My husband and I sailed on the NCL Pearl on June 17. We are from Louisiana, both in our 30's and this was our first cruise together, but we each have sailed before - me on Carnival and Royal Caribbean; he on NCL and RC. My primary purpose was to see Alaska and have a nice, relaxing vacation without having to worry about hotels, transportation, etc. I hope this review is helpful to anyone who is considering sailing on NCL.
OVERALL IMPRESSION: NCL has some positive points and some negatives. I think some of the negatives are just inherent with any cruise line (annoying kids, crowded buffets, sales pitches, etc.). We did have a great time; Alaska was beautiful, the excursions fun, and the ship well maintained and very pretty. However, I would probably not sail on NCL again since "freestyle" cruising is not my style and it is by no means "free".
EMBARKMENT: Having sailed out of New Orleans and Miami, I have to say this was the most well organized, easiest process I have experienced so far. We checked in online (this is VERY important if you want to expedite the process) and the moment we arrived at the port, our bags were taken by a porter, we were directed to the check in desk, and we were on the ship in less than 30 minutes. The only funny item at the check-in was that NCL required you to fill out a health survey. Neither of us had been sick, but I wonder what would happen if anyone checked "yes" to any of the symptoms.
STATEROOMS and SHIP: We had a mini-suite on Deck 11. I loved it; the room was pretty with lots of wood trim, a good-sized balcony, and a huge bathroom for a cruise ship. I really enjoyed having a bathtub. We were underneath the Garden Cafe, but I heard very little noise. Part of that may be because I'm an early riser. My husband complained about kids running up and down after 8 am. If you sleep late, you may want to consider a different deck. The bed was very comfortable and there is plenty of storage. Our room steward was very friendly and efficient; he introduced himself on the first day and called us by name whenever he saw us in the hallway.
The ship itself is very pretty with lots of wood and is not nearly as gaudy as the Carnival ships I have been on. I do miss the huge atriums on Carnival ships, as the Crystal Atrium on the Pearl always seemed cramped and crowded. I also hated how the Atrium was always being used by the spa staff and shopping guide to promote certain items. I am sure the NCL shopping guide is getting kickbacks from Diamonds International. Who really goes to Alaska to stock up on diamonds? The "seminars" are basically sales pitches and you are subjected to them every time you want to sit and have a drink in the atrium. Again, I think the sales pitches are an annoyance on all cruise lines, but doing it in the most public place on the ship really made NCL cheap. If I want to shop, I will seek out the shopping seminars on my own. The shops on the Pearl also lacked essentials if you forgot to pack something -- no lotion, lip balm, etc. There were only a few cold medicines and some toothpaste available in the liquor store.
PORTS and EXCURSIONS: The weather was beautiful considering Southeast Alaska is normally very rainy. Definitely pack rain gear; it looks like the ship and the port shops cash in on tourists who forget to bring a good jacket. We only had rain in Juneau and that was just in the town. Once you got up the mountain, it was only cloudy. I am pretty fit and love to hike, so I took the guide's choice hike near Mendenhall Glacier, which was my favorite excursion. The temperate rain forest is beautiful -- lush, green, and pristine. On the way down, we had great views of Mendenhall Glacier. Our guide was good and set a good pace while pointing out some of the different types of vegetation -- we even saw bear tracks! My husband doesn't like to hike, so he took the tram up the mountain and walked around town. He wanted to rent a motorcycle as he had done a few years before, but the old rental place was no longer there.
In Skagway, we rented a jeep from Green Jeep Tours (not through NCL) and drove up to Carcross and Emerald Lake. This was a great decision as we had the jeep from 8 am to 7 pm for $160. Guided jeep tours through NCL were $259 per person. The Green Jeep folks packed us some snacks and gave us a map and CD. The scenery was awesome, the sun was shining, and we made stops at the Tormented Valley and the Suspension Bridge. Carcross was interesting-it was basically just a crossroads, but we met with some colorful locals who ran the general store and jewelry shop. I bought some beautiful earrings and a bracelet made from "Alaskan Diamond", which I think is actually hematite. However, it is native to Alaska and handmade by the lady who ran the shop. My husband got a burger at the burger/hotdog stand, which was probably one of the best sandwiches he had on the whole trip (see food review down below).
In Ketchikan we went on the Level 3 zip lining tour (Rainforest Zipline). This was so much fun! The crew was funny and very meticulous about safety. We were lucky enough to see 3 black bears underneath the last zip line. There were several zip line tours available, all at the same location, but different courses could be selected based on your ability, fear of heights, etc. The "Bear Creek" Level 2 tour seemed to be the more kid-oriented selection. Afterwards, we walked around Ketchikan, bought a few souvenirs and ate lunch at the Alaska Fish House. The grilled halibut tacos were outstanding! As usual, one of our best meals was in a port.
