Skip to main content

Cruise Ship Review

Norwegian Gem - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Sneak Preview

It's often hard to drum up excitement for the sixth of anything. We were done with the "Halloween" film series long before part five hit DVD, never mind six. Even the sixth sense gets short shrift. And when it comes to cruise ships, siblings within a fleet are often carbon copies of one another, the later entrants offering little change or innovation. But in a way, Norwegian Gem, the sixth and final ship in the Jewel class, is the culmination of Norwegian Cruise Line's search for a new identity -- and a fresh start.

That's not to say that NCL was having an identity crisis -- but there is a different feel onboard Norwegian Gem than, say, Norwegian Sun when that ship launched in 2001. The line's signature whimsical font is now on everything from brochures to in-cabin amenities. NCL's television commercials are funny and poignant, targeting its desired demographic (first-timers and even past-timers who disdain the rigid schedules of their parents' or grandparents' cruises). We also love the clever wordplay in the guest directory, like "Is there a doctor in the house?" above infirmary information.

As we enter the ship's lobby -- with its two-deck-high LED screen (on which Nintendo Wii tournaments will be played), velvet-like furnishings in whimsical shapes and colors, and a humming coffee bar -- this ship feels more contemporary and more electric than any we've been on recently. Norwegian Gem possesses the kind of contemporary beauty and spirited verve that is more often associated with hip boutique hotels than with cruise ships. This cohesive, fresh brand identity, we learned on our two-night preview cruise from New York, is part of an initiative to upgrade the entire guest experience -- Freestyle 2.0.

Freestyle 2.0 will augment, not replace, the line's signature Freestyle Cruising concept, which is all about flexibility. Now, NCL plans to upgrade several aspects of the guest experience, including dining, staterooms, and onboard activities and amenities, as well as revamp its tiered Latitudes past passenger program. A few highlights? No more buffets -- all cuisine in the lido deck restaurant will be cooked to order. All staterooms will get upgraded mattresses, sheets, pillows, duvets and towels. And the line will launch NCL "U" -- an education and enrichment program that will offer new classes, including organic cooking, improv with Second City, and how to be a bartender or sommelier.

The action-station-style Garden Cafe is already fully operational on Gem (we had two spot-on meals there) and the better bedding is in place. On our two-night preview cruise, it was hard to tell what 2.0 elements are not yet there, but we imagine some of the enrichment opportunities will be phased in over the coming months; though there's no target date for a complete fleetwide rollout, changes will be largely implemented on all ships by the summer of 2008.

In short, Norwegian Gem is a terrific example of how much more upscale and flexible NCL's ships have become as a result of the ever-evolving Freestyle Cruising. Among its distinctive boutique restaurants are Le Bistro, a French eatery, and Teppanyaki, for hibachi-style Japanese food. The spa is open late. Evening entertainment is staggered rather than organized around set seating dining hours. The Courtyard Villas -- two-bedroom suites with a huge tub tucked underneath a bow window that looks out on the sea -- come with other perks, such as a suite-holders pool, whirlpool and sun deck. The main pool arena features quite elegant lounges and couches. And Blue Lagoon, its 24-hour eatery, has undergone a metamorphosis: the one time quick-and-easy fast food joint still serves up the stuff, but the ambience is much more Starbucks than McDonald's.

You can even debark hotel style -- leave your cabin when you want to -- not when the cruise line tells you to, forcing you to wait in a public room for your "color" to be called.

The buzzwords we heard from passengers and NCL execs alike on our two-night preview cruise were "amusing" and "fun" -- and the experience was just that. We lost a few bucks playing poolside roulette, shot some bad guys in the arcade, sipped a martini or three at Bar Central, and bowled in the Bliss Lounge and on the big screen in the atrium (we did better on the Wii!). In fact the whole experience was so lighthearted and enjoyable, we can't wait to go back.

Bedtime

Standard cabins -- outsides and balconies in particular -- aren't overly large (in fact at 160 square ft., they're about the smallest on average for new ships in all of cruising, and insides are even more cramped at 145 square ft.). But they're beautifully decorated in a primary color scheme so bright the rooms almost scream "tacky Hawaiian shirt" but manage to toe the line without going over it. All have flat-screen televisions, mini-fridges, and chairs or small couches. There's a hair dryer, Internet access and, unusual for a North America-based line, in-cabin coffee makers -- which will soon be in every single cabin across the fleet.

Most have the line's unique split bathroom concept, which divides the room into three parts: one has a glass-enclosed shower; another has a closeable toilet chamber; and the sink is in between.

