While not one of Norwegian Cruise Line's newest or largest vessels, Norwegian Gem nonetheless has a fierce fan base. It has a large number of repeat passengers who love this particular ship, Norwegian's casual Freestyle Cruising concept, its excellently produced Las Vegas-style shows and its wide variety of dining options.
The fun starts as soon as you board Gem via the Atrium on Deck 7, which serves as a busy hub of activities, from live musical performances to trivia contests to movies. Overhead, an eye-catching custom chandelier features colour-changing lights, and the centrally located Java Cafe & Bar is usually packed from morning to night. Flexibility and a casual vibe are hallmarks of Norwegian's Freestyle Cruising, which means that almost 2,400 passengers can enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they wish (other than at the speciality restaurants, which usually need reservations) and only have to dress up for dinner if they want to. Many passengers come prepared for the ship's theme nights, one of which is the popular Glow Party, an amped-up version of the ship's former White Hot Party, where passengers are encouraged to wear white or neon clothing.
Perusing the Freestyle Daily newsletter reveals a staggering amount of activities to choose from, some of which cost extra but many of which are free, such as the always-popular scavenger hunt, silly pool contests, card lessons and food demonstrations. Norwegian Gem's wide variety of onboard activities offers something for every type of traveller, from gambling through the night to meeting other passengers in friendly competitions to simply lounging by the pool. It would be a challenge to do everything, but trying is a fun occupation at sea.
Daytime: Pretty much anything goes during the day, which means summer and casual dresses, skirts, regular or capri pants, shorts, jeans and tops for women and khakis, jeans, shorts and casual shirts for men. Swimwear is OK at the buffet and outdoor restaurant, but a shirt or a cover-up and shoes are required.
Evening: At night, smart-casual is preferred in the dining rooms and speciality restaurants. For women, this means slacks or jeans, dresses, skirts and tops. For men, jeans or slacks with a collared shirt and closed-toed shoes are ideal. That isn't to say we didn't see plenty of people sporting T-shirts, though.
Not permitted: Tank tops (for men), flip-flops, baseball caps, visors or jeans that are overly faded, with holes or tears are a no-no in the main dining rooms and speciality restaurants.
Superb performances in the three-deck Stardust Theater included the Tony-nominated "Swing! The Musical" and the song-and-dance-style revue "Blazing Boots," a wildly popular pop-country show. "Get Down Tonight," a rousing tribute to the 1970s performed by the Gem dancers and orchestra, was also a huge hit, with some passengers opting to see the show twice. Other shows include tribute nights to stars such as Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder, plus performances by guest comedians, jugglers, hypnotists and circus acts.
A quick glance at the Freestyle Daily (the daily program that is delivered to your room each night) tells you all you need to know about daytime fun -- There's a lot of it. Trivia, demonstrations ranging from cooking and vegetable carving to towel animal making, dance and fitness classes (free and for a fee), and myriad family fun activities, from a circus workshop and origami lessons to balloon twisting, are on offer. Shuffleboard, sports competitions, art auctions, drink tastings, goofy golf challenges, bingo, "Deal or No Deal" and casino tournaments are other daytime options. Keep in mind that almost all of the so-called seminars you'll see on the schedule, such as detoxing for health and weight loss, digital cameras or relieving back pain, are money-making pitches to get you to buy things. Don't miss a visit to the Bridge Viewing Room on Deck 11 forward, which has an enormous window looking into the ship's operations. The room is set up like a mini-museum, with models and images lining the walls and a cool video showing how the ship was constructed.
Vocalists strumming guitars or tickling piano keys are mainstays in smaller venues such as Magnum's Champagne & Wine Bar and the Crystal Atrium. Each night, there's a jazz jam in various venues. We found that nights preceding a day at sea were the liveliest, with passengers willing to stay up late when they knew they could sleep in the next day. Passengers who want to dance head up to Deck 13's Spinnaker Lounge, which was packed on theme nights with people dancing until late, but otherwise the ship seemed to settle down by midnight or so. There's the occasional evening bingo game and movies, shown on the vast video screen in the Crystal Atrium. The generously sized Gem Casino has table games, video betting and slots.
