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Cruise Ship Review

Norwegian Pearl - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

The Murder Mystery Dinner on the new, bright, nearly perfect Norwegian Pearl is just one of the many sea day activities available to its guests, activities which not only include the usual rituals of poolside lounging, bingo and art auctions, but also some truly innovative and unique options. On that day I could have gone bowling, boxed against a 20-foot opponent (thanks to NCL's new partnership with Nintendo, featuring its Wii system on most ships) on the Crystal Atrium's gigantic LED screen, attended both a Martini Tasting clinic and a Margarita Taster, watched an all-male exotic dance show featuring the ship's crew, and settled into a four-poster canopy bed next to the dance floor in the Marrakech-inspired Bliss Ultra Lounge.

The third in the series of Jewel-class vessels (Norwegian Jewel and Pride of Hawaii -- soon to be renamed Norwegian Jade -- preceded Pearl; Norwegian Gem will debut in fall of 2007), this ship, with its spaces, its flow, its dining and lounge options, has been tweaked to make it one of the most enjoyable large vessels around. The addition of four bowling lanes and the Bliss Ultra Lounge in the space where most NCL ships have their department-store-sized shopping venue is one change, and making the two-story atrium actually useable is another.

Norwegian Pearl is loaded with jewel-toned designs (mauve and teal, turquoise and magenta, purple and blue, all with the occasional splash of fuchsia and orange) and original art (a Dale Chihuly sculpture anchors the atrium, a small Van Gogh reproduction -- the original is being moved from the Dawn later this year -- hangs behind the reception desk), and filled with upscale seating around its two pools and on the upper sun decks (faux wicker chairs and padded chaises, some double loungers with pillows). In addition, it boasts 12 Freestyle restaurants, 11 bars and lounges, the new bowling alley, a five-level rock-climbing wall and a contemporary kid's club.

Is Norwegian Pearl perfect? No, but our quibbles are so minor they hardly matter. We hate the tacky plastic flowers that show up in places where there should be real ones or none at all. Somehow, the architects forgot to put a drink station on the pool deck, so to get tea, coffee, water or juice, one has to wander half way through the Garden Cafe in search of a no-surcharge beverage -- irritating, but barely. The myriad of activities, the bright colors, the usability and flow of the ship, the dining and entertainment options, the fabulous itineraries (five-night Western Caribbean, nine-night Southern Caribbean, Alaska in the summer) and especially the happy, friendly, helpful staff make this ship stand out as one of our all-time favorites.

Family

Oh my.

First of all, if we were traveling with children, we'd pick an NCL cruise over any other. Why? Freestyle dining means that the kids don't have to wait for a set dining time. That's one reason. And the Kid's Crew clubs are always terrific, but on Pearl there's an element that makes it even more special. The Aqua Kids Club is located on Deck 12 adjacent to the pool area, and in fact, the outside part extends onto the pool deck. It's surrounded by a glass wall, which means that mom and dad can actually see their kids playing when they are out there, bouncing on the colorful balls or interacting with other children in the same age group.

NCL's Splash Academy is currently divided into four age groups: Guppies (6 months to 3 years, with parent), Turtles (3 - 5), Seals (6 - 9) and Dolphins (10 - 12). The teen program, called Entourage, accommodates passengers 13 to 17.

Teens have their own space, Metro Center, a "New York subway-themed" club with computers, plasma TVs, cozy seating areas, and (of course) it's adjacent to the well-equipped video arcade.

NCL's agreement with Nintendo means that both centers now have Nintendo Wii's available for use.

The Garden Cafe has a special kid-sized buffet section, with kid-styled food (hot dogs, fries, chicken fingers) and the room service menu also has great kid's options, like a melt-in-your-mouth grilled cheese sandwich (Yes! We tried it!), and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Not limited to kids, of course, is the fabulous bright yellow corkscrew slide at the pool complex.

Late-night baby-sitting (between 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m.) costs $6 per hour ($4 per hour for each additional sibling in the family). There is no individual or in-room sitting.

Dining

It would be easy to provide a laundry list of the restaurants on Pearl, a Freestyle ship with loads of dining spots, but it wouldn't paint a complete picture. The options run the gamut from a chi-chi and clubby steakhouse to a 24-hour comfort food diner, from an elegant French-inspired bistro to a fabulous Teppanyaki bar. Of course there are standard dining rooms as well, a big one with windows on three sides at the aft called Summer Palace, and a smaller, more intimate one (Indigo) midship. But on Pearl, as on most of NCL's ships, it's all about the choices.

Some of the specialty restaurants have a surcharge, mostly between $10 and $20, and for the more popular ones (Teppanyaki, for example), reservations are requisite. Non-surcharge dining still offers plenty of choices, and we found our meal at the no-charge Italian restaurant, La Cucina, to be one of the best we had onboard.

In fact, I could have dined solely on the antipasto plate offered there, with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of thin slices of Parmesan Reggiano, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, thin slices of Parma ham and carpaccio, and rolls and breadsticks with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The meat dish (veal) was impressive too, but even better was the perfectly al dente side of linguini carbonara that I chose.

Equally enticing were the spicy rice noodles I had at Lotus Garden (surcharge: $10); the noodles were in a coconut milk broth and the dish reminded me of a Thai Tom Kha soup … spicy-sweet and coconut-y. My traveling pal had sea bass and a newly made friend, who joined us there for supper, had the Peking duck, both of which looked wonderful. The dessert pancakes were the perfect ending.

Other no-surcharge restaurants include Mambo's (Tex-Mex) at which I can heartily endorse the shrimp fajitas, which arrived sizzling and with the usual accompaniments of guacamole, cheese, salsa and sour cream. Another meal of note at Mambo's: Il Popo, a version of which -- Firestar -- used to be available in Le Bistro. It's an elaborate meal of meat and vegetables (mostly pepper and onion chunks) hung on an iron stand and flamed with tequila.

Laurel and I also dined at Cagney's Steak House (surcharge is $20 unless you get the Surf 'n Turf, in which case it's $25). I always get the New York strip, and I'm always happy with it; Laurel gave up her usual fish to try the veal chop, which she proclaimed the best she's had -- ever. And one big point of interest here: When you order the Surf 'n Turf, you don't get one of the rock lobster tails that are typically served on lobster night in the main dining rooms. You get half of a decent-sized crustacean, complete with claws and metal claw-crackers.

This ship has taken the typical Lido Deck "buffet" dining venue to new heights. Gone are the kiosks that are found on the other two Jewel-class ships (Jewel and Pride of Hawaii), and the smaller Pride of America, which look nice in principle, but are chaotic in practice. Pearl's designers brought back linear counters, but NCL doesn't want the Garden Cafe to be called a buffet or cafeteria; it's a restaurant with "action stations." Servers stand behind the counters, where small amounts of freshly-made meals are put out at one time and served. There are stations for salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, carved meats, soups and vegetarian dishes, Asian food, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts.

Two items of interest: For some reason NCL has decided to do away with trays. Plates are fairly small, though, so plan on returning to the lines once or twice. Also, for sanitary reasons (and to avoid the sticky, gross mess), there are no self-serve soft ice cream machines on Pearl; hard scooped ice cream, with toppings, is available much of the day, either in cones or in bowls.

Traditionalists can have dinner every night at the same time, in the same place; just let the maitre d' know in advance. Otherwise, the multitude of restaurants allows for some adventurous options. We're pleased that NCL has gone back to the reservation system that allows you to make plans one day in advance; for awhile, you had to book all of the alternate restaurants for the whole cruise as soon as you boarded, and what kind of Freestyle is that? Still, we've heard that if you don't call precisely at 8 a.m. for plans for the following night, you may not get the reservations you desire. We only made reservations once and had no problem just showing up at our restaurant of choice the other times, but we didn't choose to dine at peak periods (between 7 and 8 p.m., for example). We usually ate earlier or later. And speaking of earlier, the surcharge restaurants (with the exception of Teppanyaki and the refined "tasting menu" at Le Bistro) offer a two-for-one special from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. If you're concerned about springing for the $20 meal at Cagney's, this is your chance to try it for $10...

Breakfast and lunch are served via open-seating at one of the two traditional restaurants, but most take advantage of the Garden Cafe and aft deck Great Outdoors Cafe when the weather is good. There's also a Continental breakfast served in Bar City, with rolls, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The bars aren't open yet, and it's a quiet, pleasant place to have a morning munchie. Suite guests (penthouse and above) can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, with a special menu designed just for them, with items like crab cake and eggs Benedict for breakfast and blackened snapper sandwiches for lunch, served in the toney atmosphere of a private club. For those in regular cabins (from insides to mini-suites), room service choices are dreadfully slim, especially for breakfast. You can get rolls, toast or muffins, yogurt, a choice of three dry cereals, milk, coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and something called "orange juice cocktail." We ordered rolls one morning, and we got 'em ... no butter, no jam. Ugh. Happily, the rest of the menu, while horribly limited, does have a couple of standouts: The ramen noodles with green onions is fabulous, loaded with white-meat chicken, and perfect if you've got the sniffles or want something hot and homey. Ditto the grilled cheese sandwich from the kids' menu -- yum. Suite guests get a much more extensive room-service menu, with hot items like eggs and bacon for breakfast, and steak sandwiches or burgers for lunch, and can order meals from the restaurants during serving times.

There's a well-stocked grill out on the pool deck which serves roasted chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and dessert items during most of the day, and a limited breakfast in the mornings.

Public Rooms

One of the things that struck us during our cruise is how easy and comfortable the flow is on this ship. There aren't many instances of "you can't get there from here," which is, of course, wonderful. But another thing we really enjoyed is the usability of the Crystal Atrium. NCL chose to make this area two stories tall rather than create an atrium concept with towering empty space. So in this case the Crystal Atrium is comfy and cozy, but it's also still expansive and airy. Surrounded above by two restaurants with rail-side dining, the lower level is filled with chairs, loungers, divans and a cafe/bar, making it seem more like a hotel lobby than a big-ship atrium. And it's actually used, as a meeting space, lounging destination, dance hall, movie theatre, and action spot for those participating in the Nintendo Wii activity du jour. Original art includes the Chihuly sculpture and the small Van Gogh behind the Reception Desk.

NCL moved its typical aft-end shopping venue to the front of the ship, near the Stardust Lounge, and turned the aft space into the Bliss Ultra Lounge and bowling alley, with delightfully whimsical decor (canopied beds as loungers, prompting some to call it the Bliss Bordello). The deck (seven) that holds Bliss, the reception/atrium space, the artwork for the auctions, the Internet center, photo gallery and the Asian restaurants is completely non-smoking, so those who want to avoid the smell of cigarettes can safely traverse from one end to the other without encountering a single whiff.

Just below that deck, on Deck 6, is found Bar City, a unique concept that combines a whiskey and spirits bar, martini bar, wine and champagne bar, and beer pub in one elongated space which then flows into and through the casino (smoking is allowed on most of that deck, and there is an enclosed cigar-smoking room adjacent to Le Bistro).

Decor throughout is bright, tropical, fun. The furnishings in Spinnaker's Lounge look like they were designed by famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen after he watched a couple of episodes of the Jetsons. Teal crushed velvet double-loungers are surrounded by white high-impact plastic bucket chairs ... with holes where one expects a seat. And guess what? They are comfortable!