The ship, like most new vessels these days, has a plethora of affordably priced cabins with balconies. Another plus: NCL has incorporated into the designs of their most recent ships a number of interconnecting cabins -- in this case 278 -- which are definitely more family-friendly (and typically really hard to get on cruise ships) .

If you need more space, you're going to have to splurge. There are plenty of larger-than-standard options, including mini-suites, romance suites (our favorite cozy-but-roomy cabin with an uninterrupted oceanview), penthouses, Courtyard Villas, owner's suites and, at the other end of the universe, the Garden Villa. The ship has two of them; these are nearly 5,000 square ft., sleep 10 and have three bedrooms, three and a half baths, living room, dining room, grand piano, private sunbathing, individual saunas ... and a private hot tub.

Garden Villas are often the first to go -- so plan ahead if you want the ultimate indulgence.

Mealtime

On Norwegian Gem, there are 12 different restaurant options featuring cuisine from many parts of the globe. Some are fee-extra; some are not. Among those that levy a surcharge include Cagney's Steakhouse, the French Le Bistro, the Orchid Garden and the Teppanyaki Room. Those that don't cost extra include La Cucina, an Italian restaurant; Tequila Latin, for tapas; and the 24-hour Blue Lagoon. A duo of "general" restaurants (at these, you can organize a set-seating, set-table scenario by talking with a maitre d') includes Grand Pacific and Magenta. Other options include the Garden Cafe, the action-station "buffet" venue -- don't miss the fantastic kid-sized Kid's Cafe there -- and casual daytime eateries like the Great Outdoors, Topside Grill and Bali Hai.

Editor's Note: The electronic reservation system, which can be found by most of the elevators and outside the restaurants, displays the names of all the ship's restaurants, as well as whether they are open or closed, how full each dining room is at that precise moment and where the restaurant is located. This definitely cuts down on the time spent trekking all over the ship when you are hungry -- or if you don't have reservations for a specific restaurant.

Also, when you choose to dine at a popular restaurant without reservations and there happens to be a line, the hostess will give you a beeper that vibrates when your table is ready like the ones at Outback Steakhouse or the Cheesecake Factory.

We were pleasantly surprised by the increased quality in cuisine. While NCL has long been innovative in its approach to restaurants, quantity has often trumped quality. Well, culinary upgrades are a major part of the Freestyle 2.0 movement and it already shows; on this trip, the food exceeded our expectations -- including fresh omelets and spicy Indian dishes in the redesigned the Garden Cafe, an exquisite dinner at the Orchid Garden, and light fare on the well thought out room service menu.

Grand Old Favorites

NCL ships typically excel in the entertainment arena, whether it's Broadway-esque production shows, a Second City comedy performance or its oh-so-cool Bliss Ultra Lounge. In this case, Gem carries on the tradition; it's definitely not the kind of ship where you spend a lot of time closeted away in your stateroom.

While I didn't get to Le Bistro on this mini-trip, it's typically the best date-night restaurant at sea with great ambience and delicious French fare, including new menu items such as tender tasty short ribs.

The spas on NCL are typically outstanding, and on Norwegian Gem, the Yin & Yang had a fantastic relaxation area ($20 per day) with thalassotherapy pool, heated loungers, and saunas and steam. The menu of treatments is getting more interesting; new are a hot stones cooling body-facial, which heats and chills to stimulate circulation, and a facial analysis during which a technician takes close-up photos of your face and then offers recommendations on treatment. Because this Mandara spa is owned by the U.K-based Steiner, which operates most cruise lines' spas, beware: Specialists are required to try to sell you products. If you're not interested say no, firmly.

New & Nifty

Acupuncture is available at Yin & Yang. While most NCL ships offer the Nintendo Wii, the space on Gem was custom designed for it -- with a huge area in the big lobby. It's fun to watch as you pass by. The ship's series of boutiques aren't new in concept, but they're plenty nifty -- NCL ships are typically stocked so well with everything from the ubiquitous duty free bargains to stuff you really want to buy, like great logo wear and fun, mid-range jewelry.

We love the gaming opportunities in signature public areas -- there is tabletop shuffleboard in the Spinnaker Lounge and card tables up by the pool. And the Bliss Ultra Lounge, with its pair of twin bowling alleys, is still pretty new having launched just last year aboard Norwegian Pearl. It's also great fun though we won't be winning any tournaments any time soon -- our top score of 67 paled in comparison to the guy on the lane next to us who bowled in the 190's! Bowling costs $5 a game; bring your own socks though they provide the shoes. It's a bit like your local "rock and bowl" -- dance-club style music videos provide a thumping soundtrack and visual backdrop on flat-screen monitors above each of the four lanes. Scoring is done electronically.

