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Old January 21st, 2012, 01:34 AM
johnql johnql is offline
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Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: New York, NY, USA
Posts: 10,736
Default Gem Cruise Review - 1/8/12-1/18/12 - Very long!

Bottom Line
This is a very long review, so for those who want to skip to the bottom line, here it is – I very much enjoyed my cruise on the Gem (my second time on the Gem). The ship is still in great shape, the itinerary was okay (most of the islands look the same to me), the staff was gracious, the entertainment was good, and the food was good to excellent. It was a very relaxing cruise and I ate far too much.


Also, for those who just want pictures, here are links to my photo albums. I have noted the number of photos in each album just in case you want to skip it.

Menus and Price Lists - 74 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Menus%20and%20price%20lists/

Ship and Cabin - 245 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Ship%20and%20cabin/

Behind the Scenes Tour (tour of many of the ship's non-public areas) - 105 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Behind%20the%20Scenes%20Tour/

Ports (our itinerary included Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Antigua, St. Maarten and Tortola, but we didn't get off the ship in every port) - 143 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Ports/

Spa Menus - 8 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Spa%20menus/

Towel Animals (including a towel folding demonstration in the atrium) - 32 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Towel%20animals/

Background
My friend Linda and I are in our 50s. This was my 10th NCL cruise (17th overall), Linda’s 11th NCL cruise (17th overall). We've also done a few riverboat cruises (Danube, Yangtze and Nile). We booked the Gem mainly because we wanted to take a break from the cold weather up north and we got a good price for a mini-suite with a decent amount of OBC.

Reservation, Pre-Cruise and Embarkation
I booked this cruise through a major online TA that advertises on CC. Between an NCL promo and the TA's promo, I received $250 OBC. Soon after booking, I learned about an American Express promotion that added $100 OBC. There was no problem adding the Amex OBC even though I had already booked the cruise. Eventually, I added a $25 credit from a referral bonus from the TA for a total of $375 OBC.

When NCL overhauled the Latitudes program, I ended up a few points short of Platinum status. However, there was an error in my cruise history, giving me only 7 points for a 14-day cruise around Cape Horn on the Crown. While I was fairly certain that this mistake would eventually be corrected, I was hoping that it would be resolved in time to give me Platinum status (and its perks) before the Gem cruise. I was very pleased when NCL came through and corrected my points total only days before sailing.

Getting to the pier wasn't a problem at all since Linda and I both live locally. Linda took Metro-North into Grand Central. I took the 7 train from Queens to Grand Central, where the two of us grabbed a cab and reached the pier around 11:15am. Checking our 2 large bags with a porter and getting through security were a breeze. The lines for check-in were all short and we were directed to the VIP line (used for suites and Platinum Latitudes). It probably didn't matter which line we used; the wait would have been short regardless. A few minutes later, we were sitting in the waiting room. They started boarding around noon or so. Linda and I headed straight to the Grand Pacific MDR and had a nice, leisurely lunch. We never did hear an announcement that cabins were ready but we eventually went up to our room between 1:30 and 2.

Carry-on bags could be stored in the Bliss Lounge while waiting for your stateroom to be made available.

Sailaway was great as always. This time, we opted not to go out on deck and instead stayed on our balcony, which gave us a great, unimpeded view of the Statue of Liberty. The weather was unusually warm for NYC in January and the balcony minimized the wind factor.

The Ship
I liked the décor of the ship the first time I sailed on the Gem back in 2008 and I haven't changed my opinion. She has been well maintained with very few signs of wear and tear.

We took part in the “Behind the Scenes” ship tour, which was complimentary for Platinum Latitudes. The tour was supervised by Group Service Coordinator Cherry Bongcaras but our actual tour guide was a member of the cast of the production shows. I’m pretty sure the regular fee for the tour was $65 (up from $55). The tour lasted for about 2-1/2 hours. We met in Orchid Garden restaurant, then proceeded to the environmental systems area (waste management and recycling), followed by a tour of the galley and provisions area (including food storage and preparation). Then, we toured the laundry room, which included brief demonstrations of how the thousands of sheets and towels are folded so quickly and efficiently. Next came the Stardust Theater and a tour of the backstage area, including the dressing rooms and the stage itself. The tour ended in the bridge viewing room and the bridge itself, where Captain Gustavsen gave us a detailed tour and entertained questions. It was a fascinating tour but its length and physical demands (lots of walking and standing with no chance to sit down) should be kept in mind by anyone considering it. Also, the group size (15-20) occasionally made it difficult to hear the guide.

