Norwegian Gem Suite Life

| March 8, 2010

Norwegian Gem Offers Convenience and Budget-Friendly Luxury for Northeastern Cruisers

Editor's Note: Judi Cuervo is a regular contributor to Porthole Magazine among other cruise publications. She lives in New York City and selected NCL's Norwegian Gem for a winter getaway, opting for a luxury suite to examine to "suite life" on a contemporary, main-stream cruise line. She sailed out of New York City to Florida and the Bahamas in the dead of a blistering cold February winter and wrote this report exclusively for CruiseMates.

The sun was blinding and, at about 47 degrees, the light breeze felt absolutely balmy after the brutal New York winter thus far. This wasn't what I'd signed up for in December when I booked Norwegian Gem for a February getaway. At that time, I had visions of lugging my suitcase across filthy piles of snow, precariously navigating my way to the Kew Gardens LIRR station for the 17 minute ride to Penn Station. From there, icy rain and wind would batter my face as I tried desperately to flag a taxi to take me the short distance to the 12th Avenue pier where I would board the 93,502 grt ship for a 7-day escape to the warmth of Florida, Grand Stirrup Cay and Nassau.

That had been the plan and, admittedly, it was a surprising one if you were to review my cruise history which is liberally sprinkled with voyages aboard the six-star ships of Silversea, Crystal, SeaDream Yacht Club and Regent. Okay, I'll admit it: I'm a cruise snob. Don't try to impress me with talk of megaships, rock climbing walls, or 5000+ passenger new-builds. And, for pete's sake, don't ever mention the Baked Alaska parade in the main dining room.

I'd planned my Norwegian Gem sailing in December, right around the time the "Underwear Bomber" was, thankfully, thwarted and his shredded boxers were gracing the front page of newspapers around the world ("Great Balls of Fire!" proclaimed The New York Post in 300 point type-you really have to love The Post sometimes). Suddenly, all the luxuries of my favorite cruise lines diminished as visions of endless airport security lines and procedures danced in my head. This year, my husband and I decided, it would be the local Norwegian Gem.

And we were not alone.

Embarkation aboard a luxury vessel is a civilized affair which ranges from simply strolling up the gangway to perhaps whiling away an hour in a comfy snack-filled lounge. Norwegian Dawn's embarkation called to mind previous experiences I'd had but none related to luxury cruising. Think Rolling Stones concert ticket sales or the Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center. The ship's 2500+ passengers, many of them families with kids in tow, were squeezed into the cruise ship terminal, divided pretty equally between a Latitudes (NCL's past-passenger program) line and a non-Latitudes line. A 50 minute wait despite a very well-manned registration panel, and it was our turn to board and see the deck 11 penthouse that would be home for the following week.

"This ain't bad!" I marveled as I surveyed the 600 square foot accommodations. Michael was already out the sliding glass door and checking out the city skyline from our spacious balcony. I suspected that was only because he had somehow missed the flat screen TV. Blonde wood and bright colors decorated the suite, a card displayed the name of our butler and a personal letter encouraged us to contact the concierge for specialty restaurant reservations, shore excursions and any other requests we might have.

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Garden Villa Suite   Villa Courtyard Pool   Courtyard Villa Living Room
Garden Villa Bathroom Double Sinks   Garden Villa Bathroom Tub Area

With luggage still to arrive, Michael and I set off for lunch at the Garden Café, the site of Norwegian Gem's buffet dining. Uh-oh. The Stones ticket line had apparently been relocated from the terminal to deck 12 and newly-embarked passengers, most with cumbersome carry-ons and many with baby strollers-including a few double strollers-crowded the food stations bumping into me until I felt as though I was on the F train at rush hour. I looked at my husband with fearful eyes: "It's not too late to leave," I said, but Michael-who, by this time, HAD seen the flat screen TV-shook his head.

I surveyed the buffet offerings the way you try to order a beer at a four-deep bar. This was, I figured, a very budget-priced ship so where was the tired iceberg lettuce at the salad bar? What were these lovely bowls of perky arugula and frisee doing here? Over the shoulders of others, I spied two trays of delectable sushi to my left, an assortment of hot Asian delicacies to my right. Behind me, steaming paninis were offered while Indian food, Continental, burgers, pizza, soups and sandwiches all vied for our attention.

Oh so carefully, Michael and I made our selections and-now the hard part-navigated the seating for an unoccupied table. Odd, but the vast majority of passengers congregated at tables near the buffet while we, walking toward the stern, found ample seating away from the crowds, chaos and baby strollers.

By evening, the Norwegian Gem seemed to absorb the masses. The 13 bars and lounges, 14 restaurants, casino, gym, shopping arcade, bowling alley (that's BOWLING ALLEY), and public areas had sucked them in and distributed them evenly, eliminating the maddening crush of people who had tempted me to jump ship earlier in the day and prevented me from reaching the broccoli and cheese calzone that I really, really wanted at lunch.

