Cruising Alaska on the Norwegian Pearl...
Updated: Jul 18, 2018
Where do I even begin? There is NOTHING like a trip to Alaska and our cruise on the Norwegian Pearl was wonderful from start to finish...We already have a trip booked to go back next year on their newest ship, the NCL Bliss!
So you're looking to take an Alaskan cruise? Wonderful....you won't regret it for a minute, BUT now you are faced with the task of deciding which cruise line you want to go on and most importantly, what is your budget, because that will be a big factor in which cruise line and/or ship you will choose. When it comes to Alaska, there are plenty of options available to you so this is the time you need to really figure out what you are looking for in an Alaskan cruise.
Are you traveling with young kids and extended family? Is this a multi-generational trip?
Is this a romantic getaway for two?
Are you looking for a fun, family oriented atmosphere?
Do you like to have many different options to choose from when it comes to dining and bars?
Do you gamble?
Would you prefer a larger ship or a smaller, more intimate ship?
How important is the nightlife on the ship to you? Are you an in bed by 9 pm kind of person or are you a dinner, show and then dancing kind of couple?
When we first started looking at cruise to Alaska our budget was a big factor. We live in Florida and for us, we have the luxury of being able to take cruises to the Caribbean without having to worry about the additional cost of flying to the Port of Departure, but with an Alaskan cruise, we knew that would involve 3 round trip, cross county airfares, so that can easily add another $1500 to the cost of the trip. We were fortunate that we had enough Delta SkyMiles to cover all three of our coach round-trip airfares, so that helped to put the cruise a little more within our budget from the get-go.
Carnival is the lowest cost option and if you have young kids, it is an option, but personally, I would wait until they were at least 10 years or older to go on an Alaskan cruise, UNLESS they are of the personality and maturity level that they would truly appreciate it, appreciate the natural beauty and realize they are going someplace that most adults never see in their lifetime. When Sarah was young, we used to cruise on Carnival. The ports they sail from are convenient to our house (Port Canaveral or Miami) and Sarah had a blast at the kids venue, Camp Carnival. We would all have a great time with the movies on deck, the watersides, the putt-putt golf and the things typical of the "Fun-Ships", but I also knew that the ship that Carnival has stationed in Seattle for the 7 day Alaskan trip, the Carnival Legend, is an older ship (although refurbished in 2014) and had had a number of documented issues. However, if price is your main consideration, over everything else, Carnival would be your cheapest bet. Just remember, that with a lower price, some may say might come with a lower level of quality.
Royal Caribbean: I've never sailed on Royal Caribbean and I haven't known anyone who personally sailed with them and actually liked them (I've heard consistently horrible reviews about their food), so we didn't consider them on our first trip. Currently, there is a new ship as of 2016 in the Royal Caribbean fleet that is stationed in Seattle for Alaskan Cruises, the RCL Ovation of the Seas. I can't speak to the ship, as I have never been on it before, but it does get excellent reviews. It is one of the mega-ships, carrying almost 5000 passengers. Their prices are comparable with that of Carnival for a balcony cabin, but if you were going to choose between the two, based on price, I would look at the different amenities the ships have to offer and see what is best for you and your family.
We were able to eliminate the Disney Wonder right away. Yep, we are NOT Disney people (I can hear the gasps already!). Sorry, but I don't want to spend my vacation around 800 to 1000 other children on a boat that is non-stop Disney. We live in Central Florida and the last time we went to one of their theme parks was 2013 and it was crowded, too many kids running around and it was just Disney overload. There is no way my husband and I could handle having to listen to "It's a Small World" every time an overhead announcement was made Built in 1999, the Disney Wonder is the 2nd oldest ship in the fleet, although refurbished in 2016. There is no casino on board, which is an automatic deal breaker for us. Yes, this is a family trip, but at the same time, Jason and I like to have our own "grown-up" fun at night. And then there is the cost. Holy Crap...I realize that you pay for the "Disney Perfection" but Sweet Georgia Brown, you pay out the nose for it!!!
We decided on the Norwegian Pearl for our 2016 trip for a number of reasons. One, it was a mid-range priced cruise, it met all of our desires for a mix of family time and nightlife and at that point, the sailing date we chose allowed us to book a sale price where Sarah traveled for free (we just had to pay for taxes) and with Sarah a bit older now and no longer in the Camp Carnival age, we wanted to try something a bit different. We were THRILLED with our choice to try out NCL and we will be cruising with them again on our next cruise to Alaska in 2019 on the new Breakaway Plus Class ship, the Bliss.
Carnival: 2 adults, 1 child for a 7 Day Cruise, leaving from Seattle for a Balcony Cabin, BEGINS at $4505.20 on the June 11th, 2019 sailing.
