A few observations and opinions from my recent NORWEGIAN PEARL Alaska cruise.
First the details -
Sailing Date: May 8, 2011
Route: 7-day Alaska (Vancouver, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Prince Rupert, Seattle)
Cabin: 8024 (outside sheltered balcony)
Photos: MobileMe Gallery
For those that prefer to cut right to the chase, this cruise was average at best. The ports were wonderful and we had excellent weather considering it was very early in the season. What was lacking was any degree of finesse or attention to detail on the part of NCL. My partner and I basically left the cruise feeling underwhelmed. It wasn't that anything was horrible, but nothing really stood out as being excellent either. Even the crew just seemed to be going through the motions. Forced smiles and very little attempt at establishing a rapport. This was a first as usually I'm able to engage many crew members in stimulating conversation. I always love hearing about where they are from, their families, and their experiences working onboard. The crew only seemed interested in providing the minimum standard and not much else (with the exception of my cabin steward who was excellent). My experience with NCL has been that they have great concepts, but often times they are lacking with the execution. NORWEGIAN PEARL was no exception. For now I will choose other cruise lines that seem to go the extra mile a bit more than NCL. When NCL introduces their new ships I'll return to see how they have evolved.
After an uneventful flight from Miami to Vancouver, and an enjoyable two night pre-cruise at the Westin Grand, embarkation day had arrived. We checked out of the hotel around noon and caught a cab for the short ride to Canada Place. There was only one ship in port, ours, and honestly I can't imagine the chaos if there were others. The entire embarkation experience receives an F. Not all of it is NCL's fault, but at the end of the day they are ultimately accountable for the overall experience. Entering Canada Place by cab was not pleasant. There was a long line up of cars and cabs waiting to drop off passengers. In fact we accumulated over $5 in taxi fare just sitting there. Mind you it only took about 5 minutes to get from the hotel to the pier so the sit cost more than the ride itself. When we finally got to the front of the line we realized the problem. The authorities at Canada Place have all the vehicles perform a two-point turn and back into an available opening to drop off luggage and passengers. How insane is that? Once dropped off we had no idea what awaited us. First there was a line up of passengers waiting to drop off their large pieces of luggage at a conveyor belt. That stretched the entire entrance of Canada Place (where are the porters??). Once you completed that task you waited in another long line to go through security. After that line you entered US Customs and waited in another long line to be cleared by US Customs. Once through that process is where the chaos really began. This was the general boarding area. There were a few long lines but you couldn't tell where they went or know which line to get in. There were also a lot of people sitting in a lounge area for appeared like no apparent reason. It was all very disorganized and chaotic. We finally figured out what line to get in and opted for the Latitudes line thinking it would be faster. Big mistake. The people in front of us went into the regular line and got through the process much quicker than we did. The problem with the Latitudes line was that the special assistance line was competing for the same check-in desks as the Latitudes line and there was no organization. So when a check-in desk opened, someone from Latitudes and someone from special assistance would step forward. It was really disorganized. We finally got to check-in, had the picture taken, etc. and proceeded to embark the ship. Once onboard our cruise cards had to be scanned, and that is when we discovered our pictures and names were reversed. My partners picture appeared when my card was swiped and vise versa with his card. So after a long discussion with the security staff member we were sent to the front desk. Of course there was a another line there but we finally got it straightened out. Overall a horrible first impression and I would estimate this entire process took almost two hours. My last cruise earlier in the year was on ALLURE OF THE SEAS, a ship at least twice as large as NORWEGIAN PEARL, and the entire check-in process from curbside to walking on the ship was less than 15 minutes. What a difference! Again not everything was the fault of NCL but without question this was one of the worse check-in processes I've ever experienced.
By this time it was after 2pm and the cabins were ready. Off we went to cabin 8024. The first thing we noticed when opening the door was a very strong smell of cigarette smoke. In fact the entire cabin smelled like a dirty ashtray. Being that neither of us smoke, we certainly didn't want to spend a week in a smoky cabin that smelled like an ashtray. I have to say in over 80 cruises I've never had an issue with my cabin reeking of smoke. This was a first. Back to the front desk we went and yet another line. Kudos to NCL for taking immediate action. They deep cleaned the cabin right away which pretty much alleviated the problem. Even the drapes were changed out. Obviously they have done this before. They even followed up with a phone call and sent a bottle of champagne for the inconvenience. Great service recovery by NCL on this one! I have to say after this experience I will pay more attention to the smoking policies of the various cruise lines. Honestly I never gave it much thought before because I never had an issue and I'm not overly sensitive to smoke. NCL allows smoking in all cabins and all balconies. It's a very generous smoking policy and I believe most cruise lines are more restrictive. This is probably another reason that other cruise lines are more suited for me personally. As a non-smoker I will go with a cruise line that caters more to non-smokers.