Huh?

Typically most lines offer free access to spa relaxation rooms before or after a treatment; that's not the case here. It's a tacky policy, particularly when you're spending upwards of $100 for a 50-minute treatment.

Kid-Friendly Factor

Extremely friendly and for all ages, NCL is one of the few lines not to require kids to be potty trained to participate in its program (though you won't get out of doing diaper duty). Norwegian Pearl's Aqua Kids Club has daily activities for 2- to 17-year-olds, and it's divided into four groups: Junior Sailors (ages 2 - 5), First Mates (6 - 8), Navigators (9 - 12) and Teens (13 - 17). The Club features three interconnecting rooms. The first room is a nursery; the second is a cinema room with a flat-screen TV and bean bag chairs; and the third, Metro Center, is geared towards teens and has a dance floor, a plasma screen TV, several smaller TV's and a juice bar. Outside the nursery is a smaller pool and water slide for the tots.

For families who don't want to split up at bedtime, definitely take note of the 278 interconnecting rooms, which is a high number for modern cruise ships.

The sun deck has two pools, two whirlpools, a waterslide, a bowling alley and a small video arcade. The sports deck located on Deck 13 is also great for kids -- although I'll say from experience that it's fun for all ages. Activities include mini-golf and two golf-driving nets, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, a volleyball/basketball court and an oversized chessboard.

Bottom Line

Whether you're on a tight budget or want to splurge, Norwegian Gem offers a genuinely excellent value-for-money cruise experience. There are more opportunities on this ship than on those in other fleets to pad your onboard balance -- from the $20 per day relaxation room tariff to surcharges at some specialty restaurants to menus, such as that of the sushi bar, that actually offer items priced a la carte. People complain, but the fact is that the cruise fares are comparatively low. Options abound -- you certainly have plenty of fee-free options, whether in dining or entertainment -- and as it applies to NCL's "where you're free to whatever" mantra, the choice is yours.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; updated by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor

Images of bowling and atrium game play appear courtesy of Melissa Baldwin.

Sneak Preview

It's often hard to drum up excitement for the sixth of anything. We were done with the "Halloween" film series long before part five hit DVD, never mind six. Even the sixth sense gets short shrift. And when it comes to cruise ships, siblings within a fleet are often carbon copies of one another, the later entrants offering little change or innovation. But in a way, Norwegian Gem, the sixth and final ship in the Jewel class, is the culmination of Norwegian Cruise Line's search for a new identity -- and a fresh start.

That's not to say that NCL was having an identity crisis -- but there is a different feel onboard Norwegian Gem than, say, Norwegian Sun when that ship launched in 2001. The line's signature whimsical font is now on everything from brochures to in-cabin amenities. NCL's television commercials are funny and poignant, targeting its desired demographic (first-timers and even past-timers who disdain the rigid schedules of their parents' or grandparents' cruises). We also love the clever wordplay in the guest directory, like "Is there a doctor in the house?" above infirmary information.

As we enter the ship's lobby -- with its two-deck-high LED screen (on which Nintendo Wii tournaments will be played), velvet-like furnishings in whimsical shapes and colors, and a humming coffee bar -- this ship feels more contemporary and more electric than any we've been on recently. Norwegian Gem possesses the kind of contemporary beauty and spirited verve that is more often associated with hip boutique hotels than with cruise ships. This cohesive, fresh brand identity, we learned on our two-night preview cruise from New York, is part of an initiative to upgrade the entire guest experience -- Freestyle 2.0.

Freestyle 2.0 will augment, not replace, the line's signature Freestyle Cruising concept, which is all about flexibility. Now, NCL plans to upgrade several aspects of the guest experience, including dining, staterooms, and onboard activities and amenities, as well as revamp its tiered Latitudes past passenger program. A few highlights? No more buffets -- all cuisine in the lido deck restaurant will be cooked to order. All staterooms will get upgraded mattresses, sheets, pillows, duvets and towels. And the line will launch NCL "U" -- an education and enrichment program that will offer new classes, including organic cooking, improv with Second City, and how to be a bartender or sommelier.

The action-station-style Garden Cafe is already fully operational on Gem (we had two spot-on meals there) and the better bedding is in place. On our two-night preview cruise, it was hard to tell what 2.0 elements are not yet there, but we imagine some of the enrichment opportunities will be phased in over the coming months; though there's no target date for a complete fleetwide rollout, changes will be largely implemented on all ships by the summer of 2008.