Royal Caribbean: 2 adults, 1 child for a 7 Day Cruise, leaving from Seattle for a Balcony Cabin, BEGINS at $4818.20 on the June 11th, 2019 sailing.
Disney: 2 adults, 1 child for a 7 Day Cruise, leaving from Vancouver for a Balcony Cabin, BEGINS at $9433.79 on the June 10th, 2019 sailing.
Norwegian: 2 adults, 1 child for a 7 Day Cruise, leaving from Seattle for a Balcony Cabin, BEGINS at $5828.04 on the June 8th, 2019 sailing.
Yes, there are other cruise lines to choose from and just because I am not talking about them in detail doesn't mean that I don't like them, but rather they are geared more towards an older audience and not as family oriented. There are a lot of wonderful cruise lines to choose from, such as Holland America, Princess and Celebrity Cruise Lines that tend to cater to an older, kid free traveler. You just need to determine what is best for you. Some cruise lines have ships that leave from Seattle and Vancouver, some are just Vancouver. If you are going to be flying into Vancouver of course, you would all be required to have a US Passport, as opposed to a Seattle Based Cruise where a US Passport is not required, unless you are doing a land tour in Alaska that will cross by car or bus into Canada. You can get off the ship in Victoria, British Columbia without being required to have a passport, but I HIGHLY recommend you have a passport on hand in case of emergency in any instance of cruise travel. If you don't have a passport and are taking a cruise based out of Vancouver, you need to make sure you allow enough time to get a passport and they cost $145.
If I can make a strong recommendation, GET A BALCONY CABIN. For me, this is a no-brainer. You are going to Alaska and you want to see all the beauty that nature has to offer. While, yes, you can always go out on deck and watch the sights, there is nothing like sitting on your own balcony with a pair of binoculars, having a cup of hot cocoa while looking for wildlife and just taking it all in. Plus, if it is really cold, you can just pop right back into your room to warm up! So people say that you should book a cabin on the right (starboard) side of the ship and I agree, because you will be on the side of the boat that sees everything on the main land side first. Just remember when the ship turns around, you will be able to see everything you didn't see the first time. I just know we loved our starboard side cabin!
The NCL Pearl is targeted to a large cross section of travelers. On our cruise there there families, older retires, couples in their 30's, 40's and 50's and from many different cultures and ethnic groups, and that was reflected in the variety of foods offered on the buffet and that was wonderful. With the ship being a mix of all ages and races, it makes for such a fun trip, because you have the opportunity to meet some really wonderful people from all over the world that you may not otherwise have had the chance!
When we were on the NCL Pearl, we took advantage of the "Free At Sea" promotion that the line was running at the time and we were able to select 2 Free Promotions that they were offering on the sailing, one of which was the 3rd passenger traveled free. Another no Brainer there. We just had to pay taxes and port charges for Sarah, which was one of the reasons we chose the sailing that we did. It was an end of May Sailing and although Sarah had to miss the last 2 days of school, it really was no biggie and it saved us a LOT of money compared to us leaving just a week later. We also selected the Drink Package that gave my husband and I free adult beverages throughout the duration of the cruise. This included alcoholic beverages and sodas, but we had to purchase a soda package for Sarah which allowed her to have all you can drink soda, since those are NOT included in the price. So the prices that you see above for Norwegian include the taxes and service fees on the special promotions of the Drinks Packages and the Specialty Dining Plan (the current sailing does not offer the Free at Sea offer).
The Pearl really is a nice ship, although it did show some wear our our sailing, in early 2017, all cabins were completely "enhanced & refreshed"and upgraded designs and updates to public areas. These pictures are from when we were on board in May of 2016 and so things may look a little different now, buy you'll get the gist!
Our cruise schedule was as follows:
Sun: Seattle, Washington
Mon: At Sea
Tues: Juneau, Alaska
Wed: Skagway, Alaska
Thurs: Cruise Glacier Bay
Fri: Ketchikan, Alaska
Sat: Victoria, British Columbia
Sun: Seattle, Washington
We had made our own shore excursion arrangements prior to the cruise and chose to make the arrangements ourselves at a VERY nice savings. We are not fond of the cruise line arranged tours, as they usually cost more and you are herded like cattle....something I wrote about on my review of Caribbean cruise ports. My next blog entry will cover the activities we did while in port and Juneau was the one port that we really took the time to walk around after we came back from our Dog Sled and Musher Camp tour (which was really fun!!!)
After being dropped off back at the dock after our excursion, Jason Sarah and I headed into town. The weather was in the upper 50's, low 60's and was quite comfortable. At the cruise terminal where the ships are docked, they have shuttles that will take you right into town and drop you off at the base of the Mount Roberts Tramway (which you can buy tickets to ride up to the top for $12). From there we walked around town, did a little bit of shopping and headed over to the Red Dog Saloon so we could have a round of Duck Farts, a positively delicious shot of Baileys, Kahlua and Crown Royal... a drink created in Alaska. We were given the recommendation of Tracy's King Crab Shack as THE place to get King Crab in town and Sweet Baby Ray, it was DELICIOUS. You can read my review about the deliciousness that is Tracy's King Crab Shack here!
