This was our third Christmas cruise, but our first actually leaving on Christmas Day. Since we left on Christmas, we returned on New Year's Day, which meant this was actually not a "Christmas" cruise to most of the passengers, it was a "New Year's" cruise.
In the past, all of our holiday cruises have been Christmas-themed, since Christmas was in the middle of the cruise. This year, the focus seemed to be New Year's Eve, which I thought was unfortunate, since that was the end of the last evening of the cruise. (Also, New Year's celebrations tend to dissipate quickly - once midnight passes, there is not much else to do.)
This was also our third Norwegian ship - our first cruise was on the Spirit, then the Dawn and this year, the Pearl. All have different personalities, which is a combination of the crew, the passengers and the itinerary.
This cruise had a very different vibe than past cruises, and I'm not sure which of the factors influenced it the most. There More
were a lot more large family groups than earlier cruises, and there seemed to be more international travelers than before. The net result was that the other passengers seemed less out-going than previously, which is not a reflection on the cruise line, but is a question that is worth asking when booking.
For example, our Cruise Critic Meet 'n' Greet last year had 40 people that said they would attend and we had 22 or so actually attend. This year, we had 18 say they would attend and six attended - and four of the six were my family. This was not a cruise of people that wanted to interact with their fellow passengers!
Also, this may have been a cruise with a lot of first-time cruisers - I heard more whining than usual, which usually means expectations are not being met, which usually means rookies.
On to the ship itself - I enjoyed the Pearl. She has a similar layout to other Norwegian ships we've sailed, and it is pretty easy to find your way around. As with all the cruise ships I've been on, it looks huge, but it is pretty easy to get from end to end.
The crew was adequate but not consistent. Our room stewards were excellent. Our concierge was amazing. The senior staff (whom we met at the Meet 'n' Greet and at the Latitudes party) were most gracious. That said, the bar wait staff seemed very tentative - it was easy to get your first drink, but after that, service dropped off considerably. While this saved me money on my bar tab, I would like to have more than one drink during an hour-long show.
This was inexplicable to me because on the Dawn last year, each bar we visited would have a waitress "adopt" us and serve us every evening. We rarely had a dry glass before someone asked if we would like another.
The restaurants were good to excellent. We visited Le Bistro, Cagney's, Teppenyaki, and Mi Cocina. All were very good, and worth the added cover charge. We also had dinner in both main dining rooms, which were also good. Except for a quick stop for ice cream, we avoided the buffet. We would go to the Blue Lagoon for a quick snack. We ordered room service once, including the new 24/7 pizza service. My wife said the pizza in the buffet was better than the $5 room service pizza.
In all, it was a good cruise, but not a great one. I was disappointed in the service levels in the bars, although the room stewards and restaurant servers were excellent.
I was confused by the low energy of the passengers - which is not Norwegian's fault - simply because we had done two holiday cruises and the people seemed much happier and friendlier. I suppose spending an entire cruise waiting for NYE and midnight is an issue, and also, the number of rather large family groups tends to lessen the ability (or desire) to meet other people.
Everyone did liven up for the countdown, but at that point, we were eight hours from disembarking. The countdown on the pool deck was fun - we were one deck higher, looking down, but there were a lot of people there. The Captain counted down the seconds at the end of 2011, the hotel director smashed an ice sculpture of 2011 to end the year, and the party began to disperse. (We didn't get champagne, since all of the servers were on the pool deck, but we found the smaller party inside the ship in the atrium on the way back to our room, and they still had champagne.)
As a New Year's cruise, there was no discounting on the prices, which were higher than we had paid in the past. I would not do a New Year's cruise again, as I don't think it is worth the extra money.
Excursions: We had stops at Great Stirrup Cay, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, Georgetown, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. All are below, except Great Stirrup Cay, which is not on the list.
Great Stirrup Cay is NCL's private island. There are a variety of activities, bars, and a buffet. We spent the day snorkeling, which was quite enjoyable, as the island is stocked with fish, so there was plenty to see, even at shallow depths. A major advantage of the private island is that everything is either included or charged to your room key.
This was our second visit to Cozumel, and we returned to Playa Mia to take Chef Luis' Mexican Cooking Workshop. Highly recommended. You prepare a three-course meal while enjoying an open bar. Then, you eat your creations. Afterwards, there is (minimal) time for a visit to the beach.
In the afternoon, we took the Atlantis submarine tour which was a lot of fun. You tender out to the sub, and you descend to over 100 feet. You will see the drop-off to deep ocean and a lot of interesting reefs, plus a lot of fish. You are underwater for about forty-five minutes.
We took a quick island tour, stopping at Hell (an excellent stop if you appreciate cheesy tourist traps - we had our passports stamped), the Tortola rum cake factory (which was really just a store with small samples provided) and the turtle farm which was a very interesting stop, and where you spent the most time. The drive was along Seven Mile beach, but not on the beach, so while you could see the hotels, you couldn't see much else.
We went to the Bamboo Beach Club, which promised an ongoing buffet and open bar. The reality is that you are assigned a waiter when the tour bus leaves, and he or she is responsible for providing food and drink. Our waitress must have been the runt of the litter, since the other groups around us seemed to get food and drink more quickly and more plentifully. The food was a rice disk, a cold pasta salad and jerk chicken. It was fairly good, but portions were similar to other island excursion buffets, so don't bring your appetite. The drinks were good, and you were allowed two at a time which helped cut down the waiting period, as long as you don't mind watery drinks.
The beach itself was very pretty - there was an area of water open for swimming and snorkeling and another we were told to avoid since there were sea urchins in the area. We just stayed in our (provided) beach chairs and relaxed.