Children have a ball on Norwegian Gem. The hub of the line's "Splash Academy" program is Deck 12's Tree Tops Kids Club (conveniently close to the Garden Cafe buffet). Children are separated into four groups for scheduled activities: Guppies (6 months to 3 years, with parent), Turtles (3 - 5), Seals (6 - 9) and Dolphins (10 - 12).
All groups feature age-appropriate activities. For instance, Turtles might participate in activities that draw from Nickelodeon characters like Dora the Explorer (Dora's Dance Party). There's family LEGO-building, crafts and traditional fun stuff like "duck, duck, goose" and "musical chairs." Seals might take part in more recreational play, with games like dodgeball, soccer, Astroball and Nintendo Wii, but it also incorporates more learning-oriented activities like rocket science programs and environmental "fun."
Teens have their own dedicated space, the Leopard Lounge (open until 1 a.m.), but activities take place all over the ship. There might be a "make a pizza" cooking lesson at La Cucina, the ship's Italian restaurant, or bowling at the Bliss Lounge. There's could also be a "murder mystery dinner," air hockey tournaments and a "hot tub social." Much of the program really gives the kids time to hang out, and in the evenings, they bring their iPods to the Leopard Lounge and download music to dance to. The facility has Wii, Playstation, foosball and air hockey. In the evenings, a bar serves up for-fee nonalcoholic beverages.
The younger kids have their own dining area in the Garden Cafe with a small buffet of child-friendly favorites. (See the Dining section.)
A Deck 12 arcade offers the usual games.
Partner Nickelodeon, aboard Gem since February 2012 (also on Jewel, Epic and Breakaway), hosts interactive games, dance parties and other activities like a (for-fee) character breakfast.
Norwegian does not charge young passengers to participate in its program on sea days. However, on days when the ship is in port, the cost for kids, ages 2 to 12, to stay onboard in the program is $6 per hour for the first child and $4 for each additional child. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Evening group baby-sitting is also available at the same rates from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Passengers are predominately from the U.S. and Canada. The average age varies; on longer cruises, the ship appeals to older passengers. On seven-night trips during school holiday seasons, it's dominated by families.
Just about anything goes, wardrobe-wise, with most passengers wearing casual, poolside garb during the day and resort casual-style clothing -- including jeans -- at night. (Shorts and tank tops are only permitted in the Garden Cafe and Blue Lagoon after hours.) Grand Pacific is the ship's dress-up restaurant in the evenings.
Passengers are charged $12 per person, per day (including kids ages 3 and up). A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to orders for drinks (from sodas and juices to bottles of wine and cocktails). The Yin & Yang Spa automatically adds an 18 percent tip on all spa and salon services and, oddly enough, on fitness programs at its Body Waves facility. There's no gratuity expected to counselors of the kids programs, but tips are gratefully accepted. (Aim for about $3 per day, per child.) Passengers in suites that come with butlers tip at their own discretion. (Plan to pay $3 to $5 per day, per person -- more if you made a lot of extra requests.)
The onboard currency is the U.S. dollar.
Norwegian Gem's entertainment (like that on other NCL ships) is superb, particularly during the evening hours. Activities were head-spinning in their range and quantity. Vocalists strumming guitars or tickling piano keys are mainstays in smaller venues like Magnum's Champagne Bar and the Crystal Atrium. Each night, there's a jazz jam in various venues. Passengers who want to dance head up to Deck 13's Spinnaker Lounge. There's the occasional evening bingo game and movies, shown on the vast video screen in the Crystal Atrium.
These are just the activities that warm up passengers for the big events. Superb performances of music revues in the three-deck-high Stardust Theater include "World Beat," described as a musical round-the-world voyage, and "Get Down Tonight," a 1970's-era musical tribute. The hypnotist who performed on several evenings was anything but lame; she proved to skeptics that there's an art to it in a show that was both funny and sort of terrifying. Passengers can also fill their evenings by attending a magic show, pub crawl, Karaoke and a Bee Gees revue. Productions by the Second City comedy troupe are a mainstay aboard Gem; be sure to check out "Presumed Murder," the whodunit improv luncheon created by the comedy team and crime novelist Scott Turow.
Easily the highlight for adults was The Quest, a sort of scavenger hunt in which passengers paired up in a handful of groups and then were required to secure various items in order to win. The prize was meaningless; it was all about the competition to be first and get the biggest laughs from the audience. (Items to bring back included men walking around with a pair of bras on their heads, house keys, business cards and belts.) This is an adult show, held well after dinner hours, and I was dismayed at how many parents allowed their kids to attend.
