This cruise to Alaska was a last-minute addition for my mom and me. This was my fifth cruise and Mom's second. Last year we did the Pacific Coast cruise from Los Angeles to Vancouver, also on the Norwegian Pearl, and we decided we travel pretty well together. Cruising is the best travel option for my mom, as she has terrible knees and can't walk very well or very far. The biggest advantage of this Alaska itinerary is that we could drive to Seattle from our homes in the Portland metropolitan area and avoid having to travel on a plane.
We drove to Seattle the morning of our cruise. The drive only takes about 2 hours 45 minutes, and we stopped to have breakfast along the way. I had paid in advance for parking in the garage that NCL recommends, which is directly across from the Bell Street Pier 66. The garage cost $20 per day, and the main advantage is that it is attached to the cruise terminal by a sky bridge. It couldn't have been easier to get ourselves and our baggage across to the the terminal.
Embarkation was a breeze. We were greeted by port employee whose sole purpose was to help us find our way, and we were directed to the Latitudes line. As there was no wait, we went directly to the counter and completed our check-in in about five minutes. We were assigned to Boarding Group 4. Boarding started around 11:40 a.m., and we walked aboard before noon to upbeat music and the hearty welcome of several of the ship's crew. Before we managed to make it to the Summer Palace main dining room, Julie the Cruise Director announced that all staterooms were cleaned and ready for passengers!
We are cruisers who enjoy the shipboard experience first and foremost. Our first meal in the Summer Place set the perfect tone for the rest of the cruise, with a panoramic view of the sunny Seattle skyline towering outside the wall of glass at the back of the restaurant. The atmosphere is quiet but energetic, servers are friendly, and the pace is perfect for us. We don't understand why anyone would prefer the craziness of the Garden Cafe with its lines, crowds, noise, and general chaos. We ate nearly all of our meals in the Summer Palace, as we did on our last cruise. However, we also had our first meals in the Pearl's many specialty restaurants, and I can now see the value of paying a little extra money for the exceptional dining experience they offer. The food and service really are superior.
We had an unexpectedly nice dinner in La Cucina. I say unexpected because I couldn't imagine there was too much room to innovate with Italian. However, I had a really nice signature pork dish that I wouldn't have otherwise known was Italian, and it was the perfect choice for someone who is trying to avoid the calories of pasta. We were invited to a superb lunch in Cagney's, and the service and food far exceeded expectations--from being addressed by name throughout the meal to the quality of the food. (Caramelized onions on a French Dip! Sesame crusted tuna!) We also had our best meal of the cruise in Le Bistro (beef tenderloin and rack of lamb). The only bad part is that I'm going to have to start budgeting for a few specialty meals each cruise.
While Mom spent a couple hours a day in the Card Room playing bridge, I spent at least a couple hours a day in the hot tub. Most days I had a hot tub to myself despite the fact that our weather was absolutely gorgeous throughout the cruise. A note to everyone from someone who lives in the Northwest: hot tubs are best on cooler days, not hot ones! So while the pool deck experience wasn't exactly social, it was impressive with the views of fjords and mountain peaks just a glance away. I also used the Body Waves gym nearly every day, and I never had to wait very long for a desired piece of equipment, even at busy times. The atmosphere in the gym was great, with floor to ceiling windows, and there are workout towels, plenty of sanitizer to wipe down the equipment, and chilled face towels for after your workout. All of the cardio equipment has TVs. Thanks to the gym, I only managed to put on 2.4 pounds during the cruise despite the fact I ate like a pig!
We love NCL's main stage entertainment, and we especially loved Oh What a Night! The Pearl Production Company did a nice musical show (their moodier pieces were particularly good) and also an excellent medley of recent Broadway hits called Encore. I was sorry I missed the headliner comedian, because he was good in his brief appearance in the final show. The only miss seemed to be the Second City comedy troupe, which is generally more clever than funny. We also enjoyed all of the daily entertainment, such as the game shows. The cruise staff do an excellent job of making sure everyone has a great time.
Mom was already asleep by the time the White Hot Party started, and she missed the event of the week. In my mind, NCL is the "sexy" cruise line, and this party really reinforces the free-spirited nature of the brand. It's a really interesting mix of ages that attend, and Julie and the ship's dancers do a great job of getting folks out on the dance floor. We both attended and very much enjoyed the Latitudes cocktail party--and thanks to a much-appreciated invitation--the VIP cocktail party. I love the fact that NCL makes a point of having their officers visible and available.
Because I'm budgeting for three cruises this year, we didn't do any NCL excursions, but I heard excellent reviews from those who did. We had a sunny afternoon in Juneau, so we got on the local shuttle bus to the Mendenhall Glacier. The ride is $16 round trip, and tickets can be bought at any of the tour vendors outside the Mt. Roberts Tramway station. The bus ride came with some nice commentary about sights along the way, and we got to see a spectacular glacier and some nice scenery. Skagway is literally right off the ship, and we simply walked around the town. The Whitepass & Yukon Railroad is what everyone should do, but we got a nice lemon cookie and some coffee from a local shop. In Ketchikan we did more window shopping on Creek Street, and in Victoria we paid CDN$8 to take the port-provided shuttle to Government Street. We had a nice cocktail in the Bengal Lounge at the Empress and generally enjoyed how pleasant Victoria is.
Mom and I shared an inside cabin (category K) on Deck 10 aft. We were the second cabin behind the Aft Stair Tower on the starboard side, and this is a perfect location for us as it is above the main dining room. The cabins are comfortable when you unpack and completely store your luggage. I prefer NCL's restroom set-up to Holland America's, even though I heard negative comments from other passengers who had been on HAL. While the toilet is awkwardly placed such that you often bump your knees against the wall, the payoff is a large shower with a glass door. The wood-grain walls and green "tile" floors are also nicer than Holland America. Our cabin steward was superb--we never wanted for a thing, but we also never saw him in our cabin! We did enjoy chatting with him in the corridor.
I'll end by noting that the things we loved about this trip were all the things that are particular to Freestyle Cruising and also the spectacular weather we experienced. I had read that May is the time of year you are likely to have nice weather in Alaska, and we absolutely did! I will forever remember the sparkling clarity of Glacier Bay, the calving of the glacier where the sound hits the ship a few seconds after the fact, the photos of bears I took from the dining room, and the photos of whales I took from the promenade deck. I will also say that the passengers on this trip were less friendly than passengers on every other cruise I've taken. I think many folks go on Alaska cruises because they want to see Alaska, and a cruise is a good way to do that. The fact that those folks are on a cruise seems to be completely incidental. So, sail on the Pearl to Alaska, have a wonderful time cruising like a Norwegian, and just know that your fellow passengers might be a little disengaged.