In short, Norwegian Gem is a terrific example of how much more upscale and flexible NCL's ships have become as a result of the ever-evolving Freestyle Cruising. Among its distinctive boutique restaurants are Le Bistro, a French eatery, and Teppanyaki, for hibachi-style Japanese food. The spa is open late. Evening entertainment is staggered rather than organized around set seating dining hours. The Courtyard Villas -- two-bedroom suites with a huge tub tucked underneath a bow window that looks out on the sea -- come with other perks, such as a suite-holders pool, whirlpool and sun deck. The main pool arena features quite elegant lounges and couches. And Blue Lagoon, its 24-hour eatery, has undergone a metamorphosis: the one time quick-and-easy fast food joint still serves up the stuff, but the ambience is much more Starbucks than McDonald's.

You can even debark hotel style -- leave your cabin when you want to -- not when the cruise line tells you to, forcing you to wait in a public room for your "color" to be called.

The buzzwords we heard from passengers and NCL execs alike on our two-night preview cruise were "amusing" and "fun" -- and the experience was just that. We lost a few bucks playing poolside roulette, shot some bad guys in the arcade, sipped a martini or three at Bar Central, and bowled in the Bliss Lounge and on the big screen in the atrium (we did better on the Wii!). In fact the whole experience was so lighthearted and enjoyable, we can't wait to go back.

Bedtime

Standard cabins -- outsides and balconies in particular -- aren't overly large (in fact at 160 square ft., they're about the smallest on average for new ships in all of cruising, and insides are even more cramped at 145 square ft.). But they're beautifully decorated in a primary color scheme so bright the rooms almost scream "tacky Hawaiian shirt" but manage to toe the line without going over it. All have flat-screen televisions, mini-fridges, and chairs or small couches. There's a hair dryer, Internet access and, unusual for a North America-based line, in-cabin coffee makers -- which will soon be in every single cabin across the fleet.

Most have the line's unique split bathroom concept, which divides the room into three parts: one has a glass-enclosed shower; another has a closeable toilet chamber; and the sink is in between.

The ship, like most new vessels these days, has a plethora of affordably priced cabins with balconies. Another plus: NCL has incorporated into the designs of their most recent ships a number of interconnecting cabins -- in this case 278 -- which are definitely more family-friendly (and typically really hard to get on cruise ships) .

If you need more space, you're going to have to splurge. There are plenty of larger-than-standard options, including mini-suites, romance suites (our favorite cozy-but-roomy cabin with an uninterrupted oceanview), penthouses, Courtyard Villas, owner's suites and, at the other end of the universe, the Garden Villa. The ship has two of them; these are nearly 5,000 square ft., sleep 10 and have three bedrooms, three and a half baths, living room, dining room, grand piano, private sunbathing, individual saunas ... and a private hot tub.

Garden Villas are often the first to go -- so plan ahead if you want the ultimate indulgence.

Mealtime

On Norwegian Gem, there are 12 different restaurant options featuring cuisine from many parts of the globe. Some are fee-extra; some are not. Among those that levy a surcharge include Cagney's Steakhouse, the French Le Bistro, the Orchid Garden and the Teppanyaki Room. Those that don't cost extra include La Cucina, an Italian restaurant; Tequila Latin, for tapas; and the 24-hour Blue Lagoon. A duo of "general" restaurants (at these, you can organize a set-seating, set-table scenario by talking with a maitre d') includes Grand Pacific and Magenta. Other options include the Garden Cafe, the action-station "buffet" venue -- don't miss the fantastic kid-sized Kid's Cafe there -- and casual daytime eateries like the Great Outdoors, Topside Grill and Bali Hai.

Editor's Note: The electronic reservation system, which can be found by most of the elevators and outside the restaurants, displays the names of all the ship's restaurants, as well as whether they are open or closed, how full each dining room is at that precise moment and where the restaurant is located. This definitely cuts down on the time spent trekking all over the ship when you are hungry -- or if you don't have reservations for a specific restaurant.

Also, when you choose to dine at a popular restaurant without reservations and there happens to be a line, the hostess will give you a beeper that vibrates when your table is ready like the ones at Outback Steakhouse or the Cheesecake Factory.

We were pleasantly surprised by the increased quality in cuisine. While NCL has long been innovative in its approach to restaurants, quantity has often trumped quality. Well, culinary upgrades are a major part of the Freestyle 2.0 movement and it already shows; on this trip, the food exceeded our expectations -- including fresh omelets and spicy Indian dishes in the redesigned the Garden Cafe, an exquisite dinner at the Orchid Garden, and light fare on the well thought out room service menu.