Another much-anticipated event each cruise is the ship's White Hot Party, with all waiters dressed in white and the Spinnaker Lounge redecorated with white canvas and table coverings. On our spring break cruise, the many families and younger cruisers onboard gave the event a 20-something party vibe -- and this 40-something felt old, old, old!
The generously sized Gem Casino has table games, video betting and slots. Gamblers can also use video screens in Spinnaker and poolside to bet.
Outfitted in purple and red felt, with plush lounge chairs at every turn, the Bliss Ultra Club is a hybrid bar and bowling alley with the feel of a shag-a-delic 1970's club.
At Bar Central, on Deck 6, three specialized bars sit side-by-side to create one large watering hole. The large room is divided into three sections with different upscale feels: Magnum's, the Champagne and wine bar with an early 1900's lounge look; Shakers Martini & Cocktail Bar, an angular Art Deco bar that aims to look like a 1960's throwback; and Maltings, the no pretenses beer and whiskey joint in varying hues of brown.
Norwegian's enrichment program is primarily focused around food and drink -- for instance, separate events centered on pairing different foods with sake, beer and wine. And, of course, the ship offers the typical brain-teaser events from trivia games to Sudoku challenges, free bowling hours, gaming lessons, fitness boot camps and unique events like "Guess the Price of the Picasso" on the Promenade.
Once in port, Gem has an impressive array of shore excursions available. As is the freestyle way, activities at each stop catered to just about everyone, ranging from those seeking active pursuits to those looking for something more laid-back.
Norwegian Gem's focal point is its three-story Crystal Atrium with its vast video screen -- which hosts occasional Wii tournaments -- a coffee bar (that also serves cocktails) and lots of squishy-squashy velvet-covered chairs and sofas. The purser's desk and the shore excursion counter are located there, as is an all-glass boutique that sells perfumes and cosmetics.
The ship's Internet cafe is located in the atrium and features nine terminals. The rate is a pretty pricey 75 cents per minute, though packages for heavier users are available.
Tucked away up on Deck 12 is the ship's well-stocked library. There's not much that's really recent, but there's plenty of choice if you're looking for something to read. There's also a card room next door.
A lengthy photo gallery leads from the Grand Pacific dining room to the Crystal Atrium; on the opposite side is the ship's art gallery. A nondenominational chapel is available for passenger-organized services. (There's no clergy onboard.)
A medical center is located on Deck 4.
There's no self-serve laundry center, but the ship does offer various paid laundry and dry-cleaning options.
Norwegian Gem's 13 dining venues offer open seating, flexible hours and excellent service -- you won't find assigned dining times and set tablemates here. Passengers can check the availability at ship restaurants on plasma TV's located throughout the ship. If restaurants are booked up for certain times, the screen lists alternative reservation suggestions. You can also make reservations in advance once onboard. It's best to book early at the steakhouse and other smaller restaurants, especially for large parties. Cancellations within 24 hours of a reservation result in forfeiture of the surcharge.
Complimentary hot tea, coffee, iced tea and ice water are served with meals; soft drinks, bottled water and alcoholic beverages are available at an additional charge.
Grand Pacific and Magenta, the two main restaurants, share dinner menus with specials that change daily, while Grand Pacific strikes out on its own for lunch. The menu generally sticks to classic American, with an occasional foray into the adventurous. (Think Vietnamese summer rolls or the daily "regional specialty".) During lunchtime at the Grand Pacific, seating is easy to come by, and even the two-person tables overlooking the ocean are easily accessible. But, if you want to snag one of the romantic spots for dinner, your best bet is to dine early, because those tables are the first to go. Large, classic, nautical paintings and maps tile the ceiling and walls in this elegant room.
Lined with contemporary paintings and outfitted with upholstered vermilion chairs, Magenta is decidedly courtlier than its sister dining room. Only open for dinner, the dining room sits roughly half (306) of what the Grand Pacific packs in (558). Although this is the second-largest dining venue on the ship, it's absent the wide-open layout that can make the Grand Pacific seem like a bit of a free-for-all and has a decidedly more intimate atmosphere.
Blue Lagoon is a something-for-everyone joint. Diner fixin's like burgers, fish 'n' chips and stir-fry are served up in a comely setting, 24/7. There's grub available whether you've got a hankering around brunchtime or an adrenaline-fueled post-roulette victory craving for that perfect something greasy to prove you're unstoppable, even in the early morning hours.
