This is a review of a Norwegian Pearl Southern Caribbean cruise that my wife and I took on 3/26/15. This was an 11-night cruise from Miami, with stops in Aruba, Curacao, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, and St. Thomas, and 5 days at sea.
This was our second NCL cruise together — our last one was a Boston to Bermuda cruise on the Norwegian Dream in 2008, which was just okay. This one was much better.
We live in South Florida, so we drove to PortMiami and parked in Garage C across from Terminal B, where the ship was docked. We arrived around 10:45 and had no trouble finding a spot in the garage. This was our first trip to PortMiami since they opened the new port tunnel, and the tunnel made access to the port much easier. Once in the port, they had signs showing how to get to the different terminals, but there was nothing indicating where the NCL Pearl was docked (there was, however, a sign for the Carnival Glory).
We dropped off our two suitcases and waited less then 10 minutes in the line to go through security (the line was much longer by 1:00). We carried in a sealed 12-pack of water bottles, which security inspected very carefully, shaking the package of bottles (good thing they weren’t soda cans :-) and taking one bottle out and examining it closely (they made us throw away the open water bottle we were carrying). Once through security, the check-in process was very quick, and we proceeded to a large waiting area and were given a boarding group number. A short time later, around 11:30, they started boarding passengers by groups — we probably waited at most 20 minutes before boarding.
Once on the ship, we headed to our cabin, only to discover that the cabins weren’t ready yet (the hallways were closed off and marked with signs). There were nothing to indicate the cabins weren’t ready as we boarded, but later on we heard announcements about this. Since we couldn’t go to our cabin, we brought our stuff to the Summer Palace dining room and had lunch. Although it was mostly empty, we had to wait about 5 minutes to get seated. Some cruise lines don’t advertise the fact that the main dining room is open for lunch on embarkation day, but on the Pearl it was mentioned during some of the announcements. While at lunch, they announced the cabins were ready, so after lunch we headed to our cabin.
At 3:15 they did the muster drill, and when we got back to our cabin our first suitcase was waiting for us, and our second one arrived a short time later. Unlike every other muster drill we’ve done, you weren’t required to bring life jackets with you. The drill was a bit disorganized, because people were crossing paths as they were heading to different muster stations, and the crew wasn’t doing a great job directing people. You had to provide your room number when arriving at your station, they didn’t have cruise card scanners. However, the drill was over very quickly.
We were in cabin 10072, a mid-ship balcony room on the starboard side of deck 10, which was a convenient location for us. The cabin was nicely decorated but smaller than comparable cabins we’ve had on other ships; if we were going on the Pearl or one of the other Jewel class ships again, we would probably spring for a mini-suite. The balcony was small and private (completely covered), with two chairs and a tiny table (about 10” x 10”). The room looked clean, but some of the surfaces felt dirty; the balcony was dirty and didn’t get cleaned often.
For storage, the room had 4 shelves below a mini-safe next to the door and another shelf above (the bottom and top shelves were occupied by bedding), a closet about 3.5’ wide, 3 drawers and a shelf under the minibar/fridge and one shelf above, and shelves above and below the TV. There was one small nightstand with a shelf but no drawer. We asked the cabin steward to empty the minibar/fridge so we could store water there. The mini-safe was large enough for an iPad with plenty of room to spare; our safe was locked when we arrived, but they came and unlocked it shortly after I called about it.
The bathroom was divided into 3 sections: a large shower with a sliding glass door (that came off its tracks easily) on one side, a sink in the middle, and a toilet with another sliding glass door on the other side. The wall surfaces (including in the shower) were covered with fake wood “paneling.” The shower had good water pressure and a handheld shower head. The sink countertop was small but there were 3 small shelves on the adjacent wall. The toilet “room” was very small — I wouldn’t have been able to sit in there with the sliding glass door closed. The glass door was not completely opaque so it didn’t really offer much privacy. The towels were nothing special (same for the pool towels). A couple of different times during the cruise the toilet stopped working (the first time it wasn’t just us, don’t know about the second time).