Grand Old Favorites

NCL ships typically excel in the entertainment arena, whether it's Broadway-esque production shows, a Second City comedy performance or its oh-so-cool Bliss Ultra Lounge. In this case, Gem carries on the tradition; it's definitely not the kind of ship where you spend a lot of time closeted away in your stateroom.

While I didn't get to Le Bistro on this mini-trip, it's typically the best date-night restaurant at sea with great ambience and delicious French fare, including new menu items such as tender tasty short ribs.

The spas on NCL are typically outstanding, and on Norwegian Gem, the Yin & Yang had a fantastic relaxation area ($20 per day) with thalassotherapy pool, heated loungers, and saunas and steam. The menu of treatments is getting more interesting; new are a hot stones cooling body-facial, which heats and chills to stimulate circulation, and a facial analysis during which a technician takes close-up photos of your face and then offers recommendations on treatment. Because this Mandara spa is owned by the U.K-based Steiner, which operates most cruise lines' spas, beware: Specialists are required to try to sell you products. If you're not interested say no, firmly.

New & Nifty

Acupuncture is available at Yin & Yang. While most NCL ships offer the Nintendo Wii, the space on Gem was custom designed for it -- with a huge area in the big lobby. It's fun to watch as you pass by. The ship's series of boutiques aren't new in concept, but they're plenty nifty -- NCL ships are typically stocked so well with everything from the ubiquitous duty free bargains to stuff you really want to buy, like great logo wear and fun, mid-range jewelry.

We love the gaming opportunities in signature public areas -- there is tabletop shuffleboard in the Spinnaker Lounge and card tables up by the pool. And the Bliss Ultra Lounge, with its pair of twin bowling alleys, is still pretty new having launched just last year aboard Norwegian Pearl. It's also great fun though we won't be winning any tournaments any time soon -- our top score of 67 paled in comparison to the guy on the lane next to us who bowled in the 190's! Bowling costs $5 a game; bring your own socks though they provide the shoes. It's a bit like your local "rock and bowl" -- dance-club style music videos provide a thumping soundtrack and visual backdrop on flat-screen monitors above each of the four lanes. Scoring is done electronically.

Huh?

Typically most lines offer free access to spa relaxation rooms before or after a treatment; that's not the case here. It's a tacky policy, particularly when you're spending upwards of $100 for a 50-minute treatment.

Kid-Friendly Factor

Extremely friendly and for all ages, NCL is one of the few lines not to require kids to be potty trained to participate in its program (though you won't get out of doing diaper duty). Norwegian Pearl's Aqua Kids Club has daily activities for 2- to 17-year-olds, and it's divided into four groups: Junior Sailors (ages 2 - 5), First Mates (6 - 8), Navigators (9 - 12) and Teens (13 - 17). The Club features three interconnecting rooms. The first room is a nursery; the second is a cinema room with a flat-screen TV and bean bag chairs; and the third, Metro Center, is geared towards teens and has a dance floor, a plasma screen TV, several smaller TV's and a juice bar. Outside the nursery is a smaller pool and water slide for the tots.

For families who don't want to split up at bedtime, definitely take note of the 278 interconnecting rooms, which is a high number for modern cruise ships.

The sun deck has two pools, two whirlpools, a waterslide, a bowling alley and a small video arcade. The sports deck located on Deck 13 is also great for kids -- although I'll say from experience that it's fun for all ages. Activities include mini-golf and two golf-driving nets, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, a volleyball/basketball court and an oversized chessboard.

Bottom Line

Whether you're on a tight budget or want to splurge, Norwegian Gem offers a genuinely excellent value-for-money cruise experience. There are more opportunities on this ship than on those in other fleets to pad your onboard balance -- from the $20 per day relaxation room tariff to surcharges at some specialty restaurants to menus, such as that of the sushi bar, that actually offer items priced a la carte. People complain, but the fact is that the cruise fares are comparatively low. Options abound -- you certainly have plenty of fee-free options, whether in dining or entertainment -- and as it applies to NCL's "where you're free to whatever" mantra, the choice is yours.

Images of bowling and atrium game play appear courtesy of Melissa Paloti.

Cruise Critic

Cruise reviews are provided by CruiseCritic.com, an award-winning cruise community and online resource for objective cruise information, published by The Independent Traveler. Copyright 1995-2009, The Independent Traveler, Inc. All rights reserved. Travelocity.com LP neither assumes any liability nor makes any representations with respect to cruise reviews and other content provided by CruiseCritic.com. Before relying on any information in a cruise review, we recommend that passengers confirm the information with the cruise line.