November 2015 - Norwegian Pearl to Panama Canal, Central America
We took an 11 day cruise out of Miami to the Panama Canal. It was on our bucket list and it was well worth visiting. The shore excursions from Panama's Gatan Lake are only available from NCL and it was the only NCL shore excursion that we felt was worthwhile. We took 2 other NCL shore excursions- one was fair and the other was not good at all.
The cruise ship (The Pearl) was large (2400 passengers) but except for the embarkation and disembarking, we did not really notice the "crowds".
The specialty restaurants were generally not worth the premium, except for Cagney's steak house - that was excellent - we should have dined there 2 or 3 times.
Our stateroom (Balcony-GUAR) was very nice. The service from the room steward helped add to the ambience of the stateroom. We thought the original cost was a bit high, but this was to be our special Thanksgiving vacation. However the NCL website was selling the same staterooms for almost 50% less the week before the cruise departed. Even Mini-suites were selling for less than we paid. When I inquired about an upgrade, United Cruises had to go through NCL, and NCL was not offering any consideration. They said I would have to cancel my current reservation (at a penalty) and then re-book to get the new rate. NET COST INCREASE!
The gratuities and the daily service charges (which were increased this year!) have become a hefty surcharge to the cost of a cruise. We found that the bartenders and the room steward fully earned their gratuities. The dining room staff and the table waiters in the lounges gave only fair to often very poor service. (However the hostess in the Garden Palace Dining room was outstanding!)
Overall, NCL would not be my first choice on a future cruise. Two of the enticements (free premium specialty dinners-you still pay the gratuities, free beverages-you still pay the gratuities) might make a cruise appealing if it were going to the right places, but I would do a lot of comparisons between several alternative cruise lines before choosing NCL. I would definitely choose United Cruise Lines shore excursions over NCL's. United's were better, with fewer people, more informative, and generally a bit lower in price. Definitely better value.
Despite a few disappointments, overall, we had a good time.