Stateroom

We were booked in 11002, a starboard AF mini-suite (now MB). This was the same cabin that Linda and I sailed in on the Jewel, just a different ship. We liked the cabin because of its location (one deck below the pool deck and buffet; two decks directly below the Spinnaker Lounge; a quick elevator ride down to the Stardust Theater; and a few steps to the Bridge Viewing Room). This is also the first and most forward passenger cabin on Deck 11. Next door is the stateroom for the Cruise Director (at least that's the case on the Jewel and Gem). Since the CD is super-busy during the entire cruise, that side of our cabin might as well have been empty, which means no noise to worry about at all. We were fortunate that our other neighbor was equally quiet. Our stateroom was under the spa, which (to me) meant the likeliness of noise would be close to zero (this proved to be true). Also, no problems whatsoever with smoke on the balcony. Speaking of the balcony, it appeared to me that this balcony was bigger than the one we had on the Jewel even though it's the same cabin. I'm not sure if it was my imagination; I wish I had measured the Jewel's balcony and done the same on the Gem.

Since 11002 was all the way forward, it did lead to lots of walking when we wanted to do anything at the stern of the ship (mainly dining in the Grand Pacific, La Cucina or the Great Outdoors, or going to the Bliss Lounge).

We were very pleased with the stateroom accommodations – spacious, plenty of storage drawers, roomy closet with lots of hangers, spacious balcony, coffeemaker, hair dryer, magnifying mirror, a safe that was eye-level, a desk with one chair (we had two chairs on the Jewel), a roomy sofa, a small flat-screen tv, a coffee table, a curtain that could be drawn to separate the tv/sofa area from the beds, a bathroom with a full tub, and a stocked mini-bar/fridge that our steward immediately emptied upon request.

The two beds had been prepared as a single bed. We asked the steward to separate the beds and it was done later in the afternoon. We also requested extra towels to be supplied throughout the cruise – no problem there either. Whenever we needed something specific, we simply left a Post-It note with our request outside stickered underneath the service status wheel (Welcome, Do Not Disturb, Make Up Cabin, Turn Down Cabin). One bathrobe was hanging in the closet and two beach towels were on the small side table right inside the cabin door. I'm sure I could have obtained a second bathrobe from our steward but since I never use one, it didn't matter to us.

The bathroom was partitioned into three sections. On one side was the toilet, separated from the rest of the bathroom by a sliding door. In the middle was the sink area with several small shelves on the wall, probably adequate for most people’s toiletries. A liquid soap dispenser is mounted on the wall. There is also a shelf under the sink with a built-in trash bin. Also mounted on the side wall is a Kleenex dispenser. On the left side of the bathroom is the tub. The tub is very deep, so getting in and out of the tub may not be as easy as at home. There’s a clothesline above the tub and the tub has a 3-part sliding door, not a curtain. The tub’s water controls might be a little tricky to some: instead of a cold water knob and a hot water knob, there is just a single water knob (on the left) for water pressure. The temperature of the water is controlled by a knob on the right, with the temperature indicated in degrees Celsius.

Several days into the cruise, the button for flushing the toilet malfunctioned. A phone call led to a very fast response from the maintenance staff. Within 15 minutes or so, the toilet was working fine.

Our steward was courteous, friendly and professional throughout the cruise. He also made quite a few towel animals for us – not something that makes or breaks a cruise for us but still fun. We also received chocolate mints on our pillows every night (a Platinum perk). We were so happy with our steward that we gave him an additional tip at the end of the cruise on top of the automatic gratuity.

Ship and Cabin - 245 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Ship%20and%20cabin/

Behind the Scenes Tour (tour of many of the ship's non-public areas) - 105 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Behind%20the%20Scenes%20Tour/

Muster Drill
The muster drill was held at 3:30pm, right before sailaway. Our muster station was in the Stardust Theater. It was quick and easy and took only 15 minutes. We were not required to take our lifevests to the theater. The full safety drill and instructions were available on one of the channels on the stateroom's tv.

OBC
There’s always a little apprehension as to whether one’s OBC is going to be accurately credited. I had printed out email confirmations from my TA indicating the exact amount that I should be receiving. Fortunately, this proved unnecessary although the full amount was not credited immediately. Upon embarkation, some of the credits were reflected in our account (accessible on the cabin tv) and these credits were also confirmed by notices that were left in our cabin. The remaining credits eventually showed up in our accounts by the time we went to sleep on the second night.

Latitudes
There were many Latitudes members on this cruise! In speaking to Sherry (the Latitudes Cruise Consultant), I believe there were 150+ Platinum members onboard and twice that number of Gold members. Because of the number of people involved, they split up the group and held two (I think) Latitudes parties in the Spinnaker Lounge.

As Platinum Latitudes members, we were also invited to an Exclusive Gathering, a wine and cheese party hosted by Sherry and attended by the Gem's senior officers. This was also held in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Linda and I both purchased $250 Cruise Rewards for future bookings. As long as you know you will cruise within four years, it’s a deal that’s hard to pass up since you get $100 immediate OBC for your current sailing and the $250 will serve as your total deposit for a new cruise (for most cabin categories). You can purchase the Cruise Rewards by either speaking directly with the Cruise Consultant, Sherry, or by filling out the form and placing it in a drop box that's located right outside her office in the atrium. Forms are also available there.