A bar for every taste, Norwegian Gem can satisfy every type of tippler from martini aficionados to beer experts and mojito-lovers. The variety of live entertainment also invites lingering over drinks in the comfortable spaces, which we found lively but never too crowded to find a seat. Highlights include:
Magnum's Champagne Bar (Deck 6): This Champagne bar features an early 1900's lounge look and is the first of three different bars sitting next to each other on Deck 6 (collectively referred to as Bar City) between the casino and the Magenta Dining Room. Magnum's, with its fun-coloured bubbling liquid glass bar counter, offers the most seating of the three but has no TVs. Instead, it's a great place to chill in the evening and listen to live music. Tucked away in the corner is the enclosed Cigar Bar.
Shakers Martini Bar (Deck 6): The middle bar in the three-bar complex, Shakers is manned by expert bartenders whipping up shaken or stirred drinks to passengers who enjoy the look of the angular Art Deco bar.
Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar (Deck 6): Maltings, the no-pretences beer and whiskey joint in varying hues of brown with big soft couches and chairs, is where you'll find the ship's weekly beer and whiskey tastings, a TV playing sporting events and a cosy spot to sit with friends to talk. It's not a spot for music, though you can hear the sounds of the piano or jazz band playing in nearby Magnum's.
Java Cafe & Bar (Deck 7): Located in the Crystal Atrium, the Java Cafe serves not only delicious coffee drinks but also any libation you might like from its full bar.
Bliss Ultra Lounge (Deck 7): You can grab a drink in between dancing until the wee hours at this late-night dance club, which has an intimate feel, with cosy nooks and a DJ who starts spinning after midnight. You might find yourself just one of a handful here though, as most people head to Spinnaker for late-night fun. The space is also used for karaoke sessions.
O' Sheehan's Bar (Deck 8): This Irish pub and restaurant's bar area is a great place to watch the activities one deck below in the Atrium.
Great Outdoors Bar (Deck 12): The Great Outdoors Bar offers plenty of outdoor seating with terrific views of the ship's wake. It's the perfect spot to grab a drink to go with your between-meals snack from the Great Outdoors buffet eatery.
Bali Hai Bar (Deck 13): Overlooking the pool area, Bali Hai is a large bar area where, if you're not a smoker or not a fan of smoke, is not going to be the place for you as this is where smokers seem to gravitate day and night.
Spinnaker Lounge (Deck 13): The expansive Spinnaker Lounge functions as Norwegian Gem's main nightclub and secondary theatre, hosting game shows, trivia and musical performances, as well as the popular Glow Party and a Q&A session with the ship's officers, held once per cruise.
Sugarcane Mojito Bar (Deck 13): Feeling a bit like an afterthought, this small mojito bar takes up residence in Moderno Churrascaria. You can grab a predinner drink while killing time before a meal at Moderno or Cagney's, which is just across the hall.
There are two pools on the Norwegian Gem, one specifically for adults and one for kids, plus a slide and four hot tubs, all located on Deck 12. A double slide (so you can race your friends) is a fun, twisty feature on the pool deck, which isn't too scary so it's popular with kids and adults alike. An additional small pool and hot tub are found in The Haven, but they're reserved for The Haven suite passengers only.
There are shuffleboard courts in Deck 7\. If you're feeling sporty, follow the jogging track to the ship's basketball court, which also doubles as a spot to play tennis and volleyball. Two giant chessboards and a golf cage can also be found on either side of Deck 13. On the pool deck, travellers can join in the fun with Ping-Pong tournaments and contests such as Mr. Sexy Legs. (Check your Freestyle Daily for days and times.) A rock-climbing wall is found on Deck 14.
The pool deck offers sun loungers, but on sea days, you might find yourself having to venture up to Deck 13 to find space. If you really want some alone time, or relative quiet, poke around some of the rarely visited areas on Deck 14, which is so secluded there might not even be chairs available to use. Not to worry: You can drag your own up there or ask a crew member for help.
