BACKGROUND/PRE-CRUISE: We just returned from the NCL Pearl Eastern Caribbean cruise, 10/31-11/7. We are from the Midwest and are in our early forties. We don't have any children, so it was just the two of us. This was our 11th cruise, and our 2nd with NCL. The other nine have been on Princess and Carnival, with our first being in 1993.
We booked a inside guarantee a few weeks before leaving, so we were able to take advantage of a great last minute deal booked through a on-line agency. We were lucky enough to get the seven-day cruise for under $1,000 for both of us, including taxes and port charges. Air on SWA from Kansas City was $69 each way, so this trip was very reasonable. We are very budget-minded travelers and are always looking for the best deals. We guess that's why we have been able to cruise three times this year. We feel like we would rather trade a balcony cabin or suite on one cruise for guaranteed insides on three cruises. We were upgraded to an outside porthole cabin on deck four this cruise, so that was an added bonus. It was a great location since we were only steps from the door for excursions. No waiting for elevators to go to/from ports. We usually don't book excursions through the cruise lines to save additional money. We also bring water and soda from home.
We flew into the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport and called SAS Transportation for our ride to Miami the day before the cruise. We arranged the shuttle transportation ahead of time with SAS. They were prompt in getting back with us and were reasonable, charging $15 PP each way, plus tip. We did have to wait for about 20 minutes for others in the airport to come out for the ride to Miami. We weren't really in a hurry since we were going to our hotel and weren't sure we could even check in yet. We stayed at the Hotel Intercontinental (4* hotel $63 through Priceline), downtown Miami, the night before the cruise. Our room was ready in the early afternoon, so we checked in with no problems and walked over to Bayside Marketplace for a late lunch. We used a coupon from EntertainmentSavers.com for a buy-one, get-one free entree at the Cuban American restaurant. This was our first time eating Cuban cuisine, so we weren't sure what to expect. The food was different but good, the portion size was fine, but the service was lacking. Maybe we just expected a friendlier atmosphere coming from the Midwest, and the language barrier may have been part of the problem. We walked around downtown to the CVS, Walgreens and Bank of America near the hotel. There were a lot of scary people hanging out on the streets, so we decided to spend the evening in our room. We stopped by the Subway there and grabbed a sandwich for our dinner. It was a long day since we were at the airport at 5 AM that morning, so we were ready for a relaxing evening anyway. We had a wonderful view of the cruise port from our room.
The following morning, we took a taxi over to the port for $9 total, plus tip, for the two of us. We checked our bags with the porters ($2 per bag tip) and made our way through the check-in process around 11 AM. It was very easy until we got past the actual check-in where we were given a group number. We were in group #2. This whole process is very chaotic, and we were delayed getting on the ship for some reason, so that made it worse. When they began calling the numbers and asking people to line up against the wall, it was a mad rush to get into the single file line. People from every group were standing and sitting everywhere, so it was hard to get through since some had their rolling bags and people were sitting on the floor. There was not enough seating for everyone while waiting, so we stood for a little over an hour waiting to get on the ship. After we finally made it through the masses and security, we came to another bottleneck while the photographers took the required souvenir photo before boarding the ship. We wish we had the option of declining the photo. They should really have a bypass lane, but that would cut into their profit margin, wouldn't it?
CRUISE: Cabin #4584 - Porthole outside cabin We were in our cabin by 2:00 PM so we decided to unpack and throw our valuables (cc's, cash, passports, phones and IPOD's) in the safe, but there was an error code and didn't work. We called the information desk and they said they would be sending security to our cabin, but we waited and they never showed up. We called the next morning and the security officers promptly arrived to fix the issue.
We were happy with the accommodations and layout of the cabin, especially since it was a little larger than what we paid for an inside cabin. We had the two twin beds put together making a queen-size bed. There was just enough room on either side to walk. The bedding is nice and the sheets feel new. The mattresses have a removable pillow top on them.
THINGS WE DIDN'T LIKE/CABIN:
The only real major complaints with the cabin are the flat pillows and the bathroom:
- The pillows need to be replaced ASAP. They were really flat and lumpy. We each had three and that was not enough. There are two large throw pillows on the bed, but they are a little big to use at night. - The toilet area is extremely small. If you are a large/tall person, it may be uncomfortable, especially in the middle of the night. Thank God for the handicap bar. It was the smallest we have ever experienced on a cruise ship. There's also an ash tray right next to the toilet. How nice. We loved the shower with sliding glass door. It was roomy enough and had the shampoo and soap dispenser with a hand-held shower head. There was also a wet clothes line above, high enough to leave connected all week. We wish all of the cruise lines would have this type of shower. It was nice not having the clingy shower curtain sticking to you while trying to lather up. There are plenty of shelves in the bathroom and the towels are nice and thick. - Noisy Neighbors: The walls were really thin. We could clearly hear the conversations next door, as well as bathroom sounds (no more explanation needed here!).