Other benefits that we both received as Platinum Latitudes members included: dinner in Le Bistro with a bottle of wine (yes, we received 2 dinners and 2 bottles of wine), the “Behind the Scenes” tour, “fill the bag” laundry service (normally a $25 service), access to the concierge, and priority disembarkation in NYC. New to us on this cruise was a welcome aboard Latitudes packet that detailed all of these perks. We also received a Gem pin with the packet.

Cruise Critic Activities
Thanks to CC member Studebaker59 (Sheila) for organizing our M&G in Bliss Lounge. The M&G was held on our first sea day at 11am. We had a good turnout – around 50 attendees. This was followed by a lunch in the Grand Pacific MDR at noon, also arranged by Sheila.

It was fun to meet many of those who attended, finally getting a chance to put a face to the screen name. Quite a few staff members and officers attended the M&G. The Hotel Director, Stephen Knott, and Cruise Director Ken Mills (Big Ken) both spoke briefly and introduced the other officers who were present. Refreshments were provided.

TV
Here’s the channel guide for the ship’s tv:

21 – Onboard Information
22 – Navigational Information
23 – Bow Cam & Announcements
24 – Safety
25 – Restaurant Information
26 – Shore Excursions & Cruise Rewards
27 – Shopping
28 – Onboard Activities
29 – Fox News
30 – MSNBC
31 – ESPN
32 – E (Entertainment) Channel
33 – BBC World News
36 – Favorite Shows
37 – Onboard Services
39 – Classic Movies

Some of the stations faded in and out depending on the ship’s reception (weak signal, poor signal, no signal).

Channel 36 showed reruns of popular tv shows (e.g., Friends, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Two and a Half Men, etc.). Channel 39 showed popular, older movies (e.g., Raiders of the Lost Ark, My Fair Lady, Something's Gotta Give, etc.).

Surprisingly, unlike past cruises, there was no printed channel guide provided. Nor was there a printed schedule of the "Classic Movies" that would be aired on the cabin tv. Both of these were provided in the past.

They did show several movies on the big screen in the atrium - not the greatest venue for a movie mainly because of the noise factor. Movies included: Just Go With It, Unknown, Definitely Maybe, Tron Legacy, Something Borrowed, Battle Los Angeles, Inception and Arthur. Get there early - the best seats are gone 15-20 minutes before showtime.

In addition to being able to check your shipboard account on the tv, the interactive channel (accessed via a button on the remote) also offered the ability to purchase duty-free liquor (very limited selection). You could also order pay-per-view movies - regular movies for $9.99 (a few were $9.95, go figure) and adult movies for $14.99. There were 50+ regular movies and 20 or so adult movies available. Parental controls were also available.

Dining
There are numerous places to eat onboard. Here’s how the dining venues break down on the Jewel.

Included, no reservations recommended
Grand Pacific (Main Dining Room)
Magenta (Main Dining Room)
Blue Lagoon (almost 24/7 comfort food)
Garden Café (buffet)
Great Outdoors (buffet)
Poolside BBQs
Topsiders Bar & Grill
Room Service (24/7 with a surcharge of $3.95 for food orders between midnight and 5am)

Surcharge, reservations recommended
Le Bistro (French/Continental) - $20
Cagney’s (Steakhouse) - $25
Sushi and Sake Bar - a la carte
Orchard Garden (Asian) - $15
Tequila (Tex/Mex) - $10
La Cucina (Italian) - $10
Teppanyaki (Japanese hibachi) - $25

Miscellaneous
Pizza 24/7 - $5
Tapas Bar (free tapas with the purchase of a drink)
Java Café (specialty coffees for purchase; also a wine menu and cocktails available)
Java Café (free coffee and desserts available, self-service)

We dined in most of the venues. Magenta is the smaller of the two main dining rooms. Grand Pacific is quite large and more ornate. The MDRs now feature a menu with the left side listing the items for that meal whereas the right side lists the items available throughout the cruise.

The buffet was quite good (for a buffet) in that there was a large selection of items, including salads, soups, breads, meats, poultry, pizza, pasta, hot dogs, burgers, carvery station, pasta made to order, Indian food, sandwich station, desserts, self-serve ice cream, and hard ice cream and sherbet (5 or 6 flavors available). At breakfast, there was also an omelet station. We had most of our lunches in the buffet and enjoyed the food we had. We had dinner in the buffet once. The ever-popular pretzel rolls are still served, including two other versions of the rolls - one more like a thick bread stick and the other more like a grinder/sandwich roll (pre-sliced for easy sandwich-making). All three were tasty. There does tend to be a problem finding an open table in the buffet but it never took us longer than a few minutes to find an unoccupied table. You can always look for seating in either the Great Outdoors or La Cucina if no tables are available in the buffet proper. Also, they seem to run out of glasses too quickly. Once or twice, paper cups took the place of plastic glasses. Tables were cleared and cleaned promptly.

The Blue Lagoon has three different menus – breakfast, main menu (served for lunch and dinner), and a late night menu (a shortened version of the main menu). We ate there a couple times and enjoyed the wings, fish and chips, and cheeseburger (probably more but I can't remember which items). Breakfast was good. I had a “Create Your Own Omelet” along with hash browns and orange juice (real juice, not fresh squeezed, but real). Both the service and the breakfast were good.

