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NORWEGIAN PEARL - PARTIAL PANAMA CANAL SAILING - APRIL 4-14, 2016

I will preface this review by saying that I am writing it 3 months after the fact.  I'm not sure where the time goes, but it definitely flies!!  

We chose the Norwegian Pearl sailing roundtrip from Miami for our agency's annual West Coast Line Dancers at Sea cruise.  This was our 3rd annual line dancing cruise & 10 days seems to be the sweet spot for our line dance group.  Enough time to see and do interesting things in ports, balanced with enough "Sea" days for line dance lessons.   We flew into Miami the day prior, we actually flew into Fort Lauderdale because the airfares were much lower and better time options,  it's only a 45 minute drive to Miami. 

Sheraton Miami Airport - we spent the night pre-cruise at this hotel.  I am a Starwood owner and preferred guest, so we tend to stay at Starwood properties fairly often, this one in particular could use a bit of a facelift, but for a one night pre-cruise stay it was just fine.  The bed was comfortable & the room was spacious, which is a good thing when you have all of that cruise luggage to "live out of" for one night.  We got in fairly late, but we were hungry for dinner.  The hotel's restaurant had a decent selection of items, good prices and the service was very good.  The next morning we ordered room service breakfast and then met our ride around 11am to the cruise terminal.  The hotel helped to pre-arrange the ride for $10 per person, it worked very well & the ride was about 10 minutes to the cruise terminal.

Miami Cruise Terminal- we arrived and the porters were there ready for our bags, very friendly & very appreciative of the generous tip.  I'm superstitious, but a good tip usually guarantees that your bag gets on early and in one piece.  The staff at the cruise terminal directed you into the proper line for your deck and Latitudes status & we were literally checked in and then ushered to the "waiting area" in about 10 minutes, but we had to wait approximately 30 minutes before we were boarding.  Norwegian Cruise Line asks you to choose an arrival time slot of 30 minute intervals.  I would think that this system would help to alleviate the wait time, but overall it was not too bad.

Once on board, we met up with friends and went to our cabin to drop off our carry-on bags - surprisingly the cabins were ready at 1pm, so it was refreshing to not have to drag the carry-on bags around for a couple of hours.  We weren't very hungry, so we got a light snack while we walked around the ship and became familiar with our surroundings.  The Pearl is a sister ship to the Jewel & I've toured the Pearl before when she has passed through San Francisco, so I did not run around like a crazy person to take pictures of every venue on the ship like I normally do.   It was very much like "coming home" walking through the Pearl as it really was almost a carbon copy of the Jewel- just a few minor differences that were really no big deal.

Dining on board:  our cruise fare promotion came with the Ultimate Dining Package which meant we were able to dine in any of the specialty restaurants for free.   We did about 50% of our dinners in these specialty restaurants and the remainder in the Main Dining Room with our group.  I will say that all of our meals were great.  We had excellent service in all of the restaurants and made very special friends with our wait staff in the Main Dining room, they really did go above and beyond making our group dinners very special. 

Drinking on board - We normally purchase the beverage package on cruises because they tend to be a good value.  We had decided ahead of time that it would not be a great value on Norwegian because they do not include bottled water or specialty coffees and the price was really high- almost $70 per person including tax and gratuity/per day.  However, once on board and we purchased our first drink and we saw what the individual drink prices were, we ended up buying the drink package.  It's really gotten way out of hand what some cruise lines are charging for these things.  Fortunately, now there are many promotions where cruise lines are including drinks and trying to make themselves more "inclusive".

Entertainment - we did see a few of the shows and participated in the piano sing-along show, enjoyed a few comedy shows and one of the big production shows.  Top notch entertainers.  We were pleasantly pleased that most of the time they scheduled the band to play in the lounge with the good dance floor, so we really did get in a lot of dancing on this cruise.  Along with our 4 hours of dance lessons on the sea days- we really had plenty of opportunity to dance every night.  The house band was good, a little one dimensional and predictable, but we were able to dance.

Ports of Call - This was a partial canal sailing, so we visited the ports of Aruba, Cartagena Columbia, Puerto Limon Costa Rica & Colon Panama.   Aruba was a cool island, we did an island tour that took us to the Aloe Factory & then to the Butterfly Farm/Gardens.  Both stops were educational & very interesting.  There is a lot of construction going on in Aruba to make the island an even prettier place for tourists to visit.  Next stop was Cartagena, Columbia.  We did an island tour here to get an overall feel for the city.  We made a few stops, we were able to take pictures at the Fortress then onto a shopping district for about 45 minutes of shopping and then one more stop in a smaller shopping area.  Overall, I was not impressed but that's probably because our tour was very touristy and the areas that we visited had people coming up to you offering all of their goods.  I just don't like that peddler scene.  Our next stop was not really a stop at all, but an early morning arrival to the Gatun locks of the Panama Canal.  We set our alarm clock for 5am so that we would not miss this.  Since we had an aft-facing balcony cabin, we decided to watch the passing of the locks from our balcony and it was pretty cool to see.  We also had on the TV in the cabin with the "front of the ship" camera along with commentary about the history of the Panama Canal.  The transit through 3 locks took about 5 hours, I was very surprised at the amount of time it took actually.  Once we were through the last one, we knew the ship was going to anchor in Lake Gatun for long enough to let shore excursion passengers off by tenders & then we'd return back through the same 3 locks again.  We went back to bed for 3 hours and when we woke back up again, we were going through the locks and heading to Colon, Panama.   Anyone who was on a shore excursion was going to be brought back to the port of Colon to meet the ship & for those of us on board, we had about 3 hours in Colon to go shopping by the pier if you wanted to get off of the ship.  The cruise line also made it very clear that it was not safe to wander outside of the pier perimeter of shops.  Our next and final port of call was Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.  We took another island tour that took us via bus, train and boat through various parts of this section of Costa Rica.  We had an interesting tour guide who gave us a lot of information about the country of Costa Rica and all in all probably the best tour of the cruise.  Along our adventure we encountered a variety of wildlife indigenous to the area:  lots of monkeys, little bats, sloughs..it was a fun day & I managed to get through without a single mosquito bite!  Our tour guide, when asked if we should put on repellent before the boat ride (very swamp like) and he said there was nothing to be concerned about, so I took his advice and did not get bitten!   Once we arrived back into Miami at the end of the cruise, we had booked the "Hop On/Hop Off" tour of Miami because we had a late flight home from Fort Lauderdale.  These excursions are great because they take you & your luggage, tour you around and then drop you off at the airport.  We enjoyed our bus tour of South Beach & did hop off twice, once for a mid morning snack and then again to visit local gardens.

All in all, we had an excellent time on this cruise.  Traveling with a group of like minded individuals makes for a very great time & since many of us have traveled 3 or more years together, we are friends and everyone wants to have fun.   I remain a fan of Norwegian Cruise line, other than the ridiculous drink prices, it's still a very solid cruising experience.  We had great service from a variety of staff members throughout the ship.  I probably like Norwegian better for my own personalized travel vs. group travel,  only because we really do enjoy the dining options and variety that Norwegian offers, but when we are with a group, we want to dine with the group too and not everyone in the group wants to pay for specialty dining.

 

You can view my album for Norwegian Pearl 2016 here.

And my album from my ship tour in 2007 when Norwegian Pearl was in San Francisco!