Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Norwegian Experience - Part III (Summary Review)

This is my final post about our week-long Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Pearl. It's time to summarize my overall impressions of the ship, itinerary, and Norwegian Cruise Line as a whole.

Food & Beverage
From Day 1, I found the food in all of the no-fee restaurants (Summer Palace, Indigo, Garden Cafe, Blue Lagoon) to be overly salty, sometimes to the point of being inedible. It didn't matter what type or style of food I tried, even the steaks were salty! I was disappointed that virtually no green vegetables were served with the Summer Palace entrees and thus I generally preferred to eat at the buffet where there were more healthy options. However the buffet food was not always very hot so then I worried about safety! I did enjoy the daily regional specialties offered in the main restaurant like gumbo and Jamaican jerk pork chops, and the buffet featured plenty of international dishes (Indian, Chinese, Italian, etc.) as well. The 24-hour Blue Lagoon cafe had a fun (and tasty) menu featuring bar food like hot wings, hamburgers & hot dogs, sandwiches, chips with artichoke dip and more. However, in comparison to the 5-star quality of food on our recent Holland America cruise (which included lobster tail, jumbo shrimp, foie gras, osso buco, gourmet cheeses, and so much more), the food on this ship was 3-star at best.
two thumbs up for hot wings in the Blue Lagoon
The overall dining experience was hit or miss. I like the concept of anytime dining but we learned that if we didn't want to wait for a table for two, we had to be seated before 6pm (you can only make reservations for the specialty restaurants). Some servers were very good – attentive, friendly and professional. Others seemed to be less experienced or enthusiastic about their job. One particular complaint I have is that, in the Summer Palace, cleared food & dirty dishes were left out (in full view of diners) on trays near the waiter stations. On one occasion I felt like I was eating next to a trash bin! Also, when dining at the buffet restaurants, we would put our cloth napkins on our seats when we went to get more food or drink but often the table would be completely cleared when we came back, so we learned that only one of us should go and the other should stay at the table.
Blue Lagoon menu
The specialty restaurants cost $10-25 per person. When you're already paying at least $80 per person per day to be on the ship, it's hard to justify that extra expense. You also have to pay for espresso, cappuccino and other coffee drinks, even in the main dining room (these are included with dinner on HAL). Alcohol prices were reasonable but still more than we wanted to pay. Only prices for wines were listed so you have to ask how much for anything else. There was a margarita special ($4.95) every day from 5-9pm but it was only offered in one bar. The drink of the day, available in all bars, was priced from $7.95 and up. Draft beers cost $5+ or you could get a bucket of six bottles for $25. There is a $15 corkage fee if you bring your own wine onboard (anything else will be confiscated until the end of the cruise).
a quiet afternoon at the Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar
The Pearl offered many options for entertainment in multiple venues throughout the day (movies, live music, etc.). Show times in the Stardust Theater were typically at 7:30 & 9:30pm. I appreciated the diversity of talented entertainment – on our cruise the guest performers included a comedian (Sam Fedele), a Frank Valli & the Four Seasons tribute group (Oh What A Night), Second City improv, and a circus-style act (Sharkbait). In addition, the ship's staff performers did two shows, one of which was a fun Broadway revue.
photography wasn't allowed for the main theater performances, except for the crew talent show
On Board Activities
It was hard to run out of things to do on such a large ship! For sports fans, there were NFL & college football games available on the in-room TV's and on the giant screen in the atrium, where you could also play Wii games at designated times. If you wanted to work up a sweat, the gym had all the basic equipment or you could sign up for yoga, spinning and more (usually for an extra charge). There were also daily sports competitions on the outdoor sports court or you could bowl a few frames (for a fee). For a more relaxing experience, the spa offered the usual fee-based services or you could swim or hang out in one of the hot tubs. If you wanted to have fun without sweating, you could attend the towel animal or napkin folding classes, learn how to juggle, do arts & crafts projects, and more.
napkin folding class in the atrium
There were also lots of gaming options for those interested in trying their luck in one way or another. The casino offered all the usual table games and plenty of slot machines as well as poker and other tournaments. There were daily Bingo games in the Spinnaker Lounge. And, for the more socially-inclined, there were couples game shows, karaoke competitions, and more.
bowling, anyone?
If you like to shop there were also plenty of choices. From clothing to souvenirs and jewelry to fine art, you could spend hours browsing the selection in the onboard shops & galleries. My biggest complaint in the activity category (which I also mentioned in yesterday's post) is that if you did NOT want to do anything other than read & relax, there were virtually no quiet spaces other than your stateroom. And since when do cruise lines charge a fee ($55 per person) for a ship tour?!?!
Q&A with ship's officers in Spinnaker Lounge
Ports of Call
Although I covered our port activities in detail in yesterday's post, I did want to mention that I thought this was a well-balanced itinerary for a Caribbean cruise. There were not too many days at sea (only two out of seven) and we visited a nice variety of destinations which offered diverse shore excursions and other activities. The port calls were long enough (average eight hours) to have time to get off the ship and explore, and we docked at piers which offered easy access to the key sights either on foot or via public transportation (which is nice for independent travelers or for those on a tight budget).
