Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cruise Review - Norwegian Gem

We recently had the pleasure of sailing right out of our own backyard in New York on the Norwegian Gem, going to Florida and the Bahamas.

One advantage of cruising from a home port is NO FLYING. We drove to the Manhattan pier, paid $210 to park for the week, unloaded our suitcases, dropped them with the porters and checked in. We arrived at 11:15 AM and were on the ship by noon. At the end of the cruise,there is nothing easier than rolling luggage right to your car and finding yourself at your front door in less than an hour.


Embarkation: Arrived before noon and the embarkation process, even with the size of the ship and terminal, was amazingly smooth. There are three lines - one for passengers in suites, The Haven and who are gold and platinum Latitudes passengers. Another for Bronze or Silver Latitudes Members and a third for those who have never sailed NCL before. Within 20 minutes we were through the line and on the ship.

Disembarkation: Another thing NCL does right. You can choose when you want to disembark the ship. Two days before the end of the cruise, simply go down to Guest Services, choose the time you want to get off and take the corresponding color tags. We opted to carry our luggage off (without having to put it out in the hall the night before) and were among the first off the ship. They began calling us to disembark at about 7:45 AM and by 8:10 we were in our car and on our way home.
Balcony cabin

Cabins: We had a balcony cabin on this ship which was the best cabin we've had yet on an NCL ship. The size was much better than our balcony on the Epic. Straight walls instead of curved equals much more space. A normal bathroom with a shower door instead of curtains that mysteriously entangle themselves around you as you are showering. There was ample storage space in the cabin for hanging clothes and for folded clothes. Lots of shelves and a few drawers.

Cabin had the regular size balcony holding 2 chairs and a small table. Flat screen t.v., coffee maker, hair dryer and small couch in the cabin.

Entertainment: Having sailed on Royal Caribbeans Oasis and Allure of the Seas and the Norwegian Epic, I expected to be disappointed in the shows, as I haven't yet seen entertainment that exceeds what those ships offer. We were pleasantly surprised at the shows. Our favorite was The Man From Mars, a wonderful comedy, acrobatic and a bit of magic show. We also enjoyed the crew's final evening performance and a must see is their "Fountains" show.

Man from Mars Fountains

Behind the Scenes Tour: If you have the opportunity to take this tour, we highly recommend it. We were taken to what they call the I 95 corridor, the main corridor deep in the ship that has almost all the staff areas, from the kitchens to the laundry. We were shown how the food is brought on and separated (there is a separate prep room for fish, chicken and beef, separated as far down as having color coded cutting board so that they are never used for anything other than the meats they are assigned to). We saw the cooking area and how the waiters have the meals prepared and ready for them to pick up. We were taken to the laundry area, the recycling and garbage area, where you could eat off the floor it is so clean. We were shown the dressing rooms for the entertainment staff, were taken backstage, and then ended at the bridge, where we could see the two officers who were guiding the ship and all of the bridge machineries. Note to anyone sailing on this ship - you can see this area anytime. It is located on Deck 11, port side all the way forward. Take the forward elevators.

Sheet Folding Machine The Bridge

Buffet Set Up: On almost every ship we've been on,the layout of the buffet is terrible. People are usually tripping over themselves going from station to station. On this ship, the buffet is very well layed out, almost in a cafeteria style, and there were no long lines that got in the way of people trying to obtain food.
Buffet Chocolate Buffet

The seating was a different issue, which we'll detail later.

Freestyle Cruising: We love NCL's Freestyle Cruising. Not having to eat dinner at the same time is very liberating. We first sailed NCL when they first began this policy and had issues with long waits. NCL has perfected this and we never waited when we wanted to dine. And not being foreced to dress formally is another plus. There are two "formal" nights on this cruise and one dining room is dedicated to those who want to dress formally and one is dedicated to those that don't. That satisfies everyone. Many cruise lines have copied this type of dining, and we'd love to see them copy the option to not dress formally on their cruises as well.

Staff: Staff were hit or miss as far as enthusiasm and service. Our room steward did not appear to be interested in ensuring our needs were met. As soon as we arrived n the cabin, we noticed the liquid soap dispenser in the shower was missing - just a blank hole in the holder. We also like to have the mini-bar items removed so we have an empty refrigerator for our own water and soda we bring. We asked our steward for the missing body wash and to clean out the mini-bar. He handed us a small bar of soap and said to take the mini-bar items out and put them on a shelf. Needless to say, the first impression left us with a sour taste in our mouths.

The second day, we found two mini bottles of shower gel on the sink. The fourth day, the dispenser in the shower was finally fixed and filled. When I thanked him, he said to leave him a note if we are missing things, because he can't see everything that might need to be fixed or is missing!

