I had taken this cruise about 8 years ago with a friend from work and had a great time. Fast forward and I retook this same ship/destination on a delayed honeymoon with my DH. We left on the September 15th cruise booked to Alaska via the inside passage. Hubster was a cruise ‘virgin’ and wasn’t sure about cruising – act of faith going with me on this for our honeymoon while I’ve done multiple cruises all steaming out of US. We aren’t young – late in life first marriage for both of us – he’s 43 and I’m 53. No kids. We both have careers that involve a huge slice of customer care so that is very important to us. Probably in the lower 40 percentile of middle class. He’s a career chef; I have a masters and work in healthcare. Sorry for the bio, but one thing I find frustrating on cruises is trying to get feel for what the trip is like – is the person reviewing like me? How did they find the staff, etc? How were things handled that went well? What about when not? So hopefully this helps you when trying to figure out if a holiday on the Pearl is going to be your cup of tea.
Room service is free (except Pizza or middle of night munchies) and so we decided to try breakfast from our balcony the first morning. Our server, Frazier, quickly learned our preferences for when we liked to eat and what we enjoyed. Soon we were simply greeted by a phone call each morning to let us know he was on his way with our breakfast (fresh fruit, chocolate croissants, juice, coffee and milk) – we didn’t even have to call him. Mid-afternoon at sea he recommended we try the cheese platter with a little fruit - for two – excellent recommendation and a standing order for whenever we were on board. Evenings he brought us a plate of fruit and chocolate treats to finish the day watching the light fade on our balcony. Discrete – always a call first to let us know he was coming, then a quiet knock on the door once there – never barging in like I have had happen on other cruise lines. Frazier always made a beautiful presentation of whatever he brought and never failed to ask if there was anything else we would like. If you have a balcony I cannot recommend this option too highly.
Buffet / Summer Palace were a shock from the serenity of dining on our balcony. A couple days in and we decided to try the buffet for breakfast. The food was solid buffet food – many options, warm and flavorful. However, after going round and round the seating areas and competing with others for a table as soon as someone got up from their table, and then being stalked ourselves by people looking for tables and trying to estimate if we were almost finished…We happily greeted Frazier the next morning. We tried the Summer Palace twice. The first time, like the buffet, we didn’t have the sense to go during an ‘off’ time. We found it was crowded and the staff overwhelmed. Our servers were very polite, tried to keep up with everyone in their areas, and truly tried to make the experience pleasant for everyone but you could see they were almost running to each table. There was a pretty large lag from order time until on our table and the food had cooled. We tried lunch again another time, off from when the “crowd” normally ate, and the food was prompt and proper temperature. Lesson learned here is that the food in buffet and Summer Palace is what it is intended – decent food for large numbers of people and no way you will walk away hungry. The key is to not go during the prime times and you’ll find the experience a good one.
Specialty restaurants were fantastic. Yes, like others have noted, there is an additional charge, but it is well worth it for the special experiences you get while dining. Each of the restaurants is small and intimate which allows you to focus on your dining partner(s) and the food and service. We first went to Le Bistro and Gina just spoiled us silly. Each course brought after giving us time to finish the prior course and cleanse our palates. She guided us through the menu choices. Every step was perfect and her attention to detail and ensuring our experience was superb was flawless. A true treat was the chefs and assistants came out and walked the restaurant for everyone to meet and they also focused on our having a memorable meal. The Brazilian restaurant – Moderno – was amazing. Each presentation of meat was described in detail and prior to our beginning the meal our waiter inquired how we generally liked our meats (rare to medium) so that when choices were presented they would already be to our taste. The meats are presented in a steady progression from the gentle meats first (chicken) on through middle meats (lamb) and finishing with robust beef choices. Carnivore Happies! Tappanyaki was a terrific show – we sat in groups of 8 around cooking large cooking surfaces and each counter had a chef who prepared our food in front of us. Throughout he and the chef behind him sang, told jokes, juggled knives and caught flying eggs in their chef’s hats. They maintained a steady banter with the diners and I really am not sure if we paid $20 for the show or for the food. Either way – a terrific deal! We finished the last dinner of the cruise at Cagney’s. We had hesitated because it was top of the list for add-on pricing. We are so glad we went. The prime rib was incredibly good. I travel throughout North America and have had a lot of opportunities to dine well, but the food here was spot on and every bit as good as anything I’ve ever run up on my expense account. Our server was right on top of our every need. She filled glasses before we were even aware they were almost empty – checked on us whenever we seemed to ‘pause’ to see if there was anything else we would like or anything she could do. (Pauses were primarily for hubby and I to just stop and stare at each other while repeatedly confirming how incredibly, ridiculously juicy and deliciously perfect the prime rib was.) At the end of the meal we were so satisfied we opted not to have dessert, but instead ordered coffees. My mocha and his single cup espresso were the finish to the meal – no sugar needed. As a side note – DH manages a food service and cooks a fine meal in his own right. He was making notes throughout on ways he could improve his customers’ experiences.