THINGS WE LIKED/CABIN: - Big closet, lots of storage, drawers, shelves, and hooks in room and bathroom - Shower door instead of the usual sticky curtain - Safe that required only a code, as long as it works - Shampoos and soaps. - Nice, powerful hairdryers. - Refrigerator worked great, just ask your cabin steward to empty it for you. Also, make sure the items in the refrigerator and snacks are accounted for on the inventory pricing sheet so you're not charged for them. - The dial on the outside of the room indicating our status (do not disturb, make up cabin, etc.). Better than Carnival since someone kept stealing our "do not disturb" hang tag on our last cruise. - Coffee pot in the room, even though we didn't use it.
Our cabin steward kept our room very clean and the ice bucket always filled. He was extremely friendly and personable. The television is really small for the room and we didn't have any network channels, like Carnival or Princess has. One other thing that would be great would be to have the dinner menus and account folio information accessible on the television like other cruise lines do. They also show several recently released movies throughout the week in your cabin if you want to just chill out and watch a movie in the privacy of your own space.
THINGS WE DIDN'T LIKED/IN GENERAL: - The required $12/day per person gratuity or "surcharge": We normally don't complain and don't mind paying the $10/day surcharge on Carnival and Princess for adequate service, but the $12/day pp on NCL is more than they deserve in our opinion since most of the service we received was below par. We experienced poor service several times at different dining venues. At dinner in the dining room, our waiter, Noel, completely ignored us and took care of the couple right next to us since they purchased two bottles of wine from him. They arrived after us and got all of their food before we even got our first appetizer. He was very friendly with them and took time to take their picture for them. We told him thank you two times when he did fill up our drinks and he didn't say anything. A simple "you're welcome" would have been appreciated. We were so frustrated that we left before we received our dessert. The Blue Lagoon is also in dire need of additional staff. We noticed several times people not getting their food or very slow service. One other major disappointment was the buffet workers would place their dirty trays with dirty dishes on our table while clearing other tables. This was while we were sitting there eating. We also asked one worker if she could wipe our table off and she set her tray down on our table and wiped around the tray leaving our table partly dirty. We noticed the employees talking in English to each other, and then talking in their native language and laughing. We guess they think we are not perceptive enough to figure out what they are doing. However, if that's what they need to do to get through the day, that's their business. Our room steward did an excellent job, so we wished we could allocate more of the $12 per day to him and less to the dining staff. The tip or "service charge" system needs to be revamped with some sort of base amount and the remainder earned for good service. There needs to be an incentive/reward system for offering good service. We have been cruising since 1993 and noticed a huge decline in quality service since the cruise lines changed the tipping system. - The smokers on the ship: We recently watched a program that detailed how devastating a fire would be on a large ship with thousands of passengers/crew. The ships are only getting larger with more and more people on board. We can't believe the cruise lines still allow people to smoke in their cabins and specific areas of the ship. In our opinion, there really should be a smoking lounge in a designated area, similar to airports. We witnessed several passengers throwing their cigarettes overboard. We found cigarette and cigar butts lying on decks. It's only a matter of time until fire breaks out on another passenger ship. In addition, the second-hand smoke in the casinos makes it impossible to enjoy any gaming on board. Why should we be penalized and risk our health for others' bad habits? - The shops on board: We collect shot glasses from every ship we've been on and they only had one type of generic glass in the gift shop. There were lots of souvenir items from the Bahamas. They must have got a good deal on them. We also buy a photo frame from each ship but neither the photo dept. nor the gift shops had NCL Pearl frames. Very disappointing. The POA had nice frames in their photo shop, so we couldn't figure out why the Pearl would be missing out on potential sales. We asked and the only nice one was the porthole type frame, but not what we were looking for. They were selling port t-shirts on Thursday of the cruise for $15 each or 3 for $30. We wanted one from Tortola, but they didn't have any. They did have lots of Samana, St. Thomas and Great Stirrup Cay shirts. Also on the first day, if you are a past guest, show your on-board key card and you'll get an additional 10% off your purchases. - The extra charges: Especially for the ship tour. We would have liked to do this, but the nickle and diming for everything is really annoying.
