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Western Caribbean
Jan. 4-11, 2009

by Mary & Vincent Finelli

In December 1966 the Norwegian M/S Sunward sailed into the newly constructed Miami Port. All 8,600 tons of her carried 558 passengers and her itinerary was biweekly round trips to the Bahamas. The Sunward was the first ship of the new Norwegian Caribbean Lines (NCL). Now, after 40 years the burgeoning cruise industry is graced with the N. Pearl, 93,000 tons and carrying 2,732 passengers this cruise, with an average age of 58 years: there were a lot of young people, both single and with families consisting of both youngsters and grandparentsa wonderful mix! NCL has a high ratio of crew members to passengers. On the N. Pearl there are 1,154 crew headed by the nicest gentleman sailor: Captain Lars Bengtsson.

The Pearl was launched in 2006 and has Emmy Award winning TV personality Rosie O'Donnell as her Godmother. On board there are 12 Restaurants, 11 Bars & Lounges, a 4 lane Bowling Alley, A Rock Climbing Wall, plus Basketball, Volley Ball, and Tennis courts. There are Courtyard Villas and two 4,390 sq. ft. Garden Villas. NCL has introduced “Freestyle Cruising” to the industry, which frees passengers from strict schedules to dining anytime, anywhere on the ship. Cruisers can be as formal or as informal as they like; make reservations in one of the specialty restaurants or just go to the buffet. Choices include the following: Cagney's Steakhouse, Le Bistro (French cuisine), Lotus Garden (Asian fare) & Sushi Bar, Teppanyaki (Japanese), La Cucina (Italian), etc. Dress up, dress down, it's whatever “your” lifestyle dictates!

The Hotel Director Dallas Easterly (yes, he was born in Dallas, Texas) is very knowledgeable and acquainted with all 13 decks in detail. He told us that the Pearl runs not only on fuel, but also on ricethese are the two most used commodities on board. By way of explanation, the crew is mostly Philippine and rice is their staple food. We should all eat more rice, because we noticed the polite manners and happy faces of all the crew around us.

Sunday, driving from our house in Boca Raton to Miami is painless because traffic is light. We arrived at the Port at 12:30pm, and after a wait for someone to push Vincent's wheelchair we were on by 1:00pm. We had lunch at the Indigo Restaurant and avoided the crowd at the Buffet, and were in our mini suite by 1:30pm. Rooms are not ready for passengers until 1:00pm, so unless you want to carry hand luggage around, try not to get to port too early. We had no need to check on our dinner seating arrangements, since they would change daily. Boat Drill was at 3:30pm, a bit too early for those flying in who hadn't had time to eat. Our muster station was in the Summer Palace Main Restaurant Deck 6 Aft. We saw this as a potential problem, since there is only one elevator to Deck 7 Promenade, where the life boats are located. After the drill there was a bottle neck, and a long wait for handicapped passengers. In case of a real emergency, it would be better to put the muster station for the handicapped directly on Deck 7 and thus avoid having to transfer them up one deck. We were told that four crew members were assigned to each wheelchair passenger and that we needn't worry.

As we boarded, we met our old friend Concierge Carlos Zarate, with whom we sailed around the Horn in S. America in 2002. What a warm welcome we got on our arrival! Carlos made our cruise terrific.

The latest NCL ships are decorated on the outside very colorfully. What was once referred to as the White Fleet is now unique among cruising ships, with their gaily painted hulls. The Norwegian Pearl has a string of colored pearls painted on both her sides going from stem to stern with a colorful banner. There are 13 Decks which all display the clean lines of Norse influence. The many open spaces are a welcome sight. The first three Decks are all for crew.

Deck 4 has the medical center and staterooms.

Deck 5 has staterooms and forward the Stardust Theater with a stylized peacock on the magnificent curtain. Very nice, each seat has a clear view of the stage.

