First-time Freestyle on NCL's Pearl

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Have you ever tried something you weren't sure you'd like at first, and then been blown away by it? That's what happened to my wife and me on our first Norwegian Cruise Line voyage, on the brand new Norwegian Pearl. We are loyal Royal Caribbean cruisers, but wanted to try something different. This cruise offered many firsts for us: Our first time on NCL, on a brand new ship, on a new itinerary (nine-night Southern Caribbean out of Miami), and our first "Freestyle" cruise.

Boarding Inside the terminal we saw colorful signs with sayings like: "If you've already removed your watch in anticipation of Freestyle Cruising, we'll be happy to tell you what time it is." So we knew we were in for a unique experience. Check-in and boarding were quick and efficient; they boarded according to past guest level, with the highest level boarding first. Even though we were new to NCL, we were still on board at noon.

First Impressions The ship's exterior paint scheme is striking, with its huge string of multi-colored pearls. The ship has nice lines, with a sloping bow up to the prominent bridge and the dark blue NCL funnel. Once on board, we were greeted by white-gloved stewards who invited us to go directly to our stateroom. That was an unexpected surprise, since we usually have to wait an hour or more before the room is ready.

While exploring the ship and taking in its beautiful colors and rich woods along the stairways, we located the Crystal Atrium and made dining reservations. Every staff member we encountered was friendly and offered to help us. The colorful painted artwork on white steel continues on the Promenade Deck, with brightly colored flowers and trees. Equally beautiful were the birds of paradise painted around the Tahitian Pool Deck. Speaking of the pool deck, the blues and greens of the Caribbean were used extensively in the tile, which seems to make the pools come to life.

Inside, the ship takes on a different richness and beauty. Being accustomed more subtle colors and deeper tones, I thought Pearl's brighter colors might be too much. As I saw more, though, I was impressed with just how well the brilliant colors of the Caribbean balanced with the rich tones of the cherry wood. Innovative features and furnishings surprised us in every part of the ship. The layout of the public decks made it easy to learn your way around. Dining options were astounding for any vacation, let alone a cruise. And the entertainment was top notch.

Public Areas The Pearl's Crystal Atrium, while only two decks high, still packs a stunning appeal. Its eye-catching blue and purple hued crystal ceiling fixtures, blue glass art sculpture, bright carpets, soft chairs, and two-deck-high LED television add to the beauty of this room. The layout works well and is very inviting for group meetings, watching a ball game, or just sitting to relax. Guest Relations, which anchors the wall opposite from the TV, always had plenty of friendly staff to solve any guest's problem. The atrium is conveniently located mid-ship and serves as a perfect meeting place before dinner or disembarking for a shore excursion.

The 1,042-seat Stardust Theater had rich velvet seats, beautiful colors, a stunning curtain and great sight lines. The only negative is post-show exiting. The aisles seem to create bottlenecks, partly due to the steep angle of the steps. One annoying design flaw: no glass holders in the armrests, so I observed many spilled drinks set on the floor.

The Pearl Club Casino seemed quite large, with a typical gaming assortment and layout. While we didn't make any donations, it was a very inviting place and easy to navigate through.

Pool Area NCL Pearl combines two pools into one area on Deck 12. The family-oriented pool is next to the slide, inviting families to use it (grown-up kids liked it too). The adults-only pool is behind the covered bandstand, so you can enjoy live music or entertainment while lounging in the pool. The waterfall at the forward end of this pool softens the sounds and adds to the allure of the pool. I think the two pairs of hot tubs, at separate ends of the pool deck, is a good design as well. We never found all four occupied at once.

I liked the Pearl's deck chair variety and layout. The large two-person wicker recliners, the group sofa, the padded chaises, and plenty of upright chairs and tables provided a surprising variety. If we didn't find an open deck chair right next to the pool, we always found available chairs on Deck 13, surrounding the pool. If that area was not what we wanted, the Pearl had more deck chairs one deck up and forward on Deck 14. This was a huge area, split fore and aft of the forward mast for sunbathing. A nice touch was the giant sized shower for a quick cool-down.

The mid-ship/aft jogging track seemed cluttered since it shared space with recreation activities such as deck chess, shuffleboard, and the aft basketball/tennis court with its full netting. It offered great views toward the wake, but it was a bit distracting to run past these other activities.

