Norwegian Gem, like all other Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) ships in the fleet, espouses what it calls "Freestyle Cruising." This means that there are no set dining times, and you may dine in either of the two free main dining ... Read More
Norwegian Gem, like all other Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) ships in the fleet, espouses what it calls "Freestyle Cruising." This means that there are no set dining times, and you may dine in either of the two free main dining rooms (the larger Grand Pacific or the smaller Magenta), or in one of the free specialty restaurants (such as Orchid Garden or O'Sheehan's Bar & Grill), or in one of the up-charge specialty restaurants (such as Cagney's Steakhouse or Le Bistro). The up-charge restaurants have either a $25-30 cover charge, or are priced a la carte. When one books a cruise, sometimes specialty dining packages are offered as an enticement, and it would be wise to snag one of those packages if one books NCL.
Freestyle Cruising also means there are no dress codes on the ship and in most of the dining rooms and restaurants, except for Le Bistro and Cagney's, which ask gentlemen to at least wear long trousers and a collared shirt. Jackets for men are never required. This lack of dress codes draws an extremely casually-dressed crowd. This would be delightful if one enjoyed seeing men dressed for dinner as if they just cleaned out the garage. Or there was the woman at dinner in the very high-class Le Bistro wearing a wrinkled red t-shirt with some freakin' message on the front. If that's the atmosphere you like, well, good luck with it. I missed not having a set dining time with the same servers every night. And I don't mind putting on a jacket. But to each his own -- freestyle. I found the casualness, well, just too damn casual.
Unfortunately the food in the main dining rooms and in the buffet-style Garden Cafe (there is nothing garden-like about it) is just so-so. I stopped going to the main dining rooms after the first three nights of my 10-day cruise from NYC to Quebec City. The food was mediocre and the service seemed to be provided by waiters still in training. One evening I ordered bratwurst with sauerkraut. I asked for some mustard for the bratwurst and you would have thought it was the first time the staff had ever heard of such a thing. Finally one of the captains (who are always on their cell phones, talking to who I don't know) came over and said they could give me some Tabasco sauce for the bratwurst! No, I said, I want mustard, and preferably spicy brown mustard. Eventually they located an individual-sized bottle of Dijon mustard. I made do, trying to pep up the very bland sausage on my plate. No spicy brown, I'm afraid. Appetizers, entrees, and desserts may sound very appealing on the menus, but what is brought to the table is often disappointing. The food tends to be bland, which is probably pleasing to many of the more mature passengers.
The up-charge specialty restaurants, however, can be very good, proving that NCL knows how to provide fine dining. They just don't provide it to everyone on the ship. I loved Le Bistro for French. Cagney's was the most popular, with great steaks. But the Dobosh torte I ordered there for dessert one night was more thick frosting than cake, enough to put you on the expressway to diabetes.
For those who drink from morning to midnight, it is perhaps advisable to look into the somewhat economical drink packages. I don't drink much, but on one of the early days of the cruise I ordered a Manhattan, made with Maker's Mark. Imagine my surprise when the bill was presented -- $22.00 including the mandatory 20% gratuity. For the rest of the cruise, when I occasionally wanted a cocktail, it would be whatever the drink-of-the-day special was -- usually $8.95 a throw.
Enough complaining. Let me tell you what's good. The Norwegian Gem was built in 2005, so it is an older vessel. It was refurbished in 2015. Some areas of the ship appear a bit dated, but the vessel is kept immaculate, and you won't see any worn carpets or frayed upholstery. All is spic and span. Everything runs on time -- embarkation, disembarkation, tenders, etc. You never feel vibrations from the engines. The ship is extremely stable, even in 11.5-foot waves. All the staff, in fact, are friendly and eager to please for the most part. The redone Stardust Theater is wonderful, and that leads me to one of the great things on the ship: the production shows are the best I have even seen on the seas. We had three: Swing, which was music and dance from the 1930/40s swing/jazz era; Blazing Boots, which was country-western; and Get Down Tonight, which was music from the 1970s. The singers and dancers on the Gem were nearly all Broadway-quality. We also had a juggler, a comedian, a Cirque de Soleil-type act, a magician, and a singer on other evenings -- some good and some just okay for an after-dinner 45-minutes of entertainment. Acts and music in the various lounges were also good to excellent.
