Overall Rating: Good
|Departed From:||New York City|
|# of Nights:||7 Nights|
This was an annual summer vacation for me my husband. Between the two of us, we've done over a dozen cruises, on Princess, Celebrity, Norwegian, Disney and Carnival, to Caribbean, Bermuda, Alaska and Europe. This year, we chose an easy, close-to-home cruise from New York to the Bahamas aboard the Norwegian Gem with a 2-night pre-cruise city stay. Originally, it was supposed to be an Alaska family land and sea trip, but that's a story for another day.
We took the Amtrak 6:50 am train, from Providence to New York, business class. As I was sitting there going through my mental packing list to determine what I forgot, it came to me - my cell phone! Since we arrived in plenty of time, our ever-patient daughter dropped us off and went home to retrieve my phone.
I always get confused as to which end of the train the business car is. Once again, I was mistaken, thinking the car was at the front of the train. Instead, we had to schlepp our bags to the rear. Fortunately, we packed light, me with a backpack and carry-on and him with a carry on and camera bag.
Pre-Cruise Hotel/NYC: Excelsior Hotel, Upper West Side. The hotel is across the street from the Natural History Museum, convenient to Central Park and the Met, with a subway station close by or a $20 cab ride (during peak times) to the theater district and Times Square. The exterior of the building was covered with scaffolding during a facelift, but since our room was on the other side of the building, it wasn't an issue, and the two large windows overlooked a quiet alley, with the rear view of some apartments. Not the best view, but certainly not the worst.The lobby was very attractive, and the service reps at the front desk were friendly and welcoming. The room was very small, typical of older hotels in the city, but tastefully decorated, cozy and clean, and appeared to have been recently renovated. The large, deep window sill in the bathroom was useful for storage, and the decorated ceramic wall tiles were a lovely touch. There is a hot/cold buffet setup for $17 a person, or $2 if you just want coffee. I did wish there was a coffee maker in the room or a complimentary coffee set-up in the lobby.
Italian restaurant - Bellini: We were looking for traditional Italian fare for dinner within walking distance of the hotel, found this cozy place a block away, and couldn't have been happier. We had a reservation for 6:30 pm, and there was a table waiting for us when we arrived. The staff was busy, but friendly and attentive, and the food was amazing. We shared a hot antipasto, while hubby had the chicken parm, and I chose the butternut squash ravioli, which I admit was the best ravioli I've had. Prices were reasonable for NYC, and I highly recommend reservations, especially for the busy before-and-after-theatre hours.
Patzeria's Family & Friends: This was our third time at this little theater district pizza place and has become our go-to restaurant for pre or post theatre dinner. The friendly staff, homey atmosphere and great food keep us coming back. Admittedly, we haven't tried anything else on the menu besides the pizza - it's that good!
SaraBeth's Restaurant - overpriced and pretentious. On first glance, this upper west side restaurant appears nice and elegant, but once seated in a corner seat within inches of surrounding tables, the elegant feeling turned to claustrophobic. The waitstaff was pleasant and service was good, but everything on the menu was a la cart, making breakfast here a pricey way to start the day. The menu had a variety of interesting dishes, and while my veggie omelet was good, if you're looking for something basic, like just a couple of fried eggs, you'll have to ask because they are nowhere on the menu.
"Waitress": Since Hamilton tickets are impossible to come by, we opted for the Broadway musical "Waitress", music by phenomenal singer-songwriter, Sarah Barelleis. Based on the movie of the same name, it was brilliantly done, with a wonderful story, music and characters brought together by a great cast.
NCL Gem Embarkation: We had an assigned boarding time of 11:00-11:30, and arrived abut 10:45. As our cruise was a promotional Casinos-At-Sea booking (thanks to DH's local casino "donations"), we were given a special line for check in, as well as priority boarding. The young man who checked us in seemed new and inexperienced, but the process seemed complete - until we swiped our card to board and told we weren't checked in. Just when I thought this was going to be a complicated mess, helpful NCL reps quickly ushered us back to a check-in desk, where our cards were properly checked in, and then whisked us through a door to board. We were very impressed at the service and attention we received from NCL personnel to get us on board.