Forward of the pool are a couple of meeting rooms, the spa and exercise facility, a small chapel, a card room and an attractive library that is open, alas, too few hours to be truly effective for book and game checkout.

The Stardust Theatre comprises three decks with comfy seating and good site-lines from almost everywhere. Located adjacent to its entrance on Deck 7 is the newly redesigned Trade Routes Boutique complex, a series of shops broken into smaller venues featuring duty-free goods and costume jewelry in one, logo items in another, clothing and high-end jewelry in a third, and so on.

Cabins

Standard cabins are comfortable and well laid-out, and with adequate closets and drawer space for most families, they're cozy.

All have mini-fridges, flat-screen televisions, telephone, Internet connection, bathrooms with shower and twin beds that can be made up as queens. But, at an average size of 160 square ft. for the outsides and 145 for inside staterooms, they are among the industry's smallest -- especially for a newly built vessel -- and especially for a line aiming for families. Balcony cabins are 205 square ft., which includes the verandah. All but some inside cabins have a "split bathroom" configuration: glass-enclosed shower on one side, closeable toilet chamber on the other, sink in the middle. Balcony cabins also have a small sofa, many of which can be made into a third bunk.

Compared to some of the slab-like beds found elsewhere on NCL, the bedding has been upgraded on this ship, with thick, comfy Eurostyle mattresses. Instead of a bedspread, beds are made with white duvets and a small colorful "runner" placed across the foot.

Our absolute favorite attribute of any cabin on an NCL ship is the in-cabin coffee/tea makers thoughtfully provided to the guests, along with complementary coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cream.

Where Pearl really stands out is in its suites. The 134 mini-suites offer, at 284 square ft., a small amount of additional space and a larger balcony, have full bath tubs and the services of the concierge. Beyond those, though, guests who are booked into Romance Suites, Penthouse Suites, Courtyard Villas, Owners Suites or Garden Villas enter the stratosphere of cruisedom, with private restaurant privileges, butlers, individual espresso and cappuccino makers, preferred reservations for the alternate restaurants, VIP tender access, VIP boarding and disembarking, a DVD library and other perks and privileges that truly set them apart from the average guest on the same ship.

The Courtyard Villas share a private courtyard at the top of the ship, complete with a covered plunge pool and private hot tubs. Owners Suites, typically located beneath the bridge, face forward and, since they are at the corners of the bow, have private sundecks both at the front and along the side. The Garden Villas, smaller on this ship than on Dawn, Jewel or Star, where they come in at an astronomical 5,700 square ft., nonetheless still measure 4,390 square ft., have individual saunas, hot tubs, private sunbathing areas and three bedrooms, three baths, a powder room, living room, dining room, a grand piano, and exclusive elevator access to their quarters, shared only with the residents of the Courtyard Villas and two Deluxe Owner's Suites located at the very, very top of the ship.

Caveat: The Owners Suites and Penthouse Suites on Deck 10 have verandahs that are completely visible from the bridge above. Completely. Any indiscretion that takes place out there is subject to being viewed by a range of officers -- or any visitors to the bridge.

Some of the 24 Penthouse Suites, at up to 572 square ft., on Norwegian Pearl could also be called Family Suites since they have a small bunk-bedded room and bath that's perfect for kids.

Non-suite cabins (including mini-suites) have wall-mounted pumps for soap and shampoo, and while it's not ideal in terms of convenience, the rationale for their use is laudable: Just picture the amount of waste generated by 2,000+ plastic bottles each week, and imagine how much less waste is generated by the pumps. The product is actually quite nice … I am convinced that the shampoo/conditioner combo is a generic version of Herbal Essences.

Suite guests get large containers of upscale designer Frances Denney products, although almost everyone we spoke to who inhabited a suite preferred to go back to the more subtle scents of the L'Occitane en Provence products that had been used in the past.

Twenty-seven cabins, including suites, are fully wheel-chair accessible and ADA compliant.

Entertainment

Pearl’s entertainment options span all genres, all age groups, and just about every interest under the sun.

NCL has entered into a partnership with Nintendo to use its Wii interactive gaming system onboard its ships, and with the 20-ft. LED screen in the atrium area, it's a marriage made in gamers' heaven. (The system is also available in both the children's and teen centers.) We loved watching the wired-up kids dancing around in front of the screen, throwing punches (at nothing!), which resulted in grunts, smacking sounds and splats during the boxing match, broadcast in 20-ft. lifelike animation and narrated by a ringmaster. We're old enough so that it was like something out of a Sci-Fi movie to us.

And talk about movies! First run, barely released movies were shown daily, either in-cabin on one of the TV's movie channels, or, again, on the large-screen in the atrium. We were not only impressed, we got to see three flicks that we had missed in the theatre and that were not yet out on DVD.

Other ships might have ice-skating and surf parks, but Pearl has bowling; four family-friendly lanes flanking the funky Bliss Ultra Lounge -- which is filled with beds and pillows, loungers and divans, silky fabrics and low lighting, and which becomes a disco at night. (One young kid we met wanted to spend the night there. "Absolutely not," intoned his mom, again and again.) Bowling costs $5 per person per game, which includes shoe rental, but remember to take socks with you or you'll be denied.

There are, of course, the usual ship-board entertainment options, with production shows in the Stardust Lounge, improv comedy by Chicago's Second City troupe, pianists and singers scattered throughout the ship, audience-participation games put on by the cruise director's staff and some adult-only late-night comedy, magic and game shows. There’s a large and lively casino, typical pool games, daily bingo, trivia contests and art auctions.

But then there are the extras that make this cruise special: the murder mystery dinner (only 60 guests are allowed to participate; sign up is on boarding day, but if you're not early enough, you'll end up on a lengthy waiting list), the Ship 'n Males Revue (a take off on Chippendales), wherein crew and members of the cruise director's staff shimmy, shake, and strip down to their briefs to the delight of the ladies waiting for their chance to stuff said briefs with dollar bills, and the individual performers and performances throughout the ship, all at no additional charge.

We’ve always thought that NCL has an uncanny knack for choosing stellar performers; those appearing on Pearl were certainly no exception. Standouts, to us, were the calypso band that played on the pool deck every day, the talented master of the steel drums who provided soul-soothing sounds at the Great Outdoors every evening, and the trio who played dance music of the 1940's through the 1950's in the atrium, delighting the pre-boomer crowd who took the opportunity to dance, dance and dance.

There’s a guest talent show, and our absolute favorite, the crew show, showcasing the talents of the multi-national service staff onboard. When the people who spend their days and nights serving us step into the role of entertainer (and some of them are very talented), or offer a glimpse into their personal lives and culture, they become more than our room steward or favorite bartender. With over 60 nationalities represented on Pearl, they show us what the world can be and should be -- harmonious.

Fitness and Recreation

Pearl is the first of NCL's ships to install a rock climbing wall … and it's quite impressive. Located at the back of the stack (about 18 stories above the sea), it stands 30 feet tall and 19 feet wide and offers five different climbing routes with levels of difficulty depending on skill level. But that's not all this ship offers in terms of fitness and recreation, not by a long shot.

You might not get an aerobic workout by bowling, but you can do that too (and the oxygenation you'll experience from laughing is worth at least a couple of spinning classes …). There's also a volleyball/basketball court, mini-golf, two golf driving nets, Ping- Pong, two pools, a jogging track, a full-circuit promenade for walkers, a completely equipped fitness center with the newest of everything, and the full-service South Pacific Spa, which has a thermal suite along with the usual hands-on treatments.

In fact, the thermal suite is one of the best "day of pampering" values onboard, at $15 for a full day's use (less if you buy the package for the whole cruise). It allows the guest to take advantage of the co-ed room with the thalassotherapy pool and heated ceramic loungers, or go gender-specific with an oceanview sauna, eucalyptus steam, individual whirlpool tubs, icy-cold plunge pool and padded chaises. Unfortunately, the purchase of an expensive spa treatment does not confer entrance to this relaxing area before or after the service unless you pay the additional fee. We heard a great deal of grumbling about that. (There are small steam rooms, however, in the rest rooms adjacent to the fitness center, and there is no charge to use those.)

The spa offers the usual array of services and massages, and now includes teeth whitening sessions and acupuncture. Specials onshore days seemed quite reasonable (three mini-treatments for $89, for example), but we always, always go for the Frangipani, a yummy scalp-neck-shoulder massage at the best price -- around $29.

The Body Waves fitness center was open 24 hours during our cruise, but the hours may be cut back. Some of the more expensive suites are located below this area, and apparently, the noise from some of the machinery wreaked havoc on the suite guests' ability to sleep. It's a new gym, so all manner of state-of-the-art equipment is available, free for guests to use. There are classes for Pilates, yoga and spinning that carry a surcharge of $10.

One of the two pools has been designated as "adult only," and it seemed to be monitored. The family pool is just adjacent so you'd think it would be harder to enforce, but in fact it was just the opposite, and worked quite well.

Family

Oh my.

First of all, if we were traveling with toddlers, we'd pick an NCL cruise over any other. Why? Freestyle dining means that the kids don't have to wait for a set dining time. That's one reason. And the Kid's Crew clubs are always terrific, but on Pearl there's an element that makes it even more special. The Aqua Kids Club is located on Deck 12 adjacent to the pool area, and in fact, the outside part extends onto the pool deck. It's surrounded by a glass wall, which means that mom and dad can actually see their kids playing when they are out there, bouncing on the colorful balls or interacting with other children in the same age group.

Kids from age two are allowed in, and get this: They don't have to be potty trained! Parents are given a beeper and paged when a diaper needs changing. (It doesn't work ashore, so you can't leave the ship while your child is in the center.) The center itself features a little movie theatre, a computer center, an outdoor play area, an arts and crafts room, a nursery and sleep room.

Teens have their own space, Metro Center, a "New York subway-themed" club with computers, plasma TV's, cozy seating areas, and (of course) it's adjacent to the well-equipped video arcade.

NCL's new agreement with Nintendo means that both centers now have Nintendo Wii's available for use.

The Garden Cafe has a special kid-sized buffet section, with kid-styled food (hot dogs, fries, chicken fingers) and the room service menu also has great kid's options, like a melt-in-your-mouth grilled cheese sandwich (Yes! We tried it!), and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Not limited to kids, of course, is the fabulous bright yellow corkscrew slide at the pool complex.

Group babysitting is offered during the evenings and on port days for a nominal fee of $5 per hour for the first child, and an additional $3 per hour for each sibling; there is no individual or in-room sitting.

Fellow Passengers

There is something for everyone to enjoy on Norwegian Pearl, and as a result, ages are all over the board. It's designed for families, so of course there are plenty of kids; it has a super teen center so that age group is well-represented too. But the range of cabin types, dining and entertainment options have appeal for seniors, boomers, Gen X's and Y's, families, singles, honeymooners, grandparents and grandkids, and everything in between. We saw them all on our nine-night Southern Caribbean cruise over spring break; we understand that the five-night cruises just before and just after ours had many more college students and youngsters aboard.

Also, the euro and the British pound are very favorable against the dollar at this time, so there were many Europeans and Brits on our nine-night cruise. Many of them take the opportunity to do a back-to-back, incorporating both the five-night and the nine-night for a full two weeks of cruising heaven.

