Norwegian Breakaway vs. Gem Cruise Ship Review
The NCL Breakaway
The Norwegian Breakaway is a massive cruise ship based out of New York City. My wife and I recently traveled from Manhattan to Bermuda and back again on this amazing vessel. This review covers our impressions of the ship along with many of its key features. There were positives and negatives to our experience, and I’ll do my best to address them all.
I’ll be as thorough as I can, but the Breakaway is such a big ship with so many things to see and do I know I won’t get to everything. The intent of this review is not to tell you every single detail about the ship – you can get that information from NCL – but to relay the cruising experience from our perspective. I hope you find it helpful if you are considering cruising on the Breakaway or any other NCL ship.
We have cruised with NCL three times previously. Twice we sailed on the Norwegian Gem, a ship we both absolutely loved. The other time was on the Norwegian Dawn, a ship quite similar to the Gem. So, it was only natural that we would draw comparisons to these ships while onboard the Breakaway. You will read about many of those comparisons here.
This was our first cruise in four years, and due to our previous experiences on the NCL Gem we were expecting a lot! In many ways the Breakaway delivered, but in some ways it fell short.
Note: This article was originally published in October of 2015, after my first cruise on the Breakaway. It's now September of 2017, and I've taken my second trip on the Breakaway. Look for my updates throughout the article.
First a few basics on how Freestyle Cruising works on Norwegian Cruise Lines. If you have been on NCL before you can probably skip this part!
Freestyle Cruising is a concept intended to loosen up your schedule and make your cruise experience more flexible and more fun. For example: Traditionally, cruise lines offer a few choices when it comes to seating for the dinner meal. You have to pick one, and you sit where they tell you to sit, with the same people (whom you may not even know) every night.
On NCL you choose where and when you go to your meals. You don’t have to sit with anyone else if you don’t want to. You also have more options overall, for just about everything. In some cases these seem like up-sells, but for the most part it is nice to have so many choices.
So, be aware that the NCL Freestyle thing is a little different. For some people like my wife and I it is fantastic. We do what we want, when we want, within reason of course. Perhaps others who are more into traditional cruising might disagree.
First Impressions of the Breakaway
As you head down the Hudson Parkway toward the Manhattan Cruise Terminal you can catch a glimpse of the cruise ships in port. The Breakaway loomed above the other vessels, even though a Carnival ship was parked right next to it. It is like a massive, floating apartment building. The NCL Gem is a very big ship, but the Breakaway is truly in another class. It was a very impressive sight.
Inside, every NCL ship we have ever been on was simply stunning. The Breakaway is no different. We were not surprised by the attention to detail or the opulence. Being a country kid from the sticks it makes me feel a little funny sometimes. Such extravagance isn’t really my style but, what the heck, it’s a vacation.
Usually, the first thing we do after boarding is have a bite to eat. We then explore the ship. On the Breakaway there is so much to see. Having cruised on the Gem we had somewhat of an idea of what to expect, but it was still overwhelming. It seemed like there was a surprise around every corner.
So, let's get into some details!
On the Gem and Dawn we stayed in balcony staterooms. On previous cruises (on other lines) my wife and I went with inside and ocean-view staterooms. Upgrading to a balcony is now a must-do. I start every day at sea watching the sun come up, listening to classical music and sipping coffee.
So, there’s my first tip: If you can, go with a balcony stateroom. You won’t regret it!
This time we went with a Mini-suite, all the way up on the 14th deck! We got a good price so we decided to try it. Typical staterooms are fairly small, which is expected on a cruise ship. The bathroom is tiny too.
By comparison, the Mini-suite is much bigger and roomier. The larger bathroom and shower were especially comfortable. I’m a bigger dude, so it was nice not to have to squeeze into and out of places.
Tip #2: If more room matters to you, go with the Mini-suite. If not, a balcony stateroom is just fine.