We ordered room service a couple times - once for the 24/7 $5 pizza (16" pie), which was surprisingly good. Certainly not as good as most NYC pizzerias but pretty good. We also ordered room service for disembarkation morning. We were surprised that room service was even available on the last day since it was usually not available on our past cruises. Delivery was punctual for the pizza but disembarkation morning ran late (not too surprising).

We had meals in almost all of the specialty restaurants – Le Bistro (twice, both complimentary as Platinum perks), Cagney’s Steakhouse, Orchard Garden, Tequila, and La Cucina. All of our meals in the surcharge restaurants were good to excellent. The service was excellent, too.

I didn't see any discounts offered for the surcharge restaurants - no 2-for-1's and no discounts for earlier/late seatings. Dinner reservations can only be held for 15 minutes. You need to cancel before 5:30pm the day of your reservation to avoid a cover charge for two being applied to your shipboard account.

We had absolutely no problem getting reservations to any of the restaurants. We booked all of them in the atrium at the end of the main reception desk on the first full sea day. I know that many people don’t like the idea of paying a surcharge for dining on a cruise ship and I can understand that viewpoint. Also, no one is happy that the surcharges have gone up over the years. But my approach is that I price the cruise and then budget extra for dining surcharges. If I still feel that the total price is a good deal, I book the cruise. To me, even with the higher surcharges, the specialty restaurants are worth it. In addition, our OBC more than covered all of our surcharge dining.

We were disappointed that we weren’t able to obtain copies of the entire cruise’s dinner menus for the main dining rooms in order to strategize our dining plans for the week. We asked at the main reception desk in the atrium but they weren’t available (as they have been on some of my previous NCL cruises).

For those who are interested, they offered two special meals during the cruise – a Best of All lunch and a Taste of India dinner. I believe the surcharge was $15 for each of these special meals.

Late-night snacks are served in the casino around 11:30 pm. Interestingly enough, these snacks are no longer advertised in the Freestyle Daily, as in the past. Perhaps they want to keep it a secret and offer the snacks only to gamblers in the casino to keep them in the casino. That said, it's still open to all passengers, but you have to know to look for it.

The Chocoholic Buffet was held from 9:45-11pm in the Garden Café on Sunday, 1/15, Day 8 of the cruise. I had several items and most of them were quite good (e.g., raspberry chocolate cake, chocolate cheesecake). It's always fun to see some of the amazing sculptures on display made from chocolate, ice and butter.

Wine Package - pick any 6 to 8 bottles of selected wines and get 20% off.

Beer Buckets - buy 5 bottles of any beer and get 1 bottle for free.

Menus and Price Lists - 74 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Menus%20and%20price%20lists/

Activities
Chances are you won’t be bored on the Gem. The ship offers most of what you would expect on a cruise ship and probably much more – bingo, art auctions, portrait sittings, spa treatments, casino gambling (in addition to slot, blackjack and Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments), internet café, Latitudes party for repeat cruisers, VIP Latitudes party for Silver, Gold and Platinum members, onboard shopping, yoga, tennis, trivia sessions, shuffleboard, fitness classes, wine/martini/scotch/beer tastings, free liquor tastings, card room, video arcade games, Wii in the atrium, karaoke, rock climbing, ping pong, basketball, White Hot party, goofy golf tournament, dancing, napkin folding, towel folding demo, cooking demo, sushi and teppanyaki demo, ice carving demo, aerobics, singles get-togethers, etc. There were also meetings for Friends of Bill W. and Friends of Dorothy. I’m sure I missed some other activities, so be sure to peruse your Freestyle Daily thoroughly.

For those who are interested in more active participation or simply enjoy watching your fellow passengers have fun, you can check out any of the audience-participation games: the Newlywed Not So Newlywed Game; Liar’s Club; Majority Rules; The Perfect Couple; Dancing with the Gem Stars; or the Quest.

Deal or No Deal was also held a few times. There is a cost for this but I'm not sure how much. You can win a cruise for two or up to $5,000. It appears to follow the script pretty closely of the former tv show.

The game room was very active on this sailing during sea days. The game room was stocked with the following games: Mastermind, Monopoly, Scrabble, Chess, Clue, Checkers, and a few jigsaw puzzles.

The Library was moderately busy. It looked like there was a decent number and variety of books available. The Library also supplied daily written trivia quizzes, crosswords and sudoku puzzles.

Yin and Yang Spa & Salon
The spa's offerings are pretty extensive. Please check out the following link for the full menu and price lists, including salon services. Flyers promoting special discounts (particularly on port days) were also distributed (see link).

http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Spa%20menus/

Please note that an 18% (not 15%, as with bar tabs) service charge is automatically added to all of the above fees.

Shows
There was at least one show every night in the Stardust.

