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.
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.
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.
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