Breakaway, but it’s better than we expected. We topped this day off with a remarkably cooperative Blackjack table in the casino.
Day 8 was a sea day. It’s getting hot out. Finally got in a pool day! The cooking demonstration was good. We usually skip the port talk but since these are all new ports, we took that in. Lunch at O’Sheehan was good. It’s Always free there but it’s a limited menu that never changes.
I’ve read some reviews here where someone has a negative opinion about something and then supports it by saying that “I heard others saying the same thing” as though they need input from others in order to validate their own opinion. Well, not to sound as though I’ve jumped on that bandwagon, but so far we have bumped into a number of people that have sailed the Gem before and love it and proclaim that they would never sail a mega ship. While I don’t agree with their disdain for mega ships, it’s easy to see, so far, why this vessel has many fans. It’s annoying that some voyagers join this board for the sole purpose of bitching about a single substandard experience. Often they have little to complain about.
We had dinner at Cagney’s tonight. It was good. Being Platinum members, we were able to walk in without reservations, but don’t try that without Latitude status. We would have had to wait until 8:30 to dine otherwise. I still don’t like that NCL has upcharges on certain menu items even with the dining package. It really screams “nickel and dime”.
Nicaragua was an interesting port. We hired a bicycle taxi around town and bought a couple of things.
A couple of days ago, the ship, reacting to the worldwide Coronovirus problem, changed the way they do things in the Garden Cafe. Passengers no longer touch anything. Staff members serve everything from water to coffee to toast to anything in warming trays. It works fine. Good service actually. It’s good too see them able to react on the fly like that.
Our laundry came back today. What a nice presentation! Our clothes came back nicely folded and packaged in two straw baskets! Very impressive!
We have yet to hit the Garden Cafe for one of their specialty nights. It was Italian night a couple nights ago, Indian
Night last night and Greek night tonight. I’m not sure what to expect so we went to LeBistro again. It was great but I’m starting to feel like I’m overeating.
We had a zip line through the jungle excursion in Costa Rica today. So after a quick breakfast we headed to the pier for that. Highly recommended excursion.
We went to the MDR for dinner and were not impressed. The choices were not inspired and the service was a bit slow. There is no doubt that the specialty restaurant are a cut above. MDR meals are mediocre. The Blazing Boots production show is a salute to country music. Not our genre, so we didn’t stay for the entire show. Some may find it entertaining.
Next day was a much needed relaxing sea day. We had dinner at La Cucina again. This is a terrific restaurant. The comedy juggler was surprisingly entertaining.
Finally the highlight of the cruise arrives- the Panama Canal crossing. This should be on everyone’s bucket list. It takes all day, starting around 6:30 am. The best view, really, is from your stateroom where you can see everything from the bow camera on the tv. The narrator on the PA was excellent. They open up deck 8 forward to the public for a close-up view which is normally a crew-only deck. They offer a 6 minute time-lapse movie of the entire canal crossing for $30. Well worth it. We had dinner at the complimentary Orchid Garden which was good. We don’t find that the MDR has attractive choices for dinner to lure us there although we had an excellent lunch there. The evenings entertainment was a hypnotist. He was hardly entertaining in our view so we left after 15 minutes.
Day 14 brings us to Cartagena Columbia. A new port, country and continent for this world traveler. We started with breakfast in the dining room. This is notable because I had the Golden Waffle with Banana. This doesn’t sound like much but it is the best breakfast item I have ever had on land or sea! Delicious! I will be back to the dining room this coming week for this item. I loved it! We booked a Carriage ride in Cartagena this morning. This turned out to be a good choice of excursions. A bus tour through the new and old city, a horse-drawn carriage ride through old town and a couple of stops for shopping/photos. We went to Le Bistro for dinner again. It has become our favorite. We skipped the show in favor of a casino investment.
On day 15, we docked in Santa Marta Columbia. There’s a free shuttle that brings you close to town where there are more street vendors than we have ever seen anywhere in the world. There were thousands. After lunch at O’Sheehan’s we took a much needed rest. The hot sun really took its toll.
As we made our way to the Caribbean where we have been a great number of times, it was good to not have the pressure of wanting not to miss seeing a place that we’ve never seen. After breakfast, we walked through Aruba and we were back on board for lunch at the mess hall. Oftentimes you read that there’s no variety up there. That just isn’t true. There are a few staples, just like in the MDR, but there are new items every day and we haven’t had anything that was cold or inedible. We enjoyed having the pool area pretty much to ourselves. After a rest we had dinner at Cagneys. It was A++.