Deck 7, midship, is the hub for everything from the guest services desk to the adjacent shore excursions desk and future cruise office. Guest services can help passengers make restaurant reservations, obtain daily schedules, answer questions about their onboard accounts and obtain new keycards if lost or deactivated. Located farther aft on Deck 7 are the photo gallery, art gallery and internet manager's desk, where passengers can sign up for service or get assistance. The area is manned by an IT professional for a few hours a day (times varies). Internet packages range from $125 for 250 minutes or unlimited access plans for $29.99 per day (if you book online in advance, fees are cheaper). There's also a social media Wi-Fi package, which gives you access to a majority of social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, etc.) for $14.99 per day. (Note: The Internet Cafe, such as it is, is located in the library on Deck 12. It's basically a few computers you can log in to.) Also located on Deck 7, you'll find the large onboard shop, which sells duty-free watches and jewellery, cigarettes, perfume and alcohol, in addition to logo items, clothing and a small selection of toiletries and snacks.
On Deck 12 forward, just inside and off the pool deck, is the ship's photo studio, game room and library. The photography studio is where passengers can make appointments to have professional photos taken. The game room provides several tables and chairs, as well as card and board games for cruisers to use. Next door is the library, which offers limited times to borrow books, usually just one or two hours in the morning. But, forget about trying to read or work in peace: With the pool next door and activities in the game room, it's rarely quiet. Should you find yourself bookless and bored, the library is also the place to grab a sudoku puzzle or trivia sheet. Norwegian Gem offers no self-service laundry, but laundry services are available for a fee. The ship's medical facility is on Deck 4, and three conference rooms can be found on Deck 6. A small chapel is located on Deck 13 forward, just outside of the port side entrance to Spinnaker Lounge. It's used for onboard weddings, but most often it hosts passenger-led prayer services and Friends of Bill W. meetings.
The Mandara Spa, Deck 12 forward, encompasses changing facilities; treatment rooms for both singles and couples; an extra-fee thermal suite with sauna and steam rooms, a hot tub and a thalassotherapy pool; and a salon that offers hair and nail services. It's open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Treatments run the gamut from facials, massages (a 50-minute Swedish massage starts at $129) and acupuncture to upstyling, manicures and teeth whitening. Deals are often advertised during the cruise and might include discounted services on port days, packages that offer several abridged services for one price or a percentage savings for booking multiple treatments at the same time. We were surprised that spa-goers don't have access to lockers, showers or amenities such as hair products, especially after something like a massage when you might want to wash some of the oil off before heading back to your cabin. You can purchase a Thermal Suite pass for the entire cruise or a day pass (when available) to chill out in the expansive lounge, which has a coed room with the thalassotherapy pool and heated ceramic loungers. There are also gender-specific areas with an ocean-view sauna, eucalyptus steam room, individual whirlpool tubs, icy-cold plunge pool and padded chaises. The salon also offers a retail section, where passengers can buy products from Elemis, La Therapie and Bliss. If you have a treatment, know that there will be a product pitch at the end unless you specifically request not to have one.
Pulse, the onboard fitness centre on Deck 12 forward, is outfitted with Technogym equipment and multiple exercise bikes, ellipticals, treadmills, rowers, various weight machines and free weights. There's also a small studio with yoga mats, balance balls and foam rollers available for passenger use when for-fee spin ($15), yoga ($15), Pilates ($15), TRX ($20) and boot camp ($20) classes aren't in session. Personal training is also offered at $89 per session. Free classes are posted, as well, and they include group ab workouts and 1-mile sea-day morning walks. The facility also offers a water fountain, a cooler with chilled towels and men's and women's changing facilities, each with lockers, one shower, one toilet stall and a steam room. There's a jogging track on the outer edges of the aft section of Deck 13\. Up there, you'll have to do 5.5 laps for a mile. A promenade that rings Deck 7 is great for walking; 2 2/3 laps equal 1 mile.
No one is going to go hungry on Norwegian Gem, which offers everything from elaborate breakfast buffets to barbecues by the pool to any number of speciality spots for dinner, ranging from Asian to a classic steakhouse experience. Norwegian's signature Freestyle Dining policy means passengers can eat when they want and are not locked into an early or late seating for dinner in the main dining rooms. (It can't be understated how much that means to Gem's repeat passengers, who when asked what brings them back time and again, often give this as the first reason.) The ship's dining rooms offer open seating, flexible hours and excellent service, while a reservation for the speciality restaurants is usually necessary (though walk-ins are seated when possible). The crew is happy to accommodate special dietary needs -- gluten-free, low sodium, etc. -- with advance notice. Complimentary hot tea, coffee, iced tea and ice water are served with meals; soft drinks, bottled water and alcoholic beverages are available at an additional charge.