Sports Deck The Pearl has a nice variety of sports activities. In addition to those mentioned, it has a rock climbing wall aft near the funnel. Just aft of this are tiered wooden benches for watching basketball games or tennis. The full netting partially obstructs the view aft. I missed not having a miniature golf course on board. As you walk around this deck, you begin to realize why: They had to make room for NCL's signature villas and suites that occupy mid-ship space on the top decks.

Fitness Area and Spa The equipment is Precor aerobic and weight machines plus free weights, like you'd find in your hometown fitness club. But the room is a bit disappointing: Instead of a forward wrap-around; this room is forward portside, offering only a side view. The aerobics studio is a semi-private room, so it chops up the feel of the fitness area. As for the spa facilities, we didn't use them but they were laid out quite nicely.

Stairways and Corridors With three stairways (forward, mid, and aft), it's easy to get around on the Pearl. Stairway art -- large photos depicting jungle animals and natural scenes -- was beautiful. I loved the wood handles instead of chrome. Someone came up with a great idea of using tropical fish in a brightly colored Caribbean-theme carpet to guide your direction in stateroom corridors. The fish swim toward the front of the ship, so you always know which way you're headed by looking at the carpet.

One cool feature unique to the Pearl is the Bridge Viewing Room, with a large window that provides a great view into the bridge. Digital display screens along with continuous DVD showing the building of the Pearl were nice touches.

Bars and Lounges Norwegian Pearl has 11 bars and lounges, so there's something for everyone. We liked the innovative furniture in the Bliss Ultra Lounge and Night Club. It has several lounge "beds" with plasma monitors on the ceiling, separated so two to four people can enjoy a drink in a relaxing way. On either side of the lounge are two-lane bowling alleys with neon-colored balls, a first on any ship. It was never crowded and looked like a lot of fun. The ship also has a Bar Central complex - where martini bar meets champagne bar, and wine bar meets malt beer and whiskey bar.

We enjoyed the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 13 forward. It afforded great views over the bow during the day, and hosted entertainment such as Karaoke and dance parties in the evening. One cool feature here is the four-person plush lounge recliners shaped like a lazy W. This is a great spot to unwind after seeing the show in the Stardust Theatre.

Entertainment NCL contracts with the Jean Ann Ryan Company, which produces some top-notch entertainment. The shows included a showgirl dance revue, a Geisha dance story featuring flying circus acrobatics, and a modern dance show combining BMX bike stunts with urban dance numbers. The company's singers were some of the strongest we've ever heard, the dancers were well balanced, and the aerial acrobatics were amazing. Other entertainers on board were very good.

Cruise Director Matt Baker did a great job coordinating all the activities and was himself a funny performer who plays a mean harmonica. He brought high energy and humor with his dance steps and expressions, and connects well with guests throughout the day.

Cabins Pearl's cabins are slightly small, and while they have plenty of storage space, the layout isn't always practical. For example, instead of a vanity with mirror cabinets, the Pearl's cabins have a small corner desk with storage shelves tucked next to the closet and out of sight. I do like the cabins' Caribbean-blue corridor door with faux louver designs. They remind me of cabana doors on a Caribbean island.

The innovative room sign with message wheel is a clever design with four messages: Welcome / Make Up Cabin / Turn Down Cabin / Do Not Disturb. The rich cherry woods in the cabin balanced with bright tropical colors, giving the room a warm inviting feel. Lighting is good and the Pearl has an added light inside the closet in balcony cabins. The beds are comfortable and the linens soft and cozy.

The balcony cabins are quiet and private, with sliding glass doors. There were two disappointing items: No interactive TV and no Wi-Fi in the cabins, so you can't, for instance, check your account balance from your cabin TV. We like to sit on the bed or out on the balcony and use wireless Internet for e-mails. On the Pearl, one has to use an Ethernet cable at a cozy corner table. It's not that you can't access the Internet; it's just not as convenient as wireless.

One surprising bonus in all cabins is a four-cup coffee maker. We usually bring our own beans and grinder when traveling, so having this was a really nice feature.

