I consider myself an experienced cruiser and this was my first (and definitely not last) cruise with NCL. My cruise history includes Carnival (x9), Princess (x4), Celebrity (x1), and RC (x1). I was originally booked on the infamous Carnival Glory Drag Stars at Sea cruise but cancelled it over the summer when I found out such a huge group would be onboard. I had already bought plane tickets and my vacation time was set in stone, so I looked at cruises leaving on Dec 2 out of Miami or Ft Lauderdale and we decided to give NCL a try. In fact, my cruise choices were limited to either Carnival or NCL as they were the only two cruise lines who accepted 2 year-olds into their kids club-this was definitely a deal breaker for me. Unfortunately, NCL is eliminating 2 year-olds from their kids club starting in 2013, so I am stuck with Carnival until my son turns 3.
We flew down to FLL on Dec 1 and visited some family in the area. We stayed at the Hyatt House near the FLL airport, which was great-I highly recommend this hotel. We had a rental car and I priced out dropping off the car in Miami or taking a shuttle to the port from FLL. It was cheaper to take the shuttle and we would not have to worry about our luggage or catching a rental car shuttle to the POM. I booked SAS as I had a previous decent experience with them. After my experience with this trip, I'm not sure I would book SAS anymore. Larry from SAS picked us up at the airport and was very rude to my family commenting on how much luggage we had. We were a party of 3 adults and one child, what did he expect?? For some reason my child did not make it on the roster (even though I had email confirmation) and he was grumbling about my child taking up a space with his car seat....hey buddy it's the law he needs to be in a car seat-did he expect my 2 year-old to sit on a lap?? He was rough with our luggage and he broke part of my stroller clip off. He was just a miserable person in general. We did use SAS on the return trip and luckily did not encounter Larry again! On our return trip to FLL, the van was towing a trailer for our luggage, which was not the case on our initial trip to the POM. We did stop at a hotel in FLL to drop some people off, so if you are in a hurry to get to the airport I would not recommend using a shared shuttle service.
Embarkation was a breeze and there were hardly any lines-I was very impressed. I'm not sure how we avoided the huge crowd waiting for their embarkation photos to be taken, but we were in a totally separate area-I'm not sure if there was a different line from the elevator vs. escalator. My most recent embarkation was in Oct 2012 in Miami on Carnival and it was a nightmare with long lines and a very long wait to get your picture taken for your sail & sign cards, etc. We were onboard by 11:45 and in our rooms around noon. It was nice to be welcomed by a red carpet, steel drum guy playing, and dancers, etc. welcoming us onboard. NCL beats Carnival hands down on embarkation! I also liked how our rooms were ready immediately when we boarded.
We had originally booked two adjoining balconies. After final payment I wanted to upgrade to a 2-bedroom family suite but I would have had to pay a cancellation fee for one of the cabins so I opted not to do this. I was monitoring prices and saw that the price for a mini-suite dropped to what we paid for the balcony cabin-I was given a free upgrade for both cabins. We ended up in mini-suites 11584 and 11586 (adjoining cabins). I looked at the deck plans closely and it didn't seem that there would be anything too noisy above us, but I was sadly mistaken. I can't recommend either of these cabins as there was very loud noise at night overhead of dancing/running from the kid's club? It did stop after 11 or midnight, but there was also strange rushing water sounds in the walls all night-maybe a toilet flushing upstairs? The rooms were very convenient to the stairs/elevator to the buffet, pool deck, and kid's club. I didn't let the noisy cabin interfere with my vacation and overall the cabin was in good shape and we had a wonderful steward Joko who was very nice and helpful. I did like the bathroom setup with separate toilet area and I liked the fact there was a bathtub. I also liked how there was a curtain to separate the bed from the couch area-unfortunately when the curtain was closed the TV could not be viewed, but it was so small anyways (and who goes on vacation to watch TV?). We had the balcony dividers opened on the first day. One note is these cabins have the overhang above which I was kind of disappointed in as I like the sun. They varnished the balcony railings midway into the cruise which was a bummer to lean on a sticky rail-oops!! There was plenty of room in the cabin for my son's Pack N' Play. The room had a mini-fridge, safe, two chairs, a small table, and a couch that folded out into a bed. There was plenty of storage and two separate temperature controls in the room. For some reason, the thermostats would sometimes set themselves back to halfway between cool and warm and I would wake up sweating in the middle of the night (balcony door was closed). The other room did the same thing. The beds and linens were comfortable. I only heard kids running down the hall once and drunks stumbling down the halls at 4AM a few times, LOL!
I found the buffet to be excellent and there was always a wide variety of foods to choose from. The buffet setup was good at moving people along and there were hardly any lines. I would rate this buffet as far as food quality and selection far greater than both Carnival and Princess. There were several omelet stations available in the morning and they always had smoked salmon out. There was a wide variety of fresh fruit including grapes and fresh pineapple. The French toast was delicious!! I don't eat bacon, but I noticed there was no bacon police on NCL like there is on Carnival. There were Indian stations available during every meal. The grilled food was tasty, although I wish they had chicken fingers! There was a soft serve ice cream machine as well as hand-dipped ice cream available. There was an entire section in the buffet devoted to desserts and during dinner they had a fresh crepe station. The desserts both looked and tasted good (the desserts on Princess always look good but have no taste).