First impressions: This was our first time on the Gem, and she is beautiful. We didn't know her before her recent facelift, but they must have done a great job, because she looks new and shiny throughout. The ship is tastefully decorated, with a pretty atrium and beautiful public areas.
Cabin: The "comp" Casinos-at-Sea booking includes an inside cabin, but we purchased the upgrade to a Category BA balcony on Deck 10, mid-ship, with convenient access to elevators. Our cabin attendant, Angelo, was friendly and attentive, offering to help with whatever we needed. We packed light for this trip, and found both cabin and bath storage plentiful. The bed was comfy enough, and I certainly had no trouble sleeping, whether after a long active day in port or a lazy day at sea. I only spent significant balcony time once on this cruise, on our next-to-last sea day afternoon, when it was overcast but warm - breezy but not too steamy.
DINING: With over a dozen cruises over the past 14 years, we've noticed big changes in cruise ship dining, and nowhere is it more evident than on Norwegian. On the positive side are the smaller main dining room portions and less waste (don't worry, folks with big appetites can still order multiple entrees). Not so great is the quality of food that seems to missing in the complimentary dining venues. Nothing was really bad, but nothing really wowed us either. What used to be free - lobster tails, for example, is now a for-fee item on the specialty restaurant menu. When specialty restaurants began making their appearance, it was a flat-rate up charge. Now it's turned into an "a la cart" experience, ultimately raising the cost of dinner more than ever.
Main Dining: We had dinner most evenings in the Grand Pacific main dining room. It's a beautiful room, evoking a feeling of tradition and elegance. The food was good for the most part, and we noticed the service was best on the nights we chose to dine early. We made reservations on line in advance of the cruise for every night of dining, and were always seated right away, wherever and whenever we chose to dine. Notably good were New York Strip steak, beef tenderloin, lamb chops, and the crap soufflé appetizer. I liked the rigatoni pasta dish (available every night) while hubby hated it. Everything on the dessert menu was good. The rest of what we ate in the dining room was not very memorable.
O'Sheehan's Pub: We ate lunch here once, and I thought the Shepherd's Pie was fantastic, while the Hubby thought his burger was just ok. Later on in the week, we tried the fish and chips, the artichoke dip and chicken wings. The wings were tasty, chips and dip were good, and the fish & chips were ok, but we found the English pub on the Princess ships to be much better. The restaurant and bar is large and spans the width of the ship, with a prime location overlooking the Atrium.
Garden Cafe: We grabbed breakfast here most mornings, where we found the usual buffet fare. What is great is the fact that there are several omelet stations if you like your eggs fresh. What wasn't so great was the next-to-last morning when my husband ordered his omelet and was produced a burnt yellow specimen. Even when DH had to instruct the guy to flip it over, then fold the omelet, the guy clearly had no clue how to make one, wouldn't take any advice, and just let the thing burn.
Moderno: Arrive hungry! This was the specialty Brazilian restaurant, where you start with a selection of appetizers, soup, salads and sushi - all very good. Just be sure to save lots of room for the skewers and skewers of meat the waiters will bring to your table until you finally "surrender". My husband, the carnivore of the family, loves these places. I love meat, too, but in small doses.
Cagney's: This was our anniversary dinner. He had the surf & turf, and I had the lobster tails. It turned out to be the best meal of the week. The lobster was tender and beef cooked to perfection. The shrimp cocktail appetizer was delicious. We were brought a good-size slice of cake for dessert, accompanied by a very interesting rendition of "let me call you sweetheart" sung by a trio of singing waiters. Despite the lack of water refills and forgetting to pour the rest of our wine, this was a pleasant final night to our cruise.
Room Service: It was three days before we found the room service menu hiding behind the ice bucket. Complimentary continental breakfast is free, with a very limited menu. Beyond that, there is a $7.95 fee for room service. Just another example of the cruise lines gradually sneaking in fees where once there weren't any.
Bar/Beverage Service: There were plenty of servers on pool deck taking orders, and service at the bars was only slow on a couple of occasions - once at O'Sheehan's, when there was just one overworked bartender, and at the Atrium bar, where there were 2 bartenders, but apparently I was not aggressive or attractive enough to be noticed.
