Background - Married couple, late 40's and mid 50's, Non Smokers with NO Children. This was an anniversary cruise.
Travel to Port - We used Southwest Airlines on a non-stop flight from Phoenix to Seattle. The flight lasted just under three hours, which was just enough time for me to watch a movie on our portable DVD player. If you plan to use an iPod or a portable DVD player, invest in a decent pair of noise cancelling headphones... you won't be sorry. Overall, the flight was smooth and uneventful. We did leave 35 minutes late due to the not-so-on-time arrival of another flight, however, the pilot made up for some of the delay.
Hotel - In Seattle, we stayed two nights (pre-cruise) at the Hotel 5 Seattle. The hotel was formerly known as the Downtown Ramada Inn at 5th & Blanchard. The hotel was clean and comfortable, with a Keurig coffee maker in the room. They also have a public computer in the lobby area for guest use and Wi-Fi service is available in your room at no extra charge. Pike Place Market is within walking distance, about five blocks away... be prepared for hills. Just off the hotel lobby is "Max's Coffee Shop" which is open for breakfast & lunch only. A short walk from the hotel, down 5th street, is a fantastic doughnut shop called Top Pot. Their "hand forged" doughnuts are unbelievable. You can find their site on the web. If you need to pick up some soda or water to take on board or some beer & wine to enjoy in your room, there's a "Ralph's" about a block away from the hotel, although it's more like a convenience store than a supermarket. There's also a nice little deli inside.
Seattle Activities - On arrival day, we walked around Pike Place Market for a bit, and then visited the Hard Rock Cafe for happy hour and a bite to eat. The next day, we started once again with Pike Place Market, followed by the Seattle Aquarium and a Harbor Cruise. Look into a "City Pass" before paying individual admission prices... the city pass allows you to visit 6 different sites for one price. We also checked out the Underground Tour. Lots of lame jokes, potty humor and knocks on Tacoma... but in reality, quite informative. After a quick shower and change of clothes, we ate dinner at the Amazon Grille in Bellvue... the sister restaurant to the Ipanema Brazilian Grille, which was temporarily closed for remodeling. The food was very good, but don't make the trip in a cab... one-way fare was as much as the cost for one person to dine; not much of a bargain at all.
Ship Info - We opted for a mid-ship balcony, port side, on deck 10. This turned out to be a very good choice for this particular cruise. The pitching effect of the ship was minimized by our mid-ship location. Another plus; we were able to use our balcony at will... even during the periods of bad weather. The wind and rain always seemed to be affecting the starboard side, so ours was sheltered. Deck 10 is sandwiched between passenger decks 9 and 11, so there were no clubs, restaurants or other distractions when we just wanted some quiet time. The cabin is conveniently located between the forward and middle elevators and stairwells.
Embarkation - Since we were new to NCL, we were escorted to the "first timers" line. We stepped right up to the check-in counter and presented our edocs, passports, health forms and a credit card to establish our shipboard account. A few minutes later, our pictures were taken and our room cards were in hand. Less than 30 minutes after arriving at the terminal, we were allowed to board. Once aboard, we stopped to make our reservations for the specialty restaurants for the week. Then it was off to the Summer Palace dining room for a nice sit-down lunch until our cabin was ready. Our checked luggage was brought to our cabin about an hour before we departed Seattle.
Stateroom - Our cabin was comfortable and actually a little larger than I expected, although we did have the beds put together to form a queen size. There was a small nightstand and a pull-out couch on either side of the bed, along with a make-up area and desk on the opposite side of the cabin from the bed. There was ample closet space, as well as drawers and shelves for additional storage. We had more than enough room to store our bags under the bed. The electronic safe is easy to program and even easier to use. The cabin was equipped with a refrigerator, coffee maker, hair dryer and flat screen television in the room. There are a few electrical outlets, although none of them were on the same side of the cabin as the bed. I was able to check out an extension cord from guest services at no charge. The sign indicating "Do Not Disturb, Make Up Cabin, Turn Down Cabin and Welcome" was a rotating disc, located on the wall next to the cabin door, on the room number sign... the mail slot was right above. There were two chairs and a small table on the balcony.
Activities - If you're a "joiner" that craves involvement in a variety of activities, there's bound to be something for you at some part of the ship day or night. We were on board to relax, and chose to attend the Ulu knife demonstration and the towel animal demonstration... that's it.
Dining - Overall, we found the quality of the food to be very good to excellent. We ate in three of the specialty restaurants; Le Bistro, Cagney's Steakhouse and Teppanyaki. We felt the food and service in all three venues was deserving of the surcharge. Our only "gripe" was in Teppanyaki... the chef's were (in our opinion) too liberal in their use of chopped garlic in the fried rice. Aside from that, the food was cooked to perfection and the Green Tea Cake and Ice Cream is not to be missed... seriously! We also enjoyed the pleasure of being able to eat breakfast and lunch in Cagney's. If you get this opportunity, try the Belgian Waffles with the Grand Marnier Strawberries... Mmmmm!
For our other four nights on board, we ate in the buffet and Summer Palace one night each and Indigo the other two nights. We were very happy with the menu choices and quality of the food in the two main dining rooms... the buffet is exactly what you would expect from a buffet; palatable, but nothing to write home about. In my opinion, the buffet is best for breakfast (unless you can eat in Cagney's) or for a quick lunch, but stick to one the main dining rooms or a specialty restaurant for dinner. And don't be afraid to ask for a substitution if you don't care for one of the side items on the menu... remember, it's your cruise! I asked for, and received, a glass of tomato juice every morning at breakfast, which was nowhere to be seen on any menu.
