My fiancee and I, both in our mid-twenties, had sailed with NCL the past three years (two Caribbean, one Mediterranean) and upon hearing great things about Alaskan cruises, decided to book an Inside Passage cruise. We met up with both sets of parents in Seattle for a day of sight-seeing before the cruise. Our past three experiences with NCL were great -- we enjoy "freestyle" cruising, were happy with the service, prices, food and excursion options.
Compared to the past trips and ships (Spirit, Sun and Gem, which is the Pearl's sister ship), I was a disappointed in several things with the Pearl:
- The menu options in the MDRs struck me as even more limited than in the past. The lack of variety and appeal of the daily options caused us to dine at specialty restaurants twice, which come at an additional price ($10 - $25).
- The wait service was very uneven, in both the MDRs and the specialty restaurants. The "freestyle" experience does prohibit the traditional waiter familiarity found on other cruise lines, but my gripes are beyond that. Service was often slow and spotty in the MDR, regardless of occupancy, and the waiters were something less than friendly. At Cagney's, the $25/head steakhouse on board, the waiters were extremely personable, but committed several noteworthy service mistakes that are not acceptable for a restaurant with a surcharge.
- The cocktail waiters and waitresses, while always typically forward in trying to sell drinks, were borderline aggressive this year. We often had a drink in hand or a bucket of beer, which made us prime targets. Since they do not operate in "territories" like traditional wait-staff, we were often approached back to back to back by different waiters. NCL would be wise to section off the bars and lounges and assign them to specific staff to avoid this situation in the future.
- Finally, none of our group particularly cared for the cruise director, Andy, who was a little too campy (even for a cruise director).
To touch on a few other areas:
Entertainment: We didn't attend any of the revue style shows, but did enjoy Sharkbait (a comedy/juggling duo) and the Four Seasons cover band "Oh What A Night". The comedian, Buzz Sutherland, was great on the first night, but lousy in his two subsequent performances and Second City used their normal cruise material, which we had heard on previous trips, so they were a snooze for us.
Excursions: We did ship excursions in Skagway (Laughton Glacier Hike) and Ketchikan (Deadliest Catch tour) and both were outstanding. More details in my port reviews.
Fitness Center: The gyms on the four NCL ships we've sailed on have been consistently good, with a decent free weight section, good variety of machines and large aerobic room in addition to all the treadmills and ellipticals.
Overall, a cruise is a great introductory vacation to Alaska. The Pearl, while it may not have lived up to the other NCL ships we've been on, provided great memories that are sure to last lifetimes.