My wife and I agreed that, while we certainly did not measure it, the balcony itself seemed slightly smaller than the ones on the Gem. But I would not consider this a complaint. It was perfect for our needs and I was very happy with it.
The balcony was also constructed a little differently. For example, on the Gem it was nearly impossible to accidentally look into the next-door balcony. If you are an obnoxious knucklehead I suppose you could do it if you try, but it would take effort. But this was fairly easy on the Breakaway just by looking down the length of the ship, even if you don’t mean to do it.
Again, not a big deal, but it does mean a little less privacy. Also, if privacy matters to you, be aware of where your balcony stateroom is located. In some places, like on Deck 8, people walking along the public promenade could see directly into balconies.
But you won’t be doing anything risqué on your balcony anyway. Right?
The balcony railing was a bit lower on the Breakaway. On the Gem I recall the rail being almost eye-level when I was sitting in the deck chair, which was somewhat annoying. On the Breakaway I could easily see over it, so that’s a point for the bigger ship.
Dining Options and Restaurants
One of the best things about NCL and Freestyle Cruising is the dining choices. I’ll do my best to cover them here, as well as our opinions.
Of course there is the buffet, called the Garden Café on both ships. I was not happy at all with the buffet on the Gem. Way too crazy, way too crowded and the food was not so great. On the Breakaway the buffet is still crazy and crowded, but I thought the food was much improved. I have to assume it has been upgraded on the Gem as well. There were many choices, and a huge array of desserts. We only went there a few times, but it was pretty good.
The Gem also had an outdoor buffet called the Great Outdoors, something not present on the Breakaway. The best thing about this buffet is its location aft, which means you can have a bite to eat while gazing at the wake of the ship upon the beautiful blue ocean. It would have been nice to see something like this on the Breakaway.
The Breakaway has a 24/7 restaurant called O’Sheehan’s. This was called something else on the Gem, but I think it has been rebranded as an Irish-type pub on that ship too. They serve comfort food, and it’s a great place to go if you want to skip the dining rooms, or if you have the munchies at an odd hour. I recommend the fish and chips!
We felt the main dining rooms on the Breakaway were a little weird. While they seated more people than those on the Gem, they always seemed crowded and if you didn’t get there early there was usually a wait. But the food was excellent every night, and there are a lot of choices. We like to try extravagant dishes we wouldn’t get at home while on a cruise. But if we couldn’t find something we liked on the main menu, they also served mainstays like baked chicken with mashed potatoes and pasta with Bolognese sauce.
I used to joke that, as great as the food is on NCL ships, they don’t know how to make a decent burger. Well, that’s not true anymore. The Breakaway has a great burger place called the Uptown Bar and Grill. You can get an assortment of different burgers, buns and toppings, or just a custom-made salad if you want. We liked this place a lot. The food was good, and the semi-outdoor location means you have a view of the sea. Nice!
Update 2017: The Uptown Bar and Grill has been replaced by Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville at Sea, a specialty restaurant that you have to pay for. We went there for lunch once and it was fantastic. I had the Cheeseburger in Paradise and Volcano Nachos (which I didn't come close to finishing). As awesome as it was, I can't help but remember that the Uptown was almost as good, and didn't come with a cost.
There are several specialty restaurants aboard both ships. While the food in the dining room is outstanding, these restaurants are a notch above. There is a cover charge, but for what you get it is pretty reasonable.
Update 2017: Most of the specialty restaurants are now a la carte. However, when we booked our cruise we got a dining package that included three restaurant trips. That was nice.
We went to most of them on the Gem, but this time we just went to Cagney’s Steak House one night. We both seemed to remember the portions being larger a few years ago, but it was very good. There is also an Italian restaurant, a Japanese grill, a French bistro, a sushi place and others.
Part of Freestyle Cruising is having choices, and when it comes to food you sure do have a lot of them.
Update 2017: Went to Cagney's twice this time. Still awesome! We also tried the Moderno, which is a Brazilian steak place. They bring you skewer after skewer of different kinds of meats, literally until you ask them to stop. Amazing!
