PRE-CRUISE: The cruise departed from Vancouver, but instead of flying from Milwaukee to Vancouver, we took a much lower priced flight to Seattle, and spent two wonderful pre-cruise days exploring that city, then took the scenic Amtrak train ride up to Vancouver on our cruise day. We loved Seattle. We stayed in a condo downtown which we had found on vrbo.com. It was in the Belltown district, a wonderful area within walking distance of everything. We enjoyed Pike Place Market, the fun and quirky Underground Tour, a ferry ride to Bainbridge Island, an entertaining city tour on a WWII DUCK, taking the monorail to the Seattle Center, and eating wonderful seafood meals at outdoor tables in waterfront restaurants. The four-hour Amtrak ride up to Vancouver runs along the coast and the views are beautiful. Anyone planning this should be sure to make an advance reservation, as the train was fully booked. After checking in at the station, you can pick seats. Sit on the left for the best views. The train cost only $33 per person because we reserved pretty far in advance and had a 10% AAA discount. Amtrak raises its prices as seats book up, so some passengers on the same trip paid $63. The train left Seattle at 7:40 a.m. and arrived in Vancouver at 11:40 a.m., getting us there in plenty of time for the 2 p.m. deadline to board the ship. There were a lot of cabs at the Amtrak station and we easily caught one to Ballentyne Pier, a ten minute, $10 cab ride.
EMBARKATION/CORKAGE FEES: The line was incredibly long, snaking all over the port-side building, but we tried to be patient with the process, realizing that it can't be easy to board 2,500 passengers onto a ship all at once. There was very little complaining in the line, so that helped. One NCL employee did rush about barking orders at people to keep moving so that those outdoors could move into the building. It would have been nice if the first NCL employee we encountered would have been friendly, smiling and welcoming, instead of curt and bossy. Oh well. She ended up being the only unpleasant NCL employee we met on the whole trip. Embarking took an hour. It included a quick stop at a table to pay the corkage fee for the four bottles of wine we purchased in Washington to take on board. This cost $15 per bottle and we ended up being glad we did it because on board, the cheapest bottle of wine would have been $28, plus all bar orders have a service fee added on, so the total for one bottle would have been $33. The wine we brought on board was better than the house wines that were priced at $28 per bottle. We could carry a bottle of wine into any restaurant or bar on the ship, and a waiter or bartender would open it and provide glasses, and well as a bucket with ice to keep it chilled if it was a white. Cabins weren't ready yet when we got on board, so we went to the Crystal atrium where the Packer game was being shown on the large screen. My husband and brother-in-law were immediately endeared to NCL for showing the game of their favorite football team. They went up to the Market Cafe for a plate of food and brought it down to enjoy while watching the game.
STATEROOM: The promo that was in effect when we booked this cruise provided a mini-suite for the price of a regular balcony room. I'd never cruised in a mini-suite before and loved all the room! We had a bathtub with a shower in it, instead of the tiny shower stall we've had on prior cruises in regular balcony rooms. There was ample drawer and closet space, a lot of floor space to walk around the bed, etc. We were on the port side of the ship, on deck 11, about at the dividing line between mid-ship and aft. I was glad, throughout the cruise, that our cabin was port side because the wind was always coming across the ship from starboard side. It was very comfortable out on our balcony, which might not have been true if it we had been on the starboard side of the ship. Within an hour of arriving in our cabin, our cabin steward knocked on our door to introduce himself and his assistant. Their names were Alejandro and Renee. They did a fabulous job taking care of our cabin on this cruise. They were always in the area, learned our names right away and always greeted us by name, were smiling and pleasant, promptly made up our cabin each time we turned the dial to "make up room" and gave us great turn down service with cute towel animals each evening.
DINNERS: We didn't have dinner in any of the specialty restaurants that had additional fees of $10 to $25 per person. We ate in the two main dining rooms, 3 nights in Indigo and 2 nights in Summer Palace. Summer Palace had the high ceilings and more formal feel, where Indigo felt smaller and more intimate. The menu was the same in each, with the left side of the menu presenting that night's specialties and the right side of the menu showing the "always available" starters, entrees and desserts. We usually wanted to go down to dinner at around 6:15 to 7:15 and those were popular times, so it wasn't always possible to get a table right away. The first night, the lines of people waiting to get into the two main dining rooms were especially long. After we made our way up to the front of the line, we were given a pager and told to expect an additional 40 minute wait. When the pager buzzed in 40 minutes, we were told we could have a table if we were willing to share it with two other groups who were also waiting to be seated. This was fine with us. On three of the four remaining nights of the cruise, we were also given a pager but the wait was more like 20 minutes, and we always got a private table. We didn't mind the 20 minute waits, as there were lounges near the restaurants where we could enjoy a cocktail while waiting to be seated, and we knew that if we missed the 7:15 p.m. show in the Stardust Theater, it would be repeated at 9:15 p.m. Dining usually took 60 to 75 minutes for all three courses to be served. That was maybe a little slow, but I far prefer a slow pace to being rushed along. The food was very good, with lots of variety on the menu, and reasonably sized portions that we could enjoy without leaving the table with that uncomfortable overstuffed feeling. The waiters and waitresses were very attentive. We do think that it might make sense for NCL to get rid of some of the cover-charge restaurants in favor of having more dining room seats that are included in the price of the cruise. The specialty restaurants never looked very full, whereas people were frequently waiting to dine in the included restaurants. It takes away from the legitimacy of the "eat whenever you want, wherever you want" slogan if seats are never available at the time when most people want them.
