You might be tempted to yawn when you learn that Norwegian Cruise Line just launched its sixth and final Jewel-class ship, the Gem, a 2,400-passenger vessel that home ports in the Big Apple in winter.
Stifle the yawn.
This sassy cruise line with the ambition to sail the youngest fleet of ships afloat by 2010 is full of surprises. Like its sister ships, the 93,000-ton Gem exudes a Caribbean feel. It's colorful, lighthearted, playful, young and decidedly more hip than staid.
Some lines' ships, Carnival's in particular, convey a youthful excitement with over-the-top neon and glitz. Not so Norwegian's Gem. Its decor sports lively splashes of iridescent Popsicle colors, offset by richly dark woods, all tastefully integrated with the furnishings and fabrics. In several public rooms, the furniture is fun-house funky and, in the atrium, almost Day-Glo luminescent.
Gem's Bliss Lounge might be the funkiest lounge at sea -- a union of Turkish harem quarters with canopied double beds and a bowling alley draws night owls into the wee hours.
And if Royal Caribbean's ships are for sports addicts, Norwegian's vessels definitely are for food freaks and vacationers who resist the regimented schedule of fixed dining options. With its bevy of 10 dining venues, the Gem is more akin to Manhattan's Restaurant Row on the briny.
With Gem's "FreeStyle" cruising, you can have it your way, says Colin Veitch, Norwegian's CEO and president. There are no formal nights or dress codes or fixed hours for dining.
Gone are early seating at 6 p.m. and late dinner at 8. You aren't assigned a table with dinner partners that don't suit you, either. In fact, you can dine almost anytime in any one of 10 attractive settings, including an outstanding French bistro; an Asian-fusion complex of three eateries that lets you indulge in sushi or Teppanyaki; and Cagney's, a knockout steakhouse. Prefer Italian or Latin flavors? There are dining spots for those as well.
One innovation on Gem that will go fleetwide soon replaces the typical ship buffet with food prepared a la minute and to order. As Veitch says, "No more bain-maries, holding trays, or steam containers." On the Gem, waitresses wait to escort you to your table with your plates of goodies.
In fact, Norwegian plans to spend an additional $53 million to enhance the line's dining experience.
Norwegian also brings a hallmark of luxury to mass-market cruising: Its Jewel-class vessels have Garden Villas that create a "ship within a ship," according to the line, a private super-luxe aerie atop ship separate and apart from the rest of the ocean liner, yet still accessible to amenities available only on a behemoth.
Fork over $26,000 for a week in a villa that accommodates as many as seven passengers, and you, too, can live like a millionaire in posh digs apart from other passengers but still enjoy the ship's glitzy entertainment, ka-chinging casinos and plentiful restaurants.
The Gem offers plentiful entertainment, too -- including Broadway-style musicals, lavish Vegas-like revues and a top-notch resident comedy troupe. "World Beat," a musical extravaganza that "tours" the world's most exotic destinations, conjures up such diverse elements as Irish dancing, tribal African rhythms, the passion of Spanish flamenco and hypnotizing Japanese Kodo drums.
The ship has a nice busy feel throughout, with passengers congregating at a multitude of piano bars and dance spots, as well as bubbly specialty troughs for champagne, whiskey, martinis and, of course, cappuccino.
In addition, there's gaming (roulette and blackjack tables) in the ship's observation lounge, on pool deck and in the Bliss Lounge.
Through April, the Gem will sail a seven-day Bahamas and Florida itinerary. In April, Gem repositions to Europe, where it will sail a series of 28 seven-day western Mediterranean itineraries round trip from Barcelona, Spain. In November and December, it will complete the year with another round of seven-day Bahamas and Florida sailings from New York City.
Arline and Sam Bleecker write for the Chicago Tribune.