Tip: If you plan on going to Cagney's, or any of the specialty restaurants, make a reservation well before your ship sails. We made ours several weeks in advance, and even then it was filling up fast. If you wait until you get on the ship you may be out of luck.
Bars and Lounges
The Gem has a large lounge called the Spinnaker. It is located forward and high up on the ship. This makes it a great location for chilling out for a few minutes during the day and looking out at the ocean.
At night, the Spinnaker holds all kinds of events like talent shows, games shows and musical performers. You have to get there a little early to get a good seat, but once you do it is a very relaxed and fun environment.
There was no such place on the Breakaway. Instead, these events were held in the Atrium. Both ships have an Atrium, which is somewhat of a central concourse as well as a lounge, café and bar. There aren’t many seats, so when events were held there it was a nightmare to get through. Way too crowded, and who wants to stand through a show?
But there are some nice bars on the Breakaway, and some cozy locations. You just have to hunt for them, because even though the ship is huge it is still very crowded.
One of my nicest memories is sitting at a poolside bar and sipping Coronas while watching Monday Night Football. My wife was relaxing in the hot tub nearby (signaling to me when she needed another drink, of course), and the warm ocean breezes were blowing. Does life get any better than that?
Another of my favorite spots on the Breakaway is called Fat Cats. There we saw a cool trio called the Manhattan Band which featured one of the greatest jazz bassists I’ve ever seen. I suspect they are a group assembled by NCL. If anyone knows who I am talking about and what this bassist does when he’s not floating around on a cruise ship I’d love to find out. I’m a fan.
When it comes to lounges and similar public areas I have to give the edge to the Gem. It is odd to me that NCL didn’t consider a location similar to the Spinnaker for the Breakaway. The way the Gem is set up just makes much more sense.
Entertainment and Activities
Now it’s time to get into some of the things about the Breakaway we felt were very disappointing. I do not go on cruises for the onboard entertainment. I go for the adventure, the relaxation and the fun of visiting an exotic location. In those aspects the Breakaway came through in spades. But the entertainment is a nice perk, especially during days and nights at sea.
My wife and I like to look at the itinerary during meal times and decide what we’d like to try next. We might pop into a theater, sit in the balcony and stick around for the whole show. Or we might leave if we don’t like it and try something else.
Our approach is relaxed, fun and laid back. On the Gem this was easy thanks to the Spinnaker Lounge, the massive, two-level theater and some of the other locations where entertainment was held. On the Breakaway, it was almost impossible.
The theater seemed much smaller. You had to make a reservation for seating a day in advance in many cases. There is a comedy club and another dinner theater place where Cirque du Soleil performed. You needed to book those in advance as well. There was sometimes even a warning that people who didn’t show up on time wouldn’t be let in!
I guess the idea is to give guests more options, but the effect was a stressful experience where we had to commit to things a day in advance and then pack into crowded places. This hardly felt “Freestyle”.
As a result, we did not attend much entertainment aboard ship. It was unfortunate, because as I said we always loved the laid-back way we could decide what we wanted to do for the evening at dinner and then go around to things that interested us. The way entertainment is set up on the Breakaway was not a whole lot of fun.
We caught a piano player a few times who was very good. There was also a guitar player who was decent. And of course that jazz bassist blew my mind. Otherwise, we were very disappointed in the entertainment arrangement. We would have loved to have seen Second City and some of the other events. We just weren’t willing to stress ourselves out. We were on vacation for Pete’s sake!
Advantage Gem on this one. Big time.
Update 2017: After our second sailing, the entertainment situation remains the most frustrating and disappointing part of our experience on the Breakaway. You have to make reservations for so many things, and the venues are all so small. We went to the Cirque du Soleil and it was okay at best. Other things we couldn't get into. I much preferred the setup on the Gem, where there were larger spaces that accommodated more people.
