We've cruised twice (2004 and 2005) with NCL on the Crown which was the smallest oldest NCL ship, and which has now been sold. We really enjoyed those cruises including Freestyle. Since then we've had back to back cruises on HAL (which we liked) and a repositioning cruise on Grandeur of the Seas (RCCL) which was Nov 25th to Dec 8th. We visited our grandchildren in Miami in the interval between the Royal Caribbean cruise and the NCL cruise.
After our experience on Grandeur of the Seas where my husband said, as we were getting ready to disembark, that he was never going cruising again, I was hoping that the Pearl would change his mind about never cruising again. And the Pearl cruise was really much better than GOTS cruise in a lot of respects. Unfortunately, it was also a large ship and was packed with people because it WAS the holidays, and my husband just doesn't like the big ships and a lot of people and standing in line. But he wasn't negative about the Pearl the way he was about RCI.
We rented a car in Tampa after the GOTS cruise so we dropped the bags off at the port, and then drove to the car return area of the company we rented from (Dollar/Thrifty) near the airport. Dollar had a free shuttle to the port which is something to remember if you are cruising out of Miami. We got to the port about 11.
Embarkation was a complete zoo because they had norovirus on the cruises before ours. I was astonished to find later that people had not known this. I certainly think they should have as it was all over the internet and if nothing else all the signs in the elevators and all the precautions taken should have given them a clue.
Actually, we went through the procedures pretty quickly until it came to actually getting on the ship. And then we stood in line and waited for about an hour. They didn't have enough seats for all of us, and since they'd gotten cleared late and had had to do a complete cleaning of the ship, they wouldn't let us on until the stated embarkation time of 1 pm. Usually they SAY 1 pm but actually let you on earlier. I had brought with me a cane with a seat on it, so I didn't have to actually stand, but that little seat got a bit uncomfortable.
Then when we actually could get on, we couldn't get to our cabins until 2 pm. They had the elevators disabled so that we could only go to the public areas, the buffet or the restaurant, and they had the stairways roped off and guarded. There was an employee standing at the stairs to keep you from ducking under the tape, and he would push the elevator button for you.
I reasoned that the buffet would be a zoo (which I heard later that it was) so we tried to get to the duty restaurant, which was the Summer Palace.
That's another unnecessary disadvantage of this ship. The Summer Palace is in the stern between deck 6 and 7. But you can't walk forward on deck 6 because the kitchen and crew spaces are in the way. So you have to take the elevator to 7 and walk back to the stern and then go down half a flight to the seating desk person, and then go down another half flight to deck 6 to eat. Definitely NOT handicapped accessible. It is possible to walk in on the 6th deck, but we didn't know that. We had our carryons and my computer on a luggage cart, so we had to do all those steps with the luggage cart. You could leave without walking up the steps, but the elevator there did not go any farther down than deck 6, so you had to go up to deck 7 and walk back.
Our lifeboat drill station was in Le Bistro, the French restaurant. This was the only time I was in there. The drill station was not labeled except for the drill.
For some reason, NCL makes you sign your life away for towels to take to the beach.
Service. In general I did not find the service better or worse than on the Grandeur of the Seas, and not as good as the Maasdam. Not only did they have a problem in the dining rooms with sharing tables a-la Freestyle, but sometimes service was slow, the waiters couldn't find the table they were told to seat us at, and on at least two occasions we got food that we hadn't ordered. But that was the way it was on GOTS too. The waiters were always pleasant and would correct any mistakes if they were asked to. I ordered Tandori Chicken once (my mistake), and I just couldn't eat it, and the waiter was very concerned and when I asked for a Caesar salad and some hot tea, he was very quick with them.
The rooms had a clever little gadget outside the room which said either Do Not Disturb, or Make up the Room, or Turn Down. But the room steward must have had too many rooms assigned to him, and in one case, he said he didn't get our room done while we were at dinner because his supervisor had called a meeting and he had to sanitize the stuff in the hall. We didn't get many towel animals, and sometimes the room didn't get done before we got back from whatever we were doing. Not a big deal - just a little disappointing. We had a room steward like that on a previous cruise (2004)
The cruise director was Jay Jay, and I thought I remembered him from the Crown, and when I asked him, he said that I was correct, and he had been on the Crown. He was also on the Wind before coming to the Pearl.
