It was more than 24 years ago that we took our first cruise and through circumstances, we were luckily put on then the new NCL Seaward..closet sized cabins, french service and white gloved waiters. We have since cruised Premier, Dolphin, NCL Sky through their first transit of the Panama Canal, Carnival, Princess, Royal/NCL Majesty (the minimum of twelve times to Bermuda), NCL Sea (previously the Seaward) in one of it's last cruises, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. We have read many pros and cons on the new Free Style Cruising and decided to try the NCL Gem on recommendation of avid cruising friends.
Since we had cruised from Barcelona previously we had stayed at the Hotel Continental on La Rambla and met up with many folks who also booked the hotel and several used our favorite taxi driver/guide. What made it our own little party was that the night before embarking more than a dozen of us met for an informal bite to eat and drink at a little pizza place next door where we all seem to bond.
Unfortunately, our driver arrived earlier than expected and we decided to let the chips fall where they may. We were at the port much too early but our luggage was taken immediately and we were escorted to be signed in. We sat there meeting up with other cruisers or shopping at the duty free (they are always there, aren't they) shops in the terminal,
In less than an hour we were allowed to embark. Parrot Pop who now uses a rollator was directed to the elevator for the handicapped. As we were about to enter the Atrium glasses of champagne and orange juice were offered.
NCL GEM-FIRST IMPRESSION
Walking into the Atrium I was overwhelmed by the purple and blue ceiling and the moving picture wall. We were not allowed to check out our cabins in that the doors were closed off, and there was a mob scene in the atrium with all chairs being immediately filled with new cruisers and their carry on luggage and others milling around. I guess if you were familiar with the ship or a previous cruiser on the ship and there were many, you could slip off somewhere. The area is very welcoming with huge chairs and I swear somebodies idea of a joke...ugly lime green modern sculptured hassocks. Being a sculptured glass fanatic I spotted what I thought was and is a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture on the balustrade,
Never and I repeat, never have I seen a ship kept so spotless, people cleaning baseboards on their hands and knees in the hallways at 11:30 at night, the Garden Cafe being polished up in mid-afternoon after what I observed was continual cleaning all day long, everywhere.The gentleman who greeted you at the Garden Cafe with "washie-washie", it was annoying at first but then you got into it. Automatic dispensers everywhere, bathrooms cleaned continually, the rugs in the heavily trafficked areas like the Atrium continually being vacuumed ( always special sales going on and people milling around). One of the ladies at bar in the Atrium cleaning the glass pastry case, the jewelers in Colombian Emeralds cleaning the wall cases. During the roughest of seas crossing the Atlantic with the attentive staff in the Garden Cafe not a drop or drip remained . A speck of dirt or a smudge seemed to be an insult to the staff and was promptly cleaned up.
CABIN MINI-SUITE AF 11568
Sadly, my husbands folding rollator could not fit through the doors and had to be left outside in the hallway, a handicapped cabin was not a available. The bathroom was divided by glass sliding doors next to the "throne" and the shower..leaving the sink area open.. Somebody had the foresight to install three shelves near the sink which gave extra space for toiletries.. This may seem like a strange comment, but the bathroom floor of shimmering iridescent green tile reminded me of the beautiful sea, a theme carried out in the design of rugs throughout the ship. Closet space was more than sufficient and the drawer space the best I've seen on any ship. My major complaint was as the person sleeping next to the closet there was one tiny wooden shelf to hold personal items.
It would be wonderful if little shelves such as in the bathroom could be installed on that side of the bed. Kudos to NCL for a "real" hair dryer that's one less item to bring from home. One complaint was that the ice bucket was not filled daily. Ladies bring your own shampoo.
After having cruised on NCL more than 15 times I was shocked at the poor quality of entertainment provided generally. In the Atrium there was an older piano player who was so "full of himself", he only played songs from the thirties up until the 50's...and "played" to several repeat cruisers.. He claimed he lived in Paris, but when asked about a famous song writer claimed he didn't know him, and he was from the fifties I believe... his genre.
Yes, we enjoyed the Hypnotist and the Second City Troupe and sadly missed El Divos, but the musical troupe which was definetly NOT of Jean Ryan/NCL caliber was poorly directed and produced and was an absolute disgrace to the reputation for entertainment that NCL held with us. A woman singer one of the first evenings was so bad., she sang off key.