Day One - Welcome Aboard Show featuring comedian Michael Dean Ester
Day Two - World Beat (production show)
Day Three - The Man from Mars (2-person show featuring acrobatics and physical comedy)
Day Four - two separate shows - Pianist Stephen Kane / comedian Michael Dean Ester
Day Five - Hypnotist Nadeen
Day Six - Colorz (production show)
Day Seven - two separate shows - SideSHOWBert (physical comedy and juggling) / comedian Darrell Joyce
Day Eight - two separate shows - Second City / hypnotist Nadeen
Day Nine - Get Down Tonight (production show)
Day Ten - Farewell Variety Show (SideSHOWBert, Darrell Joyce, production number, and "Fountains"); during the afternoon, the International Crew Talent Show was also performed in the Stardust

There were also numerous shows and activities offered in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Day One - Battle of the Sexes game show
Day Two - Newlywed Not-So-Newlywed game show
Day Three - Dancing with the Norwegian Gem Stars / 55 to Stay Alive game show / Who Wants To Be a Bazillionaire? game show
Day Four - Majority Rules game show
Day Five - Pianist Stephen Kane / A Night of Cabaret (production cast)
Day Six - Liar's Club game show / The Perfect Couple game show
Day Seven - Unexpected Songs (production cast)
Day Eight - Ladies vs. Gents game show
Day Nine - Second City Scriptless Show (family edition) / White Hot Party
Day Ten - Second City Scriptless Show (adults only) / The Quest game show

Other Activities
Guided Ship Tour - free tour on embarkation day of the ship's public areas
Welcome Aboard Party on embarkation night
Bliss Breakout Party on embarkation night
Gem Pub Hop (100 guests max)
70's Disco Groove Party
Mr. Sexy Legs Contest, poolside
Ladies Night on the Town in Bliss Lounge
Karaoke Blast in Bliss Lounge
Merengue Dance Class, poolside
Ritmo Latino under the stars, poolside
Cha-Cha dance class
Speed Rock Climbing tournament
Top of the Charts in Bliss Lounge
Big Band Tribute in the Spinnaker Lounge
Rock Night with Ocean Vibe, poolside
Happy Family Deck Party, poolside
Toga Party in Bliss Lounge
Sounds of the Islands, poolside
Family Friendly Feud game show in Bliss Lounge
Dancing Under the Moonlight deck party, poolside
Bandaoke in the Spinnaker Lounge (karaoke with a live band, Ocean Vibe)
Ballroom dancing in the Spinnaker Lounge
Country Hoedown in Bliss Lounge
Family Pictionary in Bliss Lounge
50's & 60's Sock Hop Party in the Spinnaker Lounge
Irish Dance Class in the Spinnaker Lounge
Miss Biceps Contest, poolside
Eddie Spaghetti's Crazy Dance Class in the Spinnaker Lounge
Kids Talent Show in Bliss Lounge
Beatles Tribute with Ocean Vibe
Bowling - normally $5 per game, there are also several 2-for-1 bowling sessions offered
Trivia contests - two versions were held throughout the cruise: one was regular, just show up and participate. The other was a progressive trivia contest that accrued your points throughout the cruise with your team members fixed for the duration. There were also music- and movie-specific trivia contests.

Music in the Lounges
There were numerous musical acts performing throughout the ship – Caribbean Plus, guitarist Leo J., pianist Michael, Ocean Vibe, Jeffrey, Gem Orchestra, and plenty of DJ'd music. These performers offered a very diverse selection of music, with a little something for almost everyone’s taste.

Casino/Gambling
The casino offers what you would expect: table games (blackjack, craps, roulette, three-card poker, Let It Ride, and Texas Hold ‘Em) and slots (pennies on up), including video poker. There’s also that game that seems to be incredibly popular for a reason that eludes me – The Tumbler – you drop your quarters/tokens in, trying to cause the machine to push a prize into the prize chute.

There are a couple of blackjack tables at poolside. However, I never saw them in use although it's possible that I just missed it.

There is a blackjack machine up in Spinnaker Lounge. The advantages of the blackjack machine is that it still pays 3-to-2 for blackjack (whereas the $5 table in the casino pays only 6-to-5), and there’s no smoking allowed in the Spinnaker. There are also two electronic roulette machines (one in the casino and one in Spinnaker Lounge). The one in Spinnaker has a minimum bet of 25¢. I don't know whether it's the same in the casino since I never gambled there.

The casino also runs tournaments for blackjack, slots and Texas Hold ‘Em.

There are some slot machines located in the Bliss Lounge (alongside one of the bowling alleys).

For the first time ever (for me), I did not gamble in the casino at all. I limited my gambling to playing blackjack in the Spinnaker mainly because I wanted to avoid the smoke.

You can charge up to $2,000 per day in the casino, with a 3% fee added.

Ports and Shore Excursions
Linda and I took this cruise mainly for a winter getaway (ironically, the weather in NY has been fairly mild). The itinerary (Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Antigua, St. Maarten, and Tortola) was not the selling point. Neither of us is a sun or beach person and we tend to view most of the islands as pretty much all the same - pleasant stops with some beautiful beaches, gorgeous water, and very similar souvenir shops. We've done excursions over the years in many of these islands. As a result, we didn't book any excursions at all on this cruise (either through NCL or independently). We didn't even get off the ship in some of the ports.

