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Groups on Cruises: Cruising on the gem

Norwegian Gem, photo by Bob Hoelscher

In September, I escorted a group for my friends at Mayflower Tours aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Gem on a one-week cruise from New York to Atlantic Canada and New England.

Norwegian Gem is an attractive, obviously well-run ship. Staterooms were quite comfortable and nicely appointed. An extensive variety of tasty food and an appealing choice of restaurants were always available, and service and entertainment throughout were uniformly good. The itinerary couldn’t have been better, with five port calls in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and St. John, New Brunswick, both in Canada; Bar Harbor, Maine; Boston; and Newport, Rhode Island. I do wish, however, that Norwegian would tone down its onboard appeals to sell optional “extras” that are seemingly a bit more aggressive than on competing lines.

Special touches like refreshments on the piers after days in port, hot chocolate and delicious banana cake in Bar Harbor and excellent seafood chowder in Newport; an astounding Chocoholic Buffet one evening; and a wonderful deck barbecue were proof that Norwegian is striving to “go the extra mile” with regard to service. On an absolute scale, I would give the entire experience a strong B+. Since mass-market megaliners cannot deliver a product competitive with what only smaller and very expensive, high-end, extremely service-oriented vessels can achieve, this cruise was just about as good as it gets for a mainstream vessel and, as such, is highly recommended.

Interestingly enough, this was my first experience with Norwegian’s flexible Freestyle dining program while accompanying a group of mostly older travelers. Although everyone knew what to expect, I was still surprised by how positively it was received. I surveyed my group on the way back to the airport, and all but one of the guests indicated that they preferred the Freestyle system to the traditional assigned tables in early and late dining-room sittings. A fellow tour manager also surveyed those on her coach and reported to me that it was also “just about unanimous” in favor of the Freestyle dining with her group.

• Norwegian Expands Onboard Amenities  •

Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that it will expand the digital signage introduced on Norwegian Breakaway to the line’s entire fleet by summer of 2015. The interactive touch-screen signs will allow guests to easily order specialty items, get directions to other locations on board, and reserve dining, shore excursions and entertainment with a scan of their stateroom key. Each Norwegian ship will have between 30 and 50 touch and static screens located in prominent areas around the vessel.

Furthermore, Norwegian Breakaway’s “Ice Cream Bar” concept, allowing guests to indulge in a variety of specialty sundaes, floats, shakes and other ice cream treats during their cruise, will also be available on the new Norwegian Getaway upon her February arrival in Miami. The signature item on the Ice Cream Bar menu is the massive Breakaway Sundae, which serves three to four guests.

Finally, Norwegian has unveiled 32 new staterooms on the line’s Hawaii-based Pride of America, the final element in a $30 million enhancement project that began in March, which also added studio rooms for solo travelers and new suites.