First Time Cruise for a group of 8 -- a GREAT time!
Background -- I travel extensively world-wide (Europe, ALL over Asia, occasionally Africa and South America) at 3-4 star hotels. But this was our first cruise experience. We took 2 college daughter, 2 high school children, and my parents.
This was a positive surprise, but not without issues. We found the food in the Main Dining Room to be comparable to most locally owned upscale dinning restaurants. Certainly not 4-star, but very good. Each night there were the same half dozen entrees plus set appetizers and desserts. In addition, there were 3-5 nightly special appetizers, entrees, and deserts. Examples: each night there was a strip steak and a salmon entree. Special meals were Cajun snapper, lobster tails, pastas, etc. Mostly main-stream fare, but a few with some spice. We only ate at one specialty restaurant - the Brazilian Steakhouse and it was excellent -- not as good as Argentina, but close.
We occasionally ate at the back of the ship in the outdoor cafe. It had a nice breakfast selection and was a short walk from the main buffet. Often it was less crowded. Off hours we tried the Indigo Cafe. The food was fine, but the service seemed intentionally slow. One hour to grab a burger and get out even if you asked for fast service.
The main buffet food was good, but the atmosphere was reminiscent of a strip-mall buffet. Swarms of people balancing as much food as possible on a plate acting like they needed to grab the last (fill in the bland) before someone else got that food. Great choices (Indian, some east-Asian, pasta bar, etc), but not worth the crowd.
The chocolate buffet was worse. Crowds of people holding 2-3 plates full of brownies etc made this a pass-through and don't stop event for us. The German Buffet for lunch of Friday was an GREAT surprise. Wonderful Bavarian food from the Bavarian Chef.
The Pearl staff did the best they could with limited space. The Crystal Atrium was almost always crowded with too many activities.
Exactly what we asked for and paid for. Inside Cabins are tight but serviceable. Balcony Suite was worth the extra money in Alaska with room for 4 easily on the balcony and 6 in a squeeze.
Something for everyone. The "Frankie Valley" tribute was great and enjoyed by all. My family felt Second City was even better, but the Grandparents didn't care for it. The grandparents loved the juggler, the rest of us thought he was good -- for a juggler. The Pearl Troup was good.
Spa & Fitness:
Had all of the basics and we easily avoided the prime-time morning rush. We all liked the short outside track. No frills, but had tracks and weights and everything needed. More free classes would have been good for the price.
Horseback in Skagway (Chilkoot) was horseback trail riding. The guides were very nice, but they only briefly explained the detailed history of the area. I filled in the gaps for family. Worth it only if you love horseback riding -- but make sure you seek the Chilkoot valley one way or another.
Juneau -- Panned for gold and self-guided tour of the city. Both were fine. The online maps of Juneau provide enough information to make an adventuresome walk.
Ketchikan -- the Rainforest (adventure) Island was worth the time -- but we had little time to see Ketchikan before the excursion.
Easy -- no problem. But we did online check in.
Very good to excellent. Perfect steward. Most wait staff was wonderful. Main Dinning Rooms were incapable of fast service, but did a great job at a measured pace. We had problems getting reservations for a party of 8, but commented on that to the hotel director and the restaurant manager then offered to assist us whenever needed (and he did once).
I agree the extras were tiresome (retail $10 bottles of wine for $30, $100 for a VERY brief spa treatment, etc). But the value for the basic trip was good.
Overall a wonderful experience. We'd cruise NCL again happily, but might try another line once for comparison. But a great trip if you have reasonable expectations going in -- thanks to Cruise Critics for helping us know what to expect.