This is my first time of cruising, so I don't have any other cruises to compare with. However, as a seasoned traveller, I would say that my partner and I enjoyed our first cruising experience, but see there are many areas that NCL can improve upon.
I will skip the stuffs that other have mentioned numerous times. Most of the people complained about NCL or Pearl in general because they have unreasonable expectation or they expect an all-inclusive vacation which freestyle cruising is not for the price you pay. We did our extensive research before we picked and went on our cruise, so we set our expectation right and this cruise provides the vacation exactly what we anticipated.
So first to the good stuffs. After getting on board, we checked out the spa and signed up for the whole week ($100 pp). It was an excellent decision. We are not big on sunbathing, so we have used the spa instead to relax at every chance we got. We relaxed and rejuvenated after port day activities and used it to avoid the crowd during the sea days. Hot stone lounge chair (wonderful feeling when the heat penetrates to your spine) is our substitute of getting the much more expensive hot stone message. Well worth it!
We stayed in the inside room, intending to save money in order to spend on other things. The room is small but clean and nicely decorated. We are not too demanding on room service at all, so we didn't really have any complaints as long as they kept our room tidy.
Decor of the ship is very nice, on par with many 4 or 5-star hotels. Wood-trimmed wall everywhere gives an elegant feel. We visited many restaurants. Ambience of French and Steakhouse restaurants is what you will expect in a nice restaurant of any metropolitan. Main dining room is as grand as what you will expect on a cruise ship (My partner kept mentioning Titanic whenever we dined there, which probably comes from colonial-era like paintings on the wall. Not sure I want to be reminded of that constantly though). A few rooms seem very under used in our opinion, such as meeting rooms, card room and library. We don't drink much, neither do we gamble. So we don't hang around the bars and the casino.
Onto the food. We ate breakfast mostly in buffet area, and lunch at main dining room. Breakfast is what you expect (omelet, bacon, eggs, pastry etc), providing good choice but not anything earthshaking. On sea and embarkation days, we ate lunch three times at main dining and so called "comfort-food" Blue Lagoon once. Out of 7 nights, we only ate at main dining room once and buffet once (with my insistence otherwise my partner will forgo buffet all together). Portion of dishes at these free restaurants is very small. If you are a big eater, you may want to ask for many appetizers and side dishes, or ask for a second main course. For us, smaller portion fits us just well to save a few calories from depositing onto our ever expanding waist line.
We dined at specialty restaurants for 5 nights (French twice, steakhouse, sushi bar, teppanyaki). We enjoyed the french restaurant the best (staffs there are best we encountered during the whole trip) and dishes (rack of lambs, duck are very delicious. My partner ordered a special seafood on a pastry dish ($10 extra cost on top of $20 cover charge), which is good but not worth of the extra cost. Sushi bar is a good value if you are a big sushi eater. Steakhouse and Teppanyaki,however are a letdown in my opinion. The filet mignon at the steakhouse while the portion is big but the meat is not so tender. I am still scratching my head on that (such as waste on such a good meat). I ordered the oyster appetizer and it came as a baked dish instead of raw oysters that I expected. Teppanyaki chef over cooked my lobster tail and calamari, and everything tastes over-seasoned with soy source. On the other hand, my partner liked his surf-and-turf. Overall, the specialty dining is a hit-or-miss experience (Remind you though that we are used to fine dining. So your experience might vary).
The chocoholic night was nice and fun. The show pieces are very well-made and choices of desserts are more than what your stomach can handle.
About the nickel-and-dime practice that everyone complains about, we anticipated a lot of extra charges, so no surprise there. However, I do think that they over do it. If they provide free soda and juice during meals (I can understand if they charge them extra from bars), it won't make or break the bank and it will make everyone feel much better. Onboard alcoholic drinks, on the other hand, are too expensive and too weak in taste. If you want to charge $9 or $10 for a drink, at least make it tasty not a watered down beverage.
Shows are good but not up to our standard of Vegas style shows. Hey, we got a few chuckles from watching the comedian shows and it kept our nights fun and occupied.
Overall, we DID enjoy our cruise. And NCL Pearl delivers what it promises. A fun and relaxing week on the beautiful Caribbean Sea. It is like a genuine pearl out of the sea, shining, pretty but not perfectly round.