The Murder Mystery Dinner on the bright, brassy Norwegian Pearl is just one of the many sea day activities available to its passengers, activities which not only include the usual rituals of poolside lounging, bingo and art auctions, but also some truly innovative and unique options. On that day I could have gone bowling, boxed against a 20-foot opponent (thanks to NCL's partnership with Nintendo, featuring its Wii system on most ships) on the Crystal Atrium's gigantic LED screen, attended both a Martini Tasting clinic and a Margarita Taster, watched an all-male exotic dance show featuring the ship's crew, and settled into a four-poster canopy bed next to the dance floor in the Marrakech-inspired Bliss Ultra Lounge.
Pearl launched in 2006 as the third in the series of Jewel-class vessels (Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Jade preceded Pearl; Norwegian Gem debuted in fall 2007). This ship, with its spaces, its flow, its dining and lounge options, is one of the most enjoyable large vessels around. The inclusion of a four bowling lanes and the Bliss Ultra Lounge in the space where most NCL ships have their department-store-sized shopping venue is one change, and making the two-story atrium actually functional is another.
Norwegian Pearl is loaded with jewel-toned designs (mauve and teal, turquoise and magenta, purple and blue, all with the occasional splash of fuchsia and orange) and original art (a Dale Chihuly sculpture anchors the atrium, a small Van Gogh reproduction -- the original is being moved from the Dawn later this year -- hangs behind the reception desk), and filled with upscale seating around its two pools and on the upper sun decks (faux wicker chairs and padded chaises, some double loungers with pillows). In addition, it boasts 12 Freestyle restaurants, 11 bars and lounges, the bowling alley, a five-level rock-climbing wall and a contemporary kid's club.
Is Norwegian Pearl perfect? No, but our quibbles are so minor they hardly matter. We hate the tacky plastic flowers that show up in places where there should be real ones or none at all. Somehow, the architects forgot to put a drink station on the pool deck, so to get tea, coffee, water or juice, one has to wander half way through the Garden Cafe in search of a no-surcharge beverage -- irritating, but barely. The myriad of activities, the bright colors, the usability and flow of the ship, the dining and entertainment options, the fabulous itineraries (five-night Western Caribbean, nine-night Southern Caribbean, Alaska in the summer) and especially the happy, friendly, helpful staff make this ship stand out as one of our all-time favorites.
One of the things that struck us during our cruise is how easy and comfortable the flow is on this ship. There aren't many instances of "you can't get there from here," which is, of course, wonderful. But another thing we really enjoyed is the usability of the Crystal Atrium. NCL chose to make this area two stories tall rather than create an atrium concept with towering empty space. So in this case the Crystal Atrium is comfy and cozy, but it's also still expansive and airy. Surrounded above by two restaurants with rail-side dining, the lower level is filled with chairs, loungers, divans and a cafe/bar, making it seem more like a hotel lobby than a big-ship atrium. And it's actually used, as a meeting space, lounging destination, dance hall, movie theatre, and action spot for those participating in the Nintendo Wii activity du jour. Original art includes the Chihuly sculpture and the small Van Gogh behind the Reception Desk.
NCL moved its typical aft-end shopping venue to the front of the ship, near the Stardust Lounge, and turned the aft space into the Bliss Ultra Lounge and bowling alley, with delightfully whimsical decor (canopied beds as loungers, prompting some to call it the Bliss Bordello). The deck (seven) that holds Bliss, the reception/atrium space, the artwork for the auctions, the Internet center, photo gallery and the Asian restaurants is completely non-smoking, so those who want to avoid the smell of cigarettes can safely traverse from one end to the other without encountering a single whiff.
Just below that deck, on Deck 6, is found Bar City, a unique concept that combines a whiskey and spirits bar, martini bar, wine and champagne bar, and beer pub in one elongated space which then flows into and through the casino (smoking is allowed on most of that deck, and there is an enclosed cigar-smoking room adjacent to Le Bistro).
Decor throughout is bright, tropical, fun. The furnishings in Spinnaker's Lounge look like they were designed by famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen after he watched a couple of episodes of the Jetsons. Teal crushed velvet double-loungers are surrounded by white high-impact plastic bucket chairs ... with holes where one expects a seat. And guess what? They are comfortable!
Forward of the pool are a couple of meeting rooms, the spa and exercise facility, a small chapel, a card room and an attractive library that is open, alas, too few hours to be truly effective for book and game checkout.