BREAKFASTS: Breakfast could be a formal affair in the Summer Palace, ordering off the menu, and we did this the first two mornings, impressed that the restaurant was almost empty and we could have a lovely, peaceful breakfast at a window-side table. On the third morning, we decided to go through the Market Cafe buffet line for breakfast, and eat it on the aft deck, which is called the Great Outdoors. The buffet lines have a wonderful selection for breakfast, , with anything anyone could possibly want, and the Great Outdoors was definitely the place to enjoy breakfast. We did this for the remainder of our cruise. The tables inside were crowded at popular breakfast times, whereas there were always many empty tables to choose from outdoors, and it was never too breezy or cool to eat out there.
LUNCHES: The grill on the pool deck was a great place to grab lunch, or the Market Cafe. Lots of good selection. The food was always fresh, and the Cafe was arranged in a way that you could get what you wanted without waiting in a long line, meaning that your hot food was still hot when you got to the table.
ENTERTAINMENT: The show in the large Stardust Theater on the first night of the cruise was two -part: first Sharkbait, then Oh What a Night. Sharkbait was a comedic duo, former Ringling Bros. circus clowns who entertain with lots of juggling and balancing tricks. This gave a good performance that got decent audience laughs, not over the top funny by any means, but entertaining enough. Oh What a Night is a Frankie Valle and the Four Seasons tribute by a quartet of men. They were good, although my husband and I had just seen a national touring company performance of Jersey Boys and the singing and dance moves of the Oh What A Night members fell a little short for me, in comparison. Frankie Valle and the Four Seasons were guys from the wrong side of the tracks who stumbled onto fame and fortune, and in Jersey Boys, the humor is crass but very funny. Oh What a Night is very family oriented, with the group members bantering about in a strictly G-rated fashion between musical numbers, trying to get laughs but mainly failing in these efforts to be funny. On the last day of the cruise, both Sharkbait and Oh What a Night returned with a matinee performance of completely new material. The comedy routines on this cruise were provided by Second City, the improv comedy group that started in Chicago. Some of their shows were in the large Stardust Theater and others were in the Spinnaker Lounge. Improv comedy routines can be hit or miss, and on this particular cruise, it was mostly miss. The best evening show, I thought, was the one done by the ventriloquist. She was very funny and entertaining and brought three audience members up on stages and used them in a way that had the audience roaring in laughter, while not being disrespectful to those she chose. We didn't have a crew talent show, which I've seen and enjoyed on some prior cruises. The Stardust Theater offering on the final evening was a show titled Encore, put on by the Pearl's production company. This was a very entertaining hour of songs and dances from six musicals. All the performers were very talented, although the musical accompaniment needs to be taken down a notch in volume, as the soloists' voices were often covered up by the accompaniment. We didn't catch very many of the live music performances in the bars and lounges, but did sit and listen to Joe on the piano one evening, and enjoyed that very much. He has a beautiful voice. The group that played on the pool deck was very lively and entertaining.
PASSENGER PARTICIPATION SHOWS: The cruise director, Julie, and her assistant, were the hostess and/or host of several passenger participation competitions in the Spinnaker Lounge. This included the Not So Newly Wed game, a version of Family Feud, a "perfect couple" game, an adults-only team competition titled Quest, and a Dancing with The Pearl Stars competition. The most enjoyable of these shows was the dance competition. A large Zumba group was traveling together on this cruise, and several of their members had their names drawn, and they got into this competition in a very spirited and entertaining way. It was really funny!
CRUISE DIRECTOR: Julie was a lovely cruise director with a wardrobe of elegant gowns, dresses and high heels that she wore day and night. You couldn't help but like her, as she always had a big smile on her face and promoted the ship's activities with much enthusiasm. Although she is pretty and sweet, I kind of missed the personality of the cruise director on my last cruise. He was a boisterous, outgoing, zany character, very witty and sarcastic, who always had the passengers laughing at way he poked fun at everyone around him. Julie was very refined. It's probably best that she not try to be something that she's not, though. She gave the cruise a classy feel.