Garden Cafe and the Great Outdoors -- dual indoor and outdoor buffets -- are good for a quick bite nearly all day long. Looking for some ethnic/specialty fare but don't want to fork over extra dough for one of the specialty restaurants? These all-you-can-eat venues offer a smorgasbord of unique -- albeit considerably less refined -- dishes; think Moroccan cous cous, glazed pork, pasta and barbecue. Self-serve coffee and ice cream help wash down just about any over-indulgence a buffet might solicit.
For pint-sized Garden Cafe customers, there's also the Kid's Cafe section with classic favorites, including French fries, hot dogs and mac 'n' cheese -- no spinach in sight. A flat-screen TV shows cartoons like "Tom and Jerry" to keep wee diners entertained.
Enjoy chili con carne, stir-fried veggies or grilled sausage with a front row view of the waterslide at Bali Hai Bar and Grill. The kid-friendly hot air balloon-themed buffet overlooks the Tahitian pool and its dozens of lounging sunbathers.
Cagney's Steakhouse ($25 cover charge), located way up on Deck 13 and named for the classic gangster movie star, is gaudy in a 1930's Dick Tracy way; it sports wide yellow-leather seats, a glossy wood paneling and a wall-to-wall abstract cityscape. The menu includes filet mignon, strip loin, New York cut, rib eye, prime rib and T-bone steaks, as well as double cut lamb chops, salmon and chicken. The steakhouse's signature cocktail, the "Speakeasy Martini," combines Southern Comfort, apricot brandy, Grand Marnier and sparkling wine.
The Orchid Garden Asian restaurant ($15 cover charge), an Asian fusion complex, offers starters like vegetable dumplings and pork spare ribs, followed by Chinese chicken salad or hot and sour soup, and entrees like Cantonese scallops with snow peas, moo shoo pork and stir-fried lobster. Save room for the flight of Oriental creme brulees and five-spice chocolate cake.
For the ol' chef-as-entertainer schtick, Teppanyaki (cover charge $25) -- located inside the Orchid Garden -- is a hard-to-get treat with only 32 spots at four tables. Gathered around a large rectangular iron griddle, eager eaters watch as onions, eggs, shrimp and steak are lit ablaze, tossed through the air and, ultimately, turned into flavorful meals by chefs standing right in front of them. Entrees include combinations of chicken, beef and seafood (including lobster) served with miso soup, ginza salad, vegetables and garlic fried rice. Entrees are followed by ice cream or fresh fruit. California and New York rolls, barbecued eel and flying fish roe are among the selections at the Sushi Bar ($15 for all you can eat), also located within the Orchid Garden complex.
NCL's signature French restaurant, Le Bistro ($20 cover charge), is still among the most popular offerings. The service is especially attentive and the food presentation memorable. Chef's specialties include Les Quatres Cornets, four pastry cones with savory fillings like duck confit and smoked chicken salad; Filet de Porc Au Romarin, rosemary roasted pork tenderloin with glazed apples and cream; and the classic French braised chicken dish, Coq au Vin. Don't miss the decadent chocolate fondue with fruit, served in a half-pineapple, and try to catch the jazz brunch served there on sea days ($15).
At the rustic La Cucina ($10), you can create your own pizza or pasta with sauces ranging from traditional (tomato, Alfredo and Bolognese) to haute (shrimp with lemon and basil or smoked salmon with white wine cream and chives).
Moderno Churrascaria ($20) is a Brazilian-style steakhouse that offers a expansive lineup of skewered meat, including lamb chops, filet mignon, sausage and chicken. There's also the obligatory salad bar featuring international cheeses, dried meats, olives and marinated veggies, alongside the traditional salad ingredients. Sides, including mashed potatoes, fried bananas, and rice and beans, are served with the meat.
The hip Java Cafe in the flashy Crystal Atrium brews fabulous coffee drinks -- cappuccino, espresso and frozen coffee -- for a fee, served with delectable pastries.
Surrounded by so many dining venues, it's easy to forget that 24-hour room service is also available (except on the morning of debarkation). From 6:30 a.m. until 10 a.m., you can enjoy continental fare like juice, fresh fruit, muffins and cold cereal. Lunch and dinner options include perennial favorites like chicken Caesar salad, sandwiches and pizza, plus kid-pleasers like hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Pizza ($5) can be ordered for delivery to any stateroom, lounge or bar, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; eaters can choose from cheese pies, pepperoni or veggie.
