Image: Norwegian Pearl
Keeler  /  Zuma Press file
Last year, Norwegian Cruise Line launched Freestyle 2.0 — a $50 million fleetwide initiative to further improve the guest experience. Cruise columnist Anita Dunham-Potter set sail on the Pearl, and says “mission accomplished.”
By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 4/26/2009 2:22:23 PM ET 2009-04-26T18:22:23

Three years ago I sailed on Norwegian Pearl’s inaugural sailing and back then it exceeded expectations. A recent sailing onboard the same ship proved to be significantly better than my previous cruise.

How is it better? Last year, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) launched Freestyle 2.0 a fleetwide initiative to further improve the guest experience. And, wow have they succeeded.

50 million reasons
NCL pledged some $50 million towards the Freestyle 2.0 enhancements that include major investments in the total dining experience, upgraded staterooms and new wide-ranging onboard activities for guests of all ages. All this, along with additional recognition and service and amenities for balcony, suite and villa guests.

One of the first changes passengers will encounter is during boarding where crew members greet guests with a “bubbly welcome” — trays with flutes of champagne or orange juice. Additionally, passengers staying in balcony staterooms, mini-suites and suites are then escorted to their accommodations. These are just little changes that improve the guest experience; however, changes to menus and stateroom amenities have taken this cruise to a whole new level.

Lobster galore
Food is the major focus on any cruise and NCL’s Freestyle Cruising provides guests with the widest variety of dining choices of any cruise line. Dining choices include the ship’s two main dining rooms, Summer Palace and Indigo, which offer traditional and contemporary menus, respectively. There are also the Garden Café buffet area and the Blue Lagoon for comfort food. For a cover charge of $10 to $25 per person, dine at the following premium venues: La Cucina (Italian fare), Mambos (Mexican), Le Bistro (gourmet French cuisine), Lotus Garden (sushi, teppanyaki and Pacific fusion) and Cagney’s Steakhouse (steak and seafood). Still hungry? There’s an on-deck grill, a coffee shop, an ice cream bar and 24-hour room service.

Freestyle 2.0 has improved both the quality and quantity of food in all dining venues. When it comes to food lobster is king and when it comes to lobster, Freestyle 2.0 is pouring it on. The line touts “Lobster Galore” featuring lobster served twice a week in the main dining room. Plus, lobster dishes are on all specialty restaurant menus from lobster ravioli in La Cucina to lobster brioche for breakfast.

In addition, all specialty restaurants have upgraded their offerings. For example, Le Bistro features Cote de Boeuf, a 32-ounce, premium-gold Angus rib-eye steak, braised Maine lobster and Plateau de Fruits de Mer, a cold seafood plate with mussels, lobster tail, shrimp, and raw oysters. Cagney’s steak house has added a 32-ounce porterhouse and Alaska king crab legs.

The Pearl’s Garden Café buffet area offers action stations where guests can select different foods at different stations without having to stand in a long line and pass unwanted choices before getting to desired dishes. Garden Café upgrades also include table clothes and candlelight to enhance the ambiance for those dining at night.

Room service has been upgraded for guests in all staterooms, and even broader choices are available for suite guests. Minibar options have been expanded, and guests are encouraged to ask their room steward to customize their selections.

Expanded entertainment
Entertainment upgrades include two new party experiences to enhance the nightlife. Monte Carlo Night provides singing, dancing, games and prizes in the casino, while White Hot Party features white costumes and hot music. The cruise staff, including waiters and cabin stewards, wear T-shirts promoting the parties during the days they were scheduled. On Monte Carlo Night they wear black T-shirts designed to look like tuxedos.

Entertainment provided by an improv comedy troupe from Chicago’s famed Second City is a favorite among passengers. The group performs a regular show and a late-night show.

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An improved Pool Deck experience has been added. Relaxing music is played and there is a designated quiet zone. Drink flags have been placed on lounge chairs to make it even easier to attract a waiter. Cold towels and Evian mists are also provided.

Sports and kids’ programs have been expanded, with a more flexible Kids Crew program and increased Xbox and Wii availability. Foosball, billiards and air hockey have been added as well.

Plusher accommodations
Norwegian Pearl offers 32 stateroom categories, from standard inside staterooms and balcony suites to interconnecting cabins and luxurious villas that come with butler and concierge service. Most suites have a queen-size bed, a separate living area with a dining table, and concierge service. A standard ocean-view stateroom with a balcony encompasses about 200 square feet; regular ocean-view rooms and inside cabins range between 140 and 160 square feet. All cabins have glossy cherry wood walls and furniture, a flat-panel TV, a coffee maker, a mini-bar, a safe and a duvet, and most have a bathroom with separate toilet and shower/tub areas.

A big stateroom upgrade is the Bliss Bed, which features Euro-top foam memory toppers on new, thicker mattresses and a pillow menu that offers six types of pillows. The quality of bed linens and bathrobes has been improved. Duvets have been improved. Elemis shampoo, conditioner and lotions add another touch of elegance. Another upgraded amenity provided to guests in balcony staterooms and higher suites is the choice of what they want in their fruit basket, which is replenished several times during the cruise.

Sweeter suite life
The Pearl has some of the largest and plushest suites at sea including a private top-of-the-ship deck that contains only Garden Villas and Courtyard Villas, which offers a swimming pool and recreation area in its courtyard. Freestyle 2.0 has added private breakfasts and lunches in the courtyard for villa guests. A big perk for the 48-suite guests onboard is the exclusive breakfast and lunch in Cagney’s steakhouse. Breakfast choices include steak and eggs, eggs Benedict over crab cakes. The setting is calm and quiet compare with that of the main dining room and Garden Café.

Additionally, guests staying in suites get their own concierge who will make restaurant reservations for the entire cruise on the first day, whereas guests in standard staterooms can only book one day in advance. Suite guests also receive snacks in their room each day after selecting their choices from a daily menu and VIP disembarkation as they are escorted off the ship ahead of the crowd.

The Norwegian Pearl is one of the prettiest cruise ships afloat and is blessed with a crew that is extraordinarily friendly and accommodating. There’s no doubt that Freestyle 2.0 is delivering a superior cruise experience, and it’s highly recommended for travelers who prefer a resort casual atmosphere with varied dining choices over the traditional assigned seating. While NCL is considered a mainstream cruise line, I felt the upgrades on Pearl clearly put it in the premium cruise category.

If you go ...
The Norwegian Pearl sails the Caribbean from October thru late April then the vessel transitions to Alaska from mid-May thru September. Repositioning voyages including the Panama Canal and Mexican Riviera are available. Prices for 7-day Caribbean sailings begin at $539, prices for 7-day Alaska sailings start at $529, and pricing for 14-night repositioning cruises start at $1299. All aforementioned prices are based on inside stateroom, double occupancy. Visit NCL’s Web site for more details.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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