As I mentioned it was a mini-suite. We loved the addition footage on our balcony. When not on excursions, taking in entertainment or relaxing at the thermal spa – we were living here. We tend to be quiet people and found the large number of people in some of the areas comparable to being at the mall on December 24th. The closet was large and well stocked for hangers. I loved the bathroom having sliders for the shower and toilet areas so that while one was using the sink area the other could have privacy and use the other areas. Bedding was comfy soft – we kept our balcony door open a crack at night for the fresh air and sound of the waves – the bedding was perfect for warmth. The first morning we woke up to find dolphins leaping in the water alongside the ship. Whales and other wildlife were regularly sighted once at sea. Each day our steward, Edward, created towel animals for us and each night we would arrive in our room and find a new one waiting for us. A daily notice of the next day’s activities would be placed on our bed each evening during turndown so we could look at what was offered, times and where on the ship. The refrigerator is small, but not too small – we would bring home leftover wine from our dinners for drinking later while watching sunsets on our balcony and the bottles fit just fine. There was single drawback - we were in 11596. I think the shuffleboard was directly above our room. The shuffleboard is outside and we were sitting outside. Some of the players “smack talk” was very graphic and loud. Fortunately, after about 2 days at sea, the novelty wore off and the competitors spent time elsewhere on the ship – probably talking smack at the bowling alley. Aside from that one thing – we found the room perfect. Another huge benefit to having any type of balcony room – Glacier Bay! Glacier Bay the ship turned 360 degrees twice and we have terrific shots. (Before GB, you could pre-order hot coffee / cocoa drinks to be delivered to your room while you watched the glaciers and listened to the presentation from your room – just indicate on the form the quantity and times to bring them – Frazier showed up on the dot every time.) Our GB photos are sharp and focused, no jostling from the crowd out on deck competing to get pictures.
Thermal Spa / Spa Pass
Okay – by now you know I’m a piglet for pleasure. The thermal spa is my second home away from home on the Pearl. The thalassotherapy (sp?) pool pounds out the tension from your body and the curvy heated benches look uncomfortable (resting on tiles?) but the heat melts into you as soon as you lie down on one. It is placed front of the ship and the whole front of the spa is floor to ceiling glass – incredible view and comfy recliners to just lie there and watch the ocean. Plenty of iced water, orange juice and variety of teas for your refreshment while relaxing. If you have an inside cabin and don’t want to brave the elements this is an ideal spot to be for Glacier Bay – you will be able to hear the ranger’s presentation while you recline on the recliners and drink yummy cups of herbal tea. The other benefit to this spa is mental – quiet and very calming. The ships holds over 2,000 vacationers, 1,000+ crew and NCL sells only 82 spa passes for the week. Not hard to do the math ïŠFor those trying to get a pass - look for the spa signup table as you come on board - found it just 200' from the gangway.
I’m a Latitudes members so attended the free cocktail hour for members where the command crew met with people, introduced themselves and their backgrounds and gave us some pointers for our trip to make it more pleasurable. Captain Tommy Stensrud was very accessible – throughout the trip we found him moving through the ship, talking with guests, and really enjoying people’s comments and suggestions. Prem is the hotel manager and WOW he makes sure we leave the ship loving his hotel. Personable, funny, and very very interested in everything we have to say – positive or negative. He keeps a box out on the reception desk so you can drop a comment card in anytime and he follows up! We dropped off a comment and by that evening we came back to find a card from Prem thanking us and it was signed! We also attended a meet and greet and the Captain, Prem and all the heads of the departments were there. Get back to our room afterwards (some wandering by the lounges ) and we found a card from NCL that listed every department head, their name, and their PHONE #. At any time we could pick up the phone and dial directly if we had a concern. That’s customer care when the department heads are willing to give you direct dial numbers to ensure you have an excellent experience. At one point hubster walked up to an attendant during a football game on the big screen and started with “I’m not sure if you can help me” and was stopped right there with the assurance that “he would be able to help him and delighted to do so – what did my husband need”? He didn’t know we were cruise critic members, did not know our Latitudes levels – just another passenger and he made sure that my hubby’s needs were taken care of quickly and perfectly. (FYI: DH decided he had to have jalapeno poppers to watch the game. Something I hadn’t seen on any menu. It took about 15 minutes, but sure enough hubby was soon happily munching on poppers while cheering the 49ers.) The command crew and the staff of this ship take customer care seriously. If anything is not to your expectations, if you aren’t delighted with each experience / encounter – they take it personally and will do everything they can to turn it around. I’ve sailed multiple cruise lines and have to say that I find whatever NCL is doing to train their people on customer care…it is working.
Special Note: Ketchikant
The day we were to go to Ketchikan we had really foul weather. Force 9 gale winds. Swells 15 – 21 feet. It was ugly! Ketchikan had deferred ships the day before as too unsafe to try to dock and disembark. For us, it was the same – all ships that day were turned away. I know cruise ships are a significant source of income for the towns so this wasn’t a decision that was easy for them. NCL’s cruise director, Pedro, jumped into action. By 9am he was on the overhead letting people know all the activities lined up for on board that day. The performers (magician, singers, dancers, comedians) would all be performing during the day and when / where to find them. The bars provided free drinks for an hour early in the afternoon. NCL went out of their way to give us a fantastic day over something they had no control over. Amazingly I heard some people grumbling that evening – couldn’t believe they didn’t appreciate all NCL did to turn a very choppy / tossy day into an adventure. Were we sad to miss Ketchikan – yes. Were we unhappy with all NCL did to alleviate our disappointment – not at all.
DH had never cruised before and wasn’t sure he’d like it. Before the trip he had mentioned that we were in mini-suite and that was okay as ‘honeymoon’ but going forward if we cruised again we would save money and just do inside cabins. Wasn’t sure if spa pass ($139) would be a good vacation investment…All I heard on the drive back to Oregon was planning for our schedules, budgeting, etc. for how soon we can go back again. In a balcony cabin. With spa passes. Dining at a different specialty restaurant each evening. I think NCL has created a cruising monster!