I recently spent 11 days on the Norwegian Gem, cruising the eastern Caribbean. And while I’ve shared my experiences visiting islands like Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Kitts, I haven’t really described the cruise itself. So here’s a look at what it’s like to cruise the Caribbean on one of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Jewel-class ships.
First, a word about how this trip came about. I spotted this cruise back in August: 11 nights to a part of the Caribbean I hadn’t visited before, for about $1,350 (all figures Canadian), including the solo supplement – a very good deal. As well, the cruise left from New York, saving a few dollars on air fares from Toronto. Even better, the deposit was only $60.
I booked, but just before most of the money was due, disaster struck, in the form of Hurricane Irma. At least two of the five ports on the itinerary were badly damaged. I cancelled. But a few weeks later, I began to get e-mails from Norwegian announcing the same cruise, but with different itinerary, substituting other islands for Puerto Rico and St. Maarten. And the price was now about $850 — $500 cheaper. It seems I wasn’t the only cruiser who had cancelled, leaving Norwegian with cabins to fill.
I booked an inside cabin, and a few days later Norwegian invited me to bid for an upgrade. This was now a budget trip, so I bid the bare minimum — $120. And to my surprise, it was accepted. I now had a window cabin, at the front of the ship, for a price that was still less than $1,000. I couldn’t stay in a hotel for that price, and this one was taking me almost 3,000 kilometres, with food and entertainment thrown in.
The Gem is one of Norwegian’s “Jewel-class” ships – mid-sized vessels carrying about 2,400 passengers. And boarding at the Manhattan pier in New York (top photo), I was positively impressed with the way the ship looked. The Gem was refurbished in 2015, and it looked as though they’d done a nice job. The atrium, with its bright colours and its spectacular, ever-changing lighting display overhead, was the centrepiece.
But in the following days, I’d have a chance to see most of the ship, and I continued to be impressed. The décor was understated in the cabin areas, with small, tasteful art works on the walls – my corridor featured lovely Indonesian graphics that I enjoyed each time I walked by.
In the common areas, however, the theme was big and bold, but not garish. The designers had used bits of art deco, giving the ship a classy feel despite the inevitable crowds milling about. Small bars and lounges were tucked away here and there, each with its own look and atmosphere.
And of course, the premium restaurants each had a distinctive theme and a different cuisine: Cagney’s (steak), La Cucina (Italian), Le Bistro (French, second photo below), Moderno (Brazilian steak house), Teppanyaki (Japanese barbecue) and Sushi.
I joined a ship tour, to see more of the Norwegian Gem’s facilities, including the gym and Mandara, the amazingly extensive spa, with treatment rooms of every description and its own little lounging pool.
Later, I wandered through the Garden Café, the ship’s buffet, as well as the Great Outdoors, the open-air café on the rear deck.
And I checked out some of the recreational facilities, like the sports field on the top deck and the outdoor pool and water slide – an odd sight with the Manhattan skyline behind them.
The ocean view cabin I got for my upgrade was on the starboard side, forward. And I mean forward: if you went any further you’d fall off the prow. That meant a long walk to the dining areas, but with all the food aboard, that wasn’t a bad thing. A word of caution, however: if you have mobility issues, don’t take a cabin you haven’t chosen yourself, since you may not be up to the walk.
The cabin itself was small – about 160 square feet – but I didn’t find it cramped. I think it would have fit two people workably, though closet space might be problematic. The bathroom was small, but modern and clean. The only odd thing was the glass divider between the sink and toilet, which slid on a flimsy slider that barely worked.
The cabin was located right over the theatre, which could have been a problem. However, I was at the evening shows anyway, not in my cabin, so there was no noise issue. And even during rehearsals, I heard almost nothing.
If there was a problem, it was the first day out of New York, as we sailed through some turbulent North Atlantic waters. Being at the front of the ship, I felt every wave – and seeing them out the window didn’t help. For the second time in my life, I had to get out of bed and take down the unused hangers from my closet because they were making such a racket. By day two, however, things quieted down, and it was smooth sailing the rest of the cruise.
