Embarkation was very fast at the port of Miami- we arrived at around 11 AM and boarded the ship about 50 minutes afterwards. Much of it could be attributed to the fact that we had our 7 month old infant with us which gave us preferential boarding.
The first day of the cruise the NCL Pearl ran a 2 for 1 special on specialty restaurants. We liked Le Bistro the three times we had tried it in the past (including on the Pearl for our Alaska cruise a couple years back), so we decided to take advantage of the special and do Le Bistro the first night. There were some disappointing surprises menu-wise, however. The foie grois dishes were all gone, and so was the rack of lamb entree. We selected two appetizers per person. The escargot we had was tasty as always, and the four cones appetitizer was very interesting and stimulating. The scallops appetizer was good as well, though the sizes of the scallops were a bit disappointing. The duck salad dish had very little duck- tiny slivers and was pretty bland.
For our entrees we picked duck breast and cou au vin. Both were very good. The skin was very crispy on the duck breast, and the entire dish was well-seasoned. I had never tried Cou au vin before but I liked the flavor in this Le Bistro rendition- very wine-y sauce and the chicken was very tender.
We decided to go for the 2 person fondue for dessert because the last time we had it at Le Bistro it was a very impressive dessert. Much less so this time, however, as the fondue chocolate sauce didn't even go above any heating element. Apparently a lot of cost-cutting has hit Le Bistro, though the extra charge of $20 a person remained the same.
Highlights from the Indigo/Summer Palace restaurants included Lamb Tenderoloins (excellent!), the Blackend Red Snapper with Gumbo, and the Irish Lamb Stew. On the other hand, the mushroom taureen was not very tasty, and neither was the wok-fried udon noodles- very dry and bland. Nice appetizers of note included the polenta cake w/ tomato, olive oil and basil, the Asian salad and fried calamari. We did find that the service from the Summer Palace to be superior to Indigo.
Some nice dishes from the Garden Cafe included: Cook to order pesto pasta, mutton curry, the crepes from the crepe station. Gone though were the big shrimp cocktail from the Alaska cruise.
On the third day of the Panama Canal cruise, another sea day, saw NCL offer all you can eat sushi for $10 during lunch. We had the specialty restaurant sushi before on Norwegian and it wasn't the best experience, but we thought we give it another try. The miso soup was much improved with mushrooms and tasted less salty- very nice flavor. The salmon sashimi was good, thought the crabstick was pretty much imitation crab. Of all the rolls we tried, the shrimp tempura roll was the best tasting. Don't forget to ask for green tea- the dessert of green tea cake and green tea ice cream was very good. So this time around, the sushi was a positive experience- just don't expect the items to exceed the quality/taste of your run-of-the-mill sushi restaurants in your hometown. The fourth night, the night before Panama Canal, was lobster night. The half-lobster tails were nice and crunchy, though nothing fancy. There was another lobster night on the second week. Interestingly the choco-holics buffet event was not advertised on the Freestyle Daily nor mentioned by the cruise director, but people still swarmed to it.
We also tried the NCL "Best of the Best" for lunch, details of which is in its own dedicated article.
Our inside cabin on the Norwegian Pearl was very clean and comfortable. The room stewards provided supurb service and were very friendly. A big thumbs up to these hard working guys.
Entertainment-wise here was our opinion of the various performances:
-The Mesmerizing Brenda Kaye: On the second night of the cruise she pulled 12 audience members who volunteered to be hypnotized. The stuff she had them do was pretty funny, though certainly nothing spectacular. Her second show at the Spinnaker Lounge was actually funnier- the volunteers were certainly putty in her hands.
-Jane L. Powell: She was terrific, and I'm not even a fan of Blues. And yes, she sure can whistle and had a vibrant, tireless voice. I was involutarily selected by her as one of the "drifters" to help sing "Under the Boardwalk". It was definitely an experience of a lifetime to be on stage with a legend.
-Buzz Sutherland: He had one of the funniest shows we've ever seen for a comedian- great laugh out loud stuff his show was a definite must-see. His second show at the Spinnaker Lounge, however, was below par as he seemed unprepared and just winging it.
-Second City: At least half of the stuff by the comedy troupe we've seen before on previous NCL cruises, but they were still good for some laughs. On the second to the last night of the cruise, they teamed up with the Norwegian Pearl Production to deliver a funny and entertaining James Bond satire called "The Spy who Spied Me".
