My parents and I cruised this repositioning itinerary from San Diego to Tampa primarily because 1) we live in Tampa, and a one-way airfare was appealing, and 2) we had the opportunity to go through the Panama Canal. We also had three other ... Read More
My parents and I cruised this repositioning itinerary from San Diego to Tampa primarily because 1) we live in Tampa, and a one-way airfare was appealing, and 2) we had the opportunity to go through the Panama Canal. We also had three other couples join us, so we had a group of 9 in its entirety. This is my third NCL cruise, and all three trips have been on The Pearl.
Embarkation was a nightmare at San Diego until our concierge found us in line and accelerated us through TSA and check-in. We were late leaving San Diego apparently because miscommunication between NCL and union work time and break requirements for dock workers. We didn't get our bags into our room until after we returned from dinner. Not a huge inconvenience, but we do like to get settled ASAP into our room shortly after boarding. Disembarkation at Tampa was extremely easy because we handled our own bags. I understand those waiting on bags to be released in the Tampa port had to wait awhile.
We stayed in the Jade suite (2 bedroom/2 bath) as we have done previously. It works perfectly for us - great space, clean, comfortable beds, privacy. Next time, we'll move to deck 10 rather than 11 because of noise (like water flowing) coming from spa area above us. Staying in a suite provides benefit of a concierge and butler. We had the best concierge (Bruno) on the planet. He took complete care of us - including ensuring we had dinner reservations for the 9 of us in combination complimentary and specialty dining, priority embarkation and disembarkation at ports, and other niceties. Our butler (Renato) checked in on us daily, and delivered nice snacks each afternoon. Suites also provide breakfast and lunch access to a specialty restaurant for sit-down, exclusive menu and seating. Avoiding buffet lines and crowds is worth the price of a suite.
We had four specialty dining meals. Cagney's is bar-none the best dining experience on board The Pearl. We also enjoyed Moderno and La Cucino. If we could eat every night in a specialty dining restaurant, we probably would. Instead, we had several evenings split between Summer Palace and Indigo. I assume the nightly menus are different between those two complimentary dining options. We enjoyed the food in both restaurants; however, we felt the service was better in Summer Palace. Indigo was often slower.
On board evening entertainment was fine - comic acts and aerial artists were great, hypnotist OK, Barricade Boys were good. Daily activities like trivia, bingo, etc. were typical cruise fare. I participated in some of it. Skip the beginner bridge classes - too many people and confusing teaching approach. Fitness center is nice, often crowded, yoga and pilates are offered with a class fee. Spa is overpriced, and I heard from others that the quality was so-so.
Due to a hurricane, our first stop at Cabo was dropped unfortunately, but safety obviously needed to take priority. I took the level 3 hiking the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala. I about died. Its VERY rigorous going up, and the 6-7000 ft altitude doesn't help. Coming down was absolutely treacherous with unprepared trails, rocks of different sizes, ash, etc. I wasn't prepared for this level of effort - and I wasn't alone. Many people needed to pay for horse rides to get to the lava field. I provided feedback to the shore excursion manager that the excursion description in no way accurately described - and set expectations - for the climb. My parents took a bus tour to a town in Guatamala. They were very disappointed with the excursion - lack of restrooms, very rough roads/driving. They also weren't alone in this assessment. One tour was three hours late in its return to the ship.
Our stop in San Juan Sur, Nicaragua, was surprisingly delightful. We had high winds upon arrival which delayed tendering operations causing delays. We weren't greatly impacted with this because of our priority disembarkation. We enjoyed our bus tour to Rivas and Lake Nicaragua. I also enjoyed walking the beachside town of San Juan Sur. Locals are very friendly. We didn't take any excursions in Costa Rica because we had been there before. Instead, we walked and taxiied the port area of Puntarenas, a popular tourist destination for Costa Ricans. Cartegena, Colombia was absolutely lovely. We both liked our excursions, particularly enjoying the Old City, fortress, cathedral, etc. Cartegena deserves another visit. Our final stop was in the Caymans, and you can tell that they have a ton of experience dealing with cruise ships and tourists. Their excursions are planned to the T. I enjoyed Sting Ray City.
Our highlight was the day going through the Panama Canal. The Pearl's bow was opened and supplied with beverages, cold towels, etc. A tour guide provided audio description of what we were doing and seeing during the entire transit. An absolutely fascinating experience.
Here are my additional tips for NCL/The Pearl:
1. Very cool is the Bridge Observation Room, Deck 11, port side. During the day the window blinds will be open and you can see on to the bridge. Plus, there’s ship history, crew pictures, radar screens, charts and so forth to keep you busy for a few minutes.
2. There’s a bunch of onboard duty free shopping available when you're at sea – booze, jewelry, make up, accessories, clothing, perfume, etc. There’s also a small area for sundries you might have forgotten – toiletries, medications, batteries, etc. It is expensive. I had to pay $15 for a box of Nyquil. Try not to forget anything.
3. Guest Services is available in the Atrium. It operates just like a hotel reception. Go check your ship account every few days to make sure your bill is reflecting as correct. That way you don't have to stand in amazingly long lines the last day of your cruise to correct an error.
4. An alternative to waiting in long lines at the shore excursion desk are to 1) fill out an order form and submit through the mail slot or 2) place excursion orders at automated kiosks (hanging on wall throughout the ship). In either case, tickets will be delivered to your room – placed in the slot above your room number on the door frame.
5. Your bathroom is stocked with large dispensers in the shower for body wash and shampoo, small bottles (hotel style) of shampoo, conditioner, lotion, shower cap, Kleenex, retractable clothesline, and enough bath towels/hand towels/wash cloths to serve an army. A hair dryer is either in your room or bathroom, but situated in front of a mirror. I found enough shelving in the bathroom to store my toiletries. I had plenty of sockets (American plugs) to operate and recharge devices. You will have pool towels in your room that you can bring off the ship (for beach excursions) and drop off as you reboard.
6. Wifi is the one luxury I purchase - unlimited for duration of the cruise. Its expensive, but works fine. Only one device per room can be on the wifi, however, so you just coordinate with others in your cabin when you're kicking them off. You might want to get International service activated on your smart phone if you want to make phone calls or have internet access (without wifi). I didn’t get any texts in or out, but emails just fine. Rather than pay for onboard minutes, many people will just go to dockside restaurants at ports to get free wifi – they all give it to you if you eat or drink in their establishment! In any case, you can coordinate technology needs with the IT manager onboard. I found him very easy to work with.
7. Trying to find quiet is a challenge. The Atrium area is ridiculously loud in the late afternoon to the evening with music acts - makes working with Guest Service, Shore Excursions or CruiseNext office very difficult. Go see them earlier in the day. The Library is quiet, and sometimes Spinnaker Lounge early in the day and in between ship activities. Read Less