My husband and I cruised onboard NCL Pearl from LA on 9/28/12, stopping at Cabo, Pt Vallarta, Huatulco, Pt Chiapas, Puntarenas, crossing Panama Canal, Cartagena, and finally ending in Miami. The first 4 ports are all located alongside the Mexican Riviera. Puntarenas is in Costa Rica and Cartagena is in Colombia. Each port was unique and interesting.
We flew out of NY on the day of embarkation and arrived at the LA Airport at 10:00 AM. I originally booked a shuttle service online with the Lotus Transportation for $28 to take us to the port, but decided that we also wanted to stop and pick up some drinks on the way. This request increased our fare to $48 because we now require a private car instead of a shuttle van (which doesn't make any stop). We didn't mind this since the drinkable wines onboard were very expensive. Our driver, Peter, was very gracious and friendly. He even let us used his customer card at the local grocery store so that we could get 30% off on all the wines we purchased! What a great customer service! At the port, NCL charged $15 corking fee per 750 ml bottle (more for larger bottles). If you have any unopened bottles left at the end of your trip, you can get that fee back. We also picked up some water and ice teas.
We arrived at the San Pedro World Cruise Center in good time. The embarkation process was very easy and fast. Our stateroom was all ready and our luggage arrived soon after. We were eating lunch at the Summer Palace by 1:30 PM!
The ship was full. The average age of the passengers was well over 65, with some in wheelchairs. We prefer this group to school age kids any time! Seniors were more polite and considerate. There were also quite a number of passengers from Germany on this cruise, so we didn't think it was appropriate to show the movie "Casablanca" on TV. (Although we consider this movie a classic, it showed Germany at its darkest hours.) They also showed "Hunger Games" and other popular movies, which were fine, along with the cable news and sports.
I originally booked an obstructed view stateroom on the 8th deck, but as the prices dropped, I moved us to the balcony stateroom, and finally to the mini suite on the 11th deck. The main difference between the balcony and the mini suite is that with the latter, you can create two separate spaces by pulling a curtain in the middle of the room. With the balcony, you cannot do this because the room is smaller. Also, the mini suite bathroom has a tub; balcony only has a shower. With the mini suite, you also get two robes. Our bed was very comfortable and the room was quiet.
We asked our housekeeper, Rickie, to remove all the content in the mini fridge so that we can put our own drinks in there. He was very accommodating. In fact, throughout our trip, he made our stay very comfortable. Our ice bucket was always full. We thought his nightly towel animal was the best we've seen from all our cruises! At the end of our trip, we gave him extra tip separate from the $12 automatic gratuity that NCL charged per person.
Bring extension cord if you want to recharge multiple electronics. You'll need it.
We liked the food on the Pearl - from the specialty restaurants to the complimentary ones, although we found most of the dishes to be on the salty side. We got treated to the lobster tail dinner on our very first night! They served it again at the end of the trip. We always ordered multiple starters, sometimes multiple entrees, and always ending with dessert and coffee. It was great! We thought the nightly parade of chefs should be reserved for the end of the trip, not done on every night. It was bit annoying having our dinner interrupted with applause and shouts (although they DO deserved the accolade for serving so many meals a day!)
NCL offered $47 pp dinner package special if you booked Le Bistro, Cagney and La Cucina together online. You save $8. I should've booked more than one package, because all three restaurants were great.
The cost of using the spa facility for 2 weeks is $199 pp. I highly recommend getting this spa pass, not only for their AMAZING facility, but also because the spa's lounge area has the best view to watch the Panama Canal crossing. My husband and I spent the whole day (which was what it took to cross the entire canal) in the comfortable air condition room. The outside deck areas (which was where most of the people were watching) were hot and humid and it rained late in the afternoon.
I had a wonderful masseuse, Anatta, for all my massages. This petite Thailand lady has the grip of a gorilla! She said the secret is in the technique. I believe her, because my body was like jello when she was done.
We never have to wait too long to use any exercise machines. Our sea-day routine was to go to the gym, then to the spa (which is just across the hallway), and then ponder where to eat. We never felt bored!
This was the first time where I actually can swim in the pool because it was empty most of the time; HOWEVER, the water had so much chlorine in it that I couldn't open my eyes! I wished it didn't have that much chemical in it because the pool looked very inviting.
Pearl's cruise director, Pedro Serra, was our favorite director of all time! He was very funny and very entertaining. The shows were all very well done. We didn't attend every show, however. Sometimes we skipped and just enjoyed our dinner and walked around the ship afterwards. We LOVE freestyle!
As I mentioned earlier, we stopped at the ports in Mexico, Costa Rica and Colombia on this trip. Each country has its own currency, but you don't need to convert your money. Most venders will take USD. Some vendors also accept credit cards, but keep in mind that you'll be charged a small FX fee with every credit card transaction. The only time where we actually needed the local currency was when we took the public transportation in Puerto Vallarta, so I was glad I got some Mexican Pesos at the LA airport.
CABO SAN LUCAS -- our room was located on the left side of the ship. As we went around the Land's End to get to the port, we got to see "El Arco", the famous arch of Cabo, from our balcony. The ship went around the very tip of the Baja California peninsular, so we saw the front and the back of El Arco. It was beautiful!
