Lately, it seems as though cruising is becoming more and more popular for extended family gatherings and celebrations. This makes sense – cruising allows you to have several rooms close together, plenty of room for large groups and options for travelers of all ages. We joined in on this trend in 2018 on a seven-night Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Pearl.
Our family cruise was in honor of Grant’s dad’s 70th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary. In addition to the two of us and Grant’s dad and stepmother were Grant’s sister, her husband and their three daughters. Yep, nine of us total, in three rooms.
I have to say that the cruise was a great option for a large group. There was plenty of space for all of us to eat together, enough restaurants for each couple to have a date night, Splash Academy to entertain the kids and bars and a casino for the adults. A cruise is definitely a good option for large group travel.
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Why Norwegian Pearl for an Alaska Cruise?
Choosing your itinerary for an Alaska cruise is only slightly less complicated than choosing a Caribbean or European cruise. Yes, there are fewer ports of call. That’s about the only easy part.
Even in Alaska, there are several cruise lines to choose from. And there are actually quite a few different itineraries through those few ports and the various glacier fields. Perhaps most importantly, you have to decide if you want a northbound, southbound or round-trip cruise.
Thankfully, based on the fact that our nieces attended a year-round school, we were limited on the week that we could travel. Add in the fact that seven people were flying (Grant and I drove from Atlanta to Washington) and a round-trip cruise rose to the top of the list. This narrowed us down to just three options – much less intimidating!
Grant and I also are strong proponents of an itinerary that cruises through Glacier Bay National Park. If you know us at all you know that we will rarely pass up the opportunity to visit a national park! And, since we had visited Glacier Bay NP on our honeymoon (yes, this was our second Alaska cruise), we knew it was special and wanted the rest of the family to experience it.
While we compared cruise lines and ship amenities, ultimately it was Norwegian Pearl’s sailing date and the round-trip itinerary out of Seattle, including a visit to Glacier Bay NP, that were the deciding factors for us.
Check out Grant’s article, Cruising the Last Frontier – Alaska Ports of Call.
Norwegian Cruise Lines is known for its Freestyle Cruising, meaning no set dining times or seating arrangements. This is definitely something that we enjoyed and appreciated. We have never been interested in being forced to eat at a set time each night with the same random people.
While the main dining rooms seemed a bit smaller than other ships that we have been on, there were more specialty dining options, including a couple of complimentary specialty restaurants, scattered around the ship. Having extra options was great.
Main Dining Room
The main dining rooms on the Norwegian Pearl are Summer Palace and Indigo. Inspired by the grand palaces of Russia, Summer Palace is the restaurant that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Indigo, which is casual and modern in its styling, is only open for dinner.
While the menu is the same in both dining rooms, the experience and ambiance do differ. Summer Palace felt more like a traditional cruise dining room with tons of tables and people everywhere. We found Indigo to be a bit more intimate and personal, even for a large group.
In both dining rooms, the menu includes a few consistent staples along with nightly specials that were a bit more exotic. The food was always well-prepared and tasty and the service was generally good.
The Garden Cafe is the ship’s buffet. You will certainly find a wide variety of food here, including a salad bar, pasta, hamburgers and a carving station. The kids, of course, loved the many dessert options, which included both soft-serve and hand-scooped ice cream.
While the options are plentiful, overall the buffet is not as big as other ships that I have been on, which was a bit disappointing. There were a couple of outdoor buffets, though, which somewhat made up for this.
The Great Outdoors is a separate, smaller, buffet located on the stern of the ship, just behind the Garden Cafe. While the spread here is definitely smaller, you will find a few different options. If you really want to sit outside this is a good option.
If you enjoy the freedom of a buffet but hate the chaos and noise, look to see if seating is available at the nearby Italian restaurant. Late in our cruise, we discovered La Cucina was open as a quiet eating area at times (breakfast and lunch, I think). This area is convenient to both the Garden Cafe and Great Outdoors.
Pro Tip: The Garden Cafe offers an extremely limited selection of beer and wine, but you’ll find a full bar at The Great Outdoors. Even if you plan on sitting inside, head to the outside bar to grab a beverage.
You’ll find one last buffet, Topsiders Bar and Grill, by the pool. This casual buffet offers grilled options, such as hot dogs and hamburgers. Unfortunately, the weather often kept this area closed during our cruise.
Complimentary Specialty Restaurants
It is not often that you find complimentary specialty dining on a cruise ship. These additional options on the Norwegian Pearl did make up for the smaller dining room and buffet. And variety is always appreciated, especially on a longer cruise.
Open 24-hours, O’Sheehan’s serves up Irish pub classics day and night. For breakfast, you will find made-to-order omelets and corned-beef hash. Lunch and dinner options include Irish Favorites such as Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers & Mash, Fish & Chips and burgers and hot dogs for the less adventurous.
The second complimentary restaurant is Lotus Garden, an Asian Fusion restaurant. Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to eat here because it was often packed.
Room service is also an option, but only the continental breakfast (available until 10:00 am) is complimentary. Due to the limited space in our cabin (see below for more on staterooms), we did not order room service.
