Norwegian's lively new Gem of the ocean

The 2,400-passenger Gem plies the waves, gems decorating its flanks; its Garden Villas create a ship within a ship.

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 homeports 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, rely on over-the-top neon and glitz to convey youthful excitement. 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. Eschewing the plain vanilla of other resort-style cruise ships, Gem's exterior flanks boast gigantic cartoonlike renderings of diamonds, rubies and other gemstones.

Gem's Bliss Lounge might be the funkiest at sea - a union of Turkish harem quarters with canopied double beds and a bowling alley - that 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 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, NCL's chief executive officer and president. There are no formal nights or dress codes or fixed hours for dining.

The line's now-entrenched philosophy has jettisoned passengers' Pavlovian response to the dinner bell. Gone are early seating at 6 p.m. and late dinner at 8. And you aren't assigned a table with dinner partners who don't suit you. 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 steak house. Prefer Italian or Latin flavors? There are dining spots offering those as well.

One innovation on the Gem that will go fleetwide soon replaces the typical ship buffet steeped with precooked items with food prepared to order. This means you can forgo the soggy vegetables or overcooked bacon. A plethora of fresh ingredients is prepared before your eyes, and waitresses escort you to your table with your plates.

In fact, NCL plans to spend $53 million to enhance the line's dining experience.

Its ships eventually will serve lobster not only on captain's night, but every night in at least one of the ship's restaurants. Plans also include the creation of a signature specialty dish in every restaurant, such as a 48-ounce porterhouse in Cagney's steak house and a chocolate fondue tower for the casual Garden Cafe on the pool deck.

Norwegian also brings a hallmark of luxury to mass-market cruising. Its Jewel-class vessels boast Garden Villas that create a ship within a ship. The villas are a group of upscale suites clustered around a private courtyard and sundeck, with stunning teak and rattan furniture and its own pool, exercise room, butler services, and saunas for men and women. Here, passengers are pampered like celebrities. In fact, the villas are often chosen by celebrities accustomed to royal treatment.

For $26,000 a week, up to seven passengers can live like millionaires in posh digs apart from other guests, but still enjoy the ship's glitzy entertainment and casinos and plentiful restaurants.

For entertainment, the Gem offers Broadway-style musicals, lavish Vegas-style revues, and a top-notch Second City comedy troupe. World Beat, a musical extravaganza that tours exotic world destinations, conjures up everything from Irish dancing and tribal African rhythms to the passion of Spanish flamenco and hypnotizing Japanese kodo drums.

The ship has a busy feel throughout, with passengers congregating at piano bars, dance spots, and bubbly specialty troughs for champagne, whiskey, martinis and cappuccino.

In addition, there are roulette and blackjack in the observation lounge, on the pool deck, and in the Bliss Lounge.

The line also is introducing classes in seagoing's latest "university" - in which passengers can explore organic cooking, learn tips on being a sommelier, or polish up their improv skills.

NCL's Gem

Through mid-April, the Gem will sail a seven-day Bahamas and Florida itinerary. Then, it will reposition to Europe, where it will sail 28 seven-day western Mediterranean itineraries round-trip from Barcelona. It will complete the year with a round of seven-day Bahamas and Florida sailings from New York in November and December.

For more information and fares, contact Norwegian Cruise Line at 1-800-327-7030 or go to