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Martin Barker

Age: 47

Occupation:Company Director

Number of Cruises: 1

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Gem

Sailing Date: 2013-04-18

Itinerary: Caribbean Islands

This cruise was meant to be a joint celebration for a 60th birthday and 20th Wedding Anniversary, and a Caribbean Cruise was meant to be a once in a lifetime special experience. The overall cost has been almost double what we would normally spend on a Caribbean or Mexican vacation, but regardless of the expense, the cruise was a great disappointment. The experience has put us off cruising altogether.

The food on the ship was quite frankly terrible, and by far the worst we have ever experienced on any vacation. Although my wife and I have not cruised previously, other than "mini cruises" on North Sea Ferry Crossings, we were under the impression that dining was a large part of the cruise experience. Sadly not so on this cruise. In fact the food on the North Sea Ferries was far superior to that on the Norwegian Gem.

To ensure that we were not alone in this opinion we spoke to a large number of other guests (usually in the elevators), and we received a 100% response of dissatisfaction with the food. One guest told us that this was her 26th cruise, and that this was by far the worst food she had ever experienced on any cruise ship (including other NCL ships). Garden Cafe Main Buffet (inc. The Great Outdoors) - the food in the main buffet was always dry and cold. The hot plates were so cold that we could in fact place our hands on them and leave them there, as we frequently demonstrated to the chefs. I tried a lasagne one day, and it was hard enough to knock nails in with. There was some fresh food being cooked, but this was "snapped up" by other guests and we could never get a look in. The bread for the hotdogs and burgers was dry and stale. The seating arrangement was also annoying. Invariably there were two guests sitting on each of the large 6 or 8 person tables, and our party of five had to squeeze onto a small four seat table, or else spread across two tables on opposite sides of the room (assuming we could find a table at all!!). Despite communicating our annoyance to the staff, they never once asked the pairs of guests to relocate to a smaller table.

Grand Pacific - this dining room certainly looked impressive, and had a "wow factor" when we first entered it, but the food did not match up to the decor. Again the food was cold, and we had to send back a number of dishes for them to be re-heated. The portion sizes were miniscule. The "English Fish and Chips" actually comprised a small piece of processed breaded fish just slightly larger than an English Fishfinger and a dozen or so USA MacDonald's style thin fries (all cold of course). There wasn't even any peas. Almost all the chicken served was "on the bone", and it was difficult to find any chicken at all between the bones. On the one single occasion that a chicken breast was served, it was so miniscule that we all fell about laughing at it while my father-in-law looked at his plate disdainfully before polishing it off in a single mouthful. At least the humour of that occasion compensated for the lack of on-board entertainment (see below).

Magenta - this was effectively the same as the Grand Pacific, but without the decor. The menu was similar, and the portions were just as miniscule and always cold. It was here that we even sent back the hot water for the tea as it was too cold to infuse the teabag. The waiter protested that the hot water had come straight from a hot water dispenser, but when we dipped a hand in the teapot and left it there he eventually got the message that the water was not hot at all, and took the pot away for heating in the microwave. The fact that the kitchen could not even "cook" a pot of hot water says it all really!

Blue Lagoon - this being the snack restaurant offering "comfort food" (burgers etc) we didn't try it until quite late in the cruise, which may have been a pity as the food here (at least some of it) was not as cold as the other restaurants. Unfortunately, by the time we discovered this restaurant it was on the return leg, and they had run out of most of the items on the menu.

Moderno Churascaria. This was the only restaurant where the food was actually served hot (well warm at least), and whilst the meat was not as good as at other Churascaria's I have been to, it was the only dining experience on board that I actually enjoyed. Even the staff seemed more pleasant in this restaurant. Were it not for the $20 upgrade cost, and the fact that the other members of my party do not eat red meat in quantity, I would have eaten here every night.

Orchid Garden - here we waited for over an hour between placing our order and the first course being served. In fact we were just getting out of our seats to leave when the starters eventually arrived. Once again the portion size was minuscule, despite the $15 per person upgrade cost. If you put all 5 portions together it still wouldn't be as large as one portion in my local Chinese restaurant, and that portion wouldn't cost as much as the upgrade cost. And of course it was stone cold. When we complained to the waiter that the food (which was supposed to be hot) was in fact as cold as a salad, he simply said "I am sorry" before presenting the bill for the upgrade, which we paid in full (without a tip).

Le Bistro / Cagney's / La Cucina - we had intended to try all these, but given our experience at the Orchid Garden we decided it was not worth wasting more money on food that was no better than that in the main dining room, so we gave them a miss.