With six specialty restaurants plus the Atrium Cafe and Bar, you have more than enough variety for a seven-night cruise, if you are willing to pay a little extra. The extra charges are a bit annoying, but it does prevent everyone from trying to get in which creates a better dining experience.
Within the specialty dining options, some restaurants charge a flat-fee and others have a la carte pricing.
The one specialty restaurant that we knew we just had to visit is Moderno, a Brazilian steakhouse. Unless you are a vegetarian, a Brazilian steakhouse is almost a dream come true – all-you-can-eat-meat brought right to you. Yep, a buffet that you don’t even have to leave the table for!
The meal started with a large “salad bar” of cheeses, olives, cured meats, ceviche and specialty salads. Seriously, I could have filled up at the salad bar alone. But, don’t, because the best is yet to come.
One by one the servers brought around large skewers of just about every kind of meat you can imagine. We had beef (including sirloin and filet), lamb, pork and chicken. The filet and lamb were among our favorites. The grilled pineapple was also a huge hit at our table.
In addition to the fabulous salad bar and meats, the wine list was extensive and the desserts were scrumptious.
Other Specialty Restaurants
Additional restaurants onboard the Norwegian Pearl include La Cucina (Italian), Cagney’s Steakhouse, Le Bistro (French) and Teppanyaki (Japanese Hibachi). Additionally, there is a small sushi bar within Lotus Garden. All of these have a la carte pricing except Teppanyaki, which is a flat charge.
We were certainly tempted by several of these restaurants, but ultimately never made it to any of them. Originally, we just didn’t want to spend the extra money. Towards the end of the trip, after one too many meals in the main dining room, we tried to get a reservation at any of the specialty restaurants. Unfortunately, we had waited too long for such a large group.
Like most ships, the Norwegian Pearl offers a specialty dining package, where you can save a little if you book three or more specialty restaurants. If you know that you will tire of the main dining room, this is often a good option.
Not surprisingly, the Norwegian Pearl has no lack of bars. With bars focusing on beer, whiskey, wine, sake and cocktails there is definitely something for everyone.
One of our favorite bars on any cruise ship is the one that is generally on a top deck with large picture windows. This was the Spinnaker Lounge on the Norwegian Pearl.
We enjoyed this bar, but it was not the quiet oasis that we have found on some other ships. In fact, it was often filled with special activities, making it difficult to just sit back and relax here. The views were spectacular, though, and Spinnaker Lounge provided good indoor viewing for Glacier Bay.
Instead, we found our favorite place to enjoy a drink on Deck 6, between the casino and the Indigo Dining Room. Here you find three connected bars: Magnum’s Champagne & Wine Bar, Mating’s Beer & Whiskey Bar and Shakers Martini & Cocktails Bar.
Not only is it easy to get just about anything you want here, but it was generally quiet and had ample seating for a large group.
Additionally, several beverages “classes” were offered here throughout the week. I enjoyed the Martini Tasting, which featured seven specialty martinis with an informative presentation by the head bartender. Yes, there was a small fee (about $20) for the tasting, even if you have the unlimited beverage package, but it was more than worth it.
Other tastings throughout the cruise included margaritas and whiskey. It did seem that most days had some sort of cocktail or liquor tasting, which is always fun!
Things to Do
As on any cruise ships, the Norwegian Pearl offers a wide variety of activities for all ages. The most unique offering is bowling, which is found inside Bliss Ultra Lounge & Night Club. According to the Norwegian Cruise Lines web site, this is the cruise industry’s first bowling alley.
The adventurous can try rock climbing. There’s basketball for those looking to stay active. For more relaxed gaming, head to the arcade or card room. If you want to be pampered, you can visit the spa & salon.
For those who really want to stay fit (and burn off some of those calories after visiting the bars and restaurants), you can workout at the Fitness Center or on the walking/jogging track.
Pools and Hot Tubs
Yes, even on an Alaska cruise you will find a large outdoor pool with a few hot tubs. Unfortunately, the weather often prevents these areas from being highly-sought after. In fact, other than the day we boarded in Seattle, we really did not sit on the pool deck at all. The pool was also closed a few times, due to either weather or rough seas.
Splash Academy offers programs for children and the Metro Center is a nice hangout for teens. Our nieces, ages 4, 9 and 12 enjoyed Splash Academy several times. And the adults enjoyed some quiet time on our own during those times.
Check the Splash Academy schedule carefully, though. I know there was one time we had to make special reservations for the kids when we had a fairly early excursion.
You can also check the schedule to see what the various activities and themes are. There were some themed events that the kids were more interested in than others. If you are looking for a date night and don’t have other family or friends with you, Splash Academy is a great way to make it happen.
One of the best parts of a cruise is being able to have some fun and then easily walk back to your room. Whether it is a late dinner, dessert, drinks, dancing or a show, you’ll find just about any kind of nightlife you can imagine.
The Pearl Club Casino offers roulette, poker, blackjack and craps along with slots and other electronic games. As with a few other aspects of the ship, the casino was a bit on the small side. This meant not a wide variety of tables. The lack of single-deck blackjack disappointed Grant.
