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Age: 28

Occupation:Newspaper Reporter

Number of Cruises: 5

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Gem

Sailing Date: 03-21-2009

Itinerary: Bahamas

Just stepped off the gorgeous Norwegian Gem yesterday, and the only way to numb the disappointment of returning to land (and the brutal Mid-western winter) is to relive the memories through a review! :)

Fair warning: I tend to get into great detail, but hopefully it will help you plan your cruise the way other people's reviews have helped me! For those of you who just want the bottom line, this is it: The Gem is the most beautiful ship we've ever been on, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. The ambience was spectacular, the food was great, and it was an all-around amazing vacation. The only area where NCL seemed to fall short is service, which I will get into more later.

A little background, to let you know where I'm coming from. I'm a 28-year-old newspaper reporter from Michigan. This was my fifth cruise with my husband. We're truly addicted; we've cruised every year since we met. We got engaged on a ship in 2005 and took our honeymoon on a ship in 2006. In our opinion, you can't get a better vacation for your money. Our previous cruises have been on Caribbean Princess, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Miracle, and Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas; this was our first NCL cruise. I do not like to fly, so we book cruises out of the East Coast and drive there from Michigan (approximately 10 hours) when possible.

We had discussed the Gem for a long time before booking last year. I had read mixed reviews about NCL's Freestyle Cruising format and I wasn't sure if it would be my style. But overall, we liked it a lot, and the Gem...well, I don't even know if I can find words to describe her. She was simply stunning & our favorite ship to date!

Although the Gem departed out of NYC's Port of Manhattan, we booked a room at the Wyndham Garden Hotel - Newark Airport in Newark, NJ for the night before the cruise. We stayed at the Wyndham last year, when we took Explorer out of Bayonne (Cape LIberty), NJ, and we loved it. Very clean, very comfortable, great service. They also have wonderful park-and-fly deals that make it cheaper to stay the night and leave your car for a week than it would be to park at the NYC port for a week. We booked a car service, Golden Lincoln, to transport us from Newark to the Port of Manhattan the morning of the cruise.

Our car picked us up around 11 and we arrived at the port around 11:30. Embarkation was a breeze. A porter promptly took our luggage and we proceeded into the terminal, where everything was well-marked and workers guided us to the proper place. Upon checking in, we were given a numbered tag, and around 12:30ish, they began announcing numbers. Ours was 32; of course, at 31, they suddenly decided to just tell everyone to go ahead and get on, so it was a bit of a stampede at that point ;) but still not too bad. Crew members passed out champagne and mimosas as we boarded and it was all very festive. All in all, it was probably the smoothest embarkation we've ever had. Since staterooms weren't ready until 2 pm, we went to the Grand Pacific for a lunch of grilled mahi-mahi. Yum!

I had seen pictures of the Gem online, but I can assure you that none of them do it justice. You absolutely have to see it for yourself. Dark wood accents and bright purples and pinks and yellows and blues and greens everywhere. The forward stairwells feature enormous photographs of sea life, including my favorite, a gigantic turtle between decks 5 and 6. The midship stairwells depict various famous gems and their histories. Swirly purple carpet covers most of the public areas, and jumping blue dolphins point the way forward alongside orange seashells in the cabin hallways. Funky seating in rainbow hues and in strange shapes - including beds in Bliss and Spinnaker lounges. Over the top? Of course! But somehow, it works. It's beyond beautiful.

We booked an oceanview obstructed stateroom and received an upgrade to oceanview as part of an NCL promotion. We were in 5060, midship. Although the room was probably smaller than those we've had on other ships, it was the most efficiently laid out, with more than adequate closet and drawer space and seating. The window was huge. A flat panel TV showed several channels, including ESPN, FOX News and CNN, and provided info on the ship, restaurants, etc. The bathroom is segmented into three parts, with sliding pocket doors dividing the center sink and mirror area from a toilet on one side and the shower on the other. I can say for certain it's far superior than the plastic curtain on Carnival, which always leaves the bathroom flooded! The bathroom even came with a liquid hand soap dispenser, which was nice (we always bring our own pump soap because we hate bar soap...I know, we're weird), as well as a shampoo and body wash dispenser in the shower.

