Had a fantastic first cruise aboard NCL's Pearl, February 17 -- 24, 2013.
Let me first explain that I had been planning this trip for over two years -- first finding a cruise line -- then the actual ship. We chose Norwegian because of the good reviews, and casual cruising; and the Pearl for its reviews and ports.
This is going to be very detailed since it is what I found the most helpful in choosing the cruise...so just be warned!
Embarking was easy. We had brought some wine aboard and were aware of the $15 per bottle corking fee. They have a table to take care of it right after you go through security. This was taken care of quickly and charged to our account. Since we had booked a Penthouse Suite, one of the perks was being escorted to a little room on the left to be checked in. They had refreshments and snacks but we were saving ourselves for lunch.
We were almost immediately escorted on board.
Our room (A forward Penthouse Suite) was ready. I was going to book a balcony mini-suite, but because it was a special occasion, we decided on the Suite. If you can afford it, go for this option. It was a very nice size - had a king sized bed, love seat (which became another bed), a fancy coffee machine, and bathroom with a tub/shower combo, a sink and toilet. There was quite a bit of storage and all of our suitcases slid under the king bed. They also had a beautiful fresh flower arrangement and an array of pods for the coffee maker. The balcony was huge! It contained two chairs, two lounge chairs and a coffee table. There was plenty of room for more. We decided to leave our carry-ons and headed up to Cagney's for lunch. This is one of their pay restaurants and is available for breakfast and lunch (included) if you are in a Penthouse or higher.
Cagney's was very good. I had the corn chowder, which was wonderful...but the fish came battered, which wasn't mentioned on the menu. Our expectation was a filet. The presentation was beautiful.
Our luggage was still not in the room so we headed up to the pool area and purchased a bucket of 6 beers for the price of 5 ($25.00). We thought this was reasonable.
Miami hit a bit of a "cold snap" with a lot of wind. This made the outdoor area a little cool so we took our bucket and found the Spinnaker Lounge. It was completely empty, so we quickly selected a very plush blue "couch" and planted ourselves there. It ended up being perfect. When the ship took off we had a wonderful (and warm) view of Miami Beach. We found out later that this lounge was above the ship's bridge...a terrific place to view the scenery.
We went to our room and our luggage was still not there but our Stewart (Joval) and Butler (Jomar) came to our door individually and introduced themselves. The Butler is also a perk with the PH Suite or above. I'm not sure of all of his duties, but he would refresh our coffee maker pods daily and around 4 or 5 pm would stop by with delicious little snacks. I think it's also his job to replace our mini-bar, but we took the items out and placed them in the cupboard next to the fridge to use for our own drinks and food (but more on that later.)
We booked dinner in three Fee Restaurants. Le Bistro was on the first night. Gerard our waiter was hilarious and very good. Le Bistro cost an additional $20 per person but was worth it. It was our favorite restaurant. I had a crÃ¨me Brule. It was delicious. With the three-restaurant combo, we received a small discount on each meal as well as a free bottle of wine on the day we embarked. After dinner we decided to relax in our room and enjoy our penthouse suite. We were all tired from the excitement.
That was our FIRST day.
The morning of the second day found us at Great Stirrup Cay, The Bahamas (a little island owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines.)
We decided to try out the buffet at the Garden Cafe. The food was very good with little surprises here and there. Along with the typical breakfast items of toast, scrambled eggs, omelets, bacon, cereal, salad, they added some dishes from India. It was extremely hard to choose. There was something for everyone. Hint: take your food from the Garden Cafe to The Great Outdoors to dine. The Great Outdoors has it's own limited buffet, but we loved it's outdoor dining area.
With the Penthouse and up, you receive priority tender passes. We met our Concierge Patrick (another super friendly and helpful employee). He escorted us via crew-stairs, to the awaiting tender and off we went to the island.
We were still in the cold snap and quickly found lounges by the ocean. Since it was a great deal, we again ordered the six beers deal (a habit we would get into.) The water was way too cold for us to join a few brave soles so we took an hour to explore the island. When we got back, lunch was served....A very nice barbecue buffet with a tropical feel. Since it still was fairly cold, we decided to go back to the warmth of the ship.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing on our patio.
