I'm a forty-something single guy who loves to cruise. My sister's three daughters are all graduating from high school, so Uncle John is taking each one on a cruise. It's an opportunity to bond, to celebrate each niece's achievements, and to introduce them to my favorite hobby. This was my middle niece Courtney's first cruise. She was three months shy of her 18th birthday when we sailed, and I specifically chose the Western Caribbean itinerary with her in mind. Courtney is the captain of the high school swim team, teaches swim lessons, and generally loves the water, so I figured we'd have plenty of time to snorkel and swim on this cruise.
Flying from Portland, Oregon to Fort Lauderdale takes all day. We left at 7 a.m. Pacific time and arrived in Florida at 6 p.m. The original plan was to stay at the InterContinental in downtown Miami so that we could walk to Bayside and have plenty to do, but we wouldn't have arrived there until nearly 8 p.m., so instead we stayed at the Holiday Inn Fort Lauderdale Airport. A free shuttle picked us up from the airport, we checked in, had dinner at Denny's across the street, and then used the large hotel pool. The room was nice, the pool was nice, but the “hot tub” was freezing! I would stay at this hotel again, though. We used SAS Transportation to get from the hotel to Port Miami. They arrived at the hotel on time and couldn't have been easier or more affordable.
I loved the Norwegian Pearl and her crew. (This was my third sailing aboard the Pearl, but my first in warm weather.) Everyone was helpful and friendly. Archie, our Cruise Director, was particularly friendly and outgoing, and managed to remember our names throughout the week. (I don't know how crew members do it, but it makes a lasting impression!) Captain Gunnar was a delight, too, and he personally invited Meet & Mingle attendees to attend a bridge tour. We were told there were 2,900 passengers aboard the Pearl on our sailing, but it didn't feel too crowded. The pool deck was particularly busy, but most folks seemed to play well with others. Surprisingly, Bar City seemed empty most nights.
We had a midship oceanview cabin on Deck 5; this was an upgrade from our Deck 8 obstructed oceanview cabin offered to us by Norwegian after final payment. We had one of the few portholes on Deck 5 (most of the cabins have windows), but it was very convenient being close to the midship stair tower. The cabin was comfortable and everything worked as expected with the exception of the TV remote. But I'm not a fan of TV watching on cruise ships, so it wasn't an issue. If it had been, we would have simply asked our cabin steward for a new one.
We had great dining experiences on the Pearl. We ate most breakfasts and dinners in the Summer Palace. Most nights we ate at our own table for two; two nights we dined with folks we had just met. We met Mike and Alice from California while we were standing in line, decided to share a table, and ended up running into them several times throughout the cruise. Most dinners were about 75 minutes, which seems to be typical for Norwegian. However, I did notice that the couple of times we went at peak dining times, say around 7:30 p.m., dinner took about 2 hours, which I think is a little too long. The only time Summer Palace was full and we had to wait for a table, it took about 10 minutes to be seated and we were offered sparkling wine and canapes. It wasn't too hard to wait. Most lunches we ate off the ship or at Topsiders, the poolside grill. We loved the special poolside barbeques, too, especially the paella!
We had nice weather most of the week. It was partly cloudy and in the low 80s most of the cruise. It did sprinkle for awhile after lunch when we were at Great Stirrup Cay, but at least we managed a visit. As we got on the island early, we had a nice couple of hours at the beach and a good lunch before it started to rain. In Ocho Rios, we booked an all-inclusive resort day through Jamaica for a Day at the Sunset Jamaica Grande and enjoyed the pools, water slides, kayaking, food and booze. In Grand Cayman, our trip to Stingray City was canceled due to choppy seas and a too-strong current; Wayne from the ship's Shorex team managed to switch us to a Reef & Wreck snorkel excursion and we had an excellent time and excellent snorkeling. We then did some shopping in Georgetown, had lunch back on the ship, and then did more shopping. In Cozumel, we took the long trip to the Mayan ruins in Tulum. It's a long journey for not very much time at the ruins, but our guide made the trip a memorable and informative one.
We loved the parties and entertainment on the Pearl. The sail-away party and White Hot Party were both highlights. The cruise staff are excellent on the Pearl, and we also loved their Not-So-Newlywed Game and Dancing with the Pearl Stars shows. Oh What a Night! was great; Second City comedy was good; and the Pearl Production Cast's That's Entertainment and Encore shows were really good. As we were sailing the week before Christmas, there was also a holiday-themed show produced by the production cast, and it was particularly excellent. I would rank it as one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen on any Norwegian ship.
As I was Latitudes Gold, we used Priority Disembarkation at 8:45 a.m. We left our breakfast at the Great Outdoors as soon as our color was called and walked off the ship. We collected our luggage at the port and had a fairly short wait at customs. One customs agent was going to make an issue of my niece only being 17, but fortunately I had printed out the NCL form and had my sister and brother-in-law complete it. That form resolved the issue immediately, thank goodness.
We stayed two more nights at the Hotel Riu Florida Beach. This is a Spanish-owned hotel, and you can feel it in the staff and the way the hotel operates. I like the vibe, the location, and the relatively low price. We caught a cheap shared-ride van at the port and got to the hotel in about 45 minutes. At the end of our vacation, we took a prearranged Go Airport shuttle back to FLL. It arrived early and we got to the airport in plenty of time.
Courtney and I loved our vacation. Everything went smoothly. When plans changed, a good alternative always emerged. I have two more cruises booked with Norwegian, and I continue to enjoy the Freestyle brand and the Norwegian approach to hospitality. According to crew aboard, the Pearl has been rated number one in customer satisfaction by Norwegian passengers for nearly two years. We would agree!