Dress Code

Freestyle cruising allows you to dress casually, all the time. There is one optional formal night in which one can dress up if one wishes, but in fact, you can do that on any night of the cruise. You can dress up or dress down, the only caveat being that after 5 p.m., no shorts, tank-tops or jeans are allowed in the dining venues other than the casual Garden Cafe and Blue Lagoon. As NCL's advertising advises, "Wear ... something."

Gratuity

NCL adds $10 per day per adult ($5 for children to age 12) to onboard accounts, which serves as a "service charge" and not a tip. Guests are encouraged to "tip" for exceptional service, but we're also assured that the service charge does go to the crew. Most guests tip their room stewards extra; suite guests also tip their butlers and the concierge -- who are not in the "service charge" pool -- and because of Freestyle dining, where you don't have the same waitstaff every night, many guests bring cash to tip their servers if they've done an excellent job. On Pearl, a 15 percent gratuity is also added to bar bills and spa services.

--by Cruise Critic contributor Jana Jones, who has also written for a variety of publications, including Vacation Agent, the U.K.'s Travel Holidays and Ocean Drive Magazine.

Dining

It would be easy to provide a laundry list of the restaurants on Pearl, a Freestyle ship with loads of dining spots, but it wouldn't paint a complete picture. The options run the gamut from a chi-chi and clubby steakhouse to a 24-hour comfort food diner, from an elegant French-inspired bistro to a fabulous Teppanyaki bar. Of course there are standard dining rooms as well, a big one with windows on three sides at the aft called Summer Palace, and a smaller, more intimate one (Indigo) midship. But on Pearl, as on most of NCL's ships, it's all about the choices.

Specialty restaurants have a surcharge, between $10 and $25, and for the more popular ones (Teppanyaki, for example), reservations are requisite.

La Cucina, one of our favorites, is $10 per person. I could have dined solely on the antipasto plate offered there, with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of thin slices of Parmesan Reggiano, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, thin slices of Parma ham and carpaccio, and rolls and breadsticks with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The meat dish (veal) was impressive too, but even better was the perfectly al dente side of linguini carbonara that I chose.

Equally enticing were the spicy rice noodles I had at Lotus Garden (surcharge: $15); the noodles were in a coconut milk broth and the dish reminded me of a Thai Tom Kha soup ... spicy-sweet and coconut-y. My traveling pal had sea bass and a newly made friend, who joined us there for supper, had the Peking duck, both of which looked wonderful. The dessert pancakes were the perfect ending.

Mambo's is the Tex-Mex joint ($10), at which I can heartily endorse the shrimp fajitas, which arrived sizzling and with the usual accompaniments of guacamole, cheese, salsa and sour cream. Another meal of note at Mambo's: Il Popo, a version of which -- Firestar -- used to be available in Le Bistro. It's an elaborate meal of meat and vegetables (mostly pepper and onion chunks) hung on an iron stand and flamed with tequila.

Laurel and I also dined at Cagney's Steak House (surcharge is $25, or more if you opt for items like a bigger steak or surf 'n' surf). I always get the New York strip, and I'm always happy with it; Laurel gave up her usual fish to try the veal chop, which she proclaimed the best she's had -- ever. And one big point of interest here: When you order the Surf 'n Turf, you don't get one of the rock lobster tails that are typically served on lobster night in the main dining rooms. You get half of a decent-sized crustacean, complete with claws and metal claw-crackers.

This ship has taken the typical Lido Deck "buffet" dining venue to new heights. Gone are the kiosks that are found on the other two Jewel-class ships (Jewel and Pride of Hawaii), and the smaller Pride of America, which look nice in principle, but are chaotic in practice. Pearl's designers brought back linear counters, but NCL doesn't want the Garden Cafe to be called a buffet or cafeteria; it's a restaurant with "action stations." Servers stand behind the counters, where small amounts of freshly-made meals are put out at one time and served. There are stations for salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, carved meats, soups and vegetarian dishes, Asian food, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts.

Two items of interest: For some reason NCL has decided to do away with trays. Plates are fairly small, though, so plan on returning to the lines once or twice. Also, for sanitary reasons (and to avoid the sticky, gross mess), there are no self-serve soft ice cream machines on Pearl; hard scooped ice cream, with toppings, is available much of the day, either in cones or in bowls.

Traditionalists can have dinner every night at the same time, in the same place; just let the maitre d' know in advance. Otherwise, the multitude of restaurants allows for some adventurous options. We're pleased that NCL has gone back to the reservation system that allows you to make plans one day in advance; for awhile, you had to book all of the alternate restaurants for the whole cruise as soon as you boarded, and what kind of Freestyle is that? Still, we've heard that if you don't call precisely at 8 a.m. for plans for the following night, you may not get the reservations you desire. We only made reservations once and had no problem just showing up at our restaurant of choice the other times, but we didn't choose to dine at peak periods (between 7 and 8 p.m., for example). We usually ate earlier or later. And speaking of earlier, the surcharge restaurants (with the exception of Teppanyaki and the refined "tasting menu" at Le Bistro) offer a two-for-one special from 5:30 to 7 p.m. If you're concerned about springing for the $25 meal at Cagney's, this is your chance to try it for $12.50...

Breakfast and lunch are served via open-seating at one of the two traditional restaurants, but most take advantage of the Garden Cafe and aft deck Great Outdoors Cafe when the weather is good. There's also a Continental breakfast served in Bar City, with rolls, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The bars aren't open yet, and it's a quiet, pleasant place to have a morning munchie. Suite guests (penthouse and above) can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, with a special menu designed just for them, with items like crab cake and eggs Benedict for breakfast and blackened snapper sandwiches for lunch, served in the toney atmosphere of a private club. For those in regular cabins (from insides to mini-suites), room service choices are dreadfully slim, especially for breakfast. You can get rolls, toast or muffins, yogurt, a choice of three dry cereals, milk, coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and something called "orange juice cocktail." We ordered rolls one morning, and we got 'em ... no butter, no jam. Ugh. Happily, the rest of the menu, while horribly limited, does have a couple of standouts: The ramen noodles with green onions is fabulous, loaded with white-meat chicken, and perfect if you've got the sniffles or want something hot and homey. Ditto the grilled cheese sandwich from the kids' menu -- yum. Suite guests get a much more extensive room-service menu, with hot items like eggs and bacon for breakfast, and steak sandwiches or burgers for lunch, and can order meals from the restaurants during serving times.

There's a well-stocked grill out on the pool deck which serves roasted chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and dessert items during most of the day, and a limited breakfast in the mornings.

Gratuity

NCL adds $12 per person, per day to onboard accounts, which serves as a "service charge" and not a tip. Passengers are encouraged to "tip" for exceptional service, but we're also assured that the service charge does go to the crew. Most guests tip their room stewards extra; suite guests also tip their butlers and the concierge -- who are not in the "service charge" pool -- and because of Freestyle dining, where you don't have the same waitstaff every night, many guests bring cash to tip their servers if they've done an excellent job. On Pearl, a 15 percent gratuity is also added to bar bills. An 18 percent gratuity is added to spa bills.

--by Cruise Critic contributor Jana Jones, who has also written for a variety of publications, including Vacation Agent, the U.K.'s Travel Holidays and Ocean Drive Magazine.

Dining

It would be easy to provide a laundry list of the restaurants on Pearl, a Freestyle ship with loads of dining spots, but it wouldn't paint a complete picture. The options run the gamut from a chi-chi and clubby steakhouse to a 24-hour comfort food diner, from an elegant French-inspired bistro to a fabulous Teppanyaki bar. Of course there are standard dining rooms as well, a big one with windows on three sides at the aft called Summer Palace, and a smaller, more intimate one (Indigo) midship. But on Pearl, as on most of NCL's ships, it's all about the choices.

Some of the specialty restaurants have a surcharge, mostly between $10 and $20, and for the more popular ones (Teppanyaki, for example), reservations are requisite. Non-surcharge dining still offers plenty of choices, and we found our meal at the no-charge Italian restaurant, La Cucina, to be one of the best we had onboard.

In fact, I could have dined solely on the antipasto plate offered there, with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of thin slices of Parmesan Reggiano, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, thin slices of Parma ham and carpaccio, and rolls and breadsticks with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The meat dish (veal) was impressive too, but even better was the perfectly al dente side of linguini carbonara that I chose.

Equally enticing were the spicy rice noodles I had at Lotus Garden (surcharge: $10); the noodles were in a coconut milk broth and the dish reminded me of a Thai Tom Kha soup … spicy-sweet and coconut-y. My traveling pal had sea bass and a newly made friend, who joined us there for supper, had the Peking duck, both of which looked wonderful. The dessert pancakes were the perfect ending.

Other no-surcharge restaurants include Mambo's (Tex-Mex) at which I can heartily endorse the shrimp fajitas, which arrived sizzling and with the usual accompaniments of guacamole, cheese, salsa and sour cream. Another meal of note at Mambo's: Il Popo, a version of which -- Firestar -- used to be available in Le Bistro. It's an elaborate meal of meat and vegetables (mostly pepper and onion chunks) hung on an iron stand and flamed with tequila.

Laurel and I also dined at Cagney's Steak House (surcharge is $20 unless you get the Surf 'n Turf, in which case it's $25). I always get the New York strip, and I'm always happy with it; Laurel gave up her usual fish to try the veal chop, which she proclaimed the best she's had -- ever. And one big point of interest here: When you order the Surf 'n Turf, you don't get one of the rock lobster tails that are typically served on lobster night in the main dining rooms. You get half of a decent-sized crustacean, complete with claws and metal claw-crackers.

This ship has taken the typical Lido Deck "buffet" dining venue to new heights. Gone are the kiosks that are found on the other two Jewel-class ships (Jewel and Pride of Hawaii), and the smaller Pride of America, which look nice in principle, but are chaotic in practice. Pearl's designers brought back linear counters, but NCL doesn't want the Garden Cafe to be called a buffet or cafeteria; it's a restaurant with "action stations." Servers stand behind the counters, where small amounts of freshly-made meals are put out at one time and served. There are stations for salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, carved meats, soups and vegetarian dishes, Asian food, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts.

Two items of interest: For some reason NCL has decided to do away with trays. Plates are fairly small, though, so plan on returning to the lines once or twice. Also, for sanitary reasons (and to avoid the sticky, gross mess), there are no self-serve soft ice cream machines on Pearl; hard scooped ice cream, with toppings, is available much of the day, either in cones or in bowls.

Traditionalists can have dinner every night at the same time, in the same place; just let the maitre d' know in advance. Otherwise, the multitude of restaurants allows for some adventurous options. We're pleased that NCL has gone back to the reservation system that allows you to make plans one day in advance; for awhile, you had to book all of the alternate restaurants for the whole cruise as soon as you boarded, and what kind of Freestyle is that? Still, we've heard that if you don't call precisely at 8 a.m. for plans for the following night, you may not get the reservations you desire. We only made reservations once and had no problem just showing up at our restaurant of choice the other times, but we didn't choose to dine at peak periods (between 7 and 8 p.m., for example). We usually ate earlier or later. And speaking of earlier, the surcharge restaurants (with the exception of Teppanyaki and the refined "tasting menu" at Le Bistro) offer a two-for-one special from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. If you're concerned about springing for the $20 meal at Cagney's, this is your chance to try it for $10...