walking from the International Pier to downtown San Miguel, Cozumel
Dress Code
One of the perks of cruising with Norwegian is that there are no formal nights so you can wear whatever you want 99% of the time. For those people that do enjoy dressing up, you are always welcome to do so and there were one or two designated nights for portraits and other formal activities. Even in the Summer Palace, which has a posted dress code of smart casual attire (collared shirts, long pants and closed-toe shoes for men), the hostess always said Greg was fine in a t-shirt, convertible travel pants & Tevas.
a photo of a professional photo of us taken in the Summer Palace restaurant
While the dining staff in the more casual restaurants typically personified “happy, happy, washy, washy” (referring to them spraying our hands with sanitizer before we could enter the restaurant), we did not always encounter cheerful, smiling crew members. Initially our cabin attendant did not greet us and he never introduced himself by name; as the week passed he was more likely to smile & say hi. There were some minor oversights in our stateroom – we had to ask for the shower gel dispenser to be refilled and our towels were changed even if we left them hanging (a placard in the bathroom says to conserve water and to put towels on the floor if you want them changed). In other areas of the ship, the crew were generally friendly and helpful but no one ever went out of their way to make sure we were having a great experience.
crew farewell on Day 7
The Norwegian Experience Overall
In conclusion, there are a few reasons I didn't LOVE this cruise. First, my standards have been set pretty high by both Celebrity (Alaska – August, 2008) and Holland America (Transatlantic – November, 2011). In addition, I have cruised on smaller luxury ships like Windstar's Wind Spirit (Mediterranean – September, 2002) and Uniworld's River Duchess (Danube – December, 2003) which offer a much more intimate experience. I actually don't mind the bigger ships and appreciate the diversity of activities, food and more. But I have been spoiled by the 5-star amenities & experiences on my previous cruises and Norwegian is closer to a 3.5 to 4-star line.
this gives you an idea of some of the activities & entertainment offered during our cruise
This cruise had the most diverse guests of any I've been on so far. Many nationalities were represented although the large majority of passengers were American or Canadian. There were infants to seniors but I would guess the average age was about 40. As a result, there was much more of a party atmosphere and most people seemed to be drinking all day long. Of course, the crew encouraged this, with lots of dance music blasting throughout the ship and late night bar specials & parties starting at 10:30pm or later.
guests of all varieties by the Tahitian Pool
If I evaluate this cruise purely from the perspective of someone going on a week-long vacation, I'm sure I would have had a different experience. As it was, Greg & I were both tired from three months of traveling and neither of us were 100% healthy due to a stomach virus. While we were willing to spend the money for the cruise itself, we did not want to pay a premium for alcohol, specialty restaurants and extra-charge activities or shore excursions since we had already spent thousands of dollars on the first part of our honeymoon. Plus we weren't in the mood to stay up late to dance & party with everyone else. All of these things are a key part of the Caribbean cruise experience for most people and since we did not participate it is probably not fair to judge Norwegian in that respect.
they're teasing us!
As a whole I did enjoy the cruise but in the future I will probably book one of the top-rated lines even though they do cost a little more. I still want to try Royal Caribbean and Princess for the sake of comparison as they are generally rated higher than Norwegian and are considered comparable to Celebrity and Holland America. The luxury lines, like Crystal, Seabourn and Silverseas, are mostly out of my price range plus I'm worried that the affluence of the other guests might be a bit intimidating. But I would love to try one of them if I ever have the opportunity!
the Norwegian Pearl (right) docked next to a Royal Caribbean ship in Cozumel
For anyone that is thinking about cruising for the first time, I recommend that you do some research on Cruise Critic, TripAdvisor and TravelTruth. And don't hesitate to contact your favorite travel agent, particularly one that specializes in cruises. Happy Sailing from someone who was born during the week that the #1 Billboard song was Rock the Boat by Hues Corporation!

The link to my Norwegian Pearl cruise photos is embedded in this post's title.
Windstar's 148-passenger Wind Spirit as seen from Bodrum, Turkey

Uniworld's 134-passenger River Duchess docked in Durnstein, Austria

Celebrity's 1,950-passenger Millenium anchored in Icy Strait Point, Alaska
Holland America Line's 1,404-passenger ms Rotterdam docked in Tangier, Morocco
Norwegian Cruise Line's 2,394-passenger Norwegian Pearl docked in Ocho Rios, Jamaica



  1. I also like the Free Style casual dining. But why did Greg choose to ignore the "smart casual" code.
    Did you not pack the proper attire? Improper attire detracts from the overall experience in the dining rooms.

  2. Neither of us had anything close to formal attire. We had been backpacking in Europe for 3+ months and had to carry clothes for cold weather. We were fine with not eating in the more formal restaurant at night and asked the staff in advance what they would consider as acceptable attire. They told us not to worry when we showed them our travel pants & shirts (which were always clean & conservative) but we still wore the nicest-looking things we had with us. Unfortunately I saw plenty of people in what I considered unacceptable attire - e.g. sweatpants...