First off, if you have never been, Barcelona is a beautiful city and deserves at least a 5 day pre-cruise visit if you can swing it. My wife and I combined my birthday, our 25th anniversary and a mutual Christmas gift as reasons for the trip -- hey, one has to justify things -- right? Not to mention the pricing for this crossing at $499 p/p for a balcony on a brand new ship with a 9 day itinerary was unbelieveably GREAT!
The GEM was truly that, a beautiful ship with the friendliest crew and attentive staff I had seen in a long time. They worked extremely well as a team and you really did not want for anything.
The makeup of the passengers for this crossing was approx. USA-1100, Germany-250, UK-250, Canada-100 and ROW (rest of world) making up the 1900 or so passengers on this 2400 capacity cruise liner.
Embarkation process in Barcelona was excellent and fast and very well organized. The area is new and there were ample staff to look after us and we were there within the first hour of the opening of the process. From arrival at the pier to entry in our balcony cabin (deck 9) was less than 20 minutes.
Being a brand new ship, it was pristine and had that "new ship" smell -- lol. Our balcony cabin was nice (forward on the port side) and if you are doing a east to west crossing and want the sun -- that is the side of the ship to be on! The amenities in the cabin include a flat screen 17" TV -- although the selection of live TV channels was limited due to satellite coverage, there were other channels for various movies and ship information, I would rate that a 6 on the 10 scale. An in room coffee maker was there and the bathroom was an adequate size for my 6'3", 245 lb. frame. The sliding shower doors were great vs. other containment possibilities. Lighting in the cabin was good and the balcony was of a decent size. The cabin attendants were very thorough and attentive to all needs.
The ship's Captain Mikael Hilden was very visible and attentive and social -- we bumped into him daily all over the ship and passed on our comments and observations and solicited his. A charming "old man" of the sea! His daily 11:30AM "from the bridge" updates were informative and I looked forward to them. I would add though that the other audio systems around the ship should be turned off (or at least down) when the Captain is speaking -- if not for the information -- in deference to respect of his contributions.
There are 12 restaurants to choose from aboard. 4 of these include "extra charges" ranging from $15-20 but there are "specials" of 2-1 on occasion if you choose to eat between 5:30 and 6:30 in some of them. We tried Teppanyaki (Benihana type) which was very good 8 out of 10, and Le Bistro (french cuisine) was excellent 9 out of 10 -- although here you also had a surcharge for the menu selection which included chateaubriand, souffle and more -- but was well worth it!
Our favorite (non surcharge) restaurant was the Grand Pacific, a beautiful formal-ish dining salon. Although I would add here the NCL Free-style dining experience lessens the formality -- which for us was just perfect! This restaurant is available for all meals in a sit down non-rushed fashion. Our favorite server was Heidi, so ask for her and tell her Fay and Mike from Canada sent ya! She is a GEM.
The Garden Cafe is the main buffet style eatery and is always busy and typically it is difficult to find a seat without a bit of a chore. There are helpers to assist in taking trays to your table when you find one -- and if the ship had been at capacity, I am sure the challenge of eating there would have been much more difficult. The selection of things to eat was vast, regularly replenished and fresh. All in all I would rate it a 7-8 out of 10. The outdoor cafes were very good although the selection of items more limited, but one could get everything you wanted in the Garden Cafe and take it outside to the Outdoor Cafe areas as the seating there was usually more accessible -- weather permitting of course!
We did not try the room service.
The internet Cafe has at least 6 terminals but is pricey and transmission via satellite takes you back to pre-cable speeds -- spare the aggravation -- unless you just have to!! Wireless is throughout the ship as well if you bring your own laptop, but the speed is no better. The crew utilizes the same satellite so the competition for the available bandwidth adds to the degradation of the service.
The entertainment on board was decent but not spectacular -- a variety of musicians, magic, dance and all. The ship's cast is a 7 which is consistent with the overall assessment of the entertainment in the theatre (Stardust). The guest lecturer on marine topics was excellent and he gets a 10 in my book. The cruise director (Clint) was superb as was his staff -- friendly, energetic and helpful. The bars aboard were very good and we sampled almost all of them. The Bliss Lounge is awesome -- even if only for a look -- with its chic furniture, roman-like decadence in decor with two bowling alleys on either side. It's definitely "the happening" place on the ship -- especially after midnight!
As with a lot of cruise ships, your onboard alcohol consumption (beyond the duty free store purchases and chosen excursions) are likely your major extra charges.
The Spinnaker Lounge is a great place for relaxing during the day and catching whatever may be going on there, lecture, games, impromptu gatherings, drinks, etc. or just curling up in the bow of the ship with your reading material. In the evening, it is another happening spot for entertainment -- so our routine was to have dinner and finish around 9-ish, catch the Stardust theatre show from 9:30-10:30, head to the Spinnaker Lounge for its entertainment for another hour+ and if still feeling like partying, head to the Bliss Lounge -- all good!
The spa aboard is to die for. We took the $95 full cruise pass here and enjoyed it thoroughly and made it part of our daily routine. The steam room, sauna, chaise lounges in the his/her sections were excellent and they joined in the middle into a beautiful room with a hydro-like pool, hot tub and heated loungers. No doubt the best spa on the seas in our opinion! The exercise room is large, well equipped and typically busy but there was no waiting for the equipment.
The Casino aboard is large and has a variety of table and slots. No big winners were found -- lol -- on the crossing!
The weather for the crossing was unreal for that time of the year! Sunny for most of the days -- highs in the low 70's during the day for 7 of the 9 days. Only when we got within 2 days of Boston did it turn cooler and was in the low 40's upon arrival. The seas were pleasantly calm throughout the journey save for one half day and evening where 12-14 foot swells caused a gentle roll that was more pleasant than otherwise! The ship's stabilizers did their job extremely well.
The only negative I had for the trip was the excursion day briefing (immediately prior to the excursion) in the Stardust Lounge. It seemed very disorganized and with time pressure to get to the bus at a particular spot and time, and the 4 variations involved, the control was less than stellar by the onboard excursion staff. Let's hope they improve that!
Funchal I might add though is a magical location and if you do stop there, do take an excursion -- it is well worth it!
Tipping is included daily in your onboard charges and at $12/day I believe well worth it for the staff.
Disembarkation was decently organized. Being its first US port of entry ever made for perhaps a little longer process, but not noticeably. We docked around 7 AM, US authorities boarded just before 8 and we were off the ship after a leisurely breakfast by 9:45. I must add though that Boston has a lot to do to make their cruise terminal modern, passenger friendly and efficient. In a word, it is horrible!
Funny story -- we had a noon flight to catch (thank goodness Logan airport is within 15 min. of the terminal) and were concerned that the disembarkation process may delay us, but the ship's (NCL's) part was fine. Once off, we routed for our bags and a friendly porter assisted us and by-passed the huge taxi lineup to take us to a mini-van who he got to take a bunch of us to the airport. With my wife aboard and me outside making sure the bags got on the van, I ended up jostling with the ship's guest piano player entertainer for the final seat on the van -- next to my wife. He was relentless, but I beat him back. Funny, I had a feeling about that guy and his insincere "schtick" of a performance aboard!
Albeit the above negative, we would rate the entire GEM experience a 9.5+. The crew, the ship, the cabin, the variety of activities, the food (quality and choices) are the principal contributors to this rating. All in all, a terrific holiday leaving us wanting to do it again -- soon!
If interested in more info, email me -- email@example.com and I'll be glad to help!
Great Sailing all!