I thought I'd add my voice as someone who has sailed on the Pearl with young children. My wife and I took our three boys -- ages 3, 6 and 11 -- on their first cruise, and the entire family had so much fun, it was probably our best family vacation ever.
Our trip began in Miami, where we boarded the Pearl. It was a little overwhelming outside the terminal, as we were rushed out of our vehicle and into the building. But once we got inside, the whole process went smoothly. The NCL reps were friendly and professional, and the kids enjoyed the cookies they provided while we waited to board the ship.
Upon entering the Pearl, both the kids and we adults were impressed with the size and beauty of the ship. My wife and I have only been on one cruise in the past, and it was a very old ship (Carnival's Festivale), so we were thrilled to see how greatly cruise ships have evolved in the past 15 years.
We chose to stay in two inside staterooms on the very bottom floor of the ship. Our philosophy is that when you're on a cruise, you hardly see your room, anyway (at least, we don't), so why spend thousands of dollars on a large suite? My wife stayed in one room with our 3-year-old, and I stayed with the two older boys in a nearby room. The inside staterooms are what you would expect: small, no windows, but no less comfortable than your average hotel room. But for the price, you can't beat it.
As it was around noon, we all headed to the Garden Cafe to grab some lunch at their buffet. We all found the food to be good -- not great, not lousy, but "good." The variety was more impressive than the quality, as we had our choice between burgers and dogs, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, Chinese food, chicken and beef, etc..
Unfortunately, we didn't realize until we'd been on the ship for about two days that there is also a section of the Garden Cafe that is specifically for kids. The "Kid's Corner" is located toward the rear of the ship, near the "Great Outdoors", and it includes the usual kid-friendly fare: chicken fingers, burgers, dogs, fries, chocolate milk, juice, etc..
We ate at La Cucina the first night, and again, the food was good, but not great. I had a pasta and Italian sausage dish that was comparable to something you would eat at an Olive Garden restaurant. There is no cover charge for this restaurant, so there's nothing to lose, really.
Next, we tried Mambo's, which is also cover-charge-free. I thought the food there was terrific. My wife didn't agree. But she doesn't really care for spicy food, so take that review with a grain of (jalapeno) pepper.
My 11-year-old and I also dined at Cagney's one night, and it was by far my favorite dining experience on-board. We each ordered a filet, which was cooked perfectly. There is a cover charge ($25/person, I believe, but we went on a 2-for-1 night) for this restaurant, but IMHO it's worth every penny. If you enjoy a good steak, don't miss Cagney's.
Finally, we ate at the Blue Lagoon several times as well. It's a restaurant (also no cover) that serves "comfort food", and the entire family enjoyed eating here. Oddly enough, the best food item on the menu there was the chili. I enjoyed it so much, I ordered it three different times throughout our week! And on our last day on board, my wife was good enough to ask the chef for the recipe, which he happily provided to us. I also had a pork-fried rice dish that was delicious. And the best part about the Blue Lagoon is that it's open 24 hours a day!
While planning this trip, we were a little nervous about whether our kids would enjoy the Kid's Club. If not, we were in for a very long week trying to keep them entertained (while at the same time, entertaining ourselves.) But our kids all LOVED the Kid's Club. They looked forward to going there every day, and we never felt guilty about leaving them there. Which meant that we were free to enjoy ourselves!
The staff at the Kid's Club could not have been any better with the kids. Because of the age difference with our three boys, each one was in a different group, in a separate room from the others. So we got to experience each group. Our 3-year-old spent his time doing art activities and playing games. He absolutely loved the giant beanbags and the "jungle gym" (not sure what to call that thing with all the tubes the kids can crawl around.)
Our 6-year-old enjoyed running around like crazy with the other 6-year-olds, and our 11-year-old enjoyed a little more quiet activities with the kids his age. They went on several "field trips" throughout the ship, and we'd often see them being escorted around the ship.
Outside of the Kid's Club, the kids' favorite part about the ship was the pool area, with the water slide. There is a kid's pool and an adult's pool, which are both fresh water (much nicer than the salt water pools, IMHO.) Surprisingly, the kid's pool is quite deep -- too deep for my 5'9" frame to stand at any point. And surrounding the pools are several hot tubs, which I took advantage of while the kids were in their club.
They also enjoyed the giant, wall-sized display screen in the main lounge, where they played Nintendo Wii on the big screen.
We spent some time in just about every area of the ship, including:
-- Shaker's Martini Bar: This is where they hold the art auctions. We attended two different auctions, but didn't buy anything. It was fun just to watch, really.