In Victoria, we took the bus to Butchart Gardens. The gardens were beautiful, but there was not enough time to see them properly. We only had 1 hour and 45 minutes and I estimate it would take at least 3 hours to tour the entire facility. One thing I loved about the gardens and Canada in general was that leashed dogs were welcome everywhere. When you visit Canada and other parts of the U.S., you see how very unfriendly the Southeast is towards dogs and pets in general. My dogs would have loved to walk the gardens with me!
FOOD: Okay, here is the first really big negative. I read the reviews before I left and knew the food would not be the best. We ate in the Summer Palace, Blue Lagoon, Cagney's, La Cucina, the Sushi Bar, and at the buffet. I actually cancelled reservations at Le Bistro based on the experience in Cagney's. A few reviewers seemed to really like the food; I can only guess they were all from the Midwest or New England where the typical diet is plain meat with only salt for seasoning. I do not eat red meat, so I can't comment on the steak, but I found the fish and chicken to be bland and/or dry and the vegetable dishes uninspired. My husband did like the steak at Cagney's and in Summer Palace. Believe it or not, some of the better items were on the buffet (except the scrambled eggs that came in plastic bags) where it seemed the cooks were able to add some of their native dishes to the selection. Some of the curries and rice dishes were good, as were the soups. The daily selection of fresh fruit was a plus. The only good thing at La Cucina was the pizza; the pasta was way undercooked and the risotto was over-salted. Even Cagney's was not good considering the $25 surcharge. I had ordered house-smoked salmon as an appetizer and was horrified when I received a hunk of STEAMED salmon with a few herbs on it. It was basically a hunk of cooked salmon and in no way could it be considered smoked. I also had to pay an extra $8 on top of the $25 because I wanted lobster instead of steak, which was really annoying. That being said, I did not go on an Alaskan cruise only to eat, but considering the cost per person and the numerous surcharge restaurants, it should be better. Carnival and RC do this MUCH better than NCL without the constant surcharges.
SERVICE: I had no problems with the service except in the Sushi Bar where it took 1 hour to get one roll and a bowl of noodles at lunch. The crew works their butts off feeding and cleaning up after a 2,000+ messy people for very little pay. Keep this in mind if your plate isn't cleared the minute you finish eating. If NCL paid better, they might get better chefs in the restaurants -- just sayin'.
GYM and SPA: The gym on the Pearl surpasses the fitness facilities on any of the ships I have been on so far. Yes, it was crowded during peak hours, but if you went at 6 am or waited until after 9 am, there was plenty of room. Lots of elliptical machines (Precor), treadmills, rowing machines, free weights, and even a couple of free motion machines. I only did one yoga class for $12, which was a joke to anyone who practices yoga regularly. The instructor, although very nice and enthusiastic, did not do the basic poses correctly. This tells me NCL just makes their regular fitness instructors teach anything, qualified or not. I thought about the TRX class for $20, but when I found out the class was only 30 minutes, I didn't think it was worth the price.
I did purchase the VIP spa pass for $119 and this was pure heaven. This is the one surcharge that was well worth the price. I loved getting a little time to myself every day after a workout. The area was a quiet, uncrowded space and the best part -- NO KIDS ALLOWED! The steam room, sauna, and whirlpools were all clean and well maintained. I did get a pedicure, but considering the $30 pedicure two blocks away from my house includes a hot stone massage and paraffin wax, $65 for a basic pedicure (no hot stones or wax) was ridiculous.
ENTERAINMENT: The entertainment was average, but there was a good variety at least. Oh What a Night was good (note they are not NCL employees), but as other reviewers said, the Pearl Production performers cannot sing. I think NCL just hires dancers and tells them they have to sing, talented or not. The juggler was good and Second City was only okay -- some of the skits were hysterical while others were way off the mark. I don't play games or bingo, so I can't comment on those. I did appreciate the lack of constant bingo announcements, which was an annoyance on Carnival. We caught the end of a dance lesson while waiting for the Glacier Bay presentation and it looked like the participants were having a blast. I also really enjoyed Jana, who sang mellow songs in the atrium almost every night. It was a nice way to wind down from the day. In contrast, the piano player in Bar City couldn't play or sing to save his life. They need to put Jana in Bar City and the other guy in the atrium where he will be drowned out by the sales pitches.
Overall, I enjoyed myself, but I think I would rather pay a little more on a different cruise line and receive more comprehensive service. It is easier to budget upfront and be less bothered by the surcharges for food, coffee, and fitness classes during my vacation. The "this is extra, that is extra" are constant distractions and do not promote a relaxing, carefree atmosphere.