Just returned from a 7 day cruise to the Western Caribbean on the NCL Pearl with my husband and our 5 year old daughter. My in-laws and husband's grandfather also travelled with us. We got an inside cabin (on the 5th floor) and in-laws got a balcony on the 9th floor.
Background - this is our 4th cruise, having cruised once previously with Holland America and twice with RCL.
We flew in the night before, spending the night at the Marriott Biscayne Bay (nice hotel, I would recommend it). Arrived at the ship about 12:30 - embarkation was reasonably quick (we were on board by 1pm). Having read recent reviews, we knew the buffet would be busy, so I went to the gym and everyone else went to the Summer Palace for lunch.
Ship layout - much different than HAL or RCL, where the layout was mostly symmetrical on both sides of the ship - on the Pearl there were several levels were you could exit to the deck on the Port side, but could not on the Starboard. On several occasions we'd have to go up a floor (or two) to move forward (or back) on the ship. We also noted NCL has devoted much square footage on the ship to specialty restaurants and the spa (both accessible to guests for an additional fee) - we found the layout of the Garden Cafe Buffet to be inefficient for the large number of people who always seem to be there (it was long and somewhat skinny, running along the starboard side of the ship). On many occasions there was not enough room for people to get through, causing many bottlenecks), oftentimes difficult to find a table. There is a specialty restaurant on the port side of the ship - if NCL had devoted this area for the buffet as well there would be ample room for all passengers to walk and find a table. We had not encountered this 'bottleneck' problem on HAL or RCL.
Cleanliness - the ship was ALWAYS spotless and looked brand new. Kudos to NCL for this. It was rare to find a empty glass on deck (which was commonplace on RCL).
Room - everyone knows an inside room is small and ours was no different. Our daughter slept on a bunk that folded down from the ceiling (right above our bed). Our room was very quiet even though we were beneath the casino. The shower in the bathroom was much larger than RCL's shower. We checked out my in-Law's balcony and found it was significantly smaller than the balcony rooms we had on HAL and RCL. On a side note, I spoke with a guest who had a suite on the 11th floor under the pool deck, she said it was so loud they had to be moved to another room. Also - an employee in the Kids Program (12th deck) said all the guests on the 11th floor (balconies) "hated them" because the kids are running and screaming (in the Kids Program) until midnight or after - every night. Note to self - NEVER book a room under the kids program.
Food - as noted previously, the buffet was always crowded, and the food was ok (unless you stood in line for a made to order item such as an omelet or pasta, those were both excellent). Overall the quality of the food was much better in the dining rooms than the buffet. We found the overall quality of the food on NCL to be equal to HAL and much better than RCL. We went to 3 speciality restaurants - the Japanese steakhouse (similar to Benihana), which was great, also went to the French Restaurant - also very good. We also went to the Tapas restaurant - was NOT Tapas but a Tex-Mex restaurant (had we known this we would have gone somewhere else) and it was ok. On RCL there were always wait staff in the buffet getting additional drinks/filling glasses, stopping by our table to talk (most of the time with our daughter who loved it). None of that on the Pearl - actually not one employee in the buffet made eye contact with us other than the "washee washee happy happy" person. Also, on HAL the employees in all restaurants (dining rooms and buffets) learned our names on the first day of the cruise. The only NCL employee who asked (and learned) our names was Jurgen on the water slide/rock climbing wall (he was great).
Kids Program - our daughter enjoyed the kids program very much. As she has some health issues, they gave us a cell phone every time we checked her in so they could call us if there was a problem. Unlike HAL and RCL - there is a $6/hour fee for the kids program when the ship is in port. When the ship is at sea there is no charge for the program. There is NO flexibility with the age groups which was fine with us, but if your child has a birthday soon after the cruise don't plan on 'bumping' them up to the next age group.
Gym/spa - the gym was half the size that it was on RCL, but turns out it never got near being full during the cruise. All the machines were new with TV monitors, and all were in good working order. There is also an aerobics room with steps/mats/exercise balls that is empty most of the time. There were several exercise classes at no charge (where RCL charges for each class). I paid the $99 fee for the week for the spa - it was wonderful, highly recommend it. During sea days it was oftentimes difficult to find a place to sit (so I sat in the jacuzzi or the sauna). This is what I'll miss most from the cruise.
Pools - there were two pools and one water slide (in one large area). The Kids Pool was 4' deep on the shallow end, up to 6 or 7' on the deep end. We never got to the adult pool. Both pools were in one area that oftentimes had music cranked up so loud you could not hear the person next to you. I was hoping for a quiet 'adult' area where I could read my book. Turns out the only place to do this was at the spa (several other guests I spoke with said the same thing, they paid the extra $$ to go to the spa to have a quiet area to read). If your idea of a good time is listening to "Funky Cold Medina" at super high decibels you will LOVE the pool. Otherwise you may want to pack your earplugs.
Other - one of my favorite things about HAL is their walking deck complete with hundreds of deck chairs (providing a quiet area to sit and read (or nap) in the shade). The Pearl had maybe 15 to 18 chairs total on their walking deck (and they were always taken). The casino was much larger than any we had ever seen on HAL or RCL. We never went to see any shows.
I stayed on board (apart from Key West) so have no comments about the ports or excursions.
Overall we had a very nice cruise. Will we cruise NCL again? Probably not, but we're glad we went.