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Bowling at Sea   Bliss Ultra Lounge   Club Style Bed At Bliss Ultra Lounge

Evening aboard a cruise ship: To me, that always meant a shower, a blow dry, make up, big-girl clothes and, more often than not, heels that could give you a nose bleed. Not so aboard Norwegian Gem. NCL was the genius that invented "Freestyle Cruising," a concept that shattered the assigned seating, early and late sitting dining traditions, introduced multiple specialty restaurants and then went even further by throwing dress codes overboard. Jeans in the dining room? Why the hell not? Uggs in a specialty restaurant? Bring 'em on. And should you feel like putting on the glitz and glamour, Norwegian Gem has reserved one dining room-The Grand Pacific, reminiscent of the extravagant dining rooms of the ships of yesteryear-especially for you.

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Atrium   Bliss Nightclub

After an early, casual evening, Michael and I woke to a sea day. Even aboard a luxury ship, the sea day can sometimes be a frustrating experience when seeking an unoccupied deck chair or dining table and I shuddered to think of what lay ahead. With all guests on board, the breakfast buffet would, no doubt, be a replay of the embarkation bump & grind as 2500+ people fought for their fried eggs and Fruit Loops.

No worries: At least if your accommodations are in one of Norwegian Gem's upper categories. Included with your Villa (the secluded and opulent top-level accommodations that include a private terrace and swimming pool), Deluxe Owner's Suite, Owner's Suite or Penthouse, is the most valuable "perk" on board: Breakfast and lunch at Cagney's Steakhouse.

Cagney's Steakhouse   Cappucino & Beverage Bar   Grand Pacific Dining Room
Orchid Garden Restaurant Area   Teppanyaki Restaurant   Sushi Bar

Cagney's, by night a sophisticated steakhouse that does a helluva filet mignon ($25 surcharge), allows those in Norwegian Gem's high-rent district to bypass the buffet crowds for a leisurely morning or mid-day meal. Gain access to Cagney's via your specially-coded card key and, at breakfast, served from 7:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m., waiters will pour your Lavazza coffee and deliver your choice from a menu of hotcakes with carmelized bananas, Belgian waffles with whipped cream and strawberries, steak & eggs, challah French toast and more while a small buffet is dotted with pastries and muffins, smoked fish, cereals and fruit. Return for lunch (from noon - 2:00 p.m.) and you'll find a short but more-than-adequate menu of sensible selections: Sandwiches and soups, salads, main courses and unique and delectable choices like main-course bruschetta with red pepper, tomato, mozzarella and a topping of olive tapenade.

But it's not just a jaw-dropping suite and a relaxing breakfast and lunch that Gem's top-level-accommodation guests receive. Never was a VIP tender ticket more appreciated than at Grand Stirrup Cay. The beach party planned at this NCL-owned private island includes miles of deck chairs, volleyball, children's activities, optional watersports like parasailing and a barbecue lunch. First one off, and you'll snatch your pick of deck chair and a dip in the ocean before the other 2000+ guests invade your turf. In fact, by the time the six tendersful of crowds arrived, we were ready to return to the considerably empty ship.

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Fabulous site lines in the Stardust Theater   Whimsical Atrium Furniture   Photo Gallery

Besides passenger capacity, the greatest difference between NCL and today's premium lines is its a la carte pricing. While six-star vessels offer all-inclusive experiences (some even include shore excursions), aboard Norwegian Gem, you can expect to disembark with an on board statement showing a total that just might include a comma. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, bottled water, gratuities, shore excursions, babysitting, internet access, specialty exercise classes, and restaurant surcharges mount up pretty quickly and the words "fee applies" follow a disturbing number of activities listed on the daily program. (So much so that we were amused by "Complimentary!" included on the sign calling our attention to the hand sanitizer positioned outside of every dining venue.)

Control yourself, if you must, when it comes to booze and even shore excursions, particularly on this itinerary, but no matter what accommodation level you book, splurge on specialty dining-every night of your cruise, if you can! Perhaps the greatest and most pleasant surprise aboard Norwegian Gem is the quality of its food which often (and on our cruise always) equaled that I've enjoyed on six-star cruise lines. With surcharges that range from a reasonable $10 per person for the Italian or Mexican venue, $20 per person for the elegant French Le Bistro and a high of $25 per person for Cagney's or the Benihana-like Teppanyaki (the former offering high-end selections like filet mignon and rack of lamb; the latter giving new meaning to "tableside" cooking), we found the variety and the quality of every dish we sampled to be outstanding.

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Pool View From Owners Suite   Bowling at Sea   Spinnakers Lounge

While NCL will never be confused with Silversea or Seabourn, when it comes to Norwegian Gem's top-level accommodations, NCL has done its homework, bringing what could be considered a true luxury product to the budget cruiser. With extravagant and secluded accommodations, intimate dining at breakfast and lunch, and special extras like priority embarkation and disembarkation, VIP tender tickets, daily afternoon hors d'oeuvres and champagne upon arrival, it is indeed possible to remove NCL from the mass market category and place it firmly into one of luxury.

And if, between sips of champagne, you choose to bowl a few games or scale the rock climbing wall, on Norwegian Gem, you can do that too.

Cabin Sizes Here's a quick peek at some various cabin sizes on the Norwegian Gem:

  • Romance Suite: 460 sq. ft.
  • Mini Suites: 284 sq. ft.
  • Balcony: 205 sq. ft.
  • Oceanview: 161 sq. ft.
  • Inside: 143 sq. ft.

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