Firstly, although I'm in my mid 30's, I've been cruising since I was a kid. My parents used to take Transatlantic trips back and forth to Europe from the time I was born, so I've practically grown up on ship-based vacations. As an adult paying my own tab I've cruised with Princess twice, Holland America three times, Royal Caribbean about 6 or 7 times, Celebrity twice, and NCL twice. In other words, pretty much most of the mainstream, mid-range cruise lines. Have never cruised with Carnival as it has just never appealed to me. Their ships just look so cheap to me that I've never even been tempted.
Anyhow, there was a group of four of us, two couples. Our travel partners had never been on a cruise, so we were an interesting combination of passengers. We were also booked into two different cabin categories, which it turns out, makes a BIG difference to the cruise experience on the Pearl. We had booked a penthouse suite at the very aft of the ship, which afforded us VIP status on the ship. We paid not a lot more than our friends who had a regular outside balcony suite, I think a total of a few hundred dollars each, and we realize now that it was worth every penny.
Starting with check-in. We got to the pier fairly early, around 11:15 am or so. Knowing that it's a huge job to embark more than 2,500 passengers, we wanted to arrive early to avoid a pain in the butt line-up. As soon as we arrived and they determined that we were booked in a VIP suite, we were personally escorted into a private room for an immediate sit-down check-in. Nice! There was absolutely no wait, and we were offered orange juice, coffee, sandwiches, cookies, and pastries while we were processed. It took no more than ten minutes and we were done. The only downside is that we were not allowed to board the ship due to some special inspection. I suspect it had to do with the Norwalk virus outbreak the ship had suffered the week before, and that they were likely doing a particularly detailed cleaning and inspection. To make up the time we would have had to wait to board (which was to start at 12:30 or so, can't recall exactly) they had arranged shuttle buses to take us to an outdoor shopping mall called Bayside. I thought this was extremely thoughtful, except while we were finished and ready to hop on the shuttle, our friends, who were not afforded VIP status were still in line waiting to check-in. One of the VIP hosts, though, was very accommodating and escorted my husband to go find them so that they could leave and join us on the little shopping excursion. I'm pretty sure the shuttle service was only being offered to the VIP's. Everyone else had to just sit around the port and wait.
We did some very pleasant leisurely shopping at Bayside, and then returned to the pier a couple hours later. Well, let me tell you what a difference those couple hours made! The line-ups looked HUGE for the regular check-in. The VIP lounge was only moderately busy, but man was I ever glad we didn't have to stand in that other line-up. Once again, as soon as they saw that we were in a VIP cabin, we were personally escorted past all the waiting people to a completely separate entrance. I just grabbed my friend's hand and told her to come with us. Nobody questioned why our non-VIP friends were with us. This by the way, is important to note, because we had VIP status, our friends received the same treatment whenever they were with us. There was never a question of whether or not they could join us, which I thought was really great. Because the list of perks were pretty huge, but I'll get into that later.
So, from the get-go I'd strongly suggest upgrading to a suite, or ensure that you arrive at the pier early to avoid the line-ups!
As soon as we stepped inside the doors of the ship, I was blown-away. Now, personal taste is personal taste and what I adore someone else may hate. My own taste is pretty young and funky with a glam or contemporary edge... and THAT is exactly what the Pearl looked like. I work with interior designers almost every day in my job, so I'm a bit of a design nut. I personally adored the vibrant Caribbean colors with the splashes of whimsy and cheeky glamour. If you are looking for an old-world ship experience more reminiscent of a traditional Ocean-liner, then this is NOT the ship for you. I'd suggest one of the smaller Holland America ships for that type of experience. But if you are looking for fun and frivolous escapism, if you aren't intimidated by bold design, then I think you'll be impressed with the decor. I also thought there were incredibly thoughtful design details as well. For instance, all of the carpeting on the ship was custom-themed and designed. So, if you wanted to know which way to turn to walk to the front of the ship, you only have to look down at the tropical fish on the hallway carpet! The fish are swimming forwards. Pretty clever, I thought. Similarly, if you are walking down one of the LOOOONG cabin hallways and you wonder how far down the next bank of stairs or elevators are located? You just need to look down the hallway to the contrasting turquoise carpet that always indicates the stairwells. There was a plethora of original art throughout the ship, even in the cabin hallways which was a much appreciated touch for me. OH! That reminds me, the contemporary full-sized photographic murals on each stairwell landing are themed as well. One stairwell was wild animals, one was about technological feats of engineering, and one was all landscape paintings of harbors. That way, you always knew which stairwell you were in. Fore, midship, or aft. Although, I also want to add that the Pearl had the most comprehensive and easy to follow way-finding signage of any of the dozens of ships I've been on over the years. The ship was large but VERY easy to memorize. I've been on other ships where I still couldn't find my way around after a week.