Breakfast and lunch are served via open-seating at one of the two traditional restaurants, but most take advantage of the Garden Cafe and aft deck Great Outdoors Cafe when the weather is good. There's also a Continental breakfast served in Bar City, with rolls, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The bars aren't open yet, and it's a quiet, pleasant place to have a morning munchie. Suite guests (penthouse and above) can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, with a special menu designed just for them, with items like crab cake and eggs Benedict for breakfast and blackened snapper sandwiches for lunch, served in the toney atmosphere of a private club. For those in regular cabins (from insides to mini-suites), room service choices are dreadfully slim, especially for breakfast. You can get rolls, toast or muffins, yogurt, a choice of three dry cereals, milk, coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and something called "orange juice cocktail." We ordered rolls one morning, and we got 'em ... no butter, no jam. Ugh. Happily, the rest of the menu, while horribly limited, does have a couple of standouts: The ramen noodles with green onions is fabulous, loaded with white-meat chicken, and perfect if you've got the sniffles or want something hot and homey. Ditto the grilled cheese sandwich from the kids' menu -- yum. Suite guests get a much more extensive room-service menu, with hot items like eggs and bacon for breakfast, and steak sandwiches or burgers for lunch, and can order meals from the restaurants during serving times.

There's a well-stocked grill out on the pool deck which serves roasted chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and dessert items during most of the day, and a limited breakfast in the mornings.

Gratuity

NCL adds $10 per day per adult ($5 for children to age 12) to onboard accounts, which serves as a "service charge" and not a tip. Guests are encouraged to "tip" for exceptional service, but we're also assured that the service charge does go to the crew. Most guests tip their room stewards extra; suite guests also tip their butlers and the concierge -- who are not in the "service charge" pool -- and because of Freestyle dining, where you don't have the same waitstaff every night, many guests bring cash to tip their servers if they've done an excellent job. On Pearl, a 15 percent gratuity is also added to bar bills and spa services.

--by Cruise Critic contributor Jana Jones, who has also written for a variety of publications, including Vacation Agent, the U.K.'s Travel Holidays and Ocean Drive Magazine.The Murder Mystery Dinner on the bright, brassy Norwegian Pearl is just one of the many sea day activities available to its passengers, activities which not only include the usual rituals of poolside lounging, bingo and art auctions, but also some truly innovative and unique options. On that day I could have gone bowling, boxed against a 20-foot opponent (thanks to NCL's partnership with Nintendo, featuring its Wii system on most ships) on the Crystal Atrium's gigantic LED screen, attended both a Martini Tasting clinic and a Margarita Taster, watched an all-male exotic dance show featuring the ship's crew, and settled into a four-poster canopy bed next to the dance floor in the Marrakech-inspired Bliss Ultra Lounge.

Pearl launched in 2006 as the third in the series of Jewel-class vessels (Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Jade preceded Pearl; Norwegian Gem debuted in fall 2007). This ship, with its spaces, its flow, its dining and lounge options, is one of the most enjoyable large vessels around. The inclusion of a four bowling lanes and the Bliss Ultra Lounge in the space where most NCL ships have their department-store-sized shopping venue is one change, and making the two-story atrium actually functional is another.

Norwegian Pearl is loaded with jewel-toned designs (mauve and teal, turquoise and magenta, purple and blue, all with the occasional splash of fuchsia and orange) and original art (a Dale Chihuly sculpture anchors the atrium, a small Van Gogh reproduction -- the original is being moved from the Dawn later this year -- hangs behind the reception desk), and filled with upscale seating around its two pools and on the upper sun decks (faux wicker chairs and padded chaises, some double loungers with pillows). In addition, it boasts 12 Freestyle restaurants, 11 bars and lounges, the bowling alley, a five-level rock-climbing wall and a contemporary kid's club.

Is Norwegian Pearl perfect? No, but our quibbles are so minor they hardly matter. We hate the tacky plastic flowers that show up in places where there should be real ones or none at all. Somehow, the architects forgot to put a drink station on the pool deck, so to get tea, coffee, water or juice, one has to wander half way through the Garden Cafe in search of a no-surcharge beverage -- irritating, but barely. The myriad of activities, the bright colors, the usability and flow of the ship, the dining and entertainment options, the fabulous itineraries (five-night Western Caribbean, nine-night Southern Caribbean, Alaska in the summer) and especially the happy, friendly, helpful staff make this ship stand out as one of our all-time favorites.

Dining

It would be easy to provide a laundry list of the restaurants on Pearl, a Freestyle ship with loads of dining spots, but it wouldn't paint a complete picture. The options run the gamut from a chi-chi and clubby steakhouse to a 24-hour comfort food diner, from an elegant French-inspired bistro to a fabulous Teppanyaki bar. Of course there are standard dining rooms as well, a big one with windows on three sides at the aft called Summer Palace, and a smaller, more intimate one (Indigo) midship. But on Pearl, as on most of NCL's ships, it's all about the choices.

Specialty restaurants have a surcharge, between $10 and $25, and for the more popular ones (Teppanyaki, for example), reservations are requisite.

La Cucina, one of our favorites, is $10 per person. I could have dined solely on the antipasto plate offered there, with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of thin slices of Parmesan Reggiano, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, thin slices of Parma ham and carpaccio, and rolls and breadsticks with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The meat dish (veal) was impressive too, but even better was the perfectly al dente side of linguini carbonara that I chose.

Equally enticing were the spicy rice noodles I had at Lotus Garden (surcharge: $15); the noodles were in a coconut milk broth and the dish reminded me of a Thai Tom Kha soup ... spicy-sweet and coconut-y. My traveling pal had sea bass and a newly made friend, who joined us there for supper, had the Peking duck, both of which looked wonderful. The dessert pancakes were the perfect ending.

Mambo's is the Tex-Mex joint ($10), at which I can heartily endorse the shrimp fajitas, which arrived sizzling and with the usual accompaniments of guacamole, cheese, salsa and sour cream. Another meal of note at Mambo's: Il Popo, a version of which -- Firestar -- used to be available in Le Bistro. It's an elaborate meal of meat and vegetables (mostly pepper and onion chunks) hung on an iron stand and flamed with tequila.

Laurel and I also dined at Cagney's Steak House (surcharge is $25, or more if you opt for items like a bigger steak or surf 'n' surf). I always get the New York strip, and I'm always happy with it; Laurel gave up her usual fish to try the veal chop, which she proclaimed the best she's had -- ever. And one big point of interest here: When you order the Surf 'n Turf, you don't get one of the rock lobster tails that are typically served on lobster night in the main dining rooms. You get half of a decent-sized crustacean, complete with claws and metal claw-crackers.

This ship has taken the typical Lido Deck "buffet" dining venue to new heights. Gone are the kiosks that are found on the other two Jewel-class ships (Jewel and Pride of Hawaii), and the smaller Pride of America, which look nice in principle, but are chaotic in practice. Pearl's designers brought back linear counters, but NCL doesn't want the Garden Cafe to be called a buffet or cafeteria; it's a restaurant with "action stations." Servers stand behind the counters, where small amounts of freshly-made meals are put out at one time and served. There are stations for salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, carved meats, soups and vegetarian dishes, Asian food, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts.

Two items of interest: For some reason NCL has decided to do away with trays. Plates are fairly small, though, so plan on returning to the lines once or twice. Also, for sanitary reasons (and to avoid the sticky, gross mess), there are no self-serve soft ice cream machines on Pearl; hard scooped ice cream, with toppings, is available much of the day, either in cones or in bowls.

Traditionalists can have dinner every night at the same time, in the same place; just let the maitre d' know in advance. Otherwise, the multitude of restaurants allows for some adventurous options. We're pleased that NCL has gone back to the reservation system that allows you to make plans one day in advance; for awhile, you had to book all of the alternate restaurants for the whole cruise as soon as you boarded, and what kind of Freestyle is that? Still, we've heard that if you don't call precisely at 8 a.m. for plans for the following night, you may not get the reservations you desire. We only made reservations once and had no problem just showing up at our restaurant of choice the other times, but we didn't choose to dine at peak periods (between 7 and 8 p.m., for example). We usually ate earlier or later. And speaking of earlier, the surcharge restaurants (with the exception of Teppanyaki and the refined "tasting menu" at Le Bistro) offer a two-for-one special from 5:30 to 7 p.m. If you're concerned about springing for the $25 meal at Cagney's, this is your chance to try it for $12.50...

Breakfast and lunch are served via open-seating at one of the two traditional restaurants, but most take advantage of the Garden Cafe and aft deck Great Outdoors Cafe when the weather is good. There's also a Continental breakfast served in Bar City, with rolls, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The bars aren't open yet, and it's a quiet, pleasant place to have a morning munchie. Suite guests (penthouse and above) can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, with a special menu designed just for them, with items like crab cake and eggs Benedict for breakfast and blackened snapper sandwiches for lunch, served in the toney atmosphere of a private club. For those in regular cabins (from insides to mini-suites), room service choices are dreadfully slim, especially for breakfast. You can get rolls, toast or muffins, yogurt, a choice of three dry cereals, milk, coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and something called "orange juice cocktail." We ordered rolls one morning, and we got 'em ... no butter, no jam. Ugh. Happily, the rest of the menu, while horribly limited, does have a couple of standouts: The ramen noodles with green onions is fabulous, loaded with white-meat chicken, and perfect if you've got the sniffles or want something hot and homey. Ditto the grilled cheese sandwich from the kids' menu -- yum. Suite guests get a much more extensive room-service menu, with hot items like eggs and bacon for breakfast, and steak sandwiches or burgers for lunch, and can order meals from the restaurants during serving times.

There's a well-stocked grill out on the pool deck which serves roasted chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and dessert items during most of the day, and a limited breakfast in the mornings.

Gratuity

NCL adds $12 per person, per day to onboard accounts, which serves as a "service charge" and not a tip. Passengers are encouraged to "tip" for exceptional service, but we're also assured that the service charge does go to the crew. Most guests tip their room stewards extra; suite guests also tip their butlers and the concierge -- who are not in the "service charge" pool -- and because of Freestyle dining, where you don't have the same waitstaff every night, many guests bring cash to tip their servers if they've done an excellent job. On Pearl, a 15 percent gratuity is also added to bar bills. An 18 percent gratuity is added to spa bills.

Dining

It would be easy to provide a laundry list of the restaurants on Pearl, a Freestyle ship with loads of dining spots, but it wouldn't paint a complete picture. The options run the gamut from a chi-chi and clubby steakhouse to a 24-hour comfort food diner, from an elegant French-inspired bistro to a fabulous Teppanyaki bar. Of course there are standard dining rooms as well, a big one with windows on three sides at the aft called Summer Palace, and a smaller, more intimate one (Indigo) midship. But on Pearl, as on most of NCL's ships, it's all about the choices.

Specialty restaurants have a surcharge, between $10 and $25, and for the more popular ones (Teppanyaki, for example), reservations are requisite.

La Cucina, one of our favorites, is $10 per person. I could have dined solely on the antipasto plate offered there, with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of thin slices of Parmesan Reggiano, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, thin slices of Parma ham and carpaccio, and rolls and breadsticks with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The meat dish (veal) was impressive too, but even better was the perfectly al dente side of linguini carbonara that I chose.

