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Norwegian Gem has all the Freestyle facets

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 28 - 2008

Seven years ago, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) rocked the cruise world with its “Freestyle Cruising” model. The concept took the old style of cruising — formal, strictly scheduled and stuffy — and turned it upside down by offering flexible dining, multiple restaurants and casual attire aboard ship.

Now NCL has a new ship, its 10th new vessel in seven years. The last of the four 93,500-ton “Jewel”-class vessels, Norwegian Gem is currently the only ship in the fleet offering all the facets of Freestyle Cruising to its 2,400 passengers, including 12 restaurants, a bowling alley, a rock-climbing wall, the four-bars-in-one Bar Central, roomy “Courtyard Villas” and gigantic “Garden Villas.”

Last year, private equity firm Apollo Management invested $1 billion in NCL, instantly making it a 50 percent owner of the cruise line. NCL said the cash infusion would help fund key areas, including fleet expansion and product enhancement. Sure enough, NCL recently announced new product enhancements under the Freestyle 2.0 initiative, including an additional $53 million investment in food alone over the next two years. NCL says lobster will be available every night in the main dining venues, each restaurant will have a signature dish, and a chocolate fondue tower will be placed in the Garden Cafe. Additionally, all cabins will get new bedding, duvets and towels, as well as tea and coffee makers.

The Freestyle 2.0 initiative will roll out over the next few months, and the changes should be in place on most ships by summer. Until then, Norwegian Gem serves as the poster ship for what’s to come fleetwide.

Sparkling Gem

The first thing I noticed about the ship is a change in the décor. Compared to the other Jewel-class vessels, the colors are more muted and, to my eye, more pleasing. The toned-down colors let the details of the ship come forward, so they sparkle all the more.

The heart of the ship is the Crystal Atrium, whose ceiling is topped with multicolored crystals. A stunning Dale Chihuly chandelier takes center stage above the staircase. The ship’s lobby is located in the atrium, as are several of the ship’s specialty restaurants. There’s also a two-deck-high LED screen, which displays nonstop videos and sporting events; this is also where Nintendo “Wii” enthusiasts can try their hands at a video-game tournament. Guests can grab a cup of coffee at the Java Café, sit back in a comfy chair and people-watch, or listen to one of the live bands that play throughout the cruise. Ringing the atrium area are the ship’s Internet center and the reception desk, which displays a painting by Claude Monet, “Vétheuil in Sunshine.” The picture is on loan from the collection of Tan Sri K. T. Lim, the chairman of Star Cruises, one of NCL’s parent companies.

During the day, the most popular place on board is the Tahitian Pool area, which has two pools, four whirlpools, a waterfall and a bright-yellow water slide for kids.


The ship offers 32 stateroom categories — the most of any cruise line — ranging from standard inside staterooms and balcony suites to interconnecting cabins and luxurious villas that come with a butler and concierge service. With its vibrant Caribbean hues, my 340-square-foot mini-suite was cheerful and welcoming. Most suites have a queen-size bed, a separate living area with a dining table, and concierge service. A standard ocean-view stateroom with a balcony encompasses about 200 square feet; regular ocean-view rooms and inside cabins range between 140 and 160 square feet. All cabins have glossy cherry wood walls and furniture, a flat-panel TV, a coffee maker, a minibar, a safe and a duvet, and most have a bathroom with separate toilet and shower/tub areas.

Families or groups traveling together can choose from some 280 interconnecting cabins in a range of categories from standard inside rooms to suites. Cabins of different grades can also be linked to create two- to five-bedroom areas. On selected voyages throughout the year, NCL offers a family-plan discount on certain arrangements of adjoining cabins.

NCL has also developed a “ship within a ship” concept that brings luxury accommodations to mass-market cruising. Guests looking for deluxe digs with their big-ship experience can stay in one of the two top-of-the-ship “Owner’s Suites” or the 10 “Courtyard Villas,” which come with their own butler and concierge. The villas ring a private, Balinese-style courtyard, which has rattan sun beds and hammocks, a plunge pool, a hot tub, a private sun deck and a gym. Each villa has two bedrooms and a living area and goes for around $5,800 per adult guest.