-- Spinnaker Lounge: Probably the best views on the ship. We enjoyed 2-for-1 cocktails here, while lounging on big, comfy couches and looking out at the Caribbean through big glass windows. On the final night of the cruise, they held a game show in this lounge called "The Quest." Let me just say...if you enjoy having a good time (and who doesn't?), do NOT miss this show!
-- Bliss Ultra Lounge: Probably my favorite place to hang out and drink. They have two bowling alleys here that were, surprisingly, hardly used during our trip. And they have several velvet lounge chairs, couches and even beds that give the place a weird sort of ambience. They also play old music videos from the 80's all day and night, so if you're into that sort of thing, you'll enjoy Bliss.
Unfortunately, I hadn't yet discovered CruiseCritic when we went on our trip, so I was completely naive about the activities that were available to us on each of our stops. I didn't think any of the ship's excursions sounded good for the whole family, so we simply disembarked and walked around Cozumel, on the street right in front of the ship. Needless to say, it wasn't the wisest thing to do. We were accosted every step of the way by pushy vendors, trying to lure us into their shops. Unfortunately, their favorite selling tactic was to address our kids and engage them in conversation. I had to tell the kids a few times to simply ignore the people and keep walking.
We checked out a few jewelry stores, and ended up buying a couple of cheap "shark's tooth" necklaces for the kids. Of course, I felt like a complete idiot when those necklaces busted a few hours later, leaving my kids heartbroken.
Be prepared to barter if you decide to buy something from the street vendors (and I wouldn't recommend that you do.) When I asked our vendor how much he wanted for the two necklaces, his response was, "How much do you want to pay?" No, no, no. How much do you want? He responded by asking for $30 for the two. I "talked him down" to $20. I then realized that I'd been taken.
In Belize, we decided to take the ship's excursion: a combination snorkel trip and "beach break." We weren't sure how long it would take to tender ashore, so we left as early as possible. Big mistake. We ended up getting to shore about 90 minutes before the tour was to begin. So we walked up and down the little strip, and browsed through the shops in an effort to kill time. It was well over 90 degrees, and there was very little relief from the heat. We ended up sitting with our backs against a cool wall for about 20 minutes.
The tour was very poorly organized, and there were people from our group milling around aimlessly, wondering where the tour was meeting. Finally, someone with a clipboard showed up and directed us to wait in one particular area. We waited for approximately 20 more minutes before we finally boarded the catamaran. It was another 20-30 minutes to the barrier reef from there, and along the way we got a long lecture about snorkeling safety, and received our equipment. The equipment was extremely poor quality, and I would recommend to anyone who wants to snorkel in the Caribbean to purchase your own equipment before you leave.
My 6-year-old isn't a very good swimmer, so I was very concerned about how this little excursion would go. I jumped in the water first, and helped my two boys into the water. We then treaded water for a while, as my 6-year-old struggled with his mask. All the while, he kept swallowing sea water, as the waves were pretty rough.
Finally, after several minutes of adjustments, we began swimming out toward the reef. There were two tour boats anchored off the reef -- each containing roughly 50-60 people. So at minimum, there were 100 people in the water, all thrashing about, kicking in our faces as I struggled to keep one arm on my 6-year-old and one eye on my 11-year-old. After about 15-20 minutes of stopping to spit out sea water, re-adjusting my 6-year-old's mask again and again, and struggling to keep afloat while holding onto two kids and swallowing a few gallons of sea water myself, I decided to abandon the whole snorkeling idea, to the dismay of my oldest.
Getting back on board was another adventure, as my 11-year-old decided to attempt to climb up the stairs while wearing his flippers. He slipped, fell, and went head-first down the steps and into the ocean. I pulled him up with one arm while holding onto my youngest with my other arm. Luckily, he wasn't injured.
After that fiasco, we sailed to Bannister Island. As soon as we got there, I realized that we should have just skipped the snorkeling altogether. Bannister Island looks like something out of a Corona commercial: white sand, blue water, lounge chairs, shady palm trees and cool drinks. They had kayak rentals and other activities, but after our snorkeling trip, I just wanted to relax. So I lay on a lounge chair, bought a beer from the waitress, and watched my kids play on the beach and in the water. It was pure bliss.
I would highly recommend a cruise for any couple with young children. It was a vacation our family will never forget, and I believe that we will do it again sometime soon. Take advantage of the Kid's Club, and do your research on CruiseCritic before you go!