Equally enticing were the spicy rice noodles I had at Lotus Garden (surcharge: $15); the noodles were in a coconut milk broth and the dish reminded me of a Thai Tom Kha soup ... spicy-sweet and coconut-y. My traveling pal had sea bass and a newly made friend, who joined us there for supper, had the Peking duck, both of which looked wonderful. The dessert pancakes were the perfect ending.

Moderno Churrascaria ($20) is a Brazilian-style steakhouse that offers a expansive lineup of skewered meat, including lamb chops, filet mignon, sausage and chicken. There's also the obligatory salad bar featuring international cheeses, dried meats, olives and marinated veggies, alongside the traditional salad ingredients. Sides, including mashed potatoes, fried bananas, and rice and beans, are served with the meat.

Cagney's (surcharge is $25, or more if you opt for items like a bigger steak or surf 'n' surf) is NCL signature steak and chop house. One big point of interest here: When you order the Surf 'n Turf ($15 extra), you don't get one of the rock lobster tails that are typically served on lobster night in the main dining rooms. You get half of a decent-sized crustacean, complete with claws and metal claw-crackers.

This ship has taken the typical Lido Deck "buffet" dining venue to new heights. Gone are the kiosks that are found on the other two Jewel-class ships (Jewel and Pride of Hawaii), and the smaller Pride of America, which look nice in principle, but are chaotic in practice. Pearl's designers brought back linear counters, but NCL doesn't want the Garden Cafe to be called a buffet or cafeteria; it's a restaurant with "action stations." Servers stand behind the counters, where small amounts of freshly-made meals are put out at one time and served. There are stations for salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, carved meats, soups and vegetarian dishes, Asian food, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts.

Two items of interest: For some reason NCL has decided to do away with trays. Plates are fairly small, though, so plan on returning to the lines once or twice. Also, for sanitary reasons (and to avoid the sticky, gross mess), there are no self-serve soft ice cream machines on Pearl; hard scooped ice cream, with toppings, is available much of the day, either in cones or in bowls.

Traditionalists can have dinner every night at the same time, in the same place; just let the maitre d' know in advance. Otherwise, the multitude of restaurants allows for some adventurous options. We're pleased that NCL has gone back to the reservation system that allows you to make plans one day in advance; for awhile, you had to book all of the alternate restaurants for the whole cruise as soon as you boarded, and what kind of Freestyle is that? Still, we've heard that if you don't call precisely at 8 a.m. for plans for the following night, you may not get the reservations you desire. We only made reservations once and had no problem just showing up at our restaurant of choice the other times, but we didn't choose to dine at peak periods (between 7 and 8 p.m., for example). We usually ate earlier or later. And speaking of earlier, the surcharge restaurants (with the exception of Teppanyaki and the refined "tasting menu" at Le Bistro) offer a two-for-one special from 5:30 to 7 p.m. If you're concerned about springing for the $25 meal at Cagney's, this is your chance to try it for $12.50...

Breakfast and lunch are served via open-seating at one of the two traditional restaurants, but most take advantage of the Garden Cafe and aft deck Great Outdoors Cafe when the weather is good. There's also a Continental breakfast served in Bar City, with rolls, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The bars aren't open yet, and it's a quiet, pleasant place to have a morning munchie. Suite guests (penthouse and above) can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, with a special menu designed just for them, with items like crab cake and eggs Benedict for breakfast and blackened snapper sandwiches for lunch, served in the toney atmosphere of a private club. For those in regular cabins (from insides to mini-suites), room service choices are dreadfully slim, especially for breakfast. You can get rolls, toast or muffins, yogurt, a choice of three dry cereals, milk, coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and something called "orange juice cocktail." We ordered rolls one morning, and we got 'em ... no butter, no jam. Ugh. Happily, the rest of the menu, while horribly limited, does have a couple of standouts: The ramen noodles with green onions is fabulous, loaded with white-meat chicken, and perfect if you've got the sniffles or want something hot and homey. Ditto the grilled cheese sandwich from the kids' menu -- yum. Suite guests get a much more extensive room-service menu, with hot items like eggs and bacon for breakfast, and steak sandwiches or burgers for lunch, and can order meals from the restaurants during serving times.

There's a well-stocked grill out on the pool deck which serves roasted chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and dessert items during most of the day, and a limited breakfast in the mornings.

Cabins

Standard cabins are comfortable and well laid-out, and with adequate closets and drawer space for most families, they're cozy.

All have mini-fridges, flat-screen televisions, telephone, Internet connection, bathrooms with shower and twin beds that can be made up as queens. But, at an average size of 160 square ft. for the outsides and 145 for inside staterooms, they are among the industry's smallest -- especially for a newly built vessel -- and especially for a line aiming for families. Balcony cabins are 205 square ft., which includes the verandah. All but some inside cabins have a "split bathroom" configuration: glass-enclosed shower on one side, closeable toilet chamber on the other, sink in the middle. Balcony cabins also have a small sofa, many of which can be made into a third bunk.

Compared to some of the slab-like beds found elsewhere on NCL, the bedding has been upgraded on this ship, with thick, comfy Eurostyle mattresses. Instead of a bedspread, beds are made with white duvets and a small colorful "runner" placed across the foot.

Our absolute favorite attribute of any cabin on an NCL ship is the in-cabin coffee/tea makers thoughtfully provided to the guests, along with complementary coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cream.

Where Pearl really stands out is in its suites. The 134 mini-suites offer, at 284 square ft., a small amount of additional space and a larger balcony, have full bath tubs and the services of the concierge. Beyond those, though, guests who are booked into Romance Suites, Penthouse Suites, Courtyard Villas, Owners Suites or Garden Villas enter the stratosphere of cruisedom, with private restaurant privileges, butlers, individual espresso and cappuccino makers, preferred reservations for the alternate restaurants, VIP tender access, VIP boarding and disembarking, a DVD library and other perks and privileges that truly set them apart from the average guest on the same ship.

The Courtyard Villas share a private courtyard at the top of the ship, complete with a covered plunge pool and private hot tubs. Owners Suites, typically located beneath the bridge, face forward and, since they are at the corners of the bow, have private sundecks both at the front and along the side. The Garden Villas, smaller on this ship than on Dawn, Jewel or Star, where they come in at an astronomical 5,700 square ft., nonetheless still measure 4,390 square ft., have individual saunas, hot tubs, private sunbathing areas and three bedrooms, three baths, a powder room, living room, dining room, a grand piano, and exclusive elevator access to their quarters, shared only with the residents of the Courtyard Villas and two Deluxe Owner's Suites located at the very, very top of the ship.

Caveat: The Owners Suites and Penthouse Suites on Deck 10 have verandahs that are completely visible from the bridge above. Completely. Any indiscretion that takes place out there is subject to being viewed by a range of officers -- or any visitors to the bridge.

Some of the 24 Penthouse Suites, at up to 572 square ft., on Norwegian Pearl could also be called Family Suites since they have a small bunk-bedded room and bath that's perfect for kids.

Non-suite cabins (including mini-suites) have wall-mounted pumps for soap and shampoo, and while it's not ideal in terms of convenience, the rationale for their use is laudable: Just picture the amount of waste generated by 2,000+ plastic bottles each week, and imagine how much less waste is generated by the pumps. The product is actually quite nice … I am convinced that the shampoo/conditioner combo is a generic version of Herbal Essences.

Suite guests get large containers of upscale designer Frances Denney products, although almost everyone we spoke to who inhabited a suite preferred to go back to the more subtle scents of the L'Occitane en Provence products that had been used in the past.

Twenty-seven cabins, including suites, are fully wheel-chair accessible and ADA compliant.

Family

Oh my.

First of all, if we were traveling with toddlers, we'd pick an NCL cruise over any other. Why? Freestyle dining means that the kids don't have to wait for a set dining time. That's one reason. And the Kid's Crew clubs are always terrific, but on Pearl there's an element that makes it even more special. The Aqua Kids Club is located on Deck 12 adjacent to the pool area, and in fact, the outside part extends onto the pool deck. It's surrounded by a glass wall, which means that mom and dad can actually see their kids playing when they are out there, bouncing on the colorful balls or interacting with other children in the same age group.

Kids from six months are allowed in, and get this: They don't have to be potty trained! Parents are given a beeper and paged when a diaper needs changing. (It doesn't work ashore, so you can't leave the ship while your child is in the center.) The center itself features a little movie theatre, a computer center, an outdoor play area, an arts and crafts room, a nursery and sleep room.

Teens have their own space, Metro Center, a "New York subway-themed" club with computers, plasma TV's, cozy seating areas, and (of course) it's adjacent to the well-equipped video arcade.

NCL's new agreement with Nintendo means that both centers now have Nintendo Wii's available for use.

The Garden Cafe has a special kid-sized buffet section, with kid-styled food (hot dogs, fries, chicken fingers) and the room service menu also has great kid's options, like a melt-in-your-mouth grilled cheese sandwich (Yes! We tried it!), and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Not limited to kids, of course, is the fabulous bright yellow corkscrew slide at the pool complex.

Group babysitting is offered during the evenings and on port days for a nominal fee of $5 per hour for the first child, and an additional $3 per hour for each sibling; there is no individual or in-room sitting.The Murder Mystery Lunch on bright, brassy Norwegian Pearl is just one of the many sea day activities available to its passengers, activities which not only include the usual rituals of poolside lounging, bingo and art auctions, but also some truly innovative and unique options. You could box, virtually, on the Crystal Atrium's gigantic two-story LED screen using Nintendo's Wii U, or bowl in style with two neon-lit bowling lanes on either side of the Marrakech-inspired Bliss Ultra Lounge. The ship also features a lavish "Bar City," a long, dazzling space that can appeal to both the martini drinker and the cigar aficionado. Pearl launched in 2006 as the third in Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel Class, which also includes Norwegian Jade, Gem and Jewel. These affordable, large ships are known for their ample public space, great passenger flow and a plethora of dining and lounge options.

Norwegian Pearl is loaded with jewel-toned designs (mauve and teal, turquoise and magenta, purple and blue, all with the occasional splash of fuchsia and orange) and original art. (A Dale Chihuly sculpture anchors the atrium, a small Van Gogh reproduction hangs behind the reception desk.) Its two pools and upper sun decks offer upscale seating (faux wicker chairs and padded chaises, some double loungers with pillows). In addition, the ship boasts 12 "Freestyle" restaurants (meaning no set dining times or tablemates), 11 bars and lounges, a bowling alley, a five-level rock climbing wall (with easy, medium and hard degrees of difficulty) and a contemporary kids club.

Is Norwegian Pearl perfect? No. Extra charges can quickly rack up, from $5 bowling to $12 yoga; even the multiple specialty restaurants outnumber complimentary dining options almost two to one. Only the dining rooms Indigo and Summer Palace, Blue Lagoon and the pool deck buffet are fee-free. We also do not like the tacky plastic flowers that show up in places where there should be real ones or none at all. Despite our quips about the fees, the Pearl is all encompassing, yet not overwhelming.

Pair that with an attentive, helpful staff, and the Pearl experience is like a finished Tetris puzzle -- everything fits without any major pieces sticking out.

