Embarkation Day: First of all, let me say that the sailing was for college spring break and was maxed out with 3,000 passengers; that in itself could be a concern. We arrived about 10:30 am and the previous sailing was still disembarking; this caused a slight hiccup in checking in. The Epic was at terminal B, while the Pearl was at terminal G. I had not checked in at this terminal before. The terminal was closed and the line was now extending out into the traffic and getting in the way of departing transfers. The terminal did open about 11:00 am and upon entering, we followed the signs to priority embarkation. However, this was not marked correctly..and we had to go to a different counter at the back of the terminal to get our actual key cards and access to the VIP lounge. From there, we had someone new who had never escorted passengers onto the ship before, so that was a bit of a challenge. However, when we finally made it to the Star Bar and the more than capable hands of concierge Monica Fotache, everything ran like a well-oiled machine. We were in Cagney’s for lunch by 12 noon. I also had Monica set up my specialty reservations, my shore excursions and two spa passes while we ate lunch. That is one of the things that is great about have a wonderful concierge!!! Rooms were ready by 1:15 pm, but when we went to our room, the room steward was still setting things up. Remember the late disembarkation of the prior cruise passengers. One thing that was noted, is that everything I had requested with the pre-concierge service was already complete; fresh fruit, mini-bar emptied with cold pitchers of water, requested pillows and a bowl of m&m’s. More good stuff came later: complimentary wine, chocolate covered strawberries, Godiva Chocolates and all of our Platinum perks. The only thing we did not get were ship pins, but no biggie..we already had Pearl pins from the prior sailngs. Luggage arrived at our room right after sail-away.
Stateroom: We were in aft-facing penthouse 10166. The stateroom was in great condition. The colors were more muted than when we sailed last with the exception of the crazy black out curtain. We had two loungers, one chair and a small table on our wonderful balcony. No issues with things landing on our balcony from the Great Outdoors Café up above. The king size bed in the room was very comfortable and the bathroom was in great condition. No slow-running drains and no plumbing problems. The penthouse and its views were wonderful!! Lots of storage space, a large closet, and two safes are some of the great amenities that come with the room along with the Lavazza coffee machine!
Staff: The star of our cruise was concierge Monica Fotache!!! She is the ultimate in customer service. She had every detail correct for what we requested and found us every night to check in with us to ask how our day had been. What a delightful young woman!! That personal touch means everything and is one of the things that makes Norwegian feel like my home away from home!! She is the epitome of professionalism, with such a sweet, kind and fun-loving personality! What an incredible asset for NCL! Other honorable mentions include Erlindo, our butler! Again, precise, professional and had every detail covered. Larry, our room steward, kept the room tidy and came up with some really cool original towel animals that I had not seen before. One thing that I did find surprising was the lack of the cruise director’s presence on board. I did not know it was Pedro until the Latitudes Party about 48 hours into the sailing. The person whose presence was noticeable was Will “Fish” Fishburn our cruise consultant!! He was assistant cruise director when we sailed in 2012; in my opinion, he should be cruise director now!! I told him so and his remark was he preferred being cruise consultant. What a humble guy! He gave an awesome future cruise presentation by the way and was so friendly at the three cocktail parties that I attended. The staff overall was friendly, helpful and provided excellent service!! In all honesty, I only met one bartender who did not exhibit those traits. Maybe he was just having a bad day.
Dining: Summer Palace, the first night of the cruise, was packed and there was a wait. However, NCL offered complimentary champagne in the Bliss Lounge and it was quite delightful to watch karaoke and meet other passengers. The wait was only 15 minutes and the food in Summer Palace was great! Surf and Turf!! The other nights we did specialty restaurants: Le Bistro (my fave) two times, Teppenyaki and Cagneys. All meals were superb!! One thing that I was surprised by was the presence of lots of shorts in the specialty restaurants. I thought the specialty restaurants were supposed to be more dressy. The staff on the other hand were professional, friendly and efficient! For breakfast, we used room service once, full service breakfast in our suite and then the other mornings split between Cagneys or the Garden Café. Same game plan at lunch and the food was varied and delicious in all venues. Despite having a full ship, finding a seat in the Garden Café was not impossible, and the Great Outdoors Café was also available.
Amenities: We had spa passes for the thermal suite, (limited to 84 guests) on board. Everything was clean and in perfect working order! I even was able to use one of the heated ceramic loungers, what joy!!! The fitness center was in good condition and I love running on the track on the upper deck. 5 ½ laps is a mile….so much of a better set-up than the larger ships. What was a significant challenge however, was finding a chair even on the non-pool decks. Good thing we had loungers on our balcony as the chair hogs were out in full force!
Entertainment: We did go to two shows while on board. “Oh What a Night” continues to be a fave of mine and I highly recommend it! “That’s Entertainment” on the other hand was only so-so and I actually fell asleep. Oops! We did enjoy the 70’s Disco Groove party turned Toga Party the first night on board! Also entertaining was the Caribbean Dance Party and live music by the Roots; what a talented group of musicians! We missed both the Norwegian’s Night out Party and the White Hot Party too. A stop in Cozumel and the White Hot Party all in one day is a challenge that I have yet to win. Oh well…maybe next time.
Shore Excursions: This was the first time for Key West for me; what a great port for NCL to add to their itineraries! I highly recommend the Key West Pub Crawl! Great venues, personalities and a super time had by all! Make sure to try the Key Lime Pie! Also at Sloppy Joes, try the Havanna Nachos, the best I have ever had. Barnacle Beau as our tour guide was a hoot and had us all feeling like family in no time! Loved Key West!!
In Cozumel, the Palancar Snorkel and Playa Mia excursion was not as awesome. The catamaran was in poor condition; when you wonder if you will make it back to the ship, that says it all. The snorkeling site was quite rough and certainly not appropriate for beginners. My husband chose not to snorkel, and when I jumped in my gear promptly broke. I have snorkeled many times but this was not a good experience. Playa Mia, despite having an open bar, has declined as well. None of the women’s toilets were working (yuck)! The place also smelled of rotting seaweed. Not the same quality of place we went to in 2012 and will not go again. However, Senor Frogs was quite the experience!! LOL
Surprises: Ever been at sea going about 18 knots on your last sea day and come to a complete stop? We did to assist 24 boat people who were in distress off the coast of Cuba. The captain and staff of the Pearl handled it very well, and we were kept informed of the unexpected delay. Even more surprising was when the US Coastguard showed up to off-load the passengers. It was quite a show! Kudos to the Captain for keeping us aware of what was going on.
Disembarkation: This process was uneventful! We did priority early walk-off about 8:15 am, made it through customs in 15 minutes and found ourselves at Miami International by 9:30 am via taxi! Smooth!!
Despite some disorganization on embarkation day, the Pearl and its staff was everything I had hoped for and any fears of a decline with the ship, service and staff were completely unwarranted. Watch out for the negative reviews out there! The Pearl shines brightly as one of my favorite ships in the fleet and has certainly not lost her brilliance or luster. Rumor is that she will be doing round-trip Panama Canal sailings in late 2015; sign me up as I can’t wait to sail her again!