Room Service - we ordered pizza to the room and were pleasantly surprised. The pizza was hot and quite tasty. Just a shame that this was something else that had to be paid for at extra cost.

Wine - we considered the wine prices to be extravagantly expensive. The cheapest wine on offer was around $35 once the obligatory service charge was added (although we thought we had paid in advance for service charges and gratuities, we later discovered that this up front charge only actually covered the cabin service) and the cost of the reserve wines was quite simply ridiculous. It was for this reason that we only purchased one bottle of wine on the entire cruise whereas we would have purchased at least 2 bottles per meal had the prices been more reasonable.

Celebration cakes - as this was a freebie perhaps it would be impolite to look a gift horse in the mouth. We had 3 celebration vouchers (one anniversary and two birthdays). Suffice to say that after using one of these vouchers, we didn't bother using the other two.

Having upgraded to a balcony suite, we were actually quite pleased with our stateroom. It was very clean and the bed was comfortable, and the high gloss wooden decor gave it an expensive feel. There was plenty of space for clothing for three people, and the extensive use of mirrors made the room feel larger than it actually was.

We were slightly disappointed with the turn down bed. With the rest of the room being well designed and having a quality feel, we were surprised by the fact that our son's mattress was actually just a large piece of ordinary foam placed on top of a bit of a chipboard bench. Still, it did the job.

The cabin boy was very good, and although we had paid in advance for service charges that we later found out only included the cabin service, we still felt obliged to tip the cabin boy for the excellent service he provided.

There was one minor design flaw though. If we drew the curtain between our bed and the child bed, this prevented us from seeing the TV, which in turn prevented us from putting our child to bed early whilst we watched the TV. On some of the NCL promotional videos we have seen there are two TV's in the room, one either side of the curtain, and we had expected this in our room.

This would have been a minor concern, but with very little else to do on the ship (see below), the TV became more of a feature than it normally would on a vacation.

However, we were disappointed that the entire programme selection consisted of: - a couple of news channels - one sport channel showing American sport - one kids channel - one variety channel - one movie channel showing repeats of old films (we actually saw Mary Poppins 3 times on this cruise, adding to the 30 or so times I have seen it previously!!), - and of course, multiple sales channels selling jewellery and excursions

There was a good choice of pay per view films, but at another exorbitant rate that was more than the cost of buying the DVD back home!

If we wanted an alcoholic beverage in the room there were two options available. We could use the well-stocked mini-fridge, with miniatures of spirits priced at the equivalent of $250 per litre, or we could have a litre bottle delivered to the room (referred to as bar setup) at just $123 per bottle. Given that the same spirits were on sale in supermarkets on the islands for around $13 per litre (including the shops profit) that equates to profit mark ups for NCL of over 2000% and 1000% respectively. No wonder that so many passengers are tempted to smuggle alcohol on board!

Pool Deck

The pool deck was certainly a focal point, and from the very little we saw of it, the entertainment there seemed to be quite good. However, the area was far too small to accommodate the 3000 or so passengers on board.

We tried earlier and earlier to get a space around the pool, the earliest being about 6:30 am (before sunrise), but all the sunbeds were claimed with towels and personal belongings. Then on the one single occasion that we did manage to get a few sunbeds on the Port side of the ship, we quickly realised that this was the smoking area as we were engulfed with cigarette smoke, so we were unable to relax there and had to move.

The jacuzzis around the pool were well designed, but this was another facility that we weren't able to use. The jacuzzis were "hogged" by the same group of people every day from dawn to dusk. This very loud obnoxious group controlled the jacuzzis for the select use of their own small circle of friends with no intervention from the staff or crew. There was no procedure in place to ensure use of the Jacuzzis was fairly distributed between other guests. Perhaps just a notice asking guests to restrict their use to a limited time, say 60 minutes, to allow other guests a chance might have allowed someone the opportunity to enforce that rule.

We didn't expect the swimming pools on a ship to be massive, and I suppose they were a reasonable size, but we did expect them to be full of water. Not so. According to the Captain the pool water level was deliberately reduced during sea days due to the roll of the ship to prevent the water splashing onto the deck. Not so much a swimming pool then, more of a paddling pool, so we didn't use that facility either.

Spa

The treatments in the spa were very expensive - at least double the price of similar treatments at spa hotels we have stayed at previously, but my mother-in-law had pre-determined to have one of these treatments, so she shrugged off the cost and went for it. This provided more humour, as the treatment she received was not exactly what she had expected, and certainly was not worth the ridiculously high price paid for it.