HELPFUL INFO.: - Bring a power strip. There is only one outlet in the room. - Bring a Post-It Note pad and pen along to leave cabin steward notes throughout the week. They are also handy to leave notes in the cabin for your spouse/children or on doors of others in the group. - Bring a small alarm clock. You can get an automated wake up call with your phone as well. - Bring a nightlight for the bathroom. - Be careful where you put your room key. It can be demagnetized easily by cell phones and other things. We had to replace our room key/charge card two times.
FOOD/DINING: We ate in two of the surcharge restaurants, Tex-Mex (Mamba's) and Italian (La Cucina), both $10 PP, plus tip if you wish. We loved the Tex-Mex restaurant and could take or leave the Italian restaurant. The lobster tacos and shredded beef quesadillas were excellent at Mamba's. We received a complimentary small margarita, which was also very tasty. We had the rib-eye steak and cannelloni, and a few appetizers at the Italian restaurant. We previously read that on sea days they have buy-one, get-one free at some of the surcharge restaurants, but when I asked the reservation desk about it, they said they don't offer that on the Pearl at this time.
We ate in a main dining rooms; Summer Palace for breakfast once and dinner at Indigo three times. The breakfast was about the same as in the buffet, so if you want to avoid the crowds and have a relaxing breakfast, this is the place for you. Dinners were pretty good, not excellent. The menu selections are not as creative as Princess or Carnival, in our opinion. There's too many strange things and combinations. They do offer a sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce every night with your choice of potato. We tried this one evening, and it was okay. The bread and rolls were very good, but the same every night. With Carnival, you get a different selection each evening, which is nice. We had a few very good desserts in the dining room. The last night were the best with the mocha cheesecake and German chocolate cake.
We ate in the Garden Cafe buffet several times. We thought with the action stations, it would not be as congested as traditional buffets. But, we have to say that the buffet is a MADHOUSE! There were people going every direction, butting in line and running into us. It was very stressful to say the least. We experienced some of the rudest people we have ever encountered anywhere. I don't know what it is about a cruise ship, but some act as if there is a major food shortage and all manners go out the window. There were also times when we could not find a place to sit in the buffet, especially the departure morning. People were waiting to be called in the buffet area. We ate and went back to our cabin, so if everyone did that or went somewhere else, it would help a lot. It also helps to save a table ahead of time since there are no trays and so you don't have to carry your plate, silverware and drink around looking for a table to sit at. The breakfast's we had were good with a large selection of items. The bacon and sausage were very good. The biscuits and gravy were also the best we have tasted on a cruise ship. There were always fresh fruit and pastries, which were really good. For lunch and dinner, the burgers/fries (as long as they are fresh) were the best we have had on any cruise ship. They have bacon, sautEed onions/ mushrooms and cheese to top off your burger or grilled chicken. There are several types of pizza, but it was just O.K.. We have to say the biggest disappointment we experienced were the desserts in the buffet. They were VERY bland and mostly spongy tasteless type selections. Sad to say, the cookies were the biggest hit (when the homemade ice cream was not available). They had a chocolate fountain and were making crepes at night. The crepes were not good, but maybe we just don't like crepes. They had chocolate sauce, bananas and nuts to put in or on top of them. It was the first time eating crepes and we had a chocolate filled one with almonds on top. Not worth the calories. We agree that Princess offers the best desserts on their buffets. Carnival is also a very close second. We did have a few desserts in the surcharge and main dining room restaurants that were excellent. There was a soft-serve ice cream machine in the buffet and it was excellent on the first day, but it was very icy several other times we tried it since the demand was greater than the availability. The workers were even making soft-serve cones for people to keep order and since the ice cream was so soft. There was always a line to both the hard ice cream, when it was available, and the soft-serve machine. We also noticed the daily lunch and dinner selections in the buffet were all the same. There was no variance, so if you like a specific dish, you can pretty much count on it being there the rest of the week.
We loved the food in the Blue Lagoon restaurant. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner there several times. The fish and chips, chicken strips, mozzarella sticks, potato skins, orange juice and strawberry shortcake were especially tasty. We highly recommend the Blue Lagoon, and it's not a surcharge restaurant (for now)! We did notice a walk-way right through the restaurant to a hallway of cabins, which is really strange! A tall sweaty guy with no shirt, who must have just come from the basketball court, walked through our dining room while we were eating. You also need to wait to be seated at this restaurant and we noticed people coming from cabins and around the other side (Mambo's) sneaking in and setting down without waiting.