As for public areas, here are some highlights:

CRYSTAL ATRIUM: The main atrium for the ship, which includes the reception, shore excursion and restaurant booking desks; a store (several others are down the hall); the perpetually busy Java Cafe, with alcohol and coffee drinks; tons of seating; and a giant screen. The screen was used to show NCL commercials and augment shopping lectures. It also was used at times for passengers to play Nintendo Wii and often was just for decoration, with strange, colorful images and video clips shifting to music. The atrium's 3-D ceiling is purple and sparkly and looks like the inside of a geode.

* BLISS ULTRA LOUNGE: The Gem's swanky nightclub, where you could bowl on the Gem's four bowling lanes ($5 per person, per game), dance, drink, lounge around or even gamble via a small bank of slot machines. It was always hopping at night, when music blared with music videos on every TV. Gem's dancers often did "shadow dancing" there, which was very cool.

BAR CENTRAL: The elegant space on Deck 6 included three bars - a champagne/wine bar, a whiskey bar and a martini bar — connected to one another but with their own distinct ambience. The whiskey bar showed sports on flat panel TVs and had rich leather seating. The martini bar had glittery, illuminated countertops and a screen that typically showed dancing silhouettes. The champagne/wine bar had a backdrop that literally bubbled. Piano music was played nearby in the evenings. There also was an enclosed cigar bar nearby.

* GEM CASINO: Somehow, this managed to be the least smoky ship casino I've ever seen. A good mix of slots and table games with various minimums. If you signed up for a casino card, you got a coupon booklet with some good deals in it.

* POOL AREA: There are two sizeable pools, one for adults (with a waterfall!), one for all, and a tiny kids' pool nearby, along with four hot tubs and a water slide. It was difficult to find a chair near the pool, but that's not surprising. We always found one a deck up with a little searching. In addition to standard lounge chairs, NCL had some double loungers and even a precious few round, cushioned loungers on the upper sun deck. Very cool. Caribbean music was played live almost continuously from a band shell in the center of the pool deck. Sometimes they offered poolside massages (for a fee, of course), though I never saw anyone take advantage of that, and some poolside gambling.

* BODY WAVES FITNESS CENTER: An excellent gym, open 24 hours. It has top of the line Precor ellipticals, treadmills, upright bikes, and a few recumbent bikes, all arranged along a bank of windows on the port side. There was a free weight room, as well as weight machines, and an aerobics room with hand weights, mats and stability balls. All of the cardio machines had a TV attached right to the front. I spent many a morning and evening in here trying to work off all of the great food! Speaking of...

I was blown away by all of the food options available on the Gem. Originally, I was sure I would hate not having a fixed seating time, but I loved it. The only thing I missed was having the same waiter every night. In the past, I've always enjoyed getting to know the waitstaff and how attentive they are, knowing what you like and dislike.

Unlike most ships that have one or two specialty restaurants with a cover charge, the Gem has several. On the first night, we went to La Cucina, the Italian restaurant. It was delicious; the tiramisu was the best I've ever had, the chicken parmigiana was juicy, and the marinated mushrooms from the antipasti cart were completely addictive. The second night, we ate at the Sushi Bar. It was good, but I'm not sure this one was worth $15 per person. Unfortunately, I got very, very sick that evening and I'm not sure if it was from the sushi or something else. So I think that kind of tainted my view a little bit. There were quite a few nigiri, sashimi and maki roll options, and you can order as much as you want.

We didn't visit the other specialty restaurants, which included Tequila (Tex Mex), Le Bistro (French), Cagney's (steakhouse), Teppanyaki (Japanese grilled tableside, with limited seatings available) and Orchid Garden (Asian fusion). Be warned: Some high-end options, like certain steak and lobster dishes, required an ADDITIONAL $10 charge on top of the cover charge. You could make reservations the day prior or the day of by visiting the reservations desk in the atrium or calling a particular number...I think you could also book at the actual restaurant. No reservations were taken for the sushi bar, but it never seemed full. TV monitors throughout the ship showed how busy the various restaurants were, and "buzzers" were handed out at the dining rooms when there was a wait — very cool! Two-for-one cover charge deals were offered for La Cucina, Tequila and Orchid Garden throughout the entire cruise at specific times (listed in the Freestyle Daily).

