Took the family (DW, daughter 11, son 5) to Alaska on the 4-Aug-13 NCL Pearl sailing from Seattle. Overall I would rate the trip as a firmly "good", not great. We had fantastic sunny & 75F weather all but one day, and the cabin was great (see separate review Pearl cabin #9626), entertainment was very good, service very good, food okay, but the nickle-and-dime got to be a bit much. If I were to do Alaska again on a cruise, it would not be on NCL. Not because NCL is bad, but since the excursions and weather as the highlight, I would instead recommend a lower cost option with better food and kids services on a Carnival boat, with the one condition that you take a side-trip to see Tracy Arm Fjord in Juneau and Butchart Gardens w/ fireworks on Saturday in Victoria. If NCL was the only option for both Tracy Arm and Butchart fireworks, I would repeat on NCL again.
Embarkation was easy and fast. We stayed in a hotel in SeaTac and hired a car to drop us off at the port (vs. staying downtown and trying to schlep bags down the hill). We hadn't completely tagged all the bags, and NCL had set up bag-tag station at the dock and the porter was very helpful and friendly at getting it all done for us. Seattle has a nice big waiting room that holds several hundred, which avoids standing in hour+ lines of less-well-appointed ports like Tampa.
The buffets on deck 12 were already running full force, and the sunny light-breeze weather made for a nice first impression experience with open-air dining.
We got into the room almost immediately. Our bags arrived onsey-twosey to the room over the next few hours w/o issue.
The cabin stewards are magicians, as every time we left and returned to the cabin (which wasn't that often or very long duration with a family of 4), we came back to find it turned down, or cleaned, and in perfect order.
Aboard the boat
Having a sea day the first full day on the boat is a good way to allow time to discover the boat. Our cabin was on the port side, with island views up the inside passage. It was our only foggy/drisly day. DW and I spent some time up on deck 12 in the hot tubs while the kids romped in the pool and water slide. There are only 4 small hot tubs which could get a bit crowded at times, but not overly so. Two are marked adult only and two for children which the passengers respected. There is an adult-only tops-optional sun-deck at the top of the boat, which was unused the entire time. Much of the ample upper deck space and lounge chairs went unused during the Alaska cruise despite the great weather, but I'm sure it gets more activity in the Caribbean during winter.
We found the freestyle dining good for kids breakfast and lunch, especially for our youngest who prefers to eat and run (literally). Lineup for dinner was moved swiftly, and they provided hors d'oeuvres and champaign for those waiting in line for the Summer Palace, a nice touch, and the only free alcohol given out on the entire cruise. It did get a bit crowded as space was limited with the elevators opening up 4' from the maitre d' station.
This was the one and only formal night on the cruise, which was fine by us. The Summer Palace is located directly in the stern, has fantastic views through the back and side windows.
Table service was very good. We never felt rushed (even when we needed more time to select a meal) or wanted to try something different. And nothing ever sat without attention. All of our servers were polite and made us feel like we were their only tables.
Food in the main dining rooms was okay, but we were never WOW'ed by any meals or dishes. We are the "try everything once" type, and would typically order a couple appetizers each and an extra entree, passing all around. The food was not as good as our experience on Carnival earlier in 2013 where we were routinely pleasantly surprised and WOW'ed. Produce was excellent, but prepared steaks, crab cakes, and seafood were on par with Applebees, Chilis and with few exceptions nothing made us go "WOW".
That said, two things really impressed me about the food. 1) the melon was perfectly ripe at every meal, and I mean PERFECT: always sweet and ripe and never firm and never squishy, which is impressive over a 7 night cruise! 2) the Indian food available at the buffet was some of the best Indian food I've had in my life with two different dishes at every meal breakfast lunch and dinner with poori, nan, etc. and this compares to Indian meals I've eaten in NYC, New Delhi, and London! Turns out the head chef was Indian. This was one of the few "WOW" moments we had while dining, and we often went back to the buffet for Indian after seeing mediocrity on the Summer Palace dinner menu.
Other than those two highlights, the rest of the food in the standard restaurants was firmly in the category of: "Meh." Steak (only served twice) was select grade. Cuts were very thin, so we had to order it rare to get anything but shoe leather. Lobster (only once) was ok and we had to ask for drawn butter. Salmon was mediocre and farmed, despite being smack dab in the middle of salmon season! The eggs benedict served at the buffet (two types) was prepared better than that served in the Summer Palace. Chocolate Decadence (akin to Carnival's famous chocolate lava cake) was only served once in the Summer Palace main dining room, a shame.