We did not purchase a beverage package. The promo was not available with our casino booking, and we don't drink enough to really make it worthwhile, anyway. NCL's new policy of prohibiting soda or water to be brought on board is definitely a turn-off for folks loyal to the line, especially those traveling with families wanting to lower their travel costs. I say, be kind to the environment and bring a reusable bottle and fill it with water and ice from your cabin or from a glass in the buffet. If you need flavor, bring along travel packets of Crystal Light or any of the other flavor enhancers. Worked great for us.
ENTERTAINMENT: We didn't see it all, but here's what we did catch:
"Swing": Fabulous Broadway production with a talented cast, great voices, exciting music and top-notch choreography.
"Tropical Four" - Lively and entertaining pool-side 4-piece band playing Caribbean, reggae, salsa, jazz and more. We particularly liked the fact that a saxophone was included in the mix, and my sax-playing husband made a point of mentioning it to a band member, who excitedly asked David if he brought his sax along on the trip.
"Souled Out" - good all-round 4-piece band playing standard, pop and dance tunes. Great voices, too! We even took a couple of spins around the dance floor!
Singer/Guitar, Marissa: She seemed to have a loyal crowd, but she wasn't our favorite. I love singer/songwriters, but we didn't care for her voice style or inability to clearly enunciate. Somehow her words got lost somewhere between her lips and our ears.
Second City (Family Show): We saw this on the Dawn, and I had also seen it on Breakaway, and it always amazes me how they can think so fast on their feet with the crazy responses they get from audience participation.
Main Pools: The pool area is beautiful, clean and large enough if you count the upper deck area, and clearly the place where it's all happening. There is an adult pool and family pool separated by just a band stand, unlike other lines, where the adult and family pools are separated by a public area or even a deck or two, so an adult seeking a quiet place for a dip may not like it. Adjacent to the family pool is the waterslide, which was busy all day, with every step to the top filled with eager sliders - mostly kids, with an adult thrown in here or there. It must have been a long wait for a 10-second ride. Needless to say, the pool area fills up fast on sea days, and while the chair hogs are in full gear, the crew who vows to remove personal belongings left on chairs for any length of time were no where to be found. We saw chairs holding stuff as early as 7:30 am, so that gives you an idea. We have slight mobility issues and wanted a prime spot by the pool steps, and admittedly, one of us was out there by 8:00 am to stake our claim, while the other was still wiping the sleep from her eyes.
Movie screen: There is no movie screen outside on deck or a separate theater, like some larger ships. Instead, blockbuster movie nights featuring the likes of Captain America and Minions were shown on the big screen - complete with cookies and popcorn - in the busy Atrium, of all places. Whose idea was that? We sat down for Captain America, but since I had trouble concentrating on the screen with the hustle and bustle around me, we left.
Dance class: We took part in a meringue dance class. Between the two of us, we have four left feet, but it was a lot of fun, and even learned a few steps.
Spinnaker lounge - This is a really pretty venue on deck 13 with great views forward, the width of the ship. It was the site of some of the larger activities, especially those involving music and dancing.
Casino - Just when I was ready to throw the hubby overboard for not meeting me at the appointed time and place, as scheduled, I forgave him when he walked in the cabin door with over a thousand dollars in Casino winnings. Who says cruise slots don't pay!
Fitness Center: Hubby used the fitness early morning on several occasions, and it never seemed crowded, nor were there ever a lot of people waiting. He did notice a few treadmills out of order - not sure if this was a problem for others.
Port Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center: There is literally nothing at this port, so anything you want to see or do will require a taxi. We saw many families heading out on the ship excursions to Disney World and Universal, and I suspect many folks went to Cocoa Beach or shopping. We chose the Kennedy Space Center ship excursion, clearly the most popular, judging by the number of busses. We had about 5 hours, which was enough time to see what we wanted. Die-hard space fans will want to return another time to catch the other exhibits we didn't have time for. Tour included a nice narration by the bus driver, a stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, and convenient drop off at the NASA visitor center, where you could see the Space Shuttle Atlantis (fantastic and highly recommended!), ride the Shuttle Launch simulator, or catch an iMax movie. Normally, we don't prefer ship excursions, but this one was fine.
