Return to the Pearl!
This was my seventh cruise in two-and-a-half years, but the first time I returned to a ship I've sailed before. I sailed on the Norwegian Pearl in April 2008 on a Caribbean itinerary, shortly before NCL implemented the Freestyle 2.0 upgrades. On this Alaskan cruise, I traveled with the same friend as before, and we were eager to see what has changed. (You can read my earlier review of the Pearl here: http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=41919)
Just like last time, my friend and I booked only two weeks before the cruise. We chose an Inside Guarantee (category N), and booked via an online agency. We did not receive our stateroom assignment until two days before departure, and we found ourselves upgraded to a category H Oceanview (porthole window). More about the cabin later...
The itinerary was seven nights, round-trip from Seattle. While it's advertised as an "Inside Passage" cruise, the ship did not spend much time in the Inside Passage while at sea. Besides some time in British Columbia's Hecate Strait, the ship is mostly out to sea when traveling to and from Alaska. (My theory is that the ship wants to spend as much time as possible outside of Alaska state waters -- otherwise, one-third of casino profits are owed to the state!) But the time spent in Alaska waters are absolutely gorgeous.
I snagged the Westin Seattle for $65/night via Priceline, bidding on a 4-star property in Downtown. The hotel was very nice, clean, comfortable and we had great views from out 31st-floor room!
Since we were staying so close to the pier (about a half-mile) and had a late checkout, we were in no rush to get to the ship. Another friend of mine was in Seattle that weekend, so I met him at Pike Market and explored the waterfront. Around noon, we walked past Pier 66 and it seemed mobbed with people waiting in line to check in. Later, my cruise friend and I left the hotel and went to the pier around 1:30 -- the earlier crowds had disappeared, and we were checked in and on the ship within minutes! Our first Freestyle 2.0 upgrade greeted us at this time -- free champagne handed to us upon boarding!
The ship left Seattle a few minutes before its scheduled 4:00 departure time. We were already pulling away from the dock when we returned to the cabin after the safety drill.
We were excited about our free upgrade to an oceanview room, even though we knew it only had a porthole window (cabin 4502). The porthole was through a rather thick wall, which blocked your peripheral vision out the window -- but it was nice to have something over nothing. On my previous sailing, the inside cabin had a strangely-aligned toilet which was not comfortable for taller people (no legroom). I'm happy to report that the bathroom layout in this cabin provided more room while, um, seated.
Otherwise, the cabin was basically the same as the earlier inside cabin. But we quickly discovered that we were missing the television remote, and later the guest services binder. Phone calls to guest relations for each item quickly resolved the problem. We also received two passes for free bowling in Bliss -- we still don't know why we got these, but they were happily used.
Another problem upon arrival was a foul odor in the bathroom shower, and we wondered if the drain may have backed up during the previous sailing. We alerted our stateroom attendant who immediately scrubbed down the shower. The odor was gone, and never returned.
I was a little concerned about cabin noise since we were on the lowest passenger deck. However, with the exception of docking (when the bow thrusters were on, directly under us), the cabin was always quiet. And because we were on the dead-end of a hall, there was virtually no foot traffic outside. (The only other time I heard noise was when we were sailing through Glacier Bay -- I returned to the cabin to fetch a pullover, and could hear the floating chunks of ice striking the hull!)
I bought an Alaska Cruise travel book (Frommer's, 2009) which commented that the Pearl's "oft-voiced complaint" was not enough closet and drawer space. I strongly disagree with this -- the cabin had plenty of storage, and we probably used about half of what was available. On both of my Pearl sailings, I never heard one person complain about a lack of storage space.
Ports of Call & Excursions
There aren't many places you can stop on a roundtrip Alaska cruise, but every place offered unique options.
Juneau: the state capital, where one of the highlights for cruise passengers is the Mt. Roberts Tramway. While it's offered as a cruise excursion, there's no need to book it through the ship -- tickets can be purchased at the terminal. And if the weather is bad, you can decide not to do it. (Thankfully not an issue for us -- the weather for our cruise was sunny and mid-70s temperatures!) Free shuttle buses ferried passengers from the dock to the downtown area. My bus driver, a college student from Utah, recited from memory "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by RObert W. Service.
Skagway: The highlight here is the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, which I was eager to do. The setup is very interesting -- there are three cruise ship piers, and each one connects to a rail line. These rail lines converge as they pass the downtown, into the single narrow-gage track for the journey. The train ride offered stunning scenery and many photo opportunities from each car's front and back platforms. Highly recommended.
Glacier Bay: When reviewing itineraries for an Alaska cruise, the one criterion my friend and I had was that it had to sail Glacier Bay. Due to environmental concerns, the National Park Service only allows up to two cruise ships per day into the pristine waters. Early in the morning, a team of Park Rangers board the ship and lead narration and lectures during the sail. We stopped in front of two glaciers (Margerie and Lamplugh), which didn't calve too much for us. But the scenery more than made up for that.