Want the biggest and best suite afloat? For $27,000 a week, you can stay in one of the two 4,400-square-foot Garden Villa Suites. For that hefty sum you get three bedrooms, three baths, your own private roof terrace, a private living room, a private garden, and a private hot tub and steam room.

Freestyle feeding

With each new ship, NCL refines the Freestyle Cruising concept that has become its signature amenity. Passengers enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they please. “Resort casual” is the norm for dress, and formal night is optional.

Dining choices include the ship’s two main dining rooms, Grand Pacific and Magenta, which offer traditional and contemporary menus, respectively. The newly configured Garden Café now offers a range of “action stations,” where dishes are freshly prepared or assembled while you watch, along with an outdoor seating area. Adjacent is the Kids Café area with smaller tables and buffet. There is also La Cucina for Italian fare, Tequila’s Tapas & Salsa Restaurant, and the Blue Lagoon for comfort food. For a cover charge of $10 to $20 per person, guests can dine at one of the following premium venues: Le Bistro (gourmet French cuisine), Orchid Garden (sushi, teppanyaki and Pacific fusion) and Cagney’s Steakhouse (steak and seafood). Still hungry? There’s an on-deck grill, a coffee shop, an ice cream bar and 24-hour room service.

To keep the dining venues running smoothly, seat availability and wait times for each restaurant are displayed on flat-panel monitors all around the ship. If you have your heart set on eating at Le Bistro and there’s a 30-minute wait, the maitre d’ will give you a pager that works anywhere on the ship. You can also reserve space at any restaurant through the maitre d’.


The three-deck-high Stardust Theater is the place to go for the ship’s traditional entertainment and the always-hysterical Second City comedy shows.

Bar Central is a hub of activity and has been reconfigured with an additional bar on the Gem. It now has zigzag seating that seamlessly connects Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar, Shakers Martini and Cocktail Bar, Magnums Champagne & Wine Bar, and the new (enclosed) Corona Cigar Club. Hang around long enough, and pretty much everyone on the ship will make a pit stop here. A few steps away is the ship’s smoke-filled casino. If you prefer a bar with a view, head up to Deck 13 at the front of the ship to the Spinnaker Lounge, which offers a nautical theme by day then transforms into a dance club at night.

The liveliest place on board is the Goth-inspired Bliss Ultra Lounge. During the day, Bliss is a sports bar with several flat-screen TVs and arcade games. If you have $5 to spare, you can also indulge in some wholesome bowling. In the evening, Bliss is transformed into a hip club with a dance floor and nonstop music spun by the ship’s DJ. Patrons can recline on large beds, admire the ultraviolet artwork, hang out at the bar, and try “mood-lit” bowling. Younger entertainment can be found at the Tree Tops Kids Club (for kids ages 2-12) and at the Leopard Lounge, a teen center and arcade area. For an additional fee, passengers can take advantage of NCL’s shipwide Wi-Fi capability or the broadband hookup in the cabins.

Norwegian Gem’s fitness center is open 24 hours a day for those who are so inclined. The facility has all the latest weight machines, cardiovascular equipment and free weights, plus a separate room for fitness classes. Aerobics and stretch classes are free; Pilates, yoga and Spinning classes cost $10 apiece. There is a jogging track and sports deck that accommodates basketball, volleyball and tennis, and a 30-foot-high rock-climbing wall. There are also two driving nets for golf, a shuffleboard court and pingpong tables.

The Yin & Yang Spa, run by Steiner Leisure, is the perfect place to unwind and get pampered. The best part of the spa is the Thermal Suite, which has great sea views, a hydrotherapy pool, tropical-style showers, a plunge pool, aromatic steam rooms, a sauna and heated chaise lounges. This is a pay area ($20 for a day pass or $75 for the week) and is worth it if you want to escape the onboard rat race.

If all the above isn’t enough for you, there are also special shipboard events planned throughout the week, including fine-art auctions, lectures, and the height of decadence: a late-night chocolate buffet feast.

The Norwegian Gem will spend the winter sailing seven-night and 10-night cruises from New York City to Florida and to the Bahamas and southern Caribbean.

