We love freestyle! Freestyle to us is the freedom to choose where, when and with whom we want to eat. Freestyle has nothing to do with expenses as others seem to think.
Our travel arrangements for this spring break cruise were made through a local travel agency. The agency initially told us we would not be able to use our Bank of America/NCL Mastercard rewards points, however, we were able to convince them they were the same as cash as a result of some assistance from CC members. We did have a bit of a concern regarding the booking of a cruise during spring break. We had heard much about college kids getting out of hand. This was not the case at all on this cruise. There were plenty of families onboard including more than 900 kids we were told. Crowding at the buffet was a concern, but overall we felt the ship was able to handle the larger population.
We arrived in Miami a little after noon on Friday, 3/21, from Minneapolis, following a de-icing and runway closure issue delaying us as a result of a growing snowstorm. Boy did the warmth of Miami ever feel good!
We were traveling with our 16 year-old daughter, so there were the three of us. This time we opted for an inside cabin (5049) as we were intent on making this a more economical, cost savings cruise.
We arrived at the cruise terminal at about 1:15 and never experienced more than a minute or two wait at any point of the registration process. We were boarding the ship by about 1:30 and went straight to our stateroom. While the ship does not have the "wow" factor upon entry due to not having a several story atrium at the center of the ship, we were nevertheless impressed with the ship from the very beginning. The ship still has a new feel to it, even though it is about a year and a half old. We found everything to be clean and beautiful. As mentioned by others, the cabin was sort of small, but everything is organized in such a way that we never really felt too cramped as had been the case on a previous cruise. The dEcor throughout the ship is very bright and colorful.
Our favorite restaurant was the Summer Palace. We ate at Indigo, LaCucina, the Garden Buffet and Teppanyaki during the course of the cruise, but would have truly been satisfied eating at the Summer Palace for nearly every evening meal. We felt that the Indigo was too noisy and slow and the food choices were not necessarily to our liking in LaCucina, too spicy for some of us. We enjoyed the variety of food options at the buffet and liked the layout which seemed to eliminate the need for forming long lines at many of the serving stations, however, this was the one area of the ship that really caused you to understand that you were sailing on a "full" ship. It was crowded in this area, nearly every time we were there. Teppanyaki was good, but not so sure it was really worth the extra $60 we had to pay for the experience. Other than the buffet, we never experienced a wait of more than a minute or two to be seated. NCL handled the different restaurant options very well even though we were on a crowded ship.
We like the variety of options that NCL offers for dining venues, but with those options come a variety of concerns that seem to be regularly raised by passengers. Not sure there is really an easy way to overcome the different concerns and still allow for the variety and keep the majority of the passengers happy and satisfied with what they are able to do and when. (You can't keep all the people happy all the time - that's for sure!) For reservations we found that calling on the phone beginning 3-4 minutes before the phone lines opened worked best for us. One of us would stand in line for a reservation and the other would call and in most instances, the attempt to get a reservation over the phone was more successful and certainly simpler. One problem though, if you wanted to cancel a reservation you had to call the same number which took awhile to get through due to being so busy. Since we really didn't have the same intensity or desire to cancel a reservation as to make one, at one time our cancellation was made later in the afternoon, which if cancelled earlier it would have opened up the reservation to another family. A suggestion would be to have one phone number to make reservations and another number to cancel reservations - just a thought.
We found the food to be presented very professionally. For the most part our meals were always very tasty and served at the appropriate temperatures, etc. Occasionally, we would not see a particular entrEe that really caught our attention as something we couldn't wait to eat, so in those situations we asked our server for their recommendation. In every case, we were pleased with the recommendations and truly enjoyed the meal. We are looking forward to 2.0, but nevertheless, we were still pleased with our meals. We believe the "better" meals are missing from the menus, but you certainly will not starve on the ship. We really enjoyed all the different chilled soups NCL offers. They taste much better than one would think. While the deserts were sometimes somewhat limited in the dining room, we always found a trip to the buffet, after the shows, would certainly satisfy any craving that any of us had. We loved the variety of soufflEs that were offered; always good!
We enjoyed the entertainment throughout the ship, however, the Jeanne Ann Ryan company, which is not our favorite, is now starting to duplicate their shows for us. The other entertainment was actually more to our liking. On one of the sea days we actually took time out to attend a "talent show" put on by members of the staff and crew during the day. Very entertaining, especially the "Enchanting Fountains" - very funny!
Ports and Shore Activities: Samana - we took the Cayo beach excursion offered by NCL. We thought it was very nice and beautiful. If you are there early, you can actually relax for quite some time in one of the hammocks before a crowd arrives. Enjoyable! Tortola - we booked the "Royal Swim" with the dolphins on our own at Dolphin Discovery. (Very nice and much cheaper to book directly with the vendor) Antigua - we braved it and took the local bus out to a beach for snorkeling 30 minutes from the pier. Very relaxing, beautiful and saved a lot of money. Barbados - too commercialized. Again we braved it and took a local bus out to a beach for a swimming/tanning day. Beautiful beach, but would suggest a taxi over the bus system. (Boarding was not close by and the return trip was very loud, uncomfortable and again the drop off was too far from the pier.) St Lucia - our favorite port. We took the Cosol Tour. A word of caution though, although the bulk of the tour is in new, comfortable, air-conditioned touring vans accommodating 11-13 people each with professional and pleasant explanations by the drivers and all, we found many of the stops to be very crowded. We found that the stops were actually too crowded to our liking, hosting 5-6 vans of people at a time. Too much for us! You do get your money's worth though, as our tour actually lasted nearly seven hours and was very informative. We loved the snorkeling between the Pitons, very nice!
Simon Murray was our Cruise Director for the first half of the cruise. He left for Miami in the middle of the cruise to "take care of business". We thought that was sort of odd! It's just not the same to not have a same CD throughout the course of a cruise. Not sure what that was all about!
We love the NCL product, especially for the freestyle concept. The Pearl is a beautiful ship. The itinerary for this particular sailing was fantastic. We have experienced a friendlier crew/staff in the past, but the folks on the Pearl certainly did a tremendous job allowing us to have a wonderful spring break cruise.
Thank you NCL! We will be back!