This was our first NCL cruise, and we had a wonderful time. I have found that the most useful reviews give more information and less opinions, although is it hard to sometimes separate these, but I will try my best here.
We arrived at the port of Los Angeles at 11:00. By 11:30 we had been checked in and were waiting in the departure lounge. It was very smooth and well organized. There was plenty of seating in the lounge, even though we had received several automated phone calls from NCL over multiple days preceding departure, that we should not arrive before 13:00 due to limited seating. Seating did not appear to be an issue. We had arrived early, so we were part of boarding group 1 and we were on the ship by 13:30.
We had a 10th deck balcony cabin (first time for a balcony for us). The cabin was adequate in size but had lots of nooks and cubby holes for our things, so it made the cabin seem larger during our trip, since luggage, clothes and souvenirs were never in the way. We found where our cabin was, took a brief look around the ship and ate lunch in the Summer Palace dining room. We spent some time after lunch exploring the ship. In the Crystal Atrium, they were selling an "all you could drink" soda package. This was well worth it for us, as we did not care for the flavor of the Iced Tea on board.
Since this was a 7 night cruise with 2 days at sea and visits to ports were had previously visited, we decided that on this cruise we were going to take advantage of the spa... something we have not done on previous cruises. The spa is clean, bright, and has many features. There is a charge to use the spa facilities. While some reviewers have complained about the fee, we found that the $125 fee for use of the spa for a full week was well worth it. We visited the spa at least once if not twice every day (1-2 hours per average visit). Over the course of the week, we each had several massages, the wife had a facial, and also got her hair styled. They run a special called 10-20-30, where if you sign up for 3 treatments, each one gets a progressively larger discount (10%, 20%, then 30%), so make sure you choose the most expensive treatment as your third one so the largest discount applies. As with all ship board services, the spa treatments were not cheap , but we felt like we got our money's worth with each one . We booked our first massage (hot stones) for the day of departure, and they threw in an extra 15 min (from 60 min to 75 min), and did this for the two of us in a couples massage room at no extra charge. Our only complaint with the spa was how often and how forcefully products were being pushed at us (if you liked the massage you just had, then you should buy this year long supply of massage oil that is the same oil we just used. And it's very special oil that you can only get from us.) Once we discovered that every treatment came with a pitch, we were able to adjust our attitudes. We had many treatments, and did not buy any of the products we were pitched. We just kept saying that we would think about it.
Over the course of the week, we saw many of the shows, and participated in many ship board events. Overall we found the entertainment to be superb. The shows were divided into 2 categories... professional entertainers, and ship staff entertainers. The saw Sharkbait (comedy jugglers), Les Lankhorst (Sinatra style singer) and several of the Second City shows (Improv comedy). These were all top notch professionals. We also saw 2 shows with ship staff entertainers (singers and dancers). We have found many of these shows on other ships to be cheap and cheesy, but not this time. The productions were much better than what we have seen in the past, and we enjoyed all of them. We also spent time in the Crystal Atrium listening to Arvin and Emily (lounge singers), whose shows we enjoyed. We also participated in Bingo twice and an audience participation version of Deal or No Deal. We never won, but we had fun. Bingo on 2 of the sessions was at a discounted rate, due to low attendance (days in port).
Another event we attended was the White Hot Party. This didnt have very good attendance, and seemed to break up early we didnt stay long.
During our trip, we had planned to mostly eat in the main dining rooms. But as the trip progressed, we soon found that the food quality jumps significantly in the specialty restaurants. In the main dining rooms, the right side of the menu never changes with 5-6 starters, entries and desserts. The left side of the menu changes daily where they add echefs selections¦ 3-4 starters, entries and desserts. The food quality in the main dining rooms was very good, but we found that many of the offerings were uninspired . Fish and chips, Classic turkey dinner with dressing, grilled fish, steak and baked potato... these are items I can find at the local caf in my neighborhood. The offerings would be improved with a little creativity (special sauces, spice options, creative side dishes, etc.). Again, the quality of the food was very good its just the variety that was uninspired. The service in both of the main dining rooms was very slow. We had 1 lunch and 2 dinners where service took over 90 minutes from the time we sat down until we were done eating, and on one of the dinners, we waited almost 30 min between when they took away our plates and when dessert was served. We joked at our table that maybe our waiter fell overboard.
As for specialty restaurants, we ate in the Teppanyaki restaurant, the Churrascaria, and twice in the Italian restaurant. The offerings are greatly improved over those in the main dining rooms (many more upscale ingredients like scallops, jumbo shrimp, lobster, Angus steak, etc.). We had shrimp and scallops in the Teppanyaki restaurant, Lobster Fettuccini in the Italian restaurant, and wonderful cuts of meat in the Churrascaria. Each specialty restaurant has a different fee. By coincidence, not by design, we mostly ate at those with lower fees. The Italian and Churrascaria restaurants always seems to have little to no wait, so they are good options if you do not have a reservation. We also never saw a wait in the Asian restaurant either. Teppanyaki fills up fast due to limited seating, so it is best to make a reservation here.
We also ate several breakfasts and lunches in the Garden cafe (Buffet). In general, the food was just okay. We only ate here when we were limited on time or wanted to eat at a time that the main dining room wasnt serving. For both breakfast and lunch, the menu is mostly the same every day. The Breakfast menu was adequate, but again, uninspired. Scrambled eggs, breakfast meats, breads, cereals and fruit make up the majority of this buffet. You can have an omelet cooked to order, but the filling options are plain (onions, sausage, bacon bits, cheese, tomatoes). There is also a station where you can get fresh juices for a fee, but we did not take advantage of this. The lunch choices left something to be desired. Clearly geared for families with teens and kids, (lots of finger foods, pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers), this was our least favorite option for lunch. This was also the only venue where some of the food didnt look all that appealing.
Our biggest food disappointment by far was the Chocolate Buffet. This is the first cruise we were on, where this was held in the buffet restaurant and not in the main dining room. On all other cruises we have been on, this has been an upscale event with fruit and vegetable carvings, ice carvings, and added decor. Here there were only 7-8 types of desserts (repeated at 5-6 stations). And the presentation was sorely lacking. NCL didnt do much to dress up the venue. This event has always been a highlight for us, but NCL really let us down on this one.
Disembarkation was very smooth. We placed our luggage in the hallway the night before departure as instructed. We were part of the Purple tagged group which had a departure time of 10:00, but they actually called the purple group about 15 minutes early. By the time we walked down to the luggage storage area on the dock, our bags were already there.
Overall we had a great trip. The ships crew was wonderful, we liked how the ship was laid out, and we felt like we got a great vacation and good value for the cost. This was our first NCL cruise, but Im sure it will not be our last.
It is easy in a review to dwell on the negatives, and that is not my intent here. I hope you will take the negative items in this review as lessons learned by us so that if cruising on the Pearl or with NCL, you can use our experience to better prepare yourself for what you might expect.