Service - I can not say enough about the overall service. To begin with, our cabin steward, Owen Ceriola, was the best. He was always in the area and greeted us by name every time he saw us. He kept our cabin clean and our champagne on ice… and his towel animals were very creative, especially the monkey that was hanging from the ceiling vent one evening… greeting us as we opened our cabin door.
I was very impressed with the first class service we received everywhere we went on the ship. I never felt pressured by the wait-staff to order another drink nor did I get snubbed if I chose not to tip more than the requisite 15% gratuity. My only complaint about the bar is that I was not able to order "Foster's Lager" in a beer bucket… take note F&B Director.
Entertainment - My wife & I attended four of the evening shows in the Stardust Theater together, I went alone one of the nights. Together, we saw the Frankie Valli & the 4 Seasons tribute group "Oh What a Night", "Second City Comedy & Improv" and "Sharkbait." The last night of the cruise was a combined show with Oh What a Night, Sharkbait and the crew of the Pearl. We thought all of these shows were very good and would have been willing to pay an additional fee to see them. Sharkbait is a comedy and juggling act, with two very talented performers… do not miss this show. Oh What a Night mixes the history of Frankie Valli & the 4 Seasons with their hits in an entertaining show that will literally blow you away… if you close your eyes, you'll swear you're listening to a CD.
The other show I attended by myself was called "That's Entertainment." I thought it was okay, but I wasn't very impressed with the singers. The dancers did a good job, but I still caught myself looking at my watch several time throughout the show… next time I'll pass on this one.
Shore Excursions - In Juneau, we opted to rent a car from Rent-A-Wreck so that we could visit Mendenhall Glacier and the Alaskan Brewing Company on our own. On the way back to town, we stopped at the Alaskan Knife Works to check out the "real" Alaskan-made Ulu knives. After turning in the car, we stopped at the Red Dog Saloon for a couple of cold ones. It was then time for some last minute "end of season" shopping before heading back to the ship.
In Skagway, we chose the Golden Glass Blowing Experience, where we made our own Christmas tree ornaments out of blown glass. This excursion is a lot more hands on than I thought it would be… making it much more enjoyable. The tour lasts a little more than 3 hours and is limited to only ten participants at a time. The ornaments we made were sent to us after they had been cured and were waiting for us when we got home. If you're fascinated with blown glass and the artistry it takes to work with molten glass, I highly recommend this excursion.
In Ketchikan, we took the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour aboard the Aleutian Ballad. If you're a fan of the "Deadliest Catch", the Aleutian Ballad was one of the boats on season two of the show. The tour offers guests a collection of stories and an up-close view of some of the techniques used by crab fisherman to retrieve the different types of "pots" and some of the wildlife that is caught in those pots. Although the tour is very tame and a bit "touristy", it's also very informative. After the demonstrations are finished, the crew poses with the guests for pictures. I thought it was fun and would recommend the tour for families and anyone interested in crab fishing.
Glacier Bay wasn't really an excursion, but it was a big part of this trip. If I could only use one word to describe Glacier Bay National Park, it would have to be "Breathtaking." Although we didn't get to see any major calving of the glaciers, to hear the cracking and groaning of the ice was unreal. We spent nearly an hour at Marjorie Glacier, making a very slow 180 degree turn before heading back toward the mouth of the bay. We also traveled up the channel toward John Hopkins Glacier… what a sight… and from more than five miles away. It was huge! You have to see it for yourself to really appreciate it.
Disembarkation - Leaving the ship is a little more difficult than getting on as passengers have the option of carrying off their own luggage in lieu of having it waiting in a baggage claim area. We chose to have our bags waiting for us; therefore we had to set our bags outside the cabin the night before so that they could be collected. We were able to choose the approximate time we wanted to leave and affixed the corresponding color tag to our bags. When our color was called, we could queue up to leave the ship. Canadian Customs was a breeze and we were then in the baggage claim area. If you're planning to take a taxi from the departure port, I recommend you retain a porter to collect your bags. With our porter, we zipped to the front of the taxi line and were on way in no time at all.
Summary - We thoroughly enjoyed our NCL experience and would definitely consider NCL for our next cruise. What we enjoyed the most was the "freestyle" concept… the anytime dining suited our lack of a schedule. We were easily accommodated when we showed up early for our specialty reservations at Le Bistro and Cagney's, enabling us to get better seats for the shows. The last night of the cruise was the only night we had to wait to be seated for dinner… but we were given a pager so that we could wait in the nearby bar. Even then, we only waited about ten minutes. As mentioned before, we felt the quality of the food was, at a minimum, very good.
We dressed for comfort while on the ship, yet we never felt out of place. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with a smile and a hello. The entire crew of the Pearl is to be commended for a job well done. The weather could have been better, but everyone made the best of it. Being on the last sailing of the season did have its perks… for the "professional shopper" it was absolute heaven. Many of the stores in each of the ports were closing for the winter, so they were selling off merchandise for 50% off and more. The excursions we took were also the last ones of the season, so the operators threw in a few extras as well.
I could do without all the advice on how to shop for diamonds and other precious gems, and I we had no interest in attending the art auctions. Although I would have liked to play some blackjack or craps, I didn't care to spend any time in the casino due to the odor and cigarette smoke... and I'm a former smoker.
Over the years, my wife and I have been fortunate enough to experience some amazing vacations in some truly magnificent places, but this one will be hard to top. Great Job NCL… keep up the good work.