Just recently returned from the 7-day Western Caribbean cruise on the NCL Pearl and want to report that overall it was a good experience.
Here are my observations and opinions:
Embarkation: Check-in at 11:30 was a breeze -â€"about 5 minutes to have picture taken and card issued. Actual boarding was delayed until 12:30 and we had to wait in very crowded terminal. Boarding itself was well organized with everyone having been issued a group boarding number. For anyone with limited walking ability, be forewarned that there are a series of ramps to climb to reach the boarding area on deck seven.
Ship: The Pearl has a layout that is easy to navigate after the first day. There are signs and deck maps at every elevator. The crew does a great job at keeping everything clean so I was surprised to find two restrooms out of order for the entire week.
The dÃ©cor in some of the public areas could use some updating but is generally pleasing. My pet peeve was that chairs in some of the major gathering spots like the Crystal Atrium, Bar City and the Bliss Lounge may look inviting but they are too low for my liking and the backrest too far back for shorter people to sit comfortably. The seats in the Stardust Theater need to be replaced, as the indentations in the cushioning from thousands of passengers are quite evident.
Stateroom: Our balcony cabin on Deck 10 looked just like the pictures from the NCL website. The dÃ©cor was cheerful and the room very bright. The cabin was surprisingly sound proof and we never heard a thing from the outside. There is plenty of room under the bed for luggage storage and the closet has more hangers than expected. The drawers and open shelving are sufficient for two people. However, the pictures don't adequately depict the size of the bathroom. Both the toilet area and shower have sliding glass doors with a 24" opening at best. This could be a very tight fit for the heftier passenger. The sink area is adequate and well lit with several shelves for personal items. The sofa is as hard as park bench and may sleep two kids but don't plan on two adults unless they are extremely intimate. The balcony was a wonderful retreat anytime of the day and suitably private. The TV has about 10 channels but no fewer than 4 of those are dedicated to NCL. Only one had movies. It would have been nice to have a printed channel guide.
Dining: The freestyle dining concept works well and the Pearl has numerous options to keep passengers well fed any time of the day or night.
The buffet at the Garden Cafe appeared to be the most popular venue, which made finding a seat a bit problematic. The lack of serving trays meant making repeated trips to the line if you wanted soup, salad, entrÃ©e and dessert.
The omelet station at breakfast was terrific and relatively fast moving. The lunch menu had the usual hamburgers and fries but also included a carving station for ham, chicken, lamb and beef depending on the day. The salad bar was extensive although the desert selection was not. One thing the buffet definitely lacked was a selection of steamed vegetables and broiled fish for the more health conscious. The menu varied very little and by the 3rd day was totally predictable.
The specialty restaurant, Teppanyaki, was well worth the $25 charge. The chef performed the expected culinary gymnastics and my steak was cooked to perfection and the sea scallops the best I have ever had. By the way, substituting the scallops for the shrimp was no problem at all.
Cagney's Steakhouse had the right ambiance for "grown-up" dining and the filet mignon was excellent. However, the baked potato was undercooked and cold. Ordering a side dish of steamed asparagus was not an issue but the 3 spears were barely warm and virtually raw. Both the potato and asparagus were quickly exchanged but the asparagus came back cooked the same way.
The Le Bistro was my personal favorite. Not only was the dÃ©cor perfect, our server was the most attentive and cordial of any dining staff we had had all week. The food itself was excellent and the presentation exquisite. The best meal of the week.
The Summer Palace, one of the complimentary dining choices had a limited lunch and dinner menu and the food nothing to rave about. The service was okay.
Staff and Crew: The staff members manning the service desks were very cordial and efficient. The service personnel in the Garden Cafe were generally very quick to clear tables as there was always someone waiting to sit. The bar areas and casino had plenty of waiters circulating but be aware the drinks are costly ($8.00 average) and can quickly add up.
The assistant cruise directors handled minor activities and games with only moderate enthusiasm. They often arrived late and stumbled through the activity. Unlike on other cruises I have taken, the cruise director's staff did not mingle with guests.
Perhaps the automatic gratuity included in the cruise fare had something do with our cabin steward failing to introduce himself or learn our names. Not once did he ask if everything was okay or if there was anything special he could do for us although he did respond quickly when we did ask. The guests in the next cabin never knew his name either. In the end, only one person received an added gratuity--our waitress in the Le Bistro restaurant.
Entertainment: The "Oh What A Night" Jersey Boys style review was quite good. The ships' own singing and dancing troop was exactly what you would expect on a cruise ship with no outstanding performers. The Second City Comedy troop was such a huge disappointment I actually left the show after 15 minutes. The comic and magician were both very entertaining. Shipboard activities for non-sun worshipers were minimal; mostly trivia and game show type competitions.
The cruise staff had to scramble on the second day of the cruise when foul weather forced the Captain to cancel the day at Great Stirrup Cay. It was obvious that there was no back-up plan for an extra day at sea or one that excluded outdoor activities.
I had eagerly signed up for the Murder Mystery lunch as soon as I bordered the ship and was very disappointed to receive a note the next morning stating that it had been cancelled. The reason? The Summer Palace dining room had been double booked! I find it inconceivable that with all the dining venues on the ship, an alternative location was not available for either event. The $20 charge was of course wiped from my account but my disillusionment remained.
Disembarkation: We selected a 9:30 departure time but at 9:00 an announcement was made that Customs was backed up and had requested a hold on departures. By 10:00 we were able to leave the ship only to stand in line for 45 minutes inside the terminal. Thankfully we didn't have a plane to catch. Perhaps this delay in getting passengers off the ship explains why embarkation was held up a week earlier. This hassle was no fault of NCL but annoying just the same.
Conclusion: The NCL Pearl has something for all age groups and activity levels. As with any vacation, you are free to do as much or as little as you want, eat and sleep whenever you want. The food may not be entirely gourmet, the rooms not as large as a first class hotel, the entertainment not Broadway quality, and the staff at times a bit remote but for anyone who just wants to get away for a moderate cost, a week on the Pearl is an acceptable destination.