We ate our first two dinners in the Summer Palace, which left much to be desired. I feel that it is NCL's strategy to serve unappealing food with poor service in the MDR to entice people to book the specialty restaurants. My dinner the first night was mostly inedible. I found it odd that they take your entire order including dessert at once. There was no bar service and no coffee with dessert. It was very difficult to flag someone down to get service. The rest of my party had a mediocre meal. The second night we had to flag someone down to order a bottle of wine. I thought this was very strange that there was no wine steward or bar service in the dining room. My dinner the second night was just as bad as the first. I had pre-booked dinner at Cagney's and La Cucina. I liked the ambiance of Cagney's and the service and the food were outstanding. La Cucina was also very good. My favorite was the Japanese Teppanyaki which was so much fun and the food was delicious. I felt the specialty restaurants were somewhat worth the money, but it is unfortunate that the MDR was so awful. We ate our last 2 dinners in the buffet which was just fine.
My son participated in the Kid's Club a few hours a day and he enjoyed it and bonded with a few of the counselors. They gave us a phone so they could call us when he needed a diaper change or when he was upset. The phones were in poor shape and lost their charge pretty fast and some were held together with tape-an upgrade here is definitely needed. They called us once to pick him up because he was crying. The longest we kept him there was about 2 hours. My son turned 2 the day of embarkation so I know he was the youngest child there. I felt the staff did an excellent job with him and I trusted him in their care. I did tip the kid's club staff well! I am disappointed they will not accept 2 year-olds as of 1/1/2013, but oh well.
The ship was easy to navigate, clean, and well-appointed. I liked the teal/purple color scheme. Fellow passengers were on average on the older side, but there were some families on board. I enjoyed the private island, Great Stirrup Cay. I thought our stop would be cancelled because the winds and water were pretty rough, but we were able to tender to the island. You can tell the island sustained damage from Hurricane Sandy, but it was still very nice. The water was way too cold for me to swim in but the weather was sunny and warm. This was my second time to Ocho Rios and we did Dunn's River Falls-OMG this was so much fun and I am glad we did this-one of the highlights of my trip! We did a ship excursion where you go to the Falls and then they take you to a private beach club for lunch and drinks. Unfortunately they stopped off at one of the shopping areas in between taking us to the beach-what a waste!! The beach club was nice but overall I think it was an overpriced excursion. We went swimming with the stingrays and snorkeling in Grand Cayman which was another highlight of the trip and something I have always wanted to do. I thought this excursion was fairly priced for what we got. We docked at the International/downtown pier in Cozumel which was nice because I have not been to that pier in a very long time. We took a cab to Paradise Beach and enjoyed the day there then shopped downtown. We docked right near The World cruise ship which was a highlight for me to see...maybe someday LOL! Some in our party went to the shows and enjoyed them especially the Oh What a Night show. I walked through the casino once and that was one time too many-I hate smoke and I don't gamble so there you go. I went on this vacation for R&R so I really did not go out until the wee hours of the night/morning. I did go bowling in the Bliss lounge which was fun and went to the White Party for a little while. We were able to find loungers in the sun on one of the upper decks, although I saw a lot of chairs being hogged poolside. I did not set foot in the gym or the spa.
I couldn't help but compare this cruise to my most recent with Carnival. Little things here and there add up. For example, I never encountered a rude or indifferent staff member (well maybe our first server in the MDR). Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there (or they were good at faking it). There was a long line the first day at the guest services desk-we were turning in vouchers for OBC. They had someone going down the line to see if there was anything they could help us with so we wouldn't have to wait in line- they just took our vouchers and we were done in less than 2 minutes! They had little cards you could fill out to thank a staff member or to voice any concerns you may have. I like the system of picking your own baggage tags/time for departure. There was a real reggae band playing at the pool, no cheesy DJ or huge megatron TV blasting rap music. My son loved the "Washy-Washy" lady at the entrance to the buffet-she was one of the happiest people I have ever met! I like how there was hand sanitizers at every turn on the ship. We had two tender ports and there was never a long line to get a tender (at prime times) at both Great Stirrup Cay and Grand Cayman. This has not been my experience with tendering on Carnival. I'm not sure what NCL is doing right with their tender process, but they can teach Carnival a thing or two. There was never even a very long line at security getting back on the ship from port. The crew put on a party on the pier in Cozumel welcoming you back-it was a nice touch! We went to the Bliss nightclub one night and they had a really good Latin band playing and one of the entertainment staff was trying to teach us some of the dances! The White Hot deck party was fun and high energy. The Blue Lagoon is so much better than just a 24 hour pizza stand! Even upon debarkation morning (debarkation was a breeze), the staff lined up as we were walking off the ship and were singing and dancing, wishing us safe travels. I guess what I am trying to say is I felt like a valued guest on the Pearl! I did buy a future cruise voucher and I will definitely be back! I hope to book the Epic for early December 2013. I'm pretty sure I will be bidding Carnival farewell once my son turns 3. Thanks for reading my review!