We just returned from a 7-night Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Pearl (7/27 - 8/3). We had not been on a cruise since 1998, when we rode the Norwegian Windward to Alaska. We loved that trip so much, we decided to do the same cruise again. We loved the Pearl, the cruise, and the staff.
The Pearl is a beautiful ship, and extremely well-maintained. The rooms were very clean on arrival, as were all the restaurants, common areas, and decks. Before we boarded in Seattle, we noticed the crew power-washing the balconies, decks, and windows. And when the ship was in port, the painters were at work around the ship. It is attention to detail like this which makes for a pleasurable cruise.
The boarding process was a bit confusing, but with 3000 guests trying to get on board, one should expect a bit of a wait. The waiting room could have been more comfortable, and I probably would have preferred a system that gave out numbers as you arrived and you could sit until your number was called to get in a short line.
Once on board, we tried to take in everything on the ship and get oriented. With a ship this large, with so many rooms, restaurants, and bars, it is a daunting task. I felt that by the end of the week, I knew the ship pretty well, but frequently got lost and ended up going in the wrong direction during our trip. And the elevators were not much help in getting around. With that many people waiting to ride, it was often easier to walk. I guess that is good.
The restaurants ranged from good to excellent. Of course, the surcharged restaurants were the best. Most days, we ate on the stern deck at the Great Outdoors restaurant. This was a real find, and we found it thanks to our traveling friends who sailed the Pearl in 2008. Although it was a buffet, they offered made to order eggs and omelets. The baked items, like croissants, were excellent. The rest of the buffet food was just ok. Often the bacon, listed as “crispy”, was undercooked. I didn’t care much for the home fries. And for some reason, it was easy to find a table on the deck. But I will say that the coffee on board was very good… much better than I expected.
The main buffet, the Garden Cafe, was always a zoo. It was kind of reminded me of the cafeteria in Animal House. Although I didn’t see any actual food fights, it was kind of a feeding frenzy. And it was impossible to find a table. This meant that one person in the group had to save the table while the others foraged for food. Then, when they returned, the first person could get their food. So it was anything other than a quiet dining experience. With that many people on board, I understand the need for a large buffet, but I was glad there were other options. I will say that the food in the buffet was very good. We are several lunches there and the food was fresh and well-prepared.
On a couple of occasions, we ate in the Summer Palace. This is a large, table-service restaurant. The food was good and the service was excellent. And at the times we ate, there was not much of a wait.
For the surcharged restaurants, we ate in three. La Cucina ($15 pp) was excellent and a good value. The bread and dipping oil was very good, as were the salads, soups, and main courses. I had a pasta and olive oil with sausage dish that was very spicy and delicious. The restaurant decor was pleasant, and we got a window table. We liked this restaurant so much, we ate there twice.
The next surcharged restaurant we visited was Cagney;’s ($30 pp). Again, excellent food and great service. I got a NY Strip steak that was delicious. Another member of our party got the 18 oz ribeye, which was also very good. The salads and sides were very good as well. So, this place was a hit.
Finally, we ate in Teppanyaki ($25 pp), a Japanese restaurant. This was one of those places where you sit around a grill and the chef puts on a show. He did not disappoint, and the food was very good. There were really only two things about this place that I didn’t like. First, the dinner felt rushed. The place only holds 32 diners, and they turn the place around 3 times during diner service. This means that you have about one hour to eat. Second, since you can order shrimp, chicken, or steak, not everyone of going to eat at the same time. The shrimp comes off first, followed by the chicken, then the steak. Since our party ordered different things, we ate at different times, and those who ordered steak had less time to eat. In general, I’m not sure I would go there again.
The entertainment was very good. We attended shows and entertainers every night, and they were very professional. The “Frankie Valle” group, “Oh What a Night” was excellent. Also, the broadway show review was very good, as was the band “Future Perfect”.
As for Shore Excursions, the best was "Whale Watching and Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari”. This was run by Gastineau Guiding, and our tour leader was Brian Hild, a professional nature photographer. Our tour was limited to 16 people. The first part was a boat ride to look for whales They were pretty easy to find, and our Captain Jen put us right in the action. The windows on the boat could be raised, so we had a clear shot for our photos. Absolutely amazing. Then, a short hike to Mendenhall. I would have liked to spend more time there and hike down closer to the glacier. Great trip.
Our other shore excursion was to Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC. Since the ship is only there for 6 hrs (6 -12 midnight), time is limited to either a shgore trip or walking around downtown. The trip to Butchart was fine, but the crowds at the Gardens really limited what you could see. Plus, you are there at dusk, so while it is fun to walk the lighted paths, you really are limited in the flowers and plants you can see. The crowds are, in part, due to the fireworks that are shown on Saturday night. Pretty good show, but we had to stand for the whole thing, as the seating area was mobbed. If I had to do it over, I would probably not take this trip.
There were a few things I didn’t like. I felt “nickel and dimed” during the trip. You know the situation when everything is a “surcharge”, “up-charge”, or “fee”. This feeling first hit before we even boarded. My wife bought a couple of inexpensive ($10) bottles of wine to take on board. Her intent was to have a glass with our fiends in our room or on the balcony. The bottles were in her carry on and were quickly spotted as we went through security. We were diverted to another desk where we were charged $15 per bottle as a “corkage fee”. Now, there was no “corkage”, as they were twist-off tops. And we were not asking a server to pour the wine or to serve it to our table. This was outrageous. And the “nickel and dime” process continued. Want a glass of Pepsi? $2.10. Want to use the on-board wifi? $.75 per minute. Want to consume a bottle of water from the mini-bar? $5.95. Want to use their wifi system to send a text message to another guest? $7.95 for the week. This is in addition to the $12 per person per day service fee.
Next, the size of the boat. I understand that the trend is toward larger and more comprehensive ships. But there were a lot of things on this ship that I had no interest in. Rock climbing? Nope. Basketball? Nope. Gambling? I’ll pass. Cigar lounge? Nope. Maybe I’m not the demographic for this type of trip.
There was one lounge on the boat that was downright scary. The Bliss Lounge. Think of a bordello. Red velvet, beds, dim lights. I was frightened to go in there. What are they thinking?
Finally, I’m not sure how I feel about “Free Style” cruising. On our last cruise, we had a nice table for two by the window in the dining room. We ate all our meals there, and had the same waiter, who got to know our likes and dislikes. On this trip, we spent a lot of time planning our meals. Where to go? When to eat? Now, I know that the “free style” concept is to give people more choices, but I’m not sure making decisions is how I want to spend my vacation time.
So, all that being said, we had a great time. I was impressed with the servers and stewards. Our steward, Bayardo, greeted us by name when he saw us, and made clever animal figures out of towels for us every night. The room was always made up quickly and perfectly. The servers in the restaurants were always happy and pleasant. And the senior staff, from the Captain on down was pleasant, accessible, and equipped with a good sense of humor.