I thought ALL of the common areas, bars, restaurants, and lounges were just stunningly beautiful. Each with their own distinct character and theme. It was unbelievably easy to forget that you were on a ship as we dined in the different restaurants each night. The Bliss ultra-lounge is without a doubt, the most beautiful nightclub I have ever seen on land or sea. With reams and reams of crushed red velvet, elaborate fantastical canopy beds for lounging, oversized baroque paintings, and unbelievably ornate levels of detail. Throughout much of the ship I found myself saying, "I feel like I'm travelling in Jeannie's bottle!", which for our group, was a wonderful thing.
Let me get back to one of the issues that I see come up a fair bit here. The whole Freestyle Dining thing. As a VIP this worked really really well. See, as a VIP we simply called our Concierge, (who seemed to NEVER be off duty, as he always answered ALL of our calls all the time, regardless of time of day) and were able to make all of our restaurant reservations on the first day for all four of us. Done. No problem. We were even able to switch them around throughout the cruise as our plans changed. We were ALSO able to order room service from ANY of the on-board restaurants! Everybody else had to choose from a fairly limited room-service selection. The only thing I will say, is that if it weren't for our next door neighbors on the ship, (a fellow Cruise Critic contributor named Tripster) I wouldn't have even KNOWN about these particular perks. They are pretty big advantages so they really should have made a point of telling us about it. In fact, before I knew we could reserve for the whole week, I went up to the restaurant booking station at Mambo's restaurant, and ASKED if as a VIP we could reserve more than a day in advance, and was specifically told "No. You cannot." I don't know if that's because they didn't want the other passengers in line behind me to know this, but a little hand-out on arrival as a VIP, outlining all the benefits would have been great.
Now, I did hear a lot of passengers whining about the process of having to make reservations, but really, is it so different from eating out at home? You call ahead to make reservations at the hottest spots, right? So it seemed a bit silly to see groups of six people arriving at one of the busiest restaurants upset that there wasn't room for them. Particularly when there are TV screens all over the ship showing you how busy the various restaurants are. I think part of the problem is that 'Freestyle' as a word is a bit misleading. It makes people think they don't have to plan ahead, that they can eat anywhere at any time without forethought. I think it's a poor bit of marketing to have come up with that term (I'm a Marketing Vice President so I can't help think about that stuff.)Flex-dining or something would do a better job of describing the process. 'Freestyle' creates an expectation that logistically could never be met on a ship with 2,700 passengers!
So, about the food. Firstly, let me say that I avoid the buffet at all costs at all times. Not my bag at all. On any ship or on land. Having walked through the buffet though, I will say it was CHAOTIC! Now, this was really not NCL's fault. It seemed clear that the chaos was due to two distinct factors. First, this particular pre-Christmas sailing was PACKED to the gills with kids. I have never seen so many kids on a ship. EVER. So of COURSE families are going to gravitate to the buffet, makes sense. Secondly, due to NCL's diligence in containing the previous week's Norwalk outbreak, there was no self-service allowed in the buffet. So instead of five or six people grazing at a food station and helping themselves, they had to line-up and wait to be served by the gloved NCL staff member. Again, this makes sense. How else are you going to contain a virus, right? To those people who complained about this inconvenience, I would say, "... and I suppose you would be the first person in line to hold NCL responsible if you DID get sick, right?" Logic, people. Don't forget basic rules of logic. Anyhow, I will say that towards the end of the cruise this self-serve ban was lifted and the buffet become a MUCH quieter and less crowded place. I never ate there, apart from a slice of pizza on passing through one night (it was AMAZING pizza by the way, very close to a true Roman pizza, not your P*zza Hut variety.) but the selection of food seemed widely varying from comfort foods like pork chops and mac and cheese to exotic curries and chilled soups. I was very pleased to see a representation of more ethnic foods in the buffet, this is not something I've seen on other ships to this extent. The ubiquitous burgers, fries and hotdogs were always available throughout the day at four different venues ranging from the Outdoor cafe at the aft deck (that was almost always near empty except at breakfast), pool side, the buffet and at the 24 hour Blue Lagoon cafe.