As for the general use of the steam room / sauna / internal pool area of the spa, as advertised so extensively in NCL promotional material, we were horrified to find that the use of this also required an extra cost upgrade. We were then further horrified at the extravagant price, and the fact that the spa area packages were limited to just a handful of passengers. So this was another "attraction" of the ship that we were completely unable to use.

Casino

We were shocked and surprised to find that the casino was the smoker's room. The whole casino was constantly filled with cigarette and cigar smoke. As non-smokers this effectively ruled us out of using that particular facility. Where in the NCL sales literature / website does it mention that the casino is a smoker's venue? And what happens to all that exhaled smoke? Is it sucked into the air conditioning system to be distributed throughout the rest of the ship? Could that be why so many passengers were coughing all the time and why our party all ended up with a lung virus?

Bowling Alley

As we were unable to use the pool deck, or the spa, or the casino, we thought we might try a game of bowling. This facility is also advertised extensively throughout the literature and the website.

Our first surprise was that we had to pay extra for this facility as well (though by now we were getting used to the fact that the use of anything on this ship required a cost upgrade.....it's a small wonder that use of the toilets wasn't charged for). The second surprise was that the facility was only open for a few limited hours each day.

With little else to do, we thought we would try to use it anyway, only to find that whenever we tried to get a game all four alleys were fully booked, and there was no advance booking system. We managed to get a game by arriving early and waiting for the alleys to open on one occasion. On another occasion we waited forty minutes for a game, but when we attempted to play, the pins kept re-setting and logging zero scores without us even bowling a ball. We waited another 30-40 minutes whilst attempts were made to repair it, but eventually the staff had to declare that lane closed, and of course the other 3 lanes were fully booked with people waiting. We were promised a refund, but although we had paid for 3 people to play, only two were refunded. Perhaps the third fee was kept as another service charge?

Entertainment

We weren't able to use the pool deck, the casino, the spa or the bowling alley, but this was a cruise ship, so there must be plenty of other entertainment right? Wrong! Unless that is you count sales presentations as entertainment.

During the day the primary entertainment in the main lobby area and the Spinnaker lounge areas comprised sales presentations for shore excursions, jewellery sales or artwork sales. Even the "towel folding demonstration" was actually a sales pitch to buy the demonstration CD at $10 each! There were other things of course. We wasted over an hour watching the bingo (we didn't play as we thought $39 per ticket was a ridiculously expensive price to pay for a game of bingo), and for a young family we actually did quite well on the "name that piano tune from the 1930's" trivia quiz, even getting one of the answers right. That passed half an hour or so, but then, disdained with the ship's entertainment, we decided to make our own entertainment. We decided to play our own name that tune competition, humming theme tunes from old TV shows in Never Mind the Buzzcock style. We actually gathered quite an audience (which is more than could be said for the NCL daytime entertainment). My 12 year old son stole the show with his rendition of "The Countdown Clock" that had all of us and our audience in stitches. Where there's a will there's a way!

So what about the theatre? Closed during the day (most of the time) and when there was an act on in the evening the place was full up to an hour before the act started and even the corridors and doorways were full. So was this the draw of famous name entertainment? Not really, just that there wasn't enough venue space on board to accommodate all the passengers, and with such limited entertainment available everyone tried to cram in to see whatever happened to be on. Apparently there was a singer that had appeared on Broadway, but no-one we spoke to had heard of her, and there was a group of young lads that no one had heard of but that had allegedly appeared on US television with an "improvisation act", and there was a comedian. They may have been very good acts, but we will never know, as we didn't get to see them.

We did get to see the hypnotist show, but we weren't too impressed, as most of the people on stage eventually got up and walked off mid-show as they weren't actually hypnotized. At one point the hypnotist apologized claiming it was the first time in 9 years that a particular demonstration had failed when a subject was told to forget that the number 7 existed, then counted from 1 to 10 perfectly (including the number 7). The person hypnotized to be the laughter policeman kept forgetting to perform, and when a person was hypnotized to speak Martian we discovered that the Martian language sounds almost exactly like English. Not exactly riveting entertainment, but it passed another 40 minutes or so.

As for the evening entertainment in the Spinnaker lounge, this was mainly audience participation shows with the narcissistic Cruise Director Sinan, who seemed to be going for some sort of Guinness World Record for the number of times he could sing I am your sunshine, your only sunshine, I make you happy when skies are grey over the Public Address system. That is if his tuneless renditions could be described as singing. This was absolutely mind-numbing. For entertainment, the “shows” relied almost entirely on the titillation of various sexual references and acts. Is this what NCL considers to be top class family cabaret entertainment?

