Wife and I, and two sons (15, 17) made the February 22 southern Caribbean sailing. Our previous cruising as a family has been two Disney sailings. Wife and I sailed RCL about 15 years ago. Overall had a great time but was unimpressed with the concept of Freestyle dinning.
Embarkation - Due to a snafu in our flight reservations (if you book airline via Yahoo Travel hope your flight doesn't get cancelled the night before) from Reagan National to Miami we ultimately arrived in Miami from Wash-Dulles around 8:30 AM. We read an earlier review that there was a NCL kiosk at the baggage claim where you could get decent NCL luggage tags to replace the useless ones you print online. Bummer for us our luggage arrived at a different baggage claim area so we hoofed it to baggage claim 12 where the NCL desk was. Took a taxi to the cruise terminal for the flat rate of $24. Got to the terminal around 10:00, handed off luggage to a porter, and waited for the terminal building to open at 10:30. There were about 20 people waiting to get in at the time. Check-in at opening was quick and easy. We were onboard by 11:15 and on our way to the buffet. Rooms were available at 1:00 PM and our luggage arrived at 4:00.
Lifeboat drill - I don't know if this is a new idea in cruising but our lifeboat station was in the Mambo restaurant on deck 8 and not at the lifeboats on deck 7. It was the first time I didn't have to stand huddled together outside waiting for the all-clear. Definitely easier, kind of disturbing.
Room - We booked two inside staterooms on deck 10, two doors down from each other. We found this provided the most amount of space for the money. Can't compare room sizes as Disney boats are obviously geared toward families and have extra large cabins. We were comfortable. Rooms are clean and look good. Room configuration with beds pushed together made it difficult to get to the phone; you had to crawl over the bed to reach it. Loads of storage space. Overhead lights are a little dim but there are two bright reading lights over the bed. There is no clock, however, the digital readout on the phone does display the time and you can set a wake up call. I recommend bringing an alarm clock/watch. Toilet space is not well designed for anyone over 5'11" or who has long legs. You will, however, enjoy the shower.
Room Stewards - We met our room steward on the first day and just a couple of times after that. We were off the ship each in-port day and went to dinner and a show every night so it's not a big surprise we didn't run into each other more often. Hariri and Jennifer were friendly and helpful. They removed the items from the mini fridges as requested, refilled the ice bucket twice a day, and we never ran out of toiletries, etc. If you want to get their attention leave a post-it on your door. For those keeping track we got three towel animals, one of which I think was a dachshund in the French Foreign Legion.
The ship - She's new and she looks it. Boys made use of the sports deck to shoot hoops, played shuffleboard as well as the outdoors chess set. Wife and I made use of the double wide lounges in the Spinnaker Lounge. Wow, those are comfy, and a great view to boot looking out over the bow. As mentioned in many reviews poolside area is not particularly large for 2400 passengers and there is nowhere near enough lounge chairs. I do not know why they have stacks of unused chairs laying about on the decks above the pool. As a redhead I prefer hanging out in the shade. It would have been nice to have more deck chairs available on the promenade deck (7) because the AARP crowd claimed what was there at daybreak. Deck 11, port side forward has a room where you can observe the bridge. It's worth checking out. Thanks to everyone who posted that the fishes in the carpet design face Forward. Your first decision in the morning leaving the cabin shouldn't be 'do I turn left or right to get to the buffet'.
Ship's Doctor - my wife had reason to see the doctor. Cost for the office visit was $78. Doctor and staff were very efficient and friendly.
Ship's photographers - Simon told the story one evening of a passenger who was seen taking a picture of one of her 8x10s hanging in the photo shop. Everybody laughed. I wasn't laughing when I found out the shop wanted $25 for those 8x10s. We caught one of the photo staff in an outright lie and I found them to be the most annoying factor of the cruise. Maybe that's just the industry standard.
Ship's entertainment - First up, I thought Simon made a great cruise director; he was never too over the top or cocky (you know, the ones who are more annoying than anything else).
Ann Rand dancers - we only saw the first of three of their shows. Not really our cup of tea. I think the stage was just too small to really showcase their abilities. The aerial gymnasts were very talented. Husband and wife magic act - Very entertaining, I like slight of hand type magic and he was very good at this. They were entertainment for two nights (one shared w/Sharkbait) and had a couple of demonstrations in the Spinnaker lounge during the week.
Second City Comedy - A team of five comedians, generally very funny. Some of their skits were hit or miss but their improv was great. They also performed in the Spinnaker throughout the week and held a couple of workshops. Met a couple of them on an excursion to the Baths in BVI; nice folks.
Jeff Tracta - Lots of good postings about him. The dude does have talent, and good hair. Outstanding impersonations. You have to reach back in time for some of them, like the cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo (Don Adams I believe).
Sharkbait - Only act to get a standing ovation, and on both nights they performed in the theater. A pair of Ringling Brothers trained clowns turned jugglers they are drop dead funny. And if you're a woman of a certain age and athletic ability, and you get selected to go on stage and help with a routine, know that you will bring joy and happiness to 950 of your fellow passengers.