As for the restaurants, we ate dinner at every single one of them except for the Summer Palace, where we did eat breakfast one day. We all had our favorites and I kid you not when I say this was the best food I've ever had on ANY cruise ship. When we read here that some people thought the food was poor, I just simply cannot imagine where or what these people usually eat! I love to cook, I love to dine-out regularly, and while the food on the Pearl is not what I would expect at a Michelin-rated 5 star restaurant, it was fantastic! Honestly, I'm not above paying $800 for a dinner for two (which we did on our return to Miami), but I don't expect that caliber of dining on any cruise ship anywhere! The food was fresh, flavorful, widely varied, and beautifully prepared and presented. I only ever had one thing on that ship that I didn't like, and that was a stir-fry at the Blue Lagoon. So we simply ordered something else. Big deal.
Some of the food highlights? The fillet and lobster at Cagney's were incredible. It was actually a cold-water Atlantic lobster, which is the first time I've seen this on a cruise. Every other cruise line has always served Caribbean lobster which is technically a crayfish with much tougher flesh, not a lobster. (How to tell the diff apart from flavor? Real lobsters have front claws and shiny red shells when cooked. Caribbean lobster have tan-coloured spotted shells and no front claws.) OH! I forgot, another VIP perk! Cagney's is open for breakfast and lunch but ONLY for VIP guests, and it's free. Again, we had our friends join us who were not VIP's, but otherwise they wouldn't even have known that it was open.
The French food at Le Bistro was incredible. Some of the best Mussels Meuniere I've ever had. The Chateaubriand was also simply divine. The Art Nouveau interior was cozy, intimate, and highlighted beautifully by the formal French service and Edith Piaf playing in the background. I also got a real kick out of the art at Le Bistro. They had taken famous Belle Epoque era paintings of LaGoulue by Lautrec for example, and painted the same image from a different viewing perspective in a slightly different style. Very clever I thought, rather than straight reproductions. Again, I tend to notice the details.
Let's see, other meals... latin food at Mambo's was very good, our five course dinner at Indigo was also very good. My husband loved the Teppanyaki restaurant and we went twice, I thought it was very good, and entertaining, but not at fabulous as my husband thought it was. He ordered double lobster both time we ate there, where else can you do that without it costing a fortune! The chinese food I would rate as 'good'. But I live in a city that is world famous for it's Asian cuisine. We eat authentic Chinese fine-dining fairly regularly, and the Lotus Garden certainly wasn't that. BUT, I don't think many people like raw Quail's eggs, Sharkfin and Bird's Nest the way we do, (which is what we might eat here at home) so I'm quite sure for the vast majority of cruisers the Chinese food would rate as very good or excellent. It was definitely a more Western-style Chinese experience.
I never tried the sushi, but my husband did and said it was poor. Again, we have three authentic Sushi bars per block in the city where we live, and are VERY picky about our sushi. Having said that though, there seemed to be no shortage of people enjoying it every night, so don't take our word for it. That's just our own preference.
The hardest restaurant to get into on this cruise was the Italian restaurant, La Cucina. Again, because we had VIP status, we simply called our concierge and he got us a table one night. I'd say it ranked between good and very good. I'm fairly sure this restaurant was so packed all the time because it's a very kid-friendly environment, so I suspect it would be easier to get a table on other cruises.