The Stardust Theatre comprises three decks with comfy seating and good site-lines from almost everywhere. Located adjacent to its entrance on Deck 7 is the newly redesigned Trade Routes Boutique complex, a series of shops broken into smaller venues featuring duty-free goods and costume jewelry in one, logo items in another, clothing and high-end jewelry in a third, and so on.
It would be easy to provide a laundry list of the restaurants on Pearl, a Freestyle ship with loads of dining spots, but it wouldn't paint a complete picture. The options run the gamut from a chi-chi and clubby steakhouse to a 24-hour comfort food diner, from an elegant French-inspired bistro to a fabulous Teppanyaki bar. Of course there are standard dining rooms as well, a big one with windows on three sides at the aft called Summer Palace, and a smaller, more intimate one (Indigo) midship. But on Pearl, as on most of NCL's ships, it's all about the choices.
Specialty restaurants have a surcharge, between $10 and $25, and for the more popular ones (Teppanyaki, for example), reservations are requisite.
La Cucina, one of our favorites, is $10 per person. I could have dined solely on the antipasto plate offered there, with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of thin slices of Parmesan Reggiano, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, thin slices of Parma ham and carpaccio, and rolls and breadsticks with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The meat dish (veal) was impressive too, but even better was the perfectly al dente side of linguini carbonara that I chose.
Equally enticing were the spicy rice noodles I had at Lotus Garden (surcharge: $15); the noodles were in a coconut milk broth and the dish reminded me of a Thai Tom Kha soup ... spicy-sweet and coconut-y. My traveling pal had sea bass and a newly made friend, who joined us there for supper, had the Peking duck, both of which looked wonderful. The dessert pancakes were the perfect ending.
Moderno Churrascaria ($20) is a Brazilian-style steakhouse that offers a expansive lineup of skewered meat, including lamb chops, filet mignon, sausage and chicken. There's also the obligatory salad bar featuring international cheeses, dried meats, olives and marinated veggies, alongside the traditional salad ingredients. Sides, including mashed potatoes, fried bananas, and rice and beans, are served with the meat.
Cagney's (surcharge is $25, or more if you opt for items like a bigger steak or surf 'n' surf) is NCL signature steak and chop house. One big point of interest here: When you order the Surf 'n Turf ($15 extra), you don't get one of the rock lobster tails that are typically served on lobster night in the main dining rooms. You get half of a decent-sized crustacean, complete with claws and metal claw-crackers.
This ship has taken the typical Lido Deck "buffet" dining venue to new heights. Gone are the kiosks that are found on the other two Jewel-class ships (Jewel and Pride of Hawaii), and the smaller Pride of America, which look nice in principle, but are chaotic in practice. Pearl's designers brought back linear counters, but NCL doesn't want the Garden Cafe to be called a buffet or cafeteria; it's a restaurant with "action stations." Servers stand behind the counters, where small amounts of freshly-made meals are put out at one time and served. There are stations for salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, carved meats, soups and vegetarian dishes, Asian food, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts.
Two items of interest: For some reason NCL has decided to do away with trays. Plates are fairly small, though, so plan on returning to the lines once or twice. Also, for sanitary reasons (and to avoid the sticky, gross mess), there are no self-serve soft ice cream machines on Pearl; hard scooped ice cream, with toppings, is available much of the day, either in cones or in bowls.
Traditionalists can have dinner every night at the same time, in the same place; just let the maitre d' know in advance. Otherwise, the multitude of restaurants allows for some adventurous options. We're pleased that NCL has gone back to the reservation system that allows you to make plans one day in advance; for awhile, you had to book all of the alternate restaurants for the whole cruise as soon as you boarded, and what kind of Freestyle is that? Still, we've heard that if you don't call precisely at 8 a.m. for plans for the following night, you may not get the reservations you desire. We only made reservations once and had no problem just showing up at our restaurant of choice the other times, but we didn't choose to dine at peak periods (between 7 and 8 p.m., for example). We usually ate earlier or later. And speaking of earlier, the surcharge restaurants (with the exception of Teppanyaki and the refined "tasting menu" at Le Bistro) offer a two-for-one special from 5:30 to 7 p.m. If you're concerned about springing for the $25 meal at Cagney's, this is your chance to try it for $12.50...
