Three years ago my boyfriend (now husband) and I sailed on the Norwegian Pearl for our Spring Break vacation. It was our first cruise on Norwegian and we loved it! We sailed with Norwegian again last October, for our honeymoon on the Epic in the Mediterranean, and just last week for our 2012 Spring Break. This is a review of our experience last week on the ship and the ports of call. I will be taking opportunities to compare the Pearl with Epic, since both experiences are fresh in our minds.
A little bit about us: We are a gay early to mid 30's couple from Washington, DC. I am a teacher and my husband is an architect. I have been on 10+ cruises and my husband has been on 5+, so we definitely enjoy the cruise experience and keep coming back for more. I am the cruise addict though, and my husband tags along willingly. I have been on all of the major ship companies, with the exception of Holland America. We are not food snobs, but we can appreciate a good meal.
We flew directly to Miami from DC on 4/1, the day our cruise set sail. Normally, we arrive a day before to make sure there are no possibilities of missing the cruise due to flight problems, but since we found a direct flight, and we're not the biggest fans of Miami, we decided to fly down the day of. Cab fare from the airport was somewhere around $25. When we arrived at the port at 12:30pm, we found several huge lines. Didn't seem like the Lattitudes (frequent cruisers club) line was any better than the others. So we waited... and waited... it was stuffy... and after an hour we got up to the counter. Check in was easy and we boarded the Pearl! This was the longest I've ever waited to get on a ship, but it didn't bother us too much. We knew the wait would be worth it!
The last time we stayed in a balcony cabin and we enjoyed being able to have our private outdoor area to sit and enjoy the oceanviews. This time, the balcony wasn't in the budget, so we just booked an oceanview cabin with a picture window. There are two types of oceanview cabins: the porthole that has the smaller round window, and the oceanview picture window with the larger rectangular window. The cabin was kind of tight, as most NCL cabins seem to be, but also like most NCL cabins they seem to design them so there is ample room for storage. We had no problem putting our clothes and belongings away and actually had tons of extra space. Unlike the balcony room, we didn't have a couch to sit on. The room was in excellent condition... no wear and tear. The bed was very comfortable. Our steward, Randy, came in twice a day for cleaning and turn-down service. He did an excellent job throughout the week! We had a few towel animals left for us which is always a fun surprise. We had cabin 5024, which is located at the front of the ship near, but not next to, the front staircase. It was very convenient for us to get to the Stardust Theater (one floor up) and also the South Pacific Spa (a short elevator ride). There was some noise from above us, which is the casino, I believe. We just heard the vacuuming mostly. We did hear the random hallway and adjacent cabin noise as well, which was what you would expect on a cruise ship.
General Ship Commentary
The Pearl is laid out in a way that is very easy to navigate. Passenger flow is great with few crowds. There are three sets of elevators and stairs. Floor 6 has lots of restaurants and bars. Floor 7 has the first floor of the atrium, the photo gallery, the internet area. Passenger flow is one area where I prefer the Pearl to the Epic. You rarely have to fight crowds to get an elevator. On the Epic, with the 2 banks of elevators and stairs, passenger flow was tricky. Back to the Pearl - The pool deck on the Pearl was crowded and there were very few loungers in the shade. However, if you just want to sit, but not lounge in the shade, there are plenty of tables and chairs to use. The kids slide takes up a lot of deck space. If you were OK with not being around the pool then you would have no problem finding a lounge chair -- it might be in Timbuktu though! We really enjoyed the pool band... they were great. The activities by the pool were fun as well. We didn't eat too often in the buffet, but the food seemed good and when I was there, there weren't too many crowds. I like the fact that they have the hand-scooped hard ice cream. The Washy Washy brigade is there at the front of the buffet ready to belt out tunes with a guitar and dole out the hand sanitizer. Very FUN touch! The atrium is too small and underwhelming for a great ship like the Pearl. I am just one of those old-school cruisers who enjoys the soaring atriums with sea views. Bliss, the nightclub, is a fun place to hang out. We didn't dance as much as we did last time, but that has nothing to do with the space. Bliss has a modern, hip vibe with good music. Spinnaker Lounge is another venue where they hold events. Get there early to have good sightlines for the show or presentation. Overall, the Pearl is designed well. Yes, it has loud colors, but it's not over-the-top loud and headache or vomit inducing. It's loud but loud done well.
This is one area that NCL really excels. The main acts that NCL offers in their theater are really top notch -- from the production shows to the variety acts. On our cruise, we attended 2 production shows with good singers, dancers and music. The Broadway show was better than the other, but both were good. They also had an act called "Oh What a Night" which was a singing group that specialized in the hits of Frankie Valli. They were excellent! The best performer of the entire cruise was a juggler, Charles Peachock, who had a successful run on America's Got Talent. This guy knew how to entertain the crowd and consistently left to standing ovations. I know you are probably saying to yourself -- "A juggler, really?" Well, the answer is YES. He had terrific stage presence and was funny. His juggling really wowed the crowd. The bands on board, piano players were all good to great. There was one weak spot, however, for the entertainment -- the comedian was really not funny. He starred on Last Comic Standing on NBC and I actually remembered him from the show. It was uncomfortably bad. But overall, once again, NCL is the tops when it comes to entertainment. Let's be clear here though... the NCL Epic blows away the Pearl when it comes to the shows offered (Blue Man Group, Howl at the Moon, Cirque, Legends... need I go on?). So if the Epic gets a "A", then the Pearl gets a solid "B".
Deck Parties / Dance Parties / Etc.
