I almost lost my faith in cruising after a couple of pretty bad experiences on Carnival but cruising with Norwegian is just what I needed to remind me that there are still good companies out there that care what their customers think and respect their privacy. It is not one of the new super liners with 7 desks of balcony suites and a giant shopping mall in the the middle. It is simply a beautiful mid-sized ship that has just what you need and does't go overboard trying to make you buy-buy-buy. Don't get me wrong, there are shops. They are just not the focus of the ship. The guest is.
We took an Alaskan inside passage cruise from Seattle on the Norwegian Pearl, May 18-25, 2014 in celebration of our 24-year-old daughters’ masters’ degree and both me and my husband’s birthdays. Embarkation on Sunday went very smooth. Even though we were boarding at the peak time, around noon, it moved relatively fast. I was expecting to have our picture taken for the facial recognition software that 'other' ships photographers use to capture you anytime they want so they can post pictures for you to buy all week long, but it did not happen. (Thank you NCL for respecting my privacy.) We were onboard within an hour and headed straight up to The Great Outdoors on deck 12, aft. Where we could grab a bite from the outdoor buffet and get the party started with a drink and watch Seattle get smaller and smaller.
We shared an aft mini- suite on deck 11, (11118) starboard. My first impression of the room was that it might be too small for 3 adults. This was really not ever a problem. Even with the couch bed pulled out, you can maneuver pretty well. The bathroom has a very nice deep bathtub and a separate toilet area. The shower had great water pressure and the temp was easy to control. There is a table with 2 chairs and a vanity mirror with a built in hair dryer across from the couch. This makes it easy for one person to primp while the other showers.
The pull out bed is a queen. One side is rather hard, but the other is not too bad. Your room steward can always add more padding underneath. The main bed is firm but not too hard, the linens are a nice quality and crisp. There is no outlet by the bed so if you have a C-Pap breathing machine, bring an extension cord. (if you forget like we did, the front desk will happily accommodate.) I was really surprised at how quiet this cabin was. Even though we were right under the Garden Café, we could hardly ever hear anything more than the occasional high-heeled footsteps. I slept like a baby every single night and I am not a heavy sleeper.
The food was pretty good overall. Definitely a step or two above Carnival. There is a great selection everyday on the buffet. Yes there are repeats, but with so many choices, you will find something you like. It can get pretty crowded in there if you are eating at peak time for meals, and seating can get challenging. We found that The Great Outdoors which is just outside the buffet on the back of the ship is a good place to park with your plate. A little secret; the La Cucina restaurant also allows people to sit in there and enjoy their buffet meals during breakfast and lunch. The main dining room food can be hit or miss. Most of it is good, but I found the desserts to be either too sweet or not sweet at all. The portions are reasonable sizes, which helps to avoid waste and an expanding waistline. With 3 courses served at each meal, you will not go hungry. We had lunch there 3 times and the menu was the same each day which I thought a little odd. There is another ‘free’ restaurant called Blue Lagoon that serves sandwiches, wings and coffee. It is hidden in plain sight right above the atrium on deck 8. We did not notice it till the last day of the cruise because we thought it was part of a specialty restaurant. For specialty dining, we only went to Le Bistro once. It was fabulous! There is a speciality dining package you can buy that allows you to eat in a speciality restaurant every day that is not a bad deal, however our cruise had us in port three evenings so it was not really a good option side we wanted to eat in port. Drinks are a little pricey in my opinion. There is a drink package you can buy for $62 with gratuity included. This is per person, per day (you have to buy the week) and everyone in your cabin that is of drinking age must buy one. NO THANKS. At $1300 for all three of us, it still was not a good deal. We certainly can hold our own in a bar, but that just is not a good price unless you are planning to stay drunk all week. You can bring up to two bottles of wine on per person but there is a $15 cork fee so make it a good bottle. You do get a nice little NCL logo corkscrew to keep though.
