Before this cruise, the last time I sailed NCL was before freestyle cruising and I was treated like a Persian prince aboard the "Norway". Now NCL is completely different. I cant say its bad, but I cant say its good either.
The service was all over the board. I witnessed a little bit of poor service, a little bit of outstanding service but mostly the service was fair. I would also describe the dinning exactly the same.
I attribute this to the freestyle cruising model rather than management. I had a few chances to meet some of the management staff and I will tell you that they are 100% commited to giving us a wonderful vacation experience. Their challenge is getting their staff motivated beyond the pooled tips as though their money is being payed directly from the guest, like traditional cruising. Unfortunately, if you want the flexability that comes with freestyle, this may just be the nature of the beast. The mediocre service and food was almost worth having the ability to schedule our days to avoid the crowds. We intentionally planned our meals to avoid people and enjoy a more relaxing atmosphere. We could not have done this on a traditional cruise.
In a nutshell, NCL is great for first time cruisers or the more casual cruisers. If you want to be treated like a Persian prince and served truly gourmet food, I would recommend traditional cruising.
Aboard the Pearl (our tips):
All the headliners are worth seeing, especially the musical reviews.
(Second City was hit and miss but they do improve which is the single most difficult type of entertainment to pull off)
"Noodles" is hilarious, make sure you catch his act.
The secondary acts are good if the host speaks English. We saw one show where nobody could understand the lady hosting it and half the audience left.
There is one gentleman who plays piano in the lounges, he is really more of a comedian that will have you in stitches. Even if you are not a fan of lounge music, stop and listen for a few minutes to see if it is him, you wont be sorry.
If you are an early bird, the Blue Lagoon opens for breakfast at 5:30 am and NOBODY goes there to eat. Drink coffee and watch the ocean waves go by for a stress free breakfast. (there is a smaller meal selection but its worth it)
Day 1, FIND THE GARDEN GRILL. If you walk THROUGH the buffet to the very back of the ship, there is a very nice extension of the buffet that is outdoors and has its own food set up. NOBODY GOES HERE! Again, have lunch in relaxation and watch the ocean waves as the rest of the passengers wait 20 minutes in line for the same foods you have 25 yards away.