Norwegian Gem will score with New Jersey families


This summer’s family vacation may be over, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year. Crystal clear aquamarine waters, rope hammocks swaying from coconut palms, and Bahamian conch fritters and key lime pie are just a relaxing sail ride away from Manhattan — a convenient departure point if you live in New Jersey.

My family cruised from New York in July on Norwegian Cruise Line’s 2,394-passenger Norwegian Gem, which entered service in 2007. The ease of travel from a port close to our home eliminated the burden of air travel delays and saved us on jacked-up flight costs. In fact, cruising in general is a cakewalk for families, and the Norwegian Gem is no exception.

Our seven-night itinerary included port calls in Nassau/Paradise Island and Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian’s private island) in the Bahamas, plus Port Canaveral, Fla. The ship will resume the itinerary in April 2013.

The Gem is a haven for young travelers, as Norwegian is targeting the family market with some major changes to its onboard children’s entertainment roster. In February, the line announced a partnership with Nickelodeon, which has been a huge lure for the under-12 set.

In addition, they have revamped the format of its youth program. Formerly called Kid’s Crew, the newly named Splash Academy, held in the Treetops facility, has redefined its age parameters and curriculum.

Nickelodeon magnet

Nearly half of the total passengers on our sailing expedition were age 21 and under. My sons Jack, 8, and Casey, 5, were beyond impressed to have SpongeBob, Patrick and Sandy on their ship. Dora and Diego, Cosmo and Wanda from “The FairlyOdd Parents,” and Aang from “Avatar” were also onboard.

Kids sailing on the Gem can enjoy character appearances with “Dora’s Dance Party,” “Storytime with Dora,” arts-and-crafts sessions, Sailaway Show on the pool deck, a welcome aboard theater show, and two meet-and-greet photo ops. On Great Stirrup Cay, the Nick staff conducted three surprise splash mobs involving green slime on the beach.

But the Nick event that really blew my family away was “Pajama Jam.” With my kids dressed in their pajamas, we headed to a cabaret-style theater for an eye-popping buffet character breakfast. My kids heaped their plates with pastel-tinged waffles, rainbowflecked pancakes, mint green and pale pink frosted doughnuts, fruit skewers, and multicolored Jell-O cube parfaits.

Free youth program

Unlike other kid-friendly ships in the industry, which tend to offer a more defined structure, Splash Academy is a freestyle dropin program that does not necessarily adhere to the provided activity roster. Instead, it has a flexible, loosely set schedule with a lot of Freestyle Free Play, which allowed my boys — separated by age into different groups — to play together.

Family Togetherness

Parent-child interaction outside of Treetops is highly encouraged through a series of group activities, such as charades, Pictionary, scavenger hunts, a makeyour own pizza party, and cupcake decorating.

Family Circus workshops taught us about plate spinning, juggling with scarves and balls, devil sticks and Chinese yo-yos.

Teens and toddlers

For teens, the Leopard Lounge has a dance floor, smoothie bar, juke box, air hockey and foosball tables, and Wii and PS3 consoles.

Toddlers in the Under 2 Zoo can enjoy parent-child activities in the room next to, but inaccessible from, Treetops. Just outside is a small wading pool with an elephant slide.

Other things to do

There are two swimming pools: one for families and one adults only. The family pool is surrounded by a three-inch-deep spillover wading area. Adjacent is a manned corkscrew waterslide. Kids must be at least 6 years old to ride.

The Gem has a pair of twolane bowling alleys ($5 per game, per person) nestled within the velvety, plush, and dimly-lit Bliss Lounge, reminiscent of a 1940s bordello with canopied couches.

Other activities include a rock wall (must be 6 years old to climb), three poolside pingpong tables, giant chess and checker boards, shuffleboard, two golf driving ranges, movies screened in the atrium, a small video arcade, and darts and a pool table in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Balcony cabin

Although compact, our stateroom was replete with everything we could possibly need. We were in 9602, a Category BA midship balcony cabin that sleeps up to four people.

Next to our queen bed was a small, pullout sofa where Casey slept. An upper berth for Jack pulled down directly above the sofa, creating a bunk bed effect. There was also a detachable ladder.

Amenities include two outlets, a coffeemaker, a safe, a TV, a hairdryer, built-in shampoo and body gel in the bathroom, a full-length mirror, reading lamps, a minifridge, and ample shelves and storage space.

Soup’s on

Freestyle dining has no fixed dining times, pre-assigned seating, or formal nights. There are 11 restaurants on the Gem. Those with per-person cover charges are Teppanyaki ($25), a steakhouse ($25), sushi bar (a la carte), Brazilian barbecue ($20), French bistro ($20), Italian kitchen ($10), and an Asian restaurant ($15).

To contact Lizz Dinnigan,“friend” her on Facebook under Dinnigan’s Diversions.