PART I : PORTS OF CALL
We wanted to leave the cold northeast for the month. This itinerary seemed to fit the bill. We’re Platinum level members. This was our eighth cruise with NCL. We chose to fly from NYC where we live to SF in ... Read More
PART I : PORTS OF CALL
We wanted to leave the cold northeast for the month. This itinerary seemed to fit the bill. We’re Platinum level members. This was our eighth cruise with NCL. We chose to fly from NYC where we live to SF in order to get the air travel over at the beginning. The air was included in the cost of the cruise, so I guess you can’t complain too much about “free”. However the flight arrangements required us to get up at 2am. We had to change flights at O’hare in Chicago. After boarding there the plane sat on the runway for and hour and a half because of delays in SF. Once we arrived in SF we waited another hour and a half for the courtesy buses to the ship to show up. By the time we got to the ship it was now 4:30 pm. We managed to keep our eyes open for the muster drill, grabbed a burger and fell asleep exhausted by 5:30 ( 8:30 pm NY Time).
The second day, the port of call is Santa Barbara which is a lovely small town. Tendering to the dock is required here. There are a number of decent restaurants in the area. I highly recommend the Clearwater Grill which is on the main road through town. There are street vendors and local artists in kiosks along the waterfront park. One highlight is the rollerblade/skateboarding playground where humans 50 years younger than the ship passengers practice their moves and skills. I loved watching these kids - so very Californian.
It was raining in LA almost all day on the third day. The ship docks in the commercial pier in Long Beach. Since we’ve been here numerous times we simply stayed on board.
The fourth day was at sea. Day five was Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The yachts in the marina indicate that it’s a rich person’s playground. The views are stunning. We went on the one hour “Land’s End Boat Tour” which goes around the world famous rock formations; then did a little tourist shopping before tendering back to the ship. There’s a Senor Frog’s here for those who like that particular ambience.
We had our first bad experience on day six in Puerto Vallarta, Mx. The good news is there is a cruise ship dock here so no need to tender ashore. There were two other huge ships there that day. The other nice thing is that there is a Walmart superstore walking distance from the ship ( approx. 1/2 mile) so you can get things you forgot to pack at a reasonable price. However don’t get six packs of soda, beer or water. You will not be allowed to bring these or other food items back on board. The tour we chose was atrocious - “Discover Puerto Vallarta” should have been titled, Discover Stores who have paid Us to Take you to them”. The guide was indifferent at best, a little hostile at worst, was a little annoyed when I asked where the nearest bathroom was (another twenty minutes). We had a perfunctory look at this popular church. The bathroom ( for which you needed 50 pesos coins to operate) was adjacent and there was no toilet paper and the sink was broken. The guide grudgingly managed to come up with the pesos for me. ( I was threatening to just go pee in the street). The group spent SEVEN minutes at the church, because the next stop was a street filled with merchants selling the usual crapola, and a tequila tasting shop. We spent 40 minutes there. Then onto a jewelry store where the bus dropped us for 35 minutes while disappearing somewhere. The choice was to be constantly hustled by the salespeople in the store (where it was air conditioned) or stand in the street where it was humid and in the mid eighties. At this point many of us were ready to simply go back to the ship. But there was the “old town” to see. The old town didn’t look much different than the rest of the town. Here the “guide” dropped us off and said “you can look around and there are some restaurants, we’ll meet back here in an hour and a half”. My wife and I took a cab back to the ship, went straight to the excursion desk and complained about this farce of a tour. We were reimbursed for the full price as well as the cab fare.
Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo on day 7 is a beautiful looking harbor surrounded by mountains, This is another tendering port. We chose to just enjoy the lido deck, poolside.
Day 9 was Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. We took the “Antigua on Your Own” tour. This is a mountain town which requires a bus ride of about an hour or so depending on the traffic. Along the way you pass several volcanos, one of which was actively smoking. That one sight alone was worth the entire day. Antigua’s streets (not to be confused with the Caribbean island of the same name) are all cobblestone; the sidewalks are broken up, so wear sturdy shoes and look down while walking. We saw a few people trip and fall. A walking (hiking) stick also comes in handy. Prepare to be assaulted (in a nice way) by four feet tall Mayan women selling all sorts of things you have no earthly use for. They will take no for an answer after about the fifth or sixth no. Sometimes. A nice highlight here is the Jade Museum. There are also a couple of Spanish colonial style churches to see if you enjoy doing the church tours.
The tenth day was Corinto, Nicaragua. A bunch of local people rushed to the dock to see our ship arrive. There were three bands playing and young women and little girls dressed in native costumes dancing to the music. They were all very sweet. It’s anybody’s guess why the ship even bothers to stop here. This was Super Bowl Sunday. The Europeans on board were totally befuddled as to why we Americans were making such a big deal over it. A lot of San Franciscans brought along team jerseys, hats and even war paint. Oh well, you lost guys. Good game though. I was rooting for JayLo or Shakira to have one of those wardrobe malfunctions. Go Blue!
The Aerial Tram and Rainforest Adventure in Costa Rica was excellent. The bus guide was excellent, the naturalists at the preserve were highly knowledgeable and friendly, the included lunch was delicious, and the aerial tram was a fascinating ride through the canopy. Those on the zip line appeared to be having a huge thrill as well.
Day 13 for us and many others was the highlight of the cruise: traversing the Panama Canal. It takes around 13 hours to go about 40 miles through three sets of locks and the Gatun lake from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic side. People lined up on the bow before dawn broke.
Day 14 was Cartagena, Columbia. We’d been there two years ago. Cartagena is worth seeing once. We stayed on the ship.
