Top 5 BEST things about cruising Alaska on the NCL Pearl:
1. Alaska -- WOW! Amazing views of Glacier Bay, snow-capped mountains, temperate rain forests, and a little bit of tundra along the White Pass railway. Glimpsed a few whales, porpoises and seals from the ship. Then during port excursions we saw orcas and humpbacks up close, sea lions and dozens of eagles.
2. Bayardo the room steward was awesome! He greeted us by name every day, kept our cabin clean and well stocked, surprised us with a variety of adorable animal towel sculptures, and was consistently the most friendly and polite crew member on board. He truly made us feel special and well taken care of.
3. The thermal suite was our haven 6 out of 7 days. For about the cost of one spa treatment we each purchased a pass for access to hot tubs, steam bath, sauna, and heated tile loungers. No more than 84 passes were sold during the cruise and people came and went so the spa was thankfully never crowded. The views from the spa were incredible, perhaps the best on the ship. No kids allowed. Pure bliss.
4. The variety of activities listed in the daily newsletter offered something for every type of traveler… art auctions, bowling, dance parties, comedy shows, dining and beverage specials, fitness classes, internet access, karaoke, kids clubs, library loans, live musical entertainment, magic shows, port shopping tips, spa services, trivia games, and more. The four string trio and Second City comedy shows were among my favorites. Anyone who says they get bored during an ocean cruise has probably never cruised like a Norwegian aboard a Freestyle NCL ship. I managed to sample about half the activities of interest to me. Would have done others but opted for a more relaxed, less scheduled vacation experience.
5. The quality of the food was consistently above average in terms of flavor, freshness, presentation and taste. Service was excellent most of the time, though not always. Summer Palace and Indigo complimentary restaurants were equally enjoyable in different ways. Preferred Le Bistro over Cagney’s; didn’t try any of the other cover charge specialty restaurants. Garden Café buffet was yummy though crowds of grabby passengers led us to choose table service restaurants for most of our meals. The few times we went to the buffet, we enjoyed dining in the Great Outdoors and La Cucina seating areas. The Blue Lagoon 24 hour café came in handy for an early breakfast one morning, as did room service. However, the scrambled eggs smelled odd and didn’t taste quite right, perhaps powdered instead of fresh, so we ate them only once. Genuinely appreciated the smiling crew with bottles of hand sanitizer greeting passengers as we boarded the ship and/or entered dining areas. Would definitely have purchased a “happy happy, washy washy” T-shirt or tote bag in the gift shop if those items had been available.
Top 5 WORST things about cruising Alaska on the NCL Pearl:
1. Too many people; Most of the fellow travelers we met were pleasant, truly. But more than a few were unbelievably rude and self-entitled. Some pushed their way through crowded areas of the ship, talked loudly in otherwise quiet spaces, and allowed their offspring to run wild. With NCL Freestyle cruising, there’s no dress code. Even in the specialty restaurants where smart casual is suggested, some folks wore T-shirts, sweat pants and ball caps. Can’t imagine cruising on a larger ship with even more passengers.
2. Tiny stateroom was a challenge for 2 people to share. The balcony and mirrors helped open up the space visually yet 200 square feet still felt confining. Except for occasional hallway noise the room was quiet. Bedding was crisp, clean and comfortable. Artwork was ideal for a Caribbean cruise but didn’t fit the Alaska itinerary. The design of the bathroom supposedly allowed for concurrent uses though we took turns because it would have been difficult for two people to get in and out of the lavatory at the same time. Though I applaud the efficient cabin design with a place for everything and everything in its place, I would have appreciated a little more square footage as well as an updated neutral décor.
3. NCL boasts the newest fleet of ships sailing to Alaska. The Pearl, which launched in 2006, appeared a bit dated and worn in some areas which made me wonder how other ships compare. Overall the vessel seemed well maintained; no major concerns. Noticed minor repairs were taken care of quickly with minimal down time. Still, NCL should consider scheduling a renovation, or at least strategic aesthetic updates.
4. I would have preferred a more tranquil environment instead of the cruise director’s failed attempt to cultivate a party atmosphere. Based on noticeably lackluster passenger participation in certain activities, apparently other travelers felt the same way. Perhaps part of the reason was interest in the World Cup which was projected on the big screen in the crystal atrium. Another factor could have been the sheer number of programs offered because it was impossible to do everything since multiple activities overlapped. Timing was rarely sensible. Karaoke was scheduled sporadically but only for an hour at a time so not everyone who signed up to sing had the opportunity. Library hours were frustratingly limited. And productions usually had only one showing so acts were easily missed.
5. The little things, lots of little things. No robes in the cabin; only in the spa. No afternoon tea. Shopping guides and a few videotaped activities looped endlessly on the tv but none of the entertainment acts were broadcast so there was no opportunity to watch a show in your cabin if you didn’t go into the Stardust Theatre. Art auctioneer Eugene was likeable but beware of his staff’s upsell pitches which are relentless. Although gratuities were pre-paid, we happily tipped extra when service was impressive. While 80% of the crew was fantastic, 20% were condescending and contemptuous toward passengers, including cruise director Archie and his assistant Richard (Rick). Jefferson (Jeff) and others were much nicer. The Trade Winds gift shop staff lacked customer service skills, especially the blonde woman who spoke with a European accent. When we saw the weather forecast for Glacier Bay listed as 80 degrees, it was clear the newsletter editor mistakenly Googled Glacier National Park in Montana, not Alaska. Bless his/her heart.
Overall it was an enjoyable vacation. No regrets. One lesson learned is that 7 days is a long time to spend on a floating resort with other travelers and their children. Next time we’ll likely cruise for a shorter duration on a smaller ship with fewer passengers and hopefully fewer young families. Willing to cruise NCL again. Also want to try other cruise lines to see how they compare.