We just returned from the 7 day Alaska cruise (r/t Seattle) on the Norwegian Pearl (June 15 sailing). It was our 5th NCL cruise (4th in the more modern Freestyle era) and second on the Pearl.
However, it was our first in three years, and... there have been some noticeable changes. More on that soon. But wanted to mainly focus our review on our experience traveling with our two young daughters, ages 6 and 4.
There are plenty of reviews on here geared toward the adult experiences but wanted to give those with kids some idea what to expect and what might be a bit different than you're expecting, even if you've been on an NCL cruise before.
We booked last minute (2 weeks prior) on an Obstructed Oceanview Guarantee. We live in the Seattle area so it was a way to get a reasonable fare with no airfare needed. We ended up getting a slight upgrade to a non-obstructed porthole cabin on Deck 4, midship-ish.
First shocker with the kids: Our cabin. Overall, it was totally fine -- quite cozy, but expected for the cabin class. But we were surprised to find it only had one bunk bed. Other oceanviews we had in years' past had 2 bunks on either wall. The kids had been psyched to get their own bunk. Instead, the cabins have a bit of an awkward shift -- the double bed shifts over to the wall, and a trundle bed comes from under the main bed to essentially make a three-bed across pattern. Apparently this is the layout for 4 on the entire ship -- no double bunks in any cabin.
That means at night, no nightstands, no spot for water or the phone (we stuck the phone up near the porthole) and no easy underbed storage. It also meant young kid was sleeping with Mom and Dad for the trip. Luckily, you can shift the bed lower to the floor to give some vertical space, if not horizontal space. Might be fairly awkward for older kids or really awkward if you're going as a group of 4 adults :)
We just asked our steward to leave the beds up all the time as it seemed like a waste to have to keep shifting the bed each night.
A photo can be found here:
As mentioned, we had been on the Pearl before and remembered it had a nice water slide. NCL's website is quite thin on pictures for the Pearl, but Google image the Pearl's pool and you find several pics with the slide.
Imagine our surprise after getting on the ship, getting into swimsuits and heading to the pool deck to find... the slide is gone. I know ships undergo changes -- the Pearl has had some sprucing up since we were last on there, but seems strange to make something less fun. It's not like they replaced the space with anything.
Here is a current pic of the pool deck (don't let Google fool you! :)
Other bummer: They have two nearly identical pools -- an adult pool and one for the kids. However, the one for the kids is 4 feet 11 inches at its shallowest point -- too deep to stand for most kids in the 4-8 range. My 6-year-old just learned to swim leading up to the cruise but I was uneasy having her in there with nary a place to stand up if she got tired or in trouble. I'm guessing it was probably liability related for kids jumping in but I see many other pools with like 4 feet that should suffice. Seems poor design. Also, water temp was quite chilly. I get it's Alaska and you're not exactly basking in 80-90 degree sun, but just a little warmer would help the adults who have to be in to help the kids who can't touch :)
The Pearl does have a infant/toddler pool play area -- it's about a foot deep and has a very small slide. So you're well covered if your kid is like 18-months to 3 years old or older than 9-10.
THE KIDS CLUB
The kids spent quite a bit of time inside Splash Academy. Overall, they had a blast and the staff is SUPER. Only things to be aware of that we found a bit strange: During times when the ship is at sea, the kids club closes for 2 hours for both lunch (Noon-2pm) and dinner (5-7pm). This was a bit of a crimp as they had, for example, scheduled the Latitudes meet and drink party or the meet the Captain gathering -- during the middle of these kids closures. So the kids came along each time. Poor planning there.
However, kids club is open all day while in port (or at least open while in port. For example, it was open in Ketchikan at noon but we left Ketchikan at 1:30pm and kids club was closed for dinner at sea at 5) -- different than most other cruises where the clubs are open all the time at sea but close while in port, or at least charged for port time. The kids club will feed your kid for $6 if you want to leave them there during port time.
Kids club is free until 10:30pm, then they charge $6/hr ($4/hr each additional sibling) until 1:30 am.
The only other minor complaint from my oldest was that the activities were always structured and mandatory to all in the group -- there wasn't any free "do what you want" time there. The age breakdown is 3-5, 6-9 and 10-13 and they are separated into rooms --a little bummer for my littlest who could never play with big sis, but some families, this might be a plus and it makes sense on some levels to gear activities to age levels. Also, they expect your kid to wear a bracelet 24/7 and charge your $5 if you cut it off and it needs to be replaced. Seems a bit extreme for a 10 cent piece of plastic, but I guess it cuts down on their administrative time to keep reissuing it. They let the badge hang loose on our kids so they could slip it on and off -- a good option to ask for if your kid is sensitive to wearing plastic.