The first day there was a meet-up for solo travelers, which I attended, and which I haven't experienced on other ships. It was nice, and I met a couple of very interesting, well-traveled folks. About 30 people showed up, and most of us went to dinner as a group (until I dropped out).
Now for some of the ship's lesser qualities. There is no indoor pool on the Gem, except for the thermal suite which has a hydrotherapy pool and various accoutrements. But to use the thermal suite you must shell out $240. There are no day passes, you must buy the package for the whole cruise. Which is sad, because in the men's locker room, and I assume on the women's side as well, there is a wonderful spacious sauna with large windows looking out to sea. It would have been delightful on this cool-weather itinerary to use it once in awhile. But I didn't feel like splurging $240 bucks. A few hardy people braved the cool Fall weather to go out to the hot tubs on the ship's pool deck.
Cookies were almost impossible to find on the vessel. I never saw them anywhere, until the last day I discovered they had some at a snack bar out on the pool deck. Well, few people used the pool deck on this itinerary, which is perhaps why they hid the cookies out there. And no avocados, asparagus, or berries anywhere on the ship, except as an occasional garnish. No pies, just lots of cobbler, which was the usual canned fruit pie filling with a barely-baked layer of crumbs on top, onto which you could ladle some creamy or sugar-laden sauce. The cakes tended to be two-layer jobs, with just different frosting or garnishes each day. Dessert portions tended to be small, which was probably a good thing. Ice cream or soft-serve was always available.
NCL never used the theater for movies, which is sad because all of the other activities on the ship were things like trivia, bingo, game shows, and the usual pitches to patronize the spa or buy orthotics. There were no cultural events or port talks, not counting the initial presentation of all the various excursions one could buy. And there were the shopping talks, steering passengers to so-called NCL-approved retailers. NCL has done away with a daily news sheet of world news, something that is disappearing on most ships these days as passengers get news online or on their stateroom TVs. There was, of course, the ship's own newsletter listing all the day's activities, etc., which also delineated any time changes and so forth, as well as containing the inevitable NCL promotions. In the atrium, there is a large digital movie screen, but most of the time it just played one NCL commercial after another. TV channels in the staterooms were extremely limited compared to what is available on, say, Princess.
Ports going up the coast into Canada vary. Bar Harbor (great lobster rolls) and Prince Edward Island were very nice. St. John, you can forget it; the Reversing Falls are overly-hyped. It was pouring in Sydney, so I never went ashore, as even three guidebooks couldn't find anything good to say about it. Halifax has a nice maritime museum with a Titanic exhibit. Saguenay had a great welcome committee, all dressed in historic French attire as loggers, bakers, schoolchildren, etc., and they served us blueberry pie and maple syrup taffy. The highlight of all was Quebec City, with a UNESCO-protected Old Town, not to be missed. And I also took a countryside excursion on the second of our two-day stay in QC that was enjoyable, and it dropped me off at the QC Airport. My two flights to get home (QC to Montreal on Air Canada Rouge and Montreal to DC on Air Canada Express) were fine, leather seats and all, despite having to pay $25 to check my suitcase. But a rain delay in Montreal caused me to almost miss my connection. Montreal is a l-o-n-g airport when you have to walk from one end to the other. My connection time was supposed to be 90 minutes, but the rain delay caused it to be reduced by half. And you have to go through US customs/immigration in Montreal, which was also slow. I needed track shoes. Thank goodness my connecting flight was also delayed, or I would have been spending the night in Montreal, as it was the end of a three-day weekend, and the airports were mobbed
Would I book another NCL cruise? Well, if I did, it would have to be at a bargain fare (which I got on this trip), and I would definitely want a specialty dining package. And I would need to be content with the great production shows, and also want to just read a few good books while at sea. With so many other cruise lines to choose from, I just don't think I'd be in a rush back to NCL. But friends I met on my recent Cunard crossing have invited me to join them on two NCL cruises they do in the winter. I haven't said yes or no -- just we'll see. Read Less