Room - we had almost exactly the same type of inside room as we had on GOTS but this one had MUCH more storage space and was much nicer. For one thing, the bed had enough space under it for the suitcases so we didn't have to put them in the closet. We had a small fridge, a safe that opened with a combination instead of a credit card, a coffee maker (which we didn't use because we don't drink coffee), a table, a small desk with a hairdryer and a mirror and two stools. We could do internet in the cabin with a local area network cable. I had my own but they would supply one if you didn't have one. There were two 110 outlets, and they had available a two prong outlet so I could plug in my computer in the public areas. There wasn't room for a couch, but there was plenty of closet space. The bathroom was much more spacious and the shower had sliding glass doors. Our room was about halfway between the forward and midships elevators and we rarely heard any noise there. It was a cozy little nest for us, and we liked it very well.
However, either the stewards were overworked or they were inefficient, because sometimes the room would not be made up in the morning before we got back from breakfast and sometimes the beds were not turned down at night before we were ready to retire. We had no problems with the TV like we did on GOTS
In general, the ship was a beautiful ship. The theatre was nice, with comfortable seats, and you could see the stage well from them. The shows were good. The children really enjoyed Sharkbait and we did too. The internet cafe was efficiently managed and the directions for use were excellent, although the internet was a little more pricey than it was on GOTS. They had free washers and dryers (and irons) right down the hall from us, but you had to buy soap if you hadn't brought any.
This cruise had two parts. The first part was a nine day section, with one sea day, five ports a second sea day and then back to Miami to disembark the people who just bought the nine day section. The second part was a five day section which consisted of a sea day, Cozumel (on Christmas), Grand Cayman and then another sea day.
The first port was Samana. We have been to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic before - we knew that it was a poor country with ill-kept infrastructure. We were not surprised to find that Samana (accent on the last A) was the same. But I think others were unfavorably impressed with the port. We had to tender in. I find that if you take a tour in a port where you tender, it is much easier to get ashore So we took a Discover Samana tour. It was Sunday, so none of the stores except those directly at the port were open. This was an advantage as far as I was concerned.
The tour (in an A/C bus) took us past La Churcha which had been brought from somewhere else and re-assembled here. We drove to a place which was apparently called Colonia Rancho Espanol where we had a rest stop and opportunity to drink a local drink and buy stuff (mostly Haitian I think although it said Arte Dominicano). The guide got some coconut bread to share with the bus. I went down to a little church and cemetery and took some photos there. We passed a car wash (which apparently doubles as a casino and bar), a fancy hotel, a baseball (or softball) game, and drove by a long beach to a little fishing village, with a small airport. Then we turned around and went back to Samana. Here we stopped at the whale museum and the guide gave us a tour
Next was Tortola. I think for those that haven't been, the Baths at Virgin Gorda would be the thing to see. But we've been, so all I did here was walk around town, and then go to Sunny Caribe (where I had shopped before when we were in Roadtown), and bought $400 worth presents for my family and had them shipped to them, and mailed a postcard to my grandchild who collects stamps.
The third port was Antigua, where we had not been before. There were three other ships in this port while we were there (we had been the only ship in Tortola and Samana). We took the tour to Nelson's Dockyard, which was extremely interesting. We went to several overlooks and could see Monserrat from one of them before it rained before we went to the Dockyard. Here we had a special Dockyard guide. It ended up with a Rum Punch (as these tours often do).
Barbados was next, and we've been here several times, so we took a cab into Bridgetown and walked around getting pictures of places where I had not been able to get pictures previously because I was in a speeding taxi. Harrison's cave still isn't open, and the rate to go to St. Nicholas Abbey (the other place I would have wanted to see) was too expensive ($30 each way).