The sail away party on the first night of the cruise was ROCKING and people were having a great time on the pool deck. Great way to kick off the cruise! The White Hot Party was a mixed bag. We have really enjoyed the White Hot Parties in the past, but this time the party was over-run by teenagers and people in their low 20's. They youngsters kind of took over and monopolized the event. It seemed like NCL tried to include others, but it wasn't really possible. Kind of felt like romper room. I know I sound like a crotchety old man, but that's the way I felt. The cruise was during Spring Break and the teenagers and early 20's folk were behaving fine and just having a good time, so I don't blame them at all! It kind of felt this way for many nights at Bliss as well which has a rule that kids under 18 aren't allowed after 10pm. NCL did make an effort to keep the under 18'ers out of the club, as they continually tried to sneak in. Again -- I don't blame them! They had a chocolate buffet on one night of the cruise but it was the same night as we ate at Le Bistro and we were stuffed. The spread really looked great including a chocolate fountain that you could bring to an attendant, and they would dip your desserts in. We also attended the Lattitudes Party for people who previously had sailed with NCL. They pushed the free drinks and the Cruise Consultant, Jorge, presented the different ships and itineraries available on Norwegian. It was a great time! Free drinks will do that.
So we ate at Le Bistro, Lotus Garden, Cagney's, Moderno's, the buffet and most nights in the Indigo main dining room. We enjoy the freestyle dining offered by Norwegian where you can choose to eat when you want, with whom you want and where you want every night. It doesn't bother us that there is an upcharge at certain restaurants where you will receive better food and service. I will briefly review each food venue:
Le Bistro: The food was good, but not amazing. My husband had the duck and I had lamb shanks. When comparing our experience at Le Bistro to our experience on the Epic, the Pearl pales in comparison. The food at Le Bistro on the Epic was the single best meal we have had at sea. We also had French onion soup, escargot (YUMMY) and for dessert we had an assortment of crÃ¨me brulees and some chocolate cake. B
Lotus Garden: When we were on the Epic some friends we met took us out to dinner at the Chinese restaurant and the food was really impressive. I particularly remember the fried rice being as good as some of the best fried rice I've had in New York City (which tends to have excellent Chinese food!). Anyway, the food was really hit or miss this time on the Pearl. Besides the ribs which were delicious, the rest of it was underwhelming. C+
Moderno's: This was the surprise of the cruise for me. It's basically a Brazilian-styled restaurant that serves grilled meats and offers a salad bar. Well the salad bar was amazing... fresh mozzarella/ceviche, along with lots of other goodies. The meats were delicious! The servers parade around the restaurant with skewers of meat and slice it off for you table side. They keep coming around with different meats until you say mercy! Well, this was the meal of the cruise in my opinion. I just didn't expect a cruise ship to really pull off a restaurant with grilled meats like this, but they really did! A
Cagney's: Delicious with excellent service! Good steaks and tasty seafood. The service, in particular, was especially good. A
Buffet: The food was good as far as buffets go. I thought the selection was great and the food was fresh. B
Indigo: We ate at Indigo more than any other venue. We prefer more intimate atmosphere of Indigo over the Summer Palace. We thought the food, overall, was average to good at Indigo throughout the week. Some dishes really impressed and others were OK. The service was the same -- very good to average. Gotta say that the food in the main dining rooms on Epic, Manhattan Room & Taste, had the Pearl's restaurants easily beat. B
We attended the mojito tasting for $15 per person and had a great time! They offered us 4 different mojitos, and then, since we were such a fun bunch, the bar manager offered us an additional one for free. All I can say is that it was money well spent and tons of fun. Who can have a bad time after drinking all of those mojitos? They explained the origins of the mojito and showed us step by step how to prepare them. A+
The service on the Pearl was top notch across the board, with exception to some of the servers in the restaurants who were average to good. The bar staff was friendly and attentive without being pushy. We already spoke about our excellent room steward, Randy, who kept our room spotless and stocked while checking on us all week. The cruise director, Julie, was funny and charming and really made an effort to be present throughout the sailing. The cruise consultant, Jorge, was informative and lots of fun. We went on to purchase a future cruise certificate (you pay $250 for it, but then get a $100 credit off of your on-board account and the money goes towards a future cruise deposit). Steve, the bar manager from Maltings, was friendly and generous during the mojito tasting. Tony Winkler, the hotel manager, went above and beyond to make sure that we had only the best service throughout the week. Knowing that we were Cruise Critic members, he gave us his card several times to make sure we received great treatment. Brizen, one of the bar staff from Topsiders bar was particularly helpful! One thing we didn't like was how the servers in the main dining room wanted us to order the appetizer, entree and dessert all at once. I understand that they do this to try to streamline the process, but who really knows what they want for dessert before they even had their main course? Dessert really depends on how hungry you are. We didn't experience any rude waiters, but throughout the week there were instances where the food took a long time to come out or the wait staff seemed swamped.
We purchased spa passes for the week so we would be able to escape the masses on the pool deck if we wanted to. The passes cost $240 for the both of us, which seems a little steep. We enjoyed the different Jacuzzis, pools, heated tile loungers, comfy lounge chairs, and peaceful atmosphere. The spa is located at the front of the ship and you have a great view of the ocean. We're not sure if we would pay the $240 in the future, but I guess it will depend on the ship and the itinerary. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but the spa doesn't measure up to Epic's! B (would be an A, but too pricey)
We really enjoyed ourselves on the cruise. It wasn't our favorite cruise of all time, but it was very relaxing and a lot of fun. We really think NCL does a great job and offers a FUN atmosphere. It's not stuffy and boring and also not wild and trashy. I think NCL strikes a good balance! The passengers tend to be friendly and fun to meet and hang out with. The Pearl is a great cruise ship that offers a variety of dining and entertainment options with solid service! We will be sailing with NCL within the next four years as we already put down our deposit for our next cruise.