The bed was very comfortable, especially the pillows. The quality of the linens was adequate but not great. The room was pretty quiet, except for the morning we arrived in Curacao, when the captain broadcast his “welcome to Curacao” message at around 8:00 throughout the ship instead of in just the public areas (I assume that was unintentional, since it didn’t happen again). Also in Curacao, some crew members were doing maintenance outside our balconies in the morning, which meant they could see into your cabin if your curtain was open (as it would be in most cases). Usually cruise lines warn you ahead of time if they’re going to be working outside so you can keep your curtains closed for privacy, but that didn’t happen here.
The TV was tiny, the screen was no larger than 12”. I couldn’t find a channel guide anywhere, but it had the usual assortment of ship channels with some cable news stations (including BBC World News but no CNN) and other cable stations. Changing channels was painfully slow even when using the buttons on the TV. We generally only turned on the TV so we could hear public announcements and see the ship’s position. One quirk we noticed — on the channel that shows ship’s position and current information, the current time was correct when it was shown in digital form, but the analog clock they showed was always 5 minutes behind. Hopefully the bridge clocks had the correct time :-)
SHIP AND PASSENGERS
The Pearl is a medium-sized ship, accommodating 2394 passengers at double occupancy, although we had 2472 passengers on this trip (according to the CDC, more on that later). The ship is laid out well, with interesting artwork throughout, and didn’t feel too crowded for the most part, except by the pool.
We like to sit in the sun, and with 5 at sea days, we had plenty of opportunity to do so. We also like to sleep in, so we generally didn’t get outside until about 11:45, but we always found chairs on the Sun Deck (deck 14 forward). The main pool was on deck 12, and decks 12 and 13 were crowded (yes, there actually is a deck 13 on this ship). The Sun Deck was very windy on the first 3 at sea days, not as bad the last two days.
There were passengers from all age groups, though it seemed the majority were older and there were few young children, neither of which is unusual for a longer cruise. Because of the relaxed dress code on NCL, people were generally dressed more casually than they are on other cruise lines, which we like but some don’t. If you enjoy dressing up and like others to do the same, NCL is probably not the right cruise line for you.
The Freestyle Daily newsletter provided the usual information about activities. The only port-related information that appeared in the Daily was about shopping, which was a bit disappointing — some other cruise lines provide an overview of the port with useful information about the culture, currency, getting around, etc.
One interesting spot on the Pearl you should check out is the Bridge Viewing Room on deck 11 forward, which you probably wouldn’t find unless you were looking for it. This room is right behind the bridge and offers a pretty good view (the bridge was larger than I was expecting). There’s also a model of the Pearl on display, some navigation displays, and other interesting information posted on the walls.
The ship has wifi throughout, and you can purchase various internet access plans, including a pay as you go plan for $0.75/minute. I didn’t have any trouble getting wifi anywhere I tried (most often from my cabin), but internet access was painfully slow, so when deciding how many minutes to buy, plan accordingly. I bought a 100-minute plan plus 10 bonus minutes (for $55), but that only lasted about halfway through the cruise, and I generally only checked e-mail. Note that in St. Thomas I had access to my AT&T wireless service without roaming, so I didn’t have to pay for internet access there — other US carriers are probably the same. Note also that I was able to access ncl.com without connecting to the internet, so don’t use minutes to access that site. On the at sea days, I seemed to have access to the ship’s cellular service throughout the ship, though I didn’t make or receive any calls.
NCL also provides the iConcierge app (I used the iOS version), which uses the ship’s wifi network to provide access to information about the ship, activities, shore excursions, account info, as well as access to calling and messaging services (those cost extra). The information about daily activities is not as detailed as that in the Freestyle Daily. For me, access to my shipboard account info was the most useful feature, so I could track charges to my account in real time rather than figuring it all out at the end of the cruise. The shore excursion information would have been useful, except that all the tours for all ports were listed as Aruba tours. I didn’t use the calling or messaging services.
One of the things we liked about NCL is their Freestyle Dining plan, which means no fixed dinner times anywhere, and men can wear shorts to dinner anywhere except the Summer Palace dining room and Le Bistro specialty restaurant, though they both allow jeans. As I noted earlier, this means you’ll see people dressed more casually at dinnertime than on other cruise lines. Overall the food was good, typical of mainstream cruise lines, with some meals better than others, and the service was typically very good.
