This was our 3rd Norwegian Freestyle cruise having sailed twice on Norwegian Jade in the West and then east Mediterranean. This time we were sailing on Jade's sister ship, Norwegian Pearl, from Seattle up to Alaska.
We flew out to Seattle 4 days ahead of the cruise and spent time in Mount Rainier National Park, a 3 hour drive from the airport. This turned out to be a really good preparation for the cruise, because the 14,000 feet high Mt. Rainier has 23 glaciers and we learnt a lot about them before heading for the Alaskan ones.
Our cruise started Sunday morning and we arrived at the terminal by 11:15 am. Passing through security and checking in were both quick and easy. We waited in a seated area for about 15 minutes and were called on board. Pearl has been trying out a more efficient way of getting staterooms ready and we were able to take our hand baggage to our balcony room immediately and then go for lunch while the finishing touches were made. Our cabin was excellent - lots of storage space, very comfortable bed, coffee maker and a better shower than you find in many hotels.
On our last 2 cruises, the only place for lunch on embarkation day was the Garden Cafe - the main buffet restaurant which does not have enough seats when most passengers want to eat there. It gets crowded and is not the best start.
This time, the Summer Palace main dining room was also open so we headed down there and ate a very civilised lunch seated by a window. We enjoyed this much more.
We sailed at 4pm after the safety drill and a party was in full swing next to the pool on deck 12, where we saw our cruise director Julie for the first time.
Entertainment on board was excellent - we particularly enjoyed the Oh What a Night tribute to Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, a great comedy magician and a stand-up comedian. Second City - another comedy act - were not as good and it wasn't just because we're British rather than American.
Because you travel over 2000 miles in 7 days on this cruise, there was less time in ports of call than we'd had in the past. After 47 hours we landed at Juneau for a few hours. The next day we had a full day in Skagway. Then another sea day but with a big difference - we sailed into Glacier Bay at 6am. This is an amazing place where we saw whales and heard glaciers crack and calve into the ocean. National Park rangers came on board and gave a commentary from the bridge as we sailed the bay until 2pm. They also set up a table in the Spinnaker Lounge to give out information and answer questions. This day was the highlight of the cruise.
We next had a morning in Ketchikan followed by 6pm to midnight in our final port - Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.
All the Alaskan ports look like movie sets from old cowboy films but we enjoyed a trip to Mendenhall Glacier visit combined with a whale-watching tour from Juneau. We booked this with Dolphin Tours direct, which was much cheaper than the cruise-line's tours.
In Skagway, we had directly booked the Yukon and White Pass train tour. By walking for 2 minutes from the ship to the train station, you save $9 each. This trip has a guide aboard who continuously points out points of interest. An expensive but not-to-be-missed trip.
In Ketchikan, its not worth taking any paid excursions. The two places to visit are the Totem Park and the Native Village. Both are only a short distance out of town and there is a frequent bus service for $1 each way (50 cents if you're a senior!). Blue line takes you to Totem Park and Red Line to Native Village.
All the Alaskan ports are full of jewelery stores, many of which pay the cruise lines and their "shopping consultants" to get them to persuade passengers to shop there. We bought a few small souvenir gifts and found Ketchican had the best prices. We were told that the operators of the jewelery businesses spend 8 months in Caribbean cruise ports and 4 months in Alaska. This may well be true, because Alaska gets no cruises October to May.
Victoria is a lovely city which feels very British. It was a pity we had so little time there.
A word about meals on board. We thoroughly enjoyed all of them. We mainly used the Summer Palace main dining room. Being Freestyle, you turn up when you feel like it. We always took a table for two and only twice did we need to wait (for less than 10 minutes). We love the Freestyle system - you really can eat when you like and don't have to dress up or sit with strangers unless you choose to. We paid the extra "service charges" and splashed out on 2 so-called "Speciality Restaurants" - Cagneys Steak House ($25 each) and Le Bistro French restaurant ($20). Both were excellent and I had the best 10 oz Filet Mignon ever in Cagneys. However, the MDR is perfectly acceptable for most meals.
The people who chose to eat in the buffet seemed like they had not eaten before the cruise and would not get to eat for a long time after - they piled their plates high and wasted quite a lot of good food. I don't understand the mentality - you can go back as often as you like! Some complain about the (small) size of portions in the MDR but again, what's the problem? You can order as many starters, mains and sweets as you like - and many did!
We found all our food well presented, tasty and hot - no complaints whatsoever.
My final comments are about the crew. All were enthusiastic and helpful and went the extra mile to make you feel you were special. Paying the $12 per person per day service charge (which is not compulsory) was perfectly acceptable, given that different waiters and other staff serve you each day. Without service charges, all the people behind the scenes would never get tipped.
Our cruise director and entertainment and other staff serenaded us off the ship on the dock at Victoria and again as we disembarked in Seattle. They applauded us as we ended our cruise and it was nice to feel our custom was valued. We certainly appreciated their hard work which made this trip so special.
We'll be back on NCL!