Breakfast and lunch are served via open-seating at one of the two traditional restaurants, but most take advantage of the Garden Cafe and aft deck Great Outdoors Cafe when the weather is good. There's also a Continental breakfast served in Bar City, with rolls, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The bars aren't open yet, and it's a quiet, pleasant place to have a morning munchie. Suite guests (penthouse and above) can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, with a special menu designed just for them, with items like crab cake and eggs Benedict for breakfast and blackened snapper sandwiches for lunch, served in the toney atmosphere of a private club. For those in regular cabins (from insides to mini-suites), room service choices are dreadfully slim, especially for breakfast. You can get rolls, toast or muffins, yogurt, a choice of three dry cereals, milk, coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and something called "orange juice cocktail." We ordered rolls one morning, and we got 'em ... no butter, no jam. Ugh. Happily, the rest of the menu, while horribly limited, does have a couple of standouts: The ramen noodles with green onions is fabulous, loaded with white-meat chicken, and perfect if you've got the sniffles or want something hot and homey. Ditto the grilled cheese sandwich from the kids' menu -- yum. Suite guests get a much more extensive room-service menu, with hot items like eggs and bacon for breakfast, and steak sandwiches or burgers for lunch, and can order meals from the restaurants during serving times.
There's a well-stocked grill out on the pool deck which serves roasted chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and dessert items during most of the day, and a limited breakfast in the mornings.
Standard cabins are comfortable and well laid-out, and with adequate closets and drawer space for most families, they're cozy.
All have mini-fridges, flat-screen televisions, telephone, Internet connection, bathrooms with shower and twin beds that can be made up as queens. But, at an average size of 160 square ft. for the outsides and 145 for inside staterooms, they are among the industry's smallest -- especially for a newly built vessel -- and especially for a line aiming for families. Balcony cabins are 205 square ft., which includes the verandah. All but some inside cabins have a "split bathroom" configuration: glass-enclosed shower on one side, closeable toilet chamber on the other, sink in the middle. Balcony cabins also have a small sofa, many of which can be made into a third bunk.
Compared to some of the slab-like beds found elsewhere on NCL, the bedding has been upgraded on this ship, with thick, comfy Eurostyle mattresses. Instead of a bedspread, beds are made with white duvets and a small colorful "runner" placed across the foot.
Our absolute favorite attribute of any cabin on an NCL ship is the in-cabin coffee/tea makers thoughtfully provided to the guests, along with complementary coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cream.
Where Pearl really stands out is in its suites. The 134 mini-suites offer, at 284 square ft., a small amount of additional space and a larger balcony, have full bath tubs and the services of the concierge. Beyond those, though, guests who are booked into Romance Suites, Penthouse Suites, Courtyard Villas, Owners Suites or Garden Villas enter the stratosphere of cruisedom, with private restaurant privileges, butlers, individual espresso and cappuccino makers, preferred reservations for the alternate restaurants, VIP tender access, VIP boarding and disembarking, a DVD library and other perks and privileges that truly set them apart from the average guest on the same ship.
The Courtyard Villas share a private courtyard at the top of the ship, complete with a covered plunge pool and private hot tubs. Owners Suites, typically located beneath the bridge, face forward and, since they are at the corners of the bow, have private sundecks both at the front and along the side. The Garden Villas, smaller on this ship than on Dawn, Jewel or Star, where they come in at an astronomical 5,700 square ft., nonetheless still measure 4,390 square ft., have individual saunas, hot tubs, private sunbathing areas and three bedrooms, three baths, a powder room, living room, dining room, a grand piano, and exclusive elevator access to their quarters, shared only with the residents of the Courtyard Villas and two Deluxe Owner's Suites located at the very, very top of the ship.
Caveat: The Owners Suites and Penthouse Suites on Deck 10 have verandahs that are completely visible from the bridge above. Completely. Any indiscretion that takes place out there is subject to being viewed by a range of officers -- or any visitors to the bridge.
Some of the 24 Penthouse Suites, at up to 572 square ft., on Norwegian Pearl could also be called Family Suites since they have a small bunk-bedded room and bath that's perfect for kids.
Non-suite cabins (including mini-suites) have wall-mounted pumps for soap and shampoo, and while it's not ideal in terms of convenience, the rationale for their use is laudable: Just picture the amount of waste generated by 2,000+ plastic bottles each week, and imagine how much less waste is generated by the pumps. The product is actually quite nice I am convinced that the shampoo/conditioner combo is a generic version of Herbal Essences.
