We love NCl and we love the Pearl and this cruise proved to be no exception. We love freestyle and would not do it any other way with young kids. Freestyle may not be for everyone, but it works for us!
We are a couple in our thirties with 2 very young kids, DS 2 and DD 6 months. This was our 3rd cruise, all with NCL, 2nd cruise on the Pearl. We also traveled with my in-laws (whom we had a great time with). This was their first ever cruise and we are pretty sure they are officially hooked.
Flew into FLL 2 days prior to cruise. We found FLL was cheaper and we like Ft Lauderdale better then Miami (we find it more laid-back and less pretensious). We rented a van from Dollar at the airport and stayed at the Sheraton Suites in Plantation. We got a great deal bidding on priceline for the hotel. The hotel was great and the suite was perfect for a family of 4. We had a great time in FLL riding and hopping on and off the water taxi all day ($20 pp all day pass, little kids free).
I am tempted to use the word "disaster" but I will refrain from the use of hyperbole, and go with "a very unpleasant experience." This is twice that we have had a bad experience with the Port of Miami and NCL in this area, but oh well, things happen, right?
We arrived at the Port around 11am and DH and DFIL (Father-in-law) went and returned the car to Dollar (which is about 10 miles away but offers a free shuttle to port). While me and DMIL (mother-in-law) waited with the kids in the terminal, the line was at 1st moving great and then quickly came to a stand still. Apparently the computers crashed. This took over 1 hour to remedy. In the meantime, the line to check-in backed up outside and all around the terminal. We were fortunate to be stuck inside while so many others were left outside in the heat.
Shortly after 1pm the computers were back up and the NCL staff worked amazingly efficient to check people in as quickly as possible. Kudos to NCL for the hard work. While checking in we got some great news that my family and I were granted VIP status. We are not sure why this happened but it was a well-welcomed and pleasant surprise. We were escorted to the VIP lounge and then escorted onto the ship.
By 2pm we were on the ship, but by then the Summer Palace and Blue Lagoon were closed so we were forced to eat at the Garden Cafe (buffet), which was a zoo as it always is on embarkation day. Again, no big deal but not relaxing. As we ate lunch we looked outside to the terminal and there was still a line wrapped around the building...all those poor people stuck outside in the heat for hours. We were one of the lucky ones! It took until after 3pm to get everyone on board. Muster was pushed back to 4pm to accomidate this.
As stated above we love the Pearl. We like the layout of the public rooms, the outdoor eating, the covered promenade on deck 7 that goes around the whole ship, the sunny and shaded lounge areas all around the ship, and the pool area.
While there was the typical chair hogs, the pool was never full, not even on hot sunny sea days. There are 2 pools and each are surrounded by a wading area which is great for kids and for those who just want to soak their feet. There is also a baby pool where the real wee ones can splash around in, The water slide is slow but fun. DS, DH and I all enjoyed it. The buffet by the pool is also great, but if you want tap water you have to walk a ways to the Garden Cafe. We brought reusable water bottles and filled them up with ice water.
The crew do a great job taking care of the ship and it shows, she looks just as nice as 2 yrs ago. I will say though, while cruising the same ship twice is nice because it feels like an old glove, you miss out on that sense of exploration and excitement of seeing a ship for the first time. We spent less time just walking around the ship then normal, which was sometimes a good thing and sometimes bad.
The cabin was ready by 2pm. We usually go cheap and get an inside room but with the 2 little ones we decided to splurge and get a balcony. So glad we did as this gave us a space to hang out while the kiddos slept or needed down-time.
The cabin was nice. Small, as to be expected, but with plenty of storage for our things, including under the beds. There was no space for our stroller inside the room so we stored it on the balcony which worked out just fine.
The room was very clean, but there were stains and signs of wear and tear on the carpet (which did not bother us). The room was well appointed but we had too much furniture in the room with a crib so we moved the coffee table out to the balcony (which our room steward had no issue with). The crib was a fold up pack n play so when it wasn't in use we could fold it up, which was great. With the crib in the room, the fold out couch was not an option so DS slept in the pull-down bunk bed. He had no problems with this and loved it. The rail on the bed was short but he did not have a problem staying safe.
Our bed was super comfy, we love NCL bedding. The bathroom was adequate and the shower was roomy for a ship shower and we love the sliding glass door and retractable clothes line in the shower. The vanity and sink area had plenty of storage for our stuff.
The balcony had adequate space, bigger then I imagined so that was a plus.
Overall the food was good. There was plenty of things that we liked and some things that we did not like. There was a few desserts that were fantastic (the flourless molten lava cake and the Chocolate Decadence were amazing). I was a little disappointed with the new MDR menus. I prefer the old menus with more rotating choices, but no big deal.
The main dining rooms, Summer Palace and Indigo, were both good. We like the decor of Summer palace but the service seemed better in Indigo and it is more relaxed in dress code so we went there most nights.