We did, however, get off the ship in Puerto Rico to visit Fort San Cristobal. We took the free trolley that stops at the pier. It took 10-15 minutes to reach the fort and it drops you off right next to the rear entrance. The fort's entrance fee was $3 (certainly less than I expected) and we both enjoyed exploring the historic site. There were some spectacular views of the harbor and the rest of San Juan from the upper level of the fort. They had a few exhibits documenting the history of the island and the fort but they do need to add some exhibits to fill some of the empty rooms. Returning to the pier was a breeze. We crossed the street from where the trolley dropped us off originally and hopped on the next free trolley (actually, the return trip was a bona fide bus).

Here’s a link to my photo album of our port stops:
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Ports/

Service
Our steward was excellent. The staff at main reception was courteous and attentive. The wait staff throughout the ship was eager to please. Smiles were commonplace.

Several safety drills were conducted for the staff during this cruise. I'm pretty sure that some, if not all, of the drills are conducted regularly. However, in light of the Costa Concordia tragedy that occurred during our sailing, it was reassuring that these drills were conducted and taken seriously by all involved. In a similar vein, the Captain made numerous announcements over the PA on our last sea day, which was the roughest in terms of turbulence, to reassure the passengers with updates. The announcements were well received by the passengers that I spoke with.

Captain Gustavsen was very gracious during our bridge tour. Hotel Director Stephen Knott was very accommodating and acccessible. As an aside, I asked the captain about whether the Gem had a lucky coin buried in her hull somewhere. He did not know of one and had never heard about the centuries-old tradition of planting a coin somewhere in the ship during its construction for good luck. I spoke to Stephen Knott about the status of putting Moderno on the Gem. He told me that replacing Tequila with Moderno is scheduled for late February of this year. In addition, the Pearl should be getting Moderno sometime in the spring but no exact date has been determined.

Conclusion
I would absolutely sail on the Gem again and would recommend her to friends and family. Of course, there’s always the caveat – if you’re someone who loves traditional cruising with fixed dining times, assigned tables, and assigned tablemates, it might not be for you. But, for me, Freestyle is still the way to go.

If there are any questions, feel free to ask away. I hope I can answer them. Also, check out my photos in the links below.

Menus and Price Lists - 74 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Menus%20and%20price%20lists/

Ship and Cabin - 245 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Ship%20and%20cabin/

Behind the Scenes Tour (tour of many of the ship's non-public areas) - 105 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Behind%20the%20Scenes%20Tour/

Ports (our itinerary included Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Antigua, St. Maarten and Tortola, but we didn't get off the ship in every port) - 143 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Ports/

Spa Menus - 8 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Spa%20menus/

Towel Animals (including a towel folding demonstration in the atrium) - 32 photos
http://s636.photobucket.com/albums/uu87/johnql/Gem%20Cruise%20Jan%202012/Towel%20animals/

I would happy to answer any questions. Fire away.


Last edited by johnql; January 21st, 2012 at 01:37 AM.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 03:03 AM
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Excellent job....easily the most comprehensive review of any ship or cruise I have ever read here on CC. I don't think you missed much of anything.

That said, I have a few questions....how is the library selection? I like reading maritime or nautical books. And do they have a paperback exchange?

Do they still give free logo merchandise for accruing signatures for participating in Staff Organized Activities?

Did you attend a CC roll call meet and greet on your cruise?
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Old January 21st, 2012, 03:37 AM
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Excellent job....easily the most comprehensive review of any ship or cruise I have ever read here on CC. I don't think you missed much of anything.

That said, I have a few questions....how is the library selection? I like reading maritime or nautical books. And do they have a paperback exchange?

Do they still give free logo merchandise for accruing signatures for participating in Staff Organized Activities?

Did you attend a CC roll call meet and greet on your cruise?
Sorry, I did not check out the books that were available in the library. They had a fairly large selection of books (almost two walls worth), as you can see from the following 2 pics. It's possible that there were maritime and/or nautical books available, but I can't confirm or deny that. I also don't know if they have a paperback exchange program.





Yes, you can still collect signatures for participating in Staff Organized Activities. At the end of the cruise (last night), you could go to Bliss Lounge where, for two hours, they were set up to hand out a variety of logo merchandise. The more points (signatures) that you collected, the better or more items you could claim. Items included tote bags, pens, koozies, key chain lights, etc.

Yes, I attended the CC M&G. It was held in Bliss Lounge and was attended by approximately 50 CCers. Refreshments were served and some of the ship's officers and the CD were present.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 03:43 AM
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Thanks for that info. One thing I remembered about the Gem that I did not like (I liked everything else!), was the heavy arm chairs in the Garden Cafe that made it difficult to get in and out of the relatively crowded table area...still the same?
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Old January 21st, 2012, 04:37 AM
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Thanks for that info. One thing I remembered about the Gem that I did not like (I liked everything else!), was the heavy arm chairs in the Garden Cafe that made it difficult to get in and out of the relatively crowded table area...still the same?
I don't recall having any trouble with the chairs. However, the amount of space for walking through the dining area was limited in spots. Perhaps the following photo can confirm your suspicions?