Suite guests get large containers of upscale designer Frances Denney products, although almost everyone we spoke to who inhabited a suite preferred to go back to the more subtle scents of the L'Occitane en Provence products that had been used in the past.
Twenty-seven cabins, including suites, are fully wheel-chair accessible and ADA compliant.
NCL adds $12 per person, per day to onboard accounts, which serves as a "service charge" and not a tip. Passengers are encouraged to "tip" for exceptional service, but we're also assured that the service charge does go to the crew. Most guests tip their room stewards extra; suite guests also tip their butlers and the concierge -- who are not in the "service charge" pool -- and because of Freestyle dining, where you don't have the same waitstaff every night, many guests bring cash to tip their servers if they've done an excellent job. On Pearl, a 15 percent gratuity is also added to bar bills. An 18 percent gratuity is added to spa bills.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Pearl is the first of NCL's ships to install a rock climbing wall and it's quite impressive. Located at the back of the stack (about 18 stories above the sea), it stands 30 feet tall and 19 feet wide and offers five different climbing routes with levels of difficulty depending on skill level. But that's not all this ship offers in terms of fitness and recreation, not by a long shot.
You might not get an aerobic workout by bowling, but you can do that too (and the oxygenation you'll experience from laughing is worth at least a couple of spinning classes ). There's also a volleyball/basketball court, mini-golf, two golf driving nets, Ping- Pong, two pools, a jogging track, a full-circuit promenade for walkers, a completely equipped fitness center with the newest of everything, and the full-service South Pacific Spa, which has a thermal suite along with the usual hands-on treatments.
In fact, the thermal suite is one of the best "day of pampering" values onboard, at $15 for a full day's use (less if you buy the package for the whole cruise). It allows the guest to take advantage of the co-ed room with the thalassotherapy pool and heated ceramic loungers, or go gender-specific with an oceanview sauna, eucalyptus steam, individual whirlpool tubs, icy-cold plunge pool and padded chaises. Unfortunately, the purchase of an expensive spa treatment does not confer entrance to this relaxing area before or after the service unless you pay the additional fee. We heard a great deal of grumbling about that. (There are small steam rooms, however, in the rest rooms adjacent to the fitness center, and there is no charge to use those.)
The spa offers the usual array of services and massages, and now includes teeth whitening sessions and acupuncture. Specials onshore days seemed quite reasonable (three mini-treatments for $89, for example), but we always, always go for the Frangipani, a yummy scalp-neck-shoulder massage at the best price -- around $29.
The Body Waves fitness center was open 24 hours during our cruise, but the hours may be cut back. Some of the more expensive suites are located below this area, and apparently, the noise from some of the machinery wreaked havoc on the suite guests' ability to sleep. It's a new gym, so all manner of state-of-the-art equipment is available, free for guests to use. There are classes for Pilates, yoga and spinning that carry a surcharge of $10.
One of the two pools has been designated as "adult only," and it seemed to be monitored. The family pool is just adjacent so you'd think it would be harder to enforce, but in fact it was just the opposite, and worked quite well.
First of all, if we were traveling with toddlers, we'd pick an NCL cruise over any other. Why? Freestyle dining means that the kids don't have to wait for a set dining time. That's one reason. And the Kid's Crew clubs are always terrific, but on Pearl there's an element that makes it even more special. The Aqua Kids Club is located on Deck 12 adjacent to the pool area, and in fact, the outside part extends onto the pool deck. It's surrounded by a glass wall, which means that mom and dad can actually see their kids playing when they are out there, bouncing on the colorful balls or interacting with other children in the same age group.
Kids from six months are allowed in, and get this: They don't have to be potty trained! Parents are given a beeper and paged when a diaper needs changing. (It doesn't work ashore, so you can't leave the ship while your child is in the center.) The center itself features a little movie theatre, a computer center, an outdoor play area, an arts and crafts room, a nursery and sleep room.
Teens have their own space, Metro Center, a "New York subway-themed" club with computers, plasma TV's, cozy seating areas, and (of course) it's adjacent to the well-equipped video arcade.
NCL's new agreement with Nintendo means that both centers now have Nintendo Wii's available for use.