This was the only port that needed tender, which was a good thing because it took well over 40 minutes just to line up and get to the tender. (You must first get the tender number and wait for your number to be called before going to the 4th deck.) The boat ride was about 7 minutes. We did our own thing here. We took a local boat at the port to take us closer to El Arco, walked around the Medano Beach (located right next to the port), and then had a wonderful lobster tail lunch at the Maro's Shrimp House (within walking distance of the port). It was all easy, safe, and cheap.
PUERTO VALLARTA -- we took a local bus located right next to the port to downtown Vallarta. The bus driver was kind enough let us know where we should get off. The first place we went was the Tonalli Spa & Holistic Center located in the "Old Town" of Vallarta for a wonderful 75-minutes massage for two for $60 (before tip.) We then walked to a nearby taco stand called Marisma for their mouth-watering fish & shrimp tacos, and then we walked to Malecon, where we spent the rest of the afternoon walking by the beach, admiring the countless number of statues there before taking the bus back to the port. We would go back to Pt Vallarta in a heartbeat!
HUATULCO -- we never heard of this port before, but it quickly became our favorite! We took a taxi at the port and drove around the beautiful bays, to the town of La Crucecita, and visited the town church that has the world's largest painting o f Virgin of Guadalupe in the ceiling. Huatulco is surprisingly very cosmopolitan, but it wasn't that big, so we had some time left after we came back. There were many merchants by the port (as expected), so I spent the rest of the afternoon shopping. But if you don't like to shop (like my husband), you can happily sit by the beach drinking beers. Drinks were reasonably priced and you can sit under the umbrella while admiring the scenery around you.
PUERTO CHIAPAS -- this port was our least favorite. We wanted to visit the Mayan archaeological site of Izapa, but didn't know the logistics of getting there, so we booked a tour with NCL. The Mayan site of Izapa was interesting but not as exciting as we thought. The bus then stopped at the town of Tapachula where we found it congested with merchants selling high-priced souvenirs. It was here that we also visited the Archaeological Museum, which was very informative. The port itself was very modern with reasonably priced vendors. All in all, it was a time well spent.
PUNTARENAS -- we also booked a tour with NCL here because we wanted to visit the rain forest and take a canopy tour. A round trip to the rainforest alone took 2.5 hours. It was a long trip, but so much fun! This is an ideal place for those people who love to do zip line (or even thinking about it) because the lines inside the forest are very long and very secured. The place was crowded with tourists. On the way home, our guide stopped the bus along the road when he spotted a group of Scarlet Macaws on one of the trees. The treetop was dotted with a lot of red feathers! It was a great ending to our memorable trip!
PANAMA CANAL CROSSING -- we woke up at 6:00 AM to find Pearl queuing at the Bay of Panama. Several cargo ships were already lined up to go through the canal. We saw NCL's sister ship, Jewel, ahead of us.
The entire Panama Canal consists of three locks. (A lock is a gate that adjusts the water level to allow the ships to safely pass through different bodies of water.) We went from the Pacific Ocean and came out in the Caribbean Sea. You can actually see the difference in the color of the water, with the Caribbean Sea being bluer. The first lock we went through was the Miraflores Locks, then short time later it was the Pedro Miguel Locks, and finally the Gatun Locks in the afternoon because it was located at the end of the canal. Everything was done in a slow motion. We watched the entire crossing from the comfort of the Spa's lounge area. A lot of people were outside their balconies, or the deck areas where it was very hot and very humid. Someone actually needed medical attention and an ambulance was called at one of the locks to help that person off. By the time we came out of Gatun Locks, it was 5:00 PM. Pearl paid $480,000 in fees/taxes to cross this canal today -- a pretty hefty price tag, I must admit.
We were provided with a map the night before so we could follow the ship's passage. After crossing the canal, each of us was given a "certificate" for successfully completing the transition -- cute idea, but really not necessary. NCL videotaped the entire Panama Canal crossing so you can purchase this 30-minute DVD. You can also see it on TV afterwards.
CARTAGENA -- WOW! Our mouths dropped at the sight of Cartagena's skyline! We didn't expect this city to have so many magnificent tall buildings! Everything was white. It was like a mirage. We docked alongside Jewel, who got there first. We booked a minivan tour group at the port and spend the next couple of hours sightseeing this beautiful city. It was VERY HOT here! We were glad the van had a/c; otherwise, it would've been a miserable trip. Colombia is famous for it's coffees and emeralds, both of which you can find plenty at the large store at the port. The prices here were competitive with the other stores we saw around the city. If you see any emerald jewelry you liked, you can negotiate. They take credit cards.
That was our last port of call. After two more sea days, we arrived in Miami at dawn. We were very sorry to see the end of our 14-day cruise! We had our last breakfast at the Garden Cafe before disembarking. The lines at the immigration took over 1.5 hours. There was plenty of transportation outside to take you to the airport.
I wish I could give this cruise a 5+ review, but couldn't. The reason is because NCL did not change their computer to reflect our new room number. Letters addressed to us never followed to our new room. We missed a couple of Latitude member meetings and we never got our Gold Member disembarkation labels. (We did get our Welcome Package and the tour tickets AFTER we complained the first day, but nothing came after that.) It was inexcusable since we notified them as soon as we got onboard. For this inefficiency, I took away the plus sign. Other than that glitch (and it was minor), it was a fabulous, wonderful, and simply awesome cruise!