We also found the staff hit or miss in the dining rooms and buffet. This sailing had nearly 1,000 children on it, as the schools in New Jersey were closed for part of the week. We opted to eat breakfast and lunch in the dining room, after seeing too many kids putting their hands in the food in the buffet. (Not too mention some adults doing the same thing and not using the tongs).

In the dining room for breakfast, some servers brought us a small pot of coffee so we could refill our cups ourselves, some didn't so we had to keep asking for refills. In the buffet, we saw many occasions where the tables were not cleaned off promptly and too many instances of silverware not being replaced promptly on the table and having to continually ask for silverware. We noticed the silverware issue on the Epic as well. The tables have a silverware holder that is supposed to be filled with a fork and knife wrapped in a napkin. If you miss the first hour of the each mealtime, it is likely that the silverware dispensers will be empty. They also do not add a spoon in these and we were always searching for spoons for coffee, ice cream or soup.

On the day the ship missed Great Stirrup Cay, many people decided to get a book from the library. The library was scheduled to open at 4 PM. At 4:30, a crew member danced to the door to unlock it. ( He really DID dance). One woman who had been waiting was furious and asked why he was opening a half hour late. His response was to shake his hips and walk away. I was floored by this - I've never seen anyone so blatantly disrespectful of a passenger.

The Food: NCL is not known for the finest quality food. On past NCL cruises, we've found that paying extra and eating in the specialty restaurants usually ends up being a much better experience than eating in the dining rooms or buffet. Not on this ship. The food was either oversalted or under seasoned - there didn't seem to be the perfect in between. But we certainly did not starve.

On the NCL Epic, I found the food in Le Bistro, the French Restaurant, to be superb. Not on the Gem. We both ordered escargot as an appetizer. Mine was fine, my wifes' was oversalted. Coq Au Vin was tasteless. Roast Rack of Lamb was two small lamb chops. Lobster and premium rib eye steak was an additional $10 on top of the $20 per person cover charge.

In the main dining rooms, steaks were tough and underseasoned. A dish called New Orleans Shrimp and Steak Fillet consisted of breaded shrimp that looks like Mrs. Pauls and a tough piece of meat that was far from a fillet.
New Orleans Shrimp and Fillet

One meal we did enjoy was sushi at Sushi. The Sesame Seaweed Salad was different than any salad we've had. The Godzilla Roll was excellent as were the Rock & Roll and Spicy Tuna roll. Each piece was separately priced ranging from $3 to $4.50 a roll. Well worth the price.

Buffet food was buffet food. Nothing extraordinary. We did enjoy the ice cream bar but they do not offer dishes of ice cream - they tell you they only serve ice cream in cones. We took soup dishes and asked them to put the ice cream in the bowl. There was a chocolate buffet one evening. Every dessert had some kind of chocolate in it and there were huge chocolate sculptures of a dragon, a walking death figure, a chocolate Gem ship reproduction, a white chocolate Eiffel Tower and even what appeared to be a chocolate Jesus.

The ship: This ship has a very odd set up. On the lower decks, some of the corriders led to no where. On deck 6 forward, there is an area where Le Bistro is located that goes to no where. To get to the aft of that deck, you must go back up to Deck 7, walk all the way aft and go down the steps, which lead you to the stairways into the two dining rooms.

In the buffet there is not enough seating for the 2900 passengers that this ship holds. A normal buffet has seating on the port and starboard side. Not the Gem. There is only seating on the starboard side and on the aft deck (which is called the Great Outdoors). On the port side of this deck is La Cuchina Italian Restaurant, the teen lounge and video arcade. There was never enough seating here, which resulted in us eating most breakfast and lunches in the dining rooms.

The pool area is also too small for the number of passengers. There are two small pools, one for families and the other for adults only. With the number of kids on this sailing, the family pools was simply overrun with kids. The kids did seem to enjoy the slides and the hot tubs. The seas were very rough going south on this sailing and one day was so rough that they had to close the pools. That resulted in a lot of chaos throughout the ship as there was not enough for the kids to do.
Pool Area

Another area that was way too small for a ship of this size was the Crystal Atrium. It is small to begin with, but when they have sales in the gift stores and bring out tables into this area, it is impossible to navigate. There is entertainment going on during the day here and not enough room for people to sit.
Atrium with selling tables set up

One other thing that is a hazard on this ship is that there are no telephones near the elevators on deck, with the exception of the areas where there are restaurants. We found this out when my wife fell down the stairs on Deck 11 and couldn't walk. I had to run down a deck and halfway through the ship to our cabin to call the ships Dr. She said other passengers who stopped to help did the same thing - went back to their rooms because there were no phones. This is a safety hazard and the ship never should have been built like this.