Decks and Public Spaces
Again, the points are going to go to the Gem here. We felt the public spaces on the Breakaway, from the pool area to the sun deck to the public concourses, were too small for the passenger compliment. Again, I guess the idea is more stuff and more options, but the result seemed to be a feeling of overcrowding.
The Gem has a promenade that goes all the way around the ship. The Breakaway has no such thing, which was a minor disappointment. The best you can do is walk in a U and then go back the other way. There is a walking track, but it is very small.
The Breakaway does have an outdoor promenade they call the Waterfront which was kind of cool. This provides outdoor access and seating for many of the restaurants and bars. In the daytime, if you can get a chair, it’s a great place to relax and look out on the ocean.
Overall, we felt the major disappointments of our cruise on the Breakaway stemmed from the odd planning of public spaces, which made the ship seem much too crowded. Don’t get me wrong; all cruise ships can seem crowded, but the issue was not nearly as bad on the Gem, and there was always elbow room when you wanted it.
Fewer but larger public areas would have made a world of difference. Then again, if you are the kind of person who doesn’t mind crowds, this might not be such a big deal to you.
Crew and Amenities
I am always amazed by the crew and staff that works aboard a cruise ship. These people work hard every day and always seem to have smiles on their faces. In many cases English is not their first language, but they still always seem to get it right. They are on the ball and on the spot each and every time, almost to the point where it gets embarrassing. I can put my own napkin on my own lap, but thank you!
My wife felt the service was a bit below what we experienced on NCL previously, but I didn’t really see that. Walk into any hotel or restaurant in the United States twenty times and chances are you’ll have at least one bad experience. Yet, I can’t remember one time I have ever felt that way on an NCL cruise ship. People are always pleasant.
That goes for the Breakaway, the Gem and the Dawn, as far as I’m concerned. Whatever NCL does with their training and staff selection, they do it right. Of course the ultimate kudos goes to the staff members themselves. On the last day of the cruise, when we have all eaten too much, drank too much, partied too much and all-around worn ourselves out it seems surprising that the staff remained so wonderful through it all. But then they turn around and do it again, and again, and again.
Advantage: NCL in general!
Overall Impression of NCL Breakaway vs Gem
The Breakaway has so many features I didn’t even get to here. For the sports-minded there’s a water park, a climbing wall, a ropes course, a fitness center and a jogging track. For the party-minded there are all kinds of club-like locations, including a trendy ice bar. There is a lot going on with the Breakaway.
By comparison the Gem is a smaller ship with fewer features. Still, even after sailing on the Breakaway, we would cruise on the Gem again in a heartbeat. What about the Breakaway?
Despite some of our disappointments, we would probably give the Breakaway another try, especially if it was sailing to a destination we really liked. We expected the experience on the Breakaway to be similar to the Gem and the Dawn, which we loved so much. Next time we would have to be more prepared and adjust our expectations.
However, I also recognize that the design of the Breakaway is geared towards a New York experience. Again, I’m a country kid, so crowded theaters, tight schedules and busy restaurants are sometimes off-putting to me. To the typical New Yorker this is probably no big thing.
As for me, I prefer a laid-back schedule without having to book seats in advance or crowd into places. I like walking around the ship, relaxing at an outdoor bar, catching some good music, and gazing out at the massive, beautiful ocean while pondering the meaning of life and the smallness of man. I got to do all of that on the Breakaway. It would have been nice to see more of the shows and entertainment, but it is what it is.
Update 2017: After my second cruise on the Breakaway, it is pretty clear this isn't the ship for me. We had so much fun on the Gem and Dawn, but simply found the Breakaway way too stressful. We still love NCL and will go with them again, but it will be on one of the smaller ships.
As for you, here is my recommendation: If the Breakaway is going somewhere you want to go, give it a try. It is a gorgeous ship with many positive points. Just remember what you read here and be prepared for it.
In fact, you should give the NCL experience a try at least once. Like us, you may find they are your favorite cruise line!
And, if you have a chance to cruise on the Norwegian Gem, go for it and take me with you!