This was a 10-day cruise from New York to the Caribbean with calls in St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Tortola, and San Juan.
The centerpiece on my dining room table is a model of Norwegian Gem. It is a fairly detailed metal model, which I picked up on one of my voyages on Gem a few years ago. In addition to looking nice, I have it there both because I appreciate Gem as a ship and as a pleasant reminder of my association with this ship which runs back over several cruises to when Gem entered service in 2007.
Over the years, I have watched Gem's evolution with interest. For most of her career Gem has been one of Norwegian Cruise Line's New York-based ships. When she arrived, she was the newest, largest and most cutting edge ship in Norwegian's fleet. For a long time, whenever another Norwegian ship joined her in New York, that ship became Norwegian's second or third New York ship. There was no doubt about which ship was number one. But as time passed, Norwegian built bigger and more innovative ships. In 2013, one of these ships, Norwegian Breakaway, came to New York and Gem became Norwegian's other New York ship.
The good news is that Gem still provides a competitive first tier cruise experience. From a nautical perspective, Gem continues to be a first rate cruise ship. With regard to her décor and features, Norwegian just invested millions during her refit late in 2015 to keep the ship up-to-date. She also has a good officer/crew team operating her. It is a somewhat different cruise experience than on Breakaway, but it is one that should appeal to those looking for a classic Freestyle approach in a more intimate setting.
A ship's ship
If you like ships, you have to like the Gem. She does not have the silhouette of a traditional ship but do not let that fool you, she is one of the fastest passenger ships in operation today. While there is some disagreement over exactly how fast Gem can go, there is general agreement that it is at least 25 knots. When this class of ship was being designed, azipod technology on passenger ships was a relatively new thing. Therefore, the designers gave Gem a powerful set of azipods just to be on the safe side. As a result, she has a lot of power for a ship of her size. In addition, while Gem may appear to have a short bow, when you look at the bow at the waterline you see that it is quite narrow and streamlined for a considerable distance back under the superstructure. This allows her to cut through the waves rather than bounce over them. If Gem were an automobile, she would be a sports car.
In addition to being inherently cool, being a fast ship has practical value. First, being fast gives a ship more ability to go around storms. Second, if the ship has to slow down (e.g. because of a storm) or divert from her course (e.g. to do a medical evacuation), she is better able to make up that time. Thus, there is less chance of missing a port. Third, and most importantly, a fast ship can come within helicopter range or get to a port quicker if there is a medical emergency. In such instances where time is of the essence, speed can save lives.
With ships, fuel consumption increases almost geometrically as you increase speed. In addition, now that there is more experience with azipod technology, designers are more familiar with just how much power is needed to do a typical itinerary. As a result, newer cruise ships are not built with the same speed capability as Gem.
This is not to say that Gem is an old ship. In fact, at less than 10 years of age, she is still quite young - - cruise ships are typically designed to last for 40 years. Furthermore, she was built by Germany's Meyer Werft, which is known for its high quality standards.
On is voyage, Gem was met with high winds and swells both when she was going south and when she was returning north along the East Coast. This caused some motion but most passengers were out and about enjoying the ship's facilities. A low pressure system in the Caribbean caused some rain showers in the ports. However, there were also periods of sunshine in each port. Because of a medical emergency, Gem used her speed to arrive early in San Juan, the first port of call.
When Norwegian Gem entered service in 2007, her interior décor was highlighted by bold colors - - bright greens, oranges and pinks. The publicity introducing her to the world dubbed her the “It Girl” to emphasize the ship's sex appeal. In those days, the thinking was that you needed flashiness to create a wow, at least with regard to cruise ships.
Times and taste have changed since then. In addition, Norwegian has moved up market. Consequently, during Gem's refit at the end of last year, much of the décor was changed. The bright colors were all but banished and replaced by more subtle colors and a more sophisticated look. Much of this reportedly was at the direction of Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Norwegian's parent company.
Nowhere is the change more apparent than in the Bliss Lounge. When Gem entered service, this nightclub essentially looked like a gaudy bordello, complete with oversized beds. Now, the beds are gone, the colors and the lighting have changed and it looks like a chic cosmopolitan lounge.
Along the same lines, the Magenta Dining Room once looked like the Great Pacific Dining Room's neglected step-sister. With Magenta now clothed in a new look, the two rooms compete for diners on equal terms.
Cagney's, La Cucina, the Photo Gallery, the Haven, the Casino, the Spinnaker Lounge all have been altered to achieve a more polished appearance. Those areas that still have the original décor (e,g, the theater) will be changed over time.