The buffets (Garden Cafe, Topsiders, and Great Outdoors), were all good for lunch and snacks. We prefer sit-down dinners. All buffets are located on deck 12. Garden Cafe is the main buffet located mid-ship with the largest selection. The Great Outdoors is located aft of the Garden Cafe and offers outdoor eating. It is easy to get food from Garden Cafe and walk to the Great Outdoors so that gives you more options for food. Topsiders is located by the pool and is also in close proximity to Garden Cafe. The french fries, burgers, and ice cream (both hard and soft) were our favorites in addition to the fresh fruits. The pizza had little flavor and soggy crust, even my 2 yr old did not care for it.
The Blue Lagoon was ok. We went there once for lunch and it was very busy so service was not so good. The appetizers were great but the main dishes were not as good as other places on the ship. Definitely worth going there for the apps though!
VIP Cagneys for breakfast and lunch was great. The breakfast was our favorite! Anything you want from Filet Mignon and eggs to waffles and fruit. YUMMO! This is a huge perk for VIP guests!
Specialty Dining: we only did Mambos (Mexican) and really enjoyed it. It was not the most expensive food that we ate but is was one of our favorites. For $10pp you can't beat it. It was one of my favorite meals but I did not care for the dessert I got, but by then I was so full I did not care. We ate here on the 20% off night. Well worth it, IMO.
The service was the best we ever had even without the VIP being factored in. Everyone was so nice, helpful and genuinely kind. All of the workers were always smiling and seemed to really want to be there. Our room stewards were the best we ever had and the waiters and waitresses were all very good. All of the staff treated our kids like gold, especially our infant. The hotel director, Kaj, was ever present and always approachable. Now with the VIP being factored in, we were blown away! Carlos, the concierge, was great and allowed our parents to share in our VIP perks. They really made us feel special. Good Job NCL!
Exceptional! Sharkbait and Oh What a Night were fantastic! My DMIL and DFIL are professional musicians with masters degrees in music ed. and even they were impressed by the entertainment! We are conservative people and found the shows to be clean, yet still very funny.
The Kids Club:
We were not real impressed for our 2 yr old. The staff were very nice but DS did not seem to like it. DS went the 1st 2 nights and did great, but on the 3rd night, after being there an hour, they called and had me pick him up. He was crying, not sure why, and they could not get him to stop. After that night DS would not go back. I do not know what happened to change his mind but it must have been a big deal to him. DS is not very verbal so it will remain a mystery.
One thing I did not like is that on most nights they took all the kids to the main show. DS is 2 and all of the shows were over his head except for maybe the jugglers. I think they should only take the older kids and leave the younger ones to play. In addition, they have this wonderful indoor play ground with nets, slides, and tunnels. DS was so excited about it but they rarely used it for the younger kids. If they let my DS play in there as much as he had wanted then he would have stayed there all week, I am sure of it!
Samana: Had a good time here. Took tour #5 with Terry and enjoyed our trip to El Valle and a waterfall hike. The only downside to Samana was the tendering...they use the lifeboats which are covered and there was no air conditioning on. It was way to hot with tons of people packed in tight. Between the time to load, the ride over, and unloading the tender, it was a long time in the hot boat.
St Thomas: Rented a van from Budget at the dock. Budget was an easy walk from the ship which was so nice! Spent the day at Coki Beach. DH and I went diving with Coki Beach Dive Club. Had a great time doing a nice easy beach dive. Great snorkeling for non-divers too. Enjoyed the beach and always felt safe! Wish we had more time to see the rest of the island but now we have a reason to go back :)
Tortola: did the NCL excursion Virgin Gorda Highlights. Went to the Baths and had a wonderful time exploring something new and unique. So glad we went to the Baths but again, feel like we missed Tortola so we want to go back there again too.
Great Stirrup Cay: ARRGH! Canceled due to weather and the inability to tender safely. This was extremely disappointing for us since this is the 3rd time GSC has been canceled on us. I love the idea of the private island cause it offers a cheap beach day but now I may start avoiding it on itineraries since it often seems to cancel.
VIP made disembarkation painless. We sailed through customs and into the chaos that is called the Port of Miami. We met our shuttle to take us to FLL. We used Anywhere Florida and we loved the service. And just like that, our vacation was over!
Some side notes:
For those who are concerned about being "nickeled and dimed to death", we came in under budget with money to put toward next years vacation. We never once felt pressured to buy anything.
We also had some rough seas a few days which for the 1st time in sailing caused some discomfort for me. I have heard the Eastern Caribbean is usually rougher then the Western side.
We still love NCL even though the vacation started bad with embarkation and ended bad with missing GSC. However, everything in the middle was GREAT and I would do it over again for sure. Looking forward to going again with NCL, although I may be ruined with the spoiling of having the balcony and gifted VIP treatment. Thanks NCL, we still love you! Well, until next time...