THINGS WE LIKED/DINING: - Dress code: We liked the open dress code. After all, it is a "Free Style" cruise line and YOUR vacation. We saw lots of guys wearing casual pants and sports sandals/tennis shoes to dinner on formal night. We also saw men and women wearing long dress shorts to dinner, like on Carnival. - Two main dining rooms: We liked the idea of having one dining room (Summer Palace) more formal and the other (Indigo) more casual for dinner. - Hand sanitizer dispensers in all dining venues, in addition to employees spraying your hands as you walk into the venue. We'll do anything to avoid getting sick, but we did notice some refusing to have their hands sprayed and not using the dispensers.
OTHER: - There was a Murder Mystery Dinner and Jazz Brunch offered during the week. We didn't go to either. The menu for the MMD wasn't too enticing. However, the Jazz Brunch did look really appetizing. Both have a surcharge to attend. - For the guys here: Bathroom urinals are very tall. If you are vertically challenged, you may have a problem here. Aim high. - There are only two pools, both saltwater, one main and one adult only pool located very close to each other. There is also a spiral shaped slide that does not end in a pool. We thought the pool area was really nice. There's a grill out by the pool, but no drink stations, so you will need to go inside to grab drinks. - The Stardust Theatre is very nice. We only were there twice. We watched a movie there, as well as the magician/comedian, Boucher, (would not recommend). Everything seemed really corny and he performed tricks we have seen before. The kids seemed to really like it though. - The casino is really nice with quite a few penny and two-cent machines, if you like those types of machines. Also, if you earn 25 points during the week, you get a free drink (anything you want) card to use throughout the rest of the week. You also get a minimum of $25 shipboard credit on the last day. Points are earned at a very slow pace though. I believe over 13,300 points per dollar. They have slot, black-jack and Texas Hold 'Em tournaments throughout the week in the casino. Again, the biggest issue is the smoke. Bingo is played throughout the week in the Spinnaker Lounge, but we didn't participate. - The Spinnaker Lounge is really nice and has a great view at the front of the ship. Highly recommend spending some time here. - Bliss Ultra Lounge has the bowling alley and is very luxurious. Bowling games are $5 each/pp and they have shoes to rent. They also have a bowling tournament throughout the week, so check your daily newspaper when you board for more details if you're interested. - The full-size basketball/soccer court on the back (aft) is very nice. There are bleachers there for those who want to watch. They offer basketball and soccer tournaments throughout the week. There's also a rock climbing wall that was used a lot. - Arcade only had very expensive games ($1.00/$1.50). What happened to the 25-cent Pac Man machines??? - Wii in the Main Atrium on the two story screen. It's only available a few hours a day and there were always little kids playing and lots of people watching, so we'll stick to playing it at home. -Health club is very nice with lots of new machines. There's a very small steam room you can use for free. - Spa: $10 up-charge per day with a "treatment," $20 otherwise, $99 PP "special" for couples all week. Other ships we have been on allowed use of at least the sauna/steam rooms and locker rooms after working out. Not here. PORTS/EXCURSIONS: - Samana, Dominican Republic: After much debate and research, we decided to save our money and spend the day on the ship. We only took the tender over to the port to see what was there. There is absolutely nothing to see here unless you go on a tour. We heard multiple horror stories from people riding back on the tender with us and while dining in the buffet. Apparently some on the ship-arranged excursions were very upset with their experiences and demanded refunds. We heard one guy say that he purchased a cigar and the guy took his $100 bill and never returned. He said they hired a private company to take them on a tour and go snorkeling, but they just drove around a small area and then back to the ship. He said it was terrible. The country is very beautiful with lots of palm trees on the hillside. I heard from others that the private excursion to Cayo Leventado was O.K. but not worth the $49 pp cost since there's nothing included. We heard many people say they don't know why NCL even goes to the Dominican Republic. We were in La Romana (southern part of the island) in January and experienced the same thing there, so we tend to agree with them based on our experience there. It's a shame the natives can't see they are only hurting themselves by ripping off the cruise visitors. - St. Thomas, USVI: This was our sixth time here (fifth on cruises and one extended family vacation on St. John), so we went shopping for the day and walked back to the ship. For those of you who are planning a trip here, this is definitely your port for shopping. You can walk downtown along the new shopping area next to Havensight if you want to get some sun and exercise. This is a shortcut and a more scenic walk than going out along the road. Liquor prices are much cheaper here than on the ship. We usually buy ours at Dynasty Dazzlers. They will usually deliver the liquor to your ship so you don't have to carry it back. Look for coupons in the free coupon books lying around the downtown and Havensight areas. No need to book an excursion here. Just grab a taxi and go. Paradise Point is very neat, located right