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First Look: NCL's Norwegian Gem

Step aboard one the most fun megaships at sea today, offering a super-social atmosphere, bright and creative decor, a mix of classy and fun spaces, awesome kids' facilities, and truly contemporary shows.

Normally, I take a dim view of standardization. When too many things start looking too much alike, it takes away from our joy of the world -- our exhilaration at finding the new, different, and unexpected.

On the other hand, I enjoy the fact that I can walk into a Subway restaurant anywhere from New York to Portland to Spearfish, South Dakota, and order the same fully loaded veggie sandwich on herbs-and-cheese Italian bread, and it's always delicious.

Which brings us to Norwegian Gem, the newest megaship from Norwegian Cruise Line ( Christened in late December and currently in the midst of her inaugural season, Gem is the sixth sister in a class of ships that began with 1999's slightly smaller Norwegian Spirit and continued with 2001's Norwegian Star, 2002's Norwegian Dawn, 2005's Norwegian Jewel, and 2006's Norwegian Jade (formerly Pride of Hawai'i) and Norwegian Pearl. Of these six, Jewel, Jade, Pearl, and Gem are nearly identical in every detail, offering the same layout, the same restaurants, essentially the same decor, and almost all the same public rooms. All told, this one class of ships now comprises two thirds of the entire NCL fleet, joined only by 2005's U.S.-crewed Pride of America, 2001's Norwegian Sun, and the older, 1992-vintage Norwegian Majesty.

So is this a bad thing? Does the fact that you can sail on any of these ships and hardly tell the difference mean that NCL is missing some spark of originality and diversity, or does it mean NCL is like my Subway sandwich, consistently good wherever I find it?

It's the latter.

Along with her six sexy sisters, Norwegian Gem is one the most fun megaships at sea today, offering a super-social atmosphere, bright and creative decor, a mix of classy and fun spaces, awesome kids' facilities, truly contemporary production shows, and onboard music and pop culture references tailored to a surprisingly youngish demographic -- generally, from folks in their twenties to folks in their 40s and 50s. In a world where ships are universally tailored to the Baby Boomer generation, these might just be the first Generation X and Y megaships.

Hip Ships Make Loyal Youth

The fact is, few people choose a cruise just to experience a different ship. Instead, most either a) decide where they want to go, then find an appealing ship that's offering a good itinerary in the region; or b) sail one cruise line or ship, enjoy it, and come back to have a similar experience again, maybe in a different part of the world. It's the latter -- the so-called "returning passengers" -- that are a cruise line's bread and butter, the customer base that's then topped off by whatever new cruisers the line can persuade aboard. A cruise line builds passenger loyalty by showing people a good time; fostering a warm, home-away-from-home feeling; then being solicitous of them after their trip. Hope you enjoyed yourself. Any way we could make it better? Come back and let us TRY.

And if you can tune your product to your customers' karmic wavelength, and get them when they're young(ish), they'll come back again and again.

One can't help but think that's behind the decidedly youthful ambience aboard the new NCL ships -- a point driven home by Norwegian Gem's godmother, 31-year-old Cindy Cardella, a stay-at-home mom from Fairfield, NJ, who has cruised with NCL more than 30 times since childhood. Cardella received the godmother honor after her homemade video, submitted to the line's "Why I should be Gem's godmother" contest, won the most votes in an online election.

Seven Things to Love about NCL and Its Gem

Last year, in reviewing Gem's sister-ship, Norwegian Pearl, I offered a list of "Things to Like about NCL and Its Pearl." In the spirit of standardization, let's try out the same kind of list here, updated for the new baby.

1. NCL is not afraid to change up the paradigm.

Most cruise ships exist in a time warp, their decor, entertainment, background music, pop-culture themes, and even menus carefully tailored to a demographic whose glory days might already be decades past. While NCL is not guiltless in this regard, it's also not afraid to change the model and introduce themes from contemporary culture.

Gem's decor favors the "fun but elegant" style of her sister-ships, with public areas throughout done in a fanciful mix of bright colors, extremely tactile fabrics, and tropical themes, with some high-style Art Deco to provide balance. Some rooms embrace a styled-up version of the retro-rumpus-room aesthetic: In the observation lounge, a space that on most ships maintains a sleek, evening-clothes feel, bright, free-form couches straight out of Alice in Wonderland mix it up with foosball, pool tables, and dart boards, all in sight of the more usual bar and dance floor. Other rooms go for a more adult fantasy: the "Bliss Ultra-Lounge," for instance, is a nightclub masquerading as a bordello masquerading as the cruise world's greatest pick-up joint. It's decor is Vampire Lestat: all red and purple velvet drapes and upholstery, classical paintings of reclining nudes, DJ entertainment, and a series of velvety king-size beds scattered among the couches and overstuffed chairs, giving a new meaning to the term "public room." Some of the beds are overhung by faux trees full of flowers, others by plasma video screens flashing hip-hop music videos in all their oiled-body glory.

Out on the promenade deck, portions of the hull are painted with high-style cartoon figures that could have stepped out of a hip Target or iPod ad. In the atrium, a giant movie screen is hooked up during part of the day to a Nintendo Wii system, allowing guests to play interactive video games in a decidedly exhibitionist way.

The effect it all produces is a kind of giddiness, a childlike urge to jump in and play -- which is pretty much exactly the effect a cruise ship should have.

2. NCL is not afraid of sex.

Most cruise lines limit their titillation to their stage shows, where they dress their leggy dancers Vegas showgirl skimpy while making them perform music written before their parents were born. NCL is not so timid. On Gem, sexiness is front and center, from the velvet-draped canopy beds that serve as seating in the Bliss nightclub to the adult movies available in cabins on pay-per-view.