Magenta (Deck 6) and Grand Pacific (Deck 7)
Meals: Breakfast (B), Lunch (L), Dinner (D) The Grand Pacific and Magenta are Gem's two main restaurants. The menus are the same in each restaurant, with specials that change daily. The Grand Pacific has an elegant 1920s Gatsby vibe with a slightly more upscale atmosphere, while Magenta is smaller in size and laid out in a way that creates a more intimate -- and decidedly cosier -- atmosphere. Grand Pacific is open for breakfast and dinner daily, plus lunch (on sea days), while Magenta is only open for dinner. The banquet-style dinner menu generally sticks to classic American, with an occasional foray into the adventurous, such as Vietnamese pho or Thai coconut vegetable curry, which were often our favourite dishes. Other solid choices you could always count on included New York strip steak, rotisserie chicken and a couple of pasta dishes. Breakfast is a leisurely affair, a nice counterpoint to the bustle of the buffet. Everything from eggs Benedict to omelettes is on offer. During lunchtime at the Grand Pacific, seating is easy to come by even the two-person tables overlooking the ocean are easily accessible. But, if you want to snag one of the romantic spots for dinner, your best bet is to dine early because those tables are the first to go. If you're in a hurry to get to a show or a game of trivia, plan accordingly as service, while friendly and efficient is not necessarily speedy.
Garden Cafe and Great Outdoors (Deck 12)
Meals: B, L, D: Norwegian's standard cruise ship buffet (a dual indoor and outdoor affair), the Garden Cafe and the Great Outdoors are good for a quick bite nearly all day long. At breakfast, made-to-order omelette stations make for a nice customizable breakfast experience. If you like or if you prefer, you can dive into different food stations packed with fruit, pastries, yoghurt, cereals, cheeses and any other breakfast item you could want. Lunch and dinner feature a dizzying array of options, from salad and soups to hot and cold entrees. At dinner, if you're looking for some ethnic/speciality fare but don't want to fork over extra dough for one of the speciality restaurants, you won't be disappointed. In addition to classic American fare, there's usually a themed station each night, such as Mexican, Greek, Russian, Italian and so on, so passengers can sample a variety of cuisines. In general, the buffet offered good options, and we could always find something to like. At peak times, the buffet gets quite crowded so some patience is required, and it can take time to find a table. We always had better luck heading outside to the Great Outdoors for seating, but if you prefer air-conditioned indoor seating, be prepared to wander around before you find a table. Servers roam around offering drink service, but it's often faster to grab a drink from the bar yourself.
Topsiders Bar & Grill (Deck 12)
Meals: B, L late-night snacks: Serving a continental breakfast in the morning, Topsiders is ideal for those early birds who want to claim their chair by the pool first thing. At lunch, hotdogs and hamburgers, along with sides such as coleslaw and potato salad, make for a perfect casual meal. On various days, cooks will also set up grills and offer barbecued items during lunch. Some evenings, snacks are set out for passengers looking for a late-night nosh.
O'Sheehan's (Deck 8)
Meals: B, L, D: O'Sheehan's, Norwegian's nearly fleetwide Irish pub, is a something-for-everyone joint. Classic casual fare is served up in a comely setting, 24/7, one deck up from the Atrium, with seating looking down, which makes for fun people-watching. There's also a bar here, where sports fans can catch a game. Best of all, there's food available whether you've got a hankering around brunchtime or an adrenaline-fueled post-roulette victory craving for that perfect something greasy to prove you're unstoppable, even in the early morning hours. Many passengers quickly find out that O'Sheehan's is also a great spot for a sit-down breakfast, with none of the stress of fighting the crowd at the buffet, and more speed than the leisurely pace of the Grand Pacific.
Orchid Garden (Deck 7)
Meals: D: The Orchid Garden Asian restaurant offers an Asian fusion menu, comprising soups, sides and entrees. Diners also have the option of ordering a la carte appetizers from the adjacent Bar for a fee.