The rest of the week we just ate in the regular dining rooms, Magenta and Grand Pacific, or at the buffet, Garden Cafe. We found the buffet to be far superior than any other ship we've ever been on in terms of options and quality. It especially trumped the buffet on the Explorer of the Seas, which was perpetually poor, with cold, unappetizing food, complete chaos in terms of passenger flow and a constant dearth of seating. We only struggled to find a table once on the Gem, and it was on the very last morning, when everyone was preparing to disembark. Garden Cafe had the best, most "Americanized" salad bar I've seen on a ship. There were constant carving stations, made-to-order pasta with veggies and sauce, pizza, casseroles, burgers, etc. They had free soft serve and hand-dipped ice cream. They even had No Sugar Added ice cream available all week, which was a nice touch. Self-serve machines dispensed coffee, water, iced tea, and even cappuccinos and lattes. There was always Splenda available, yay! (On past ships, I've sometimes had to scrounge for it.) My husband and a few other people we overheard said they would have liked a few more free drink options, like lemonade or juice. In the dining rooms, we had excellent prime rib, lobster/fish sampler, spinach turnovers and some great desserts, including a molten chocolate cake that rivaled Carnival's and a cappuccino mousse in a chocolate cup, all presented beautifully. (Can you tell I have a sweet tooth? I adhere to a strict, healthy diet at home, so a cruise is my opportunity to cut loose for a few days — and I always take advantage! :)

Food also was frequently available aft of Garden Buffet, at the Great Outdoors, and Topsiders and Bali Hai, grills situated around the pool and sunbathing areas. Room service is free, and includes items like Greek salads, pizza, macaroni and cheese, desserts. There also are a few "extra" options that cost a few dollars.

The only area where we found the food a bit lacking was in Blue Lagoon. It was a great concept. 24-hour "comfort food" in a sit-down setting, but the day we ate there, the server was borderline rude and the food was somewhat dried-out and cold.

Unfortunately, I won't be of much help here. On our last cruise, we did a 12-day that hit seven ports, and spent a lot on taxis, activities, etc. This time around, we decided to be more laid back, so we didn't book anything in particular and played it by ear.

We didn't even get off the ship in Port Canaveral because I didn't feel well. Instead, we just laid out on the sun deck and read. At Great Stirrup Cay, where we had to tender, we'd brought our own snorkeling gear and planned to snorkel, but I still wasn't feeling 100%, so we decided to try kayaking. Unfortunately, it was low tide, so they weren't renting the kayaks... so we just had an island BBQ lunch and relaxed on the beach.

We got off at Nassau and did a walking tour we found in a travel book, snapped pictures and shopped. If you've never encountered the persistence of Caribbean street vendors, you might want to brace yourself for the straw market - it isn't for the faint of heart. The aisles are about two feet wide, and everyone's lobbying for your business. You can haggle almost anyone down in price. We ate at Cafe Skans for lunch - the conch fritters were to die for!

Not much to see at Freeport unless you want to take an 11-mile taxi ride, and we were only there for about five hours. That didn't make much sense to us. We poked around some vendor booths near the pier and then got back on the ship.

We're not big on production shows, so the only one we went to was the "welcome aboard" show. It was pretty standard and didn't do much for me, although it was nice to "meet" the cruise director and his staff. There was one main show by Second City, the famed sketch/improv comedy troupe, in the main Stardust Theater, and two adults-only "scriptless" shows in the Spinnaker Lounge, all of which were hilarious.

There were several special parties that were fun if you enjoy dancing and music, including a last night toga party (they provide the togas!), a James Bond party, several deck parties and a "white hot party" where the dancers donned angel wings. Although we didn't participate, there were always activities like bingo, trivia, health seminars, etc. available. We went to a Q & A with the ship's captain and hotel director and although some parts were interesting, we were a little put off by the captain's tendency to mock each and every question asked. Sometimes his comments were funny, but often it just made it sound like he was ridiculing the person asking, and half the time, he never even offered a serious response.

In the past, we've been fanatics of the Park-West art auctions and seminars, but this year, we decided to forego most of them on the Gem. However, we've always found those enjoyable on other cruises.

This is the only area where I felt NCL fell short. I suspect it's an accountability issue. On other lines with traditional dining, the waiters are assigned to you, and their tips are directly proportionate to how welcome and valued they make you feel. Besides the encounter in Blue Lagoon, we didn't really have any run-ins with rude staffers, but they just seemed ... aloof. There wasn't the friendly, eager, enthusiastic vibe we've gotten from employees on other lines, especially Carnival. We also noticed that the employees seemed to be into the "hard sell," constantly trying to get you to upgrade or buy more, etc. I understand that's their job, but it seemed more pervasive than on other ships.