Great Stirrup Cay: Clear skies and calm seas made for easy tendering. We're not really beach people, so I was undecided about whether I would go over there and check it out. There was no shortage of chairs by the pool this morning, so as we took a dip, we observed the tender ticket line grow from a few people to wrapping around a good portion of the pool deck. If you love the sun, don't mind the intense tropical heat, and love to play near the water, you won't have trouble finding a beach chair on the island, no matter what tender ticket you end up with. However, if you're like me and have low tolerance for heat and sun, and need a lounger in the shade, you'll need to get a low ticket number. Of course, I knew this, but went after 12:30, leaving the hubby behind in the pool to himself, with the intention of taking a few photos and finding a spot in the shade of a palm tree to relax. As suspected, there wasn't a shaded chair to be found - except for one I finally spotted that was not being held by a towel, book or anything else. As soon as my bottom hit the seat, I heard it - a female voice 10 chairs away - "exCUUUUUSE me ... but this WHOLE row of chairs is saved." It was at that point that I decided I had enough of this nonsense and returned with my lovely digital images to the air-conditioned comfort of the Gem. Next time, I'll follow my husband's lead and bask in the glory of a quiet pool deck and admire the island from afar.
Nassau: This was our first time in Nassau, so we hired Cheryl's Taxi to take us around to see some of the sights. We got an early start and beat all the cruise tours to the forts, Queen's Staircase, and rum distillery, but not before an interesting stop to see a local fisherman and his family crack, open and clean fresh conch. Fascinating stuff - especially the fact that the conch shell is about 10 times bigger than I imagined, including the large, slimy creature that was extracted from it. We love shell fish, and this certainly was the king! It was the best part of the tour, and we left with a bowl of conch salad freshly made before our eyes. As part of the tour, we also did a ride around town, passing the new, soon-to-open Ba Ha Mar resort, lunched at a bayside seafood place, and did a bit of shopping. We're not really big on shopping, especially in the touristy places near the ship, so he took us to a little place called Bahama Art & Handicraft. It's run by a wonderful life-long resident Bahamian woman, and the lovely shop is filled with locally crafted art, pottery, jewelry and more. The 5-hour private tour wasn't the cheapest way to spend our time, but for first-time visitors to Nassau, it was a pleasant way to get around without the crowds.
Disembarkation: NCL asks that you choose the time you want to disembark by going to pick up a color coded luggage tag starting the morning before at 8:30 am. If you want to get off early, don't wait. We didn't pay attention to this until late in day 6 and only the latest debarkation times (10:30 am) were left. This wasn't a big deal for us since our train home to Providence was only at 1 pm and just a 10 min taxi ride away. You can also be among the first off if you do walk-off with your own luggage. As a matter of fact, a lot of folks appeared to do that as we observed the long, slow line exiting deck 7 from our window seat while having breakfast above at the buffet. We took advantage of our late exit time, vacating our cabin by 7:45 am (deadline is 8:00 am) and killed some time by people-watching, catching up on email, and enjoying a long, leisurely breakfast. The best embarkation morning entertainment by far was in the parking lot below - watching a family of 11 as they piled into a single SUV with all there luggage. By George, they did it, but they must be a "really close" family! Our tag was called at 10:40, we had our luggage about 20 min later, were through customs and into a taxi to Penn Station by 11:30 or so. Overall, pretty smooth.
Final Thoughts: I caught a nasty head cold beginning around Day 3 of the cruise, which only got worse as the days wore on. I don't know if it was something I picked up on board, but it was a nuisance toward the end, forcing me to purchase Day-Quil at the premium gift-shop price, to avoid sneezing and coughing in public areas and undergo mega amounts of hand sanitizing. Except for a couple of self-quarantines to my cabin, I was able to enjoy the last two sea days without too much discomfort. In fact, retreating to a stateroom balcony, hearing the lulling sound of the surf and feeling the warm breeze as the ship glides ever so slowly back to home is just the perfect remedy for any ailment. Agreed? Cruising from Boston and New York is so convenient for us, and we wouldn't hesitate to give Gem another go-around. We were blessed with calm seas and sunny weather throughout most of the trip, and saw an awesome sunrise and gorgeous sunsets. But we would both agree that we'll save our tropical destination cruises, like Bahamas and Nassau, for spring or fall when it's not so darn hot.