Read about our cruise expert's sneak peak at a brand new ship during an inaugural “cruise to nowhere.”
Whether it’s shaking up cruise cuisine with its Freestyle dining concept or adding ultra luxury villas to its newer ships, Norwegian Cruise Line has never been afraid to take risks and go its own way. With that in mind, I was eager to check out the new 2,400-passenger NCL Gem, the sister ship to the NCL Pearl, but bristling with its own personality. What is especially appealing about the Gem for East Coast residents is that she will be home ported in New York for the winter, which means that families within driving distance can do as the Floridians do — put those discretionary dollars toward a cabin upgrade or a few high-ticket shore excursions rather than airfare.
The Gem is trademark NCL in that it offers a playful decorating scheme with bright beachy colors, fun animal prints and comic book-shaped furnishings in chenille and velvets. There is plenty of natural light, gleaming polished woods and brass, and Art Deco touches that play up the ship’s lively ambience. This is not to say that the Gem isn’t elegant — the Grand Pacific dining room, for example, has a distinctly upscale look. Serious art buffs can enjoy an original Monet (“Vetheuil de Soleil”) in the atrium and a Matisse (“Nu au Turban”) in Le Bistro. (Both are on loan from Star Cruises’ chairman Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay.) And the centerpiece of the Crystal Atrium, the heart of the ship, is an original glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly.
Our 284-square-foot mini-suite featured a balcony (as do almost half of the staterooms), ample closet space, built-ins with flat-screen TV and — our favorite feature — a full tub/shower combo in the bathroom. There are more than 275 staterooms, including suites and mini-suites, that can connect to make two-, three-, four- or five-bedroom links out of the total of 1, 197 staterooms in all. Twenty-seven are wheelchair accessible, and service animals are welcome aboard.
Consider splurging on one of 10 Courtyard Villas, which share a private courtyard and sundeck at the top of the ship, complete with a lap pool, hot tub, steam rooms and fitness area. Looking for even more luxury? Try one of two private Garden Villas, which offer about 5,000 square-feet of living space broken into living and dining rooms, three bedrooms and three bathrooms, as well as a private garden with sun beds, a hot tub and steam room and the services of a butler and concierge. Rounding out this cruise-within-a-cruise experience are the two Owner’s Suites, with master bedroom, en-suite bathroom, dining/living area and private balcony.
This is NCL’s first ship to feature wireless Internet access in all staterooms and public areas, which explains why the Internet CafÃ© is so small. Guests who forgot their laptop can rent one (although there aren’t too many), and you can print digital photos from your camera at a kiosk at the Photo Gallery. The Gem is part of the cellular at sea network, which means that passengers can make and receive cell phone calls and text messages. Check with your local provider for rates.
Tip: Splurge on a balcony if at all possible or ask your travel agent to angle for an upgrade. Not only is the extra space worth it, but the view of ports coming into view is worth the price of admission.
NCL is known for its Freestyle Dining concept, and the Gem goes all the way with 10 restaurants. Some also appear on other ships — including Cagneys’ Steakhouse, the Teppanyaki room and Le Bistro — while others, such as the Orchid Garden for Asian food, Tequila for tapas, and La Cucina for casual Italian fare, are variations on the theme. Free restaurants include the two main dining rooms — Grand Pacific and Magenta — and the Garden CafÃ© for nearly round-the-clock buffet service. The specialty restaurants charge a supplement of $10 to $20 per person. In most cases, it’s a bargain.
Rave: The Garden CafÃ© is kid friendly both in terms of the variety of foods — from burgers to vegetarian and ethnic options — but also in its layout. There is a kids-only area with pint-sized chairs and tables where children can dine together with their family or each other during Kid’s Crew dinners.
Tip: The downside to having all these specialty restaurants is that they can get full pretty quickly. It’s a good idea to make a reservation if you have a specific restaurant in mind. I also recommend paying attention to the computerized panels by the elevators that show when restaurants are open and what the wait time will be like. And don’t forget that the free restaurants are great and don’t need reservations.
