Friday, December 21, 2007
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) invited members of some travel agencies, including the entire Direct Line Cruises staff, to sail on the Gem from December 18 – 20 and attend the christening of the ship. Of course, I knew full well that this was not only NCL’s way of thanking some of its travel agencies for their continued support, but also a way of giving the agents full-blown exposure to this ship, which over the last few months, has been billed as “hot”, “hip” and “it”. As excited as I was to simply be getting away for a few days, I was very eager to see whether the adjectives being used by NCL in their promotions were accurate. I was even more eager because being that I only started working for Direct Line Cruises a few months ago, I never had the opportunity to sail on an NCL ship.
Upon arriving at the port on the 18th, our entire staff and their guests were greeted by extremely friendly and helpful people who quickly processed our boarding passes. Before I could even turn away from the woman who provided me with my boarding pass, there was a gentlemen waiting for me who took my bag and proceeded to escort me to the ship. Fresh out of a scene from the pre-Oscar or Grammy festivities, there was a red carpet lined up with cameras and people on microphones to speak to travel agents as if they were the “stars”.
I boarded the ship and was immediately greeted with a glass of fine bubbly. Now, before I go any further, I am certain there are certain things which I will describe in this blog that were unique to this particular sailing. The bubbly was not one of them. In fact, it was announced later on that in the near future, all guests who board an NCL ship will be greeted with a glass of bubbly to start of their cruise. Once I gladly took my champagne, I was escorted to my room – a Penthouse Suite. This suite had two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one of which was tremendous), a living room area, a dining area, three flat screen televisions, a Jacuzzi, a stylish coffee/tea maker, a very large balcony and if that was not enough, butler service.
After taking in the absolute beauty of my room, I had lunch in the Garden Café which is where the buffet is located. The stations were immaculate, you could see the food being freshly prepared and displayed right before your eyes, there was more than ample seating available and let me tell you, the food was great. I had a hamburger that was perfectly cooked and was extremely meaty. This was by far not your typical “buffet” hamburger.
Once I finished lunch, I decided it was time to explore and explore I did. I visited the seven specialty restaurants, each one of them having a different theme including Italian, Asian, Southwestern, French, Steakhouse (to name a few). Now let me stop here one second to repeat something in case you missed it. I said SEVEN specialty restaurants whose décor were so perfectly appropriate for each restaurant. That means that on any given evening of your cruise, if you decide you do not want to eat in the main dining room, you can choose from seven different options and have a full course meal more appropriate to the style of food you are interested in. And with seven different restaurants, reservations I am sure should be very easy to come by. Unfortunately, being that the cruise was only two days, I did not have the opportunity to eat at every one of the restaurants. But if they were anything like the ones I did eat at (which I will discuss later), then I am certain they are fantastic.
While exploring, I also tried to find all of the bars/clubs/lounges on the ship. To be honest, I am still not certain that I saw every one of them. There are TEN of them plus an enclosed cigar lounge. They range from a nice and relaxing piano lounge, to the more upbeat Spinnaker Lounge (a large lounge with a very big dance floor and a band that was simply unbelievable) to the quite interesting Bliss Ultra Lounge, which featured great disco and techno music for dancing. Now I use the words “quite interesting” mainly because of the décor, which among other things, includes a couple of beds. Now do not get the wrong idea. There were no shenanigans going on in these beds. This was not a swinger’s cruise. What was going on is that people were having the time of their lives laying down or sitting on these relaxing beds with cocktails in their hands and the option at any given time of getting up and hitting the dance floor or if they preferred, and I can not believe I am saying this, walking over to the four bowling lanes inside the lounge. Yes, you can actually go bowling while on this ship.
We then attended the Christening Ceremony, which was so well put together. Colin Veitch, the President and CEO of NCL, introduced the five finalists for “godmother” of the Gem and played the finalists respective short videos, which although not professionally done, were entertaining. In between the showing of the short videos, we were entertained by Dem Boyz Step Team who performed a great choreographed step number and Luminescence Choir who beautifully sang holiday songs. We then watched Mr. Veitch in the action packed movie “License to Thrill” in which he plays a very good James Bondish type character who is searching the world for the “It” girl which he ultimately found in New York City. When the movie concluded, Mr. Veitch came back on stage and he announced that Cindy Cardella of New Jersey was the winner. Mrs. Cardella had the distinct honor of pulling the lever, which officially activated the mechanism that broke the bottle against the ship and officially christened the ship. Norwegian also awarded her a free garden villa for a future cruise which is over 5,000 square feet, features three bedrooms, a living room area with a grand piano, your own personal outdoor area with a hot tub, a private dining area and so much more.
I then went to Tequila for dinner, which is the Southwestern styled restaurant. Well, as much as I enjoyed my nachos, quesadillas, burritos and margaritas, the ambiance was even better. Tequila hangs over the Crystal Atrium, which includes a floor to ceiling LED screen and stunning color changing fiber optic lights. What made this even more special is while we were eating, we left port at about 7:30PM and were treated to a close up view of a lit up Statute of Liberty, which just made you sit and stare for a few minutes.
After dinner we enjoyed some more drinks at a few of the lounges, pool and darts in the Spinnaker Lounge and then I made my way into the casino. The casino included numerous blackjack tables, Let it Ride, Texas Hold’em, two Three Card Poker tables, two roulette tables (including one which was not manually operated and seemed to be the more popular of the two tables), Craps, Pai-Gow Poker, Pai-Gow Tiles, Mini Baccarat and even a poker table which was being used for a no-limit Texas Hold’em game. Plus, it seemed as if the slot machines were endless. The minimum bet on the tables was extremely reasonable (most tables started at $10.00 although they had a more private area with much higher limits) and the dealers were very friendly. There were also plenty of people walking around eager to take your drink orders.
