My husband and I are in our late 30's, no kids. This was our sixth cruise. We have previously sailed with Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Princess. After finding a deal we could not refuse, we booked the Norwegian Pearl 9-day Southern Caribbean cruise for October 19. We were initially a bit reluctant to try NCL, but this was a great itinerary and we found it appealing to be able to do the Southern Caribbean islands out of Miami.
We flew into Miami a day early as we just didn't want to risk flight delays that might cause us to miss the ship. We stayed at the Hampton Inn Blue Lagoon near the airport. This was a very nice Hampton Inn, conveniently located within walking distance of a grocery store and two drug stores. We had a late dinner at an Italian restaurant across the street.
Although the hotel did offer a shuttle to the port for $10 per person, we opted to take a cab. We arrived at the port a little before Noon. Lines were not too long, but they were doing check-in in two places, which led to some confusion. After going through security, we were unknowingly directed into another check-in line, only to reach the counter and be told to proceed to the cruise card pick-up station. We were also given a yellow tag with a number on it. We asked several NCL staff what the number was for and no one knew. This detour only wasted about 10 minutes so we did not let it bother us. We were on the ship by 12:30.
We were pleased to see that the Summer Palace Dining Room was open for lunch on embarkation day. We enjoyed a relaxing and tasty lunch there and we were pleased that we did not have to fight the crowds in the Garden Cafe Buffet. We were able to get into our room at 1:30 pm, so we dropped off our carry-ons and proceeded to explore the ship. We received all our luggage by 3 pm and we were able to get everything unpacked before the muster drill. The muster drill was quite painless, as they thankfully do not make you go out on deck and line up like sardines.
We found the ship to be very attractive, but in keeping with the "Freestyle" theme, it had a very casual feel to it and definitely lacked the elegance of other ships we had been on. For example, the art in the stairwells consisted of large posters and the centerpiece of the main atrium area was a giant video screen for Wii games. However, the ship had so many great features, it was easy to get past the slightly tacky decor. They don't give you a map of the ship when you check in, but you can pick up one at the Guest Relations Desk. I would suggest obtaining one, as it greatly helped us in getting around on the ship.
Cabin - Our inside cabin 5609 was located at the far aft end of the ship next to the crew area. Engine vibration caused the cabin to rattle constantly and we often heard clanking noises and alarms from the crew area late into the night. We would not have slept well without earplugs. This was our first (and last) gamble with a guarantee cabin. The cabin was the smallest we have encountered. Just barely enough drawer and closet space, and no room to walk around the bed on one side due to a table for which there wasn't enough room. The bedding was very comfortable, featuring a fluffy duvet and lots of pillows. The bathroom was small but functional. The shower seemed a bit larger than those on our previous cruises and had door rather than a curtain. Our cabin steward kept the room very clean and left us towel animals on most nights.
Dining - We found that the food in the free venues ranged from excellent to below average. In regard to "freestyle" dining, it's not "free" in any sense of the word. We were able to walk into a table for two at Summer Palace or Indigo (the "main" free dining rooms) if we went around 9, but were asked to wait when we tried Indigo one night at 8 (we were able to get into Summer Palace). For the free specialty restaurants, La Cucina (Italian) and Mambo's (Mexican), reservations a day ahead of time were essential. We are not much on paying extra for specialty restaurants, so we mainly stuck with the "free" restaurants. We did pay $10 to eat at the Lotus Garden and it was very good and we did get better service there. There was no proper lobster night and if you are a carnivore, you will not find decent cuts of meat on the menu at the free restaurants. My biggest complaint about the food was the ubiquitous use of imitation crabmeat in every "crab" dish I tried. Although we enjoyed most meals and certainly did not starve, we felt like the food was just a cut below other lines we've sailed. We really did feel like the food quality pushed many people into the pay restaurants. This is something to keep in mind when deciding on an NCL cruise...if you want lobster and prime rib, be prepared to patronize the pay restaurants. Mambos was the worst food I have ever had on a cruise...stale chips and tortillas. We enjoyed La Cucina and ate there twice-excellent lemon caper snapper and pizzas. The Garden Cafe (buffet) had some outstanding Indian dishes and very good eggplant parmesan. Overall, it was pretty good for buffet food. We ate breakfast here every day and my husband especially liked the made-to-order omelets.
With the exception of our Lotus Garden experience, service in the restaurants was extremely poor. At almost every meal, we heard "sorry for the wait" after we had sat for 20 minutes with closed menus waiting to order. On a few occasions, I thought we would never get our water glasses filled. In addition to taking forever, the wait staff seemed to lack polish as compared to Princess, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.