These changes are to be applauded. They are part of the line's Norwegian Edge program, which is designed to bring Norwegian's smaller ships in line with its most recent mega-ships such as Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Breakaway.
While Gem does not have all the features of the mega-ships, she does have many of the features found on her bigger fleetmate albeit on a smaller scale. For example, Gem has a host of dining venues including the specialty restaurants Le Bistro, Cageny's, Moderno, Teppanyaki, Sushi Bar, and La Cucina as well as the complimentary venues O'Sheehan's, Orchid Garden, the buffet, the outdoor grills and the main dining rooms.
One feature that Gem does not have is single or solo occupancy cabins. As a result, most solo travelers in the New York area opt for Breakaway with Gem hosting primarily couples and families.
Another aspect of the Norwegian Edge program that Gem is about to receive is the new menus that debuted on Norwegian Escape. On the cruise that I was on, the food was good. However, having experienced the new menus on Escape and Breakaway, I can say the new menus bring cruise ship dining to a new level in terms of quality and variety. The new menus will cover not just the specialty restaurants but also the main dining rooms and other complimentary venues.
As a perk, a specialty restaurant dining package was included with my cruise fare. As a result, most evenings I had dinner in the specialty restaurants. All of these were good meals. In addition, at the end of the meal you receive a receipt that shows what the price of the meal would have been without the package. (All of the specialty restaurants except Moderno and Teppanyaki now have ala carte pricing rather than an all-inclusive cover charge). Comparing the receipts with the price that is normally charged for the package, it becomes clear that the package is a bargain if you are thinking of trying a few of the specialty restaurants.
Gem has traditional cruise ship production shows whereas Breakaway features versions of Broadway shows. When the cruise ships first began to have Broadway shows, I thought that the full shows were a step upwards as a show with a plot and original music is more of an artistic achievement than people singing and dancing to a number of popular songs. However, over time, I have had to re-think this conclusion as full Broadway shows create a problem for guests who cruise often, particularly guests who cruise often on the same ship. Seeing the same Broadway show time and time again becomes tedious. It is like watching an episode of a television show - - even if you like the show, you quickly reach the point where you don't want to watch a particular episode again. In contrast, you can play an album of songs that you like over and over again. Since it costs a lot of money to change a show on a cruise ship, the shows cannot be changed often so that you cannot bring in a new Broadway show every year. Therefore, maybe having full Broadway shows on cruise ships is not really a plus. In any case, I thought the production shows on Gem were done well.
Gem also had a strong comedy line-up. Veteran comedian Tim Kaminski did several different stand-up style shows that were very popular with the guests. A troupe of young comedians from Second City, North America's premier comedy theater, did a scripted show in the theater and later improvised shows in the Spinnaker Lounge. Second City is where a host of comedians such as Bill Murray, Tina Fey and many of the people who became part of the cast of Saturday Night Live got their start. It is always interesting to watch young people following this path.
A touring group performed “Oh, What A Night,” a tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I had seen this show recently on Breakaway but the classic songs hold up to repeat performance.
Gem also had the typical theme parties, cruise ship game shows, trivias and other contests hosted by a friendly and upbeat cruise staff. There were also art auctions, seminars by the spa and talks by the port shopping specialist. The senior officers did a Q and A session as did representatives of the crew. However, there were no enrichment lectures given by outside speakers.
Of course, the passengers' cruise experience depends upon more than a ship's physical plant and amenities. You also need people to operate the ship and, over the years, Gem has had some very good people. This cruise was no exception.
At the top, we had Captain Karl Bengtsson, an articulate and thoughtful individual (i.e. one who puts a lot of thought into what he does). He has had many years of experience sailing out of the northeastern United States. Sailing from New York in the wintertime can be challenging and so you want someone with this kind of experience in charge.
The hotel director on a cruise ship is in charge of most things that impact the passengers cruise experience - - dining, entertainment, accommodations, shore excursions. On this cruise, Gem's hotel director was Sonja Sommeregger. When you look across the cruise industry, there are only a handful of women hotel directors, perhaps fewer than the number of female captains. Thus, you know that Ms. Sommeregger is an exceptional individual to have made it to this position. Intelligent and energetic, she is both respected and appreciated by the crew.
Norwegian tends to have friendly crews but on Gem, I found the crew to be exceptionally so. The crew seemed to be genuinely interested in the passengers. To use a sports metaphor, no one bats 1,000 but when an issue did arise, the crew were quick to address it.
Guests staying in certain cabin categories are entitled to have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's. At these meals as well as at several dinners at Cagney's, I found the team especially good - - attentive and friendly.
Cruise ship review - - Norwegian Cruise Line - - Norwegian Gem