The cabin itself was fine once the smoke smell was extinguished. Our cabin steward Manny was excellent and unfortunately the only stand-out crew member we encountered on the entire ship. We had a "sheltered balcony" which meant it was enclosed inside the hull of the ship and had steel around the balcony rail (see the pictures link). This proved to be a perfect set up as it did a great job of blocking the unwanted wind and cold while we were out on the balcony. It was also very private. The beds were excellent and we enjoyed many great nights sleep. The TV was super small (smaller than my computer screen) but it did the job. There was tons of storage space and at least three outlets which were great for charging PED's. The bathroom setup was one of the best with a large shower that has a door instead of a curtain, and a toilet area that also has a sliding door. Unfortunately the shower water pressure was dismal so extra long showers were in order. The cabin location was great being close to the forward stairs and only one deck above all the lounges. It was always quiet too which encouraged afternoon naps after exploring the ports of call.
I'm not going to get into too much detail with the rest of the cruise as it went fine. We enjoyed all the ports although we didn't partake in any excursions. We had taken a Holland America cruise a few years ago to the same ports and did all the excursions then. It was nice just to explore on our own, and on our own schedule with no agenda. One thing I did notice with all the ports is how much more commercialized they have become. The same stores you find in the Caribbean you find in Alaska. After speaking with several of the shop and restaurant staff ashore, we learned that they pretty much follow the cruise ships. Many spend their winters working in the Caribbean then relocate to Alaska for the summer season. Interesting. A few of the ports even have seasonal housing which is where many of the shop staff live while working. From the sounds of it they have an amazing time. Most are young and just out of college or even in college. Overall it sounds like a great experience for them and I'm sure many lifelong memories are created.
Food and service were not really a strong point of this cruise. The buffet was always super crowded and this is likely because unlike most ships, seating is only on the starboard side of the ship. The port side is the kids area and the Italian speciality restaurant (which also provides seating overflow). I think in the Caribbean the buffet works fine as there is a large outdoor seating deck and extra food stations, but in Alaska it was a bit too cold to sit outside so the limited interior seating was extremely crowded. For this reason we tried to have lunch in the dining room, but we found service was so slow and inconsistent we eventually gave up on that idea. We are late risers so breakfast was not an issue. Lunch was our breakfast and lunch. I wish I could say that dinner was better, but in the main dining rooms we found the dinner service to be very slow on occasion, with sometimes indifferent service and mediocre food. Mind you no one is going to starve, but nothing really stood out as being excellent. We also dined in Cagney's, Le Bistro, Lotus Garden, and La Cucina. All were decent and service was a notch better than the free dining venues, but again neither the food or service was up to the level of specialty restaurants on competing cruise lines. We never left any of the venues feeling "wowed" by either the food or service. The best of the lot was Lotus Garden, as the spicy tuna roll was superb.
The entertainment was good, and I enjoyed the first production show but the second was pretty bad and we actually left early. It was a little painful listening to a couple of the singers and it was hard to believe these were the same singers from the first show. There was also a show that reminded me a little of the play Jersey Boys which I recently saw in London. It was a tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. I thought it was well done and entertaining. The Cruise Director's name was Julie funny enough (think Love Boat), and she was one of the most low-key CD's I've ever encountered. For me this was a great thing. I much prefer low-key over the usual pushy Las Vegas style CD's. As NCL is a mass-market line, there were plenty of revenue producing announcements and often times the atrium was a madhouse with tables set up selling crap (inch of gold, etc), photo sets for portraits, and Wii being played on the big screen (all at the same time). Certainly not a relaxing or quiet place for a drink if that is what you are looking for! One thing that was noticeable to me on ALLURE OF THE SEAS was that there were no revenue producing announcements and no art auctions. I'm bringing this up only because ALLURE was my last cruise prior to PEARL, so it's fresh in my mind. I truly wish NCL would concentrate less on trying to squeeze every last penny out of you and focus more on providing a higher level of food and service.
One really positive aspect of NORWEGIAN PEARL was the gym and spa. Both are first rate facilities and the spa is one of the most beautiful I've encountered on any ship. It enjoys a prime spot on the ship, all the way up top and forward with amazing views over the bow and sides. I signed up for the thermal suite area and enjoyed this facility every day. The sauna is located right above the bridge wings and has floor to ceiling wrap around windows. What a great facility and the staff were some of the friendliest on the ship. I also enjoyed a oxygen facial and it was excellent. I highly recommend the thermal suite and spa if you are sailing on the PEARL.
My apologies if this reads overly negative. I honestly did have a good time and really enjoyed Alaska, but I discovered there are just other cruise lines that are better suited for me. This is not to say I won't sail on NCL in the future. I will, when the new ships are introduced. For now though, I'm ready to take a little break from NCL and focus on lines that offer a little more finesse and attention to detail. If you have any questions please let me know.