As on many cruise lines, you can have breakfast delivered to your cabin by hanging an order tag on your door the night before, which is what we did each morning (no extra charge for this). The choices include the typical continental breakfast choices. Note that if you order 2 coffees, you’ll get a small pot that holds about 2.5 cups, so if want refills, order accordingly. You can select delivery times in half hour ranges from 6:30-7:00 through 9:30-10:00; our breakfast always arrived within the range or several minutes earlier. The tiny table on our balcony was too small to eat at, but we moved the larger table in front of our sofa outside for breakfast.
For lunches, we tried the following venues:
Summer Palace dining room: We ate here once on embarkation day. This dining room is large and open, formally decorated, with a high ceiling. The rear wall is a floor-to-ceiling window offering a nice view aft. We noticed the tablecloths were a bit worn, the one on the next table had a hole in it, which was unusual for a venue like this.
Topsiders Bar & Grill: This is an outdoor self-service venue next to the pool on deck 12, with grilled items, salads, fruit, and maybe a few other items. We ate here on our first at-sea day and tried some of the grilled items (hot dogs, burgers, and fries), which we didn’t like much because they had been sitting out for a while, so we didn’t eat here again.
Sky High Bar & Grill: This is another outdoor venue on deck 13 under the Sun Deck. They only have burgers, hot dogs, fries, and a specialty grilled sandwich (varies from day to day), but they make items to order (for the most part) so they don’t sit around as long. It’s a limited selection but okay, we ate here 3 times, mainly because it was convenient. There are some tables next to the grill, but they’re hard to get because people camp out there even if they’re not eating.
Garden Cafe: This is the standard indoor buffet venue on deck 12, which we tried for lunch once. The food and variety was good, but we generally avoid the buffet because it’s often crowded (and we tend to eat too much :-) It wasn’t crowded the one time we ate there because we were in Aruba (we had lunch after a morning shore excursion). We tried to eat an early lunch here again before an afternoon shore excursion in Curacao, but when we arrived at around 11:20 they were closed, because they were transitioning from breakfast to lunch.
The Great Outdoors: This is an outdoor covered buffet on deck 12 aft. When we couldn’t eat at the Garden Cafe for an early lunch in Curacao, we went here instead, but they were still serving breakfast food, so we had a second breakfast for lunch. The food was good.
O’Sheehan’s: This indoor restaurant on deck 8 (above the Atrium) is meant to be like an Irish or British pub, offering various beers/ales and a limited menu of comfort food items, none of which are really Irish/British except for the fish and chips. We ate here on our last two days, mainly because the outdoor venues by the pool were closed (because of the virus, more on that later). It wasn’t crowded on either day and so we had no trouble getting in. I had the chicken pot pie one day and the meat loaf the second, and they were both good. My wife had the buffalo chicken sandwich one day and the buffalo wings the next, and she liked both. Oddly, there was no sign anywhere showing the name of the restaurant.
For dinners, we tried three of the specialty restaurants, each of which had a cover charge — Cagney’s Steakhouse ($30/pp), Lotus Garden ($15/pp), and Le Bistro ($20/pp). We ate at the Indigo dining room the remaining nights. I made the specialty restaurant reservations online before the cruise, before they started adding an 18% service charge to the cover charge. Here’s a summary of each venue:
Indigo: A completely different atmosphere from the Summer Palace, not as formal, laid out more like a land-based restaurant, with interesting art work on the walls. We arrived at various times ranging from 6:30 to 8:30, and in most cases we were told it would be a 20-30 minute wait and were given a pager and a coupon for two free glasses of champagne to enjoy while waiting — the actual wait was rarely more than 10 minutes. We always sat by ourselves, and the wait time wasn’t reduced if you were willing to share a table — in fact, it seemed that it was harder to get a shared table than your own. Most times when there was a wait at Indigo, you could get seated immediately at Summer Palace, if you were dressed appropriately (my shorts disqualified me :-) The tables we were seated at were typically large enough for 4 and reasonably private, we were never sitting too close to anyone else. The food and service was generally very good. As in the Summer Palace, we noticed the tablecloths were a bit worn during our first couple of meals here, but not afterwards (not sure if the tablecloths improved or we just stopped noticing).