While we enjoyed the casino, it was a bit smoky for us. Perhaps other ships we’ve been on just did not allow smoking (we honestly can’t remember), had a smaller smoking area or had better filtration systems. Whatever the reason, we do feel as though the casino onboard the Norwegian Pearl was more smoke-filled than on other ships.
One last note on the casino: it does have to shut down before entering Canadian waters. On our cruise, it closed early in the afternoon on the last day at sea, before docking in Victoria. Plan accordingly so that you can be sure to cash in your chips before getting off the ship!
Clubs and Bars
The Bliss Ultra Lounge and Night Club, which is inspired by all things spherical and out of space, hosts karaoke most nights. You’ll also find some relaxed and non-traditional seating here, with couches and beds scattered throughout the club area.
You can find lounge singers playing the piano atMagnum’s Champagne and Wine Bar houses a piano most nights.
At the Spinnaker Lounge, you’ll often find some audience-participation entertainment hosted by the ship’s activities’ crew. We enjoyed a night of skit-based movie trivia here. There is also a small dance floor here.
With a European Art Nouveau backdrop and a giant peacock adorning the curtain, the Stardust Theater is where you will find the big shows on the Norwegian Pearl.
You may not find a full-scale Broadway show on the Norwegian Pearl, but you will find Legends in Concert, a fixture on the Las Vegas strip for 32 years. This iconic tribute show includes live tribute artists and celebrity look-alikes. Grant and I did not attend this show, but his sister did, with her husband and kids. The whole family said that it was a great show!
Throughout the week you’ll find a few different shows onboard, including a few variety shows by the ship’s onboard entertainment crew.
The one show that Grant and I did attend, with our nieces, was a performance by a couple of Russian aerialists. The athleticism and all-around talent was impressive and kept us all captivated.
While we did not attend many of the evening shows, we did appreciate the variety of what the crew offered.
On the Norwegian Pearl, you’ll find all the standard stateroom offerings, from inside cabins to balcony rooms and suites. Between the nine of us, we had two interior cabins and one balcony room.
For an Alaska cruise, I definitely suggest a balcony, if you can afford it. There is just something about sitting on your own private balcony as you cruise through Glacier Bay that just can’t be beat. And don’t worry about the light – the curtains are spectacular and will block out that low midnight light.
Since much of an Alaska cruise is near land, you really can see a lot from your cabin if you’ve got a balcony or window of any kind. And, having the small sofa and extra space is always a nice touch, especially if you have more than two people.
Of course, not everyone can afford a balcony. If this is the case, then an interior stateroom is likely where you’ll end up. This was my first time staying in an interior room and it was certainly small and dark, but, honestly, not that bad. We definitely missed the views, but there was something relaxing about the space.
The biggest frustration about the interior rooms was the lack of a second bunk. Perhaps it was just the category of room we were in, but the fourth bed was a rollaway, which the floor space did not really accommodate.
Our set-up was two beds pushed together to make a king and one bunk bed, which worked for the two of us and our niece. In my sister-in-law’s room, where they had the other two kids, they chose to have one child sleep in the bed with them over not having any floor space other than the entryway.
Seriously, I do not know who thought that a rollaway was better than a second bunk bed or what the exact reasoning is for this setup. But you would literally have to climb over the rollaway to get to the other beds. That is not something we’d want to do in an already small room.
Overall, we did fine with three people in our room, but it was a bit cramped. I think it would have been much more comfortable with just two people. Honestly, I can’t imagine having four people, even if a couple of those people are kids. Perhaps this was just because I overpacked, which is easy to do on a cruise!
The Feel of the Norwegian Pearl
The Norwegian Pearl is definitely a large cruise ship, holding about 2,400 passengers and 1,500 crew. But the ship is, and more importantly, felt small compared to some other cruise ships we’ve been on. This was evident on a few decks where you had to navigate around something by going to another deck and back up or down.
My first cruise ever was on what is now the Norwegian Jade, another ship within the Jewel Class of ships. On that first cruise, the ship felt huge. Now, after having been on several other cruises, the Norwegian Pearl felt a bit small.
I mention this because if you are new to cruising, you likely will feel the same way I did on my first cruise – this ship is fabulous. If you’re a more experienced cruiser, especially if you’ve been mostly on newer, larger ships, you’ll probably feel a bit cramped on the Norwegian Pearl.
Overall Impressions of the Norwegian Pearl
The ship was built in 2006 and refurbished in 2017. While the Norwegian Pearl is nicely appointed and in good condition, I would not have guessed that it had been that recently refurbished. Honestly, Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, which was refurbished in 2016, felt more modern.
Still, the Norwegian Pearl provided a comfortable cruising experience for our family. Overall, we enjoyed the cruise and would recommend it.
The Norwegian Pearl may not be the biggest or newest ship or have the best activities and shows, but it is still a good cruise ship. The service from the crew was consistently good and we did not have any issues on the ship at all.
If you are looking for a good round-trip Alaska cruise, that includes Glacier Bay NP, you will enjoy the Norwegian Pearl.