Try this Gem on for size and it will surely rock your cruise vacation.

Filled Under Reviews, What's New?

2 Responses to “Norwegian Gem has all the Freestyle facets”

  1. Mike Cart says:

    Read your review and agree wholeheartedly … feel free to post the attached review I wrote after our cruise in December!

    Cheers, Mike




    NCL GEM – Inaugural Transatlantic Crossing Dec. 3-12/2007

    First off, if you have never been, Barcelona is a beautiful city and deserves at least a 5 day pre-cruise visit if you can swing it. My wife and I combined my birthday, our 25th anniversary and a mutual Christmas gift as reasons for the trip – hey, one has to justify things – right? Not to mention the pricing for this crossing at $499 p/p for a balcony on a brand new ship with a 9 day itinerary was unbelieveably GREAT!

    The GEM was truly that, a beautiful ship with the friendliest crew and attentive staff I had seen in a long time. They worked extremely well as a team and you really did not want for anything.

    The makeup of the passengers for this crossing was approx. USA-1100, Germany-250, UK-250, Canada-100 and ROW (rest of world) making up the 1900 or so passengers on this 2400 capacity cruise liner.

    Embarkation process in Barcelona was excellent and fast and very well organized. The area is new and there were ample staff to look after us and we were there within the first hour of the opening of the process. From arrival at the pier to entry in our balcony cabin (deck 9) was less than 20 minutes.

    Being a brand new ship, it was pristine and had that ‘new ship’ smell … lol. Our balcony cabin was nice (forward on the port side) and if you are doing a east to west crossing and want the sun – that is the side of the ship to be on! The amenities in the cabin include a flat screen 15″ TV – although the selection of live TV channels was limited due to satellite coverage, there were other channels for various movies and ship information, I would rate that a 6 on the 10 scale. An in room coffee maker was there and the bathroom was an adequate size for my 6’3″, 245 lb. frame. The sliding shower doors were great vs. other containment possibilities. Lighting in the cabin was good and the balcony was of a decent size. The cabin attendants were very thorough and attentive to all needs.

    The ships Captain Mikael Hilden was very visible and attentive and social – we bumped into him daily all over the ship and passed on our comments and observations and solicited his … a charming ‘old man’ of the sea! His daily 11:30AM ‘from the bridge’ updates were informative and I looked forward to them. I would add though that the other audio systems around the ship should be turned off (or at least down) when the Captain is speaking – if not for the information – in deference to respect of his contributions.

    There are 12 restaurants to choose from aboard. 4 of these include ‘extra charges’ ranging from $15-20 but there are ‘specials of 2-1 on occasion if you choose to eat between 5:30 and 6:30 in some of them. We tried Teppanyaki (Benihana type) which was very good 8 out of 10 and Le Bistro (french cuisine) was excellent 9 out of 10 – although here you also had a surcharge for the menu selection which included chateaubriand, souffle and more – but was well worth it!

    Our favorite (non surcharge) restaurant was the Grand Pacific, a beautiful formal-ish dining salon. Although I would add here the NCL Free-style dining experience lessens the formality – which for us was just perfect! This restaurant is available for all meals in a sit down non-rushed fashion. Our favorite server was Heidi, so ask for her and tell her Fay and Mike from Canada sent ya! She is a GEM.

    The Garden Cafe is the main buffet style eatery and is always busy and typically it is difficult to find a seat without a bit of a chore. There are helpers to assist in taking trays to your table 0when you find one … and if the ship had been at capacity, I am sure the challenge of eating there would have been much more difficult. The selection of things to eat was vast, regularly replenished and fresh. All in all I would rate it a 7-8 out of 10. The outdoor cafes were very good although the selection of items more limited, but one could get everything you wanted in the Garden Cafe and take it outside to the Outdoor Cafe areas as the seating there was usually more accessible … weather permitting of course!

    We did not try the room service.

    The internet Cafe has at least 6 terminals but is pricey and transmission via satellite takes you back to pre-cable speeds … spare the aggravation .. . unless you just have to!! Wireless is throughout the ship as well if you bring your own laptop .. but the speed is no better … the crew utilizes the same satellite so, the competition for the available bandwidth adds to the degradation of the service.