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Old January 21st, 2012, 06:20 AM
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What a fabulous intensive review! Best I have ever seen on CC.
And for me, so fortuitous as I sail for the first time on her next month
and you answered a number of things I was considering.

Thank you so much!

BTW, I was considering the Behind the Scenes Tour as I have taken it for free on another line. However, between $65 and 2-1/2 hours of standing,
I shall give it a pass.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 07:27 AM
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Thanks for the review. We were also at the Meet and Greet and had a fun time.
Susan
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Old January 21st, 2012, 10:20 AM
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Quote:
For those who are interested, they offered two special meals during the cruise – a Best of All lunch and a Taste of India dinner. I believe the surcharge was $15 for each of these special meals.
Where were each of these held?
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Old January 21st, 2012, 10:52 AM
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John,

This is the most complete review I've ever read on CC!!! It meant more to me because I was actually on the sailing being reviewed. You even have us in photo #6 on the trolley in San Juan.

Thanks for giving me credit for arranging the CC activities.

You did a great job!!!

Hi to Linda.

Sheila
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Old January 21st, 2012, 11:12 AM
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What a great review. Thanks so much!
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Old January 21st, 2012, 12:30 PM
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I don't recall having any trouble with the chairs. However, the amount of space for walking through the dining area was limited in spots. Perhaps the following photo can confirm your suspicions?

I cannot quite tell, from the photo. It wasn't walking thru there that I found difficult, but rather getting into the chair and then sliding over the carpet closer to the table, as well as getting out of the seat. Which you often need to do when dining at a buffet. IIRC the chairs were either lighter, did not have the obstructive arms, or perhaps the tables were roomier on the similar Jewel, which I had cruised on two months prior...
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Old January 21st, 2012, 12:57 PM
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Originally Posted by Rhea58 View Post
What a fabulous intensive review! Best I have ever seen on CC.
And for me, so fortuitous as I sail for the first time on her next month
and you answered a number of things I was considering.

Thank you so much!

BTW, I was considering the Behind the Scenes Tour as I have taken it for free on another line. However, between $65 and 2-1/2 hours of standing,
I shall give it a pass.
A compromise solution could be a complimentary bridge tour conducted by the Captain himself. This was offered to the members of the CC roll call who signed up for our cruise's Meet & Greet. It's not as comprehensive as the Behind the Scenes Tour, but it's free and does not require nearly as long a time commitment. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that it will be offered. The best you can do is for someone on your roll call (perhaps the one organizing the M&G) to contact the Group Service Coordinator and see if it can be arranged for your group. In our case, Studebaker59 was kind enough to arrange the bridge tour.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 01:02 PM
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I cannot quite tell, from the photo. It wasn't walking thru there that I found difficult, but rather getting into the chair and then sliding over the carpet closer to the table, as well as getting out of the seat. Which you often need to do when dining at a buffet. IIRC the chairs were either lighter, did not have the obstructive arms, or perhaps the tables were roomier on the similar Jewel, which I had cruised on two months prior...
Sorry I don't have a better picture of the buffet's dining area, but I don't recall having a problem getting in and out of the chair or having difficulty repositioning the chair when needed.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 01:07 PM
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Where were each of these held?
I'm pretty sure the Taste of India was held in the Orchid Garden restaurant, and I think the Best of All lunch was held in Le Bistro. However, I'm not 100% certain. Sorry.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 01:16 PM
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Thanks to all for the positive feedback. To be honest, I admit that this isn't really a review as much as it's a recounting of what was available on the Gem with just an occasional opinion thrown in. I generally feel that a heavily opinionated review isn't my style - after all, when it comes to subjective topics (e.g., food), my opinion is no more valuable than the next person's.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 03:07 PM
Teapot Teapot is offline
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Default to add some more to this great review:

We also returned from the Gem cruise last week. It was certainly one of the most enjoyable of the dozen or so cruises we have taken!

First, a few comments on the port stops. The first was San Juan. We have been there before, and it was the wrong night for the show at the fort, so we just browsed the area near the ship. Moat useful: there is a large CVS drugstore right near the pier, so we were able to obtain a few forgotten items.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Champagne Catamaran trip to St. John's. We were docked just off Honeymoon Beach, which is gorgeous. Folks could swim/snorkel right off the boat, or take an inflatable dinghy ride to the beach. Cheese, bread, and champagne/rum punch were a nice touch.

We took the Antigua by Sea excursion. This was a larger catamaran in much rougher water. By the time we got to their spectacular private beach, we were drenched; several folks needed to use the special little bags. While we snorkled, some of the crew prepared a really delicious lunch.

In St. Martin we went on the Lagoon Kayaking trip. This was not a calm lagoon float; it involved paddling through a harbor area full of huge multi-million dollar yachts to get to a lovely strip of Mangroves, where we rested and heard a history/ecology talk by our guides.