I was a little nervous about a full day at sea, but that was the busiest day we had!
We met with our Cruise Critic members for a meet and greet. About eight of the senior staff attended. I have to say there was a high visibility of the senior crew throughout the cruise. They made themselves visible at the Garden Cafe and went table-to-table introducing themselves at Indigo.
Our Cruise Critic group also organized a "cabin crawl" so that we could see other cabins. This was great because we could get an idea of what the other rooms looked like -- very helpful in future cruise planning. We even played a fun cabin crawl poker game.
Later in the day our group also got a tour of the bridge where we met other crew members. Our guide, Sandeep Patil, was very informative and gracious.
We were invited to a cocktail party given by the Captain that evening. We met him briefly. We also met the Executive Housekeeper, Cesar Hapa. My sister mentioned we were interested in trying The Haven class next time we cruised and Mr. Hapa offered to show us the private pool and facilities the next morning.
Then off to dinner at Cagney's. Dinner there was very good, great service, and excellent food.
That night we caught the show "Oh What A Night". It was fun -- not exceptional -- but fun. A wonderful ending to a memorable day.
The next morning Mr. Hapa was true to his word and showed up at our door at the time panned. He was a bit busy so brought his right-hand man (sorry, I forget his name). He escorted us up to The Haven. It was very nice but humid around the pool. That area had a glass ceiling that could be automatically slid open. It seemed nice, but really quiet and secluded. Quite honestly, we loved our room and the two big pools! That's where to go if you want to be with the action and entertainment. But if you feel like lounging around a quiet place I would definitely suggest The Haven.
The rest of the trip went fantastically.
Indigo - (inclusive) was great the first night we ate there. Staff attentive. Food good. The second time we went, they took forever.
Summer Palace - (inclusive) We only ate here once. The room felt too big and opulent for us. I'm not saying this is particularly bad, it just wasn't us. But, the one meal we had (lunch) was fine.
Cagney's - ($25 pp.) Was very good. We ate here once for dinner, once for lunch and about three times for breakfast (again breakfast and lunch are included for people with a Penthouse suite or higher.) For breakfast we loved their slant on eggs benedict. Instead of ham they used a delicious crab cake. One sister, who nearing the end of our trip was trying to be good, ordered only the crab cake and egg...hold the English muffin, hold the hollandaise. For breakfast there also was a small buffet serving some of what you could get at the Garden Cafe...fresh fruit, cereal, smoked salmon, etc. The buffet at Cagney's was available for every morning but the embarkation day.
Le Bistro -- ($20 pp.) Probably our favorite! We had great service and the food was the best we had on the cruise.
La Cucina-- ($15 pp.) -- This proved to be the worst restaurant experience. The food was cold and did not taste very good (except for the pizza). It took over an hour to be served. VERY DISAPPOINTING.
The Garden Cafe -- (included) -- Our to-go restaurant. We never had a line and the food was very good.
The Great Outdoors -- (included) -- Right behind the Garden Cafe. Had a less extensive buffet but you sit outdoors. Lovely for breakfast or a late snack.
Topsiders -- (included) Right by the pool. This was mainly burgers, hotdogs and salads. On "at sea" days they had a barbecue. They even grilled fish, which was delicious. My second favorite meal.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica - We went through Courtney Taylor tours to hire a driver for the day. I would highly recommend this option to utilize the short time you have at a port. It was very affordable at only $35 pp. for the first three hours (and $25 per additional hour). Marvelous Marvin was waiting for us at the designated spot and we didn't waste a precious minute. Marvelous Marvin was a hoot! After reading quite a few reviews we were very concerned about the merchants who would bother you everywhere you went. MM took us all over the area, made some great suggestions, and kept unwanted solicitors at bay!
We took a tour of the Shaw Botanical Gardens with a personal tour by Vincent. It was beautiful and gave you a wonderful view of the Ocho Rios port and city.
Then MM drove us to what I would call The New Dunns Falls - the Iris Blue Hole. Two young men were assigned to us three older women. They were wonderful in helping us climb up and down the falls and took some incredible pictures for us.