Deck 6 forward has the Summer Palace Main Restaurant aft. This high ceiling, open, airy, room calls to mind the Malachite Room of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Malachite Green columns are only surpassed by the rows of crystal chandeliers and the walls filled with charming portraits of the last Tsarist family the Romanovs. Pictures of small children all in their white sailor dresses and suits are especially poignant considering their brutal end at the hands of the Communists. Another unique touch is the faux Faberge eggs on the balustrades.

On this deck is the Indigo Restaurant with its Asian influences. Midship there is a string of bars: Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar, Magnum's Champagne & Wine Bar with bubbling windows, Corona Cigar Club, and Shaker's Martini & Cocktail Bar. Next, towards aft is Le Bistro French ($15) specialty restaurant. Finally, there is the Pearl Casino and the next level of the Stardust Theater.

Deck 7 aft has the Bliss Ultra Lounge, Nightclub with its four lane Bowling Alley and an odd melange of sofas, canopied beds and seating. It does qualify as an “Ultra” lounge. Midship is the Crystal Atrium with its crystal stalagmites or icicles on the ceiling, and the blue and ice glass blown sculpture by Dale Chihuly—an interesting, intricate series of graceful tubes. Here are the Java Cafe, the Reception and Shore Excursion Desks, and a huge multimedia screen. Toward forward are the Lotus Garden Restaurant ($15), Teppanyaki Room (Japanese cuisine) ($25), the Sushi Bar ($15) which make up the Asian complex of specialty restaurants.

Toward the prow are the Trade Routes Boutiques with again the usual fare. It seems that most cruise lines have the same brands of goods available. Deck 7 forward is the balcony of the Stardust Theater. Here in the rear are wheelchair reserved seats.

Deck 8 forward and aft are staterooms. Midship are the Blue Lagoon (snack type foods such as soups, wings, fish and chips, etc., and desserts such as the chocolate brownie sundae) and also located here is Mambo's Latin Tapas Restaurant ($10).

Decks 9, 10, and 11 are all staterooms.

Deck 12 aft has the Great Outdoors Buffet, then the Garden Cafe` with buffet style dining, which opens for breakfast at 6:30 am (7:00 am on sea days), and La Cucina Italian Restaurant ($10), nice appetizer cart, soups (Pasta e Fagioli and Minestrone). Entrees were varied but NCL needs a real Italian Chef! With our Italian taste buds, we were a bit taken aback by the mountain of grated cheese on the lobster RavioliItalians usually don't put cheese on seafood, since it overpowers the delicacy of the dish. It is better to ask the diner before drowning the entree in cheese.

Midship are the Kid's Cafe, Video Arcade, Kid's Club, Topsider Bar & Grille, Tahitian Pool Hot Tubs, The Library (open only 2 hours daily) and forward is the S. Pacific Spa & Fitness Center. Deck 13 aft has the basketball/volleyball/tennis court, jogging/walking track and Cagney's Steak House ($20): this is excellent and well worth it. Forward is the Sky High Bar, the Chapel and the Spinnaker Lounge.

Decks 14 & 15 have the Rock Climbing Wall, and the The Courtyard Villas.

All in all, the ship is lovely, spacious and well set up. Her decorations are modest but tasteful.

Since we covered the various food venues in detail in our N. Jewel Review (2006) and NCL has made them homogeneous across its fleet, we want to discuss “Freestyle” cruising in general. Those of us who have cruised for many years see the various innovations as welcome. Where just a few years ago, passengers were summoned to the formal dining room by bells or carillons and if you were 15 to 20 minutes late you found that the dining room doors were closed. Now, you may opt for the same table every evening at the same time. But, if you find this boring, instead you may choose one of twelve or so venues anytime from 5:30pm to as late as 10:30pm.

You are offered formal settings, Japanese style dining, Casual Buffet, room service with simple soups, salads or sandwicheswhatever makes you happy. NCL has new controlled portion sizes, which is welcomed by us. No more wasting food and there is more always available for those who want it.