Next day was Santa Marta Columbia where you get to see the deplorable slums that 70% of the population must live in. This is what happens when a countries wealth is drained by drug cartels and totally corrupt politicians. The white skyline of Cartagena and its similar but lesser one at this stop are empty facades for the very few well connected. These are not my words they were those of our tour guide. Here we did the Ecological Expedition, which was basically traipsing through a park along a dirt path and then a rocky stream bed to a pond at the bottom of a waterfall ( and do not think Ocho Rios which many expected). We did spend 45 minutes in the water which was very refreshing; while being entertained by a local little 10 year old girl who wanted everyone to watch her jump off the nine foot cliff into the pool.
Our guide kept calling this place “paradise”, and after seeing the slums of Santa Marta, we could understand why.
Last three stops were the Dutch ABC’s. Aruba: Shopping and hooking up with the free WiFi at the Starbucks inside the big hotel off the pier. Bonaire: less shopping and using the free WiFi at the illy coffee shop off the pier. Curaçao - The Ostrich Farm - totally fun experience. Totally dumb birds. Favorite souvenir: genuine ostrich egg. $15 unpainted. Also free WiFi at the Starbucks off the pier.
The ship leaves Bonaire at 1pm on a Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are at sea and you get to port on Manahattan’s west side piers at 10 am. If you like spending a lot of consecutive days at sea this is for you. In retrospect I would have gotten off at Curaçao and taken a plane back to Kennedy airport (you can opt to do that.)
PART II: THE SHIP
The Gem is a nice ship. It’s not the nicest we’ve ever been on but it’s perfectly ok. Our balcony had some noticeable rust and peeling paint, but that happens rapidly in the salt air and water. Crew is constantly working to minimize these things and prevent deterioration, The Men in White are a constant if unobtrusive presence keeping up with maintenance.
The Stardust lounge where the main shows take place is huge. Bigger than on NCLs larger ships, holding around 1,200 people. As Platinum members we were able to take the backstage tour which was fascinating. It is amazing how the dance troupe is able to do such fast costume changes in such confined spaces on a moving vessel.
The beds in the cabin were extremely comfortable. The TV is on the small side and half the channels are devoted to ship info or advertising. News choices are BBC, Fox, MSNBC and CNBC. One channel has some strange TV show choices, another has interesting and offbeat documentaries. One channel has feature films. There are two sports channels.
I personally would have liked one channel which played nothing but Law and Order and SVU - but then no one would go to see the juggler, the hypnotist or the magician in the Stardust on the off evenings when the dance troupe or the guest singers were not appearing.
PART III: DINING
The main dining room is huge and the wood tones are warm and welcoming, and not garish as you find on a different unnamed competitor line. If you prefer a smaller general dining venue there is the Magenta. We personally liked the larger venue. If you don’t mind not being served, and simply want to fuel up in the least time possible there is always the cafeteria on deck 12. Service in the dining rooms takes about an hour.
We spent twelve nights in one of the several specialty restaurants. Our favorite is La Bistrô (French), followed by Cagney’s (Steaks), LaCucina (Italian), and lastly Moderno (Brazilian meats on skewers). We personally don’t care for the Brazilian concept, but lots of people do like that, and their salad bar is exceptional.
O’Sheehan’s is great for a quick hot snack. The chicken wings are excellent, the hotdogs and burgers are better than what’s upstairs on deck 12, and the spinach-artichoke dip comes out warm and savory with taco chips. The food is free here.
We did not do the Benihana style Japanese restaurant (C’mon NCL, that’s sooo yesterday - replace Teppanyaki with a Spanish Tapas bar or a Vietnamese dumpling house), or the sushi bar. On the Breakaway the sushi bar had afternoon hours. On the gem it’s only open at dinner hours.
PART IV: ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES
NCL is justifiably proud of its entertainment. We have found the dance and singing troupes (10 dancers, 4 singers) to always be broadway level ability. These 20 and 30 somethings work REALLY hard. The three shows they put on on this cruise were all outstanding. Each show is 45 minutes of nonstop singing and dancing with multiple costume changes.
The guest singer on this cruise (Nicola Ward) has tremendous range, connects with the audience and does several styles ranging from pop to jazz to classical.
The band are consummate pros, and often perform at the deck 6 bar venues when not in the Stardust. Keyboard, drums, base guitar, and sax are the quartet. A trombone is sometimes added for the quintet.
There is a solo pianist performing almost nightly as well as a solo guitarist.
The cruise director and her assistants lead those who are interested in the usual old time ship style passenger summer camp activities. Hey, if that’s your thing go for it.
There is also daily trivia contests which a few passengers take very seriously. They form teams, and gawd help you if you sit in one of “their” chairs in the Atrium or the Spinaker.
PART V: SERVICE
The cabin stewards were fast efficient and after two days knew your bio rhythms.
The restaurant staff are courteous to a fault. “Do you have any food allergies, or dietary restrictions?” - No Mommy.
I have only one nit pick which I will address at length in a separate post. It is the use of the phrase “ Washee, washee !!” I find this use of the long discredited Pidgin English insulting. At best it is infantile, at worst it is RACIST. (“ No tickie, no washee !!”). Of all the lines we’ve been on, ONLY NCL trains its employees to use this phrase. The mostly Philipino young women who are told to say this don’t even realize in the 20s and 30s of the last century it was done in cinema to caricature and insult Chinese immigrants who had trouble with their English pronunciation. Naturally these folks spoke English better than the condescending White folks spoke Mandarin or Cantonese. So NCL, it would be much better to have your employees say perhaps, “kindly use the disinfectant before entering the restaurant. Thank you.”
Thank you for reading my review if you’ve gotten this far.
Dr.Bill Read Less