Meals: B: Enjoy morning coffee and continental fare, such as juice, fresh fruit, muffins and cold cereal, free of charge.
Le Bistro (Deck 6); a la carte pricing
Menu: D: This French speciality restaurant is among the most popular offerings on the ship and one of its most romantic venues. Of all the restaurants on board, seems to be the one passengers love to get the most dressed up for, with sequins and suits a common sight. Service is especially attentive and the food presentation memorable.
Teppanyaki (Deck 7); $39 per person
Meals: D: For those who like dinner and a show simultaneously, -- located inside the Orchid Garden -- is a hard-to-get treat with only 32 spots at four tables that delivers both. Gathered around a large rectangular iron griddle, eager eaters watch as onions, eggs, shrimp and steak are lit ablaze, tossed through the air and, ultimately, turned into flavorful meals by chefs standing in front of them. The prix-fixe menu consists of combinations of various proteins, served with miso soup, seafood salad, vegetables and garlic fried rice. Four chefs banging utensils in the small space can get loud, but most of the din is over within 10 to 15 minutes. Teppanyaki is the most quickly filled dining venue on board, so book your night out as soon as you board -- or better yet, do it online before you even get to the ship.
La Cucina (Deck 12); a la carte pricing
Meals: D: You can create your own pizza or pasta with sauces ranging from traditional (tomato, Alfredo and Bolognese) to haute (shrimp with lemon and basil or smoked salmon with white wine cream and chives) in this spot that channels a traditional Italian trattoria. Diners can also enjoy classics like osso bucco, veal Marsala and gnocchi.
Moderno Churrascaria (Deck 13); $39 per person
Meals: D: You'll want to go with a hearty appetite to this Brazilian-style steakhouse, which offers an expansive line-up of skewered meats, including lamb chops, filet mignon, sausage and chicken, which keep coming until you cry uncle. There's also the obligatory salad bar featuring international cheeses, dried meats, olives and marinated veggies, alongside the traditional salad ingredients.
Cagney's Steakhouse (Deck 13); a la carte pricing
Meals: D: Named for the classic gangster movie star, serves up the normal steakhouse faves, such as filet mignon, T-bone steak, rib-eye and New York strip, with all the usual steakhouse sides. Diners will also find salmon and pork chop options. Cagney's is very popular and fills up quickly. Make your reservation in advance if you want a prime-time dinner slot.
Meals: 24 hours: Norwegian Gem offers 24-hour room service (except on the morning of debarkation), though only continental breakfast is free. Lunch and dinner options, including perennial favourites such as chicken Caesar salad, sandwiches and pizza, plus kid-pleasers such as hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches, carry a $7.95 convenience fee per order. The Haven and suite passengers may order room service free of charge.
Norwegian Gem offers cabins to suit just about every preference and budget, from interior cabins outfitted with just the basics to an over-the-top "villa" with enough room to host a party. All cabins have stocked mini-fridges (sodas, sparkling water and beer -- for a fee), coffee/tea facilities, flat-screen televisions, safes and telephones. TV programming includes a selection of movies and TV shows, plus a music channel, several news channels and ship-related channels that show location, general information and the view from a bridge cam. Reading lights embedded in the walls directly above the beds are a nice touch, as are the bedside USB ports for charging devices. While standard cabins are comfortable and well laid out, they are rather tight. Ocean-view rooms inside staterooms make for very cosy quarters. There is adequate closet and drawer space for most couples, but you won't want to overpack. Even with just two people in a balcony cabin, we used every bit of space we had, even using a shelf over the TV for clothes. With four people, it would be trickier. All but some inside cabins have "split bathroom" configurations: Within one space you'll find a glass-enclosed shower on one side, a closeable toilet chamber on the other,a sink in the middle. Inside cabin and mini-suite bathrooms have wall-mounted pumps for hand soap, shampoo and body wash in the shower, instead of wasteful small bottles. All cabins have a hairdryer. Gem has 27 wheelchair-accessible rooms with options in almost every category.
Inside: At 138 square feet, interior cabins are located on all passenger decks: 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11. Family inside cabins sleep up to four, with the inclusion of pull-down beds. A small desk with a stool and a table and chair are in the room.