Cagney’s: This steak house is on deck 13, adjacent to the Moderno restaurant. Both restaurants share the same reception desk, and the Cagney’s kitchen cooks some (or maybe all) of the food for Moderno. My wife started with the shrimp cocktail and iceberg wedge salad, and had the gorgonzola-crusted 16 oz ribeye (medium) with port wine jus, truffle fries (which we shared), and green beans. I started with the shrimp cocktail and grilled beetroot and red shallot salad, and I had the 8 oz filet (medium well) with caramelized red onion and green peppercorn sauce, and roasted mushrooms. The steaks were cooked exactly as we requested and all the food was very good, although my filet was tiny (I asked if I got the 5 oz filet by mistake), and it had a piece of twine wrapped around it (I thought it was gristle at first). Both the port wine jus and green peppercorn sauce looked and tasted the same, so I think we both got the peppercorn sauce. Unlike my steak, my wife’s ribeye was huge, she couldn’t finish it. They also served some focaccia rolls with dinner that were very good, though one of the staff insisted they were sourdough rolls (they weren’t). We skipped dessert. We also shared a bottle of wine. The service was excellent.
Lotus Garden: This Asian restaurant is on deck 7 adjacent to a Sushi/Sake Bar and separate Teppanyaki restaurant. You can order sushi in the Lotus Garden (we didn’t), but at extra cost (a la carte) — you could also do that at the Sushi Bar, but without the cover charge. For dinner, my wife started with the vegetable dumplings and hot ’n sour soup, and had the Cantonese vegetable Chow Fun noodles and the Chengdu spiced lamb. I started with the steamed barbecue pork buns and hot ’n sour soup, and I had the Singapore noodles and Szechuan braised beef. For dessert, my wife had the flight of oriental creme brûlée, and I had the warm banana pancakes. We also shared a bottle of wine — we were originally planning to order sake, but the “Sake Bar” had only two selections. Both the food and service were good but not great. There weren’t many people in the restaurant, and most of the other diners were crew members. Note that NCL has since eliminated the cover charge for its Asian restaurants.
Le Bistro: This French restaurant is on deck 6 next to Magnum’s Champagne & Wine Bar. My wife started with the escargot and Salade Gourmande, and had the beef filet for dinner. I started with Les Quatre Cornets (4 small waffle cones each with different fillings) and cream of mushroom soup, and had the pork tenderloin for dinner. For dessert, my wife had the chocolate Napoleon cake, and I had the warm apple tatin. We also shared a bottle of wine. The food was very good and the service was excellent, this was probably our best meal of the cruise. Although there weren’t as many crew members eating here as in the Lotus Garden, the captain, his first officer, and chief engineer were eating at a nearby table.
The bar we frequented the most often was the Shakers Martini & Cocktail Bar on deck 6, which was in between (and connected to) the Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar and the Magnum's Champagne & Wine Bar. Unfortunately the service there was consistently subpar, except for one bar waiter (I think his name was Carl) who was very good and always remembered us and our order. We always had to wait to get attention, even the one time we sat at the bar, and in most cases at least one of the two vodka martinis we ordered was made incorrectly (we always ordered the same thing). The only reason we kept going back is because we liked the location (with sunset views out the windows on certain days), we liked Carl, and we wanted to see if things would improve (they didn’t).
The service at the adjacent Maltings Whiskey Bar seemed better, but our only experience there was claiming our complimentary glasses of champagne while waiting to get seated at Indigo.
We also tried getting a drink from the Atrium Café & Bar one afternoon in port. We sat a cocktail table near the bar, and although two different people behind the bar acknowledged us, no one ever came to take an order, so we gave up and went upstairs to have a drink at O’Sheehan’s instead. It’s not that I mind walking over to the bar to order drinks, but the fact that they just left us sitting there was annoying.