Then of course there was the nightclub. A nightclub is a nightclub. In vacation resorts they tend to be frequented by young adolescents bumping and grinding against one another in tune with (or not, as the case may be) the loud R&B music played at a volume well above the secondary action level that would be illegal on a construction site, and this one was no exception. Not somewhere a 47 year old happily married man like myself had expected to find myself on vacation, but as this was the one bar on ship where a drink was still available after 11.00 pm., if you wanted a drink after 11.00 pm, that was where it was at. So that was a choice of 1 place to be (other than your cabin) if you wanted to stay awake after 11.00pm on your vacation.

Bars

The Norwegian Gem literature boasts 13 bars, but this is misleading. Three of those bars (the Sake Bar, the Moderno Bar, and the Great Outdoors bar, are actually associated with the restaurants within which they are situated, and wouldn't normally be used in isolation unless eating at that restaurant. That leaves ten.

Two of the bars (Topsiders and Bali Hai) are pool bars, which (understandably) serve drink in plastic glasses and are great for those people actually able to get a place around the pool (see above).

That leaves eight.

The nightclub bar serves the bowling alley during the day (which is great for those people able to get a game of bowling) and the casino bar serves the casino (which is great for smokers).

That leaves six.

Of those, three of them (the Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar, the Magnum's Champagne & Wine Bar, and the Shaker's Martini & Cocktail Bar) are in fact one bar with three signs hanging over it.

So those six are actually four.

The Maltings / Magnums / Shakers bar and the Star Bar were both generally open between 8.00pm and 11.00pm only (though we did once find the Star Bar open in the late afternoon).

So the only bars we could actually get a drink from during the sea days were the Spinnaker Lounge Bar (though not always) or the Java (main lobby) bar, and what would be going on in the Spinnaker Lounge (when it was open during the day) or the lobby-that's right, a Sales Presentation!

So if we wanted a drink during the day, lo and behold we found ourselves attending a sales presentation. What a lovely surprise!!

And as mentioned above, there was only one bar open after 11.00 pm. So the advertised 13 bars turned out to be a bit of a disappointment also, although it has to be said, during the limited hours that the Maltings Bar was open, the staff there were absolutely great and provided far better evening entertainment than was available elsewhere on the ship.

On the whole we found the excursion prices something else that were exorbitantly overpriced.

The one excursion that did appeal to us was the whale watching in Samana. As a diver, I have experienced many ocean creatures in their natural environment, including sharks, rays, turtles etc, but I have never seen a whale in the wild. I was very tempted to join this excursion, but the exorbitant cost put me off. I'm glad it did!

In Samana, we found a local bar and asked the American owner whether there are humpback whales to be seen mating in Samana bay as NCL claimed. His reply was Oh yes, definitely, but not at this time of year. They're all gone by the end of March.

We laughed and explained that NCL were still selling excursions for whale watching and to our surprise his further response was Well that's just ridiculous. Even at their peak in February and March you never see them when there's a cruise ship in because the ship's engines scare them off.

So would NCL let the fact that the ship's engines usually scare off the whales, or the fact that the whales had all returned back to the North Atlantic four weeks ago, prevent them from selling whale watching excursions at exorbitant prices? Of course not! Any excuse to grab more money from the gullible passengers could not be missed, but of course NCL were careful to add the rider to the promotional material for the excursion that sighting of whales is not guaranteed.

Whilst sighting of whales obviously was not guaranteed, the fact that NCL would take any opportunity to charge an extra cost for just about anything and everything they could get away with on this cruise certainly was!

With flights etc this holiday cost almost £15,000 for 4 adults and 1 child for 10 nights, and that was without paying for any excursions. This was some 2-3 times what we would normally pay for a 14 night luxury Caribbean holiday. In short, it was the worst holiday experience we have ever had, and it has put us off cruising altogether.

And to top it all off we all contracted a lung virus from the ship's air conditioning which meant that we spent the last 3 sea days confined to our rooms (not that we could have done much else anyway) and then took a further month to get over it.

We complained to NCL with the same details as above.. 4 months later we received a reply from them saying "I was so pleased to know that [you] had a wonderful time...... I do hope that we will have the opportunity of welcoming you and your family back on board with Norwegian Cruise Line sometime in the near future."

Suffice to say we will not be giving NCL that opportunity.

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