3. NCL is not afraid to eat.

It's an old story by now that NCL's ships offer the greatest number of edible options in the cruise biz, and though Gem offers the exact same line-up as her three immediate predecessors, the stats are still pretty amazing. Passengers can choose from ten different restaurants, including two main restaurants (the Grand Pacific, designed to resemble the first-class dining rooms aboard the old Hawaii-bound Matson Line ships) and Magenta, a more intimate room with a boutique-hotel aesthetic and artwork that brings to mind Robert Mapplethorpe's flower photos. On Deck 13, Cagney's steakhouse offers a dark, elegant vibe, while Deck 12's La Cucina Italian Restaurant offers seating at long, family-style tables amid a rustic, farmhouse atmosphere. Other options include the Orchid Garden Asian Restaurant and sushi bar (with separate, Benihana-style teppanyaki room), the Tequila Latin/Tapas Restaurant, the formal Le Bistro French restaurant, Blue Lagoon for 24-hour snacks, the outdoor Topsiders Bar & Grill, and the Garden Cafe buffet restaurant, which has been redesigned so that instead of waiting in endless lines, diners can drift among about a dozen different "action stations," each serving a different specialty. There's also a juice bar where $2.50 will buy you a glass of freshly juiced orange, apple, carrot, celery, melon, or grapefruit, or a combination thereof. Snacks are also available from the Java Cafe coffee bar, on the main floor of the atrium, while vegetarians will appreciate the Indian vegetarian spread that's offered in the buffet restaurant.

4. NCL is not afraid to drink.

Like her sister-ships, Gem offers about a dozen different bars, some general-purpose and some dedicated to distinctive styles of drinkery. At the entrance to the Asian-fusion Orchid Garden restaurant, a small bar serves a selection of sake and various Asian beers. Above the pool deck, the Polynesian-themed Bali Hai Bar & Grill has outdoor TVs tuned to sports. In deck 6's Bar Central, Shakers Martini & Cocktail Bar and Magnum's Champagne & Wine Bar serve . . . guess what?

The highlight, though, is right next door, at Bar Central's Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar, which along with the similar bars on Norwegian Jewel, Jade, and Pearl ranks as the absolute, number-one beer and whiskey bar at sea today. Outfitted with comfortable leather chairs, it offers a menu of nearly four dozen brews, a small selection of meads, and an enormous list of single-malt Scotches, blended Scotches, Irish and Canadian Whiskeys, and American bourbons. The beer menu includes standouts like Coopers Stout, Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, Sam Adams Cream Stout and Pete's Wicked Honey Wheat, while the whiskey menu won my heart by including George Dickel No. 12. Now that's taste.

5. NCL is not afraid to gamble.

And I mean "gamble" literally. While almost all ships have casinos (as does this one), Gem is the first vessel I've come across that's positioned blackjack tables out on the pool deck, in a covered area partially enclosed by faux greenery, called the "Pool Side Casino." There are also video games of chance in the Bliss nightclub and the Spinnaker observation lounge -- including an ATM-style bookie machine where you can bet on major sporting events and horse races.

6. NCL is not afraid to bowl.

Like Norwegian Pearl before her, Gem offers one of the cruise world's only bowling alleys -- which sounds dull if your mental image of bowling is small-town leagues, funny shirts, bad '70s hair, and Miller Lite. But this isn't that kind of experience. Instead, Gem's bowling alley is an integral part of the Bliss nightclub (see no. 1 above), putting it squarely in the retro-chic, bowling-shoe-as-fashion-trend, martini-culture, glow-in-the-dark-pins camp. By day, the room is a high-style sports area with multiple TVs showing sporting events, video poker machines, and four bowling lanes with computerized scoring. In normal weather the ship's motion doesn't seem to affect your ball's trajectory (though you can blame bad rolls on that if you like). At night, the mood lights come up and the room becomes a super-hip nightclub, with the alleys providing a counterpoint to the sexiness going on all around. How you choose to score is up to you.

7. NCL is not afraid to steal.

During Gem's inaugural celebration, NCL President and CEO Colin Veitch detailed what he called the "Three Steps of Cruising Innovation: NCL does something new and the competition says it won't work; 2) NCL proves it will work; 3) the competition copies the idea and says they invented it."

While that's certainly true of things like NCL's always-casual "Freestyle" format, which has had a revolutionary effect on dining programs and dress codes nearly industry-wide, it also works the other way: NCL isn't averse to grabbing what works at other cruise lines and using it to spice up the mix on its ships. From Carnival comes a huge spiral water slide on the pool deck ("Absolutely the easiest and cheapest way to keep kids entertained morning and night. Adults too," according to Veitch). From Princess comes the giant movie screen in the two-story atrium. From Royal Caribbean comes a rack of boxing equipment in the gym. Unlike the competition, though, NCL takes a low-key approach to these amenities: They're there if you want them, but they're not pumped up into a sales pitch -- which is just right for NCL's "Where you're free to . . . whatever" philosophy.

And the Score Is . . .

Big surprise here: Like her three previous sisters, Norwegian Gem gets a big five stars from She's one of the most enjoyable megaships in the cruise market, with comfortably designed cabins, plentiful food and drink, and most importantly, a real sense of fun -- bright, sexy, and a little loony, and she almost never takes herself too seriously.

Norwegian Gem will sail 7-, 10- and 11-day itineraries from her home port of New York to the Bahamas, Florida, and the Caribbean through April 2008, when she repositions to Europe to begin a series of 7-night Western Mediterranean itineraries round-trip from Barcelona. She'll return to her 7-night Bahamas/Florida itineraries in November 2008, once again sailing from New York.

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