NCL allows you to pre-order bottles of liquor for your cabin before the cruise. so we decided to do that. They charge about triple the normal retail price, plus a $3.00 service charge per bottle, but it’s still cheaper than ordering drinks from the bar. I think the bottle prices are about the same if you order them from room service, but then you pay an 18% service charge. The bottles were waiting for us in the cabin, along with some cans of tonic water and Sierra Mist (mixers I assume, we didn’t ask for them). One of the bottles I ordered was Crown Royal Special Reserve (the only Crown Royal listed on the order form), but I actually received regular Crown Royal, which is much less expensive than Special Reserve. I suspected this might happen, based on the price they were charging, so when I ordered I asked them to confirm that I would be getting the Special Reserve rather than the regular Crown Royal, and they confirmed that I would. When that didn’t happen, I called the person I had ordered from, and after checking with the bar manager, she told me they didn’t have any Special Reserve on board. When I pointed out that Special Reserve is more expensive than regular Crown Royal, she said the ship charges the same price for both (which I don’t believe). However, she provided us with 3 1L bottles of water as compensation for the mistake (after I asked about swapping the mixers they gave us for water). By the way, I’m perfectly happy with regular Crown Royal (that’s what I drink at home), but if they tell you you’re getting the good stuff, that’s what you should get.
Note that the prices for liquor in the duty free shop onboard are pretty good in some cases, so you might want to check those out, especially if you’re not flying after the cruise (you’ll have to check in your liquor if you’re flying). The store lets you pick up any duty free liquor purchased there starting at 6:30pm on the last night of the cruise.
We didn’t consider the UBP (Ultimate Beverage Package) because we wouldn’t buy enough bar drinks or wine to make it worthwhile, and we don’t drink soda (just water, which isn’t included in the package).
We didn’t go to many of the evening shows, but we did see Carl Andrews Mental Comedy, The Hilarious Comedy of Chris Pendleton, and Michael Paul Ziegfeld. Carl was entertaining, but I felt some of his tricks must have been done using audience plants, so I wasn’t that impressed. Chris was very funny, and she did a second different show where she played fiddle, which we didn’t see but heard was very good. Michael was very entertaining, especially the ventriloquism bits.
The band Rootslink that played by the pool was very good. When we hung out at the Shakers Martini Bar we would sometimes hear “Music & Humor with Jim” happening at the adjacent Magnums Champagne & Wine Bar — he was entertaining and seemed to be pretty popular (he played piano).
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS
We visited 5 ports on this cruise, Aruba, Curacao, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, and St. Thomas. We were in port from 8:00 - 5:00 for all of them, so there was plenty of time to explore the islands.
The only NCL shore excursion we did was in Curacao, where we did the afternoon Curacao Yacht Lagoon Tour, operated by Adrenaline Tours. Unfortunately, this tour didn’t go as planned. It was supposed to be on a 50-foot two-level luxury yacht, cruising around looking at expensive homes on the water, followed by some time at a beach for swimming, and then another stop for snorkeling. The tour included snacks and soft drinks, no alcohol.
Here’s how it actually went: Those of us on this tour and a different Kayak Tour (also run by Adrenaline) were put on two buses to take us to the marina (we were on the second bus). After about 30 minutes of driving, mostly through stop and go traffic, our bus got a flat tire (I don’t know if the driver ran over something or it was a tire maintenance issue). Fortunately, we were close to the marina and the first bus had just unloaded its passengers, so we were able to transfer to that bus almost immediately. When we arrived at the marina we were informed that the luxury yacht wasn’t available because of mechanical issues, and we would be going on a very spartan fishing boat instead; the people on the Kayak Tour took a separate fishing boat similar to ours. We cruised around looking at the luxury homes, and then met the other boat at a beach. Everyone on both boats was given the option to either stay on the beach or go snorkeling, but you couldn’t do both — the water a little choppy, the operators felt that anyone who went to the snorkeling spot but stayed on the boat were likely to get sick, so they only wanted to take one boat with the people who were actually going to snorkel. Before we went snorkeling, they brought out the snacks, which included watermelon and a skewer with what looked like a piece of uncooked hot dog, a pineapple chunk, a piece of cheese, and a pickle (my wife and I passed on the skewer). Our boat went out to the snorkeling spot, which was at a sunken tugboat and quite good. We had about an hour to snorkel, and then went back to the beach to pick up the others and return to the port.
I will say our guide Patrick and his assistant Cornelius were excellent, and Patrick provided a lot of information about Curacao and was very attentive to our needs. Overall, we enjoyed the tour, despite the mishaps, but we felt we didn’t get what we paid for, which at $109/pp was a lot. I went to the Shore Excursions desk the next day to tell them about this and ask for a partial refund. The agent was already familiar with the issue (others had complained), but he claimed that the operator had given us the option to cancel the tour when we were told that the yacht was unavailable and we all agreed to proceed anyway, which was definitely not true. The agent said he would review the information and get back to me within 24 hours. I received a voicemail later that day saying that they would refund half the cost of the tour. I was disappointed that NCL didn’t take more ownership of the problem and provide an immediate resolution.