-The Norwegian Pearl Production Cast: The singing was great and the dancers looked good. There wasn't any cool acrobatics like the ones put on by the Jean Ann Ryan company we saw on our Alaska cruise on the Pearl last year. I think if you had to pick the best and most enjoyable entertainment show on the ship, the NCL Pearl Production Cast would be it, and that's saying something with the caliber of entertainers we saw during the 14-day cruise.
-Fabio Fini: A magician with the guitar- it was amazing to see what he could do with the instrument. He, along with the Beatles Celebration and Chip Romero, were the only entertainer that got a big standing ovation during the cruise. Exciting? No? Not yet! He also did a nice performance at the Spinnaker Lounge later in the cruise.
-Sharkbait: Fun high energy juggling duo- it was pretty much the same show we've seen with them on another cruise before. On the last night they came out did some new routines that were pretty cool and were very funny.
-Beatles Celebration: These Beatles impersonators were pretty good- though the sound level was much too loud. They got the a big standing ovation. I'm not a Beatles fan so I couldn't judge, but the audience sure was happy.
-Chip Romero: Hailing from the Magic Factory in LA, Chip Romero performed ring tricks, rope tricks, object disappearing tricks and paper folding and tearing magic acts. It was entertaining though not very fast paced. He got a nice standing ovation at the end.
-Oh What a Night: Very entertaining foursome of singer-peformers did a great job singing songs by Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons. Huge well-deserved standing ovation at the end. We certainly enjoyed this group more than the Beatles Celebration. They also did a half hour show on the final night of the cruise that was equally terrific and well received.
-Cartagena: the cruise port area was pretty nice with parrots and nice tropical landscaping. We took a city tour for $20 per person for 2 hours via taxi. Lots of historical areas to visit.
-Panama Canal Transit: the NCL Pearl had its own Panama Canal tour guide of sorts explaining what's going on as the ship is going through various stages of the canal. The entire process was pretty slow paced but definitely a marvel in human engineering.
-Puntarenas, Costa Rica: There is some beautiful scenery with numerous islands in the horizon. The city itself is kind of dumpy, however. We took a $15 per person taxi tour which lasted an hour- NOT worth it. There wasn't really much to see here. Don't get conned by the 1 hour taxi tour here- the group bus tour for 2 hours and free drink is likely more worth it.
-Puerto Quetzal, Guatalmala: Nothing here really except local vendors offering handmade Guatamala goods. From here you can take an excursion to Antigua.
-Huatulco, Mexico: Very nice looking port with a beach right off the cruise docking pier. We took a one hour water taxi for $20 per person (negotiated price) that took us on a fun ride visiting the more secluded beaches and bays around the main port area.
-Acapulco, Mexico: Great looking port city but the traffic was pretty darn bad. We went on a 2 hour city tour via taxi for $50. The driver took us to some scenic locations atop hills, including the location where daring Mexican divers scale and then jump off tall rock cliffs into the waters.
-Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: The NCL Pearl only spent about 6 1/2 hours here, and if you wanted to go on shore early you would be stuck waiting for a tender boat to take you ashore. Since we had been to Cabo before we chose to take our time and just walk around the pier area. The constant sale pitches by boat guys to take a water taxi w/ them were tiresome. We did notice that Cabo has seen quite a bit of new construction since we were there 1 1/2 years ago.
Disembarkation was a disaster at the Port of Los Angeles. Instead of leaving at around 10 AM, we didn't get off the ship until 12:45 PM. It's probably not NCL's fault but the prolonged wait to get out of customs was a big negative.
Overall we give the Norwegian Pearl Panama Canal Cruise a 4 out of 5. The entertainment was outstanding, though the food could be more exciting and tasty. Perhaps because of what NCL had to pay to cross the Panama Canal (a record of nearly $500,000), some of the food items we experienced in the past aboard the Pearl were removed. The ports of call were decent, and the Panama Canal crossing experience was enhanced by the expert narrator. Service was excellent, the stateroom was clean and the amenities provided were more than what we wanted. A little disappointing to see that the sport court closed after dark with all the balls and equipment locked away and lights turned off, but it wasn't a big deal. Disembarkation at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro was horrifically slow, but this was more the fault of the customs agents. In the end, the cruise was certainly a collection of experiences to remember and we would certainly recommend the NCL Panama Canal cruise aboard the Norwegian Pearl to anyone. Washy Washy, Happy Happy!