Downgrading the quality of food so you can drive customers already paying $5k for a cruise toward the premium restaurants is not a very good strategy to earn repeat business. In fact, food quality is one of the two reasons we will not go NCL again, a real shame.
Bringing kids aged 5 and 11 on a seven-day Alaska cruise is a gamble. If they're miserable because they have nothing to do, they can quickly make everyone miserable. Our kids' experience was a mixed bag.
Unlike our previous Carnival experience (Legend 2013) which had four physically different and separated kids clubs for the four age groups, the Pearl has only one very big romper room for everyone. Our 11 year old spent the first two hours of the Juneau day sitting at the corner table of a room full of thirty screaming 3-6 year olds, including our 5 year old who had a blast. She checked herself out after the 2 hour minimum wait and spent most of the rest of the day in the cabin texting her freinds back home. She never went back to the Pearl's kids club.
This is very much unlike her Carnival experience, where she wanted to spend time in kids club.
The game room was right outside the kids club on deck 12, and had a decent selection of large modern games with only one or two out of order, but the price PER GAME ranged from $1.50 to $5!! That's crazy, especially since NCL will not allow you to place a spend limit on your children's room card. It's either zero or unlimited so of course we set our kids to zero. Stupid policy as they'd surely have gotten another $25 or $50 from us. While the game room was mostly empty as a result, I did see one teenager rack up $20 in games in less than that many minutes while playing a single game of air hockey with my 5 year old. The game prices along with their room card policy are just set up for failure.
The kids experience is the other reason we will likely go elsewhere (most likely back to Carnival) for family cruises in the future.
I was impressed with the quality of the on-board entertainment, compared to other cruises. The big-theater shows were mostly the motown/broadway sing and dance review type, but the singing was great and the dancing actually nice to watch.
The comedy was the best part. Heath Hayt was great at both G and PG-13 shows, and Jim the piano guy was hilarious. The Second City troup did several shows G, PG, and R ratings, all good for laughs. The game show events were clever and funny.
Bingo was expensive and prizes small. Re-usable bingo punch cards were not valid for the big prize draws, so you had to spend more of course.
...were not cheap, but they were worth it. Tracy Arm fjord was a big highlight. Instead of the train ride, we saved $500 and rented a car to do basically the same tour. I would do this again and recommend to others.
Final Sea Day
On our way back to Victoria from Kechikan in the open sea west of the Passage, we were blessed with an incredible display of wales for over an hour. Spouting, breaching, tail slapping as what seemed like hundreds of wales passed within a mile or so of the ship Northbound while we sailed South. It was a beautiful sunny day and one of the other great experience highlights of the trip.
Fantastic weather. Embarked directly from the side of the cruise ship, which was efficient. Long trip, and temperature drops as you approach glaciers so bring layers. Friendly crew and informative guide. Bring polarized sunglasses for a trippy return, as the boat has polarized window film and "crossed polarizers" results in mountainsides turning colors!
The duck tour was entertaning and informative. Driver + guide is a good combo vs. single talking drivers on other tours. Both driver and guide were funny and "quacked us up" continuously. About the only thing on the entire cruise I didn't feel overcharged for were the $2.50 quackers we got from the duck tour, which the kids loved and my wife soon loathed (haha!).
Rented a car and drove family up to the Yukon. Fantastic weather and views. Saved a ton of money vs. $150+/person on the train, and taking a car allowed us to stop along the way for enjoying the great views and photos (basically the same views as the train). Plus stop for gold panning for the kids and see Emerald lake (neither possible on the train). We beat the white pass train into Carcross, so we avoided the lines for lunch and ice cream!
Although the Victoria stop is one of the shortest, and in the evening, it's there for a reason. If you don't do Butchart Gardens WITH FIREWORKS on Saturdays in the summer, then you're missing one of the most wonderful experiences of your lifetime.
We brought a couple pool deck towels to set in the grass and hold a spot for the fireworks, with the unique green and white stripes making it easy to spot. I was surprised that only one or two others did this.
The gardens were gorgeous, with not a leaf or petal out of place. And the 30 minute long fireworks show was straight out of Fantasia! Something Disney inc. has long-forgotten in it's modern shoot-and-boom fireworks shows. This was really, really special.