The children’s program, which is broken into Kid’s Crew (ages 2 to 9), Tweens Crew (10 to 12), and Teens Crew (13 to 17), operates year-round. Group babysitting is available in the evenings for a charge.
As to facilities, there is a Tree Tops Kid’s Club facility decorated in a jungle theme, which entertains little tykes with a mini movie theater and an arts’n’crafts area. The Rascals Kid’s Center features a jungle gym, movie room and computer terminals. Children can also check out the Rascals Kid’s Pool, complete with a mini-slide, and the Blast Off video arcade on Deck 13. High energy older kids might also enjoy the volleyball/basketball courts, paddle tennis and life-sized chess on the Sport Deck. Teens 13 to 17 can hang out at the Leopard Lounge, decked out with a plasma TV, air hockey, table football and a video juke box.
The Yin Yang Spa and Beauty Salon goes beyond the usual with a thalassotherapy pool filled with warm salt water and massage jets. There are also 18 treatment rooms, three of which are designed for couples. And for the virtuous, the Body Waves fitness center has everything you need, from cardio equipment with flat-screen TVs to yoga areas and saunas, to help work off all that extra food.
Rant: One of the hottest seats on the ship is the double row of chaise lounges in the spa looking out at the water through floor-to-ceiling windows. The catch is that even if you just want to hang out and not use the spa pool you must pay a $20 per person fee to use the room.
The place to be on the Gem (and its sister ship, the Pearl) is the Bliss Ultra Lounge, where double beds, roomy couches and arm chairs are tucked away in alcoves like a trendy nightclub. Sharing the space is a four-lane, 10-pin bowling alley where even rank amateurs can try their hand at knocking down pins — extra tricky on a day when you can feel the ship move — or just sip a drink and watch the fun. At night, the lounge becomes a dance club with music videos on plasma TVs and a live DJ.
Another favorite is the Crystal Atrium where cozy chairs and small tables are set up in intimate groupings and where a Java CafÃ© coffee bar serves cappuccinos and lattes for a fee (although the pastries are free). Here passengers can play Nintendo Wii sports games on a multi-story LED screen.
Still looking for something to do? Line up for the 30-foot-tall rock-climbing wall on deck 14 with five climbing routes (a concept NCL cheerfully admits they borrowed from Royal Caribbean), take a dip in one of the outdoor swimming pools or hit one or two of the whopping 11 bars and lounges.
The ship features an assortment of nightly shows in the Venetian-style Stardust Theater, including Broadway-style revues. While not my favorite type of entertainment, NCL puts a lot of energy into hiring talented singers who raise the level of the performances over standard cruise fare. What we really liked was the Second City improv comedy troop, which performed a series of surprisingly hip skits, some involving audience interaction. The Gem is the sixth NCL ship to feature the troop.
Passengers can also while away a few hours at the Gem Club Casino for poker, craps and slot machines.
There are 1,100 crew members on board serving fewer than 2,400 passengers, which means plenty of service to support the Freestyle Cruising concept. Also, because the Gem is a new ship, it is staffed with some of the line’s most experienced employees.
Note: A nor’easter snow storm dumped several feet of snow on the decks of the Gem during our pre-inaugural sailing in Boston. It was clear that some of the crew had never seen snow, and we even spotted one making snow angels on the deck. We suspect that elation had worn off by the next day when we saw deck crew bravely shoveling the snow from the pool area.
Prices & Details
Based in New York, the Gem will spend the winter of ‘08 sailing to the Southern Caribbean (in January and early February) and to the Bahamas and Florida (February through April and November and December). The rest of the year she will reposition to Europe for a series of 28 seven-day Western Mediterranean cruises out of Barcelona.
Rates vary by season, starting at $699 per person plus taxes. Call: 800/327-7030 or www.ncl.com.
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