We also went swimming at a beach and had a great Jerk Chicken lunch at "Scotchies." (Only about $5.00 per person.) I guessed the restaurant was named after the nationality of the people who owned it, but it in fact was named after a chili pepper (Scotch Bonnet) that is very popular there. We also went shopping (see what I mean about utilizing the time?) and made it back to the ship two hours before it took off.
I decided to take a nap but my sisters enjoyed the unknown spectator sport of watching people RUNNING to make it back on the ship! Apparently there was a crowd cheering the tardy fellow shipmates on. I was sorry I missed it.
CAYMAN ISLANDS - Since I had been here quite a few years back, I knew the island. It's fairly small so you can do just about everything. All I wanted to do was sit on a beautiful beach and swim. We took the local "bus", (which actually is a van), to Cemetery Beach. The water was absolutely beautiful and clear. Unfortunately we didn't see many fish. I think recent storms have not been kind to the coral and reef. After swimming we went back to the city and shopped a bit. The bus is an excellent way to get around. It only costs $2.50 U.S. each way and seemed to run very often.
COZUMEL -- Again I decided to hire a driver through Cozumel Hire A Driver for The Day. We were met by Angel who was wonderful and very informative. He took us to our first stop, a small chocolate factory where we learned how to make chocolate out of nibs(even got to take the chocolate we made home). It was fun and worth the $10 admission (you have to pre-book). Next stop: A Tequila tasting factory. This was again fun. We once more had a private tour of how tequila is made by the daughter of the owner. The actual tequila is not made here, but there is a nice restaurant (which we did not try.) I have to admit...after the tour I was feeling no pain. We had planned to do something else but were a bit tired from three days straight of touring. We did a little more shopping and Angel took us back to the ship where we were looking forward to watching people rush to the ship. This did not happen because two tour boats were over an hour late in getting back to port. We had ringside seats for the drama where the head of security of the Pearl did not seem very happy with the tour guides. Apparently this happens quite often at this port.
When we had the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet, one senior crew member suggested we tell them if there was anything wrong. He continued saying it was better to let them know so that they could take care of it rather than waiting to put it in a review. We felt that to be fair, we let them know (three times) of problems. We received acknowledgement of every suggestion. I thought this was very classy of NCL and it was much appreciated. In the grand scheme, all the things were relatively small. But in the case of bad service it was best to let them know. Most of the time the service was extraordinary.
Our group felt the two years planning was put to good use and was worth every penny. We didn't want to get off the ship and will sail again with them soon.
I want to thank the crew and reservation specialists for an incredible vacation that will never be forgotten. And thanks to our Stewart Joval for all the wonderful and appreciated towel animals he made for us. One of the ship days they had a demonstration of how to make them, but we were too busy. Would have liked to have seen it (next time).
HINTS WE DISCOVERED:
Being concerned about the cost of liquor and too old to "sneak" booze aboard? We pre-ordered three bottles of alcohol from the cruise line. It was ready in our room along with mixers. We ended up only using 1Â½ bottles because we found the alcohol to be fairly reasonable (we live in L.A. -- everything is relative). They had different drink deals everyday. We also brought along a little blender and whipped up our own. You can get juice from the buffet and keep it in the fridge. The last day became dangerous when I came up with the idea of blending in ice cream!
Definitely sign up with roll call. You will meet some nice people who will help you if you are cruise virgins like us.
SUGGESTION FOR THE SHIP:
We had a great time. The only suggestion we would give to NCL is that even though we loved the Indian food in the Garden Cafe, after five days we became tired of it. What we really yearned for was other ethnic food. When we were in Cozumel we would have loved to come back to the ship and see some Mexican fare, especially fish tacos...anything Mexican. After the Jamaican port, have Jamaican food, etc. We think it would be great to have different ethnic foods either saluting the area we are visiting -- or perhaps play homage to your crew. There were people from all over the world. Perhaps choose a different nationality and make four dishes every or every other day.
That's about all we can suggest. Thank you again for a wonderful experience.