In Tortola, the featured Norman Island excursion was full, so we took the Catamaran Snorkel trip, which, as it turned out, also went to the caves at Norman Island, and then to an absolutely spectacular beach called Pirate's Bight. We think we actually got a better trip!

Each time we returned to the ship tires, soggy, sandy, and perhaps a little tipsy, but we did have a great time!

We enjoyed the evening and follow-up programs, especially the Man from Mars and the hypnotist, Nadeen. We actually liked the Cabaret show the best of those by the Gem Singers and Dancers.

Thanks to Sheila for arranging the interesting bridge tour and the Meet-and-Greet. We felt that the Bliss Lounge (which we otherwise enjoyed) was a poor place to hold that event; the layout made it awkward to actually meet anyone.

My one major concern about the cruise was that there were a number of college kids on board who spent the better part of several nights roaming the ship, screaming at the tops of their lungs. As we got off the ship in St. Thomas, we complained to the Cruise Director, who immediately passed us to the hotel director standing nearby. And there were others behind us who also complained. The HD, Steve Knott put on extra security, and that was the pretty much the end of it. He also followed up with us as the week progressed. What has me baffled is why our original phone complaints to the main desk previously got us nowhere; I know that several of our neighbors had also phoned. One night at 3:15 AM my husband found the mob at full blast in the Atrium! We have absolutely no problem with the kids enjoying themselves; just have them do so somewhere like the Spinnaker where they won't disturb those who prefer to sleep! (The ship's senior officers were very visible the entire trip, which was a nice touch!)

And, finally, the main reason we are loyal NCL cruisers: one of our family members has serious dietary issues, specified when we booked the cruise. The wait staff and chefs were attentive to her needs. The Maitre'D, Fiji, made sure each day that her dinner was ordered for the next evening. And the distilled water for her CPAP machine was provided. This has actually been our consistent experience with NCL; we are extremely grateful that it is thus possible for her to travel with us!

Last edited by Teapot; January 21st, 2012 at 03:09 PM.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 05:52 PM
Studebaker59 Studebaker59 is offline
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johnql - I just want to point out that the invitations for the Bridge Tour didn't go to everyone who signed up for our CC Roll Call. The invites were extended to the people who actually attended the CC Meet & Greet.

Teapot - Interesting comments.

We weren't bothered by the college kids, but found Quest geared to them. It was very raunchy. We've played Quest on many ships, including NCL, but never felt this way before. It involved much undressing and personal parts.

I agree that I prefer a better lit venue for the Meet & Greet. The Bliss Lounge is dark, and not conducive to mingling. However, NCL tells us the time & place for the M & G. We're delighted that they always make CC members feel important & welcome.
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32. Freedom of the Seas 5/11/06
33. Crown Princess 6/14/06
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Old January 21st, 2012, 06:46 PM
Educators2 Educators2 is offline
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Could you fill us in on the American Express promotion. I know I asked and the consultant couldn't locate any such promotion. We have a family cruise scheduled this summer and would love to take advantage of it.

I guess we were lucky that we never heard the college kids at night. We met some at progressive trivia and were surprised that college students chose a ten day cruise.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 06:58 PM
johnql johnql is offline
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Originally Posted by Studebaker59 View Post
johnql - I just want to point out that the invitations for the Bridge Tour didn't go to everyone who signed up for our CC Roll Call. The invites were extended to the people who actually attended the CC Meet & Greet.

Teapot - Interesting comments.

We weren't bothered by the college kids, but found Quest geared to them. It was very raunchy. We've played Quest on many ships, including NCL, but never felt this way before. It involved much undressing and personal parts.

I agree that I prefer a better lit venue for the Meet & Greet. The Bliss Lounge is dark, and not conducive to mingling. However, NCL tells us the time & place for the M & G. We're delighted that they always make CC members feel important & welcome.
Sorry about the misinformation about the Bridge Tour. That makes more sense.
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Old January 21st, 2012, 07:07 PM
johnql johnql is offline
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Could you fill us in on the American Express promotion. I know I asked and the consultant couldn't locate any such promotion. We have a family cruise scheduled this summer and would love to take advantage of it.
The Amex promotion gave you a $100 OBC for booking any cruise (7+ days) within a certain booking window as long as you paid for the entire cruise using an Amex card. Unfortunately, I don't believe that promotion is being offered right now.

There's a new Amex promotion (promotion code PGAXOC) that's available for the remainder of 2012 (for sailings from 2012-2014):

http://www2.ncl.com/freestyle-cruise/amx-promo

However, this promotion can only be used for booking a Haven or suite cabin, but it offers $500 in OBC. I've already used this promotion for a cruise later this year. As with all their promotions, you have to pay for the entire cruise using an Amex card. You may, however, use a Cruise Rewards certificate to place your deposit.

One caveat: Breakaway sailings are excluded.

Last edited by johnql; January 21st, 2012 at 07:09 PM. Reason: Breakaway notation
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