Norwegian Gem Cabin Photos
As you'd expect from a Norwegian ship, Gem offers cabins to suit just about every preference and comfort strata, from interior cabins outfitted with just the basics to an over-the-top "villa" with enough room to host a party with live music.
Despite limited closet space, the inside and outside cabins are none too shabby space-wise (143 and 161 square feet, respectively). A sea blue and coral pink color scheme is very cruise-appropriate; sea-themed artwork, like photos of reefs teeming with fish, remind the windowless of what lies beyond. Beds are well appointed and brightly hued, and the rooms each have enough space for a small desk and wall-mounted flat-screen television. Although bathrooms wouldn't fit a social make-up session, wash areas and showers are large enough to get the job done.
Bathrooms are stocked with travel-sized bars of soap and bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion from the Elemis line of hygiene products.
The 204-square-foot balcony rooms feature comfortable walking space, plenty of mirrors and surprisingly roomy bathrooms. Reading lights embedded in the walls directly above the beds are a nice touch, too. The balconies themselves are just large enough for two patio chairs and a small space between for a tray of food or an ice bucket chilling pinot.
Gem has a pretty extensive selection of suites, ranging from those with extra room for couches and larger bathrooms (mini-suites, 285 square feet) to much larger options. Penthouse suites (341-387 square feet and 489-578 square feet) include separate dining areas, queen-size beds, floor-to-ceiling windows, luxury bathrooms with separate bathtubs/showers, powder room areas and large balconies with tables and reclining lounge chairs.
Gem has 27 wheelchair-accessible rooms with options in almost every category, but there are only two accessible suites, a couple of aft-facing penthouses.
Norwegian Gem has Wi-Fi service throughout the ship, and wired Internet is available in rooms, provided you have an Ethernet cable. (There's also an Internet center in the main atrium.) TV programming includes a selection of movies, as well as CNN, TNT, Cartoon Network and ESPN.
There's an old saying in my family that goes something like this: "Oprah is always right." A Norwegian representative told me the queen of all media spent a water-bound sojourn basking in The Haven's three-bedroom Garden Villa on Deck 14, which is centered on a courtyard with a beautiful, Balinese-inspired pool, lounging area and even a private fitness center. And she's right again -- The Haven is really incredible.
The Garden Villa features a separate living and dining room with flat-screen television, mini-grand piano, chandelier, Lavazza coffee maker, dry bar and enormous half-moon sofa. The balcony, though compact, is nicely outfitted with rattan-like chairs with plush cushions. The sumptuous bedroom, tucked away behind purple velvet curtains, overlooks the long bathroom, where the tub is set under a picture window -- bath salts provided. There's a separate shower, a toilet in its own compartment and a double sink.
Most villas are equipped for at least four people via a small, windowless chamber that can sleep two. It comes with a bathroom with shower, drawers, closet and television. A handful of villas don't have the extra bedroom.
Families with as many as four kids can stay together in The Haven's Family Villa (572 square feet), where there are separate master and children's bedrooms, dual bathrooms (the master bathroom is enormous, with a walk-in shower, separate bathtub and two sinks) and ample closet space.
Tucked away in its own cove, complete with an enormous Asian-inspired mural, the dining area in The Haven's Owner's Suite (791-824 square feet) sets the tone for this luxurious living space, complete with two separate balconies and enough room for five to sleep. The master bed is practically smothered in pillows, and the adjoining bathroom includes a huge walk-in closet.
All the way up on Deck 15, the Deluxe Owner's Suite (1,197 square feet) has perhaps the best balcony views of any suite on the ship. It comes with its own outdoor hot tub and an outdoor eating and lounging area. Even the views from the large bathroom windows are impressive, and jars of bath salts on the windowsill are a nice touch.
Owner's Suites, villas and penthouses are part of Norwegian's "ship within a ship" boutique concept, so occupants are entitled to extra services and perks. Cagney's, the ship's evening steakhouse restaurant, is made over for these residents for breakfast and lunch. An on-call concierge can make reservations for dinner, spa appointments and shore excursions; this service particularly alleviates some of the annoying details about sailing on Gem, such as the need to make reservations in advance, particularly when the ship is full. A butler is on tap to provide extra in-cabin services, such as delivering food not just from the regular room service menu, but also from restaurants -- a perk not on offer to other passengers. (You'll still have to pay any restaurant surcharges.)
|Fitness and Recreation|
The ship's Tahitian-inspired pool area on Deck 12 is vivacious and exuberant with vivid colors and decor. There are two pools and four whirlpools -- a pair of which are adult-only and seemed to stay that way even on my family-oriented voyage. There's also a twisty, corkscrew slide. Lounge chairs, which most definitely were at a premium on sunny days, are made of wicker-like material and have elegant, plush cushions atop. The younger set can chill in the indoor kids pool, with its pint-sized slide and ample padding.
