DH and I are in our early 40s, have two sons (11 & 15) and live in Oregon. This cruise was to celebrate my 40th birthday. We've cruised twice before on HAL (Mexico in 2008 and Alaska in 2010) - both times with my parents, my sister and her DH. This was the first time we've ever taken a week-long vacation ALONE: no kids, no parents, no other family. ALONE!! We chose the Pacific Coastal Repositioning because of the lower rates, the ease of travel and especially the chance to spend a day in San Francisco. We also were able to get the last aft-facing balcony cabin, which clinched it for us when we booked last August. We're much more about the ship than the ports.
Pre-Cruise Travel and Embarkation
We flew down to Los Angeles early Sunday morning and caught a Super Shuttle to San Pedro Harbor. We checked our luggage with the NCL porter and wandered around the waterfront until a little before noon. The various check-in lines were long and didn't move too fast, but we were in no real hurry. It took about 45 minutes to get our key cards and move into the...HOLDING PEN! As others have mentioned in their reviews, there was a lengthy delay in boarding the ship due to customs and immigration issues. We also heard a rumor that some passengers wouldn't leave their cabins. Who knows? Again, we were in no hurry, and we had a deck of cards. Many hands of gin later they started letting us board. It was highly amusing to see the hordes of people huddled like refugees in front of the bathrooms, clutching their boarding numbers, just waiting...and of course ignoring the repeated requests from the crew that the area remain clear. Once boarding commenced it was very swift and easy, and we were on board a little before 2:00 p.m.
Isn't she lovely?! I'd heard the Pearl was beautiful, and it's true. Very bright and clean. We made it our mission right from the start to explore the Pearl stem to stern, which we did while everyone else was having lunch. We wanted to see the various bars and eating venues and get a general feeling for where things were. Very quickly we were acclimated with the layout and knew how to get around. I really loved that there were so many public areas - and people took advantage of them! You could always find something going on. The pool deck was a fun place and, despite the sometimes cloudy weather, was always in use. We only went in the hot tub once, but we saw kids and adults alike on the water slide every day, and there were even some brave souls in the pool one night when the ship was rocking and sloshing the water all over the deck. The muster drill was different from what we've experienced in the past. Rather than go to lifeboat stations we reported to assembly areas (assigned on the key card) and checked in with crew members. The drill itself was conducted much like an airplane safely demonstration, with instructions issued over the loudspeaker while crew members showed how to put on life vests. The drill itself didn't take very long - maybe 10 minutes - but waiting for all the passengers to make their way to the various assembly areas and check in took a LOOOOONG time. Once it was over we checked back to our cabin and found the luggage had all arrived.
We've only sailed on HAL's Dam ships,so we don't have much with which to compare. Our cabin on the Pearl definitely had fewer drawers, shelves and closet space. We were able to fit our things in no problem, but there's no way we would have managed if the boys had been with us. I really liked the layout of the bathroom. Yes, the toilet closet is smallish, but neither of us had issues fitting in. I especially liked the sliding glass shower door. Genius! The bed was ridiculously comfortable; we slept great every night, lulled to sleep by the ship's rocking. The balcony was plenty big and completely covered. We spent a lot of time out there. Even when it was drizzling we stayed dry, and there were no issues of any debris falling on us. I'd read that the aft cabins on 8 get a lot of noise from Bliss Ultra Lounge directly below. Yes, we could hear music - mostly the bass - on some nights, but it wasn't intrusive and didn't interfere with our sleep at all. Just as the ship's rocking was soothing at bedtime, the bass line's thud-thud-thud proved conducive to sleep as well.
The Food (and Drink!)
Isn't this what everyone wants to know about? I've heard and read so many different opinions about cruiseline food. HAL's is supposed to be some of the best, and I will admit we thoroughly enjoyed the food on the two previous cruises, but we didn't approach NCL with any preconceived notions. The Garden Cafe (buffet) food was plentiful, and there was a nice variety of offerings. We normally had breakfast there and never starved. We only ate one lunch in there and no dinners. We had chicken wings at Blue Lagoon twice (heck, it was on our deck - we had to!), and they were indeed delish, as I'd heard. On our first sea day the Sushi Bar was offering all you can eat sushi and sashimi for $10 per person from noon to 1:30 p.m., so we checked that out. The offerings were from a limited Ginza menu and were fine. But not stellar. Now that we've done it we don't need to do it again. With the exception of a special dinner at Cagney's (yum!), we had all our dinners at Indigo. We tend to eat later, and we never had a problem walking in at 8:30 p.m. or so and getting a table. The food ranged from wonderful (duck!) to just so-so (mahi-mahi...meh). We love to try different things and would usually order a couple of appetizers to taste. For those wondering about the difference between food in the MDR and surcharge venues, here is an example: the crab cakes at Indigo were made with Blue Crab lump meat, were mushy and not overly seasoned. That didn't stop us from enjoying them! Meanwhile, the crab cakes at Cagney's were larger, made from Dungeness and had a wonderful flavor to them. So there were hits and misses - which happens everywhere - but we were more than satisfied. The one icky incident was on embarkation day, when I went to the poolside grill to get a burger. The buns were all moldy, and I had to point it out to the crew member who was putting them on the buffet. Now I understand the Pearl had just come through the Panama Canal, and it's possible that the heat and humidity caused the bread to spoil quickly, but moldy buns are NOT an appetizing way to start a cruise.