In short, we had so much incredibly good food on this trip, that by the end we were all saying, "I simply can't EAT any more prawns, lobster or fillet mignon!" Boohoo for us right! First day off the ship I didn't even want to LOOK at food. For those people who complained... you know what... some people are just complainers. You know the sort. In fact, one night there was an elderly couple of women sitting next to me in the casino and they literally whined and complained about this, that and the other for 20 minutes. Just as I'd had enough and was about to leave, they mention that this is their THIRD cruise on the Pearl and were booking another one when they get back! ?!@?! Clearly, complaining is simply in their nature. (Shaking head.)
As for our cabin. Not as large as others I've had in this category on other cruise lines, but it was perfectly FINE. Beautifully finished, just like the rest of the ship. Our cabin was at the very aft of the ship overlooking the stern. VERY nice! The only cabins on the ship where you can see all possible views. We also had a very large deck with upholstered loungers and deck chairs. One of the largest decks I've ever had. Apart from size and layout of the cabin, the other differences between our suite and our friends' standard balcony cabin were the following: two terry bathrobes, a larger flat-screen TV, a full-sized tub, a hollywood-style make-up vanity and closet that was accessible from both sides (helpful when two of us were getting ready), chilled champagne and fresh flowers upon arrival, appetizers delivered to our room every night before dinner, a full service cappuccino and espresso machine, two safes... shoot... there might be more but I can't remember right now.
Apart from the extra perks in the suite, the dining and room service preference, two other big perks were this. We didn't have to get tender tickets in the port of Samana to get to shore! We had express VIP tickets that allowed us to leave on any tender we wanted. The rest of the guests had to get coded tickets and couldn't leave until their tickets were called. Again, we managed to scheme our way into two more tickets for our friends so they could leave the ship with us first thing.
As for entertainment, I thought it was absolutely in line with what I've experienced on other cruise lines. It was better than Holland America and Celebrity, but probably not as good as Princess or Royal Caribbean. I happen to get a kick out of showgirl-type production numbers with lots of song and dance, and that's what it was. There were also two jugglers called Sharkbait that I thought were hysterical! Be sure not to miss them. We didn't get to all the shows as there was always so much going on, but I did enjoy the ones I saw. Is it Broadway or Cirque du Soleil quality? No, of course not, but we were still highly entertained. The theatre was also another place with VIP perks with a special seating area reserved just for us.Ports. Well... I've rambled on so long already I'll keep it short. I loved all the ports each for their own reasons. We made all our own shore excursion arrangements except for in St. Lucia which we booked through the ship, and had no problems whatsoever. I heard people complain that Samana wasn't tourist friendly enough without enough shopping. Sorry, I can't help but roll my eyes at these people. You have essentially chosen to visit a third-world tropical country, I can't cry for the fact that this was the only port that wasn't dripping in Chanel and Tiffany for you to bring home. Stay home if you just want to go to the mall. For ourselves we took an island tour, a lengthy horseback ride in the jungle to a stunning waterfall, and then spent the remainder of the day on one of the beaches frequented by the locals. Perfect. I think the whole thing cost maybe $40 per person and there was only a group of six of us so we weren't fighting the hoard mentality of the big tour bus groups.
Have been to Antigua before, so stayed close to port this time and did some Christmas shopping in the thousands of shops to choose from. On Tortola we found our own driver and went to a STUNNING beach called Cane Garden Bay where we lounged and drank incredible blended drinks called Roughnecks, a heady combination of guava, passionfruit, coconut, pineapple and rum. YUMMM. The return beach trip with chair and umbrella rental was $12 each I think. Nominal in any case. Tortola is lovely and looks very much like I imagine St. Thomas must have looked 50 years ago. Would like to go back. Barbados was NOTHING like I expected! It was a busy, busy CITY. I mean a CITY. Totally different from all the other ports. By chatting with a few of the Pearl staff we knew in advance how to get to a beach that would be quiet. Sure enough, while the tour busses jammed the contents of the FIVE cruise ships in port that day onto two crowded beaches, we took a $4 cab and walked a few blocks to a white powder beach that was free, and completely empty save for another couple who joined us. As food nuts, we also went into one of the local grocery stores to see what local goodies we could find. We ended up loading a shopping cart full of amazing Caribbean hot sauces, spice blends, coffee, and specialty rums for a fraction of what was being charged in the tourist shops. We quickly bought a wheeled suitcase for $10 and ended up shipping it home. It arrived home before we did, I can hardly wait for summer grilling season now!