across from the cruise port at Havensight. The Bushwacker drink is excellent and make sure you bring your camera for the wonderful views. You can walk up to the gazebo on top to take some additional pictures. If you are feeling adventurous, take either the Redhook or Charlotte Amalie ferry over to Cruz Bay on St. John and grab a taxi to check out Trunk Bay or one of the less populated beaches for some peace and quiet. Just arrange a pick up time with them for your return trip back to Cruz Bay. Have them drop you off at Woody's for some lunch and drinks before heading back over to St. Thomas. It's within walking distance of the ferry. The seafood platter there is excellent! - Tortola: We arranged a half-day trip (8:30-12:30) with Patouche Charters (Patouche.com) and took the catamaran, Shamari, over to The Baths at Virgin Gorda, total cost, $80.00 PP, plus tip and the taxi cost for one way from the east end back to the ship. The transportation from the ship to the east end to meet the catamaran is included. The cost was $9.00 PP for the taxi and the trip included snorkel equipment, drinks and a snack. This excursion is highly recommended. The guys (Clive and Felix) at Patouche were very nice and took great care of us. The only negative was there was some confusion or miscommunication on the time we were to meet the taxi to take us to the east side of the island for the excursion. We were told 8:15 AM and then 8:00 AM, others were told (or not told) different times to meet, so some of us arrived early at 7:40 AM since we were to meet at 8:00 AM, some showed up at 8 and some after 8:30 AM. We waited over 35 minutes and then left. At 8:40, the taxi driver got a call that the rest of the group was waiting outside the ship terminal so we had to turn around and go back to pick them up. They apparently were told to meet at 8:30 AM. We left on the catamaran twenty-five mins. late, but the excursion was not extended by 25 mins. so we didn't get to spend as much time as we hoped at The Baths. It was a little rushed so if you can go the whole day, which might work better for you. The Baths are phenomenal. The only thing they need to change there is have the path/trail go one direction. It was very busy that day and people were going both directions, so it got very congested on the trail and at times, there was no where to go. We met some great people on the excursion, and there were only ten of us, so it seemed like we had the whole cat. to ourselves. It made for a special day. - Great Stirrup Cay: Unfortunately, the water was too rough for the ship to safely transport guests over to the private island, so we didn't get to go. We were disappointed since we have never been there. We did receive a refund of $15.22 each for the port fees and taxes, which was appreciated. - Debarkation day: We got up early and finished packing. We ate breakfast in the buffet and then carried our bags off. We left as late as possible (around 9:30 AM) since we had a 4:20 PM flight home. We were happy that NCL doesn't require that you sit in a public room and vacate your room early on the last day. - Upon arriving back in Miami, we took SAS Transportation from the Port of Miami to the FLL Airport for $15 PP, plus tip. They were very good about calling us while we were still on the ship to check on our status and were there with a van when we got outside with our bags. However, after we got our luggage loaded in the van and were sitting waiting to leave, a group of six showed up to get a ride. There was only supposed to be four, so we were asked to unload and wait for another van, even though we had a reservation. We guess money talks. We were assured by Frank that another van would be right there to pick us up. After waiting 40 mins., We called Frank back and told him no one ever showed to pick us up. He gave us a phone number to call, but it was a wrong #. We called him back and he apologized and gave us another number to call. We called and spoke to Steve, the owner, and he told us someone was at the port, but no one showed up where we were told to wait. We decided to walk over to the taxi area to check on getting a taxi and saw the SAS van there. So, we finally got a ride to the airport after dropping off others at the Miami port. Frank was very courteous, but Steve, did not apologize and was not friendly. Not what one would expect from an owner of a competitive business. We travel a lot and plan trips for large groups, so we may or may not use this company again in the future when we are in southern Florida.
Overall, we loved many things about the ship and NCL. We were satisfied with the cruise, the ship and the NCL overall service, although there are some areas that definitely need improvement. There were lots of friendly employees who said "hello" throughout the week. We weren't sure what to expect on the Pearl since our first cruise on the NCL Pride of America Hawaii, was disappointing. We loved the Hawaii itinerary and actual cruise around the islands. It was the employees' attitudes and food quality that were sub-par. We were impressed enough with our Pearl experience to pay a $250 deposit for a future cruise while on board. This is a great deal since you are given a $100 shipboard credit to use on your current cruise. They charge your shipboard account the $250.00, but then give you a credit for $100, so your future cruise can be booked for only $150.00. This is the only deposit you need to book any cruise with any agency, or NCL, and it's good for four years. We are already planning our next big adventure, probably Alaska next year.
We hope this review helps you if you're considering a cruise on the Pearl!