In Curaçao, we rented a scooter and toured the island. There isn’t much here as compared to mainstream Caribbean islands but we had a good day but a crappy lunch. Dinner at Moderno was a disappointment. They couldn’t get meat medium rare. It was either over cooked or under cooked. Geez. I left stuffed anyway. There was an acrobat couple called Duo Destiny. Best show so far!! Tomorrow is day 18 in Bonaire. Kudos to you if you’re still reading this!
There isn’t much going on in Bonaire but after a quick breakfast we had 4-5 hours to make the best of it so we rented a golf cart for $95 and drove around most of the island. It was worthwhile and cost less than what an excursion would have cost for the 2 of us. Back on board, we finally tried the Topsiders BBQ. It was ok. We only have 3 dinners left on our 12 dinners dining package and there are 4 nights to go. Gone are the days when they had prime rib and lobster on any given night in the MDR. The MDR just isn’t for us. If you’re ok with basic run of the mill food, you’ll be ok, but if you lean towards fine dining, forget it. I presume, at this point, that it’s NCL. We haven’t seen such poor MDR selections at RCCL but we haven’t been on that line in probably 2 years. We haven’t had bad meals at the MDR, but certainly not great ones. Tonight, I’ll pay out of pocket for Teppanyaki because it’s not ala carte. The next 3 nights are sure to please with La Cucina, Cagneys and Le Bistro.
At breakfast this morning, we were at the Grand Pacific MDR again. I noted the tag line on the table placard. It says “nobody does dining like Norwegian”. This is a true statement. Carnival and Royal do dining differently than NCL. They do it better. I have said this before and not stuck to it: this is my last cruise with NCL. But they have some great itineraries (like this one) and some great attractions (race track, laser tag), terrific entertainment (Rock of Ages, A Choir of Man, Jersey Boys) but it bugs me that the mainstream food; the free food in the MDR, really misses the mark. Gone are the days of Lobster and Prime Rib night. The food in the MDR is really basic. The presentations are nice, the service is good, but the imagination as far as menu items is non-existent.
In spite of the shortcomings of Platinum status, one huge advantage that we found was being able to show up at a Specialty Restaurant and eat when we wanted, regardless of when - or if - we had reservations. This is a big plus. On this, the second to the last sea day, it seems like the Specialty Restaurants were quite full and our reservation at Cagneys was at 7:45. We showed up at 5:30 and I said that I was ready to eat now. I got no pushback. And we were seated within minutes. Very professional.
On the last day of any cruise, they always have these “blow-out” sales where they offer all sorts of souvenirs in a flea market atmosphere. Here, they turned the Orchid Garden and Sushi restaurants into a flea(bag) marketplace. What a disgusting low-class thing to do!! I can hardly believe my eyes! NCL does stupid things. They do it to themselves. They could be so much better than they are if they would only re-think the things that they do and consider the customer viewpoints a bit more diligently.
Our final dinner had to be at Le Bistro. The Matrie’d Sandrick took amazing care of us, not only this time but all 4 visits to this great restaurant.
The final show was a 70’s & 80’s retro song and dance show. Right up our alley! We loved it!!
Finally, it was time to go home after 3 weeks. Debarkation is very poorly done. No platinum lounge, don’t sit here, don’t wait there. Geez, treat me like a customer. The disaster at the end of the cruise is reason enough to say that RCCL is the way to go in the future
Recalling that we have similar status with NCL (Platinum) and RCCL (Diamond), the associated perks with Royal are head and shoulders above NCL, but that’s not what this review is about. This was an excellent vacation and an extraordinary itinerary on a fine ship. But NCL has some shortcomings and frankly, I think that they are, in some cases, self-inflicted. For example, the incident with the $1.20 upcharge for the lamb that my wife ordered. They should raise the price of the cruise for everyone by $1 and not do this to avoid the embarrassment of looking like extreme cheapskates. As Diamond members on Royal, we get so many perks, such as the Diamond Club, that we really feel like Royalty. Admittedly, on this cruise with NCL we are able to dine in Specialty restaurants without reservations that are otherwise booked solid which we appreciate, but all things considered, the bennies do not compare. Still, this cruise, which is what this review is about was excellent. The ship was perfectly acceptable (we didn’t expect more from such an old ship), the food was good because we made it so, (we didn’t pay much for the cruise, but paid a few hundred dollars more to eat good food) and the entertainment was on par with what we expected; no spectacular shows like Royal, but plenty of variety. And with variety, you will like some shows more than others, by definition. With a port-intensive itinerary like this one, you are perfectly fine with skipping a show here and there. Do I wish Royal had done this cruise on the Allure of the Seas? Yes, I do. But it would cost double or triple as much, the older crowd would never pay the price and therefore it would never happen. We went on this cruise and we have no regrets. It was great. I do wish that NCL did certain things differently but their trend is in the other direction, so, just as I have concluded other NCL reviews, we will continue to favor RCCL heavily. Read Less