St.Lucia is STUNNINGLY beautiful, but again, remember this is a developing nation not Hawaii! We took a ship tour that day and did an island tour, volcano tour, botanical garden tour, a beach break and catamaran tour. It was amazing. Had a fabulous day.
On the sea days I made use of the gym and spa. The gym is very well equipped with the latest in equipment and has a great ocean view. I didn't do any of the classes because my personal trainer back home prepared a work-out schedule for me, so I have no idea how busy those classes might have been, but the gym was never busy when I was in there. The spa and thermal-suite areas are beautiful with a glass sauna overlooking the ocean, steam room, private as well as group jacuzzi pools, tropical showers, heated thermal beds and fresh juices on tap to drink at your leisure. I find the spa prices to be higher than what I find here at home, but for me it's just not a vacation without at least a massage and facial. I also found that the usual cruise-line product sell at the end of your treatment wasn't as strong on the Pearl as other ships. Thank goodness. I hate having my treatment sullied by a sales pitch at the end.
In response to people who complain that they felt 'nickel and dimed' on the Pearl by paying restaurant surcharges of $10 or $20, or fees for bowling etc... I say this. You get what you pay for. These things might be included on other ships, but you are ALSO paying a lot more for the cruise! As a cruise veteran I can attest to this. I understand NCL's strategy of making some of these things a la carte because it makes the cruise accessible to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it. It IS possible to cruise on the Pearl with limited to no additional surcharges if that's what people choose. But again, it's a CHOICE you are being given. Want all your drinks included? Pay $10,000 to cruise with Seabourne or Crystal. Don't want to have to make dinner reservations or pay surcharges? Eat in the main dining room or cruise on a ship with less options and more structure. This was the cheapest cruise I've ever taken, and I can honestly say it was my favorite to date. Our friends who came with us were reluctant to try cruising, but after coming off the Pearl they are already online looking to book another.A comment about the staff. I've read someone saying that they thought the staff were surly and unhappy to be there. Again, were we on the same ship???? I can only suspect that a negative attitude receives a negative response, because I found ALL of the staff to be unbelievably hard-working, friendly, helpful, and professional. I also loved that the staff represent more than 75 different countries from around the world. What a wonderful opportunity to meet people from different cultures. One day at Cagney's we were HORRIFIED to overhear one overbearing and rude passenger complaining loudly that he was sick of staff who, and I quote, "Don't speak good English." Go back to whatever hillbilly town you came from, sir! Firstly, ALL the Pearl staff speak English, very well I might add, and why on earth would you take a vacation outside the U.S. if you want English to be everyone's first language! Perhaps because I've spent so much of my life travelling around the world, I find this attitude to be boorish and disheartening.
The only thing I can say I found to be disappointing on the ship was the pool area. Again, I'm quite sure that the issue stems from the fact that it was Christmas time and the ship was loaded with little ones, but the pool area was a zoo. In fact, I only used it once. It was far too crowded for my comfort. I'm surprised that a ship of this size only has two pools, and that the kid's pool is right beside the adult pool. It sort of defeated the purpose. An oasis of calm it was NOT! I would have liked to see the outdoor cafe area at the back of the ship (which was not a high-use area) be removed in favor of an additional pool. Many other ships have a pool in that location and it would have made a big difference to the enjoyment of the at-sea days when the pool area was completely overwhelming.
I guess that just leaves disembarkation, and the last of our VIP perks. We had a choice of being the first to leave the ship, or stay on board and leave whenever we wanted. Very different from all the other passengers who have to pick up color coded luggage tags and then wait around to be called.
My advice, if you can at ALL afford it, UPGRADE to VIP status!!! In the meanwhile know that we had a WONDERFUL time on this ship and can't wait to do it again.
P.S. Yes, the drinks on board are on the pricey side, yes they are very strict about bringing alcohol on board, yes they will x-ray your luggage and carry-on bags and confiscate it until the end of the trip if you try to smuggle it on board. BUT... if you are determined to save money on drinks by bringing your own alcohol on board, there ARE creative ways to do this. I heard tell of a wide variety of containers being used to bring booze on board and that's all I'll say!