Dining

Norwegian Pearl offers loads of dining spots, according to Norwegian's Freestyle philosophy. The options run the gamut from a chi-chi and clubby steakhouse and a 24-hour comfort food diner to an elegant French-inspired bistro and the Asian fusion Lotus Garden.

Traditionalists can have dinner every night at the same time, in the same place; just let the maitre d' know in advance. Otherwise, the multitude of restaurants allows for some adventurous options. We're pleased that Norwegian has gone back to the reservation system that allows you to make plans one day in advance; for a while, you had to book all of the alternate restaurants for the whole cruise as soon as you boarded, and what kind of Freestyle is that? Still, we've heard that if you don't call precisely at 8 a.m. for plans for the following night, you might not get the reservations you desire. We only made reservations once and had no problem just showing up at our restaurant of choice the other times, but we didn't choose to dine at peak periods (between 7 and 8 p.m., for example). We usually ate earlier or later.

Some restaurants are included in your cruise fare; others incur additional fees. Overall, we found the complimentary options, at least for dinner, teeter between similar variations of chicken and pork dishes that get repetitive. The alternative restaurants have better quality and variation, but meal surcharges can add up. It is nice to have options, but we would prefer if a few more were free of charge.

Complimentary options include the two main dining rooms, Summer Palace and Indigo. You can only access Summer Palace by walking down a staircase to Deck 6. The restaurant features a stunning array of red and green upholstery, marble columns and large windows at the aft. Indigo, the smaller of the two main dining rooms at Deck 6 midship, features a blue and purple color scheme (to fit the name) with flashy, multicolored paintings of American landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the Hollywood sign. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Summer Palace and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. in Indigo.

The menus in both dining rooms are split into two halves. The left side of the menu is divided into appetizers, entrees and desserts and also includes a "Chef Regional Specialty," a dish that incorporates flavors of the next port of call. These selections change nightly. Our favorites included a chicken and shrimp coconut curry, as well as a Caribbean grilled chicken, which was one of the nightly regional dishes. The right side of the menu, "Favorite Selections," never changes and is broken down into three courses. These include a pork-and-vegetable spring roll appetizer and a lamb shank entree.

Dishes marked with a check are the healthy options, and vegetarian options are available but not specifically marked and can also be arranged upon request. We talked to some cruisers who had Indian dishes, like vegetable curry, specifically made, based on their dietary needs. Some desserts are marked as sugar-free.

Besides an array of ice cream, pies and the like, both dining rooms also offer specialty Lavazza Italian coffee, available at an additional charge. A kids menu, which features Nickelodeon characters, includes chicken fingers and grilled cheese.

Tucked away on Deck 8 is the Blue Lagoon Cafe, which offers up complimentary "comfort" food 24/7. The black and stained-wood decor is offset by carpeting with a coffee bean design. Menu highlights include the Buffalo wings (don't skimp on the sauce) and the prosciutto and mozzarella Panini. Entrees come with the choice of potato salad, coleslaw or French fries.

The other major no-fee venue is the buffet. This ship has taken the typical Lido Deck "buffet" dining venue to new heights. Gone are the kiosks that are found on the other two Jewel-class ships (Jewel and Jade) and smaller Pride of America; they look nice in principle, but they're chaotic in practice. Pearl's designers brought back linear counters, but Norwegian doesn't want the Garden Cafe to be called a buffet or cafeteria; it's a restaurant with rows of "action stations." Servers stand behind the counters, where small amounts of freshly made meals are put out at one time and served. There are stations for salads, sandwiches, fresh pasta, carved meats, soups and vegetarian dishes, Asian and Indian food, hot dogs, hamburgers and desserts. The aft deck Great Outdoors Cafe is an outside version of the buffet; it's typically less crowded, so it's a nice alternative at peak dining times.

Two items of interest: Norwegian has decided to do away with trays. Plates are fairly small, though, so plan on returning to the lines once or twice. Also, for sanitary reasons (and to avoid the sticky, gross mess), there are no self-serve soft ice cream machines on Pearl. Hard ice cream with toppings is available much of the day, either in cones or in bowls.

Breakfast and lunch are served via open-seating at one of the two traditional restaurants, but most take advantage of the Garden Cafe and Great Outdoors Cafe when the weather is good. There's also a Continental breakfast served in Bar City (an area with multiple drinking establishments on Deck 6), with rolls, croissants, juice, coffee, tea, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. The bars aren't open at that hour, and it's a quiet, pleasant place to have a morning meal.

There's a well-stocked Topsiders Grill, open from noon to 3 p.m., out on the pool deck, which serves roasted chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and dessert items buffet-style. It also serves limited breakfast in the mornings.

The Sky High Bar on Deck 13, right above the pool with the waterfall, offers up similar fare, but burgers, hot dogs and fries are cooked to order. Condiments and side items like potato salad and coleslaw are self-serve. This is a popular spot to watch the game, with two flat screen TVs and swivel high-top seats. You can settle in and make it an early dinner spot, too. Sky High's bar hours are from 11:30 a.m. to about 7 p.m.

Passengers booked in suites (penthouse and higher) can have breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, with a special menu designed just for them, with items like crab cakes and eggs Benedict for breakfast and blackened snapper sandwiches for lunch, served in the swanky atmosphere of a private club.

Specialty restaurants have a surcharge, between $15 and $30, and, for the more popular ones (Teppanyaki, for example), reservations are requisite.

La Cucina, the Italian venue on Deck 12, is $15 per person. Large, family-style wooden tables hug one side, while traditional tables for two to four people line the other. We could have dined solely on the antipasto plate offered there, with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of thin slices of Parmesan Reggiano, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, thin slices of Parma ham and carpaccio, and rolls and breadsticks with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The meat dish (veal) was impressive, too, but even better was the perfectly al dente side of linguini carbonara that we chose. The restaurant bakes its own pies in a large pizza oven, but you won't find American standards like pepperoni there. Choose from pizza selections such as Pepperoncino, with mozzarella, beef strips and garlic; and Bolognese, with mozzarella, roma tomatoes and Bolognese sauce. If you have room, finish it off with the rhubarb panna cotta, which features peach and grape chutney in a vanilla reduction.

Equally enticing were the spicy rice noodles we had at Lotus Garden, the Asian restaurant on Deck 7 (surcharge: $15); the noodles were in a coconut milk broth, and the dish reminded us of a Thai Tom Kha soup ... spicy-sweet and coconutty. We also had sea bass, and a newly made friend, who joined us there for supper, had the Peking duck, which looked wonderful. The dessert pancakes were the perfect ending.

Lotus Garden also offers a form of Japanese hot pot dining known as Shabu Shabu (surcharge: $15) where the wait staff bring you a noodle dish in a cooking pot and then add ingredients like steamed edamame tableside. If that's not enough, there's also an a la carte sushi bar, with items like sashimi ($3), California rolls ($3.50) and Godzilla rolls ($4.25), made up of shrimp, mango, caramelized cashews, coconut and avocado. All are made fresh under an anime-style green-lettered sign. The entire area has various Asian-inspired artworks, signs in Japanese characters and soft green lighting that complement the black tabletops and red and orange carpeting.

Adjacent to Lotus Garden is Teppanyaki ($25), a Japanese Hibachi restaurant where the food is the show. Skillful and playful chefs create onion volcanoes and flip and catch shrimp, all while serving you a three-course meal. Highlights include the hibachi chicken with udon noodles and an exotic green tea cake for dessert. Fair warning though: there are only four tables (with about eight to ten seats at each) in this small restaurant, so you need a reservation.

Moderno Churrascaria ($20) on Deck 8, across from Blue Lagoon, is a Brazilian-style steakhouse that offers an expansive lineup of skewered meat, including lamb chops, filet mignon and Portuguese sausage. A mural of people dancing and dining lines the walls, and the dim lighting creates an elegant feel. The meal begins with a quality salad bar that features international cheeses, dried meats, olives and marinated veggies like grilled bell peppers alongside the traditional salad ingredients. The pre-made salad options -- like the yellow beet and chicken and mango offerings and shrimp, scallop and red snapper ceviche -- are also exquisite. For your main, there's no need to choose just one; waiters come around with meat on skewers, and you can try small portions of everything. Sides, including mashed potatoes, fried sweet bananas, and rice and beans, are served with the meat. Beware: It's very easy to fill up on starters before the meat is brought around. Pace yourself.

Cagney's Steakhouse on Deck 13 is Norwegian's signature steak and chop house. (The surcharge is $30, but you'll pay $10 for each additional entree.) An open kitchen, horse paintings and red rose lights give off a romantic feel as you dine on some heavy-duty steak. The surcharge includes three courses. Start with the lump crab salad or the split pea soup before making your way to cuts of meat that range from an 18 oz. bone-in ribeye to an 8 oz. gorgonzola-crusted filet mignon. Make your side dish the truffle fries, and if you still have room, try the raspberry creme brulee for dessert.

Finally, rounding out "alternative dining" is Le Bistro ($20), the French restaurant on Deck 6. The interior takes on a fancy Art Nouveau setting, and the menu features dishes like escargot for an appetizer and duck confit and grilled swordfish as mains. The Chocolate Napoleon is the dessert highlight there.

On Deck 7, where you first came aboard, the Java Cafe has a nice selection of free, assorted sweets and baked goods (pastries, cookies, etc.) and regular coffee. Specialty coffees, like espressos and lattes, are available for less than $5. Complimentary late-night food options start around 11 p.m. and are available in four areas -- Bar City (right outside of Le Bistro), Pearl Club Casino, Garden Cafe and Blue Lagoon. Both Bar City and the casino usually offer one main finger food (egg rolls, steak skewers, etc.) followed by assorted fruit, cookies and sandwiches. Garden Cafe takes it up a notch with hot entrees like chicken Marsala, soups, salads and bacon and eggs for the partygoers. Blue Lagoon turns into a self-serve buffet at night, with spinach dip, chicken wings, burgers and hot dogs.

For those in regular cabins (from insides to mini-suites), room service choices are dreadfully slim, especially for breakfast. You can get rolls, toast or muffins, yogurt, a choice of three dry cereals, milk, coffee, tea or hot chocolate and something called "orange juice cocktail." We ordered rolls one morning, and we got 'em ... no butter, no jam. Ugh. Happily, the rest of the menu, while horribly limited, does have a couple of standouts; the Caesar salad, BLT sandwich, and the grilled cheese sandwich and chicken tenders from the kids menu are all yummy. Carrot sticks and applesauce complement each kids item, so don't feel guilty ordering.

Suite-holders get a much more extensive room-service menu, with hot items like eggs and bacon for breakfast, and steak sandwiches or burgers for lunch. They can also order meals from the restaurants during serving times. Still, room service is painfully slow. On any given day, an order took at least 45 minutes. While room service is typically fee-free, orders placed between midnight and 5 a.m. will cost you $3.95. You can also order a pizza to be delivered to your cabin for $5.

Public Rooms

One of the things that struck us during our cruise is how easy and comfortable the flow is on this ship. There aren't many instances of "you can't get there from here," which is, of course, wonderful. Another thing we really enjoyed is the usability of the Crystal Atrium on Decks 7 and 8. Norwegian chose to make this area two stories tall, rather than create an atrium concept with towering empty space. So, in this case, the Crystal Atrium, with crystal lights hanging from the ceiling, is comfy and cozy, but it's also expansive and airy. Surrounded above by two restaurants (Blue Lagoon and Moderno) with rail-side dining, the lower level is filled with chairs, loungers, divans and a cafe/bar, making it seem more like a hotel lobby than a big-ship atrium. And it's actually used as a meeting space, lounging destination, dance hall, movie theater and action spot for those participating in the Nintendo Wii U activity du jour. Original art includes a Chihuly sculpture and the small Van Gogh behind the Reception Desk.