The last port for the first part of the cruise was St. Lucia and I was particularly anxious to see some of the geography (the Pitons etc), but most of the tours where I could do this seemed too strenuous for me. I'd have loved to do the zip line tour, but we had to walk up to it. Also Bob had some problems and he decided not to take the tour with me. So I did the rain forest tram on my own. It was almost exactly like the rain forest tram we took last year in Dominica, except they had the zipline tour right next to it - we could almost see it through the trees.
The first port on the five day section was Cozumel. I had signed up for the Eco-Tour because we were there on Xmas and I wasn't sure what would be open. This proved to be a marvelous tour. We got into (manual transmission with 6 speeds forward) open jeep (There were 5 jeeps - Bob drove was the designated driver for ours. The head jeep was the guides and he had the radios set so that he could talk to all of us at once.), and went down to the park on the south end of the island. There we had a snorkeling tour where we saw lots of coral and fish, and then visited the lighthouse down at that end with the "Navigation Museum", and saw a tiny Mayan building and viewed some nasty looking crocodiles. We were on a little raised boardwalk and I asked how high they could jump. The guide's answer was - not very high in such shallow water.
My only problem was that the batteries in my underwater camera were bad and I couldn't take any photos.
The other port on the western section cruise was Grand Cayman. There were three other ships there when we got there (Carnival Freedom, Grand Princess and Celebrity Century) and NCL Majesty came in later.
I picked Stingray City and island tour, and I think this is over-hyped. We did the stingray part first. There must have been 10 boats and 75 people there. The people stirred up so much sand that you really couldn't see very well. Then we had to figure out how to get into dry clothes in order to do the island drive part of the trip which goes to Hell and back. I would have liked to get one of the T-shirts that said "My grandparents Really LOVE me because they brought me back this T-shirt from Hell" but my back was hurting me so I didn't get it. The bus driver wasn't very talkative.
Dining: I thought the food was better than on the Grandeur of the Seas. The big problem was with the Freestyle seating as implemented by the Pearl. On previous trips with NCL, we just lined up to go into the dining room and said "Two to share" and we were ushered to a table with 3 or 4 other couples for interesting dinner table conversation. It was somewhat similar to open seating on RCI and HAL for breakfast and lunch.
The big problem with the Pearl was that you couldn't do that even at breakfast and lunch. If I went to breakfast by myself (with Bob going to the buffet), I would sometimes get to sit with other people, but once they seated me by myself at a table for two. They did not want to deal with sharing a table. This may have been because it was a Christmas cruise with large family groups, and they did not want to think about couples that wanted to share with each other. The few times we were successful at sharing, we had often talked to another couple in line who also wanted to share.
On the Pearl, there are about 6 NON-extra price restaurants, and I think we ate in most of them.
We did not eat in any of the extra price restaurants. There was Cagney's (steak $20 - seats 160), La Bistro (French $15 seats 129), Teppanyaki (Japanese - seats 32), Sushi Bar (seats 50 - sushi, sashimi and Shabu-Shabu) and Lotus Garden (Asian - seats 100) We did not eat there because we didn't want to pay $30 or $40 extra (for two of us for the steak house or French restaurant, and Bob doesn't like Japanese or sushi.
There were two main dining rooms - Indigo (seats 304) and Winter Palace (seats 558). We ate most of the time in those restaurants and I thought the food was good. No need for reservations. They did repeat the menus on about a 9 day cycle.
The Indigo was much easier to get to - it was on deck 6 right next to the midship elevators. The disadvantage was that they had velvet type benches in the tables for four, and it was almost impossible for women to slide across to the inside seat in a dress because your clothes stick to the seat. Even men had problems. Also the ceiling was lower and as a result it was noisier. The Winter Palace was a beautiful room, BUT it was extremely difficult to get there as detailed above. It was a beautiful restaurant, and we liked to eat early enough that we could watch the wake of the ship as we were leaving port, but they were even less likely to set up sharing than they were in the Indigo. The food in the two places was identical.
There was one main buffet - Garden Cafe - seats 390. We ate there, but I found it difficult to manage the food and drink without a tray. I can't speak to the quality of the food as we didn't eat there that often. Bob preferred breakfast there, but there was no cranberry juice or V8 juice and we don't care for orange juice.