Except for paying for a Jazz brunch in Le Bistro (we did not go and it was only offered once on a thirteen day cruise) there was no jazz heard at all.. that was a big disappointment..
The Sring Quartet played throughout and was enjoyable
FREE STYLE DINING
MAIN DINING ROOMS
MAGENTA We are early diners and found if you went to the dining room after 5:30 there was a long line waiting to get in. The first evening the food and service were very acceptable..
The second evening at the Magenta. we were at the same exact table with a different waiter and when he asked how my meal was I told him the soup was cold and he walked away.
GRAND PACIFIC A bit more formal once we found it and the handicapped entrance was the Grand Pacific, Lovely decor and on the whole, the same indifferent servers, except for one we discovered at breakfast. In other words.. these waiters in the Grand Pacific and Magenta are just "order takers" and don't seem to give a hoot and it showed.
GARDEN CAFE Not being a fan of buffets I must rave about the Garden Cafe. After entering and our washie washie routine.I would go further past the end of the buffet to find a table.. NCL has done something I'd never seen before there were at least four tables that had signs on them to be used by wheelchair/handicapped guests. They could have used a few more, but a nice touch. There were handicapped cruisers of all ages from teens to the elderly, many had walkers, canes, and I noticed several blind cruisers by their white canes.
Parrot Pop loved the station that had hot cereals was a favorite place for him and my first stop was the hot upside down pecan rolls.. NCL has decreed that guests not have trays and that there is less wastage when they have large plates.The minute a staff members spots you with two plates or even juggling one they absolutely insist upon taking your plates and taking you to your table. No shortage of staff upstairs in the buffet whether it was an officer or server, not only that they were gracious enough to get Parrot Pop a coffee or cold milk and bring it to him. There wasn't just one omelet station in the morning, but at least four.. They never ran out of juices and another juice/coffee station was placed conveniently in the next room. After two days the attractive food and displays got to me and I decided as a foodaholic, smoked salmon, fresh danish, cheeses it was enough to drive an overeater crazy, so we went to the Pan American for breakfast at least for a few days..
We never had supper there, but would stop up for a bit of lunch, i.e. salad..forget it.. so many choices, Caesar salad with anchovies, you couldn't help yourself. Best of all at the end of one section was an ice cream bar and soft serve ice cream, available all day long.. All in all the Garden Cafe was a highlight..
BLUE LAGOON. What a disaster.. The big draw here was for me the chicken wings and the tomato soup (fabulous soup),. One example.. my husband and I both ordered our lunch at the same time..and it was to come with french fries, they both came at the same time, mine dead cold fries and his hot..The second day there I ordered ten chicken wings again, and mild,....they came cold...I sent them back and they arrived hot, but only six. When I mentioned the serving problem to an Officer helping out he said..people don't want to leave the tables..WRONG, they are waiting for their food.. Yes, I did see guests walk out. Heaven forbid you ask for iced coffee...you got it at the end of your meal..maybe.. We had breakfast and lunch there.. and always,, always a problem with service. Oh yes..
I think the Hostess there felt the pressure and it must of been a punishment.. she always looked grim faced
CAGNEYS Cagneys is a STEAL. and service quite attentive..compared to the regular free style dining rooms. I ordered a rib eye steak which arrived and was larger than a salad plate, the jumbo shrimp delightful and a wedge of salad with blue cheese.. also ordered with the famous french fries in truffle oil and sprinkled with cheese. Don't remember what Parrot Pop ordered for a steak although he did order a double giant shrimp cocktail.. Neither one of us could finish our steaks... Would never hesitate to eat at their Cagneys again. The food and the service were so far superior than Magenta and Grand Pacific. On land at a fine steak house..$25.00 might cover the cost of the entree, but not the side orders.
LE BISTRO The only extra charge restaurant we went to twice.escargot, mushroom soup, veal, bouillabaisse, etc..The setting is very romantic and this may sound strange, but the charger plate is this magnificent piece of Versace china... I noticed a few guests discretely turning the dish over...absolutely beautiful.. The restaurant had a Gauguin theme, very lovely.. We were never able to make as far as the chocolate fondue.
Coincidently we had received two bottles of wine as gifts while on the ship and neither restaurant charged a corkage charge which I thought was a nice touch
LA CUCINA The evening we decided to go the restaurant there was a two for one for dining.. Great deal...NOT!!!! It seems that the more expensive items like veal, shrimp and their osso bucco are taken off the menu.. Parrot Pop complained to the Maitre de who said he was new, but promised with the group party of 84 the next evening that we were paying FULL PRICE for everything would be on the menu... and it was.. Sadly, Parrot Pop who loves pasta found his pasta with meat sauce inedible the first night.. The next evening at the special private dinner you could see the difference in the menu and the staff, including Officers who came in to check to check that things were "wonderful"... We never went back.
