We flew from Philadelphia to Miami the night before on USAir. Not my favorite airline but got the job done. Why do they insist on charging a fee to check a bag? I booked the pre-cruise package at the Hampton Inn and Suites - Blue Lagoon. It cost only $119.00 and included a round trip for two to the pier. The kids cost me an additional $5 each. The hotel was a run of the mill Hampton Inn, and you couldn't beat the price. The hotel arranged shuttle picked us up at 11:00am the next morning and it was off to the pier.
The embarkation process for NCL couldn't have been simpler. Once dropped off and thru security (maybe 10 minutes) we checked in via the Latitudes VIP line. No worries here, just a 5 minute wait. All of this was completed before 11:45AM, really fast. The ship wasn't ready for boarding and just as we finished checking in our number was called for boarding..hmm..from the hotel to on board in 1 hour including the obligatory "Welcome Aboard" photo- awesome. Once on board we were met by a smiling waiter and a free glass of champagne. OK that was new and a nice touch. We immediately went to the kids club to get the kids signed in, no worries here either, then off to the Garden Cafe for lunch.
Our cabin at category H on deck 4 was barely adequate for two adults and two kids. It was way too small and the sleeping arrangement was far from ideal. If you have 4 people make sure you book one of the larger outside cabins or a balcony. Our cabin 4564 was really noisy since it was next to one of the egress points for the ship. If you can afford it, book another deck or one away from the egress point. I will say that our outside cabin on the Carnival Glory was bigger. The Pearl cabin was nice though and kept very clean by our room stewards. (Although if truth be told, the carpet could use a shampoo.) The bathroom was of average size although I'm not sure why the toilet area needs a door, its so small no two people would want to be in the bathroom together. They get an A for effort though.
A real improvement on NCL that was obvious is the quality of all the food on-board. On our previous Pearl cruise, the food was a real weak point. Not so on this cruise, kudos to NCL for a dramatic improvement, but there's still room to do better. The quality of the buffet on the Pearl is the best that I've had on any ship. We were just on the Carnival Glory this past June and I'll tell you that the buffet on the Glory pales in comparison to the quality on the Pearl. The only edge that I'd give to Carnival is their Pizza, the pizza on the Pearl was just OK but hey I didn't come on a cruise to eat Pizza. We ate every breakfast and lunch in a buffet line somewhere on the ship. We really enjoyed the pool side buffet. On two days they brought out the real BBQ grills and grilled, pork chops, chicken and even steak. Wow that was really nice and was great. I have never wanted to have dinner at the buffet before on any cruise ship but this time we found ourselves at the buffet for dinner a few times. We weren't disappointed with the food offered for dinner as the selections were similar to what was being offered in the dining room.
We ate in the main dining room twice once in Indigo and once in the Summer Palace. Both dining rooms serve the same menu and booth are no fee. We preferred the service in Indigo, even on the last cruise, the service as better in the smaller dining room. Dinner in the Summer Palace took forever, although the quality of the food in both dining rooms was the same. The main dining rooms are where NCL could continue to make more improvements. The selection isn't as good as it was on our previous Carnival cruise and I found my self not really wanting to eat in the main dining room. Everything I ordered though was very good although I struggled to find something I really wanted. I will say that one evening I ordered the 8oz Steak and it was way better than the steak Carnival offers in their dining room.
We ate at two of the "fee" venues. 1st La Cucina. I personally wouldn't waste the money next time, it simply wasn't upscale enough to warrant the $10PP up-charge, $5 for kids under 12. It wasn't even as good as Olive Garden in my opinion. We also ate at Teppanyaki. At $25pp and $12.50 for kids under 12, its not cheap. However, it was fun and we did have an excellent meal. The fillet was melt in your mouth and you can't beat the fun. I talked to several people who ate in Cagney's and in Le Bistro and enjoyed both.
Bar type snacks were something that I missed on the Carnival Glory, the Pearl doesn't disappoint here either. The Blue Lagoon is always open with bar type food. This too was vastly improved over our last cruise on the Pearl. The buffalo wings were excellent as were the potato skins. The chocolate brownie sundae was great too.