One very cool thing they do -- you spend the week training for their end-of-the-week circus. Depending on age and amount of time you've spent in the Splash Academy, the more challenging your event. They had lasso ropers, Dragon stick toss, Feather balancing, and Chinese YoYo tricks. Then they all perform for the parents on the last day on the big stage in the Stardust Lounge! That was awesome and a great experience.
One thing that we learned the first time on the Pearl, when the Garden Café (buffet area) is packed, head all the way back toward the rear of the ship-- just before you reach the outdoor Great Outdoors Café is a little seating area geared toward the kids. They seating is a bit lower but at least most times it's not quite as packed as the traditional seats.
OTHER NOTES NOT KID RELATED:
Some other odds and ends that we found a bit...odd.
Dining: I would suggest you look into the specialty dinner package when booking the cruise and just count it as a required cost of the trip. The dinners in the specialty restaurants were light years ahead of the main dining room counterparts.
But if you do want to partake in the main dining option, we learned, as other passengers did fairly quickly, to avoid the Summer Palace if you can. It seemed to us that NCL has cut back on service staff and it really seemed to show here as the staff and kitchen seem overwhelmed. We ate here on opening night and the waiter apologized over and over that the kitchen was backed up - this around 7:30pm start time. Dinner took well over two hours.
A second trip there was needed on a night when we wanted to try Indigo, but it was packed, yet Summer Palace was wide open (see!) It didn't help that Indigo was right next to the gangway that night, but our second Summer Palace experience too had very long wait-for-food times, a server who had multiple difficulties getting the order correct. Indigo was a bit better but even there, we had where we went a good 20 minutes with no wait staff. In all three times, never once were we offered a wine list or anything to drink without us having to ask first.
On the other hand, dinner at Le Bistro and Lotus Garden were incredible. And while service might have been slow or had issues in the main garden, the servers themselves ranged from pleasant to go-to-the-wall-for-you :)
Oh, and the big shocker? No lobster night in the main dining rooms. Kept waiting for it. Never came. I've been on 13 cruises across the spectrum of companies and they've all had a lobster night. Not this time. The two 'formal" nights main dishes were a turkey dish and a shrimp/seafood dish. Prime Rib was on the final night in Victoria. Also a surprising amount of repeated dishes. And they apparently ran out of half and half about 2/3 the way in and had to rely on the little packets till the end of the cruise.
One thing about NCL is if you're a casual dress person, this is the cruise for you. Very few really dressed up for their first optional formal night and it was even less the second night. But as one who hates to dress up, they get a thumbs up from me here to allow great options on your dress. No stress here.
Back to the pool: In another sign of change, no just grabbing clean towels from a bin. You now are supposed to sign out towels. Like write down your room number and number of towels and agree to $25 deposit if not returned, although this seemed loosely-to-non enforced and someone walked off with one of our towels and there was no surprise charges :)
OK, figured that part out...except their towel "hut" closes at 10pm with the pool. Hot tubs? They're open till midnight (Woo!), just good luck drying off (D'oh! In retrospect, guess we should have checked for towels before we jumped in at 10:30) You can either bring a towel from your room (I guess) or as we did, sneak into the fitness room and grab some towels from the locker room (shhh!)
Now, despite what I've written, I don't want it to seem like it was a bad cruise. Far from it. We had a great time. There were no horror stories.
Getting on the ship was a breeze; getting on and off the ship in each port went like clockwork. It's a little bit of a bummer that Ketchikan was a short port day and Juneau was evening only but that's a function of leaving from Seattle and having to touch that Canadian port for the Jones Act.
Glacier Bay was awesome -- we had a good 6 hours or so in the bay with a solid 90 minutes up close with the two main glaciers in the bay, and the captain did a deft job of slowly spinning around in circles so that each side of the ship can see. There was plenty of room on the decks to roam around and see the glaciers -- no shoving required :) We've been on each glacier itinerary to Alaska and Glacier Bay is tops by far over Hubbard and Sawyer.
The staff was awesome all around. They work so hard and always keep a smile. The food in the Garden Café was pretty good. And as we mentioned, the specialty restaurants were top notch. And there's always ice cream. A big plus.
We aren't much for the shows and didn't take any shore excursions as we've been to the cities a number of times already. This was mostly a trip to just get away and have some fun on board.
Hope this helps a bit when planning your next cruise or if you'll be on the Pearl soon!