And a funny note: on my first afternoon, I came back to my cabin to find it decorated with balloons, streamers and a sign that said, “Happy Birthday”. A nice touch — except it wasn’t my birthday. I phoned the desk, and the decorations were taken next door, where they belonged.
As noted, the Gem has a number of places to eat: two dining rooms, the Grand Pacific and the Magenta; the buffet and the Great Outdoors; a diner-style eatery called O’Sheehan’s, above the atrium; the Orchid Asian restaurant; a snack bar beside the pool; and the specialty restaurants mentioned above. All of these are free, except the specialty restaurants, which have an extra charge of $20 to $30 U.S.
Here’s a look at the Grand Pacific, my choice of the two main dining rooms.
And here are some of the dishes I was served during the cruise, from prime rib to barbecued shrimp to a selection of desserts.
I especially liked the way O’Sheehan’s served oatmeal in the morning, with the milk, brown sugar, raisins and cinnamon all arranged like a little buffet.
How was the food? Generally good, though I might best describe it as hit-and-miss. Some dishes, like the prime rib, were very good; others were passable, though a bit bland, and some were pretty much tasteless.
That applied especially to the desserts, which too often promised much but delivered little. Hilariously, a dish described as containing “fresh strawberries” would arrive garnished with three thin slices of one strawberry – or none, once the ship ran out. I understand it’s hard to keep fresh produce available through an 11-day cruise, but why not just be honest?
To give you a better idea of what the dining rooms served from day to day, here’s a typical menu: click on the photo and expand it to read the type.
The Gem, like most cruise ships, has a stage show in the main theatre each night at 7 and 9 p.m. I went to most of them, and they ranged from fair to very good. Even the juggler – not really my cup of tea – was funny enough to keep me entertained for an hour or so. There was also stand-up comedy by the ship’s comedian, and best of all, a Second City troupe that did several shows throughout the cruise — don’t miss the murder mystery lunch.
There were the usual musical acts in the atrium and lounges, gambling in the casino, and parties in the Pinnacle Lounge. Including Norwegian’s signature White Hot party. In fact, in its recent awards, Cruise Critic website named Norwegian tops among all the cruise lines for its night life.
A walk through the ship
To give you a better feel for what it’s like to be on the Norwegian Gem, I took a little walk through the ship with a camera in hand and captured some video. Here’s a look: these videos don’t cover all the hot spots, but I think they convey a sense of being there.
Finally: my verdict
I truly enjoyed this cruise, and I’d give Norwegian high marks for its execution throughout the voyage. The ship was a comfortable place to be, with lots of places to relax and be entertained — I especially liked the movies in the atrium in the evenings, when football didn’t get in the way. The mainly Filipino staff was generally cordial and efficient, and the food, as mentioned, was fair to good. My dinner at Le Bistro with my friend Diane was exceptional.
I was also impressed with the way Norwegian treats its solo cruisers these days. On past voyages, the ship put on a casual get-together, and that was it. This time, there was a get-together every night at 6, after which the group went off to dinner in the dining room. I made a few friends, teamed up with other members for excursions, and almost never ate alone — one of the difficult moments for many solo cruisers.
Of course, the group dinners had their drawbacks, as well. Oddly enough on a ship with 2,400 passengers, the dining rooms seemed incapable of handling a group of 20 or so; we would sometimes wait up to an hour for the next course. The worst was on U.S. Thanksgiving, when we arrived at 6:30 and were late for the 9 p.m. show. I ended up with someone else’s appetizer and someone else’s dessert — I was just too hungry to send them back.
Other irritants included the constant selling that is a fact of life on cruise lines nowadays. Even the TV in my cabin was almost entirely devoted to making money — $9.99 U.S. to watch a movie. As well, the crowds on the last day were horrendous as everyone tried to disembark at the same time; better planning is needed there. And personally, I grew tired of weaving my way around crowds of overfed cruisers who should probably have been in the gym rather than the buffet. But that’s ocean cruising for you — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Overall, this was an enjoyable cruise, on a lovely ship. The Gem doesn’t have 5,000 passengers, a boardwalk with trees, robot bartenders or an ice rink. But I’m not really interested in those things anyway, and like many others, I’m more comfortable with a ship I can find my way around. I’d cruise on the Norwegian Gem again.