The Blue Lagoon was an extremely under-utilized 24 hour restaurant which did have a breakfast menu (with cranberry juice) in addition to the regular lunch and dinner food. We ate there a couple of times. Set menu - no variation - same every day. No reservations necessary. Seats 94
I ate breakfast once at the buffet out by the pool after I went for an early swim. It was a continental breakfast with fruit, cereal and rolls but no butter. One of the waiters went across to the Garden Cafe and brought butter back for me.
We ate at the Italian restaurant (La Cucina - seats 92) once, and I wasn't that impressed with the food. Possibly it was too authentic for me. They wouldn't do pizza unless there were several people ordering it, and that's what I really wanted. You had to have a reservation for that restaurant although you didn't pay extra. The service was pretty good, and the waiter took our picture with my camera - he also took the camera out on the back deck to take a picture of the moon for me and one of the pictures came out heart shaped. Don't know how he did that exactly.
We ate at Mambo, the Tex-Mex restaurant - reservation also required. Seats 96 I really liked the food here. Bob had the Nachos Grande which was an appetizer, but he said it would be enough for a whole meal, and it was.
We didn't eat at the The Great Outdoors - an outdoor restaurant behind the LaCucina and the Blue Lagoon restaurant.
End of the first cruise: I asked the computer cafe guy if I could work off my minutes that I've already bought while people were disembarking, and he said I could. But he was wrong. I was logged on at 8:45, and was immediately cut off and couldn't log on again until I got back on the ship. I didn't lose those minutes though - they carried over.
We went to a briefing in the Spinnaker on what the procedure would be for us staying on the ship. They clearly said that if we wanted to STAY on the ship and didn't want to go in to Miami or do a Miami tour, that we should go to the Lotus Garden by 9:45, where we would be escorted off the ship and then back on again. If we wanted to go shopping in Miami or something of the sort, we could get off whenever we wanted to.
But some people don't listen.
Miami Port security was late clearing the ship, so disembarkation did not start at 7 when it was predicted to start. So the off and on again routine couldn't start until later than 9:45. There was a LARGE (as in tall AND fat) stentorian man from England who was highly indignant and who was yelling at the poor little oriental woman from the cruise ship staff (He could have made three of her - IT'S ALL YOU PEOPLE'S FAULT) that he should have gotten off FIRST before the rest of the people because their vacation was being ruined by having to wait. Ignoring the briefing which said that we could get off whenever we wanted to if we didn't want to get right back on. His wife apparently wanted to make a hotel reservation, and they wanted to shop. Of course it was Sunday and most of the shops in Bayside don't open until 10 anyway.
Finally at about 10:30 when everyone else was off, they gave us tags to paste on ourselves that said "In Transit Guest Going back to the Norwegian Pearl", and we walked off. They cleared a line for us and they looked at our passports, and then they held us in a little group until 11:45 and then we went back on the ship. We could go directly to our cabins and/or eat lunch. I also took this opportunity to make a reservation for the La Cucina and Mambo restaurants before everyone else got on.
Later, we got a note of apology for the unpleasantness at re-embarkation, and a bottle of wine and two glasses. So Bob wrote a note saying that it was totally not NCL's fault - that their presentation was quite clear, and he knew that any problem was with the Miami Customs/Immigration who were nasty to everyone. He apologized for the behavior of the other guests. We both signed it. Then he returned the wine (we don't drink so this wasn't all that much of a problem) with the note.
Disembarking: You got your own luggage tags according to the published list of what each color stood for - ours were next to last (brown) for people on deck 5 that were making their own arrangements and/or didn't have an early flight. (Deck 4 was last) We could stay in our room until our color was called. [I noticed that Jay Jay was now emphasizing that if you didn't want to get right back on - you could get off any time you wanted.]
This time the ship arrived in port before sunrise (we watched them come in Government Cut and turn around on the bow camera), so it was cleared by 7 am. We went down and had a leisurely breakfast in the Summer Palace, and then went back to our cabin to wait until our color was called. We had gotten a cab to the rental car place, stood in line to get a car, got our stuff packed in the car, and were out of Miami on US 41 before 11 am.