There were a few exceptions to the "aloof" norm. The most notable: Adan, a bubbly, beaming Filipino man who stood at the door of Garden Cafe every morning and called "GOOD MORNING! HELLO! HAVE A GREAT DAY! THANK YOU! HELLO! GOOD MOOOOOOORNING!" It was impossible not to grin when you saw him! Our room stewards, Mary Lou and Reynaldo, also were friendly and kept our room spic and span. Also, the cruise director, Ray Carr, seemed personable and funny, and we saw him out and about on the ship often.

Another service-related issue, which is minor, but worth mentioning: On every other ship we've been on, if you bought liquor, whether on land or on the ship, it was delivered to your stateroom in a cardboard carrying case on the final evening. On the Gem, everyone had to get in a long, haphazard line between certain hours to pick up their liquor, which was merely stuffed in plastic bags. It was poorly organized and people were getting angry by the inefficient way the items were being distributed, with people in the front of the line forced to wait while people further back inexplicably got their alcohol first. Hopefully it's something NCL will consider re-examining.

Disembarkation was the most organized we've ever seen. The night prior to returning to NYC, we picked up luggage tags corresponding to the time we wanted to get off. The final morning, I worked out one last time and we had a nice, leisurely Garden Cafe breakfast, then hung out in our room until our color was called. We waited in line mere minutes to get off the ship, and once in the terminal, there was an orderly, well-marked line to get a porter. We were absolutely blown away. It was a far cry from a particularly memorable, disastrous disembarkation on the Carnival Conquest in 2006, where passengers were packed into the halls like cattle, screaming and swearing at each other. With all of the jostling, we lost a perfectly good bottle of coconut Cruzan rum in that incident! :)

On our last cruise, we were dismayed to find that nearly the entire ship was full of octogenarians, most likely due to its lengthy itinerary and timing (early February). This cruise, we had a large contingent of college-aged spring breakers, many of whom appeared already intoxicated as they boarded the ship. I was a little worried about how wild things were going to get, but with the exception of a few heckling issues and some after hours noise (running, shouting in the halls), they weren't too bad. In fact, it was kind of fun to have students from several colleges on board as the NCAA basketball tournaments were on, as they were celebrating and/or drowning their sorrows and having some good-natured rivalries. I think I'd rather cruise with enthusiastic spring breakers than some of the surly, sour, cantankerous passengers we encountered on Explorer. Of course, any large group of people has its good and its bad, so it's all about trying to shake it off when you run into someone who insists on complaining, cutting in line or being generally obnoxious.

On this itinerary, we were only allowed to bring one liter each of duty free and tax free liquor back home. Just to warn those who have done Virgin Islands cruises where the tax- and duty-free liquor allowance is substantially higher.

If you're a first time cruiser who is motion sensitive, I suggest getting a prescription for scopamine patches from your doctor. They go behind your ear and they work like a charm. You swap them out every 72 hours, and they stay on even in the water. The only annoying side effect I've experienced is dry mouth. Other people swear by ginger, green apples and sea bands that activate pressure points on your wrists. It's good to know going in what works for you. A lot of people claim you won't feel the motion at all, and that may be true for them, but as someone who gets extremely motion sick, I rely on my trusty patch. All three cruises I've taken out of the East Coast, the last day back has been rough. As on the Miracle and Explorer, the Gem was stocked full of "barf bags" in all of its public areas come Friday, as we hurried back to NY amid fairly rough seas. The ship was pitching all over the place. I just grinned and thanked god for the patch!

Now that I've rambled on and on...the bottom line is, we would absolutely cruise NCL again, although I'm afraid we're spoiled now that we've seen the newest and best of its fleet! I was afraid, with all of the specialty restaurants, that we'd feel nickeled and dimed to death, but after seeing it in action, I felt it was nice to have so many options, and the dining rooms and buffet were more than adequate if you didn't want to spend the money on the higher-end restaurants.

Although I'm a complete Type A on land, I tend to be a bit more go-with-the-flow once I step onto a ship, so I try not to let little things bother me. That's how I approach each and every cruise. I really don't know how anyone could set foot on the Gem and not have an excellent time. Like any vacation, it is what you make of it.

I hope this review has been as helpful to you as other cruisers' reviews have been to me in the past.

Time to start planning our 2010 cruise... :)

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