Deck 7 includes the reception area, as well as a separate shore excursion desk. Next to that is a smaller cruise consultant office, where onboard credit offers can be had by signing up for a future cruise. Starboard side, across from the reception desk, is the Ports O' Call duty-free shop, which has various fragrances and jewelry for sale. Past this is the Photo Gallery, which displays photos taken by the ship's staff from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. nightly. There is usually a line in this area on the last night, as cruisers scramble to pick out and purchase their best-looking photos. Portside, the red-carpeted Art Gallery highlights works from the likes of Romero Britto and Peter Max.

In the Art Gallery, cornered between some nice framed sculptures along the back wall, is the 24-hour Internet Cafe, which has six computers and an all-in-one printer. Rates range from $0.75 a minute to $24 for an hour. On cruises longer than six days, minute packages include 100 minutes for $55 ($0.55/minute) and 250 minutes for $100 ($0.40/minute). Print jobs are 50 cents each, and a one-time $3.95 account activation fee is charged for any Internet time purchased. If you must print, do it early, as the printer is not available after 10 p.m. And despite the shipwide Wi-Fi, connections are much faster in the cafe than in your cabin.

Deck 7 is completely nonsmoking, so those who want to avoid the smell of cigarettes can safely traverse from one end to the other without encountering a single whiff. For those who do smoke, smoking (cigarettes, pipes and cigars) is allowed outside on public decks, in signed outdoor areas away from where food is served, and in the Cigar Bar on Deck 6. Norwegian's policy also states that only cigarettes are permitted for outside balconies and in the casino.

Forward on Deck 7 is the Trade Routes Boutique complex (separate from the Ports O'Call shop), a series of shops broken into smaller venues featuring duty-free liquor, specialty watches, costume jewelry, logo items, clothing and high-end jewelry. You can get everything from sunglasses to M&Ms there.

Before the theater's entrance, tucked away on the left, are three meeting rooms named Barcelona, Prague and Vienna. While Barcelona and Prague can be combined into one larger room, Vienna is separate, and smaller, for shorter meetings.

Deck 12 has an attractive library that is open too few hours to be truly effective for book and game checkout, as well as a separate card room. Past that is the Perspectives photo studio, a by-appointment setup where you get a free 8x10 print just for participating in a 30-minute consultation where you discuss picture options and packages with a private photographer. The studio has multiple backdrops and accessories for staging your shoot.

Head up one deck to find the ship's wedding chapel. The chapel itself is an elegant little spot that holds about 20 people. Orange drapes and blue, sea-toned carpeting give the room an at-sea feeling, especially with a water-designed stained-glass centerpiece. While Pearl does not have an ordained priest or rabbi regularly onboard for religious services, cruisers do have the option of setting something up, including a wedding, if an ordained individual is available. Unfortunately, the captain cannot legally perform ceremonies.

Finally, if you want a real inside look at the ship, make your way over to Deck 11 forward. There you'll find a bridge viewing room set up like a mini-museum. The center of the room has a neat glass-enclosed model of Pearl, while pictures of the ship in German shipyard Meyer Werft and other maritime memorabilia (first port of call certificates, etc.) line the walls. A comical sign behind the large window showing the bridge even says not to tap the glass or feed the officers.

Cabins

Standard cabins are comfortable, cozy and well laid out, with adequate closets and drawer space for most families. We also loved the door designs, which look like tropical blue window shutters.

All rooms have well-stocked minifridges (sodas, sparking water, liquor -- for a fee), flat-screen televisions, telephones, Internet access, bathrooms with showers and twin beds that can be made up as queens. But, at an average size of 160 square feet for the outsides and 145 square feet for inside staterooms, they are a bit small, especially given Norwegian's focus on family travel. Balcony cabins are 205 square feet, which includes the verandah. Balcony cabins also have small sofas, many of which can be made into third berths.

Beds are topped with thick, comfy Eurostyle mattresses. Instead of bedspreads, beds are made with white duvets and small, colorful "runners" placed across the feet.

All but some inside cabins have "split bathroom" configurations: glass-enclosed shower on one side, closeable toilet chamber on the other, sink in the middle. These cabins (as well as mini-suites) have wall-mounted pumps for soap and shampoo in addition to body wash, lotion and a hair dryer. The bath products are actually quite nice. (We are convinced that the shampoo/conditioner combo is a generic version of Herbal Essences.) However, several female cruisers on our trip were disappointed with the lack of true conditioner in the bathrooms. (The same is true for the shower area in the changing rooms and the spa.)

Where Pearl really stands out is in its suites. The 134 mini-suites offer, at 284 square feet each, a small amount of additional interior space and a larger balcony. They also have full bath tubs and the services of the concierge. Beyond those, though, passengers who are booked into The Haven enter the stratosphere of cruise VIP status. Private restaurant privileges, preferred reservations for the alternate restaurants, priority tender access, priority boarding and disembarking, butlers, individual espresso and cappuccino makers, even feather pillows and other perks and privileges truly set them apart from the average passenger on the same ship.

Suites within The Haven share a private courtyard at the top of the ship, complete with a covered plunge pool and private hot tubs. Residents of The Haven's suites, which include Garden Villas, Owner's Suites, Family Villas and Penthouses, all share private elevator access to their exclusive top-of-ship quarters.

The Garden Villas, smaller on this ship than on Dawn, Jewel or Star, where they come in at an astronomical 5,700 square feet, nonetheless still measure 4,252 square feet and sleep eight people. They have individual saunas, hot tubs, private sunbathing areas and three bedrooms, three baths, a powder room, living room, dining room and a grand piano.

Owner's Suites, which measure up to 824 square feet, face forward and, since they are at the corners of the bow, have private sun decks at the front and along the side. Deluxe Owner's Suites each include a large balcony and measure 1,197 square feet. The Family Villas, which sleep as many as six people, come in at 572 square feet and each include two bathrooms, a master bedroom and a separate children's room. Penthouses are 440 square feet, sleep three and include a bedroom with a queen-sized bed.

Caveat: The Owner's Suites and Penthouse Suites on Deck 10 have verandahs that are completely visible from the bridge above. Completely. Any indiscretion that takes place out there is subject to being viewed by a range of officers -- or any visitors to the bridge.

All suite-holders get large containers of Elemis spa products in their bathrooms. However, almost everyone we spoke to who inhabited a suite preferred to go back to the more subtle scents of the L'Occitane en Provence products that had been used in the past.

Twenty-seven cabins, including suites, are fully wheelchair accessible and ADA compliant.

While there is no self-service laundry onboard, laundry service is available for $25 a bag, which can be found in your stateroom.

Entertainment

Pearl's entertainment options span all genres, all age groups and just about every interest under the sun.

Norwegian has a partnership with Nintendo to use its Wii U gaming system onboard its ships, and with the 20-foot LED screen in the atrium area, it's a marriage made in gaming heaven. (The system is also available in both the children's and teen centers.) We loved watching the wired-up kids dancing around in front of the screen, throwing punches (at nothing!), which resulted in grunts, smacking sounds and splats during the boxing match, broadcast in lifelike animation and narrated by a ringmaster.

And talk about on-screen action. First-run, barely released movies were also shown daily, either in-cabin on one of the TVs movie channels or on the large screen in the atrium. We were not only impressed -- we got to see three flicks that we had missed in the theater and that were not yet out on DVD.

Other ships might have ice skating and surf parks, but Pearl has bowling; four family-friendly lanes flank the funky Bliss Ultra Lounge on Deck 7, which is filled with beds and pillows, loungers and divans, silky fabrics and low lighting. It becomes an after-party hotspot (18+ after 11 p.m.) at night. (One young kid we met wanted to spend the night there. "Absolutely not," intoned his mom, again and again.) Bowling costs $5 per person, per game (check your Freestyle Daily for one-hour two-for-one specials), which includes shoe rental. Remember to take socks with you, or you'll be denied.

There are, of course, the usual shipboard entertainment options, with production shows in the Stardust Theater on Decks 5 and 6, improv comedy by Chicago's Second City troupe, pianists and singers scattered throughout the ship, audience-participation games like "Who In The World Am I" trivia and charades put on by the cruise director's staff, and some adults-only late-night comedy, magic and game shows (Not So Newlywed, Ladies vs. Gents, etc.). The theater itself seems small for a large ship like Norwegian Pearl -- and that's a good thing. Cruisers can access any seat from Deck 6 or 7 and have a similar intimate experience to those sitting in the first row.

There's a large and lively Pearl Club Casino on Deck 6, too, which features a full bar and your typical gambling fare (roulette, blackjack, slot machines, lottery drawings) all set against a shimmering red and gold color backdrop.

Also on Deck 6 is Bar City, a unique concept that combines four bars in one elongated space, which then flows into and through the casino. A piano, plush brown chairs and framed whiskey bottles set the scene at Maltings Beer & Whiskey Bar. Next to that is Shakers Martini & Cocktail Bar, which has metropolitan paintings (including one of a 1940s New York City) and cool blue neon signage. A few steps away is Magnums Champagne & Wine Bar, which, like Shakers, has white swivel seats. Finally, tucked into the corner before Le Bistro's entrance is the Corona Cigar Bar, a small room with brown seats, where you can take in the aroma of your favorite cigar. (Open the door carefully, or the smell will hit you right away.) Multiple flat-screen TVs are scattered throughout Bar City; it's the place to be when a major sporting event is showing.

In addition to the Sky High Bar, Deck 13 also features the Spinnaker Lounge. Decor throughout is bright, tropical and fun. The furnishings in Spinnaker Lounge look like they were designed by famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen after he watched a couple of episodes of the Jetsons. Teal crushed velvet double-loungers are surrounded by white high-impact plastic bucket chairs ... with holes where one expects a seat. And guess what? They're comfortable.

The lounge plays host to Norwegian's signature late-night event, the White Hot Party, a club scene where everyone dresses in white and dances along with members of the Norwegian staff, who are easily recognizable with their white wings. There are some magnificent ice sculptures at this event, too. (There are two times for the party; the earlier one is kid-friendly.)

Also on Deck 13, next to Cagney's, is the Star Bar, a 1920s prohibition-style setup with black seats that are splattered with white and gold paint to mimic the night sky.

You can also get a drink at smaller bars in the Great Outdoors Cafe, Moderno Churrascaria and even Lotus Garden's Sake Bar. The Java Cafe also sells alcoholic drinks.

Extras that make this cruise special include Presumed Murdered, the murder mystery lunch onboard, which is held in Le Bistro for $20. Roughly 80 cruisers are allowed to participate in this "Who did it?" mystery. Cast members from Second City act out a skit with the help of cruisers, creating a funny, impromptu performance. Sign up is usually held the day before, but if you're not early enough, you'll end up on a lengthy waiting list. Additionally, the Wine Lovers musical in Spinnaker lets cruisers swig and sip six different wines during a 40-minute, interactive theater comedy.