Ketchikan: As a "Deadliest Catch" fan, I was excited to see a crab fishing tour offered on a former Bering Sea vessel. This was an amazing excursion -- I learned many things about professional fishing (more than just crab) and a highlight was when the crew attracted a couple dozen bald eagles by throwing bait into the water. We spent about 15 minutes watching (and photographing) these graceful creatures swoop above the water and pluck the fish with their talons. And the fishermen's personal stories were very engaging and sometimes emotional. One drawback about Ketchikan was the short amount of time we spent there (a 1:30 departure) -- after the excursion, I had very little time to explore this quaint town.
Victoria: This wasn't much more than a "technical stop" for the Bahamas-flagged ship to satisfy an international port-of-call legal requirement, but Victoria was both quaint and vibrant at the same time. A quirky inner harbor was surrounded by many shops and restaurants. My friend and I spent some time people-watching in a local coffee shop.
My friend and I were excited to return to some of our favorite specialty restaurants on the Pearl. Howver. with the implementation of Freestyle 2.0, two restaurants which used to be free (La Cucina and Mambos) are now charging a cover.
There was one noticeable change at Teppanyaki -- the hibachi-style restaurant has four cooking areas, and seating for all four used to be simultaneous. (That is, four chefs would start and end their shows at the same time.) But now, the stations are staggered two-and-two. We entered while the other half of the restaurant was in the middle of their dining experience; likewise, I found it distracting halfway during our dinner when the other half of the restaurant was swapping diners.
We also dined in La Cucina, Mambos, Blue Lagoon and Lotus Garden -- all were as excellent as we remembered. We also ate one night each in Summer Palace and Indigo. The breakfast and lunch buffets in the Garden Cafe offered a wide selection, though the offerings did not change much. However, on a one-week cruise, it's unlikely that most people would be able to try everything anyway. The secret was out that the Great Outdoors is one of my favorite spots on the ship -- it was often crowded, but I was usually able to find an open table.
After my last Pearl sailing, I commented that the salad bar offerings were skimpy. This time, I quickly noticed more selection. But one small complaint -- every day, the items were in a different order. What may have held spinach on Monday, was holding radishes on Tuesday. I had to hunt for my favorite salad ingredients every time. (But maybe this is a sign of a good memory, and I shouldn't complain...)
Like last time, I only saw one ensemble show -- Garden of the Geisha. It was a predictable show (boy meets girl, boy can't have girl, boy wins over girl's parents, boy gets girl). But it was still enjoyable, and the elaborate costumes were impressive.
I also attended the Liars' Club game, and was surprised that 14 months later, they hadn't changed it one bit. Still the same words and definitions.
A new experience for me was the crew talent show. I don't know if any other cruise line does this, but it is such a great idea. The show wrapped up with a hilarious skit by the Cruise Director and her staff, called "Fountains."
We checked out the White Hot Party. This new, fleet-wide party is probably a lot of fun outdoors on a Caribbean cruise packed with younger adult passengers -- but in Alaska, and in a lounge, it just wasn't happening. About two-thirds of the attendees were Pearl staff (who, of course, are more fun than most of the passengers) and it was already winding down by 11:15 p.m.
I was highly impressed by the customer service on my last Pearl sailing, and thought it couldn't possibly be better this time around. But (surprise!) it was. I noticed an increased interaction of staff and crew with the guests, and the senior officers were always around and accessible. Our cabin attendants were very friendly, and always efficient.
NCL proactively seeks comments from its passengers, demonstrated by the comment cards they place in the rooms early into the cruise. My friend and I attempted to attend a Friends of Dorothy gathering on the first night, only to find that the location was not marked (VIP Lounge in Bliss -- there are two of these) and it was scheduled at 8:30 p.m., a time where there was so much else going on (dinner, entertainment). We commented on this, and turned in our card. The next day, we received a voicemail from Julie the Cruise Director (yes, that IS her real name). She apologized for the lack of signage and informed us that the next couple gatherings would be scheduled at a later, more accessible time. Later that day, we attended the Latitudes gathering -- Julie greeted us and made sure we received her message.
A new offering on the Pearl is a behind-the-scenes tour (for a fee). This didn't seem to be advertised very well, and I learned about it almost by accident. But I was very glad I did -- it was an incredible two-hour tour, taking a small group through the main galley, provisions areas, the bridge, laundry facilities and the theater's backstage. In each location, the senior officer (or main talent) led that part of the tour. (I took many pictures, which can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/philamike/sets/72157619524463150/)
My friend and I attended the CruiseCritic Meet & Greet, which (like the others I've attended) i