Embarkation: We arrived at the cruise terminal at 11:10, and by 11:30 we were boarding the ship, we had no waiting at all. I think this was due to the time we got there, and the fact that a number of people on this cruise opted for the 14-day sailing, and we were on the 9-day, so a lot of guest were already on the ship. We passed by a hand sanitizing table where we were handed a paper that stated that our room would not be ready until 1:30p.m., and the location of the buffet. We ate and lounged by the pool...very hot!
Stateroom 4509: At 1:25pm we proceeded to our stateroom. It was small, clean, and cozy. The mattress was soft, as were the sheets. We did a quick inspection, and under the sheets we went for a well-deserved nap. After 2 hours of tossing & turning because of loud noises in the walls, we decided sleep wasn't going to happen and we just lied in bed until the muster drill. For the next 2 days the noises in the room never subsided, and only intensified during the early hours of the morning. The sounds resembled that of a boiler room and kitchen; inconsistent noises of steam running through pipes, banging, and crashing, enough to cause my wife and I to become very irritable, and neither one of us slept but for a few hours up until Sunday. We called and personally went to the Customer Service desk 3 different times and got the run-around. Finally, at 2a.m. Sunday (note: we boarded the ship on Friday), my wife told them to get us a different room, or she'd be sleeping on the floor of the lobby. At 2:30am, they gave us a "temporary sleeping room" to get us through the night. My wife called later that morning and demanded a meeting with the Manager of Hotels at 5:00pm when we returned from our excursion. She met with the Front Desk Manager (Irma) who apologized and said that we could have the room they let us sleep in that morning. We were told that the entire ship was booked solid and that room was only available because someone missed the ship in Miami, and wasn't able to catch up with the ship in Samana. With the exception of Irma, this was the worst customer service we had experienced on any of our 5 cruises on 4 different cruise lines. The new room we were given, 4533, was wonderful, the only exception being that the toilet was not designed with enough clearance for your legs, so you have to sit sideways on it. Neither my wife nor I are "big" people, but someone tall or heavy would have a terrible time using the toilet....very bad design. We had the same issues with the toilet in room 4509, so this wasn't an isolated scenario. In conclusion, room 4509 needs to be mega-insulated or taken out of service, and it is insulting that NCL would even rent it to anyone. One of the Officers (one that visited after call #3 to come listen to the noises) admitted that most of the "noise complaints" come from "...rooms in this area...". Well fix it!! This was a major strike against NCL for lack of concern and very poor customer service.
Garden Cafe Buffet (free): Very large and consistently had a wonderful variety of food, representing many different countries. Unfortunately, much of it was kind of bland and not well seasoned, similar to hospital food. For what it lacked in flavor, it made up for in variety. They had a decent selection of complimentary ice cream which was quite popular noted by frequent lines of customers. We quickly noted the drink fountain lacked in variety, only offering water or tea. The NCL Spirit had water, tea, fruit punch, and lemonade. They also had strong hot coffee and a selection of bagged tea for steeping, available all the time. During breakfast hours, orange and apple juice were available. Drink fountains formed long lines, and weren't very "linear" in the buffet area. Drink fountains were also available on the back deck (just keep walking through the buffet seating area), and were much easier to get in and out of. They also serve hamburgers, hot dogs, bread and salads on the back deck, just outside the Garden Cafe.
Blue Lagoon Cafe (free): This is an interesting little "free" restaurant that you'll miss unless you search it out. I wanted something Asian, and asked our waiter (a Filipino) what he recommended, and he said the pork noodle dish. He was dead-on! This was good stuff, and we even went back another night to get it again.
Summer Palace Restaurant (free): A pretty restaurant. We asked for a table for two and were seated immediately. Our waiter seemed tired and disgruntled, and forgot our order twice. I had the Argentinean skirt steak...very different, not a good cut of meat, but the waiter warned me of that. The food ranked lower than that of Celebrity and Royal Caribbean but overall wasn't too bad. About 45 minutes into our meal, our waiter came by and snatched up the comment card that was lying under my hand and said that his shift was over, and his replacement would be taking over and serving our coffee. I guess he didn't want our opinion...poor fellow must have had a very rough day.
Indigo Restaurant (free): We ate here twice, and opted to join other people at a table. Both times our service was good, just not very personable. The food was good. The crème brulee (can't remember the name of it) with chocolate on the bottom and honey on the top should not be missed!
Cagney's Steakhouse ($20/pp): The service in this restaurant was excellent. Between the waiter & his assistant, we never had to wait on anything. I had the T-Bone, and hate to say, but this was one of the most tasteless steaks I've ever had. I actually requested some steak sauce (something I never do) and had to salt it as well. My wife paid the extra $10 for the 1.5 pound lobster, and she wasn't overly thrilled either. The appetizers and salads were good, but nothing exceptional to justify the cover charge. I tipped our waiter, Ernesto Depusttan of the Philippines, for his outstanding service, and asked if it was customary to tip the Assistant Waiter as well, and he nodded "yes", so we tipped him as well. Best service of any restaurant on the ship. Not worth the $20/pp cover, or the $10 "up charge" for the lobster, but definitely worthy of tipping for the service.
Teppanyaki Grill Japanese Restaurant ($20/pp): By far, this is the one restaurant that I could recommend that actually justifies a cover charge. The show was wonderful, the food was all very tasty, fresh, and well seasoned. My wife and I both had the steak and shrimp and it was exceptional, and I am quite the connoisseur of Hibachi style food. We sat at Chef Rio's table, and he is the leader of the show, and he and his co-chef's put on a most memorable performance.