I returned to my room at about 1:00AM to find a little platter of desserts waiting for me, my little towel animal sitting on the bed (no matter how many cruises you take, I just always seem to look forward to seeing what creative animals are waiting for me), my luggage neatly put away by my stateroom attendant and my bed turned down. After such a rough day (well I did have to unpack my suitcase) I ordered a BLT from room service and before I could even finish getting undressed, there was a knock on my door and my BLT had arrived. And although I do realize it is quite difficult to mess up a BLT, it was very good.
After a great night sleep, I took a shower in the massaging shower, attended a few meetings and then went to lunch at La Cucina, the Italian restaurant. We were greeted with a person walking around with a cart of numerous little dishes and from those dishes, he fixed us two very fresh antipasti platters. I then enjoyed a Caesar salad, chicken parmegian and tiramisu. Other options included pizza, pasta, eggplant, to name a few. There were also private tables right outside the restaurant, which allow you to enjoy your meal outside. Of course, being that it was mid December we did not take advantage of this but I have to bet it is quite nice on a sunny day. And one thing that I found interesting about both the Southwestern and Italian restaurants – despite the fact that they are specialty restaurants, they do not have a specialty fee like some of the other specialty restaurants. In other words, you can eat there whenever it is open and not have to pay an additional fee for those restaurants.
Shortly after lunch we attended the Q&A (question and answer) session of the cruise, which allows all of the agents to listen to some upcoming news about NCL. Well, despite the fact that the Q&A session did not actually have any Q&A opportunities, it was about two hours of extremely interesting information and many laughs. Andy Stuart, the Vice-President of NCL, informed us of all of the new and exciting things coming to NCL in only a way that Andy Stuart knows how. He was very entertaining in his presentation and let us know about some of the new things coming to NCL ships including lobster available every night for dinner, upgrades in bedding and towels, separate check in for balcony and suite guests, drink flags on all chairs, quiet zones and times, to name a few. Once Andy was done, we played a very entertaining quiz game with some of the upper management of NCL and the cast of the onboard show Second City (I still can not believe Topaz lost it at the very end) and then we were entertained with clips of the new commercials coming out by NCL which were some of the funniest commercials I had ever seen. They focus on freestyle cruising (which I discuss later) and they really make it quite clear why free styling is great. Now for the part of the evening that really made this cruise special. Five distinct awards were given out for travel partners and I am happy to say that Direct Line Cruises was given the first ever “Freestyle Agency of the Year” award. In Oscar style fashion we were brought up on stage, handed two beautiful awards and my father (who along with my mother are the founders of Direct Line Cruises) gave a brief thank you speech. The blog above this one goes into more detail regarding this honor.
After the show, I did some more exploring and saw the unbelievable spa and beauty salon, which for only $20.00 a day, you get to use a good portion of what the spa has to offer. Then there is the large LCD screen I mentioned earlier which at certain times allows you to play Wii in a way you have never seen Wii played before, the Kid’s Crew facility which had a tremendous playroom for the real little ones as well as the Leopard Lounge for older kids which includes the arcade, plasma TVs hooked up to Wii video game systems, a non-alcoholic bar, dance floor, juke box and more. The fitness center has extremely hi-tech machines as well as a separate room for free weight use and another room for classes including yoga and spin. There is a library (which Andy Stuart announced that libraries on all ships will eventually be turned into more of a book store theme where people can sit and read while enjoying a cup of coffee), a card room, a sports deck which includes two golf driving nets volleyball/basketball court and paddle tennis and a rock climbing wall.
My entire staff was then invited to dinner by our sales rep (Thank you Sara) at the Grand Pacific, which is one of the main dining areas. As expected, the dining room was very classy and the food (I went with the steak) was excellent. Of course, in NCL style, the greatest part of it was that we as a group decided what time we wanted to eat and we did not have to get dressed up to enjoy our meal. As I said earlier, this was my first NCL experience and I have to be honest, the option to “freestyle” by eating whenever I want and wearing whatever I want (within reason of course) was one of the best parts of the cruise. Knowing how I hate to leave a hot blackjack table to make sure I do not miss dinner, knowing how my wife hates to leave poolside and miss out on her tan to eat dinner, knowing how my 8 month old would hate to be waken up from her nap to make dinner and knowing how I just feel more comfortable in a pair of khakis and a polo shirt as opposed to slacks, shirt, tie and jacket, I just know freestyle cruising is for us.
After a night of continued lounge hopping and blackjack, I decided that I needed to take full advantage of the cruising experience. Therefore, at about 2:00AM, a bunch of us decided to go to the Blue Lagoon and have a sit down meal. And it was just so great to be able to find a good sit down meal at that hour of the day. I had another great hamburger, some others had potato skins, Buffalo wings, soup. And once again, no extra charge for this meal.
Now despite the fact that this ship went to nowhere (it stayed out at sea for the entire trip) which also meant there was no opportunity to use the outdoor facilities (including the two pools and extremely large water slide), the Gem proved to be everything NCL billed it to be, and then some. The ship has just an absolute perfect blend of entertainment and décor, which I believe people of all ages can enjoy. The food was great, accommodations were wonderful and the employees were very nice. I can very honestly say that if you are regular cruiser, you do not want to miss an opportunity to see and sail on this ship. If you are a first timer looking for a true cruising experience, then this ship will give you just that.
Thank you NCL for an absolutely wonderful time but more importantly, thank you for giving us New Yorkers an absolutely wonderful ship. I look forward to my next time aboard.