Miami Parking: Used CBM parking through United Airport Parking and won't do it again. Saved $50 in fees but it was a hassle for the driver at both ends of the cruise. By the time I got back to the port terminal (12:30pm) I was at the end of a line of about 1,000 people standing in the sun for an hour waiting to get in to the terminal building. Embarkation: Slow but orderly. Did use the Latitudes line, but couldn't tell if that helped or not Arrival on Board....yes, there was champagne and orange juice on deck just outside the entrance to the atrium. Went to Summer Palace for lunch....glad we did because at least it was peaceful (only about 30 passengers at 1:00) and the service was good. Food was generally good.
Food: Our group of 6 did not want to pay for the specialty restaurants nor did the guys want to put on long pants, so the Garden Cafe (buffet) was our norm for dinners. We did try two dinners in the Summer Palace / Indigo and the food was not very good. When we chose an item that was also available in the buffet, the buffet won hands down for food freshness and quality. In general the food in the Summer Palace / Indigo was bland, soups were watery, service was spotty. I ordered the "always available" sirloin steak, and it was ok. After one dinner in Indigo, our group decided not to eat any more dinners in those restaurants. My wife and I did have breakfast in Summer Palace twice. I found the food that was in the buffets was very good; it was just a shame that to get it you had to mess with the crowds, crazy traffic flow and going on a table safari. Our group used the Great Outdoors buffet and seating area often for breakfast and lunch that was my favorite part of the Pearl. I found the cappuccino machine early-on (on the way out to Great Outdoors, just before the kids eating area) and used it at dinner each day. I cheated by adding 1/2 package of the provided hot chocolate mix to each cup, creating a mocha. I did have the straight espresso, too, and it was good as well.
Entertainment: we enjoyed everything that we saw, but for me the Jean Ann Ryan song / dance shows were well done but a bore these song and dance reviews went out in the 1940s, I thought. The comedian, David Naster, was very good and the juggling / comedy group, Sharkbait was also excellent. Cruise Director, Simon "smashing" Murray, was very good and his staff was good as well. I complained about one of the presenters for the NCL-U, and Simon was very responsive to my complaint, although I never went back to any of her other presentations to see if there was an improvement. The Crew talent show was a bit weak, but the passenger talent show was great. Our Cruise Critic Roll Call leader, sang a great song and did it well to the accompaniment of her husband on the piano.
Cabin: An inside cabin, just what we expected. The two stewards did the basic job and gave us towel animals twice. We greeted them every day in the hall, and they were responsive. No choice of pillow firmness. The TV was a flat panel Philips TV and did have the external connections for a DVD / video game (red,white,yellow for composite as well as s-video and component video connections). They were on both the bottom and the left side. A small mirror was handy to locate them and check connections, since they had to be made "blind". I had the mini-bar emptied on the first day and the beds put together and both were done by the time we got back from dinner. We asked for those with "sticky notes" on the mirror, and that worked fine.
Ports: We had overcast, rainy days for each. In Roatan we went to Fins & Flippers and it was very nice. We got rained out, but the snorkeling would have been really good if we had sunshine. Note to inexperienced snorkelers: keep your hands and arms "quiet" next to your body and the fin splashing to a minimum and you will see many more fish and don't touch the coral with your bare hands or flippers. Drinks were good at the F&F bar - we did not eat there due to the rain. In Belize, we had booked the cave tubing with Major Tom and found out that it had been cancelled due to too much rain, but only after we had tendered in. Note to independent tour users: Check with the ship excursion desk for the status of similar NCL tours on the day of the tour. If they have cancelled the NCL version, it is very likely that your private tour has also been cancelled. In Cozumel, it was another overcast and windy day, so we went ashore and just wandered around. The tourist center by the Puerto Langosta pier is laid out so that you have to pass all the stores there to get out how clever!! We did go out because I wanted to test the Margaritas at Wet Wendy's. We did that, and they were absolutely great. That bar has 4 stools and three tables and is a block south of the eastern edge of the central plaza (ask "donde esta el Zocolo"), which is about 4 blocks south of the pier. Even if you don't go to Wet Wendy's, the zolcolo is nice and open and has several shops and bars around its perimeter. We skipped Great Stirrup Cay because of bad weather and went to Key West instead. This was another "get off the ship and walk around for an hour" port for us. We docked by the Westin Hotel and the shops nearby are very expensive. We updated our t-shirt collection at the Hogs Breath Saloon and Irish Kevins pub and then bought a "Key Lime Pie on a Stick" and walked back to the ship. We first had to clear immigration and border patrol on the ship. We did hear that over 800 passengers did not bother to clear immigration in Key West despite many, many announcements that said it was mandatory. They were barred from leaving the ship in Key West, and probably had some hassle in Miami. They punched a unique shape in our ships card to indicate that we had cleared in Key West.
Cruise Critic Meet & Greet: We had a meet and greet scheduled. We had about 95 on our roll call list, but only about 25 people showed. Unfortunately, the ship changed the location and there was no way other than a small sign, to re-direct people. The Cruise Director, chief engineer, Hotel Director, group event coordinator and a senior chef came. They asked us for questions, and there were only two. Note to Meet and Greet folks: come prepared to ask questions!!.. The cruise director was able to help some of our members get in to the fully-booked mystery dinner, and that was a great perk. Later in the cruise, all those who signed it at the meeting were invited to see a Garden Villa on the last morning. Unfortunately, they both were occupied, so we did not get to see them, but we did get to see the courtyard and a couple of the courtyard suites. That also was a nice perk of the Cruise Critic meet and greet.
Unplanned excitement: We had a medical evacuation off Cuba on the way to Key West via helicopter. A film was made of it and played on the ships TV channel that night. They closed down the Great Outdoors and all of the aft part of deck 13 and 14 for several hours for this operation. Latitudes room: Never had any cookies / pastries. The coffee / tea service in there was the same that was provided in the Library each day. Some passengers were smoking in the latitudes room and that ruined it for others for the rest of the cruise, since the "club car" smell never went away. There is nothing special about this "benefit" in my opinion since it can be used by all passengers (the only management of it was just a large sign saying Latitudes Members Only). Disembarkation: I left early, doing the self disembark thing, because I had to go get the car out by the airport. Once the line started moving, I was on the street in less than 7 minutes!! However, I had to wait 45 minutes for the shuttle to the airport parking. The rest of our group stayed onboard for another hour and they said their experience was similar. Note: we had already cleared immigration in Key West.
Overall: This was a good cruise and a great value. We had been on the NCL Dawn in March of 2008 and felt that the food quality in the main dinning rooms had declined more since then. The service was about the same. Others in our group kept commenting how poor the food was as compared to HAL, although they ate the food in the Garden Cafe with gusto. We all liked the freestyle mode and the food in the buffets. Having two pools in the Pearl vs. one on the Dawn seemed much better. I liked the layout of the Pearl better than the Dawn, especially the Blue Lagoon, the buffets and the Great Outdoors. I did not miss the multi story atrium and glass elevators of the Dawn.