Day One at Sea -We slept until 10 am, had a late breakfast at Garden Cafe, then headed to Maltings for the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet at 11 am. This was well attended and it was fun to meet the folks we had chatted with on the boards. We purchased day passes to use the spa area for $20 per person. This was money well spent as it really helped us relax and move quickly into vacation mode. This area offers a hydrotherapy pool, a jacuzzi, thermal beds and loungers facing the out to sea. The male and female areas offered jacuzzi bathtubs, a sauna, steam bath and polar dip. I think this was the evening we saw the Second City Improv group which was very funny.
Day Two Samana - Here we chose to do the Cayo Levantado Beach excursion through NCL. We were very glad we chose this option, as we spoke to several people who went ashore in Samana and they were very disappointed. We tendered directly from the ship to the resort island of Cayo Levantado where we found a very groomed, "private-island" type of beach and facilities. Lounge chairs were free, and food/beverage options were available for a fee. There was a shopping area staffed by locals as well as lot of photo opportunities with various unfortunate creatures such as a monkey, an iguana and a sea lion (yes, a sea lion). The beach was beautiful...white sand and many palm trees. Snorkeling was just so-so, but we did see many starfish. A thoroughly enjoyable day.
We did the Murder Mystery Dinner this evening. I felt like the cruise staff really dropped the ball on this one. I was expecting an organized event, but we were essentially broken up into groups, given some packets and a brief explanation, then led off to the Summer Palace to "act out" the murder mystery over dinner. Several of the booklets were missing pages, so it made it a bit difficult and we all got a little frustrated. However, we did enjoy talking with the two couples we had dinner with, so all was not lost.
Day Three Tortola - We had planned to do the morning Norman Island Snorkel excursion through NCL, then stroll through town and visit Pusser's Landing that afternoon. However, when I checked the excursion ticket, I found that we were on the afternoon excursion. Communication from the excursion department asking us if the was OK would have been appreciated, but whatever, we were on vacation and went with the flow. We explored the town a bit in the morning, had a nice lunch at Summer Palace, and then got ready for our 2:30 pm snorkel trip. We met at the dock and then walked about 3/4 mile to the marina where about 50 of us boarded a dive boat that would have held 30 comfortably. We have done several ship sponsored snorkel trips, and this was by far the most over-crowded. After a 30 minute boat ride, we got about and hour to snorkel and explore the caves of Norman Island. This was good snorkeling and the caves were a must see. We would snorkel this spot again, but not through NCL!
Day Four Antigua - We had planned to take a cab to the beach today, but woke up to rainy skies and started to reconsider our plans. We waited until about 11 am, and with clouds but no rain, we decided to chance it a take a cab to Dickensen Bay Beach. We arranged for our cab driver, Dr. D, to pick us up at a certain time and he was true to his word. We rented two chairs and an umbrella from Sneaky Pete's ($20) and had this area almost to ourselves. We started with overcast, had one brief shower, then glorious sunshine. We rode out the rain shower at Sneaky Pete's Beach Bar and had a nice conversation with Pete, who donates $5 out of every t-shirt sale to the local animal shelter.
Day Five Barbados - We booked the 12-person, 5-hour lunch cruise with Sliver Moon Charters. We snorkeled with giant sea turtles, then on to a reef and shipwreck for more snorkeling. After snorkeling, we moved up the coast a bit and anchored while the crew brought out a delicious lunch. After lunch, we enjoyed a leisurely cruise back to port with pina coladas and strawberry daiquiris. This was the best excursion of our cruise. I highly recommend Silver Moon.
Day Six St. Lucia - Although we are not really tour people, we booked Cosol's tour after reading so many great comments about it. We saw so much on this beautiful island and got to sample lots of tasty local food. However, I felt like some of the stops were rushed and we definitely did not have enough time at Jalousie Beach, a gorgeous resort right between the Pitons. Also, there were hoards of people at every stop, so if you have issues with crowds, be forewarned. Our driver, Adrian, was fabulous and we learned a great deal about St. Lucia from him. Cosol's tour is a great bargain and is a great way to see a lot in one day.
Last two days at sea - We just relaxed and enjoyed the ocean and the ship. Having an inside cabin, I appreciated all the great spots on this ship where one could relax with a book and a view of the ocean. There was a nice space with loungers on deck 13 and the promenade deck had comfy loungers, as well. We did the rock-climbing wall and enjoyed just walking out on deck. For our last day at sea, we again purchased day passes for the spa and relaxed there most of the day.
Disembarkation - This was surprisingly smooth. We had a late flight, so we stayed on the ship until the last color was called around 10 am. I love that they do not kick you out of your stateroom early. We slept in, went to breakfast, then stayed in our cabin as until it was time to leave.
Although NCL would not be our first choice in the future, we had a wonderful cruise. We loved being able to do some of the Southern Caribbean island leaving from Miami, and 9 days was a great length of time. We really enjoyed the amenities of this ship and although we prefer more traditional dining, we are glad we tried NCL.