Red Dog Saloon
278 S. Franklin Street, Juneau
With the Freestyle Dining that NCL offers, you don't have to choose between just to dining times as often seen on other cruise lines where you can choose from early or late seating. With NCL, you can schedule your own dining time ahead of time or you can just show up at either one of the main dining rooms and wait for a table. You can book starting 120 days in advance and on this sailing I booked our dining room reservations in advance. You can also book your reservation for one of the shows that are put on in the theater.
We chose not to do the Specialty Dining Package, which allows you to have dinner at the specialty restaurant and honestly we were thrilled with the quality of the food available at the complimentary restaurants:
The Garden Cafe: Buffet serves up complimentary breakfast, lunch and dinner
Indigo: One of the Main Dining Rooms
O'Sheehan's: Irish pub classics in a casual atmosphere open 24 hours a day. Daily Specials, such as Prime Rib and all-you-can-eat Ribs
Lotus Garden: Asian Fusion dining venue featuring freshly prepared noodles, delicious wok fried dishes, authentic soups, and more
Summer Palace: Another Main Dining Room
The Specialty Dining options were as follows:
Cagney's Steakhouse: A traditional Steakhouse
La Cucina: Italian
Moderno: Brazilian Churrascaria Steakhouse
Le Bistro: Traditional French and Mediterranean
Teppanyaki: An authentic Japanese Hibachi table side cooking restaurant.
There are plenty of things to do on board to keep the entire family occupied. Just to name a few: Basketball, Volleyball and Tennis Courts; Bowling in a 2 lane bowling alley; a Rock Climbing Wall; Pearl Club Casino (where I won over $2500 on 2 straight flushes on 3 Card Poker); Heated Swimming Pool and Hot Tubs; Trivia Contests; Wii Sports on the Big Screen in the Main Lobby, where they also show popular movies at night!
The ship was extremely clean...there were ALWAYS people cleaning and as you walked into the main buffet areas, there were employees stationed at each doorway with sand sanitizer to help prevent the spread of germs. We did not encounter a single employee who wasn't the utmost professional and friendly. Cruise Line employees work SO hard at what they do and our room steward, although I can't remember his name right now, was always smiling, addressed us by name when he would see us in the halls or at our cabin and he more than earned his gratuity, including a little something extra left in the cabin for him.
Now about those cabins...
Norwegian is known to have some of the smaller size cabins among the major cruise lines. A balcony cabin on average has 210 Square feet of livable space. Granted you don't spend tons of time in the cabin, but the rooms aren't exactly the most comfortable for tall people (6 ft or above) and the bathrooms for sure aren't friendly to those who are taller than 6 ft or who are are carrying extra weight. The bathroom, where the toilet area is, was a tight squeeze for my husband who is 6 ft and about 210 at the time. As he said, "That bathroom is not conducive to larger people in the slightest. If I had to seriously go #2, I would head down to one of the public restrooms....now those were spacious and nice! Jason will kill me when he reads that I just told the world that he'd use the public bathrooms to do his business on a cruise....
So yes, the cabins are smaller...especially to anyone whose only previous cruise experience is Disney Cruise Line as they are known for having the largest average cabin size of the major lines. Then again you are paying almost twice as much! The beds are very comfortable though and we didn't hear any cabin noise from our next door neighbors. Sitting out on our balcony watching the beautiful Alaskan scenery slowly go by was something I will truly never forget.
One last thing I can't fail to mention...and you have to trust me on this one: Get yourself a pass to the Thermal Spa. It is WONDERFUL! They only sell a limited number of passes each cruise (I believe they are $199 advance purchase) and they get you access to the private steam rooms, the sauna, the 57 degree plunge pool, heated tile loungers, the private hot tubs and the Thalassotherapy pool. The saunas and steam rooms are separated by gender and the other areas are for everyone. After a long day of hiking or in the morning after a long night of drinking and dancing in the casino, it is the BEST way to refresh your body and de-stress and purge any left over yuckiness you may feel. It really is something on-board that you should really think about treating yourself to. I don't think I ever saw more than 5 people in there at a time.
Our next cruise will be on the Norwegian Bliss...their newest mega-ship that can hold almost 5,000 passengers. It just went into service this past May and the reviews have been outstanding, so we are looking forward to it. We are going with my mom, Connie, and stepdad, Larry, and are looking forward to another wonderful family vacation. I can't wait to share it with you...
Next up in The Joys of Travel, details on the excursions we did while in Alaska as well as more information about Glacier Bay!