So the bars - we hit 'em all. And enjoyed ourselves. Very quickly we were know among the bar staff as that couple who likes to play cribbage, have afternoon cocktails and peels off singles with each round. Permod and Tiger in the Spinnaker Lounge were especially wonderful, and Shem was a friendly youngster who liked to chat with us. Pia in the Star Bar (Tiger's girlfriend!) took good care of us in the evenings when we'd come in to listen to the string quartet. The drink prices were the same (and sometimes even less) than on HAL. My only issue was sometimes we'd ask for well vodka or gin and end up with a call. True, it was only ever a difference of 25 or 50 cents, but it happened enough times to become irksome.
Entertainment and Activities
We went to Encore in the showroom (I like musicals) and especially enjoyed the dancing. Three of the four singers were wonderful. The fourth was excessively shrill. We watched part of Sharkbait one night but didn't stay for the whole show. What we did catch was great. On the last day Sean and Max from Sharkbait conducted a juggling workshop. What a hoot! We bought a set of their juggling balls, and I've been practicing every day. I guess I'm getting a little better. We'd hear (and see) Tino in the Atrium as we passed through, but we never stayed for his show. Likewise with the pianists. The quartet was very talented and were able to take requests (go Dvorak!). Cruise Director Julie and her staff were fantastic. We participated in Trivia, Karaoke and The Quest and had a ball watching dance classes, Bingo and other programs, plus we spent some time at the White Hot Party. The on board band was very talented too, and we liked the music selections throughout the ship. We did frequent the casino most nights and didn't do too badly. Little wins here and there plus a nice streak at Three Card Poker kept us pretty even. Even though we didn't have the boys with us we checked out the Kids' Club and had a nice conversation with one of the directors. We saw lots of kids on board having a great time in various activities One counselor even took a group of youngsters for lunch at Blue Lagoon. We were very impressed with how she and the children carried on a long conversation during the meal in a very civilized manner.
Friendly! Wonderful! Helpful! Patient! Shall I rave some more? Every crew member was always smiling and exchanging a hearty salutation. We loved Captain Lars and his humor. Every time we heard the gongs and his voice we'd stop what we were doing to listen. We got to meet Mattius and some other senior staff at the CC Meet & Greet our first sea day. We really appreciated Mattius' presentation and no-nonsense approach to how he and the crew want to make each cruise experience special. We didn't interact with our cabin steward very much, but any requests were quickly taken care of (may we please have robes, for instance), and the ice bucket was constantly replenished.
As I mentioned, we're more into the ship than the ports, but San Francisco was special. We hit Fisherman's Wharf and Ghiradelli Square, took the Cable Car to Chinatown for a tea tasting and out of this world Dim Sum (Great Eastern - check it out!) then a walk through the Financial District - past a protest! - to the Ferry Terminal. Talk about a Foodie's Paradise! Lots of shopping then a nice walk along the Embarcadero back to the ship at Pier 35. We had plenty of time to sit on our balcony and look out at Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge since there was a two hour delay in leaving port. Apparently a crew member went AWOL onshore, causing a sizable immigration/customs snafu. Captain Lars kept us updated and entertained the entire time. Sail away under the bridge was magnificent. Since we're from Oregon the stop in Astoria wasn't a big deal. We did go ashore and visited the Maritime Museum to see the Naval Tattoo exhibit - very interesting. The friendly volunteers in Astoria made us very proud of our fellow Oregonians. Sail away was made very thrilling by the helicopter retrieval of the bar pilot. In Victoria we simply walked into town for a little souvenir shopping and pub hopping. And in Nanaimo we were honored to be the first ship through their brand new cruise terminal. I'm pleased to say that despite Oregon's reputation as being so wet, the only real rain we encountered was in British Columbia!
And then we were docked in Vancouver, BC and had to leave our beloved cabin. We chose to carry our own bags off, so we had a nice (albeit sad) final breakfast then disembarked. We caught the Translink train to the airport and then sat around with our luggage until noon to check it through (our flight wasn't until 3:00 p.m., and you can't check bags too far in advance). No worries - out came the cribbage board again.
So did we have a great time? I think that's obvious. We went ahead and put deposits down for a future cruise so we can take the boys on a trip. We found NCL to be more our style than HAL. Yes, there was still a large demographic of older cruisers (we were one of the youngest couples on board without children along), but there was an energy on the Pearl that we hadn't felt on either of the Dam ships. It may have been the larger cruise staff, or the additional dining venues. Or just the Freestyle attitude. Whatever it was, we liked it a lot and are looking forward to the next NCL adventure.