    The entertainment on board was decent but not spectacular – a variety of musicians, magic, dance and all. The ships cast is a 7 which is consistent with the overall assessment of the entertainment in the theatre (Stardust). The guest lecturer on marine topics was excellent and he gets a 10 in my books. The cruise director (Clint) was superb as was his staff – friendly, energetic and helpful. The bars aboard were very good and we sampled almost all of them. The Bliss Lounge is awesome – even if only for a look – with its chic furniture, roman-like decadence in decor with two bowling alleys on either side … definately ‘the happening’ place on the ship – especially after midnight!

    As with a lot of cruise ships, your onboard alcohol consumption (beyond the duty free store purchases and chosen excursions) are likely your major extra charges.

    The Spinnaker Lounge is a great place for relaxing during the day and catching whatever may be going on there, lecture, games, impromptu gatherings, drinks, etc. or just curling up in the bow of the ship with your reading material. In the evening, it is another happening spot for entertainment .. so our routine was to have dinner and finish around 9-ish, catch the Stardust theatre show from 9:30-10:30, head to the Spinnaker Lounge for its entertainment for another hour+ and if still feeling like partying, head to the Bliss Lounge .. all good!

    The spa aboard is to die for. We took the $95 – full cruise pass here and enjoyed it thoroughly and made it part of our daily routine. The steam room, sauna, chaise lounges in the his/her sections were excellent and they joined in the middle into a beautiful room with a hydro-like pool, hot tub and heated loungers. No doubt the best spa on the seas in our opinion! The exercise room is large, well equipped and typically busy but there was no waiting for the equipment.

    The Casino aboard is large and has a variety of table and slots. No big winners were found .. lol .. on the crossing!

    The weather for the crossing was unreal for that time of the year! Sunny for most of the days .. highs in the low 70’s during the day for 7 of the 9 days. Only when we got within 2 days of Boston did it turn cooler and was in the low 40’s upon arrival. The seas were pleasantly calm throughout the journey save for one half day and evening where 12-14 foot swells caused a gentle roll that was more pleasant than otherwise! The ships stabilizers did their job extremely well.

    The only negative I had for the trip was the excursion day briefing (immediately prior to the excursion) in the Stardust Lounge. It seemed very disorganized and with time pressure to get to the bus at a particular spot and time and the 4 variations involved, the control was less than stellar by the onboard excursion staff … let’s hope they improve that!

    Funchal I might add though is a magical location and if you do stop there, do take an excursion – it is well worth it!

    Tipping is included daily in your onboard charges and at $12/day I believe well worth it for the staff.

    Disembarkation was decently organized. Being its first US port of entry ever made for perhaps a little longer process, but not noticeably. We docked around 7 AM, US authorities boarded just before 8 and we were off the ship after a leisurely breakfast by 9:45. I must add though that Boston has a lot to do to make their cruise terminal modern, passenger friendly and efficient – in a word – it is horrible!

    Funny story – we had a noon flight to catch (thank goodness Logan airport is within 15 min. of the terminal) and were concerned that the disembarkation process may delay us .. but the ships (NCL’s) part was fine .. once off, we routed for our bags and a friendly porter assisted us and by-passed the huge taxi lineup to take us to a mini-van who he got to take a bunch of us to the airport. With my wife aboard and me outside making sure the bags got on the van, I ended up jostling with the ships guest piano player entertainer for the final seat on the van … next to my wife … he was relentless .. but I beat him back … funny, I had a feeling about that guy and his insincere ‘schtick’ of a performance aboard!

    Albeit the above negative, we would rate the entire GEM experience a 9.5+. The crew, the ship, the cabin, the variety of activities, the food (quality and choices) are the principal contributors to this rating. All in all, a terrific holiday leaving us wanting to do it again – soon!

  2. Sandra says:

    Thanks for this great review. I’ve been searching, without success, for NCL GEM Owner’s Suite photos. There are many “representational” type photos to be found but not “actual” photos. We’ve sailed the NCL Majesty and really enjoyed the freedom of “whatever” and would enjoy the GEM, NYC to Barcelona.

    Thanks again,



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