CREW: The Pearl is full of very hard-working, conscientious employees. They were friendly and outgoing, greeted us with smiles and friendly messages, seemed anxious to help in any way possible, and impressed us with their professionalism. The ship was spotlessly clean.
FIRST PORT, THE ONE WE MISSED: We woke up to some very rough seas on the second day of the cruise. It was raining and cold and I was wondering how we were going to spend our day in the port, Astoria, Oregon, as the weather had spoiled my plan of driving down the coast in a rental car to visit some of the scenic seaside towns in the area, walk on their beaches, etc. At about the time we were scheduled to come into port, the captain made an announcement that we would not be able to do so. The port had been closed because it would not have been safe for us to try to dock in such weather. So, an unexpected day at sea! I called Enterprise to cancel our car rental. I'd booked with Enterprise because I'd been told it was the only car rental place in Astoria. They hadn't yet received word that the port was closed and were waiting for the ship to come in, as droves of cars had been booked by cruise passengers. It was strange to realize that I was the one breaking the news of the port closure. It would have been nice to have Enterprise tell me that someone from NCL had called to advise that the ship wasn't coming in. I know that all cruise lines want passengers to book their shore excursions and they don't get involved in helping guests arrange for private car rentals, but in recognition of the fact that many do so, it would have been nice customer service for the cruise director to announce that the car rental place in Astoria was aware of the port closure and not intending to charge any cancellation fees. I made an expensive cell phone call (the phone was roaming) to cancel my reservation so that I wouldn't run the risk of seeing a no-show charge on my credit card, and I imagine that dozens of other passengers on the ship felt the need to do the same. On this unexpected day at sea, we kept getting teasers that calmer water was coming. The rocking started at about midnight on the first day of the cruise. When we were informed the port was closed, the captain announced that he had sped up the ship to get quickly to calmer water and things should be much better by noon. That didn't happen. By noon, it appeared to us that the waves were actually worse. Then we got an announcement that the stormy waters would be much better by about 4:00 p.m., but when that time rolled around, there was no discernable lessening. In fact, I believe it was at about that time that we learned that some of the waves were 20 feet. Earlier in the day, the range had been announced as 7 to 12 feet. Later it was announced that by the time that evening's performances were taking place in the Stardust Theater, things would be calmed down. Again, that didn't happen. It really wasn't until the middle of the night that the waves started to subside. I don't know if the captain and cruise director were trying to keep our spirits up by leading us to believe that we'd soon be feeling more comfortable, but it was frustrating that we kept thinking "just a few more hours of this," and it turned out to be all day.
SECOND PORT: The only other port on this cruise was San Francisco. We were able to get off the ship at about 8:30 a.m. and didn't have to be back on until 5:30 p.m., so we had a nice, long day to enjoy San Francisco. The four of us walked down Embarcadero Street with no particular plans, expecting to see some city tours being hawked, and indeed, we found a hop-on-hop-off bus tour. The cost was $35 per person and this tour was very nice. It was a beautiful day and we sat on the open top deck of the bus. The tour without any hop offs would have taken 90 minutes, but we hopped off at the park at the Golden Gate Bridge and then later in Chinatown. After lunch in Chinatown and a ride on a trolley car, my husband and I just did some more strolling around in the Fisherman's Wharf area before heading back to the ship. My sister and brother in law rented bikes to do their additional exploring.
POOLS AND HOT TUBS: With school being in session, there were very few teens and children on this cruise, and it was much easier to use the pools and hot tubs than it has been on prior cruises. I also noticed that there was very little of the deck-chair saving that has been a spoiler on some prior cruises. Whenever I wanted to sit in the sun on a deck chair, one was available.
THINGS WE DIDN'T DO: I can't comment on the casino, the fitness room, the spa, the alcohol tastings, the pub crawl, the dance parties, bowling, shuffleboard, golf, basketball, the climbing wall, the specialty restaurants. We didn't do any of those things. I never used the library or game room. Apparently movies were shown on the big screen in the Crystal atrium, but we never watched any because the same ones were shown in the cabins. My sister took part in two yoga classes, offered for a fee of about $15, and she enjoyed those. We were invited to a Latitudes reception with some of the senior crew members, but accidentally missed it. We intended to go to the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet but were in the midst of another activity when the Meet & Greet was being held and missed that, too.
LOS ANGELES: The cruise ended in Los Angeles. We opted for express disembarkment, where we carried out own luggage off. We were able to leave the ship at about 8:30 a.m. Since this cruise originated in Canada, we had to go through customs, but that was a breeze. There was not a line, and we just had to hold out our passport and hand in a declarations form as we filed past the customs agent. Our daughter is a USC student, so we spent two days in Los Angeles with her before heading home. Our activities in L.A. included attending a taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and going to a USC football game.