Entertainment on the Pearl was very good. I was very impressed by the pool band of all things, they were far better than the bands on Carnival or RCCL that I've experienced and they played a great mix of music. The evening shows were good to very good far better than those on Carnival Glory. The comedy of Sharkbait was great and they produced a really fun show. The singing, dancing and acrobatics of the Jean Ryan Co. were excellent. The only sour point and really not that sour was the magician, he wasn't funny nor very magical. The comedy of Second City was very good. There's always something to do on the Pearl, we utilized the bowling alley($5pp per game), the rock wall (free), sports court, pools, game room and even the library. If you have kids, the Pearl is one of those ships that keeps them entertained.
The NCL kids program is very good. My kids both hated the program on the Carnival Glory but loved the on on the Pearl for the 2nd time. The staff does a great job of making the kids feel welcome and plans fun activities for them. I found it to be much better organized than the program on the Carnival Glory and the staff much more kid friendly.
Finally, Freestyle, we enjoy it. I can see how some may not. I did miss the relationship between the the waiter and staff in the dining room. That made our Carnival cruise really great. However, that's where it stops. It's so nice to do whatever I want whenever I want and not have to keep to a schedule. The downfall to this in the execution. We went to the dining room 2x only to be told there was a 45 min wait. They give you a pager and you can do whatever until they call you but it's kind of annoying, especially when it's 8PM and your starving. Also, the up-charge for the other eating venues. One our 1st Pearl cruise two of them were free, Mambos and La Cucina. I think that NCL should make a few more of the restaurants free. Perhaps, they could have an NCL dining plan that includes a trip to several of the "pay" restaurants for a set price included with your cruise fare. (Hey NCL just copy what Disney does on their dining plan at the parks.) It would make the whole dining thing really nice. The pay restaurants were pretty empty, so I think perhaps in this economy the "pay" restaurant is something that people aren't willing to pay for, maybe NCL has too many "for fee" dining options.
I will say that Freestyle grows on you,we hate the dress up nights on other cruise lines, I'm on vacation leave me alone, and NCL does it right by allowing those who want to dress for dinner to do so and those who don't to not. The Pearl designates the Summer Palace as the "dress up" dining room. Many people took advantage of that on our cruise. NCL has changed its policy however on shorts in the dining rooms after 5PM. It's not allowed anymore, it's a good thing I brought a pair of pants! I also like the fact that we can eat anytime we want, I hate rushing around the ship to make it in time for that 6PM seating. As far as I'm concerned NCL has that right too.
Bar service in general was good, but very expensive. Those drinks in the cool take home cups $8.50 ouch! and a fruity drink in a regular glass $6.50, it adds up fast. Good thing we don't drink much. I will say I used the wine service on the ship. If you purchase a bottle of wine, NCL will store the unused portion and then you can enjoy it in any restaurant on any other day, just show the waiter your claim slip and they retrieve it for you. A nice touch.
Tipping is another thing on all cruise lines that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Just pay your people a decent wage and we'll forget all this tipping nonsense. Let me tip for exceptional service. NCL charges $12 per day, I think that this is exorbitant especially charging full price for kids. For a 7 day cruise our tips alone were $336, that's $56 more than we paid on Carnival. I also didn't get the benefit of a set wait staff in the dining room that I got on Carnival. I just hope the tips really help the hard working people on board.
I thought the service on the ship was good to excellent. People did their best to make you feel at home I thought the service was slightly better than the service we received on Carnival, with the exception of the dining room. Hands down Carnival has NCL beat there, but all our servers on NCL were good. It's just you don't build any relationship.
The only downside to the cruise was the skipping of the stop on Great Stirrup Cay. The seas were too rough to tender to the island so we spent another day at sea. I will say that that staff did a great job to make the day on the ship enjoyable. They even broke out the steaks for lunch on the BBQ.
The Pearl has a great fitness center, its simply the best of any ship I've been on so far, much nicer than the Carnival Glory. They have all the latest equipment, a steam room and the most beautiful view from every machine. It's a very nice gym.
All in all I would encourage anyone to try NCL, especially the Pearl and Freestyle. Is it for everyone, well maybe not, but for alot of you, you'll love it, we did. We'll be looking to travel on the Epic sometime soon.
One nice thing about Tortola, is that the people on the island are friendly and not very pushy. They don't really like to bargan either, so you pay more for souvineers here than in other ports.