The Garden Cafe has a special kid-sized buffet section, with kid-styled food (hot dogs, fries, chicken fingers) and the room service menu also has great kid's options, like a melt-in-your-mouth grilled cheese sandwich (Yes! We tried it!), and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Not limited to kids, of course, is the fabulous bright yellow corkscrew slide at the pool complex.
Group babysitting is offered during the evenings and on port days for a nominal fee of $5 per hour for the first child, and an additional $3 per hour for each sibling; there is no individual or in-room sitting.
There is something for everyone to enjoy on Norwegian Pearl, and as a result, ages are all over the board. It's designed for families, so of course there are plenty of kids; it has a super teen center so that age group is well-represented too. But the range of cabin types, dining and entertainment options have appeal for seniors, boomers, Gen X's and Y's, families, singles, honeymooners, grandparents and grandkids, and everything in between. We saw them all on our nine-night Southern Caribbean cruise over spring break; we understand that the five-night cruises just before and just after ours had many more college students and youngsters aboard.
Also, the euro and the British pound are very favorable against the dollar at this time, so there were many Europeans and Brits on our nine-night cruise. Many of them take the opportunity to do a back-to-back, incorporating both the five-night and the nine-night for a full two weeks of cruising heaven.
Freestyle cruising allows you to dress casually, all the time. There is one optional formal night in which one can dress up if one wishes, but in fact, you can do that on any night of the cruise. You can dress up or dress down, the only caveat being that after 5 p.m., no shorts, tank-tops or jeans are allowed in the dining venues other than the casual Garden Cafe and Blue Lagoon. As NCL's advertising advises, "Wear ... something."
Pearls entertainment options span all genres, all age groups, and just about every interest under the sun.
NCL has entered into a partnership with Nintendo to use its Wii interactive gaming system onboard its ships, and with the 20-ft. LED screen in the atrium area, it's a marriage made in gamers' heaven. (The system is also available in both the children's and teen centers.) We loved watching the wired-up kids dancing around in front of the screen, throwing punches (at nothing!), which resulted in grunts, smacking sounds and splats during the boxing match, broadcast in 20-ft. lifelike animation and narrated by a ringmaster. We're old enough so that it was like something out of a Sci-Fi movie to us.
And talk about movies! First run, barely released movies were shown daily, either in-cabin on one of the TV's movie channels, or, again, on the large-screen in the atrium. We were not only impressed, we got to see three flicks that we had missed in the theatre and that were not yet out on DVD.
Other ships might have ice-skating and surf parks, but Pearl has bowling; four family-friendly lanes flanking the funky Bliss Ultra Lounge -- which is filled with beds and pillows, loungers and divans, silky fabrics and low lighting, and which becomes a disco at night. (One young kid we met wanted to spend the night there. "Absolutely not," intoned his mom, again and again.) Bowling costs $5 per person per game, which includes shoe rental, but remember to take socks with you or you'll be denied.
There are, of course, the usual ship-board entertainment options, with production shows in the Stardust Lounge, improv comedy by Chicago's Second City troupe, pianists and singers scattered throughout the ship, audience-participation games put on by the cruise director's staff and some adult-only late-night comedy, magic and game shows. Theres a large and lively casino, typical pool games, daily bingo, trivia contests and art auctions.
But then there are the extras that make this cruise special: the murder mystery dinner (only 60 guests are allowed to participate; sign up is on boarding day, but if you're not early enough, you'll end up on a lengthy waiting list), the Ship 'n Males Revue (a take off on Chippendales), wherein crew and members of the cruise director's staff shimmy, shake, and strip down to their briefs to the delight of the ladies waiting for their chance to stuff said briefs with dollar bills, and the individual performers and performances throughout the ship, all at no additional charge.
Weve always thought that NCL has an uncanny knack for choosing stellar performers; those appearing on Pearl were certainly no exception. Standouts, to us, were the calypso band that played on the pool deck every day, the talented master of the steel drums who provided soul-soothing sounds at the Great Outdoors every evening, and the trio who played dance music of the 1940's through the 1950's in the atrium, delighting the pre-boomer crowd who took the opportunity to dance, dance and dance.
Theres a guest talent show, and our absolute favorite, the crew show, showcasing the talents of the multi-national service staff onboard. When the people who spend their days and nights serving us step into the role of entertainer (and some of them are very talented), or offer a glimpse into their personal lives and culture, they become more than our room steward or favorite bartender. With over 60 nationalities represented on Pearl, they show us what the world can be and should be -- harmonious.
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