Oceanview: Cabins with a window or porthole, depending on the room, are located on Decks 4, 5 and 8, and run 155 to 161 square feet. A family option (only on Deck 5), with pull-down beds, sleeps up to four passengers.
Balcony: Balcony cabins are 200 to 205 square feet, including the 38-square-foot balcony. These cabins also have small sofa beds, which can serve as third and fourth berths. Balcony cabins are located on Decks 8, 9 and 10. Two mesh chairs with a tiny table are located on the balcony.
Club Balcony Suite: At 272 to 285 square feet, Club Balcony Suites offer a small amount of additional interior space and a larger balcony (54 square feet). They also have full bathtubs -- a bonus for families. All Club Balcony Suites are located on Deck 11 and accommodate up to four people. These rooms feature sofas, which can be converted into beds, and the same outdoor furniture as standard balcony cabins.
Suite: Gem's non-The Haven suites range from those with extra room for couches and larger bathrooms to much larger options. Passengers in suites have butler and concierge service. Other perks include an open bar drink package (for passengers over age 21), free Wi-Fi, $50 excursion credit at each port and speciality dining packages for two passengers. They also receive priority boarding at check-in. The non-The Haven penthouse suites (341–387 square feet and 489–581 square feet) include dining areas, queen-sized beds, floor-to-ceiling windows, luxury bathrooms with separate bathtubs/showers, powder room areas and large balconies with tables and reclining lounge chairs. The forward-facing penthouse balcony suites (Decks 9 and 10), ranging in size from 489 to 581 square feet, with 144- to 284-square-foot balconies, can accommodate three passengers. It has a bedroom with a queen-sized bed, bathroom with shower and tub, a living area, dining area and a large private balcony. The aft-facing penthouse balcony suites (341 to 387 square feet, with 54- to 100-square-foot balconies) also sleep three, with some suites able to connect to The Haven Owner's Suite for even more space (Decks 8, 9 and 10). Two-bedroom family suites on Deck 11, at 544 square feet (but with small 54-square-foot balconies), are ideal for larger parties, accommodating up to six passengers. Family suites can also connect to a mini-suite for even more room. All suites include butler and concierge service.
The Haven: Located at the top of the ship on Deck 14, The Haven -- a keycard-access-only suite enclave -- is a "ship within a ship" concept. Suites share a private courtyard, complete with a covered plunge pool and private hot tub an exclusive sun deck. Residents of The Haven's suites, which include Garden Villas, Owner's Suites, Family Villas and penthouses, all share private elevator access to their exclusive quarters. All The Haven suites also include butler and concierge services, luxurious bath amenities and perks, such as priority boarding at check-in and skip-the-line privilege/personal escorts on and off the ship at ports of call. Additionally, The Haven passengers receive a free open bar drink package (for passengers over age 21), free Wi-Fi, $50 excursion credit at each port and speciality dining packages for two.
Penthouse: Penthouses in The Haven run 440 square feet (with a 60-square-foot balcony), sleep three and include a bedroom with a queen-sized bed. A curtain divides the bed from a small entertainment area with a love seat, a small glass table and another table with three chairs. There's also a desk, an espresso machine and a vanity. The bathroom features a tub and shower.
Two-Bedroom Family Villa: The Family Villas, which sleep as many as six people, come in at 572 square feet (with an 85-square-foot balcony). The villa has two bedrooms (one master and one separate children's room), plus two bathrooms, one with an oval tub.
Owner's Suite: Owner's Suites, which measure approximately 791 square feet (including a 151-square-foot-balcony), face forward. Since they are at the corners of the ship's bow, the Owner's Suites have private sun decks at the front and along the side and a hot tub on the balcony.
Deluxe Owner's Suite: Each Deluxe Owner's Suite measure 1,197 square feet, including a large balcony at 567 square feet. These rooms, which have separate living and dining areas, sleep up to four people and are the only cabins located on Deck 15.
Three-Bedroom Garden Villa: For a real splurge, check out the Garden Villas, which measure 4,252 square feet (including a massive 1,675-square-foot-balcony) and sleep eight people. They have individual saunas, hot tubs, private sunbathing areas, three bedrooms, three baths with tubs, a powder room, living room, dining room and a grand piano.