The entertainment is not bad for a ship and there is always something going on. Second City comedy is hilarious. There is a piano man outside the casino named Bud who I thought was just great. He cracks jokes while playing and keep the audience engaged. I did not watch most of the big shows, but the little ones I happened on where generally good entertainment.
For me, one of the best parts of the cruise was hanging in the Spinnaker lounge, which is deck 13, forward. It has a 180º view and seating all along the windows. The furniture is very unique. It even has a couple of beds and true loungers. It’s a great place to hang out on sea days and spot whales. Its not always quiet though, there is Bingo and a few shows that happen there too. Another quiet hideaway with a great view is the bridge viewing room on deck 11 forward on the port side.
The casino is adequate. I don’t really play table games, but when I did play some Blackjack, the dealer was very helpful in helping me make decisions. I walked away ahead for a change. Slots are my thing and they were not too tight. They seem to pay better than Vegas slots do these days. There was a $20,000 and a $6000 winner on our cruise. I was kind of disappointed to see a large video roulette table sitting broken in the center of the casino. They are fun machines and if its not working, fix it or remove it.
The staff is just great. There is always someone there to answer a question if you need help. And always with a smile. The cruise director Pedro is a pro and is quite funny. He keeps things going but does not plummet you with announcements all day. All of the days activities with times and locations can be found in the Freestyle Daily brochure that will be placed in your room on the evening before. All the information you need to have a good time is in there.
You'll notice right away that sanitation is a top priority on the ship so be prepared to have antibacterial spray offered up regularly for your hands. This may sound odd, but I noticed the absence of the raw sewage smell in the hallways that seems to plague the Carnival ships several times on every cruise.
One of the things about cruising that had turned me off after sailing with Carnival was the way they bearded you like sheep on shore excursions. So I only booked one shore excursion through the ship. Grizzly Falls zip line. It is an amazing excursion. You are taken to the Tongass National forest outside Skagway where there is a great crew of zip line pros that guide you through 11 zip lines and 4 swinging bridges. They are very safety minded and make sure you are comfortable and having fun. I didn't feel like a sheep on this and I thought NCL handled the timing ( didn't feel rushed) and transpiration very well.
We also did a “pilots choice” helicopter glacier tour from booked directly through Temsco in Juneau. I chose to book that directly because Norwegian doesn’t offer the Pilots choice tour. I read that if the weather is bad, the big tours can get cancelled without any warning. The pilot’s choice tour is just that, his choice to go anywhere and the power to land anywhere he feels its safe. Not just where the regular excursions always go. Therefore, it’s is less likely to get cancelled. Sure enough, most of the ones booked through the ship got cancelled that day due to bad weather. One group on a dog sled tour from another ship got stuck on the ice for over 3 hours because of the weather. We got to go on two different glaciers since we weren't confined to a designated area. With just the three of us and the pilot, we felt like we had our own private helicopter and pilot. And we did. Our third excursion was a private fishing charter for King Salmon fishing in Ketchikan. That was also booked privately. We only got one salmon, but trolling around for 4 hours watching eagles and sea lions made it worth the trip.
Disembarkation was quick. We waited until our tag color was called and were off in no time. I did not purchase transfers and I'm glad I didn't. There was a huge line for the bus charters to the airport. We were going to take a cab and some limo driver popped up with an offer to take the 3 of us to the airport for $65. So I took it. Maybe $20.00 more expensive than a cab, but we were comfortable and there in 20 mins.
All in all it was a great trip for all of us. I admit I was rather anal at planning excursions, travel and hotels in advance. I wanted to be sure everything went well and we had no surprises, and it paid off. NCL did their part in making sure we were comfortable, fed and given a good ride. It was a wonderful time re-connecting with my daughter after being gone for 6 years of college and before she starts her new 'big girl' job 400 miles from home. A trip none of us will ever forget. We took advantage of the on board $250 room deposit with a $100 instant onboard account credit. Since we knew we would be sailing with NCL again, we bought two.