We've always thought that Norwegian has an uncanny knack for choosing stellar performers; those appearing on Pearl were certainly no exception. Standouts, to us, were the calypso band that played on the pool deck every day, the talented master of the steel drums who provided soul-soothing sounds at the Great Outdoors every evening and the trio who played dance music of the 1940s through the 1950s in the atrium, delighting the pre-boomer crowd who took the opportunity to dance up a storm.

There's a passenger talent show, but our absolute favorite, the crew show, showcases the talents of the multinational service staff onboard (with more than 60 nationalities represented), some of whom are very talented.

Daytime activities are quite extensive, too. One look at our daily planner shows events like the Deal or No Deal interactive game show, where cruisers can compete for prizes -- just like on the TV show; family pizza building in La Cucina; multiple dance classes like a "Thriller" flash mob; family dodgeball; an art enrichment seminar; and even a veteran's social. You can also pay extra for classes at NCL-U, a series of alcohol tastings where bartenders playfully mix up spirits.

Once in port, Pearl has an impressive array of shore excursions available. Activities at each stop cater to just about everyone, ranging from those seeking active pursuits to those looking for something more laid-back. Book tours at the shore excursions desk, near the Atrium on Deck 7, which is open from noon to 9 p.m. daily.

Fitness and Recreation

Deck 12 is the pool deck, with two pools and four hot tubs, which are open late. The main Tahitian Pool is actually two pools; one side has a waterslide, and the other has a descending waterfall that's perfect for cannonballs.

The pool with the waterfall has been designated as "adult only," and it seemed to be monitored. The family pool (with the waterslide) is just adjacent, so you'd think the no-kids policy would be harder to enforce, but in fact it worked quite well.

The pool deck has a mix of wicker chairs in the covered areas and lounge chairs, which are on Deck 13, too. At night, the decorated palm trees that line the pool deck become lit, and, with soft red lights on Deck 13, they illuminate the area like a Caribbean Christmas tree. We did not have any trouble finding a place to sit on either deck, but make sure you don't lose your towel, or you can expect a $25 charge on your stateroom bill.

For the clothing-optional sun-seekers, a quiet adults-only sun deck is located on Deck 15, accessible only by staircase and surrounded by walls to keep out peeping toms. This area is therefore hard to recognize unless you walk up the stairs. Additional regular sun deck space can also be found on Deck 14.

The full-service Mandara Spa on Deck 12 has a nail salon, hair studio, sauna and a thermal suite along with the usual hands-on treatments. In addition to the Elemis products offered in Norwegian's spas, Pearl's also uses and sells JOU-branded spa products.

The thermal suite is one of the best "day of pampering" values onboard, at $30 for a full day's use (less per day if you buy the package for the whole cruise). It allows passengers to take advantage of the coed room with the thalassotherapy pool and heated ceramic loungers, or they can go gender-specific with an oceanview sauna, eucalyptus steam room, individual whirlpool tubs, icy-cold plunge pool and padded chaises. Cruisers with a same-day spa appointment can enjoy this area for an extra $20 added to the price of their treatment.

The spa offers the usual array of services and massages and also includes teeth whitening sessions and acupuncture. Specials on shore days seemed quite reasonable (three mini-treatments for $89, for example), or try the Frangipani, a yummy scalp-neck-shoulder massage at the best price -- around $29.

Adjacent to the spa is the Pulse Fitness Center, which features multiple treadmills, weights as heavy as 80 pounds and some cycling machines, all equipped with TVs. In there, two personal trainers hold body sculpting boot camps (for a fee) and free seminars. Classes for Pilates, yoga and indoor cycling also carry a surcharge of $12. Past the weights is a separate aerobics room with mirrors on each side, optimal for stretching or even letting off some steam. (There's a punching bag, too.) Male and female changing rooms each feature a small steam room, shower and bathroom, as well as a blow drying area and about a dozen lockers. And unless it motivates you, don't weigh yourself on the scale just outside of the changing rooms.

Pearl was the first of Norwegian's ships to install a rock climbing wall, and it's quite impressive. Located at the back of the smokestack on Deck 14 (about 18 stories above the sea), it stands 30 feet tall and 19 feet wide and offers three different climbing routes with varying levels of difficulty.

A full-size volleyball/basketball court resides on Deck 13, but those with a high-arching basketball jump shot may be disappointed by how close the netted exterior is to the actual basketball hoop. The sports court area on this deck also features two golf driving areas, chess (with life-size pieces), checkers, about a half-deck-long jogging track and shuffleboard. (There are also additional spots for shuffleboard outside on Deck 7.)

And while you might not get an aerobic workout by bowling, you can do that too in Deck 7's Bliss Ultra Lounge. (The oxygenation you'll experience from laughing is worth at least a couple of spinning classes)

Family

The terrific Splash Academy kids club is located on Deck 12 adjacent to the pool area, and, in fact, the outside part extends onto the pool deck. Children are divided by age groups: Guppies (6 months to 2 years, for parent-supervised play), Turtles (3 to 5), Seals (6 to 9) and Dolphins (10 to 12). Activities are plentiful, from arts and crafts workshops to a Cirque Du Jour family circus show. The inside area includes several gymnastics mats, a jungle gym, small movie theater and multiple computers. On our particular visit, we saw balloon animals hanging from a colorful orange and yellow ceiling and various art projects posted to the walls. There is even a separate toy room with all kinds of light-up, noisemaking gadgets. Splash Academy uses an automated iPad system for registration, drop-off and pickup.

Beyond the playroom is a small kids pool with a mini-waterslide. It's surrounded by a glass wall, which means that mom and dad can actually see their kids playing when they're out there, bouncing on the colorful balls or interacting with other children in the same age group.

All Guppies activities require a parent to be present. They include free-play time, nursery rhymes and songs, and painting and coloring.

Teens (13 to 17) have their own space, called Entourage -- a colorful, sporty club with multiple flat-screen TVs, cozy red seating areas, Wii U, air hockey table, foosball table and a dance floor. There is even a searchable digital music video jukebox that outputs Top 40 hits.

Down the hall from Entourage is the video arcade, which features two rows of arcade classics like Time Crisis 4 and House of the Dead, plus your typical crane machines.

Group baby-sitting for kids ages 3 to 12 is offered from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. and on port days. Late-night hours carry a fee of $6 per hour for the first child and an additional $4 per hour for each sibling; there is no individual or in-room sitting. A flat fee of $6 per child, per meal, applies during port days. (Kids club staff will accompany your child to lunch.)

Fellow Passengers

There is something for everyone to enjoy on Norwegian Pearl, and as a result, ages are all over the board. It's designed for families, so of course there are plenty of kids; it has a super teen center, so that age group is well represented, too. But the range of cabin types, dining, entertainment and relaxation options has appeal for seniors, boomers, millennials, families, singles, honeymooners, grandparents and grandkids, and everyone in between. We saw them all on our Caribbean cruise.

Dress Code

Freestyle cruising allows you to dress casually all the time. Depending on your voyage, there is one optional formal night in which you can dress up if you wish, without anyone raising an eyebrow. The only general caveat is that, after 5 p.m., no shorts, tank-tops, flip-flops (or any open-toed shoes for men only) or jeans are allowed in the Summer Palace dining room. However, waitstaff are usually lenient; we saw quite a few guys in sandals after a long day at port. As Norwegian's advertising advises, "Wear ... something."

Gratuity

Norwegian adds $12 per person, per day, to onboard accounts, which serves as a "service charge" and not a tip. Passengers are encouraged to "tip" for exceptional service, but we're also assured that the service charge does go to the crew. However, some passengers tip their room stewards extra; suite-holders also tip their butlers and the concierge, who are not in the "service charge" pool, and because of Freestyle dining, where you don't have the same waitstaff every night, some cruisers bring cash to tip their servers if they've done an excellent job. On Pearl, a 15 percent gratuity is also added to bar bills. An 18 percent gratuity is added to spa bills.

Cabins

Standard cabins are comfortable, cozy and well laid out, with adequate closets and drawer space for most families. We also loved the door designs, which look like tropical blue window shutters.

All rooms have well-stocked minifridges (sodas, sparking water, liquor -- for a fee), flat-screen televisions, telephones, Internet access, bathrooms with showers and twin beds that can be made up as queens. But, at an average size of 160 square feet for the outsides and 145 square feet for inside staterooms, they are a bit small, especially given Norwegian's focus on family travel. Balcony cabins are 205 square feet, which includes the verandah. Balcony cabins also have small sofas, many of which can be made into third berths.

Beds are topped with thick, comfy Eurostyle mattresses. Instead of bedspreads, beds are made with white duvets and small, colorful "runners" placed across the feet.

All but some inside cabins have "split bathroom" configurations: glass-enclosed shower on one side, closeable toilet chamber on the other, sink in the middle. These cabins (as well as mini-suites) have wall-mounted pumps for soap and shampoo in addition to body wash, lotion and a hair dryer. The bath products are actually quite nice. (We are convinced that the shampoo/conditioner combo is a generic version of Herbal Essences.) However, several female cruisers on our trip were disappointed with the lack of true conditioner in the bathrooms. (The same is true for the shower area in the changing rooms and the spa.)

Where Pearl really stands out is in its suites. The 134 mini-suites offer, at 284 square feet each, a small amount of additional interior space and a larger balcony. They also have full bath tubs. Beyond those, though, passengers who are booked into The Haven enter the stratosphere of cruise VIP status. Private restaurant privileges, preferred reservations for the alternate restaurants, priority tender access, priority boarding and disembarking, butlers, concierge service, individual espresso and cappuccino makers, even feather pillows and other perks and privileges truly set them apart from the average passenger on the same ship.

Suites within The Haven share a private courtyard at the top of the ship, complete with a covered plunge pool and private hot tubs. Residents of The Haven's suites, which include Garden Villas, Owner's Suites, Family Villas and Penthouses, all share private elevator access to their exclusive top-of-ship quarters.

The Garden Villas, smaller on this ship than on Dawn, Jewel or Star, where they come in at an astronomical 5,700 square feet, nonetheless still measure 4,252 square feet and sleep eight people. They have individual saunas, hot tubs, private sunbathing areas and three bedrooms, three baths, a powder room, living room, dining room and a grand piano.

Owner's Suites, which measure up to 824 square feet, face forward and, since they are at the corners of the bow, have private sun decks at the front and along the side. Deluxe Owner's Suites each include a large balcony and measure 1,197 square feet. The Family Villas, which sleep as many as six people, come in at 572 square feet and each include two bathrooms, a master bedroom and a separate children's room. Penthouses are 440 square feet, sleep three and include a bedroom with a queen-sized bed.

Caveat: The Owner's Suites and Penthouse Suites on Deck 10 have verandahs that are completely visible from the bridge above. Completely. Any indiscretion that takes place out there is subject to being viewed by a range of officers -- or any visitors to the bridge.

All suite-holders get large containers of Elemis spa products in their bathrooms. However, almost everyone we spoke to who inhabited a suite preferred to go back to the more subtle scents of the L'Occitane en Provence products that had been used in the past.

Twenty-seven cabins, including suites, are fully wheelchair accessible and ADA compliant.

While there is no self-service laundry onboard, laundry service is available for $25 a bag, which can be found in your stateroom.

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