Bathrooms NCL Pearl gets a big nod for superior design here. Bathrooms are relatively large, and a great feature in the balcony cabins is the toilet area, made semi-private by a sliding glass door with frosted accent stripes. The bathrooms also have a liquid hand soap dispenser at the sink, and a shower gel/shampoo dispenser in the shower. The sink is huge with as well. NCL uses cherry colored paneling in the bathrooms instead of white paneling, giving them a rich look and feel.

Food and Dining This was our first time with Freestyle Dining. It was a nice change to have so many great choices of food and dining styles. "Freestyle" means we could choose the time and place to eat each evening, whether we made reservations or decided just before dinner. While there are no specific dining times, the busiest period is between 6-8 p.m. Most restaurants have extended dining times, many as late as 11 p.m.! So even if you don't want to decide on the first day where you'll be eating for the rest of the cruise, you can always get a table.

Assisting in this process is NCL's innovative Freestyle Dining information system. It allows you to make reservations for all restaurants from one location, for the entire cruise or just a specific night. In addition, plasma TV screens in high-traffic areas and outside each restaurant show the status of all restaurants. If a restaurant is full, the screens also show an estimated wait time for specific table sizes. If the restaurant you want is full and you'd like to wait for an opening, you're quoted a wait time and issued a pager that works all over the ship. We never had to do this, as there was never much of a wait on the nights we didn't make reservations. I was impressed that the system worked so well.

Restaurant choices include a traditional dining room, a multi-station buffet restaurant with outside area, casual Italian style, Tex-Mex cuisine, a fabulous French restaurant, an incredible steakhouse, a 24-hour cafe, and poolside grill. Most carried no additional charge; others had a cover charge of $10-$20, but were well worth it. Some standouts were the beef and lobster dishes in Cagney's Steakhouse, the Chateaubriand for two in Le Bistro, and the Teppanyaki-style restaurant where the chefs are also the entertainment. If you like sushi or Mongolian hot pots where you simmer your own soup at the table, you'll love Lotus Garden.

If you love ice cream and self-serve espresso, then you'll love this: The Pearl has hand-dipped ice cream available in the Garden Cafe for no charge. This was always a popular spot for afternoon snacks, offering multiple flavors. The Pearl doesn't have a latte bar, though you can order one at a variety of restaurants, but without flavorings. It does have a pair of complimentary espresso machines in the Garden Cafe back near the Great Outdoors. I used these every day to prepare lattes to go.

Officers and Staff On most cruises, we've rarely seen the captain, hotel director or other senior officers talking with passengers. On the Pearl, it was common to see the captain jogging with his wife (who travels with him), dining in one of the restaurants, or talking with passengers. The hotel director, assistant hotel director and executive chef routinely chatted with guests and surveyed the activities on deck. I found the staff on this ship all very happy to be on board, expressing genuine interest in the passengers' well being. It was definitely a step above most other cruises we've been on. Cabin stewards were efficient and seldom seen, and dining staff were eager to meet your needs.

Suites and Villas NCL Pearl continues the Jewel-class accommodations of jaw-dropping Garden and Courtyard Villas, Deluxe Owner's Suites, luxurious Penthouse and Romance Suites, and Mini-Suites. What sets these apart are the private courtyards, complete with swim-against-the current lap pool, hot tub, men's and women's steam rooms and a small fitness area. The 10 villas also share a private sundeck with sun beds and hammocks. Positioned high atop the vessel, the villas have sweeping views of the sea. High above everything else are two Deluxe Owner's Suites with commanding views of the ship and surrounding ocean, automatic espresso machines and huge balconies with more outdoor lounge furniture than most houses have. The Penthouse Suites have unique bathroom windows next to the Jacuzzi tub and separate shower.

Disembarkation NCL gets the nod for the most relaxed disembarkation, since passengers don't have to vacate cabins by a certain time. We were able to sleep in and eat a leisurely breakfast before leaving the ship. This is something to look forward to on that dreaded day in every cruise fanatic's life: getting off the ship.

In sum, this is a fabulous ship, with great food choices and entertainment, wonderful staff and incredible accommodations. The NCL experience is a refreshing change from the traditional cruise. While I'm still loyal to Royal Caribbean, the Norwegian Pearl and her sister ships have got me hooked for many cruises to come.

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