Another thing we noticed is that this ship didn't handle rough water as well as larger ships do. Whether this is because the stabilizers weren't used to their full extent going south to save time, or whether the draft is not deep enough, we really felt a lot of rocking on this ship. Many people were sick the first two days. We've sailed on three larger ships and we never felt a ship rock like this ship does. We don't get seasick, but if you are prone to it, make sure you take a midship cabin on a lower deck.

Itinerary: Out of New York, there are usually three itineraries available - Bermuda, Canada/New England, and the Bahamas. We opted for this itinerary because we wanted to go to Florida and NCL's private island. We've been to Nassau several times and didn't care about this port.

We enjoyed Florida and chose a one park pass to Universal Studios. We were sorry we didn't purchase a two park pass. We wanted to see Harry Potter and bought only the Islands of Adventure, plus we added a Speed Pass. We were through the Island of Adventure in 2-1/2 hours and had more than enough time to do Universal Studios too. The best part of this excursion was that the park was fairly empty. The busiest area was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We could not use the speed pass on that ride, but we only spent a half hour on line (well worth the wait). We were able to go to the head of the line with the speed pass on the other rides here. Contact us for these tickets - we sell all Universal Orlando Tickets!

A big disappointment was the fact that we could not get to Great Stirrup Cay. The water was too rough for the tenders to get in and out of the island. What I found surprising was that this is a very common occurance. I spoke to one cruiser who told me this was the third time she sailed and that stop was cancelled. (Royal Caribbeans' ships also couldn't make their nearby private island either). NCL could avoid this by building a pier so the ships can dock, as Royal Caribbean did with Labadee. We heard they are putting 25 million dollars into renovating the island - why not put that into building a pier so passengers can avoid disappointment because the water is too rough for the tenders?

There was nearly a riot on the upper decks when people heard that the stop was cancelled. People that had pools seats and left them to get ready to get off the ship were furious. Parents were angry. The entertainment staff had to come up with some entertainment to try and keep people busy. With the amount of kids on the ship, it was not a pleasant day.

If your itinerary includes Great Stirrup Cay, don't be surprised if you are unable to tender and you end up with another sea day. It is what it is.

Nassau is Nassau. Shopping is not great here, so we recommend going to the beach or to Atlantis.

The BAD:

There were two things we really didn't enjoy. The first was the fact that much of the staff spoke very poor English and it was extremely difficult to understand what they were saying, including the Cruise Director. We attended a trivia game one afternoon and couldn't understand the questions because the man who was leading it spoke such terrible English. All we could hear from people playing was "What did you say?" or "Can you repeat it?" One question was repeated five times before we could understand what was said.

The night before our Behind The Scenes Tour, we found a message on our phone. It was someone calling to tell us to bring something on the tour the next day. We listened to the message nine times and could not understand what we were to bring. After desperately trying to determine what this gentleman said, my wife figured out one of the words sounded like "shuss". Was that supposed to be shoes??? How about closed toe shoes? We wore closed toe shoes the next day and indeed that was what we were supposed to bring. Every other passenger on that tour said they could not understand the message either.

The T.V. Stations: The second things we really didn't like - the available t.v.stations. Six stations were available - Fox News, CNN, ESPN, E, BBCNews and a channel showing reruns of the same t.v. shows over and over. There were no movie channels, or even cartoons channels for the kids. If you wanted to see a movie - it cost $10. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, but many people were sick in their rooms on the way south because of the rough water and were in bed the first two days. In addition, one day the pools were closed because the waves were too rough. Add that on to the day that the ship didn't make Great Stirrup Cay, and we spoke to many parents who were exasperated that they couldn't put the kids in the cabin to watch cartoons or a movie. I've never heard so many complaints about the terrible t.v. That is not in the control of the Captain, but is an NCL issue. The Cruise Director said that they used to have more channels, but they recently purchased a different package for the t.v'.s throughout the fleet.

Bathroom Amenities: There are none. There was shampoo and hand soap. That's it. No body lotion, no conditioner, no shower caps - nothing that other lines provide you with. It reeks of cheapness.

Final thoughts - all in all, this was not a bad cruise. Had there not been so many kids and if the water was calmer, it would have likely been an even better cruise. And the bad points were minor points that should be looked at by NCL but should not ruin anyone's cruise. If you like a casual cruise - NCL will probably meet your expectations.

Be prepared that if the waters are rough, you may not make Great Stirrup Cay. You won't receive any compensation other than a refund of any excursions you pre purchased.

One recommendation I would make - if I could do it over again, I wouldn't sail this itinerary after the first week in October. It was too cold to swim in the pools or even in port for me and the water was the roughest I've ever experienced on a ship, especially going south. We are used to having rough water on the last day back to New York once we hit Cape Hatteras - it was smooth as glass on the last day.

Take a look at our ship photos here:

Behind the Scenes Tour, Click here

Gem Pictures, Click here