Excursions - We typically like to see if we can arrange our own excursions as they tend to be less crowded and offer more flexibility than booking through the ship. For any and all of you have posted to CruiseCritic.com on what to see and do on the different islands -THANKS! Most our decisions were based on the info posted here. Itinerary for this cruise was based on doing things the two teens might be interested in, so no sightseeing or shopping.
Samana - Not too many options here since everyone says the town is a dump (even Simon). We did the whale watching excursion via the ship since we were in season for that. Had enough sightings to make it worthwhile. The ship used her own lifeboats for the event since we were anchored out. Stayed out for about an hour and a half then went to a small island with a beautiful beach. You can get hotdogs/hamburgers, drinks. The many white lounge chairs available are free. I found the time there very relaxing.
Tortola - Based on info on this board we decided to forgo the NCL tour to the Virgin Gorda Baths and strike out on our own. If interested in this check out the board on Tortola and search for info about Speedy's ferry service. $30 pp buys you ferry round trip from Tortola to VG that includes taxi service to the Baths. Taxi is a bit of a misnomer as it's really an open air truck that seats about 20-25. Ship debarks around 10:00 and first available ferry is at 10:30. If you don't dally you can make this (we did, but it's close). It would help, if the ship, during it's first port cattle call didn't slow the debarkation process any more by trying to make people get their picture taken on the gangway with a human dressed up in a parrot costume. Ferry takes half an hour and is air-conditioned below deck. Comfortable ride, shows a movie. Once we got to the Baths ($3 entry fee) hiked through the rocks to get to Devils Reach Beach. Wow, just beautiful. I didn't appreciate how clear the water was until I compared it to other beaches we went to. It is a bit of an effort to climb/crawl through the rock formations to get there but worth it. A small beach but maybe only 30 people there when we were there (ship excursion runs from 12-4). Before taking the 3:30 ferry back we ate at The Top of the Baths restaurant, which is at the top of the hill leading to the beaches. The view looking out over the nearby islands alone is worth spending a moment there. We had lunch here, a little expensive but we all enjoyed the food. The jerk chicken wrap I had was very good. Any way you decide to get there, the Baths are worth checking out.
Antigua - Decided to go to Dickenson Bay beach as we had read you can rent water sports equipment. Grabbed a taxi; $12 for up to four one way (Antigua taxi rates are posted online) to the beach. Made arrangements to get picked up by the driver three hours later. Nice beach, not too many people there considering there were several ships in port. The boys jet skied ($45/half hr). Driver showed up exactly three hours later and drove us back to town.
Barbados - Decided we wanted to do a catamaran turtle snorkel excursion. In a classic example on why NOT to book your own excursions we found online an US based excursion agent who operated in conjunction with Heat Wave catamaran on Barbados. The ship docks at 9:00 and the company website explicitly said NCL passengers could make this trip even though it stated the start time was 9:00 also. We probably missed the van to take us to the marina by 30 minutes. Eventually took a taxi to the marina. Fortunately, the dive sites were right off shore so Heat Wave assigned us a driver to meet the cat on the other side of the island at the dive site. Everything worked out well, Heat Wave reimbursed us for what we paid for taxi, we got a nice tour of the island, made both dive stops, and we had a blast on the cat which included lunch and an essentially open bar. Credit to Heat Wave for their efforts.
St Lucia - In a classic example of the benefits of booking your own excursion we scheduled horseback riding via Atlantic Shores Stables. Located on the southeastern side of the island a driver picked us up at the cruise terminal for a 45 minute drive to the stables. He took us through the rain forest and banana plantations. The horse ride was fantastic (only the four of us plus two guides). The rocky shoreline of the Atlantic and intermittent beaches were just beautiful. Lots of open space meant we didn't have to walk nose to tail the whole time. We ate a catered lunch (brought in by truck and included a man playing steel drums) on a deserted beach. This was the best excursion of the cruise.
Dining - Wife and I weren't ready to buy into the concept of paying extra for food quality supposedly at the level that cruising is/was known for so we didn't hit any of the restaurants that had a cover charge. I can drop $20-$30 for a 'specialty' restaurant at home. We ate most of our dinners in Indigo. Overall the food was good, not great. We did go to Mambos (Tex-Mex, no cover) two nights; food was good and the portions were larger. We found it easy to get reservations there. We discovered the Blue Lagoon (24/7 comfort food) late in the cruise but when we did we started going there as opposed to the buffet for lunch/snack. As others have mentioned the fish and chips are really good. For us, Freestyle dinning didn't work. We're not night owls and prefer the first seating entertainment, which dictates first seating dinning. So, we essentially did conventional cruising w/o the benefits of having a wait staff that gets to know you. Wait staff on the Pearl ranged from perfunctionary to friendly and we ultimately missed the relationship that you would otherwise develop with your staff.
Final thoughts - I'm one of those who feel you have to really work at it to have a bad time on cruise and this cruise was a lot of fun. With the exception of the dining experience most criticisms above are just nits. We were more than satisfied with the ship's itinerary, entertainment, rooms, staff, etc. We will probably sail a different cruise line next time in order to take advantage of a more traditional dining experience. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.