The menus offer several appetizers, some always available, like shrimp cocktail. There are salads of just fruit or the mixed green type or Caesar's salad always available. Soups are hot or cold and quite good; try the cold fruited ones like berry smoothies. Entrees range from Vegetarian, to fish, fowl, beef, lamb and veal. There are Asian, European, Latin and American offerings. This week on board one third of the passengers were non US citizens. Latitudes had several parties for NCL repeaters where the drinks were abundant and the hors d'oeuvres included caviar.

The food on board is good, ample and everywhere. Lots of fresh fruits, tropical and berries. The desserts were made from scratch and many featured fresh fruits. There were usually one or two hot from the oven like almond souffle or an apple bread pudding. Food can be an adventure on board the Pearl. Hotel Director Dallas has seen to every passengers needsservice is fast, excellent and pleasant.

Mini Suite #11654 is in the rear of the ship with an excellent view of the ship's wake and the sound of rushing water, when the balcony door is open. There were two chaise lounges and two chairs and two tables on the roomy balcony which has an automatic electric door opener.

When entering on the right is the large bath with a 4'X4' shower with fold up seat and safety rails all around. There is a tilt mirror and a sink with two shelves for toiletries. Next, there is a king size, high bed flanked by two night tables and reading lamps. Then, there is a desk with three drawers and a mini fridge.

When entering on the left is a double armoire and two sets of shelves and a private safe. There is another set of shelves with a TV, and a table with a coffee/tea set up. Next, there is a sofa, quite firm. The rug has the watermelon pink, lime green and blue colors of other NCL ships; and the Maple wood furnishings are lovely. There are two small pictures and one large, all similarly showing palm trees and beach settings.

Cruise Director Linda Minnikin is a ball of fire. The Jean Ann Ryan singers and dancers did production shows including The Show Girl Revue with the music of Sinatra, Beyonce and Timberlake. The singing seemed in need of a sound check. The dancers were terrific. There was also the comedy of Chicago's “Second City” improvisation comedy troupe. Bud Anderson had the audience rolling in the aisles with his “physical” comedy. It cannot be described, you must see it!

There are many events to occupy passengers, from musical groups like Trio Los Hernandez, whom we saw in the Crystal Atrium playing requests. They were exceptional at Elvis tunes and Latin sounds. Tzachev was also excellent at piano. There was also Bingo, Casino Games, Raffles, Trivia, Darts, Ping Pong, Shuffleboard, and Golf. NCL pulls out all the stops to give passengers a good time.

Day 1 Miami, FL Sail Away.
Day 2 At sea
Day 3 Roatan, Honduras Arrive 8:00am Depart 5:00pm
Day 4 Belize City, Belize Arrive 8:00am Depart 5:00pm
Day 5 Cozumel, Mexico Arrive 8:00am Depart 5:00pm
Day 6 At sea
Day 7 Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas Arrive 9:00am Depart 6:00pm
Day 8 Miami, FL Arrive 6:00am Debarkation

This was for us one of the best organized debarkation. Concierge Carlos Zarate gave us VIP tags for our luggage and wheelchair assistance off the ship through customs and out of the port. He made this one of the fastest and smoothest exits. Thanks Carlos for all your thoughtfulness.

The Freestyle Dining is a major difference between the NCL and other cruise lines. We do enjoy both Freestyle Dining, which allows more flexibility on when, where or with whom you'll dine, and the traditional style, which assigns a specified table and time in the main dining room. The first one gives more freedom in the choice of venues and dining time; the second has the advantage of knowing and being known by the wait staff, usually resulting in better and more consistent service.

We did enjoy this cruise and we are going to cruise on NCL ships again (we have already purchased a future cruise, yet to be determined); however, we would like to see some improvement of certain entrees in Specialty Restaurants, mainly the use of appropriate ingredients and recipes to meet the expectation of a gourmet's palate; i.e., Ossobuco served in La Cucina did not taste “Italian.” Happy Cruising!

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