ORCHID GARDEN, SUSHI BAR, TEPPANYAKI - GREAT OUTDOORS--we never went to.
In general, Parrot Pop and I felt with the run of the mill food with the exception of the fabulous soups that NCL is trying to get you to go to the specialty restaurants (read that as extra $$$) for service and quality of food. We missed excellent desserts and the presentation of desserts usually at the end of the meal by our waiter. In most instances we were asked what we wanted for dessert as we were ordering our meal.. We cruise for several reasons..the experience of the ports, the food, the entertainment and the high quality and preparation of food. Food in general for the most part was nothing to write home about and far less imaginative and tasty than we are used to.
STARDUST THEATER Although the sightlines were great it was difficult for handicapped cruisers to get down to the seats and the only alternative was the back seats taken by regular cruisers.. railing are needed.. or another entrance/exit on the sixth floor
BLISS LOUNGE Guess I'm old fashioned, but the bordello atmosphere of the Bliss Lounge certainly threw me for a loop.
GREAT OUTDOORS Just as a side note on embarking I mentioned to the Food and Beverage Manager that I was looking forward to the rib barbecue.. sadly the weather did not cooperate..
DISEMBARKING What a disaster for handicapped cruisers.. We were asked to report to one of the restaurants where the handicapped cruiser would be taken down by wheelchair when their color was called. The problem was.. there was not enough wheel chairs nor helpers. When our color was called we discovered we were 8th on the list.. We decided to wing it and took off ourselves...on the way down the ramp we comandeered an empty wheel chair and steward and off we went.. Parrot Pop could never managed to get down to the terrminal in time for us to catch our transportation.
A big thanks to all the people at the NYC Pier.. they are the best, even over our home port of Boston.
MISCELLANEOUS COMMENTS At a Get Together a large representation of the Staff was present and as they introduced themselves they offered their extension number if anybody had a problem....it worked..
Not in the theatre, nor the lounges were guests bothered by the staff to buy drinks.. nice touch..
What I think is an effort to save $$ Lattitude Pins are not being given out.. sad.. I would have loved to added the NCL Gem to my large collection.
POOR TASTE--- NCL had chutzpah to have young ladies selling roses in the dining rooms and the selling of the Jazz Brunch during supper on one of the first evenings, tacky, tacky, tacky
Lectures by Colombian Emeralds should be done in the Spinnaker Lounge which certainly has more seating than the Atrium where guests seemed to ensconce themselves early in the a.m. and NEVER BUDGED it seems the entire day..
The library is in an inaccessble part of the ship.. it should be mid-ship..not on the pool deck tucked in a corner near the spa.
Guests expressed concern regarding the lack of newer movies...if you want you can rent one for $12.00 they are available. They also were upset that only FOX was available on tv for news.. the excuse is they couldn't get CNN..NOT TRUE!!!! Have been on other trans-atlantics and CNN is available as are newer movies.. I think I watched Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly movie, Singing in the Rain at least three times.. and lets not talk about the old John Wayne black and whites..
Another concern was the lack of washing machines...and another corp, answer.. sanitary, etc. NOT TRUE..there is a large cruise line if not two that provides washing machines and dryers, especially useful on two week trans-atlantics.
Sadly, the weather was not cooperative and we had a rough crossing with rain, thunder, lightening and high seas.. we were unable to use the pool or the jacuzzi. It was the roughest crossing we have had in five trans-Atlantics, rain, thunder, lightening and did I mention high rough waves.
STAFF-OFFICERS A serious problem arose with a particular officer (which I will not go into) and I reported the incident to the front desk privately. Shortly thereafter the Security Officer came to investigate the matter and later told me that the matter would be taken care of.. THANK YOU
FINAL THOUGHTS Having cruised in the past year Celebrity and Princess and now NCL...how do I feel about Free Style... It's a good deal if the ports and the price is right.. If you want TLC and those extra touches... NCL isn't for you.. The question is.. would I cruise NCL again... yes I would and I intend to.. there is an itinerary have in mind but I will also know that I had better as others have told me... put aside extra $$ for the special restaurants..