Sushi Bar ($10/pp): No reservation needed, we walked right in. They have a menu, and you can have anything you want, no limit. Our wonderful sushi prep was eager for us to try stuff we never had before. I tried a full sampler of every kind of raw fish offered, and my wife stuck with cooked options. I have to say, the yellowfin (raw) was excellent, and the dragon roll (cooked shrimp) was the best. We walked out of there stuffed and satisfied. Second best sushi we've ever had, only because the ingredients could have been refrigerated just a little cooler.
Le Bistro French Restaurant ($15/pp): The Maitre D' here had an almost "irritated" persona, and our waitress did as well, however our assistant waitress was a gem. My wife and I are not big alcohol consumers, and once they see that you are not interested in buying a bottle of wine, your service level drops a few notches. This was not just noticeable in this restaurant, but in the Main dining areas as well. That is their only personal chance to make any money at your table. We tip, even for crappy service, but I guess most guests don't, so they assume "no booze = waste of time customer". The food here was good, but not up to par with the Le Bistro we ate at on the NCL Spirit...that food was exceptional.
La Cucina Italian Restaurant (free): Some of our friends made the reservations for us here, and we were seated immediately. Service was scarce and slow, and our friends we were dining with said they had the same crummy service the last time they ate there. The appetizer cart they bring by was full of the most tasteless bland stuff I've ever tasted, and I'm not being critical, it was that bad. My Caesar salad was about what you'd get at an O'Charley's or any other chain restaurant. The spaghetti with marinara sauce was excellent! The veal was absolutely magnificent as well. Bravo! I ordered a glass of wine, so my service was better than normal. Minus the slow initial service and bad cart of appetizers, this restaurant was a winner.
Casino: This is a designated smoking area on the ship, and to get from point A to B you have to walk through the casino. For a smoker this is no big deal, but if you have an issue with smoke, you may want to take a different route. We noticed a lot of smokers just hanging out in the casino to smoke, as there must not be many areas on the ship to do so. My wife and I played some slots, blackjack, roulette and video poker, and enjoyed ourselves. We didn't have any big payouts, but some of our friends claimed to do fairly well.
Pools & Jacuzzi's: There are two main pools next to each other, and 3-4 Jacuzzi's all in the same vicinity. These are freshwater pools and are shutdown at 10pm every night for cleaning, nice temperature and deep; the shallow end was about 5 feet deep. The Jacuzzi's stayed open later (midnight?), and is set at a nice temperature; however the button that starts the bubbles had to be reset about every 4 minutes. If you sat next to it you were voted "Designated Button Pusher".
Pool chairs: These were in abundance; many of the ones near the pool were in the shade. On the upper decks there isn't any shade, and chairs are easier to come by. There is even a "freestyle" topless deck at the highest level, if that's your thing. We noticed a lot of "peeping Tom's" going up there. I noticed something on this cruise that I've never seen done on any other cruise line that I must compliment NCL on; they had a person going around taking the towels off of chairs that weren't being used! Now this is wonderful folks, this is something that all cruise lines need to do. NCL has my highest compliments for actually enforcing the "anti-chair hog" policy. Bravo!
Bowling Alley: Yes it's true; they do have a bowling alley at sea! We played one game at $5/pp, and the shoes were free of charge. I was amazed that there weren't lines of people wanting to play, and we walked right in and got a lane. I actually bowled better than I do on land, but we had fairly flat seas that night. Others we spoke to that tried to bowl on the rougher sea days said it was quite the challenge, and rather entertaining.
Fitness Center: The gym was very small and not much air circulation. The treadmills had built-in television screens, and this was a wonderful touch! Not much as far as weight machines and it just seemed that the whole gym was an afterthought when they built the ship.
Internet Cafe: Never crowded and easy to use. The "initiation fee" is a joke, but once you get past that, their per-minute rates are "reasonable" compared to other cruise lines, but expensive nonetheless.
Gift Shops: The gift shops were typical, overpriced trinkets and sundry goods. Very reasonable prices on liquors, but purchases are held until the last day of the cruise to prevent onboard consumption.
Foreign port disembarkation: We docked in 4 of the 5 ports we visited, and disembarkation was always on scheduled time, if not a few minutes early. Beach towels were available for checkout (free) at the gangway, and liter bottles of Evian water are available for purchase ($4.50?) as well. Be sure to keep your towel receipt, as your account will be charged if you don't turn it in with the towels upon your return.
Miami disembarkation: We opted to schedule our own flights and ground transportation. We kept our luggage in our room on the final night, and we walked off the ship and right through customs at 7:45a.m the next morning. We were sitting at our airport gate in Miami airport at 9:15a.m. for our 11:35a.m. flight. This by far was the easiest disembarkation we have ever experienced in any of our 5 cruises.
Conclusion: The more we cruise, the more we discover our own preferences. We love the freedom offered by the "freestyle" concept, but miss the personalized service of workers striving to earn your compliments and/or tip. This particular ship is trying to appeal to a younger adult clientele, with poolside games, naughty late night comedy, and "Austin Powers" styled lounges. Though I love the relaxed "non-stuffy" atmosphere, I miss the refinement of feeling pampered and special. I feel that the Customer Service Department seriously dropped the ball on this one, and they have yet to contact me via phone or email, though they have been emailed by both myself and my Travel Agent. Overall NCL is a wonderful cruise line, and the Pearl is a beautiful ship. Would I cruise with NCL again? Most likely, yes. Would I cruise again on the Pearl? Probably not.