Body Waves, Norwegian Gem's health club, is one of the most comprehensive we've seen at sea. Its main room features treadmills, stationary bikes and StairMasters, all with individual mini-flat-screen televisions. There is the usual array of weight machines, as well as a separate weight room. Also carved out of a separate space is the facility's aerobics studio, which is cordoned off from the noisy fitness area by glass doors. Some classes held there, such as "early morning stretch," "fab abs" and body-conditioning, are fee-free. Other workouts, such as yoga, Pilates and spinning, cost $12 per session, plus an additional 18 percent gratuity. You can buy a package of four Pilates and yoga workouts for $40, which offers a slight discount. Personal training is available; the cost is $85 per session, and a three-session package is $209.
Yin & Yang, the ship's spa, continues the Norwegian tradition of really terrific onboard spa services and facilities. This one, operated by Steiner, as most in the cruise industry are, includes a beauty salon for hair-styling, manicures and pedicures, and also a treatment area for both the usual -- Swedish massage and facials -- and more exotic options, like hot-stone massages and a Quartz life facial with an advanced anti-aging focus. Prices seem a little higher than average; a 50-minute Swedish massage is $119. (On other lines, I've seen prices more commonly in the $99 to $109 range.) Do keep an eye out for port-day specials.
The hottest trend today in onboard treatments is medi-spa services, and Gem's spa has several options, including Botox, Restylane and other types of facial rejuvenation. Treatments are overseen by a licensed medical doctor. The spa also offers teetth-whitening and acupuncture.
Where Yin & Yang excels is in its "chill out" lounge. It's available to those who purchase spa treatments (on the day of visit), but you can also buy a cruise pass to the facility, which includes separate areas for men and women (with small whirlpools, sunbeds looking out to sea, saunas and steam rooms) and a coed central room with a thalassotherapy pool and heated tiled loungers. The cost for a cruise pass is $199 for the length of the cruise. Day passes are $20 per day.
Let's not forget that the Bliss Ultra Club on Deck 7 is more than a bar -- it's also a four-lane bowling alley. Play 10 frames on fairly state-of-the-art lanes (though slightly smaller than those you'll find in on-land facilities); it's a fun way to spend an hour. The cost is $5 per person and that includes bowling shoes (wear your own socks).
The ship has a rock-climbing wall and a sports court -- a full-length basketball court -- that can also be used for volleyball, tennis and soccer. A running track can be found on Deck 13. Other diversions include open Wii play in the Crystal Atrium and Ping-Pong on the pool deck.
Norwegian takes a one-ship-fits-all approach to cruising with Gem, where rock climbing meets shuffleboard and hot-stone massages meet Guitar Hero and chess played with comically large game pieces.
Gem launched in 2007, and on it, Norwegian Cruise Line continues to refine its Freestyle Cruising concept, which focuses on flexibility and a casual atmosphere. On Gem, more than 2,300 passengers enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they wish (except for when reservations require otherwise). The dress code is relaxed, with an optional formal night for those looking to get all dolled up. In spring 2008, the ship underwent the company's Freestyle 2.0 upgrade program, receiving several enhancements to its menus, new beds throughout and service tweaks at all levels.
If casual is the goal, entertainment is the modus operandi. As passengers board Gem, they're greeted in the main atrium with blaring beats spun by a D.J. whose ruby red turntable is almost as flashy as the glowing space itself. Thirteen bars, an enormous 1,115-seat theater -- featuring Second City and Broadway-esque productions -- and a dozen restaurants keep the ship hopping throughout the trip.
The ship also accommodates those in need of quiet time; from the spacious and serene spa, with armchairs overlooking a vast ocean expanse, to a variety of lounges and a library, there are nooks aplenty for relaxation.
The ability to shift between active and restful, party and calm, at a moment's notice is Norwegian's calling card. With so many options, Gem ensures that you can find time to do what you want onboard -- whatever that may be.
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