We did 3 other tours arranged with local operators, all of which we enjoyed: Trikes Aruba, Jalousie Beach Break on St. Lucia with Spencer Ambrose Tours, and Sail and Snorkel & Nevis Sail Away on St. Kitts with Leeward Island Charters. I will be writing reviews for each of those tours on TripAdvisor.
In St. Thomas we went to Magen’s Bay on our own, which we always do there. The Magen’s Bay beach bar is one of our favorites, and we were really looking to enjoying their killer rum drinks, so imagine our disappointment when we learned they were only serving beer and wine until 4pm that day because it was Good Friday! I’ll make sure I don’t repeat that mistake on our next cruise. :-)
Our cruise had an outbreak of a stomach virus, but the crew did a good job keeping it under control by stepping up sanitation procedures. According to the CDC report posted on http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/surv/outbreak/2015/april6_norwegian_pearl.htm, as of April 3 (the last update, 3 days before the cruise ended), 107 passengers and 7 crew members had reported symptoms.
We first suspected something was going on when we started seeing signs of increased sanitation procedures about halfway through the cruise — more encouragement by the crew to wash hands frequently (“Washy Washy Happy Happy”), more hand sanitizers on board (including in the elevators), removal of salt and pepper shakers from dining room tables, serving rolls at dinner individually rather than leaving bread baskets on the table, and so on. The captain made an announcement about the outbreak a day or two after we started seeing changes, but we couldn’t hear what he was saying because it’s hard to hear public announcements from certain areas of the ship (including our balcony). In the ensuing days there were additional changes, including the removal of ice buckets, drinking glasses, magazines, and some extra blankets from cabins, and closing down the outdoor grills near the pool (the bars remained open). Surprisingly, the hot tubs by the pool remained open the entire time.
The crew did a great job trying to contain the outbreak, and aside from some inconvenience, passengers who weren’t sick were largely unaffected by the outbreak. However, the one area where I think the ship should have done a better job was updating passengers about what was going on. Rather than relying on one or two announcements that some people didn’t hear, I would have expected a notice delivered to each cabin indicating what was happening, what changes were being made and why, and what passengers could do to help avoid catching or spreading the virus. Most of what I learned about the virus came from other passengers and the Cruise Critic message boards.
Disembarkation instructions were delivered to each cabin on the second to last day of the cruise. Unlike other cruise lines that assign you a specific departure group, you could decide which departure group to use and then go get the appropriate color-coded tags for your luggage (people with shore excursions were assigned to a group). The instructions referenced a US Customs form that was not included in the materials, but the custom forms were delivered the next day (after we already picked one up from Guest Services).
One of the options, and the one we always choose if available, is self disembarkation, where you can leave the ship before anyone else if you’re willing to carry all your luggage with you. In addition to getting off the ship earlier, it means don’t have to leave your luggage outside of your cabin before you go to bed. The instructions said self disembarkation would start at around 7:30, and NCL encouraged people to use this option. I don’t know if they always encourage that, or were doing it in this case because they wanted to get people off the ship earlier to they could sanitize everything before the next voyage.
Disembarkation was the easiest we ever experienced, partly due to good timing. At around 7:10, we decided to go down to the disembarkation deck (7) and wait there. because we needed to use the elevator to get our luggage downstairs. We figured once they announced that people could disembark, the wait for an elevator would be really long. We had no wait for an elevator, and when we got down to deck 7, the crew directed us towards the gangway. As we were heading there, the ship had just gotten permission to let passengers disembark, so we were allowed to go even before they made an announcement. We just walked off the ship with about 8-10 other people, the first group off the ship, went through customs without waiting, and walked across the street to the parking garage (fortunately the ship was docked nearby, at Terminal C). We were in our car and on our way home by 7:30, it was wonderful.
Despite some issues, we enjoyed our cruise, and the weather was great the entire time (except for a few morning showers in St. Thomas). We liked the Freestyle aspects of the cruise, especially the dress code, and would definitely consider NCL again. Read Less